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New Texts Out Now: Cedric de Leon, Manali Desai, and Cihan Tugal, Building Blocs: How Parties Organize Society

[Cover of Cedric de Leon, Manali Desai, and Cihan Tuğal, editors, [Cover of Cedric de Leon, Manali Desai, and Cihan Tuğal, editors, "Building Blocs: How Parties Organize Society"]

Cedric de Leon, Manali Desai, and Cihan Tuğal, editors, Building Blocs: How Parties Organize Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this book?

Cihan Tuğal (CT): Why did “moderate” Islamists fail so miserably throughout the Arab Spring? Why did the Turkish Islamists first stumble, but then re-emerge even more powerful (even if, in the way, they dropped their “moderation”)? Our edited volume allows us to answer these questions by drawing attention to political creativity. The book includes analyses of politics in several countries and in different eras. Here I will focus on the overall theoretical claims, as well as what they imply for Islamist success.

We started this project with the following question: What scientific tools do we have in our toolkit to make sense of political creativity? And the answer was: Not much! We tend to see politics as a dirty business. For conservatives, politicians are people who meddle in good family and community life. For liberals, they are the ones who distort the markets. For radicals, they are the usurpers of bottom-up, popular energy and power. Families, markets, peoples are natural; politics are artificial. Good politicians, if there are any, are those who do not intervene in these natural processes and entities, but simply reflect them. They might even have an active role: fighting those who fight these “natural”s.

In this book, we develop an entirely different angle. Certain kinds of political activity construct these entities and processes; others naturalize them. Politics as usual (which we call “institutional politics”) perpetuates them with little modifications.

J: How does this book differ from other attempts to think about the role of political parties in shaping the social order?

CT: I will start by shortly summarizing how scholars usually perceive two parties we take as primary examples of integral politics: the Bolshevik Party and the Turkish Justice and Development Party (henceforth the JDP). I focus especially on these two parties in order to show how integral orientations can be found in both ends of the political spectrum. In the social sciences, Theda Skocpol’s analysis of the Russian Revolution constitutes a major statement on how political leaders “steal” people’s will. Actually, Skocpol (a prominent Harvard sociologist and political scientist) has developed to perfection an argument that has been in the making since Weber and Michels: the revolution had spontaneously happened; the Bolsheviks manipulated it to build a one-party state. Revolutionary parties, then, are surreptitious state-builders in “insurrectionary” clothing. The Bolshevik Party is the “bad party” par excellence of mainstream scholarship.

Social scientists also have a “good party.” Up until 2011-13, scholars hailed the Turkish JDP as the model democratic party. While some of these scholars had personal and/or ideological issues with conservatism and neoliberalism, they held that the party embodied the will of millions of conservative and business-oriented Turks. The religiosity and market-orientation of these citizens were built within civil society. Based on this anti-political stance, the most prominent liberal, leftist, and conservative academics (and journalists) supported the JDP.

Our book, by contrast, shows that the JDP was the most Bolshevik-like formation the Turks ever had—not in terms of the content of “ideology,” but in terms of how ideology is constructed, popularized, and put into practice.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

CT: One central concept in our book is the “integral party,” a term that allows us to underline the similarities between these two apparently dissimilar political formations. The integral party brings contradictory demands and disparate constituencies under a single roof, and also reshapes their demands and interests in this process of “articulation.” We demonstrate that what really differentiates the JDP and similar parties from the Bolsheviks is not their reflection of an already constituted popular will, but rather their more expansive, more sustained, deeper, and more modern (or perhaps post-modern) Bolshevism—what we could call “Leninism under democratic [or semi-democratic] conditions.”

The book provides similar examples of integral parties, ranging from the Indian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Canadian Co-operative Commonwealth Federation-New Democratic Party (CCF-NDP), and the (American) Republican Party during the 1850s. We also look at “disarticulation” in contexts where no integral parties emerge, such as recent Indonesia. In the Islamic context, what renders the Turkish JDP so special is not its much more democratic version of religion (as its liberal and Western supporters once believed). The JDP is politically superior to other Islamists, we argue, because it was able to integrate and mobilize social groups entirely at odds with its agenda. We seek to demonstrate this through a sustained and theory-driven comparison with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the father of all modern Islamic movements.

To return to the Bolshevik case in light of the Egyptian one, we point out that state collapse, the main factor in the Skocpolian explanation, is necessary but not sufficient. Moreover, it is not the independent factor that institutionalists hold it to be. In many cases, including the Russian one, an integral party precipitates state collapse through mass mobilization, electoral campaigns, strikes, terrorism, and/or other means. There would be no total state collapse, and therefore no October Revolution, were it not for successful anti-war insurgency throughout the summer of 1917. The February Revolution would probably go down in history as a more extended version of the 1905 revolutionary failure.

Similarly, the incompleteness of state collapse in Egypt (between 2011 and 2013) was at least partially due to the absence of an integral party. Had the Muslim Brotherhood been as astute in its integralism as the JDP, it could have mobilized the liberals and leftists against the security apparatus, instead of fighting against them and clumsily cooperating with their ultimate butchers. The Brotherhood’s unwillingness to go the JDP way, however, was not the result of an overnight decision: integralness, the capacity to articulate, is cultivated through decades, as our analyses of several cases show. Two key paragraphs from our Introduction (excerpted at the end of this piece) get to the heart of our other and related central concept, “political articulation.”

In our extended dialogue with the social sciences (mostly sociology and political science), we have integrated a lot of insights from the humanities. Articulation is a concept that originated in psychoanalysis. It was then developed further by philosophers. Political theorists, especially Ernesto Laclau, gave it definitive contours in the 2000s. But this was political theory of a certain kind, which mostly faced the humanities (and was deeply fused by linguistics). This conceptual development disabled any sustained social scientific use. Furthermore, it diverted attention away from institutions. We, by contrast, situate ourselves at the interface of the state- and institution-centered turn in the social sciences and this linguistic turn in the humanities. We study articulation in a quite different way when compared to Laclau and his students. We have many theoretical and methodological differences from Laclau and other theorists, which we discuss in the book (and we will need to discuss more in the future). What I would like to highlight here is one of these differences with substantive implications: our focus on the “means of articulation.”

Organizational histories and the making of professional party cadres and leaders is the missing mechanism in Laclau. An integral organization becomes successful when it cultivates cadres and leaders who (gradually) become experts in the manipulation of symbols, infiltration of civil society, and the uses of state power. Politicians with high “suturing”[1] capacity are those who can successfully wield the means of articulation (a list of which is provided at the end of this piece) and put them to integral use. Analysis should therefore unpack the ensemble of structures that favor or prevent the gradual making of such experts. In other words, political theorists’ discourse analysis must be supplemented by institutional and structural political sociology.

J: Does your book shed light on any post-publication developments?

CT: The recent election victory of the Turkish JDP (on 1 November 2015) is a very good example of how one of the means of articulation (war-making) operates under structural pressures (and also further shapes those structures—see another excerpt below for more details). It was not predictable beforehand (and actually nobody, including the government itself, predicted) how successful the JDP’s exceptional warmongering in summer 2015 would be: it could have backfired. Articulation (in this case, re-articulation) is a radically contingent game. Ultimately, the party increased its votes from forty-two percent in June 2015 to forty-nine percent in November 2015—in the span of just four and a half months. Not only re-initiating the Kurdish-Turkish war, but also threatening the rest of the population by a war that would spread to western Turkey, the party projected strength. As a result, Turkish nationalists and some Kurdish conservatives quit their parties and voted for the JDP. The Turkish nationalist base had signaled its readiness for a longer-lasting shift by joining the establishment and spread of “Ottoman Hearths”—mass mobilizing associations modeled after the now ineffective “Idealist Hearths” (and their offshoots), far-right nationalist associations used to combat minorities, strikes, and leftists. Ottoman Hearth activists (and figures linked to them) burned (leftist-Kurdish nationalist) HDP buildings; physically attacked opposition activists and journalists; and participated in other repressive mass mobilization. It is too early to tell whether the re-articulation of Islamism and far-right nationalism will be as hegemonic as the JDP’s previous articulation, but Angela Merkel’s recent approval of the party’s new path signals that Western powers will not be as unwelcoming as liberals thought they would be.

