Movement for a New Society

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Movement for a New Society wiki

"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 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...

"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...

"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...

"[A]ctions 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...

"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.”..

"Later the MNS publications committee launched a commercial publishing house, New Society Publishers...

"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....

"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..." [1] ([[Andrew Cornell])

External Articles/Books

  • Virginia Coover, Ellen Deacon, Charles Esser & Christopher Moore, Resource Manual for a Living Revolution (New Society Press, Philadelphia, 1977)
  • 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.
  • Susanne Gowan et al., Moving toward a New Society (Philadelphia: New Society Press, 1976)
  • 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.
  • Gordan Burnside, “A New Manifesto” (Review of Moving Toward a New Society), The Progressive, August 1976.

Resources and articles

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