What is Dual Power?

Dual Power is the CLP’s basic political framework. Contact us for this FAQ in printed pamphlet format. Not best displayed on mobile.

Dual Power FAQ


Author’s Note: Dual Power, the US Left, and the Communist Labor Party

1. The Philosophy of Dual Power

    1.1. What does Dual Power mean?

    1.2. What kinds of Dual Power institutions are there?

        1.2.1. Table 1: Examples of Dual Power Institutions

    1.3. What is Dual Power’s Endgame?

    1.4. How does Dual Power work?

    1.5. How is Dual Power different from regular activism?

        1.5.1. Table 2: Example Protest-Reform Cycles

    1.6. Why is Dual Power worth building?

2. Dual Power in Practice

    2.1. How do I recognize a Dual Power institution?

    2.2. How do I go about building one?

        2.2.1. Table 3: Counter-Institution Case Study: Tacoma Clinic Defense, Tacoma, WA

    2.3. What are some common pitfalls and how can I avoid them?

        2.3.1. Table 4: Common Problems, Symptoms, and Responses

    2.4. How do I know it’s working?

Author’s Note:

Dual Power, the US Left, and the Communist Labor Party

This pamphlet focuses on the central belief of the Communist Labor Party: that building Dual Power institutions is our best shot at bringing about a system of just, sustainable, and democratic socialism. The CLP is a political party founded in 2015, whose members have backgrounds in many different left-wing traditions but who share a commitment to Dual Power. Our organization exists solely to help establish and incubate the type of institution described below – and insists that each of them become self-sustaining and independent of our control as quickly as possible. Dual Power projects must be accountable solely to their communities, and not to any government agency, business, nonprofit, or political group (including us!).

The many left-wing organizations in the US often do useful and important work. However, many of them also slip into the mistake of treating independent projects as recruitment farms. Instead of helping working, disabled, and oppressed people control their own lives, they prioritize getting a bigger membership roster. Spend enough time around activists, and you’ll hear horror stories about “front groups.” Although they pretend to be independent, behind the scenes there’s a political party in charge. That is not Dual Power. In fact, one reason we founded the CLP was to escape those dishonest practices! We don’t want to make the CLP more powerful – we want to help our communities develop their own power.

In our opinion, that means building Dual Power. So, in question-and-answer format, here is what Dual Power means, how it works, and how you can start a Dual Power institution of your own. Let us know what you think!

–Sophia Burns, April 2016

  1. The Philosophy of Dual Power

1.1 What does Dual Power mean?

  • Dual Power is both a type of institution and a strategy to change the world. Dual Power means new, independent institutions for people to meet their own needs in ways capitalism and the government can’t or won’t. Unlike nonprofits, where a board of directors (and usually wealthy donors!) makes the decisions, Dual Power institutions are created and controlled by the people they benefit. By developing them, people create a second kind of social, economic, and even political power, separate from government and capitalism. (That’s what the “dual” means, in duality with the current system.) These new community institutions then govern themselves using participatory democracy, which means that everyone plays an active part in decision-making.

1.2 What kinds of Dual Power institutions are there?

  • Dual Power institutions come in two flavors: alternative institutions and counter-institutions. Capitalism and the government often meet people’s needs very badly. However, we don’t yet have something better. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, capitalism is crooked but it’s the only game in town. Dual Power is about giving people a second option. The two kinds of Dual Power institutions do this from different (but complementary) angles. Alternative institutions meet a need directly. Counter-institutions challenge capitalism’s way of doing things. Alternative institutions start making a system that’s just, while counter-institutions work against one that’s unjust.

So, for example, a worker-owned cooperative business is an alternative institution. Everybody has to make a living, and cooperatives satisfy that need in a participatory-democratic way. Conversely, a labor union is a counter-institution. It increases its members’ control over their jobs, but it doesn’t actually create new workplaces. Instead, it limits the power that managers and business owners have.

1.2.1 Table 1: Examples of Dual Power Institutions

Alternative Institutions: Counter-Institutions:
Worker-owned business Labor union
Neighborhood vegetable garden Campaign against a new Wal-Mart store
House-share project Tenants’ union
Community-owned free clinic Planned Parenthood clinic defense group

1.3 What is Dual Power’s endgame?

  • Dual Power builds towards a social system where people and communities control their own lives. The strategy is to bring more and more economic activity, public decision-making, and other aspects of society into the process of participatory democracy. We all deserve a meaningful say in the decisions that affect us. Dual Power institutions put that into practice.

1.4 How does Dual Power work?

  • Capitalism exists so that business owners can turn a profit. When people have a need that isn’t profitable, the system usually ignores it. Dual Power institutions fill those gaps. Instead of waiting for a state agency or charity to step in, they offer a way for people to identify problems and choose how to solve them. If we work through Dual Power, then we can cooperatively increase our shared power. Counter-institutions weaken injustice, while alternative institutions strengthen participatory democracy. By putting together a new system parallel to the current one, Dual Power can eventually provide enough of a second power base to totally replace capitalism.

