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'The Mass Strike' and 'The Cycle of Protest'

Colin Barker
Manchester Metropolitan University

Paper presented at the second International Conference on Alternative Futures and Popular Protest,
Manchester Metropolitan University, March 1996

'The self-confidence of the human being, freedom, has first of all to be aroused again in the hearts of
these people. This feeling vanished from the world with the Greeks, and under Christianity
disappeared into the blue mist of the heavens. Only this feeling can again transform society into a
community of human beings united for the highest aims, into a democratic state.' (Marx, Letter to
Arnold Ruge, 1843)

'There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune,
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current where it serves,
Or lose our ventures' (Brutus: Julius Caesar, IV.3)

1. Introduction

A more appropriate motto for this paper might be Mark Antony's 'Ambition should be made of
sterner stuff'.
What I attempt here is to begin to pose some questions about how large-scale popular
movements might be conceptualized, in order that the possibilities they embody for social
transformation can be assessed. The project is inherently open-ended, and I am very aware of
the deficiencies of what follows. Apart from anything else, the paper was produced in too
much of a rush, without even time for sensible revision, it is far too long and unbalanced in its
development, and it does not even manage to indicate, let alone cover, all the various parts of
the ground originally intended.
I proceed as follows: I look at Rosa Luxemburg's ''The Mass Strike, the Political Party and
the Trade Union' as a classic of Marxism, which first opened many of the questions with
which I am concerned. I attempt an outline provisional assessment of Luxemburg's pamphlet,
conscious of the need to develop the critical comments much further. I then turn to consider
how part of modern 'social movement theory' has approached some of the same problems, if
with a different set of commitments. I do so in the belief that writers like Sidney Tarrow and
others have - with concepts like 'cycle of protest' - identified a significant set of questions
which, in part, deal with the same problems Luxemburg discussed ninety years ago. Rather

than offer a formal evaluation of their writings - which, anyway, are not unified and complete
- I pick up some of their themes and questions and explore them a little. 1
All I would claim for the matters discussed here is that they have a practical and theoretical
relevance which demands their further exploration. I should be delighted to hear from anyone
who agrees on that point, if on no other. All authors hope for constructive criticism from
readers, aware that knowledge proceeds by debate; I more than most warmly invite anyone
who can be bothered to read these pages to let me have their sharpest criticisms.

1 This is a first effort at a more systematic development of some themes I first essayed, in more
propagandistic mode, in a chapter on 'Perspectives' in Colin Barker, ed, Revolutionary Rehearsals, London,
Bookmarks, 1987, pp 217-245; see also '"The Muck of Ages": Reflections on Proletarian Self-emancipation",
Studies in Marxism, 2, 1995, pp 81-112.

2. 'The Mass Strike'

Rosa Luxemburg's 'The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions', written in
1906, is a very significant document in the development of Marxist political ideas. 2
In the 19th century, Marx and Engels developed the key principles that would inform
Marxist revolutionary thought. They did so by reflecting on the character of capitalist society
in their own period, and especially on the achievements of the workers' movement of their
own time. They centred their theory on the inherent clash of interests between the working
class and capital, the crucial forces dominating the capitalist society they saw developing
across the world. The struggle between classes was the motor of historical development, and
the key to the transformation of society from one mode of production to another. The secret of
the emancipation of society lay in the self-emancipation of the working class. Revolutionary
class struggle was itself the mechanism by which workers could gain the practical insight and
power necessary to overthrow 'the muck of ages'.
But the concrete experience of the meaning of these arguments, and of the means to
translate these broad theoretical principles into a realistic and self-developing communist
political practice, were still quite limited during the lifetime of the founders of revolutionary
Marxism. I can only briefly indicate a few of the problems.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the modern proletariat, the proposed revolutionary
antagonist of capitalism, represented still only a tiny fraction of the world's population - even
if the theory correctly projected the growth of that class as the key to ongoing capitalist
At the time that Marx and Engels were writing, there was relatively little experience of
mass workers' struggles on which to base their theory. Where mass strikes occurred, they
tended to be limited and relatively localised. (as for example were the strikes of 1842 in and
around Lancashire and Yorkshire).
The pattern of popular revolution was still dominated by 'artisanal' rather than 'proletarian'
social forces and political forms. After 1848, the one major working-class revolutionary
effort, the Paris Commune of 1871, was limited to a single city, and a city moreover whose
production was still predominantly carried out in small workshop settings. (The average size
of workplace was, reputedly, just eight workers - fewer than will be found in a typical urban
primary school today.)
Hence Marxist discussion of the character and problems of practical working-class struggle
was still relatively underdeveloped, by comparison with the resources and ideas available to
us today. When Marx and Engels described particular working classes, they recognized that
they were internally differentiated, but when they offered general propositions about the
proletariat as a political actor they tended to represent it as a unified force. Marx and Engels
themselves made but small contributions to an adequate theorization of questions to do with
working-class consciousness and politics, or about the intrinsically connected problem of the
practical relation between communist political organization and actual working-class and
other popular movements. When they considered what they certainly recognized as 'reformist'
currents within the workers' movement, they tended to explain these as the effects of simple

2 All quotations are taken from the 1986 Bookmarks (London) Revolutionary Classics edition, published
under the title The Mass Strike.

'backwardness' of development produced, largely, by the influence on young working-class

movements of the ideas and practices of declining older social forces, and especially the
'petty-bourgeoisie'. 3 Finally, given the limited amount of experiential material with which they
could work, Marx and Engels could not proceed very far with an account of the possible
institutional basis of a future socialist society.
For a long period after the 1848 revolutions, European capitalism followed what, in
retrospect, appears as a relatively peaceful path of development. In the advanced world, apart
from the brief explosion of the Paris Commune in 1871, there were no apparent qualitative
developments in popular revolutionary struggle, and certainly none that sufficed to provoke
huge new creative impulses within Marxist thought. The revolutionary wars of the 1860s,
which re-founded major capitalist states, chiefly took the form of 'revolutions from above' in
which command of the historical process remained in the hands of American, German, and
Italian generals and statesmen, and of Japanese samurai. Levellers, sans-culottes, Chartists
and urban insurrectionists played no significant roles.
The foundations were laid for new forms of working-class party structures, and trade
unions achieved some regularized legal status. Those parties and unions, as they developed,
espoused a theory and practice of 'socialism' in which, mostly clearly in the Erfurt Programme
of the German SPD, they distinguished between 'maximum' and 'minimum' programmes. The
'maximum' programme expressed a long-term, almost infinitely distant prospect of a struggle
to destroy capitalism and develop a socialist society; the 'minimum' programme expressed the
immediate reform objectives of the movement. Between the two, there was little practical
linkage. Indeed, the very logic of their separation was not slow to express itself in theory. In
the 'revisionist' debate of the 1890s, Bernstein and others proposed that, since the real day-to-
day work of the party and the unions was focused on everyday reforms within the framework
of capitalism, and since in practice capitalism seemed capable of delivering the goods the
movement sought, the maximum programme should be abandoned as useless decoration.
Socialism would come through the gradual accretion of parliamentary reforms and trade-
union gains. Revolutionary aspirations should be junked.
Against this position, Rosa Luxemburg entered the fray from the left, insisting famously in
her Social Reform or Revolution that those who claimed to be proposing a different path to
socialism were, in reality, proposing a different goal altogether. The ultimate goal should not
only be preserved, she urged, but should inform and pervade the daily struggle of the workers'
movement. But, as Norman Geras suggests, at the time that she argued this in 1899, there was
a central weakness in her case. She might argue, against the revisionists, the need to maintain
an orientation on the question of a struggle for proletarian power, but 'she was not yet in a
position to answer it with specific strategic proposals'. 4 Her position required that she identify
a realistic bridge between the 'minimum' and maximum' programmes, but - until the 1905
revolution - she lacked the materials with which to begin to do so. Now, in the processes of an
actual revolutionary mass struggle, in which the working class played the central role, she
could in a sense solve the conundrum that Marx posed in the German Ideology, when he

3 The matter is quite usefully discussed in Carol Johnson, 'The problem of reformism and Marx's theory of
fetishism', New Left Review, 119, January-February 1980. Rather similar ideas still predominate within Rosa
Luxemburg's brilliant attack on 'revisionism' in the German SPD, Social Reform or Revolution, published in
4 Norman Geras, The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, London: New left Books, 1976, p 116.

suggested that a revolution was necessary, not merely to dispose of the ruling class, but as the
sole practical means by which the working class could fit itself to rule. 5 In the mass strikes
and struggles of the Russian workers, Rosa Luxemburg identified the lever with which the
world might be over-turned and made anew. For in that experience she found the social
mechanism by which, simultaneously, working-class people were drawn into a powerful form
of struggle with the capacity to challenge the structures of the Tsarist autocracy and equally of
the growing capitalist order within it, and - more than that - could be seen as developing and
transforming themselves sufficiently to become capable of creating a new form of social rule
altogether. As Geras stresses, in Rosa Luxemburg's pamphlet there is - still in embryo, to be
sure - the outline of a new conception of communist struggle which would, a little over a
decade later, set the world alight. She now had a standpoint, based on actual practice, from
which the criticize the existing practices and structures of German social democracy:
'On the one hand in the peaceful "normal" course of bourgeois society the economic
struggle is split into a multitude of individual struggles in every undertaking and
dissolved in every branch of production. On the other hand the political struggle is not
directed by the masses themselves in a direct action, but in correspondence with the
form of the bourgeois state, in a representative fashion, by the presence of legislative
representation.' [80]
Against that, the Russian 'mass strike' posed an alternative: a struggle, at once economic
and political, in which the masses directed themselves, and in the process advanced their own
cultural, intellectual and organizational capacities.
'The Mass Strike' is a founding document of the revolutionary 'socialism from below'
which, over the turbulent decade and a half that followed its writing, struggled to separate
itself from the 'socialism from above' of the Second International. It is at once a celebration,
and an interrogation, of an emerging new form of popular struggle which promised to unite
the real practice of a modern workers' movement with Marx's principle of 'the self-
emancipation of the working class'. For that reason alone, it remains a classic of socialist
At the same time, it is a classic which requires critical evaluation. On one side, many of the
features of working-class mass revolt which it identified have re-appeared, again and again,
within movements on an even larger scale than those that Luxemburg evaluated in 1906. Even
a cursory reading, for example, of the history of the rise and flourishing of the Solidarity
movement in Poland in 1980 reveals many of the same intrinsic processes that Luxemburg
adumbrated, even if many of its leaders might have been appalled at the very thought. Yet, in
the proceeding ninety years, the history of revolutionary and potentially revolutionary mass
strikes has also added bitterly to our knowledge, bringing to us an awareness of intrinsic
additional difficulties - and possibilities too - which are not recognized adequately in the
pages of 'The Mass Strike'.
In what follows, I shall first attempt to establish, as fairly and briefly as I can, what
Luxemburg actually argues in her pamphlet. I shall then proceed to outline some elements of a
possible critique.

5 On this, see Barker, '"The Muck of Ages":


The Argument

The mass strikes in Russia have, Luxemburg suggests, opened a new epoch in the history of
the labour movement. They have revealed a new set of connections between strikes and the
political struggle. Former theories about mass strikes are now shown to be completely
discredited. They key thing is to understand the phenomenon of the mass strike, by an
'objective investigation' of the phenomenon as it has revealed itself in the course of the
Russian struggle.
In the third chapter, she provides a sketch of the history of the mass strike, as it developed
in Russia over the ten-year period between 1896 and 1906. What that history suggests is that
the mass strike is a protean phenomenon, changing its form and its dynamics from one
situation to another. One pattern of development involves strike movements which begin with
'economic' demands but rapidly expand into more general and political demands; this process
is commonly associated with the development of 'general' strikes, actively involving the whole
working population of a town or region, out of local grievances in a particular workplace.
Interwoven with this is a pattern whereby a strike in one workplace sets off strikes in others
within the same locality, each concerning itself with local and particular grievances.
Consideration of the Russian movement over time, however, also reveals a reverse flow: a
large-scale political struggle against the Tsarist regime - such as that which culminated in the
January 1905 St Petersburg massacre - becomes the occasion, first for a generalization of the
political struggle to other centres, and then for an upsurge of local, 'economic' strikes. These,
in turn, then feed back into further political struggles.
Luxemburg argues that what can be seen clearly occurring in the Russian strikes is a
breakdown of the 'normal' distinction between 'economic' and 'political' struggles. Indeed, the
two forms flow into and reinforce each other, so that between them there is complete
'reciprocal action'. The same reciprocity of action connects the various forms of strike and
other manifestations of struggle such as street demonstrations, public meetings and actual
insurrectionary attempts:
'Political and economic strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and
general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres,
barricade fighting - all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one
another, flow in and over one another - it is a ceaselessly moving changing sea of
phenomena.' [46]
Thus the distinction of 'spheres of action', which is given institutional shape in Germany in
a growing separation between the leadership of the SPD on one side and of the Trade Unions
on the other, is in practice undermined by the actual life of a militant workers' movement. As
she emphasizes, such a merging of spheres of action is characteristic of a workers' movement
in an actual revolutionary situation, and is not found in periods of 'normal, peaceful'
development. The pattern of mass strikes in Russia is inseparable from the revolutionary
circumstances which shape them, and the generalizations she offers are applicable only to
such situations.
Within this pattern, several related processes appear, of immense significance. First, the
movement itself provides a means by which large numbers of previously unorganized layers

of workers - and others - are drawn into struggle. The strikes spread from large urban
concentrations to small towns, from core industrial groups to more marginal occupations such
as domestic servants, from manual to white collar workers; their influence even begins to
reach inside the police and army. Second, these developments occur with considerable speed
and power, following a much more rapid timetable than is found in parliamentarist politics.
Third, they are associated with a very rapid and extensive growth of working-class
organization, registered both in the growth of new trade unions and also in the formation of
political clubs, expanded attendance at political meetings and the like. Fourth, and intimately
associated with the tumultuous spread of new organizational forms, the intellectual and
cultural level of large numbers of workers is raised, through their very participation in
collective struggle. Fifth, the increase in popular confidence and combativity generate the
revolutionary phenomena that Lenin in the same period termed a 'festival of the oppressed'.
Thus she writes about the 'colossal general strike' in Southern Russia in 1903:
'By many small channels of partial economic struggles and little "accidental"
occurrences, it flowed rapidly into a raging sea, and changed the entire south of the
czarist empire for some weeks into a bizarre revolutionary workers' republic. "Brotherly
embraces, cries of delight and enthusiasm, songs of freedom, merry laughter, humour
and joy, were seen and heard in the crowd of many thousands of persons which surged
through the town from morning to evening. The mood was exalted: one could almost
believe that a new, better life was beginning on the earth. A most solemn and at the
same time an idyllic, moving spectacle...." So wrote at the time the correspondent of the
Liberal Osvoboshdenye of Peter Struve.' [29-30]
Workers achieve very rapidly gains in both the legal-political sphere, and in the material
conditions of their everyday lives. Many of these gains are short-lived, being snatched back by
state repression, but others become more permanent achievements.
The whole experience reveals that mass strikes cannot be called at will, by the Social
Democrats or anyone else. They were brought about, to be sure, through the action of the most
organized and enlightened kernel of the workers' movement, though even their capacity to
exercise initiative was normally limited to their own specific towns and industries. On
occasion the Social Democrats themselves issued general calls for mass strikes, but these were
often failures. Hence
'The element of spontaneity... plays a great part in all Russian mass strikes without
exception, be it as a driving force or as a restraining influence.' [54]
But equally marked was the readiness of workers to make huge sacrifices for the cause of
the movement in these circumstances, despite tremendous privations: 'such an immense
volume of mass idealism is simultaneously released that the masses are insensible to the
bitterest sufferings' [55]
The whole movement is highly sensitive, in its overall patterns, to shifts in the larger
political and social environment:
'every disarrangement of the relations of the contending powers, in party development
and in class division, in the position of the counter-revolution - all this immediately
influences the action of the strike in a thousand indivisible and scarcely controllable
ways.' [47]

A differentiated but self-unifying, diverse and yet expanding movement reveals itself
through the process of the struggle, its different sections advancing, reciprocally, at different
speeds and by different methods, towards a common revolutionary goal. ' is a gigantic,
many-coloured picture of a general arrangement of labour and capital'; it 'reflects all the
complexity of social organization and of the political consciousness of every section and of
every district'; it includes 'regular trade union struggle of a picked and tested troop of the
proletariat drawn from large-scale industry' and 'the formless protest of a handful of rural
proletarians', 'the first slight stirrings of an agitated military garrison', 'the well-educated and
elegant revolt in cuffs and white collars in the counting house of a bank', 'the shy-bold
murmurings of a clumsy meeting of dissatisfied policemen in a smoke-grimed, dark and dirty
guard-room' [32]
The nature of the movement is conditioned by the combination of political and social-
economic circumstances in which it occurs. Russian Absolutism still awaits its bourgeois
revolution, and the political freedoms which are an 'absolute necessity' for the working class.
But the growth of capitalist industry within the Absolutist framework has reproduced on a
larger scale the same contradiction that Marx noted in Germany in the aftermath of the 1848
revolutions. 6 Far from offering revolutionary leadership, the bourgeoisie in Russia is either
actually counter-revolutionary or at best weakly liberal; only the petty-bourgeoisie can still be
accounted a real oppositional force beside the working class. It falls, now, to the growing
proletariat to lead the revolution. But the proletariat is not only opposed to Absolutism, but
also to the capitalist class - indeed, it is the anti-capitalism of the workers which drove the
bourgeoisie into the arms of Tsarism.
Many of the elements that Trotsky was to bring together in his theory of 'combined and
uneven development' are present in Luxemburg's treatment, even if she does not draw quite
such definite conclusions. A good part of the 'interaction of the political and the economic'
which she notes within the Russian mass strikes is explicable in terms of the duality of fronts
on which the workers are compelled to fight.
Is this new form of mass strike, then, a peculiarly Russian phenomenon, with no immediate
relevance for the labour movement in Germany? Such a conclusion, Luxemburg argues,
would be entirely false. Elements of 'absolutism' are far from absent from the workers'
experience in Germany; many of the economic gains which the Russian workers won through
their battles still remain distant dreams for large parts of the German proletariat. 7 Against
those who might argue that the mass strikes are the product of 'backwardness' among Russian
workers, she insists on their long traditions of union organization, on the relatively high
standard of living which some of them enjoy (even by comparison with German workers), and
their political maturity and cleverness. A large part of the German working class, she reminds
her readers, remain seemingly 'backward' and unorganized. We, she insists, have everything to

6 Luxemburg herself does not make this connection, which was to be picked up and developed by Parvus and
Trotsky in their theorization of the implications of the new situation revealed by the 1905 revolution. Drawing on
Marx's phrase, they concluded that the old absolute distinction between the 'stages' of revolution, signaled by the
distinction between 'bourgeois' and 'socialist' revolutions, was no longer operative; now the realistic prospect was
'the permanent revolution'.
7 She lists some of these: the eight-hour day ('a beautiful, remote ideal'), 'mastery of the household' (meaning
here the mastery of the employers' 'Hause'), workers' committees in the factories, abolition of piecework,
abolition of homework in handicraft, complete observance of Sunday rest, recognition of right of combination.
The same gains, the interested reader might note, still await achievement in Britain in 1996!

gain by learning from the Russian mass strikes, for they have shown the way to overcome a
set of practical problems which afflict the German labour movement.
Luxemburg's purpose in her pamphlet is not simply to grasp the new forms of action
revealed in the Russian mass strike movement, but to deploy this material as part of a political
struggle inside German socialism. Currently, she points out, the organized labour movement
reaches only a minority of the whole German working class, but it would be a great mistake to
treat the organized layer as the whole of the movement. Especially in a revolutionary
movement, the currently unorganized layer should not be under-estimated. Nor, indeed,
should the present level of political consciousness of the organized layer be exaggerated.
While it is true that the German Social Democrats implant political consciousness in workers,
they do so only in a 'theoretical and latent' form; whereas, in Russia, by contrast, socialist
consciousness is 'practical and active'. In an actual revolutionary struggle, many powerful
initiatives should be expected to come from among those layers currently labeled as
'backward'. The role of the party, in such circumstances, must change. Indeed, if it does not, it
will risk being swept aside: '...if once the ball is set rolling then social democracy, whether it
wills it or not, can never again bring it to a standstill.' [77]
The role of socialists must be to prepare the workers for the nature of the new kind of
struggle which is coming, and which the Russian movement has clearly shown. At present it
cannot be said that the German movement is well-prepared. Her final chapter addresses the
current state of relations between the SPD leaders and the union leaderships. These relations
will come to be seen as 'an artificial product of the parliamentarian period'. Luxemburg's
critique of the weaknesses and bureaucratism of German trade unionism is matched by an
equivalent critique of the current parliamentarist practice of the SPD. Both reflect division
within the movement, and the dominance of 'indirect' and 'representative' forms of action, in
which the mass of workers are not required to participate fully. From this condition there arise
the tendencies to institutional division and separation at the top of the movement, the
tendency for the union leaders to stress their 'independence' from the party, the marked
bureaucratism that infects the movement along with a tendency to belittle the capacities of the
masses. The real guarantee of the unity of the labour movement lies below, among the
organized proletarian masses.


