Book Review | Marxism and Social Movements
Arts & Culture, Books, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, October 17, 2013 22:51 - 5 Comments
Tahrir Square protesters at the height of the Jan 25 revolution against Hosni Mubarak. (Credits: Tara-Todras Whitehill/ AP)
The current political conjuncture is characterized by a concatenation of popular protests against neoliberalism which have intensified following the deepest crisis of the world economy since the 1930s. In particular, some of the most visible phenomena in recent years have been the mass demonstrations across North Africa and the Middle East, the European movements against austerity, and the worldwide Occupy protests.
While this resurgence of grassroots mobilisation has been inspiring to behold, our understanding of such movements has often been somewhat less illuminating. The facile, not to mention hubristic, equation of British anti-cuts campaigns with the Egyptian Revolution, for example, indicated a misapprehension of the contemporary wave of protest movements and their varied social conditions. Equally, the mainstream media obscured the common threads connecting such struggles by obstinately disavowing the systemic circumstances that generated them: a crisis of global capitalism, rising inequality, and a political system dominated by élites.
Given the dearth of politically judicious and penetrating analyses of contemporary popular mobilisations, Marxism and Social Movements is a timely and refreshing contribution to social movement studies. Though the subject matter examined in each chapter is diverse— spanning, in total, struggles across six continents and over 150 years—the edited volume as a whole presents a compelling case for reviving Marxist analytical frameworks to examine social movements.
Mainstream social movement theory, according to the volume’s editors, has largely expunged “capitalism” and “class” as analytical categories, especially from a Marxist perspective. This followed, in part, from the rise of identity politics and a declining labour movement in the 1980s and 1990s, but was also enacted through the re-drawing of disciplinary boundaries. The outsourcing of the study of strikes to scholars of industrial relations, “everyday resistance” to cultural studies, and revolutions to political science, for example, has compromised the efforts of more critical sociologists to integrate such phenomena into their studies of social movements and contentious politics.
The result of jettisoning Marxist analysis, the editors argue, is a “fragmented theory” that treats social struggles as “discrete and disconnected instances of protest”. Rather than enabling us to see particular struggles in relation to wider social totalities and material realities, mainstream scholarship consigns us to a narrow, a-historical viewpoint that obscures “the bigger picture of global power relations” such as neoliberal globalisation.
If mainstream social movement theory is thus disparaged as myopic, the Marxist tradition is valued precisely for its breadth and depth of analysis, as well as its practical orientation toward social struggles. As “an argument about movements, and an argument within movements”, Marxism simultaneously offers a theorisation of power structures, popular agency, and social transformation in conjunction with related strategic questions.
This volume, then, is unabashedly Marxist in its orientation: the capitalist system is taken to be the central problem facing popular movements and the working class is proposed as the collective agent capable of undoing Capitalism and laying “the foundations of a new cooperative world community.” The editors, however, are at pains to distance themselves from a doctrinaire variant of Marxism—one that is crudely deterministic, economically reductionist, and statist— espousing, instead, a democratic “socialism from below” that accentuates the political agency of a multiplicity of social groups beyond a narrow, producer-focused labour movement. Moreover, they acknowledge that Marxism currently offers a very under-developed theory of social movements, particularly in light of the challenge posed by post-modernists to rethink class and the constitution of social subjects.
The aim of Marxism and Social Movements, though, is not to derive the Marxist Theory of social movements—indeed, no such thing exists—but to bridge the substance of social movement research with the critical potential of Marxist analysis, thereby setting a new agenda for both fields of study.
The book pursues this project in three distinct yet complementary sections. The first part lays the theoretical foundations for a Marxist approach to social movements by presenting core Marxist tenets as a corrective to conventional social movement theory. Gabriel Hetland and Jeff Goodwin forcefully argue for the dynamics of capitalism to be re-introduced to social movement studies, claiming that political economy is pertinent for all movements, including the LGBT movement and other “new social movements” (NSMs) that are not ostensibly motivated by class. In a similar vein, Colin Barker foregrounds class struggle, arguing that social movements should be studied not as discrete entities, but as contextually situated expressions of class struggle against the capitalist system.
John Krinsky further enriches this groundwork by outlining a dialectical approach to social theory, whereby the social world is viewed as a totality composed by various social relationships that are in constant flux. Social movements are thus studied in terms of praxis, with reference to their actual historical or contemporary conditions. Alf Gunvald Nilsen and Laurence Cox also present a theoretical account of social movements in relation to praxis, focusing on the re-negotiation of social formations by subaltern movements from below as well as dominant movements from above.
The second and third parts of the book explore the more concrete manifestations of a Marxist approach to social movements, addressing the configurations and workings of both historical and contemporary cases. The range of popular struggles and thematic issues addressed here is impressive, if a little frenetic. The diversity of perspectives presented, however, invites the reader to appreciate the power of Marxist analysis in studying social movements.
A recurring theme across the chapters is, of course, the centrality of class in grasping the nature of social movements. Laurence Cox, for example, challenges mainstream understandings of social movements by reviving the broader nineteenth-century notion of the “social movement” as the self-organisation of the mass of society, which encompassed the poorer classes. While Cox focuses on the English and Irish working classes, Marc Blecher explores working-class formation in China since the onset of industrialisation in the early twentieth century. For Blecher, the Chinese proletariat flourished through local community and workplace struggles, but was unable to transcend this local dimension to gain hegemony within the national revolutionary movement.
