Grassroots mobilisation

from Brian Martin, Uprooting War (London: Freedom Press, 1984); this is the revised 1990 version.
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It is all very well to have a superb strategy against war, but nothing will come of it unless people take action. How are people mobilised for social action? And how in particular are they mobilised for social action that confronts the roots rather than the symptoms of social problems?

In most situations where injustice has occurred or some sort of systematic oppression exists, there are a small number of people or groups who express opposition. These people and their actions provide potential sparks to ignite social movements.

In many cases these sparks of opposition are quickly extinguished. Other times only a small action is needed to ignite a social movement. A classic example is the refusal by Rosa Parks in 1955 to give up her seat on a bus for a white person. This sparked the beginning of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, which in turn played a major role in the expansion of the modern black civil rights movement in the United States. The small act of questioning or resistance may be all that is required: calling a meeting, writing a letter, making a speech, or refusing to obey an order.

Whether or not an act of opposition leads to a social movement depends a lot on whether the social conditions are 'ripe.' [Freedom rides and other anti-racist initiatives in the US in 1940s and early 1950s did not lead to a chain reaction of protest.] If there are contradictions in the conditions of oppression, this often provides an avenue for intervention. In the US in the 1950s, the reality of racial oppression contrasted sharply with the rhetoric of freedom and democracy and with experiences during World War Two of reduced discrimination. The situation was made especially ripe for action by the US Supreme Court decisions in 1954 and 1955 which made segregation illegal for the first time in 50 years. In such a context, it is usually incidental which particular individual or individuals voice resistance. The key question is whether they act in a way which strikes at such a point of contradiction.

Sparking a social movement does not automatically provide a strategy for the movement, nor even a clear set of goals. The problem of mobilising against the roots of war is more than the problem of stimulating people to become concerned about an issue. The more difficult problem is to create possible avenues for involvement and action which are both attractive and effective.

Consider the situation of isolated individuals or small groups who are committed to trying to tackle the roots of war. They have thought out their goals and methods, and have a tentative strategy, for example promoting social defence, peace conversion or self-management. The question of mobilisation then is, how should actions or campaigns be designed to stimulate greater commitment and participation towards the goals of the activists? In the usual situation, much more than a spark is needed to launch a social movement. A patient process of developing goals, strategies and participation is required.

I have assumed that the groups are small and weak. If they are large and strong, mobilisation is not such a problem, though other difficult problems are likely to exist. At the current time, it should be realised that structure-challenging movements are very weak. Some social movements, such as the peace movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and in the 1980s, can boast a high level of participation and public sympathy. But only a small fraction of activities even at these times systematically challenge the underpinnings of war.

Furthermore, even large and apparently strong social movements and cultures may be vulnerable to attack by opposition forces. The European socialist and antiwar movement was smashed after the outbreak of World War One, and the bulk of left political activism and culture in the United States succumbed to cold war suppression in the late 1940s and the 1950s. Social activists should not mislead themselves that they are in a powerful position. Almost always they are not.

On the other hand, the position of social activists is potentially powerful, since the bulk of the population is often opposed in a general way to war, political repression, poverty and injustice. The problem is that elite groups are often more successful in mobilising populations for their own ends, for example to support wars to defend 'freedom' or 'our way of life.' Elite groups have the powerful advantage of coercive measures and influence over dominant communication channels. Furthermore, elites benefit from a favourable set of structures such as the day-to-day framework of job, transport, goods and services, and privatised home life. To be successful in mobilising people, social activists must overcome this formidable array of barriers, and overcome the mobilising power of elites.

So again, consider the problem of small groups of people working against the roots of war. There are several criteria which can be used in assessing actions or campaigns as to their capacity for mobilising people.

Using these and other criteria it is possible to analyse different methods of social action, for example in the following manner.

