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Social Movements and the Popular Organisation

category brazil/guyana/suriname/fguiana | anarchist movement | policy statement author Saturday February 11, 2012 17:07author by Federação Anarquista do Rio de Janeiro - FARJ Report this post to the editors
At this point we aim to discuss social movements, their desired characteristics and methods of action, as well as how they can contribute to the construction of the development of the popular organisation.



It is the people themselves, the hungry,
the dispossessed that have to abolish misery.

Ricardo Flores Magón

To organise the people’s forces in order to realise the
[social] revolution,
is the only end for those who sincerely desire freedom.

Mikhail Bakunin

To favour popular organisations of all kinds is the logical
consequence of our fundamental ideas and, thus, should
be an integral part of our programme.

Errico Malatesta

We have mentioned the popular organisation and our expectations in relation to it a few times before. We have already defined that its objective is “to overthrow capitalism and the state, and, by means of the social revolution, to build libertarian socialism”, and by this we understand it as true protagonist in the process of social transformation. We also mentioned that the level at which social movements develop and in which we must seek to build and increase the social force of the popular organisation is what we call the social level. At this point we aim to discuss social movements, their desired characteristics and methods of action, as well as how they can contribute to the construction of the development of the popular organisation.

In dealing with this social level we must think of the possibilities of the people, who must be the grand agent of the social change we propose. It is undeniable that there is a latent social force in the exploited classes, but we understand that it is only through organisation that this force can leave the camp of possibilities and become a real social force. The question arises, then, as follows:

It is true that there is [in the people] a great elementary force, a force that without any doubt is superior to [that of ] the government, and to [that of] the ruling classes taken together; but without organisation an elementary force is not a real force. It is this indisputable advantage of organised force over the elementary force of the people on which is based the force of the state. Thus, the problem is not knowing whether they [the people] can rise up, but whether they are capable of building an organisation that gives them the means to arrive at a victorious end – not by a fortuitous victory, but a prolonged and final triumph. [95]
Starting with organisation and its practical application in the field this force grows exponentially, offering a real chance to combat capitalism and the state. This because “we have with us justice, rights, but our strength is still not enough” [96]. As we said earlier, it will be the permanent increase of the social force of the organisation of the exploited classes that will be able to provide the desired social transformation.

For the construction of an organisation that gives us the means to reach the desired ends – social revolution and libertarian socialism – consolidating the victory, we advocate a model for the creation and development of what we call the popular organisation.

Firstly, we justify organisation conforming to what we have previously defined; it being the “co-ordination of forces or ‘association with a common objective and with the necessary ways and means to achieve this objective’”. We have also already said that organisation multiplies the social force of the people and it is only through it that we can offer an opposition capable of overthrowing capitalism and the state. This model of organisation that we assert is fruit of the free association of members of the exploited classes.

By association they [the workers] instruct themselves, mutually inform one another and put an end, by their own efforts, to this fatal ignorance that is one of the principal causes of their slavery. By association they learn to help oneself, to know oneself, to help one another, and eventually to create a more formidable force than that of all the bourgeois capitalists and of all the political powers together. [97]
In second place, we justify this organisation as being popular, giving it a combative class struggle characteristic. In other words, the whole category of the exploited classes must be mobilised in this model of organisation, as defined above. The involvement of all the sectors that suffer in the harshest way the impacts of capitalism is, therefore, a priority. When the organisation has a class character this stimulates and empowers the class struggle. In this way the popular organisation is built from the bottom up, from the “periphery to the centre”, and outside of the power centres of the current system.

The popular organisation is built by means of the will of the people’s struggle. Thus it is not the fruit of a spontaneous movement, even while knowing that many expressions of the class struggle arise spontaneously. It is also necessary because we do not believe – differently to that which many socialists argued in the nineteenth century – that capitalist society is headed towards its own end, or that socialism is the result of a natural evolution of capitalism. It seems quite clear to us that we must think of an organisational model as a tool of struggle, for otherwise capitalism and the state will not cease to exist.