Enjoying the benefit of hindsight, of course, it is not difficult for the late twentieth-century
reader to point to silences and ambiguities in Luxemburg's pamphlet. I shall, shortly, attempt
myself to indicate a few of these. Yet what is, above all, striking is how original and
innovative she was in her conception, and - in the light of later experience of comparable
phenomena - how much she got right. To my knowledge, no one before her came anywhere
near catching the inner dynamics of a revolutionary workers' movement: the diversity of its
various parts and the unity forged between them through their reciprocal interaction; the
processes of activation of initially more 'passive' layers as the movement spreads and grows;
the reciprocal energizing effects of the movement's extension back onto its starting point; the
movement back and forth between different forms of collective struggle; and the practical
inter-relation between collective action over local, partial 'economic' demands and action
directed at general, 'political' issues. There is nothing mechanical in the way these matters are
dealt with, for the whole account is suffused with a sense of human agency undergoing vast

and vital processes of self-transformation, of new identities, relationships and understandings

being made, of new organizational forms being created and developed. The account of the role
of mass collective action as itself a 'recruiting officer' to the labour movement is an
extraordinary dialectical development, tied as it is to a sense of the shift in the 'psychology' of
the workers involved: the sense of 'joy' and 'festival', the 'idealism' of workers in such
struggles. Those whom others would write out of the historical process as 'backward' and
'passive' Luxemburg reveals as, not simply capable of being active and self-transforming in
their own right, but as crucial energizing elements in an advancing revolutionary process. She
insists that:
The revolution ... is something other and more than bloodshed.... In contradiction to the
police interpretation, which views the revolution exclusively from the standpoint of
street disturbances and rioting, that, is, from the standpoint of "disorder" - the
interpretation of scientific socialism sees in the revolution above all a thorough-going
internal reversal of social class relations' [51]
There is an immense creative social process going on within the mass strikes, within which
the lineaments of a new form of society can be seen in an active collective, interactional
process of 'making'. And this occurs, not in the abstract, but in a definite and changing
historical setting, in which the movement's development is simultaneously conditioned by its
ongoing interaction with its actual and potential allies and its antagonists, with their own
alliances and divisions. If we continue to notice all these phenomena in a whole series of
revolutionary and potentially revolutionary movements across the world throughout the rest of
the twentieth century, we should acknowledge that it was Rosa Luxemburg who first taught us
to see them.
That said, in relation to a whole series of issues, Luxemburg's 'The Mass Strike' cannot be
treated as the last word. In some cases, her own later thinking and practice involved a
recognition of this. For one thing, the pamphlet makes no mention of the relationship between
the workers' revolt and that of the peasants in Russia. Largely, this is a matter of timing:
Luxemburg was writing in 1906, when the rural revolt was just getting under way. In 1908, in
a letter to the Latvian social democrats, the point was fully recognized:
'Only the independent activity of the proletariat as a class, supported by the
revolutionary movement of the peasants, will be able to destroy absolutism and
introduce political freedom into Russia. This is the most irrefutable and most important
lesson from the history of revolutionary development'8
Luxemburg still poses the question of 'politics' in terms of winning a parliamentary
republic. Despite the stress on the organizational creativity of the Russian workers, she writes
not a single word about the soviet, despite the fact that it was during the 1905 revolution that
this immense organizational innovation first appeared. But then Luxemburg is not alone in
this respect. Neither Lenin, nor Trotsky (who had himself presided over the St Petersburg
soviet, and who drew from the experience of 1905 the startling conclusion that the coming
revolution would be a socialist one) made anything much of this new form of organization in
their appreciation of the achievements of the 1905 workers' movement. It required the second

8The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, cited in Stephen Eric Bronner, A Revolutionary For Our Times: Rosa
Luxemburg, London: Pluto, 1981, pp 61-2

coming of the soviet, in 1917, to compel a revision and crystallization of revolutionary

Marxist thinking on this question. (Indeed, in Luxemburg's case, it seems that she did not gain
complete clarity about the inherent opposition between the soviet / workers' council form and
parliamentary government until the issue was posed concretely in Germany from November
There is a degree of ambiguity and uncertainty in her treatment of the question, to what
extent is the interweaving of 'economic' and 'political' issues a specific product of absolutist
(or, more generally, authoritarian) political conditions? Are the various features of the mass
strike, which she records so brilliantly, liable to appear in full measure in developed
bourgeois-parliamentary regimes? And, if they are, are they also likely to be combined with
other factors which were missing in Tsarist Russia, and which might play a critical role in
their development and outcome? In particular, since one common characteristic of bourgeois-
parliamentary regimes is the presence of an extensive and legal apparatus of trade unionism
and workers' parties, how might that condition the pattern of development of potentially
revolutionary movements? When the period of revolution passes and a bourgeois-
parliamentary constitutional state is erected, Luxemburg suggests, the 'living, active class
feeling' will 'diminish in intensity' and 'rather change into a concealed and latent condition'.
[68] Is this an inherent product of such states? She does not explore the matter.
There are matters which, with the benefit of hindsight, might have been further developed,
since they have potential implications for the strengthening of her own case. In polemical
mode, she notes that questions to do with 'provisioning', 'discovery of cost', 'sacrifice' and the
like become less practically relevant during mass strikes, at least for the would-be directive
organs of the labour movement, because the huge numbers of people involved make any
computation or regulation of cost altogether hopeless. To be sure, she notes, 'a veritable ocean
of frightful privations and sufferings' is created, but the solution lies in the fact that 'such an
immense volume of mass idealism is simultaneously released that the masses are insensible to
the bitterest sufferings' [55]. This is a matter which invites further exploration. I an inclined to
doubt that working people become 'insensible' to the bitterest sufferings, whether these be
food shortages or the loss of some of their number through death, injury or arrest - though
certainly they may evaluate them differently. The important question is, how do they handle
such problems in mass struggles? There is an issue here requiring further exploration. What
part is played by the activation of 'hidden' networks of support, bringing un-noticed people
into activity of kinds we should not ignore, not least because they may be immensely
significant in the processes of self-alteration of collective identity and activity? If there is an
arrest, injury or death, who comforts the grieving family, as part of the necessary
organizational work of the movement? If there is a food shortage, who organizes soup
kitchens? What is their relation to the strike organization? Questions of 'provisioning' and the
like may involve the activation of other networks, whose significance should not be under-
estimated. Workers occupying Polish factories in 1980 received food supplies from local
farmers: that involved the activating and building of practical and ideological linkages
between different groups. The British coal strike of 1984-85 involved an immense amount of
organizational activity, quite apart from picketing and the like. 'Idealism' was given practical
shape, involving new layers of people in the movement. 'Provisioning' issues can have
powerful transforming effects on working people and their social relations, empowering them,
posing intimate issues to do with 'control', and providing a different route to politicization. It

is not a matter of discounting 'idealism', but of discovering its concrete practical content and
thus its developmental potentials.
Luxemburg, as we saw, insists that the form of the mass strikes she discusses cannot be
separated from the revolutionary context in which they occurred. Mass strikes in other
situations display few of these characteristics. By way of example, she cites a general strike of
Dutch railwaymen, 'which died away in spite of the warmest sympathy, in the midst of the
complete impassivity of the proletariat of the country' [52]. The twentieth century does not
lack for examples of other general strike movements, including strikes across many industries,
which have similarly lacked the revolutionary characteristics and possibilities of the Russian
strikes. 9 On the other hand, there have been decidedly revolutionary mass movements,
involving very large numbers of individual workers, which have, nonetheless, not involved
anything much by way of strike activity or indeed independent working-class organization or
activity Witness the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe, and notably East Germany and
Czechoslovakia, where the 'mass' character of the revolutionary movements can be in no
doubt. 10 It remains an open question, under what circumstances the specific phenomena
Luxemburg identifies do come to play a major part in strike movements and revolutions, and
also what social mechanisms might operate to convert one pattern of mass strike into another,
or to encourage or repress tendencies to independent working-class activity and organization
within insurgent political movements. Indeed, we might explore what factors - even within a
(potentially) revolutionary period of mass strikes - work to determine why in one case a 'local,
partial, economic' strike explodes into a more wide-spread and 'political' strike movement,
while in another case this does not happen.
The range of variation suggests a need for a wider-ranging theory, capable of incorporating
Luxemburg's massively important insights while at the same time contextualizing them
Finally, it is apparent with the benefit of hindsight that there are some problems and
potential weaknesses in Luxemburg's discussion of the role of 'initiative and direction' in mass
strikes. Here I can do no more than signal a few of these.
I will begin with a serious, and fateful, misjudgment. Luxemburg asks how applicable the
Russian mass strike scenario is in Germany, particularly if the Kaiser's regime tries to take the
vote away from workers. In the course of that discussion, she remarks, almost in passing:
'But if once the ball is set rolling then social democracy, whether it wills it or not, can
never again bring it to a standstill.' [77]
As Luxemburg herself was to discover later, and especially during the last turbulent weeks
of her life during the revolutionary upsurge that marked the end of the First World War,
'social democracy', along with the leadership of the trade unions, was capable of forms of
activity and organization which not simply hindered revolutionary mass activity, but directly
opposed it in alliance with the worst reactionary forces. And the SPD leadership's capacity to

9 See, eg, Tony Cliff, 'Patterns of mass strike', International Socialism, 2.:29, Summer 1985, pp 3-61. Cliff
suggests the category, 'bureaucratic mass strike', to define the character of such general strikes as those in Sweden
in 1909, Belgium in 1913 and Britain in 1926.
10 This is briefly discussed in Colin Barker and Colin Mooers, 'Theories of Revolution in the Light of 1989 in
Eastern Europe', in Patrick Dunleavy and Jeff Stanyer, eds, Contemporary Political Studies 1994, Swansea:
Political Studies Association, 2 vols, 1994, vol 2, pp 987-1001

play a counter-revolutionary part depended, in turn, on its continuing influence among wide
layers of workers, and thus on its capacity to intervene directly in the internal politics of the
labour movement - even when the general tendency was for that movement to be turning to
the left and expanding its organized forces by leaps and bounds. 11 This very fact has important
general implications. Matters to do with changes within, and different forms and intensities of
class consciousness, along with their inter-relations with the influences of parties, unions and
other bodies, are involved. So too are issues concerning the strategies and tactics and
organizational character of movements and their component bodies.
'The Mass Strike', on the one hand, embodies a huge advance over previous thinking in this
respect. In her earlier Social Reform or Revolution, Luxemburg still presented the problem of
'reformism' in the labour movement as the product of remaining 'petty-bourgeois' influences
on socialist ideas and practice, as Marx and Engels had done before. Nor did she offer
anything by way of argument about the need for changes in socialist practice, beyond a denial
that trade unionism, the developments of co-operatives or the parliamentary struggle alone can
achieve socialist transformation, and a parallel demand that the goal of revolutionary
socialism be re-affirmed. Her case for revolutionary politics centred on a working-class
'conquest of power' remained, at that time, quite abstract, seemingly involving no case for a
distinct practice in the pre-revolutionary period. 12 In 'The Mass Strike', the problem of
reformism is identified more directly as existing within the movement itself, in the leadership
of the SPD and the unions. The official machinery of the movement itself is revealed as a
direct source of conservative ideas and practices, and of internal divisions in labour's ranks.
However, the practical implications for socialists are still rather abstractly stated. In
Luxemburg's account, the rank and file of the German labour movement is assumed to be
unified, and to share a socialist consciousness - even if that consciousness, implanted by the
party, remains still 'theoretical and latent'. Only two relatively simple distinctions are
recognized among the working class. First, within the ranks of the labour movement, there are
those who belong to the SPD itself, and those who belong only to a SPD-affiliated trade
union. Here the distinction is posed in terms of standards of 'intelligence and idealism' and in
part with residence in large urban centres. Those who join only unions, however, are seen as
effectively joining the party through their union memberships, because of the historic links
between the two bodies. The second distinction is between this relatively non-contradictory
pair of types, and the layers of workers who - to date - belong to neither, and are either
organized in non-socialist unions or belong to nothing. That support for and membership in
the SPD and/ or the unions might itself be a contradictory phenomenon is barely recognized,
except in her reference to the merely 'theoretical and latent' attachment of workers to socialist

11 There is a vast literature on the political and social crisis in Germany at the end of the First World War. Of
especial relevance here are Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution, Germany 1918 to 1923, London: Bookmarks,
1982 and Donny Gluckstein, The Western Soviets: Workers' Councils Versus Parliament 1915-1920, London:
Bookmarks, 1985, specially chapters 5-8.
12 The right wing within the SPD was clearer about this matter of the relation of theory and practice than the
left. The Bavarian Social-Democrat, Ignaz Auer, commented to Bernstein on his call for the SPD to adopt an
openly reformist platform:
'My dear Ede, one doesn't formally decide to do what you ask, one doesn't say it, one does it. Our whole
activity - even under the shameful anti-socialist law - was the activity of a social-democratic reforming
party. A party which reckons with the masses simply cannot be anything else.' (cited in John Molyneux,
Marxism and the Party, London: Pluto, 1978, page 34)

ideas. That 'reformist' ideas might themselves be located within the everyday practice and
social relations of the 'base' of the German movement is not considered. And, as a result, the
question of political differentiation within the labour movement is also not posed adequately.
The practical conclusions that Luxemburg draws from her review of the mass strike tend to be
propagandistic, and even moralistic. The real guarantee of the unity of the labour movement,
she suggests, lies below, among the organized proletarian masses. In their consciousness,
party and union are one, representing in different forms 'the social democratic struggle for the
emancipation of the proletariat' . Unions and party must be re-united. and this will involve
resistance from part of the union leaderships.
'But it is high time for the working masses of social democracy to learn how to express
their capacity for decision and action, and therewith to demonstrate their ripeness for
that time of great struggles and great tasks in which they, the masses, will be actual
chorus and the directing bodies will merely act as the "speaking parts", that is, will only
be the interpreters of the will of the masses.' [92]
What she does not suggest is that those who already agree with this perspective need, now,
to work out ways of organizing themselves, to begin to put those ideas into practice. It was
not, indeed, until well after the dreadful betrayals of the SPD and the union leaders at the
outbreak of the First World War that Luxemburg and others began to move towards a
practical recognition of the need to organize politically in independence of, and antagonism
to, the reformist organizations. The organizations they founded were hastily improvised,
lacked theoretical coherence, and proved insufficient to master the immense practical
problems that the actual explosion of 'mass strikes' from 1918 onwards posed - on a scale
enormously exceeding what had occurred in Russia thirteen years previously. That tardiness
would cost them, and the German labour movement as a whole, very dear.

3. The 'Cycle of Protest'

On 1 December 1955, Mrs Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, was sitting on a bus in
Montgomery, Alabama. When a white person entered the bus, the driver told her to move
from her seat. She refused. Mrs Parks was arrested. Her friends in the Montgomery branch of
the National Association for the Advancement for Coloured People and the Women's Political
Council issued a leaflet calling for a boycott of the Montgomery bus company. That boycott
lasted a year. The American Civil Rights movement hit the headlines.
Out of the bus boycott was born a new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, headed by the Baptist minister, Dr Martin Luther King. The activities of the
Black movement, initially centred on churches and the like, spread to a new sector from 1960,
when four students from Greensboro sat in at the whites-only lunch counter in their local
Woolworth's, demanding to be served. Their action set off a new phase in the movement,
spawning another organization, the Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and re-
activating the older Congress on Racial Equality. In the meantime, the Black Muslim
movement in numbers of northern US cities was gaining ground. The range and variety of
forms of public protest expanded. New organizations proliferated. In Washington, in 1963,
Martin Luther King made his 'I have a dream' speech to a vast crowd at the climax of the
March on Washington. That same summer saw the Black movement take a new turn with the
onset of the 'long hot summers' of insurrectionary rioting in dozens of major cities.
In 1964, on the University of California campus at Berkeley, the authorities attempted to
stop students who had participated in the Civil Rights movement's Freedom Summer in
Mississippi from setting up a stall on Sproul Plaza. Their action set off a mass occupation of
University buildings. The new student movement spread from campus to campus across the
US, rapidly developing into an opposition movement to the war in Vietnam which, itself,
spread far beyond the universities.
The growing radicalization of whole layers of American society was echoed - though quite
softly by comparison with events elsewhere - in American industry, where the rate of strikes
rose. A whole series of other movements demanding new rights (or the enforcement of old
ones) sprang up. Some, like the women's movement, were born from within the growing
radical movement, in protest at the chauvinism of male leaders; others like the American
Indian Movement took up old injustices.
The effects of the wave of radicalization within American society were felt across the
globe, as a whole series of radical movements sprang up, setting off processes of reform and
semi-revolution in country after country.
In the early to mid 1970s, after the international wave of protests had peaked, the various
movements began to decline, leaving behind a variety of effects. In some countries, more
repressive regimes, in others, more democratic. Here political and social reforms were won,
there they were lost. The meaning of key words in the political lexicon had altered and
extended their scope - 'rights', 'justice', 'equality', 'democracy' and the like - at the same time
that previously marginalized terms like 'revolution' became, for a period, closer to parts of
everyday discourse.
The whole period, and the processes making it up, can be seen as constituting a 'wave' or
'cycle of protest'.

One effect of that 'wave' was felt within mainstream social science. As well as a revival
and then partial decline of direct interest in Marxism, something seemingly more lasting was
also accomplished. The intellectual frameworks within which conventional sociology and
political science discussed such matters as popular protest movements were reshaped, notably
within North America. An older, partially 'Durkheimian' focus on what had been termed
'collective behaviour' was displaced by a new set of theories which took such names as
'resource mobilization' and 'political process' theory. 13 James Rule has suggested that the shift
amounted to
'...something as close as social science is apt to come to an authentic theoretical
revolution. This was the abrupt displacement of models of collective militancy as
irrational or non-rational by those depicting such phenomena in the opposite terms.
Since then, models of militant phenomena as essentially rational have continued to hold
the center of the theoretical stage.'14
This 'theoretical revolution' was itself the product of social scientists' responses to the
movements of the 1960s, as some have publicly acknowledged. 15 One aspect of this shift has
been a definite interest in the properties and processes of what some writers have termed
'cycles of protest'. The very notion is itself a reflexive product of the experience of the wave of
American and international movements which Mrs Rosa Parks might be said to have initiated
on that dark Thursday evening in Montgomery. It seeks to catch both the upswing of a new
societal mass movement, its peak and also its decline. Rosa Luxemburg, writing in 1906, had
her thought stimulated to the most intense creativity by the immediate memory of a brilliant
series of triumphs of popular combativity. She has little to say about the causes of the
movement's decline - from her vantage point, it was not yet even certain that the Russian
movement must taste the bitter ashes of defeat for another decade and more. By contrast, the
writers of the 1980s and 1990s have lived through a 'downturn'. For them it may indeed seem
that the old adage, Post coitum omnia animal triste, has indeed a sorrowful relevance. 16
The literature on 'cycles of protest' is of more than passing interest. Here, rather than
review it systematically, I want to draw on it and other resources rather eclectically to explore
some of the characteristics - and potentials - of large-scale waves of popular insurgency.