The JDP’s moves also demonstrate how articulation and disarticulation can go hand in hand. Ever since the Gezi Revolt in June 2013, the party has been losing its liberal supporters. It has also been turning to more coercion in its dealing with its rivals. However, rather than simply disintegrating (as its erstwhile allies, the liberals, expected), the party has re-fashioned its means of articulation to hegemonize new constituencies. War has enabled the JDP to not only mobilize Turkish nationalists, but also bring back into the fold conservative Kurds, who seem to have voted out of the fear of an all-out repression of Kurds (after the model of 1993-1995, when the Turkish state forcibly removed millions from their villages and towns). Conservative Kurds might also be thinking that the ongoing reconfiguration would re-define liberals and leftists as the common enemy of Turks and Kurds.

It should not be ignored that the quality of the articulated elements and actors matter too. The JDP’s Islamist-liberal-Gülenist bloc had more capacity to put people to sleep. Its new, nationalist-Islamist bloc imposes silence through fear, relatively speaking. In this process, the conservative center-right population in Turkey has gone through a major cultural transformation: under normal circumstances, we would expect conservatives to (seek stability and therefore) punish adventurers. Instead, they rewarded the most war-oriented, destabilizing party in Turkey. In a nutshell, conservatives decided that for everything to stay the same, the most destabilizing means should be used.

The quality of the articulated elements matter not only for these primary concerns of political science (instability, war), but also for our main concern: the existence and capacity of the integral party itself. The sophisticated (but weak-willed) liberals had allowed the JDP to dance with the West and the secular bourgeoisie (and clothe even its repressive moves in democratic garb); the enthusiastic, energetic, and far more numerous right-wing nationalists, by contrast, are pushing the JDP to resort to force more and more. In the meantime, politics start to revolve around the person of Erdoğan. For instance, the Islamists no longer fight on issues related to theology or policy; they rather quibble over who has betrayed the person and family of Erdoğan. Islamist claims to power are now less based on ideology or interests, and more on one’s relationships with “the family.”

The electoral shuffling of the last two years in Turkey seem to indicate that the JDP has purged and/or lost the liberals (as well as the more liberal of the conservatives), but, in turn, gained the nationalist right to its ranks. Nevertheless, unlike political scientists, we refuse to read too much into these election-time rationales. These voter shifts are significant for us in so far as they are embedded in other processes that signal the formation of new blocs (such as the establishment of the Ottoman Hearths in the Turkish case). We still have to see whether half of the population will keep on following the ruling party as it gets more adventurist. Here, the actions of its opponents matter as much.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

CT: We had two audiences in mind when writing this book. This is first and foremost a scholarly book, which not only announces the emergence of a new school of thought, but also a research agenda based on that school. It therefore defines certain empirical gaps in our knowledge and calls for further research to fill them, thereby combining theoretical work with “normal,” empirical social science.

For instance, the edited volume calls for a study of how and why integral parties emerge. What kind of historical formations and crises make this emergence more likely? Can institutional parties evolve into integral parties? When do we see movement in the reverse direction?

We only have outdated tools to analyze how and why integral parties degenerate into institutional or even neo-patrimonial parties. This gap in our theorization also has practical implications, and this is where our second intended audience comes in.

The most politicized countries of the world today seem to be caught between spells of intense mobilization, followed by abrupt pacification (or worse, popular endorsement of Bonopartisms, as in secular and Salafi consent for Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi). We point out that “integral parties” could stabilize these situations and still uphold citizen participation (but they could also breed fascistization, as we saw in post-2013 Turkey). A better-informed public could fight both Bonopartist and fascist routes more effectively.

