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Social Movements and Marx: Crisis, Consciousness, and Class Formation

Enku MC Ide SOC 651 Dr. Patrick Mooney

10/29/11

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Ide, Enku SOC 651 Freedom lies so deeply in human nature that even the opponents of freedom help to bring it about by combating its reality (Marx in Kolakowski 1988: 121)

Marxs commitment to revolutionary change and his belief in the totality of the revolutionary force of capitalism complicates the application of Marxs writings to current social movements. Many movements are liberal and reformist, focusing on identity or specific bureaucratic policies and not over basic economic contradictions. Marx saw the socialist revolution as related to the full development of capitalism along ideal lines. While many aspects of Marxs understanding of capitalism have not borne out, due partly to historic contingencies, technological developments, and the ability of economic and political elites to preserve capitalism by unforeseen means, Marx may be especially relevant in a period of economic crisis, reminding us of the importance of the economic background within which movements operate. Much contemporary social movement theory has been developed in the core countries since the 1960s and is marked by this sociohistoric context. Other Marxist themes, particularly consciousness and class formation may be applied to movements in both stable and insecure economic climates. McAdam recognized that long-term socioeconomic changes impact the relative opportunities or restrictions on movement activity vis--vis elites (1982: 41). The theory is expressly related to slow changes, and may not account fully for economic crises which have been most acute in peripheral countries. Marx saw the increased dominance of capitalism as transforming both work and worker through dehumanization but also through working class struggles. For example, while recognizing that workers reform movements cannotachieve the liberation of the proletariat, a struggle of this kind is both necessary and important in itself

