The international anarchist movement was reborn on new footings in the wake of the global insurrections of 1968, nearly all of which were decidedly libertarian in character. In the United States, the decade that followed was a time of experimentation and consolidation, as a surprising variety of groups sought to develop and adapt different aspects of the anarchist tradition to contemporary conditions. Sam Dolgoff and others worked to revitalize the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), alongside new syndicalist formations like the Chicago-based Resurgence group and Boston’s Root & Branch; Bookchin’s Anarchos collective deepened the theoretical links between ecological and anarchist thought; the Fifth Estate drew heavily on French ultra-leftist thinking and began pursuing a critique of technology by decade’s end. Meanwhile, the Social Revolutionary Anarchist Federation connected individuals and circles across the country through a mimeographed monthly discussion bulletin. Just as influential to the anarchist milieu that has taken shape in the decades which have followed, however, were the efforts of the Movement for a New Society, a national network of feminist radical pacifist collectives that existed from 1971 to 1988.
Though rarely remembered by name today, many of the new ways of doing radical politics that the Movement for a New Society (MNS) promoted have become central to contemporary anti-authoritarian social movements. MNS popularized consensus decision-making, introduced the spokescouncil method of organization to activists in the United States, and was a leading advocate of a variety of practices—communal living, unlearning oppressive behavior, creating co-operatively owned businesses—that are now often subsumed under the rubric of “prefigurative politics.” MNS was significantly shaped by aspects of anarchist thought and practice developed both in the United States and abroad. Participants synthesized these elements with an array of other influences to develop an experimental revolutionary practice that attempted to combine multi-issue political analysis, organizing campaigns, and direct action with the creation of alternative institutions, community building, and personal transformation. Although MNS never claimed more than 300 members, it bore an influence on 1970s radicalism disproportionate to its size, owing both to the strategy and skills trainings the group specialized in and to ways in which MNS vision overlapped with significant developments in the broader feminist and environmental movements.
As anti-authoritarian activists have widely adopted practices and perspectives that MNS promoted, some of these practices—such as the use of consensus process, and a focus on establishing new ways of living—have become so hegemonic within movement culture that they are frequently taken as transhistorical tenets of anarchist politics, or of radicalism more generally. A lack of critical historical evaluation has, unfortunately, lead many groups to adopt basic elements MNS tried out, without also taking up the important lessons participants derived from the shortcomings of their political experiments. A brief exploration of the history of MNS, then, may offer insights into dilemmas faced by our contemporary movements.
Radical Pacifism and Anarchism
The Movement for a New Society grew out of a Quaker anti-war organization in 1971, but it built on traditions that radical pacifists had developed throughout the twentieth century. After World War I, a new form of pacifist movement developed in the United States that was socialist and based on secular, rather than religious, rationales for opposing violence. While a commitment to ending all forms of war remained the movement’s primary focus, participants recognized that this required them to oppose the underlying causes of war, namely capitalism and the imperialism it spurred. Pacifists distinguished their methods from those of the major left parties by insisting on a correlation between means and end, and by encouraging adherents to live in a fashion as similar as possible to the ways they would in the ideal society for which they were striving.
By the onset of World War II, this radical pacifist movement had incorporated a variety of important anarchist influences. Gandhian philosophy, which became the movement’s primary inspiration, was, of course, heavily influenced by Thoreau’s individualism and Tolstoy’s Christian anarchism. However, Dutch anarchist-pacifist Bart de Ligt’s 1936 treatise The Conquest of Violence (with its none too subtle allusion to Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread) was also of signal importance. These thinkers deepened the pacifist critique of war to question forms of institutional social violence, and highlighted the contradiction between the state’s “monopoly on legitimate violence” and pacifist tenets. Domestically, radical pacifist circles overlapped considerably with those of a small cohort of anarchists in the 1940s, including figures such as Ammon Hennacy, Paul Goodman and Audrey Goodfriend. Many young anarchists of this period departed from previous generations both by embracing pacifism and by devoting more energy to promoting avant-garde culture, preparing the ground for the Beat Generation in the process. The editors of the anarchist journal Retort, for instance, produced a volume of writings by WWII draft resistors imprisoned at Danbury, Connecticut, while regularly publishing the poetry and prose of writers such as Kenneth Rexroth and Norman Mailer. From the 1940s to the 1960s, then, the radical pacifist movement in the United States harbored both social democrats and anarchists, at a time when the anarchist movement itself seemed on its last legs. A pacifist wing has existed alongside other anarchist tendencies in the United States ever since. The concerns and the approach adopted by the Movement for a New Society derive in large measure from the different itineraries taken by members of this earlier radical milieu during the 1960s.
Radical pacifists created the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942 and were important conduits of participatory deliberative styles and the tactics of Gandhian non-violence to leaders of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Meanwhile, the Beat culture, incubated by anarchists in the 1940s, fed into the more explicitly political counter-culture of the 1960s. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) drew on SNCC’s participatory structure and the ethos of the counter-culture to formulate two of the defining demands of the New Left: the implementation of participatory democracy and the overcoming of alienating culture. Yet, in the later 1960s, both the Black Freedom movement and the student movement, smarting from repression on the one hand, and elated by radical victories at home and abroad on the other, moved away from this emergent, anarchistic, political space distinguished from both liberalism and Marxism. Many civil rights organizers took up nationalist politics in hierarchical organizations, while some of the most committed members of SDS returned to variants of Marxist-Leninism and democratic socialism. If participatory democracy and cultural transformation could, together, be seen as a ball about to be dropped, the Movement for a New Society was one of the most important groups diving for it, working hard to keep it in play. The emergent women’s liberation movement likewise placed a premium on developing egalitarian internal relationships and making changes in daily life; not surprisingly, then, feminism left an enduring impact on MNS.
MNS emerged in 1971 as the new face of A Quaker Action Group (AQAG), a Philadelphia-based direct action group which had carried out creative “witnesses” against the devastation of the Vietnam War, hoping to “undermine the legitimacy of the [U.S.] government.” Perhaps most famously, members piloted a 50-foot ship, The Phoenix, on three trips to North and South Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 with cargos of donated medical supplies. By 1969, however, AQAG leaders began to recognize that the movement should aim not only to end the war in Vietnam, but to fundamentally reshape all aspects of life in the United States. AQAG presented a proposal to the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in March of 1971, arguing that the times, and Quaker principles, called for a broad program to combat ecological devastation, militarism, “corporate capitalism,” racism and sexism. The statement succinctly laid out a new vision for creating “fundamental social change”:
“We hope to catalyze a movement for a new society, which will feature a vision of the new society, and how to get there; a critical analysis of the American political-economic system; a focus on expanding the consciousness and organizing the commitment of the middle class toward fundamental change through nonviolent struggle, often in concert with other change movements; the organization and development of nonviolent revolutionary groups and life centers as bases for sustained struggle on the local as well as national and international levels; training for non-violent struggle; and a program rooted in changed lives and changed values.”
Although some members expressed considerable sympathy for the proposal, the AFSC declined to adopt the program. Undeterred, the coterie of approximately two dozen activists renamed themselves Movement for a New Society to reflect the broader aims and the secular status of the new organization. Beginning with small collectives in Philadelphia and Eugene, Oregon, they set to work building membership and developing their program.
Although not officially sanctioned by the AFSC, MNS was able to draw on the support of an established network of Quaker institutions to enlist a critical mass of members in the new organization. This broader network helped establish the group’s legitimacy, spread information, and provide monetary support crucial to bringing in a critical mass of participants early on. However, reliance on such a network for recruiting also contributed to the predominantly white and middle-class character of the organization’s membership in its early years.
MNS founders also undertook recruiting tours that presented the group’s approach as an alternative to the style and pace of 1960s movement work, which had left a significant personal toll in the form of widespread activist burnout in the early 1970s. Returning from one such trip, Berit Lakey and Paul Morrissey reported that, “People were so varied – old people looking for new hope and young people trying not to become cynical….The wholeness of the MNS approach – from analysis to action to community – generated excitement. More and more people are questioning the value of their scattered activities. Fewer and fewer are willing to put off their personal growth until “after the revolution”.
MNS’ multi-issue, multi-sided approach to radical change was first developed though a study group and collective writing project amongst AQAG leaders that resulted in two books, which served as the primary statements of MNS’ politics: Moving Towards a New Society and Strategy for a Living Revolution. As the organization took shape, the founders expanded the process of collective political education and analysis to include any member who was interested by developing “macro-analysis seminars”—long-term collaborative study groups modeled after the popular education initiatives of the civil rights movement and the ideas of Paulo Freire. MNS’ focus on an overarching analysis that sought to link seemingly disparate social problems and forms of inequality was innovative for a period in which activists fought to assert the primacy of racial, gender, or class oppression, and the concept of “intersectionality” was not yet widely accepted.
