Approaches to Social Change: The Politics of Social Development

By Dan Friedman
September 2005


   As the work of the East Side Institute for Group and Short Term Psychotherapy, the Social Therapy Group, the All Stars Project and programs influenced by them has expanded and drawn national and international attention, many psychologists, social workers, educators, youth workers and community organizers have expressed interest in learning how these programs have been built. 

  Those of us who founded these programs welcome the interest of our friends and associates and would like nothing better than to have our approach adapted and developed around the world.  However, learning from the East Side Institute or the All Stars Project is not a matter of learning the structure of the various programs.  These programs have grown out of a specific politic of social development and cannot be separated from that politic. Anyone who seriously wants to learn from the East Side Institute and the All Stars needs to grapple with the politic that has informed the work of the founders and leaders of these programs and how it differs from and challenges other approaches to social development.  This paper is a first attempt to explain that politic and its relationship to/differences with other politics of social development. 

 By a politic of social development we are referring to a particular way of understanding/practicing the dynamic of social development. A politic of social development orients the activist to how and why human communities grow and develop along with an understanding of the current relations of power and authority in the world and how these relations interact with social development practices. 

 Given the developmental crisis in the world today, the politics of social development are, we believe, of vital importance.  The two major forces battling for political and social authority on the planet are corporate capitalism and religious fundamentalism.  Neither provides any prospect of qualitative social development.

   Religious fundamentalism is essentially a backward looking, anti-developmental worldview.  It is a reactive formation that posits an alternative to corporatism in a return to pre-modernist, essentially feudal, ideas and social relations. Corporate capitalism retains an interest in development, at least in regard to science and technology.  Socially and politically, however, it views itself as the apex of human development and opposes any qualitative reorganization of society.  It acknowledges no connection between its form of economic and social organization and the growing gaps of wealth and development in the world. It cannot recognize, let alone do anything about, the fact that the wealth and relative development of the capitalist nations of the North are dependent on the exploitation and continued underdevelopment of the vast majority of humankind. Thus, through its very limitations, corporate capitalism feeds the sources of discontent that the religious fundamentalists have been successfully organizing around.

   While there are numerous approaches to progressive social change going by many different names, it may be useful to think of four general types, or four politics of social development, around the world.  They all assume that further human development is both necessary and possible (although what social development means varies with each), and they share a recognition that the current form of corporate capitalism has inherent developmental limitations that must be overcome if the human species is to continue its social development. 

   Labeling them with a eye to their histories, the four approaches are: The Social Democratic/Liberal Politic of Social Development; The Orthodox (Class Struggle) Marxist Politic of Social Development; The Counter Cultural Politic of Social Development; and The Postmodern (Revolutionary Activity) Marxist Politic of Social Development, which is the most recent to emerge and is reflected in the work of those who founded and lead the Institute, the All Stars and their sister programs and organizations.

   These political approaches to social development go by different names in different national sectors and each of these politics comes in a number of different shades and hybrids. That said, identifying them and unpacking their assumptions can be helpful in recognizing their influence and understanding the implications of the work being done by those guided by them.  To initiate discussion, we here provide our understanding of each.

The Social Democratic/Liberal Politic of Social Development

   The social democratic/liberal politic of social development holds that there can be social development within the current institutional framework and cultural context of society. The assumption is that the basic dynamics of development are inherent in society-as-it- exists. Therefore, the social democratic politic approaches development as a matter of reform achievable through a reassignment of resources, the clearing of paths, the opening of doors.

   Historically, this politic grew out of the labor movements in Western Europe and North America in the second half of the 19th Century. In the early years of social democracy, it—like the orthodox Marxist politic—saw class struggle as the central dynamic for development of society. However, since it seeks to promote development within the confines of existing society, and the logic class struggle has the potential to lead to revolutionary situations, social democracy has long ceased to give class struggle a central role in its version of the developmental process.  While it may keep class struggle— in the form of a strike or an electoral mobilization—as one of its tools, social democracy has come to see itself as an advocate for the poor and the underdog within the framework of global capitalism, pressuring and negotiating with the ruling economic and political powers for more economic and cultural opportunities for the “underprivileged.”  Instead of viewing the state, as the orthodox Marxists do, as an instrument of class rule, social democracy approaches the state as the major means of generating developmental environments, through economic safety nets (unemployment insurance, free health care, etc.), state financed cultural and educational projects and organizations, etc.  Social democrats, therefore, seek to influence the policies and, at their most radical, change the bureaucratic structures, of the state. They do not question the state’s claim to be the embodiment of society as a whole. Therefore, far from challenging the existence of what the orthodox Marxists call the “bourgeois state,” they embrace it. 