1.5 How is Dual Power different from regular activism?

  • Regular (or traditional) activism works through something called the protest-reform cycle. When conditions get bad enough for enough people, large protest movements emerge. Capitalism and the government always, at first, try to undermine, discredit, and even use violence against those movements. Eventually, though, the protesters seriously disrupt business as usual. The government has a hard time implementing public policy, and businesses start losing profits. So, they compromise – they give the movements some of what they want. However, it’s never more than they can help. They want to convince movement supporters that because things have improved, there’s no longer any need to disrupt the status quo by protesting. So, with a few victories in hand, movements subside. Then, for the next few decades, capitalism and the government pick away at those new reforms. One at a time, they roll back their compromises. Conditions get bad again, and eventually, the cycle starts over.

1.5.1 Table 2: Example Protest-Reform Cycles

Issue: Years of cycle: Protests: Reforms: Rollback:
Feminism 1800s-1920 Demonstrations, hunger strikes, civil disobedience, lobbying Women’s suffrage, right to divorce, right of married women to independent legal personhood Backlash against women’s equality, new mass media promoting a conservative ideal of womanhood
1960s-1970s Demonstrations, civil disobedience, electoral work, creation of woman-focused organizations, litigation Antidiscrimination laws, right of women to work outside the home, greater access to public office and education, legalization of abortion and birth control, some public policy against gendered violence Rise of Christian Right, development of capitalist “power feminism,” cultural notion that because “women are equal now,” feminism is unnecessary
1990s Demonstrations, electoral work, forming new cultural projects, reforming existing feminist groups, litigation Stronger position for women of color and disabled women in feminism, stronger position within Democratic Party, academia, and culture at large Christian Right backlash under George W. Bush, incremental restriction of abortion rights, anti-LGBT campaigns
Peace movement 1960s-1975 Demonstrations, electoral work, civil disobedience, draft and GI resistance End of Vietnam war, cessation of the draft Continuation of the military-industrial complex, new overseas wars
2001-2008 Demonstrations, GI resistance, lobbying, litigation Partial military withdrawal from Iraq, election of Barack Obama Continued “War on Terror” policies, cooptation of antiwar movement by Democratic Party

Dual Power, on the other hand, understands that – while reforms are certainly important – they contain a basic problem. Traditional activism has done a lot of good, but at the end of the day it leaves the powerful class of wealthy business owners still in charge. Dual Power sometimes pursues traditional activist goals, especially through counter-institutions, but they’re never the main focus. Through alternative institutions, Dual Power creates something outside of the existing power structure entirely. Its long-term goal is to replace that power structure (while making our lives better and more self-determined in the meantime).

1.6 Why is Dual Power worth building?

  • Dual Power institutions aren’t easy to create. They take much patience and effort. For those of us whose communities hurt the most under capitalism, Dual Power requires resources that often come at a premium. So what makes Dual Power worth it? Improving our lives in specific, concrete ways does matter. However, the heart of Dual Power is the feeling and reality of community members taking back power over themselves. Building Dual Power means creating the world we want right now, no permission needed. No reform can give people the sense of worth that comes from experiencing self-determination. Dual Power, however, exists to do just that.

  1. Dual Power in Practice

2.1 How do I recognize a Dual Power institution?

  • On the surface, different Dual Power institutions might not seem similar. Every community is different, and therefore so is every Dual Power institution. However, they do all share some basic traits. Dual Power institutions are:
    • Participatory democracies. Everyone gets a fair say in decision-making, instead of a clique of leaders.
    • Empowerment-focused. Participants decide for themselves what they need and how to get it.
    • Independent and community-accountable. Religious congregations, nonprofits, and political parties all can (and should!) support Dual Power. However, if any of those controls an institution, then that’s not Dual Power – it’s just a front group. Dual Power institutions serve their communities and answer only to them.

2.2 How do I go about building one?

  • What matters most is responding to your community’s needs in an open and democratic way. These steps provide one basic template, but they’re suggestions, not rules. Dual Power means developing something that works for you – it’s not one-size-fits-all.
  1. Determine a need. What necessities don’t you have? What needs are going unmet?
  2. Consult with others. Ask around. Do people agree that your issues are urgent? What do you wish someone would do something about? Pick a focus.
  3. Research. Who else has worked on this problem? How’d it work out? Every previous effort is a field experiment. Analyze the data.
  4. Meet publicly. You want the widest possible participation from the get-go. Invite people to share experiences and suggestions, then collaborate on a concrete plan.
  5. Figure out logistics. Will you need volunteers? Space? Money? Start thinking nuts-and-bolts – what do you need and where will you get it?
  6. Analyze and improve. Dual Power takes time and patience. Keep reaching out to people and keep working. Document everything and evaluate your work often. What has (or hasn’t) gone the way you expected? If something consistently doesn’t get results, change it! Evidence-based flexibility will bring you success.
  7. Follow through. Every new institution goes through periods where no matter how much effort you put in, nothing seems to happen. That’s normal. If you stay democratic, independent, goal-oriented, and flexible, then you will pull through.