For the broader public, therefore, we hope that the book will highlight the urgent need to build twenty-first century Leninisms. When integral parties degenerate, not only scholars, but also the broader educated public, recoils to either “iron law of oligarchy”-type arguments (as in the case of the Bolsheviks) or culturalist positions (as in the case of the Turkish JDP). Bolshevism’s production of Stalinism is taken as an outcome of inevitable bureaucratization (“even when revolutionaries come to power, they will behave like regular politicians,” the conventional wisdom goes) and the JDP’s culmination in Erdoğan-centered neo-patrimonialism is believed to result from (guess what!) Turkish culture. The resulting mood demotivates political participation and (rather than undermining politics as such) paves the way for less transparent modes of domination. In other words, avoiding political articulation would not result in freedom from Bolshevism or post-Bolshevism (of either the left or the right), but in surrender either to the post-Bolshevism of one’s enemies or to the (globally) emergent neo-medieval forms of power. The danger is not simply the further entrenchment of formations such as ISIS and/or of the JDP’s intensifying fascistic neo-patrimonialism, but a race to the bottom among other Islamist organizations to approximate these forms of power as best as they can. We are, therefore, desperately in need of novel political theoretizations that would allow us to conceptualize how integral parties could be sustained and what mechanisms and circumstances lead them to degenerate.

In our book, we have started to provide empirical answers to the programmatic and practical questions posed above. As data and analyses accumulate, we also hope to reach some theoretical generalizations. In short, while our edited volume has theorized the basics of political articulation, much conceptual, empirical, and practical work remains to be done.


[1] Isaac Martin, one of our critics, has suggested that “welding” could be a better metaphor to capture what we are describing, in that the articulated elements also metamorphose in the process of articulation. While Martin correctly points out the limits of the “suturing” metaphor, the problem with “welding” would be the implication that the resulting amalgam is as hard as iron. As our multiple examples of disarticulation and re-articulation demonstrate, this is far from true. Articulation is a flexible process that stands somewhere between welding, suturing, and (as our contributor Barry Eidlin remarked) the putting together of Lego pieces.

Excerpts from Building Blocs: How Parties Organize Society

From “Introduction: Political Articulation: The Structured Creativity of Parties” 

We define political articulation as the process by which parties “suture” together coherent blocs and cleavages from a disparate set of constituencies and individuals, who, even by virtue of sharing circumstances, may not necessarily share the same political identity. Articulation is both a process and a mechanism of bringing together the constituents of the social through specific tools that we call the “means of articulation.” The creative potential of parties is crucial to understanding the political articulation approach, for though parties have many tools at their disposal, these tools have to prompt individuals to “nominate” themselves as members of social groups. Party politics is thus more than just a chess game or, in journalistic parlance, a matter of arithmetic; to succeed at articulation, target constituents must identify, say, as workers and therefore socialist, as Muslims and therefore Islamist, or as ethnic Russians and therefore nationalist. There is nothing automatic about this process of self-identification or about the process by which self-identification builds to bloc or cleavage formation.

Seen from this angle, political activity is not exclusively the drafting of policies and their implementation (factors which the state formation literature focuses on, through concepts such as “state capacity” and “infrastructural power”). Nor is it just about securing votes and public support (that is, legitimate representation, which is the core focus of voting behavior scholars and some cultural analysts of the state). Rather, it is first and foremost the articulation of isolated demands and sectors into one’s camp as well as the disarticulation of certain demands and sectors from the rival camp and their re-articulation into one’s own camp.

The “means of articulation” that parties employ in their projects consist of state and nonstate mechanisms that they uniquely possess to politicize social differences that might not otherwise be politically salient. These include rhetoric; public policy; official state and paramilitary violence; co-optation…; the provision of social services and infrastructure…; constitutional rules…; peace commissions and other civic groups…; and electoral mobilization, including the recruitment (and possibly transformation) of powerful civil society organizations.”

Exercising the war-making prerogative of the state may allow a governing party to build blocs by stoking the fires of nationalism or ethnic pride, for instance, while stigmatizing the opponents of war as weaklings, traitors, or apathetic minorities. Using war as a means of articulation carries risks, however. A war that goes badly, is costly, and/or drags on may invite international sanctions and thereby shrink the aforementioned economic means of articulation that a party may use to maintain its governing bloc. Such a war could also discredit the government’s nationalist rhetoric as impetuous and deleterious to the country’s international reputation.

[Excerpted from Building Blocs: How Parties Organize Society, edited by Cedric de Leon, Manali Desai, and Cihan Tuğal, by permission of the editors. © 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. All rights reserved. By permission of the publisher, Stanford University Press. No other use is permitted without the prior permission of the publisher. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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