Introduction to Radical Social Movements in the Twentieth Century


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Power and Protest - Social Movement Theory


The notes on these pages deal with the main (see footnote 1) social movements that arose during the period from the late nineteenth through the twentieth century. I have identified nine such movements – others might disagree with the selection, or might feel that some are missing, but this is a personal view!


The twentieth century has been called (Hobsbawm, 1994) an Age of Extremes. Others (Chris Brazier 1999) have pointed out how many “radical” movements developed over this period, and the New Internationalist magazine devoted an issue to “The Radical Twentieth Century” (see References at foot of this document).


In Section B below, I discuss whether the twentieth century was especially “prone” to social movements, and if so why.


In Section C I briefly examine the meaning of the word “radical”. 


Meanwhile, Section A gives a historical overview of the twentieth century:


A. Historical Overview.


(1) Chronologically, the first social movement of this period was the labour movement. The explanation for the rise of such a movement is an obvious one: after the industrial revolution, in Britain and Europe, the social structure changed dramatically, and in place of the old feudal order we had new classes. In simple terms, there were on the one hand the owners of factories and businesses (capitalists) and on the other, those who worked for them. (Marx called these two groups the bourgeoisie and the proletariat respectively). Since wealth and power were in the hands of the capitalists, and since their need, and desire, was to increase their profits in competition with each other, workers’ pay and conditions had to be kept down as far as possible. 


We will see how this movement was a broad one, with both reformist and radical wings, and often there was antagonism within the movement, between groups which to outsiders seemed very similar (e.g. Stalinists vs. Trotskyists). In Russia the radical wing, under Bolshevik leadership, brought about a revolution in 1917, establishing a “communist” regime, with dramatic consequences for world history through the twentieth century, as the west came to terms with what it saw as an extreme ideology.


In the first quarter of the twentieth century was also marked by the outbreak – twice - of world war. The origins of the First World War lay in rivalry between nation-states in the context of a so-called “balance of power”, and the Russian revolution was a direct consequence of this struggle, as Russian soldiers “voted with their feet” by deserting the front and returning to confront the regime at home.


(2) The Second World War revolved around what we now see as another extreme ideology – fascism. However, at the time, this ideology seemed to gain mass support, and it drew some workers away from the left-wing ideology of communism. The rise of fascism was also an outcome of the First World War: the humiliating surrender terms imposed on the Germans enabled Hitler to exploit national discontent.


Thus, many see this period as a clash between two extreme ideologies. Some (notably Daniel Bell, 1968) welcomed what he saw as “the end of ideology”– the point in time when supposedly we woke up to the dangers of extreme ideologies, and all countries began to move towards liberal democracy. [See the link referred to in Footnote 2]. Others have pointed out that there were areas of overlap between fascism and communism (both appealed to the workers, both involved street-level confrontations, both aimed to seize the state). Communism, nevertheless, had set out to be international, not nationalist, and to destroy the state not to strengthen it….


(3) By mid-century, then, war had given way to “Cold War”, and the economies of Europe and America (the “first world”) were growing fast, followed fairly closely by the “second world” (the Communist bloc). However, the “third world” colonial countries (especially on the Asian and African continents), realising how far they were being left behind, began an anti-colonial struggle for independence. The desire for “self rule” was radical, and was opposed by many in the colonising powers.


(4) During the Second World War a terrifying new kind of weapon, the atom bomb, had been developed and used (twice, on Hiroshima and on Nagasaki). Throughout history there have of course always been some - pacifists and anti-militarists - who have opposed war as such; but the new and devastating power of the atom bomb, together with its later development, the hydrogen bomb, (not to mention “germ warfare” and other horrors), provided a focus for more widespread active opposition. Large demonstrations and civil disobedience (often derived from the tactics used by anti-colonialists such as Gandhi) were the main methods used in what was popularly known as the “ban the bomb” movement. Later many in this anti-nuclear movement would embrace opposition to nuclear power, and link up with the environmental movement.


(5) Gandhi’s influence also spread into America, as blacks began their struggle for civil rights, equality and dignity. Martin Luther King and others preached non-violence as the only appropriate method of struggle. Of course, when this seemed to be making little headway, others turned to more violent or confrontational methods – once again, we have within a movement different “strands”, and sometimes bitter disagreements about strategy and tactics.


