Militant America

Claire Sorin and Sophie Vallas

Dossier: The militant America today


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The 1960s and 70s saw the flourishing development of “all-out” activism, unprecedented mobilization of women, African-Americans, students, sexual minorities, which had profoundly changed the social landscape, political and cultural United States. The social movements and the political activism of this period have already been the subject of many works and abundant research, and this is why this file is given as a study “The militant America today”. At the beginning of XXI thcentury, what are the faces of American militancy? How has the “new social movements” that emerged there forties for older and whose theory is still debate among sociologists ? What became of the militant minds, the charismatic voices, the sharp feathers that called for battle? Where are the lines of continuity and rupture with the past? How have the media revolution and the advent of the Internet in particular changed the ways and structures of activism? Does the current context, tinged with globalization and the fight against terrorism, make it possible to identify a new form of specifically American or even transnational militancy?

Marianne Debouzy opens this collection of texts proposing a focus on the period immediately following September 11, 2001 and by posing the question of the identity of the militants in the early twentyth century. Who are those who parade and commit in the aftermath of terrorist attacks? Who are those who surround them and manage, for a time and in the quasi-indifference of the media, to structure a movement that is at once chaotic, heteroclite, multivocal? What becomes of militancy at a time that favors a virtual and spectacular approach to the world? These questions are particularly relevant at a time when, on both sides of the Atlantic, there is a twofold note: the decline of traditional militancy linked to the erosion of political commitment and the rise in the wake of the movement against globalization, more flexible and more individualized activist practices that re-mobilize activists from diverse backgrounds (feminists, pacifists, environmentalists…).

It is clear from this observation that the phenomenon of commitment and the relationship of the individual to the public sphere is more complex. The social gains wrenched by the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, combined with growing individualism, helped demobilize the great traditional movements and undermine the strong solidarity on which the vertical and hierarchical structures of the protest movements were based. This led to propagating militant consciences disconnected from the movements that initially produced them. Barbara Epstein, in an article entitled “Feminist Consciousness After the Women’s Movement”, points out, for example, the disappearance of a broad organized feminist movement while noting that most young women today have acquired a feminist consciousness:

The extent of feminist or protofeminist consciousness, by which I mean an awareness of the inequality of women and a determination to resist, which is present in the United States is an achievement of the women’s movement. But it is also something of an anomaly, since it has not been […] the feminist consciousness has spread even the organized women’s movement has contracted.

These feminists today do not join organizations fighting for the rights of women, but rather engage individually in various causes such as anti-globalization protest, or in groups working for social justice. Epstein extends this observation to other movements:

The same trajectory as the women’s movement. The environmental movement is a clear case of a large number of people in the field of political activity, it is a part of a series of staff-driven organizations, and on the other, of a large sector of people who consider themselves environmentalist […] aim who take action […] largely in individual ways, such as their shopping clothes and in recycling. A similar argument could be made about the African-American movement, whose organizations have shifeled while militant forms of racial and ethnic consciousness have expanded, at least culturally, among young people .

A first basic feature of the new face of activism would be a policy shift to the cultural growth of a “moral activism” than partisan who engage individuals in horizontal rather than vertical structures. David Barral shows very well, in his study of Richard Rorty, “anti-philosophical political thinker” and therefore “pro-militant”, this predominance of cultural politics appeared in the late 60s, and especially the rifts around the Vietnam War. He particularly emphasizes, through Rorty’s writings, the role of the cultural left, which, abandoning economic and social issues to get lost in the concepts of objective truth and value (thus playing the game of a conservative right), locked itself into academic bastions disconnected from “real” society and thus condemned itself to be exclusively polemic, and no longer militant. “Abandoning political action, she is engaged in theoretical guerrilla warfare,” he concludes.

The figure of an activist affiliated with a party in the long term, going to war to defend a cause, ready to sacrifice his personal life for the movement and to submit to collective decisions by renouncing the singularity of his own voice, this figure- there seems so on the decline, even if it has not completely disappeared. This decline of partisan militancy and the domination of a “militancy of recognition” is accompanied by a broadening of the field of actors and we see emerge new activists who do not make their private lives an object of sacrifice but a resource potentially capable of enriching collective action. This rise of a “militant I” constitutes a second characteristic feature of contemporary militancy; it reflects the diversity of social worlds in which individuals evolve and the impossibility of reducing the identity of activists to their status and roles. The “I militant” distanced structures and reserves the possibility of a multiple commitment, temporary, circumstantial, a kind of activism à la carte that some describe as “militancy”. This tendency undoubtedly entails the danger of blunting the radicalism of the actions and one can wonder if the militant individualism is not an obstacle to the construction of the parties or more generally to the realization of the objectives. But it does not mean the end of politics. Like many specialists, Jacques Ion, inThe End of Militants? sees it more as the recomposition of politics and new forms of exercises in citizenship.

