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Marxism, social movements and thinking for praxis

by Laurence Cox on October 26, 2018
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This post draws on arguments developed in Why Social Movements Matter, available from the publishers at a 30% discount using the code “WSMM18”.

The social context of Marxist intellectual production

Something is not quite working in much Marxist thought today, particularly though not only in the English-speaking world. It is only a slight caricature to say that its characteristic forms – for example, the ponderous analysis and critique of structure married to a brief flourish celebrating this or that struggle – are about as effective in demolishing capitalism as commentaries on Thomas Aquinas are in resolving the Catholic Church’s crises around abuse and fundamentalism. The main emphasis, in both forms of writing, is on continuing a conversation among insiders, demonstrating one’s membership and mastery of the required cultural capital, furthering specific internal goals, and gesturing towards what might be done.

This analogy is not an exact one. Notably, while the Catholic church still has its organic intellectuals, the material conditions within which today’s Anglophone Marxists write are usually academic ones, or structured by the logics of online publishing, social media and radical celebrity. Only a small proportion make a living working for movement organisations, whether parties, unions, periodicals or otherwise. This awkward situation (which I share), shapes what is said, how and for whom.

No Marxist should be surprised that we hold illusions around this: for example, the nostalgia implicit or explicit in much English-speaking Marxism for a past that never was, centred around a large and radical left party of a kind much more familiar in history (far less frequently the present) from continental Europe or the post-colonial world. Positioning ourselves in relation to this mythical origin, of course, serves to ratify a certain illusion about the meaning of our writing, which would in many cases make much more sense politically if we were lucky enough to be the organic intellectuals of such organisations.

The fact that (with few and honourable exceptions) we are not in this situation shapes the character and purpose of our writing, in ways that Marxism again is well placed to explain. It can be no surprise that the dimension of praxis, the rigorous and grounded “what should we do?”, takes second place to the contemplative analysis of structure when intellectual work is not developed from a direct relationship to collective agency.

The gentrification of Marxism?

In A Proletarian Science Stuart Macintyre documented the way in which, in the early CPGB, working-class activists who had read Marx but related him to their own experience were progressively sidelined by head office (and, ultimately, Moscow) in favour of university-educated radicals who were, presumably, easier to control given their dependent situation. In the postwar period, and particularly after 1968, this flow reversed and Marxists (along with feminists and ecologists, queer and black activists, and so on) entered the academy, subjecting themselves to its requirements. Initially and for many this represented a day job compatible with activism; yet it has a powerful logic of its own.

An important part of this logic is the elective affinities it sets up with certain elements of radical thought as against others. Historically, our movements have often distinguished between agitating, educating and organising. The university, of course, has a strong affinity with educating; indeed the social sciences and humanities would be intellectually dead on their feet were it not for the critiques of structure developed in the various struggles mentioned above. The analysis of patriarchy or neoliberalism, the work of a Gramsci or a Foucault, have played very important scholarly roles – but selectively.

It is not that a certain degree of agitating, raising outrage, is excluded from the university – although the implicit message is usually that writing an essay or thesis is an adequate response to the injustices and oppressions being discussed. But certainly there is little space in most cases for wider organising, or even substantive discussion of agency – for the very good reason that teachers and students, writers and citers, do not meet as part of movements or organisations. Praxis-oriented thought thus becomes difficult, since their practical relationships are structured by the university rather than by collective struggle. As Colin Barker and I have shown, this is even true for the study of collective action, which itself becomes an object of contemplation.

I do not want for a minute to say that it is impossible to do good work, even good praxis-relevant work, under these circumstances. That would make no sense in terms of writing this, or publishing it on PPE. But the logic of our relationships of intellectual production mean that it is a constant effort to retain real organic connections to popular struggles and movements, to become aware of these selective pressures within academia, on social media and so on, and to find forms that enable continued work going beyond simple institutional reproduction. It is far easier to engage in routine academic work, use Marxism (or whatever) as a “theoretical perspective”, and convince yourself that what you are doing constitutes praxis.

As the second, third and fourth generations discover radical thought and are socialised into it within academic settings, it is even easier and more common never to know that “praxis” means something more than a theoretically-sophisticated version of shouting at the telly; that it involves the construction and reconstruction of social relationships in ways that enable deep-seated structural change in the wider society. After all, success in the university depends among other things on learning how to deploy high-status words in approved ways, so that radicals’ apparent success in introducing a particular vocabulary to the academy is usually the first stage in its gentrification, followed by its being adopted by the upwardly mobile. In the process, “Marxism” easily becomes reduced to rehearsing a particular form of theoretical analysis in a way that reduces it to simply another academic theory among others, fundamentally oriented to the analysis of the world as it is but with a harmless normative garnish.

In this world, the top-down perspective characteristic of traditional intellectuals quite naturally comes to dominate, not least their self-representation as holding an overview of society as a whole. In Why Social Movements Matter, I discuss the experience of accidentally encountering Ireland’s large working-class community activism, a movement grounded in large-scale participation and often direct action in pursuit of basic needs – and entirely absent not only from academic discussion of Irish movements but also from Marxists’ discussion of class struggle. This general situation has not fundamentally changed since: the world is left to be discovered in the pages of approved scholarship, or (more and more) by responding to whatever makes the headlines in the mainstream media, with none of the critical analysis that is second nature to good activists but not, apparently, to researchers.

What can we do?

Is an alternative possible, in an age when new forms of elite agency seek to respond to the crisis of neoliberal hegemony with racist and authoritarian turns and where surprising forms of popular agency – dramatic indigenous struggles against the fossil fuel and mining industries, Momentum within the British Labour Party, revolution in Rojava, mediated challenges to predatory patriarchy, street challenges to racist and oppressive policing – are making the running in many countries?

