(2017) A Marxist Approach to Social Movements?

Sunday 27 August 2017, by Miguel Angel Martinez

All the versions of this article: [English]

A Marxist Approach to Social Movements?


When I started reading and writing about social movements, my main motivation was to understand my own engagement in activism at that time. In addition, I also wished to figure out how to use sociological knowledge from within in order to guide strategies, campaigns and public communication. Some essential scholar books from the 1990s, the celebrated article by Claus Offe, Touraine’s ambitious writings on the topic, Castells’ works on urban movements, a fascinating seminar led by Chris Rootes and Dieter Rutch I attended at the University of Kent (and the readings they recommended), all kinds of political literature from collectivist anarchism and autonomist Marxism I came across with, and some more specific guidance given by my supervisors (Tomás R. Villasante but also Chris Pickvance during the short period I spent in Kent), were incredibly helpful to make sense about the field. The secrets of coordinated collective action with a capacity to threaten the established statu quo were, without doubt, some of the key drivers of my studies of sociology and political science. By then, I focused on aspects I found quite neglected by the prevailing analytical approaches –participatory action-or-activist research and the use of sociological knowledge within the movements, the issue of activists’ transversal politicisation (from their anti-systemic dissent to changing their everyday life) and their contextual-historical features. My bias, as expected, was to pay more attention to progressive, leftist and autonomous-self-managed movements because I knew them better first-hand. With a critical background in social sciences and far from willing to supply a naïve justification of the movements I studied, I thought –and still think- that my aim was also to highlight movements´ contradictions, internal conflicts and splits, and their failures –while also regarding both their actual achievements and their potential development.

On those years Marxist perspectives were not precisely on the rise. On the contrary, in parallel to the decline of the former state-socialist countries and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Marxist-inspired social sciences lost a lot of their appeal. I was still struggling with the issues of class, left-libertarian “new social movements” and the context of capitalism that many scholars from the “political process” (or, later on, “contentious politics”) approach did not consider at the core of their analyses, as if, portraying a caricature, movements just aspired to grow up and turn themselves into more mature lobbies and political parties ready to take office. But I was not fully convinced by the “collective identity”, constructivist and “framing” approaches either. Many of these turned their backs off to some key insights of Marxism, which often made movements look like, if we drew another caricature, a sort of machines that engender cultural creativity and social networks where to have fun, make friends and use utopian claims to wash our bad remorse for being privileged middle-class folks. On their flank, Marxist intellectuals did not develop many sophisticated frameworks to deal with phenomena (for instance, feminist, environmental, peace, and urban struggles, to name a few) quite different from the traditional labour movement they intended to resuscitate once and again. Therefore, I guess that my theoretical dissatisfactions were just channelled via the invention of my own eclectic view on movements, where Marxism neither provided my preferential nor the most advanced or consistent analysis. Fortunately, some of the most inspiring and joyful publications about movements -Interface journal, for example, and more recently, ROAR- shared similar reflections and debates over the years, so I could mirror my interrogations there.

However, I experienced a major reconciliation with Marxism when I was teaching politics in Hong Kong. Previous professors of the subjects I was assigned to had totally omitted any reference to Marxism in particular and to critical approaches in general. I introduced them back into the syllabi and tested them with the local cases of mobilisation –urban movements, in particular, but, especially, the Umbrella Movement that occupied the streets over three months in 2014 and challenged the limited democratic rights enjoyed in this Chinese SAR (Special Administrative Region). (It is also worth mentioning that, some time ago, I had embraced the 15M movement in Spain from 2011 onwards, which, to me, represented a crucial example of anti-austerity mobilisation.) Many of my students read enthusiastically my suggestions from Piven and Cloward, Jessop and the recent books titled “Marxism and Social Movements” (2013, edited by Colin Barker, Laurence Cox, John Krinsky and Alf Gunvald Nilsen; published by Brill) and “We make our own history. Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism” (2014, by Cox and Gunvald; published by Pluto). Despite the students’ harsh criticisms to the Marxist-Communist doctrine supposedly advocated by the Chinese government that most rejected as a whole package, many were very eager to explore Marxist insights in order to challenge the dominant narrative that authorities and media were interested in spreading out. Not by coincidence, the Chinese regime has been the new engine of global capitalism since their economic reforms by the late 1970s and Hong Kong, in particular, has been a fundamental financial hub and haven that fuelled part of that transformation, both as an authoritarian-colonial regime under the British rule until 1997 and as a postcolonial-semi-democratic regime since then. My students at a non-top university experienced themselves the huge wealth gap of such a society and the neoliberal-for-profit strong inclination of the HKSAR government (and universities alike), so any true socialist and egalitarian view was timely convenient for them as a way to question their immediate economic and political environment. While writing about the Umbrella Movement I was also enthused over this literature.

