MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms



Grand Narrative

Grand narrative or “master narrative” is a term introduced by Jean-François Lyotard in his classic 1979 work The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, in which Lyotard summed up a range of views which were being developed at the time, as a critique of the institutional and ideological forms of knowledge.

Narrative knowledge is knowledge in the form of story-telling. In the tribal times, myths and legends formed knowledge of this type; that such-and-such a mountain was just where it was because some mythic animal put it there, and so on. The narrative not only explained, but legitimated knowledge, and when applied to the social relations of their own society, the myths functioned as a legitimation of the existing power relations, customs and so on.

The great religions of the feudal world – Christianity, Islam and Buddhism – institutionalised this narrative knowledge, and monotheism invested the narrative with a unitary extramundane subject as the central agent. It was Feuerbach who exposed how the Christian narrative was not an explanation but a legitimation of the norms of Christian society.

With the arrival of the modern era, natural science introduced a different kind of explanation of things in terms of material processes and causes. However, the narrative form continued – as it must! – in social theory and histriography. The telling of history is, after all, a narrative.

Looked at from the postmodern perspective, all knowledge becomes narrative however. For example, rather than saying that “the existence of oxygen has been proved”, there is a ‘little’ narrative about the experiment Lavoisier carried out.

The concept of grand narrative, and in particular what Lyotard called the “emancipation narrative”, concerns the kind of meta-narrative which talks, not just about “one damn thing after another”, but sees some kind of interconnection between events, an inner connection between events related to one another, a succession of social systems, the gradual development of social conditions, and so on – in other words, is able in some way to make sense of history. More particularly, when pronounced as it usually is, with a sneer, the “grand narrative”, the “narrative of emancipation” is all those conceptions which try to make sense of history, rather than just isolated events in history, concepts like “class struggle”, socialism and capitalism, productive forces and so on.

According to Lyotard, in the postmodern period, people no longer believe in grand narratives, and consequently, to the armies of postmodern pen-pushers, ipso facto, “grand narratives” are old fashioned and oppressive – oppressive because one grand narrative excludes another and doesn’t my narrative have just as much right to truth as yours?

The contradiction in all this is that this narrative about narratives is itself a grand narrative of the first order, as outlined above with the narrative of narratives from tribal to feudal to modern times and up to the present.

And what is this theory about “grand narrative” really about? It is another version of the end of history, another way of saying that bourgeois society is as good as it gets.

Nevertheless, the concept does tell us something about postmodern capitalism. Postmodern society has made the conception of real progress difficult to sustain, meaning is contested and fragmented, and it is difficult to see a way out of the morass. The old conceptions of the onward march of the working class to socialism are no longer convincing. This is the nature of the political terrain in which socialism must find a way forward.


Gregorian Calender

The calender used by the world today; a revised version of the Julian Calender, introduced by the Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. The days of the year were set to 365 days with a leap year occuring in every year whose numbers are divisible by four (excluding centuries however, such as 2000).



The conditions for something to come into existence, or "appear". Hegel wrote: “The maxim of Ground runs thus: Everything has its Sufficient Ground” or in other words: “the true essentiality of any thing is ... as having its Being in an other.”

Hegel defines Ground as the unity of Identity and Difference, and the precursor of Appearance. Thus, the investigation of “necessary and sufficient grounds” is a movement from measure towards the discovery of lawfulness; in discovering the ground of something in an other it is part of the movement towards the dialectic of form-and-content, cause-and-effect, inner-and-outer.

Further Reading: C L R James on Ground also Ground (or Essential Contradiction).


Group Dynamics

Group Dynamics is the study of the development and structure of small social interest groups.

The scientific study of small group dynamics originated in the U.S. in the 1930s when the government became concerned about social developments in the ghettoes and commissioned a number of academics and social workers to study the way communities functioned and developed. After the war, much of this knowledge entered the Peace Movement and the Neighbourhood Movement where it was developed for the purposes of social struggle and community development. The theory and practice of working with groups was further developed in the Women’s Liberation and Environmental movements. In the 1980s much of the theories developed in these movements was picked by management consultants and used for the purpose of “micro-economic reform” and corporate restructure.

