Skip to content

Social movements are how classes struggle

The following article consists of excerpts from Colin Barker’s 2007 draft article, “Class Struggle, Movement, Party”, the full text of which can be found here. In the excerpts that follow, Barker offers crucial insights into the relationship between classes, movements, and organization. Most provocatively, while affirming the centrality of class struggle, he argues that “it is movements rather than classes that prove to be the direct collective actors that possess the capacity to change the world.” Although this argument may sound novel, Barker shows how it was a basic assumption informing the thinking of such revolutionaries as Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, and Antonio Gramsci. The dynamics of social movements were a central theme in Barker’s writing throughout his life, always approached with an unparalleled curiosity and creativity.

All of Barker’s writings are animated by a fundamental faith in ordinary people to think and act for themselves, not to serve as pawns or props in the grand strategies of parliamentarians or states. As Barker points out, “the process of mobilization into movements is one of self-activation, of active engagement.” That self-activity or self-emancipation of working people has been the core of the politics of socialism from below since Marx’s time. To recognize the central importance of social movements to class struggle is not, however, to fetishize spontaneity. Movements are “always and everywhere riven by inner contradictions and arguments,” Barker argues, and the working class “will never unify itself spontaneously.” Organization is required precisely to influence the direction of these movements toward greater self-reliance and expansion in moments of upheaval when it counts.

The argument presented in these excerpts is expanded upon in many of Barker’s other writings, but especially in his chapter of the recently published Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age (2021).

This article originally appeared on Colin Barker’s website.

– Sean Larson, for Tempest

Class Struggle as a Concept

In Marx’s usage, the term “abstract” most decidedly does not mean “unreal”: value and surplus-value define the most fundamental relationships of the whole of capitalist society, permeating every aspect of life. They determine the boundaries of what is possible within the society, determining its other shapes and forms.

I want to suggest that Marx’s concept of “class struggle” is that kind of abstract concept. Class struggle, in Marx’s meaning, also permeates every aspect of life and determines—in the sense of “setting limits to”—the whole of political and social life. It is, however, at the same time an “abstract” or general concept, and if [we] want to study its actual forms of appearance we need to deploy a whole range of other, more concrete, concepts, at the same time never forgetting how these are shaped in their actual functioning by the underlying processes of class struggle.

What I suggest is that “class struggle” is an “abstract concept” in the above sense. We cannot understand the way capitalist societies work without constant awareness of class struggle as a general process that underlies and shapes everything. Nor is it imaginable that, without class struggle, there can be any possibility of future social transformation. However, class struggle always appears in “mediated” forms. Classes, as social wholes, do not directly appear as political entities with formed wills and purposes, acting as homogeneous subjects. Nor should we assume that they ever will. Rather, actual class struggles never involve all workers equally, even at the very peak of mass revolutionary battles, and it is exactly for this reason that such struggles always pose vital questions about strategy and tactics. Nor, indeed, do actual movements ever involve simply members of “one class.” Further, the issues that arise in social struggles are not, mostly, capable of being simply “reduced” to “class issues” without taking account of a whole series of additional mediations.

The Sphere of Politics and Culture

There are all manner of terms that might be developed to discuss the more “concrete,” “immediate,” “surface” level at which “people become conscious of the conflict and fight it out.” Provisionally, we might call it a “socio-cultural-political level.”

It is here that we can and need to discuss all the variety of “formations” and “institutions” and “activity systems” and the like, which comprise our experience of everyday social, political, and economic life. It is at this mediated level that we can begin to discuss historical institutions, specific state forms and “regimes of accumulation,” specific ideological formations. Here, too, “actors and agents” take on color and personality, acquiring specific local and historical definitions. At the abstract level of a mode of production, such actors and agents are no more than line-drawn cartoon figures, having no more definition than simply the “bearers of social relations”: they are simply “the capitalist,” “the banker,” “the landlord,” “the worker,” “the petty-bourgeois,” “the peasant,” and so on. To know that someone is “a worker” is a vital step in beginning to understand her, for that fact sets limits to her possibilities, but it does not tell us how she and those around her see the world and her own place and possibilities within it, what her actual day-to-day relations may be with others, how she and they respond to specific situations and events, how she and they may change their activities, relationships and ideas. At a more concrete, socio-cultural-political level, we must examine people’s concrete purposes and understandings, their multi-dimensional social relations, and intersecting networks of association, in all their rich coloring, diversity, and historical depth.

