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Prefigurative politics

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Prefigurative politics are the modes of organization and social relationships that strive to reflect the future society being sought by the group.[1] According to Carl Boggs, who coined the term, the desire is to embody "within the ongoing political practice of a movement [...] those forms of social relations, decision-making, culture, and human experience that are the ultimate goal".[2] Besides this definition, Leach also gave light to the definition of the concept stating that the term "refers to a political orientation based on the premise that the ends a social movement achieves are fundamentally shaped by the means it employs, and that movement should therefore do their best to choose means that embody or prefigure the kind of society they want to bring about".[3] Prefigurativism is the attempt to enact prefigurative politics.


Boggs was writing in the 1970s about revolutionary movements in Russia, Italy, Spain, and the US New Left. The concept of prefiguration was further applied by Sheila Rowbotham to the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s,[4] by Wini Breines to the US Students for a Democratic Society (SDS),[5] and by John L. Hammond to the Portuguese Revolution.[6]

The politics of prefiguration rejected the centrism and vanguardism of many of the groups and political parties of the 1960s. It is both a politics of creation, and one of breaking with hierarchy. Breines wrote:

The term prefigurative politics [...] may be recognized in counter institutions, demonstrations and the attempt to embody personal and anti-hierarchical values in politics. Participatory democracy was central to prefigurative politics. [...] The crux of prefigurative politics imposed substantial tasks, the central one being to create and sustain within the live practice of the movement, relationships and political forms that "prefigured" and embodied the desired society.[7]

For Breines, "prefigurative politics" centers on "participatory democracy", understood as an ongoing opposition to hierarchical and centralized organization that requires a movement that develops and establishes relationships and political forms that "prefigure" the egalitarian and democratic society that it seeks to create. Furthermore, she sees prefigurative politics as strictly connected to the notion of community, referring to it as a network of relationships that are more direct, more personal, and more total than the formal, abstract and instrumental relationships that are embedded in contemporary state and society.[8]

Anarchists around the turn of the twentieth century clearly embraced the principle that the means used to achieve any end must be consistent with that end, though they apparently did not use the term "prefiguration". For example, James Guillaume, a comrade of Mikhail Bakunin, wrote, "How could one want an equalitarian and free society to issue from authoritarian organisation? It is impossible."[9]

One of the greatest examples during the 20th century in this regard is the comunismo libertario (libertarian communism) society organized by anarcho-syndicalists such as the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), or in English the National Confederation of Labour, for a few months during the Spanish Civil War. Workers took collective control of the means of production on a decentralized level and used mass-self communication as a counter-power in order to give useful information on a wide range of options going from vegetarian cooking to the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.

The concept of prefiguration later came to be used more widely,[10] especially in relation to movements for participatory democracy.[11][12][13] It has especially been applied to Italian Autonomism in the 1960s,[14] the US antinuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s and the anti-globalization movement at the turn of the 21st century.[15]

Perspectives on prefigurative politics[edit]

Anthropologist David Graeber in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology described the prefigurative politics of those at the 1999 Seattle WTO protest:

When protesters in Seattle chanted "this is what democracy looks like," they meant to be taken literally. In the best tradition of direct action, they not only confronted a certain form of power, exposing its mechanisms and attempting literally to stop it in its tracks: they did it in a way which demonstrated why the kind of social relations on which it is based were unnecessary. This is why all the condescending remarks about the movement being dominated by a bunch of dumb kids with no coherent ideology completely missed the mark. The diversity was a function of the decentralized form of organization, and this organization was the movement's ideology. (p. 84)

Political theorists Paul Raekstad and Saio Gradin define prefigurative politics as:

the deliberate experimental implementation of desired future social relations and practices in the here-and-now.[16]

They argue that prefigurative politics is essential for developing agents with the powers, drives, and consciousness to reach a free, equal, and democratic future society.

According to Adrian Kreutz, Political Theorist at New College, Oxford, the practice of prefigurative politics, or prefigurativism, can be defined as:

a way of engaging in social change activism that seeks to bring about this other world by means of planting the seeds of the society of the future in the soil of today's. [...] Prefigurativism is a way of showing what a world without the tyranny of the present might look like. It is a way of finding hope (but not escapism!) in the realms of possibility––something that words and theories alone cannot provide. [...] As a form of activism, prefigurativism highlights the idea that your means match the ends you can expect. It highlights that social structures enacted in the here-and-now, in the small confines of our organisations, institutions and rituals mirror the wider social structures we can expect to see in the post-revolutionary future.[17]

Additionally, Darcy K. Leach wrote in The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements that:

For much of its history, the prefigurative impulse was only characteristic of the beginning stages of a rebellion and faded as the movement became more centralized. From the 1960s onward, however, the approach has become both more clearly articulated and more widespread, such that one can now identify a stable prefigurative tendency or wing in a wide range of movements around the world, most notably in women's, environmental, autonomous, peace, and indigenous rights movements, and on a more global scale in the movements against neoliberal globalization[18]

