Learning from the Movement for a New Society: An Interview with George Lakey

From Visions of Spring

In 1971 a group of Philadelphia-based activists formed the Movement for a New Society, a network of collectives dedicated to radical pacifist, feminist, and libertarian socialist politics. Over the next 18 years the organization grew to a peak of approximately 300 members in more than a dozen U.S. cities and made important contributions to anti-nuclear, radical ecology, and gender and sexual liberation struggles. The Movement for a New Society (MNS) sought to combine organizing campaigns that utilized direct action tactics with a commitment by its members to “live the revolution now” by transforming themselves and their social relationships, as well as by living collectively and establishing alternative institutions such as food co-ops. Many movement norms and forms of activism that contemporary anti-authoritarians often take for granted—the consensus process, the use of spokescouncils, internal anti-oppression work, and a focus on prefiguring in daily life the world one hopes to win—were either pioneered or heavily promoted by MNS. In 1988 the group dissolved due to the inhospitable political climate and to conflicts and challenges that arose out of MNS’ own innovative group process and strategy. (Read an historical account of Movement for a New Society here.)

Though its experiences are directly relevant to challenges facing radical organizers today, MNS remains relatively unknown. In the summer of 2008 Andy Cornell and Andrew Willis-Garcés interviewed founding member George Lakey as part of an effort to begin evaluating the MNS experience and drawing out lessons for contemporary social justice struggles.

Movement for a New Society advocated nonviolent revolution. What makes someone a nonviolent revolutionary versus a pacifist?

GL: Pacifism is hugely influenced by conflict aversion. It really shows its middle class-ness in that way, I think. There is a tremendous level of a yearning for harmony because many pacifists see conflict itself as the problem. On the other hand, nonviolent revolutionaries welcome conflict, depend on it, and see polarization as absolutely essential. Whereas most pacifists hate polarization, we welcome it as long as polarization happens in such a way that we’re on the winning side! [Laughs] And then, of course, lots of pacifists are okay with capitalism and nonviolent revolutionaries are not. They are strongly anti-capitalist and often anti-state.

Why would someone who believes in non-violence naturally oppose capitalism and the state? What’s the linkage?

GL: I think Gandhi said it best: “Inequality is a form of violence, and requires violence to defend it.” On the political front that implicates certain types of states and that certainly is the nature of capitalism—to create inequalities.

MNS placed a lot of emphasis on “process”—on the way in which the group made decisions and carried out its work. One of the abiding influences of MNS on contemporary anti-authoritarian movements is the importance placed on consensus decision-making processes. How did process become central to everything MNS did?

GL: Well, there were a number of influences. Some of us had been involved in Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. So we thought, “Of course, participatory democracy!” Yet, even though we yearned for community and experienced it in fleeting moments during the 60s, a lot of our nature was very individualistic. So we named it. We said, “Look, we have not been brought up to be communitarians, truly collective beings.” We realized that the price of survival with all the ego-maniacs [in the group] was going to be an explicit process. Also, some of us were influenced by A.J. Muste, who had had a really bruising experience with [authoritarian decision-making structures] even before the 1960s, especially during his time in the Trotskyist movement. So we also had some lore from elders to help us realize we were going to need a big process renovation to be able to cohere at all.

Now, how do we make decisions? From the get go, as we created a community of people interested in exploring the idea of living together and practicing the revolution, I don’t even remember it being explicitly discussed. I remember it being a shared understanding, and that was probably the Quaker influence. There were a whole bunch of Quakers involved and it was just assumed that whatever we’d end up with we would have arrived at by consensus. (The thing that is tricky about that is that we were in formation, which means anybody that could see the direction that we were going and didn’t like it could just not come to the next meeting. So that’s like attrition rather than consensus!) But then, I think we formally decided that would be our process of decision making in our first National Network Meeting which was in Madison, Wisconsin. And the Madison people who invited us there were the Center for Conflict Resolution, whose specialty was consensus. They were saying, “Consensus is the way to go, the feminist way to go.” Another formative influence in the ‘70s was the federation of intentional communities. They were heavy into consensus and many people flowed through them and were influenced by them. So that was another standard setter maybe. There was a sense that, if you were really radical, really willing to leave the capitalist cutthroat world, then consensus was part of the package—that’s what community really means.

Many contemporary activists now believe consensus and affinity groups to be crucial forms of organization, but they don’t believe in nonviolence. Did you see those things—consensus and nonviolence—as integrally linked?

