What is politics?

by · November 6, 2010

So what is politics? For most, politics is that thing that happens in Canberra and on Macquarie Street. That thing to be ridiculed, not trusted, obsessed over and argued about. It is that thing external from us, happening ‘out there’ in other locations, and reported in the media.

Yet politics is also a practice, or potential practice, of everyday life. One that is greater and more diverse than official or representative politics, and yet also not reducible to personal visions, actions and views. It is something that is social, and sits in civil society rather than simply within the state and political society (Thomas 2009).

In contemporary Australian civil society, social movements are the backbone of political activity. We are in a period where industrial struggle has declined, and it is on social movements that many activists have focused their attention. In the last decade alone we have seen asylum seeker movements, the movement for fair trade and global justice, campaigns to expose the horrors of the NT Intervention, the movement against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and action for climate justice to name just a few.

Yet the radical Left in Australia has failed to consistently and constructively relate to, intervene in and influence the development of social movements in this time. Not only have tactical errors been made in individual campaigns, but there has been a failure to capitalise on building movements and networks when opportunities have presented themselves.

There has been a categorical failure to build a new radical Left since Seattle. It is my contention that the radical Left’s failure to build has been a consequence of a deeper failure to appreciate ‘what is politics’ in contemporary times.

In recent decades there has been an explosion of academic work on social movements. Initially published in sociological journals, this work has fed a specialised field of social movement studies. Leading theorists like Alain Touraine (France), Alberto Melucci (Italy), Charles Tilly, Sidney Tarrow and John D. McCarthy (United States) have looked for ways to explain the new movements that formed among students and around issues like the Vietnam War, racism/civil rights, women’s and gay liberation, and imperialism. While sociologists were traditionally meant to solve problems and explain dissent, these academics were energised by the new struggles and often actively engaged in relationships with student activism at places like the Sorbonne and UC Berkeley.

So what do these theorists mean when they talk about ‘social movements’? In general terms, social movements have been defined in reference to key features, such as:

  • at least occasional mass mobilisation
  • tendency towards a loose organisational structure
  • spasmodic activity
  • working at least in part outside established institutional frameworks
  • bringing about social change (or perhaps preserving aspects of the social order) as a central aim (Scott 1992: 132).

While there is variation in definitions, and more considerable variation in how such definitions are operationalised, social movement researchers often focus on movements as a series of features that, when added up, ‘make’ a social movement. Such definitions contain an implicit assumption that movements are first and foremost organisational forms. While of course they are this, to see them as only this is a misunderstanding of how social movements come into being and how they relate to wider social structures. We must start by asking where social movements come from, not what they look like when we see them.

Social movements are best understood as an emergent property of the class struggle, in a relationship with class conflict that is mediated by (and in turn impacts on) its structure and features. In essence movements, along with political parties and labour organisations, are the concrete form the class struggle takes. While they often take the form of an organisation or network of organisations, to understand social movements as an organisational type which ticks certain boxes/attributes is an error.

It is not just the academic world that visualises movements as organisational forms. This is also the perspective of many radical activists. Implicit in their practice is an understanding of social movements as organisations within a pluralist framework. Much of the radical Left has understood social movements in the same way as most academics, and approached the task of working inside movements as one of shaping them into something as close as possible to a particular ‘ideal’ they have in their minds.

Moreover, social movements have unique internal logics precisely because they are individually mediated expressions of the class struggle. They are differently mediated than trade union struggle or wildcat strikes, yet still an expression of that underlying dynamic. The implication of this understanding is that these movements are the field for intervention rather than some ‘impure’ phenomenon that must be approached from without. But the fact they are mediated expressions means that intervention must be directed at simultaneously building and shaping the movements from within.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote that ‘all men (sic) are intellectuals…but not all…have in society the function of intellectuals’. He argued that for the subaltern groupings to challenge the hegemony of the ruling class there must be the creation of a stratum of ‘organic intellectuals’ from within their ranks. These are activists who have a clear conception of the world and the aims of their movement, not just one or the other. He distinguished this group from the common understanding of intellectuals as abstract thinkers or academics, and instead compared it with organic intellectuals of the bourgeoisie like judges, lawyers, engineers and economists (Gramsci 1971).

