Anarchist Interventions: A Review of Anarchism and Its Aspirations and Oppose and Propose!: Lessons from Movement for a New Society by A. Cates


The Institute for Anarchist Studies’ (IAS) and AK Press’s new book series, called Anarchist Interventions, begins with the publication of two books: Cindy Milstein's Anarchism and Its Aspirations and then Andy Cornell's Oppose and Propose!: Lessons from Movement for a New Society. (1) Milstein's book is a thoughtful primer on anarchism in the vein of Alexander Berkman's The ABC of Anarchism. (2) Cornell's book is a historical case study of an anarchist-inspired organization called Movement for a New Society (MNS), which analyzes and evaluates the many lessons the organization lays out for current anti-capitalist organizers. Using Cornell's book as a case study, readers are able to get a concrete example of many of the aspirations Milstein covers in her writing and see some of the limitations of those aspirations.

Movement for a New Society strived to be a cadre-style organization that combined community organizing and the creation of counter-institutions rooted in revolutionary principles and ideas. Cornell relates:

“MNS members believed they could serve as ’leaven in the bread’ of mass social movements responding to...crisis, giving them the tools and nonviolent principles they would need to effectively make a social revolution. In the short term, they believed, radicals needed to develop strategic campaigns that combined organizing and direct action to win ‘revolutionary reforms’ while simultaneously building alternative institutions based on radical principles, which could serve to model the future society.” (3)

For them, a cadre was an organization of people united by a revolutionary nonviolent politics that was committed to creating and implementing revolutionary organizing strategy while building its members' political education and skills and creating a non-oppressive organizational culture. Unlike the traditional cadre model of Marxism-Leninism, in which cadre members are professional, full-time revolutionaries disciplined by majority-rule decisions, MNS's model, following the lead of the Quakers and anarchism, utilized decentralized leadership and consensus as its main method of making decisions. While this approach would later limit the organization in many ways, members believed it was the clearest way to build a non-hierarchical culture that could push forward a living model of revolution. The living revolution that MNS so ardently attempted to embody and push forward is a concrete example of the aspirations of anarchism that Milstein argues for in her book.

At the heart of Milstein's argument is the position that anarchism strives to build a free and liberated world through both destructive and reconstructive means. Milstein offers an eloquent elaboration on the core of what she calls anarchism; this core is an ethics of liberation, freedom, equality of unequals, from each to each, mutual aid, ecological orientation, voluntary associations, accountability, joy, spontaneity, and unity in diversity. These principles, historical overviews of how classical and modern anarchism came into being, and theorizing about direct democracy and current forms of protest fill out a holistic look at anarchism. It is useful to see the totality of Milstein’s writing as a manifesto on the principles and core values that a broadly defined anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist organization or movement might incorporate into its politics.

The openness, adaptability, and transformational nature of anarchism that Milstein describes is a much-needed intervention in current political projects and organizing. It is a call for movements and organizations to strengthen their abilities to analyze, evaluate, and re-strategize as the political terrain changes through their self-activity, agency, and organizing. Her articulation re-centers humanist ideas in revolutionary political struggle while emphasizing that these principles will and must be transformed as part of the very nature of struggle itself.

Milstein argues against pragmatism in politics. Yet the limitation of her book is not its lack of pragmatism, but rather its lack of answers to the complex questions that arrive from the tension between pragmatism and the revolutionary ideal; questions such as, “How do we deal with a growing reactionary right that is also opposed to the state?” For this reason, Cornell’s look at MNS's attempts to deal with these tensions and the balance between organizing and building counter-institutions is helpful in both better understanding what Milstein is getting at and in pushing her ideas forward in practice.

The ethics described by Milstein formed the foundation of MNS’s philosophy along with ideas, theories, and practices from other traditions such as Marxism and the Quakers. The group's effectiveness and relevance seemed to stem from its creative, imaginative, and effective mixing of theory, strategies, and ideas from a multitude of liberatory anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist ideologies, as well as from the way they retrofitted these for the context of their time and location. The group saw the revolutionary potential in taking these principles and broadening them to be the foundation for organizing projects, promoting an internal culture, and building revolutionary counter-institutions. As Milstein advocates, MNS equated the means to the ends, which was its great appeal to many revolutionaries at the time.

