We Make Our Own History: Review

Review: We make our own history: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism, Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen (Pluto Press, London 2014)

For an exponent of ‘history from below’, the title has an immediate appeal. To a degree, the book suffers from being presented partially to fulfil the academic necessity of publishing research work. The language used is sometimes overly technical which can be off-putting to the general reader, especially with the earlier chapters. But it is worth persevering. One strength that arises from this form of presentation is that it is well referenced and there is an extensive bibliography to lead the reader on to other discoveries. Given the approach of the authors, there are some odd omissions: no mention of Raya Dunayevskaya, whose Marxist-Humanism is echoed frequently, nor of some of the critics of Marxism such as Cornelius Castoriadis or Murray Bookchin, whose work would have seemed very relevant, and later works by David Harvey and others that cover the experience of the 2008 recession.

Despite these small reservations, the main strength of the book is that both authors have been immersed in recent activism, principally in Ireland and India, so their insights derive from practice as much as theory. Their experiences have led them to reject ‘institutionalised forms of Marxism’ in favour of another Marxism being possible, grounded in practice. They have tested their ideas among activist gatherings and social movement conferences, though perhaps they needed testing in more challenging environments, like the real world. This takes nothing away from their fundamental argument in favour of an organic, developmental conception of resistance and rebellion that creates its own theories through practice and self-reflection.

They make a useful distinction, drawn from Gramsci, between ‘common sense’ (ways of doing things imposed by the status quo and operating within the dominant consensus) and a deeper ‘good sense’ that builds from people’s real experiences and desires and challenges the boundaries of ‘how things are’. [p 74]

They provide a useful analysis of different forms of ‘social movement from below’ at different stages of development from the specifically local to the more generalised. Perhaps their most useful insight however is to describe the power structures of the status quo as ‘social movements from above’ – immediately reconceptualising the dominant culture as contested, temporary and fragile. The local and particular, through intelligent networking, can therefore begin to articulate an alternative and go on to develop a new narrative that can confront the dominant structures.

They note that social movements, grounded in everyday realities, always go well beyond the limited abilities of a political party, to institute grassroots, self-organised change. When this becomes self-reflexive, it becomes praxis and we enter the complex dialectical process, between social movements from above and below, and within each of these spheres, since these processes are uneven and sometimes contradictory. There is great hope in this way of seeing the world.

Tucked away on page 76 is an insight that may be worth developing further. The authors paraphrase from Lichtermann’s 1996 volume, The Search for Political Community. Describing different types of movement, they make reference to environmental groups in the US: ‘middle class, mostly white, US Green participants found themselves largely isolated from the cultures they were born into and needed to construct new activist communities as a means of social support’. Is this why people gravitate more easily to left-wing and Green parties and similar institutions rather than to grassroots movements? Is this why they then substitute sectarian factionalism for real community engagement, which in turn deepens their estrangement? Something for many activists to reflect on.

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