Boggs analyzed three common patterns of decline in the prefigurative movements which are the following:

Jacobinism, in which popular forums are repressed or their sovereignty usurped by a centralized revolutionary authority; spontaneism, a strategic paralysis caused parochial or anti-political inclinations inhibit the creation of broader structures of effective coordination; and corporativism, which occurs when an oligarchic stratum of activists is co-opted, leading them to abandon the movement's originally radical goals in order to serve their own interests in maintaining power.[19]

Examples of prefigurative political programs[edit]

  • What began as a rebellion of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (in Spanish: Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) in 1994, quickly morphed into a social movement that criticized both, national and global power structures and looked for the empowerment of local communities through everyday practices of de facto autonomy.[20] After negotiations with the state failed regarding indigenous rights and culture, the Zapatistas proceeded to develop their own structures of self-government, autonomous education, healthcare, justice, and agrarian and economic relations, among other transformative practices.[21] This movement continues to raise important issues such as the role of culture and identity in popular mobilization, social spaces for organizing, the possibility of redefining power from below, and moreover have posed self-reflective questions about conventional definitions of politics, Western positivist epistemologies and about the need of decolonizing research in general and in oppressed communities in particular.[22]
  • The community land trust model provides a method of providing cooperatively-owned, resident-controlled permanent housing, outside of the speculative market.
  • In Argentina, the occupation and recuperation of factories by workers (such as Zanon), the organizing of many of the unemployed workers movements, and the creation of popular neighborhood assemblies reflect the participants' desire for horizontalism, which includes equal distribution of power among people, and the creation of new social relationships based on dignity and freedom.
  • The occupation movements of 2011 in Egypt and the Arab world, in Spain, and in the United States embodied elements of prefiguration (explicitly in the case of Occupy Wall Street and its spinoffs in occupations around the United States). They envisaged creating a public space in the middle of American cities, for political dialogue and achieved some of the attributes of community in providing free food, libraries, medical care, and a place to sleep.[23] In Spain, the 15-M movements and take-the-square movements organized themselves and stood up for "a real democracy, a democracy no longer tailored to the greed of the few, but to the needs of the people."[24][25]
  • The Black Panther Party of the United States led a variety of community social programs from the early 1960s, which sought to realize the Party's Ten Point Program. Programs included Free Breakfast for Children, community health clinics, and after-school programs and Liberation Schools that focused on Black history, writing skills, and political science.
  • The global Baháʼí Faith community strives to realise a model of society by developing a pattern of community life and administrative systems in ways which increasingly embody the principles contained in its principles and teachings, which include the oneness of mankind, equality of the sexes, and harmony of science and religion.[26] Several authors have written about the community's grassroots praxis as a living experiment in how to progressively instantiate religious or spiritual teachings in the real world.[27][28][29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Commons Volunteer Librarian; Smith, E. T. (2023-02-01). "Prefigurative Politics in Practice". The Commons. Retrieved 2024-04-19.
  2. ^ Boggs, Carl. 1977. Marxism, Prefigurative Communism, and the Problem of Workers' Control. Radical America 11 (November), 100; cf. Boggs Jr., Carl. Revolutionary Process, Political Strategy, and the Dilemma of Power. Theory & Society 4,No. 3 (Fall), 359-93.
  3. ^ Leach, D. K. (2013). Prefigurative politics. The Wiley-Blackwell encyclopedia of social and political movements, 1004-1006.
  4. ^ Rowbotham, Sheila. 1979. 'The Women's Movement and Organizing for Socialism'. In Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright, Beyond The Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism, 21-155. London: Merlin Press
  5. ^ Breines, Wini. 1980. Community and Organization: The New Left and Michels' "Iron Law." Social Problems 27, No. 4 (April), 419-429; Breines, Wini. 1989. Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968: The Great Refusal. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
  6. ^ Hammond, John L. 1984. 'Two Models of Socialist Transition in the Portuguese Revolution'. Insurgent Sociologist 12 (Winter-Spring), 83-100; Hammond, John L. 1988. Building Popular Power: Workers' and Neighborhood Movements in the Portuguese Revolution. New York: Monthly Review Press.