Lobbying politicians

Writing letters to newspapers

Withholding of taxes


Civil disobedience

Many of the entries in this tabulation are rather vague, purposefully so. For while it is true that rallies usually provide more opportunity for participation and mutual support than lobbying, at the same time there is a great variability in the participation or mutual support provided by rallies, and similarly for other actions. Let me illustrate this with some experiences in Canberra.

The Australian opposition to nuclear power has mainly been against uranium mining, since no other parts of the nuclear fuel cycle have become established. The most active years for the anti-uranium movement in Australia were 1976 to 1979. One of the key organising focusses was marches and rallies. The aim was to attract as large a crowd as possible for publicity purposes, and also to encourage and enable people to make a public stand by joining the rally. One method used to attract a crowd was generating lots of publicity by distributing leaflets, putting up posters, contacting individuals and groups, and putting out media releases. Another method was to schedule big-name speakers at the rally (well-known politicians, artists or other public figures) who by their reputation would attract a crowd.

Even in the early days of the anti-uranium movement in Canberra, speakers and methods for gaining publicity were chosen with participation in mind. Paid advertisements were only used rarely. Publicity was organised at the grassroots level by encouraging sympathetic people, in areas such as schools, neighbourhoods and government bureaucracies, to circulate leaflets and put up posters. The aim was not only to publicise the rally but also to encourage many people to become involved by helping publicise it. Although well-known speakers were sought, it was considered important to obtain effective rally speakers (none of those dry academics) and to obtain representation of women, trade unionists, Aborigines and other relevant sections of the community.

In spite of this orientation towards participation in organising rallies, there were a lot of disadvantages with rallies as an organising focus. The key organisers would work very hard and worry greatly, and this contributed to activist 'burnout.' There was often a letdown after a rally. What next? As the movement grew there were fewer and larger rallies, but growth could not occur indefinitely and media coverage declined. The rallies themselves were rather boring, especially after having attended a few. All those speeches! Furthermore, the atmosphere at the rallies was not conducive to meeting and involving new people.

Due to these factors, there was gradually a switch to more participative activities instead of the traditional rally with speeches. Instead of the usual Hiroshima Day rallies, in 1978 and 1979 'open days' were organised with films, discussion groups and displays. Not as many people attended, but there was more interaction than at a typical rally.

This development reached its peak at Hiroshima Day in 1981 with activities organised by Canberra Peacemakers. Our aim was to create a more satisfying experience for those who attended rather than to maximise numbers or publicity. So we did not run a massive publicity effort, but mainly circulated notices to the groups from whom most participants at rallies came anyway. The rally on Hiroshima Day featured no well-known speakers, but instead local activists provided songs, poetry, a testimonial and street theatre. The songs and street theatre allowed some audience participation. The general feeling at the rally was excellent. Two days later, we visited the embassies of 7 major nuclear weapons states (China, Soviet Union, France, United States, Israel, South Africa and Britain). At each embassy a symbolic action was performed, including poetry reading, street theatre about masculinity and war, and a 'die-in' in which people lay down symbolising deaths from French nuclear activities in the Pacific. Afterwards a small peace concert was organised with local artists. The numbers were small: perhaps 250 at the rally and 50 on the embassies tour. If we had organised a traditional rally with massive publicity, perhaps 500 people would have attended, judging by previous experience. (This was just before the 1980s resurgence of the worldwide peace movement filtered through to Canberra.)

From this experience it should be clear that 'participation' is not a simple concept. On the one hand, there can be large numbers of people superficially participating in rallies, just attending and then going home. On the other hand, smaller numbers may participate in a way which has meaningful links with ongoing action. The choice between these and other approaches should be openly and carefully made in the light of an overall strategy. In my opinion there is often too little attention to quality of participation and to links with other action by the participants. This lack of attention is associated with lack of attention to strategies which address the roots of social problems: superficial participation is easier to mobilise to attack symptoms rather than causes of social problems.

In 1982 as the worldwide upsurge in concern about nuclear war spread into Canberra, a new peace group sprang up, Canberra Programme for Peace (CPP). The initial stimulus for this group's formation was to organise a traditional march and rally, with mass publicity and numerous speakers, including several prominent ones. A large crowd of 3000 turned out. But there was no strategy against war for these people to contribute to or to become involved in.

