Not So Grassroots: Social Movements Fueled by the State

What do governments gain by sending their citizens into the streets? Grzegorz Ekiert and Elizabeth J. Perry advance the field of contentious politics and social movements with the study of State-Mobilized Movements—an example of which US citizens recently witnessed.

Red Guards in Tiananmen Square

By Grzegorz Ekiert and Elizabeth J. Perry

On January 6, 2021, the president of the United States incited an unruly crowd gathered for his “Save America” rally in Washington, DC, to attack the Capitol in hopes of blocking congressional certification of the November 2020 election in which he had been defeated. Shocking as this event was, it evokes recent actions by authoritarian leaders across the globe who summon mobs in a show of force, to legitimize their rule and undermine democratic institutions. 

Such efforts are not new, of course. In the early twentieth century, Nazis, Fascists, and Communists mobilized supporters to seize power and intimidate political opposition. In the USSR, Mao’s China, and Kuomintang Taiwan, party leaders and government agencies fomented mass passions, participation, and protest to further a broad range of state-sponsored projects. 

In recent years, however, these cases of State-Mobilized Movements (SMMs) were largely overlooked by students of contentious politics, as scholars focused attention on bottom-up movements that challenged the state in the name of disadvantaged and excluded groups and communities. Charles Tilly's conceptualization of movements as claims-making outsiders challenging members of the polity has constituted the foundation for theory and research on protest movements for the past four decades. Similarly, theorists of civil society assume that civil society organizations are basically autonomous from the state, able to counterbalance state power, make demands on the state, and hold government officials accountable. In short, from the perspective of the dominant literature on contention, the state is fundamentally passive or reactive, rather than proactive. 

Yet both historical and contemporary evidence makes clear that not only do social movements emerge to challenge other movements (in a movement-countermovement dynamic seen, for example, in the recent interplay between Black Lives Matter and white supremacy protesters in the US), but government officials themselves organize citizens to act collectively to advance state goals and interests. Major demonstrations and sustained movements around the world are frequently state-initiated and state-sustained. Government involvement is sometimes open and obvious; more often, it is covert and circuitous. Movements and civil society organizations may appear to be genuine expressions of autonomous social interests, grievances, and emotions, when in fact they are constructed and manipulated by state agents. This was the case with consequential historical events—such as the pogrom of the Kristallnacht in Germany in 1938 or the Rwandan genocide of 1994—as well as more recent protests directed against political opposition or foreign organizations and powers in China, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, and Poland (among many other countries) and under a wide range of political regimes, including well-established democracies. 

Moreover, the roots of much transnational social activism—mediated by seemingly “autonomous” NGOs and other civic associations—are often traceable to state agents. Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and other recent elections in Western democracies, which included opening fake websites, trolling the Internet, and calling for rallies and counterrallies, provides a poignant contemporary example of clandestine involvement by a foreign state in the social movement domain. As the recent civil war in Ukraine graphically illustrates, states may sponsor powerful movement-like organizations beyond their own national borders. 

Savvy authoritarian regimes routinely encourage and incorporate social movements as a key instrument of rule with considerable symbolic and political benefits. But SMMs occur under all types of regimes in all countries, including the US—from the Jim Crow South to Donald Trump. The dynamic and determinative role of state actors in movement politics—both domestically and cross-nationally—has not been fully appreciated, investigated, or analyzed.

In our coedited volume, Ruling by Other Means: State-Mobilized Movements (Cambridge University Press, 2020), we and other chapter authors examine a diverse set of historical and contemporary cases to explore the following questions: Why and when do states mobilize social movements? What are the technologies of mobilization (symbolic, material, and coercive), and how do they evolve over time? What dynamics of state-society interaction are found in these movements? And, finally, what are the consequences—for state and society alike—of relying on SMMs as a mechanism of governance?

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The analytical move we endorse, from treating the state as a target of protest and social mobilization to seeing it as a proactive agent in the domain of social movements and civil society, raises important questions about state motivations and mobilization technologies. States are skillful mobilizers because—as political analysts from Hobbes to Huntington have observed—they enjoy a considerable advantage in information and authority over other political actors and institutions. Social movements and civil society organizations (from nationalist groups in Russia and India to the Tea Party Movement and QAnon in the United States) constitute attractive resources for the state—or more often for factions within the state as they combat one another and defend themselves against competitors and challengers. State intervention into the social realm of autocracies and democracies alike reflects an expansive understanding of the proper domain of the “modern” nation-state that accepts movements and protests as a legitimate way of expressing citizens’ interests and identities. Moreover, across the globe we see changing patterns of state intrusion due to new technologies of surveillance and mobilization. 