   Similarly, the social democratic politic accepts the values and assumptions of the existing culture. It has sought to make society’s greatest cultural achievements accessible to all on the assumption that exposure to the “universal values” of “high culture” will be developmental for the poor. In more recent years, as societies have become more multi-national and multi-ethnic, the social democratic politic has embraced “cultural diversity.” However, this commitment to diversity does not challenge the social democratic embrace of existing cultural values.  It maintains that the various national and ethnic cultures all have value. In fact, the social democratic approach tends to idealize and glorify the cultures of the oppressed, rarely questioning the underlying assumptions of those cultures or challenging the ways in which they may be holding back development.

   The social democratic politic has been most successful in Western Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries, where it has succeeded in reorganizing national resources to assure that the basic economic, educational and health needs of the entire population are taken care of.  While this is a tremendous achievement relative to the rest of the world, it has been unable to provide a cultural or political context for getting past the basic economic and social system and the developmental limits of that system either domestically or internationally. 

  (It should be noted that the social democratic movement has historically presented itself, and indeed functioned, as an alternative to the orthodox Marxist, i.e. communist, politic of social development.  Drawing from the same roots in Marx, the social democrats argued that they could provide social development while preventing revolution and the destruction of capitalism.  This opposition to communism has ranged from the German situation, where the social democrats directly suppressed the communist revolution of 1918, including assassinating its leaders, to the United States, where a social democratic ascendancy within ruling circles in the form of Roosevelt’s New Deal, co-opted the grassroots communist movement and its demands.)

   In the United States the social democratic tendency is represented by the New Deal and civil rights coalition within the Democratic Party and the complex of unions, social service, educational advocacy, cultural organizations, agencies and funding sources that make up its base and extended apparatus.  Within the U.S. context, the various identity politics (Black, gay, feminist, etc.) are variations on the social democratic approach to development.  They accept the current economic, social and political system as a given and struggle among themselves for pieces of the existing pie (usually government and foundation funding), on the assumption that more money or services from the state will result in more developmental opportunities for their consistencies. They rarely consider the possibility of expanding the pie and no longer imagine a world that is other than a pie.

   In the poor nations of the South (and more recently, Eastern Europe) where the economies are extremely impoverished and the infrastructure very underdeveloped, it is harder to maintain that a realignment of the nation’s existing resources will be possible, let alone developmental, within the framework of the existing society. (That said, there are strong social democratic movements in the some national sectors in the South, such as the Workers’ Party in Brazil.)  Overall, however, the social democratic approach to development in poor nations is expressed through the movement to utilize organizations and money from the rich nations of the North to create developmental projects in the South. This aid may come directly from governments, particularly from the social democratic Scandinavian nations, but more often the aid comes through the so-called Non-Government Organizations (NGOs).  While not officially attached to the governments of particular nation states, these NGOs are becoming an increasingly important part of the growing transnational state apparatus of the North.

   What links this approach to the earlier social democratic politic is that here, too, there is no attempt to engage the totality of the world economic, social and political system. Here again, there is pressuring and negotiating with the ruling economic and political powers in the rich nations for more economic and cultural opportunities for the “underprivileged” of the poor nations.


The Orthodox (Class Struggle) Marxist Politic of Social Development

   Orthodox Marxism maintains that class struggle is the driving force of human development.  Societies grow and transform through their internal social contradictions; these contradictions are manifest through the struggle of various classes.  The orthodox Marxist model of development, therefore, involves organizing the oppressed class (which in modern society means the working class) into a class-for-itself, that is, a class aware of its distinct interests and willing to fight for the power to transform the society by whatever means are necessary. 

