Movement power: history, repeating

The hybrid model of mass organising is based on both the structure and momentum traditions. So what is the history of successful protest, and how can it inform our work today?

Engler and Saavedra refer to specific individuals and social movements as case studies of hybrid models to show how the component elements of the strategy were developed and successfully deployed.

The hybrid model of mass campaigning advocated by Momentum Community organisers incorporates and develops learning from both the structure tradition and the momentum tradition. Developing strategy based on experience from the history of previous mass campaigns in the United States and from around the world is therefore fundamental to the approach.

Paul Engler and Carlos Saavedra, in their series of training videos published on YouTube, describe a “metastrategy” for campaigning for significant social change, based on previous failures and successes. Their approach is pragmatic and eclectic. 

This is the forth article in the Movement Power series from The Ecologist. 

They draw on a wide range of social movements, with a clear and deliberate focus on nonviolent direct action. Their selection and characterisation of social movements is hotly contested. This article is a summary, rather than a critique, of the history presented in the Engler-Saavedra series.


The ‘movement power’ metastrategy and its historical analysis have been adopted by the founders of Extinction Rebellion in Britain – with significant results. The method itself has also been used and developed by a variety of environmental and social justice campaigns in the UK. 

The same model is presented clearly and economically in Movement Power: A Toolkit for Building People Power in a Time of Crisis, published by Tipping Point UK. Here we look at the influences that have informed Engler and Saavedra’s thinking at the time of the videos. It is possible to appreciate the coherence and effectiveness of the model without agreeing on the historical analysis that comes with it.

History appears in the Engler-Saavedra training videos in two distinct ways. First, the presenters like to share their personal experiences of being recruited and trained in the structure approach to organising – in trade unions and adjacent social movements – only to discover its limits with the explosion in popular support for the Seattle action at the World Trade Organization in 1999 and the DREAM bill campaign in 2006, both using the momentum approach. This is mostly covered in the first article in my series. Second, they discuss the history of the momentum tradition, by telling the story of certain historical figures. This is what I will discuss now.

Engler and Saavedra refer to specific individuals and social movements as case studies of hybrid models to show how the component elements of the strategy were developed and successfully deployed. 

The history is almost exclusively of men who engaged in nonviolent direct action and gained public recognition. This includes especially Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gene Sharp. I have leaned into this approach by selecting figureheads for institutions or moments of history also referenced in the training. I am also reconstructing the history in reverse chronological order for simplicity. The lack of women in this timeline is indicative of the long arc of patriarchy rather than bias on the part of the presenters, on a generous reading. 

2009: Marshall Ganz

Marshall Ganz is given as an example of how mainstream political organisations such as the Obama campaign deployed elements of the movement power model, especially the ladder of engagement and the “virtuous circle” of training, and training the trainers. Barack Obama’s campaign to become the first black president of the United States gained widespread popular support and was staffed by thousands of activists from across the country. 

Ganz argued in his paper Organizing Obama: Campaign, Organizing, Movement published online in August 2009 that training was essential in developing social movements, even when they appeared to grow spontaneously. 

Obama Foundation

Engler summarises his argument thus: “It was very clear that spontaneous self-organisation, the wished for result of online organisers, is a myth. On the contrary, developing a motivated, skilled, and strategic volunteer effort required ongoing coaching of organisers who, in turn, could provide coaching to volunteer leaders, creating a virtuous cycle of increased capacity. 

“This required an ongoing investment in training and coaching that could cascade down through the campaign as those who learned these skills were called upon to teach them to others.” 

Ganz devised a method of ensuring that people who were activated by Obama’s popular speeches could be integrated or absorbed into the movement – and the main method was mass training. His new book, People, Power, Change: Organizing for Democratic Renewal, will be published in August 2024.

2006: The DREAM movement

Engler participated in the general strike of 2006 when 1.2 million people joined the campaign for immigration rights. He recalled: “Two months later and we could not even mobilise a thousand people onto the streets.” He added: “It was incredibly depressing – it felt like we had lost the momentum”. 

Engler came together with a coalition of migration rights groups to analyse how they could keep the momentum going “and recreate a moment of the whirlwind” – how they could innovate. They then organised the largest mass disobedience in Los Angeles history. More than 300 people were arrested while shutting down the strip in front of the airport. 

The protests had been so overwhelming for the authorities that they had considered calling in the National Guard. But after the momentum they were back in the same place. “We can do trigger-events, but we do not know how to absorb the momentum.” The successes and ultimate failure of the campaign for a DREAM Act convinced activists from the structure tradition that they needed a new model. 

2005: Rick Falkvinge


Rick Falkvinge of the Swedish Pirate Party is credited with advancing the concept of scaffolding, which is supportive and not controlling of the autonomous activists on the frontline. The hybrid model has also been adopted by the Pirate Party in Sweden, as explained in Rick Falkvinge’s 2013 book Swarmwise: The Tactical Manual to Changing the World

Falkvinge states in the book: “The few people upholding the scaffolding of the swarm will resemble a traditional hierarchical organisation. However, it is important to understand that the role of this scaffolding is not directing and controlling the masses, as it would be in a corporation or other traditional organisation. Rather, its role and value is in supporting the other 95 per cent of the organisation – the swarm – which makes its own decisions based on the values you communicate and looks to the scaffolding only when assistance, support, or resources are needed.” 

The structure of the organisation is dedicated to supporting the autonomous activist, the swarm. It is worth noting that the individual “founder” as described in Swarmwise is replaced in the community momentum approach by a committee that is tasked with frontloading: designing the organisation, codifying its rules and norms, and then launching it on the world.

