Evaluating Social Movements and Theories

The London’s Burning chapter of the blog has focussed on the flaws and strengths of social movements, such as the anti-fascist campaigns, and the anti-war movements. This piece will aim to conclude the chapter, by assessing their successes.

The Iraq War protests saw the implementation of W.U.N.C to a great degree through the use of Worthiness, on display via the visibility of politicians engaging in parliament, and voting against the war. Furthermore, they were supported by the Daily Mirror. Additionally, Unity, Numbers and Commitment were shown via the fact a cross-section of society gathered together, with many travelling from great distance, marching on Trafalgar Square, one million strong. This protest was significant as it used the current dominant form of culture to increase its platform, and in such a manner had a bigger reach. McAdam’s Three Stage Model allowed them to have their voice heard to a much larger degree as it provided them a larger base.

In contrast, the Vietnam protest did not have media support, and this resulted in their demonization. Rather than engaging with the culture, they as a result, used alarming tactics in order to gain publicity. From this, we can learn that a social movement is hindered a great deal when it lacks Worthiness, as it makes demonization easier. However, it must be remembered that the context, and culture between the 1960s and 2000s differed to a great degree.

Regarding anti-fascist protests, we can see that the 1930s Mosley-led movement was faced by Labour and the Communist Party. Their lack of unity makes it seem as if two differing movements fought against the fascists. The Labour Party provided the Worthiness factor through its vote in parliament for the Public Order Act. However, the Communist Party provided the Commitment and Unity factor, as they showed on the streets that they possessed a large number of anti-fascist members. Their numbers no doubt discouraged some people who may have found the fascist movement attractive.

Fascism reared its ugly head again in the 1970s, which resulted in an anti-fascist backlash. Using the Cycle Protest Theory, we can see that the rise of the far-right resulted in the rise of the left. In addition, the murder of Altab Ali saw the rise of a united front between Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian, and Caribbean people.

In conclusion, in contemporary society, I believe we can see the social movement is experiencing a resurgence. Thus, this line of historiography is extremely vital. The lack of socio-economic analysis of the 2011 London ‘riots’ shows that it is necessary that theories are formed and discussed. Furthermore, if more movements are to emerge, they can learn from a relatively successful campaign as the Iraq war protests, which forced Ed Miliband in 2013, to reject the airstrikes in Syria.



The Anti-War Movement

Perhaps the most significant protest in London in the 21st century was the 2003 march against the Iraq War. It left a defining impression on this generation, and for many young people such as myself, it was our first form of exposure to the sight of large scale resistance to state power. However, these protests had a significant predecessor; the Vietnam War protests of the 1960s and 70s. There are many similarities between both, such as the mobilisation of different people form varying backgrounds, and regions of the country, though both also differed significantly.

The 1960s anti-war protests saw the introduction of a new type of opposition, seeing the rise of student mobilisation. Despite the fact that the media were also united in opposition to the Vietnam war, their coverage of the protests were overwhelmingly negative. Todd Gitlin identified “deprecating themes” employed by newspapers, using tactics such as ‘trivialization…presenting the protestors as extremists’ and ’emphasising internal dissension’. Gitlin’s view is confirmed by Daniel Hallin. He wrote that the movement was only capable of getting coverage in the news by ‘playing the deviant role’. This differs a little from the views of Tilly, who argued protests tend to seek media coverage so they can portray their worthiness, so the public can see a sober tone, that they can respect. Mark Donnelly writes that the media’s attempts to smear the protestors served the purpose of legitimising the ‘coercive response of police and security forces’. This was despite the fact that support for the right to protest was actually high in the U.K. Perhaps this reveals a cycle of protest scenario, where the reaction of the press to the protests, was a response to the newer, more liberal culture. It resulted in a stronger response from the press, which then saw a spiralling sequence of events, resulting in the deviant role being adopted by the protestors.

Before carrying on, it is important to note, that social movements are not always progressive, and can also be regressive, or voice oppressive views. We can see this today with the EDL marches through England’s streets. In the case of the Vietnam War, the pro-Vietnam movement held a sit-in at the Oxford Union in June 1965. Public figures were invited, such as the former US ambassador to Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, and the British Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart. This obviously achieved the aim of broadcasting their worthiness, through the use of authority, lending them an image of political viability.

