Social Movements as a Phase in the Life-Cycle of a Collaborative Project: A Cultural-Historical Approach

Presentation at the International Social Movements Conference, 7-9th June 2021

Andy Blunden & John Krinsky

Metaphors do a lot of theoretical heavy-lifting. The study of social movements is replete with concept-metaphors, and these metaphors are centrally important in structuring fundamental views of social movements. From “industries” to “cycles,” “frames,” and “repertoires,” we cobble together an understanding of how social movements work and why they matter. And yet, metaphors have their limits and these limits are consequential. Partly because metaphors carry with them other features and connotations that may not have been fully intended when proposed, and partly because metaphors speak to certain aspects of a phenomenon but leave others un-theorized, they can be more or less useful, more or less misleading.

Many scholars have, of course, written about metaphors in the social sciences, and it is not the aim of this paper to meditate on this issue for too long, at least not in general terms. More fundamentally, the paper argues that a key metaphor in the study of movements, namely waves of protest, tends to obscure movements’ historical significance, and that a different one, applied to a more general phenomenon than movements themselves, may, in fact, yield a more political understanding of movements’ significance. Building at once on Hegel, Marxist scholarship on movements, and Cultural Historical Activity Theory, a school of Soviet psychology based the work of L.S. Vygotsky, we posit that the concept of a “collaborative project”: an aggregate of actions by numerous individuals, oriented to a common object, is the larger phenomenon of which movements are only one part. Collaborative projects have life-cycles-unlike human life-cycles, and different from social movement waves or cycles-and campaigns and social movements are phases or aspects of these projects’ life-cycles.

Of course, a “life-cycle” is another metaphor, but because a life-cycle usually is applied at a species level-the life-cycle of cicadas, for example, being a particularly apt one for the United States this year-it suggests that multiple organisms and multiple generations are involved, such that the demise of any particular organism or set of organisms will set the terms for its successors. This is even more the case if we consider a species, like our own, that makes significant changes to the environment in which successive generations arise. As we will show, the “life-cycle” we propose is less metaphor than a logic.

Movement Waves

The concept-metaphor of a wave or waves is a venerable one in the study of movements. Waves have several things going for them that are attractive for social movement studies. They rise, seemingly out of nowhere, grow in volume and strength, bringing more water (and all manner of other things) with them, crest, crash, and deposit some kind of “residue of reform” on the apparently solid land on which they end. Soon enough, another wave arises, and the process repeats itself.

The morphology and temporality of waves work as a metaphor precisely because of their predictability and familiarity.

At the same time, as Colin Barker pointed out, there are several potential problems with the metaphor. He pointed to Roberto Michels’ use of the metaphor in Michels’ assessment of democratic social movements in Political Parties. There, Michels argues that

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 gradual 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 turn attacked by fresh opponents who appeal to the name of democracy. It is probable that this cruel game will continue without end.

This view is, of course, one that feeds and is fed by Michels’ “Iron Law of Oligarchy,” the apparent solidity of which depends on an unforgiving structuralism. There is no meaningful agency. There are no choices to make, and successive generations simply choose the same things and are fated to the same ruin, compromise, and role-reversals as the last.

Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s views, certainly better known than Michels’ among activists, echo Michels’ for the most part, though from the Left. But unlike Michels, who saw mass organization as critical for building working-class power-although it inevitably undermined it-Piven and Cloward begin with Michels’ understanding of the contradictions of organization and counsel not organizing, and rather using the lack of cohesive organization to prolong protest and disruption as long as possible. For them, a “wave” of protest lasts simply as long as it can: until repressive reaction forces it back, or until sufficient concessions to buy off sections of the working class are made by the ruling class-usually to be rolled back later on.

Alternatively, there are conceptions of movement waves that, while generally conforming to Piven and Cloward’s general understanding of the end of waves in concession and repression, highlight the dynamics of waves’ growth and their influence on the movement currents that compose them. Here, waves are composed of initiator movements that inspire others, leading to increased numbers of protest events, people involved, organizations founded, and/or new additions to contentious repertoires, and organizational and discursive practices.

