A Model of Social Movements and Change
Saturday, January 1, 2000 at 10:00AM
Tom Hayden

Social change results from the clashes and accommodations between two contending forces, social movements and Machiavellians (or power elites). In the case of American history, reform is the perennial result, as opposed to either full repression or revolution.

The Model


All social movements arise unexpectedly from the margins, which can be defined culturally, racially, economically or politically. Rarely, if ever, are they predicted in advance. They are preceded by precursors, like the first tremors of an earthquake. The way may be prepared by organizers, but they are not led by organizers in the beginning. Prior to the movement arising, the Machiavellians have either full hegemony or a police state.

Prophetic minorities provide the first leadership.

Meaningful Message

The message expresses a combination of material grievance and moral injury. It seems marginal at first, but actually is rooted in the memories of past social movement accomplishments or universal longings. 

Moments of Trial

First, After being ignored, a new movement is met with the full force of police power and/or an effort to discredit its message, methods and leaders. If the message resonates, and if the general public reacts negatively to the efforts at suppression, the movement survives and begins to expand.

Communities of Meaning

The movement provides its adherents an alternative identity, a sense of solidarity and personal growth, and ritual forms, which create a sustainable community (music, art, poetry, consciousness-raising groups, etc.).

Mainstream Recognition

When the movement begins to obtain support for its original goals and an increased sympathetic tolerance from the public, it has reached the mainstream. It now becomes more difficult to ignore or suppress.

Moderates and Militants

At this point, both the movement and the elites begin to differentiate within themselves between more moderate and/or pragmatic and more militant and/or radical factions. The moderates want to work within the system to achieve the original goals, while the militants begin to want to challenge the system itself. On the Machiavellian side, the moderates want to make concessions to the movement, if only to maintain order and avoid a more radical turn of events, while the militants want to crush the movement in its tracks because they fear it will spread and threaten core interests.


At a certain point, a majority supports the movement’s original goal. It may take a long time, but now the movement is in a winning mode instead of a marginal one.

Machiavellian Politics

The 16th century Italian author of The Prince, Nicolo Machiavelli, introduced a morality in which winning and preserving power is the goal, justifying any means. Political leaders approach rising movements in three possible ways, all based on protecting power:

  1. Antagonistically;
  2. Supportively;
  3. Cooptation.

Movements cannot avoid an engagement with politics. Some believe that when a successful movement establishes itself, its organizational leadership begins to practice a Machiavellian approach too.

Majority Reform

After a long struggle, the movement wins its original demand. Success results from a convergence between the interests of both the movement and Machiavellian moderates. The militants on both sides are dissatisfied.


As the movement approaches victory, a counter-movement grows in response, becoming ever more intense because of the perception of loss, be it of of power, wealth, status, etc. Another term for counter-movement is backlash. At its most extreme, the counter-movement reverses the reform itself, defeats the reformers politically, overthrows the government, or fosters the conditions for an assassination. Much more often, the counter-movement turns to indirect means to contain, hollow out, or defund the achievement of reform. In its sense of defeat, the counter-movement becomes more intense than the movement with its experience of victory.

  1. The movement is divided and de-mobilized after winning;
  2. The counter-movement succeeds in weakening the reform as long it does not appear to threaten the reform itself;
  3. When the counter-movement goes too far, it re-awakens the movement.


The movement ends where it began, in a battle over memory (memorials, monuments and museums). There are three scenarios in this battle:

  1. Movements want to preserve and pass along their legacy;
  2. Counter-movements want to eliminate or discredit the memory to avoid further empowering future generations;
  3. Mainstream Machiavellians wish to manipulate and co-opt memory in order to facilitate and serve power.

Further Definitions

  1. It creates a new opening or space in the institutional order;
  2. It empowers a group which previously was excluded or treated as second class;
  3. It redistributes power and material benefits/resources. Whether the reform is radical or substantial is a matter of degree.

For more, please see Hayden, Tom. The Long Sixties, pp. 2-20; charts on pp. 263-4.

Article originally appeared on tomhayden.com (http://tomhayden.com/).
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