The will of the people

By ‘will of the people’ I mean a deliberate, emancipatory and inclusive process of collective self-determination. Like any kind of will, its exercise is voluntary and autonomous, a matter of practical freedom; like any form of collective action, it involves assembly and organization. Recent examples of the sort of popular will that I have in mind include the determination, assembled by South Africa’s United Democratic Front, to overthrow an apartheid based on culture and race, or the mobilization of Haiti’s Lavalas to confront an apartheid based on privilege and class. Conditioned by the specific strategic constraints that structure a particular situation, such mobilizations test the truth expressed in the old cliche, ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’. Or, to adapt Antonio Machado’s less prosaic phrase, taken up as a motto by Paulo Freire, they assume that ‘there is no way, we make the way by walking it.’1

To say that we make the way by walking it is to resist the power of the historical, cultural or socio­economic terrain to determine our way. It is to insist that in an emancipatory political sequence what is ‘determinant in the first instance’ is the will of the people to prescribe, through the terrain that confronts them, the course of their own history. It is to privilege, over the complexity of the terrain and the forms of knowledge and authority that govern behaviour ‘adapted’ to it, the purposeful will of the people to take and retain their place as the ‘authors and actors of their own drama’.2

To say that we make our way by walking it is not to pretend, however, that we invent the ground we traverse. It is not to suppose that a will creates itself and the conditions of its exercise abruptly or ex nihilo. It is not to assume that the ‘real movement which abolishes the existing state of things’ proceeds through empty or indeterminate space. It is not to disregard the obstacles or opportunities that characterize a particular terrain, or to deny their ability to influence the forging of a way. Instead it is to remember, after Sartre, that obstacles appear as such in the light of a project to climb past them. It is to remember, after Marx, that we make our own history, without choosing the conditions of its making. It is to conceive of terrain and way through a dialectic which, connecting both objective and subjective forms of determination, is oriented by the primacy of the latter.

Affirmation of such relational primacy informs what might be called a ‘dialectical voluntarism’. A dialectical voluntarist assumes that collective self-determination – more than an assessment of what seems feasible or appropriate – is the animating principle of political action. Dialectical voluntarists have confidence in the will of the people to the degree that they think each term through the other: ‘will’ in terms of assembly, deliberation and determination, and ‘people’ in terms of an exercise of collective volition.



  1. Antonio Machado, ‘Proverbios y Cantares – XXIX’, 1912, in Selected Poems of Antonio Machado, trans. Betty Jean Craige, Louisiana State University Press,
    Baton Rouge, 1978.
  2. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1966, p. 109; cf. Peter Hallward, ‘What’s the Point: First Notes Towards a Philosophy of Determination’, in Rachel Moffat and Eugene de Klerk, eds, Material Worlds, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Cambridge, 2007, pp. 148–58.

⤓ Click here to download the PDF of this item