One of the deadliest movements of our time was the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia. For four years, the outside world did not know of the atrocities being committed in that country.
One of the deadliest movements of our time was the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia. For four years, the outside world did not know of the atrocities being committed in that country.

Mass Movements: What You Need to Know

A number of years ago, I began to research the topic of cults and mass movements for a novel on which I was working. I wanted to present in story form the experience that I once had of having been pulled unsuspectingly into a cult of people whose goal was to create a new world society. My experience was intense and life changing. I got out after a couple of years, and have been curious about these kinds of group-think movements ever since. The movement which this group was trying to create failed, and only minor remnants of it remain. The goal of this cult of true believers didn’t seem evil or even bad, but its means to an end were exceedingly manipulative and anything but honest. Until it fizzled out, it followed the pattern of mass movements that are outlined here.

Today, we are seeing several mass movements (Trump, Sanders, ISIS, al Queda …) happening right before our television eyes, and it would be helpful to understand a little better what they all have in common. Whether their original intentions are good or bad, the pattern that each exhibits is similar to that of all of them. The details may vary, but the overall pattern is the same: 1) Rise of a charismatic leader, 2) Hand picked lieutenants who plan and oversee the subsequent action, 3) Crowds of enthusiastic believers in the message, 4) Once in power, it establishes its own rules to monitor the behavior of its loyal followers.

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Even the religions that we hold so dear have a history of violence and bloodshed as they sought to solidify their movements into accepted institutions.


The history of the world is filled with mass movements (large numbers of people moving simultaneously toward a common goal), some are political such as Communism and the French revolution; some are religious such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; and some are social such as the civil rights movement in the United States. There are characteristics that are common to them all and similar patterns in the way they evolve. This article is a primer on what you need to know before becoming a part of a mass movement.

The time and the conditions must be ripe for a leader to arise. There is a buildup in the populace of frustration and anger, and this can take place over a period of time. For example, Christianity arose and spread during a period of time when large numbers of people were either uprooted, or they were suppressed under a tyrannical ruler.

The Leader

When the time is right, an incident will happen that sets the stage for a leader, almost always male, to arise. This man is exceptionally skilled in the use of words to influence the thinking of people around him. The number of people listening grows, and grows some more. He has a natural ability to perceive the vagaries of human nature, and uses this to his advantage in getting people to believe him and to follow him. In his speeches, he passionately echoes the innermost feelings of those listening and encourages his followers to express together their frustrations.

This leader is intelligent, a man of thought, and acts alone, rarely if ever seeking the advice of other intelligent men who might disagree with him. He is a solo act. He despises the present and seeks to destroy it, to create a future that he deems more acceptable. This leader is essential if a mass movement is to begin, and as he continues to move the crowds emotionally, he himself becomes fanatical for his own cause.

He undermines established institutions and criticizes those in power. He exposes the flaws in the ideologies held by the common people whether political or religious leading them to doubt themselves and the institutions to which they belong. He uses simple words that come to be seen as symbols of deeper meanings, and may even misuses words as if he doesn’t know what they mean. His messages may be indirect, unclear, contradictory. The quality of the leader’s ideas take second place to achieving the goal of changing the “world” as it presently exists. Part of the message is that because the past was simpler, more pure, and better, we must work to achieve that once again.

While this fanatical leader is indispensable to the beginning of a mass movement, he is incapable of implementing the consolidation of it. His gift is in persuasion, not organization. In those instances where a leader tries to keep iron control of his mass movement himself, the movement fades and disappears shortly after he dies mainly due to the in-fighting of those attempting to be his successor. To achieve success the leader must gather around him faithful strategists who are true believers, men of action, and excellent organizers.

The Organizers

These strategists are smart, clever, and may be ruthless in attempting to achieve the leader’s goal to which they, themselves, have become utterly committed. They are a team working together effortlessly to bring about united action. This is the dynamic phase of the movement where protests, often violent are likely to occur by crowds insisting on immediate drastic change. These protests are encouraged and may even be staged and manipulated by the strategists. These organized men of action are intent on possessing the movement and its outcome, and attract ambitious people who wish to further their careers. The use of force to gather more and more people into the movement can overwhelm whole populations even while the strategists claim that the people joined consensually.

Yet, even these organizers may be completely ignorant of the difficulties that lie ahead. They are not big-picture people who can intuit the long-term. These are short-term thinkers and doers trying to achieve the next objective as they see it.

The Joiners

People who join a mass movement have certain characteristics in common with one another. These are people who are immensely frustrated. They may once have had a decent middle-class or an upper lower-class life, but now they see their incomes and their situations declining. They remember good times, but feel that they no longer have them. They are immensely discontented, but they are not destitute. They want sudden and spectacular change in their lives. An articulate and charismatic leader has convinced them that this is possible if only they will follow him.

Further, a joiner of a mass movement may have felt as if he was alone, that no one understood or cared about his situation, that there was no possibility of redress for the wrongs that he perceives were done to him. Joining a mass movement for such a person is like joining a brotherhood. Suddenly here is a leader who understands, who echoes the frustrations felt by himself and so many others. The joiner is no longer alone.

Having joined, whether by persuasion or by coercion, the joiners need to blend in, learn the lingo, and learn how to behave in a way that is acceptable to the leader and to the movement. They imitate, and so lose any sense of self that they might once have had. Both those who joined by their own choice and those who were coerced into joining become fervent believers, because to do otherwise is to admit that they were cowards who could not stand up for what they once thought was truth. All existing ties to past allegiances must be broken.

Photo by Rajkumar Chaudhary, Bihar-India
Protests, large and small take place all over the world. If left alone, they may generally be peaceful.

Now, as true believers in the leader’s cause, they are ready to march lockstep into whatever action is required of them by the leader’s strategists. They see themselves as “the chosen.” They are estranged from their individual selves as they have become fanatical for the cause, and they feel free from any personal responsibility for actions taken in the name of the movement. Anyone not in the movement is seen as “other,” as “them,” and must be converted or eliminated. Force is seen as acceptable to further the movement, and the more that blood is shed, the more entrenched in their beliefs the joined must become to justify their actions.

The Outcome

When a successful mass movement gains the power that it has fought for, it morphs into a semblance of stability. It stops emphasizing its goal of immediate change and becomes more concerned with present realities. It stops being a movement and codifies itself into an organization or a religion or a government. It enters a phase where it creates rules and regulations and laws that will keep its true believers loyal. The message becomes vague, something that may be realized only in the distant future even while the organization seems to be making its doctrine more intelligible to the believers.

When looking at the mass movements of today whether they are currently rising or whether they rose in the past to become the established institutions of today, we might ask ourselves these questions.

  1. What is the message of the leader? Is it clear and easily understood?
  2. Does the movement/institution declare itself exclusive for only its members or is it the goal of the movement/institution to be beneficial, not only for myself but for the entire population regardless of ethnicity or general belief?
  3. If I join this movement/institution, what will be required of me? Do I have to set aside my values, to be a part of the group?
  4. What must I sacrifice to join this movement/institution and will it be worth it, for me and for those that I love?

The subject of mass movements is far more complicated than presented here, but this is written as a primer to get the reader started on his own journey of understanding this kind of societal change.

R. Z. Halleson

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