Why and when states seek to activate social movements

In the social science literature, the extent of state intrusion into the social domain is traditionally linked to regime type, with mass mobilization techniques seen as a hallmark of fascist and communist regimes as well as certain populist authoritarian regimes. In democracies, mobilization is usually depicted as the domain of political parties and civil society organizations. History suggests that nondemocratic states have indeed been more frequent and skillful mobilizers of social movements than democratic states. 

Yet as Hindu nationalist demonstrations in India or the assault on the US Capitol make clear, democracies are not immune to SMMs, notwithstanding the different roles played by courts, legislatures, parties, and police. Chairman Mao’s injunction to student Red Guards at the start of the Cultural Revolution to “bombard the headquarters” and attack “capitalist roaders” among the top echelons of his Communist Party, bears a disturbing resemblance to President Trump’s invitation to his followers on January 6 to march on the Capitol to fight against “dirty business” and “get rid” of the “weak Republicans” and “weak Congresspeople.”    

In observing that SMMs can be found in all modern states regardless of regime type, we do not imply that states are unitary actors. To understand their role in the domain of social movements and civil society organizations, a careful distinction among state agents is crucial. Different government officials and agencies often facilitate different types of mobilizing efforts and support different societal forces; social mobilization may actually be a crucial dimension of intrastate conflicts. As we see in Trump’s hold over a large swath of the Republican Party, the capacity to mobilize various publics can be a sign of strength among contenders for power within the state. 

Why do states turn to the costly process of mobilizing movements? Five types of SMMs cover most historical cases:

The first type is a defensive or reactive mobilization in response to a threat posed by bottom-up protest movements and opposition forces. Examples range from the reaction to student protests in 1968 Poland to the 2012 Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong. In these instances, SMMs are intended to combat challengers and slow down or stop a threatening mobilization process from below. Mobilizing countermovements maintains the appearance of popular legitimacy and social support. Enlisting societal actors in defense of the state carries greater symbolic and ideological weight than overt state coercion. 

The second type is a spoiler or proactive mobilization in which the state incites societal actors to intimidate opposition forces and to preempt potential challenges. It is often used to undermine the diffusion of contention across national borders, as with the Russian state’s response to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. 

In the third type, state actors mobilize groups within society to enhance control over local or regional authorities or to resolve conflicts between branches of government or factions within the ruling elites. Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Trump’s attack on the Capitol are examples. In this case, SMMs are tools of intrastate conflicts and struggles offering mobilizers a competitive advantage by displaying a significant level of popular support. 

The fourth type uses social mobilization as a signaling device to show displeasure at actions originating from other countries or taking place beyond the borders of the (local or national) state. Protests organized in China against Japanese and American interests are recent examples. In federalist or decentralized political systems, local governments engage in this type of activity to indicate their opposition to political developments at the national level. 

The fifth type uses mobilization techniques for infrastructural development to undertake tasks that are difficult to achieve by routine bureaucratic implementation. The rural modernization projects of authoritarian Taiwan and South Korea were examples. 

Finally, transnationally, states may seek to mobilize collective actors across national borders in order to support territorial claims, destabilize international adversaries, and advance geo-strategic interests as in the Novorossiya movement, with large numbers of sympathizers supporting Russian military action in Ukraine. Although regime type per se does not predict the precise modes of state mobilization, some states use some technologies more often and to greater effect than others. SMM cases vary greatly across time and space and are not best understood as all fundamentally the same. Rather, our goal is to unpack distinctive political experiences reflecting different political, cultural, and temporal circumstances.

Protest in Moscow in support of Novorossiya on June 11, 2014

The dynamic of state-movement interaction

SMMs under all regime types operate in a dynamic and interactive field with boundaries that extend beyond standard state-society channels and include outside actors. Such movements are often decentralized, prone to diffusion, and weakly coordinated as they originate not only from the top echelons of the state but also from competition among bureaucratic agents operating in multiple structural and spatial locations. Both the mobilization technologies and the symbolic framing of SMMs involve considerable innovation, imitation, and adaptation on the part of state and society alike. In order to succeed, they must contain elements of authenticity and resonate with orientations and preferences of targeted audiences. 

From the charismatic aura of Chairman Mao in Cultural Revolution China to the anti-Semitism of state-sponsored protesters in Communist Poland to nationalist movements of contemporary Russia, we see the convergence of state messaging with prevailing popular dispositions among at least some segments of the population. SMM strategies mimic independent movements and organizations, with mutual borrowing of tactics and technologies. Cultural and symbolic resources are critical and often hotly contested (as with the Confederate flag waved by an insurgent inside the US Capitol on January 6). State-sponsored organizations may hijack oppositional symbols and discourse to stir up historical memories and mobilize ethnic and religious prejudices. 

