Why do activists need theory?

Alf Gunvald Nilsen, Laurence Cox


In this paper, we retrace in concepts a path that we’ve followed in the experience and practice of our own lives: from activism to theory, and back again to activism, now understood in a new light. Like many people, we’ve found ourselves moving towards activism as we discovered the boundaries that our kind of societies place in the way of living fully human lives. Over time, we found ourselves asking broader questions of the world and ourselves than could be answered within the activist frameworks we had available to us at the time, and moved to draw on the theoretical resources of the past, specifically Marxism. We are now moving back towards activism, through our own participation and through social movements research. In this paper we want to see what we can bring back from our theorizing that will help us and other activists in our practice.

Why do activists start looking for theory?

We start from the existential situation of activists as we understand and have experienced it. In this view, the process of becoming an activist is primarily a process of learning, which we will describe as if it happened to an individual, though of course often this learning is that of a class or movement.1 Initially, we become ‘activists’ because we find that something is not right in the world, and more specifically that it cannot be fixed within the normal ‘channels’. To become an activist, then, is to learn that the system does not ‘work’ as it claims, and to move towards the understanding that to achieve change we need to organize and create pressure.

For some, though not all, activists, this learning process continues, as we find that the system2 is itself part of the problem, and that its resistance to our struggles for change is not accidental or contingent but, at some level, fundamental to its nature. Thus we come to see ourselves as connecting our own issues with those of others, and of creating solidarity in opposition to given power structures. (For some activists this learning process is part of the bitter experience of defeat after having acted ‘by the book’; for others it is part of an intellectual conviction that the problem goes deeper than at first perceived; for others again it is the fruit of a conscious choice not to settle for concessions on our own issue at the expense of other, equally significant, issues.

This experience, of finding that we have to face off against a system, and that that system is both powerful and fundamentally opposed to us, raises some very large questions. The first, and most obvious, kind of theoretical question that arises out of this existential situation is simply ‘what should we do?’3 Secondly, as we come to understand the agency of the various parts of the system, we ask ‘how will the system react?’ Thirdly, we have to ask ourselves, as struggle deepens and success does not seem easily within our grasp, ‘what will work and how can we win?’
It is the attempt to answer these kinds of questions that initially led us to Marxism, with its concern to identify the structural nature of social problems and political issues. The theoretical discourse of Marxism, though, has to show its ‘this-wordliness’4 in practice, by offering something helpful to activists in terms of telling us what to do, what to expect, and how to win. What we have found, and what we want to discuss, is not so much a set of pre-packaged answers as a way of thinking about these issues.

Notoriously, ‘Marxism’ as such offers relatively little in the way of explicit political prescriptions. Marx and Engels’ own political practice and writings are ‘multi-vocal’, as they say, and have been interpreted and developed in many different ways through the Second (social-democratic), Third (orthodox communist) and Fourth (Trotskyist) Internationals,5 to say nothing of the various council-communist, humanist, autonomist and non-dogmatic Marxisms with which we find ourselves in closer alignment politically.6
What we are interested in here, however, is not so much the specific ‘lines’ developed in these traditions as a particular understanding of what politics is, and hence of the nature of the social situation that we find ourselves in as activists. We have developed this separately7 around the proposition that Marxism is, at its core, a theory of organised human practice, and thus an alternative theory of social movements, very different in its shape from the academic school of that name. In this paper, we want to explore an outline of that understanding and see what it can have to offer other activists, whether Marxist or not.
We want to start where activists start in their own learning processes: with human beings’ experience of the world and themselves, and the ways in which they develop this.