  This has both political and cultural implications.  Politically, the state is understood by orthodox Marxism as the complex instrument of ruling class power based on violence that also includes a wide interconnected network of institutions of co-optation and propaganda.  For the human race to develop, orthodox Marxism maintains, the current capitalist society must be overthrown through class struggle culminating, in most cases, in violent revolution which will smash the old state and allow for the reorganization of society along lines more developmental for the working class in particular and the human race in general.  Since the gains of the revolution must be protected, a new state, supposedly based on the interests of the working class, is constructed. It is only through the radical reorganization of society into socialism and then communism that qualitative human development can be continued. 

  The orthodox Marxist emphasis on class struggle leads to a lack of emphasis on the engagement of cultural and other subjective factors. Orthodox Marxism maintains that qualitative development is not possible under any variant of capitalism. Therefore, it is only after its overthrow that development can begin again.  Orthodox Marxists argue that it is only by transforming society through class struggle and its ultimate expression, political and social revolution, that human beings can begin to transform themselves.

   To the extent that orthodox Marxism has engaged the cultural sphere it has been to organize a “working class culture” as a tool for class struggle.  For example, the communist slogan in the 1930s that “theatre is weapon” is an expression of this.  Brecht’s “learning plays” and their descendents in Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed,” are the most sophisticated expression of this class struggle oriented, tool-for-result (instrumentalist) approach to culture. (It is in this sphere that orthodox Marxism appears to retain the most influence, particularly, and ironically, in social democratic circles.)

   In its cruder forms, such as in the Prolet-Cult movement in the Soviet Union in the 1920s or the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” in China in the 1960s and ’70s, this class struggle cultural approach rejects all or most of earlier human culture as reactionary and attempts to ignore or destroy it while building a supposedly pure culture of the oppressed.  When extended to the political sphere, it has resulted in the glorification of poverty and underdevelopment and a general “leveling down” of society as manifest, for example, in the revolution of the Khmer Rouge. 

   In the 20th Century, orthodox Marxism asserted tremendous influence and provided the most obvious alternative model of development to the dominant capitalist model. However, its failure to provide a more developmental environment than capitalism led to the collapse of its vast revolutionary experiment and it has been generally discredited around the world.  While there remain orthodox Marxist movements in corners of the globe (Nepal, Cuba and Columbia for example), it is no longer a major player in world politics.


The Counter Cultural Politic of Social Development

   The counter cultural (or New Age or hippie) politic of social development is essentially a model of voluntary association and human development through example. People can choose to live differently, more developmentally, by, for example, living communally, or eating only organic food, or riding bicycles instead of cars.  Its model is cultural, not political. While counter culturalists may become involved in political or economic movements, their emphasis is on overcoming the constraints of social development by changing the culture of daily life.

   Unlike both the social democratic and orthodox Marxist politics of social development, the counter culture did not grow out of the labor movement, but out of the political and cultural upheavals of the 1960s, which crossed class lines. It does not view itself as an advocacy movement for any particular class or strata of society. Although generally sympathetic to the underdog and the outcast, the counter culture does not view development as linked to a class dynamic.  It is open to individuals of all classes who choose to live differently than mainstream society.

   Due to its focus on culture and indifference to class, the counter cultural approach to social development essentially ignores the state.  It neither tries to reorganize resources within capitalism as the social democrats do, nor does it attempt to smash the state as orthodox communists do.  To the extent that there is an explicit political theory that counter culturalists relate to it is anarchism. They tend to understand the state—be it “bourgeois” or “proletarian”—as a source of oppression and regimentation and hence, a retardant of development.  However, unlike traditional anarchists who attempt to overthrow the state, counter culturalists, in effect, attempt an end-run around it on the assumption that enough people working locally will have an effect globally.

   Historically, the counter cultural movement most closely resembles the utopian socialist experiments which were organized in England, France and particularly the United States in the early 19th Century in which communities were formed to live collectively—sometimes free of the constraints of marriage and monogamy as well—providing an alternative to the oppression and alienation of developing industrial capitalism.