Even here, however, the view of movement dynamics is morphologically and temporally restricted, and is so, in part due to the influence of political models that take for granted at least some openness to movements, i.e., to what Tilly has called the “social movement repertoire” as a whole: a set of protest performances that are generally indirect in the sense that they demand the action of others to accomplish their claims, and are principally organized around collective claim-making rather than the taking of power-either in terms of occupying space in defiance of authorities or exercising a legitimate claim to coercion or both-or in terms of creating parallel institutions that meet the social needs defined by protesters. As a result, even where there is a great deal of variation in what analysts (lay or academic) who discuss waves actually count-events, organizations, people involved, geographic areas spanned-there is no widespread acknowledgement that this might matter. Moreover, neither is there widespread acknowledgement that various non-repertorial movement performances might involve quite different temporal morphologies.

At the same time, there is an important understanding of structural contradiction-or presence of contradictory tendencies and elements-that is often missing from the more “agentic” understandings of “dilemmas”; while the latter don’t treat of waves, they have become an important alternative lens for the study of movements. In other words, what is still somewhat attractive about the “wave” metaphor is that-at least in its most rigid, and arguably politically worst guise-it requires that there be some defining internal tension within the movement and some defining tension between the movement and the broader social structure that drives the movement to move. And yet, limited by the metaphor of the wave, we are analytically restricted from seeing that this movement might actually lead anywhere.

The result for the analyst is a bit like Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino’s introspective, analytical, and ultimately rather ineffectual character. The eponymous book opens with Mr. Palomar “in his desire to avoid vague sensations [and to establish] for his every action a limited and precise object” trying to observe a single wave on the beach.

Mr. Palomar sees a wave rise in the distance, grow, approach, change form and color, fold over itself, break, vanish, and flow again. At this point he could convince himself that he has concluded the operation he had set out to achieve, and he could go away. But isolating one wave is not easy, separating it from the wave immediately following, which seems to push it and at times overtakes it and sweeps it away; and it is no easier to separate that one wave from the preceding wave, which seems to drag it toward the shore, unless it turns against the following wave, as if to arrest it, Then, if you consider the breadth of the wave, parallel to the shore, it is hard to decide where the advancing front extends regularly and where it is separated and segmented into independent waves, distinguished by their speed, shape, force, direction.

In other words, you cannot observe a wave without bearing in mind the complex features that concur in shaping it and the other, equally complex ones that the wave itself originates.

Ultimately, as with many efforts to precisely define our objects of study, Mr. Palomar essentially gives up: “It would suffice not to lose patience, as he soon does. Mr. Palomar goes off along the beach, tense and nervous as when he came, and even more unsure about everything.” Indeed, the metaphor of social movement waves is nearly never so complex as the actual phenomenon it employs. Were it so, it might be too weighty to use as a metaphor. But because it’s not, it means that the metaphor obscures at least as much as it elucidates. Specifically, it hides the fact that when the wave ebbs, this may be just when the real work of movements begins.

Collaborative Projects

It might be better, therefore, to speak more plainly. But to do so, we will begin somewhere else, not with a social movement, but with the more general phenomenon of which a movement is one moment or phase.

Blunden’s proposal of the concept of the “collaborative project” (2014) is a promising place to start looking for an alternative to a discussion of waves. Importantly, a collaborative project, as general and anodyne as it may seem at first, is not just an ad hoc concept. Instead, it has roots in the human sciences going back at least to Hegel, and significant expressions in the pragmatist tradition of John Dewey and in the Soviet tradition of Cultural Historical psychological theory (both of which have had recent applications to social movement studies). The concept of the “collaborative project” is one that helps to span micro-, meso-, and macro- levels of analysis-so that we need not hypostatize any of them-and suggests both development or change on one hand, and an indeterminate temporal scope.

Collaborative projects have objects that both define the projects and are constantly refined and redefined in the process of the collective’s activity, constitution, and reconstitution. As such, both projects and objects are dialectically interpenetrated. They are concepts in the Hegelian sense, i.e., forms of activity or practices, rather than mental constructs conforming to subjective and objective elements of action. The various elements of a project interact in ways that are frequently contradictory, so that the realization of the concept is incomplete until such time as all the contradictions are resolved. It is because of this that projects are so temporally indeterminate.

Collaborative projects are the basis upon which groups of people build collective, local rationalities and structures of feeling. But people may also be involved in many collaborative projects at once, projects whose development leads to collective subjectification on a number of different bases, depending on the way in which activity is organized and its inherited language. Cox and Nilsen (2013) discuss social movements from below as a process that builds from “local rationalities” to “militant particularisms” as new projects develop in opposition to dominant others, and into “campaigns” as projects of struggle become united across time and space. They reserve the term “social movement project” for situations in which multiple campaigns come together in a common, collaborative process of radical subjectification, as, when in the 1960s, people spoke of “the movement” rather than this or that movement. Barker, separately, recalls this as Marx’s understanding of “the social movement in general.”

