Mark Bergfeld: Marxism and Social Movements

Marxism and Social Movements
Colin Barker, Laurence Cox, John Krinsky, and Alf Gunvald Nilsen (eds.)
473 pp $179
ISBN: 9789004211759
Leiden: Brill, 2013

There has been much talk of the return of Marx since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Yet many radicals continue to argue that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. Both are true. While millions of people have watched David Harvey’s Capital lectures on Youtube in the wake of financial meltdown, days lost to industrial action remains at an all-time low across North America and the UK. The Financial Times positively dissects Marx’s ideas in their weekend edition, while today’s radical movements such as Climate Camp, Slutwalk, or Occupy treat Marx with suspicion or even contempt.

These contradictory phenomena make Barker et al.’s Marxism and Social Movements all the more important. The essays in this collection aim to develop both the tools necessary to understand today’s social movements, and an analysis that can explain the marginality of Marxism within them. More fundamentally, the book also sets out to establish a Marxist framework for social movement research and practice, where otherwise one has been absent. Commonly accepted theoretical frameworks such as ‘Resource Mobilization Theory’ (RMT) or ‘New Social Movements’ (NSM) might be indebted to Marxism, yet these theories seem to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. In their quest to rationalise social movements some RMY and NSM theorists have, for example, turned to unlikely bedfellows such as Milton Friedman, or have concluded that all social movements remain totally distinct from one another. There are, however, prominent social movement researchers such as Charles Tilly, Doug McAdam, and Sidney Tarrow, who both stand in dialogue with Marxism, yet emanate from outside of it. This renders Barker et al’s book all the more important, even if one does not necessarily label oneself a Marxist.

In roughly 400 pages the authors outline Marxism’s contribution to social movement research and practice. These consist largely in Marxism’s contribution to a theory of the organisation of power. According to the authors, without an analysis of the powers which social movements contest, social movement research is unnecessarily limited. Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, for example, can help social movement researchers and activists to understand how ruling classes mobilise and develop strategies against the oppressed. The authors also highlight that Marxism can provide an adequate theory of popular agency. Both mainstream approaches such as RMT and NSM, as well as anti-capitalist approaches such as Negri and Hardt’s concept of “the multitude”, may, the various authors argue, be able to describe processes within social movements, yet they cannot generate a philosophy of praxis which understands different actors within social movements as mediating different class interests. Finally, the authors attempt to conceptualise Marxism as a theory of strategic transformation – in other words, revolution. This does not counter-pose reform to revolution, but rather regards reforms as a successive approximation to an ultimate goal. In brief, Marxism’s contribution to social movements can be summed up best by the following words provided in the introduction: “a theory of and for movements [own emphasis]” (15).

Rather than outlining arguments from within Marxism, the book is best analysed in the light of the experience of participation in social movements over the last decade. From the anti-globalisation movement (or anti-capitalist movement) at the beginning of the 21st Century, to the anti-war movement after 9/11, the climate protests around the COP-15 in Copenhagen, the recent student revolt in the UK, and Occupy, Marxism has remained a marginal force. Instead there has remained a dominance of ideas and practices mostly associated with anti-authoritarianism or ‘horizontalism’: mainly consisting of consensus decision-making and the refutation of formal leadership and organisation. Using the Marxist method, the book takes up contemporary debates over leadership in social movements, organisation, the production of space, and learning processes. There is, however, one shortcoming: the lack of any discussion on the digital dimension within social movements today.

Beyond binaries in social movements 

The question of leadership is a continuous sticking point within social movements. Most people coming into social movements associate leadership with Stalin’s moustache or white men in dark (central) committee rooms. Colin Barker sets out a very different notion of leadership within social movements. The theoretical influences range from Vygotsky to Freire to Bakhtin. Barker argues that leadership is based on two-way communication. Due to capitalist social relations, Barker argues, there will be leaders. Within social movements leadership is based on the ability to convey the aims, articulate demands and communicate with the supporters and activists of the social movement. In turn, social movements grant leaders legitimacy through continuous dialogue. Barker first advanced the ideas of “dialogical leadership” in his book Leadership and Social Movements (2001).

This critical realist approach acknowledges the fact that there will be leaders – formal or informal – within social movements. It implies a distinction between those who call themselves ‘leaders’ and those who actually are leaders – whether elected or not. In doing so the book’s analysis is able to transcend the vanguard-leaderlessness binary which is encountered in movements and political activities so frequently. The book, however, would have done well to analyse the various concepts of leadership which have emerged from the last round of struggle – whether it is the leaderless discourses of Mason, Castells and Juris, the Occupy Research’s notion of “leaderfull”, or the concept of distributed leadership, which sees leadership vested in collectives and informal groups rather than individuals. In any case, Collins’s article as well as Barker’s theses help us to understand the complex relationship between protest organisers, movement-activists, and the social movements they participate in. The key lesson is: actions and events do not rise out of nowhere—they involve some degree of planning, co-ordination and coalition building, paying attention to pre-existing social ties, and mobilising structures and social networks.

 The network-organisation dichotomy is another hotly debated issue both within movements and academia. Organisational questions are as old as the workers’ movement itself. From Marx’s Manifesto for the Communist Party, Lenin’s What is to be Done?, to Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike –organisational questions have been dealt with in one way or another. Today’s dominant organisational practices differ substantially from what Lenin prescribed for Russian Social Democracy in 1903. Today’s popular writers profess “horizontalism” (Sitrin 2006), “demandlessness” (Graeber 2009), and consensus decision-making (Graeber 2013). In these schemes, networks are the extended conclusion to the spontaneous logic of social life. Organisations, on the other hand, are imposed structures which reproduce hierarchies and capitalist social relations.