It is here, too, that we can begin to identify and analyze characteristic patterns of practices, ideas, everyday relationships as they are developed, systematized, differentiated, contested, in ongoing processes of social, scientific, religious, psychological, economic, and aesthetic development. Here belong, for example, initial orienting discussions of such matters as “commonsense” and “good sense,” the practical function of ideas, accounts of language, the role of “intellectuals,” and questions about “ideological domination” and “hegemony.” The potential agenda is enormous, but our starting point does suggest some bases for discriminating between “better” and “worse” ideas. What we need to reject are those accounts of the “cultural” which treat most people as simple prisoners of other people’s ideas or in short every potentially “elitist” conception of everyday consciousness. We need to examine actual struggles to explore how people make sense of the world and what possibilities they find within it—thus such dialectical thinkers as Gramsci, Vygotsky, Vološinov, Williams, or Billig are, on this measure, among those more likely to be helpful to us.

Within cultures, these oppositions manifest themselves in various “subaltern cultures,” themselves responses to the tensions and contradictions of modes of production and cultures, and of the limits to development set by these. They represent the characteristic ways of organizing everyday life and handling its difficulties, within the material and cultural resources available to differentially located groupings within specific social formations. Here, “needs” are given concrete, historical definition, in terms of specific patterns of “taste” and “pleasure”; here, diverse networks of sociality are built, maintained, defended. Here, people love and despair, dream, speak and sing, remember, hope, create each other, form and re-form particular individual and collective personalities. Here, they work and take “leisure” in particular ways. Here, they form definite social ties, family forms, networks of social association, and social division amongst themselves along with means of mutual social control. “Subaltern cultures” contain a variety of potentials for development: being anything but homogeneous, they are fields of dialogue and contest.

Subaltern cultures are also formed, it must be emphasized, within the orbit of existing states and dominant classes, representing at once forms of resistance and accommodation, and they are themselves a focus of direct and indirect “intervention” by those states and dominant classes. We should be concerned to search out, within the formation of subaltern cultures, not only the forms of both resistance and accommodation, but also the nascent development of “alternatives” to the organizational patterns and values of the existing dominant order. Often it is just these potential alternatives which “interventions from above” (the colonization of the life-world) seek to undermine and replace. These are issues of considerable practical-political significance, unless we suppose that only in moments of “social revolution” do subaltern classes suck out of their thumbs principles of some new social order, with no previous aspiration to, experience of, or developing skills in the elements making this up (or, even worse, that just at such junctures vanguard parties step into the historic breach and teach the presumably grateful workers what they should want and need).

Movements as a Category

It is on this “ground,” of historically emergent social-cultural-political formations, that “movements” (or “social movements” as most of the contemporary literature refers to them) arise as specific achievements.

Before saying anything definite about these forms, let’s be clear about their significance in the context of the present argument. Bluntly, classes are not the direct collective actors that struggle to change the world. That historic privilege belongs to this mediated form, “movements.” Our argument is thus consciously “revisionist.”

“Movement” is a category Marxism needs. It’s a term already used by Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, and Trotsky, though—to my knowledge—none of them ever explicitly discusses what they mean by the term. Not only do they use it, but—in some cases at least—they more or less explicitly distinguish between the term “movement” and the term “party.” But the relation between the two terms remains not entirely clear. What can we say about “movements”?