Revolutionary nonviolence formed the bedrock of MNS’ political analysis and its strategy. The group believed that war is inherent to capitalism, and that social inequality is itself a form of violence, maintained by the threat of direct state violence; this requires those who morally reject violence to become social revolutionaries. Members synthesized these core principles with recent developments in leftist thought. Foremost, this entailed a commitment to principles of ecology and environmental sustainability emerging at the time. MNS, additionally, placed the United States’ neo-colonial relationship with the non-industrialized countries at the center of its indictment of contemporary society. The group insisted on the need to “de-develop” the United States and other capitalist countries, as the members of these nations lived at rates unattainable to the majority of the world’s population and unsustainable given the limits of ecology. Influenced by the nascent women’s liberation movement, MNS incorporated from the beginning a critique of sexism alongside its indictment of racism (shaped by some members’ work in the civil rights movement). Yet white supremacy and patriarchy were given considerably less extensive treatment than political-economic concerns in the group’s early publications and statements. Bringing together a mix of Gandhians, anarchists, and unaffiliated democratic socialists, MNS promoted the idea of a “decentralized socialism” that had much in common with the “participatory economics” others were developing at the time.
“Economic enterprises, as we see it, would be socially owned, decentralized and democratically controlled…Political decisions would be made by participatory means, starting with the smallest face-to-face communities of citizens and extending upward to the global level. Nation-states as we now know them would cease to exist, supplanted by regional groupings, perhaps of those with common economic interests.”
MNS members were significantly influenced by a variety of anarchist titles published in the 1970s. Murray Bookchin’s 1971 Post-Scarcity Anarchism was a mainstay of the group’s macro-analysis seminars, not only for its ecological arguments, but also for the history of alternative forms of radical organizing described in the essay “Listen, Marxist!” Seminar participants also read selections from the Black Rose volume The Case for Participatory Democracy, edited by Dimitri Roussopolis, early works on libertarian socialism by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, and even selections from Alexander Berkman and Peter Kropotkin. The discovery of Sam Dolgoff’s The Anarchist Collectives, a history of worker self-management during the Spanish Civil War, was important to MNS members’ ability to imagine a process by which its collectives might develop into an entire social system. Still, many members were unaware of the influence of anarchist ideas on their organization, as attested to by a paper circulated internally in 1976, in which Bob Irwin, a member of the Philadelphia Macro-Analysis Collective, argued “the time has come to make explicit and evaluate the organization theory by which we have been operating… That organization theory, I contend, is anarchism.” Although some members individually identified as anarchists, MNS never did so as an organization, and doesn’t appear to have had direct ties with any of the self-identified anarchist organizations of the 1970s. In its early years, MNS was sympathetic towards socialist initiatives such as the New American Movement and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. Yet MNS hewed towards anarchist strategy by expressing “grave reservations” about electoralism or the potential for re-radicalizing the labor movement in the U.S. The group believed it could best contribute to the goal of a self-managed economy by creating worker owned co-operatives and other alternative institutions, while working to foment a broad nonviolent insurrection, organized on the basis of directly democratic councils, capable of toppling the current political-economic order.
Anarchism was perhaps most influential in regard to the organization’s structure. MNS saw that, in starting fresh, it had the chance to incorporate in its structure the principle—expressed most recently by the New Left, but earlier by anarchists and radical pacifists—that the movement should “prefigure,” or anticipate and model its goals in its own work. MNS’ introductory pamphlet declared its opposition to, “traditional forms of organization, from ITT [now AT&T] to the PTA [Parent-Teacher Association]… for they exhibit the sexism and authoritarianism we seek to supplant. Our goals must be incorporated into the way we organize. Thus the movement we build must be egalitarian and non-centralized.” Accordingly, the group developed a network structure that was directly influenced by a Dutch anarchist federation, Shalom, that had impressed founding member George Lakey during his travels across Europe in 1969. From the outset, MNS members relied on a consensus decision-making process, and rejected domineering forms of leadership prevalent in 1960s radical groups. The impetus to change the internal dynamics of radical organizations stemmed from a variety of sources. Inspired by SNCC—who in turn had been influenced by pacifists such as James Lawson and Bayard Rustin—SDS had promoted the demand for a participatory form of democracy, but had never formalized the concept into a procedure. The early women’s liberation movement responded to the sexism that marred New Left groups by roundly criticizing patriarchal leadership tendencies and attempting to craft egalitarian organizations of its own. The founders of MNS sought to build on both of these initiatives by developing and teaching a formal model of “democratic group process” which drew on the Quaker tradition in which many were steeped as well as the conflict resolution techniques some early MNS members practiced as professional mediators. Beyond adopting a formal consensus procedure with delineated roles, MNS drew on “sensitivity training” techniques, “role playing…listening exercises, and trust games” to increase awareness of group dynamics and challenge members to excise oppressive aspects of their traditional patterns of behavior. Members saw at least three benefits in this process: it helped empower more reserved and less experienced participants; it kept in check the sometimes competing egos of movement veterans involved in the organization; finally, the organization found the highly deliberative aspect of consensus useful in the group’s early stage when it was “searching” for new ideas, and building unity amongst its members.
MNS’ commitment to prefiguration was most frequently expressed in its injunction to “live the revolution now”—a reformulation of Gandhi’s classic instruction for his followers to “be the change you want to see.” In its early statements, however, MNS was clear that “living the revolution” served as only one practical aspect of a multi-pronged revolutionary strategy, not an end in itself. “We need to simplify and organize our life together so there is time for the confrontations that are needed if the old order is to fall,” begins the “Community” section of the group’s introductory pamphlet. Like many other radical theorists in the early 1970s, the founders of MNS believed that structural contradictions would create a crisis situation in the United States by the end of the century, if not the end of the decade. Whether that crisis could be turned to revolutionary ends, however, would depend on the consciousness of the majority of the U.S. population. MNS members believed they could serve as a “leaven in the bread” of the mass social movements responding to this crisis, giving them the tools and the nonviolent principles they would need to effectively make a social revolution. In the short-term, radicals needed to develop strategic campaigns that combined organizing and direct action to win “revolutionary reforms” while simultaneously building alternative institutions based on radical principals, which could serve to model the future society. For these efforts to be sustained throughout a long struggle and to ultimately be successful, activists needed training and to experience new kinds of community supportive of their work.
MNS demonstrated its approach to activism almost immediately. In July 1971, the newly minted group launched itself into the Baltimore harbor in a fleet of canoes and kayaks to blockade a Pakistani ship from docking to take on a shipment of military supplies. The confrontation grew out of a “study-action team” which began researching the impact of U.S. policies and business ties abroad. The team decided to focus on the Nixon administration’s financial and military support for the Pakistani military dictatorship, known for its brutal suppression of political opponents and the people of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Though its first attempt at blocking a weapons shipment was defeated by police and the Coast Guard, who hauled the peace fleet out of the water and into jail cells, the action received wide coverage in national print, radio, and television reportage.
Neither discouraged nor satisfied with their results, MNS expanded the campaign. The group joined forces with the Philadelphia Friends of East Bengal, whose members were more directly impacted by the crisis in the subcontinent, and appealed to the International Longshoremen’s Association, convincing the union to refuse to load military materiel bound for Pakistan. When MNS and its allies discovered another Pakistani ship was to take on supplies in Philadelphia in August, they again mobilized a sea blockade, but this time paired it with a picket on the docks. After an intense effort by the MNS fleet to evade police boats and place itself in the freighter’s path, the Al-Ahmadi managed to dock. However, following the lead of their local union president, the longshoremen refused to cross a picket line that MNS maintained continuously until the ship sailed away empty twenty-eight hours later. MNS employed similar tactics in April 1972, when it allied with Vietnam Veterans Against the War and local Quaker groups to block the USS Nitro from loading munitions bound for the Gulf of Tonkin. Though ultimately unsuccessful in blocking the ship, the skirmishes on land and sea proved so inspiring to the Nitro’s reluctant crew that five sailors literally jumped from the ship and attempted to join the war resisters in their canoes. These actions grew out of campaign models taught by MNS members with extensive experience in the civil rights and anti-war movements, including Bill Moyer and Richard Taylor, both of whom had held staff positions in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization led by Martin Luther King, Jr. The blockades reconfirmed MNS strategists’ belief that direct action could yield tangible results and educate the public through media coverage, but needed to be rooted in organizing campaigns and coalition building to be effective.