The Phenomenon

It needs first to be established that a relevant phenomenon exists to be considered. Various

empirical studies have shown that time-series of various manifestations of popular protest do,
indeed, reveal periods of considerably increased activity followed by periods of decline. The
point has been demonstrated for peasant protest movements in various countries, and for
strikes. Tarrow has traced 'cycles' of other manifestations of protest such as demonstrations,

13 The shift is discussed and documented in eg J C Jenkins, 'Resource mobilization theory and the study of
social movements', Annual Review of Sociology, 9, 1983, pp 45-78; and A Morris and C Herring, 'Theory and
research in social movements: a critical review', Annual Review of Political Science, II, 1987.
14 James B Rule, 'Rationality and non-rationality in militant collective action', Sociological Theory, 7.2, Fall
1989, pp 145-160
15 See the comments of social scientists interviewed by Morris and Herring, op cit.
16 Aristide R Zolberg, "Moments of Madness", Politics and Society, vol 2, 1972, pp 205-6.

terrorist violence and the like in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s. The literature seems to be
sufficiently extensive that the existence of the phenomenon itself is fairly securely
established. 17 Further, as Tarrow suggests, these are more than just 'blips' on a linear time-
series, but represent generally intensified levels of popular struggle and higher levels of
popular mobilization. Various names have been used to describe them: 'cycles of protest',
''citizen surges', periods of 'general mobilisation in whole social systems', 'periods of increased
public involvement', 'periods of social movement', 'waves', 'upturns in class struggle' and the
like. 18 Tarrow's most recent attempt to define the phenomenon refers to 'a phase of heightened
conflict across the social system', which process, he goes on to suggest, itself includes a whole
series of sub-processes which he sets out to analyze. 19 I do not myself have a general term for
the phenomenon, and shall - with some misgivings - use Tarrow's 'cycle of protest' as a
summary phrase in what follows.
Sometimes the imagery on which people draw in trying to capture the essence of the thing
is taken from nature: volcanoes, earthquakes, storms, waterfalls and other such images
proliferate; others draw on mechanics, with 'cycles' and 'waves' and - adopting the standpoint
of the defenders of order - 'breakdowns'. My own inclination is towards those who doubt the
value of organic and mechanical metaphors for grasping social life. I am therefore attracted by
Victor Turner's proposals that such 'phases' be grasped as 'social dramas', for here at least the
metaphor is inherently human, cultural. 20 (So long, that is, that we do not reduce the notion of
drama to one of mere 'play-acting', as some have tended to do. 21) Organic and mechanical
metaphors are liable to obscure what is important in such processes: namely, the phenomenon
of ordinary people acting, speaking, organizing and thinking together, in conflict with their
superiors and exploiters, attempting to reshape simultaneously the nature of their own world
and themselves. We probably can't manage without grand metaphors, but the more we can
penetrate behind them to determine the transformations in everyday life wrought along normal

17 Out of a host of possible references, let me just note a few: James W White, 'Cycles and Repertoires of
Popular Contention in Early Modern Japan', Social Science History, 17.3 Fall 1993, 429-455; M J Haynes,
'Strikes,' in John Benson, ed, The Working Class in England 1875-1914, London: Croom Helm, 1985, pp.89-
132; Edward Shorter and Charles Tilly, Strikes in France, 1830 to 1968, Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1974; Sidney Tarrow, Democracy and Disorder: Protest and Politics in Italy, 1965-1975, Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1989
18 Among relevant discussions, note the following: Sidney Tarrow, Struggling to Reform: Social Movements
and Policy Change During Cycles of Protest, Cornell: Cornell University Press, Western Societies Paper no 15,
1983; Sidney Tarrow, Democracy and Disorder...; Sidney Tarrow, Struggle, Politics and Reform: Collective
Action, Social Movements and Cycles of Protest, Cornell: Cornell University Press, Western Societies Paper no
21, 1989; Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994; John Lofland and
Victoria Johnson, 'Citizen surges: a domain in movement studies and a perspective on peace activism in the
1980s', Research in Social Movements, Conflict and Change, 13, 1991, pp 1-29; Albert Hirschman, Shifting
Involvements: Private Interest and Public Action, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982; Ron Eyerman and
Andrew Jamison, Social Movements: A Cognitive Approach, London: Polity, 1991; Tony Cliff, 'The balance of
class forces in recent years', International Socialism, second series, no 6, autumn 1979
19 Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement, p 153
20 Victor W Turner, 'Social dramas and ritual metaphors' in Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action
in Human Society, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974
21 See for example, Sherry Roxanne Turkle, 'Symbol and Festival in the French Student Uprising (May-June
1968)' in S F Moore and B G Myerhoff, eds, Symbol and Politics in Communal Ideology: Cases and Questions,
Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1975.

principles of human social life, the more - in reality - we shall have cause to celebrate the truly
extraordinary. Lawrence Goodwyn, whose detailed study of a small number of episodes in
recent Polish working-class history has (I hope) influenced my own thinking somewhat,
adopts as the motto for his book the remark by Mies van der Rohe: 'God is in the details'.
Those details are humanly made. 22
Hardly more successful are images drawn from psychiatry, even if - on the left - they
attempt to catch the positive sense of liberation often experienced by those who participate in
such events: 'moments of madness' and other expressions which focus only on the affective
aspect of periods of what Durkheim termed 'collective effervescence' risk missing the
'cognitive' and 'strategic-tactical' side of things. 23 The important thing, I suggest, is not to
focus simply on the seemingly larger-than-life processes of liberation, release of inhibition
and the like involved at certain 'peaks' in mass popular struggles, but to understand these in
more everyday terms, as concentrated examples of processes of social and personal
transformation that occur, regularly, in everyday quotidian existence.
It might, however, be asked whether we should not regard a 'cycle of protest' or a 'mass
strike' as a set of separate and distinct pieces of collective action, each perhaps indeed
triggered by similar causes, whose incidence rises and falls with some degree of temporal
parallelism. If this is so, then we have no need to explore any larger phenomenon in its own
right, and we can simply focus on the different separate elements that make up the merely
seeming whole. My assumption here - and I share it with Tarrow and others - is that there is a
single overall process to be explored, in other words that there is indeed 'reciprocal action'
between the various parts, as Luxemburg insisted. Assuming this to be true, or more precisely
as capable of demonstration in sufficient cases, we have then to deal with a phenomenon that
is indeed sui generis, whose exploration requires its own definitions and its own specific
conceptual tools. If a 'wave of popular protest' is a thing in itself, it can only be compared,
properly, with other examples of the same thing. 24
There is a risk, in some recent literature, that Tarrow's notion of a 'cycle of protest' will be -
whatever we think of his terminology - trivialized by extending it to other and lesser kinds of
phenomena. In a chapter on 'The Dynamics of Protest Waves' in a recent collectively authored
volume on New Social Movements in Western Europe, Ruud Koopmans claims to identify

22 Lawrence Goodwyn, Breaking the Barrier: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland, New York: Oxford
University Press, 1991. (It might be remarked that OUP deserve the most serious censure for not publishing this
book in Britain, and for the fact that no paperback edition has appeared.)
23 Aristide Zolberg, op cit. That said, I admit to being attracted by an observation by Turner. Discussing the
revolutionary actions involved in the Hidalgo insurrection in Mexico, he suggests they might be termed, by
analogy with Freud's usage, a 'primary process':
'A primary process does not develop from a conscious, cognitive model; it erupts from the cumulative
experience of whole peoples whose deepest material and spiritual needs and wants have for long been
denied any legitimate expression by power-holding elites who operate in a manner analogous to that of
Freud's 'censorship' in psychological systems. Indeed there may well be an empirical relationship in
certain revolutionary situations between the overthrow of a political authority at the social level and
liberation from repressive controls at the psychological level. As well as violence, there may be
creativeness, in the sense that a whole hidden cultural structure, richly clothed in symbols, may be
suddenly revealed and become itself both model and stimulus for new, fruitful developments - in law and
in administration, as well as arts and sciences. (Victor W Turner, 'Hidalgo: History as Social Drama' in
Dramas Fields and Metaphors, p 110.)
24 Sidney Tarrow, Struggling to Reform

'protest waves' associated with 'new social movements' in the early 1980s in Germany and the
Netherlands (though much less in Switzerland and France). The difficulty is not that,
empirically, Koopmans fails to identify 'waves', but simply that the overall scale of the events
he is discussing seems relatively paltry when we compare them with such processes as the
contemporaneous 1979 Iranian Revolution or the rise and defeat of Solidarity in Poland in
1980 to 1981. He offers a very telling table, giving 'Absolute number of participants in wave
period in thousands per year per million inhabitants': the figures are, for Germany 22 and for
the Netherlands 18 (for Switzerland they are 14, and for France 2). 25 A protest wave that
involves collective action by 2.2 per cent of the population is not, of course, utterly
insignificant. But given that this is the measured highpoint of the 'new social movements' for
whose importance so much has been claimed, it seems rather small beer.
Indeed, one of the points of examining other, rather stronger 'cycles of protest' in history is
that doing so enables us to throw the present period more sharply into context, as a period of
'downturn' on a world scale, in which occasional, mostly fairly localized, outbursts of popular
collective action do undoubtedly appear without, as yet, setting off the larger social explosions
that have marked more significant turning points in historical development. It is the
'generality' of the 'cycle of protest', its 'societal' quality, and its quality as an aspect of large-
scale political crises, which is one of its significant features. 26
This consideration brings us to the question, how exactly we should know a 'cycle of
protest' when we see one. It must, seemingly, be defined by a pattern of activity and events.
The fundamental process - the thing that tells us that there is a 'cycle' - is that defined by
Tarrow: 'an increasing then declining magnitude in the use of disruptive direct action'. 27 (We
might just note in passing that 'disruptive direct action' as a phrase implies a definite
standpoint: what appears 'disruptive' over there may be read from a different vantage point as
'constructive' action, which helps to develop organization, empower participants, etc.)
Tarrow's criterion does imply changes in the level of popular mobilization, since it is of
course actual people who must alter this magnitude of disruptive direct action. Thus, if they
are available, measures of 'public involvement' are directly relevant. Other social and political
processes going on within 'cycles' occur within, and shape, and explain, this key empirical
variation. Not, however, that taking 'events' and 'disruptive action' as an index takes us very
far. Simple records of collective action events do not, by themselves, tell us much. Apart from
anything else, what are to count as 'collective action events'? The difficulty is addressed by
Gerald Marwell and Pamela Oliver, who address some of the difficulties involved in defining

25 Hanspeter Kriesi, Ruud Koopmans, Jan Willem Duyvendak and Marco G Guigni, New Social Movements
in Western Europe: A Comparative Analysis, London: UCL Press, 1995, Table 5.1, p 115
26 In fact, Koopmans and his colleagues, earlier in the same volume, do approach this question rather
tangentially. They refer to 'the mobilization potential of a traditional cleavage' (for which read class-based
opposition) and suggests that its contemporary salience depends on the degree to which it has been 'pacified'.
Regrettably, they then link 'pacification' to a rather unexplored notion of 'institutionalization', when the sources
and meaning of 'pacification' could be read much more openly. (Kriesi et al, op cit, p 6) But at least they do not
assume that this 'traditional cleavage' has actually gone away, as is implied in some versions of new social
movement theory; 'pacification' is a process which is capable of being challenged and reversed in suitable
circumstances. At least their framework of analysis allows, if rather obscurely, for the possibility of
contextualizing current forms of popular resistance.
27 Sidney Tarrow, Struggling to Reform, p

a 'social movement', a project which they call a 'theoretical nightmare'. Among their criteria
we find the following:
' movements are most usefully understood as complex aggregates of collective
actions or events, aggregates which meet certain criteria of scope and size... real social
movements are extraordinarily complex phenomena. They are aggregates of hundreds,
thousands, even millions of discrete events: meetings, rallies, riots, petitions,
conversations, and so forth. These activities are conducted by different kinds of people,
for different reasons, using different organisational forms' 28
There are two immediate problems registered here. First, their definition of 'events'
includes what are, indeed, liable to be highly relevant matters such as 'conversations', which
are hardly susceptible to counting; and second, there remains the question which events are to
be counted as part of a movement. One might make the same point about 'disruptive direct
action'. In given circumstances, this may include all manner of speeches or indeed committee
meetings. It seems that a definition of a 'cycle of protest' in terms of events or disruptive direct
action can be no more than an initial orienting device. The work of Charles Tilly and his
colleagues, which begins with the identification, classification and counting of 'contentious
events', really makes little sense until it is placed within an interpretative framework. Events
and disruptive action are actually 'senseless data' unless and until they take their place in a
flow of altering meanings. To know, say, that there is a sharp alteration in the indices of
strikes suggests that there is something interesting to be explored, but it tells us nothing about
such matters as modes of organization, interactions between strikers and others, leadership
strategies and contests, participants' ideas and how they may change, and so on.


It might be asked, why bother with all these issues about definition and the like? Ultimately,
the reason is that the topic matters, practically as well as theoretically. It is, I suggest, through
'cycles of protest' that the possibilities of large-scale social and political transformation of a
'progressive' and even 'socialist' character are most likely to be realized. Alessandro Pizzorno
argues that we need to recognize the normality of cycles of protest, and adds the dour warning
that otherwise
'at every new upstart of a wave of conflict we shall be induced to think that we are at the
verge of a revolution; and when the downswing appears, we shall predict the end of
class conflict'. 29
The end of class conflict (along with the end of the working class itself) is of course a
popular theme in social science in recent years, as it was also in the 1950s, and Pizzorno's
warning is highly appropriate. The first half of his proposition, however, seems more dubious.
It might be more useful to ask, at the 'upstart' of a wave of conflict whether the possibility of

28 Gerald Marwell and Pamela Oliver, ''Collective action theory and social movements research', Research in
Social Movements, Conflict and Change, vol 7, 1984, p 6
29 Alessandro Pizzorno, 'Political exchange and collective identity in industrial conflict', in Colin Crouch and
Alessandro Pizzorno, eds, The Resurgence of Class Conflict in Western Europe since 1968, vol 2, London:
Macmillan, 1978, p 291

revolution is on the cards, and what factors might make that possibility more or less likely - or
indeed, practically achievable or preventable.
'Cycles of protest' are understood here as 'moments' in historical development which
embody the possibility of large-scale social transformation. The reason that they do so is that
they involve the essence of what Trotsky saw as a revolutionary situation, namely, 'the
intervention of the masses in political life'. There is, of course, nothing which determines that
such 'interventions' must produce revolutionary social outcomes, but they are the necessary if
not the sufficient element of possibility. Their intrinsic interest and significance can hardly be
It is not by any means only Marxism which attempts to make sense of them, and in that
sense to 'use' such moments in a practical-theoretical way. Broadly, we can identify three
contrasting political-theoretical approaches to the same phenomena.
There is, first, the standpoint of reaction. The irruption of large numbers of a normally
quiescent population into political life is, simply, a moment of acute danger to the social
fabric, a problem which must - by any means necessary - be brought under control as rapidly
and effectively as possible. Society as it is currently exists is, effectively, the only possible
society, and its parameters must be defended, forcibly if necessary, against lunatic and
criminal attempts at its subversion. The voice of Edmund Burke is heard, suitably re-tailored
to circumstances, in response to every such moment.
Second, there is a reformist voice. Political and social reform occurs discontinuously,
indeed in 'cycles' or 'waves'. A crucial mechanism producing this reform-wave phenomenon
is, itself, a recurrent 'cycle of protest'. Every so often, society must adjust its 'status order' to
the shifting realities of its 'class system' (Lockwood), and cycles of protest are one means by
which this effect is achieved. Thus Tarrow suggests it is precisely cycles of protest - general
confrontations between challengers, elites and authorities - that most raise the possibility of
political reform. For such moments allow opportunist politicians to attempt to ride to power
on the back of a movement, partly by mediating between movement and regime and
movement and counter-movements. 30 What popular movements amount to, in a 'reformist'
interpretation, are demands for entry into a currently more or less exclusive and closed 'polity'.
Such demands can be achieved only through a movement from below which compels existing
elites to re-negotiate the meaning of rights and citizenship. 31 This scenario, to the degree that
it is prescriptive, poses at least two kinds of problem.
First, it leaves unanswered the question, how permanent are the reform gains won by
ordinary people in periods of increased collective insurgency? Some writers - for example, T
H Marshall, Reinhard Bendix, Hugh Heclo and others - tend to assume that, once won,
reforms become irreversible. Others - notably Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward,
Norman Ginsburg, Ian Gough - argue that elites tend to claw back reforms once the threat to
their position which occasioned their concessions has passed. 32 Such experiences as the rise of

30 Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement

31 See eg David Lockwood, Solidarity and Schism: 'The Problem of Disorder' in Durkheimian and Marxist
Sociology, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992; Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution, : Addison-Wesley,
1978; Alan Scott, Ideology and the New Social Movements, London: Unwin Hyman, 1990; also see Sidney
Tarrow, Democracy and Disorder, pp 3 et seq.
32 T H Marshall, 'Citizenship and Social Class' in Sociology at the Crossroads, London: Heinemann, 1963;
Reinhard Bendix, Nation-Building and Citizenship, New York: Wiley, 1964; Hugh Heclo, Modern Social

fascism in interwar Europe, or of Stalinism in Russia, or even of Thatcherism (and Blairism?)

in Britain, might incline us at least to share the scepticism of the proponents of the latter view
about the necessary permanence of progressive reform.
Second, such a view tends to sideline alternative and more radical possibilities. Francesca
Polletta, for example, reviewing the experience of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating
Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s, objects to theorizations of movement goals in terms simply
of access to the existing polity for representatives of a group seen as having an identity of
interests. Such conceptions, she points out, obscure at least two things: both the variety of
aspirations that may actually characterize a group which shares a common structural location;
and the possibility that asserting one construction of a group's identity may entail a more
radical challenge to the system of political representation than does another. 33 History has a
habit of remembering winners and of forgetting or marginalizing and patronizing losers. So
too may a 'reformist' construction of the possibilities of protest cycles.
Finally, there is a revolutionary interpretation. Here the protest cycle is understood as
generating what Teodor Shanin terms, rather grandly, a 'moment of alternativity'. Reflecting,
like Luxemburg, on the 1905 revolution, Shanin remarks that quite long periods of time pass
when life appears bound to cycles of simple reproduction. Fundamental change seems
improbable, the dominant images in society are of repetition and stability, and what he nicely
terms 'the alternativity of history' is low. Then, relatively occasionally but often suddenly,
there occurs an 'axial stage':
The locks of rigidly determined behaviours, self-censored imaginations, and self-evident
stereotypes of common sense are broken, and the sky seems the limit, or all hell breaks
loose. 34
In such moments, 'alternativity' grows dramatically and the room for political creativity and
choice expands. The outcome of such 'axial' situations may then set the pattern of society for a
whole succeeding period. Such moments have the capacity to do more than produce partial
reforms, or the admission of new entrants to an existing polity, but may - in favourable
conditions - alter the foundations of social life. In a revolutionary perspective, if such
'moments' do not involve a breaking of the foundations of the system, they are read as partial
or total defeats, capable at best of nothing more than a reformist reformatting of the politics of
exploitation, at worst of provoking the worst authoritarian reaction. In this light, modern
protest cycles might be considered as 'collective escape attempts' from the constraints of
capitalism, and their success or failure assessed against that measure. 35

Politics in Britain and Sweden, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1971; Norman Ginsburg, Class, Capital and
Social Policy, London: Macmillan, 1979; Ian Gough, The Political Economy of the Welfare State, London:
Macmillan, 1979; Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Regulating the Poor, New York: Vintage, 1972; and
Poor People's Movements: How They Succeed and Why They Fail, New York: Vintage, 1979
33 Francesca Polletta, 'Strategy and identity in 1960s Black protest', Research in Social Movements, Conflict
and Change, 17, 1984, pp 85-114.
34 Teodor Shanin, The Roots of Otherness: Russia's Turn of Century, Volume 2: Russia, 1905-07: Revolution
As a Moment of Truth, London: Macmillan, 1986, p 312.
35 Arrighi and his colleagues appear to work with some such notion. In their conception, movements work to
achieve certain goals, and in the process discover either or both that the goals they had conceived and/ or the
means they had adopted to achieve them were inadequately imagined and theorized, compelling them to
recapitulate and reconsider their position, so that, in time, they can rise again in new ways to contest the same

The distinction between the three perspectives is not absolute. There are elements of the
first in the second, and there may be terminological disputes as between the second and third -
about, for example, what is to count as a 'fundamental change', etc. My own preference is for
the third approach, not least because it leaves open the question of future possibility. What
perhaps matters most is that, within 'protest cycles', proponents of all three approaches - those
of reaction, reform and revolution - are liable to be actively present as clashing social forces
and voices, each seeking mastery over the flow of events.
The study of major 'protest cycles' has, perhaps, a particular relevance in a period like the
present, for it offers a potential critical standpoint from which to judge some of the claims
made for the significance and potential of contemporary movements. Much as Marx, and
indeed Luxemburg, criticized 'partial' movements like trade unionism and the co-operative
movement, not for organizing workers into struggle, but for resting on a restricted view of the
totality of capitalist social relations, so rather similar arguments might be applied to the
sometimes exaggerated claims made for a variety of 'new social movements'. 36

Theoretical Frameworks

There are inherent difficulties in theorizing about large-scale processes and events, and
various strategies for handling these. 37 The biggest risk - and one I am not sure I avoid here -
is of simple banality. To attempt to make meaningful generalizations about enormous and
inherently complex and contradictory social processes is possibly a daft enterprise from the
When one considers the literature on individual cases of 'protest cycles', every one involves
wide-ranging debates about causation, pattern and outcome, about the relative weighting to be
given to different elements, and indeed about different particular elements in themselves. It is
bad enough to attempt to write a history of the French Revolution, of Chartism, of the 1848
European revolutions, of the 1905 or 1917 revolutions, of the events in Germany between
1918 and 1923, of the rise of Nazism, of the New Deal, of the Popular Front in France, of the
Spanish Civil War, of the Chinese revolution, of the Hungarian Revolution, of May '68, of the
Portuguese or Iranian revolution, of the rise of Solidarity, of the 1989 revolutions and so on
and so forth. Each is the subject of vast controversy. To attempt to construct generalizations
that might apply to them all - and to many other cases besides - seems like pure folly.
In each case, of course, the institutional setting was different, the assembly of actors was
different, the way issues presented themselves to people was different. For one thing, a 'strike'
has a rather different meaning, where it enjoys some element of legality from the meaning of a
'strike' in a setting where all manifestations of independent trade-union activity are banned. As
between different protest cycles, we see the targets attacked by movements shifting, as the
boundaries of what is permitted - and what is imaginable - also alter.

general issues as before, only now with a new understanding and a new agenda. Their conception is perhaps
rather holistic, for these matters are commonly the subject of major internal contests within movements. Giovanni
Arrighi, Terence K Hopkins and Immanuel Wallerstein, Antisystemic Movements, Verso, 1989.
36 See, for example, the remarks on the question of 'totality' in relation to the self-understandings of 'new
social movements', in Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism, Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1995
37 There is an interesting review of some of the issues in Charles Tilly, Big Structures, Large Processes,
Huge Comparisons, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1984.