   Due to its relative newness, lack of a common theoretical literature and mixed class origins, the counter cultural movement includes a number of apparently conflicting attitudes toward the conditions necessary for development. Its impulse toward community and a communalist ethos co-exists with a libertarian-type individualism—expressed in slogans such as “Do Your Own Thing” and “Whatever Turns You On”—which are generally associated with capitalism, particularly the frontier forged capitalism of the United States. The counter culture contains a backward looking gaze to pre-industrial society with its agricultural and craft based self sufficiency (often including the embrace of a pre-modernist spirituality appropriated from tribal peoples or the Far East), along with a forward looking gaze toward a post-industrial society in which technology takes care of most human needs and work, as the alienated activity of survival for it own stake, is eliminated. What is common in counter cultural thinking is the “counter.”  It is essentially a reaction to, an attempt to negate, the prevailing cultural attitudes.

   These apparently contradictory attitudes reflect the circumstances of its emergence in the privileged countries of the United States and Western Europe at a time when, on the one hand, the alienation of capitalist life and the cultural and political regimentation of the Cold War had both grown intense and, on the other, the prosperity of post-World War II capitalism was peaking, thus creating a large middle class who had the wherewithal to opt out of conventional society and seek an alternative way of life, at least temporarily.

  At its most radical, the countercultural politic of social development raises serious challenges to the cultural assumptions of society-as-it exists. At the same time, since the politic of the counter culture does not include a systematic engagement of the political and economic establishment, that establishment has often been willing (even eager) to find ways to accommodate, appropriate and commercialize ideas and styles generated by the counter culture.


The Postmodern (Revolutionary Activity) Marxist Politic of Social Development

   Postmodern Marxism locates the dynamic of social development in human beings’ capacity to self-consciously engage what is and what-is-becoming and thus become the active subject of what-is-becoming. At various times Marx called this human capacity “practical-critical activity” and “revolutionary activity.” This revolutionary activity, as distinct from the activity of making a revolution, is both a mundane day-to-day effort and, at one and the same time, transformative of everything.

   In the super alienated environment of global corporate capitalist culture, revolutionary activity has taken the form of performance, the social activity of individuals, groups and communities going beyond prescribed (and often petrified) social roles to create something qualitatively different. Performance—whether on stage or off—is the activity of being both who-you-are and who-you-are-not/who-you-are-becoming. It has the practical-critical quality of being simultaneously an activity and a reflection on/modifying of the activity. As Fred Newman, a major influence on the development of postmodern Marxism, put it: “In a world so totally alienated as ours doing anything even approaching living requires that we perform.  To be natural in bourgeois society is to be dead-in-life.  Unnaturalness is required if we are to live at all.” 

  While sharing common intellectual roots in Marxism with the social democrats and the orthodox communists, the postmodern Marxist politic of social development emerged, like the counter culturalists, from the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s. Not surprisingly then, we postmodern Marxists focus far more on the subjective aspects of social development (culture and psychology) than either the social democrats or the communists. We consider all human beings, not just the poor, to be impoverished socially and emotionally, if not materially, and in need of further development. Building on Marx’s early philosophical writings, the postmodern Marxists find a unity in the transformation of the world and the transformation of ourselves as human beings. 

  That much we share with the counter culturalists. However, like other Marxists, we do not believe that living by example outside of mainstream society can lead to social development on a mass scale. Such transformation, we believe, requires a systematic engagement of the cultural, psychological and political establishment.  The engagement sought by the postmodern Marxists is significantly different from either the orthodox Marxists or the social democrats. Like the most political of the counter culturalists, we work to build alternative institutions and create alternative ways of living. However, we seek to create these institutions within mainstream society, to butt up against society’s dominant institutions and to directly compete with them.  We are seeking to build the new world within the shell of the old—and we seek to do so with everybody, not just the poor or the working class. 

   Unlike the social democrats, postmodern Marxists believe that continued human development requires a qualitative reorganization of current social and economic relations. That is, it is the totality, not the particulars, which can and must be transformed. Thus, postmodern Marxists share with orthodox Marxists a revolutionary perspective, but it is a very different revolution that we seek. The postmodernists’ view of revolution is much broader and far more radical than the communists’.  Rejecting the determinism of orthodox Marxism, we maintain that in current times, revolution is as much cultural and conceptual as it is political—a change in human culture must take place for any post-capitalist (that is, a more developmental) society to emerge.