Barker, on the contrary, argues the following: firstly, organisations are distinct from social movements, and secondly, social movements are always networked. Different social forces organise within movements, and each will seek to express themselves in different ways. What does this mean for the different nodes inside the network? Can they ever be equal? Barker writes: “The ‘class struggle’ occurs not only between movements and their antagonists, but also within them: their ideas, forms of organisation and repertoires of contention are all within their opponents’ ‘strategic sights’.” (48) In other words, different ideas exist side by side and compete against one another within social movements. It is not a question whether we, as individual activists, prefer ‘horizontal’ organisation over and above ‘vertical’ organisation, but rather whether we are able to adapt our forms of organisation to match those of the movement’s opponents.

Testing the limits

 Chris Hesketh’s essay on the EZLN and the struggles of the indigenous peoples in Chiapas, Mexico, connects to some of the discussions frequently encountered within social movements. In his essay, Hesketh draws upon one of the most influential living Marxists, David Harvey, to analyse the aforementioned social movement. According to Hesketh, Harvey has sought to understand “how social movements have sought to contest and remake space in a radically different image” (209). Many of Harvey’s ideas have been drawn from the French philosopher and urban theorist Henri Lefevbre. For Lefevbre – writing in the 1960s/1970s – the labour-capital antagonism had been supplanted by a new ‘urban’ antagonism. This created the basis for new subjectivities as well new possibilities for the resistance to capital. In his attempt to create a “unitary theory of space”, Lefevbre updated and expanded Marx’s notion of reproduction.

In his analysis of the EZLN, Hesketh argues that ‘space’, and the antagonisms it creates, must lie at the heart of a Marxist theory of social movements. Despite the fact that the struggle was confined to the 1990s, the EZLN continues to inspire and inform activists and theorists today. Hesketh’s Marxist account successfully demonstrates the potentialities and the limitlessness of Marx’s method to understand contemporary social movements. With the re-emergence of occupations from Gezi Park to the Oakland Commune, Lefevbre’s and Harvey’s insights enrich our understanding of the varied forms of contention to capitalism. In this collection, Hesketh shows how a Marxist theory of social movements can make use of these. This is particularly prescient given the frequency and relative impact these recent struggles have had inside activist-circles, compared to workers’ factory occupations at the point of production.

The two contributions by Irish social movement researcher Laurence Cox provide us with further food for thought. Cox and his collaborator, Alf Gunvald Nilsen, have previously argued that social movement theories often develop in separation from the ‘lay theories’, which activists develop in their day-to-day practice. For both, Marxism constitutes what Gramsci calls the Philosophy of Praxis. In his contribution Thinking the Social Movement, Cox writes “these movements are not only objects of theory: they are also creators of theory. […] Social movement studies, with its scholastic isolation of ‘theorists’, has little place for this kind of perspective, and, at best, grants movements the right to propose new matter for scholarly consideration.” (145) In other words, social movements constitute learning processes for individuals and groups of people in their mediation with the world – regardless of whether they attain their objective or a change in policy. “Movements: they are not simply the reproduction of un-reflected activity, but are creative processes which – in order to mobilise the un-mobilised and change the world – have to keep on reaching beyond themselves. They are constantly in debate over ‘what should we do?’, contesting given assumptions as to how the world is. They continually generate ‘how-to-do-it’ theory, whether in cultural traditions, informal apprenticeship and ‘mentoring’ situations, or formal training programmes and manuals” (145). Thus social movements create a different kind of knowledge. It is a process of exploration, of reaching and transcending limits imposed by capitalism. While schools and universities reproduce the ideas of the ruling classes, social movements create democratic spaces of learning in which actors are co-producers of knowledge. The advent of blogs, twitter, photo and video, due to their low barriers to entry, has had a transformative effect on social movements. The sheer volume of information and analysis, collected and composed on the Occupy Wall Street protests, would have been unimaginable just ten years ago. This dimension of activism and its effect on social movements is not, unfortunately, explored in the book.

Since the rise of the alter-globalisation movement, debate has continued within academic and activist circles over the extent to which social media and new communication technologies mediate new forms of political action and organisation within social movements. Barker successfully displays, in his discussion on leadership and organisation in social movements, a nuanced Marxist contribution to this process. The professed ‘digitally-mediated democratisation’ of activist and protest culture calls for further examination. Marxists such as Aouragh, Alexander, El-Hamalawy, Fuchs, and Bergfeld, have made a number of contributions to the debate. Unfortunately there is little cross-fertilization between those researching media practices in social movements and those authors within the collection.

Final remarks

This critique should not distract us from an un-relentless commitment to popular emancipation from below and an insistence on bringing an analysis of capitalism back into social movement studies. This collection will hopefully inspire those influenced by Marxism and those who have come through the last wave of global struggle. The current price tag attached is hefty, although the paperback version by Haymarket books is not unreasonable. Finally, if there is to be one grandstanding achievement of the book it is Colin Barker’s essay Class Struggle and Social Movements. Here, Barker argues that movements are not opposed to class struggle but are its “mediated expression” (47). In doing so he has achieved the impossible. He unites vulgar Marxists and mainstream social movement researchers in disagreement against him. Great job!

Mark Bergfeld is a postgraduate research student at Queen Mary University of London. His writings can be found at

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