At first CPP adopted a fairly traditional orientation to peace issues, focussing mainly against nuclear weapons and against United States militarism. It looked ahead only to the next major activity, whether a rally, public meeting, petition drive or barbecue. But CPP evolved also, and only 18 months later it decentralised its activities and oriented them more to mobilising local and independent participation.

A difficult problem in pursuing a long-term strategy for eliminating the roots of war is deciding how much to become involved in superficially appealing immediate issues which attract more people but have relatively little relation to the long-term strategy. It is important to avoid become sidetracked into immediate issues such as neutron bombs and nuclear freezes if this diverts too much attention from programmes for fundamental change of bureaucracies or states. But it is equally important to not insist on a 'purist' programme for social change that does not use opportunities for mobilisation provided by more topical issues. Indeed, topical issues sometimes symbolise deep contradictions in dominant structures. The challenge is to develop campaigns which link people's concern on immediate issues to a programme which addresses the roots of the problems.

At the time in early 1982 when CPP was formed, we in Canberra Peacemakers had been focussing mainly on nonviolent action training and social defence. But we soon found ourselves swept along by the rapidly surging interest in peace issues and putting much of our limited energy into aspects of the rally preparations. There was no immediate spinoff from the rally for the goals we wanted to reach: we had not thought carefully about what we hoped to achieve. Our small contribution to the rally was not wasted, since the nonviolent action training for march stewards helped prevent an unpleasant confrontation. But the net effect was that our ongoing investigation and promotion of social defence was interrupted for quite a few months.

This small example illustrates the dilemma that may arise between focussing on long-term campaigns (for Canberra Peacemakers, social defence) and joining more popular protests (the major rally in April 1982) which are less connected to a long-term strategy. Once-off events and responses to immediate issues such as particular arms negotiations can sometimes divert and diffuse efforts towards structural change. But immediate issues also provide an opportunity for involving and mobilising people for antiwar action. Without a connection with current events, the efforts towards structural change may remain confined to a tiny minority who are cut off from mainstream antiwar thinking.

Later in 1982 in Canberra Peacemakers serious differences arose over future directions. Some members wanted to concentrate on nonviolent action training in relation to 'immediate' issues such as destruction of native forests or the planned flooding of the Franklin River in south-west Tasmania. They were not particularly interested in being involved with social defence activities. Others, including me, wanted to maintain social defence as a major focus. After much agonising, this and other differences led to formation of a separate group called Groundswell for nonviolent action training. Canberra Peacemakers continued primarily with social defence and other peace-related issues and activities. Groundswell members quickly became heavily involved in nonviolent action training for the 'blockade' of preliminary construction work for the south-west Tasmanian dam.

The campaign against the flooding of the Franklin River was a classic case of focussing mainly on the symptoms of environmental problems and of aiming at influencing elites. Most attention was directed towards natural features of the area to be flooded, including trees, platypuses and scenic gorges. Little headway was made in addressing the problem of restructuring the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commission, planner and constructor of the dam and the single most potent political force in Tasmania. The campaign for the Franklin was based primarily on obtaining mass publicity and applying pressure to parliamentarians. People were asked to contribute to the campaign by writing to politicians, sending money, writing 'no dams' on ballot papers at elections, or voting for the candidates specified by the campaign directors.

To this campaign, the south-west blockade was a somewhat incongruous addition, based as it was on nonviolent action, consensus decision-making and the strong personal sacrifice required for civil disobedience. The organisation of the blockade and of the national campaign did not always mesh easily.

The south-west campaign continued to aim at influencing elites. For the March 1983 national election the South-West Coalition put its full efforts towards electing a Labor government. After the Labor victory, popular involvement in the campaign plummeted as the issue was fought in the High Court between the national government and the Tasmanian state government which backed the dam. The flooding of the Franklin was prevented, while the issue of transforming the Hydro-Electric Commission never really entered the political agenda.