   This view of revolutionary change grows from the postmodern Marxists’ identification of the dynamic of social development in day-to-day revolutionary activity (performance). While this activity takes place in a class conflicted society, unlike the orthodox Marxists, postmodern Marxists do not equate social development with class struggle. While recognizing the existence and oppressiveness of class and the historic importance of class struggle, the postmodern Marxists do not assume that the results of class struggle are necessarily developmental, as the class-based revolutions of the 20th Century—from Russia’s to Cambodia’s—demonstrated.  Nor do we identify the “proletariat” or the “oppressed,” as the special agents of social development. As Newman and Lois Holzman say in “All Power to the Developing,” change is brought about by those—individuals, communities, social strata—who are developing, and the postmodern Marxists seek to create environments and activities in which everyone can develop.

   Nor do we believe that social development must wait for political revolution. Since social development is the result of an ongoing process of revolutionary activity with a small “r,” the revolution (that is, the potential for development) is always now.  This is not to deny that at certain points in the process revolutionary activity can break out into quick, qualitative change.  But to postpone the intellectual and cultural development of the oppressed (or anyone else) until “after the revolution” is to doom them to underdevelopment, as the collapse of the old communist societies clearly illustrated.

   On the surface, the work of the social democrats and the postmodern Marxists may at first appear similar. They are, in fact, profoundly different. The difference lies in their relationship to the existing relations of power and authority in society, and in particular, to the state. 

   The social democrats, as discussed, accept the state as a given and work to lobby within it on behalf of the underdeveloped.  We postmodern Marxists, on the other hand, seek to do away with the need for the state. Like our orthodox brethren and the traditional anarchists, we view the state as a social construct designed to protect and promote the status quo and hence a fetter on development.  Orthodox Marxists and anarchists, however, have an antiquated 19th Century understanding of the state, defining it primarily as organized violence (in the form of the military, the police and so on) mobilized to serve the rulers.  While that underpinning of violence certainly remains—and shows its hand most obviously in the impoverished and politically unstable nations of the South—the state has developed into a far more complex and subtle entity encompassing everything from television networks and public schools to trade unions and political parties to foundations and NGOs—and it has clearly transcended national borders in the form of, among numerous other organizations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and numerous international NGOs.   At least in the developed countries of the North, these mechanisms of cooptation, persuasion and manipulation are so well developed that organized violence to defend the status quo is almost never necessary.  There are two ways of characterizing this change: either the state has become much more complex or it has become so pervasive that it is meaningless to talk about it as a distinct institution separate from society as a whole.

   Either way, the implications of this change in the nature of the state are at least two fold. First, it means that the struggle for development has become primarily a cultural, not economic or military one. While the restraints on development may have their roots in economics, engaging those constraints cannot be done successfully within the assumptions of the current culture.

   As Newman puts it: “As Marxists, we think the fundamental causes of oppression, exploitation and so on are economic. At the same time, we think that the form that underlying economic issues take in day-to-day life is cultural. We still hold to the view that in the ‘final analysis’ there has to be a fundamental change in the nature of the economy.  However, number one, we’re a long way from the ‘final analysis,’ and number two, you have to deal with the cultural form of that exploitation if you’re going to help people do something about it. People aren’t going to go directly from how they’re currently organized culturally to radically reorganizing economic realities. So culture is a critical day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year issue. In some respects it’s more important than politics, which, in our opinion, is another form of culture in any event.”

   That’s why so much of our work has gone into building therapeutic and cultural projects and engaging in political organizing that challenges the cultural underpinnings of politics.

   The second implication of the extended reach of the international corporate state is the necessity of finding ways to build alternative organizations and environments that are independent of the authority (and finances) of the state and its extended network. That’s why all of the organizations and projects built by postmodern Marxists are financially and organizationally independent of the state. A youth talent show that depends on government or NGO support is very different from a youth talent show that is built from the bottom up with grassroots community support, that is, a youth program that the participants and their communities have actually built and control themselves.

