After the Working-Class Movement? : An Essay on What's 'New' and What's 'Social' in the New Social Movements

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


In the early 1980s many social theorists claimed that the ‘New Social Move­ments’ (NSMs) were the authentic social movements of our time. This claim is discussed in relation to two traditions in the analysis of social movements. The ‘American’ tradition focuses on the single-issue movement of a protest and mobilizing character. The ‘European’ tradition focuses on the relation between major societal changes and processes of class formation, the labour movement being the classic case. In the article the women’s movement is discussed as a major cultural revolutionary movement; the different campaigns dealing with the new urban forms of socialized reproduction» housing, planning, etc., as movements for the defence of the 'real consumption’; the green and environmentalist movements taking up the conflicting relation nature-society. Is the relation between the NSMs and the new and growing social strata of students and employees within the welfare state, which make up their audience and activist core, to be understood as a parallel to the part played by the ‘old’ social movements in the making of the working class, the farmer class, etc? It is argued that there is no ‘necessary’ relationship between the socictal changes and the NSMs, as there was between industrialization and the labour movement. The societal relations and changes around which the NSMs organize themselves - gender contradictions, socialization of reproduction, con­tradictions in the forms of modern urban living, nature society - do not single out a new social force as their ‘natural’ counterpart. They are both more encompassing in their reach and more non-partisan in character. The most likely centre for a possible coalescence of a multitude of NSMs into a major social movement, if not in the class formative sense, is the societally basic relationship, nature-society. The themes and issues raised by the NSMs can in the political process become articulated with existing political and social forces. The capacity of these forces and institutions to absorb the issues raised by the NSMs deter­mine the possibility for the NSMs to emerge as a new major social force.


External organisations
  • University of Copenhagen
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Sociology


  • working class movement, new social movements, Sociology, Sociologi
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15-34
Number of pages20
JournalActa Sociologica
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1988
Publication categoryResearch
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographic note