New Review of “Marxism and Social Movements”

Mark Bergfeld has penned an insightful review of “Marxism and Social Movements” (Brill, 2013) in the latest issue of Oxford Left Review. The text is reproduced below, courtesty of the author. 

Colin Barker et al – Marxism and Social Movements

 

47768There has been much talk of the return of Marx since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Yet many radicals argue that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. Both are true. Millions of people have watched David Harvey’s Capital lectures on youtube in the wake of financial meltdown, yet days lost to industrial action remains at an all-time low across North America and the UK. The Financial Times positively dissects Marx’s ideas in their weekend edition, yet today’s radical movements such as Climate Camp, Slutwalk, or Occupy treat Marx with suspicion or even contempt.

 

These contradictory phenomena make Barker et al.’s Marxism and Social Movements all the more important. The essays  in this collection strive toward developing the tools necessary to understand today’s social movements, the marginality of Marxism within them and, at last, develop a Marxist framework for social movement research and practice. Especially the latter is characterised by the absence and omission of Marxism. Commonly accepted theoretical frameworks such as ‘Resource Mobilization Theory’ (RMT) or ‘New Social Movements’ (NSM) might be indebted to Marxism yet they have thrown the baby out with the bathwater all together. In their quest to rationalise social movements they have turned to unlikely bedfellows such as Milton Friedman or conclusions which treat all social movements as totally distinct from one another. There are however prominent social movement researchers such as Charles Tilly, Doug McAdam, and Sidney Tarrow. All of these stand in dialogue with Marxism yet emanate from outside of it. This renders Barker et al’s book all the more important even if one does not necessarily label oneself a Marxist.

 

In roughly 400 pages the authors outline Marxism’s contribution to social movement research and practice. These consist in its theory of organisation of power. Without an analysis of the powers which social movements contest social movement research is unncessarily limited according to the authors. Concepts such as Gramsci’s concept of hegemony can help social movement researchers and activists in their everyday quest how ruling classes mobilise and develop strategies against the oppressed. Secondly, the authors highlight that Marxism can provide an adequate theory of popular agency. Both mainstream approaches such as RMT and NSM and anti-capitalist approaches such as Negri and Hardt’s concept of “the multitude” might be able to describe processes within social movements yet they cannot generate a philosophy of praxis which understands different actors within social movements as mediating different class interests. Finally, they conceptualise Marxism as a theory of strategic transformation – in other words, revolution. This does not counterpose reforms to revolution but rather regards reforms as a successive approximation to an ultimate goal.

In brief, Marxism’s contribution to social movements can be summed up best by the following words provided in the introduction: “a theory of and for movements [own emphasis]” (15).

 

Rather than outlining arguments from within Marxism, the author of this essay takes the right to discuss the book on the terms which he has encountered in his participation in social movements over the last decade. From the alter-globalisation movement – or, anti-capitalist movement – at the beginning of the 21st Century, the anti-war movement after 9/11, the climate protests around the COP-15 in Copenhagen, the recent student revolt in the UK to Occupy the author identifies that Marxism has remained a marginal force. Instead the author has encountered the dominance of ideas and practices mostly associated with anti-authoritarianism or ‘horizontalism’: consensus decision-making and the refutation of formal leadership and organisation. It is a testimony to Marx’s method and, primarily, the authors of this book that it connects to some of the lived experiences the author has had inside social movements. The fact that it takes up contemporary debates such as leadership in social movements, organisation, the production of space, and learning processes shows the limitlessness of this method and that Marxism has a role to play within academic social movement research and the movements themselves. There is however one shortcoming: the lack of any discussion on the digital dimension within social movements today.