All of this work has been done in the context of small groups with a “facilitator” or “leader” who both observes and manages the activity of the group. A number of different theories have been developed by various bourgeois writers, each with their own set of concepts and there has been no resolution of the various system into a single set of concepts.

Small group dynamics is part of the larger study of social interest groups and the development of the social action generally. Lenin (What Is To Be Done?) and Trotsky (The New Course) have each written classic works on the practice and theory of mass movements and parties. Jean-Paul Sartre contributed towards the theory with his Critique of Practical Reason.

The study of small group dynamics is made up of the: (1) Genetic, (2) Functional, (3) Typological and (4) Structural study of organisations, and (5) The Study of Organisational Character.

Genetic Study of Group Development

The genetic approach to group dynamics focuses on the series of stages a group goes through as it develops from a latent state to the actualisation of its goals and either decline into bureaucracy or dissolve. An understanding of these stages is vital to the organiser or participant social struggles since quite different kinds of activity are possible at each different stage; groups may or may not progress to a further stage, or may get “fixated” at a stage beyond which it is unable or unwilling to progress.

Latent group: A number of people may share social interests or a belief but never having met each other, there is merely the potential for a group, not yet a group as such. Nevertheless, unless there are such people sharing social interests or beliefs, there can be no organisation to get started. This concept is similar to the concept of Being in Hegel.

Seriality: Jean-Paul Sartre introduced the concept of seriality which is where people are each doing the same thing one after another without any coordination, so there is a semblance of a group, but it is just “transitory” so to speak.

Nascent group: Before anything happens, someone has to convene a meeting, and the manner of this birth may make or break the group’s potentiality; the person or group issuing the invitation must be seen as legitimated and the wording of the invitation stamps a character on the group even before it meets.

Anomic group: The development of a group as such begins once a number of people have come together, deliberately, but not necessarily with the same understanding of what that purpose may be; many a meeting is simply never repeated, By the time the meeting is over something else may exist. An anomic group can be a group called together for a specific purpose, such as to stage a particular protest action, with no intention of reconvening.

Some analyses of group dynamics only begin from this stage, and there are a number of different schemes for marking out the next series of stages of what Hegel called “essential development”. The following are stages identified in various treatises by Charles Keating, Stanford & Roak and H B Trecker. (It has been noted that very often these stages are to some extent recapitulated at every meeting and at the joining of every new member):

Polite (Keating): the stage in which people indicate and seek mutual trust or respect, and marked by caution in giving commitment or offering criticism; introductions are appropriate.

Norm Development (Stanford & Roak): the stage in which the norms of conduct are negotiated;

Purpose (Keating): the stage at which the participant negotiate the purpose for being together;

Conflict (Stanford & Roak) or Power (Keating): the stage when people have got know to each other a bit and norms of conduct have been established and there is agreement of kind about what the purpose of the group is. This stage is marked by conflict and a “struggle for power”. Such a struggle for power is impossible before the necessary unity has been established, and if these stages have not been fruitfully completed a group may fracture during this stage. The stage of conflict is absolutely necessary if the group is to be more than a “joining of forces” or “federation”, and if it is to generate some new quality that wasn’t there before; conflict is necessary to bring out the different conceptions that have thitherto lain dormant. This concept resembles Hegel’s concepts of oposition and contradiction.

Group feeling and Program (Trecker): if a group survives the period of conflict then a distinctive group feeling is created and the group is able to develop a program of action.

Transition (Stanford & Roak) or Bond, Purpose and Cohesion (Trecker): the stage in which a group makes its appearance as a new and distinctive entity: the stage which Hegel referred to as the struggle between form and content, when formerly agreed goals are changed in the light of better insights and formerly agreed methods are changed in the light of experience.

Constructive (Keating), Production and Affection (Stanford & Roak): The stage in which a group is getting feedback or responses in the outside world which are establishing a reciprocal relation between the group and the world they are trying to change, what Hegel called the dialectic of Cause and Effect. Their principle and goal has not yet been won, but all the elements are coming together and there is a two-way flow between the group and the object of its activity, leading to actualisation.