The notion of experience

What is meant by experience? Drawing on the work of Ken Cole,8 EP Thompson,9 Hilary Wainwright10 and David Harvey,11 we want to argue for an active rather than passive concept of experience: not simply experience as ‘what happens to people’, but experience as ‘what people do with what happens to them’.
Experience, in this perspective, is understood as the practical and tacit knowledge that we as human beings generate about the material (social and non-human) world, through our encounters with and interaction with this material world. This practical-tacit knowledge is thus ‘an attribute of individuals by reason of their social character, their participation, active or passive, in relations with others within inherited structures’.12 It is also, as William Blake knew, an attribute of our experience of ourselves, as beings with needs, engaging in struggles, etc.13
Why do we highlight experience? Because it constitutes the stuff that consciousness starts from; it informs our consciousness of the world out there and our place in it, and on the basis of this perception we choose to act – or not to act – in certain ways:

human consciousness [is] produced by creative human beings trying to understand their existence so that they can purposefully choose how to better organize their efforts to fulfil their potentials. And the understanding of experience is mediated by beliefs, which rationalize and make sense of experience … Beliefs reflect individuals’ experience, which is culturally filtered to make individual actual experience commensurable to the wider, social, real world.14

Experience, then, is that unruly body of half-submerged knowledge that mediates between objectively existing conditions and social consciousness of these conditions:

[Processes of change], if they are within ‘social being’ seem to impinge upon, thrust into, break against, existent social consciousness. They propose new problems, and, above all, they continually give rise to experience … Experience arises spontaneously within social being, but it does not arise without thought; it arises because men and women … are rational, and they think about what is happening to them and their world … What we mean is that changes take place within social being, which gives rise to changed experience: and this experience is determining in the sense that it exerts pressures upon existent social consciousness.15

This is one half of what is meant by a ‘materialist perspective’: that it understands consciousness as being fundamentally oriented towards real-world practical problems. This does not mean that all consciousness is explicitly about practicalities, rather that it is the problems that we encounter in our own lives which push us to think, and which push us to change the way we think when our current way of thinking is not working for us.
The real world becomes ‘problematic’ in relation to our own needs16 – those we are already aware of, and those that we discover through experience. (The other aspect of a materialist perspective, which this points towards, is that it focuses on the practical activity that people engage in to meet their needs as they understand them – and so ultimately how people respond to their experience.)
We want to highlight three aspects of the notion of experience formulated here:

1.This is a concept of experience which assumes epistemological realism; that is, it is a notion of experience which asserts that there is a world out there which exists independently of our perception of it, and which conditions our way of knowing. Because that world is fundamentally material and social, we do not know it automatically or unproblematically, but rather as part of the practical process of experience, the discovery of needs, and attempts to resolve problems. This is then also a ‘critical realism’.17

2.It is a concept of experien ce which emphasizes social change through human agency: the material and social world that exists out there is characterized by a constant process of people’s becoming human beings, through reflecting on their social experience, developing their creative capacities and practices, and finding new ways of socially organizing these practices – and in the process transforming their world, for good or for bad.

3.It is a concept of experience which assumes situatedness: experience is always situated in social practice within, and thus specific to, a given (social, cultural and historical) context. This context defines the parameters within which experience is formed.
Thus experience is something that we have to work towards in practice; it is experience of the changing world that human beings remake and create; and it is experience located within specific social contexts. In other words, experience is problematic, changing, and local. This of course is very visibly so for activists, whose knowledge of a situation typically develops in the course of a campaign, who are immersed in the activities of potential allies, opponents and other agents, and who are always coming from a specific place.

The need for theory

In responding to the experience of problems, obstacles, challenges and frustrations we as activists want to do so in as adequate a way as we can. We aim to develop a set of practices that makes it possible for us to tackle problems, overcome obstacles, resolve frustrations and respond to challenges successfully. In order to do so, we need to reflect on our (problematic, changing, local) experience and develop a more thorough understanding of it. This is where theory enters the picture.

What is theory?