In contrast, the movement against war struggled to gain press coverage for their actions, as can be seen by that fact that a several thousand-strong CND march on 29 May, was ignored by influential newspapers such as The Times. Despite this positive display of numbers and unity, we can see that the press was not interested in portraying it. One positive though, was the fact that the protests actually attracted a cross-section of society. People from different political views, as well as differing socio-economic backgrounds, were in opposition to the war. This large coming together resulted in two main umbrella organizations dominating; the British Campaign for Peace in Vietnam (BCPV), and the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC). Their views differed to a great extent, as the BCPV believed in implementing the 1954 Geneva Agreements. In contrast, the VSC campaigned for North Vietnamese victory, arguing that supporting the diplomatic process was useless as the President Johnson was ‘manipulating the United Nations’. By 1967, the VSC had gained the dominant position, and despite the dichotomy within the movement, many protestors remained a part of the movement, representing ‘a varied cross-section of strongly held political viewpoints’. Nick Thomas writes that the fact that many people remained as part of the movement, shows that their commitment to the cause was so strong. This view is in accordance with that of Tilly’s; that such a display is attractive to the public. It shows how passionate protestors are, when they are willing to commit to a cause, even if they are opposed to the ideological route it takes. Their actions were committed to stopping the Vietnam War.

Another example of showing commitment was opposition to the press, who were pushing for legitimising the greater use of force by the police. As mentioned earlier, this was a response to the progress that had been seen in society, that resulted in the positive reaction to protests, and the belief that demonstrators had the right to voice their opinions. Charles Brockett writes that, “prior to the onset of the protest cycle, escalating repression will deter popular mobilisation against a regime.” However, despite this argument, and the call to greater oppression by the media, the protestors braved the streets and remained committed to the cause, displaying their bravery against the establishment.


Vietnam War protestors in London, 1968


Moving on to the Iraq War protests of 2003, we can see that tactics had evolved. By applying the Three Stage Model developed by Doug McAdams, we can analyse this. McAdams wrote that: 1. movements emerge out of the dominant cultural context. 2. They then evolve and develop their own cultural norms, ideas and forms. 3. During and after the lifespan of the movement, those evolved elements are diffused back into the dominant culture. From this, we can conclude that movement cultures are not created from scratch; they originate from cultural formations that already exist, meaning that in a way, they actually reflect cultural norms. I believe that this is an example of creating a legitimate image of worthiness.

Anti-war protestors march past Big Ben during a demonstration against war on Iraq, February 15, 2003..

Iraq War protest, 2003, London


 “Every guerrilla must know how to use the terrain of the culture that he is trying to destroy” – Jerry Rubin

The Stop the War Coalition was influential in shaping views towards the Iraq War, and also benefitted from the consensus against UK intervention. Opinion polls showed that opposition to the war without UN backing was as high as 63% according to MORI. In addition, though official figures are mixed, 1 million people marched upon Trafalgar Square, on 15 February, making it the largest ever demonstration in the United Kingdom. This mobilisation shows a successful campaign that convinced many across the country to march. An ICM poll for The Guardian, (February 14-February 16, 2003), showed that 6% of people claimed that someone from their household went on the march or intended to. This translates, according to Stop The War, to 1.25 million households. Commitment to the cause was also shown through the fact that protestors travelled to London from across the UK, showing their passion. In addition, they showed their worthiness through impassioned speeches from politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Benn and Charles Kennedy. Furthermore, it was supported by Greenpeace, and also saw the Daily Mirror handing banners and flags to protestors. Referring back to Doug McAdam’s model, we can see that the Stop the War Coalition did borrow from the mainstream culture to an extent, by engaging with the establishment, and using the weight of Parliament, and the media to press their cause.

Unity was also on display, as Euan Ferguson noted in The Observer that “(as well as the usual suspects)… there were nuns. Toddlers. Women barristers. The Eton George Orwell Society”. This shows similarity to the Vietnam protests, as we can see the mobilisation of a cross-section of society. Despite differences, they marched together in unity, such was their commitment to the cause, in their rightful opposition to the illegal war. Although it was a failure in preventing the war, it did succeed in tarnishing the image of Tony Blair, and showing the establishment, that invasions of the Middle East would not be tolerated. Whether this influences future government policy is something that we must still wait to see. However, it did apparently influence Miliband’s opposition to air attacks on Syria, when he argued lessons must be learned from Iraq.