Goal Attainment (Trecker), or Espirit (Keating) or Actualisation (Stanford & Roak): the stage when the objective of a group is attained, that is, that the principle which brought them together, in the form into which it developed through the internal development of the group, has found external material form in the outside world.

Decline of Interest and Winding Up (Trecker): Once a group has attained its goal it cannot exist in the same way: if it does then it becomes a bureaucracy; otherwise there is a decline of interest and the group is wound up. Alternatively, the group may completely redefine itself, and begin again from the beginning.

The Stages beyond this final stage are described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of Grief (Death and Dying).

As noted earlier, the above concepts are drawn eclectically from a number of bourgeois studies of facilitated small interest groups; they implicitly provide a taxonomy of group relations which is, generally speaking, superior to the more established typology which will be given below.

Functional Study of Group Formation

The second main body of study of group dynamics concerns the various functional roles that members of a group may play. These concepts have been recycled in an endless variety of permutations by various management consultants and “Change managers” and will be familiar to many people who have worked in large capitalist or public service enterprises. The roles listed below, however, are taken from the Resource Manual for a Living Revolution, New Society Publishers, 1977, and are divided into Group Task Functions, Group Maintenance Functions and Group Task and Maintenance Functions. A healthy and effective group will assign these roles to members of the group, or as is usually the case, the members will themselves adopt one or more of these roles. The words are fairly self-explanatory, so in most cases just the title of each role is given.

Group Task Function:

Initiator; Information-seeking; Information-giving; Opinion-seeking; Opinion-giving; Clarifying; Elaborating; Coordinating; Procedure-developing; summarising; Philosopher-critic.

Group Maintenance Function:

Encouraging; Expressing feelings; Relieving tension; Compromising; Facilitate communication; Setting standards and goals; Interpreting; Active listening.

Group Task and Maintenance Function:

Harmonising; Testing agreement; Evaluating.

Negative Roles have also been defined: Discounting (the jocular put down); Racket (cry for attention); Redefining (changing the subject to one the person is more comfortable with).

There are nowadays a plethora of systems of team role and so on generally related to personality profiling which proliferate around the management consultancy industry. Eric Berne’s Games People Play is one example. Nevertheless, intelligent attention to group roles is an indispensable part of effective working class organisation.

Group Typology

Groups have been subject to typological classification in numerous ways. For example, there are natural groups and associational groups – prior to the bourgeois epoch almost all groups were “natural” being defined by traditional kinship relations. Associational groups may be economic or voluntary, and may be formal or informal.

The following types of groups are particularly relevant to the workers’ movement and social struggle.

Trade Union: membership defined by employment status; may be enterprise, industry or trade-based. The fundamental organisation of self-defence of the working class;

Political Party: a government-in-waiting;

Network: generally an informal organisation facilitating communication and dissemination;

Social Movement: large organisation with extended periphery organised around achievement of finite and/or ethical goals without aspiring to government;

Propaganda Group: a group formed to propagate and promote the understanding and support for a specific point of view;

Agitational Group: a group formed to promote for a narrowly defined, finite objective. Agitation is few words to many people, as opposed to propaganda, which is many words to few people.

Affinity Group: a group of like minded-people sharing a degree of trust who coordinate their activity within a large social movement or action in which there is such diversity that activity would be paralysed unless the participants are permitted to work out their own forms of action and so on, and affinity groups provide the means of doing this. Within the wider organisation interaction between affinity groups is aimed at achieving the necessary coordination between different affinity groups who may not even disclose what they intend to do, while within the affinity group communication is free and open.