The Franklin River issue generated wider public concern than any other environmental issue in Australian history. In spite of the blockade's limitations as part of a campaign for the narrow goal of stopping a particular dam and using public pressure to influence elites, the blockade had an enormous effect in broadening experience with nonviolent action and with nonviolent action training in Australia, multiplying by several times within a few months the number of people exposed to and committed to this approach.

This is quite relevant to social defence. The blockaders, because of their personal experience in nonviolent action and the training for it, became able to grasp the meaning and significance of social defence more readily than any other single group of people Canberra Peacemakers had encountered.

This case illustrates the difficulty of assessing the role of 'immediate' issues in pursuing long-term strategies. The south-west blockade, for all the limitations of the wider campaign of which it was a part, has provided knowledge, skills, experience and motivation to many people which will benefit many other social action campaigns. But without groups such as Canberra Peacemakers which promote social defence and other contributions towards structural change, participation in nonviolent action can remain harnessed to campaigns which address only the symptoms of environmental and other social problems.

The deeper challenge facing Canberra Peacemakers and others working towards transforming the roots of war is to make social defence, peace conversion, self-management and other such components of an antiwar strategy seem relevant and immediate. Personally, I feel that the threat of war and of political repression is just as immediate as the building of a dam, and that working with people on how to resist military aggression nonviolently is just as immediate as being arrested for entering land on which the Hydro-Electric Commission is carrying out preparatory work for dam construction. But many others do not feel the same way.

There are several potential reasons why different people have differing perceptions of what are 'immediate' issues for them. In the case of the Franklin River, many middle-class people responded to beautiful pictures of wilderness about to be destroyed and so opposed the dam. Many workers in Tasmania supported the dam because it symbolised the issue of jobs which was more immediate for them.

The general problem is that the issues which mobilise people are not necessarily the key ones for confronting the roots of social problems. Many activists, through their exposure to the issues and through their personal and political experiences, have developed an analysis of the roots of social problems. But this needs to be connected theoretically and practically with ideas and actions which capture people's enthusiasm.

Should activists involve themselves in issues which already have immediacy for many people and attempt to promote strategies that address the roots of social problems? An example would be entering the Franklin dam dispute and developing ways to devolve the power of the Hydro-Electric Commission. Or should activists attempt to popularise what they consider to be the 'key' issues and aim to make them seem immediate for more people? An example would be trying to make peace conversion more appealing. The answer must depend on the particular activists and issues; there is a place for both these approaches.

The basic problem in grassroots mobilisation is how to develop a continuing political practice which remains democratic and participatory and which also works to overturn structures. The standard activist approach, which involves lurching from rally to rally or to some other action with periods of inertia between, is inadequate because it pursues no programme for structural challenge and reconstruction. The standard alternative, involvement in a political party with a definite programme, usually involves a political practice oriented to lobbying, elections and elite power struggles which reinforce rather than challenge dominant structures. The gap between these two approaches needs filling, but many questions and action and organisation remain to be answered.

There are many more things which can be said about grassroots mobilisation, but the problem cannot easily be separated from wider issues of strategy which are treated in other chapters. Here I will just briefly raise a few other topics relevant to mobilisation.

Countering sectarian disruption

One problem facing many large social movements is disruption or manipulation by sectarian groups, such as left-wing 'vanguard' parties. Members of such groups are often extremely hard working for the cause in question, and their efforts should not be slighted. Like many other individuals and groups, sectarian groups aim to use the issue and people's involvement in the social movement to build up their own organisation and foster their own particular brand of social change.

There is nothing wrong with this, and indeed pluralism in social movements can be a very strong point. Problems arise when the activities of sectarian groups are severely counterproductive for the movement as a whole. For example, groups favouring violence and confrontation may alienate support. Similarly, groups which believe that salvation can be achieved only from the efforts of one particular segment of the population, such as the workers, may act in a way which antagonises others.

