Anarchism as a Social Movement, 1870–1940

By Bert Altena,

One of the characteristics of anarchist movements is their pattern of appearance and disappearance. In fact, there are two different patterns. One is short-term and occurred mainly during the period of classical anarchism (i.e. 1870–1914). During these years, in several countries, the anarchist movement disappeared, primarily as a result of political repression, only to reappear again when this repression was relaxed. However, there also is a long-term pattern that has marked the movement since its beginnings, and this has different causes. In this long-term perspective, disappearances signified the loss of popularity due, for instance, to the development of the welfare state and to the appeal of competing movements, including communist parties. The resurgence of anarchism, however, can be attributed to certain qualities of the anarchist ideology. An important difference between the two patterns is the fact that the first is mainly the result of opportunity structures that are beyond the reach of the anarchist movement, while the second also involves the movement itself. Losing out to competitors points to inadequacies in the anarchist movement itself, and a whole range of aspects of the movement can be examined to detect the most important ones. Nevertheless, even in the long run, the movement managed to reappear time and again. This essay focuses, therefore, on the staying power of anarchist movements. To explain this staying power, we have to take a fresh look at anarchism as a social movement. That involves an assessment of the applicability of modern social movement theories, which is the second object of this essay. First, though, we have to establish whether the anarchist movement can be called a social movement at all, and when such a movement should be called anarchist. Then, various aspects of the structure of the anarchist movement will be analyzed to explain its staying power in the short run. This will lead us to an assessment of anarchist cultural activities, which move the focus to the movement’s staying power in the long run. We will conclude with a review of the usefulness of social movement theory for the study of anarchism as a social movement.


Categories: Anarchism/Anti-State

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