In practice, of course, historians do regularly - if not always consciously - deploy

generalizations. They use generalizing terms: 'state', 'movement', 'class', revolution' and so
forth. Without theoretical generalization (implicit or explicit), history becomes a series of
meaningless particulars. On the other hand, if generalization is not subject to the discipline of
historical specificity, it is liable to be vapid. Actually, the general and the particular, if they are
opposites, are only so in a dialectical sense, for each depends on the other. We should not set
'theory' against 'history', for neither is possible without the other.
Politically, practically, the value of a generalizing understanding of protest cycles should
be, at a minimum, that it can help us avoid two common errors: the kind of romanticism
which forgets the need to make necessary distinctions between kinds of movement and
situation; and the equally destructive stance of cynicism or pessimism, induced by the
contemplation of periods of defeat and retreat. Pizzorno's remark, cited above, perhaps needs
to be born in mind - in a more energized sense than he himself gives it. Those who, like Marx,
still believe that the point is to change it require a double discipline: the kind of passionate
engagement which allows them to see the possibility of alternatives within existing forms of
action, and the kind of intellectual toughness that knows what a spade is.
Perhaps all that a generalizing theory, applied to vast processes like 'protest cycles', can
achieve is a 'reasonable approach' to these phenomena, a setting up of an agenda of relevant
questions, attached - if possible - to a set of broad developmental themes which express the
changing potential of such large moments. It would be pleasant to be able to construct a broad
orienting device, which might summarize the heart of the problem of grasping the workings of
such moments, of the kind that the best critiques of political economy have perhaps given us,
but I confess that I know of no such way of presenting the problem with such elegant
simplicity. The 'organized list of questions' is, to date, perhaps the best we can aspire to.
What kinds of theoretical instruments might be suitable for handling the problem? Tarrow
offers us a useful image of the tools we need, when he remarks that we need a cine film rather
than a still camera to capture the nature of a protest cycle. 38 Any theoretical categories we use
need to be 'processual', focussed on activity, interaction, transformation; they need to be able
to capture 'motility'. If there is a sphere where 'the dialectic' looks likely to be productive, this
is it. 39

Productive circumstances

What kinds of conditions produce 'cycles of protest'? Indeed, here we may properly ask
whether the 'cycle' notion is appropriate. Andre Gunder Frank and Marta Fuentes suggest that
two questions need to be distinguished. First, are there wave-like patterns of emergence of
popular protest, with a 'cyclical' form to their recurrent rise and decline? Second, within
specific movements, are there 'cycles' of birth, development, peak and decline? 40

38 Sidney Tarrow, "'Aiming at a Moving Target': Social science and the recent rebellions in Eastern Europe",
PS Political Science and Politics, 24.1, March 1991
39 I have included some rather scrappy and disorganized notes on theoretical schools which seem less than
helpful in the project of grasping the nature and possibilities of 'protest cycles' in an Appendix to this paper. A
more systematic treatment of this issue might be useful.
40 Andre Gunder Frank and Marta Fuentes, 'On Studying the Cycles in Social Movements', Research in
Social Movements, Conflicts and Change, vol 17, 1994, pp 173-196

The answer to the first question seems to be, simply, no. The historical record most
certainly suggests 'recurrence' of protest cycles, but the peaks and troughs are very irregularly
spaced. There is nothing in the spacing and regularity of protest cycles to support even
Tarrow's analogy with 'business cycles'. Frank and Fuentes explore whether a clear link can be
drawn between protest cycles and those theoretically rather dodgy entities, 'Kondratiev waves',
and conclude that no clear associative connection can be established. The emergence of
protest waves does not simply follow any economic index. 41
As for the second question, if there are 'up and down' movements in indices of popular
collective action like strikes, demonstrations, riots and the like, this wave-like pattern does not
meet the criterion of a 'true cycle'. For it is not possible to treat them - as can be done with a
business cycle, or even more clearly a 'cycle' in physical nature - as 'endogenously generated',
in the sense that the forces which produce the 'up' phase also produce the 'down', and vice
In short, economic determinism is of no help at all in understanding the phenomenon - a
conclusion that should surprise no one, least of all Marxists. 42 That fundamental
determinative concept of Marxist theory - 'relations of production - is not an 'economic'
concept anyway, even if some would-be Marxists and a rather larger host of anti-Marxists
have assumed it is. 'Relations' are as inherently 'political' and 'ideological' as they are
'economic', and 'production' refers to the making of society as much as to the process of
material labour. 43 It is reasonable, indeed necessary, to argue that capitalist relations of
production generate profound tendencies to social conflict, indeed those social relations can
only be understood at the most abstract level of analysis as themselves inherently conflictual.
It is equally important to grasp how the very nature of capitalism generates all manner of
'crises' in social functioning, throwing into question previous relations, expectations and
values, and thus demanding constant 'restructurings' of its own forms - and to insist that this
dynamic touches on 'moral' and 'aesthetic' facets of life as much as on 'economic', 'material'
and 'political' aspects. But the actual concrete historical forms in which this 'generative'
process manifests itself can only be understood if we also take account of a whole series of
intervening 'mediations'. For example, it is meaningful at a certain level to refer to a more or
less continuous pattern of association sometimes termed 'the labour movement'. But that
movement changes its forms of association and activity over time, it includes larger or smaller
parts of the relevant potential population, and sometimes appears to go 'underground'. It may
have a long-term tendency to self-expansion, in that the forces that generate it appear within
wider layers of the workforce, but it also undergoes periods and processes of regression and
shrinking (for example, Britain in the 1920s and to a much lesser extent in the 1980s) and
even apparent disappearances (Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia). We cannot possibly 'read off'

41 See also the remarks on crude economistic accounts of 'food riots' in E P Thompson, 'The Moral Economy
of the English crowd in the Eighteenth Century', Past and Present, 50, 1971, reprinted in E P Thompson,
Customs in Common, London: Merlin, 1991, esp pp 185-189
42 James W White seems to suggest that the 'economic conjuncture' provides an adequate account of the
timing and forms of peasant protests in Tokugawa Japan, but his case seems implausible once the inner content of
these movements is explored further - not least, once consideration is given to variations between regions and the
like. See his 'Cycles and Repertoires of Contention...'
43 This is not the place in which to argue this. But for an argument which moves strongly in the right
direction, cf Ellen Meiksins Wood, op cit, part one.

a labour movement from its generative 'relations of production': In all its phases and shapes,
not least in periods of its own recession, it is a social, political and cultural achievement.
Various other single-factor explanations for protest cycles which have been offered also
seem weak, including those which refer to 'expanded deprivation' and 'frustrated
expectations'. 44
Some other 'explanations' of the 'protest cycle' phenomenon also appear inadequate. Brand,
for example, proposes that such cycles coincide with 'recurring waves of tendencies critical of
modern civilization'45 - a proposition which, in truth, seems to suggest that the phenomenon
coincides with itself. Nor is Zolberg much more helpful: he proposes that the recurrent
appearance of what he terms 'moments of madness' (phenomena closely related to aspects of
the 'protest cycle') is to be explained in terms of accumulated 'boredom', or - hardly more
precisely - 'a tension between the growth of instrumentalism as a dominant aspect of
institutionalized political processes and the persistent yearning of an expanding citizenry for a
more dramatic political process in which fulfillment could be achieved through the act of
participation itself'. 46 That hardly seems adequate as an account of the forces producing, say,
the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, or the wave of revolutionary and semi-revolutionary
revolts that followed the First World War.... One should not suppose that the 'sense of
excitement' associated with popular insurgency - a factor by no means to be under-estimated,
indeed requiring further exploration - is simply the product of its opposite. The affective
benefits of enlarged political involvement are often 'discovered' by participants in the act of
involvement, and come as a 'surprise' rather than being previously anticipated.
The most promising framework for understanding the circumstances producing 'protest
cycles', it seems, is that offered by social movement theorists like Doug McAdam and Sidney
Tarrow, who have explored what they term 'political opportunity structures'. This concept is
deployed to suggest an answer to a key question about protest movements, both what Tarrow
terms 'the "when" of social movement formation' and, equally, the "where". 47 For, as Tarrow
observes, theories of social movement emergence that focus solely on the large-scale
generative processes which are seen as underlying them (the "why" of movements) or on the
way they mobilize resources (the "how" question), all tend to ignore a specific problem.
Movements develop in some apparently favourable settings, at some times and in some
places, but not in others. What the concept of 'political opportunity' seeks to do is to specify
more adequately the specific conditions that promote or inhibit movement emergence and
One of Tarrow' own examples may be taken as illustration. Other things being equal,
workers are more likely to strike in times of boom than in times of depression. However,
sometimes major strike waves appear during depressions. Two notable examples are the strike
waves in France and the USA in the 1930s, where - contrary to developments in Britain or in
Germany - there were huge upsurges of working-class militancy, through which the factory

44 Rather than review these here, I simply refer the reader to the excellent critiques offered by Rod Aya,
'Theories of revolution reconsidered: contrasting models of collective violence', Theory and Society, 8, 1979, 39-
99, and Rethinking Revolutions and Collective Violence: Studies on Concept, Theory and Method, Amsterdam:
Het Spinhuis, 1990
45 cited in Frank and Fuentes, op cit
46 Aristide Zolberg, op cit, pp 202-3.
47 Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement, p 83

occupation was re-developed as a tactic of mass militancy. How are we to explain both an
increased level of worker insurgency in the midst of economic depression, and the variation as
between different countries? Tarrow's answer is 'changes in the political opportunity structure
surrounding French and American workers':
'There were strike waves in France and the United States in the 1930s, and not in
Germany or Britain, not because economic distress was greater in the first two countries
than in the latter but because reform administrations came to power - in France in 1936
and America in 1933. Each showed a willingness to innovate in political-economic
relationships, and an unwillingness to support the suppression of the labor movement. It
was the political opportunities opened by the French Popular Front and the American
New Deal that caused the surge of labor insurgency in a poor labor market, and not the
depth of workers' grievances or the extent of their resources.' 48
There is obviously a real grain of good sense in this notion. On the other hand, the final
active verb in the last sentence poses some problems. The opportunities caused the surge? The
risks here of a structural determinism are real. The concept of political opportunities,
seemingly, requires further exploration.
The roots of this concept are to be found within classical political thought, both liberal and
Marxist. De Tocqueville remarked famously that the most dangerous moment for regimes is
the one when they seek to reform. It is in such moments that hopes are raised, that elites are
most open to apparent division, and that new spaces for protest emerge. Lenin's writings offer
an early and rather abbreviated expression of a not dissimilar idea. In the course of his
argument with the young communist movement in Britain, Lenin suggested that communists
need to recognize the general conditions for revolution:
'... for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses
to realize the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes; for a
revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and
rule in the old way. It is only when the "lower classes" do not want to live in the old
way and the "upper classes" cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can
triumph. This truth can be expressed in other words: revolution is impossible without a
nation-wide crisis (affecting both the exploiters and the exploited). 49
Here Lenin stresses the two-sided nature of a revolutionary crisis. But his brief formulation
leaves some important questions unanswered. First, although he does not explicitly say so, he
presumably understands the two aspects - the masses' realization of the impossibility of
continuing in the old way, and their rulers' inability to continue in the old way - to be inter-
connected. A crisis for the ruling class opens new possibilities for the oppressed, and the
resistance of the oppressed contributes to the ruling class's inability to continue as before.
Certainly the idea of a shifting 'political opportunity structure' should capture a similarly
constructed set of interacting circumstances. Second, it may be fairly simple, after the event,
to see that the conditions for a revolution, or indeed for a 'cycle of protest', were, or were not,
present in a given set of circumstances. But how, at the time, could anyone be sure? Third,

48Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement, p 84

49V I Lenin, '"Left-wing" communism: an infantile disorder', in Collected Works, vol 31, London: Lawrence
& Wishart, 1966, pp 84-5 (emphases in original)

supposing that the existence of a revolutionary situation or a favourable opportunity for a

cycle of protest has been identified as either present or absent, there still remains the critical
question, What will participants do about it?
Lenin's summary definition of a revolutionary situation has a certain dialectical or
interactional quality, which is not however always apparent in some more recent formulations.
In some of his writings, for example, Tarrow seems to place the whole emphasis on shifts
within the ruling order. In his Democracy and Disorder, for example, he points to three kinds
of factors that contribute to such a shift: an opening of formal political institutions to
participation by groups on the margins of the polity and/ or a decrease in repression; a shift in
the stability of political alignments; and political conflicts among elites. In a 1991 article, he
adds a fourth factor: opponents of the existing system are offered aid by influential allies from
within or without the political system. 50 In these discussions, all the emphasis seems to fall
on the side of changes in the situation facing the equivalent of Lenin's 'upper classes'. More
recently, though, in his textbook on social movements, Tarrow offers a more dynamic
account, in which people join social movements in response to changing political
opportunities, and then - through their collective action itself - themselves create new
opportunity structures. But his own developing conception seems not to be stable, for
elsewhere he still seems to envision 'political opportunity structures' in terms of factors
external to opposition movements and confined within the structures of elites. 51
In a recent article, Doug McAdam has returned to the question of 'political opportunity
structures', to suggest that their causal significance varies as between movements, or perhaps
as between stages in the development of movements. He begins by noting that protest
movements are not discrete entities like organizations, but come in 'families', and that it is the
broader patterns of growth and decline of these 'families' that requires explanation. Most
particular protest movements are, in a sense, 'caused' by other movements. He makes a
distinction, which itself owes much to Tarrow, between 'initiator' and 'spin-off' movements.
Initiator movements are the 'early risers' who start the processes constituting a cycle of protest,
while 'spin-off' movements represent those who are, in large measure, inspired into collective
action by the initiators' example. McAdam on the one hand follows prevalent wisdom in
treating 'political opportunities' as an analytically distinct factor, which refers to the increased
vulnerability or receptivity of a broader political system to challenge. That is, he
conceptualizes a 'political opportunity structure' as external to a potential or actual movement.
On the other hand, however, he now suggests that, applying the distinction between 'initiator'
and 'spin-off' movements, the 'political opportunity structure' plays an independent
determinative role chiefly in respect of the former type only.
In his major study of the development of black insurgency in the USA, 52 McAdam
suggested that a confluence of three factors was required for a significant protest movement to
emerge. The first was a favourable shift in the political opportunity structure, the second was a
sufficient development of 'indigenous resources' among potential insurgents, and the third was
what he termed a developing process of 'cognitive liberation'. In his 1995 article he now

50 Sidney Tarrow, Democracy and Disorder...; '"Aiming at a moving target"...'; see also Struggling to
51 Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement, p 17 but then p 18
52 Doug McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency 1930-1970, University of
Chicago Press, 1982

suggests that 'the analytic key' to the emergence specifically of initiator movements is the
political opportunity structure.
'Initiator movements are not so much willed into being through effective mobilization as
they are born of broader demographic, economic, and political changes that destabilize
existing power relations and grant to insurgents increased leverage with which they
press their claims. Whether or not this leverage is exercised may depend on the
organizational and ideational resources available to insurgents, but, in the absence of
"expanding political opportunities" it matters little how resource-rich the aggrieved
group is.'53
On the other hand, for 'spin-off' movements whose impetus and inspiration comes from the
initiators, 'expanding political opportunities' are less decisive. For them, organizational and
cognitive factors are of greater causal significance. Indeed, they may override what are,
apparently, unfavourable external political circumstances. (By way of example, he cites the
birth and development of the gay movement in the USA, which burst into life in a seemingly
unfavourable period of conservative backlash.)
I shall want to criticize McAdam's argument a little later. For the moment, let me just note
his crucial theoretical point. 'Expanding political opportunities' - conceptualized as something
external to a movement - are now declared the 'analytic key' to the emergence only of some
movements, and more specifically those which initiate cycles of protest and revolutionary
Thus two contributions to recent discussion have both, in different ways, opened the
concept of 'political opportunities' up to new possibilities of inspection. Tarrow has begun to
suggest a more processual view, in which opportunities are not simply 'external' to
movements, but are also re-made by collective action; and McAdam has criticized tendencies
to over-extend the explanatory scope of this concept of external opportunities. Let us now
note a third problem.
To date, there seems to be little discussion in the literature of what we might term 'missed'
or 'mishandled' opportunities. Yet there is a large category of historical moments about which
it seems reasonable to say that movements might have succeeded if only they had acted
differently. However, they were inactive or acted inappropriately, for a variety of possible
reasons. They may have misread the situation, their leaderships may have been incompetent or
unimaginative, their attention was perhaps turned to secondary issues or diverted by internal
rivalries, and so on. Every reader can probably supply their own examples. I will mention just
First, the US Civil Rights Movement experienced a significant setback when it attempted
to organize effective protest against segregationist practices in Albany, Georgia. A
combination of circumstances produced this effect. These included the adoption of unusually
sophisticated tactics by the Albany Police Chief, Pritchett, but also their own divisions and
lack of clarity about objectives. Although, in the longer run, Civil Rights leaders learned
important tactical lessons from their experiences in Albany, the immediate result was a
significant setback for the movement. Second, in October 1992, in Britain, the Tory
government's sudden announcement of a new round of pit closures produced a rapid, mostly

53 Doug McAdam, '"Initiator" and "Spin-off" Movements: Diffusion Processes in Protest Cycles', in Mark
Traugott, ed, Repertoires and Cycles of Collective Action, Duke University Press, 1995, p 221

unexpected but considerable flurry of mass protest demonstrations, which won widespread
popular support, and even sympathetic treatment by sections of the Tory press. However, the
British TUC did little or nothing to channel and develop this brief wave of protest, and an
opportunity to defeat the government was missed. Third, perhaps most famously and terribly,
the workers' parties of Germany, the SPD and the KPD, signally failed to develop an adequate
strategy for challenging the growth of the Nazi movement in the early 1930s, despite the
considerable opportunities open to them. They - and the whole world - paid a terrible price for
their ineptitude.
Political opportunities, it seems, do not just exist, but have to be both perceived and taken
Sometimes theorists recognize this more clearly. Tarrow, for example, refers to the necessity
of 'visible incentives for activism' in the relations between potential movements and their
opponents; and to the way such incentives affect people's 'expectations for success or
failure'. 54 The perception of possibilities is itself a matter of practical argument and debate
among the potentially active. In the end, the existence of enlarged or favourable opportunities
for collective action can only be tested in practice. In that sense, we have to treat political
opportunities as discovered, and in that sense made, through collective action. 55 And this is as
true of 'initiators' as it is of McAdam's 'spin-offs'. All collective action is risky, and involves at
best 'guesstimates' by participants about its possible effects. People engaging in collective
action make provisional strategic and tactical estimates of the range of likely responses their
action will provoke. Their guesstimates may prove more or less accurate, their hopes may be
dashed or surprisingly over-fulfilled. But they can only test them in practice, by acting.
Sometimes, the estimating process is quite explicit. During 1955, activists from the
NAACP and the Women's Political Council in Montgomery, Alabama had been casting about
for an 'issue' around which to launch a campaign against the bus company's segregationist
policies. They deliberately decided, earlier in the year, not to 'make an issue' over the arrest of
a black teenager for sitting in the 'wrong' part of the bus, on the grounds that, being unmarried
and several months pregnant, she would not make what might be termed good copy. It was the
similar arrest of the very respectable figure of Mrs Rosa Parks which provided a tactically
acceptable signal for action. As E. D. Nixon, a leading activist, remarked, 'This is the case.
We can boycott the bus lines with this and at the same time go to the Supreme Court.'56
Sometimes, through the work of memoirists and historians, we can recover this process of
tactical assessment and decision-making that precedes and accompanies collective action. For
other occasions, the materials are lost. In many cases, the results of action demonstrate that the
political opportunities that had been hoped for were not actually present: tactical decisions
prove to have been mistaken, estimates of ruling-class division, ineptness or weakness were
proved wrong, the expected degree of popular support did not materialize or could not be
adequately mobilized. The 'balance of forces' may prove to be favourable or unfavourable.