Let’s pause for a moment and ask a very basic and very important question: what is theory? We start by answering in the negative: the production of theory is not necessarily a scholastic exercise; the site of production of theory is not necessarily the ivory towers of academia; the producers of theory are not necessarily academically trained personnel in possession of qualifications that bestow on them the status of ‘officially approved theorists’.
Positively, we would argue that the building blocks of the production of theory are the efforts of ordinary people to make sense of their social experience; the sites of production of theory are, then, everywhere such activity may take place; the producers of theory are – potentially – everyone who engages in reflection on their experiences so as to develop new and improved practices to problematic aspects of that experience.
This first approach, theory as consciously generated knowledge, is the point of departure for much radical adult education,18 community development,19 humanist Marxism20 and cultural studies,21 all of which have reflected on the ways in which working-class people and peasants have generated their own ways of understanding the world.22 An example from a very different starting point would be the development of environmental movements.
As Eyerman and Jamison have observed,23 such movements tend to generate their own counter-expertise precisely out of the clash between their own experience, needs and concerns and officially sanctioned ‘knowledge’. The knowledge thus generated runs all the way from criticism of the risks involved in new technologies24 via techniques of protest for opposing ecologically damaging developments25 to complete alternative theories of society and nature.26
Gramsci phrased this insight as follows: ‘All men are intellectuals27, one could therefore say: but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals.’28 He goes on to say:

When one distinguishes between intellectuals and non-intellectuals, one is referring in reality only to the immediate social function of the professional category of the intellectuals, that is, one has in mind the direction in which their specific professional activity is weighed, whether towards intellectual elaboration or towards muscular-nervous effort. This means that, although one can speak of intellectuals, one cannot speak of non-intellectuals, because non-intellectuals do not exist … There is no human activity from which every form of intellectual participation can be excluded: homo faber cannot be separated from homo sapiens. Each man, finally, outside his professional activity, carries on some form of intellectual activity, that is, he is a ‘philosopher’, an artist, a man of taste, he participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought.29

There are different degrees and levels in terms of our ability to engage in this activity of constructing knowledge. One example of this is highlighted by Stuart Hall’s discussion of dominant, negotiated and oppositional ‘readings’ of texts or situations (he gives the example of watching TV news about a strike).30 Those caught within, or identifying with, the dominant reading will share the media ‘message’ both that strikes in general are a bad thing and that this particular strike is bad. Those who have developed a fully oppositional reading will be able both to criticize the assumption that strikes as such are bad, and to formulate solidarity with those actually out on strike.
However, and importantly for our purposes, there will be many people operating within a negotiated reading, not being able to detach from the general assumption that strikes are bad, but nevertheless making a particular exception to the specific case (perhaps because friends or family members are involved). The weakness of this, of course, is that it denies solidarity to those who are not already known, and isolates those on strike, making it more likely that they will be defeated. It of course also makes it harder to articulate the possibility of an alternative world.
The difference between Hall’s dominant and negotiated readings, it could be said, is one of experience: the person who identifies with the dominant reading may not ultimately benefit from doing so (for example, they may be an employee themselves, even a vulnerable one); however, they have not learned to experience themselves as producer rather than consumer, or to identify as employee rather than boss. Those who hold the negotiated reading, in this case at least, are able to understand themselves, or those close to them, as employee / producers on strike – something which can by no means be taken for granted.31
The difference between this negotiated reading and the oppositional one, however, is one of theory: the person who negotiates their reading has a sense of how things are for them, or for people close to them, but does not generalize this, see that others are in a similar situation, identify with those others or draw more general conclusions about the nature of the world. The oppositional reading, in its ability to oppose the media message that strikes as such are bad, draws on a theoretical understanding of how the world is structured, of the general features of being an employee, and of the structural sources of conflict.32

