Prediction and Explanation in Political Action: Scenarios and Political Strategies

The aim of this starting post is

  • to explain the notion of a scenario as a reflection of a really existing contradiction/s which could be developed and/or solved in different ways depending on the real constellation of political forces;
  • to illustrate that a scenario in the second sense is also derived from special theoretical orientations, which are more or less directly connected with social and political interests
  • to show that the work on scenarios is very closely related to the work on political strategies and on every-day-policy.

Political processes often do take surprising twists – in the eyes of the involved protagonists as well as in those of the uninvolved observers. This is often interpreted as evidence that in politics unfathomable subjective factors did decide about success or failure. Such an approach is unfit to serve as the basis for a development of political strategies that go beyond mere tactical behavior or the behavior of individuals. It also does not take into account the very real long-term processes that pre-structure tactical or individual opportunities for action.

In the past, it has always seemed useful to rely on deterministic ideas about processes of ‘long duration’ – as e.g. Kautsky’s idea of a communist development inevitable in the long term, simply because of the inherent contradictions of the capitalist mode. And when, additionally, the upswing and the prosperity in the crisis cycle are going to be ever more short, a revolutionary movement to overcome capitalist mode of production will not be necessary any more.

After the experience of the long 20th century such ideas of a linear determinism in history are hardly plausible any more.

But in order to avoid falling into a simple “occasionalism” or “decisionism” instead, in which all the societal processes and policy actions are reduced to a chaos of arbitrary individual actions, the analysis of bound statistical time series has been developed. It takes up and continues the idea that historical processes influencing political action would have their own materiality, specific functional mechanisms and a certain continuity. However, it remains a serious misconception to derive the expectation from the descriptive histories, which can be constructed on this basis, that the historical process in all its complexity would not make any unpredictable leaps or would not be able to do so. Past revolutions or major wars have in fact constituted such leaps in the historical process.

If we want to understand inertia effects in history, but also the possibility of transitions or transformations we should analyze historical processes in retrospect, but we should also discuss on prospectively possible scenarios. We should do so, because this could allow us to draw conclusions for possibly effective political tactics and strategies. The simple idea of systemic complexity alone does not help us to ask the strategically as well analytically interesting question, under what conditions a specific chain of causes and effects could bring about a real transformation.

The idea of an “over-determination” of historical processes seems to be more helpful in this respect: It allows to discuss a plurality of “lines” of determinations, explaining contradictions, battles and the development of social resp. political agency, e.g. the anticolonial movement in the 1950s, the women’s movement in the 1960s, the ecological movement in the 1970s.


After the deep crisis of the social democratic and communist movements and also of a special type of academic Marxism we have to look for a new general theoretical articulation of structural determinations of processes realizing and reproducing power and domination. The Marxian critique of political economy is still virulent, but in need to be renewed and to be developed. It allows us to study the relationships existing within specific historico-social formations, by analyzing the over-determined links between conditions and processes which could show possibilities to act open to different actors, agents, forces – in very different time periods, cultures, territories, states and regions. So the world-wide constellation of “Fordism” as “capitalism of the cold war, as in the case of the “Euro capitalism” or the “Japanese” or the “American” capitalism can be explained in their historical complexities.

Presumably, it is necessary to critically re-examine the many generalizations which have been developed since the beginning of the 20th century in order to understand the development of left wing thinking, of the Marxist theories and of the real processes reflected by them. Examples for such conceptions are “monopoly capitalism”, “organized capitalism”, “state monopoly capitalism” which have tried to improve Marx’s theory of the revenue sources on the “surface” of modern bourgeois society. These conceptions were elaborated by such contradictory creative Marxists like Hilferding, Pollock and Varga. They have regarded the “organized” and the “state monopoly” capitalism as a form of the political mediation of processes of capital accumulation by state intervention. This has presupposed a critical theory of the independence of the modern state as a political form and as an institutional complex. In the 60s, the theory of state-monopoly has been capable of giving a progressive orientation to political alliances, but is has been causing disorientation by overlooking contradictions of interests among the different ruling elites. It has been capable of explaining some important oligarchic structures and some counter-reactions, but it could not explain and make use of the really existing contradictions in their complexity.

Therefore it is assumed that in this way only a theoretical core of such concepts can be worked out, while the majority of such “theories of the middle range” have formulated findings either purely empirical or within a country and / or a time period. An “empirical generalization” remains limited to a time or geographically localized constellation. There is a difference between a trend statement based on structural determinations which can have a prognostic value and a mere trend-looking statement formulated on purely empirical findings. The second type of finding cannot explain the possibilities of any deeper change of a complex historical and social reality.

The scenarios method is based on purely trend-looking statements and as such it is of only limited prognostic power. However, it is in principle possible to examine critically presented scenarios to see which trends could be expressed by them – at least under the assumption that there is at least an elementary theoretical knowledge about the forms and structures that can explain the emergence of such tendencies. Only in this way, some predictions could be formulated and be made more resilient than scenarios merely based on trend information on the future development of the share prices.

Only by means of a theoretically justified critical reading of existing scenarios and forecasts it will be possible to develop ideas about possible twists and choices which could be used for a starting point of a historical strategy. But all that has to be connected with a permanent analysis of real and potential political actors who decide about the real societal development. This means that we make use of the scenario method in two directions. On the one hand we have to explain the history: why the real development has been as it has and which other scenarios should be seen and why they have remained mere possibilities and what we could learn from that, theoretically and practically. On the other hand we have to show which different future developments are theoretically possible and to explain their circumstances and conditions, as defined by existing constellations of political and economic forces and by specifying what this can mean for one’s own political praxis.

Published by

Judith Dellheim

Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, Referentin Solidarische Ökonomie

2 thoughts on “Prediction and Explanation in Political Action: Scenarios and Political Strategies”

  1. An important difference between the situation today, and the capitalism of Kautsky’s, Varga’s and Hilferding’s time is the enormous expansion of long-term financing of today’s corporations. The role of the state in securing the conditions of reproduction of monopoly capital is now extended to ensuring the stability of that long-term financing. This is driving government responses to the crisis since 2008. Hence the indifference to Keynesian fiscal solutions, and the emphasis on quantitative easing by central banks. The political economy of this needs developing beyond just the vulgar observation that governments are ‘bailing out’ banks.

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