If the port blockades showed the commitment of Philadelphia MNS members to well-planned action, other developments showcased MNS as a national organization that was able to mobilize in solidarity with radical struggles on a moment’s notice. When federal officials seemed poised to violently oust American Indian Movement activists occupying the hamlet of Wounded Knee in March of 1973, MNS implemented a phone tree to contact participants throughout the network. Collectives in Madison, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Des Moines, Denver, Portland, and Philadelphia responded by organizing carloads of activists to converge on Wounded Knee within two days. Upon arrival, MNSers organized “observer teams” to position themselves between the troops and the occupiers. Although the activists may have forestalled violence in the first days, the government eventually forced their withdrawal. MNS later launched nationally coordinated protests less than twenty-four hours after news broke of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in 1979.
Beginning with its first collective statement, MNS emphasized that a major component of its program would be the creation of intentional communities of activists. As first conceived, the movement would be made up of six-to-twelve person Non-violent Revolutionary Groups (NRGs, or “Energies”) that would work on issues as teams, and “share their lives as well as work, sometimes living communally.” In Strategy for a Living Revolution, published in 1973, George Lakey explicitly described NRGs as a contemporary form of affinity group, though he did not cite the anarchist origins of that organization form. “Through NRGs, individuals can seek to live the revolution now by giving up the characteristic scatter of liberal activities which results in fragmented selves and soulless organizations, and substitute concentration and community.” MNS, then, was conceived of as a “network of small groups rather than of individual members,” that would coordinate their activities on the local, regional, and national levels. In areas where numerous groups were clustered, the movement would develop Life Centers: “more sizable, collective living arrangements for ongoing training and direct action campaigns.”
Members organized collective living situations in cities such as Savannah and Seattle, and in smaller towns like Ann Arbor and Madison. Participants typically lived in communal households and participated in one or more collectives focused on an aspect of the work (such as direct actions, trainings, or macro-analysis seminars). City-wide meetings and informal social gatherings knit the collectives together. Members dispersed geographically and involved in an expanding array of campaigns shared their ideas and experiences with one another through a lively internal newsletter, variously entitled Dandelion Wine, The Wine, and Grapevine, published monthly by a communications collective that rotated between MNS groups in different cities each year. The entire network met for a week, once a year, at Whole Network Meetings to socialize, strategize, and hash out policies affecting the entire organization. Whole Network Meetings in the mid-1970s brought together 100 to 120 activists, usually about half of those participating in the organization in a given year. After the first year, the NRG terminology fell out of use because rather than finding a primary political home in one specific affinity group, members tended to participate in multiple collectives, as well as their households and the local MNS community; commitment to the network had trumped commitment to the individual NRG.
While many cities hoped to develop Life Centers, only Philadelphia was able to maintain a community large and stable enough to offer the number of activities, collectives and alternative institutions originally envisioned. In January 1976, when an internal census was completed, a ten block area of West Philadelphia was home to nineteen collective households composed of four to eleven people each, with names such as “The Gathering,” “Kool Rock Amazons,” and “Sunflower.” Members of these households worked in twenty-two different MNS collectives including the Feminist Collective, the Training Organizing Collective, the Simple Living Group, and the Peace Conversion/B-1 Bomber Collective. Households operated independently—choosing their own members, and establishing policies about what was purchased jointly and how much members were required to contribute to expenses. Household cultures varied: some shared religious practices, others shared their entire incomes. Until the mid-1980s, MNS did not pay anyone for their movement work. Members were encouraged to work part-time jobs to earn the “bread money” they needed for monthly household expenses and personal items. Some members worked retail jobs, sometimes at co-operative enterprises, while others took on construction work, taught college courses, or staffed Quaker-related organizations.
MNS strategy prioritized the creation of alternative institutions which modeled egalitarian and anti-capitalist values. Philadelphia members created a worker-owned print shop and a member-run food cooperative, while a Baltimore collective opened a toy store. Later the MNS publications committee launched a commercial publishing house, New Society Publishers. These businesses provided jobs to MNS members and services to the movement and others in the neighborhood. After a series of rapes, members also helped organize a block association that worked to prevent crime through community building. The block association rejected an increased police presence in favor of teams of neighbors which patrolled on foot armed only with air horns. The association also offered victim counseling, which it believed was “helpful to prevent over-reaction in the longer run,” meaning the racism underlying the crime fears of white people living in racially-mixed areas of West Philadelphia. Alternative institutions were meant to demonstrate that radical activity could create immediate, concrete improvements in people’s daily lives—improvements which, the founders believed, would give activists confidence and were more likely to attract neighbors and those not already radicalized to participate in MNS than were its seemingly remote utopian visions.
Beyond serving as a base for alternative institutions, collective living was meant to allow members to live “simply” and inexpensively, permitting them to dedicate more time to movement work and to reduce their environmental impact. Moreover, living in community was expected to promote the “personal growth” of MNS members. This commitment to individual transformation was perhaps the most ambiguous aspect of the MNS project as it combined personal empowerment exercises with spirituality, and the unlearning of oppressive behavior through a variety of radical therapy practices emergent at the time. Initially, members’ commitment to personal growth meant involvement in self-help and self-care activities, such as yoga or learning to become “active listeners,” which were intended to aid them in becoming more effective in their daily lives and in their organizing work. Within the organization’s first year, MNS members in Philadelphia began an extended process of understanding and rooting out sexism—and later homophobia, classism, and racism—within the organization and in members’ personal lives. As these discussions progressed, personal growth came to mean shedding the internalized strictures of an unjust society—racist and ageist conditioning, patriarchal gender roles, and bourgeois “hang-ups.” Though this process began with discussions internal to the group, it grew to take on other forms, including the development of “theory papers” and educational work. A Philadelphia men’s group, for instance, took steps to publicly challenge traditional gender roles by holding street meetings. Recounting an early experience, they asked Dandelion readers to, “Imagine twenty men, speaking very personally about men’s liberation, holding hands and hugging, giving each other the needed support for such a scary situation, singing loudly and proudly about how we don’t want society’s “John Wayne Image.” MNS understood that the personal was political, and, therefore, saw the process of individuals developing aspects of their personality not sanctioned or encouraged by social expectations as a victory in itself. Moreover, they understood that unlearning oppressive assumptions and behavior was crucial to becoming better organizers.
Complicating each of these aspects of personal growth was the penchant most MNS members shared for “radical therapy” practices such as Transactional Analysis and, especially, Re-evaluation Counseling (RC, also known as “co-counseling”). Invented by former Communist Party member Harvey Jackins, RC seeks to overcome oppression through reciprocal psychological counseling sessions amongst non-professional individuals trained in the process. The theory proposes that all people have been oppressed, and suggests that the path to overcoming that oppression is through emoting about individual painful and shameful experiences, including those from childhood, in order for the co-counselor to move past emotional “blockages” and to think in a fully rational manner. Jackins believed that after dissolving all such blockages practitioners could inhabit a childlike state of joy and innocence. Despite the therapy movement’s hierarchical structure and revelations that Jackins had engaged in a pattern of sexual improprieties with female co-counselors, RC language and practice came to pervade MNS’ work. When deliberating sensitive issues, for example, members might remind each other that it was alright to act “on our feelings” but unhelpful to “act on our distress as it blurs good thinking.” In difficult meetings, facilitators often called for breaks to allow members to pair up for brief counseling sessions. In MNS, then, the Gandhian dictum that the revolutionary must change as she or he changes society merged with the growing interest in popular psychology, New Age spirituality, and gurus that occupied many former radicals in the 1970s. If the focus on personal development didn’t depoliticize MNS members, as it did to many of their contemporaries, it did shift MNS work in an individualistic direction which would have serious consequences for the organization in years to come.
Beyond developing personal skills, MNS communities were intended to shape movement culture by changing how participants interacted with each other. In an attempt to correct for the harsh style of many 1960s initiatives, MNS sought to model a form of radical politics that shunned aggressive and egoist behavior and included emotional support to one’s comrades as central to the mission of social change organizations. This culture of support manifested itself in many ways: the practice of physical affection, both platonic and romantic, through hugging and snuggling (non-monogamy was widespread amongst members); collective singing and other self-entertainment in the collective homes; and the habit of engaging in “light and livelies”—seemingly childish games (similar to today’s “ice breakers”) to keep energy and spirits up during long meetings. MNS, in summary, saw their form of collective living as an extension of the work undertaken in consciousness-raising groups, and as central to realizing the democratic ideal of individuals developing themselves to their greatest potential. A 1974 Dandelion article titled “MNS Support Communities” explained, “As members of the community gradually free themselves from oppressive roles and patterns of relating to each other (i.e., from sexist, ageist or racist conditioning), they provide an atmosphere of greater equality and openness for others. New members joining the community find themselves in an increasingly creative environment where they are being “asked”—simply by interacting with others—to be fully themselves, fully rational and loving human beings.”