I want to start by revisiting practice-oriented thinking. Fundamentally, it entails a shift in our intellectual centre of gravity from propositional thought – description, analysis, explanation – in which we are told how the world is, and why it is that way, simply as a statement to which we are invited to assent. If instead we place human practice in the centre, we will return to social action, usually collective, whether exercised through routines and institutions or through movements – understood as something which involves experience, interpretation, contestation and struggle rather than “simply happening” in a thing-like way which we could deduce from first principles.

For example, Marx’s class analysis was not intended simply to produce yet another account of the structure of society to add to those already current in his time – indeed, when he sat down to produce such an account he gave up. Rather, the question was to ask which social groups might have an interest in radical social change – and have the ideological and organisational capacity to bring it about; was not a purely moral analysis of who suffers most. The point, as anyone who has ever knocked on doors, stuck up posters or thought about distributing periodicals can appreciate, is to ask who we should be trying to connect with.

This was not an abstract question, but – as Marx’s historical and political writings show – deeply bound up with his interpretation of the political traditions and organising practice of different groups, how they collude with power and where breaks might be possible. Witness his conclusion, for example, that the English working class could not bring about a revolution without a break with colonialism in Ireland: a position which anticipates Gramsci’s critique of the Northern Italian working class’s anti-Southern racism and loyalty to bourgeois schemes of “progress”.

When we come to think in this way, about constructing a new kind of relationship between “their” action and “our” action, we are moving towards something that can usefully be described as praxis: concretely examining the agency of a particular social group and where it might lead, with a view to the potential for joint action.

Thus, I want to suggest, when we write we need to be asking ourselves who it is we are trying to speak to; how the form, distribution and context of what we are saying or writing relates to them; what we want them to do; whether this is likely to make sense to them and see it as being in their own interests; and so on.

In other words, praxis-oriented thought is fundamentally communicative and relational. It involves exposing ourselves, stepping outside already-existing relationships and trying to create new possibilities in some way. It is not primarily about writing for a judging superior (the supervisor, editor, peer reviewer, promotions committee, grants body or whatever). Nor is it about writing for the inner circle of those who share our interests. We might seek to meet those needs, or others given by the nature of the world as it is (as when we pitch an article to an online publication or a book to a publisher): but we are trying to achieve something beyond that, fundamentally to build relationships of solidarity enabling joint collective action on a wider scale.

Thinking “real potential”

In this process, one key judgement is around the real potential of particular groups. By this I mean something analogous to Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, but less teleological. Not: what is this readership, that movement, theoretically capable of becoming? But rather: what potential can we convincingly show to be capable of being realised – meaning convincing the others, inside and outside the group, that we need to work with us to help realise that potential? This of course was the challenge that Gramsci was working on in ‘Some Aspects of the Souther Question’ at the moment of his arrest (and that he had already won the PCd’I over to with the Lyons Theses).

I have to confess my own philosophical uncertainty about the status of this concept of “real potential”. It does not sit easily as objective or empirical (the group in question is not, currently, where we believe it can get to); nor is it subjective or theoretical (if it means anything, the concept is distinct from wishful thinking or asserting that in abstract terms there would be some objective benefit for this group from social change etc.) Yet if we know one thing from the history of social movements, it is that they do move: and we ought to be able to do a bit better than simply assert the wisdom of hindsight.

I think Aristotle may be of some help here, if not in detail then in the very general sense that he allows for the existence of different kinds of knowledge. Praxis, and a concept like real potential, do not sit easily with academic thought because they belong to a different logic of practice, just as (for Aristotle) the knowledges involved in building a chair or developing as an ethical human being are of different orders to the knowledge involved in discussing geometrical propositions. Aristotle sees politics as a variety not of techné, skill in working with the natural world so much as of phronêsis, skill in good action.

Yet Aristotle’s political science is fundamentally about the action of the ruler as lawgiver. What we need, however, is fundamentally a mode of thought appropriate to working with others. As noted above, this starts from relationship – our existing and hoped-for relations with others, their relations between themselves which enable us to call them a group – and sees these as structured but open, in other words capable not just of being described as they are now but of being changed through praxis. Its implicit subject is not the powerful individual sovereign but the developing collective action of the oppressed. The thought most appropriate to social movements – and, I want to suggest, to a Marxism worthy of the name – is “praxis-oriented” in that it is the cognitive and affective dimension associated with these sorts of relationships and practice.

To return to the question of real potential, good sense and the critique of the routine practices of contemplative academia: on one side we have a common sense confidently asserting what really matters in the world, what movements are objectively capable of, and how they can be explained in deterministic ways. On the other side we have the much messier process of listening carefully to the fragmentary articulations of good sense in movement organising and discussing processes, and conversations with activists around this process. This, Alf Nilsen and I have argued, is where Marx and Engels started from, in their encounters with the League of the Just and the German revolution of 1848, the English Chartists and trade unionists, the Burns sisters and the European exiles. We do a disservice to their thought when we let university pressures reduce what we mean by Marxism to those dimensions of his work which most mimic the forms of nineteenth-century academia.

Laurence Cox
Laurence Cox co-directs the MA in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism at the National University of Ireland Maynooth and is a founding editor of Interface. Along with We Make Our Own History, he is co-editor of Marxism and Social Movements; Understanding European Movements: New Social Movements, Global Justice Struggles, Anti-Austerity Protest; and Silence Would be Treason: Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa.
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