Social Movements Cannot Prevail Through Secrecy

Excerpted from Dmytri Kleiner:

“Social struggles are not won by clandestinity and intrigue, but by mass struggle. The major social victories of history, the civil rights movement, the labour movement, the feminist movement, and many others, had the effect they had because of mass support and the mass mobilization of supporters, not because of heroic secret missions conducted by clandestine revolutionaries.

This myth of the adventurist, intriguing, even ruthless revolutionary is very powerful, Chernyshevsky, Nechayev, Bakunin, Edlridge Cleaver, Lenin and many other seminal revolutionaries believed strongly in this view, yet despite the inspirational role these people played, the degree to which they accomplished what they set out to is quite limited. Lenin and the Bolsheviks could be a counter example, since everything from secret identities to armed robberies colour their history, it was not until their path united with the popular movements against Russian participation in WWI, among other causes of unrest, that they ultimately prevailed.

Clandestine operations imply a kind of vanguardism that acts on behalf of the masses without their knowledge and consent. The actual role of secret operations are necessarily limited to acts of sabotage, symbolic “propaganda by deed,” or perhaps actual criminal activity used to finance capacity building in the movement. While these sorts of acts may be at times justifiable and even necessary, they can not play primary roles as they do not ultimately directly contribute to mass organization, and most activists, myself included, will not be participating in such activities. In most cases, such activities will hurt the movement, or at least be counter-productive.

Technologies designed to help build mass movements do not need to focus on privacy or cryptography, as the messages must be open and public, movements are powerful exactly because they take a public stand. A secret demonstration is not a demonstration of social power, it can only be perhaps an act of annoyance to the rulers, not a threat to them, it can, at best, be source of inspiration for the masses, but never anything more.

In terms of the safety of activists, of course each case can be different, and in particular cases I have no doubt that privacy or anonymity may have helped keep an activist safe. However, to me the very act of standing against rulers is inherently dangerous and the belief that they need to know the truth to hurt you is false. All they need is an identity, the rest they can plant or fabricate out of whole cloth. Identify must be know if a movement is to be a mass movement, and the leaders of such movements must proudly stand among the masses. Thus, safety born of secrecy is most likely illusory.” (

2 Comments Social Movements Cannot Prevail Through Secrecy

  1. AvatarFrank

    This argument overlooks a very important aspect: before a movement can become large and powerful enough to actually make a public stand without getting obliterated by its enemies, it needs to grow, it needs to form consensus, strategies and coordinate tactics and it needs to gather financial and immaterial support from people at important nodes in the existing power structures. All these activities are very difficult if not impossible if carried out from the beginning in public, as the powers that oppose social change for the better have no problems sabotaging all these necessary preparations, and they do as we have seen time and again. So anonymity, encryption and the associated tools and practices _are_ needed, at least for the initial phases of social movements. It is far to easy to take then out early on if they neglect this.


  2. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    I disagree. Even in the initial stages, especially in the initial stages, it is impossible to gather support without openness and the courage to take a stand and be known (except in violently repressive relationships); this does not mean that ‘everything’ should be done in public of course; infiltration and repression tactics are actually much more potent in small groups that have paranoid structures and practices .. it is precisely to counter them that openness is necessary.

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