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Pluto Press is launching a series on Social Movements / Activist Research with Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen as series editors.

In this blog, Laurence Cox explains the urgent need for the series in our current political moment, and encourage prospective authors to submit their work.

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These are days of fire and struggle. From Hong Kong to Haiti, from Catalonia to Chile, from Lebanon to London, from French roundabouts to the villages of Rojava, people are contesting authoritarian power, economic inequality and the destruction of the planet. The victories are inspiring – and the defeats are crushing. The risks, and the stakes, are high.

People in struggle are up against it in many ways. An immense amount of learning takes place on the streets and while resting between actions – often far more than could be learned in the classroom. But the clock is always ticking, in many ways, and it can be hard or impossible to change direction on a cliff face (or rebuild a boat in the middle of the ocean).

The price of getting it wrong, too, can be far more than we imagined – in the broken lives of the victims of repression, the impossible circumstances we haven’t succeeded in changing, in the despair and cynicism that can follow widespread failure.

So as activists we need to learn from each other’s struggles, practice, debates, reflections – as well as sharing and documenting our own. This is part of how we come to know things that haven’t been passed down in our own movement, our own country or our own political tradition, and how we can keep our own knowledge developing fast enough to counter our opponents’ strategies.

How do movements win and why do they lose? What enables them to move beyond their current shape, and when do they fall back? How do their ideas, structures and practices affect their outcomes? How can they best handle encounters with the state, police, corporate wealth, media and cultural privilege? What is at stake in the internal politics of movements and what can be learnt from past mistakes? What would it take for movements to bring about another world?

The Social Movements / Activist Research book series, which Alf Nilsen and I are co-editing for Pluto Press, is designed to articulate and share this sort of knowledge widely, in the kind of book that activists will recommend to each other, that people will hold onto and come back to – and that might help us change the world.

The means of intellectual production

Why is this even necessary, in 2019?

Marx pointed out, nearly 175 years ago, that the class which controls the means of material production tends to control the means of intellectual production. There have been times and places where movements have managed to create, or take over, at least some of these: when they have had their own daily papers, their own adult education programmes, their own publishing houses, their own ‘organic intellectuals’, people who made a living through articulating and developing movement knowledge.

But in most countries, our movements now control fewer of the intellectual means of production than they have done in many decades. Activist social media is full of people sharing items from commercial media, even about our own movements. Many of our best-known thinkers are in effect celebrity writers, dependent on the neoliberal market to make a living and operating within a world of cultural niche markets. Academia forms another important reference point for many movements. Attempts to build our own independent intellectual capacity struggle to survive. (As a social enterprise, Pluto Press and other activist publishing houses are rare and precious achievements in these times.)

All of this has material effects. We see plenty written about the Issues – what movements used to call ‘agitation’, trying to convince the unconvinced and evoke outrage. There is plenty of ‘education’ in the sense of critical analysis of structure, often academic. These things have markets, and instant audiences.

What we see far less of – because it doesn’t sell, isn’t sexy and lacks academic status – is serious discussion of organising and strategy, what we do, what works, where the limits and challenges are, how our organisations and movements can develop effectively in a world where we are really up against it.

Of course movements do as much as they can – more or less according to their own capacity – but still, all too often, in a fragmented space shaped by neoliberalism and particularism, where we know little about the practical strategies pursued by other movements, in other countries or in other political traditions. Meanwhile, we are under pressure to take opinions on many issues that we will never act on; to know about people and events that we will never engage in; and it is often a difficult achievement to create spaces of our own for strategic thinking.

Meanwhile, in academia…

When as an activist in the early 1990s I tried an academic route to think about what our movements could achieve, I was told there was no need to read activists’ own research and theory: ‘the [academic] literature’ was the only important thing. In the years after 1968, many activists had moved into academia, often with similar goals, but in the face of increasing political defeats research on social movements in most countries became ever more focused on academic recognition and ever more distant from movements’ own questions and concerns.

Since that point, a couple of generations of activist scholars have pushed back and tried to create more space for dialogue between movements and researchers inside and outside the academy – with varying degrees of success in different countries and different disciplines. One big wave came from the anticapitalist / alterglobalisation movements, and another from the movements of 2011 and anti-austerity struggles.

These were messy and complex experiences, both inside movements and inside universities. One that has lasted over a decade is the social movements journal Interface, where a few dozen activist scholars have been involved in editing and publishing activist research on movements for over a decade now, free and unsupported by any commercial publisher, practicing dialogue between movements and research, across political and intellectual traditions, different movements and issues, across continents.

That was one personal route – many other people, and projects, have been hammering away at this problem from different angles. Our editorial advisory board for the series is deliberately broad to capture and reflect different approaches and traditions.

Alongside Alf Nilsen and myself, they are John Chalcraft, Ana Dinerstein, Christina Heatherton, Dolly Kikon, John Krinsky, David Landy, Ching Kwan Lee, Xochitl Leyva Solano, Alice Mattoni, Geoffrey Pleyers, Srila Roy, Anna Szolucha, Karl von Holdt and Lesley Wood – activist scholars from many different continents, working on different movements and within multiple intellectual and political traditions.

From and for social movements

The Social Movements / Activist Research book series will publish research ‘from and for’ social movements by activist researchers and engaged scholars. We are looking for work which isn’t speaking about movements without them, but uses feminist, participatory, co-research and other research strategies: work which grounded in movements’ own thinking and learning and which feeds back into it and can help other movements.

The idea is to support ‘learning from each other’s struggles’ and push back against the neoliberal pressures that separate this learning according to intellectual and political traditions, different issues, local media markets, academic disciplines and so on. We are looking for books which can speak across these divides – and across the division between social movement practitioners and activist researchers.

How should we best go about this? What working principles, ways of talking, reviewers, genres, formats etc work best? This will always be a work in progress – movements move, and if they are successful face new problems, including intellectual ones.

Our hope is that this series will bring out some of the best work from and for movements and help share that ‘learning from each other’s struggles’. We’re happy to work with new authors and those new to this kind of writing. The editing process is set up to be as supportive as possible and to bring your arguments and research out as strongly as possible.

Along the way, we aim to publish some cracking books that activists will recognise themselves in, lend each other, argue about, learn from… and use to help bring about a better world.

Writing for us

People thinking of writing for the series, and others who want to know more, can find the call for proposals here. You can also email the series editors, Laurence Cox [email protected] and Alf Gunvald Nilsen [email protected].

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Laurence Cox is editor, with Alf Gunvald Nilsen, of Pluto Press’ new Social Movements / Activist Research book series and has been an activist in many different movements for more than thirty years. His recent books include Voices of 1968 and We Make Our Own History.