While Gramsci believes that the recruitment of a layer of non-proletarian intellectuals to the subaltern movement is an important factor in the struggle for hegemony, this is not the key. Rather, it is to develop ‘intellectuals of a new type which arise directly out of the masses, but remain in contact with them to become, as it were, the whalebone in the corset’ (Gramsci 1971: 340). He goes on to argue that political parties are the natural expression of this process, the way by which such a stratum coheres itself within the wider movement or class: ‘The political party for some social groups is nothing other than their specific way or elaborating their own category of organic intellectuals directly in the political and philosophical field…’ (Gramsci 1971: 15).

In Gramsci’s view, then, the solution to the problem of how to theorise movement practice without either separation from the movement or reduction to its lowest common denominator is solved through the intertwining of two processes. First, the creation of a layer of activists developing theory but also remaining firmly rooted within the movement. Second, their agglomeration in a grouping in which they can discuss and debate ideas in the process of leading movement struggles. Contrary to the views of many activists who explicitly reject ideas of party organisation as inherently authoritarian (Hardt and Negri 2001 & 2004), Gramsci sees such organisation as vital to strengthening the intellectual forces of oppositional movements and classes fighting for liberation.

In the current situation, this concept of the organic intellectual is useful as it allows us to appreciate how the development of ideas can occur not only from within movements and from their point of view but also through articulating a broader vision not reducible to the movements or their participants. These individuals are ‘of’ the social movement, but also have horizons beyond it. They are able to both fight for the broadest/largest movement possible and fight for their own political vision within it.

The radical Left has had no shortage of organisational structure, but failed to do (or do well) what progressive activists in other times and places were able to. It is worth briefly summarising some of the problems that activists here have encountered or exemplified (and I do not exclude myself form these problems):

  • Subsuming one’s own politics in order to ‘build’ in a very generic and amorphous way, thereby making the downplaying of political differences one’s modus operandi.
  • Taking too strict a view as to what the ‘right’ sort of movement to intervene in is, or what elements of a movement threaten its purity and must be carved out.
  • Only engaging a movement that is amenable to being won to one’s own politics, or attempting to push movements to some sort of radical ideal.
  • Separating intervention in movements from building one’s own radical political current, or engaging in a propagandistic approach.
  • Starting with the ‘limitations’ of a movement—for example that they are not enough like a ‘working class movement’, or not radical enough—and mechanically trying simply to win the ‘next layer’ who can be convinced of this ‘hard’ conception of the right sort of campaign.
  • To see the development of the radical Left as the important thing, to the point of failing to see the necessary step of the building the Left more generally through the careful and time consuming development of necessary alliances.
  • Approaching movements from the position of ‘I’m the most radical one here, and my job is to ‘shift’ this committee/organisation/movement to the ‘Left’ (as if we are dealing with cogs and machines).

The question is therefore posed like this: Does a more fundamental misunderstanding about social movements underlie the difficulties encountered by radical activists in recent social movements in Australia?

To understand social movements in an organisational way leads to an approach of ‘turning’ that organisation around a certain political approach (be that organisational one or a broader political one). I can’t count the number of times I’ve been ‘advised’ that I must ‘turn’ or ‘shift’ the Greens to the correct position on a particular campaign. But, given the difficulties of winning movements around wider political questions in the short term, the focus for radical activists is often to drive narrow political discussions through organisational questions such as what slogan, what tactic or which speakers on the platform.

The positive alternative implied in the preceding would be to focus on the wider development of the movement and raise political debate in more generalised and abstract (rather than organisational or propagandistic) ways within it. How to do this then? That is a conversation for all of us, and perhaps the topic for future blog posts.