Considered in this way, what might look like growth in a “wave” could be understood as a successive process of collective articulation of a common project, often, where the accomplishment of simpler projects lay the groundwork for more complex and more general ones. Of course, the cohesiveness of a given project depends on some level of shared meaning, and this can become more or less subject to centripetal or centrifugal forces. As Vygotsky, the progenitor of Cultural-Historical psychology, argued, “meaning” is shared artifact-mediated action, the significance of which is that (1) meaning is not reducible to mental images; (2) meaning is inherently intersubjective; and (3) language is just the most flexible of any of the possible shared artifacts, and it and other artifacts may be subject to disorganization by the project’s opponents, but also subject to contradictory uses from within the project itself. Nevertheless, there is no warrant to suggest that a project disappears once a “movement” is disorganized or defeated; indeed, the experience or disorganization becomes the grounds upon which the collaborative project reorganizes and proceeds.

In what follows, we will outline the idea of “life-cycles” of collaborative projects in order to show more clearly how they offer a long view of social change, in which what are currently called “social movements” are but one phase. We rely primarily on Hegel’s outline of the life-cycle of forms of practice (in his idealist language, “concepts”) in large measure because it provides a clear guide to the kinds of phases of development that will be familiar to students of social movements, on one hand, and, on the other, because it also comports with recent efforts to apply theories of learning and development to social movement studies. That movements develop through processes of collective learning, internal debate, coalition and splits, is a key problem that the metaphor of “waves” can only handle very clumsily. The life-cycle we describe, therefore, is one that is less linear, even less sequentially cyclical than the name suggests. But in thinking about phases of collaborative projects, we hope to evoke just these processes of learning and development. If we stretch the metaphor a little, we can think about phases of life such as infancy, early childhood, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, older adulthood, etc., such that sometimes, in the face of some new problem or some old trauma, we must relearn how to move in the world, even sometimes to the point of reassessing what we thought of as ourselves.

Life-Cycles of Collaborative Projects

In his Logic, Hegel outlined the life-cycle of a concept. A “concept” is a form of social practice, or a project, not, again, a sui generis mental representation. Even to become a durable form of social practice, it must both be reproduced and change, and this interplay can be conceptualized in terms of the life-cycle of a project. This life-cycle begins within a social formation with the emergence of a new form of social practice, and ends with a changed social formation, which has been transformed by that practice.

Here is where Tilly’s historical account of social movements is both perhaps most apposite and most interesting: he argues that the social movement as a new form of social practice emerged sometime in the middle of the 19th century as a reorganization, recontextualization and reanimation of other familiar performances (e.g., religious processions, petitions, etc.) wedded to new kinds of claims, both particular and general (e.g., “freedom”). As a form of social practice, social movements depend on an even more encompassing collaborative project-democratic governance-and may disappear where the project of democratic rule ends.

As a form of social practice, revolution is also born in the same crucible. As Sewell has shown, the concept of “revolution” took shape in the immediate aftermath of the storming of the Bastille, and carries with it a range of associated practices-including violence-that sets it apart from most accounts of social movements.

And yet, these are essentially formal distinctions separating social practices that are often deeply intertwined-so much so that it may be difficult to untangle them in their content. So while “movement” and “revolution” are simply two concepts among others within the language and culture of a larger social formation (modern politics) and the traces of its historical origins, it is important, too, to understand the larger social formation(s) in which they emerge, persist, and change.

The Social Formation

A frequent criticism of social movement studies is that, as a field, it tends to get so caught up in the internal dynamics of movements-and, frankly, their romance, compared to “normal” politics-that they assign more importance to movements in making change than they are necessarily due. In some measure, of course, this criticism sticks. But it does so because, as Goodwin and Hetland (2013) point out, the field as a whole fled from theorizing movements as being within the larger formation of capitalism, which now dominates much of the world.

This isn’t to say that capitalism is the only thing that matters. It’s rather to say that we cannot understand the significance of movements without understanding their relation to capitalism, something that seemed to be better understood at the beginning of the contemporary period of social movement studies than it is now. For Marxists-and for Hegel, on whose work Marx, of course, built-it is crucial to acknowledge the larger formation, the totality, in order to understand the relation of the parts (e.g., social movements, NGOs, political parties, think tanks, foundations, labor unions, etc.) to each other and to the past, present, and future.