54 Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement, pp 81 and 85

55 'Moreover, collective action exposes opponents' points of weakness that may not be evident until they are
challenged. It can also reveal unsuspected or formerly passive allies, both within and outside the system. Finally,
it can pry open institutional barriers through which the demands of others will pour.' Sidney Tarrow, Power in
Movement, p 96
56 David J Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, New York: Vintage, 1988, p 14

What does seem dubious is McAdam's suggestion that the 'analytic key' is the 'external'
political situation, somehow taken in isolation from other relevant factors. More appropriate
surely is the same author's earlier proposal, in his original study of black insurgency in the
USA, that we need to take account of three inter-related factors in explaining the emergence
and development of new movements. That is, we need to consider not only the degree of
division and crisis afflicting a potential movement's opponents, but also both the indigenous
organizational resources available to a movement's initiators, and what he termed the
'cognitive liberation' of potential participants. 57 There seems to be no sensible basis on which
one of these factors alone, and certainly not the first, can be treated as ultimately decisive. The
remark quoted above from his 1995 article seems mistaken. Rather, initiator movements are
willed into being by effective mobilization, and without such mobilization the most
favourable external conditions count for nothing. Further, it is difficult to think of
circumstances in which an aggrieved group can be very 'resource-rich' yet face an
unfavourable situation. (I found myself wondering, when I read that sentence in McAdam,
what empirical situations he had in mind.)
Nothing would be more foolish than to deny the significance of the larger political situation
into which a movement directs its action, and to argue for a simple voluntarism. 'Windows of
opportunity' do most certainly open and close. The structure of political opportunities
determines the fate of would-be initiators of movements, selecting out from amongst their
ranks those who succeed from the many who fail. However, that set of opportunities is a
complex whole, which includes not only the existing condition of a movement's opponents
and potential elite allies, but also the mobilizable resources available to a movement, along
with the ideas of those who might support it.
The political condition of existing elites, ruling classes and the like is an indubitably
significant element in any structure of opportunities. But the political situation among elites
cannot be sensibly explored quite separately from their relations with actual and potential
opposition movements. Rulers, elites, regimes, or whatever term we want to use are aware of
the variable possibility of opposition from below, and of shifts in the balance of power
between themselves and those they rule. If political opportunities in the USA were 'expanding'
in the 1950s, the enlarged indigenous resources of black communities and their increasing
restiveness and 'cognitive liberation', along with the growing significance of the black vote in
the North, all helped to shape that 'expansion'. In Poland in the later 1970s, the security forces
allowed the nascent opposition movements a certain room to develop. In 1978, a security
police colonel was asked why they did not simply arrest the underground publishers. 'We
know all the addresses, we could destroy everything in one night', he answered, 'but the high-
ups won't allow us to.' 58 No doubt the Helsinki Agreements and the like played a part in this,
yet those same Agreements did not inhibit the security services in Czechoslovakia and
elsewhere. The Polish economy was, arguably, facing a deeper crisis than other countries in
the Comintern bloc, but then the policies Gierek's regime had been pursuing were, likewise,
shaped in part by its response to the militancy of 1970-71 which had installed Gierek himself
in power. The specific 'political opportunities' that allowed the seeds that would sprout

57 Doug McAdam, Political Process.... This is not the moment to develop the point, but his concept of
'cognitive liberation' is exceptionally important but also demands very serious critical development.
58 cited in Colin Barker, Festival of the Oppressed: Solidarity, Reform and Revolution in Poland 1980-81,
London: Bookmarks, 1986, p 14

suddenly into Solidarity in 1980 to germinate included the Polish rulers' own shaping by and
memories of earlier confrontations with working-class activism, in 1956, in 1970-71 and in
1976. In sum, the rulers' situation cannot be understood separately from their relations with
the ruled.
Not every 'crisis' affecting a ruling order sets off a significant popular challenge: if it did,
the history of Britain over the past 17 years would have been significantly different! Clearly,
some change in the 'situation' of popular oppositional forces must contribute to the emergence
of a 'cycle of protest' as well. On the other hand, the existence of 'grievances' and 'frustrations'
among the population is insufficient to generate protest movements, and especially large-scale
'protest cycles'. It is one thing to have a 'grievance', and quite another to believe that anything
practical can be done to oppose its causes, not least if practical opposition depends on the
generation of large-scale collective action. It is in the changed pattern of interaction between
'elites' and 'challengers' (to adopt the terminology of Tarrow and Tilly) that the nature of a
changed 'political opportunity structure' should be sought. The ongoing conditions of struggle
alter in some fashion, on both sides.
This cannot be conceptualized as an 'objective condition', quite independently of the
consciousness and actions of the participants. For a changed 'political opportunity structure'
has to be perceived, indeed practically discovered. It is one thing, post factum, to analyze the
conditions that permitted the rise of a large-scale collective challenge to the status quo. It is a
quite different matter, at the time, to scent such a shift in circumstances and then act to test the
reliability of one's nose.


'Cycles of protest' do not emerge out of nothing. Behind them lies, more or less open or
hidden, an ongoing process of 'class struggle' in a multiplicity of forms. The Hungarian
sociologist, Elmer Hankiss, writing just before the 1989 East European revolutions, points
out that for many years social scientists' accounts of East European societies were dominated
by what he terms 'one-actor models of society', in which the ruling parties were seen as the
sole actors, while the rest of the population was viewed as essentially passive. These models,
however, proved increasingly unsatisfying, as more and more 'facts' contradicted them. On the
one side, the ruling parties could be seen as engaged in ceaseless 'mobilizing efforts', but on
the other the citizens of Eastern Europe could be seen developing a host of 'immune reactions',
including what he terms 'self-demobilization' and 'self-mobilization'. These included
apparently individualistic and sometimes self-destructive patterns of withdrawal, and more or
less organized, if often informal, patterns of evasion and resistance. What was increasingly
revealed was the 'multi-actor' nature of society. 59
Hankiss's construction can be applied to all forms of class-divided societies. The various
forms of popular 'self-mobilization' he mentions - and many others too - represent barriers to
the realization of rulers' goals. We need not assume any consciously formulated intention to
'subvert' among those who develop resistance practices, only a dogged pursuit by subordinate
groups and individuals of differentially constructed needs. Here, though, is the endemic root
of 'class struggle'. For that term, if it is to be useful, refers not only to great outbursts of mass

59Elmer Hankiss, 'Demobilization, Self-mobilization and Quasi-Mobilization in Hungary, 1948-1987,' East

European Politics and Societies, 3.1, winter 1989, pp 105-151

political action, but equally to the multitude of covert and overt individual acts and utterances
of resistance, and simple evasion, that mark the daily life of hierarchical and unequal
societies, along with an immensely diverse range of forms of collective action on limited and
local registers. 60 A 'protest cycle' thus needs to be understood, not as the emergence into
'activity' of people who were formerly 'passive', but rather as a change in the forms of their
activity and of the social relations in which that activity is conducted.
Compliance and non-compliance with existing forms of power is an ongoing process of
dialogical struggle, which always includes a testing and remaking of limits, a negotiation of
the frontier of control and of possibility. It is dialogical in more than one sense: it is not
simply that rulers and subordinates are constantly watching and listening to each other in the
process of pursuing their needs and interests, but the various groups and classes are engaged
in a perpetual dialogue amongst themselves about 'conditions' and 'possibilities'. Far from
there being some homogeneous, unified 'opinion' within any particular layer or group within
society about the nature of the problems they face, or the possibilities open to them to amend
these by individual or joint action, these are matters that involve continuous mutual discussion
and negotiation, argument and investigation. Relations between 'dominant' and 'subordinate'
groups are not relations between a homogeneous small mass and a homogeneous large mass,
but between complexly constructed and shifting networks of relations between individuals and
groups engaged in constant re-ordering of the ties and differences among themselves. The
'structure of political opportunities' is always shifting, and always being probed, by all sides
within society. Changes (large or small) in such 'structures' are accomplished through the
mutual interaction of all sectors of society. Certainly, such matters as emerging economic and
fiscal crises, wars, changes in political alignments at the top of society and so forth are
elements within such ongoing re-structuring, but they cannot usefully be considered as if they
were isolated from their ongoing inter-weaving with everyday social relations, practices, ideas
and struggles.
A 'political opportunity structure' is always concrete and particular, existing in a definite
political setting and involving specific and historically developed constructions of ideas and
practices. People make individual and joint evaluations, deploying the practical and ideational
resources they have already developed, within already constituted social networks, against a
background of relevant events and the stories they tell each other about the social world.
Thus, while some such notion as 'political opportunity structure' is vital to answering the
question - why did these events occur when and where they did, and why did they not occur
then or here? - it is a notion which requires a far more dialectical development than appears
within some contemporary social movement theorizing. Certainly these matters cannot be
discussed separately from the shifting evaluations that people make of them.
Those processes of evaluation can be represented too 'thinly' and 'economistically'. Tarrow,
for example, attaches the notion of a changed structure of political opportunities to a 'costs'
and 'incentives' theme. Protest cycles occur
'not when a few people are prepared to take extraordinary risks for extreme goals, but
when the costs of collective action are so low and the incentives so great that even

60 See the important discussion by E P Thompson in 'Eighteenth Century English society: class struggle
without class?', Social History, 3.2, May 1978

individuals or groups that would not normally engage in protest feel encouraged to do
It's not that the idea itself is implausible, but it focusses attention only on one element in an
inherently multi-faceted evaluative process which cannot be reduced to a simple economistic
register. For example, issues to do with re-assessments of relevant 'identities' and
'memberships' are involved, along with matters to do with 'obligation' and the like. There are
ways of discussing the matters Tarrow is focusing attention on, without our needing to push
social movement theory back towards the constricting linguistic frameworks of orthodox
economic analysis. 62

The 'Cycle' as Process: Initiation

There is an inherent difficulty in attempting to theorize about such varied and complex
sequences of events as 'protest cycles'. On the one side, there are similarities of pattern within
them, while at the same time each has its own particular history. There is an obvious risk of
over-generalizing from one or a small number of cases - a fault within, for example, the
'natural history of revolution' school (see Appendix). On the other hand, some kinds of
theoretical comparison do seem to be possible, and indeed all kinds of actors regularly rely on
them to make sense of events as they live through them and seek to influence their direction. I
am not persuaded that the difficulties of the enterprise make it worthless.
We may think about the processes in terms of various general models. One, for example, is
offered from within social anthropology, in the shape of the four-phase 'social drama'
developed by Victor Turner. Another, perhaps, might involve something along the lines of
the 'dialectic of event and discourse' discussed by Stephen Ellingson. 63 What is clear is that
static models of the functioning of society are utterly incapable of providing guides to
understanding. Any adequate model, whatever it may be, must be inherently 'open-ended' at
every point in its development. It must be capable of defining an initial situation in terms of
the diversity of its developmental possibilities and of the diversity of senses that a variety of
actors can make of it. It must reveal how, as they act in terms of their varied understandings,
they create a further new set of situations which themselves demand new interpretations and
provoke new forms of action. It must show how, through such processes, underlying
structures of social relations become exposed to new forms of critical inspection and
understanding. Within a 'protest cycle' there develops a widening sphere of public
involvement which challenges a whole series of varied institutions, creating the space for new
kinds of intervention and demanding some form of active resolution. All of the foregoing is,

61 Democracy and Disorder, p 8

62 American social science thinking about these matters is, perhaps, still grappling with the means to escape
from the first form in which it was 'revolutionized' in the 1960s, when 'resource mobilization' theorists began
applying the schemas of Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1965) to the study of popular protest. This grappling is one of the themes running through the useful collection
edited by Aldon D Morris and Carol McClurg Mueller, Frontiers in Social Movement Theory, New Haven:Yale
University Press, 1992.
63 Victor W Turner, op cit; Stephen Ellingson, 'Understanding the Dialectic of Discourse and Collective
Action: Public Debate and Rioting in Antebellum Cincinnati', American Journal of Sociology, 101.1, July 1995,
pp 100-144

of course, horribly abstract in its formulations, and reflects a situation where the social
sciences lack an adequate common language for describing and discussing social
transformation in a way that permits the simultaneous exploration of small-scale and large-
scale changes.
To be, optimistically, a little more concrete, every upsurge in popular protest begins with
some kind of unexpected initiating event. Tarrow formulates this in terms of some piece of
daring or confrontational action by what in one place he terms a 'vanguard' and in another
'early risers'. (These, of course, are those McAdam terms 'initiators'.) The beginnings of a
'protest cycle' can be traced back to what may at least appear to be 'spontaneous action' by
some group which awakes an echo in the shape of a practical response by a larger group, thus
setting off a process of 'escalation'. Who the initiating group may be, and what their form of
action may be, is utterly beyond prediction. In Luxemburg's account, a local, partial economic
strike by a particular group of workers acts as a signal to others to follow. In February 1917,
women protesting over the price and supply of bread provided the spark for the revolution. In
Germany in November 1918, it was mutinous sailors who played the part of initiators of the
popular upsurge that ended the war and the German Empire with it. The 'May events' in
France in 1968 started with a minority of student protestors at Nanterre. The Portuguese
revolution of 1974 began with a revolt by military officers. Solidarity in Poland was initiated
by a small group of dissident workers who called a strike in protest at the sacking of a woman
crane-driver at the Lenin Shipyard. The processes that produced the fall of the East German
regime, in 1989, were precipitated by the action of people who, rather than seeking to
overthrow the regime, actively demanded the right to leave the country.
The appearance of 'spontaneity' arises because new forms of collective activity, along with
new ideas, apparently erupt from nowhere into the public sphere. But if we look more closely,
as Lawrence Goodwyn advises, we are likely to find, behind the seeming spontaneity of a
popular 'explosion' of collective action, an already formed network of activists who have been
preparing for such an event. Their preparation will have involved elements of mutual
discussion and the formation amongst themselves of some capacity for mutual collective
action and trust, they will have developed such resources as they are capable of assembling,
and they will have 'rehearsed' - at least in their collective imagination - how to act when the
occasion presents itself. Such groupings, which may possess a formal or informal structure,
produce sufficiently cohesive relations with each other that, faced with a suitable 'opportunity',
they 'know what to do'. 64 More precisely, they are able to steal the initiative from others who
also 'know what to do' in situations of impending conflict, whether these be their rulers or
derive from established mediating agencies in society (official union machineries and other
established 'representative' bodies).
The effect of their action on others may be direct or indirect. They may themselves be able
to take on the task of spreading their ideas, and their activity, to others; or they may - via
informational networks over which they have little influence - offer an 'example' which others
then follow. The processes by which their own action 'diffuses' to other groups may have
significant effects on later developments. Goodwyn, for example, draws a most illuminating
contrast between the ways in which two core groups of workers in Poland, in 1956 and 1980,
set off two very different processes. In the first case, an established group of working-class

64 Lawrence Goodwyn, op cit


militants within a single workplace in Poznan led their factory in a demonstration towards the
city centre, an action which summoned out large numbers of other workers with whom they
had developed no previous understandings and lines of communication. The affair ended in a
pitched battle with the militia in which large numbers of people were killed. In the second
case, the group which led the shipyard occupation in Gdansk relied upon, and then further
developed, a whole elaborate network for inter-factory discussion and common planning
which meant that they were able to shape the development of events much more deliberately -
and effectively. The implication, of course, is that the nature of the formal and informal
information networks existing among a population is of considerable significance in
determining the path by which a cycle of protest actually develops. 65
Indeed, it is the process of actual diffusion of ideas and action through such networks that
determines whether or not a given event is actually an 'initiating event', and whether its
participants do actually constitute 'a vanguard' or 'early risers'. For it should not be forgotten
that there are very large numbers of events in which would-be vanguards do indeed engage in
'daring and confrontational actions' of a variety of kinds and yet do not succeed in setting off
'protest cycles'. It is far more common for a local, partial, economic strike of the kind that
Luxemburg mentioned to remain just that, than it is for it to initiate a general strike movement
in a whole locality. In just the same way, most student protests do not initiate processes of
mass insurgency - even though, in numbers of cases, participants in these protests do what
they can to produce such effects. Strikers regularly send out delegations to other workplaces to
urge support, militant students similarly seek to extend their struggles, as do anti-roads and
anti-war protestors, civil rights activists and many others. Mostly, their successes are small, in
the sense that, regardless of whether they win or lose in their local confrontations, they do not
succeed in providing the peculiar spark that sets off a larger movement.
All manner of 'containment' processes and agencies intervene to limit the immediate
impact of their action. Sympathisers are too few, or feel unable to act, repressive forces inhibit
or crush their action, mediating agencies step in and negotiate terms - by these and other
means, most potential 'sparks' set fire to nothing much. This is by no means to deny that there
are lots of 'sparks', but what gives a few their historic significance is that occasionally
surprising 'explosion-effect' they manage to achieve. There were hundreds of strikes in Poland
between 1976 and 1980, but only one of these succeeded in launching the Solidarity
movement. Those other hundreds of strikes prepared the way (and established local networks
of militant workers.) But what made the Lenin shipyard occupation especially significant was
that those who led it used and developed their existing links with other workplaces to turn
their strike into an organizing centre for something larger. They developed both a general
strike and occupation movement which they succeeded in spreading across the whole Gdansk
region, but also one with overtly political aims, and - perhaps most important - one that
invented a powerful new coordinating organization, the Inter-Factory Strike Committee.
Groups of militant workers in other regions then followed their lead, establishing similar
bodies, thus converting the situation into a full-scale national crisis. The generality of the
movement, its aims, and its organizational form were all mutually inter-connected aspects of

65 For a useful discussion of some aspects of this matter, in relation to changing patterns of strike-diffusion in
France, see Carol Conell and Samuel Cohn, 'Learning from Other People's Actions: Environmental Variation and
Diffusion in French Coal Mining Strikes, 1890-1935', American Journal of Sociology, 101.2, September 1995,
pp 366-403

their success. There were of course elements of spontaneity, of rapid tactical innovation, of
humorous invention in their breakthrough, but it also depended on years of previous
organizational work by a determined minority, who discussed and assimilated the lessons of
previous movements, and developed among themselves a mutual confidence that enabled
them to act with astonishing speed and sureness.
That degree of confident organization, and of implantation within effective networks of
activists, is perhaps unusual. But elements of such forms of organization are often to be found,
if we know where to look, in the early history of other insurgent movements too.