States need not always undertake direct mobilization in order to achieve their goals. Often the state (or elements of the state) simply opens sufficient political space for societal actors to engage in contestation that serves state interests. We may think of this as creating a conducive “political opportunity structure” (to borrow the language of classic social movement theory), but here the opening reflects a conscious technology of rule rather than an unanticipated and unwelcome byproduct of elite division or state weakness. Under these circumstances, states may facilitate the emergence of new movements. States may also rely on existing movements to exploit synergies between their goals and state agendas. Some preexisting movements—such as right-wing militias in the US—discover common goals with elements of the state, and mobilize on their behalf, but in a largely autonomous way. Others cooperate unreservedly with the state. Yet these movements were not built by the state, nor are they financed or directed by it. The result is an ever-changing field of state-society interaction. 

Overt repression of civil society remains an option for authoritarian regimes that deploy SMMs. The examples of China in 1968 (with the demobilization of the Red Guards) and again in 1989 (with the repression of the Tiananmen Uprising) graphically demonstrate how military suppression may proceed hand in hand with SMMs. Regimes vary in whether they treat SMMs and coercive repression as complementary or contradictory strategies for restoring order in moments of crisis. Sometimes the two approaches are deployed simultaneously and reinforce each other; other times, they are seen as tradeoffs, while in yet other situations (when different elements of the state work at cross-purposes) they may even undermine one another. 

As states matured in experience and sophistication, the technologies and organizational infrastructure of state-led mobilization graduated from bureaucratic enforcement and patronage networks to diffused techniques based on new communication technologies and decentralized networks. Blatant state propaganda and censorship have been superseded by public relations strategies, electronic surveillance, and “astroturfing.” Mobilization is frequently less than transparent and based on a tactic of manufactured ambiguity with regimes actively concealing state agency and purposely blurring the boundary between state and nonstate sectors. The results can be seen in the creative use of oppositional street tactics and corporate-world techniques in the Nashi movement in Russia. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Nashi commissars at Seliger encampment in 2007

The contemporary state, thanks to highly developed communications capacity, is able to eschew traditional bureaucratic organizations such as hegemonic parties or trade unions in favor of direct social mobilization. But it does not always choose to do so. In China, semi-official “mass associations” (such as the Communist Youth League) continue to be reliable means of mobilization for “patriotic” protests. State-promoted movements may also use thuggish methods to intimidate and deter grassroots opposition—a phenomenon seen in the Jim Crow American South and contemporary Hong Kong alike. 

A critical question concerns the recruitment strategies of state agents. The state creates avenues for actors with preformed sentiments and grievances to express them against state-selected targets, as seen in campaigns against LGBTQ communities in Poland and Russia. While the classic communist playbook focused on mobilizing concentrated social forces (industrial or agricultural workers, students, public sector employees), today’s technologies are more likely to encompass diffuse social elements. Once powerful but now disadvantaged populations, such as laid-off workers in de-industrialized regions, are often key targets of recruitment. Traditionally marginalized populations, due to poverty or ethnicity, may be targeted for cooptation, as in Bolivarian Venezuela.

Individual motives for participation in SMMs vary considerably. Individuals may feel pressured to participate by peer groups or patronage networks. They may be driven by material concerns, but they may also respond to abstract symbols and values, partisan preferences, or personal allegiance to individual leaders. The assumption that such participation must be either coerced or based on self-serving calculations and attractive selective incentives cannot be sustained. We cannot assume that bottom-up movements are inevitably authentic whereas top-down movements are not. Participation in SMMs is seldom entirely forced or fabricated; these movements can reflect genuine sentiments, identities, and interests on the part of significant sectors of the populace. Successful state-led mobilization requires identity formation that cannot occur without some degree of complicity. State-mobilizing agents must carefully consider preexisting preferences and normative orientations among targeted groups and craft appropriate technologies of mobilization in response. But the mobilization process itself is a fluid and often transformative experience in which initial identities, preferences, and orientations can be significantly reconfigured—sometimes along lines that contradict the initial goals of state agents.

Implicit coercion and explicit inducements are not entirely absent from the realm of SMMs. Fear of losing one’s pension or job at a state-owned enterprise or worry over future difficulties in procuring government services may persuade otherwise indifferent citizens to participate. The allure of an immediate handout or the promise of a promotion or improved access to state-supplied benefits may serve as a powerful positive incentive. But SMMs depart from our stereotypic image of “totalitarian mobilization” in that these sticks and carrots are applied subtly, sparingly, and often surreptitiously.