GL: Well consensus is a structural attempt to get equality to happen in decision making, so it’s very much about equality. So again, back to Gandhi: where we are pushing equality, we are pushing nonviolence. Where we are allowing or encouraging inequality, there is a violent back-up there somewhere, even though it might be masked. Affinity groups speak to the question of hierarchy. The more affinity group proliferation (plus other stuff being true), the less we need hierarchical, top-down, control of social movements, the more nonviolent those movements are likely to be, I believe. That is, I think hierarchy promotes violence internally in order to maintain itself. Like, sooner or later Hugo Chavez will probably live out the nightmare that the Beltway is trying to create for him. Despite all the populism, hierarchy has this influence, I think. And hierarchs end up using violence as a way to try to keep themselves in power.

Today, a lot of activists of our generation see consensus as the only legitimate way to make decisions, no matter what task or what kind of activity they are working on. Likewise, decentralized affinity groups and spokes councils are often viewed as the only valid way of organizing for revolutionary change. What do you think the lesson of MNS should be about the uses and the shortcomings of those forms?

GL: I think that one of the reasons that MNS isn’t still around is the downside of consensus. I was never a fanatical consensus person because I thought there was a big difference between my Quaker practice and political practice. I thought there were times where consensus would be just right and other times when it wouldn’t be. But I was charmed by Seabrook [a successful mass direct action campaign against nuclear power that took place in 1976 which was organized using affinity groups, spokescouncils, and consensus process] in the sense of, “Hey, let’s see how far we can take this.” MNS was a lab. We thought, “Let’s try it here and try it there and see how it serves and how it doesn’t.”

But eventually people started getting rigid about it. The metaphor I used to use was: we fitted out a pretty good ship, and launched it in the direction of someplace. But the rudder was fixed. So long as we were going in a direction we wanted to go in and there weren’t a lot of icebergs cropping up and so on, we could just keep doing that. However, what about when we needed to make really big changes, like the Titanic would have benefited from? We weren’t able to do it because the ability to block consensus was available to, really, anybody. I got really frightened about this when I heard some of our newer members explaining the main benefit of being a member of MNS was, “You get to block consensus!” By the late 80s a huge shift had happened in the movement to make it the way to make decisions. So I think in the 70s it was cutting-edge, and in the 80s it was settling in to the way and people had to argue for parliamentary procedure if they wanted to do it.

How do you think that shift happened, so that in some sectors of the left consensus became hegemonic and came to be what made you a radical or not a radical?

GL: My first thought would be a combination of the women’s movement and the anti-nuke movement. The anti-nukes movement proved its viability amongst people who weren’t ideologically on the same page. And the women’s movement brought righteousness, as with everything they did. It was the correct way to make decisions…to liberate the voices of all.

Let’s talk about the idea of “living the revolution now” or what today is often called “prefigurative politics.” How did MNS decide that was important and what were some of the benefits?

GL: Well I think there were several impulses that lead to it. One that weighed heavily with me was a sense of demoralization that came out of the ‘60s. Many felt it was all over and we’d failed. So how do you start something new in a largely demoralized bunch of activists? We needed confidence building measures. We needed to know that we could do something now, as well as project a vision and a strategy. Another impulse was making a living. We didn’t picture being a fundraising organization with that subsidizing the activists. Activists had to provide their own income. But, by living communally, the costs go way down. So some people said, “We love the idea of printing, so how about we start a collective print shop?” And that was employment for a lot of people. And a couple other people said, “The cheaper we can get quality food, the better, so let’s start a co-op.” Cheap food, that’s great, and livelihood for the people who’d be managers. So we had a chance to create something and make it work and provide some benefit to the neighborhood. So I think several agendas came together around prefigurative politics.

So one aspect of MNS was building alternative institutions. But there was also the idea of living your life differently, according to different values—including living collectively, not just working collectively. And this seems to be another legacy of MNS. Was there an assumption that by living in new ways, other people would see the value and change their own lives in accordance?

GL: This is a great question because this was the parting of the ways between those of us who stuck and many people who had MNS on their list of egalitarian communities to go around to. I don’t know how many people I talked to who said, “We’ll I’ve just been to Acorn, I’ve just been to Twin Oaks, and here I am. What do you got?” And I’d say, “Well probably not something you’d like. Because the cutting edge of our understanding of revolution is not lifestyle change. We think of it like ashrams in Gandhi’s ideas—the ashrams that he set up, which were base camps for revolution. So what do you do in the base camp for revolution? You get ready to go on the barricades. You’re getting ready to go to jail on the ashrams. And that’s what we are doing.” And so a lot of people would say, “Thank you for not wasting my time, I’m out of here.” Because they wanted lifestyle to be the leading edge of change, and we clearly were not doing that.