Focus Group: an ad hoc group or team formed for the purpose of either resolving a given problem within a larger group or more often simply identifying the spread of opinions and feeling on the issue without attempting to resolve the issue, make any decisions or policy. A focus group is characterised by the diversity and difference within it. Since a focus group may not be required to make policy, this is a benefit rather than a barrier. And if consensus is achieved on all or part of the subject, then this consensus is likely to hold in the larger organisation;

Working Group: differs from a focus group because the participants of a working group are chosen with diversity aimed at forming an effective team, i.e. with a range of complementary skills and resources so that a task can be completed without recourse to others. Working groups cooperate with other working groups, but collaborate with each other within the working group;

Consciousness raising group: a popular form of organisation in the Womens Movement in the 1970s used to introduce newcomers to the ideas of the movement and give others the opportunity to develop their knowledge by assisting others; people join to learn, not to teach;

Action Group: a group formed to carry out actions which serve the longer terms ends of all the participants, without requiring agreement on ideology or longer-term goals. An Action group is generally characterised by intense activity for a relatively short period of time and makes intensive use of delegation and working groups or focus groups to be productive and inclusive without resorting to large meetings which are ineffective for organising action, though necessary for achieving consensus on longer term or more contentious issues.

Welcome Group: a group formed for the specific purpose of “inducting” new arrivals into a group and bringing them “up to speed”, with the assistance of an existing member, so that the whole group does not have to recapitulate what has already been gone over in the past, and the new arrivals can ask questions without disrupting the work of the whole group.

Alliance: a group-of-groups in which the participating groups make no attempt to persuade the others to their own point of view, but simply make common cause around an issue or action which meets the objectives of all the groups involved. An alliance has no agreed longevity and will generally dissolve as soon the shared objective is either achieved or ceases to be attainable.

Federation: is an alliance which has gone one step further in recognising that the commonality of objectives is of a continuing nature, and the shared objective can be furthered by giving a stable and formal character to the alliance. However, the social differences between the participating organisations is such that they do not wish to give up their autonomy. A federation can work effectively because each of the participants works effectively; in the event that a federation goes forward to form a unitary organisation, then the native organising and decision-making methods of all or some of the participants may be lost. Federation is typically the chosen form of organisation for groups having distinct languages or cultures or being located faraway from each other; in each of these cases communication would suffer not improve if the federation were to be prematurely resolved.

Team: a team is a group generally selected like a working group, but often with sharply defined roles, either cooperative or collaborative.

Committee: a committee is generally a formal working group within a larger organisation, often formed by election, often having authority or legitimacy of some specific kind. A committee is not a team, but there may be a limited number of distinct roles, such as chair, secretary, treasurer and so forth, which contribute towards ensuring that an effective group may be formed. A committee is small enough to ensure that informal discussion is possible without recourse to formal meeting procedure.

A Council is a larger committee in which there is generally a requirement for formal meeting procedures.

A Fraction is a sub-group of a larger organisation, made up of members sharing some common interest, for example, all members of a political party belonging to a certain union, or all members of a union belonging to a certain party.

A Faction is a temporary grouping which has developed differences with the majority position of an organisation, but, finding that they are unable to resolve their difference through the normal course of activity in the organisation, form themselves into a more or less stable sub-organisation. The formation of factions within an organisation is often accompanied by antagonism, but the right to form factions is integral to working-class organisation. If unity is to be re-established, then those in the minority must be given the right to develop their position, otherwise it is impossible to correct mistakes.

A Front is an organisation in which one or more organisations dissolve all or part of their resources in order to achieve a broader unity than is possible within their own, usually formal organisational structure. A front nevertheless acts as an autonomous organisation, not required to seek a mandate from participating organisations.

Group Structure

The principal concepts for analysis of group structure are: representation, delegation and mandation; mediation; hierarchy; membership and periphery. The Marxist approach to understanding the structure of organisations draws on Hegel’s development of the concepts of Individual, Universal and Particular.


Hierarchy indicates the way in which organisations are structured by means of including the parts in a whole. Thus six action groups working in a city may form a city-wide organisation, and all the city-based groups may form a national organisation. It is this process of inclusion which creates the hierarchy: the hierarchy is simply the means by which city-wide and nation-wide coordination is made possible. The specific structure of an organisation is exhibited in how the relations between the adjacent levels of hierarchy are enacted through the individuals who mediate between them.