In the light of the previous development, we can begin to think of “movements” as a kind of active crystallization out of both “dominant” and “subaltern” cultures. They involve a self-selection of persons-with-themes who collectively resolve, in some sense, to confront some larger or smaller issue posed within their social-cultural-political formation. Movements represent a kind of collective focusing of attention and energy on transforming, more or less, the parameters of some specific question, in opposition to other forces: dominant or subordinate classes, parties, movements, states, etc.

We should not assume that “movements” are necessarily “progressive,” “democratic,” etc. There are movements whose aims are decidedly “regressive”: we need only think of fascism or the Ku Klux Klan, which took a “movement” form, to recognize this.

Movements arise out of, but are not identical with, the social networks which individuals and groups form amongst themselves within social-cultural-political formations: they represent a further level of self-organization. They are products of dominant and subaltern cultures, but they are not identical, either, with those cultures. A few examples: While “working-class culture” includes both trade unionists and scabs, “labor movements” organize in part to contain and control scabs. The majority of the British population, according to opinion surveys, opposes the Iraq war and occupation, yet, despite the huge size of the anti-war movement, only a (quite large) minority has participated in any of the Stop The War Movement’s organized collective activities. The Black Baptist Church network was crucial to the early development of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., yet some Black Baptist churches refused their participation.

Rather than simply “reflecting” a culture, subaltern or otherwise, movements actively select issues, themes, ideas, and methods of struggle from a whole potential “repertoire” of possibilities. In that sense, they are in a nascent sense already “critical” of other ways of living and responding within their own culture. Indeed, some movements arise directly in response to felt deficiencies within existing movements and organizations. Examples include rank-and-file and shop steward movements opposing bureaucratism and conservatism within trade unionism, the emergence of “Black Power” within the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.A., the re-birth of feminism in response to the sexism women activists experienced within the Civil Rights Movement and the U.S. student Left.

If movements are networks, they’re also arenas of argument. Every facet of movement activity and organization is potentially debatable. How best should a movement organize its forces, and sort out its decision-making processes? What should be its goals, and how should they be defined? What methods of activity are most appropriate for it to achieve its goals? How should a movement respond to a specific situation? Should some voices and forms of activity be disallowed: in short, should there be criteria for belonging, involving rules of inclusion and exclusion?

Such organizational, strategic, and tactical arguments are, in refracted form, also germane to, indeed they are a living aspect of the class struggle. Indeed, those who participate in these arguments are themselves not immune to interventions from movements’ opponents. If one potential ruling-class response to a subaltern movement is simply repressive, another is more or less ‘cooptative’. Movement opponents may conclude that direct repression is not a suitable or viable response and that they have, in some sense, to “live with” a movement, but this pattern of response is unlikely to be simply passive. Rather they may seek to achieve a form of movement that, if irksome, is nonetheless not directly threatening to their most fundamental interests. They may deploy a battery of means, including both force (legal constraint, selective violence) and persuasion to shape the forms, purposes, and methods of movements. As Shandro suggests, it was part of Lenin’s insight into the workers’ movement that it lies “in the rulers’ strategic sights.” That insight can be generalized to other movements and settings. Movement forms, methods, and goals are “negotiable,” both among their participants but also between them and their ostensible “targets.” The class struggle thus runs not simply between movements and their opponents, but also through them and within them.

Movements move. Within and through them, people mobilize collectively to change some condition. In the process, they come into conflict with opponents. Those conflicts are not static conditions, but consist of sequences of events which more or less reconfigure the relations between the warring parties. Via the indeterminate inner processes of these event-sequences, in which the various individual and collective actors engage their forces, strategize, and choose specific tactics and the like, movements advance or retreat, grow and decline, surface and submerge, concentrate or divert their energies, clarify or confuse their understandings and their goals.

During these processes, the make-up of their personnel may alter, as individuals and groups enter or withdraw. Participants discuss and argue among themselves and with more or less engaged audiences and opponents, assessing and testing various proposals about what their movements are, what they are for, how they should proceed. In selecting among alternatives, movements also validate and invalidate different courses of action and organization, and thus different claims to “leadership” from among the proffered choices. In these same processes, individuals and groups learn, share, test, enlarge, or diminish various skills and capacities, along with the confidence and will to use them.

