Failed Movements and Movement Failures

By Rachel L. Einwohner

In my “Sociology of Protest” class, when we get to the section of the course that addresses social movement outcomes I always start off with a brief exercise. I put the following on the board: “A successful movement is one that ________________________” and then ask the students to complete the sentence. The students always come up with excellent responses and typically identify a variety of ways in which movements can be successful, including achieving lasting social change and increasing awareness of a particular cause or issue. We then use these responses to think about ways of operationalizing movement success, and move into a lecture and discussion of Gamson’s (1990) classic treatment of movement success in terms of acceptance and new advantages.

Reflecting on movement successes and failures for this post has led me to the realization that my class exercise does not give the topic of movement outcomes its fair due. The fault lies with me and not with the many wonderful students who have taken this class over my years at Purdue, some of whom may well be reading this essay (hello, Tom Maher and Alex Hanna!). It’s my fault because to finish a sentence that begins “A successful movement is one that…” requires that one see success as the property of mobilized collective action. Yet, as both Christian Davenport and Marco Guigni noted in last month’s essay dialogue, mobilization can be seen as a success in itself. My class exercise therefore unwittingly confounds what are actually two separate stages of success: movement mobilization and movement achievement.

Recognition of these two separate stages of success also illustrates two different ways in which movements can fail. A failed movement is an attempt at mobilization that never gets off the ground. The key here is the failed attempt. A failed movement is therefore distinct from the absence of a movement, or a situation in which no individuals come together in any attempt at mobilization. In contrast, a movement failure is the failure of a movement, once mobilized, to achieve any of the various types of outcomes identified by my students and many other scholars.

In this essay I’d like to focus on the former.

Resistance efforts by young Jewish activists in Vilna (Vilnius) Lithuania during World War II help illustrate a failed movement. A coalition of left-wing youth activists formed the United Partisans Organization (Fareinikte Partizaner Organizatsie, or FPO) in early 1942 and hoped to lead the ghetto community in armed resistance against the Nazis. These organizing efforts were among the first attempts at collective armed Jewish resistance in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe; indeed, organizers in Vilna spread the word about their efforts via activist networks to like-minded individuals in other ghettos and helped inspire similar resistance elsewhere, resulting in well-known uprisings such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 (Einwohner 2003).

Despite their efforts, however, the FPO was not able to mobilize the masses in the Vilna Ghetto. In the summer of 1943 the Gestapo became aware of the identity of Itzhak Witenberg, a Jewish Communist who was also one of the leaders of the FPO, and threatened to destroy the Ghetto unless Witenberg was turned over to them. The Ghetto community clamored for Witenberg, who had gone into hiding, to turn himself in; he eventually did so, and died in Nazi custody the next day. Given the community’s lack of support for Witenberg, the rest of the FPO members reluctantly decided to abandon their plans for armed struggle in the ghetto and chose instead to escape to nearby forests to fight along with Soviet partisan units. Some FPO members did stage a brief battle when German soldiers entered the ghetto on September 1, 1943, but the Ghetto masses did not join them. The surviving FPO members then left for the forests and the Ghetto was liquidated on September 23, 1943.

I’ve written about the Vilna case elsewhere (Einwohner 2007) and have argued that part of the reason why the FPO was not able to mobilize the masses was that it lacked authority in the ghetto; rather than supporting the FPO, the ghetto masses followed the Nazi-appointed leader Jacob Gens, who encouraged ghetto residents not to resist but instead to work in ghetto factories supplying the German war effort and thereby demonstrate their utility to the Nazis. But what happened after the FPO’s failed mobilization attempt is just as important as why it failed. The failure in the ghetto gave the FPO the opportunity to continue their resistance efforts elsewhere. In fact, once they fled the ghetto, some former FPO members became well known partisans who managed not only to survive the difficult conditions in the forests but also to carry out numerous acts of sabotage against German forces and even to join the Red Army in liberating Vilna in 1944. This partisan activity is well documented in historical sources and is also memorialized in art and music (for example here and here)  Indeed, the partisans of Vilna have become one of the best-known and most revered examples of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.

Was the FPO a failure? Asking the question this way is just as limiting as asking students to complete the sentence about successful movements. But if we recognize the distinction between a failed movement and a movement failure, we can say that the FPO was a failed movement: organizers failed to mobilize the masses in the place in which they hoped to act (i.e., the Vilna ghetto) and in the way in which they hoped to resist (i.e., an armed rebellion against the Nazis). It was a failed movement at a particular time and place. Further, if we pay attention to what happened after that failure, we can learn something about success as well. As Kevan Harris’ essay from last month notes, “Failed movements are not fruitless movements.” He uses the concept of “failed movement” differently than I am here, but I’d like to borrow his eloquent statement nonetheless. Because the FPO fighters went on to carry out acts of resistance beyond the ghetto, entering the historical and cultural record as famed partisans, this failed movement did achieve success in other ways. This case therefore illustrates a point worth thinking about further: failures of some types may lead to other kinds of successes. We will never know what could have happened as a result of a sustained uprising in the Vilna ghetto, but the failed attempt at that uprising may have made other types of resistance possible.


Einwohner, Rachel L. 2003. “Opportunity, Honor, and Action in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943.” American Journal of Sociology 109(3): 650-75.

Einwohner, Rachel L. 2007. “Leadership, Authority, and Collective Action: Jewish Resistance in the Ghettos of Warsaw and Vilna.” American Behavioral Scientist 50(10): 1306-26.

Gamson, William A. 1990. The Strategy of Social Protest (2nd ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Social Movement Failure

5 responses to “Failed Movements and Movement Failures

  1. Pingback: #FAIL – howtomakeafire

  2. Brad

    I’d suggest that a failed movement could be titled similar to an experiment in the scientific learning process. If one learns from the failure, shouldn’t it rightly be called a learning experience that improves our predictive skill? While defining possible death, torture, and other maladies that most often accompany many failed political movements as a learning experience may seem cruel, I’d offer my lay opinion that failing to learn from the sacrifice would be more so. Great article, thank you!


  3. Pingback: Why Movements Fail | Wade's Wire

  4. Pingback: Why Social Movements Fail: What Occupy Wall Street & Gun Control Protests Have in Common - The Preppy Trucker

  5. Pingback: Why Social Movements Fail - The Preppy Trucker

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