 

Beyond binaries in social movements 

 

The question of leadership is a continuous sticking point within social movements. Most people coming into social movements associate leadership with Stalin’s moustache, white men in dark committee rooms and the ten commandments coming from Moses, or a central committee, from the mountain top. Colin Barker sets out a very different notion of leadership within social movements. The theoretical influences range from Vygotsky, Freire to Bakhtin. Barker argues that leadership is based on two-way communication. Due to capitalist social relations there will be leaders. Within social movements leadership is based on the ability to convey the aims, articulate demands and communicate with the supporters and activists of the social movement. In turn, social movements grant leaders legitimacy through continuous dialogue. Barker first advanced the ideas of “dialogical leadership” in his book called Leadership and Social Movements. The book might have been written in 2001 but the idea is far from out-dated. Most recently Paolo Gerbaudo appraised it in his book Tweets and The Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism (Pluto, 2012).

 

This critical realist approach acknowledges the fact that there will be leaders – formal or informal – within social movements. It implies a distinction between those who call themselves ‘leaders’ and those who are – whether elected or not. In doing so it is able to transcend the vanguard-leaderlessness binary which is encountered in movements and political activities so frequently. The book would have done well to analyse the various concepts of leadership which have emerged from the last round of struggle. Whether it is the leaderless discourses of Mason, Castells and Juris or the Occupy Research’s notion of “leaderfull” or the concept of distributed leadership which sees leadership vested in collectives and informal groups rather than individuals. In any case, Collins’s article as well as Barker’s theses help us to

to understand the complex relationship between protest organisers, movement- activists and the social movements they participate in. The key lesson is: actions and events do not rise out of nowhere—they involve some degree of planning, co-ordination and coalition building, paying attention to pre-existing social ties, mobilising structures and social networks.

 

The network-organisation dichotomy is another hotly debated issue both within movements and academia. Organisationl questions are as old as the workers’ movement itself. From Marx’s Manifesto for the Communist Party, Lenin’s What is to be Done?, to Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike - all of them deal with organisational questions in one way or another. Today’s dominant organisational practices differ substantially from what Lenin prescribed for Russian Social Democracy in 1903. Today’s popular writers profess “horizontalism” (Sitrin 2006), “demandlessness” (Graeber 2009), and consensus decision-making (Graeber 2013) In their scheme, networks are the extended conclusion to the spontaneous logic of social life. Organisations, on the other hand, are imposed structures which reproduce hierarchies and capitalist social relations. 

 

On the contrary, Barker argues the following: Firstly, organisations are distinct from social movements. Secondly, social movements are always networked. As different social forces organise within movements, they will seek to express themselves in different way. What does this mean for the different nodes inside the network? Can they ever be equal? Barker writes: “The ‘class struggle’ occurs not only between movements and their antagonists, but also within them: their ideas, forms of organisation and repertoires of contention are all within their opponents’ ‘strategic sights’.” (48) In other words, different ideas exist side by side and compete against one another within social movements. It is not a question whether we, as individual activists, prefer ‘horizontal’ organisation over ‘vertical’ organisation but rather whether we are able to adapt our forms of organisation to match those of the movement’s opponents.

 

Testing the limits

 

Given the space of this review essay the author must limit the discussion to a limited amount of contributions within the collection. One of the essays which connects to some of the discussions frequently encountered social movements is Chris Hesketh’s one on the EZLN and the struggles of the indigenous peoples in Chiapas, Mexico. In his essay Hesketh draws upon one of the most influential living Marxists David Harvey to analyse the aforementioned social movement. According to Hesketh, Harvey has sought to understand “how social movements have sought to contest and remake space in a radically different image” (209). Many of his ideas, Harvey has drawn from French philsopher and urban theorist Henri Lefevbre. For Lefevbre – writing in the 1960s/1970s – the labour-capital antagonism had been supplanted by a new ‘urban’ antagonism. This created the basis for new subjectivities as well new possibilities for the resistance to capital. In his attempt to create a “unitary theory of space” he updated and expanded Marx’s notion of reproduction.

 

In his analysis of the EZLN, Hesketh argues that space and the antagonisms it creates must lie at the heart of a Marxist theory of social movements. Despite the fact that the struggle of the EZLN lay in the 1990s, it continues to inspire and inform activists and theorists to-date. Hesketh’s Marxist account successfully demonstrates the potentialities and the limitlessness of Marx’s method to understand contemporary social movements. With the reemergence of occupations of ‘spaces’ from Gezi Park to the Oakland Commune Lefevbre’s and Harvey’s insights enrich our understanding of the varied forms of contention to capitalism. In this collection Hesketh shows how a Marxist theory of social movements can make use of these. This is particularly prescient given that these struggles are far more frequent and of greater impact inside of activist-circles than recent workers’ factory occupations at the point of production.    