Critically, too, a totality is not a smooth structure, operating without friction, determining everything that goes on within it. Instead, as the sum of all relations past, present, and future, it contains contradiction and conflict. Bertell Ollman (2005) therefore understands dialectics as a “philosophy of internal relations” because any examination of relations is internal to the totality and therefore implies several things: (1) a totality is dynamic, always pushed by its internal contradictions; (2) a totality-and any social formation within it-is an aggregate of all of the collaborative projects that formed it and which continue to reform it; (3) any analysis must abstract from the totality with respect to both time and space; (4) as a totality is always in a state of becoming, the “whole” at any given moment is never realized, never whole.

This is particularly important respect to social movements. It suggests that approaches to movements that seek to build up from microfoundations-whether rational actors, or culturally infused “players” in “arenas” facing “dilemmas"-will necessarily miss a great deal of the significance of movements because they will restrict themselves to abstractions that are too short-term and too local, and hypostatize those abstractions as the only “real” ones. A microfoundational view is, ultimately, also compatible with the “wave” metaphor, in part because one way the wave metaphor works is by simple aggregation of already-accomplished “things” that can be counted-i.e. protests, people, organizations, innovations-rather than processes. Uses of the wave metaphor in social movement studies tend to stop at Mr. Palomar’s first observation and not even linger on the beach to the point of frustration.

Further, by starting with a totality and acknowledging the act of abstraction and taking the collaborative project as a unit of analysis, this approach produces a more consistent theory of social change across scales and levels of abstraction. Each part of a totality that changes can be understood as doing so based on changes in another part that is analytically more capacious. Social movements arise as a result of contradictions in a larger social formation and produce changes in that formation by means of material and cultural artifacts already available within it. Similarly, cognitive development occurs through the confrontation of contradictions in larger social formations, too, and as we will see, the processes of internal and external development of a project can be understood to apply more broadly. Social movements provide a special case because they occur at a scale capable of changing larger social formations and relations in ways that individual actions generally cannot.

The first phase of a project –a non-movement

What this all means for understanding collaborative projects is that we should begin, first, with a social formation; it could be the totality of relations, but it probably isn’t. It is probably something much more limited. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the particular abstraction that is being made.

We can begin with a social formation with some people occupying some social position within the formation, and an obstacle limiting their lives or an untapped opportunity that might significantly improve it according to standards that Cox and Nilsen would call “local rationalities.” While the people in question may not recognize the obstacle or opportunity, we can, as social analysts, understand that it is immanent in the social relations at hand. The world is replete with such obstacles and opportunities, but they remain only speculative not just until people become aware of them but, critically, until they act upon them.

Accordingly, a project is always in response to, and prepared by, the social formations in which we find ourselves. On some level, it is always collaborative in the sense that it partakes of a common store of relations and materials that people both past and present have created. Blunden observes:

Taking a cue from Hegel, projects can be seen as passing through four stages in their development. (1) Firstly there will be some group of people who by virtue of their social position are subject to some taken-for-granted or impending problem or constraint on their freedom. These are the conditions for a project to exist, but the project has not yet come into being. (2) On becoming aware of the problem there will be a series of failed projects arising from misconceptions of the situation, until, at a certain point: (3) An adequate concept of the situation is formulated and named and a social movement is launched to change social practices so as to resolve the problem or injustice. As the project unfolds and interacts with the social environment, its object becomes clearer and more concrete. (4) Eventually, the new form of practice becomes ‘mainstreamed’ as part of the social practices of the wider community. That is, it is institutionalized and its concept enters into the language and culture of the community (2014, p. 6)

Similarly, Cox and Nilsen’s understanding of the process up to Blunden’s third step-launching a social movement-emphasizes the passage of scaling from “local rationalities” to “militant particularisms” to “campaigns” and, finally, to “social movements.” Some sense of the passage from non-project to project, and from local rationality to militant particularisms can be captured in the image of impoverished street sellers dodging the police and taking possession of their place on the street, homeless people moving into empty houses, or women leaving their husbands. The parallel actions of many people who act on their own initiative in response to their personal situation without any notion of sharing their situation with others shows both the presence of a local rationality, knowledge-in-action, and therefore, a set of historical facts that mean that change in this direction-whichever direction it is-is historically immanent, in Gramsci’s terms, rather than simply a speculative possibility. For both Cox and Nilsen and for Blunden, the adoption of a word or symbol-i.e., an available cultural artifact within a local rationality or structure of feeling-which focuses attention, so to speak (although it will have different meanings for different people), is the point of passage to a militant particularlism or proto-movement, but will define the beginnings of a collaborative project.

