(Originally published Feb. 3, 2010)
Preliminary: This essay rethinks some earlier attempts at a comprehensive understanding of social change, most notably in a 2005 essay, In Search of Religious Radicalism, and my former blog Utopian Longings.
The period from 1955-1975, broadly called the “60s,” marks the most recent era of rapid sociopolitical change in modern societies, including the U.S.A. and Europe. Although it may not have been revolutionary by strict definition, future progressive change will be defined to a substantial degree by that era.
Prior to the 1960s, radical politics were dominated by two competing theories, anarchism and Marxism. Anarchism reached its zenith in the Spanish Revolution of 1936, with significant anarchist movements in many countries in that era. Marxism’s most famous victory was the Russian Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, eventually forming the world’s second most powerful political force in the aftermath of World War 2.
The 1960s saw the emergence of what have been called the “new social movements” which redefined radical politics. Whereas Marxism focused on opposing capitalism, and anarchism focused its opposition on the State, the new social movements identified different systems of social domination and oppression such as male domination, racism, militarism, and ecological exploitation.
Anarchism and Marxism each claimed that their distinct radical struggle was the central and universal struggle that defined human emancipation. Similarly, the new social movements would elevate their own struggles to central position. The result in the long run was the collapse of any organizational coherence and longevity, as well as a largely unrealized revolutionary potential. In other words, without a unifying social vision, no true revolution was achieved by the 1960s, despite the powerful forces that were mobilized during this era.
Several attempts have been made since the 60s to unify, theoretically, the diverse social movements, with the hope that this will aid the aborted fulfillment of the radical promise of the 1960s. The approach taken here to this quest for unification will be two-fold. First, to identify the primary social movements which should be unified within a new radical paradigm. Second, to explore the foundational coherence of the primary social movements, that is, to identify what it is, if anything, that unites them.
From the list given so far it can be suggested that at least six social movements are candidates for the new radical paradigm, namely, Marxism, anarchism, feminism, anti-racism, pacifism, and environmentalism. Since Marxism and anarchism are defined as exclusive theories that have unifying claims that will be evaluated during the second part of this essay, it is their more generic definitions – anti-capitalism and radical democracy, respectively – that will be considered.
Although six social movement candidates seems more than adequate, arguments can be made that the list is still incomplete. Especially prominent since the 60s have been the sexual identity movements, such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, polyamory, and queer movements. A further candidate to consider is usually identified with the Right, namely religious social movements. Including religious movements in this exploration seems justified from the history of anti-racist and anti-war movements which both have strong ties to organized religion. The specific form of religious movement to be examined here can be termed “progressive religion.”
The next step will be to consider these candidates for primary social movements – anti-capitalism, radical democracy, feminism, anti-racism, pacifism, environmentalism, sexual identity, and progressive religion – and propose their unification by either merging them into larger wholes or even a single unified whole.