Social Movement Theory: An Analysis of the Class Conflict Social Movement Theory and Lenin’s Social Movement Theory

This paper analyzes the class conflict social movement theory and Lenin’s social movement theory. Class conflict refers “to the antagonism that occurs within the society as a result of competing for socioeconomic interests and desires between people of different classes” (Tarrow 23).

Class conflict can be manifested in various forms. This can be in the form of direct violence, which often involves rivalry over resources and cheap labor. Class conflict can also be manifested in the form of indirect violence. Indirect violence may involve an unsafe working environment, starvation, poverty, or illness. Class conflict can also be manifested in the form of coercion or ideology.

Furthermore, political forms of class conflict do exist. As such, certain groups may legally or illegally bribe government leaders or legislators to pass certain laws in their favor. For example, in the forms of sanctions, acts of congress, tax laws, labor and consumer laws, and injunction or tariffs.

It would not have occurred to the earliest theorists of social movements, Marx and Engels, to ask what makes individuals engage in collective action. Instead, they would have posed the same problem as one of the readiness of the society’s structural development rather than one of individual choice.

But although they saw collective action rooted in social structure, Marx and Engels seriously underrated the resources need to engage in collective structure, its structural dimensions, and the importance of politics (Tarrow 19). Max and Engels were classical structuralists who left little room for the concrete mechanisms that draw individuals into collective action.

People will engage in collective action, they thought, when their social class comes into fully developed contradiction with its antagonists. In the case of the proletariat, this meant when capitalism forced into large scale factories, where it lost ownership of its tools but developed the resources to act collectively.

Among these resources were class consciousness and trade unions. It was the union of socialized production in the factory that would pound the proletariat into a class for itself and give rise to the unions that give it a political form. Although there are more elegant and more obscure formulations of the thesis, Marx put it most succinctly in The Communist Manifesto: “The advance of industry, whose revolutionary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the laborers due to competition, by their revolutionary combination, due to association…The real fruit of the battle lies not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers” (Tarrow 20).

Marx dealt summarily with a problem that has worried activists ever since: why members of a group who should revolt when history provides the objective conditions for revolt often fail to do so.

Concerned with the problem that the worker’s movement would not succeed unless a significant proportion of its members cooperated, he developed a theory of “false consciousness” by which he meant that if workers failed to act as history dictated, it was because they remained cloaked in a shroud of ignorance woven by their class enemies.

We now know that as capitalism developed, it produced divisors among the workers and created mechanisms that integrated them into capitalist democracies.

Through nationalism and protectionism, workers often aligned themselves with capitalists, suggesting that much more than class conflict was necessary to produce collective action on their behalf. A form of consciousness had to be created that would transform economic interests into revolutionary collective action.

Unlike Max Weber’s discussion of social class, which is more taxonomy than theory, the Marxist concept of class is firmly embedded in his theory of history.

In Marxian, theory class is the key social relation in society in that it identifies the conflict potentials of a particular society, predicts the major collective actors, who will emerge to struggle over the existing forms and distribution of productive forces, and indicates the new social relations that will free the productive forces for further development. It is not suspiring that may have complained of the overburdening of the concept class in Marxian theory.

In Marxian theory, the proletariats’ struggles are necessary for the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of the society in which production is directly geared to the satisfaction of needs. “Marx’s theory historically rests on the distinction and relationship between the forces of production and the relations of production in a historically specific mode of production” (Tarrow 25).

These are the circumstances over which any generation has no choice, those directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past. Following Cohen’s account, “the phrase forces of production refer to instruments of production, raw materials, and the productive capacities of labor power” (Tarrow 25).

Especially important is labor power reinforced by productively useful science. In contrast, “the phrase relations of production refers to the pattern of ownership of the forces of production; either relations of ownership by persons of productive forces or persons or relations presupposing such ownership” (Tarrow 25). The pattern of ownership establishes a specific class structure in each historical mode of production.

In his logical reconstruction of historical materialism, Cohen emphasizes the objective conditions necessary for revolutionary change (Tarrow 23). Elaborating Maxi’s 1959 preface, Cohen argues that there are two principal theses of Marx’s theory of history: the primacy thesis and the development thesis.

The primacy thesis posits that specific productive relations exist in certain societies because they are propitious for the development of the development forces. As the forces increase, they reach a point where they can no longer develop within these relations of production.

That is, the existing relations of production and ownership become fetters on the further development of the forces and are replaced by new relations. Therefore, in the dynamic of history, the forces of production have primacy over the relations of production.

On the other hand, Lenin’s social movement theory focused on resource mobilization. However, it was not as effective as Marx’s class conflict theory. Lenin’s theory was seen as an organizational amendment to Marx’s theory.

In superimposing an intellectual vanguard on the Young and unsophisticated Russian working class, Lenin was adapting Marxist theory to the context of repressive state and to the backward society it ruled; both retarded the development of class consciousness ad inhibited collective action.

However, the theory fails to explain what a mature working class in a liberal political system would have done had it come to power independently because after Leninism took control in Russia, the entire international system was transformed.

When the theory of vanguard was applied indiscriminately to the world communist movement with little regard for social and political opportunities and constraints, the result was a weakening of Western social democracy and in, Italy and central Europe, of democracy tout court. Some of the problems raised by Lenin’s theory were addressed by one of his Western successors, Antonio Gramsci, who paid with his life for his mechanical adoption of Lenin’s theory by Communist parties in the West.

Works Cited

Tarrow, Sidney. Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Print.

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