Over the years, all of us on the Left have been engaged in a wide variety of mass movements —antiwar, labor, environmental, civil rights, women’s and gender rights, and more. Likewise, we have all taken part in public campaigns of various sorts, especially in the electoral arena—sometimes as organizers, other times as voters or endorsers at the grassroots, and still other times in large antiwar demonstrations, whether centered in one or two large cities, or held in cities, towns, and campuses across the country on a single day.
We know movements and campaigns are interconnected, often in profound ways. But for the moment, let’s look at how they differ at the extremes. Movements, first of all, reside on the ground of longstanding injustices—enslaved people held in bondage, women denied agency and autonomy against patriarchy, workers stressed to the point of exhaustion and cruelty to their families, peasants and farmers pressed to produce over their ability to reproduce, and many more. These can simmer for long periods, mainly outside the realm of public discourse.
But at specific points, activating events take place. They can come from above, inflicted by the upper classes or their agents. The killing of George Floyd is a recent case in point. There was little unusual about his killing. Such killings have happened many times in poor communities of color. When everyone got up that morning, no one imagined what they would see by evening. Within a week, we saw the largest multi-racial uprising against police violence and white supremacy in our history. Not all risings succeed in precisely this way. At times, an activating event can light the sky momentarily, then sputter out quickly, divided from within, or nipped in the bud from without.
Whether ripe or green, the activating event usually starts from below and spreads via the mass media of the day. Four young African American students in 1960 sat in at a Greensboro, NC, Woolworth’s counter insisting on service that crossed the color line. They were tormented for days, but national TV coverage spread the word from one college town to another. To use Mao Zedong’s apt phrase, “a single spark can start a prairie fire.” The perverse frat boy attacks on the nonviolent Greensboro students and the videotaped suffocating death of George Floyd launched wave after wave of angry protests.
What immediately follows such trigger events is mainly unexpected, at least in scope: the birthing of a mass movement as an elemental rising, an event that no one had planned ahead or expected to break out on that day. Mass movements tend to be less hierarchical and more decentralized in their organizational structure. They may involve a wide array of individuals, groups, and organizations with varying levels of coordination. Therein resides one significant difference between mass social movements and political campaigns.
Campaigns are planned and organized well in advance, often meticulously, and at some expense. On one hand, the work of campaigns steadily proceeds over weeks, months, and years. On the other hand, movements as elemental risings pass through several phases or tendencies. On the upswing, we see the coalescence of groups, coalitions, and networks, then bureaucratization, as they become well-funded and “professional.” At the peak, they face partial achievements of victory or the danger of co-optation.
In their most advanced cases—the Reconstruction governments in the South of the 1870s, the Paris Commune, the Russian ‘soviets’ of 1905 and 1917, the Italian factory councils of 1919, the Flint, Michigan sit-down strikes of 1937, and more—these risings portended the future of a new order as well as a radical rupture and protest against the old. Nonetheless, the upheavals still peaked and slid into decline. The reason? Elemental risings operate as waves, first flowing, then cresting, then ebbing—at least until the cycle returns and the wave flows and rises again.
Unlike mass movements, campaigns are rarely spontaneous. A campaign is a focused and specific effort to achieve a particular objective. Campaigns are generally more targeted and may involve a narrower group of participants compared to mass movements. They are planned by an often-militant minority with a variety of means to mobilize a more significant progressive majority or near-majority to win a strike, an election, or other change in the legal and social order. They start with organization, first with an inner core, then adding an array of instruments: media and publicity, petitions, outreach, fundraising, recruitment of additional staff, divisions of labor, deployment of volunteers, and coalition-building with allies. They can grow in scope from one area or region to reach across a country or even the globe. But they can also end abruptly when they win an objective or lose their funding.
As noted, campaigns are best developed within movements. But if we just say, “We have to build a movement” to define our task ahead, we are missing something essential. Lacking major sources of big money or established incumbencies, the working class and the oppressed require organization as their primary weapon. We can indeed “fan the flames,” which, to some degree, can prolong or spread a movement. But it is primarily by building campaigns that we construct the organizations that can ride past the rise and fall of one mass upsurge and reconnect it with the next wave to rise.