We understand the popular organisation as the result of a process of convergence of diverse social organisations and different grassroots movements, which are fruit of the class struggle. For this reason we believe that we should favour all kinds of organisations and movements of this type, understanding this support as the consequence of our most fundamental ideas. These organisations and movements were called “mass movements” in the past, but the authoritarian side of socialism ended up giving to the term “masses” the connotation of “mass of pawns”, of a movement without consequence that should be directed and guided by a vanguard, which would be organised in a verticalised party. That is, the authoritarians treated the mass movements from a hierarchical perspective, seeking to dominate them.

We consider social and popular participation in the process of social transformation essential. Mass movements can be called social organisations, popular movements, but also social movements – a term we will use going forward.

A social movement is an association of people and/ or of entities that have common interests in the defence or promotion of determined objectives before society. These movements can be in the most different places in society and have the most different banners of struggle, that show the needs of those around the movement, a common cause. As we have seen today’s society provides the largest portion of society with a situation of suffering and of deprivation and this often serves as a factor of association, which gives body to the organisations that defend the interests of the people.

Through the organisations founded for the defence of their interests workers acquire consciousness of the oppression in which they find themselves, and from the antagonism that divides them from the bosses [or from the ruling class] start to desire a better life, habituating themselves to collective struggle and solidarity and being able to win those improvements that are compatible with the persistence of the state and capitalist regime. [98]
Social movements are fruit of a tripod comprised of necessity, will and organisation. This tripod motivates the creation of diverse social movements around the world; and this is no different in Brazil. Here there are landless, homeless, unemployed and community movements, and movements for affordable and quality transport. There are movements of recyclable waste collectors, the indigenous, students, human rights, labour, feminists, blacks, gays, of popular councils, artistic, cultural, environmental, among others. These movements have in common the fact that they arose out of the domination and exploitation of the society in which we live; many of them being fruit of the class struggle.

However, there are not a lot of social movements that seek to build the popular organisation or even to combat capitalism and the state. Many of them are imbued with the characteristics and values of capitalist society and, more than that, often propagate these characteristics and values. The majority of these movements, which we could call reformist, believe that there is a solution to their questions under capitalism. That is, the end for a large part of these movements is the attainment of short term gains, within capitalism, and nothing more. Besides this, in the majority of cases, social movements are not properly articulated between themselves and each carry out their own struggle, without articulation between them. Therefore, they do not even point to the start of the construction of the popular organisation. This shows that although there are a number of social movements, the fact is that their characteristics and ways of acting are not, in large part, in accordance with that which we think to be appropriate. The means that are being chosen do not lead to the ends advocated by us.

The social movements that we defend, and which we think are contributing to our political project, share certain characteristics and ways of doing things.

They are the strongest possible, with good organisation and the greatest number of people being focused on the struggle that they have decided as priority. So, a movement of the landless should encompass all those that are willing to struggle for land, a movement of the homeless must embrace all those that are willing to struggle for housing and so on. Thus, we believe that social movements should not fit and lock themselves within an ideology, whatever it may be. We do not believe in anarchist, Marxist or social-democratic social movements, or those of any other specific ideology. Therefore, people from the most diverse ideologies must “fit” in the social movements that we are prepared to create or develop. For us, an anarchist social movement, or one of any other ideology, would only tend to split the class of the exploited, or even those that are interested in struggling for a particular cause. That is, the force that must drive the creation and the development of social movements is necessity, and not ideology. So “no philosophical or political theory must enter as an essential basis, and as an official condition required in the programme [...]. But this does not imply that all political and philosophical issues [...] cannot and should not be freely discussed.” [99]

Although we believe that social movements should not [be made to] fit within anarchism, we think that anarchism must, as far as possible, be spread within social movements. Going forward we will discuss how this should be done and with what objective. For now, suffice it to say that the social movements which we advocate are not and should not be anarchist, but, rather, are fertile ground for anarchism.

