Issue 2, 2018: Marx from the Margins

Militant Research

Tania Herrera

It is time to stop seeing the different roles we may play in social movements

as a divide between activists and academics, and see it instead as an

important and necessary division of labor.

(Mitchell 2005, 454)


Militant research is defined as “the place where academia and activism meet in the search for new ways of acting that lead to new ways of thinking” (Bookchin et al. 2013, 4). This search would require innovation in order “to write a new story without falling into the old patterns” (ibid. 31). Different voices using the concept (several with ties to the visual-arts world) provide accounts of participation in different tasks within social organizations and movements. The essence of militant research is to make visible a group identity and/or a commitment. For some, the concept is about introducing epistemic or methodological changes to ordinary academic practice. In this sense, the range of dualities involved in the academia-activism distinction (thinking versus acting, passive versus active) contributes to the illusion of apparent incompatibility or mutual isolation. Thus, while direct action would be possible only through activism, intellectual work appears as the exclusive task of the academy, without intervention in practical problems. Assuming the polarity of such spheres leads to a series of arguments that must be contested, as the absence of intellectual work within social organizations and movements, or the invalidity or nullity of work carried out by university researchers and professors in order to achieve radical social change. This dichotomy avoids a fundamental issue: how work is divided either in society or within social movements. For Marx and Engels, the allocation of labor and its products (like property) is obviously unequal and oppressive: individuals do not choose what they would like to do because these tasks are fixed by the social class to which they belong. Only through revolution is it possible to eliminate the conditions of class society, which means ending private property and work under the current division of labor (Marx and Engels 1998, 51-54). In the following, I argue that we must understand academic and activist work not as something divided, but as different aspects of the revolutionary praxis (Mitchell 2005, 450), complementary and mutually needed, as well as undetermined by the subjects themselves.


The notion of theaters posed by David Harvey is useful for distinguishing the multiplicity of spaces of thought and action from which one may work towards society’s radical transformation (Harvey, 2000). This implies influencing different scales and spaces of life, from individual actions to the collectivization of the desire for change. In this regard, interconnections between different theaters are necessary to reinforce insurgent political practices, looking for universal alternative referents in order to transcend particularisms. As a theater, the university would be a mediating institution between the particular and the universal (ibid. 243-244). Collective understanding that the precarious conditions result from budget cuts to public educational services may turn into social movements. Because of its several impacts in everyday life, direct action is motivated by the socialization of the experience of exploitation of university professors and research workers (the so-called academics). Direct action may consist, for instance, in the occupation of university places and goods, with active participation of the students.1 Other practices will also require unmasking uncontested logics, a project involving time and dedication, which like other tasks carried out by academic workers, can be unpredictably urgent and time-consuming. As Marx and Engels wrote in 1848 (2007), taking education out of the hands of the dominant class will require enormous work. Accepting the importance of this work must involve considering both its scope and limitations. Such endeavor demands for the opening of spaces for social criticism.2

Undoubtedly, direct action in social organizations and movements is very important: there is a need to solve the urgent problems of real people.3 But we must understand that many of these actions are exhausting and extend beyond the programmatic purposes of activist groups. We must keep in mind that many of the tasks historically undertaken by organizations and social movements are the result of the outsourcing of the so-called ‘social costs’ to popular organizations, which are now supposed to provide welfare (Herrera 2017). In reaction, academic research must contribute to the agenda-setting of social struggle (Hassenteufel 2010), making the contradictions of daily life visible, and forcing the state and society to recognize them. Social criticism that aspires to a radical transformation requires empirical verification, data collection, and evidence, and it should also think about how to reach popular audiences.4 Our work must anchor its roots in everyday life, it must be “a more mundane enterprise that reflects earthly interests, and claims” (Harvey 2001, 116). We may only aspire to a different order of things by starting from the existing materiality, not from idealistic speculations. Future alternatives must depart from the earth to the sky, they require disciplined work, firmly tied to research, in order to form ourselves and to educate – all of this, of course, in combination with other militant practices.







Bookchin, Natalie, Pamela Brown, Suzahn Ebrahimian, Colectivo Enmedio, Alexandra Juhasz, Leónidas Martin, MTL, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Andrew Ross, A. Joan Saab, and Marina Sitrin. 2013. Militant Research Handbook. New York: New York University.

Harvey, David. 2001. Spaces of Capital. New York: Routledge.

Harvey, David. 2000. Spaces of Hope. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Hassenteufel, Patrick. 2010. “Les processus de mise sur agenda: sélection et construion des problèmes publiques.” Informations Sociales 157 (1): 50-58.

Herrera, Tania. 2017. “La mediación como alternativa. Política de vivienda y regulación de la emergencia habitacional en Barcelona.” Scripta Nova. Revista de Geografía y Ciencias Sociales 21 (566).

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1998. The German Ideology. New York: Prometheus Books.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 2007. Manifesto of the Communist Party. New York: International Publishers.

Mitchell, Don. 2008. “Confessions of a Desk-Bound Radical.” Antipode 40 (3): 448-454.

Mitchell, Don. 2014. “A complicated fetish.” Social & Cultural Geography 15 (2): 125–126.

Young, Iris Marion. 1990. Justice and the politics of difference. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.


1] Just to give an example, in May 2018, students of the National University of the Peruvian Amazon took four buses of the university, demanding that the authorities repair the existent buses and increase the fleet. The main campus is far away from the city and not connected by public transportation. Under actual conditions, the service only covers the need for transportation of the 30% of the alumni, but under unsafe and uncertain conditions. See:

2] Academic neutrality is a liberal virtue which stands opposed to an activist self-positioning of an academic. For Iris Marion Young, the materiality of events is a powerful mobilizer of criticism which stands side-by-side with the adoption of normative judgments: “Normative reflection arises from hearing a cry of suffering or distress, or feeling distress oneself. […] With an emancipatory interest, the philosopher apprehends given social circumstances not merely in contemplation but with passion: the given is experiences in relation to desire” (Young 1990, 5-6).

3] Take the example of “500x20”, an association in Barcelona which fights for the right for non-market based social housing. One of their daily actions is to prevent people's expulsion from their houses (due to non-paid rents). See:

4] On the tendency of some academics to emphasize the complexity of reality, instead of striving to elaborate understandable explanations, see Mitchell (2014).


Tania Herrera

Tania Herrera is a geographer working as a lecturer at the Department of Architecture and Urbanism of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP), and at the Geography School of the National University of San Marcos (UNMSM). She is also a member of the Research Group on Critical Theory (PUCP).