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Thinking Marxism and Social Movements

by Laurence Cox on March 16, 2015

This is the first of three linked blog posts outlining the argument of We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism, available from Pluto at a discount using the code “COX”.

We Make Our Own Historya book that took Alf Gunvald Nilsen and myself well over a decade to write – is intended, above all, to explore the relationship between Marxist theory and social movements, and in particular how this relationship works in the specific historical period that we are calling the twilight of neoliberalism.

If we were asked to pinpoint the origins of the book, the most obvious answer is a shared sense of frustration, potentials and paradoxes in relation to the study of social movements. Our frustration has first of all been with the many limitations of established social movement theories – on one hand, with the various ways in which these theories operate with a deeply reductive conceptualisation of social movements as a particular institutional level of an essentially fixed political order, separate and different from both political parties, trade unions, and revolutionary transformations; and on the other hand with the limited capacity of such theories to say anything of strategic substance about the struggles of the day. In contrast to these theories, there was much about Marxism that suggested to us its potential as a movement-relevant theory: it is, after all, a body of theory that has been developed from and in dialogue with the struggles of social movements that have been central to the making of the modern world. Yet, in approaching Marxism from the point of view of studying movement processes, we found ourselves confronted with a fundamental paradox, namely the absence of a theory which specifically explains the emergence, character, and development of social movements.

Cox2In writing this book, we have sought to address these concerns by drawing on a wide range of scholarship within the Marxist tradition to formulate an understanding of what social movements are and what they do that departs in some very fundamental ways from the assumptions that are central to the established canon within social movement research. We take as our point of departure Marx’s conception of human nature as being defined by praxis – that is, the conscious deployment of practical capacities to satisfy needs – and the consequent understanding of social structures and historical processes as originating in conflicts over how praxis is to be organised and structured. From this starting point, we move on to propose a reading of social movements as being simultaneously constituted by and constitutive of praxis, and thus as being at the very heart of the making and unmaking of the structures and processes that underpin both social order and social change.

Cox3Ultimately, this is an attempt to formulate a theoretical approach that speaks to the knowledge interests of activists involved in building oppositional political projects that are capable of bringing about progressive social change. In doing so, we seek to reclaim Marxism as what we refer to as “movement theory” – that is, the kind of knowledge that is produced by activists as they confront difficult questions about the nature of the issues they mobilise around, about the opposition that they face from above, about the relations that connect their own struggles with those of others elsewhere, and ultimately about how to achieve the kind of changes that they want to see. This argument does not posit Marxism as the only theory which can speak to activist knowledge interests; rather, ours is an attempt to demonstrate what can be done with one of the many forms of “frozen” movement theory within the field of critical sociological inquiry. There are many others – from feminism and postcolonialism to queer theory and critical race theory – and we would welcome a debate on how these bodies of thought can speak to movements in struggle in the current turbulent conjuncture.

The main features of the theory

Conventional social movement studies, under the twin pressure of US positivism and European funding processes, has become deeply ahistorical in that it takes the existence of “social movements” as a fixed institutional level (implicitly a level of political systems) as a given and then seeks at best to relate this to other spheres conceived of as fundamentally separate. In periods like the present, where we see solidarity economy in Greece transform into policy struggle at the European level, Spanish autonomists convert themselves into a political party and Irish working-class communities challenge state power, this perspective is both intellectually feeble and politically unhelpful. What is useful for movements is to take seriously their intention of moving, of becoming other than they currently are – something which represents a challenge for positivist research but is a long-standing historical experience which Marxism, among other theories, reflects on. More widely still, of course, a key concern of Marxism is the historical question of how to account for the existence of particular fields or institutional spheres in their current form, the relationships and conflicts between them and the processes which reshape these historically- and locally-specific arrangements.