  7. ^ Breines, Wini. Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962–1968: The Great Refusal, 1989, p. 6.
  8. ^ Wini Breines, The Great Refusal: Community and Organization in the New Left: 1962-1968 (New York: Praeger, 1982), 6.
  9. ^ quoted by Benjamin Franks in 'The direct action ethic: From 59 upwards'. Anarchist Studies 11, No. 1, 22; Cf. Benjamin Franks, 2008. 'Postanarchism and meta-ethics', Anarchist Studies 16, No. 2 (Autumn-Winter), 135-53; David Graeber, Direct Action: An Ethnography. Oakland: AK Press, 2009: 206; Eduardo Romanos, 'Anarchism'. In Snow, David A., Donatella Della Porta, Bert Klandermans, and Doug McAdam (eds), The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements. Oxford: Blackwell: 2013.
  10. ^ Fians, Guilherme (2022). "Prefigurative Politics". In Stein, Felix (ed.). Open Encyclopedia of Anthropology. doi:10.29164/22prefigpolitics. hdl:10023/25123. S2CID 247729590.
  11. ^ John L. Hammond, 'Social Movements and Struggles for Socialism'. In Taking Socialism Seriously, edited by Anatole Anton and Richard Schmidt, 213-47. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012. Francesca Polletta, Freedom is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002; Marina Sitrin, ed., Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina. Oakland: AK Press, 2006.
  12. ^ Jeffrey, Craig; Dyson, Jane (2021). "Geographies of the future: Prefigurative politics". Progress in Human Geography. 45 (4): 641–658. doi:10.1177/0309132520926569. hdl:11343/252070.
  13. ^ Monticelli, Lara (2021). "On the necessity of prefigurative politics". Thesis Eleven. 167 (1): 99–118. doi:10.1177/07255136211056992.
  14. ^ Katsiaficas, George. 2006. The subversion of politics: European autonomous social movements and the decolonization of everyday life. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
  15. ^ Andrew Cornell, Anarchism and the Movement for a New Society: Direct Action and Prefigurative Community in the 1970s and 80s. Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2009.
    Barbara Epstein, 'The Politics of Prefigurative Community: the Non-violent Direct Action Movement'. Pp. 63-92 in Reshaping the US Left: Popular Struggles in the 1980s. Edited by Mike Davis and Michael Sprinker. London: Verso, 1988; Jeffrey S. Juris, 'Anarchism, or the cultural logic of networking'. In Contemporary Anarchist Studies: an Introductory Anthology of Anarchy in the Academy, edited by Randall Amster et al., 213-223. New York: Routledge, 2009.
  16. ^ Raekstad, Paul and Gradin, Saio S. 2020. Prefigurative Politics: Building Tomorrow Today. Cambridge: Polity.
  17. ^ Kreutz, Adrian. 2020. Review of Paul Raekstad and Sofa Saio Gradin: Prefigurative Politics: Building Tomorrow Today, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2020. https://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviews/17886_prefigurative-politics-building-tomorrow-today-by-paul-raekstad-and-sofa-saio-gradin-reviewed-by-adrian-kreutz/
  18. ^ Leach, D. K. (2013). Prefigurative politics. The Wiley-Blackwell encyclopedia of social and political movements, 1004-1006.
  19. ^ Boggs, C., Jr. (1977) Marxism, prefigurative communism, and the problem of workers’ control. Radical America 11–12, (6–1), 98–122.
  20. ^ YouthxYouth (2024-03-26). "Prefigurative Politics in Practice: Examples and Strategies". The Commons Social Change Library. Retrieved 2024-04-19.
  21. ^ Stahler-Sholk, R. 2019. Zapatistas and New Ways of Doing Politics. Eastern Michigan University. Retrieved the 5th of April from: https://oxfordre.com/politics/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228637-e-1724?print=pdf
  22. ^ Anderson, J. 2014. The Revolutionary Resonance of praxis: Zapatismo as Public Pedagogy. Reframing Activism. Retrieved the 6th of April from: https://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/activistmedia/2014/01/the-revolutionary-resonance-of-praxis-zapatismo-as-public-pedagogy/
  23. ^ Andy Cornell, Consensus: What It Is, What It Is Not, Where It Came From, and Where It Must Go. In We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation, edited by Kate Khatib et al., 163-73. Oakland: AK Press, 2012; John L. Hammond,. The significance of space in Occupy Wall Street. Interface 5, No. 2 (November 2013), 499-524; Luis Moreno-Caballud and Marina Sitrin, Occupy Wall Street, Beyond Encampments. yesmagazine.org, November 21, 2011.
  24. ^ Rodríguez, E. & Herreros, T. (2011). “It's the Real Democracy, Stupid”. Online: www.edu-factory.org/wp/spanishrevolution/
  25. ^ Maeckelbergh, M. (2012). Horizontal democracy now: From alterglobalization to occupation. Interface, 4(1), 207-234.
  26. ^ "What Baháʼís Do".
  27. ^ Karlberg, Michael (2004). Beyond the Culture of Contest. George Ronald.
  28. ^ Hanley, Paul (2014). Eleven. Friesen Press. pp. 354–373.
  29. ^ Karlberg, Michael (3 August 2022). "The Pursuit of Social Justice". The Bahá'í World. Retrieved October 12, 2022.

Further reading[edit]