The long-term moral success and symbolic resistance of nonviolent social movements.

Anna Mundet Molas.


Many people still remember Gandhi’s Salt March as one of the great episodes of nonviolent civil disobedience in colonial India[1]. It smacked a challenging and definitive strike against British imperialism. Concretely, it wanted to defy a law of the British Raj which forced Indians to buy salt from the government and prohibited them from collecting their own[2]. But this is just one of the many disobedience acts Gandhi’s campaign of non-compliance carried out. The paradox is that while it was worldwide considered a crucial advance for the cause of Indian independence, it generated few palpable results after all.

In a similar way, Martin Luther King 1963 campaign in Birmingham had comparable accomplishments. Whereas it was regarded as one of the key drives of the civil rights movement, in fact, it was quite criticized for settling for a lot less than even moderate demands[3]. This seeming incongruity is worthy of study. More significantly, it gives evidence of how non-violent mass mobilizations foster real reformations in ways that may be confusing when viewed from a short-term results perspective.

The aim of this post is to understand the theoretical fundamentals of peaceful social movements. Do they usually arrive to any substantive upshots? This article intends to respond to the effects of this ambiguous cultural perception of conflict and violence. As society, we generally refuse homicidal and brutal replies while we clearly salute nonviolent and serene answers. But at the end of the day, accepting that violent acts are the ones getting the immediate impact, which of them are the most long-term effective?

Sydney Tarrow showed in his masterly reconstruction of internal dynamics of protest cycles how violent repertoires have different dynamics than nonviolent ones[4]. Donatella Della Porta also analyzes the relationship between political violence and social movements in her comparative analysis of Italy and Germany 20th political violence[5]. She states that in some contexts, the use of violent repertoires favored the movement’s success, whereas in both Italy and Germany political violence and terrorism endangered the development of the movements goals.

Coming back to our concrete subject of study, we must firstly consider that social movements usually function away from the world of electoral politics and community-based organizations. As the American community organizer, Saul Alinsky, established, there’s a kind of long-standing norm which asserts that short-term winning is of primary importance in choosing issues[6]. But nonviolent social movements need a symbolic deed: activists must design actions and choose demands which can tap into heterogeneous and inclusive principles, creating a discourse about the moral significances of their struggle[7]. We can say that its general overall approach is more indirect, they try to alter the political atmosphere; changing perceptions of what is possible and realistic. May the symbolic surpass the instrumental?

Secondly, in social movements, the grievances are generally not material. This means they cannot be solved by small adjustments to the status quo; they demand huge changes. The question is: Do these “moral victories” led to any real change? It seems like Gandhi’s salt satyagraha was a great example of this heightening and unarmed confrontation to reassemble public support and change of thinking. The salt law was of a merely symbolic significance but at the same time it clearly illustrated how a foreign power was being unfair.

We could also mention other symbolic and pacific social movements such as the 1968 reform mass-mobilization in Czechoslovakia. One of its most important impacts[8] was the increasing disillusionment of many Western leftist with Soviet views. In the long-term view, it perceptibly contributed to the later appearance of Chinese political liberalization in the Beijing Spring and it partly influenced the Croatian Spring in Yugoslavia.

In this sense, there is a consensus between political scientists about the great impact of mass mobilization on people. According to Mark and Paul Engler, there may be two essential metrics to judge the success of a symbolic social movement. Knowing that one of the main goals of nonviolent movements is to shift public opinion, the first thing to bear in mind is whether the campaign concerned has won more popular support for the movement’s cause. The second measure is whether a campaign builds the capacity of the movement to escalate further. More members, superior resources, further legitimacy and expanded tactical arsenal are factors to be considered[9].

At this stage, we’ve seen three different nonviolent social movements with short-term slight repercussion on one side but significant and determining influence in the long-term social perspective. To conclude the post, the Slovak politician Alexander Dubček quote can help: “They may crush the flowers, but they can’t stop the Spring”[10]. In other words, it seems like instantaneous violent crashes may give rise to twitter discussions and pissed off people but everlasting changes need time, patience and peaceful resistance to confer legitimacy.




  • Ackerman, Peter; DuVall, Jack (2000). A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Alinsky, Saul (1971). Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Random House.
  • Dalton, Dennis (1993). Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action. Columbia Press University.
  • Della Porta, Donatella (1995). Social movements, political violence, and the state: A comparative analysis of Italy and Germany. Cambridge University Press.
  • Engler, Mark; Engler, Paul. (2016). This Is an uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century. Nation Books.
  • Fairclough, Adam (1987). To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. University of Georgia Press.
  • Thomas, Joseph (2001). Social Movements and Violence. Mittal publications.
  • Williams, Kieran (1997). The Prague Spring and its Aftermath: Czechoslovak Politics, 1968- 1970. Cambridge University Press.



  • [1] Dalton, p. 36.
  • [2] Dalton, p. 92.
  • [3] Fairclough, p. 121.
  • [4] Thomas, p. 46.
  • [5] See her complete work on Social Movements, Political Violence, and the State: A Comparative Analysis of Italy and Germany (2006).
  • [6] Alinksy, p. 79.
  • [7] Ackerman and DuVall, p. 109.
  • [8] The Prague Spring was a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia during the era of its domination by the Soviet Union after World War II.
  • [9] Engler and Engler, p. 5.
  • [10] Williams, p. 147.