In conclusion, we have seen that successful movements can both engage with the dominant culture or rail against it. Theories will not always apply to every protest, as context, as always in history, is important in shaping events and decisions. Whereas the Vietnam protestors used extreme measures to gain press coverage, the Iraq War was much less extreme in this sense, and borrowed a great deal from the dominant culture. Though both failed to prevent the wars, it must be remembered that the political context made it almost impossible for them to achieve these aims. In the case of the Vietnam War, Cold War tensions were at their height in the 1960s. Regarding the Iraq War, following the 9/11 attacks, the War on Terror rhetoric, and the strong relationship between Blair and Bush, it was also unlikely the war would be halted. Nevertheless, the protests have gained great notoriety in hindsight, and tarnished the perpetrators in an extremely negative light, as well as influencing Labour’s position on airstrikes in Syria.


  • Nick Thomas, Protests Against the Vietnam War in 1960s Britain: The Relationship between Protestors and the Press, Contemporary British History, Vol. 22, No. 3. September 2008, pp.335-354, Routledge
  • Mark Donnelly, Sixties Britain
  • Gary T. Marx, ‘External Efforts to Damage or Facilitate Social Movements’, The Dynamics of Social Movements, 1979
  • Charles Brockett, ‘The Repression/Popular Protest Paradox’, Mark Traugott, ed., Repertoires and Cycles of Collective Action, 1995
  • Doug McAdams, ‘Culture in Social Movements’, Buechler and Cylke, Social Movement: Perspectives and Issues, 1997
  • Jerry Rubin, Do It!, Scenarios of the Revolution, 1970
  • Craig Murray, Katy Parry, Piers Robinson, and Peter Goddard, Reporting Dissent in Wartime: British Press, The Anti-War Movements and the 2003 Iraq War


Anti-Fascism in Twentieth Century Britain

The 1930s saw the very serious threat of fascism in Britain. This led to the growth of anti-fascism among the left, which differed significantly between the Labour Party and the Communist Party. The main source of disagreement was the fact that the Labour Party believed in the principle of liberal democracy, and that preserving this would maintain the strength of the state, making it difficult for Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascism (BUF) to sew the seeds of division among the working class. In contrast, the Communist Party believed that the rise of fascism, in fact, had much to do with the state, as structural inequality, and capitalism in crisis had given rise to fascism in continental Europe. Thus, the most effective manner in combatting fascism was through militarisation, as social revolution was a viable antidote to these problems. Before we assess these differing theories, I would recommend my first blog post to you, as it discusses some of the terms that will be mentioned in this blog, such as W.U.N.C, which may sound like bogus otherwise.

To begin with, let us see the Labour Party’s response to the rise of fascism in Britain. As mentioned earlier, their aim was to use the strength of the state to undermine the fascist movement. However, in addition to this, they were in opposition to the Communist Party, claiming that they were just as divisive a force as the fascists. In wanting to preserve the strength of democracy in Britain, they argued that the communists posed a threat of dictatorship as well as the fascists, and thus, were not allies they wanted in this battle.

Labour argued that fascism would grow where ‘the tradition of parliamentary democracy was not well-established’ (Michael Newman). Following the Battle of Cable Street, we can see Labour’s commitment to a strong state structure, through their support for the Public Order Act. The Act was created to repel extremist political groups such as Mosley’s BUF, and banned for example, wearing political uniforms in public meetings. (To refer back to my first blog, one form of symbolising Unity according to Charles Tilly, in a social movement is through matching uniforms or colours e.g. Blackshirts). Labour’s support for the Act however, was not only influenced by their belief in the state. There was another factor behind their support for greater state powers. They were of the view that the militarisation of politics would lead to greater enmity and division among the working class, and that this would only strengthen the fascist movement, hence their purposeful political distancing from the Communists.


In contrast to the Labour Party, the Communist Party was of the opinion that the real cause of fascism was not weak democracy, but actually a result of capitalism in crisis. As the crisis deepened, the state would resort to more draconian forms of control to repel opposition and discord, and thus, it was important to combat the legitimacy of the state. The use of the state against fascism was counter-productive in the Communist Party’s eyes, as the defeat of fascism would see the rise of greater private invasion by the state, and the erosion of freedom. Their opposition to the ruling class is clear, and fair. It must be remembered that at this time, the racist and oppressive British Empire ruled harshly over its colonies, and had itself committed atrocities throughout them, such as the Amritsar Massacre.