In short, contemporary SMMs are often opaque in both motives and methods. New social media, sophisticated surveillance techniques, and decentralized GONGOs (government-organized nongovernmental organizations) often play a critical role. In many regimes, there has been a notable move from bureaucratic to market strategies, with the adoption of slick Madison Avenue-style appeals, the offer of lucrative competitive financing to participating groups, and the encouragement of bottom-up movement entrepreneurship in place of top-down management. These mixed techniques can be detected under democratic as well as authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes. In the United States, for example, President Trump (with the help of Fox News as well as his own now-defunct Twitter account) returned repeatedly to rowdy “campaign rallies” to promote his agenda, while in India, Prime Minister Modi looks for ideological validation from right-wing Hindu nationalist groups such as the RSS (whose demonstrations are also fueled by social platforms and media feeds). 

New social media—once hailed as a weapon for civil society to forge national and transnational networks of activism and hasten a seemingly inevitable global march toward democratic governance—have largely lost their erstwhile glow. Rather than provide an open platform for a more inclusive public sphere, social media often accentuate and exacerbate existing political divisions, favoring tribalism over tolerance. Government authorities, like social activists, recognize the utility of social media for targeting subgroups of the population with narrowly framed resonant messaging. Trump’s daily tweets, tossing out “red meat” to his Republican base, were a case in point. China and Russia are perhaps the most seasoned and sophisticated state sponsors of digital propaganda, with blogging factories that design and disseminate multiple lines of messaging tailor-made for different audiences

If new social media once promised to empower autonomous civil society vis-à-vis the state, the balance now appears to have shifted decisively in favor of the latter. The overwhelming advantage that states (and a few large companies) enjoy in terms of financial and technological resources permits them to dominate the digital domain. Increasingly, states exercise this dominance through covert Internet and cellular governance techniques conducive to SMMs.

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Outcomes and consequences of state-led mobilization

SMMs are a powerful weapon in the arsenal of the modern nation-state, but they can backfire. State encouragement of societal engagement can give voice to previously unspoken disaffection. A public which grows accustomed to street demonstrations is not easily demobilized and may in time redirect its populist activism against the powers that be. The possibility of defection is real, as illustrated in the famous episode at the beginning of the Romanian Revolution in 1989 when a crowd mobilized to support President Nicolae Ceaușescu turned against the dictator

For this reason, nationalist protests—even when undertaken with clear state support—are usually regarded with a certain degree of ambivalence and anxiety by the sponsoring state itself. As modern Chinese history shows, public displays of patriotism can escalate into calls for a change of political leadership or political system if the state is perceived as unresponsive to popular demands for a decisive show of resolve. Under such circumstances, state agents may themselves defect, converting a movement intended to augment state strength into its opposite. Contemporary Chinese regimes—even as they stimulate “patriotic” protests for purposes of foreign policy signaling and regime legitimation—remain aware of their own history and are quick to pull the plug on nationalist demonstrations that threaten to get out of hand.

Many, though by no means all, SMMs rely upon appeals to nationalism as an organizing principle. In multiethnic societies, however, nationalism is an inherently ambiguous frame that can easily estrange some segments of society. This is especially true of ethno-nationalist movements whose core cultural symbols resonate strongly with the sentiments of a particular subset of the populace. The effect of state sponsorship may be to alienate other social groups whose participation is needed to fashion a multiclass coalition for a successful counterrevolutionary offensive. Secession or revolution may be the unintended consequence of a state-sponsored nationalist movement that serves to splinter rather than to solidify the citizenry. 

Less dramatically, SMMs may simply fall short of desired objectives. Defensive/reactive mobilization can fail to weaken existing opposition forces or even strengthen support for the opposition. Spoiler/proactive mobilization may not manage to prevent potential challengers from arising. Factional conflict on the part of both state and society may intensify rather than abate, exacerbating polarization. Trump’s 2017 endorsement of violent white nationalists in Charlottesville fueled an interactive dynamic of protest and counterprotest on the part of right-wing and left-wing groups that escalated throughout the remaining years of his turbulent presidency. 

