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“The This-Wordliness of Our Thought”: Reflections on Movement Theory

by Alf Nilsen on May 10, 2017

Movements that change the world also change the ways in which we know and understand the world. Activists produce knowledge as they try to find answers to the questions they face in struggle – questions about the issues they mobilise around, about the opposition that they face from above, about the relations between their own struggles and those of others elsewhere, and, most importantly, questions about how to bring about the changes that they want to see in the world.

In this piece co-written with Laurence Cox, we want to suggest that it may be constructive to think of this knowledge as a distinctive form of theory – what we call movement theory. To put it very simply, this term refers to theories that are grounded in the lived experience of subaltern groups and their collective action to transform current structures of power. We’ll unpack this statement in more detail below, but first we want to specify what acknowledging movement theory entails in terms of how we think of the production of theoretical knowledge more generally.

To acknowledge movement theory means, first of all, to recognise that the production of theoretical knowledge is not necessarily a scholastic exercise. It means, furthermore, that academia is not necessarily the only site in which theory is produced, that the producers of theoretical knowledge are not necessarily academically trained, and do not by necessity hold the qualifications associated with what Antonio Gramsci referred to as the immediate social function of the professional category of the intellectuals. To acknowledge this, in turn, means to recognize that theory can be a tool that oppressed and exploited groups develop to figure out what is happening to them, why it is happening, and what to do about it by going beyond the situated and immediate nature of their own specific experience.

Movement theory, then, is produced wherever oppressed and exploited groups mobilise and organise to change the world, in part or as a whole, and as a result it is different from conventional scholastic theory in a number of ways – not only its grounding in subaltern experiences of exploitation and oppression, but also in the fundamental knowledge interest that drives its production. While conventional scholastic theory is mainly concerned with explaining the organisation of the world as it is – and indeed, in many cases, to affirm this organisation and the power structures that sustain it – movement theory is oriented towards emancipatory transformation. This, at the end of the day, is its fundamental question: not only “why is the world the way it is?” but “what should we do about it?”

The perspective that underpins these claims sees the process of becoming activists primarily as a collective process of learning. The initial turn to activism is one that we make because we find that something is not right in the world that we inhabit, and more specifically that it cannot be fixed within the normal channels. To become an activist, then, is to learn that the system does not work as it claims, and to move towards the understanding that to achieve change, we need to organise, mobilise, and create pressure. For some – but not all – activists, this process of learning continues as we discover that it is the system itself that is a central part of the problems that we confront in our lives, and that resistance to our struggles for change is no accident but rather fundamental to its nature. At this point, we come to connect our own struggles with those of others, to create solidarity in resistance to given power structures, and to build oppositional projects that can make other worlds possible.

Subaltern experience occupies a specific position in this perspective, not just in a passive sense, as what happens to people, but in an active sense, as what people do with and about the things that happen to them. Experience, on this reading, is the practical and tacit knowledge that we as human beings generate about our social world through our encounters with it; it is what we know, about how we can meet our needs – of whatever kind – in the specific worlds that we inhabit, about the obstacles that we face in our attempts to do so, and about the things that we can and must do to overcome these. This practical and tacit knowledge in turn informs our consciousness – that is, our way of perceiving and acting (or not acting) in relation to the world we inhabit. If a materialist theory of consciousness is to mean anything, then surely it is this – that it is the problems that we experience in our everyday lives which push us to think, and which push us to think differently when our current way of thinking is not working for us. And this is also the core of movement theory.

As we try to make sense of and move beyond situated problems, we are forced to reflect on our local experiences and develop a more articulated and thorough understanding of them. It is in this sense that subaltern experience and people’s attempts to make sense of this experience constitute the fundamental building blocks of movement theory. It is also in this sense that movement theory is created wherever and whenever this happens. And finally, it is in this sense that everyone who reflects on their experiences in order to collectively develop new ways of handling difficult aspects of those experiences is involved in making movement theory. In this perspective, then, movement theory is a form of knowledge that: (i) is consciously developed out of experience; (ii) has been worked through using experience as a touchstone; (iii) has become explicit and articulate; and (iv) has been brought to a level where it can be generalised. Most fundamentally, it is a form of theory that strives to go beyond both everyday common sense and ideological justifications of why things are as they are, in an effort to bring about emancipatory transformation.

The idea of going beyond everyday common sense and ideological justifications can be unpacked by borrowing an example from Stuart Hall’s discussion of dominant, negotiated, and oppositional readings of texts – constructed around the example of watching TV news about a strike. A dominant reading will share the media message that strikes in general are bad things and that this particular strike is bad. An oppositional reading, on the other hand, will take issue with the assumption that strikes as such are bad and formulate solidarity with those actually out on strike. But many people operate with a negotiated reading – that is, they are unable to detach themselves from the general assumption that strikes are bad, but nevertheless make a particular exception in the case of a particular strike, perhaps for personal or family reasons.

The difference between Hall’s dominant and negotiated readings is one of experience. The person who identifies with the dominant reading may not ultimately benefit from doing so; however, they have not learned to experience themselves as producer rather than consumer, or to identify as employee rather than boss. Those who hold the negotiated reading are at least able to understand themselves, or those close to them, as employees or producers who might strike – an ability which cannot be taken for granted. The difference between this negotiated reading and the oppositional one, however, is one of theory: the person who negotiates their reading has a sense of how things are for them, or for people close to them, but does not generalise this, see that others are in a similar situation, identify with those others, or draw more general conclusions about the world. The oppositional reading, in its ability to oppose the media message that strikes as such are bad, draws on a theoretical understanding of how the world is structured, of the general features of being an employee, and of the structural sources of conflict.

Theoretical knowledge, then, enables us to grasp the character of social structures of power. In doing so, it also enables us to move from dominant and negotiated ways of knowing and acting to oppositional ways of knowing and acting. We say knowing and acting quite deliberately, because, if theoretical knowledge is justified with reference to its ability to grasp the character of social power structures, then this in turn depends on problematising those structures through social practice. In fact, without this practice, those structures cannot become clearly visible to social actors. And it is of course at this point that the nexus between experience, consciousness, and theory converges with the character and dynamics of social movement practice.

We want to end this intervention with a brief observation on the consequences that flow from thinking about the production of theoretical knowledge in this way in terms of an ethic of engagement – by which we mean the way in which we conduct our discussions of what different forms of movement theory enables us to know and enables us to do. This is because despite the great dangers of the present moment, much of the discussion between activists and scholars who are seeking more freedom and more justice is shaped like scholastic debates, in that many interventions are about defending and vindicating one activist theory against others. In the worst cases, this style of engagement revolves around denunciations that effectively erase the immense complexity of the insurgent intellectual resources that specific subaltern groups and their organic intellectuals have developed in and through struggle. Of course another, and equally destructive, approach is to mobilise simple identity categories in order to write off theoretical knowledge distilled from popular struggles as irrelevant to genuine emancipation.

The fundamental problem with this approach to engagement is that it ignores the precious learning of earlier generations of struggle. This learning is immensely valuable because it contains practical knowledge about how to change the world. Often, this knowledge was produced in and through movements that were closely imbricated in each other – by no means in perfect harmony, but certainly in a shared orientation towards creating worlds with more freedom, with more justice, and with more democracy.  Since the struggles for emancipation that have done so much to give shape and direction to the modern world remain in so many ways fundamentally incomplete, we cannot afford to waste this knowledge – particularly not in our current moment of ascendant authoritarian populism.

So as we move into zones of engagement from our particular experiential and theoretical starting points, our ethic should start from acknowledging that – just as the particular movement theory that we are most familiar with is orientated towards finding better answers to the question of what is to be done to make other and better worlds possible – so are those of our interlocutors. If we acknowledge this, our engagement should be informed by a desire to understand what other movement theories have to offer that might enable us to develop more encompassing projects for achieving this. This doesn’t exclude disagreement and debate – anyone with a minimum of experience with activism knows that these are fundamental to movement democracy – but it does mean approaching disagreement and debate with a sense of mutual respect grounded in the fact that different forms of movement theory all stem from actual attempts to change the world in an emancipatory direction.

It also means approaching engagement with an orientation towards wanting insurgent epistemic gain – in a nutshell, better movement theory. To achieve this, we have to constantly ask ourselves what an idea does and for whom – and thus recognise its social reality and political purpose. Within such an ethic of engagement, winning an argument – if winning is even the right word here – means grasping how our interlocutors have come to have their perspective within our own specific understanding and how their perspective in turn might expand our own understanding of what emancipatory transformation is and how we might achieve it.

In essence, this practice is about solidarity – about making the connections to the real struggle that our interlocutors are trying to articulate, and trying to articulate our own struggles better. By basing ourselves on these connections, we can enable common movement projects to develop. Ultimately, it is in doing so that we prove the truth – that is, “the reality and the power, and the this-worldliness of our thought”.


This post draws on Chapter 1 of We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism (Pluto Press, 2014). ​The post was co-written by Alf Nilsen and Laurence Cox. 

Alf Nilsen
Alf Gunvald Nilsen is Associate Professor at the Department of Global Development Studies and Planning at the University of Agder and Research Associate at the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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