Reflection, the growth of a social movement

In any collaborative project, there is a fundamental dialectical tension between identity and difference, a sense of a partially realized whole and of the autonomous wholeness of the parts. People discover themselves in the same place as others. “We're all here for the same reason,” they say. This is the moment of identity. The language of the social formation provides them with the words and concepts to identify their shared situation. The moment of identity is followed by the moment of difference, when people discover that in fact they did not all come here for the same reasons. This difference is sharpened into opposition and in turn into “essential opposition,” or contradiction. Contradiction leads to a necessary examination of the grounds of contradiction in some social difference or opposition or more deep-seated contradictions. Hegel describes this dialectic as “moments of reflection.” For example, women initially uniting under the banner of ‘women’ in the belief that all women suffer the same injustices and seek the same solutions, discover that women of colour or women in the former colonial world face different problems and seek different solutions, just as working class women hardly concern themselves with a glass ceiling they will never encounter. This does not mean that there cannot, then, be a collaborative project of a “women’s movement,” but it does change the project and the grounds for collaboration.

There are two important things that follow from this phase of a project. First, this is not just a matter of “frame alignment” or “frame disputes” about identity as a more interactionist understanding of movements might describe these dynamics. Nor is it just one of many situational dilemmas that may arise in social movements (see, e.g., Jasper 2003). Rather, this is a fundamental part of any collaborative project, not incidental, and-like the moments described by dialectics-neither only historical/sequential nor only conceptual.

Second, the dialectic of identity and difference already means that whatever focusing language was drawn upon as an initial unifier is revealed upon reflection to be inadequate; not necessarily wrong, but inadequate. Collaborative projects always proceed by what Trotsky called a “method of successive approximations” and there is nothing about this method that guarantees the outcome of a broad movement, a revolutionary change, or even any sort of linear growth:

The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old rĂ©gime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses. The fundamental political process of the revolution thus consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis –the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations. The different stages of a revolutionary process, certified by a change of parties in which the more extreme always supersedes the less, express the growing pressure to the left of the masses –so long as the swing of the movement does not run into objective obstacles. When it does, there begins a reaction: disappointments of the different layers of the revolutionary class, growth of indifferentism, and therewith a strengthening of the position of the counter-revolutionary forces.... (Trotsky 1930, p. iii).

Appearance –the struggle between form and content

While these interactions over identity are going on, people search for an adequate form in which to embody the idea. This phase generally corresponds to what Cox and Nilsen call a “campaign,” when it becomes clear to the people collaborating on a project that they need to coordinate across some contextual differences and therefore, too, must organize in some way. As Krinsky (2008) argues, coordination can take many forms, and the coalitional nature of campaigns is such that this coordination and organization can involve the use of shared symbols or claims (for example, with a suggestion that everyone wear a certain colour or listen to and play a certain kind of music in order to signal their opinion of the situation in a way that makes repression difficult, but offers no actual solution in and of itself to the problem at hand) but also the more difficult tasks of forming an organization, coordinating and planning joint actions, etc. Coordination of a project, moreover, might adopt or try out different forms, either as a whole or in part. A project might adopt the form of a political party, military organization, trade union, etc., but it might also create a coalition that can accommodate several organizational types. Here, what Hegel understood as the dialectical struggle between form and content is continued until some alignment or stability is reached.

Polletta (e.g., 1994; 2010) shows that deliberations over organizational forms are not just for those activists seeking to “prefigure” a new society through their own organizational practice. To be sure, activists who do pursue prefigurative politics (see also Yates 2017), raise the struggle between form and content to a focal concern. Yet, as Clemens (1996) writes, organizational form itself can “frame” a group’s own understanding of the content of their goals-that which expresses the relevant contradiction in the social formation as a whole-and the impression of those goals that they communicate to others. Accordingly, Polletta argues that the frequent division in social movement studies between consideration of “strategy” and “identity” is mistaken: the form (strategy) is always interpenetrated with the content (identity), which makes questions about appropriate forms of organization particularly fraught. If, more generally, “form” means the social practice which embodies and expresses the radical content, every form proves inadequate to the content, and gives birth to new forms, as at the same time the content itself changes. And yet, it is also the case that neither has precise priority: when progress toward the content falters, groups frequently begin to debate form, and in the process try to rearticulate a shared basis of identity. Again, dialectics does not describe a linear process.