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The efficacy of technologies of mobilization is one variable in the likelihood of a movement’s success or failure, but it is by no means the only one. Contextual factors, including the extent to which state and societal goals are closely aligned and mutually reinforcing, are also key. Although new digital technologies enable the state or individual state actors to mobilize a wider and more diffuse social constituency, the resulting cultural and ideological diversity can easily undermine the coherence and commitment of a movement. Sometimes the outcome lies beyond the control of either state or society, with larger international forces working to further or to frustrate the objectives of SMMs. Foreign corporations, for example, may play a decisive role in the trajectory of SMMs fueled by economic nationalism.

“Ruling by other means” exhibits both the advantages and the disadvantages of circumventing the regular bureaucratic machinery of state in favor of a less routinized and institutionalized mode of governance. Whether SMMs represent the last gasps of doomed political and economic systems or the dynamic expression of powerful developmental states, they are a crucially important arena of state-society interaction. Not only do they challenge prevailing theories of social movements and state-society relations; they can have momentous—if sometimes monstrous—consequences. For better or worse, State-Mobilized Movements have been and will surely continue to be of world-changing significance. For that reason, we believe they should also constitute a vibrant research agenda for social scientists.

—Grzegorz Ekiert and Elizabeth J. Perry, Faculty Associates, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

Grzegorz Ekiert is a Faculty Associate and Harvard Academy Senior Scholar at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. He is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Government and director of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University. His research focuses on civil society development in new democracies in Central Europe and East Asia, as well as patterns of transformations in the post-Communist world.

Elizabeth J. Perry is a Faculty Associate and Harvard Academy Senior Scholar at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She is the Henry Rosovsky Professor of Government at Harvard University and director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute. Her research interests include contentious politics; the history of the Chinese revolution and its contemporary legacy; and the politics of higher education and cultural governance in China.


  1. Red Guards in Tian'anmen Square | The Red Guards were groups of students encouraged by Mao Zedong during the initial years of his Cultural Revolution. They attacked state officials and agencies accused of “bourgeois revisionism” that threatened to undo Mao’s revolution.  But the Red Guards eventually became too violent and radical even for Mao, who responded with a countermovement by recruiting factory workers into “Workers’ Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Teams.” Well organized and supported by the military, the teams of workers demobilized the Red Guards and took control of universities and other public institutions. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain China and US, (PD-China, PD-US)
  2. Inside the US Capitol at the height of the siege | Visual Forensics, Jan 16, 2021. Credit: Washington Post, YouTube
  3. 10th Anniversary of Chavez’s Coup Attempt | A disciple of Bolivarian socialism, democratically elected Hugo Chavez relied on state-sponsored community organizations to consolidate and maintain popular support. By giving citizens roles in local governance, Chavez was able to engender loyalty among his constituents over time and draw on them later for mobilization during contentious periods. As opposition increased, so did government financing of citizen groups such as the Bolivarian Circles and later the legislated Communal Councils. In 2002, thousands of Chavez supporters rescued him from a coup that ousted him from the Miraflores Palace for forty-eight hours. Credit: Miraflores/Getty Images
  4. A rally in support of Novorossiya in Moscow on June 11, 2014 | Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukranian control in 2014 was an aggressive move to regain territory that was liberated by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The belief that Ukraine has always been and continues to be part of Russia drives the ideology of the resurrected nationalist movement called Novorossiya (New Russia). Through state-controlled television, Putin was able to consolidate popular support for military intervention for the campaign to take back Ukraine. State-controlled media and social media pressed the narrative that the purpose of the campaign was/is to liberate the Russian-speaking population from the “fascists” of the Ukrainian government and military who have been fighting to retain independence. Today, parts of Ukraine are being held by pro-Russian “rebel” forces, who receive aid from self-described civil society organizations like Novorussiya. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, LeAZ-1977, (CC BY-SA 3.0)
  5. Vladimir Putin 24 July 2007 | Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Nashi commissars at Seliger encampment in 2007. From Ruling by Other Means: “While consolidating control over television and the party system, the leadership created an ecosystem of pro-Putin youth movements and loyal ‘GONGOs,’ or government-organized nongovernment organizations, to take the president’s case to the public and to harass Putin’s opponents. For example, participants in Nashi, the largest of the resulting youth movements, were frequently found protesting outside the US, UK and Estonian embassies and shouting down opposition protesters.” Nashi was directly funded by the Kremlin. Chapter 8: “State-Mobilized Movements after Annexation of Crimea: The Construction of Novorossiya” by Samuel A. Greene and Graeme B. Robertson. Credit: Wikimedia Commons,, (CC BY 3.0, CC BY 4.0
  6. Trump Supporters Hold "Stop The Steal" Rally In Washington DC Amid Ratification Of Presidential Election | Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people try to storm the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Demonstrators breached security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. Credit: Brent Stirton/Getty Images