Another approach to the problem is in Gramsci’s discussion of the distinction between ‘common sense’ (ordinary thought, with all its confusions, contradictions and unreflected assumptions) and ‘good sense’ (practically grounded knowledge). In this context, theory (good sense) is consciousness which has been worked through and brought back to the touchstone of experience: something which can by no means be taken for granted.
Gramsci observes that it is normal for ‘common sense’ to include both some of the latest scientific discoveries and truly archaic modes of though at the same time.33 Hence, within social movements, a wide divergence of levels of thought is common, which he schematises as one between intellectuals and ‘the simple’, as the mediaeval church called its ordinary members. Drawing on this example, he notes that the policy of the Catholic Church has normally been to leave the simple where it found them, instead attempting to put a muzzle on its intellectuals and make sure they do not stray too far.
By contrast, the role of the Communist Party for Gramsci was or should be that of a mutual process of self-education aimed at bringing everyone up to a common level.34 Theory, then, would be the result of a social process of working through existing knowledge.
Another way of discussing this would be in terms of the extent to which people articulate their view of the world and practice, as against taking things for granted and operating in ‘traditionalized’ ways (whether their origin be recent or ancient)35. This criterion could apply equally well to radicals as to conservatives, in that within pillarised societies in particular, radical subcultures are capable of becoming thoroughly retraditionalised.36 Theory from this perspective would be articulated consciousness.
Lastly, we could ask how far people are able to connect to and learn from other people’s struggles and learning processes: theory as generalized consciousness. This is obviously particularly relevant at the moment in the context of the ‘movement of movements’, but it is also a more general issue, of solidarity and internationalism versus particularism.

Putting these different characteristics together, then, theory appears as that knowledge which is consciously developed out of experience, which has been worked through using experience as a touchstone, which has become explicit and articulate, and which has been brought to a level where it can be generalized.
The necessity of theory stems from the practical knowledge interest we have in understanding our experience in more adequate ways: that is, it stems from an urge to make sense of our experience so as to develop new practices in response to our experience of constraints and frustrations.37 If we want to figure out what is happening to us, why it is happening, and what to do about it we need to go beyond the immediacy and situatedness of a particular experience.
It is this exercise of ‘going beyond’ immediate surfaces and appearances which arguably constitutes the defining feature of theory. ‘Going beyond’ in this case means an effort to understand the wider ramifications of, and underlying processes that give rise to, whatever it is that we experience as problematic and frustrating in our everyday lives: ‘Theory attempts to understand things not apparent on the surface, to find the inner connections … And the point of all this is to understand the real world – in order to change it.’38
Hence the value of theory is that we can transfer what we’ve learned in one situation over to another, to free ourselves from having to reinvent the wheel. Similarly, we can learn from other people’s struggles without having to go through them ourselves.

Theory and experience

Let’s revisit the three salient aspects of experience outlined above, and see how they relate to theory as we have discussed it.
Firstly, the notion of experience put forward entails an epistemological realism, the crucial assumption of which is that one has to distinguish between immediate, experienced appearances and actual, conceptualized essences. In this perspective, the justification for theoretical endeavours is to grasp the essential nature of social structures as these latter become problematised in social practice.
Wainwright39 explains:

In its most radical form critical realism argues that there exist several layers of being, or reality. It shows how experimental activity in social science presupposes the existence of social structures or mechanisms which generate or produce directly observable phenomena. These structures and mechanisms are not themselves necessarily directly observable…

This is one crucial sense in which the ‘going beyond’ that defines theoretical ventures gains its meaning. Given that there are ‘levels of reality beneath and behind the world of phenomenal, directly observable events (and meanings)’,40 theory seeks to go beyond the phenomenal and directly observable towards the essential social relations that generate these events and meanings. In her discussion of Bhaskar’s version of critical realism and its development as a critique of positivism, she comments, ‘In understanding a problem … (or to put it in political terms, in developing a strategy for change), critical realism implies the need to take into account people’s own perceptions of their circumstances and to draw on other evidence and hypotheses to explore, where possible, with the people concerned, causal mechanisms, at work of which these people might not be aware.’41
As the rest of Arguments for a new left makes clear, the question is then where this other evidence and these other hypotheses are to be found. How is the theorist to identify causal mechanisms which other people are not aware of? What enables actors – whether social researchers, political activists or others – to see through the surface of everyday reality to social structures which operate ‘behind the backs of the actors’ is human practice of a specific kind: practice which is geared towards transforming social reality. In other words, theory is ultimately dependent on social movements.

If it is true that in a realist perspective the justification of theory is its ability to grasp the essential nature of social structures, then a critical realist perspective stresses that this endeavour depends on the problematisation of those structures through social practice. Without this practice those structures cannot become clearly visible to social actors. In conceptualizing them, theorists as well as others necessarily rely on the ways in which people respond to what they find problematic, and more specifically draw on the most adequate responses (eg those with the ability to mobilize people from the broadest range of social groups, those which challenge deeper structures rather than surface issues, etc.) as a guide towards that conceptualization.42
The inherent ‘going beyond’ of theory entails an elaboration and explanation of our actual experiences – but unlike affirmative realisms, which leave this task with theorists accredited by dominant institutions, critical realism places the emphasis on people’s attempts to go beyond their actual experiences in practice, through political action. It is this action, the hidden structures that it reveals and the alternative possibilities that it suggests, which critical theorists draw on.
Secondly, the notion of experience proposed here is one which focuses on social change through the vehicle of human agency: ‘social structures exist by virtue of the individual who produce or potentially transform them’.43 This is where the meaning of theory as an exercise in ‘going beyond’ is widened and politicized. If theory manages to go beyond actual, experienced grievances and explain the workings of the processes and relations that yield these grievances, it may, in turn contribute to the capacity of human agents to articulate political projects that seek to go beyond the here and now:

[T]heory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But for human beings the root is human beings themselves.44

What we are dealing with here is a ‘transformational model of social activity’ which assumes that both the reproduction and the transformation of social structures is crucially related to the ways in which we understand these structures:

Knowledge and action are inextricably bound up … This is daily illustrated in the way that we reproduce or transform social institutions. New knowledge about the consequences of our passive acquiescence in these institutions can lead people to take transformative action in their own lives45

Thirdly, the notion of experience put forward argues that we have to take into consideration the situatedness of experience. Here, yet another widening of the meaning of theory as an attempt to ‘go beyond’ occurs. If theoretical efforts actually succeed in bringing out the essential processes and relations that give rise to an experience of frustration and / or constraint, then it is likely that it will also make a contribution to advancing an understanding of the wider ramifications of a particular conflict in terms of how its dynamics are interrelated with non-particular, ie. global / universal dynamics. This, in turn, may help to articulate a political project that seeks to ‘go beyond’ the parameters of the local and specific. We shall elaborate on this point below.

All this being said about theory, let us remind ourselves of the multiple sites and agents involved in the production of theory by noting how these approaches to experience and theory are bound up with the politics of movement practice.
Wainwright refers to this aspiration of basing oneself in, but going beyond (existing) human experience as the epistemology of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Much of the novelty of these movements, for Wainwright, can be attributed to the politics of knowledge they articulated. This was characterized by a valuation of the experiential, practical, tacit knowledge generated by humans through their being in – and acting in – the world. This practical-tacit knowledge, limited though it is by the particular situatedness of a given ‘knower’ (and, equally importantly, by their degree of connectedness to other knowers), constitutes a valid source of insight into the workings of the social world with all its contradictions and constraints, and offers a touchstone which enables us to go beyond reshuffling ideological cards: ‘Experience, rather than simply yielding facts which confirm or falsify general laws, provides clues to underlying structures and relationships which are not observable other than through the particular phenomena or events that they produce.’46
The relationship between experience and theory, then, can be understood as one where ‘experiential knowledge’ is valid as ‘clues, signposts and stimuli to deeper understanding and theoretical innovation’.47 In particular, this takes the form of the experience of a situation as problematic, or of a way of doing things as not working. Moreover, the relationship between experience and theory in this politics of knowledge is also a dialogical one where the deepening of understanding that theory may bring about takes place through the socialization of experiential common sense: ‘Much of their practice indicates a belief in the possibility, through social organization, of extending and combining fragmented knowledge to gain not ‘a complete picture’, but rather a better understanding of the social mechanisms at work, so as to direct their efforts in order that their intentions might be more efficiently fulfilled’.48
In reality, theory is always practical, whatever its claims to the contrary. As Lukács argued,49 the more developed a movement the closer its theoretical understandings can come to grasping the social totality.
This deepening of understanding and theoretical innovation through critical explorations of experience and the socialization of everyday understandings – the intellectual and practical process of going beyond – points they way towards the labour of abstraction, translation and communication.