For us the cadre model was really important. Our role in the neighborhood safety group, our role in the food co-op, our role in anti-nukes movement was not to get people to buy our lifestyle. That’s not the point. Now if they happen to see that we’re doing effective work side by side with them and they say, “Its funny, we’re in this very discouraging period and I’m feeling it’s all over and your not feeling despair,” maybe that’s an opening. You can talk about why you don’t come to the meetings in despair. So it’s not that we are closed or closeted about it, but you have to figure out how to be accessible enough to connect with other people.

Another former member, Betsy Raasch-Gilman, claims MNS had “a positive allergy to leadership.” For many young radicals today leadership is still anathema. When MNS was founded, what was the understanding of the role of leadership and of leaders within the group? How did that change over 17 years?

GL: My recollection of the early days of MNS was not allergy to leadership, but a growing weariness of male leadership. So I think the questioning of leadership in early MNS was much more coming from a feminist place. And very often when criticism of leadership behavior happened, it would be of masculine styles. Some members wrote a wonderful article called, “Speaking in Capital Letters.” It argued that the way men in mixed groups tend to prevail, or try to prevail, is that they say everything very emphatically as if its been thought about for months, even though they’re making up in the moment! So there was a lot of criticism of leadership behaviors but it was put in a feminist context. Which implied that we need strong women leaders who will have different styles some times. And this lead to some amazing things happening. A group of women got together and requested-slash-demanded that I give them a seminar on political theory because that was an arena they felt like they needed to catch up on with male leaders of MNS. And we didn’t talk about the fact that I, a male, was giving a seminar to women on political theory. In a lot of circles that would sound terrible. But we just saw it as skill transfer or knowledge transfer. Five years later I wouldn’t have been able to do it because, in addition to being weary about George, Bill, Dick, and so on, on the grounds that we are all men, the criticism had shifted to the fact that we were providing leadership at all. Who needs leaders?

So that changed in five years? What were the roots of that change?

GL: Well, I think that’s really complicated. There were a few things. I think it was the communitarians, in part. Because there were communitarians that went off to Twin Oaks or whatever, but there were actually others who thought, “Yep, this [MNS] is a great set-up. And we don’t mind going to demonstrations now and then.” So, people were coming to MNS that weren’t that involved in strategic political work. [Their idea of] “living the revolution now” was their big draw.

Another issue was each wave of “ism” that we responded too. Feminism was the first one, then homophobia was the one we tackled, then classism and racism. Each one of those raised more personal growth issues for each of us. There are the men and the women saying, “Oh my god, I had no idea how sexist I was. Oh, but look how homophobic I am!” So the personal growth dimension constantly got refreshed and had a sense of urgency for us, living in community, by our increasing awareness. So we had tons of work to do. And that was important work, but it was different from organizing campaigns that require a different kind of leadership.

And another thing that was going on was this consensus principle, which at first was very much about a seeking. Another of our catch phrases was, “The wisdom of the whole is wiser than the wisdom of the wisest member.” We were going after the wisdom. It’s really different when a group is seeking wisdom through consensus, and when a group is making a decision, and its like, “You’ve said enough. This is the third time you’ve spoken!” “Yeah, but he happens to have done co-ops for twenty years and we’re talking about the co-op now!” “It’s the third time he’s spoken!

It sounds like the formality of it, rather than the underlying motivation behind the process, took over.

GL: The culture just really shifted. At one point, an organizational development consultant volunteered to work with MNS because it seemed as an organization we were getting sick. She had us do an exercise where she said, “All of you who are leaders in the organization, you go over there.” So like three people, blushing, go across the room. And she smiled and said, “Ok, all of you who do covert leadership, you go over here.” And about a third of the room gets up, including me, and goes over there. So it turned out there was this group of covert older male leadership—and this is so traditionally male, too, like we’re holding the family together. So that’s what we were doing, but not even talking to each other about it. It was just so fucked up. So I got us to be a men’s group for two years and we cried a lot with each other about how we didn’t want to be covert and have to manipulate to keep an organization afloat because we can’t come out of our closets as resourceful people. I kept saying, “What if we were to look at leadership as resources. And it depends on the issue. Like, on this issue you know more and I know less, and on another issue it’s different. So we’re scanning constantly for the most resources we could bring to bear on this decision.