The authors of today’s Militer emphasize that it is now the action of engaging oneself that makes one “become militant”:

Does not “becoming” today a militant in and through action, that of engaging, whereas yesterday we were “militant” from a previous membership, ideological, trade union or political? This is in a situation that individuals tend to perform as activists and not only from existing collective.

Many of these actions have a defined and specific goal ( single issue movements ) that activists want to see happen in a timely manner. In other words, the need for quick and concrete results seems to be taking precedence over a utopian vision. The pragmatic aim of commitment is thus a third feature of activism today, which seeks to adapt to a “context of generalized uncertainty”.

Cécile Cottenet thus gives us a concrete example of this type of militancy with the action taken by the actors of the book against an article of the Patriot Actthreatening the confidentiality of the readings of the Americans. This article describes well the constitution, the stakes and the strategies of one of the multiple ad hoc coalitions that formed in the atmosphere of fight against terrorism dominating the United States after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

To act punctually does not mean to adopt an indifferent or disenchanted posture with regard to global issues. The unprecedented demonstrations that ignited the world scene after the outbreak of military strikes against Iraq reflected a strong capacity of the people to mobilize spontaneously and massively around an international cause. At the same time, the alterglobalist movement, launched in 1999 in Seattle, has initiated, by the nature of its aim and its strategies, a radical change in the militant landscape where local and global scales merge. By postulating that, if it is not possible to eradicate liberal ideology and its institutions directly, it is however desirable to fight against their effects, which mark every aspect of daily life, the actors of this extraordinarily unifying and heteroclite movement at the same time seek to prove that one can challenge the world order by acting locally or individually. In this context, a new generation of activists emerged, coming from very diverse backgrounds and accompanied by more seasoned activists of the 1970s. Howard Zinn is one of the most influential figures of this older generation; yesterday working for civil rights and against the Vietnam War and today a militant for “global justice” and against the policy of George W. Bush, the author of from a wide variety of backgrounds and more seasoned activists from the 1970s. Howard Zinn is one of the most influential figures of this older generation; yesterday working for civil rights and against the Vietnam War and today a militant for “global justice” and against the policy of George W. Bush, the author of from a wide variety of backgrounds and more seasoned activists from the 1970s. Howard Zinn is one of the most influential figures of this older generation; yesterday working for civil rights and against the Vietnam War and today a militant for “global justice” and against the policy of George W. Bush, the author ofA People’s History of the United Statesembodies, as Amber Ivol shows, a landmark in the history of the American left as well as a bridge between generations of intellectuals and activists. This example of continuity in change illustrates a central characteristic of the complex forms of contemporary militancy that innovates, becomes internationalized, individualizes, becomes virtualized without breaking with the voices and modes of action of a past certainly close to the historical scale, but already far away in the light of technology and global issues.

It is difficult to assess the impact of the revolution that the Internet is on the modes of modern activism. A tremendous unifying tool to inform, mobilize, connect millions of people to the service of a particular cause, it is also a tool of pressure (notably through petitions) which makes possible a militancy at the map and remote. The Internet undoubtedly fosters a broadening of the field of actors while at the same time disincarnating the modes of action and the structures of engagement. It participates in the construction of collective action without necessarily reinforcing the cohesion of collective identities. But the question of identity is more than ever at the heart of the issue of activism today.

As Alberto Melucci recalls, it is important not to reify this notion of collective identity by making it a fixed object, given a priori  :

[…] this system is never a definite datum; it is instead of a working process where unity and equilibrium are re-established over and over again in response to shifts and changes in the internal and external to the fields.