However, as Cornell outlines, MNS's mass work, with its emphasis on building revolutionary counter-institutions, gave way to the building of alternative institutions and counter-culture mostly because of the limitations of its leadership structure, consensus decision-making process, and homogeneous membership. Cornell argues:

“When the self-help efforts take place in the context of a revolutionary movement, such as the Black Panthers' breakfast program or medical center, they take on a revolutionary character. To be more precise, counter-institutions become revolutionary when they carry a revolutionary ideology, build a revolutionary organization, and take place with the context of open revolutionary struggle.” (4)

Movement for a New Society ended up prioritizing alternative institutions that were not becoming revolutionary or being built through revolutionary struggle, but rather provided a comfortable living for its members outside of the system while not directly challenging it.

The over-reliance on the creation of alternative institutions outside of struggle is a central weakness of Milstein's argument in her essay “Anarchism and Its Aspirations,” which opens her book. She claims that by simply building alternative institutions, anarchists are building the revolution. But this is only part of the work that must be done. Former MNS member Robert Irwin highlights this truth, saying, “Revolutionary system transformation toward anarchist ideals cannot be achieved through the proliferation of alternative institutions, no matter how exemplary.” (5) In order for alternative institutions to create dual power and revolution, they must either start out as or transform into a revolutionary counter-institution as part of a broader struggle for society-wide change. In Milstein's defense, she positions this argument differently later in the book by placing reconstructive ideas and institutions as part of protests and broad struggle: “Only when the serial protest mode is escalated into a struggle for popular or horizontal power can we create cracks in the figurative concrete, thereby opening up ways to challenge capitalism, nation-states, and other systems of domination.” (6)

However, for both MNS and Milstein's vision of anarchism, what is lacking is a clear understanding that alternative institutions only become counter to state and capitalist power when they help build a revolutionary organization, push revolutionary politics, and are built in the process of revolutionary struggle. Both Milstein and MNS too easily slip out of the realm of revolutionary ideology into counter-culture lifestylism.

In the case of MNS, the result of this slippage was the end of the organization. If your end goal is to broadly and expansively challenge state and capitalist power in addition to oppression more generally, lifestylism or alternative institutions cannot alone enact the sweeping transformation needed. The real power of counter-institutions, rather, is that they stand in direct opposition and resistance to the dominant power of capital while building forms of a new, free world. While small-scale initiatives have their place, a challenge to systemic power must happen on a broad, society-wide scale. Masses of people must be engaging in direct action that both takes back power through resistance and redistributes that power through the construction of horizontal institutions outside of capitalism, the state, and forms of oppression such as white supremacy. Milstein gets to this point in her fourth essay, called “Reclaim the Cities: From Protest to Popular Power.” However, the frame of this essay seems more intended to temper protest movements into building reconstructive institutions than to place reconstructive efforts within the context of revolutionary struggle. When paired with her earlier essay on the aspirations of anarchism and its emphasis on the importance of building small-scale alternative institutions, and if not read closely, it appears that she is calling more for a politics of lifestyle than of revolution. Taken at its best, it is clear that she is trying to push back on insurrectionist arguments that fetishize rebellion as the end goal and place anarchist politics more in the tradition that MNS was struggling for in its earlier days: a dialectical relationship of challenging power that considers both aspects separately but sees them as dynamically bound together.

Milstein's essays “Democracy is Direct” and “Reclaim the Cities: From Protest to Popular Power” strengthen her earlier arguments for a prefigurative politics by placing the building of directly democratic institutions and other forms of a free society as part of a challenge and resistance to capitalism and the state. Further, she takes MNS's lessons on the use of consensus and suggests that consensus has a place in high-risk and smaller-scale decision making, but that on the scale of neighborhoods, towns, and cities where there is a lack of homogeneous identity, it will take majority decision-making models to make decisions truly democratic. In order for majority decision making to remain democratic, it must be based on shared principles, direct criticism, and accountability to those principles. Movement for a New Society itself stagnated when its use of consensus would not allow for more diversity in identity and thought. This decision-making model stunted the organization's ability to transform itself as the politics and society around it were changing. This stagnation was also bound up in the homogeneity of the membership of MNS, especially in terms of race.

Given the large role that white supremacy and racism have played historically and currently in shaping capitalist and state power, lacking both a firm analysis and road forward in challenging this homogeneity within the organization itself and understanding the role these systems play in society as a whole was a large limitation in the continuing relevancy of MNS to revolutionary struggle. The lack of recognition of this in Milstein's arguments throughout her book is its largest limitation, and is a huge question hanging over it.

