Building revolutionary bases

IssueMay 2012
Feature by Milan Rai
George Lakey photo: john Meyer

Nearly 200 years ago, revolutionary English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley argued that poets were the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’. The poet ‘not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered’, Shelley argued, she also ‘beholds the future in the present’, and her thoughts are ‘the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time’.

I’m reminded by these suggestions by the story of the Movement for a New Society (MNS), founded by long-time peace activist and author George Lakey (who Peace News is bringing to the UK for a speaking tour in July).

Andrew Cornell writes in his recently-published book on MNS, Oppose and Propose: ‘I began to realise that they had been among the most outspoken and influential proponents of a whole litany of practices that seemed to define anarchist politics thoughts the country [the US] in the late 1990s and 2000s: consensus decision-making, large-scale direct action campaigns using affinity groups and spokescouncils, collective living in major cities, calling other activists out’ and much more.

(One key moment in this process of diffusion was the mass occupation of Seabrook in 1977, described below.)

New model army

During a two-hour interview with George Lakey in March, I asked him about the genesis of MNS.

As we learned in the first part of this interview, published last issue, George came to the UK in 1969-1970 (when he persuaded Peace News to adopt the slogan ‘for nonviolent revolution’, which we continue to carry today). It turns out that the creation of the Movement for a New Society was ‘very much informed by that year’ in Britain. George explained that it was helpful to be away from his affinity group, A Quaker Action Group (‘that had been doing a lot of daring, adventurous nonviolent direct action against the Vietnam War’) to have time to think.

Travelling to the continent, George met Dutch anarchists ‘who had created a new movement called Shalom, which gave me new organisational ideas’. It was ‘a reflective year when I could listen and listen and then come up with a creative alternative, and that’s what Movement for a New Society was.’

Returning home, George brought together folk from A Quaker Action Group, and new associates who had been working with Martin Luther King Jr: Bill Moyer, Richard K Taylor and others. The idea was to create a new model of activism that would ‘combine community (so we could have the support that we needed and deserved) with prefigurative work (so that we would be creating alternative institutions) with nonviolent direct action’.

The group set up in West Philadelphia, near a university and a library, in a neighbourhood suffering ‘white flight’:

We bought a bunch of houses, which were very cheap, because white people were running away from black people. We dug right into the neighbourhood. We formed a block safety association to deal with the crime. We created a food co-op, created a printing collective. Created a community infrastructure, part of which was to benefit ourselves directly, like a series of communal houses, but also an infrastructure that would benefit the neighbours, that would enable us to reach out, reach out and deal with the racism, handle the crime problem such that we could stop the haemorrhaging of white people that was happening at the time.

The houses were bought with loans from sympathisers, repaid from rents, much as happens in Radical Routes housing co-ops in Britain today. The houses continue to be collectively-owned, by the non-profit Life Centre Association set up by MNS; the food co-op and the office/community space also still exist today.

Back in 1971, the area was sliding towards becoming a slum: ‘We stopped that, by our community organising. We supported integration, racial integration, and we brought down the crime rate.’ Part of that was simply to benefit themselves and their neighbours. Part of it was to build their own confidence as they faced up to the full implications of calling for ‘nonviolent revolution’:

We needed the confidence that would come from applying these ways of working to our own situation, making measurable progress, and being able to say: ‘Oh, OK, maybe there is something to this theoretical concept because we are making it happen. In a very modest way, but nevertheless we’re making it happen.

‘We are trying to be multi-dimensional. We are being friendly to cultural workers; cultural people like to come in, songwriters and arts people.

‘We’re organising the neighbourhood. We’re confronting the arms trade.

‘We are doing all these things at once. And what we find is we are attracting 40 people, 50 people, 60 people.’

Next thing you know, it was 100 people. Then it was 120 people. It’s all these folks who are available for creating something important.

MNS was a national network, starting on the East Coast in Philadelphia, and over on the West Coast in Eugene, Oregon, and in Los Angeles, California. (The latter was a group of students called ‘the Irvine Tribe’.)

To maintain the cohesion of the network, there was a ‘movement-building collective’ that travelled among groups interested in joining, ‘seeding affinity groups, nurturing relationships’.

Looking back, George suggests that the key mechanism holding the network together may have been the training, carried out mainly in Philadelphia:

We used training a lot as a device through which ideas were transmitted, relationships built, and people developed some confidence in each other.

‘‘It was night-and-day workshop time, and just constant story-telling and role-plays. They thought it was jail; it was Freedom Schools!’’

One of the things that I learned from the Dutch anarchist network called Shalom was that they had a small network of collectives that were bound together through a training centre in Amsterdam which was also a communal centre. I really admired that model from Holland. So Philadelphia became a training centre.

And most people, the collective members from around the country that joined us, spent at least some time in Philadelphia, building relationships, learning the lore, doing training, participating in writing projects.

Crunch time at Seabrook

Another key part of the social glue holding MNS together was something called ‘crunch’.

This was an idea that MNS had taken from the International Workers of the World, a radical trade union that still exists, and also from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Martin Luther King Jr.

Each collective had the right to ‘call “crunch”’:

If it called ‘crunch’, the other collectives in the network were obligated to support that collective, which most often would mean liberating a member of that collective to go physically to the support of that collective.

