Review of Neither Vertical nor Horizontal: A Theory of Political Organization

Rodrigo Nunes (2021), Neither Vertical nor Horizontal: A Theory of Political Organization, Verso Books: London & New York.

While this book is sub-titled “A Theory of Political Organization”, its primary purpose is not to put forward a specific theory of how the Left should organise, but to attempt to reframe the way in which the Left thinks about political organisation, in particular by thinking beyond sterile oppositions that many of us learned to argue about back and forth as undergraduates and have whacked away at for years since. Nunes argues that rather than privileging one side or the other of dyads such as vertical/horizontal, centralised/dispersed, leaders/participants, collective/aggregate, etc, we should recognize that in practice both terms of these dyads will be present in the political circumstances activists encounter, and therefore the choices activists make between them should be framed in terms of the right mix of “more or less” that suits a specific situation, rather than either/or.

One such dyad is that which counterposes intentional organisation (often in the form of political parties) to “self-organisation” or spontaneity.  Nunes was prompted to write Neither Vertical nor Horizontal by his observations of, and participation in, the grassroots democratic and social change movements that surged in several countries around 2011, and had originated in the counter-globalisation movements around the turn of the millennium. Previous generations of the Left had fallen into errors, crimes and historic defeats due to the predominance of “vertical” thinking about political organisation, epitomized by the party-state regimes of “actually existing socialism” in the 20th century. Nunes argues that the more recent mass movements, reacting against this historical “trauma of organisation”, have tended to err in the direction of absolute horizontalism which, through suspicion of the corrupting potential (potestas) of organisation and leadership, shuts itself off from the positive potential (potentia), of organisation in order to enable anything to be done at all. Nunes states that all political action is ultimately organised in that someone, somewhere has taken the initiative to do something to cause change. Thus what is sometimes seen to emerge “spontaneously” is in fact the result of the complex interplay of numerous initiatives at different levels and in different places, many of which are evidently consciously organised. Nunes criticises those perspectives suggesting that the social changes progressives desire at national and global levels (such as the transition to a zero carbon economy) can emerge from “the aggregate action of countless individuals, in which concerted collective action plays a minor secondary role”. Rather, the left has to take responsibility for attempting to create potentia at the necessary scale though conscious organisation and cooperation even while remaining conscious of the risks of potestas.

A related question is that of ‘leadership”. An historically justified scepticism towards formal positions of leadership held by individuals in organisations, and towards the claims to “leadership” by would-be vanguard parties and grouplets, should not obscure a recognition of the actual function of leadership that is exercised every time a person or group initiates an action of some kind which has the effect (intended or not) of motivating or influencing action by others. In actual political movements, what one finds is neither subsumption of entire movements under a single centre of leadership, nor an absence of leadership. Rather, the actual function of leadership is “distributed” among multiple cores of political organisation and initiative. Progressive politics will continue to be fundamentally pluralistic in terms both of the number of sites of organisation, and the range of different forms of organisation and action that will be adopted. Therefore, the most fruitful approach is to think of this diversity of cores of organisation as forming an ecology, and for participants in progressive movements to work with the grain of this reality.

In two chapters Nunes identifies and elaborates on elements for a theory of organisation under the headings “Ecology, Distributed Leadership, Organising Cores, Vanguard-Function, Diffuse Control, Platforms, Diversity of Strategies, Parties”. Finally, Nunes presents the problem of “fitness”, which he sees as implicit in recent debates on progressive strategy, and which he defines as “the qualities that a political project must possess in order to get a grip on an existing conjuncture rather than merely staking out an abstract position of principle. In other words, its capacity to address widely shared concerns, to speak to existing interests and desires, to persuade people of its feasibility, to gather support and build a broad social base, to target weak spots and concrete points of pressure and leverage efficiently, to set in motion processes endowed with their own transformative momentum, to effectively pose itself as a mediation, or series of mediations, between some future state and the present. In short, to meet people and the world halfway.”

This is a rich and stimulating book whose main value lies not so much in providing answers as in its potential to provoke activists to think afresh many long-standing questions of political organisation, and indeed to think of new questions to address.


Reviewed by Paul Norton.

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