Social Movements

Resistance, Revolution and Reformation

The History of Social Movements

By Stefan Berger and Holger Nehring, Editors of the Palgrave Studies in the History of Social Movements series 

Brexit, Trump, protests across the Middle East and Latin America, a recent strike wave in France – if we look at mass media reporting, one would not go amiss to conclude that democracy seems to be in crisis, and social movements are often singled out as the main culprits. They disrupt the parliamentary political process, they give voice to vocal minorities and prioritise simplified arguments over complex messages.

But is this true? The contributions to Palgrave Studies in the History of Social Movements seek to question, individually and collectively, such straightforward stories from a good and blessed past to a troubled present. We publish research that historicises political, social and cultural activism. We want to show its variety, from trade union organisations, to heritage activism, to student and other generational protests, from rural to urban groups, from LGBTI to more traditional women's campaigns, from campaigns for peace to anti-racism campaigns. And we want to demonstrate that social movement also occurred on the political right, something many social scientists have been slow to acknowledge.

The global perspective – we seek to publish work that covers countries from around the world – is essential for our approach: it highlights that at any given time there were already several competing models of social activism and political representation in different parts of the world, and often even within one society. Take, for example, the moment of 1968 which has long been understood as a pivotal moment for the history of social movements in the West. However, more recently, research on African, Asian and Latin American history has underlined the truly global span of 1968 which was confirmed in the current issue of the American Historical Review, carrying a whole section on 1968 as a global moment in history. This global perspective helps to question underlying assumptions and to revisit well-known interpretations.

We also want to reinvigorate a conversation between social scientists – sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists – and historians about how to analyse social and political activism. Such a conversation characterised social movement research during its high point in the 1970s and early 1980s, but various disciplinary developments have meant that this conversation has become more muted.

But social movements have a deep history that is often ignored by social movement studies. The history of social movements does not start with the so-called new social movements of the 1970s (which, by the way, were not that new!). Social movements in Europe go back to ancient Greece and Rome, were present in peasant rebellions and journeyman’s protests in medieval Europe, raised their heads in eighteenth-century revolutions, found a powerful voice in nineteenth-century labour movements and gathered pace with the advances of mass democracy in the twentieth century.  The deep historical roots of social movements need further discussion and analysis and we are hoping to contribute to this aim.

Furthermore there has long been a normative bias in the scholarship on social movements towards left-wing social movements. This has much to do with the political sympathies of researchers. Yet social movements have by no means always been located on the left. Right-wing populist movements do not originate with Donald Trump but have a longer history – one only needs to think of nineteenth-century Boulangism in France or of various fascist movements in the twentieth century. Palgrave Studies in the History of Social Movements explicitly encourages research on right-wing social movements to augment our understanding of the darker side of civil society in the modern world.

Social movements have significantly shaped our contemporary world in so many different ways that a historical understanding of their origins and development over time is an essential asset to understanding the present. Palgrave Studies in the History of Social Movements asks historians to contribute to such an understanding.

Stefan Berger, Institute for Social Movements, Ruhr University Bochum

Holger Nehring, University of Stirling