Social Movements, State Power And Strategy: The Challenges Of Organizing Under Progressive Governments

Issue Editors: Ronaldo Munck and Kyla Sankey
The overall objective of this special issue of Latin American Perspectives is to critically explore the role of social movements under the progressive governments in Latin America with a focus on their strategies of mobilization, organization and coordination under a changing political climate. The imposition of free market policies in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s not only transformed the entire social structures of these societies, but also provided the catalyst for a new cycle of anti-neoliberal social struggles. While these movements often began as a series of spontaneous struggles, the agenda soon moved on from how to mobilize against the social havoc wrought by neoliberalism to engaging with the dynamics of state power.  When, in very diverse contexts, these protests eventually paved the way for progressive governments with an anti-neoliberal agenda to assume office after 2000 the question then became one of how the social movements would strategize and organize when left wing political parties hold power.

The initial reaction from the left to this new conjuncture was euphoric. In the array of social forums, constitutional assemblies, community councils and other practices of participatory democracy, the energies of the left gathered around the hope that “another world is possible”.  Yet today it is increasingly apparent that the energies that initially greeted the rise of leftist presidencies was not sustained. As Atilio Borón observes: ‘there is no doubt that the great momentum of social struggles and progressive forces that shook the entire region at the end of the last century has waned’ (2016). Why this turn in the tide and where does it leave the left in Latin America?

To answer this question, we might take heed of the warning by Nicos Poulantzas back in the 1980s that even reformist programs cannot be carried through to fruition simply through the capture of political power. The integrated and intransigent nature of the capitalist state will end up blocking all attempts at systemic change. Any project for change- whether reformist or more full-blown societal transformation- must realize the need for the mobilization and unification of social forces for carrying out its program. This issue thus invites contributions examining in closer detail the strategies of the left under progressive governments in order to better understand the current situation in Latin America.

Since the 1980s, social research in this area has been largely influenced by varieties of social movement theory. Against the background of the collapse of the former revolutionary organizations, together with the decline of traditional workers’ movements, this emphasized the emergence of new forms of social activation, assumed to have moved away from class-based to identity issues, and no longer organized in traditional political parties or associations. Yet closer examination of today’s so-called identity movements might paint a more complex picture, suggesting some of the most significant struggles of recent times have taken place precisely at the intersection of class and identity, of social movements and class-based organizations. Ecuador’s CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador), for example, argues that recognition of indigenous identity in the plurinational state must come hand in hand with radical land reform.  This special issue thus welcomes studies that explore the intertwined dynamics of class and identity for such movements as they respond to changing conditions.

A further question we seek to address in this issue is that of political strategy. Inspired by neo-anarchist and often anti-political thinking, social movements adherents tended to show a strong suspicion of traditional parties and political vanguards, often rejecting the struggle for state power on principle. Instead, emphasis is placed on micro-political process: the principles of democracy, autonomy and spontaneity and alternative communal practices, as epitomized in the the Zapatistas’  “new way of doing politics”. Yet such analysis is ill-equipped for understanding the dynamics of organization building and the role of political projects, or the interactions between institutional and extra-institutional spaces when the left holds office. In this vein, George Ciccariello-Maher has proposed a framework for analysis of the interactions between movements and state power based on the distinction between “constituent moments”, defined as ‘sudden and explosive rebellions from below’, and “constitutional processes” which ‘occasionally propel the energy of such moments toward the reconstruction of the institutional structure.’ (2013, 127). Thus in Venezuela we might emphasize the changing dynamics of the radical left in the current era, which has moved away from vanguardism towards an embrace of more participatory and directly democratic governing structures. Under Chavez we might argue spaces were opened to allow movements to push for broader transformations while he negotiated the electoral dimensions. This issue seeks to address the various pathways and complexities of what the Latin American left often refers to as articulation and political formation of social forces as they seek to organize and build together,  and the challenges and contradictions of engaging with state power.

Finally, this issue aims to take a closer look at the various political programs offering alternatives to capitalism. Of these one of the most salient is the notion of vivir bien, which has emerged with force at the levels of both movements and the state since the election of Correa in Ecuador and Morales in Bolivia. Aimed at building an alternative model to capitalism based on the principles complementarity, equilibrium and community, vivir bien became a central feature of struggles against the destruction of ecosystems and public services under neoliberalism. Yet further interrogation has led commentators to point towards the disparity between the radically transformative potential of the notion as it has emerged in some struggles and the more ‘acceptable’ use of the notion by the state and other institutes like the World Bank. Pablo Solón (2016) argues that transformations took place ‘more in symbolic terms of recognition of the Andean indigenous peoples than in points of inflection for the capitalist developmentalist model that still exists under the so-called “plural economy.”’ The question of how radical programs have been translated into state policy, whether they have been strengthened or weakened will be explored in this issue.

We invite manuscripts focused on individual movements, progressive governments, specific policies and programs. Papers may deal with the following or related topics amongst others:

  • What strategies and tactics have social movements adopted since the rise to power of left wing governments? Which of these strategies, if any, may be considered ‘new’?
  • How have social movements responded to various conjunctures of the left in power? Have they continued to mobilize and organize, or have they been diffused? In particular, what have been the strategic responses of movements in the face of pro-market policies and alliances with the right from left wing governments?
  • Have movements been strengthened or weakened with the left in power? How have their demands and aims evolved?
  • What is the social base of these movements? What has been the role of various groups including unions, peasants, indigenous and student movements? What complexities and contradictions exist within and between these groups and how have they evolved under left wing governments?
  • What alliances have been formed, and what contradictions or complexities exist in these relations?
  • What has been the impact of the appointment of activists to state positions? How has this changed both the social composition of the state as well as the unity and militancy of movements?
  • How have radical agendas such as buen vivir and 21st century socialism fared in the hands of governments? Is there a crisis of credibility for these notions amongst the social movements?
  • Have there been transformations in popular consciousness or political culture? Alternatively, how has the increased consumption capacity of many sectors of popular classes following social policies affected political ideologies and behaviours?
  • What is the role of political leadership in left political projects? What has been its genesis and how has it related to the movements?
  • How do these experiences contribute to our understanding of the ‘paths’ to socialism in today’s world, and what can they teach us about the contemporary relevance of the opposition ‘reform or revolution’?

Submitting Manuscripts

Please feel free to contact the Issue Editors with questions pertaining to the issue but be sure that manuscripts are sent to the LAP office as Word documents by e-mail to: with the subject line – “Your name – MS for Left Social Movements”

To avoid duplication of content, please contact the issue editors to let them know of your interest in submitting and your proposed topic.  We encourage submission as soon as possible but this call will remain open as long as it is posted on the LAP web site.

Manuscripts should be no longer than 8,000 words of paginated, double-spaced 12 point text, including notes and references. The manuscript should include an abstract of no more than 100 words and 5 key words. Include a separate cover sheet with author identification, basic biographical and contact information, including e-mail and postal addresses. Please follow the LAP style guide which is available at under the “Calls for Manuscripts” tab where the manuscript review process is also described.   Manuscripts should be consistent with the LAP Mission Statement which is found under the “About” tab.

Manuscripts may be submitted in English, Spanish, or Portuguese  If you do not write in English with near native fluency, please submit in your first language. LAP will translate accepted manuscripts submitted in Spanish and Portuguese.If submitting in Spanish or Portuguese, please indicate if you will have difficulty reading correspondence from the LAP office in English.

All manuscripts should be original work that has not been published in English and that is not being submitted to or considered for publication in English elsewhere in identical or similar form.

Editor contact information:
Ronnie Munck
Kyla Sankey