This article has affirmed established claims that opportunities are a consistent quality necessary for movement success and anarchism is no exception. However, the conventional view of “political opportunities” makes less sense for an avowedly anti-state movement, since such opportunities are typically oriented towards engaging with the state, not disengaging from it—to say nothing of dismantling and abolishing it. Nonetheless, opportunities have been seized by the anarchist movement, as demonstrated by a review of the histories of a sample of country’s movements. Moreover, anarchists in different countries have perceived the importance of certain common opportunities and a few consistent patterns are discernible. We found evidence of both country-specific and common opportunities in the subjective narratives in our sample, as well as the broader literature, with the common opportunities perhaps being the most decisive in shaping the anarchist movement around the world. One key pattern shows the antagonistic, yet symbiotic, relationship of anarchism to Marxism. Bolshevism all but silenced anarchism in the late-1910s, draining it of political appeal. Still, each loss of face to the Soviet Union enhanced the anarchist movements. The New Left in mid-century benefited from disillusionment with Stalinism, and then the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union gave rise to even more anarchist organizing in the 1990s. This pattern clearly illustrates the importance of non-state-based, but still political, opportunities (in this case, the nature of global Marxist regimes or domestic Left movements) in affecting the chances of anarchist movement mobilization.
Another observed pattern is anarchism’s parallel development with other anti-mainstream movements, particularly labor during the classical period and punk in recent years. A fruitful, cultural synergy developed between anarchism and both of these movements. These other movements seemed to be sources of new members and inspirational frames for the anarchist movement, and should not just be considered mere “allies” to anarchism. Such patterns were common opportunities in many countries, not just one or two.
These shared narratives indicate a number of possible conclusions, which point in divergent directions. First, there have been real empirical opportunities that have facilitated anarchist movement growth and an equally real closing of opportunities that have stymied the movement. In other words, anarchist movements have experienced opportunities that are structurally comparable to other movements, albeit more anti- and non-state in character.
Second, modern anarchists have generalized specific anarchist “opportunities” to many of their local contexts based upon universal narratives that are widely exchanged within the global movement. Thus, present day anarchists may be articulating claims about opportunities that circulate within the intellectual milieu of anarchist culture, and claims may be an inaccurate or inappropriate extrapolation of opportunities from one societal context to another. Activist interpretations may also be derived from scholarly sources, thus indicating a perceptional-feedback loop.
Or, some third option may best explain our findings. A combination of substantial and objective opportunities have likely shaped anarchist movement success over time, while modern anarchists may also be selectively framing their analysis as to generalize those histories and unite disparate local factions of the movement in a common, internationalist narrative.
Our findings appear to be reliable, in light of other secondary evidence. The anarchist movement narratives from A-Infos were overwhelmingly supported by additional anarchist history sources, not just from the same case study countries under investigation, but also for prominent countries that fell outside of our data sample. This congruency confirms the strength of the movement narrative as reflective of external scholarly opinion. It also indicates that the opportunities noticed in the A-Infos histories were in-fact major opportunities broadly shared globally—but not universally by all countries—and that the authors were astute observers of that history.
With these general patterns in mind, we advance the following expectations based on our subjective data that should be tested in future research. This work should advance both our understanding of the anarchist movement and political opportunity theory. First—contrary to our main finding about the generalized importance of political opportunities—anarchism in some countries (e.g., Venezuela) has not directly benefited from political opportunities at all, but is rather the result of cultural forces. In other countries, factors related to economics (Greece), culture (Britain, Czech Republic, Japan)—or both (Bolivia)—combined with the “political” to shape the movement. So we expect the relative importance of political opportunities to vary across countries, even though they are also shaped by common opportunities that transcend state boundaries. “Objective” research could further explore and refine these findings from our subjective accounts. Second, extreme state repression has historically limited anarchist mobilization, so some minimal level of political freedom is required for the movement to exist. But once this minimal threshold is reached, state repression may advance rather than hinder the movement (as with Greece and the Czech Republic). Further research should explore the conditions that transform state repression into a positive political opportunity beyond the tentative data we have presented here. Finally, anarchist mobilization has been reduced by the existence of other strong, Left political movements (e.g., Bolshevism), as well as declines in distrust of the state that are associated with increased freedom and rights. These ironies, at least for anarchism, of ostensibly positive social change should be more fully explored.
As hinted in the methods section above, our findings raise cautions about how to measure and evaluate the usage of POs. Not all movements take advantage of opportunities in the ways typically expected. Anarchism possesses extra-legislative goals that aim to achieve the overthrow of major social institutions like the state, capitalism, patriarchy, and others. Consequently, there have been no pure, explicit victories for the anarchist movement (perhaps with the exception of the short-lived Spanish Revolution, 1936-1939). Our case study narratives instead had to focus upon the perception of movement “growth” or “decline” as opposed to legislative victories. Measuring movement activity in this fashion is out of sync with not only most other movements, but also prevailing theoretical assumptions about how movements operate. Some movements do not seek to influence of alter the state, but to abolish it altogether—as well as other hierarchical institutions.
This study calls into sharp question the unchallenged assumption that the state is a strategic location for opportunities from the perspective of radical, anti-state movements. The applicability of existing theoretical tools is limited because anarchism has been studiously avoided in social movement analyses. Movement theories have largely been constructed via analyses on reform-oriented movements that lobby government in some fashion or request other elites modify their practices, and revolutionary movements that seek to merely substitute current ruling elites with themselves. However, this research oversight does not mean that existing movement theories are of no use; instead, they require a serious re-working and reflexivity to appreciate the radical, anti-state character of movements like anarchism. Although anarchism has not enjoyed the same level of “success” that other comparable radical movements—such as Bolshevism and Maoism—have enjoyed, there have clearly been periods of increased anarchist activity, mobilization, and short-term goal achievement. Obviously, ultimate anarchist goals—the dissolution of all forms of economic, political, and social hierarchies—would be difficult to achieve, and the state would be an unlikely partner in such a mission. Consequently, the notion of “opportunity” is still important to the study of anarchist movements, but it needs to be re-operationalized in order to remain relevant. This re-operationalization would seem to require a focus on the subjective opportunities perceived and sought by movement participants themselves, a de-emphasis upon strictly political (and especially state-based) opportunities, and a broadened appreciation of other forms of opportunity (such as economic and cultural) that may assist in the social revolution anarchist movements aim to inspire.
Due to certain methodological limitations—a small number of countries and only one central narrative per country—our study is not necessarily a definitive analysis on anarchism. Instead, we consider the study to be an important step towards a new approach in considering opportunities, especially amongst anti-state movements. Future attempts to consider supposedly “political” opportunities should be sure to distinguish what sorts of opportunities movements seize upon, even though the typical understanding of such opportunities rely upon the state for fulfillment. The radical character of the anarchist movement illustrates the need to consider non-state-based opportunities and, potentially, opportunities that are more economic or cultural. Additionally, as other research has shown, movements may have multiple, non-state targets. For anarchism, these targets of critique and attack are many, including all forms of domination and authority. How these claims find resonance with different audiences is poorly understood. Where do anarchist movements make their demands: to the polity, the state, specific groups of disadvantaged persons, or society at large? Each is likely to have different levels of appreciation for anarchist critiques and goals. The lack of movement success could be partially due to the strong social control mechanisms and self-interest operating in each aforementioned audience, which in turn circumscribe potential opportunities.