(6) With regard to another key social movement – feminism  – it is difficult to pinpoint a starting-point in time. Women such as Mary Wollstonecraft in the eighteenth century had protested against their exclusion from public life and their subordination to men. The suffragettes (demanding votes for women) belong to the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. “Feminism” as an academic discourse, however, did not develop until the middle of the twentieth century. With the central arguments that power is exercised by men as a group (patriarchy), and that even aspects of life hitherto regarded as “personal” or “private” should rather be regarded as part of politics (“the personal is the political”) feminism threatened (or promised, according to your point of view!) to overturn the social order in a way that no previous social movement had done. When to this is added the fact that feminism affected all aspects of life - culture (in the broadest sense) as well as psychology, sociology, politics etc, - then we can begin to understand how some see this as a “new social movement”, because it was different (deeper and broader) to any that had gone before.


(7) After the mid-point in the century there was a largely unexpected upsurge of protest and disaffection particularly among the young. To give a simplistic summary: for the first time (in the early 1960s) young people had consumer goods and money to spend, after the austerity of the war. “Teenage” styles emerged (Teddy Boys, Mods, Rockers) and were often used to shock the elder generation (many saw all this as simply a manifestation of adolescent revolt against their parents). However, it was as if young people found these material possessions were not enough: the availability of mind-expanding drugs played a part, as young people began to talk of “turning on” to a different “reality”. In America the movement started with the “beatniks” – typified in Jack Kerouak’s novel “On the Road” – then came the Hippies. At the same time the war in Vietnam was causing discontent at home. In Europe (especially France) students turned against the restrictions they experienced in college.


The youth movement of this period is one of the broadest of the social movements we shall be examining – for some it was simply a chance to experiment with drugs and sex and rock and roll. For others (again especially in France) there was the opportunity to overturn an authoritarian and out-dated social order, and to bring “power to the people”.  Protest and experiment permeated culture and the arts, too: “all power to the imagination” was a slogan of the Parisian May Days – see my Review of  "When Poetry Ruled the Streets". As with feminism, all this was so strikingly different to earlier social movements that sociologists described it as another “new social movement”, to distinguish this kind of upheaval from the earlier, archetypal movements such as the labour movement.


(8) Two more social movements made an impact on the politics of the late twentieth century: the environmental movement and anti-globalisation. Although there had been concerns about unpleasant pollution as far back as the nineteenth century (drainage and sewers) and the early twentieth (smog, and the desire for clean air), it was probably with Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring that concerns broadened, and an environmental movement proper arose, containing in it groups such as Friends Of the Earth, as well as more politically oriented Green Parties.


(9) “Globalisation”, in a sense, also can be argued to have started long ago, and early in the twentieth century there had been complaints about the way that one (American) culture and life-style was creeping over the world to dominate everyone. The power of large corporations had been challenged as soon as they emerged (see my notes on corporate social responsibility:  CSR in Context:  Contents page  and especially Chapter 2:  history (early)).  However, later in the twentieth century people began to talk of an anti-globalisation movement – though, as may be expected, there was little agreement as to whether this should be anti-American, anti-corporation or anti-capitalist.


Both the last two movements show many of the characteristics noted already: they have (as I shall argue more strongly later) their origins in earlier ideas; they are broad coalitions of groups and individuals with varying and sometimes conflicting views; they overlap with each other; they are extra-parliamentary (though the Greens have embarked on the “parliamentary road”); they resort to direct action, amongst other methods; and finally, most of the issues they have raised – it seems to me – are as yet unresolved; issues such as:


- workers’ rights,

- anti-Semitism and the threat of authoritarianism,

- the danger of nuclear war, (and the need to control technological developments for the good of all)

- colonialism (Iraq?!),

- equal rights for blacks,

- and for women,

- freedom for young people (who are perhaps more than ever manipulated by advertising and materialism)

- environmental protection (and caution over genetic modifications etc)

- and the struggle for democratic control of our lives in the face of the power of the wealthy, the powerful, and

  powerful institutions.



B. Was the twentieth century an “extreme” century, prone to radical social movements?


[This section should be read in conjunction with the introductory page on Social Movements Theory].