   This brings us to an essential aspect of the postmodern Marxist politic of social development.  Put crudely, but accurately, we ask people—rich and poor, of all political persuasions—for money to fund social development. This is not incidental—it is central—to our politic.  It is the tactical embodiment of our strategy for undermining the state (or, to put it another way, for transforming the totality of contemporary society).

   Raising money from individuals challenges them to engage in revolutionary activity. That is, it gives everyone—no matter their social class or strata—the opportunity to do something relative to the inequalities and underdevelopment of society. This challenge to individuals to engage in revolutionary activity (as givers and volunteers/builders) is a very different activity than applying for grants from governments or foundations or NGOs and it yields very different results.  Funding from grants makes your work dependent on the state or its surrogates and separates the work of the organization from the creation of the organization.  Asking individuals to take on financial (and other) responsibility is the activity of creating the organization and processes of social development independent of—and competitive with—the state. The building of the organization and the work of the organization are a unified process.

   Here a look at a specific example may be helpful. The All Stars Talent Show Network and the Castillo Theatre are two New York City-based cultural programs that were founded by and continue to be led by those guided by the postmodern Marxist approach to social development.  These programs were launched by setting up tables on street corners and talking to passers-by about why they should contribute to help build them.  When it got too cold on the street, organizers moved to the subway platforms.  They established a canvassing operation, going up and down halls in apartment buildings knocking on every door.  On the weekends they rented cars or took buses and some of us went to the suburbs and canvassed there.  They worked in neighborhoods all over the New York metropolitan area. For the first decade or so of Castillo’s and the Talent Show’s existence this street outreach operation ran seven days a week, 52 weeks year. The people who did this work were all volunteers and this street organizing and canvassing was done in the evenings and on the weekends after our paying jobs.

   Obviously, some of the people met on the street or at the door were hostile; most were indifferent.  However, some were curious, interested, even excited by being offered the chance to create something new free of government or corporate control.  Many gave money, some came to see the performances, others joined the effort to build these organizations by volunteering their time and skills—and some did all of this.  Not only did the financial resources of these projects grow, so did the number, and variety, of people engaged in building them. That’s how the All Stars and Castillo went from nothing to something.

   After ten years, the All Stars had gathered a data base of some 100,000 people who had given at least $10 (and their phone numbers) and those involved were able to gradually transition to a primarily phone operation.  That transition was just the beginning. In 1989, when it was still primarily a street operation, the All Stars Project raised a total of $250,000. In 2000, nearly six years after it had transitioned to a primarily phone operation and had learned how to organize people to give larger sums, the All Stars brought in $3.8 million in donations. Since then (the last five years) it has raised $31 million, $4 million in 2004 alone, a 17 percent increase over 2003.

   In 2004 the largest single donation to the All Stars was  $250,000—the total amount raised 15 years earlier.  In fact, in 2004 the All Stars received two donations of over $200,000, nine between $50,000 and $99,999, fourteen between $25,000 and $49,999, thirty-eight between $10,000 and $24,999, and twenty-seven between $5,000 and $9,999.  Many who gave these large gifts had first given $10 or $20 on the street when initially met years before. While the size of some of the donations has grown considerably, the broad base of the outreach and fundraising remains the foundation upon which all the projects of the All Stars Project (which currently includes The Talent Show Network, the Development School for Youth, the Castillo Theatre and Youth Onstage!) depend.  The street and phone work continue and the All Stars has put itself in a stable position in which the withdrawal of support from one individual or a group of individuals would not endanger the organizations being built. 

   The All Stars has built a President’s Committee of 500 business leaders and concerned citizens in 17 states who give $1,000 or more annually. Counted among its members are seventy-five managing directors and partners in major Wall Street firms, hedge funds, Fortune 500 companies and national law firms.   In addition to giving money, of the approximately 5,000 people who give to the All Stars each year, 150 of them are business people who actively reach out to friends and co-workers to give to the All Stars, thus themselves becoming volunteer organizers for development.
   How did this happen?  It came about by the intimate activity of calling people back, having long conversations about the developmental nature of the programs being built, inviting people over and over again to participate in the building of these organizations —to come to shows, to work on house staff at talent shows, to run tech at Castillo plays, to run workshops for the Development School for Youth, to teach a class in the Youth Onstage! Community Performance School.