Escalation and Diffusion

It is the surprising effectiveness of initiating actions which sets off the processes which
produce the protest-cycle proper. Even at such a moment, containment mechanisms can
swiftly be brought into operation. The Polish regime's immediate response to the Gdansk
strikes was to isolate the whole region by disconnecting the telephone network, and by
seeking to arrest and detain the delegates sent out from the strike headquarters to other parts
of Poland. They tried - unsuccessfully - to divide the strikers' forces by offering negotiations
with individual factories. They might, in other circumstances, have decided on the direct use
of force to halt the movement in its early stages, as they did in Gdansk and Gdynia ten years
before, and as they were finally to do in December 1981. What they did not have at their
disposal, thanks to the particular history of Poland and other East European regimes, was an
adequate set of semi-allies in the shape of a functioning, independent trade-union machine
that might have mediated between themselves and the strikers. 66 There is more than a hint in
Luxemburg's account of the mass strikes in Russia that the absence of such a trade union
machinery contributed to the specific patterns she describes there.
In other upsurges, the role of such mediating agencies has been much more considerable. In
Germany in 1918, the revolts of sailors, soldiers and workers, along with the rapid spread of
workers' and soldiers' councils, were anything but the inspiration of the 'moderate' Social
Democrats and trade union leaders. Nonetheless, they rapidly sprang to the head of the
movement and sought immediately to calm it and limit its further spread and development.
Where persuasion failed, they turned to the military to deal with their left-wing opponents. In
France in 1968 the Communist Party and the CGT leaders first denounced the student
movement, then called and sought to control a single one-day strike and demonstration in
sympathy with those same students, and then - when a strike and occupation movement
initiated by others outside the field of their control began to spread - they placed themselves at
its head and sought to limit its effects. Similar kinds of processes can be seen at work in many

66 To a small degree, the delegation from the Warsaw intelligentsia who visited the Lenin Shipyard and were
adopted as the strike committee's 'experts' attempted to play such a part. But they lacked the authority to be able
to shape events more than marginally. There are useful accounts of their intervention in Jadwiga Staniszkis, 'The
evolution of forms of working-class protest in Poland: sociological reflections on the Gdansk-Szczecin case',
Soviet Studies, 33.2, April 1981 and in Tadeusz Kowalik, 'Experts and the Working Group', in A Kemp-Welch,
ed, The Birth of Solidarity: The Gdansk Negotiations, 1980, London: Macmillan, 1983

other protest-cycles. Sometimes, such interventions are sufficient to contain a movement in its
early stages, nipping it when still in the bud. 67
If containment mechanisms do not operate successfully, it is usually because others are
able to seize and hold the initiative and direct the movement forward. The key mechanism in
this is what Tarrow terms variously 'proliferation' and 'diffusion'. Quite simply, the movement
spreads to other groups, drawing them into its networks and mobilizing larger and more
diverse layers of the population. These are just the processes that Luxemburg identified in the
Russian mass strikes. Those who are already prone to collective action become more active
and organized, while the normally less organized and active themselves begin to participate.
To the outsider, or the onlooker-from-afar, the processes of diffusion often seem
'spontaneous', but again we need to look for the human agents who do the broadcasting work,
carrying the news and the ideas from one sector to another, informing and mobilizing their
networks, building new points of contact, opening up previously closed assemblages to new
influences. They may do this formally and deliberately, as the Gdansk strikers armed transport
workers with letters and documents and sent out other delegates across Poland, or as
supporters of the gaoled London dockers in 1972 toured first the national newspaper offices
and then other work-places demanding solidarity action. But there are also a host of less
formal and deliberate means by which thrilling news is dispersed. A university student has a
sister still at high school, to whom she tells exciting tales of insurgency on the telephone. One
commentator suggested that SNCC's organizing messages travelled along the same roads as
college basketball teams. The paths of possible diffusion of a new movement's message are as
various as the multiple networks of association that criss-cross society. In many cases, nothing
but vague news of new events and possibilities reaches people, and they go themselves, or
send representatives, to 'where the action is' to find out more. Petrograd, Berlin, Barcelona,
Montgomery, Berkeley, Paris, Gdansk and the like all received crowds of 'visitors', who
carried back home with them stories, impressions, contacts, new knowledge.
Every spreading movement grows in its own way, shaped by the lines of social
communication and influence available to it, meeting blockages at some points, distortions of
its anyway complex and contradictory messages at others. But a rising movement in a sense
'activates' and 'redirects' the communication channels that constitute an essential aspect of
society's functioning structure. Each particular historical sequence is, in principle, open to
investigation practically and theoretically.
The condition for such amplification of a movement is that something about its 'message'
must 'resonate' with others. Not only must they find it compatible with their own account of
their interests, but it must equally offer them something in the way of a practical perspective,
pointing up possibilities for new forms of action and association for which their previous
outlooks had no effective space. One way of putting this might be to say that part of the
'message' involves a suggestion that the previously discussed 'political opportunity structure'
has in some sense altered its configuration. The previously impractical and even unimaginable
has now emerged on the horizon of the achievable. The emperor just might be naked; or those
who were previously assumed to be 'just' or to 'play by the rules' are now seen in a new light.
Challenges to local and national manifestations of power might now be conceivable.

67 There was something of this in the brief flurry of mass protest at the British pit-closures in October 1992.
The TUC and Labour Party leaders proved able to defuse the movement, and those who would have taken it
further lacked the capacity to do so.

Crises and Climaxes

Processes of escalation of a movement themselves arrive at various kinds of 'climax', normally

marked by significant tests of strength for a whole movement or for some part of it. Certain
kinds of events mark 'turning points' as it were in the narrative structure of a 'protest cycle'.
Most of the contemporary sociological studies of the 'cycle' phenomenon tend to assume a
too-simple curve of development, passing from an initiating stage to a peak, which is then
followed by an inevitable winding down towards a final outcome. But the progress of an
insurgent movement is probably better conceptualized as a whole complex series of 'peaks' or
'climaxes', each representing a potential fork in the path of the movement's development. At a
particular climax, events and interventions may occur and decisions be taken whose effect is,
indeed, to begin to wind a movement down. One or other of various mechanisms of
containment may come into effective play to limit a movement's further expansion and
development. However, this is by no means a necessary result, for if we understand the many
separate climaxes in movement development as moments of significant conflict and decision,
we must also understand each of them as inherently open-ended, in other words as containing
more than one possible outcome. It does not by any means follow that 'containment' always
The application of repressive means, for example, is a potentially double-edged sword. It
may cow sufficient people into submission that it can determine a movement's fate. But there
is another possibility, registered in Marx's remark about the 1848 revolutions, that at a certain
point in its development every movement needs 'the whip of reaction' - not to defeat it, but to
spur it forward. (It is precisely this possibility, of course, which also commonly induces in the
authorities a certain caution in the application of force against a popular movement.)
Similarly, an intervention by proponents of 'moderation' and 'compromise', who seek to
mediate between authority and the movement, may succeed in producing demobilizing effects
on a movement, but the moderating intervention may equally be rejected. And that, in turn,
may produce a partial or total loss of credible authority for the would-be mediators, and a
strengthening of alternative leaders along with a further radicalization of the movement.
Something like this happened, briefly, to the leadership of the CGT in the immediate
aftermath of the 'Matignon Agreements' in 1968, when their most reliable cadres shouted them
down as they announced the content of the deal they had struck with the French employers at
a mass meeting in the Renault plant at Billancourt. Along the same line, the leadership of
'New Forum' lost credibility with significant sections of the swelling mass demonstrations in
East Germany in 1989 when they continued to argue for an increasingly unpopular tactic of
holding 'Round Table' talks with an ever more discredited regime.
Movements pass through smaller and larger crises of development as they progress through
a 'cycle of protest', each such moment posing the possibility of a variety of ways forward. At
every step, there is a likelihood of internal conflicts over how specific problems and events
should be understood and responded to, and each actual pattern of events will produce a new
configuration of forces and a new set of understandings. 68

Internal Dynamics

68 There is a useful discussion of such moments in Ellingson, op cit.


In the period of a movement's escalation, a whole series of inter-connected social processes

occur, in a larger or smaller degree, which, together, determine the sum of the possibilities and
the path of development of the whole insurgent movement. To a degree, my subsequent
discussion follows the agenda of topics proposed in Sidney Tarrow's various writings,
although my treatment of them varies somewhat from his. 69


The most obvious of these processes is a quantitative increase in the numbers of people
mobilized into collective action. As between one cycle of protest and another, this can vary
enormously. Consider only the sharp contrast between the form that the revolutions of 1989 in
Eastern Europe took. At one end of the scale, in East Germany, demonstrations against the
regime expanded from a series of small street protests outside a Leipzig church to mass
marches and rallies in large numbers of centres, involving, at the peak, up to a million people
at a time. At the other end, the political revolutions in Poland, and especially in Hungary, were
accomplished with a low level of popular mobilization. Indeed, Garton Ash characterized the
Hungarian events as a 'refolution' and a 'media event', watched on television by most
Hungarian citizens rather than actively achieved by them. If protest cycles do not always
develop into revolutionary situations, it seems that sometimes revolutions occur without
significant protest cycles emerging. 70
But there is an important qualitative aspect to popular mobilization as well. Again, postwar
Eastern Europe provides a useful illustration. Most of the popular upsurges against the
'communist' regimes in the region involved high levels of working-class mobilization and
often high levels of specifically working-class self-organization. Luxemburg would have felt
very much at home in East Germany in 1953, Poland and Hungary in 1956, Poland in 1970-
71, and Poland in 1980, for in all these cases phenomena very similar to those she recorded in
'The Mass Strike' reappeared - sometimes on a much more gigantic scale than she could
record. 71 She might have noted that in Czechoslovakia, in 1968, there was rather less
independent working-class self-organization and activity, but the events of 1989 seem to have
followed a quite different pattern from the one she identified in 1905. True, there was a brief
burst of small-scale strikes in Poland in February 1989, as the 'Round Table' was bringing
together the representatives of the regime and of Solidarity for the negotiations which would
start the process of breaking up the Party political monopoly. The Solidarity leaders
successfully called a halt to these. Thereafter, workplace organization and activity played little
or no part in the subsequent proceedings. Across the rest of Eastern Europe, the picture was
much the same. Very large numbers of working-class people participated in the autumn and

69 Tarrow's work moves, at times, uneasily between two kinds of register: one derived from 'resource
mobilization theory', in which the main focus falls on 'social movement organizations' and another, more
dialectical, where the dialogical interaction between organizations and movements is given more recognition. I
sense an incomplete tendency of development in his writing from the former towards the latter position.
70 Timothy Garton Ash, We The People: The Revolution of '89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin &
Prague, Cambridge: Granta / Penguin, 1990. See also the discussion in Barker and Mooers, ' Theories of
revolution...' in Cultural Dynamics (forthcoming)
71 See for example, Gareth Dale, 'Class and conflict in a social movement: the East German Revolution of
1989' in Colin Barker, Paul Kennedy and Mike Tyldesley, eds, Proceedings of the International Conference on
"Alternative Futures and Popular Protest", Vol 1, Manchester Metropolitan University, April 1995

winter demonstrations in East Germany, but they did so as individuals, largely wearing their
'citizen' rather than 'worker' identities. Workplace organizations played little part, there were
very few strikes, there was very little of the direct 'reciprocal action' between 'politics' and
'economics' to which Luxemburg drew attention. (This is not to say that broad 'economic'
grievances did not play in part in shaping the 1989 revolutions, for they obviously did, but
only indirectly.)
The process and pattern of mobilization, as noted above, runs along the paths already
created by existing social networks. But there is an internal relation between 'network' and
'message' which affects both the quantity and the quality of popular mobilization. The kinds of
ideas and practices imparted, and the form of their reception, is a function of the identities and
social relations they embody and challenge. Where, in the earlier movements in Eastern
Europe, the opposition movements offered a direct challenge to managerial power in the
workplace, in 1989 demands about working conditions and about workplace control more
generally hardly surfaced. Thus, in Hungary and Poland, whose regimes were already
dominated by Party factions who had already accepted the need for 'political reform', the
opposition's framing of the issues in largely liberal terms placed a strong limit on the level of
popular mobilization. By contrast, in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, where 'hard-liners'
remained dominant almost to the end, mass demonstrations became the means for dislodging
them and compelling a process of constitutional revolution, but not a means of taking the
insurgent process in other directions. 72
Other movements, as Luxemburg's study illustrated, challenge a much wider range of
aspects of the existing power setup in society, and the potential for popular mobilization is
that much greater. The 'messages' are more complex and differentiated, and the activation of
networks is more intense.
Mobilization is an inherently interactional, dialogical activity. Movements 'recruit', but
people 'join'; movements 'activate' people, but 'activation' is a fundamentally self-directed
achievement. Some accounts of micro- and macro-mobilization miss this, for their focus is too
'top-down'. Leaders and 'social movement organizations' are presented as the active principle,
and the rank and file appear as relatively passive recipients of the 'mobilization efforts' of
others. But movements are not simply created by leaders. There is a constant interaction
between 'leader' and 'follower', between 'summit' or 'centre' and 'base' or 'periphery', which is
always liable to reverse its position. Lech Walesa and his colleagues undoubtedly played a key
role in the mobilizing of forces which generated the Solidarity movement in Poland, but once
'mobilized' those forces took on a life of their own, not infrequently developing their own
initiatives and clashing with the Gdansk-based leadership. Similarly, the crowds summoned
into the streets of East Germany in 1989 by 'New Forum' and other essentially middle-class,
professional groupings rapidly developed their own energy and ideas, moving in directions
and posing demands distinct from what their erstwhile 'leaders' wished. Mobilization is
anything but a uni-directional process., but involves considerable elements of what

72 The differences in the political process are discussed in Judy Batt, 'The end of communist rule in East-
Central Europe: a four-country comparison', Government and Opposition, 26.3, 1991, pp 368-390 and East
Central Europe from Reform to Transformation, London: Royal Institute of International Affairs/ Pinter, 1991;
also Daniel V Friedheim, 'Bringing society back into democratic transition theory after 1989: Pact making and
regime collapse', East European Politics and Societies, 7.3, Fall 1993, pp 482-512

Luxemburg summed up as 'spontaneity'. Its 'quality' is a function, not simply of the numbers
of people mobilized, but of other aspects that differentiate it.

Action Repertoires

Charles Tilly is the author most associated with the development of the concept of a
'repertoire of contention'. 73 This refers to the forms or means of collective action actually used
by protestors in their efforts to press their demands. It thus includes everything from petitions
to barricade-building, from letters to newspapers to the occupation and seizure of public
buildings (or trees!). The reference to a 'repertoire' suggests that, at any particular time, people
have some sense of how to organize themselves into collective action; it is the assembly of
political skills a population possesses, and of that population's cultural forms. Over time, the
'repertoire' alters, expands and contracts. Tilly, Tarrow and others have discussed - often quite
persuasively - the broad historical influences which have shaped the transformation of the
modern 'repertoire of contention'. Rather than explore those issues here, I want to note a
couple of issues of particular significance to 'protest cycles'.
Tilly argues that repertoires tend to change only slowly over time, but Tarrow suggests
there is an exception to this glacial pace of development. In protest cycles, new forms of
contention succeed each other with great rapidity, new and old forms are combined,
'expressive' forms are combined with 'instrumental'. 'Cycles of protest are the crucibles within
which the repertoire of collective action expands.'74 If this 'repertoire' does indeed express the
sum of the skills and the culture of a population, its rapid development in protest cycles also
suggests an expansion and alteration in those skills and that culture. What is at issue is not
simply that the numbers of elements in the repertoire grow, but that their inter-relations are
potentially more dynamic. Tarrow looked at the number of 'action forms' used in single protest
events during the 'protest cycle' in Italy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, suggesting that, at
the peak of the movement, this number grew. 75 At the same time, individual elements within
the 'repertoire' were themselves radicalized, and not simply by their becoming 'unofficial':
'The extension of the strike to the plant level was more than quantitative; it reflected a
flowering of new strike forms, some inherited from past cycles of industrial conflict, but
others invented on the spot.... A whole new vocabulary of strike forms rapidly
developed, from the sciopero bianco (go-slow), to the sciopero a singhiozzo (literally,
hiccup strikes) to the sciopero a scacchiera (chessboard strikes) to the corteo interno
(marches around the factory grounds to carry along undecided workers) to the presidio
al cancello (blocking factory gates to prevent goods from entering or leaving the plant.)'
These varied forms of strike were combined with different forms of collective action, both
within and outside the plant. They often 'contained symbolic military elements' but also
'important elements of play and theatre and bore a resemblance to the traditional carnival'. 76

73 His most recent statement on the question is to be found in 'Contentious repertoires in Great Britain, 1758-
1834', Social Science History, 17.2, summer 1993
74 Democracy and Disorder, p 20.
75 Sidney Tarrow, 'Cycles of Collective Action: Between Moments of Madness and the Repertoire of
Contention', Social Science History, 17.2, summer 1993, Figure 3, p 295
76 Ibid, p 296

Similar kinds of observation could be made about repertory developments within other
'protest cycles'. But the matter cannot be divorced from issues to do with 'control' and
'possession of initiative'. In May '68 in France, there were large numbers of factory
occupations, but in many cases these were organized and led by CGT activists, who
substituted themselves for the mass of workers, who were sent home for the duration of the
strike. In such workplaces, where rank and file initiative was positively discouraged, there was
far less innovative development. In the Solidarity summer of 1980, in Poland, most
workplaces excluded women from participating in the factory occupations, except where they
performed the duties of cooks - the expanding repertoire of contention was thus constricted by
sexism, and deprived of one potential source of further development. 77
The nature of the repertoire of actions that a movement draws up, or invents, is intrinsically
connected with its own pattern of development. A movement like that in East Germany or
Czechoslovakia in 1989, which largely confined itself to large street demonstrations, provides
far less space for the development of new organizational forms and for the hammering out of
new initiatives and programmes than does a movement which also roots itself in workplaces.
Different elements of a repertoire of contention contain more or less room, by their very form,
for intense and continuous discussion and debate. A strike in which workers stand outside the
doors of their place of employment has a different set of dynamics and possibilities than a
strike in which the workforce occupies the plant - as the history of the CIO and other
movements reveals.
Hence contests within movements about such 'tactical' matters as the forms that collective
action should take, about who should be admitted and who excluded, have quite as much
potential significance as arguments about the 'demands' that should be posed.

Organizational forms

This topic appears not to play a significant part in many discussions of protest cycles, perhaps
because many of them are constructed within an overall 'reformist' rather than 'revolutionary'
Many commentators note the increased levels of 'participation' by ordinary people in the
events and movements that constitute a protest cycle. The demand for 'democracy' which
echoed up and down Poland during the autumn of 1980 was carried into a whole variety of
social settings. One Polish writer, describing the period, spoke of a positive 'orgy of
participation' going on all around him: not simply in strikes, demonstrations and meetings, but
also within queues outside food stores, allotment associations and even stamp-collecting
clubs. The potential significance of this is a matter to which we need to return, but within
these new forms of participative activity there is an ongoing process of remaking and novel
construction of social relationships, of networks, and of institutions. As before, we should
note that this a highly variable matter as between one protest cycle and another. But for those
who believe that it is within just such moments that the beginnings of a more far-reaching
reconstruction of society can be located, such developments are of exceptional significance.
In this perspective, the development of new and more democratic organizational forms, as
direct emanations of specific new forms of struggle, is the most important single index of

77 I owe this observation to a woman friend in Gdansk, who did in fact participate in her own workplace
strike committee, claiming that she was 'different' but that the general rule was acceptable.

development. It is commonly associated with efforts at 'taking control' of aspects of everyday

social life, from the provisioning of participants and the management of workplaces to the
reshaping of institutions of 'law and order'. But it is also inseparable from processes of
contestation inside established organizations, whereby established hierarchies and control
systems are challenged in the name of enhanced popular democratic control. These may
involve not merely obvious targets such as trade-union and party bureaucracies, but also such
institutions as cultural organizations and churches. 78 Of relevance here are the formation of all
manner of new formal and ad hoc clubs, committees, associations, councils, 'soviets', unions,
assemblies, courts and so on, especially where these begin to pose practical questions about
new forms of social regulation. The heart of the revolutionary notion of 'dual power' is
represented by the idea that, against a more oligarchical and exclusive ordering of power
relations in society a rival, more democratic set of institutions arises to contest the overall
control of the state and economic and moral life more generally.
The tasks involved in such a project are inherently difficult, for there is little in the way of
practical experience of democratic self-government to go on, and the topic hardly appears
within the rubrics of normal political philosophy.

Material gains

One thing which Luxemburg stressed in 'The Mass Strike' was the improvements in their
material conditions which Russian and Polish workers won through collective action. The
significance of such matters as pay increases, reductions in working hours, control over
piecework systems, control of hiring and firing and the like extends beyond their purely
'material' effects, which are of course by no means to be discounted. For all these matters have
a 'symbolic' dimension interwoven with their purely material implications. They are, after all,
the centre of attention in many everyday struggles over power within the capitalist economy,
and victories and defeats in relation to these matters shape people's everyday confidence in
their own capacities for effective organization and struggle. Far from being utterly divorced
from wider political matters, they are an intrinsic part of the 'politics of everyday life'.
In practice, it is exceptionally difficult to draw a clear dividing line between 'material' and
'non-material' demands and issues arising within movements. Some contemporary theorists
attempt to make a distinction between the 'materialist' demands of 'old' social movements and
the 'post-materialist' demands of 'new' movements. But when the distinctions are explored
more closely, they tend to collapse, or indeed to turn out refer to other kinds of strategic and
ideological differences. 79 All cultural matters have a material substratum, and all material
objects and processes possess a social-symbolic, ideological dimension.
The interaction of the 'economic' and the 'political' to which Luxemburg pointed is a
significant matter requiring much further development.
In any case, partial and limited gains are not confined to matters to do with work and its
rewards. In numbers of protest cycles, developments akin to the Portuguese process of

78 The matter of the Catholic Church is discussed, in relation to Italy, in Tarrow's Democracy and Disorder,
ch 8; and in relation to Poland in Colin Barker, Festival of the Oppressed: Solidarity, Reform and Revolution in
Poland 1980-81, London: Bookmarks, 1986, ch 4
79 For an excellent illustration, see the discussion of the role of 'consumerism' in the East German revolution
of 1989, in Gareth Dale, '1989 and "New Social Movements" (mimeo, 1996)

'Saneamento' (cleansing) of 1974 occur: here former fascists were driven out of office, and
demands issued that they pay for their former injustices and crimes. Russian factory workers
in 1905 'wheel-barrowed' oppressive foremen out of the factories; Polish workers in 1980-81
organized large-scale strikes to remove corrupt officials. Those who remained in office were
induced to be more conciliatory and careful. These were immediate benefits, with significant
effects on the conduct of everyday life.
Insurgent movements sometimes reassign property and control over facilities. Polish
workers took a complete special hospital away from the police, and re-assigned it, along with
its staff, to the civilian health service. New services as various as radio stations and nurseries
are created, involving simultaneously improvements in the quality of everyday life, a
questioning of previous 'statutes' and an enhanced sense of popular control.