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(Kolakowski 1988: 169). This is because Marx holds that while such struggles may appear immaterial, we must understand their moral and political consequences in forming the political consciousness of the proletariat (Marx in Kolakowski 1988: 303). Marx believed that capitalist systems were doomed due to deepening internal economic contradictions which fuel revolutionary movements. According to Marx, without the great alternative phases of crisis and distressthe working-classeswould be a heartbrokenmass, whose self-emancipation would proveimpossible. (Marx in Kolakowski 1988: 303). It is in periods of crisis that the working class may become totally opposed to the existing order, and can call for revolutionary change (Kolakowski 1988: 160). In other times, however, social movements are likely to take non-revolutionary forms, calling for capitalism with a human face. These movements can still be analyzed in a Marxist frame of the conscious production of social relations. For Marx, the species-being of humanity was expressed in human labor, in our ability to consciously produce. However, within alienation, the objects of our production appear as hostile, powerful object(s) independent of and dominating the individual (Marx in Calhoun 2007: 92). Marx was directly referencing the production of commodities which form the anthropogenic world. However, as labor is the process through which humanity develops through externalization of itself (Kolakowski 1988: 133), we may recognize that human labor builds both the physical and social dimensions of the world and are alienated from both. Alienation leads to a dualism whichcreates within every human being a contradiction between his private capacity and his capacity as a citizen (Kolakowski 1988: 125). It is possible that collective social movement action can be one method of confronting this dualism. Through social movements, participants actively challenging what they see as oppressive aspects
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of society. Marx saw the individual [under capitalism] wrenched from the community and enslaved to anonymous institutions robbed of his personal life and obliged to treat himself as a mere object whereas in the next state, men would achieve mastery over the social conditions of progress (Kolakowski 1988: 410, 413). Social movement organizing today often contains a prefigurative logic, a unity of means and ends where social movement organizations and communities build democratic and anti-oppressive structures within the movement while fighting for them within society at large. Using this method, social movements struggle to master the conditions of social progress, through which participants rely on their subjective personal lives to approach the state and society as an object, thus converting an unconscious historic tendency into a conscious one, an objective trend into an act of will (Kolakowski 1988: 128). Marx was also concerned with human consciousness, recognizing that theorists must take man as a complete physical being and that mans only reality consists in his being an individual (Kolakowski 1988: 404). Given subsequent insights, we must recognize that this complete physical being is a subject marked by class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality among other categorical systems of privilege and oppression. Marx foresaw the polarization of society into the proletariat and bourgeoisie as erasing or superseding difference among the working class, with workers various interests and conditions of lifemore and more equalized (Marx in Calhoun 2007: 102). However, in a key statement, Marx notes that although all [workers] are instruments of labor there is difference in that some are more or less expensive to use (Marx in Calhoun 2007: 101). In this statement, we can see an underdeveloped recognition that all labor-power is not equally socially validated through wages. In many liberal identity-based social movements, then, minorities seek the kind of equality that Marx saw as a natural tendency within capitalist production.
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Marx notes that all previous historical movements were movements of minorities, for the interest of minorities whereas the working class revolution is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority (Marx in Calhoun 2007: 103). Within identity-based movements today, we can see a reformulation of this as movements have fostered structural understanding of their oppression. For example, much of feminism no longer focuses on raising the status of women only, but strives to address and end the patriarchal system that impacts all people. As such, we can see revolutionary counter-hegemonic themes even in movements of minorities. The historic question before us is how these movements will orient themselves to national and global movements that take income inequality as their starting point, and how movements decrying such objective inequality will incorporate (if at all) demands and viewpoints made by other movements whose constituents may be overrepresented in the working class. A class should contain at least a germ of class consciousness to constitute a class for itself, i.e. [to be] aware of its role in the social process but this can be impeded if its members are isolated from one another (Kolakowski 1988: 356). Increased means of communication, arising to meet the demands of a global market, is crucial in this class formation (Marx in Calhoun 2007: 102). What was missed by Marx is the extent to which workers have not been able to communicate clearly between themselves due to socially-based relations of power. Communicating across power-laden difference in a way that builds community, mutual understanding and respect is necessary if the working class movement is not to forward many of the injustices of the capitalist system. Marx notes that even the post-revolutionary society will undergo a transitional period [that] would bear the mark of the society out of which it had grown (Kolakowski 1988: 310). The task of new social movements within a long-term
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revolutionary framework is valid, then, in making capitalist society as just as possible, as not all aspects of capitalist society can be wiped-away in revolutionary foment. Historically, socialist internationalism was not able to stop the world wars, as national sentiments impelled workers to take up arms against one another. Today, competition for social prestige (and economic stability) continues to hamper the formation of truly working class interests (Kolakowski 1988: 355). Many socialist organizations (but certainly not all) saw the recognition of power difference within the working class as an obstacle to be subsumed to the working class revolutionary project, thus in reality preserving racial and gendered power relations within the movement. In this context, many women and racial minorities left socialist groups in the 1960s and 1970s. While some remained committed to revolutionary praxis, others joined with liberal social movement organizations including the National Organization for Women, forming crossclass alliances that obfuscated class oppression and exploitation. According to Marx, revolutionaries must make the actual oppression even more oppressive by making people conscious of it (Marx in Kolakowski 1988: 129). Socialists inability to recognize and confront oppression within their ranks, therefore, and not the demand for dignity by minority groups, impeded the formation of working class consciousness among many workers. Social movements fight for liberal equality may then be understood in a Marxist framework as a necessary precondition for the revolutionary program of class formation during times of economic stability if cross-class alliances based in other categorical realms of social life do not crystalize bourgeois dominance over social movement constituencies. Marx defines the revolutionary project as a struggle for human status and dignity and it cannot be ignored that these have been denied to many, mediating economic realities of massive segments of the
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working class. If the affirmation of humanity is the basis of validation in the Marxist framework, then the economist understanding of power must be thought of as false consciousness (Kolakowski 1988: 175). Marx admits that the proletarian movement is not linear, but rather criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continuallyderide with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible (Marx in Calhoun 2007: 115). If economic crisis makes all turning back impossible, then the fight for human dignity from both radical and liberal social movement milieus may find congruence, thus realizing theoretical insight into the means they have already begun to employ (Kolakowski 198: 324). During this time, some elites aligned to the identitybased social movements may join the revolutionary class as ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole (Marx in Calhoun 2007: 103) while others may work to discipline their working class constituents to accept the status quo in areas of social life not directly related to their own movement. Inequality in the core countries is increasing, a trend which Marx believed would be completed much more thoroughly and early within capitalist development. As segments of the new middle class are proletarianized in conjunction with what seem to be increasing (both temporally and in severity) global economic cycles, economic inequality (and Marx himself) has taken on new significance within the public imagination and within many social movements. The Clintonian catch-phrase, Its the economy, stupid has now found organizational expression in movements in both the United States and throughout much of Europe. Further research is needed to see how these new, new movements have interacted with those of the previous upswing in social movement activity, particularly given the updated means of digital
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communication which have allowed for increased class formation among insurgents and supporters.