We Make Our Own History tackles this question via a broad reflection on praxis – the material, collective, skilled and hence also developmental ways in which human beings meet their needs and make their worlds – and in particular through an exploration of the conflictual aspects of this process. We look firstly at those forms of collective agency which by definition are the most widespread and effective in normal periods, what we call “social movements from above”. More specifically, those forms of collective agency that can draw on central positions of power (particularly within the state), a key role in economic direction (particularly in the organisation of paid and unpaid work) and high cultural prestige quite naturally draw on these resources, have their form shaped by these relationships, and are connected to specific social interests. This is the broad field – of alliances with elite groups around particular projects for the direction of society as a whole, and of the consent or coercion, of various subaltern groups – that Antonio Gramsci discusses under the term hegemony.

Other forms of collective agency – in our terms “social movements from below” – do not have the same kinds of resources available to them and are shaped by this fact, in historically specific ways: the agency of the powerless, the exploited and the culturally stigmatized quite naturally operates differently, although in a wide variety of historically specific ways. One key aspect shaping such movements, in fact, is the extent to which they are the object of attempted coercion by hegemonic forces or the extent to which such forces seek their consent by selectively meeting the needs involved, attempting a subordinate incorporation of their organisations, and so on.

Cox4These are not historically-fixed relationships: any given hegemonic alliance is built on the collapse of a previous one, following a period of organic crisis in which the continuation of that earlier mode of hegemony has become unsustainable. Such crises often (not always) see substantial challenges to earlier arrangements from both above and below, seeking to reorganise power, wealth and culture in their own interests under a new hegemonic alliance. The fields which emerge, and their particular character, can be thought of as representing truce lines from previous struggles. In normal periods conflict within these fields assumes a lower-level character, not seeking to transform or abolish the fields; crises are among other things precisely those moments in which significant social forces effectively place particular institutional and structural arrangements in question, whether from above or below.

BCox5ecause of the conflictual nature through which such arrangements are arrived at, any homogenising account of a given social formation is at best partial. The different “worlds of welfare capitalism”, “paths to neoliberalism”, “cleavage structures”, “movement landscapes” etc. are the local outcomes of struggles which are partly contingent. As in Marxism generally, it is important to see both the broad (in fact global) social relationships which structure the big picture, and the concrete way in which these relationships intersect in different times and places, producing different outcomes of struggle and allowing local actors to seek to respond to their particular situation within the wider context. This is of course a political analysis, in that it pays particular attention to how the specific shapes of the social world are the outcome and object of power struggles, but also recognises the contingency and agency involved and hence the potential for things to be otherwise.

Turning now to social movements from below, we aim to define these in ways that do not simply eternalise the specific institutional arrangements of a given time or place (such as the forms of Cold War social movement theory which assume a categorical distinction between low-level resistance, popular culture, labour struggles, community organising, religion and ethnicity, political parties, and revolutionary periods). We start from the given social relationships within which people find themselves and to which they respond in trying to meet their needs; these responses can become patterned as local rationalities. When (as often) such rationalities find themselves in conflict with structures of social power, representing opposing interests and holding cultural authority, they can articulate themselves as what Raymond Williams calls militant particularisms. At times such particularisms can come to recognise themselves in one another and develop into campaigns around a particular issue or a particular set of interests. Infrequently, but dramatically, such campaigns may come together around a social movement project, a substantial challenge to hegemony around a different vision of how society should be structured. At times, such projects can provoke organic crises as they disrupt hegemonic alliances.

PW/Rossport turfWhat is most important about this perspective is that it is developmental (rather than assuming that a given “movement”, or movements as such, are fixed in a particular form for all time) and that it is organised in terms of potential. It is not that the process has to move from one step to another – most do not, and of course one important goal of movements from above is to roll this process back, to demobilise. But it is crucial both analytically, in any longer perspective, and politically, to recognise that where movements currently are is not always the limit of what is possible for them. Writing about movements in Ireland a year ago, we were able to articulate the potential for a new wave of movements developing outside existing institutions, but it had not yet taken place. This is where a sociology defined by naturalising institutional contexts serves us poorly.

In the following post, Alf Nilsen will outline how this perspective can be used to think neoliberalism as a social movement from above.

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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