Identity, Framing and Ideology

Too often, accounts of ideological issues in relation to social movements - and for that matter,
all manner of other questions - are appallingly flat, one-dimensional and static in their
fundamental modeling of human consciousness. They are thus remarkably unhelpful when we
seek to understand the inner workings of protest cycles. While this is certainly not the place
for a developed discussion and critique of these matters, a few fundamental propositions do
seem to be required. 80
First, ideologies are inherently practical, action-oriented. They tell us not only what the
world is like, and what value-standards we should apply to experience, but also what is and is
not practically feasible. As well as telling us who we are, how to understand our relations to
the material and social worlds, what counts as good and beautiful, our ideas also suggest what
we can hope and what we can and cannot do. Second, we think 'in groups' and not as isolated
monads, forming our ideas in ongoing, never completed interactive conversations and shared
practices. Language and thought are intrinsically 'dialogical'. Third, ideologies are
consequently open-ended, self-transforming, hence operate in a condition of 'disorder'. Our
formulations are constantly being 'tested' against material and social reality, and thus - even
when we believe them to be fixed and certain - are always provisional. Fourth, there is
commonly a disjunction between what we think 'privately' and what we say and do. One
source of this disjunction is our practical caution in the face of power, exercised both by those
in superordinate positions but also by relative equals.
One of the things which marks periods of intensified social conflict is that ideas change
more rapidly. Given the practical inter-connection between all manner of ideas and the social
relations within which we think and act, this is hardly surprising. As Trotsky remarked: ''A
revolution teaches and teaches fast. In that lies its strength. Every week brings something new
to the masses. Every two months creates an epoch.' 81

80 Among the sources whose ideas are immensely over-condensed in what follows, I should mention M M
Bahktin, 'Discourse in the Novel' in Michael Holquist, ed, The Dialogic Imagination: Hours Essays by M M
Bakhtin, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1981; Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks,
Lawrence & Wishart, 1971; Goran Therborn, The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology, London: Verso,
1980; V N Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986
81 Leon Trotsky, A History of the Russian Revolution, London: Gollancz, 1965, p 430

The process of 'mobilization' of people into collective action involves the creation of new
collective identities, a new sense of who 'we' are and what 'our' powers are. It must also touch
on the individual's own self-identity, his or her own conception of who 'I' am, what I am
capable of, what relation I stand in to others and what relations others stand in to 'me'. Any
significant alteration in individual and collective identity is liable to carry some kind of more
or less powerful emotional and aesthetic charge, or affective shock. The world takes on a new
appearance, in greater or lesser measure, depending on the depth and strength of new
experiences. Periods of popular insurgency involve complex and intimate processes of more
or less passionate destruction and construction of ideological forms, and of the social relations
within which these are expressed.
The self - as Bakhtin, Volosinov and others have taught us - is an interactional, social
accomplishment, shaped by constant monitoring of our experience of the material and social
world in which we participate. If, much of the time, popular protest is contained by a sense of
'informed fatalism', or 'pragmatic acceptance', this must be understood as an inherently
provisional condition. The condition embodies simultaneously a cognitive and affective
dimension: an evaluation of the current (im)possibilities of things being different, of the
balance of forces within society - both as between the powerful and the subordinate, but also
among subordinates themselves - along with a 'depressive effect' by which existing
frustrations and deprivations are handled. What a rising and expanding protest cycle does is to
provide a dialogical setting in which 'information' changes and with it the containing effects of
'fatalism'. Confidence in the possibilities of collective action grows, along with a more or less
large-scale opening of the imagination to new possibilities and hopes. What previously
seemed 'fixed and unalterable' can come to seem motile and open to practical questioning. The
sense of relative powerlessness which infects the politics of everyday life can be transmuted,
quite quickly, into a more active and cheerful apprehension of new horizons of possibility.
The 'natural' and 'given' quality of the present order only begins to dissolve when it is
challenged in practice, and when the challenge embodies, at least in half-recognizable embryo
form, the shape of a different possible order.
The process of transformation of 'identity' - and thus of the connected concepts of
'ideology' and 'framing' - has at least three dimensions. 82
First, a protest cycle involves a reassessment, achieved through practical interaction by
protestors, of who they themselves are, as a movement. They collectively draw a new picture
of themselves, of what they are, should be and can be. This is a practical accomplishment,
achieved and discovered through transformations in their own interactions with each other, in
the process of struggle with their opponents. It is not simply the size of the protesting layer
that alters, but its internal articulation. A process of 'restructuring' of the inner life of a
movement, involving internal challenges to its accustomed procedures and relations, is
inherent to the whole process. In much the sense that E P Thompson wrote of the 'making' of
the working class, we need to pay attention to the 'making' and 'remaking' of movements and
of other relevant collective forms.

82 I borrow here from Bakhtin's account of the 'triadic' nature of the self. I have taken the perhaps large liberty
of extending that notion from the individual 'self' to the formation of a 'collective identity'. There is a rather brief
treatment of Bakhtin's idea in Greg Nielsen, 'Bakhtin and Habermas: Toward a transcultural ethics', Theory and
Society, 24.6, Dec 1995 807-35; see also Joan Kelly Hall, '(Re)creating our Worlds with Words: A
Sociohistorical Perspective of Face-to-Face Interaction', Applied Linguistics, 16.2, 1995, esp pp 215-7

For a movement, such a process also involves the alteration of its internal and external
barriers and identifications. 83 Former divisions and alliances change their salience, for
identities involve a variety of positive and negative discriminations and closures. Previously
prominent voices lose their persuasive power, as the focus of attention shifts to new speakers,
now proposals for action and meaning. In the process, what and who counts as 'leadership'
shifts. Practical interactions and social relations change. New 'networks' form, and are more or
less maintained, while others may slide into disuse or be re-evaluated. All of these processes
of remaking what might be termed a 'We-for-Ourselves' involve both practical activity and
'When individuals who have suddenly acquired an enhanced sense of self gaze upon
others who have been part of the joint effort and who have acquired the same enhanced
sense, a new kind of connection occurs. The feeling is distinctly one of personal
achievement, but it also is organically a product of collective action.' 84
The process possesses 'an emotional significance that can yield surprising political
breakthroughs'; while it is often recognized by participants and commentators alike, we hardly
possess the theoretical concepts to describe it. More, certainly, is involved than simply an
abstract 'emergence of class consciousness'. A new form of knowledge emerges out of
collective action and interaction, that things can be achieved which were, previously, beyond
the bounds of the possible. There is 'a merger of knowledge with emotion, a conjunction
forced by lived experience'. 85
A new 'we-for-ourselves' develops a new purposive orientation, an active goal for the
transformation of our selves and our circumstances.
Second, our purposes and goals for ourselves involve necessarily a confrontation with the
will and purpose of our antagonists, an awareness of the relation of our will to their will, and
of the manner in which they view us. A changed self-identity within a protest movement
necessarily alters the movement's relation to its opponents. A newly constructed 'we-for-
ourselves' implies a simultaneously reconstructed 'we-for-them'.
Movements, like classes, cannot be defined solely in terms of their internal social relations,
but only in the clash or the cooperation between themselves and others, and in particular with
their principal opponents. 86 The identity of a movement is shaped, in part, by the sense of
power and solidarity that it achieves in relation to what is outside it and against it. That sense,
again, rests upon practical achievements and the sense that is made of them by participants.
Protest cycles involve quite sharp adjustments of angles of vision, shifts in patterns of
deference and 'tact' in addressing and engaging with the formerly powerful, alterations in the
balance of fear and confidence. More or less fixed elements in previous interactions with the
powerful become open to question, and previously experienced limits expand or contract. The
range of permissible topics changes, as does the range of conceivable forms of collective

83 Chik Collins, 'The pragmatics of emancipation: a critical review of the work of Michael Huspek', Journal
of Pragmatics (forthcoming)
84 Lawrence Goodwyn, Breaking the Barrier..., p 161
85 Ibid, p 192
86 See Diani's definition of social movements: they are 'networks of informal interaction between a plurality
of individuals, groups and / or organisations, engaged in a political and/ or cultural conflict, on the basis of a
shared collective identity' (M Diani, 'The concept of a social movement' Sociological Review, 1992, p 3).

action. In 1989, those who once walked in fear of the Stasi came to demand the occupation of
their offices.
Third, such transformations also involve reconstructions of 'them-for-us'. 'They' take on a
new light and character. We construe their motives and intentions, their powers and
capacities, their unity and division, their nobility or ridiculousness, their inevitability and
eternity or mere temporality. Who they are is mirrored in our conception of 'We-for-ourselves'
and 'we-for-them'. They exist as possible impediments to our will, pressures exerted upon us,
sources of pain or of support. Their effect on us defines, in part, who we are. We see our
exterior existence only through our relation to them.
Their purposive will must be comprehended theoretically, addressed practically, responded
to, combated, diverted, negotiated with.
All these three dimensions of collective (and individual) identity are more or less open to
simultaneous and reciprocal alteration. 'Talk' is a crucial element in the making and remaking
of identities and relationships, but not the sole element. A strike, a demonstration or a 'riot' is
more than an 'utterance', it is a breach in an ongoing flow of events, with its own effectivity
and its own power and transformational results.
Of course, it must be added that everything that applies to a protest movement also applies
to its antagonists. They too are transformed by an 'upset' in the normal functioning of society,
by the interruption in the flow of obedience and surplus-value. They too are compelled to
reshape their identity, to form new purposes, to reassess their alliances and their enmities, to
reconsider their powers. A protest cycle in greater or lesser degree upsets the whole balance of
social statuses and identities, of values and possibilities - for everyone. In the interaction
between an expanding movement and its opponents, the growing numbers of participants are
investigating and discovering who they are by probing and remaking their own image of
themselves in the light of their effects on the powerful, in the light of the assessments they
make of Their actions, Their speech, Their gestures, Their silence. Thus We situate ourselves,
learn Our present powers and weaknesses and possibilities. So do They. The difference is that,
in a rising movement, We tend to be having a good time, and They tend not to be.
All of this can, in principle, be described in terms of theories of 'framing'. The difficulty to
date with much of the literature on this question, within social movement theory, is that it is
far too 'undialogical'. Accounts are offered in which 'social movement organizations' fashion
accounts of the situation and offer these to target populations, seeking to find a point of
intersection between the organizations' aims and the existing core values and ideas of those
whom they address. 87 But there are several weaknesses here: 'core values' are neither static nor
non-contradictory; the 'frames' that social movement organizations construct are often less
flexible and adjustable to changed circumstances than are the experiences and ideas of those
they address; and, crucially, everyone does 'framing' work, in an ongoing dialogical
interaction. Contemporary formal social movement theory seems, simply, not to have enough
conceptual space for the critical self-activity of movement 'supporters', or for the role of
practical argument at every level of a self-transforming protest cycle.

87 See, for example, several papers by David Snow and his colleagues: 'Frame alignment processes,
micromobilisation, and movement participation', American Sociological Review, 51, 1986, pp 464-481;
'Ideology, frame resonance and participant mobilisation', International Social Movement Research, vol 1, 1988;
'Master Frames and Cycles of Protest', in Aldon D Morris and Carol McClurg Mueller, eds, Frontiers in Social
Movement Theory.

Whole and Parts

A protest cycle, in any of its phases of initiation, escalation or decline, never involves a single
homogeneous movement. Rather, it involves the mutual interaction of different sectors, each
with their own inherited and developing characteristics and concerns. Different groups enter
the protest cycle at different points in time, contributing their own energizing or depressing
effects on other parts. The broader the general appeal of a protest movement's appeal, the
wider the range of particular interests and aspirations it may encompass, but always in diverse
The Civil Rights movement meant one thing to the earnest church-goers of the Southern
cities, something else again to Black students, and something else again to the residents of the
northern industrial and commercial city ghettos. May '68 was initiated by university students,
but it took on a whole new meaning when millions of French workers, manual and white-
collar, entered the fray. Solidarity began among skilled industrial workers in large workplaces,
but spread out across Polish society to encompass students and the intelligentsia, the arts, the
prison system, tenants in housing projects, and three million peasant farmers. In like manner
the movement for democratic transformation in East Germany in 1989 first mobilized small
layers of white-collar professionals, but gained momentum and transformed itself as it
mobilized wider and more varied layers of the population of the GDR.
Nor are the diverse diffusion patterns of modern movements confined within national
boundaries. The 1917 Russian Revolution reshaped labour and socialist movements across the
globe. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 began with demonstrations in solidarity with the
Polish struggle. May '68 was but a national part of an international wave of radical protest.
Solidarity produced ripple effects that were felt as far afield as the picket lines of air traffic
controllers in the USA, striking copper miners in Zambia and activists in the townships of
South Africa. The inner dynamics of none of the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe can be
understood without reference to what was happening at the same time across the whole
It is a characteristic of a cycle of protest that it 'proliferates' from one sector to another. But
each sector's participation is marked by its own specific structural characteristics and history.
Polish peasants joined the Solidarity movement, but the timing and the manner of their joining
was shaped by their own circumstances. They brought their own particular demands, they
entered the struggle later than most urban groups, and formed not one but three rival
organizations. 88 Non-unionized workers in small workplaces have different practical anxieties
and demands from organized groups in large factories and offices. University and high-school
students have different social characteristics, capacities and preoccupations from workers,
themselves differentiated by occupational and regional traditions and forms of organization.
Women and men, migrants and 'natives', the elderly, the middle-aged and the young may all
bring distinct perspectives, identities, concerns and experiences into a protest cycle.
Always a cycle of protest is an inwardly differentiated social process, uneven in its
development at the same time that it combines into a single multi-stranded sequence.
Different groups and layers import different kinds of resources, and also different kinds of

88 Maria Halamska, 'Peasant movements in Poland, 1980-1981: State socialist economy and the mobilisation
of individual farmers,' Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change, vol 10, 1988, pp 147-60.

stumbling blocks for the movement as a whole. Internal differentiations may provide new
energizing resources for an insurgent movement: thus the specific struggle by Polish farmers
for recognition for their own organizations provided a new impulse to the Polish workers'
movement in the spring of 1981. On the other hand, differentiation can breed division and

The Struggle for Hegemony

Every cycle of protest occurs in its own specific historical setting. It arises against a definite
organizational and ideological background of previous struggles which have left their own
specific mark upon the character of the various contending forces.
The development of a protest cycle involves, obviously, a major challenge to the ruling
class. Those who were previously fairly 'tractable', in Burke's phrase, are ceasing to be so. But,
as the previous discussion of identity suggested, it involves an equally significant, and parallel
challenge to the established forms, relations and organizations existing on the side of the
protestors. This is a matter which is touched on only by implication in Luxemburg's 'The Mass
Strike'. Under the Tsarist autocracy, there was no legally established set of labour movement
institutions - apart from the 'Zubatov' unions, which many employers anyway refused to
recognize. Luxemburg's intended audience for her argument was, of course, the German
labour movement, which did enjoy a variety of legal freedoms and had established a vast and
complex apparatus of parties, unions, cooperatives, clubs and so forth. Her discussion of the
Russian mass strikes was something of a shot across the bows of that German movement, a
prediction of future 'trouble' for the right wing of that movement when once the German
workers began to follow their Russian comrades' example.
Some more recent cycles of protest have developed within settings more akin, in their
political implications, to the conditions obtaining in Tsarist Russia than to those in the West.
In Poland, for example, the heart of Solidarity's initial demand was for the establishment and
recognition of a legally functioning independent trade-union movement. In the circumstances
of a general upsurge in militancy, the only body in Poland which could come close to playing
the moderating part normally given, in the West, to trade union and opposition party leaders
was, paradoxically, the Roman Catholic Church. And it was a role for which the bishops and
the priests were not well prepared. 89
But elsewhere, the phenomena of mass strikes and cycles of protest have arisen on territory
already occupied by a whole variety of legal, recognized bodies, all with established
organizational machineries and procedures, and locked into equally established 'channels' and
mechanisms for resolving disputes and representing their various memberships and
constituencies. An emerging protest wave is as much a challenge to such bodies as it is to the
existing authorities and managements. Only for them it is simultaneously a threat and an
opportunity. The threat is that a newly activated membership will challenge their leadership
and representational roles, and their established ways of handling smaller-scale disputes and
crises. At the same time, an outbreak of popular militancy may be the occasion to advance
their own organizations' membership and reputation and their influence within the existing
polity. For them, the protest cycle is thus a moment when they must adjust their forms of
activity quite smartly if they are not to swept aside by the tide of events.

89 Colin Barker, Festival of the Oppressed..., ch 4


The classic role adopted by such bodies in periods of social crisis is that of 'mediators', who
seek simultaneously to represent aspects of insurgents' interests and to contain and repress the
disturbance which they have imported into the social fabric. The fact of their already
developed implantation within the existing polity gives them certain advantages: they possess
resources, they are known, they can make various claims to loyalty, their representational
mechanisms provide a bridge between the more militant and the less militant within the same
movement. If one phrase summarizes their likely aim, it is - contrary to Luxemburg's hopes -
to bring to a halt a ball that has started rolling, although in the process of halting the ball they
will hope to advance their position overall.
The kind of problem they face is not simply that, outside their own formal ranks, new
organizations are making claims on their actual and potential members and supporters, and
proposing new ways to express their aspirations. Certainly such processes do regularly occur:
protest cycles are the occasion for a flurry of new organization-building, and thus for the
development of new forms of inter-organizational competition for influence and resources. If
the older organizations have the advantage in terms of existing resources, the newer ones have
an attractive power based on their capacity to speak more directly to emerging new identities
and the 'excitement' their emergence induces. But the effects of a protest cycle are also felt
within existing bodies, as their own ranks become infected with new enthusiasms and thus,
potentially, new or revived criticisms of existing leaders and procedures.
New, emerging bodies themselves may be more or less riven with internal disputes and
tensions between different tendencies, aspiring leaderships, 'realists' and 'fundamentalists', and
so forth. New formal and informal alliances between old organizations, and between new and
old bodies, may develop in a bewildering and kaleidoscopic series of 'fronts'.
All of this contradictory and often swiftly changing process of internal conflict and
cooperation occurs, not within a vacuum, but in the context of a series of more or less
dramatic conflicts between a diverse and differentiated movement and the existing power
setup. Ruling parties, employers, and other agencies constituting the existing polity are
themselves compelled to be active in new ways, resisting, conceding, conferring, seeking
allies, remobilizing their own forces.
A cycle of protest, it was suggested above, advances via a series of crises and climaxes,
whose outcome is shaped by the intervention of all the various forces that are brought into
play. At every juncture, there are disputes on various sides about what should be done, and the
representatives of each distinct standpoint will intervene in line with their own conception -
with both forms of action and arguments - in an effort to shape each particular outcome. A
cycle of protest is thus made up of a sequence of 'turning points', out of each of which all the
various 'parties' - both formally and informally organized, nascent and established - will
emerge with their immediate positions enhanced or worsened. All manner of strategic and
tactical issues, on all sides, will be involved.
It is through the achieved outcomes of these various particular moments that the overall
pattern of advance and retreat, the upward or downward movement of the 'cycle' is
determined. Shall the movement further extend its reach, and further radicalize its impact on
society, or shall it 'consolidate' or retreat? Shall its challenge to the existing ruling order be
enlarged, or should there be negotiation or backing off?
It is via such processes of sequential and developing practical and ideological argument
that the issue posed in a sense by Pizzorno arises: shall a cycle of protest move in the direction

of an actual revolutionary challenge to the existing power setup, shall it set its sights on a
series of reforms, or indeed shall it collapse and submit to the possibility of severe repression
by 'hard-liners' amongst its opponents? These are practical and contested questions, and those
who seek to influence their solution must contest for overall influence and leadership within
the whole movement.
Their capacity to shape the outcome is a function of a whole series of factors: their own
clarity of perception, their capacity to formulate suitable slogans and demands at each
juncture, their practical capacity to permeate the multiple networks and layers that constitute
an insurgent movement with activists who share their standpoint. These matters are not
determined simply by events within the actual protest cycle, but also by the organizational,
theoretical and political work such aspirants to leadership have already achieved in the period
before the emergence of a protest cycle.

