Sunday, May 1, 2011

Mass Movements: How they begin and how they must be ended.

In the concluding part of our series on mass movements, we shall discuss how they begin and how they must be ended in order to achieve a long lasting change in the society. The first part of the series is here.

For these movements to arise, Hoffer [1] describes in "the true believer" that it is essential that the prevailing order is thoroughly discredited. For this this happen, not only should there be blunders and abuses of power by the rulers, but a sufficient articulation of these by men of words. Until these people come about, or until they have a grievance, the prevailing order will continue until it falls by itself or is felled by a neighboring country. To capture the attention of the men of words is so important, that even after the mass movement is successful, these men need to be glued to the cause. Their disgruntled can sweep the young turks from power. Examples for this kind include the stability of Imperial China where an alliance between bureaucracy and the literati was important. The Taiping rebellion then was started by a failed scholar. A similar case existed in the partnership of the Roman Empire and the Greek men of words, and a similar case exists in India, between the Congress party and its journos. We also have our disgruntled men of words at the moment, but it seems they are waiting for their numbers to grow.

The next step of manning the movement is to be done by the fanatics. One might ask why should the men of words precede the fanatics? This is because a fanatic usually shows a virulent extremism for his cause which acts as a culture shock to the prevailing populace. They would rather listen to a man of words. This man would then introduce the people to the new ideas in a piecemeal fashion. Moreover, the authorities are less likely in most cases to muzzle him. In the long run, such men can undermine the people's faith in an existing order and pave way for the fanatics.

The fanatics then move in at the ripest moment. With utter ruthlessness, they will go about tearing the old system to shreds. The words of the litterateurs are now adapted while the men themselves are shoved aside, and the movement is hijacked by them. Where the mass movement is a mild affair in the hands of the litterateurs, who only try to reform the present, the fanatics now wage an all out war on the present. Usually, these fanatics, who themselves are failed men of words come out only when the struggle with an existing order becomes a protracted one.

This is the most dangerous phase of a mass movement. The fanatic doesn't rest once victory has been won, but seeks newer extremes and if an enemy outside the movement cannot be found, this will lead to factionalism. The victories thus won against the old order may soon be lost. This is where the men of action must step in and succeed the fanatic, thus helping to stabilize the movement and freeze its victories. A successful mass movement must have three distinct type of individuals at the outset. It could also be possible for one person to change his outlook, but such changes have mostly been found to be temporary. Once power is won by the fanatics, these practical men stop the conflict with the present and preserve the power won by the movement. The vigor of the movement is to be sapped at this moment and used to form institutions to serve the people. Whereas during the reign of fanatics, devotion to the cause is prized, during the reign of the men of action, duty to the institution is to be given more importance. All this has to be done initially using vocabulary from the days of the fanatics, so as to not disrupt abruptly the continuity from the earlier era.

For a mass movement to be successful, there is the inevitability of the unpleasantness (if not evil) of the active phase of the movement (the phase wherein the movement sets out to acquire power). This is where the fanatic rules supreme. He appears ruthless, self-righteous, credulous, disputatious, petty and rude and often sacrifices or makes one sacrifice much that is dear to oneself in the present. For a mass movement with a worthy cause, it is essential that this phase ends as soon as possible. Nationalist mass movements that have been successful, such as the French and American Revolutions, have had active phases which were relatively short. In the case of India, the failures of the Congress party might be attributed to its not being dissolved once India was liberated from the yoke of the British rule. With the termination of the active phase, the individual is released from a collective discipline. This causes a burst in creativity [2], which was earlier strangled under the fervor of the active phase of the movement.

To terminate the active phase of the movement, firstly, its aim must be concrete rather than be uncertain. As Oliver Cromwell said, "A man never goes so far as when he does not know whither he is going." Usually, this concreteness is delivered by identifying the enemy to be overthrown, and once that is done, starting the reorganization process. Hoffer also recommends a homogeneous population to be essential for an early termination of a mass movement, however, it seems to me that a perception of homogeneity is more essential. Another factor that might lead to such early terminations of mass movements is the degree of submissiveness of the people. A more submissive a culture, the longer the active phase of movements.

Summary: To summarize, a successful mass movement in the Indic context must have the following features at the very beginning of it.

1) A concrete definition of what it is going to deliver.

2) Presence of all three groups of people, viz: the men of words, fanatics and the practical men of action.

3) Propaganda and dissemination of information must first be started by the men of words, followed by action taken up by the fanatics and they in turn should be suceeded by the men of action.

4) A perception of unity of people is a must. Any attempts to thwart this perception need to be defended with utmost vigor.

5) The active phase of the movement must be terminated immediately after acquiring power. Such maturity ends collectivism, revives individualism in the people, and the resulting creativity might even lead to rapid progress in the society.

6) The people should be made rebellious enough about their individualism so that they themselves would not allow the active phase of the mass movement to continue beyond acquisition of its aims.

7) Lastly, if there is any possibility of the mass movement failing, it needs to be disrupted before it takes off. This is because this will create a tendency of having repeated mass movements without sufficient thought to it. People generally do not like getting drawn into such repeated struggles, and finally when the moment is ripe, they would not be willing to sacrifice for the movement, knowing that it too will fail like the ones preceding it.


[1] Eric Hoffer: The true believer

[2] Careers of Milton, Bunyan, Koestler and Silone.

[3] Quoted by J. A. Cramb, "The Origins and Destiny of Imperial Britain" (London: John Murray, 1915), p. 216.