The concentration of MNS members in West Philadelphia also made it possible for the Life Center to serve as a training hub for activists from around the world. MNS’ primary and most enduring contribution to 1970s social movements was the trainings it provided to activists in democratic group process, strategic campaign planning, and direct action tactics. Training collectives devised a series of learning experiences that varied in length from one day, to two weeks, to an entire year in residence at the Life Center. Other trainers traveled throughout the country, offering “4x4” workshops (two intensive four-day sessions with a break in the middle) to groups of nonviolent activists working together on a specific campaign, or simply living in the same town.
The anti-nuclear power movement came to national attention in the mid 1970s on the heels of a campaign of mass non-violent direct action to resist the development of the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. As the movement gained momentum, MNS was instrumental both in helping participants train for actions and in encouraging the movement to structure itself on the basis of decentralized affinity groups coordinated through directly democratic spokescouncils. Bookchin, who also played an important role in the Seabrook campaign, had discovered the tradition of organizing in affinity groups—small groups of activists with commonalities—in his research into the Spanish Civil War. At nearly the same time, MNS began independently promoting small group organizing, based on observations of how activists had behaved in mass anti-war protests in the 1960s and on the findings of group psychology studies that interested some members. George Lakey recalls that MNS first learned of the spokescouncil technique from a Swedish activist attending a training at the Life Center who had used the method in actions to block road development in his own country. MNS trainers traveled throughout New England in early 1977, facilitating workshops on non-violent direct action with members and supporters of the Clamshell Alliance, the largest anti-nuclear organization on the East Coast, which was coordinating the action. On April 30, approximately 1,400 people—many of them self-identified anarchists—occupied the site of the proposed power plant, with 1,000 or more doing support work. The occupiers were arrested en masse on May 1 and held at five armories nearby.
While the mass occupation, which occurred without violence or injury, was a stunning organizational feat in itself, MNS considered what happened next to be just as powerful and important. In the armories, MNS members and other action coordinators worked to build jail solidarity—the practice of prisoners bargaining collectively for conditions of their release, rather than being treated individually—and an egalitarian community in microcosm for the two weeks the protestors were held. By facilitating collective decision making on legal strategy using spokescouncils, holding trainings, and encouraging dance parties and other celebrations amongst the hundreds of detainees, MNS helped turn the incarceration from a repressive act meant to discourage resistance into one of excitement, empowerment, and networking. The Seabrook occupation marked the first time that the three organizational components that have since become de rigueur for anti-authoritarian mass actions—affinity groups, spokescouncils, and consensus process—were used together in the United States. After Seabrook, MNS trainers traveled throughout the country training anti-nuke organizations in consensus and encouraging them to adopt the spokescouncil model that had worked so well in New Hampshire.
By 1976, a number of interrelated problems and tensions had begun to develop within the MNS network. Despite the excitement of the burgeoning anti-nuke movement, many members felt frustrated with a lack of strategic direction in the organization. While in agreement with MNS’ long-term vision, participants were frequently unsure how best to contribute to the variety of movements active at the time. In towns with only a dozen or so MNS members, this lead to a high rate of turnover, as committed organizers moved on to more clearly defined projects; in Philadelphia, some left the Life Center but many others stayed on, viewing its internal life as the defining aspect of their involvement with radical social change.
At the 1976 Whole Network Meeting, members worked to address the “Philly-centric” way in which MNS was developing by adopting a 5-Year Plan which encouraged Life Center members to move to promising regions to establish MNS on stronger, less centralized footings. Owing to the plan and to interest generated by the important contributions MNS had made at Seabrook and other high profile events, the Movement grew to a peak of approximately 300 active members, with many more supporters, by decade’s end. This thickening of the ranks wouldn’t last, however. By the early 1980s, MNS collectives in cities from Chicago to Baltimore had gone through what Twin Cities MNS member Betsy Raasch-Gilman identified as a series of “boom and bust cycles,” owing to unresolved questions plaguing the group’s work in most parts of the country. “The tension between utopian community and a group of involved activists; the push for perfection in personal and political relationships; the confusion about membership and strategy all could be traced directly to Philadelphia’s model,” she claimed in retrospect. In fact, the decline and eventual disbanding of MNS can be attributed to four interrelated factors that Raasch-Gilman points towards: a growing emphasis on lifestyle over strategic organizing, the manner in which members carried out anti-oppression work, weaknesses of the group’s decentralized structure, and a fetishization of the consensus decision-making process. Evaluating each of these aspects of MNS’ history is complicated because of the decidedly mixed impact each had on the group and the wider anti-authoritarian milieu. MNS pioneered means to respond to problems and limitations that had developed in previous movements that have had lasting value; at the same time, the group’s own history indicates that these innovations included shortcomings of their own, unanticipated by their advocates.
While many found the sense of community MNS offered the most rewarding part of their involvement, it also lead to serious tensions that eventually contributed to the organization’s demise. MNS’ prefigurative community attracted some people whose conception of social change diverged sharply from early members’ assumptions, while it kept others with shared political commitments away. MNS’ rationale for group living differed in several respects from the often depoliticized communes and intentional communities formed by counter-culturalists in the late 1960s, but this wasn’t always obvious. Some visitors believed that an alternative, communal lifestyle constituted a sufficient form of activism. In line with the utopian socialist tradition, they argued that egalitarian communities could serve as a model of the new society which, through their obvious superiority to other ways of life, would naturally attract more participants and inspire imitations. George Lakey remembers encountering newcomers to the Philadelphia Life Center in the mid-1970s who saw it as another intentional community and “wanted lifestyle to be the leading edge of change.” He had to explain to them that, “the cutting edge of [MNS’] understanding of revolution is not lifestyle change. We think of it like ashrams in Gandhi’s ideas, 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.” Yet, by the late 1970s, the idea that lifestyle change formed the centerpiece of MNS strategy was pervasive both outside and within the organization. A writer for The Progressive, for example, described MNS as “Quakers gone counter-cultural.” Similarly, when founding member Richard Taylor did not immediately list lifestyle change after being asked to describe aspects of MNS’ strategy for social change during an interview in the late 1970s, the interviewer prompted him: “One would be lifestyle and modeling.” Taylor corrected her, explaining, “Well, one would be working with alternative institutions… creating your own.” After further prodding, Taylor conceded, “Lifestyle is important, but it’s only one of 5 or 10 key things…it’s not more important than non-violent direct action, or radical caucuses, or alternative institutions.”
While the place of lifestyle in MNS strategy was clear to its founding theorists, not all members and potential participants were as unambiguous in their thinking, and the understanding of the role of community-building eventually became muddled. By the late 1970s Raasch-Gilman saw MNS members fitting into two different categories: the “hard-bitten shop floor organizers” and the “new age hippie flakes.” MNS’ commitments to simple living, its expanding intra-movement jargon, and its counter-culture-derived social norms created a subculture which served to glue members together, but also threatened to alienate non-members in the broader left and the public at large. In September 1976, Madison, Wisconsin, MNS member Janet Hilliker caustically voiced her concerns regarding the subcultural tendencies growing in MNS in a letter to network’s internal newsletter. “What responsibility do we have to the many people who are culturally unlike us?” she asked. “Is our aim a new uniform society: everyone living in communes, working in food co-ops for lower prices, smoking marijuana, practicing nudity and free love, eating vegetarian, and changing their last names?” It took time for members to see that rather than creating a model of the new society, they were creating one of many possible new lifestyles that grew out of a specific configuration of values which they prioritized. One former member insightfully reflects, “A lot of what was defining our culture was our rebellion against white culture. So, we were a counter-culture, but we were actually counter to white culture.” This made MNS’ internal culture less appealing and transformative to people of color, and some white working class people, who had a different relationship to the dominant, white, middle class culture to begin with.
