Sunday, October 14, 2012

Studying Historical Anarchist Movements

We present two loose, competing hypotheses regarding anarchist political opportunities. [1] First, country-specific opportunities may have assisted some anarchist movements but hindered others, with local context being the decisive factor. In this case, what explains the variations in anarchist activity per country (for example, the varied concentrations of anarchist organizations listed in the Anarchist Yellow Pages)? Opportunities that have shaped a particular movement’s development, success, and survival ought to be apparent in any analysis. Second, as an international movement—especially one intent on eliminating state borders and global capitalism—common opportunities may be larger in scale than the country-level. Opportunities may be more general than any one country and instead may be shared across national borders. This possibility suggests that country-specific opportunities are less important.

PO theory (McAdam 1996) and past studies (Williams & Lee 2008) have tended to consider objective and easily quantifiable opportunities and not the subjective opportunities that matter to participants. We argue that opportunities must be perceived as real to insiders in order to be a useful in the analysis of historical, subjective narratives, either in the present or in retrospect. Subjectivity is important in analyzing opportunity, especially in the case of movements that persist despite few or no major victories. Insider narratives about perceived opportunities can help to explain the actions of movement participants. Therefore, we examine country-level movement case studies that are built upon the arguments and analyses of anarchists themselves discussing opportunities that each movement encountered. Our approach is based upon a verstehen epistemology, and while one might assume anarchist authors would insert propagandistic claims into such histories, this is not the case—the histories appear to be realistic representations from insider perspectives.

Apart from monumental but short-lived events—like the Paris Commune (1871), Russian Revolution (February 1917), and Barcelona uprising during the Spanish Civil War (1936)—anarchism has had few concrete successes that scholars can reference as outcomes of open opportunity structures. Consequently, appreciating the narrative offered by anarchists about themselves and their movement’s history will serve as an appropriate guide to understanding anarchist movement-specific mobilization and decline. While it is still difficult to determine what “success” looks like for anarchism, we can analyze the factors that participants think has helped or hurt their movement.

Information on country-specific anarchist movement histories was collected from A-Infos ( Billing itself as “a multi-lingual news service by, for, and about anarchists”, A-Infos has provided news articles about anarchist politics, ideas, and movement events for over a decade and a half. Initially started as a print-based news source, it went online in 1995 and by 2008 the A-Infos archives boasted over sixty-thousand news items in over a dozen languages (A-Infos 2008). [2] A-Infos is administered by people who identify with a pro-organizational, class-struggle anarchist tradition. This “capital-A anarchist” identity eschews egocentric individualist, primitivist, and arm-chair anarchisms, as well as statist anti-capitalism, liberalism, and so-called “anarcho-capitalism”. [3] This positioning places A-Infos squarely within the major Leftwing of the anarchist movement, often loosely identified as “anarcho-communist”, although that term is sometimes seen as exclusionary and inaccurate. A-Infos includes many items that address anarchist organizations and movement strategy, thus making it highly appropriate for the purposes of this study. The authors of A-Infos items are themselves anarchists, writing either on behalf of a particular organization or in a personal capacity. [4] The intended audience of A-Infos news items is also anarchists who participate in anarchist movements around the world. Items focus both on matters internal to the anarchist movement, as well as wider-societal matters of interest to anarchists. Thus, the case studies included here are sampled from a universe representing what is arguably the philosophical center of the anarchist movement.

In order to discover factors contributing to the success of country-level anarchist movements, we sought anarchist-written histories indicating perceived opportunities and barriers within a given country, especially those that were longitudinal in character. Thus, we searched the A-Infos archives for English-language articles presenting analyses and histories of country-level anarchist movements. Since we were seeking mention of factors that indicated positive or negative changes, we had to discard some country-level histories that did not discuss any discernible opportunities afforded to the movements (including Argentina, Serbia, and Turkey). These countries are unlikely to be devoid of opportunities and barriers; authors merely neglected to note such qualities. Also of interest to this study was any description of conditions external to a country’s anarchist movement that the author perceived as having an impact upon that movement. Specifically, “positive” opportunities are those factors that enhanced or aided the anarchist movement’s mobilization, while “barriers” to opportunity are factors which stymied or prevented the anarchist movement’s activities, leading to some form of decline. Opportunities were located by the grammar and context that indicated a perceived impact on the anarchist movement. For example, phrases like “success”, “influence”, “source of”, “effect”, “created”, “led to” and “a real chance to” were a few of the textual indicators for mobilizing opportunities. Negative opportunities and decline were marked by phrases like “displaced”, “anarchists were a rarity”, “the government then retained control”, or “was the end of the classical anarchist movement”. More of these phrases will be presented in the examples that follow. The opportunities and barriers were categorized organically, based upon how the particular phenomena or events were described.