2004: Rick Warren

Rick Warren, who has been instrumental in the rise of evangelical Christians in the United States, “understood that the future is decentralised” and developed the affinity system so that activists could provide mutual support without becoming dependent on any centre. They studied systems theory and decentralised movements, and developed models that allow them to have thousands of small, decentralised, mutual aid groups. “That’s what gives them tremendous power to mobilise a lot of people.” Warren is given as an example of someone with a different worldview, a different social objective, who has nonetheless been able to adopt some elements of the movement power model to achieve their aims.

2000–2010: Colour Revolutions

During the “colour revolutions” of Georgia and Ukraine in the former Soviet Union, and then in Burma, and in the Arab Spring in countries including Egypt and Lebanon, it was not the major political parties that ended up leading the social uprisings, because structured, hierarchical organisations could not absorb the momentum, Engler and Saavedra argue.

“The people who could absorb the momentum were these scrappy groups of college aged youth who were thinking about the hybrid, and understood the theory, and frontloaded, and decided a new organisational culture.”

Ahmed Maher was trained specifically in the hybrid model of organisation by activists from Otpor! (Resistance!) in Serbia, and deployed at least some of this metastrategy in Egypt during the Arab Spring – helping to bring down the dictator Hosni Mubarak. Maher told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!: “Our structure is something between centralised and decentralised, like groups decentralised, but there is a main group to have a connection with those groups. And also, over all Egypt, there are many youth groups, but they link to each other like a network of groups, of youth movements. So it’s our structure.”

2001: Jimmy Wales 

Social movements can also learn from more commercial examples of mass participation, autonomy and open source. The prime example is Jimmy Wales and the Wikipedia reference website. The site was launched with very clear rules of how people could contribute, but members of the public were invited to write about any subject of their choosing, and even become editors. This demonstrates how organisations with a high level of autonomy require the frontloading of a strategy, culture and rulebook that are highly structured. 

“The structure has been devised precisely to allow people to participate. The rules are enforced collectively. Linux took years to develop the operating system, based on the source code and the rules… That took a lot of frontloading. A lot of that is taken for granted.”

2000: Ivan Marovic

(c) Creative Commons 3.0 / Joulupukki / Wikimedia

The Otpor!(Resistance!) network of Serbian revolutionaries is given as a “bad ass” example of the hybrid model, and is described as the “first open source movement”. The decentralised organisation offered mass nonviolent direct action training. They had proved that they could create “multiple moments of the whirlwind in their country”. 

Ivan Marovic, one of Otpor!’s founders, systematised the model and then did training around the world. Engler received training from Otpor! where he learned most about the movement power approach. “A foundation was willing to give us money to do training, but insisted we attend nonviolent training from Serbian activists. “We thought, ‘fine, we will sit through this boring nonviolence training.’”

He learned that the students’ general strike had shut down the university system in Belgrade for six months in 1998. However, “they could not keep the momentum alive”. As a result, they moved over to the hybrid model, bringing together the mass protest and the organisation traditions. 

From 1998 to 2001 they devised new approaches and built a huge movement. “They really devised different ways of thinking about the hybrid model.” This included abandoning hierarchy. This allowed them to absorb new organisers into the movement. They developed cycles of two to five years. “They toppled their brutal dictator, Milošević.”

1973: Gene Sharp

Gene Sharp is credited with developing the theory of integration between the structure and the momentum traditions of social movements from Mahatma Gandhi. This systemisation has been incubated in the Albert Einstein Institution founded by Sharp and in the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. 

Sharp published The Politics of Nonviolent Action in 1973. His approach is perhaps best encapsulated in the books The Dynamics of Nonviolent ActionFrom Dictatorship to Democracy and How to Start a Revolution. The theory has been developed by understanding the interrelations between practitioners (activists), scholars (researchers) and trainers. The aim is to develop a cycle of active popular support, escalation and absorption.

1969: Ludwig von Bertalanffy

Engler describes how the momentum power model of social organisation is based on the work of “organic system theorists”. Although he does not mention Ludwig von Bertalanffy specifically, the theorist’s magnum opus General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications is among the first and the most accessible introductions to the philosophical approach. 

Engler describes system theory as “one of the most complex ways of thinking about how decentralised structures can work”. He explains that “academics and consultants … apply how nature runs decentralised organisational models to human models of organisation. We are going to borrow some of their work.”

1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.

The activists who first adopted the momentum power model of social organising often refer to Martin Luther King, Jr. to find a model that can do many cycles of momentum campaigns. This is outlined in my first article in this series. “We thought our coalition would create a model that would create a new civil rights movement.”

1948: Mahatma Gandhi

(c) Public domain

The integration model, as the name suggests, retains the best of the structure and the momentum traditions to create a new hybrid. Mahatma Gandhi is credited with being the first person to fully understand how “these two dynamics work”. The Indian National Congress was strong on the structure work, with national and local committees, but Gandhi was known as being like a “magician” because he was able to create “whirlwind” moments.

1935: Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson is described as one of the first activists to understand the need for autonomy and decentralisation, and these characteristics are seen as fundamental to the success of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) movement in the United States. Engler observes that the 12-step programme of AA has engaged millions of US citizens, who are now “actively engaged in supporting each other”. 

Engler adds: “Some are surprised to learn that the programme is based on anarchist organising models that were developed over six years with six original groups.” Wilson, we are told, developed the DNA of the programme by systemising the steps and the tradition that allowed each group not to implode, but not to “interfere with each other”. The traditions are very complex. The DNA has clarity, it can be reproduced, and it can be distributed.

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist.

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