Movement of the people

Issue: 146

Leo Zeilig

Colin Barker, Laurence Cox, John Krinsky and Alf Gunvald Nilsen (eds), Marxism and Social Movements (Brill, 2013/Haymarket, 2014) £111/£25.99


Marxism and Social Movements is an incredibly useful and important book. At its theoretical heart it asks two seemingly simple questions: Why are social movements important? And what is the relationship between Marxism and social movements?

In some senses the study of social movements that has taken off since the 1970s and 1980s is paradoxical. It came about, as the introduction to the book explains, as a result of the failure of the Marxist left to organise sufficient resistance to neoliberalism: “It was in this setting that ideas about ‘new social movements’ and ‘postmodernism’ began to gain significant traction in the Western academy” (p26). Marxism was regarded as a rigid, class-based approach that could not provide the necessary insights into new social processes. So to some extent the academic fashion for social movements represented something of a retreat, an expression of the failure of movements of extraordinary vibrancy in the 1960s and 1970s to develop beyond themselves and “grow over” into truly counter-hegemonic projects.

For too long Marxism was dismissed as both Eurocentric and caught in an unyielding materialism, that could not understand the vast array of difference in movements, in which class did not seem to be the motivating factor. In the academy postmodernism saw off Marxism’s notion of “class” as an organising category. Although there are many incredibly valuable studies in the field—including Charles Tilly’s work on 19th century social movements—with the flowering of social movement studies, there has been a serious failure to integrate the role of Marxism as a framework for understanding movements and as a model for a political alternative.

This volume, made up of a range of chapters, some theoretical, with other chapters examining historical and modern social movements, seeks to correct this lacuna: “What no Marxist thinker has seemingly yet succeeded in doing is bringing together the insights gained over the past decades through ongoing dialogue with other trends and schools in a distinctively Marxist branch of analysis of social movements. This volume does not aim as high as that, but it does set out to suggest that such an enterprise would be a valuable one” (p28). Despite the editors’ predicable modesty, the volume makes a powerful case for reorienting the study of social movements towards Marxism.

The chapters at the start of the volume undertake this task with impressive confidence. In an exceptionally clear chapter Colin Barker, who has spent years writing on revolutionary ­movements and applying Marxism to the field of social movement studies, defends the Marxist approach. In much of the scholarship, social movements are perceived as a series of largely unconnected and distinct campaigns, civil society organisations and pressure groups. Barker explains that these “entities” are not social movements, though they may be “part of movements” (p48). Barker argues that social movements are both a unified and differentiated totality. While there are distinct “movements” and different and competing layers within social movements, these continually interact, connect and conflict. Social movements may start out with distinct and limited goals, but be drawn into broader struggles that change societies.

Barker sees Karl Marx and Frederick Engels as having provided a broad concept of social movements. Although they never defined exactly what they meant by “social movement”, they used the concept to describe revolutions, trade unionism, the struggle for suffrage, resistance to imperial occupation and the emergence of alternative and utopian projects and ideas. These processes of revolt and protest could be conceptualised as a single totality, that included the “working classes”, but also “plebs”, the “poor” and others engaged in what they understood as the “social question”. So “social movement” described an entire space of political and social contestation, involving trade unionism, labour politics, movements for national independence and against “localised” forms of oppression. Marx and Engels privileged the politics of the working class as holding the potential to solve the “social question” by challenging capitalist exploitation, but they saw class struggle as only one element of a differentiated social movement.

Barker writes that, “for Marx and Engels, the social movement was a whole with many parts, moving—at variable speed and with differential success—towards a ­condition where it might engage in capitalism’s total overthrow” (p50). Note the “might” here; inherent in the social movement is the possibility of undermining the structures of capitalist exploitation. This is a far cry from the crude caricatures of a deterministic Marxism that echo still in much of the academy.

Marx and Engels were, in this respect, consistent in their support for any group who fought oppression, including in what they regarded as feudal or “backward” societies. Both wrote extensively on the revolt of “indigenous” communities against imperial and national oppression. Their support for the struggles in India is typical. During the Indian Revolt of 1857, Marx praised the “great revolt” and Engels wrote at length on the military tactics that the insurgents might use to defeat the British. This resistance to colonialism was celebrated in the same delighted tone they would deploy in celebrating the Parisian communards. The struggle in India and the emancipation of the English working class, for example, were therefore part of the “social movement in general”. Rather than seeing the social movement as limited to (European) working class political action, Marx and Engels celebrated the huge diversity of resistance to the emerging empire of capital.