The experience of Black and Brown people throughout the history of the United States is qualitatively different than those of the majority of white people. Whether it is schooling, policing, prisons, access to health care, or employment, people of color, and specifically Black people, have faced inequality, segregation, oppression, and exploitation at the hands of white supremacy and the privileges of whiteness. This legacy has split organizations and movements, as well as shaped some of the most direct and revolutionary challenges to power in the United States. White supremacy's central role in building the US empire and what has become global capital poses specific challenges to how revolutionary struggle happens, who leads this struggle, and what a revolutionary politics and organization should look like.

One of MNS's greatest failings, which is echoed in Milstein's envisioning of anarchism, is a lack of a clear politics that challenges white supremacy both within society and within organizations. Revolutionaries will continue to face what MNS did: a racially segregated project that either must transform to centralize the experiences and lives of people of color within the organizational culture, politics, and leadership or just maintain itself as majority white organization with all the limitations that this brings. A challenge to white supremacy in all its forms and functions must be at the core of their politics.

Movement for a New Society's recognition of the need for a truly multiracial revolutionary organization in order to both effectively resist the status quo and to build a new society with the direct participation of those most feeling its burdens meant the dissolving of the organization. The members could not overcome their whiteness, which had shaped MNS as an organization for the majority of its life. This was, in some ways, buoyed by their lack of democratic leadership and a clear organizational strategy that could have enacted the widespread changes needed to shift the organization’s culture away from being so thoroughly white to being a culture shaped and participated in by a multiracial membership. As members of MNS point out, it was the conservative bent of consensus decision making that favors staying with the status quo that kept the organization from being able to create a “formal systematic method for internal education or improvement of its analysis, vision, and strategy.” (7) This is essential to challenging organizational barriers such as a culture of whiteness.

Without clear and formal leadership, informal or covert leaders are able to push the organization on a specific track without having to be accountable to group decisions, elections, or critiques, the tools that are most important to ensuring democracy in an organization. Formal, democratic leadership must carry out the decisions of the organization, even if those decisions, strategies, or theories seem to face large obstacles to their implementation. Leaders must be directly accountable for their actions and choices in carrying out these decisions. If the majority of the organization's members are unhappy with those choices or feel that they are not being made within the spirit of the decisions, those leaders can then be replaced. Movement for a New Society shows that this type of decisive yet directly accountable leadership must be in place in order to push forward internal transformation around questions of internal culture, political understanding, principles of operation, and political analysis of the contradictions facing society.

Milstein’s discussion of the aspirations of anarchism and Cornell’s presentation of the lessons of Movement for a New Society come at a time when the revolutionary Left is facing a growing global economic and ecological crisis. Organizations across the globe are trying to figure out how to fight for liberation effectively, successfully, thoughtfully, and in a principled manner while struggling to articulate a vision of what a free and just world will look like. Movement for a New Society's cadre model—the combination of building an organizational culture that develops the skills and potentials of a free society while organizing with masses of people and jointly building counter-institutions that can be prepared to take power—is both a useful and relevant historical example for revolutionaries to be looking at today. Their lessons—especially around the problematic use of consensus, the need for a multiracial organizational structure, forms of mutual aid and support for organization and community members, questions of leadership, the need for internal education and political analysis, and a strategy of dual power—are all important elements that current revolutionary organizations need to think about and consider. The ethics laid out by Milstein, the historical context, and the discussion of democracy as a core of revolutionary movements further elaborate on what one learns from MNS’s experience. The combination of these two books, both their strengthens and limitations, lay out many of the essential questions and ideas that revolutionaries must grapple with as they build organizations, campaigns, counter-institutions, and social movements towards the goal of anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist revolution and a free, liberated, and just new world.

1. Cindy Milstein, Anarchism and Its Aspirations (Oakland, CA: AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2010) and Andrew Cornell, Oppose and Propose!:Lessons from Movement for a New Society (Oakland, CA: AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2011).
2. Alexander Berkman, The ABC of Anarchism (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2005).
3. Cornell, 26.
4. Cornell, 104.
5. Cornell, 102.
6. Milstein, 110.
7. Cornell, 100.

A. Cates is a teacher and community activist living in Portland, Oregon. They enjoy listening to young adult and fantasy fiction on tape and fighting for a queer, liberated, and free world.

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