For the Communist Party, the more effective manner in dealing with fascism, was through the militarisation of the working class, and through street demonstrations. They argued that the Battle of Cable Street was a great example in showing how the fascists could be fought. By using Tilly’s W.U.N.C model, we can see in hindsight, that the Communist Party approach successfully combined N (Numbers) and C (Commitment). This is due to the fact they were successful in mobilising the working-class, as can be seen through the fact that the BUF’s attempts at penetrating the trade unions failed. Through the Cable Street battle we can see that the fascists did not have the numbers to cope physically. Furthermore, the anti-fascists willingness to engage in violence revealed a passion for their beliefs, and showed that they were willing to sacrifice a great deal. Undoubtedly, this caused fear and apprehension for potential fascists who may have been attracted to Mosley. However, the Labour Party’s approach to anti-fascism was also helpful. Through their support for the Public Order Act, the weight of the state machine against the fascists gave Mosley and his sympathisers the appearance of unworthiness, and a lack of legitimacy. Labour’s use of democracy and the appearance of sober rationalism achieves W (Worthiness) in Tilly’s model.


The sad truth about fascism in Britain in the Twentieth Century, is that fascist movements were not confined to the 1930s, but remained present, even if they weren’t as public. In reality, the reactions of the state were weak and only enabled their beliefs through anti-immigration policy, as well as national jingoism in the 1980s during the Falklands War. As I have mentioned that the threat of fascism never truly disappeared, it is vital that we understand the motivations of protests against threats such as racism, and also the reasons for their timing. Sidney Tarrow writes that protests occur in cycles. This is due to the fact that:

“interrelated collective actions and reactions to them whose aggregate frequency, intensity and forms increase and then decline in rough chronological proximity”.

Taking this Protest Cycle theory into account, we can see that the 1970s was a period of ‘collective actions and reactions’ as this was the high point for the far-right, and as a consequence, the left-wing anti-fascist movement too. As Worthiness slipped away from fascists because racism became less acceptable, groups such as the National Front aimed to win back support by broadcasting their Numbers and Unity through high profile marches. In response, anti-fascist movements mobilised, resulting in events such as Rock Against Racism (1978), and the formation of the Anti-Nazi League. One specific horrific incident saw the mobilisation of Bangladeshi, Caribbean, Indian and Pakistani people against fascism. The racially motivated murder of Altab Ali on the 4th May 1978, was the last straw, and came as a ‘watershed moment in the self-organisation of the community’, says Sander L. Gilman.


So, in conclusion, we can see through applying Tilly’s approach, that the fight against fascism was fought in different ways. The Labour Party’s approach was ruled by their belief in the system of democracy, and that through its successful functioning, the threat of fascism could be fought. The approach of the Communist Party was decidedly different. In contrast, they believed that fascism should be fought through the use of social mobilisation, and working class militarisation. Together, both parties showed forms of Worthiness, Unity, Numbers, and Commitment. Furthermore, we can apply theoretical understanding of social movements through Tarrow’s Cycles of Protest, which shows the reasons for the timings of protests, and counter protests. Finally, though it oversteps the limit of this blog, which is 2003, we can see today that the mobilisation of the far right in America has also seen the rise of the anti-fascist left as a result, which adds further weight to Tarrow’s theory.


Michael Newman, ‘Democracy versus dictatorship: Labour’s role in struggle against British Fascism, 1933-1936’, History Workshop Journal, Issue 5, Socialist Historians/Oxford Journals

Charles Tilly, Social Movements 1768-2004, Paradigm

Sidney Tarrow, ‘Cycles of Collective Action: Between Moments of Madness and the Repertoire of Contention’, (Mark Traugott, Repertoires and Cycles of Collective Action, 1995)




The Birth and Evolution of Social Movements

In recent turbulent times, the need for, and use of social protest movements has been seen on multiple occasions. We do not need to cast our minds back too far to recall the most significant contemporary movements, such as the rise of Momentum within the Labour Party, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, which has also spread to the United Kingdom recently. What is perhaps most significantly common between both, is their use of social media, as well as the threat that mobilisation of thousands of activists could pose to authority. As a result, this provides an argument against the view held by many, that protests are an old tactic belonging to the 20th century. These two examples provide a new form of protesting against oppression or an injustice.