We acknowledge that one weakness of our study is the broad consideration of any form of success present in the narratives. Other studies using political opportunity have had to clearly define what constitutes a successful outcome acquired via a political opportunity. Meyer (2004) identifies a variety of these movement outcomes, with dependent variables ranging from policy changes to electing candidates to office, or the creation of alternative institutions and different practices. Unfortunately, it is difficult to operationalize outcomes such as “abolition of an oppressive institution” because complete abolition is rarely achieved and some movement participants focus on the use of non-hierarchical means rather than the achievement of specific ends. Historically, anarchists have almost never been able to achieve such victories on anything but a micro-scale or short-lived basis. Opportunities are still real, though, even if the ultimate goal has never been concretely reached. Consequently, our study aims to consider the more abstract, progressive gains of anarchist movements, often manifested as a growth in participating membership, campaign victories, or increased conflict with elites. Some may view this as stretching political opportunity too thinly or a still-born definition of “success”; we consider it a necessary adaptation to the nature and statuses of anarchist movements historically.

Six movement histories from A-Infos included discussion of opportunities and thus these countries—Bolivia (IBM 2002), Czech Republic (Slaèálek 2002), Great Britain (Heath 2006), Greece (Fragos & Sotros 2005), Japan (WSM 2008), and Venezuela (Nachie 2006)—compose our analysis. In this paper we conduct a textual analysis based on the content of these A-Infos articles. When referencing a history published via A-Infos, we cite the author of the essay, not A-Infos itself. These histories are the principal data we analyze in this study and we use the histories to construct a picture of which factors have been perceived to help or hurt anarchist movements over time. In addition, secondary materials consisting of peer-reviewed journal articles and books (some of which are also authored by anarchist or “anarcho-friendly” authors) were used to supplement and further contextualize the country-based histories found in A-Infos.

While these countries derive from a convenience sample and should be considered non-representative of other country-level anarchist movements, they represent highly diverse political, economic, and cultural systems and therefore make excellent sites for theoretical comparison. For example, some countries have long-established parliamentary traditions (Great Britain), while others are recent dictatorships (Greece). Wealthy (Japan) and poor (Venezuela) countries are included, as well as those with a sizable indigenous population (Bolivia) and a recent history of state communism (Czech Republic). We believe that this sample of countries represents a varied range of political opportunities and anarchist movement histories. This variation will allow for fruitful comparisons and case studies.

[1] As we do not aim to generalize our findings, nor argue that such a goal is possible using our research design, our “hypotheses” may be better thought as general expectations given past research. We are not interested in testing or proving either, but merely expressing what we suspected to find at the outset of our research.
[2] Languages include: Chinese, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Turkish.
[3] A-Infos may not be as strict in its promotion of certain ideological presentations of anarchism as it claims to be. For example, the archives include materials that discuss (and sometimes promote) primitivism as well as purely philosophical anarchist analysis.
[4] Although there are presumably fewer A-Infos authors than readers, we believe it is fair to build an understanding of anarchist movement opportunities using these authors because: (1) they influence the perceptions of other anarchists, especially A-Infos readers, (2) they themselves are anarchists and active participants in the movement, and (3) they are likely more reflective participants in the movement and are good sources for well-read, well-reasoned reflection. Of course this is simply one data set and the narratives should not be taken to represent the consensus views of the anarchist movement as a whole, since these views are quite variable (as this paper demonstrates).