This ‘set a very high bar for joining the network’.

One of the collectives in the network was very involved in the Clamshell Alliance, an anti-nuclear-power coalition in New England. There was a massive mobilisation for the occupation of the site of a proposed nuclear power plant at Seabrook. The MNS collective involved ‘called “crunch”’, drawing in MNS members from around the country.

On 30 April 1977, more than 1,800 people from 30 states walked onto the site; 1,414 were arrested and held for 13 days in six New Hampshire national guard armouries. George describes what happened:

The big mistake of the governor of New Hampshire was, first of all, to make the mass arrests, and, second, to put the jailed people in enormous armouries rather than divide them into a zillion little jails. And so we had hundreds of people all there, in this big armoury, including people who had never been arrested before and had never thought deeply about social change. With our people.

So it was night-and-day workshop time, and just constant story-telling and role plays and all the rest. They thought it was jail; it was Freedom Schools!

It was fantastic. What an opportunity. And so one of the questions that came up was decision-making: ‘How do you make decisions when there are hundreds of people that don’t know each other?’

We had also borrowed some ideas from Swedish anarchists, at that time: ‘small-to-large-group decision-making’.

We introduced that into the armouries. And the small-to-large-group decision-making worked brilliantly. The spokescouncils, the plenary sessions, all of that we got to experiment with on a very large group basis, and it worked like a charm.

“We are reaching into the treasures of anarchism, drawing from the enormous resource of socialism, and reaching into Gandhiism....”

So people whose previous consensus decision-making hadn’t gone beyond 15 people would find that 500 people could make consensus decisions through these processes. And so those finally released from the armouries were ready to zoom out around the country to spread the word.

It’s been wonderful, it’s been a great adventure, watching democratic decision-making show up again – around Seattle, the anti-globalisation movement, and even now the Occupy movement.

I have read that the affinity group structure and consensus decision-making that became prevalent in the Western European peace movement during the 1980s was often spread by Europeans who had participated in trainings at the Philadelphia MNS Life Centre.


In our conversation, I asked George what he thought of Andrew Cornell’s book on MNS, Propose and Oppose, which I think is excellent, and should be read by everyone (there’s a more tempered review later in this issue). George said: ‘I love it. I think it’s a phenomenal book. Especially the lessons for today.’

The one hesitation George registered was what he saw as the overemphasis on the anarchist roots of MNS:

Because, in fact, the founding group was probably equally composed of [non-party] socialists and anarchists, and I think part of what gave us our creativity and appeal was the combination of the two, and the lively dialogue that went on between them, again using ‘nonviolent revolution’ as a way to think.

So, of course, we are reaching into the treasures of anarchism, and we are drawing from the enormous resource of socialism, and we are reaching into Gandhiism and pulling that out, and there was Quaker practice in there too, and we have all these things to draw from as we move toward an elaboration of nonviolent revolution, in order to avoid the ‘stuckness’ of socialists and anarchists sniping at each other.

This inclusiveness is one of the most attractive aspects of George’s five-stage theory of nonviolent revolution, spelled out in his book Toward a Living Revolution (to be re-published by Peace News in July).

According to that theory, we’re currently (in most Western countries) in stage three, where social movements are confronting powerful institutions but not in a position to engage in mass non-co-operation (stage four) or replace the powers-that-be with a parallel government (stage five).

George remarks that a feature of stage three is repression, something he feels the Occupy movement is struggling to come to terms with:

I keep running into Occupy people who are, on the one hand, saying: ‘OK, revolution, it looks like we’re up for revolution.’ But, on the other hand: ‘We want to stay safe’. Of course, that’s a contradiction that shows people aren’t quite ready yet, and so it manifests in conversations about security culture: ‘Maybe we can stay safe if we conspire together and somehow the FBI won’t find out about us, or won’t find out our identities, maybe if we put cloth across our faces, we can both stay safe and make a revolution.’

That’s part of the appeal of security culture.

There’s this whole gamesmanship that enters the radical forces, because those folks aren’t ready to accept the fact that revolution costs.

One of the things that we’ve got going for us in the US, that not every country has, is a recent period, that is the civil rights movement in the Sixties, within the living memory of some of us, where people knew: ‘Of course we’re going to pay for this, of course we’re going to be beaten by white vigilantes, of course we’re going to be hurt – some of us will be killed, and that is the nature of revolution.’

Within my lifetime people were killed in broad daylight for wanting to vote.

So if people are going to be killed for the right to vote, for sure people are going to be killed for re-organising society in a way that puts working people and the 99% first.

[This now] becomes a real life question, and people will be making choices.

God bless them, they can find wonderfully-underground ways in which they can keep themselves safe, it’s just that they won’t find ways of making a revolution by doing that, and then the rest of us will have to be going ahead and making a revolution.

In the making of that revolution, we will be helped enormously by the lessons learned and the tools developed by the Movement for a New Society, unacknowledged legislators of much of present-day activism (not only in avowedly anarchist circles).

MNS was a model of creativity, experimentation and radical synthesis, drawing together strands of thought and action from around the world, and the world has been immeasurably enriched by those who participated in it.

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