2.2.1 Table 3: Counter-Institution Case Study: Tacoma Clinic Defense, Tacoma, WA

Template Point: What They Did:
1) Determine a need. Anti-choice protesters were harassing patients outside of a reproductive health clinic in Tacoma.
2) Consult with others. Most Tacomans support the right to an abortion, and the clinic’s patients were generally satisfied with their care. But, the protesters made them feel intimidated and unsafe.
3) Research. Starting with second-wave feminism, pro-choice counter-protesters have historically been able both to deter anti-choicers outside clinics and to create a supportive atmosphere for patients.
4) Meet publicly. After talking with both community members and the clinic itself, a small core group coalesced around the counter-protesting idea.
5) Figure out logistics. They needed volunteers, research on the opposition, markers and posterboard for signs, printed “Tacoma Clinic Defense” t-shirts, a logo, slogans, protocols on responding to harassment, fundings, meeting space, childcare, cleaning, record-keeping, and transportation.
6) Analyze and improve. Volunteers logged the number of anti-choicers and the response of patients and passers-by each time they went out. They found that behaving calmly and positively helped distinguish them from the opposition, and that consistently showing up eventually led the anti-choicers to lose more and more of their volunteers.
7) Follow through. TCD took 24 months to see tangible results. It didn’t start sustaining itself without needing the core organizers until 6 months after that. It took 2 ½ years of perseverance, but TCD stuck it through and eventually did succeed.

2.3 What are some common pitfalls and how can I work through them?

  • Even healthy organizations sometimes have crises. Experiencing one doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Focus on recognizing and addressing them as quickly as possible. Here are a few common ones (with suggested responses):

2.3.1 Table 4: Common Problems, Symptoms, and Responses

Problem: Symptoms: Possible responses:
Slow momentum Low attendance, loss of enthusiasm Occasional slow periods are normal, especially at first. Persevere and change things that consistently don’t work. Frequently check in with your members to see how they feel about the group and what they want to do differently.
External hostility Unsympathetic media attention (including social media), counter-protesters or police presence, denial/withdrawal of material support Focus on the work and build strong relationships with your community. They’re the only ones who count. If need be, change procedures to keep your participants safe.
Personality conflicts Tense atmosphere, presence of cliques, members criticizing each other behind their backs Help everyone have a role they find rewarding. Create explicit procedures for grievances and conflict resolution. Make opportunities for everyone to socialize as a group. If someone is persistently toxic, ask them to leave.
Burnout A few people doing most of the work, project leaves little time to pursue other interests, exhaustion Delegate work, share responsibilities with everyone, check in with members about what they’d prefer to be doing, and, if need be, scale back your activity to a sustainable level.
Inadequate logistics Insufficient supplies for projects, not certain who is supposed to do what, unclear procedures or record-keeping, no planning for childcare, elder care, food, transportation, and cleanup Plan everything in advance, and change when something doesn’t work. Write your procedures down and make sure everyone understands them. Communicate with each member as much as possible.
Unwillingness to change Infrequent self-evaluation, adherence to a particular method/idea regardless of the data, members not regularly consulted for suggestions Record everything. If something doesn’t get results and/or alienates people, ask them what you can do differently, then do it. Your community is worth more (and knows better) than any philosophy.
Cooptation (sometimes called “entryism”) Another group’s members voting as a bloc or discussing your project at their meetings, people constantly pushing to align with another organization, attempts to recruit your institution’s members Don’t allow other organizations to recruit at your events. Censure members who attempt to coopt your institution. If they won’t stop, ask them to leave.
Becoming self-serving Focusing on the group’s image and/or size, rather than the project’s goal Remind each other that the community comes before the institution. Keep focused on what your constituents want.

2.4 How do I know it’s working?

  • Ask each other and – more importantly – your constituent community:
    • Are we listening to people’s self-identified needs and preferences?
    • Are our procedures democratic, transparent, and participatory?
    • Do we hold ourselves accountable solely to our constituency and each other?
    • Are we organizationally self-sustaining (or working towards it)?
    • Do we make a positive material difference in people’s lives?
    • Do we give our community a sense of empowerment?
    • Have we built strong relationships with people, instead of alienating them?

In the end, though, every Dual Power institution meets a different need for different people. If you’re satisfying your community, very little else matters. Your constituents come first, and no one but them gets to define “success.”