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Friday, May 1, 2015

Do Movements Matter?

How philosophical movements fall short of their ideals

This is part I of a series examining how radical philosophies can effect social change. Part II, “The Remnant: An Alternative to Movements,” looks at how the Remnant is a superior solution for social change. Part III, “How a Fringe of Freedom-Lovers Can Change the World”, explores some ways in which a small Remnant can change the world. 

There are some things that drive people to action, things from which they can derive meaning and significance. We may have curiosities that grow into passions, interests that have strong social implications, and visions for what a better world would look like.

We want to feel like what we care about matters and that it is realizable. It is difficult to imagine devoting a significant portion of our lives to things that we believe have no chance whatsoever of being realized. (On the contrary, and paradoxically, people are most willing to throw themselves behind causes they think to be inevitable.)

People join social movements because they want to manifest their beliefs in the world and build a sense of camaraderie with others who are passionate about the same issues. They want to make an impact in the world and see their radical visions brought into reality through persuasion and public appeal.

But this is a flawed strategy for social change. Movements tend to dilute the radicalism that inspired them. They are inexorably driven to conform to the lowest common denominator in an effort to appeal to the masses, and, ultimately, this will run counter to the visions that inspired them.

The Movement as Social Change Ideal

Social movements are founded on ideas that are — by their very nature — not highly popular. Members of movements work to change this to try to make the world better, according to their principles. They may be founded on an economic, political, or religious philosophy, or any number of ways of seeing the world differently than the status quo. They may be working towards a vision for the future, or looking to restore a nostalgia of the past.

What matters is that the individuals who join these movements see what they have to offer as being superior to the status quo, and this is rooted in a set of principles and ideas.

A mass movement has intuitive appeal as a means of social change. Individuals may feel that they need the resources and networks that movements offer them. The idea of implementing a radical vision for the future on your own is laughable at best and terrifying at worst.

Movements allow for division of labor and for individuals to do what they do best. Some people may be attracted to articulating the ideas underlying the movement, while others may be popularizers, and still others may be attracted to politics or to education. For radicals, movements offer a “safety-in-numbers” component, both in the physical sense of creating a network that is harder to quash and in the psychological sense of providing a community.

In successful movements, as more people discover its ideas— its thinkers, popularizers, and vision for a better future — more sign on as advocates for its future. The culture and the institutions around it slowly begin to change to reflect the popularization. The vision offered by proponents of this movement not only gains appeal; it gains mass traction. If it is a political movement, members may look to elect politicians who reflect their positions and their ideals or force a change in stance from incumbents.

For single-issue movements, this can work well.

Take the same-sex marriage movement. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, members of this movement popularized the position that members of the same sex ought to have legal rights to wed. Through experiments in select markets (e.g., Massachusetts), they were able to show that their opposition’s arguments of total societal breakdown were largely unfounded and began to shift the window of popular opinion in their own direction.

For incumbent politicians looking to retain control of their seats, this meant that they were then forced to change or soften their stance on the issue. Political entrepreneurs who see an opportunity to take down an incumbent then run and win on this issue against a select few who are unable to change their stances to conform to the electorate’s newly liberalized position on same-sex marriage.

The Movement in Reality

The problem with this organizational model, at least for broad philosophical movements, is that it largely rests on the idea that the organization and growth of the movement in society will lead to more people adopting and acting on its ideas. The reality is different. Any movement that is founded on a radical vision of the future cannot popularize itself without losing its radicalism.

Populism and radicalism are diametrically opposed paradigms. The danger of movements lies in their means and motives in becoming popular, because widespread popularity rests on winning over the lowest common denominator of a group.

At its inception, the marginal convert to a movement may be a person with barely-different beliefs than the most radical of the founders, but radicalism naturally wanes as time goes on and more people are added, accepted, and adopted on further and further margins. Given how different each individual is from another, the likelihood of converting everybody on the core ideas that defined the radicalism of the movement is incredibly low.

Over time, the compromises that are necessary to grow the movement as an organization undermine its original mission. Something founded on a radical, earth-jolting vision for the future begins to look barely different than the mundane reformism of yesteryear. In their efforts to reach out, movements splinter into niche areas of other belief systems, trying to convince others that they actually already hold the radical beliefs behind the movement, rather than actually swaying them to change their minds.

Frank Chodorov, the Old Right commentator (and former Freeman editor), dismissed the attraction of organizations on these grounds, noting their propensity to undermine their own ideals.

In his essay “On Doing Something about It”, Chodorov argues,

In the end, every organization vitiates the ideal that at first attracted members, and the more numerous its membership the surer this result; this is so because the organizational ideal is a compromise of private values, and in an effort to find a workable compromise the lowest common denominator, descending as the membership increases, becomes the ideal.

The growth of a movement to encapsulate more people from different walks of life also leads to a higher probability of fundamental disagreements on important issues.

Derided as “infighting,” the movement splinters further as its members have lost sight of — or never even held in the first place — the ideas that motivated its radicalism. The quest for growth by inclusion means that members have nothing to look to to inform their confusions and disagreements.

As they grow, movements as organizations are naturally driven to undermine their own values and foundational visions simply due to the heterogeneity in society at large.

Make Way for the Remnant

Movements fall short of realizing their radical ideals by their very nature of attempting to popularize radicalism. A different sort of group affiliation — one devoted wholly to the propagation, study, and understanding of these ideas — is better suited for radical ends.

In part II of this series, I will examine the possibility of the Remnant as a solution to the inability of movements to realize radicalism. 

  • Zak Slayback is a venture capital and private equity professional and a small business owner. He is the author of How to Get Ahead (McGraw-Hill, 2019) and wrote the foreword to John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down (New Society Publishers, 2017). He lives in the United States and writes at He is a Eugene S. Thorpe Fellow and FEE alum.