In the Theses On Feuerbach, Marx famously wrote that ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’ (Marx 1845). In their edited volume Marxism and Social Movements, Colin Barker, Laurence Cox, John Krinsky and Alf Gunvald Nilsen have lived up to this demand in that the contributions are directly informed by, and related to, concrete struggles. The collection of essays succeeds at not only assisting us in understanding, in interpreting the role of social movements in current struggles. It also helps us to reflect on strategies of resistance in order to improve them.
The book makes two major contributions. First, it strongly establishes a Marxist approach in the understanding of social movements. As the four editor make clear in the introduction, ‘while feminist, ecological and anarchist thought all share [Marxism’s] movement origins, none holds the same ability to connect the critique of structure with a strategic analysis of social movements both as they are and as they could be – to find within the limitations of the world as is the potential to create a new world in the teeth of powerful opposition and structural constraints’ (P.15). Of course, other approaches can also analyse social movements. Nevertheless, it is only a historical materialist approach, which clarifies that exploitation is rooted in the way the social relations of production are organised around wage labour and the private ownership of the means of production.
Other struggles against sexism and racism are also important, but only the struggle against capitalist wage labour strikes at the heart of exploitation. A good example in this respect is the analysis of the South African experience by Patrick Bond and his colleagues. During the period of Apartheid, racism and capitalist exploitation were overlapping and reinforcing each other. Nevertheless, defeating Apartheid did not end capitalist exploitation. ‘We found that Apartheid was conjectural, but uneven and combined development is systematic’ (P.53). Consequently, in order to transform the political economy fundamentally, the social relations of production need to be transformed and it is here that a Marxist approach to the analysis of social movements and their resistance to capitalist exploitation is essential.
Second, the volume successfully develops movement-relevant research, i.e. ‘research that is attuned to and addresses the knowledge interests of activists as opposed to merely scholastic dissections of the character and dynamics of collective action’ (P.2). Elizabeth Humphrys’ excellent study of ‘networkers’ within the Global Justice Movement in Australia provides a good example. Rather than simply analysing the falling apart of this movement in the wake of 9/11, by drawing on Gramsci she identifies possible ways forward of how these networkers could provide a more solid basis for the organisation of a broad movement in the future. ‘Gramsci’s conception of organic intellectuals – emerging from subaltern groupings but playing a directive (leadership) role within them, having both knowledge and political skills, working among fragments but seeking to transcend the partial to develop the collective will – is a powerful theoretical solution to this problem’ (P.375).
Of course, considering the large amount of 19 chapters in this volume, there are also differences between individual contributions. For example, while Alf Nilsen and Laurence Cox put forward a voluntaristic approach, in which structures are simply the result of actions by social movements from below and social movements from above (P.64-65), Colin Barker acknowledges that human beings do not act under conditions of their own choosing. Rather, ‘they necessarily enter into social relations that are the product of previous activity and independent of their will. Such social relations possess their own “emergent properties” independent of the individuals who compose them: for instance, divisions of labour, rules, patterns of rights and responsibilities’ (P.47). Nevertheless, such tensions are not a problem, but offer fertile ground for reflective thinking on how best to understand the relationship between agency and structure and ultimately the centrality of class struggle in bringing both together. As Barker asserts, ‘successive waves of colonised and enslaved peoples, migrants, working women, white-collar employees, indigenous peoples, college and school students, gays and lesbians have all, in different ways and times, fought their way into “the social movement in general”. In the process, they have reshaped “class struggle” and enriched the notion of human emancipation’ (P.60).
If there is one criticism I have to make then it is the high price of the volume, being set at a mighty €129. As relevant as the book is for concrete struggles, it is difficult to see how many activists can actually get access to it in the first place. I would encourage the editors to reflect on how to make the volume more affordable for social movement activists. This is an outstanding collection and it deserves a large readership. I strongly recommend Marxism and Social Movements for reading to everyone who is interested in struggles against capitalist exploitation.
24 April 2014
Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website: http://andreasbieler.net
24 April 2014