The process of mobilization into movements is one of self-activation, of active engagement. Its effects on participants are more or less transforming. People change themselves as they deploy their energies and understandings to alter the complex relations with others in which they are, individually and collectively, “hubs” (Gramsci) or “nexuses” (Marx). Individual and collective “emancipation” or “liberation” is an at once “practical” and “cognitive” process involving changing the self and societal relations.

Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels.

There is thus an implicit measure of movement “success,” in which the criteria are the degree to which movements succeed in altering the social relations and accompanying understandings which inhibit their own emancipation from oppression and exploitation and which advance their individual and collective “welfare,” and thereby alter their participants’ selves and identities in mutually empowering fashion. Such criteria necessarily implicate judgments about movements themselves, in terms of the degree to which their practice actively promotes such empowering transformations—or, rather, proves self-defeating. Movements vary on all manner of axes, but a crucial one concerns the degree to which their own practice begins to embody, or perhaps we should say, to organize, a different way of living, or the outlines of a different kind of society. Those most likely to achieve this are those which engage, actively, with the members of “subaltern classes.”

The evaluation of movements involves the question, what can they become? This question assumes a notion of “immanence:” within the very contradictions of movements there exist, to larger or smaller degree, potentials for social transformation. If individuals can achieve little on their own by way of such transformation, their mutual association in movements contains larger possibilities for societal and thus personal change.

I began this section by suggesting that it is movements rather than classes that prove to be the direct collective actors that possess the capacity to change the world. A “workers’ movement” involves, to the degree it succeeds, large numbers of workers; it never involves them all, and it faces problems sometimes from those workers who oppose it. This is not only true of strike movements, but also of revolutions. On the other hand, active workers’ movements often draw into their ranks numbers of non-workers (students, intellectuals, sympathizing shopkeepers, cafe-owners, publicans, and the like). When they establish new institutions that challenge for political power, as in revolutionary moments, those institutions are movement institutions: think of the forms taken by such bodies as the Commune of Paris, the Russian soviets, the workers and soldiers councils of Germany in 1918-19 or in Hungary in 1956, the cordones of Chile in 1972-73, the inter-factory strike committees that composed Solidarnosc in Poland in 1980-81, along with other more recent examples from Argentina, Bolivia, and elsewhere.

On the other hand, movements are not the same as “parties.” Partly because of their “network” character, because they do contain different “tendencies” of thought, they have a “mobilizing reach” and a potential energy and capacity for innovation that even the most resourceful party can only admire. However, we should be careful not to draw the wrong kind of line of distinction between the phenomena of movements and parties, for confusions on this score have bedeviled Marxist debates in the past, and continue to rankle within today’s “anti-capitalist” movements.

The Party Question

What, then, finally, of the question of “parties”? In order for Marxism to develop the beginning of an adequate approach to this issue, it had first to break decisively with the reformist conception of this issue, as this was developed within the Second International. This was no easy task, for the reformist conception was hegemonic over the theoretical imaginations, not only of the right wing within the International, but also of the left. As a result, the quite heated debates about “organizational questions” in the decade and a half before 1914 were often confusing and confused.

The classic statement of the reformist conception was represented by the very influential book by Karl Kautsky, the “Pope of Marxism,” under the title The Road To Power. That book was very influential far beyond the borders of Germany, for whose Social Democratic Party it was written. The Road to Power offers a seemingly radical prognosis: the choice for humanity lies between imperialism and socialism. Yet Kautsky assigns a remarkably passive role to the working class in the coming crisis. The dynamic element is the ruling class: its internal contradictions, corruption, and loss of self-assurance will drive the system towards self-destruction. The proletariat will passively inherit power after the bourgeoisie’s inevitable self-immolation, which is the necessary result of capitalism’s inherent tendencies of development. Social Democracy, basing itself on “independent scientific investigation by bourgeois thinkers” has the task of raising workers’ consciousness to the point where they have “a clear insight into social laws,” and such a movement’s victory is certain, down to “inevitable necessity.” All the socialist party need do is maintain its integrity by refusing collaboration in a passive stance of “opposition.” The center of such action as is to occur is the socialist party in parliament, and not the workers themselves. As Harman notes, in this social-democratic conception, “Other forms of working-class organization and activity can help, but must be subordinated to the bearer of political consciousness.” In Kautsky’s words, “This ‘direct action’ of the unions can operate effectively only as an auxiliary and reinforcement to and not as a substitute for parliamentary action.” Nowhere does Kautsky reveal any of Marx’s or Luxemburg’s sense of the working class itself as an active, world-shaping force.