Representation and Mandation

When an “inferior” or “particular” body (e.g. a city-based organisation) sends one of its individual members to participate in the “superior” or “universal” body (e.g. the national organisation) as a delegate, then the individual delegate can be mandated or not.

To mandate a delegate is to give instructions on how they are to vote and otherwise participate in the superior body. They can be subject to recall in order to strengthen the mandate. Working class organisations have tended to favour mandation of delegates; bourgeois parliaments, on the other hand, are strictly representative and in some countries it is illegal to attempt to mandate a candidate for parliament. The down-side of mandation is that the inferior body may not have a concrete understanding of the issues with which the superior body is concerned and mandation blocks the delegate from acting on what they learn. On the other hand, mandation in such circumstances obliges the delegate to enlighten the members and seek a new mandate, thus raising the level of the whole organisation.

Conversely, the delegate on the superior body can be bound by the decisions of which they have been a part. This is caucus, meaning that in a conflict between the universal and the particular body the individual delegate must defend the views and interests of the superior body to the inferior body of which they may be a member. Caucus is not considered consistent with proletarian democracy, but in times of crisis or when the organisation is in action, caucus may be required for unity in action.


Mediation means acting as go-between. In the relations between the individual delegate, the universal or superior body and the particular or inferior (or local) body, the active concept for analysis is mediation.

When the individual represents (with or without mandate) the inferior body on the superior body they act as a kind of transmission belt for the views of the inferior body. Thus when all the delegates come together they are able to get an overall (universal) picture from the particular views brought together by the individual delegates. Here the individual mediates between the particular and the universal. When the delegate reports back, she is likewise mediating between the universal and particular.

When a particular body deliberates and selects and/or mandates their delegate, then the particular body is mediating between the individual and the universal, conditioning the relationship between the individual delegate and the universal – i.e., the assembled national council or possibly its delegated authority in the form of a leadership body. The particular body is also mediating between the universal and the individual in the work it does in carrying out the work and distributing material from the organisation to individual members or supporters.

When the “superior” body, or possibly its delegate in the form of a national secretary or whatever, enacts policy or distributes information, then they are mediating in the relationship between each individual member and the inferior organisation to which they belong.

In a healthy organisation, all these forms of mediation will be alive and well in both directions. This is the internal structure of the organisation. The way an organisation structures its branches sets up the mediating processes which constitute the life of the organisation. The structure of an organisation must reflect its real social composition and its relation to the outside world. An organisation may have very broad and universal aims, but unless it is able to express its universal through the particular ways in which individual people come to that universal, it cannot function effectively.

Membership and Periphery

The single most important characteristic of any organisation is its criterion for membership, which constitutes a kind of self-definition for an organisation, its identity.

The single most important relation an organisation has is the relationship between its members and its periphery. The periphery are those people who are eligible to be members but are not members.

Organisational Flow and Power

Power relationships inside organisation can be revealed by tracing the flow of legitimation and authority through delegation, and money through subscription and dispersement. All manner of other power relations may exist inside an organisation as a result of interconnection with society at large – such as gender relations, the penetration of other loyalties and so on, but the issue here is those forms of power which are generated by an organisation itself.

Delegation upwards and downwards transmits power with or without mandate and caucus. In a healthy organisation delegation upwards and/or election transmits legitimation from the inferior to superior body, investing the superior body with authority. Delegation downwards transmits legitimacy and authority to the delegate.

All manner of processes may lead to an individual or body which has gained legitimacy and authority within an organisation losing it.

Apart from these forms of distribution of authority and legitimacy which are the raison d'etre of organisation, one form of distribution of power within an organisation resulting from “outside” forces is so important that it must be mentioned here, and that is money.

In a capitalist firm the proceeds from the sale of its product are owned by the superior body, the capitalist; the organisation is held together solely by the money returned to the employees in the form of wages and salaries and other benefits. This flow of money into the top of the organisation and downwards ensures that the capitalist is always the supreme commander of his or her organisation.