 

The two contributions by Irish social movement researcher Laurence Cox provide us with further food for thought. In

In the past, he and his collaborator Alf Gunvald Nilsen have argued that social movement theories often develop in separation from the ‘lay theories’ which activists develop in their day-to-day practice. For both, Marxism constitutes what Gramsci calls the Philosophy of Praxis. In his contribution Thinking the Social Movement, Cox writes “these movements are not only objects of theory: they are also creators of theory. […].Social movement studies, with its scholastic isolation of ‘theorists’ for study, has little place for this kind of perspective, and – at best – grants movements the right to propose new matter for scholarly consideration.” (145) In other words, social movements constitute learning processes and produce knowledge for individuals and groups of people in their mediation with the world – regardless of whether they attain their objective or a change in policy. “movements: they are not simply the reproduction of unreflected activity, but creative processes which – in order to mobilise the unmobilised and change the world – have to keep on reaching beyond themselves. They are constantly in debate over ‘what should we do?’, contesting given assumptions as to how the world is. They continually generate ‘how-to-do-it’ theory, whether in cultural traditions, informal apprenticeship and ‘mentoring’ situations, or formal training programmes and manuals” (145) Thus social movements create a different kind of knowledge. It is a process of exploration, of reaching and transcending limits imposed by capitalism. While schools and universities reproduce the ideas of the ruling classes, social movements create democratic spaces of learning in which actors are co-producers of knowledge. The advent of blogs, twitter, photo and video has a transformative effect on social movements as it lowers the barriers of entry. The sheer volume of information, analysis and photos, for example, collected on the Occupy Wall Street protests would have been unimaginable just ten years ago. Yet this dimension of activism and its effect on social movements is not unforunately  not explored anywhere throughout the book.

 

While one may disagree with Manuel Castells he certainly has shaped the way many social movement researchers conceive the relation between political action and communication technologies. Some of his majestic claims such as “the networked social movements of the digital age represent a new species of social movement” (2012: 5) have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless he exerts influence over activists’ social movement practice and the way they make sense of the world. In the book’s introduction Barker et al write “the pity, again, is that this practical commitment to popular movements is not matched by any theory of movements; instead, books like those by Holloway and by Hardt and Negri celebrate popular insurgency while disavowing any constructive suggestions as to what such movements should do.” (20) The same could be said for Castells.

 

However, since the rise of the alter-globalisation movement there are debates within academic and activist circles about the extent to which social media and new communication technologies mediate new forms of political action, organisation and organising and inside social movements. Marxism has to come to terms with these debates just as Barker successfully displays in his discussion on leadership and organisation in social movements. The professed digitally-mediated democratisation of activist and protest culture calls for such an examination. Marxists such as Aouragh, Alexander, El-Hamalawy, Fuchs and the author of this review himself have made a number of contributions which attempt to develop such as Marxist method as social media does play an increased organisational role for individual activists and social movements themselves. Unfortunately there is no to little cross-fertilization between those researching media practices in social movements and those authors within the collection.

 

Final remarks

 

None of this should however distract us from the authors’ unrelentless commmitment to popular emancipation from below and their insistence on bringing capitalism back into social movement studies after the cultural turn in academia. This collection will hopefully inspire those Marxists who have come through the last wave of global struggle. The current price tag attached is hefty. But the paperback version by Haymarket books is not too far off. Those with library access should however make sure to order it through their insitution. 

 

Finally, if I were to name one grandstanding achievement of the book it is Colin Barker’s essay Class Struggle and Social Movements. Here, Barker argues that movements are not opposed to class struggle but are its “mediated expression” (47). In doing so he has achieved the impossible. He unites vulgar Marxists and mainstream social movement researchers in disagreement against him. Great job!

 

 

 

 

 

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