The difficulty with the whole position, from the standpoint of the Left, was that it induced the kind of historical fatalism that Kautsky cheerfully accepted. One just had to wait for the workers to catch up with an already established theory, and for the contradictions of capitalist development to assist them along the way. What the theory did not suggest was that the Left should form its own party, or even a coherent tendency within the established parties, to fight for a different conception of the struggle, in which it would be the self-activity of the workers’ movement itself which would provide the basis for a “socialism from below,” and in which it would not be “the party” that would come to power, but new, directly democratic organizations created out of workers’ struggles.

Lenin is always prone to make statements not about “the consciousness of the workers” in the abstract, but rather of the form, “this section has moved to this point, but others are still behind.” This gives his political writings a concreteness and sharpness of focus not found in his contemporaries, and which provided a lesson book for those who, during and after 1917, joined his side. It also represents a vantage point from which the “fatalism” of the Second International is most effectively combated. Rather than “waiting” for the working class to complete its development and for it to then vote in a parliamentary government that will legislate socialism into existence—a scenario shown to be more than unlikely after a miserable century of experience of social-democratic parties!—revolutionary socialists should be attentive to the shifts in activity and consciousness among the working class, and indeed among all those opposed to the existing ruling class and its policies, and be ready to join in with their struggles and become part of their movements in order to play a part in connecting those particular struggles to the larger struggle to transform society. “Waiting” for the working class to unify itself under the parliamentary leadership of a social democratic party, or for it to unify itself spontaneously into an effective revolutionary force, is like Waiting for Godot: a drama without any conclusion, for such a “subject” will never unify itself spontaneously, since movements whether of workers or others are always and everywhere entities riven by inner contradictions and arguments. Revolutionary socialists should be part of those arguments, not outside them commenting.

Capitalism engenders and rests upon not simply the immediate process of exploitation of wage-labor, but a multitude of other oppressions and injustices. The struggle against capitalism is not simply a matter of the self-organization of workers to oppose their employers, but equally—and sometimes more importantly, depending on specific conditions—a host of struggles, against imperialism, against racism and ethnic and religious oppression, against the unequal treatment of women, against vicious policing and penal policies, against homophobia, against environmental degradation, and so on. Always and everywhere, socialists have to be active in defense of the “underdog,” to be, in Lenin’s outstanding phrase, “tribunes of the people.” All movements of the oppressed demand socialist support, all require that revolutionary socialist organizations participate in their struggles and seek to link them together as part of the overall challenge to the capitalist system as a whole. Within the workers’ movement itself, even at the cost of temporary unpopularity, socialists have to campaign for a politics of human liberation.

For those looking to learn more about Colin Barker and his work, in addition to his books, you can check out his more recent writings for rs21 in the UK, his website that collects many of his writings and drafts, a collection of some of his writings on, as well as the obituary written by Ian Birchall.

We want to hear what you think. Contact us at
And if you've enjoyed what you've read, please consider donating to support our work:


Colin Barker View All

Colin Barker (1939-2019) was a revolutionary socialist activist and an innovative Marxist sociologist whose work drew from many traditions and made essential contributions to a number of fields. He wrote and edited many books and articles, including Revolutionary Rehearsals (1987), Marxism and Social Movements (2013), and the quintessential new book, Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age (2021) published posthumously.