There is some evidence for arguing that the twentieth century was more violent than many earlier periods: the two world wars, together with the experiments in collectivisation in the USSR and in China together resulted in the deaths of many tens of millions of people (see Hobsbawm 1994).   To this day, millions die each year of preventable causes (hunger, curable disease, polluted water), while a few hundreds of others have won millions of pounds in national lotteries, or made millions from their business activities.


Whilst it is not very informative to compare one historical period with another using simple measures like death-rates, (since conditions of life have changed so much over time), it still seems to me that the extremes of poverty and wealth, of quality of life, and of power have rarely been greater.


Given that we also live in a “shrinking” world, where the very poor are likely to know, and can even see (if they have access to satellite television as many do) how the wealthy minority lives, it should be little surprise that expectations are raised, and movements arise to obtain for the excluded majority what they see as their “right”. This is probably similar to a point made by Jurgen Habermas (1981), to the effect that the twentieth century has seen a growth in democracy and in rational thinking, so that ordinary people are no longer willing to submit to others, or to have less power than others, without very good reason.


A perhaps more pessimistic view is that of Alain Touraine (1977): he and others believe that in fact we are becoming more and more subject to technological domination (the all-pervasive communications media; the increased power of those with scientific and technological knowledge, leading to such phenomena as genetic manipulation of crops and living creatures). However, he does argue that it is inevitable that we will react against this domination.



C.  The meaning of the word "radical":




A good definition of the word radical in politics comes from Andrew Heywood (1997):


"a commitment to thorough-going change that challenges basic or fundamental structures not merely superficial ones"


Roger Scruton (1996) gives another useful definition:


The word radical comes from the Latin word for "root" - to be a radical is therefore to "take political ideas to their roots, and to affirm in a thoroughgoing way the doctrines that are delivered by that exercise."


Radical Left and Radical Right?         


Scruton also points out that most people think of radical ideas as coming from the political “left”, (footnote 2) since radicals are discontent with how things are – with the status quo. Moreover, the  “right wing” is generally associated with conservative ideas – that is, resistance to sudden change. However, as will be seen with fascism, a right-wing ideology, it is possible to want radical changes that are in part conservative, in that they seek to restore an earlier status quo. (For example, the American writer Norman Mailer used to refer to himself as a radical conservative in this sense: wanting a return to the “better” aspects of American life that he saw the modern world destroying…).

So being radical is not the exclusive prerogative of the left!


For and against radical ideas:


Scruton, as a (more traditional!) conservative, is opposed to radical views, as he argues that the status quo represents a "balance between conflicting opinions and temperaments”, and that it would be wrong of any social order to impose one set of views on everybody.  He understands, however, that radicals and other idealists may not be happy with a social order which is “a loose imperfect order that lacks the ready intelligibility of systematic ideas."


There is an old and ongoing argument in politics, which is at the root of this statement by Scruton, between those who believe that society requires some degree of systematic planning (i.e., mainly, socialists), and those (mainly conservatives, but also – paradoxically – anarchists!) who believe that freedom is paramount. Conservatives argue that society will evolve naturally into the best forms. Anarchists believe the present order must be destroyed – with a revolution – before the new free order can be established. This debate about state planning versus freedom is reflected in current British politics, with Tony Blair (and perhaps David Cameron!) on the one hand arguing for a greater role for the market, more choice etc; and those on the left of the Labour Party who want a more active, interventionist, state. (See however Footnote 3).


Who supports the status quo?


Others would challenge Scruton’s statement that the status quo is a reasonable balance: maybe it represents an order imposed by one group and not resisted by the rest. The very existence of social movements surely implies that many people are not satisfied with the status quo, nor are they satisfied with traditional political structures, and they are prepared to take action – sometimes “extreme” action – to try to change things.


Of course, even in the absence of active opposition it is always possible that there is dissatisfaction with things as they are. As Stephen Lukes (1974) and others have pointed out, that a group that is in power can have such control that they can profoundly influence the thinking of the rest of us. Issues may simply not be talked about (left off the “agenda”) and consequently most people do not believe there is anything to talk about (e.g. for hundreds of years political philosophers, because they assumed that only men were involved in politics, made no reference whatever to women!). It is wise always to listen to the silences!


Does radical mean extreme?


