Political Violence as a Movement Dynamic

By Cem Emrence

In this essay, I examine the effects of political violence on movements. My discussion provides a general sketch of several processes at work and deals with movements that challenge political hierarchies in developing country settings. I will argue that integrating violence into social movement theory offers a truly dynamic account. Violence fulfills this mission in two ways. First, as an extreme form of interaction, it links movement to its opponents in consequential ways. Second, violence allows us to think about movement as a family of organizations. Movements develop complex relations with insurgencies and political parties to alter power deficits in a society.

Often times, movements are born out of insurgencies. Insurgency solves the issue of critical mass for a movement. A few committed individuals shoulder the startup costs for a cause that is often risky. Revolutionaries succeed in this task partly because they bring with them new skills and resources. From Peru to Indonesia, the protest cycle of the new left was instrumental in this enterprise in post-WWII period. Hence, the insurgencies that later paved for mass movements had their origins in a previous protest cycle. As insurgencies grow, movement organizations also flourish. For instance, in El Salvador, the cooperative movement for landless peasants developed with the FMLN insurgency.

Violence also shapes movement loyalties. Literature on movement repression suggests that state repression and countermovement violence change the quality and quantity of protest (Davenport 2007; Earl 2011). In addition, I would argue, violent acts of opponents might have an impact on the movement’s constituency. In my ongoing work, I show that civilian targeting by the state and political killings by an Islamist countermovement, Hizbullah, increased electoral support for the Kurdish ethnic movement in Turkey. Selective violence by insurgency seems to have a similar impact on movement support for different reasons. Violence polarizes society like no other force and creates two opposing camps (McVeigh et al. 2014). Civilians view selective violence against state allies as more justified compared to indiscriminate targeting of civilians, and, as Lyall et al. (2013) recently demonstrated for Afghanistan, they are more forgiving when harm is inflicted by in-group insurgents.

Violence is a powerful identity-maker. In my new book, Zones of Rebellion, I find support for Jasper and Poletta’s (2001) claim that movement identities are different from prior group identifications that movements claim to represent. Political violence builds a movement identity by drawing boundaries. Targets of violence are usually the first ones to be excluded. In the Turkish case, the PKK’s relentless attacks against village guards and their families (roughly one million people) isolated them in Kurdish society. Similarly, limited attention given to Kurdish Alevites, an ethno-confessional community, in PKK discourse assigned them a peripheral role in the ethnic movement. In contrast, the PKK put a special emphasis on women and youth in its vision for Kurdish society as rebel recruitment demanded a different set of priorities. As such, it was insurgency and its political choices, not simply ethnic group membership, that defined the Kurdish movement’s identity.

In civil war settings, mobilization and protest are motivated by and respond to violence. Through committees staffed by locals, insurgencies try to mobilize civilians to rise up against their governments. This revolutionary blueprint however is rarely successful. The more common route that connects violence to protest is grievance. Insurgent funerals attracted large crowds and became sites of mass mobilization in northern Ireland during the Troubles. The same trend can also be observed in Turkey. The funerals of PKK rebels and movement members mobilize movement constituencies and build solidarity for the movement.

Violence affects movement outcomes in fundamental ways. Most critical, it can give rise to a movement party (Kriesi 2015). Unlike self-interested political actors in mediation models (Amenta et al. 2010), a movement party relies on the movement (and insurgency) for its resources, mobilizing capacity and policy agenda. The Patriotic Union in Colombia and Kurdish ethnic party in Turkey are movement parties. The latter in particular achieved electoral success, winning mayoral seats and sending its members to the Turkish Grand National Assembly since 1999. Movement parties have been subject to violence from countermovement forces, and their relationship with insurgencies (FARC and PKK) soared over time. Both factors brought the end of Patriotic Union, while in Turkey, a resilient ethnic party survived both pressures. Finally, insurgent violence might have a negative effect at the policy stage because of state elites’ perceptions (Skrentny 2006). State elites treat movement parties as synonymous with their violent allies and refuse to make any compromises.

The brief discussion on movement parties brings me to my final and larger point: movements are tied to insurgencies and institutional politics especially in civil war environments. Hence, if I am allowed to rephrase McAdam and Tarrow’s (2010) inspiring title, I would suggest ballots, bullets and barricades are linked as forms of claim-making. The intellectual journey starts by acknowledging this fact and then exploring how they are connected, and why in some cases, one route is chosen over others, as Goldstone asks in his important contribution to Mobilizing Ideas in February. In sum, it is time to open up the social movement theory to fresh ideas and different experiences coming from developing country settings. After all, the reality demands no less than that.

1 Comment

Filed under Civil Wars and Contentious Politics, Uncategorized

One response to “Political Violence as a Movement Dynamic

  1. Absolutely. The distinction between violent, non-violent, or mixed violence in social movements is artificial. It makes study more difficult, but for a full view of movement dynamics it is impossible to exclude different degrees of violence.


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