Similarly do we think of the question of religion. Although at the political level we have anti-clerical positions, we think that at the social level one should not insist on this issue, preventing members of the exploited classes that have religious beliefs from struggling. Many people in the exploited classes hold religious beliefs and it is possible to work with this question within the movements, without impeding these people from struggling. There are many progressive religious groups in the social movements, which are part of the broad camp of the left and with which there is a possibility to work. Social movements “must seek a common basis, a series of simple principles on which all workers, whatever may be [their political and religious choices], being at least serious workers, that is, severely exploited and suffered men, are and must be in agreement” [100].

Another important characteristic of social movements is autonomy, which occurs primarily in relation to the state, political parties, bureaucratic unions, the church, among others. Social movements have to make decisions and act on their own, dealing with their own affairs independent of organisms that exercise, or seek to exercise, domination over them. Therefore, those who want to lead, to order or to cause such that the social movements serve their own goals should not have influence over them, since they do not struggle for the collective good of the movements, but use the maxim that serving yourself is the best way to serve others.

Social movements should not be linked to politicians or to any sector of the state because we know that when they come wanting to help, in the vast majority of cases they are looking for a “base” for their party-political interests, or seeking to calm movements, establishing their dialogues with institutions of the state. Knowing well the authoritarian conception of parties we know that their interest is always to harness social movements, be they reformist or revolutionary parties. Firstly, they participate in elections and see social movements as a source of votes. Secondly, they seek a “mass movement” that serves as a base for the vanguard that they wish to be. In this case, political parties want to lead and direct the social movements, thinking themselves superior to them and judging [themselves] to be the enlightened that will bring consciousness to the exploited classes. Often their members are intellectuals that want to know, better than the people themselves, what is best for them. Other organisations that seek to control, such as churches and bureaucratic unions also do not help social movements.

All these people should be removed from social movements because they do not defend the interests of the social movements, but their own interests. The social movement does not need bosses, leaders or people who want to use it. The social movement needs people who want to support it and struggle with it, but not struggle for it, in its place. It is a place that is legitimised by the need for survival and by the dignity that causes that promote true solidarity possess. [101]
What social movements need is people that want to support them, regardless of their class origins, because they consider their struggle just. There is no problem with people that support social movements not being in exactly the same conditions as the other militants. Thus, we consider it just that employed people support the struggle of unemployed workers, that people who have housing support the struggle of the homeless, and so on. Even people who come from the middle classes can and even should, if they are ethical people, approximate themselves to the most exploited sectors of the people and offer their support. This solidarity should always be well-received, since it is important for the social movements. An ethical duty, as Kropotkin put it, to incite the members of the middle classes to struggle alongside the people. He said:
[...] All you that possess knowledge, talents, if you have heart, come, you and your companions, put them at the service of those most in need. And know that if you were to come, not as masters, but as comrades in struggle; not in order to govern, but to inspire yourselves in a new midst; less to teach than to conceive the aspirations of the masses, guessing and formulating them, and then working, tirelessly, continually, [...] to make them come into life – know that then, and only then, will you have lived a complete life. [102]
This candidature of support for social movements should be subject to the attitudes of those who intend to act in this situation. Both the supporters, as well as the militants that are organisationally legitimate must demonstrate that they are much more willing to listen than to speak. They must become aware of the situation and of the circumstances of those that form the social movements and struggle shoulder-to-shoulder, to grow with them and not to define in an authoritarian and vertical manner their ways and forms. In this case, the supporter or militant will see that the most relevant thing will be to contrast their ideology with the reality of the group and not to try to reduce the social movement to their ideological certainties.

Furthermore, when we talk of autonomy we must keep in mind that autonomy, for us, does not mean the absence of ideological struggle or even a lack of organisation. When you encourage "non-ideology", frequent spontaneity; when you renounce the project and the revolutionary programme – often calling this autonomy – you open spaces and leave open terrain for the ruling class, the bureaucrats and the authoritarians that will occupy these spaces.

Another important feature of social movements is their combativeness. By claiming that they must be combative we wish to say that social movements must establish their conquests by imposing their social force, and not depend on favours or good deeds from any sectors of society, including the state. Combativeness is also characterised by a posture of defence of class struggle outside the state. As we understand the state as a strong supporting pillar for capitalism, we do not believe that social movements are able to exercise their politics inside it without this signifying a way of legitimising capitalism. The approaches that states take towards social movements are always a way to co-opt them, to make a certain "social pact" aimed at calming the spirits of the class struggle with the objective of ensuring the legitimacy of the system. Independent of whether social movements are more or less violent, the fact is that they should always remain combative, confronting capitalism and the state itself.

We also support direct action as a form of political action as opposed to representative democracy. Social movements should not seek to trust in politicians who operate within the state to represent their interests. We know that the machinery of the representative system transforms all who enter it, not allowing – even with the well-intentioned – that elected politicians perform actions on behalf of the exploited classes. Even the "left" politicians confuse means with ends and they confuse, more than clarify, social movements; not being, therefore, the most correct means for their emancipation. Direct action happens when the social movement itself,

in constant reaction against the current environment expects nothing of men, of powers or of forces external to it, but [...] creates its own conditions of struggle and draws from itself its means of action. [...] Therefore, direct action is the clear and pure concretisation of the spirit of revolt: it materialises the class struggle, which it causes to pass from the field of theory and abstraction to the field of practice and realisation. As a result, direct action is the class struggle lived in the day-to-day, it is the permanent assault against capitalism. [103]
In this way social movements do not entrust their action to politicians but perform it on their own accord, putting into practice the motto of the IWA that "the emancipation of the workers will be the task of the workers themselves." The struggle for this emancipation must be done strategically, making direct action more or less violent conforming to the demands of circumstance. When it needs to be violent it must always be understood as a response, as self-defence in relation to the system of domination and exploitation in which we live.

Direct action is a way of social movements doing politics as

we affirm that politics, in the sense that we advocate it, does not have a partisan meaning but the sense of management of what is public, for everyone. Politics that is made by the people, properly organised, effectively deciding on everything that concerns them. The politics we advocate is that which stands today as a struggle of the workers, organised from the bottom up, against the exploitation and oppression of which we are victims. It is in social mobilisation that we see some prospect of significant political change in society. [104]
In this case, social movements do not fight in order to have power in the state or in their institutional structures of power. They are always organised outside the state, advocating the return of political power to the people. Thus, we believe that the problem is not who occupies the state, but the state itself.

And it is only in this way that we understand the concept of popular [people’s] power advocated by other groups and organisations. If by popular power we understand the growing social force of the organisations of the exploited classes, which are embedded in an ongoing dispute with capitalism and the state, then we agree. However, there are those who defend popular power as the support of vanguards detached from the base, hierarchy, authoritarian parties, claims to the state and bureaucracies of various kinds. When popular power signifies this second model, then we are in complete disagreement.

In addition to direct action as a way of doing politics, social movements – in the way in which we understand them – have a necessity, in the event that they propose themselves as agents of significant social transformation, to use direct democracy as a method of decision-making. Direct democracy takes place in social movements when all those who are involved in them participate effectively in the process of decision-making. By using this method decisions are made in an egalitarian way (all have the same voice and the same voting power) in horizontal assemblies, where the issues are discussed and deliberated. There are not people or groups that discuss and deliberate the issues outside of the assemblies; there is no hierarchy or bosses who order and others who obey.

Direct democracy exercised in this way can be compared to the functioning of libertarian socialism as explained earlier. In other words, social movements are co-ordinated internally by the principles of self-management and are joined, in cases of necessity, through federalism. It is important to note that, acting in this way, we are incorporating into our means of struggle positions held for the purposes we want to achieve, confirming the maxim that "the ends are in the means." Even the leaders and assumed functions are temporary, rotating and recallable.

In this model of social movement there is a necessity for militant conduct with ethics and responsibility. Ethics, which guides correct militant conduct, is grounded on principles that are opposed to capitalism and the state and which supports co-operation, solidarity and mutual aid. It also guides militant behaviour which operates without harming others, which encourages support, not allowing postures aimed at division or unfair infighting. Responsibility, a principle that opposes the values of capitalism, encourages the militant of the social movements to have initiative, that they assume responsibilities and fulfil them – this will prevent that a few are overloaded with many tasks – that they have attitudes consistent with the fighting spirit and that they contribute in the best way to the social movements.