   The method of creating independent institutions thus not only gives individuals from all classes and political backgrounds the opportunity to engage in revolutionary activity, it also effects a redistribution of wealth, taking money out of prescribed routes of exchange and putting it into the building of developmental environments. We organize those who have money to contribute to building developmental activities and organizations for and with people who don’t have the resources to build them on their own—and do so without the mediation of the state.

   This redistribution of resources is, of course, rather trivial in the context of the overall economy.  Social democrats may well argue that the redistribution of resources that they have effected in Western Europe and Scandinavia far surpasses anything the postmodern Marxists have achieved, or are likely to achieve in the foreseeable future, through the independent fundraising model—and, of course, they would be right.  They might further point out that postmodern Marxists in the United States, given the political conservatism of our national sector, had no choice but to seek independent funding—and certainly that was one of the historical circumstances that led the postmodern Marxists down the independent road.

   What these critiques leave out, however, is the political significance of organizing people across class lines to support independently-funded and grassroots-built organizations and processes. The social democratic model has proven adept at improving the welfare of the working class and the poor, but welfare is not the same as empowerment and does not engender development. Social democracy, even at its best, has left the basic class divisions, power relations and cultural attitudes in place. It has not built a political or cultural force capable of moving beyond the existing parameters of capitalism and its increasingly obvious developmental limits. Social democracy has created welfare states, but no states of development. (The old communists created “Revolutionary States” but no processes of social development that could sustain either a revolution or a state.)

   The key political difference between the social democratic (liberal) politic of social development and the postmodern Marxist model is that the Marxists are building an independent cross-class force—a community we call it—within capitalist society that actively supports development and recognizes that development is best achieved outside of the confines of the state, that is, outside established institutions, conduits of funding and lines of authority.  The social democratic approach builds nothing independent of the state and is thus narrowly reformist.  The postmodern Marxist politic of social development, on the other hand, is based on the building of developmental environments independent of the state and creates an activist community that builds and supports these environments. Therefore, its daily activity as well as its long-term implications are revolutionary in the most profound, transformative, sense of the word.

   People will not think or move beyond the developmental limitations of contemporary society if they don’t see, or believe they can create, an alternative. The building of independently funded youth programs, schools, theatres, therapy clinics, political parties (and much, much more) is essential for a very simple, common sense reason—to show that it can be done.

   In order to move people need a place to move to. People will vote for Democrats and Republicans if there is nothing else to vote for.  They will send their kids to oppressive schools if there are not more developmental schools and youth programs available to their children.  They will accept the current understanding and practice of learning if they are not aware of the existence of any other.  They will rely on clergy and psychology-based therapists and social workers if there is not a more developmental therapy available to deal with their family and emotional problems.  Postmodern Marxism works to replace state and corporate power with more developmental alternatives built through free association and voluntary funding by ordinary people from all strata of society.

   That’s why our work is so provocative to the powers-that-be.  We postmodern Marxists are actually providing leadership to the building of real alternatives to the cultural, educational, psychological and political institutions of the corporations and/or their state—alternatives that are more developmental than those of the establishment and that are designed to, and are, directly challenging them. 

At the same time, the building of these organizations is in itself a developmental activity for the individuals and communities involved. Thus, the building of such independent organizations is simultaneously a tool and a result.  In the process of building these independent organizations and activities, we postmodern Marxists maintain, human beings build a new independent culture and recreate ourselves and our world.

   What will that culture and that world look like? We are in no position to predict. We know only that human beings have the capacity to develop and we think we have made some important discoveries about how to create environments for development in a world that is in developmental crisis.

   We offer this paper as a springboard for discussion.

   —Dan Friedman, September 2005


Dan Friedman has been a radical political activist and a theatre artist all his adult life.  His origins are in the Orthodox (Class Struggle) Marxist tradition, born into the third generation of a communist family. In the late 1960s and 1970s he was active with a number of different left political organizations and street theatres. Since 1981 he has been building independent organizations that have been shaped by—and helped to shape—what has come to be called postmodern Marxism. Friedman is one of the founders of the Castillo Theatre and is the artistic director of Youth Onstage!, the youth theatre of the All Stars Project, Inc