Since the world crisis of 2008, we have been living in a phase characterized by poor growth, political instability, and geopolitical tension.  In this context, large waves of class struggle, like that in 2010-2012 and 2018-2019 along with the rise and advance of far-rights and authoritarianism in the world pose once more the question of the formation of the working class. However, the new forms of social struggle and political domination call for an update as to how to tackle this issue. This task becomes more complex due to insufficient development of these categories in Marxism.

Strikes, occupation of factories, marches and demonstrations, riots, uprisings, revolutions… the gap between the category class struggle and this motley set of terms speaks of a lack of conceptual framework: the development of a theory of class struggle. Such a task thus coincides with the building of mediations -intermediate categories- that could enable the understanding of the struggles in their specific diversity and in their connection with the processes of class formation. Despite the central nature of this category for Marxism and its long-standing history, attempts to develop the theory ended up in fragmentary results of difficult systematization. Looking back into its most relevant moments, from the intense debates about Socialist tactics and strategies of classical Marxists to the systematic attempts to build a theory from the 1960s, all this stresses the extant obstacles in the task.

Contemporary to many of these attempts, in political science and sociology both in the United States and Europe of the early 1970s, a set of approaches being developed would prove productive in posing problems, categories and methods for the study of contentious collective action and social movements. All through the 1980s and 1990s they would become the dominant research currents of social conflict and protests. As a result, most Marxists forked into two stances: either the rejection or controversy -struggle- against the new theories, or increasingly resorting to these categories and methods in a non-critical way leading to eclecticism, and worst, gradual withdrawal from the Marxist theory.

The object of Marxism, Social Movements and Collective Action (edited by Adrián Piva and Agustin Santella) is to contribute to the road less travelled -although there are some relevant antecedents- that of a critique of theories of collective action and of social movements to develop a Marxist theory on class struggle. The critical method works not only to reveal their function of mystifying social reality, but also with an aim to reaching their moments of truth. Its assumption is that these theories are significant to understand the phenomena of the social conflict and protest for both reasons, which can be summarized in one statement: they reproduce essential dimensions as to the objective appearance of these phenomena at the level of categories. In other words, they are significant both for what they conceal -it is necessary to know what they conceal! and for what they disclose. Therefore, they can offer a way out of the deadlock in which certain strands of Marxism find themselves having been self-absorbed for too long.

To that end, this volume presents a set of essays that put forward different stances on the relationship between Marxist theory and non-Marxist approaches to social movements and collective action.

The first set aims at introducing categories and methods of both perspectives within a Marxist approach.  Piva undertakes a critical appropriation of some categories from the resource mobilization approach with a view to developing elements of a theory of the processes of political composition/decomposition of the working class. Santella draws on modern contributions from historical materialism, critical theories of power, and collective action theories to explain the formation of the working class and its collective action. Engelhardt and Moore propose integrating the methods used by leading social movement theorists into a critical social theory centred on class struggle.

By contrast, the second set critiques the epistemological and theoretical fundamentals of collective action and social movement approaches, highlighting their incompatibility with Marxism. Iñigo Carrera and Cotarelo suggest that both approaches deny social classes and share a factionalist analysis of society. Bonnet outlines an alternative to the individualistic theory of collective action based on a critique of rational action models. Atzeni proposes the reconstruction of a collective action theory of workers rooted in the contradictions of the capitalist labour process avoiding both subjective and individual explanations.

A third set seeks to conceptualize some specific aspects of contentious action in dialogue with theories of collective action and social movements. Nowak explores the restraints marked by the wide variety forms of wage relations, self-employment, and informality on the Marxist conceptualization of class conflict. Moddonesi traces the foundations of a Marxist theory of political subjectivation in the work of Gramsci and opens the door to a translation of Gramsci’s insight into the field of political sociology, of collective action, and social movements. Karatasli discusses the role of relative surplus population to explain the recent waves of global unrest. Gallas proposes a conceptual framework to address the challenge of the normative foundations of labour studies. Santella and Soul present a perspective on the current conceptual issues surrounding the formation of the working class.

Adrián Piva (1972), a sociologist by the University of Buenos Aires and Doctor in Social Sciences by Quilmes University, Argentina. He is currently a Professor of sociology for historians at the University of Buenos Aires. He is a Researcher at the National Council of Scientific Research of Argentina (CONICET). He has extensively researched the relationship between the mode of capital accumulation, class struggle and the mode of political domination in contemporary Argentina; and on the theory of classes, the state and hegemony. He has six books published, several book chapters and articles in scientific journals.

Agustin Santella (1972) holds a PhD in social sciences from the University of Buenos Aires. He is a full-time Researcher at the National Council of Research (CONICET) and Instituto de Investigaciones “Gino Germani” and a graduate professor at University of Buenos Aires. He researches class struggle, collective action and Marxist theory. Some of his publications include “Labor conflict and capitalist hegemony. The auto-industry in Argentina” (Brill, Leiden, 2016 and Haymarket, Chicago, 2017) and “El Perón de la fábrica éramos nosotros”, coauthored with Andrea Andujar, (Del Subte, Buenos Aires, 2007), as well as several book chapters and articles in scientific journals.

To read more, see: Adrián Piva and Agustín Santella (2022). Marxism, Social Movements and Collective Action. Palgrave MacMillan

Image: Le Petit journal. Supplément du dimanche, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_gr%C3%A8ve_des_mineurs_du_Pas-de-Calais,_1906.jpg