MNS members certainly were not alone in viewing personal practices, and the creation of alternative communities as touchstones of radicalism during the 1970s. Besides the movement centered on establishing rural communes, the ecological and feminist movements that MNS contributed to and overlapped with were increasingly focusing on developing alternative culture and community. Prominent members of the Clamshell Alliance, such as Cathy Wolff, “blamed the deterioration of the Clamshell on the turn toward pursuit of community for its own sake,” according to Barbara Epstein. Likewise, Alice Echols argues that “cultural feminism”—a form that promotes “new lifestyles within a women’s culture, emphasizing personal liberation and growth”—supplanted a more politically confrontational “radical feminism” by 1975. In part, the shift of focus towards new lifestyles resulted from an exhaustion from the sustained confrontation with political enemies that had marked the second half of the 1960s; in part it constituted an experiment in innovative approaches to social change for activists of the “new social movements” who sought different goals than traditional leftists had forwarded. Lifestyle was a strategy advocated in important theoretical treatises of the period, including those offered by anarchists. Though in the 1990s he would famously denounce the tendency towards “lifestyle anarchism,” Murray Bookchin clearly stated in Post-Scarcity Anarchism that, “in a more advanced stage of technological development than Marx could have clearly anticipated, a new critique is necessary, which in turn yields new modes of struggle, of organization, of propaganda and of lifestyle.” He asserted that, “to the degree that workers, vocational students and high school students link their lifestyles to various aspects of the anarchic youth culture, to that degree will the proletariat be transformed from a force for the conservation of the established order into a force for revolution.” Bookchin and like-minded thinkers of the time were unable to predict the intensity with which advertising executives of the 1970s would work to recuperate alternative lifestyles, harnessing the desire for self-expression to the needs of consumer capitalism to develop specialized niche markets for its ever-larger array of products, as Thomas Frank and Naomi Klein have since demonstrated.
As the MNS subculture solidified, members noted with growing anxiety that, “the center of gravity was no longer in work in popular movements…A quality of introspection became dominant.” In part, this inward turn resulted from the increasing focus on what MNS called “oppression/liberation work,” or “fighting the -isms.” From the outset, MNS members had dedicated energy to developing a deeper collective understanding and approach to combating sexism, gay and lesbian oppression, classism, and to a lesser extent racism, in the organization and in their personal lives. As the decade wore on these conversations took up more of the group’s time and energy. Committees developed sophisticated analysis of gender, gay and lesbian, and class oppression that sought to understand each within the context of one another, and identified ways in which these social hierarchies were detrimental to all involved, if in different ways and to different extents. By adding anti-oppression trainings based on the groups’ own experiences to the workshops it continued to lead, MNS became one of the first organizations to insist that members’ “working on their shit”—challenging all forms of oppressive personal behavior—was a central task of every radical group, regardless of the immediate focus of its work. Perhaps inevitably, given the exploratory nature of these efforts, MNS also took wrong turns. At times internal discussions took on a tone “shrill in moral judgment,” where tendencies soon to be identified with political correctness—such as guilt inducing righteousness—began to emerge, and to test the bonds of many local MNS collectives. Simplistic analyses and solutions to social inequalities emerged which indirectly challenged key aspects of the group’s original program. For example, as critiques of classism progressed, the macro-analytic theoretical work MNS originally prided itself on was increasingly critiqued as middle-class intellectualizing alienating to working class members. Meanwhile strategic campaign planning was sometimes written-off as “a masculine trip,” a “big-bang theory of revolution” where a transfer of power was likened to the male orgasm. (These members argued that, as in their idea of a more women-centered sexual practice, more attention should be paid to the process of social change, rather than simply the end result.) Eventually, MNS sought to refine ways of accomplishing the goals of soul-searching and changing personal habits while avoiding the “spiritual dead-end of the blame-and-shame approach.” As Lakey put it, this required MNS to make the “decision to become less fascinated with oppression than with liberation.”
The growing focus on lifestyle and the emergent critique of strategy in the name of combating privilege amplified challenges arising from MNS’ decentralized structure. As a network of semi-autonomous collectives, the organization found itself without formal bodies to continue developing theory and political analysis of current events, to establish long-term strategy, or to help collectives coordinate their activities nationally. Without such structures, long term campaigns to win reforms and redistribute power to everyday people were on the wane. In January of 1977, Dion Lerman wrote, “I feel that MNS needs to be more politically active and more relevant…We are not putting the time and energy that we need to into community and workplace organizing. When we do direct action organizing, which isn’t half often enough, we tend to stay in [the] Peace Ghetto, where many MNS people are from, organizing with liberals.”
Later that year, in a Dandelion article worth quoting at length, Pamela Haines linked MNS’ lack of strategic organizing to an unnuanced perspective on leadership developing in the organization,:
“Another thing that seems to hold us back is our attitudes about leadership. We have identified the dangers of authoritarian leadership and exposed the sexism that intertwines with it. We have developed more human forms of working together. We have demanded that people change oppressive behavior. But giving up on leadership altogether is a step backwards. The world needs all the good leadership it can get. If each of us avoids taking leadership because we identify it with male chauvinism or authoritarianism or elitism, then we give up part of our human potential – and we give in to our feelings of powerlessness. The result in MNS has been that people have at times held back from taking initiative or stating clearly where they thought the organization should be moving. An unspoken “do-your-own-thingism” has meant that hardheaded decisions about the most effective use of energy have not been made.”
Some members tried to combat this perspective by issuing publications, such as the pamphlet Leadership for Change: Toward a Feminist Model, which insisted on the need for an explicit model of “shared leadership.” They noted that despite the disavowal of leaders that had become widespread, various members still carried out what they believed were crucial leadership tasks. However, they did so informally and covertly, making the work less accountable and those completing it feel underappreciated. Movement inertia worked against such interventions, however.
The commitment to consensus decision making also began to hinder the organization. Lakey now states unequivocally: “I think one of the reasons that MNS isn’t still around is the downside of consensus.” While an organization is new and vital,” he argued retrospectively, “consensus decision-making can be valuable for encouraging unity. In the longer run, however, consensus can be a conservative influence, stifling the prospects of organizational change.” Indeed, the founders of MNS originally viewed consensus as a tool that could be very useful in specific situations. Richard Taylor explained in the late 1970s that consensus had worked for MNS in its early years because those involved in the process shared specific commitments from the outset. However, he stated, “I certainly don’t feel that consensus ought to be conceived of as sacrosanct, the only way to make decisions, or something like that…I certainly couldn’t see operating all of society on the basis of consensus.” Members of MNS, however, elected to use consensus in making all decisions that affected the network as a whole—including the writing of “official” literature. In addition to the principle that any one member could block a group decision, this process was severely hampered by the dispersed and constantly fluctuating nature of the membership and by the state of communication technology. MNS members, of course, had no access yet to the internet, but neither did they use conference calling or even speakerphones until the 1980s. Decisions between Whole Network Meetings had to be debated through the internal newsletter and personal mail. This sometimes slowed work to a snail’s pace. The refusal to delegate tasks and decisions led, for instance, to MNS taking more than two years to update a brief pamphlet describing the organization’s politics. Consensus and full decentralization, innovations designed to make the organization more effective, were beginning to visibly impede the achievement of its goals.
These factors had the combined effect of drawing MNS away from its vision of nonviolent revolution. As Philadelphia member Alan Tuttle wrote in 1977, “The theory and practice of MNS do not coincide. Probably the main area of disparity was in the talk of the need for a mass movement and the practice.” As early as 1976, Janet Hilliker noted with exasperation, “The aspect of our strategy which encourages active nonviolent revolution is being lost in rhetoric instead of tried out in practice. The multi-faceted, balanced strategy we have supported is one for which I’ve begun to feel an almost desperate need, merging personal with political concerns.” As MNS delved into the lived experience of oppression and focused on ways to not reproduce micro-hierarchies through its own efforts, the organization devoted less time to a structural analysis of how the same issues were playing out in the larger society. This left MNS insufficiently prepared to strategically respond to developments such as the Reagan administration’s assault on the labor movement and welfare state or the growing right-wing backlash against gains of the civil rights and feminist movements. As Raasch-Gilman admits, “We did so much difficult internal work because we had such a hard time confronting the larger social, political, and economic world in which we lived. It was easier to try to change ourselves and our immediate comrades than it was to devise long-term campaigns and strategies for changing the outside world.”
An Anti-authoritarian Cadre Organization?
In 1982 MNS entered into lengthy discussions about the future of the organization touched off by a statement by the Baltimore-based Pandora’s Collective. The booms and busts that had occurred in many cities shook members’ faith that the network was healthy and growing steadily. Meanwhile, the inward focus of the previous years left many unsure of what MNS’ contribution to broader movements was or should be. Two position papers significantly shaped the discussion, and the decisions that MNS eventually made at its 1982 Whole Network Meeting. The first, drafted by Bill Moyer, encouraged the group to develop from its current “spontaneous” organizational model to an “empowerment” model. The latter would combine the benefits of traditional bureaucratic organizations with those of the “spontaneous” type which MNS had been up to this point. The new model would seek to develop the abilities and leadership skills of all members of the group while creating structures allowing the group to establish priorities and carry out long-term work on a national level.