Therefore, I would like to recall now, in particular, some of the brilliant arguments contended by Colin Barker (one of the promoters of a great conference focused on social movements for more than twenty years). He focuses on ´class struggle´ as the main avenue to bridge Marxism and social movements’ analysis. In addition to the conflict between labour and capital, Barker also stresses the relational and cultural contents of a class approach, drawing upon E.P.Thompson:

‘Class is a social and cultural formation (often finding institutional expression) which cannot be defined abstractly, or in isolation, but only in terms of relationship with other classes; and, ultimately, the definition can only be made in the medium of time – that is, action and reaction, change and conflict.’ ‘Class struggle’ is inherently a process involving (at least) two sides. One side involves multifarious forms of resistance to exploitation and oppression; the other includes the equally varied means by which ruling groups work to maintain their positions and to contain such resistance.

I agree with the need to examine social class dimensions in collective action, the dialectics of domination and resistance in which movements are engaged, and their actual and potential connection to all workers’ conditions of life and struggles. However, other social dynamics and structures are often more relevant within movements than the class features –gender and race, to name the most obvious ones, but also urban and housing conditions, cycles of general protest, struggles about liberal (civil and human) rights, post-colonial periods, etc. Barker acknowledges these and other not less significant issues (cultural domination by the ruling class’ ideas, workers’ adhesion to calls for nationalist and imperialist wars, combination of progressive and regressive features in the same struggle, etc.) and claims that Marx himself disclosed contradictions, complexities and different layers of generalisation in order to fully understand the movements’ social agency (nowadays, this approach would resemble familiarity with the epistemology of critical realism):

Human beings actively create their own history, though not under conditions of their own choosing. On one hand, they necessarily enter into social relations that are the product of previous activity and independent of their will. Such social relations possess their own ‘emergent properties’ independent of the individuals who compose them: for instance, divisions of labour, rules, patterns of rights and responsibilities. They co-exist at a whole number of levels, all the way from epochal ‘modes of production’ to the immediate and local relations of family, neighbourhood, or workplace. On the other hand, the people who, as active, reflective beings, compose these various systems of activity also actively remake them as they ‘live’ them. They regularly run up against features of these systems that impede them in the pursuit of their (self-developing) needs and goals. As they seek to resolve these engendered problems, they act in ways that are liable to disrupt existing patterns, generating conflicts that potentially reconfigure both their social relations and themselves as actors. Such a general conception underlies a Marxist approach to social movements. Only at a level more immediate than that explored in Marx’s Capital can we locate definite people, speaking in particular tongues and with their own histories and traditions, struggling to understand and achieve control of their material and social conditions. It is at this more immediate level, of more ‘concrete’ sociocultural formations, that ‘social movements’ emerge, as specific forms of social and political activity. Movements are mediated expressions of class struggle.

I am still not satisfied with the final corollary of the quotation. It still denies any autonomous entity at the core of processes where social movements are at play. Class struggles can mediate social movements as well as the other way around. And there certainly are many other remarkable mediations to take into account. As Barker notes, even the analysis of labour and genuine anti-capitalist movements should be linked to other forms of oppression and exploitation within capitalism (what constitutes the core idea of the intersectional approach to social structures):

The centrality of ‘class struggle’ does not make ‘economic’ questions somehow ‘more important’. Struggles against oppression – whether based on nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, skill, or sexuality – are not distinct from or opposed to class struggle, but are mutually interdependent parts of the social movement against capitalism as a totality.”

Or, as he states somewhere else, “pure workerism was a receipt for defeat”. Barker also points to a very often ignored observation: movements oppose their foes, but movements are continuously struggle with their friends too. The “inner life” of movements is thus made up of an intense and necessary internal political life, where deliberations, splits and strategies take place. Finally, what is even important to remind in places as disparate as China or the United States is that a Marxist approach does not imply any amnesty for the barbaric policies implemented by authoritarian regimes in the name of communism:

From the early 1920s, Marxist practical and theoretical development was stunted and diminished. The immensely influential Russian Revolution of 1917 was isolated and rapidly ‘degenerated’. Stalin, though claiming a Marxist heritage, in practice perverted and reversed the entire tradition. ‘Communism’ in Russia came to mean the opposite of everything Marx had stood for: subordination of labour to accumulation; extensive forced labour; dispossession of the peasantry; national oppression; worship of the state; oppression of women, gays and Jews; imperialist expansion into Eastern Europe; and the brutal silencing of dissent. Outside Russia, Communist Parties in advanced capitalism first reverted to an ultra-left lunacy (its worst manifestation being the division of the German workers’ movement in the face of Hitler), and then proceeded to develop a second wave of organised reformism, containing militant insurgencies. In ‘Third World’ countries, they promoted state-led industrialisation.


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