Militant particularism and insurgent architecture

The labour of abstraction, translation and communication is closely related to the third meaning of going beyond mentioned above, namely the effort to move from political projects centred on particularity to one centred on universality. David Harvey refers to this labour as insurgent architecture:

Imagine ourselves as architects, all armed with a wide range of capacities and powers, embedded in a physical and social world full of manifest constraints and limitations. Imagine also that we are striving to change that world. As crafty architects bent on insurgency we have to think strategically and tactically about what to change and where, about how to change what and with what tools. But we also have to live in this world. This is the fundamental dilemma that faces everyone interested in progressive social change.50

The point of departure for insurgent architecture is the emergence of movement struggles in the form of militant particularisms – that is as struggles over specific issues in specific locales – and the interest or ambition to move beyond this particularism:

The theory of ‘militant particularism’ argues that all broad-based political movements have their origins in particular struggles in particular places and times … Many struggles are defensive … But some forms of militant particularism are pro-active. Under capitalism this typically means struggles for specific group rights that are universally declared but only partially conferred …
The critical problem for this vast array of struggles is to shift gears, transcend particularities, and arrive at some conception of a universal alternative to that social system which is the source of their difficulties … The oppositional movements of socialism, communism, environmentalism, feminism and even humanism and multiculturalism have all constructed some sort of universalistic politics out of militant particularist origins51

Developing social movement practices and perspectives from militant particularisms towards more universal political projects entails ‘going beyond’ the specific and the local. Anchored in the assumption that local conflicts will tend to represent specific mediations of global conflictual processes, it entails an interrogation of the experience that has engendered this militant particularism in the first place, so as to unearth the dimensions of conflict that point towards such universal processes. This is what Harvey refers to as ‘the labour of translation’ and ‘abstraction’:

The movement from particularity to universality entails a ‘translation’ from the concrete to the abstract. Since a violence attaches to abstraction, a tension always exists between particularity and universality in politics. This can be viewed either as a creative tension or, more often, as a destructive and immobilizing force in which inflexible mediating institutions … claim rights over individuals and communities in the name of some universal principle52

The possibility of exercising violence upon actual, local movement practices arises especially where abstraction is a project pursued ‘from above’ (eg. by a centralized organization existing prior to and beyond specific struggles), rather than as the result of an internal process of self-development ‘from below’ – or where a project initially developed ‘from below’ in one context is transplanted to another without real awareness of the need for effective and appropriate translation. This latter will be a constant challenge in terms of our engagement with insurgent architecture, whose validity depends on its appropriateness not just in general but also in specific instances:

The insurgent architect with a lust for transformative action must be able to translate political aspirations across the incredible variety and heterogeneity of socio-ecological and political-economic conditions. He or she must also be able to relate different discursive constructions and representations of the world … He or she must confront the conditions of and prospects for uneven geographical developments. The skills of translation become crucial here53

