Mastaneh Shah-Shuja Zones of Proletarian Development, Openmute: London, 2008; 354 pp.: 9781906496067, 15 [pounds sterling] (pbk)
On one reading, Marxism is (or should be) centrally concerned with social movement(s) as the self-activity of working-class people, a source of alternative ways of seeing the world, and a powerful force for progressive social change. In a decade in which a global cycle of resistance to neoliberal economics and neoconservative geopolitics has arguably been instrumental in disrupting elite strategies, a Marxist perspective on social movements is particularly welcome. If Mastaneh Shah-Shuja's Zones of Proletarian Development is ultimately a failure, the attempt is still worth making.
The book has attracted interest for its application of the work of dialogical theorists such as Volosinov and Bakhtin with the work of Vygotsky and cultural-historical activity theory to the subject. In this, it parallels work by Collins (2008) and by Krinsky and Barker (2009) who argue that these approaches have much to offer Marxist theories of collective agency. Zones of Proletarian Development uses a particular synthesis of these concepts to analyse the London May Day events of 1999-2003, Iranian football riots in 2002, the London Poll Tax riot of 1990, and the London anti-war protest of February 2003. In the process, it develops a theory of how people develop in struggle, as well as practical prescriptions for organisation, drawing on Vygotsky's 'zone of proximal development'--the space within which dialectical learning takes place.
Two things get in the way. One is the substitution of abuse for analysis. Activists and theorists alike are routinely tried and found wanting in rigour or radicalism on the basis of adjectives rather than critique. Politically and theoretically, this produces an ultra-sectarianism in which virtually everyone else is condemned; thus, for example, 'the overwhelming majority of Anarchists are as intellectually vacuous, disgusting, dishonest and anti-working class as their Leninist counter-parts' (p. 270). The decisions involved seem arbitrary: if (on p. 41) 'the proletariat constitutes the overwhelming majority section of society (everywhere)', nevertheless on a monster demonstration such as the London anti-war protest of 15 February 2003, it is 'difficult to know what proportion of the protestors were proletarians as opposed to petty bourgeois' (p. 199). Thus authentic radicals and proletarians are a kind...