Charles Tilly: Social Movements 1768-2004

This book was written after Charles Tilly was diagnosed for  lymphoma in 2003. When understood as a project undertaken in between chemotherapy, and without an assured prognosis, one sees this ambitious undertaking in different light – that of a scholar seeking to understand the origins and trajectories of a phenomenon he has studied through his career.

The book’s primary thesis is to examine the history of social movements as a phenomenon, and explores the conditions of their proliferation and/or abeyance. He attributes the rise of social movements as a form of contentious politics to war, capitalisation, proleterianization, and parliamentarization.

Tilly traces the origins of social movements to popular uprisings in 1768 championed by “political entrepreneur” John Wilkes, a radical who published a weekly publication called “The North Briton”. Wilkes fought for voters’ rights to select their own representative, and eventually was elected a Member of Parliament.

Tilly, with his vast swathes of reading of global social movements, weaves in movements from Switzerland, Argentina, Philippines, India, China to unpack the rise and changing nature of social movement.  He examines how social movement repertoires,  performances and WUNC (Worthiness, Unity, Commitment and Numbers – perhaps a rather simplistic acronym for examining movement attributes) combine and translate across time periods and spaces.

The interesting snippets in the book centre around the discussions of democratisation and social movements. It was fascinating to read about how some countries, like Switzerland and Chile transitioned to democracy first before these societies saw the rise of social movements. Most other countries like Spain, France and Britain engaged with social movements before the transition to democracy.

What is also fascinating is the correspondence, albeit inadequate and incomplete,  between social movements and democratic regimes. Tilly postulates on social processes such as equalisation of resources, segregation of political elite from masses and the presence of larger numbers in public spheres due to small ruling elites, that translate into greater movement activity that can foster transitions to democracy. Similarly, democratic regimes foster associational life, greater engagement with government, and so on,  that facilitate movement activity.

This is a great, swift read for anybody interested in a history of the world along social movement lines. While reading it, I had the vivid imagery of a time lapse video. Tilly powers through with his encyclopaedic knowledge combined with effortless writing, reminding us of his authority as a social movement scholar.