It therefore seems that collective identity must be conceived as a system of relations and representations, as the result of a construction perpetually negotiated, even staged, by the actors (what Melucci proposes to call “identity  “). Several articles explore this dialectical dynamic of collective identity. Whether they are dissonant voices within institutionalized parties, such as those that Françoise Coste is studying with the Republican Majority for Choice, which is campaigning for the right to abortion inside a party whose majority of members is opposed to abortion , or, as Guillaume Marche analyzes, debates concerning the legitimacy of the areas of action within the GLBT movement (Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender ), we are reminded that neither membership of a sexual minority nor membership of a party is sufficient to define a stable collective identity. This work of constructing the identity and legitimizing the action is also, and perhaps above all, work of the language. Pascale Smorag, in her study of the “gayspeak”, thus reveals the richness of the word adapted, diverted, invented by sexual minorities, anxious to code and speak their difference. Hélène Aji recalls, meanwhile, in her article on Language Poetsemerged in the American literary landscape in the 1970s as a result of the protest movements of the 1960s, that every act of language is political, and vice versa, that all resistance passes through words. These poets, among whom Charles Bernstein or Ron Silliman, develop a reflection, at once aesthetic and philosophical, on the very notion of construction, structure, power; and their texts undertake a decisive deconstruction of the modes of existence of poetic, literary, and political-dominant powers.

The forms of militancy today are, to a certain extent, in the image of this deconstruction: they question politics and its borders, displace and multiply the sources of knowledge, question the concepts of actors, action and identity in a complex mosaic that declines infinitely the possible definitions of militancy.


This file is the result of a conference held by LERMA (Laboratory for the Study of the Anglophone World) in Aix-en-Provence in March 2005.  See in particular the synthesis made by Eduardo Canel in “New Social Movement Theory and Resource Mobilization Theory: The Need for Integration”. He distinguishes, on the one hand, the rather European theory of the “new social movement” (NSM) which emphasizes the essentially cultural nature of these new movements which flourish exclusively in the civil society and break with the traditional movements, of the theory Resource Mobilization (RM). The latter, on the other hand, is more in keeping with a North American perspective and emphasizes the political nature of these movements (which question both civil society and the state) and the continuity between these new social actors and their predecessors; in Michael Kaufman and Haroldo Dilla, eds.,Community Power and Grass Roots Democracy (London: Zed Books, 1997), 189-221; also available electronically:  Barbara Epstein, “Feminist Consciousness after the Women’s Movement,” Monthly Review (September 2002),, available November 10, 2007.  Epstein, “Feminist Consciousness after the Women’s Movement”.  The term is borrowed from the Study and Research Group on Changes in Activism (GERMM), a group founded in 1994 by French sociologists whose mission is to explore forms of action that do not fit exclusively in the traditional pattern of associative, partisan or union activism. The GERMM researchers work on various organizations but all of them come from a “moral militancy […] based on other solidarities than class solidarities, specializing in causes such as anti-racism, humanitarianism, defense of human rights, the fight against AIDS, the defense of the environment, etc. “. See, available November 20, 2007. The rise of this type of militancy is not specifically French but is imposed as a transnational phenomenon.  See Jacques Ion, Spyros Franguiadakis, Pascal Viot, Militant Today (Paris: Editions Autrement, 2005), 129-131.  Ion, Franguiadakis and Viot, Militating today , 82-86. The term “activism” seems quite freely used by specialists who consider it necessary to give a systematic definition. “Militancy” still seems to imply a broader and less classical conception of militancy, and it refers to a set of more flexible practices in which the individual can consider himself the “freed militant” mentioned by the authors of today’s Militants., for example. Maxime Szczepanski explores more precisely the notion of militancy by comparing it to militancy in an article devoted to ATTAC. Szczepanski writes that “the militancy does not exclude an important personal investment on the part of the participants. But unlike militancy, it reflects a form of commitment more distanced from the defended cause and especially much more fragmented in time … what we could almost describe as a ‘militancy à la carte’ “. Maxime Szczepanski, “Militancy to militancy: a microsociological study of the modalities of participation of ‘anti-globalization’ activists, through the example of a local committee of the Association for Taxation of Financial Transactions for Assistance to Citizens ( ATTAC) “, , available on November 22, 2007.  Jacques Ion, The End of the militants? (Paris: Editions de l’Atelier, 1997).  Ion, Franguiadakis and Viot, Militating today , 4.  Ion, Franguiadakis and Viot, Militating today , 15.  See, for example, Martha McCaughney and Michael D. Ayers, Cyberactivism: Online Activism in Theory and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2003).  Alberto Melucci, Challenging Codes, Collective Action in the Information Age(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001 [1996]), 76.  Melucci, Challenging Codes , 77.

To quote this article

Claire Sorin and Sophie Vallas, “Dossier: Militant America Today,” Transatlantica , 2008: 1, America Militant , [Online]. Posted on May 14, 2008, reference of January 6, 2009. URL: 

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