More contemporary processes of class formation are analysed in David McNally’s chapter, which addresses recent mass struggles in Egypt, Tunisia, Oaxaca (Mexico), and Cochabamba (Bolivia). These movements, for McNally, are decisively shaped by class dynamics, which he understands—citing E.P. Thompson—as “the friction of interests” between classes. Rather than an abstract sociological category, class is conceived as a dynamic and concrete social formation that is primarily defined by its relation to capital. From this perspective, McNally deftly weaves together the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, which were driven by radical labour unions, and those in Oaxaca and Cochabamba, where indigenous and (rural and urban) working-class resistance converged.
While the Left often presumes the progressive nature of grassroots social movements, Neil Davidson’s sobering analysis underscores the reactionary direction that popular mobilisation can, and does, take. Consider, for example, the upsurge of the Tea Party in America and working-class support for right-wing populism in Britain. Davidson’s important contribution reminds us of the indeterminacy of social movements and the need for socialists to influence working-class movements.
Though Marxism and Social Movements foregrounds class analysis, the contributors are by no means mechanistic in their understanding of class, often highlighting its variegated and intersectional nature. Paul Blackledge thus breaks with crude materialist determinism to emphasise the political agency of various socio-cultural identities. At the same time, he argues—against the linguistic idealism of post-modernists—that “new” social movements, like the “old”, share common material interests as part of a broader struggle against capitalist alienation.
Other contributors are likewise sensitive to the complex composition and operation of social movements. Ralph Darlington discusses the relation between bureaucracies and the rank-and-file within trade unions, arguing, contraRobert Michels, that bureaucratisation is not an inescapable “iron law”, but a contingent process amenable to countervailing democratic tendencies. Similarly, Chik Collins explores the disjunctures between poor communities and their own organisations, highlighting the co-optation of local communities in Scotland by governmental “regeneration partnerships”.
This focus on organisational matters is also evident in the chapters by Elizabeth Humphrys and Heike Schaumberg. Reflecting on the shortcomings of the Australian Global Justice Movement, Humphrys argues for the strategic importance of “organic intellectuals” that emerge from particular movements but play a leading role in connecting them to a wider struggle for hegemony.
Schaumberg, by contrast, emphasises alternative forms of working-class self-organisation that emerged in the 2001 uprising during the Argentinian debt crisis. Largely autonomous from the political system and parties, the Argentine movements were directly democratic in character. Schaumberg, though, astutely notes the practical limitations of such “horizontality”, arguing that clearly vertical leadership relations re-surfaced in the movements, which also came to recognise the importance of the state for revolution.
Alongside these discussions of class formation and movement organisation, Marxism and Social Movements also features a welcome set of essays that more directly address the distinctive features of movements in the “global South”, where societies have been profoundly shaped by colonialism and its enduring legacy.
In his discussion of the Indian Revolt of 1857, Hira Singh argues for the primacy of class analysis—encompassing rather than excluding caste—in explaining the rebellion. While acknowledging a multiplicity of historical causes, Singh persuasively locates the principal dynamic in landlords’ resistance against the East India Company’s encroachment on their economic-political power and cultural privilege, but also stresses peasant-landlord alliances based on cultural adherence to the caste system against a colonial power. In a complementary fashion, Christian Høgsbjerg’s chapter creatively employs C.L.R. James’s influential History of Negro Revolt to explore the intersectional relationship between class and racial hierarchies.
With respect to contemporary resistance in the global South against neoliberal globalisation, Alf Gunvald Nilsen discusses the mobilisation of Adivasi and peasant communities in opposition to the dispossession of lands caused by the Narmada Valley dam projects. Against state-centric and anti-institutionalist writers, Nilsen argues that the post-colonial state presents both opportunities and structural constraints for subaltern movements. These issues are taken up in Chris Hesketh’s comparative study of the Zapatista movement and the APPO (Popular Assembly of the People’s of Oaxaca), in which he explores their “spatial” dimension. Whereas capital accumulation entails the conquest of space, poor and indigenous community struggles to defend their lands create alternative, autonomous “spaces of resistance” against capital. Focusing on South Africa’s highly militant urban social movements, Patrick Bond, Ashwin Desai, and Trevor Ngwane accentuate their tendencies towards localism, the uneven contours of South African protest, and the ensuing risks of co-optation by a neoliberal government.
Collectively, these chapters offer incisive and thought-provoking studies and interpretations of numerous social movements. This volume, though, is not without its limitations, the transnational dimension of social movements being particularly under-developed. A discussion of a twenty-first century internationalism, including its prospects and pitfalls, is notably lacking, with only a few passing comments on the World Social Forum scattered in various chapters.
More substantively, the uneven nature of resistance movements in core and peripheral regions of the global capitalist system receives scant attention. Given that many contemporary European social movements are organised around the defence of the welfare state—largely erected on the proceeds of conquest and empire in the first place—the hierarchical stratification of global capitalism is a crucial discussion point for Marxist scholars of social movements.
No single volume, of course, can adequately address such an expansive raft of themes, and such omissions do not detract from what is an otherwise excellent collection of essays that should be of interest to both activists and researchers. At a time when capitalism is in crisis and popular resistance to neoliberalism is resurgent, Marxism and Social Movements aptly lays the basis for a renaissance of Marxist analysis — above all, a critical, unapologetically materialist, and practically-oriented approach to social movements.
Marxism and Social Movements
Colin Barker, Laurence Cox, John Krinsky, and Alf Gunvald Nilsen (eds.)
473 pp – $179
Leiden: Brill, 2013
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