I have noted that conservative thinkers in particular would be opposed to the aims and methods of radical social movements. Presumably they would not oppose a social movement that grew slowly, gaining mass support and gradually changing society as a consequence, provided the changes were what a conservative might accept as “natural”. However, the movements we are about to examine were radical in their aims, grew up pretty quickly, and were not espoused (at least at the start) by clear majorities of the population. It is inevitable, then, that the words used to describe them should often be pejorative.  The word “extremist” is often used to give the impression that an individual, or idea or a movement is not acting in a rational way. It is worth treating such terms with caution! One person’s extremism may be another’s rational way of acting, after all (and see Footnote 4).


Are all "social movements" radical? 


It might seem that the last point implies that there is a difference between radical and other social movements. However, I am not sure that this difference exists. If we take the definition from Bottomore (1979) [see Social Movements Theory] that social movements, if successful,  "establish preconditions for changes of policy or regime, by bringing into question the legitimacy of the existing political system (in part or in whole), creating a different climate of opinion, and proposing alternatives" (my italics), then we could surely argue that bringing into question the legitimacy of a system is a radical strategy!


A similar argument could be constructed on the basis of the theory of Cornelius Castoriadis: meaning is given to whatever we observe by the use of each individual’s “radical imaginary” (creating meaning out of nothing, ex nihil). This imaginary construct of course has to be shared with others, and it then becomes part of the “social imaginary”. The point then is that all of our social institutions are created by us through our imaginations. If this is true, then a social movement that challenges, as many do, the meaning attached to basic aspects of the social order (What is a woman? What is natural? What is violence? Are workers by definition exploited?) must have radical implications. [For an introduction to the early ideas of Castoriadis, see Recommencing Revolution]





(1) In these “Social Movements” pages (see: Power and Protest (social movements) Contents Page) I will focus on nine such movements:


1. the labour movement

2. fascism

3. the colonial liberation movement

4. the movement against nuclear weapons and against war

5. civil rights in America

6. feminism

7. the youth movement of the ‘60s

8. the environmental and green movement(s)

9. anti-globalisation.                       




We might note that the contrast between left and right dates from the French Revolution, because the supporters of the established powers (i.e. the nobility, who supported the King) sat to the right, and their opponents (the “third estate” – i.e. after the nobility and the church), who wanted change, sat on the left. There is also room for discussion of how different “left” and “right” really are especially nowadays, and whether at the extremes (Stalin and Hitler) they don’t end up being very similar. However, further discussion of ideologies etc. is beyond the scope of these pages. I hope to write up my notes on ideology etc in the pages on Political Philosophy. See Political Philosophy Contents Page.




This brief discussion of “left” and “right” is, of course, over-simple: after all, anarchists – usually seen as on the left – believe in freedom and complete absence of government/state. Moreover, not all socialists believe in a strong state – those who combine ideas of freedom and of socialism (so that socialism is brought into being from “below” by, for example workers’ councils or co-operatives) would call themselves libertarian socialists. See the link referred to in footnote (2), also Imagining Other Index Page.




A similar point has often been made about the word “terrorist”: if the aim of an action is to strike fear in opponents, using violence, and not to care about harming civilians, then it seems to me that many acts of war are in fact “state terrorism”. It has even been said that the only difference between a terrorist act and an act of war is in the size of the bombs used!!


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Main References:


Chris Brazier and the New Internationalist team, in Issue No. 309, January-February 1999.


Hobsbawm, E.: Age of Extremes: the Short Twentieth Century, 1914 – 1991, Abacus 1994.


Other References:


Bell, D. (1968): The End of Ideology, Harvard U.P 1988.

Bottomore, T. (1979): Sociology

Carson, R. (1962): Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin.

Habermas .  Jurgen Habermas: New Social Movements, in Telos 49, 33-37. 1981.

Heywood A.(1997): Politics (Foundations). Macmillan.

Kerouac, J. (1955): On The Road. Penguin.

Lukes, S. (1974): Power, a Radical View. Macmillan.

Scruton, R (1996): A Dictionary of Political Thought. Macmillan (2nd edition)

Touraine, A (1977): The Self-Production of Society. Chicago.

Wollstonecraft, M (1792): Vindication of the Rights of Women.




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