A second paper, Steve Chase’s “Reorganizers Manual,” provided a useful analysis of tensions within MNS. Chase argued that when it was formed MNS intended to be both an “exemplary” and an “adversarial” organization. It would be exemplary by “living the revolution now” through collective living, democratic group process, rejection of oppressive roles, and support for member’s personal growth. It would be adversarial by participating in and training others for strategic campaigns and direct action against exploitative corporations, the government war machine, and other unjust institutions. As Chase saw it, by the mid-1970s MNS had begun to lean much more heavily towards the pole of exemplary organization. The intense scrutiny of structure, of leadership, and of “group dynamics” represented the implicit prioritization of getting the MNS house—the showroom of the new society—in proper order. Chase concluded that this tension left MNS with a fundamental choice about what type of organization it would be: either a loose network of activists supporting each other’s work and commitments to live in a principled fashion or a “movement-building” cadre organization committed to strategically developing the power of radical social movements in the 1980s.
After considerable discussion, the network meeting accepted core elements of Moyer’s and Chase’s analysis, agreeing to reshape MNS into a movement-building organization based on an empowerment model. In terms of practical steps this meant that members committed to carrying out three types of work: 1) participation in grassroots organizations, 2) resource sharing with social movements (such as conducting trainings, raising funds, and promoting them in MNS publications), and 3) building and maintenance of MNS itself. Though an exact definition of an “empowerment model” of organization was never agreed upon, Raasch-Gilman sees it as “one with clear structure, form, goals, and politics which also placed decision-making and control with the lowest possible levels of the group.”
During the early 1980s, MNS members devoted considerable energy to new efforts, including Take Back the Night marches, women’s peace encampments, and a campaign against the deployment of Cruise and Pershing II missiles coordinated with European activists. However, in 1986, when members opened a discussion in the pages of The Grapevine evaluating the success of becoming an movement-building organization, most were unsatisfied with their progress. The Organizational Handbook had been rewritten to reflect the new orientation, and the structure had been finagled, but MNS participation in outside work still occurred individually. Members of MNS put in long hours, for example, in establishing the Pledge of Resistance, an effort to organize thousands of U.S. citizens to commit to non-violent resistance to direct U.S. military intervention in Central America. However, MNS lacked clear ways of contributing to developing struggles as an organization. The group, some charged, had not created means of establishing its own political program or agreeing to specific strategies that members were expected to carry out. With a declining focus on Macro-Analysis Seminars and even informal political discussion, MNS’ analysis had not only atrophied, but devolved throughout the 1980s. Chase noted with exasperation, “Ecology…was dropped from our official description of the core elements of our philosophy, along with decentralization, cooperative economics, and racial and cultural diversity, when, in 1984, the majority of MNSers agreed only to describe feminism and revolutionary nonviolence as the core elements of our philosophy.”
Through another round of searching, participants illuminated a number of underlying causes for the group’s inability to meet its goals. Some suggested that many members feared growing, which would threaten the intimate, familial feel that had developed within the tiny organization. Nancy Brigham pointed to an unstated philosophical sticking-point: “I think we may have a fundamental contradiction between our agreement to be a movement building organization and a deep belief that having influence is elitist or a misuse of power.” Finally, MNS had made little progress in bringing in new members, and of diversifying itself, due to the defining role its own movement subculture played in the organization. As Raasch-Gilman perceptively concluded, “We couldn’t really expand our cultural boundaries, because our cultural boundaries were what made us who we were.”
Despite clarifications and recommitments put forward in 1986, MNS was not able to overcome these internal contradictions. At its 1988 Network meeting, the 40 assembled members consensed to “lay the group down,” in the tradition of Quaker committees that have outlasted their usefulness. Doing so, they agreed, would allow them to devote their energy to new efforts able to more effectively meet the political challenges of the 1990s.
MNS and Anarchism, 1988-2008
In 1973 George Lakey wrote that MNS was proposing “a revolution which is decisively on the side of life against death, of affirmation rather than destruction. The revolution for life confronts the old order, but confronts lies with openness, and repression with community. It shows in its very style how different it is from the necrophilic American Empire.” In passages like these, we hear the hippie vocabulary of “affirmation” and “openness” crossed with indictments of the “necrophilic American Empire” that could have been lifted from the lyric sheets of the anarchist punk bands that sprung up in the 1980s. The common thread holding these seemingly different cultural milieus and approaches to change together was the centrality of building community, and the attempt to embody in their “very style” of action how they were different from the present system. Such rhetorical linkages are indicative of the role MNS played in bridging, transmitting, and transforming the anti-authoritarian politics of the late 1960s into the practices, priorities, assumptions, and attitudes that comprise the contemporary anarchist movement as it has taken shape in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s.
When MNS members laid the organization down in 1988, they left in place institutions that later generations of radicals have drawn upon. After the organization dissolved, a number of its most committed activists established strategy, direct action, and skills training programs and collectives, such as Training for Change in Philadelphia, Future Now in the Twin Cities, and New Society Trainers in Seattle. New Society Publishers outlived MNS and continues to publish important titles on feminism, ecology, and social movements, while a summer camp that MNS members founded continues to provide a safe space for children with queer parents on a sliding-scale fee structure. The area of West Philadelphia that was home to MNS’ Life Center became in the 1990s a hub of anarchist political activity and has in recent years become home to a vibrant radical queer community. These developments owe a debt to the infrastructure—collective houses owned by a land-trust, a member-operated food co-op, a community center—left in place by MNS. The low cost of living and sense of political community nourished by these institutions have provided a basis for a number of important interventions, including international organizing to free political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, an innovative ACT-UP chapter that worked to shift attention to the AIDS crisis in the Global South, important work for media democracy and low-powered FM radio, organizing resistance to the 2000 Republican National Convention, and the promotion of radical Jewish anti-zionist culture, such as the production in 2004 of the play “An Olive on the Seder Plate.”
Important as these contributions have been, the ideas MNS brought to radical politics have made an broader impact than the institutions it left in its wake. Though it is hard to evaluate the exact extent of MNS’ influence until we have fuller accounts of the period’s other key organizational initiatives, it is clear that MNS was a major innovator and force in promoting, among other tools and approaches: multi-issue political analysis, consensus process, collective living and political community in urban areas, modeling political commitments in everyday relationships and life choices, network structure, internal anti-oppression work, identity-based caucuses, cost-sharing and sliding-scale prices, direct action, and the use of spokescouncils.
The influence of MNS’s approach to activism in recent times was perhaps most evident in the manner in which organizing for the 1999 Seattle anti-WTO actions took place. This is unsurprising, as former MNS members, including Betsy Raasch-Gilman, along with organizers heavily influenced by MNS, such as Starhawk and David Solnit, played central roles in developing the actions and training participants. In Seattle, the nonviolent direct action tradition that MNS promoted intertwined and sometimes conflicted with other tactics and tendencies of the anti-authoritarian left—eco-defense monkeywrenching and autonomen-style black blocs, for example—that had developed parallel to the MNS project, giving a sense of how complex and variegated the movement has become since 1968.
But if the success of Seattle demonstrates the clear debts and respect owed to the members of MNS and their milieu by contemporary activists, the challenges which quickly emerged in the North America global justice movement following Seattle make it equally clear that activists have not learned to avoid the pitfalls of the MNS experience, much less develop workable solutions to the problems that eventually sunk the MNS ship. How an anti-authoritarian movement could create theory and strategy on a national (or even international basis); what role explicit and implicit leadership did and should play in the movement; how to deal with the relative racial and class homogeneity of the participants; and how to work productively with other radical and progressive sectors were all under debate, before the 9/11 attacks sideswiped the movement and changed the conversation. The fact that these questions will reoccur, and continue to weigh down the efforts of new movements and generations of activists until they are more adequately addressed, has been made clear by the experience of the reformed Students for a Democratic Society. In a recent assessment of that organization’s first two years, Joshua Kahn Russell and Brian Kelly list an array of frustrating inclinations and practices SDS has had to confront:
“When there were too many male voices representing SDS in the media, the response was to attack those speaking rather than to create systems of support for others to publish and be represented…
People proposed [organizational] structures that were rarely designed to meet concrete needs. The debate was often framed by concepts like “decentralization” versus “centralization”—an abstract theoretical simplification…
Informal networks based on experience and personal relationships emerged…whispers and groaning about informal leadership permeated the convention floor…”
It is striking and disappointing to note the extent to which these conversations ventriloquize those occurring within MNS in 1976, but perhaps not surprising. Some recent anarchist theory likewise optimistically promotes a version of MNS strategy with very little consideration of the substantial problems MNS faced when it tried to enact such a strategy. For example, in Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements, Richard Day presents a wide-ranging and insightful history of anarchist and related political thought from the early 19th century to the contemporary period. Yet, Day concludes this itinerary by explicitly rejecting strategic organizing campaigns that seek to directly confront inequalities of power and wealth, in favor of focusing solely on building prefigurative institutions. For Day, “nothing is more important today than building, linking and defending autonomous communities,” so that in the gaps and margins of the neoliberal order, “spaces are available for experimentation” with forms like autonomous zones and intentional communities.
