'At the heart of society burns the fire of social movements': What would a Marxist theory of social movements look like?
Cox, Laurence and Gunvald Nilsen, Alf (2005) 'At the heart of society burns the fire of social movements': What would a Marxist theory of social movements look like? In: Proceedings Tenth international conference on alternative futures and popular protest.
Social movement activists have their own theories of social movements, whose goals and structure often diverge radically from those of academic social movement studies. This paper explores the example of Marxism, as a theory developed outside the academy, primarily on the basis of the experience of the nineteenth-century workers' movement in Europe. If society consists of socially organised human practice, then social movements contend to direct this 'historicity', in Touraine's words: they are struggles over how society creates itself. This paper attempts to do two things. Firstly, it offers a rough-and-ready typology of how grassroots activists experience their opponents in 'social movements from above', the ways in which dominant social groups attempt to maintain or extend ways of organising human practice that sustain their power. We explore defensive and offensive movements from above, the political choices and alliances involved, and the ways in which movements from above impact on activists in movements from below. Secondly, we attempt to theorise the collective agency of subaltern social groups, making the links between their situated experience of their lifeworld, the conflicts between 'common sense' and 'good sense', and the development out of these of militant particularisms, large-scale campaigns and social movement projects aiming to restructure human practice on a large scale. We are interested in particular in how this process is experienced and shaped by activists themselves. In conclusion, we use the categories of neo-liberalism and the 'movement of movements' to discuss the current shape of the conflict between movements from above and from below.
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