'The Authors and the Actors of Their Own Drama': Towards a Marxist Theory of Social Movements

By Nilsen, Alf Gunvald | Capital & Class, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

'The Authors and the Actors of Their Own Drama': Towards a Marxist Theory of Social Movements


Nilsen, Alf Gunvald, Capital & Class


To thoroughly examine all these questions, is it not to make real profane history of the men in each century, to represent these men at the same time as the authors and the actors of their own drama? But from the moment that you represent men as the actors and authors of their own history you have, by detour, arrived at the actual point of departure since you have abandoned the eternal principles from which you at first set out. (Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy)

Introduction

Marxism a body of theory that emanated from and was crafted for social movements. Indeed, the work of Marx arguably best understood as a distillation of the experiences, debates, theories and conflicts faced by the popular movements of the nineteenth century, and their work in turn sought to contribute to the further development of these popular movements. Furthermore, the subsequent evolution of Marxist theory in the twentieth century has been intimately linked to the development of oppositional political projects across the globe, ranging from revolutionary struggles against old empires to anti-colonial movements and the emergence of new forms of subaltern assertion in the post-Second World War era. Given this intimate link between theoretical and political labours, it is indeed a paradox that Marxism does not possess a theory that specifically explains the emergence, character and development of social movements (see Cox, 1999). However, it is precisely its origins in and orientation towards the crucible of forces and struggles that have shaped and continue to shape the modern capitalist world that endows Marxism with a prescient relevance in terms of understanding and advancing the forms of oppositional collective action commonly grouped under the 'social movement' rubric. Unearthing this relevance, rendering it coherent and attuning it to the practical requirements of contemporary popular struggles requires some groundwork, and in this article, I seek to make an initial contribution in this direction.

The critical point of departure here is the claim recently voiced by Flacks (2004: 138) and Bebbington and Dixon (2005: 186) concerning dominant approaches to the study of social movements--namely, that mainstream movement theory fails to produce 'useable knowledge for those seeking social change' and, as a consequence, also fails to be of relevance to 'the very movements that it seeks to illuminate'. This is not to say that activists are uninterested in theory--knowledge production is, of course, a crucial part of social movement practice (Eyerman & Jamison, 1991; Kilgore, 1999); but that rather than 'reading the dominant social movement theory, [activists] are generating theory largely outside of academic circles' (Bevington & Dixon, 2005: 186). Following Barker and Cox (2002), it might be argued that this scenario arises from the differing knowledge interests that animate activist and academic theorising about social movements. Whereas activists produce theoretical knowledge for and within social movements with a view to generating appropriate proposals for specific actions in a specific conflictual setting, academics produce knowledge about social movements with a view to providing generic explanations of chains of causality that fit most, if not all, social movements. Movements, in this latter view, become objects to be observed, described and explained, rather than processes that are actively constructed so as to meet needs that are not currently being met.

The knowledge interest that Barker and Cox identify at the heart of mainstream academic research arguably also explains some of the critiques that have been raised about the theoretical weaknesses of the dominant trends in US and European social movement theory. In the US context, this applies to the criticism of the narrowness of the resource-mobilisation and political process paradigms pioneered by McCarthy and Zald (1977) and Tilly (1978), McAdam (1982) and Tarrow (1988, 1998) respectively. …

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