It is in the working-out of this contradiction that what we generally know as social movements take shape. While to some extent, this might also be true for what Cox and Nilsen call “campaigns,” what is at play here is (1) the beginnings of a kind of generalization of knowledge and practice, i.e., synthetic, collective intellectual work; (2) the taking-in or -on to a collaborative project of a necessarily more diverse set of problems and relations as its goals correspondingly expand to a consideration of what Gramsci might have called “ethico-political” leadership; and (3) the formation of special-purpose organizations that-however structured-take on the role of representative of the project. A campaign could be seen as having the same relation to a social movement as an experiment has to a science: it is a subordinate concept, serving the ideal of the movement or science.

Actuality –cause, effect and reciprocity

At the point at which a collaborative project starts to have an impact on people outside of its original ambit, on other projects or institutions, these others react back upon it. This is true, as well, when projects reach a campaign or movement stage. The movement finds itself in complex struggles both with the institutions it wants to change and other projects which differ with its aims or alternatively, inspired by the movement, seek to change the terms of engagement. This complex web of interactions extends indefinitely into every corner of the social formation and, at least as far as it reaches, enlightens the movement and everyone else on the implications of the idea being promoted. As a result, the project begins to actualize, become real for people, though its meaning is still subject to contestation. A kind of polarization results through the movement’s confrontation with its opposite, the counter-movement which has coalesced in opposition to it-including, but not limited to state authorities-and which exemplifies the very reasons for the movement’s existence at the same time as proving how insoluble the movement’s grievances really are. This polarization can, of course, work into the movement itself, creating splits and schisms, and even stopping the movement in its tracks.

Contests over the meaning of a project are, in a Hegelian frame, contests over the form of action that the project should undertake. It is often these contests, which may happen over years, that seem to be the “waves” that Michels identifies as constantly crashing on the same shoal.

And yet, even where a movement is pulled apart or defeated, it does not mean in the least, that the project it incarnated is pulled apart or defeated. Taylor and Whittier (1992) identified certain organizations as “abeyance structures” for an otherwise apparently defeated women’s movement between feminism’s first and second “waves,” organizations whose personnel sutured a network capable of taking up the collaborative project anew during the larger movement “wave” of the 1960s and 1970s. Once a project forms, in large measure because it responds to a contradictory position in the social formation as a whole, it is hard to undo, even if it may take different forms at different points. Further, movements, as Piven and Cloward point out, often leave a “residue of reform” that, while not irreversible, nevertheless sets the stage for subsequent attempts to reorganize and reanimate existing projects.

Seen from a different level of abstraction, the phases of a movement life-cycle, outlined above, correspond to what Hegel understood, in his idealist theoretical language, as Being, Essence, and Concept. Again, these are not linear phases, since each stage continues even as the next stage takes form, and there is no guarantee against a project backsliding. But Being comprises the non-movement parts of a project, and Essence comprises the phases of Reflection, Appearance, and Actuality outlined above.

The point here is not just to graft new terminology on a basic model of movement development: rather, it is to point out the characteristic phases-and contradictions in these phases-of a very general trajectory not just of movement development, but also of the broader social development of which movements are part. Moreover, it is to do so on a wider theoretical canvas that is based on an overall approach to knowledge, social sciences, and politics. To be sure, as well, we do not propose taking Hegel’s politics on board any more than did Marx! Rather, we do hope, through our use of Hegelian terms, to get to the root of some of the more promising approaches in sociology and psychology to questions of movement development introduced by Marxists.