So, as someone at the heart of one of the groups that is perceived as one of the most anti-leader organizations in recent history, what would you say to young activists today who see having defined leaders as undesirable or reactionary?

GL: Our experience says it doesn’t pay to be anti-leadership. It does pay to believe in shared leadership and to look at leadership as a concept of resource rather than as the likelihood of domination.

A couple of co-founders of MNS had been on Dr. King’s national staff in the civil rights movement. So they saw, up close and personal, what it’s like to rely on a charismatic figure. Even though the founders of MNS were in love with Dr. King, we also saw the tremendous vulnerability that produces in a movement and realized we need to create a leadership understanding that does not rely on charismatic leaders. But actually I think we went too far. We went reactive to the point where, “Well, if you have charisma, don’t bother to come by here!” I’m really glad that we understood that the whole question of leadership needs to be taken up. I think we went real far on leadership issues in our laboratory experiments, and we also didn’t go far enough and that’s what did us in.

Looking back, one difference between the period of the 1970s and today is that we were still close to genuinely inspirational leadership in the 70s—that is to say Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, and some of the people around them. And that stirred our blood, however critical we were of structural weaknesses that went with that. A lot of us activists yearn to be able to give our all in an exemplary way, to somehow live out our highest aspirations, and live them out in the political realm. And I think that when a figure like that comes along, it elevates the discourse and the aspiration of people. I think it’s easier for us to try to hold ourselves in a higher place. I wouldn’t have predicted I would say this in response to this question, but this is what’s coming out. It may be temperamental; it may have to do with that sector of the population like me, who respond to human beings being exemplary. Maybe other people are more inspired by books or by collectives moving in history or right now. But there is some batch of folks, like me, who toot some on the saxophone, but when we hear in a jazz club a group really getting down, we walk out of there somehow expanded. I think that those of us who were close to the 1970s saw a lot of the expanded behavior, expanded performance, in the realm of political action. That was part of the texture of our consciousness. And I don’t see that today. The quality of political leadership in the U.S. has just been so abysmal. I think on the radical side as well as on the liberal side. Abysmal is too strong a word. But what I’m trying to point out is a lack of figures who rise above, that are like that jazz club performance group that got into the zone, that make us say, “Yes, maybe I can get into the zone someday.” And I don’t run into that condition culturally and I don’t run into activists very often who seem to resonate to that, who can tell me the last time that they’ve been to that jazz club and have been lifted in that way.

You’ve been involved in anti-authoritarian social movements for five decades. Is there anything unique to you about the younger activists you’ve worked with recently or the political movements in which they are taking action?

There are some really positive, inspirational developments. For one thing, all this awareness of oppression/liberation issues. In the ‘70s, just taking on feminism was a huge, huge thing. And now we’ve got so many young people who understand a bunch of “-isms” and relationships among the “-isms” at some level in their cognitive map, if not all the way through. Also in the ‘70s there were still a lot of young activists who believed that the U.S. wasn’t structurally corrupted to its core by imperialism. They could still hold on to a believe that Vietnam was in some way an aberration or maybe it was an extreme of tendencies that could be found the lower key in other ways in Latin America or whatever. But it seems to me that younger activists are far more ready today to make a sweeping analysis. And then of course the environmental picture. When we were starting in the 70s, very few people shared our view. And now, even Al Gore does! [Laughs] So there are some real plusses in the way people start out today.

George Lakey’s first arrest was for a civil rights sit-in and he has gone on to play activist roles in a number of movements. He has authored seven social change books and has sometimes made his living teaching in college. Facilitator of over one thousand workshops on five continents, he founded the movement education center Training for Change.

Andy Cornell is an organizer and a graduate student who is completing a dissertation on mid-20th Century U.S. anarchism. He has recently written about the labor movement in Left Turn magazine.

Andrew Willis-Garcés is a community organizer in Washington, D.C.

This interview is dedicated to the memory of George Willoughby, who passed away on January 5, 2010. George Lakey writes, “George Willoughby, one of my most important mentors and a co-founder of MNS, died two nights ago at 95. George worked closely with A.J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, Dave Dellinger, and a host of others who experimented with nonviolent revolutionary approaches; for example, George was chair of the Committee for Nonviolent Action and was arrested on the high seas by the U.S. for attempting to sail into the nuclear testing zone of the Pacific. He’s been an anchor for me my entire adult life and was a prime mover in starting MNS. He was cracking jokes until a couple of minutes before his heart beat its last.”

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