In 1933 the young anarchists who comprised the Vanguard Group criticized the tendency of movement veterans to live in anarchist “colonies,” or intentional communities, and claim such activity as revolutionary. A defender of such colonies asked in a letter to the group’s journal, “Isn’t a living experiment superior to any logical proof, and doesn’t the value of colony building lie exactly in the fact that it tries to solve social questions by experiments and not by arguments only?” Vanguard pointedly responded:
“There is too much superstitious awe about the word experiment. An experiment…cannot be indefinitely pursued without taking stock of all the previous failures and without introducing a certain variant in each and every attempt. The history of such attempts, for nearly a century, to solve the social problem via colony building has clearly shown the futility of such a method. To keep repeating the same attempts without an intelligent appraisal of all the numerous failures in the past is not to uphold the right to experiment, but to insist upon one’s right to escape from the hard facts of social struggle into the world of wishful belief.”
MNS knew in theory, from the outset, that alternative community building was an insufficient means of creating revolutionary change, even if, to the regret of many participants, the group ended up emphasizing community and lifestyle in practice. Their subsequent experience confirmed the insufficiencies of an overreliance on prefigurative projects. For Day and others to ignore the lessons that MNS, and similar efforts offer, is to neglect the true meaning of “experiment” which the Vanguard Group points to.
A key tenet that MNS lived by in its earlier years stated, “Most of what we need to know about making a nonviolent revolution, we have yet to learn.” The disappointing set-backs our movements—whether committed to nonviolence or not—have faced in recent years seem to indicate the continuing validity of such a proposition. However, it seems clear that a good deal of what we have to learn can be gained from studying the specific successes and shortcomings of sympathetic movements not just in the 19th and early 20th century, but in the recent past—and then modifying our practice accordingly. The Movement for a New Society was an essentially anarchist organization that, for seventeen years, claimed hundreds of members in more than a dozen cities and contributed to most of the significant struggles of its day. Furthermore, it was perhaps the only such organization, in its time and since, to forward a comprehensive vision and strategy for making anti-authoritarian revolutionary change in late 20th century United States. As such, it deserves to be not only remembered out of respect, but studied assiduously by contemporary anti-authoritarians so that we might take stock and introduce new variants into each and every one of our new efforts. As MNS makes clear, when we don’t learn from our mistakes, we haven’t fully learned from our great successes.
1. On the international and libertarian aspects of the movements of 1968, see George Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 (Boston: South End Press, 1987).
2. See Scott H. Bennett, Radical Pacifism: The War Resisters League and Gandhian Nonviolence in America, 1915-1963 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003), Marian Mollin, Radical Pacifism in Modern America: Egalitarianism and Protest (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), James Tracy, Direct Action: Radical Pacifism from the Union Eight to the Chicago Seven (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
3. Bart de Ligt, The Conquest of Violence: An Essay on War and Revolution (London: Pluto Press, 1989 ).
4. See Alan Antliff, Anarchy and Art: From the Paris Commune to the Fall of the Berlin Wall (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2007), Dachine Rainer, "Holley Cantine: February 14, 1916-January 2, 1977," in Drunken Boat: Art, Rebellion, Anarchy, ed. Max Bleckman (New York and Seattle: Autonomedia and Left Bank Books, 1994), Taylor Stoehr, "Introduction," in Drawing the Line: The Political Essays of Paul Goodman, ed. Taylor Stoehr (New York: Free Life Editions, 1977).
5. See Francesca Polletta, Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 26-54.
6. Polleta, 120-148, Maurice Isserman, If I Had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987).
7. See Polletta, 149-175, Sara Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left, (New York: Vintage, 1979), Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).
8. George Lakey, personal communication, July 9, 2008.
9. See George Lakey, Strategy for a Living Revolution (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1973), xiii-xviii.
10. “Program for a New Society: A Statement by A Quaker Action Group,” leaflet, Wisconsin Historical Society, Social Action Vertical File, Box 1, Folder: A Quaker Action Group
11. Lynne Shivers, “Short-Term Trainer’s Collective at the Life Center,” Dandelion, December 1971; No title, Dandelion, December 1973, no page number; “Movement Building—National,” Dandelion, October 1972; Betsy Raasch-Gilman, “The Movement for a New Society: One Participant’s Account” (unpublished memoir), 17, Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Movement for a New Society Collection, DG 154, Acc. 02A-025, Box 6.
12. Berit Lakey and Paul Morrisey, “Hello…Goodbye, I Say Hello”, Dandelion, June 1973, no page.
13. Susanne Gowan et al., Moving toward a New Society (Philadelphia: New Society Press, 1976), Lakey, Strategy for a Living Revolution.
14. “Finding Out,” Dandelion, October 1973, no page.
15. Intersectionality is a concept developed by feminist women of color to theorize the experience of having one’s life shaped by multiple forms of oppression that operate simultaneously, and that co-constitute and reinforce one another. See Kimberlé Crenshaw Williams, "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and
Violence Against Women of Color,” in Martha Albertson Fineman, Rixanne Mykitiuk, eds, The
Public Nature of Private Violence (New York: Routledge, 1994), 93-118, and the Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement” in Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (Boston: Kitchen Table Press, 1982), 210-218.
16. See, for example, Gowan, et al., Moving Toward, 21-62.
17. “Analysis,” MNS Packet, WHS, Movement for a New Society Records, 1974-1977, Box 1.
18. On Participatory Economics see, Albert and Hahnel, Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the 21st Century, (Boston: South End Press, 1991). Albert and Hahnel’s earlier work, Unorthodox Marxism: An Essay on Capitalism, Socialism, and Revolution (Boston: South End Press, 1978) was used regularly in the vision section of macro-analysis seminars after it was released.
19. “Vision,” MNS Packet.
20. “Macro-Anaysis Reading List Revision 9/76” and “Organizing Macro-Analysis Seminars: Study & Action for a New Society, Updated Reading List” (1981), Swarthmore College Peace Collection (SCPC), MNS Collection, Acc. 90A-55, Box 6. Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1971), Dimitrious Roussopoulis and C. George Benello, eds., The Case for Participatory Democracy: Some Prospects for a Radical Society, (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1972), Sam Dolgoff, The Anarchist Collectives: Worker’s Self-Management in Spain, 1936-1939 (New York: Free Life Editions, 1974).
21. Bob Irwin, “On the Organization Question,” February 17, 1976, photocopied manuscript, SCPC, MNS Collection, Acc. 90A-55, Box 9.
22. See Lakey, Strategy for a Living Revolution, 67-72; Gowan et al, Moving Towards a New Society, 263-268.
23. On prefigurative politics, see Polleta, 6-7.
24. “Structure,” MNS Packet.
25. George Lakey, interview by author and Andrew Willis Garcés, tape recording, Philadelphia, PA, 28 June 2008.
26. Lakey, interview.
27. “Training for Nonviolent Social Change,” MNS Packet.
28. Lakey, interview.
29. See Lakey, Strategy for a Living Revolution, 1-28; Gowan et al., Moving Towards a New Society, 217-236.
30. This metaphor is quite similar to Kropotkin’s belief that anarchists would serve as “the midwife to the revolution.” Both assume a faciliatory, rather than an instigative, role.
31. Gowan, et al., 270-281. MNS’ conception of “revolutionary reforms” drew on Andre Gorz, Strategy for Labor (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967).
32. Richard Taylor, “Blockading for Bangladesh,” The Progressive, February, 1972, 20-23. Associated Press coverage of the blockade was picked up by newspapers across the country. For example, “Flotilla of Canoes Fails to Bar Ship,” Corpus Christi Times (Corpus Christi, TX), July 15, 1971, 50; “Union to Load Non-Military Cargo on Ship to Pakistan,” The Cumberland News (Cumberland, MD), July 17, 1971, 3.