We need to not just win redistributive reforms or end a war. We need to alter relations of power and governance so our organizations grow stronger with each wave and eventually gain the ability to take power altogether. Even more so, we will need ‘organizations of a special type’ that will help usher in a new order and defend it against those who would undermine or sabotage it, taking us backward.
One great danger on the Left has historically been “voluntarism.” Voluntarism is a tendency to believe “…if there is a will, there is a way” and ignore anything approaching a concrete analysis of current conditions, including resources and the state of activity. There are moments when, in a given situation, the “…wood is too wet” to light into flames. In other words, the conditions for either a campaign OR a movement do not exist. This means that leftists must pay attention to what is happening among the people and not assume that their own actions can substitute for the actions of the real leaders of various constituencies.
What do we mean by “real leaders?” This is not a moral or moralistic category. “Real leaders” refers to individuals who have actual followings, irrespective of whether they think of themselves as leaders or have a title. “Real leaders” within the working class and within progressive social movements may be activists. Or they may be those to whom people go for advice. It is the real leaders that become critical in understanding whether the conditions are ripe for enhancing the development of a movement because they—the real leaders or the leaders with a small “l”—will be central to any sort of eruption.
Campaigns can help ignite movements
Campaigns do not operate in a vacuum, nor are they irrelevant in helping to spark a movement and/or contributing to the development of a movement. The “Double V” effort during World War II (Victory over Fascism abroad; Victory over Jim Crow at home!) combined a campaign and a budding movement. It was primarily advanced by Black newspapers and caught on like wildfire. It contributed toward developing the Black Freedom struggle’s Civil Rights phase, which would emerge in the next decade. Something similar could probably be said about the “March on Washington Movement” initiated by A. Phillip Randolph in 1941, i.e., it was a campaign that morphed, then stalled, but still contributed to the evolution of the Black Freedom struggle.
The anti-apartheid support movement in the U.S. had gone through ups and downs since the late 1940s (when apartheid was introduced in South Africa). Throughout that period, there were specific campaigns, e.g., calling for various US-based corporations to cease doing business with South Africa. There were times when there was the gelling of a movement, e.g., after the 1964 SDS sit-ins at Chase Manhattan Bank, noting the fifth anniversary of the Sharpsville massacre, and after the 1984 sit-ins at the South African embassy in Washington, DC.
Social movements will emerge; we just cannot predict when
Due to the reality of capitalism and oppression, we know that progressive social movements shall arise and/or become reinvigorated. History demonstrates this time and again. What cannot be predicted is when. As noted above, there have been countless examples of police killings over the decades. There was no particular reason to believe that the murder of George Floyd would ignite the movement we witnessed. To understand why it happened, we must always factor in the totality of the moment or, to borrow from the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, recognize that the moment is overdetermined. There is no linear situation. Thus, the murder of George Floyd was taking place at the tail-end of the Trump administration, at a moment when the COVID-19 pandemic was also ravaging the country (and the world), and during warm weather as well. Each of these, more than likely, contributed to the type of explosion that we witnessed in 2020.
Therefore, sitting around attempting to predict the next upsurge or a new social movement is academic and wasteful. What is essential is being organizationally positioned to engage the moment. Among other things, this means ensuring that organized leftists are deeply rooted in progressive struggles such that they can unite with the ‘leaders-with-a-small-“l”‘ among the masses to not only advance a movement or upsurge, but also work to consolidate victories. Indeed, one of the key negative lessons from the 2020 George Floyd upsurge is that the absence of substantial degrees of organization in the midst of an upsurge opens the gate for the Right to counterattack when the progressive social movement or rising declines. And, in the absence of organization, the oppressed have nothing with which to advance much of a defense.
In summary, mass movements and campaigns both involve organized collective action, but they differ in terms of scale, duration, goals, organization, tactics, and impact. Mass movements aim for broader societal change, while campaigns focus on achieving specific objectives within a defined timeframe. But beware of all simplistic calls that our urgent task is to ‘build a movement.’ That alone will get us swallowed in a swamp of spontaneity. We need organization at every level—community and labor, electoral or single issue, and never forget socialist organization. It is the one guided by a North Star that will guide us into a New World.
Featured image: 1963 March on Washington. Labor leader A. Phillip Randolph initiated the campaign for a March on Washington in 1941. It “morphed, then stalled, but still contributed to the evolution of the Black Freedom struggle.”