The compulsion towards insurgent architecture arises from this situation: ‘without translation, collective forms of action become impossible. All potential for an alternative politics disappears’.54
Again, the point needs to be made that this labour of translation and abstraction (as opposed to the imposition of a project conceived of in the abstract) is not carried out from above, from an umpire’s chair where, say, a social movement researcher may be seated: it is actually going on in the self-activity of movements. This translation and abstraction is what communication between and within movements is all about: ‘If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time … But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together’.55
Raymond Williams, who first coined the term ‘militant particularism’, considered this striving to go ‘beyond’ through communication to be vital: ‘People recognize some condition and problem they have in common, and make the effort to work together to change or solve it.’ He also considered it to be a defining feature of the workers’ movement:

The unique and extraordinary character of working class self-organisation has been that it has tried to connect particular struggles to a general struggle in one quite special way. It has set out, as a movement, to make real what is at first sight the extraordinary claim that the defence and advancement of certain particular interests, properly brought together, are in fact the general interest56

Massimo de Angelis identifies a similar process in the emergence of a ‘new internationalism’ through the activities of the alter-globalization movement: that is, he identifies a process of ‘formation of social subjects, interconnected individuals who are in the process of developing shared visions of social transformation’ due to ‘practical necessity by different movements in their reciprocal interaction within the context of the global economy and their struggles’.57 He develops the comparative notion of ‘old and new internationalism’ according to two criteria: ‘the relation between national and international dimensions of struggle; the relation between labour and other movements’.58 The old internationalism is characterized as follows:

In most of the practice of ‘old internationalism’, the international dimension of struggle was subordinated to the strategic objectives of the national dimension … the immediate objective of the struggle was primarily national and the related internationalism was instrumental to it … This internationalism reflected the conditions of the time, in which the global character of capital was limited to trade and, for most cases, did not include production59 … Another important characteristics [sic] of ‘old internationalism’ was the relative separation between different issues and movements, separation that was reflected in the centrality of the labour movement and the subordination of other movements to it … [T]he ground for unity was generally formulated as instrumental to a goal. The goal was generally defined outside the process of unification60

In contrast, the ‘new internationalism’ is characterized as follows:

The social practice of today’s new movements is forcing us to think about the process of unification, its forms, its objectives, its mechanisms, rather than only its results measured against the yardstick of an abstract idea or a given ideology … An international process of recomposition of radical claims and social subjects has been under way, a process which is forcing every movement not only to seek alliances with others, but also to make struggles of other movements their own, without first the need to submit the demands of other movements to an ideological test … [T]oday the ideological frame of reference seems to be the ongoing result of the process of recomposition is the multidimensional reality of exploitative and oppressive relations as it is manifested in the lives and experiences of the many social subjects within the global economy … [T]he interaction among these social subjects in various opportunities of struggle[,] creates an alternative mode of thinking which is increasingly able to root the multi-dimensionality of human needs and aspirations in the universality of the human condition.61

Perhaps as interesting for our purposes as the distinction de Angelis draws between these two internationalisms is their similarities. Both arise from an opposition between human needs as understood, experienced and struggled for locally, and the global capitalist system in a particular phase of development, imposing similar experiences on a broad range of subjects across the world.