33. Taylor, “Blockading for Bangladesh”; “East Pakistani Freighter ‘Barred’ at Philadelphia,” The Cumberland News, August 13, 1971, 3.
34. Chuck Fager, “22 Canoes vs. Navy,” Pamphlet, Wisconsin Historical Society, Social Action Vertical File, Box 29, Folder: Movement for a New Society. “7 Sailors Jump Ship in N.J.,” Bucks County Courier Times (Bucks County, PA), April 24, 1972, 26; “Seven Sailors Leap Overboard in a Protest,” The Bridgeport Telegram (Bridgeport, CT), April 25, 1972, 31.
35. However, the fact that neither the Pakistani nor the Vietnam actions developed into longer standing or extra-regional campaigns may provide an early example of the limits of the movement-building techniques MNS promoted in the early 1970s.
36. Jim Schrag, “MNS at Wounded Knee: The Network Works,” Dandelion, 1973.
37. MNS fundraising appeal, Spring 1979, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, Vertical File, Folder: Socialism—Movement for a New Society.
38. “MNS Structure,” MNS Packet.
39. Lakey, Strategy for a Living Revolution, 72-78, “Program for a New Society”.
40. “Program for a New Society”.
41. MNS membership numbers are difficult to calculate as the organization loosely defined membership in its first decade. Often small groups that expressed interest in MNS’ political vision were considered “part of the network” in internal publications, only to disappear from the record soon afterward. This characterization of the life of MNS members is primarily derived from the unpublished memoir written by MNS member Betsy Raasch-Gilman, “The Movement for a New Society: One Participant’s Account,” SCPC, MNS Collection, Acc. 02A-025, Box 6. See also, George Lakey, “Catching Up and Moving On: What Can We Learn for the Future from the Movement for a New Society?,” manuscript, SCPC, MNS Collection, Acc. 90A-55, Box 9.
42. Jim Schrag, “Collectives of the Movement for a New Society and ‘Friends of MNS’ in West Philadelphia,” SCPC, MNS Collection, Acc. 90A-55, Box 15.
43. “The Philadelphia Life Center,” Dandelion, Spring 1976.
44. “Neighborhood Block Group Fights Crime, Fear of it,”Dandelion, October 1973.
45. “Alternative Institutions,” MNS Packet, Lakey, interview.
46. Dion Lerman and Scott Burgwin, “Men’s Liberation,” Dandelion, Fall 1975, 9.
47. Raasch-Gilman, “One Participant’s Account,” 64-74, Scott Burgwin, “Re-evaluation Counseling as a Tool for Social Change,” Dandelion, Spring 1976, 1-3. For a critical analysis of Re-evaluation Counseling see Mathew Lyons, “Sex, Lies, and Co-counseling,” Activist Men’s Journal, August 1993, available online at http://home.comcast.net/~reevaluation-counseling/sexlies.htm.
48. Bill Moyer, “MNS Historical Development Goal to Start the 1980’s: Move from the ‘Spontaneous’ to the ‘Empowerment’ Organizational Model”, January 31, 1981, SCPC, MNS Collection, DG 154, Acc. 90A-55, Box 10.
49. On former radicals turning to gurus and mysticism, cf. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: WW Norton & Co, 1979); Jerry Rubin, Growing Up at Thirty Seven, (New York: M. Evans, 1976).
50. “MNS Support Communities,” Dandelion, Winter 1974.
51. “Training,” MNS Packet; Raasch-Gilman, 4-15.
52. The spokescouncil, also known as the “small-to-large group decision-making process,” is a form of organization in which representatives of affinity groups meet to communicate their group’s ideas and to deliberate on issues effecting the larger group, typically using consensus process.
53. Lakey, interview.
54. “MNS at Seabrook,” Dandelion, Spring 1977, 12-17. For an account of the anti-nuclear movement Barbara Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).
55. MNS was certainly not the first organization to turn incarceration into an opportunity for movement building. For the free speech fights of the Industrial Workers of the World, see Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World, (New York: Quadrangle, 1969), 173-197. For a discussion of “the black public sphere of incarceration” during the Civil Rights movement, see Houston Baker, “Critical Memory and the Black Publich Sphere” in Black Public Sphere Collective, ed., The Black Public Sphere: A Public Culture Book (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 5-38.
56. George Lakey, “The Life and Death of the Movement for a New Society,” Friends Journal, September 1989, 22.
57. Raasch-Gilman, 31.
58. On the relation of the utopian socialist tradition to anarchism, see Richard Day, Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements (Pluto Press and Between the Lines: London and Toronto, 2005), 91-128, Eunice Minette Schuster, Native American Anarchism, (Port Townsend, WA: Breakout Productions, 1999 ).
59. Lakey, interview.
60. Gordan Burnside, “A New Manifesto” (Review of Moving Toward a New Society), The Progressive, August 1976.
61. Richard Taylor, interview by Margaret Allen and Joan Gibson, no date, SCPC, MNS Collection, Acc. 90A-55, Box 9.
62. Raasch-Gilman, 55.
63. Janet Hilliker, “M.N.S. questions,” September 1976, Wisconsin Historical Society, MNS Papers.
64. Lakey, interview.
65. Epstein, 60.
66. Hyde Park Chapter of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, “Socialist Feminism: A Strategy for the Women’s Movement,” quoted in Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1989), page 6.
67. Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, 177, 190.
68. Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1997)and Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking on the Brand Bullies, (New York: Picador, 1999).
69. George Lakey, “Eleven Years Old: A Perspective on Movement for a New Society in Philadelphia, October 6, 1982, 7, SCPC, MNS Collection, Acc. 90A-55, Box 10.
70. Lakey, “Eleven Years Old,” 14
71. Lakey, “Eleven Years Old,”; Raasch-Gilman, 22-26, 55.
72. Lakey, “Movement for a New Society: A Case Study of Network Formation”, unpublished typescript in author’s possession, 6.
73. Dion Lerman to Janet Hilliker, January 22, 1977, WHS, MNS Papers.
74. Pamela Haines, “MNS & Strategy,” Dandelion, Summer-Fall Issue 1977, 7.
75. Bruce Kokopeli and George Lakey, Leadership for Change: Toward a Feminist Model, (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, no date).
76. Lakey, interview, “Pandora Paper,” SCPC, MNS Collection, Acc. 90A-55, Box 10.
77. Lakey, interview.
78. Lakey, “Catching Up and Moving On”, 19.
79. Taylor, interview.
80. Raasch-Gilman, 102.
81. Raasch-Gilman, 108-109
82. Alan Tuttle to Janet Hilliker, January 4 , WHS, MNS Papers.
83. Hilliker, “M.N.S. questions”
84. Raasch-Gilman, 32.
85. Bill Moyer, “MNS Historical Development Goal to Start the 1980’s: Move from the ‘Spontaneous’ to the ‘Empowerment’ Organizational Model”, January 31, 1981, SCPC, MNS Collection, Acc. 90A-55, Box 10. Also see Raasch-Gilman, “One Participant’s Account,” 113.
86. Michael Siptroth, “Directions,” Dandelion Wine, July 1982, 20-21; Raasch-Gilman, “One Participant’s Account,” 103.
87. Raach-Gilman, 103-105, 116.
88. See the July/August 1986 and September 1986 issues of Grapevine.
89. Steve Chase, “Some Thoughts after Taking My Foot Out of My Mouth,” Grapevine, July/August 1986, 53.
90. Nancy Brigham, “MNSers as Movement Builders,” Grapevine, July/August 1986, 42.
91. Raasch-Gilman, Memoir, page 133. Also, see the discussion of “Diversity and MNS” in the May 1986 issue of Grapevine.
92. See the September 1988 issue of Grapevine; Grace C. Ross, “Ending, Going On: Movement for a New Society,” Peacework, October 1988, 11.
93. Lakey, Strategy for a Living Revolution, 28.
94. See www.newsociety.com and www.mountainmeadow.org, respectively.
95. The building which now houses the A-Space, Philadelphia’s long running anarchist community space, and Philadelphia Books Through Bars, served as the MNS office throughout much of the organization’s existence, and continues to be owned by the land trust started by MNS.
96. Joshua Kahn Russell and Brian Kelly, “Giving Form to a Stampede: The First Two Years of the New Studetns for a Democratic Society,” Upping the Anti, Number 6, May 2008, 84-89.
97. Richard Day, Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements, (London and Toronto: Pluto Press and Between the Lines, 2005), 18.
98. Day, 204-205.
99. “From Our Mailbag,” Vanguard, Vol. 2, No. 3, Jan-Feb 1936, pg. 23.