Gramsci, Antonio (1971), Selections from the Prisons Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (London: Lawrence and Wishart).

Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio (2001), Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Scott, Alan (1992), ‘Political Culture and Social Movements’, in J Allen, P Braham, and P Lewis (eds.), Political and Economic Forms of Modernity (Understanding Modern Societies; Cambridge: Polity Press), 127-77.

Thomas, Peter (2009), The Gramscian Moment (Historical Materialism Book Series; Leiden: Brill).

Discussion5 Comments

  1. David Jackmanson says:

    One small thing that strikes me is the need to turn rallies away from ritual, and into places where tactics and strategy are seriously debated.

  2. wrongarithmetic says:

    Good Post.I think that the Radical Left (assuming we even know what that phrase means) has helped to shape social movements; though this has often been a negative influence. Certainly there has historically been a tendency of sects to put an abstract conception of 'revolutionary practice' against the organic practices of particular social movements. I think, however, that many people who are on the radical Left are engaged in many social movements as committed activists. I think that the point Liz is right about is the failure to connect social movement practices to structural questions about politics as a whole; and this relates the failure to even ask the question 'what is politics'.I also think that in Gramsci his concpetion of the party is very loose. In the quote above he gives a definition of a party: 'specific way or elaborating their own category of organic intellectuals directly in the political and philosophical field'. I think any conception of parties as we know them, after Social Democracy and Bolshevism, needs to to be set aside. A 'party' is a 'specfic' way of relating intellectually to politics and the ideological field. I think the 'specific' bit is important. It is not a Platonic form – it is a material elaboration of a social group engaging politics and ideology. What that looks like is historically specific. After Social Democracy and Bolshevism there is a tendency to say that that is all and only what a party could ever be, rather than the particular, and transient, form the party took in the 20th C.We need to become more comfortable ignoring the general for the particular, as politics is always a particular expression of some generality.

  3. liz_beths says:

    @david: I agree with you – and the organising for rallies as well. Such much becomes the mechanics of making that ritual occur, and not enough about understanding what we are doing (and perhaps even really why).@wrongarithmatic: Thank you for your comments too. You are right to emphasise that about Gramsci. He very much sees the 'party' as a word to describe something that organically grows from specific circumstances and not what we associate as baggage with the word 'party'. Sometimes I prefer to use 'party like' structures it allows the imagination to imagine something not yet fixed.

  4. Boris Kelly says:

    liz_beths, thanks for this stimulating post. I love Left Flank. I'm not much of a political theorist so I'll leave that thread to others but one thing struck me on reading your post and that is the place of emotion in political discourse and activism. As much as we need a rationale (theory, ideology perhaps)upon which to base action, it is so often emotion that drives the will to act. Canetti wrote about this lucidly in Crowds and Power and we see it in evidence in the way commentators and activists eschew detailed debate in favour of the use of simplistic emotional triggers. The work of Frank Luntz and Duane Gish are useful to observe if only for their highly effective nuttiness. Luntz, for example, played a central role in re-shaping the climate change debate for the GOP. We are seeing the emergence of similar tactics in Australia at the moment. So, a challenge for activists, as I see it, is to develop mechanisms for responding to this dangerous reductionism and its capacity to fire up destructive emotions that resist rational argument. I've just finished reading Roberto Bolano's novel Amulet. The book is a kind of testimony to the Left in South America, Mexico in particular. Again, a very emotional book, one which embraces the poetic and the place of the writer in political activism.So, your post made me consider the affective zone of political engagement, which may not make much sense to others but is ringing like a bell for me.

  5. liz_beths says:

    Hi Boris! I also help co-edit a social movements journal called Interface. In our last issue there is an article on social movements and emotion by Colin Barker (about four PDFs down on the home page http://www.interfacejournal.net/).I've naughtily not read the article, but I've read a lot of other things by Colin and he is very good. His book on leadership and social movements is also great.