Here the manuscript breaks off. Or the author must. A whole series of issues remain
completely unexplored. It is my intention to attempt a provisional completion of this awkward,
perhaps impossible text. If anyone is sufficiently curious to read a further, revised and (yes!)
expanded version, contact me.

Colin Barker
Department of Sociology & Interdisciplinary Studies
Manchester Metropolitan University
All Saints
Manchester M15

Appendix: Some Ways of Thinking Unhelpfully

A variety of theories and methods within the social sciences are likely to be less than helpful
for the investigation of the properties and possibilities of protest cycles. To mention them is,
at least negatively, to begin to specify what we should require of a usable theoretical
approach. The nature of the 'object' is very demanding: if nothing else, consideration of the
problem of protest cycles suggests there is something of a hole at the heart of contemporary
social movement theory. Let me, as briefly as I can, indicate some approaches which seem to
me to fail when presented with this problem:

1. The formerly dominant 'collective behaviour' theory is represented by the work of Herbert
Blumer. 90 There are some attractive features in Blumer's account of collective behaviour: not
least, the sense of 'emergence' of new social institutions, ideas and values out of unfamiliar
processes of interaction. His stress on the role of 'spontaneity' in social movements, too, might
seem to offer a good deal. But his whole account is too much oriented on 'feeling', paying too
little attention to the 'rational-cognitive' aspect of human thought and action. His work risks
falling into the old, elitist trap of treating collective action is 'irrational' or at best 'non-
rational'. As was characteristic of the whole 'collective behaviour' school, Blumer drew an
essentially false distinction between two types of human behaviour: the 'normal' or
'institutional' and the 'collective', thereby reifying also a distinction between 'statics' and
'dynamics' in social action. He relies on images drawn from the non-human world to explicate
some of his key principles: the 'milling' of frightened animals, for example.
Blumer's work is also infected by the ideological circumstances of the period in which he
wrote. He uncritically accepts a theory of 'mass society', in which individuals are assumed to
be isolated, anomic, disconnected from everyday social networks and thus prone to occasional
'eruptions' and the like. Social movements of all kinds - and not least those which develop into
full-blown protest cycles - need to be understood as arising not from a fragmented mass of
alienated lonely crowds, but rather - as all the specific histories of such moments suggest -
from already constituted dense networks of social relations, ties, loyalties, associations, and
associated beliefs. They are grounded, not in utter impotence in the face of organized power,
but in already formed practices of popular resistance, both individual and collective. Contrary
to theories of 'mass society', we need to recognize - and explore concretely - how popular
movements grow out of, and more or less transform, already existing rich and varied forms of
associational life. The phenomena of protest cycles grow out of already existing struggles and
oppositions, around which formal and informal institutions, networks, practices and ideas are
already fully formed and active. Blumer's account is almost innocent of a sense of actual
historical context. If the strength of Blumer's theorizing is a sense of potential 'restructuring' of
social relations, he fails to explore the previous 'structures' - the social relationships, the
institutional arrangements, the thick networks of association - which are remade by collective
action. Movement alter structures, not structurelessness.

90Herbert Blumer, 'Collective behaviour', in Alfred McClung Lee, ed, Principles of Sociology, 3rd edition,
New York: Barnes and Noble, 1969

2. Much the same point must be made in relation to the underdeveloped but fascinating idea in
the later writings of Emile Durkheim, on the theme of 'collective effervescence' as a
characteristic of socially creative moments in history. 91 Space forbids an adequate discussion
of this work, apart from one observation. Durkheim links the creativity of 'collective
effervescence' to periods in which people 'assemble' together more. The difficulty is that he
does not distinguish between 'assembly' and 'assembly'. There is an enormous potential
difference between an 'assembly' - ritual or mundane in purpose, it makes no difference -
organized under ruling-class auspices, and a 'self-assembly' by people for the purpose of
expressing their collective grievances. Sometimes, it is true, the one can turn into the other - a
notable example being the mass rally called by Nicolae Ceauscescu in Bucharest in December
1989! But we need the distinction, which is absent from Durkheim's sociology, if we are to
understand the change from one to the other.
There are, nonetheless, issues which are broached within Durkheimian theory which other
schools of thought tend to ignore, and which play a distinctive part within popular upsurges.
Of particular note is the analysis of the significance of 'ritual', especially once the term has
been separated from its religious roots, and from the holistic assumptions which tend to
pervade the functionalist school of social thought. 92

3. Hardly more helpful is an 'economistic' Marxism, which would 'read off ' popular upsurges
as some kind of unmediated expression of the basic conflicts of class society - or, perhaps
even worse, sometimes deny their potential value on the ground that they do not immediately
represent those conflicts of interest. The strength of Marxism is its powerful theory that a
society based upon exploitation constantly generates oppositional struggles, and indeed that,
potentially, those engaged in those multifarious forms of resistance are capable of finding a
road to challenging the whole structure of class society. However, it needs its own 'political
language'. By way of analogy, the Marxist critique of political economy could not proceed
beyond a certain point until an adequate connection could be posited between the theory
which accounted for the underlying structures of capitalist production - the theory of value
and surplus-value - and the 'surface' phenomena of 'prices' and 'profit, interest and rent'. In
politics, too, Marxism has a conceptual 'transformation problem', by which the categories of
fundamental class struggle can be adequately translated into the immediate categories of
politics and movements. It is not mostly so much a problem of Marxists developing special
categories of their own, as of them so transforming the usage of everyday categories that they
can serve Marxism's theoretical and practical purposes.

4. Theories which rely on data derived from essentially static accounts of social relations and
attitudes - of the kind, for instance, generated by opinion surveys - cannot come near being
able to handle the problems of protest cycles. If their results are always deeply dubious in

91 See Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, London: Allen & Unwin
, 1915, and especially Sociology and Philosophy, London: Cohen and West
, 1965. Mark Traugott explores the contribution that a Durkheimian sociology might make to the study of social
movements, but his conclusions are remarkably thin: '', European Journal of Sociology, ???. More interesting is
David Lockwood, op cit., though he is less concerned with specific questions about actual movements and more
with a possible synthesis of Marxian and Durkheimian insights into social structure in general.
92 See especially Steven Lukes, 'Political ritual and social integration', Sociology, 9, 1975

periods of relative social tranquillity - for reasons to do, for example, with the contradictory
nature of everyday consciousness, the unwillingness of respondents to reveal aspects of their
opinions, and so forth - they certainly cannot catch the nature of a period which is defined,
precisely, by the rapidly changing character of ideas and social identifications. Social surveys
cannot uncover anything much of the inner dialectic of action and thought. It is precisely
through the study of 'events' and 'social dramas', in which precisely what happens is that
situations change, and with them relationships, interpretations and identities, that the changing
salience of ideas can be assessed. Here the analysis of 'utterances' as essentially interactional
events comes into its own as both theory and method. 93

5. In like manner, individualistic and psychologistic accounts of collective action must miss
the mark. For the nature of popular protest is such that it can only be grasped through a sense
of its social, interactional, collective character. Nor is it simply a matter of needing a method
that grasps the changing character of associational ties among 'protestors' themselves, for the
whole process of a 'protest cycle' is shaped equally by the ongoing struggles between them and
their opponents. None of this is to deny the relevance of a 'psychology', but it must be one
whose fundamental models are inherently 'social' in nature.

6. One influential theory in conventional political science, which attempts to deal with the
phenomenon of large-scale popular protest, draws its inspiration from elite theory. One of its
classic texts is Robert Michels' Political Parties. This offers a theory which is truly 'cyclical',
in that its basic account is one where nothing but endless repetition of the same pattern can be
'The democratic currents of history resemble successive waves. They break ever on the
same shoal. They are ever renewed. This enduring spectacle is simultaneously
encouraging and depressing. When democracies have gained a certain stage of
development, they undergo a certain transformation, adopting the aristocratic spirit, and
in many cases also the aristocratic forms, against which at the outset they struggled so
fiercely. Now new accusers arise to denounce the traitors; after an era of glorious
combats and of inglorious power, they end by fusing with the old dominant class;
whereupon once more they are in their turn attacked by fresh opponents who appeal to
the name of democracy. It is probable that this cruel game will continue without end.' 94
The whole structure of Michels' theory is founded upon an undialectical account of a fixed
'human nature', and an openly elitist contempt for the intellectual and practical capacities of
'the mass', who are destined endlessly to be bamboozled by minorities who ride to power on

93 On the advantages of studying 'key junctures in movement development' and 'key organizational situations',
see Hank Johnston and Bert Klandermans, 'The cultural analysis of social movements' In Johnston and
Klandermans, eds, Social Movements and Culture, London: UCL Press, 1995, p 17; also Ellingson, op cit, and
Turner, op cit. On the analysis of speech as interactive event, the whole school of Volosinov and Bakhtin is
immensely relevant, but has been little used, to date, within research on movements. But see eg Chik Collins, 'To
concede or to contest? Language and class struggle' in Colin Barker and Paul Kennedy, eds, To Make Another
World: Studies in Protest and Collective Action, Aldershot: Avebury, 1996
94 Robert Michels, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern
Democracy (1915), translated and edited by Eden & Cedar Paul, New York: Dover Books, 1959, p 408.

their backs. The account is internally contradictory and exceptionally a-historical. It expresses
a mood rather than a consistent theory. 95
To reject Michels' 'metaphysically pathetic' theory is not to deny that the tendencies to
'aristocracy' and 'bureaucracy' within popular movements he describes are unreal. Far from it:
his work would not continue to have the resonance it undoubtedly possesses if such
tendencies did not regularly appear within movements, and if indeed they did not play a
significant part in shaping the pattern of development of protest cycles. But they are also
contestable tendencies, always tending to provoke their opposite. As Alvin Gouldner pointed
out long ago, if there is an 'iron law of oligarchy' it is matched by an equal and opposite 'iron
law of democratization': in short, there are simply two opposing tendencies, and the outcome
of the conflict between them cannot be known in advance. 96 It might also be noted that
Michels drew the data which informs his account from the experience of the parliamentarist
SPD and the right-wing leaderships of the German trade unions. His whole argument would
have been stronger had he cast it, not in the 'universalistic' mode of a general theory of
politics, but if he had titled it 'Reformist Political Parties' - for precisely the practices and
ideas of those parties produced the results from which he generalized, as Luxemburg herself
argued at the time. Nor was there a shortage of other, equally acute critics of the same
tendencies in the workers' movement at the time, on the left.

7. Michels' ideas have a reflex version on the left, in the shape of 'spontaneist' theories of
movements. Rather than dispute Michels' contention that 'he who says organization says
oligarchy', the left spontaneists simply agree - but draw different practical conclusions.
Organization is a conservative impediment to movement success. The only reliable source of
advance is the militant action of a self-steering, spontaneous rank and file, so long that it does
not fall under the malign influence of organizations and leaders. This was a position towards
which both Luxemburg and Trotsky were attracted in the period before 1917, and which led
them to reject Lenin's proposals for revolutionary socialist organization. Such theories appear
influential in the work of such writers as Jeremy Brecher and Piven and Cloward, and of
course in a host of 'anarchist' and 'libertarian' thinkers.
These theorists are in their own, positive fashion as much proponents of a mood as of a
theory as was Michels. Like Blumer, they do not adequately identify the already existing
pattern of organization of social life: the pre-existing networks, relationships and ideas from
which movements arise and through which they are mobilized, and the inner mechanisms by
which they may be both maintained and transformed. And they fail to explore adequately the
simple proposition that, just as 'there is spontaneity and spontaneity', so too there is
organization and organization. The practical risk for the holders of the 'spontaneist' position is
that they end up worshipping defeats, rather than confront the real problems of finding forms
of organization which produce a maximization of political effectiveness and, as a parallel

95 That mood, however, and the ideas associated with it, have a tendency to re-appear in diverse
circumstances, and not least among the intelligentsia. A similar elitism infected the Polish intelligentsia during
and after the Solidarity period: see, for example, Roman Laba's brilliant reconstruction and critique of their
position in The Roots of Solidarity: A Political Sociology of Poland's Working-Class Democratisation, Princeton
University Press, 1991
96 Alvin Gouldner, 'Metaphysical pathos and the theory of bureaucracy,' in Amitai Etzioni, ed., Complex
Organisations: A Sociological Reader, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961

consequence, a resolute combating of tendencies in movements towards bureaucratic

conservatism. This is, of course, a whole other topic. 97

8. Some positions within academic social science theorizing are also incapable of providing
sufficient conceptual tools for the understanding of protest cycles. One of these is Resource
Mobilization theory (RMT). It is to the lasting credit of the theorists of this school that they
insisted on the inherent 'rationality' of protest movements, against the former 'irrationalist'
emphasis. But they did so very one-sidedly. For one thing, RMT's focus of attention is too
microscopic to be able to handle issues to do with mass mobilization and the larger or smaller
transformation of whole systems of political interaction. More seriously, as McAdam charged,
its working assumptions were simply too elitist: its eye fixed firmly on the mobilizing role of
'Social Movement Organizations', and on the role of powerful allies with monetary and
political resources, RMT failed to recognize the significance of self-organization and self-
mobilization by movement adherents. 98 It based its generalizations too easily on a model in
which social movements were not simply compared with but assimilated to interest lobbies. It
offered no means of handling those situations in which large numbers of people were
mobilized into movement involvement through participation in demonstrations, riots and the
like, and through the workings of informal networks. It showed little interest in matters to do
with ideology and culture. And it modeled its account of the motivations of movement
participants on an inappropriate and narrowly economistic 'cost and incentive' nexus, thereby
discounting all other possible accounts of human interest and passion in a narrow and
instrumentalist way. In a sense, Resource Mobilization theorists, in reacting against the over-
affective account of human action within 'collective behaviour' theory, bent the stick too far in
the opposite, 'rationalist' direction. Neither school seems to work with an adequate model of
human interaction and motive.

9. There are a rather different set of problems with the ideas of 'new social movement' (NSM)
theory. To the degree that one can impute a partially unified view to a variety of writers who
broadly fall within this school, their work is presented as a reaction to, and a movement
beyond, the frameworks offered by 'economistic Marxism'. However, it is by no means clear
that they do not replicate the methodological errors of their antagonist. Resting on a decidedly
dubious theory of 'post-industrial' and sometimes 'post-modern' society, they present
contemporary movements as relatively unmediated products of the new patterns of social
relations they claim to identify. What is unclear is how 'new' many of the features of NSMs

97 For the present, I merely note that Gerlach and Hine, who first drew theoretical attention to the 'network'
character of the Black Power movement, claimed that this form was, in and of itself, an unambiguous strength.
Their book was researched in the later 1960s, and published in 1970. Those who know the later fate of the
movement might be less sanguine about their conclusion. Luther P Gerlach and Victoria H Hine, People, Power,
Change: Movements of Social Transformation, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970. On the critique of the
'spontaneist' position, see Chris Harman, 'Party and Class', International Socialism, series 1, 35, winter 1968-69
reprinted in Cliff, Hallas, Harman, Trotsky, Party and Class, London: Pluto Press, nd (1970?)
98 Doug McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1982, especially chapter 2.

that they identify actually are. 99 The literature on NSMs is often very weak in the way it
locates its object of research in historical terms, and tends to be rather uncritical in its
evaluation of the claims made by some movement participants. Insufficient attention is paid to
the elements of conflict and contradiction within contemporary movements, including not
least their own tendencies to produce the familiar features of 'bureaucratic conservatism' and
'reformism'. Claims that these movements are radically 'anti-institutional' have often meant
that too little attention is paid to the actual institutional structure of contemporary societies,
and the ways that institutions actually shape the paths of development of contemporary
movements themselves, and not least how those institutions shape the turning of structural
potentials into actual collective action. Being prone to declare the 'death' or diminution of 'old'
social movements, especially those based on the working class, 'NSM' theorists tend to
celebrate rather than critique the narrow social basis and relatively low mobilization potential
of the 'new' movements, and their practical elitism. What they do not adequately consider is
that the movements they investigate may themselves be situated historically, not so much as
phenomena of a new alternative, but rather of a larger 'downturn' in wider popular protest.
And that this 'downturn' may be the product, not of some irreversible shift from an 'industrial'
to a 'post-industrial' (or 'modern' to 'post-modern') society, but rather of a more conjunctural,
and essentially political and highly reversible set of factors. Those who proclaim, on the basis
of a few impressionistic surface analyses, the 'death of class' and the 'need for a new agenda'
have been heard before, from the 'revisionists' of the turn of the century to the
'embourgeoisement' thinkers of the 1950s and early 1960s. There is insufficient attention to
the actual workings of the movements themselves, and to the strategic and tactical problems
that they experience.
What some of the thinkers associated with 'NSM' theory have contributed, of a more
positive character, has been a new stress on issues to do with 'identity' and the like. The
mistake they - or some of their uncritical readers - have made is to imagine that, in finding
new questions to ask about social movements, they have identified something actually new in
the real world. There seems to be a besetting tendency for sociologists to assume that, when
they have discovered something new, the world itself has changed. 100

10. One group of theorists whose work is not very fashionable these days might seem to offer
relevant approaches to the study of protest cycles: the 'natural history of revolution' school,
whose best-known representative is probably Crane Brinton. 101 Taking the events of the
French Revolution as a model, Brinton - like others in this school - suggests that events follow
a distinct sequence, whose pattern and logic he then seeks to trace, and to apply to all
revolutions. The difficulty with the scheme is simple: it does not allow for variation, and ends
up, rather like Michels' theory, proposing an endlessly repeated cycle of the same. When

99 There is a very useful and sharply pointed critique of many of these assumptions of novelty in Craig
Calhoun, '"New Social Movements" of the Early Nineteenth Century', Social Science History, 17.3, Fall 1993, pp
100 In the early 1960s, sociologists discovered that workers had an 'instrumentalist' attitude to their
employment, and began seriously discussing the emergence of a 'new working class', no longer shaped by the
older 'solidaristic collectivism'. The possibility that 'instrumental' attitudes might have helped shape earlier
working-class practices and culture seems not to have occurred to them: the London dockers in the 1880s, after
all, unionized around the demand for a 'tanner' rather than for 'communal sociability'!
101 Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution, revised edition, New York: Vintage, 1965

applied to the actual history of revolutions, it fails. The 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe, or
the anti-Apartheid revolution in South Africa, for example, can only be mapped onto the
proposed sequence by distorting their history enormously. It is not that the notion of
'sequences' of events is wrong: the flaw is the attempt to make them fixed. We need a
different, and more open notion of 'sequencing', which allows for variation and innovation,
and indeed for the role of human learning from previous experience.
Brinton's essential error, perhaps, was that of over-generalization from a single case or a
small number of cases. Writers who are, mostly, not prone to this fault do sometimes fall into
it. Thus Tarrow at one point offers a general account of 'cycles of protest' which seems to fall
precisely into the same trap:
Protest cycles occur both when structural cleavages are deep and visible, and when
opportunities for mass protest are opened up by the political system. They begin within
institutions through organized forms of collective action. From there they proceed to an
intensive peak of mobilization and challenge. It is the latter which provides the models
of disruption, the personnel, the issues, and the interpretative frames of meaning for an
increase in more conventional protest within the polity. For most people the spread of
protest takes increasingly more conventional forms, while a few - social movement
organizers - try to radicalize it into a general assault on the system. The cycle declines
through a symbiotic combination of violence and institutionalization. 102
Simply, that is, firstly, modeled too closely on Tarrow's interpretation of relevant events in
Italy in the 1960s and 1970s (the main subject of his book), and secondly, framed very badly if
it is intended to account of the development of other event-sequences that Tarrow himself
would include under the 'protest cycle' rubric - for example, the 1989 revolutions.

11. One last tendency requires some comment. A number of both 'structuralist' and 'political
process' writers on comparative revolution have proved quite adept at distinguishing, and
accounting for, the conditions which produce revolutionary situations (and we might add,
'cycles of protest'), and also at suggesting concepts for evaluating and analyzing the various
outcomes of revolutionary outbreaks. But they are curiously silent about the actual social and
political processes that go on within revolutionary situations. Their structuralist categories
prove insufficient for handling the rapidly changing, almost kaleidoscopic shifts in
organization, action, relationship, language, identity and the like which occur in the mid-flow
of dramatic political encounters and struggles. One consequence is a tendency apparent among
many of them to miss the possibility of analyzing the key sources of actual difference in
revolutions, and indeed to fall back onto old nostrums and generalizations about the
'inevitable' results of revolution - results they always tend to view with a certain world-weary
and slightly detachment, whose implications are conservative - sometimes despite their own
intentions. 103

102Sidney Tarrow, Democracy and Disorder, 13-14

103 See for example Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution; Theda Skocpol, States and Social
Revolutions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979 and Social Revolutions in the Modern World,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994; Rod Aya, Rethinking Revolutions...