In a voluntary organisation, whether it be a social movement or a trade union, the ownership of the income invests power at whatever level that ownership is vested in. The dispersement of funds, whether by employment or by distribution of funds to cover expenses invests in the dispersing body such authority as may even outweigh the authority distributed, usually in the opposite direction, by election or delegation.


Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous book On Death and Dying (1969) has been given a bad name as a result of its concepts being utilised by “change managers” to implement organisational change and sackings in capitalist organisations. Nevertheless, Kubler-Ross’s work counselling dying people and their relatives was real work and she has created useful concepts here which are relevant to organisational work. It is an irony that ideas derived from the experiences of death are so popular among capitalist managers.

Kubler-Ross developed a series of stages through which a person may pass in releasing their own life or that or a loved-one: Denial, Anger, Negotiation, Apathy and Acceptance. The words are so self-explanatory they do not need definition. It is important to remember that the context in which the concepts were developed was inevitable and terminal illness. The initial response of a person in denial is not at all irrational. Quite the contrary. The majority of the time someone is told that they are facing imminent death it turns out that they can thwart death, for the time-being in any case, and denial is an essential basis for rejecting the death in practice. If the threat turns out to be real, then anger is entirely the correct response, in order to mobilise the maximum resistance to the perceived threat. When workers successfully mobilise against a proposed down-sizing for example, the benighted change manager experiences exactly the same series of stages: at first he refuses to see that his plans are doomed to failure, then when he first begins to see that he’s not going to get away with it, he blows his top; sooner or later, realising that the workers have got the better of him, he will come to the negotiating table to rescue something from the exercise; he’s pissed off, but gradually he gets over it, and begins planning for the next exercise in bullying.

Kubler-Ross’s stages are also application to the Genetic Analysis of Group Development. An organisation which has completed its mission, either successfully or not, if it is healthy, must go through these same stages. If, for example, it gets stuck at one of the stages, then you have a bureaucracy of a specific character.

Character of an Organisation

Organisations have a character just as individual people do, and the character of organisations are subject to the same kind of analysis as that of people. Like people, organisations establish their character early in life, and while character matures and broadens over time, it is very difficult to change the character of an organisation.

The main determinants of the character of an organisation are:

(1) Orientation: an organisation may be oriented outwards, finding its raison d'être in ideals and interests residing in its periphery or in society at large, or it may be oriented inwards, finding its raison d'être in its own leadership and program. An organisation which is oriented outwards frequently changes its leadership, its meetings are open and the concept of membership is relatively diffuse. An organisation which is oriented inwards may be an active and effective player in social life but they are not driven hither and thither by social pressures and depend on their own processes, leadership and policies to decide on their activity.

(2) Mode of Perception Some organisations begin every new discussion with what they have already decided and whether previous decisions have been carried out; other organisations begin every meeting with the latest news and the immediate threats and opportunities facing the organisation. The most immediate reflection of an organisation’s mode of perception is the order of business in its meetings; those organisations which begin every meeting with the minutes, matters arising and the last meeting’s action sheet are far more aware of what’s going on in a very serious sense, but in another sense may be in cloud-cuckoo land, and it is difficult to see how outside reality is ever going to make it on to the agenda; on the other hand, those organisations which either do not take minutes or never really check them, but begin every meeting with a well-informed consideration of what’s been going on in the world around them are very responsive, but can often run round in circles forever, as they have no way of following through their own action.

(3) Decision Instrument: Some organisations carry on their work entirely guided by “what they believe in” and weigh every decision against their more fundamental beliefs and the organisation’s rules; some organisations are far more “pragmatic”, and calculate the effect of every action, whether it will increase their strength and therefore make the achievement of its aims more probable, or whether it will weaken the organisation. When decisions are being made are dollars and cents weighed up, number of subscribers, popularity, or are decisions made by comparison with the inherent virtues of the proposal in its own right? While a bureaucratised trade union constitutes an extreme example of the “logical” organisation which has lost touch with its raison d'être, clearly a union which ignores the need to maintain good levels of membership, healthy finances, skilled officers and so on, is equally bound to lose its way.