Solidarity and mutual aid are also principles that should be encouraged in social movements. In opposition to the individualism of capitalism the unity of the exploited classes, in order to combat capitalism and the state, should be encouraged. On leaving isolation and seeking to associate oneself, to join with other people who want to build a more just and egalitarian world, people build class solidarity. This occurs through the association of one person with another to form a social movement, or even of one social movement to another in pursuit of building the popular organisation and the overcoming of capitalism and the state. In this case the limits of the state should not be recognised as social movements should show solidarity by class interests, not national interests. When they are guided by the interests of class, social movements are internationalist.

Also, social movements constitute a preferred space for the development of culture and popular education. It is culture, as a way of being and living of the exploited classes, which will give body to popular education. All who are mobilised develop their learning and new forms, manifestations, languages and experiences translate the spirit of struggle. As there is no complete knowledge it is the process of exchange between the militants which allows for this education, in which there is no teacher and student; all are teachers and students. Everyone learns and everyone teaches. In this way occurs the construction of an education that respects people’s culture and empowers militants through dialogues, debates, exchanges of experiences. In this process it is possible to compare the values of capitalism that are transmitted every day by the media, schools and other means of reproduction.

Moreover, the very "revolutionary gymnasium" provided by the experiences of struggle, at the same time as it will bring short-term gains will be responsible for assisting in this educational process, contributing with the practical experiences of seeking freedom through freedom itself.

The short-term gains, so-called reforms, when conquered by social movements will serve as ways to lessen the suffering of those who struggle and at the same time will teach the lessons of organisation and struggle. We understand, therefore, that "we will take or conquer eventual reforms in the same spirit as that which starts to take from the enemy bit-by-bit the ground he occupies, to advance ever more" [105]. And we believe that in struggling for reforms, social movements do not become reformists – those who understand the reforms as an end. Even with the struggle for reforms they can sustain a revolutionary practice and be against reformism, since "if we are against reformism, it is not because partial improvements do not interest us, but because we believe that reformism is not only an obstacle to the revolution, but even to the reforms "[106].

This statement leaves room for another key feature that we believe fundamental in social movements: revolutionary long-term perspective. In this case the idea is that social movements, besides having their specific banners (land, housing, work, etc.) may have as objectives the revolution and the construction of a new society. We understand the struggles of the short- and medium-term are complementary to this long-term perspective and not exclusive. With a long-term perspective movements have a greater ability for conquest, seeing as though the more distant the objectives, the greater the conquests – the first conquests not being the end of the struggle. Many social movements that do not have a long-term perspective, on having their demands met (land for the landless, homes for the homeless, work for the unemployed etc..) think that this is the end of the line. For us this is only the first step, and even if achieved, should stimulate other struggles and mobilisations around other problems that affect our society. It is this perspective that also provides a critical view of social movements in relation to capitalism and the state, leaving them alert to attempts at class conciliation and co-optation. This perspective also encourages solidarity and mutual aid, as the exploited classes no longer see themselves as fragmented, but as part of a whole that struggles for a new society. Thus, social movements defend a long-term perspective that is revolutionary,