The main aim of this chapter of my blog is to view and analyse social movements that occurred between 1780 and 2003, specifically protests within London, as the category title suggests. Furthermore, an assessment of changes in tactics and organisation shall be discussed. Though my scope is the city of London, I will mention protests around the world within this blog, just as a point of reference and context, and also to show the evolution of movements, from being national, to now being international, in the twenty-first century.

Much of this discussion is thankfully enhanced by the work of Charles Tilly. He has provided a framework to analyse social movements. Tilly argues that one element that belongs to social movements, is the public display of W.U.N.C. The elements of W.U.N.C together, create an image of credibility and strength. Worthiness (W) aims to provide an image of credibility and maturity, through a sober demeanour, the elderly, and authority figures. Unity (U), can be shown through badges, banners, marching, and symbols. Numbers (N), show a physical presence, the potential to occupy space and sign petitions. Commitment (C), can be seen through sacrifice, resistance and dedication to the cause. These elements are vital for many reasons, but they are significant for the success of a movement, as they provide the façade of strength, unity, passion for the cause, and if performed successfully, could potentially convert the wider public to their aims.

It is important for historians to know the birth of the social movement as they can then analyse its growth, as well as the catalyst for its birth. The growth, or decline, of social movements reflects upon the political climate to an extent, as it shows the freedom or lack thereof, of democracy. Tilly argues that elements constituting a social movement emerged in the period between 1780 and 1830, growing specifically between 1812-1830. ‘From the eighteenth-century origins onward, social movements have proceeded not as solo performances, but as interactive campaigns…they consist of interactions between the temporarily connected’.

A common conception that springs to one’s mind when thinking of a social movement, is that all the actors must be politically active, and from the same socio-economic background, political opinion, and have the exact same grievances, hence their participation. However, the reality is that protests, especially the most effective ones, manage to unite a cross-section of society. This is a strength as it provides numbers and enhances the threat of mobilisation to authorities. It also provides a movement with a sense of legitimacy, as the numbers show their grievance is held by many. However, it also leads to significant weaknesses, as the larger the movement is, the more likely it is that there will be disagreements, resulting in a lack of unity. Referring back to Tilly’s words about the temporarily connected, other historians and theorists agree, such as Alan Scott, who writes that a social movement is a ‘collective actor constituted by individuals who understand themselves to have common interests and… a common identity’. Additionally, Mario Diani writes that a social movement constitutes ‘a network of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups, and/or organisations, engaged in a political or cultural conflict, on the basis of a shared collective identity’. Through these accounts, it is clear that social movements consist then, of a united force of actors, from a wide range of society, uniting to create a movement.

Building on the claims that a social movement is a mix of different sections of society, modern movements of the late twentieth century, and early twenty-first, have expanded this cooperation to a greater level. This can be seen through the use of technology. Tourraine writes that movements changed in the twentieth century, as activists showed a greater awareness regarding ‘society’s internal economic management and its international environment’. Furthermore, Tilly expands upon this, arguing that protestors now expand the scope of interactions in their movement, and aim to attract other members of the public. This is done through ‘actions that dramatize the conflict and attract the attention of mass media’.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, we can see that protests have taken on a new global approach. A European movement began named Jubilee 2000, called for the eradication of third world debt, and Pettifor writes that ‘the ability to cooperate and coordinate our campaigning was greatly enhanced by use of the internet.’ Another example is the Diarrhoea Control movement in Bangladesh, involving teachers, religious leaders, organizations, doctors, and the police. This movement attracted support from Costa Rica in 2002, again through the internet.

Through these examples, we can see the evolution of social movements. They have evolved from national protests, to international movements, enhanced by the use of technology. But, as this chapter of the blog is concerned with London, I will return to a British movement mentioned earlier; Momentum. This group has called for support for Jeremy Corbyn through pressurising Labour MPs and providing the threat of mobilisation in the event of an election. This is reminiscent of an event in Canada, in which Murray Dobbin (1999) called for a social movement in support of the New Democratic Party. His logic behind this call was that ‘senior bureaucrats…operate as a fifth column to sabotage progressive policies’, whenever a left-leaning party is elected to power. The aims of Momentum are almost identical, and this reveals that movements also take ideas, and tactics from around the world.

Social movements have truly evolved since the eighteenth century. Much is still owed to that era, such as the use of slogans, marches and numbers, but technology is being used in a way that enhances the reach of movements and creates a more powerful base, capable of achieving their aims.