What can happen is that sectarian activists gain positions of formal or de facto power within social movements, and use this power to influence the direction and rhetoric of campaigns. Again, there is nothing wrong with this as long as directions and rhetoric are decided democratically and participatively. But some sectarian groups are not enthusiastic about unenlightened people with a 'false consciousness' having an equal say in movement activities.

In some Australian cities, sectarian involvement in social movements has caused severe difficulties. Decisions have been made in large meetings in which dominant individuals used personality and experience to heavy-handedly push through their own preferences over the unexpressed views of many others. The meetings are unpleasant and restrict wider involvement. One solution has been decentralisation: setting up many neighbourhood groups which are relatively autonomous, with central coordination but no central control.

Decentralisation does not entirely overcome the problem of undue influence by sectarian groups if coordinating bodies play a big role in laying the framework for campaigns. A familiar experience is the national consultative meeting in which experienced 'heavies' dominate the proceedings in an exercise of power politics. Introducing a lot system or some other method for increasing participation can help overcome this problem.

At issue here is both what strategy to choose and how to go about choosing it. A particular sectarian group might indeed be advocating the 'best' strategy in the abstract, that is assuming everyone agreed on it. But just as important is the way in which people are won over to one strategy or another. In terms of building a social movement, democratic and participatory decision-making procedures and organisational forms are at least as important as taking the abstractly 'correct' line at a particular time.

The problems posed by sectarian groups are similar to those posed by infiltration by agents of the state or other hostile groups. Decentralisation and measures to equalise participation help reduce the influence of outside agents to a minimum.

The limits of civil disobedience

Civil disobedience is a potent way of opposing oppressive social structures and also for building solidarity in opposition to these structures. But, as I have argued in chapter 1, nonviolent action does not in itself constitute a strategy for social change, nor even necessarily a very participative one. While utilising the undoubted strengths of civil disobedience, it is also important to be aware of limitations.

These limitations would not matter so much if civil disobedience in itself led to social change. But this is rarely the case. In practice, civil disobedience needs to be a part of a wider strategy of social transformation. It is wrong to assume that the only real action is civil disobedience. Holding discussions, writing newsletters, canvassing door-to-door, and pushing for small changes inside existing structures are not all a waste of time or a lower form of activity.

Grassroots mobilisation within bureaucracies

Many social activists see grassroots mobilisation as something relevant mainly in arenas outside powerful hierarchical organisations such as corporations, state bureaucracies and the military. Public rallies are a symbol of oppositional mobilisation, and so sometimes are strikes. But for fundamental social change to occur, much support will be required from people, such as office workers and soldiers, who are well inside presently dominant structures. They may not be able to overtly show their support in typical ways, but their mobilisation is important nevertheless. This problem is treated in later chapters.


At the end of chapter 5 I mentioned the problem of bureaucratisation: establishment within social movements of hierarchies, centralisation of power, and a division of labour between the key activists and the wider mass of supporters. Bureaucratisation within social movements is the opposite pole to mobilisation. Supporters channel their efforts through the social movement hierarchy, which then usually interacts with other established bureaucracies to push for policy changes. Bureaucratised social movements may be effective in working through existing power structures, but they have little prospect of transforming these structures. In addition, as Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward have shown in their important study Poor People's Movements, bureaucratised movements are often ineffective even in obtaining immediate concessions, whereas direct and unregulated protest is often effective.


As mentioned in chapter 1, involvement in elections can be an effective way of demobilising a social movement. The basic problem with putting energy into electing sympathetic candidates is that reliance is vested in elites. People may participate in election campaigns, but the energy of participation is channelled to serve those running for office, not to strengthen the resolve and self-reliance of those participating. The same problem arises when working within or through any organisation based on hierarchy or restricted expertise, such as the labour movement or academia. These areas should not be neglected, but neither should they be seen as areas where energy can be used uncritically. The essential question to consider in assessing involvement in elections is whether grassroots involvement will be strengthened after either 'victory' or 'defeat' in the election.