Radical Ecological Democracy

Searching for alternatives to unsustainable and inequitable model of ‘development’


Rethinking “Social Transformation”: Understanding the Communitarian Revolutionary Actor

David Barkin and Alejandra Sánchez


The dominant contemporary model of the world economic system is promoted as the ideal of development and growth to improve wellbeing and quality of life to society. It suggests that equality, justice and freedom can be achieved through capitalist progress. However, the social and productive relations of this model are generating increasing contradictions; on the one hand, western ideology is attempting to erase the particularities of cultures while societies are reorganized to privilege individual initiatives, making collective organization difficult; on the other hand, the productive system demands new spaces for the accumulation of capital, generating increasing inequality and the environmental crisis while threatening the future production of food, the supply of drinking water and life itself. In this context, it is worth asking: are there significant revolutionary processes capable of responding to social and environmental needs? How can processes of social transformation manifest themselves?And, who might be the actors of these revolutions? Karl Marx’s theoretical-methodological approach is fundamental to study the revolution and the revolutionary subject. In this article we explore how steadily evolving forms of social transformation inspired by Marx’s formulations have taken the discourse on revolution to a new intellectual and activist paradigm, helping usher in meaningful change in communities across a vast swathe of countries in central and southern America through the creation of a “communitarian revolutionary actor”.

Marx’s Revolutionary Actor and the Communitarian Revolutionary Actor.

The Marxist tradition has important elements for present-day social transformations; for example, in the preface to the Russian version of the Communist Manifesto in 1882, Engels presents the Russian rural community as a starting point for a new communist revolution, because the Russian community could be denaturalized from the primitive common property and in that case could move to a superior communist form of property. This aspect opens the possibility of considering different forms of social organization coexisting with the capitalist system.

The notion of “Social Classes”

In the mode of capitalist production, Marx and Engels define two emblematic antagonistic social classes: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, whose relation is defined by wage labor, which “masks” exploitation. In our analysis, in place of a social class as the key actor, we examine how indigenous and peasant communities are transforming themselves into revolutionary actors. That is, specific societies with particular social dynamics on the margins of the dominant system.

Indigenous communities are transforming themselves into revolutionary actors.

The community is the result of two principal elements: 1) a historical trajectory that suffered colonial subjugation and periods of apparent independence under various governance systems (characterized by deception, theft, exclusion and discrimination); and 2) a worldview founded at a collective level that plays a fundamental role. In other words, we refer to societies that are historically instituted and developed in the collectivity: the common good prevails over individual interest.

In our view, the community is a project of collective life, linked to new forms of social and political praxis – other realities, other rationalities, incorporating traditional visions, such as “buen vivir” or good life, in South America, Communality in Mexico, Swaraj in India, or Ubuntu in Southern Africa, to name but a few. The transformation of these ideas into praxis appears as the creator of new relations of production aimed at improving community welfare and assuring environmental conservation. These expressions of organization are not new; on the contrary, they are the product of generations of resistance, where values and collective goals are modified and transmitted by tradition and reaffirmed and reconfigured by custom. As part of this evolution, “being indigenous” has become an important issue for the success of their movements, the acceptance of their social demands, and the forging of alliances, as well as the transformation of their economic, political, social and ecological spaces.

The Class Consciousness of the Proletariat

For Marx, class-consciousness first arises as a political consciousness (knowledge that implies the awareness of its existence and its action, that is, its power of transformation), to later promote the organization of working class. For these communities, this awareness is found in explicit collective decisions to not reproduce capitalist dynamics; perhaps the origin of this decision could be in indigenous identity as a referent of their worldview, which motivates its protection and defense.

In our view, the potential for social transformation of the communitarian revolutionary actor is its social capacity, which connotes a group of intangible resources that communities possess and use for consensual actions to establish strategies to consolidate their wellbeing. These are the attributes that communities put into practice through their world views, including principles of reciprocity, mutual aid and support networks to strengthen social cohesion and community benefit. This social capacity allows the community to mobilize its social and material resources to
achieve collectively established goals. On the one hand, these needs are based on the vision of the community and not on those determined by the capitalist model or the individual, and, on the other hand, involve the establishment of the economy within society, in other words, an economic process that is subsumed to the needs of the society rather than to the market.

The communitarian revolutionary actor strengthens social cohesion and community benefit instead of advancing the needs of the capitalist economy.

The Working Class and the Political Party

For Marx, the consolidation of the working class into a political party is based on the development of class-consciousness. In his work, the proletarian organization starts from small groups that form a single front, until consolidating a political party that represents them all; from this emerges the fundamental role of State, where its conquest is the objective of revolution. In our analysis of the hundreds of communities moving in this direction, we suggest a political position that entails a series of negotiation strategies, alliances and agreements to consolidate legal frameworks that allow them to expand their autonomy and territorial and surplus management; the seizing of state power is not an objective of the communitarian revolutionary actor.

The community cannot implement a program for social transformation by itself. That is, its historical and cultural resources are not sufficient to achieve its objectives without support from other political and social forces. The communitarian revolutionary actor must develop a political position that promotes broader strategies and projects, as well as alliances with other communities. Such an actor is aware of the power that it possesses when its social capacity allows it to build an autonomous system of governance, controlling its territory and managing the surplus that it produces. A trigger for these strategies of political organization has been the defense of the territory and demand to protect their ecosystems. However, the communitarian revolutionary actors do not seek to seize state power (through electoral or violent processes); rather they are oriented towards the exercise of popular power or social power. The difference between popular power and social power is that the first refers to a collective organization where the main struggle is for the control (expanded) of the territory; therefore, this type of power can be readily developed in indigenous and peasant communities. The second refers to alternative projects developed by various organized groups that include communities, cooperatives, unions, associations, among others.