in the sense that it wants to replace a society founded on inequality, on the exploitation of the vast majority of men by an oppressive minority, on privilege, on idleness, and on an authority protective of all these beautiful things with a society founded on equal justice for all and the freedom of all. [...] It wants, in short, an economic, political and social organisation in which every human being, without prejudice to their natural and individual peculiarities, finds equal opportunity to develop themselves, to educate themselves, to think, to work, to act and to enjoy life as a man. [107]
Another important point which must be mentioned is the fact that social movements have often been the result of spontaneous actions and mobilisations of the exploited classes. This fact is natural for us and we understand that we will always have to live with it. In extreme situations sectors of the population will revolt or be mobilised for different reasons: to denounce an injustice, to respond to an attack from the system, to get something to eat, a place to live etc. If on the one hand we advocate organisation we believe, on the other, that we should always support these moments of spontaneous popular mobilisation. Organisational objectives must be pursued in the midst of struggle. We must not, therefore, question spontaneity when it so happens, but rather, involved in the struggles, try to catalyse the forces in order to reach the necessary degree of organisation. The interaction of this dynamic of social movements, which naturally contains a high degree of spontaneity, with varying social contexts (repression, legislation, changes in the political forces at work etc.) will naturally cause social movements to have ebbs and flows. There will be times when the circumstances provide a reality of more radicalised and permanent struggle. In others they will provide contexts difficult for articulation, discouragement, fear, etc. That is, it is natural that there are contexts of ebbs and flows.
At certain times, which are generally the precursors of great historical events, of the great triumphs of humanity, everything seems to advance at an accelerated pace, everything breathes strength: minds, hearts, will, everything goes in unison, everything seems to go to the conquest of new horizons. So it is established throughout society, like an electric current that unites the most distant individuals in the same sentiment and the most disparate minds in a common thought that imprints the same will on all. [...] But there are other gloomy times, desperate and fatal, where everything breathes decadence, prostration and death, and which manifest a true eclipse of the public and private conscience. It is the ebbs that always follow the major historical catastrophes. [108]
We consider it our duty to properly evaluate the context and act in the appropriate manner. In times when the context points to a flux we must attack, acting with full force and providing all the necessary organisation. In times when the context points to an ebb we must know how to live with the problems, "keeping the flame alight", and wait for the right time to re-mobilise.

Finally, our view is that we must break the isolation of individuals, creating and encouraging the development of social movements with the characteristics here stated. This is a first step in our permanent strategy. After this, in a second step, we understand as necessary the joining of various social movements for the constitution of what we call throughout text the popular organisation, this being the confluence of social movements in a constant struggle against capitalism and the state.

Seeking to permanently increase the radicalisation and social force of the popular organisation, we understand it to be possible to reach the social revolution and thus constitute libertarian socialism. In this process of social transformation we believe that the exploited classes have an indispensable role, "this mass, [...] without the strong help of which the triumph of the revolution will never be possible" [109].


95. Mikhail Bakunin. "Needs of the Organisation." In: Concept of Freedom, p.136.

96. Idem. The Dual Strike of Geneva. Sao Paulo: Imaninário/ Faísca, 2007, p. 94.

97. Ibid. p. 90.

98. Errico Malatesta. "Los Anarquistas y los Movimientos Obreroa". Excerpt from Il Risveglio 1-15 out. 1927. In: Vernon Richards. Op. Cit. p. 111.

99. Mikhail Bakunin. "Unity and Programme of the Revolutionary Forces ...".In: Conceito de Liberdade, p. 163.

100. Idem. "La Política de la Internacional" In: Frank Mintz (ed.). Bakunin: crítica y acción, P. 85. Despite being a fierce critic of clerical issues, Bakunin argued that even religious workers should join the labour movement. We think, like him, that religion should not divide social movements. On Bakunin's critique of God and religion see: Mikhail Bakunin. God and the State. Sao Paulo: Imaginário, 2000, and Mikhail Bakunin. Federalism, Socialism and Anti-theologism.

101. Universidade Popular. Capitalismo, Anticapitalism e Organização Popular. Rio de Janeiro: UP / MTD-RJ (in press).

102. Peter Kropotkin. "Aos Jovens" In: Palavras de um Revoltado, p. 67.

103. Emile Pouget. L'Action Directe.

104. FARJ. "A Política não é para os Políticos" In: Libera 136. Rio de Janeiro, 2006.

105. Errico Malatesta. "Anarquismo e Reforma" In: Anarquistas, Socialistas e Comunistas, P. 146.

106. Idem. "Quanto Pior Estiver, Melhor Será" In: Anarquistas, Socialistas e Comunistas, P. 67.

107. Mikhail Bakunin. A Dupla Greve de Genebra, pp. 92-93.

108. Idem. "Algumas Condições da Revolução." In: Conceito de Liberdade, pp.128-129.

109. Idem. "Educação Militante". In: Conceito de Liberdade, p. 147.

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