The movement of movements

The movement of movements62 is perhaps more than anything the emergent outcome of such a process of abstraction, translation and communication. It gives rise, simultaneously, to a new field of problems. At the end of the day, the crucial, practical question for radical, anti-systemic movements is ‘How can we win?’
This process can be seen in two ways. One, ‘bottom-up’ approach is to explore the dialectic of universalism and particularity in the movements of the last four decades. In so doing, of course, we are questioning the uniqueness implied by de Angelis for the alter-globalization movement – but simultaneously placing it within a sphere of human practice which can be argued over, struggled for, and won or lost.
To take one particular trajectory: while the movements of the 1960s started from many different, particular issues they increasingly found themselves forced to ‘name that system’ and converging on anti-capitalist analysis while at the same time being constricted within the narrow framework of the available versions of that analysis (and even more so by the organizations offering that analysis).63
In the aftermath of defeat, movements shifted rapidly towards particularism and ‘identity politics’, a process aided by the new cultural capitalism’s willingness to commercialize particular kinds of revolt and by a process of academicization which favoured symbolic competition and distancing. This identity politics, it should be said, was not restricted to feminism or to black politics: in many ways the cadre Marxism of the early 1970s formed its own kind of identity politics, fiercely claiming universality in theory but often bitterly exclusivist in practice.
Despite eco-socialist attempts in western Europe to rally social movements around the projects of Green parties,64 the process of movement fragmentation was not reversed until the Zapatistas, drawing on the heritage of majority world community development, found ways to articulate a project of cooperation between diverse actors.65 The intercontinental Encuentros of activists that they facilitated, and the People’s Global Action network that sprang from these, made it possible for activists in an enormous variety of different movements and locations to start to recognize themselves in each other and to explore ways of acting together as a ‘movement of movements’.
The development of phenomena such as Indymedia, the Social Forum process, and the current anti-war movement have then supported and developed this remarkable process, for which the nearest genuine points of comparison have to be sought in 1968.

A second, ‘top-down’ way of approaching the problem is to focus on the social totality. In this perspective, it is in large part the confrontation with the core institutions of global capitalism that has made this communication between movements possible.66 Initially through the processes of neo-liberalism and war, felt throughout the globe in ways which are sufficiently similar to enable a comparison and brought about by sufficiently linked actors to enable an identification of their authors, people in many different social situations have come to experience their lot as untenable and to find themselves in each other.
The situation of public confrontation with the state plays a key role here, as a site in which the movement recognizes itself as a single (if diverse) movement and is seen by other participants as such. The imminent threat of destruction, whether in a single protest or via the long process of criminalization, poses a very practical problem to the movement, which highlights the need to preserve and extend cooperation and communication within the movement. As different groups find themselves arriving at the same point, the need to bring ourselves up to speed with each other also grows.
Obviously, both the ‘bottom-up’ and the ‘top-down’ perspectives are relevant parts of the social totality: the movement’s ability to be a movement, ie. participants’ ability to find themselves in each other, is provoked by action from above. However, this only poses a problem to which the movement has to respond practically, in finding ways of making connections without surrendering diversity.
So far, so good: as activists face problems arising from their own experience (of the social world, of collaboration, of facing down the authorities) they come to generate theory as a means of communicating, cooperating and connecting with each other. This has been sufficient to enable the movement, at least outside the US, to withstand the shock of September 11th and the drive towards war and criminalization. However, it has not been enough to enable the movement to create the ‘other world’ which it proclaims as possible. As the title of John Holloway’s recent book, Change the world without taking power,67 suggests, this latter goal can at times seem as far away as ever.


This paper has attempted to ground the need for theory within activist experience, and to characterize the ways in which social movements, seeking to transform the world, have found themselves forced to engage in a process both of developing theory to reach beyond their local situation and of building links of solidarity with other movements. We have highlighted the current ’movement of movements’, not so much as an example for a theoretical argument but rather as the starting point for a practical awareness of the need for activist theory.
In our broader project, of which this forms a part, we are attempting a reading of Marxism as a theory of social movements (and a reading of social movements as organized human praxis). We see the practical implications of this as an analysis of social movements as coming not only ‘from below’, but also ‘from above’ – and the social world as being fundamentally constructed by the conflict between these two. This analysis, we believe, can help activists to see their work in a broader perspective, and crucially to identify possibilities which more conservative analyses refuse to consider.
We attempt to do some of this in analyzing the crisis and restructuring of capital in the current phase of neo-liberal globalization as a social movement from above – and looking for ways of naming the system, its associated offensives of economic fundamentalism and ‘war on terror’ – in ways that help us to understand and counter it effectively. But this perspective also needs to be brought to bear on the movement of movements, understood as a response from below to this crisis – and in turn raising the question of the practical ‘way forward’ for the movement, and what theory can bring back to activism.


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