Zolberg’s Moments of Madness

I summarize and critique a classic article in the fields of protest and social movements by Aristide R. Zolberg, “Moments of madness.” Politics & Society 2, no. 2 (1972): 183-207.

See also…

Zolberg’s Thesis

Zolberg’s thesis, designed to help us understand social and political change, is simple. During an intense social and political situation, such as a revolution, there is a mass feeling that everything could change. The main quote is in the first sentence: “what are we to make of moments when human beings living in modern societies believe that ‘all is possible’?” (183). Zolberg calls them, “moments of madness.” 

Theory: Moments of Madness

Zolberg’s theory is based on a combination of collective behavior and social psychology. Zolberg argued that such mass events are a temporary yet major disruption to normal patterns of social and political behavior. The result is a collective sense of “madness” that temporarily overtakes individuals and groups, wherein they believe that the old order of things is no longer viable — they think that something was wrong with it — and a new order could be built. Madness occurs only during some periods and in special circumstances. 

These moments are opportunities for individuals and groups to experiment with new ideas and forms of collective action, power structures, and ideologies. It allows people to see themselves anew, and thus it allows them to see society anew. 

“In short, that project, repeatedly achieved at least in part, consists in the immediate transformation of society through a drastic change of the conceptions human beings have of that society and of themselves” (203). 

In this cognitive liberation (e.g. McAdam) “it is through drastic changes in the experiences of individuals, already socialized into the existing society, that the transformational processes noted above occur” (207).

Moments can create change because they are part of the process of major political change which, historically, have always featured some kind of protest. Thus, moments are tied to political participation, though the causality is not clear. Perhaps they have a reciprocal relationship — protest → madness → more protest → more madness … change, though protest perhaps occurs first.

The outcomes of moments are not necessarily a new and better society. Indeed, utopianism can give way to pessimism or dystopianism. “What we remember most is that moments of political enthusiasm are followed by bourgeois repression or by charismatic authoritarianism, sometimes by horror but always by the restoration of boredom” (205). However, there can be good things that come out of it. There are “lasting political accomplishments that are perhaps made possible only by the suspension of disbelief in the impossible which is characteristic of moments of madness” (206). 

Evidence for Moments of Madness

Empirically, Zolberg’s evidence is based on the writings, generally of intellectuals, from several major events in French history from the 19th and 20th centuries, including a revolution in 1848 and the civil unrest in May 1968. Zolberg quotes pamphlets that declare “All is Possible!” and a diarist who wrote about “an eruption of volcanic happiness,” of “absolute magic” (185). Zolberg writes about the “atmosphere of the streets” (185) where people feel free and think that a utopia (Marxist or socialist) is possible. Zolberg strings together the writings of these varied events because, together, they give “the phenomenon a persuasive concreteness each event may not possess individually” (196). In this method, the idea is to collect everything into one jar to better see their connections.

Criticisms of the Moments of Madness thesis

It is difficult to know whether such “moments of madness” really exist. From these writings it is difficult to generalize: they may exist for the writers that Zolberg quotes, but it is not clear whether these writers accurately portray the situation for others, especially those outside of the intelligentsia. Since the evidence is not wholly convincing, the merit of Zolberg’s thesis is whether we perceive that this might occur, or if we have lived through it ourselves, and know it to be true. 

The thesis ignores the role of elites in generating policy, and that turnover of elites does not mean that the ideas of the old elite will disappear. By cultural transmission or by pragmatism, policies are transferred to the new elite. Often, new administrations keep the policies of the old administration, because a brand new society is difficult to conceive and implement from nothing. Indeed, the moments of madness may yield nothing more than incremental change. Incremental changes happen all the time — do we need a revolution and the attendant moment of madness for these changes to occur? 


This article, published in 1972, was likely inspired by the events of 1968, when protests by students and workers, who were dissatisfied with the country’s social and political situation, were met with force by the government. 

Zolberg asks whether the moments of madness are rooted in features specific to French society. This would require a comparative perspective.

This post was written by Joshua K. Dubrow and funded, in part, by the National Science Centre, Poland (2021/43/B/HS6/01155) entitled “The Construction of Post-Pandemic Society: Covid-19 Street Protest in Poland.”