The Concept –a new institution

For Hegel, the Concept is the phase of a project in which the project becomes an institution in the larger social formation in which it takes shape, and in which changes proposed by a movement project become institutionalized in some way. This could be a new workers’ state following the collapse of the bourgeois republic, or it could be an Office for Women inside the public service or it could be a new scientific institute. The point is that it now exists in and for itself. It is not women demanding their rights; it is women defending their rights. It explicitly propagates certain social practices to the exclusion of others and it has achieved that point of development in which it reproduces itself from one generation to the next. Of course it is not guaranteed eternal life, but it is established, it’s a going concern. It can be criticized but it’s here. It can change-and will-but the changes are variations on a central, dominant theme. What is different now, is that the movement, the new social practice which has established itself in the community, is no longer searching for self-consciousness and struggling to define itself. From here on it is developing, deepening its roots in the community, changing itself, but only to the extent that it is changing and transforming the whole social formation. To the extent that the movement is unable to transform the whole, it may again enter new phases of self-definition.

As with the other phases, there are characteristic contradictions and corresponding dialectical processes. Hegel outlined three with respect to the Concept: Subject, Object, and Idea.

The first aspect or ‘phase’ of the Concept is its internal “subjective” development. Here, a concept-a form of practice-is at once incomplete, but also in view of collective actors as an ideal or set of more general principles to guide action. As each individual action takes shape toward this form of practice, it develops, at the same time, the various particular types of that practice, e.g., measures to protect women from violent men, equal pay, and breaking down the gender division of labor. The concept is becoming more concrete and mature while remaining what it is, and better able to penetrate and make relations with others.

Hegel uses natural metaphors to describe the process in which the new concept enters the “ecosystem” of the social formation. At first, the new concept relates to other, already-existing social practices “mechanically.” That is, they simply relate to each other externally without any affinity between them, merely consuming each other’s products. Then, “chemical” relations are established as different social practices, communities or concepts discover affinities with others, and like elements, combine with others to form molecular compounds or “alliances.” The third phase is the organic relation, in which each creature is a part of an ecosystem in which each is a means to the life of another. This process is what Hegel refers to as the “Object,” in which relations to others, outside of the project are deepened.

The particular difficulty in this phase is that the innovations of the project may be absorbed by the larger social formation instead of being able to change it in significant ways. Here, again, we see Piven and Cloward’s potential concerns about movements being coopted as they form organizations and their leaders become separated from the rank and file activists. As generations of social movement scholars have observed, movements can be channeled by others’ projects-dominant ones, in terms of resources and power-so that they come to support, rather than challenge the legitimacy of the status-quo powers.

The reforms prompted by movements are more than a “residue,” in as much as they are the real achievement of the movement. Even if, in the final phase of the Concept, the new social practice ‘disappears’, incorporated as part of the new, transformed social formation, this changed social formation is just as prone to injustices and contradictions as the old one. The new social institutions become the targets of a new generation of social movements, and life goes on in its endless cycle of renewal and change.

This is the case not just with reforms, however. Much as scientific revolutions are described by Thomas Kuhn, most of the time this schema describes the gradual transformation of a social formation, much in the manner of “problem-solving” reforms. But every so often, the new concept, the new social practice is not just a new element in the whole but is radically incompatible with the object in toto and wreaks a total transformation of the whole. Such social movements alone deserve the name of “revolution” but they are not something different from a social movement. But if it is to survive, the Revolution will be followed by new social movements doing the work of “problem solving.” Hence, there is a dialectical contradiction between transformation and reproduction that can only be resolved finally if one gives into soteriological longings.


Collaborative projects last longer, typically, than movements do. Movements span several phases in the life-cycle of a collaborative project, but can best be understood in light of collaborative projects and set against the larger social formations being constantly made and remade by their constituent projects.

The schema that we have just set out abstracts from Hegel’s Logic in a way that is meant to provide a guide to the typical contradictions and confrontations with those contradictions that both give life to movements and prompt them to move and develop. The arguments found in the Logic will be recognized as typifying the kind of arguments and problems which arise in the course of social transformations, and Hegel analyses them all in depth. But Hegel’s logic is not a metaphor. It stands on its own as a logic, but a logic rooted in social life. And it is not a series of stages mechanically following one another, but on the contrary, the categories run concurrently, overtaking one another whilst building on one another.

The life-cycle of social transformation so conceived contains within it, as a special principle, the life-cycle of social movements generally understood to characterise the stages arising out of contradictions in the social formation, and resolved in the transformed social formation, which in turns spurs new social movements. We have sought to contrast this view to that of wave metaphors for social movements in hopes that future studies of movements specify the social formations, collaborative projects, and contradictions that they see when movements appear to grow and decline. Only then will social movement studies be able to identify new potentials of and for movements, rather than just expect that radical hopes will ever be dashed on the same shoal as before.



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