The conception of Revolution

According to Marx, the proletariat class, organized and consolidated in a political party, overthrows the bourgeois class and establishes its domination through the political control of state. For us, the revolution does not necessarily assume a violent position, since we show that revolutionary change could occur through resistance, rebellion and “re-existence”. Today there are many expressions that can be called revolutionary, and they could include actions involving important social transformations in defined contexts, including fundamental changes in the social dynamics of institutional structures, political life, and ecological conservation; these often involve repudiating the initiatives by capital and the state to limit their autonomy or ability to manage their territories.

Latin American indigenous movements have assumed “resistance” as a dynamic that characterizes their struggles from colonization to the establishment of the neoliberal system; since then, their activities have transcended this culture of resistance, as a way to defend and improve their inherited lifestyles. These revolutionary subjects are indigenous, rural and peasant communities, that have built strategies to resist the economic rationality of the globalized market and add the ethical, moral and cultural dimensions of sustainability, demonstrating that their activities are part of the processes of social appropriation of nature with social and environmental responsibility, generating surpluses that contribute to their quality of life and conserve their ecosystems.

The latin American indigenous movements have advanced a culture of resistance based on an ethical and moral dimension of sustainability.

Resistance finds links with rebellion (this has multiple expressions caused by nonconformity with the dominant system that implies the use of power from below), in contrast to classical revolution (to conquer state power for social transformation). Rebellion entails social organization to transform the context of those who are below. But social movements have gone further. At present, we find another expression of revolution in “re existence“. New perspectives of emancipation and the construction of sustainability are emerging from the historical resistance of indigenous peoples to modern colonization; this is the result of the struggle to legitimize the rights of peoples to their ancestral territories against the strategies of appropriation/transformation of nature and the expansion of the global economy. The distribution of the benefits of re-appropriation of nature and technology is not the issue; rather the “re-existence” of these traditional populations who are at the heart of socio-environmental movements in Latin America involves the implementation of new social, productive, and environmental initiatives.

Understanding the “Communitarian Revolutionary Actor”

Our attempt to create a distinction from Marx’s views of the revolutionary actor does not imply an idealistic conception of the communitarian revolutionary actor. Commonly, when we think of indigenous, rural and peasant communities, our ideas are skewed in two ways: either a romantic vision of the primitive or a rejection of traditional social practices. The first leads to idealizing the social conditions of community. The second directs our thinking to the opposite extreme, that is, an absolute rejection of practices and ancestral knowledge. In our view, however, the recent histories of the hundreds of communitarian revolutionary actors suggested in this presentation (and documented in the longer paper) clearly demonstrate their capacity to effect social change and challenge the power structures of the societies within which these peoples are immersed.  They demonstrate consciousness and agency as part of an explicit program to modify and strengthen their societies and their relationship with the capitalist world system. When possible, they are participating in projects of “national reconstruction”, as might have been the case during a short period in Ecuador or in Bolivia, or in ambitious local proposals, such as the Zapatista movement, that continues to flourish in Mexico. Elsewhere, however, myriad groups are restructuring their own relationships with the larger society throughout the Americas, as is evident in the flowering of efforts to implement programs of environmental justice as they become more steadfast in their opposition to the “projects of death” proposed by international capital.


The revolutionary processes that we refer to in this analysis are related to the phenomenon of resilience of the planetary system and the societies that inhabit it. This capacity for resilience is noticed in the communitarian revolutionary actor that we have described; the revolutionary actor is capable of implementing processes of social reorganization to face environmental challenges. This interdisciplinary analysis of the revolutionary subject reveals their adaptability in the face of today’s multiple social, economic and ecological crises. The communitarian revolutionary actor is a collective social being that constructs and reconstructs itself, transforming its realities or creating them. Although it aims for a virtuous future, it protects its heritage to forge a balanced relation between society and nature, learning from the present to create new alternatives. In sum, the myriad revolutionary possibilities involve different processes according to their contexts, reinforcing the conviction that “other worlds are possible”and already under construction in many parts of the world.

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Dr. David Barkin is Professor of Economics at the Xochimilco Campus of the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in México City. He received his doctorate in economics from Yale University and was awarded the National Prize in Political Economics in 1979 for his analysis of inflation in Mexico. Dr. Barkin is a member of the Mexican Academy of Sciences and of the National Research Council. In 1974, he was a founding member of the Eco development Center.  Dr. Barkin is interested in the process of unequal development that creates profound imbalances throughout society and promotes environmental degradation. His recent research focuses on the implementation of alternative strategies for the sustainable management of resources. Much of his work is conducted in collaboration with local communities and regional citizens’ groups. Dr. Barkin’s most recent books include: Wealth, Poverty and Sustainable Development and Innovaciones Mexicanas en el Manejo del Agua. (Mexican Innovations in Water Management).

Alejandra Sanchez worked closely with indigenous peoples in the mountains of Puebla as part of her doctoral research in economics; she received her degree from the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana in Mexico and continues to work in the area of ecological economics.

For more details about the ideas outlined in this short presentation, see the authors’ article, “The Communitarian Revolutionary Subject: New forms of social transformation,” Third World Quarterly, 2019, doi: 10.1080/01436597.2019.1636370; Copies are available from the authors at: [email protected]


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