In Christian Høgsbjerg’s fascinating chapter on the Trinidadian Marxist C L R James and James’s work on Africa and what he termed the “black international” in the late 1930s, we see the work of a Marxist at the height of his powers. Writing the pamphlet A History of Negro Revolt in 1938 James saw the ceaseless “epoch” of resistance undertaken by those in Africa—a sort of, as Hogsbjerg writes, “path-breaking application of the Marxist theory of permanent revolution” (p321). Rather than relegating these struggles as secondary, or peripheral, James showed that they had the possibility of developing into ­revolutionary movements that could both kick the Europeans out of Africa and play a vital role in the transformation of the world. As James wrote, “It is only from this vantage-ground that we shall be able to appreciate (and prepare for) the still greater role they must of necessity play in the transition from capitalism to socialism” (p335).

If this did not happen, it was not the lack of revolutionary fervour and potential, rather the inability of the struggles in what we call today the Global South, to be matched and joined by movements in the North.

One of the most interesting observations Høgsbjerg makes of James’s pamphlet is the celebration of millenarian religious movements in 1920s and 1930s Africa. Rather than dismissing these as “primitive” or “backward”, James saw them as the most important anti-colonial challenge to European presence on the continent and as containing the seeds of future revolt. For example, James regarded the Watch Tower Movement, which was connected to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and had thousands of adherents on the continent, as a symbol of the revolution to come:

“Such are the ideas moving in the minds of these African copper miners [in Zambia]. They are absurd only on the surface. They represent political realities and express political aspirations far more closely than programmes and policies of parties with millions of members, numerous journals and half a century of history behind them” (p332).

There could be no clearer example of Marx and Engels’s “social movement in general”; that sees in religious movements in 1930s Africa the potential for a revolt against capitalism, not as a minor or subsidiary player but containing the seeds of a global struggle for socialism.

But you also get in the book a keen sense of the importance of agency in the social movement melting pot. In an interesting chapter by Alf Nilsen and Laurence Cox, they speak about social movements from above and below. The ruling class, they remind us, in their efforts to build and defend hegemony and class power organise themselves into “movements”. However, the social forces that exist within social movements from below vary enormously. This clearly demonstrates that social movements are inherently heterogeneous and contradictory, tending to incorporate a number of campaigns or elements. Similarly, social movements contain differentiated potentials. Agency here is key, the ability for movements to develop beyond themselves, for campaigns to transcend, as Nilsen and Cox write, “the boundaries of militant particularisms through translation between local struggles, the construction of collective identities that cut across socio-spatial divides, and the widening of activist perceptions of the limits of the ­possible” (p77).

But excluded from Nilsen and Cox’s chapter and to some extent the book’s theoretical work is the role of organisations in “cutting across” such “socio-spatial divides” in developing counter-hegemonic projects. After all social movements are the fields in which struggle takes place and where political hegemony is constantly contested. Implicit in the study of social movements are two further questions, asked repeatedly in the book: What is the potential for different, more radical projects to emerge? Could their outcome have been different to that which occurred? Unless these questions are asked, little sense of the evolution of social movements, or the import of their actual achievements, can be grasped.

An important area of investigation is therefore the circumstances in which the aims and achievements of particular social movements are restricted to partial reforms by existing states, and where these develop into more radical transformative demands. In what circumstances do such movements evolve beyond the reformist aims of elites and develop the capacity for radical change? An essential, but by no means determining, factor in the capacity of social movements to envisage and develop emancipatory alternatives is the agency and intention of classes operating inside these movements. How do particular social forces within social movements achieve political hegemony? Whether we like it or not, this raises the vital question of revolutionary organisation.

Now that this collection is available in paperback, it will help to equip activists with many of the answers to these questions. With its invaluable case studies from history and the recent accounts of movements “against neoliberalism” the book describes how movements have failed to reach their fullest potential and been defeated. Yet defeat is an important guide. The failure of our movements to stretch beyond their “radical particularisms” or for us to develop the organisations that we need must educate us about how to operate, as Marxists—committed to the overthrow of capitalism—within the “social movement in general”.