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Revolutionary Experiments

Andrew Willis Garc├ęs
Date Published: 
July 30, 2011


AK Press, 2011

From 1971 to 1988, a group comprising several hundred “nonviolent revolutionaries” organized into collectives in cities across the country and put in motion a plan: to take down the US empire, while simultaneously uprooting oppressive behavior in themselves and the world around them. They built many Left community institutions that continue to exist today. They used militant direct action to stop weapons shipments to Pakistan—and helped coordinate an action in which 3,000 people occupied the proposed site of a nuclear plant, inadvertently popularizing a form of decision making and action prep that has become standard for large-scale direct actions. Andrew Cornell’s Oppose and Propose!: Lessons from Movement for a New Society offers us a look into this remarkable grouping.

Much of this description may be familiar to students of 1970s movements, in which cadre organizations emerged from 1960s mass-based organizing to prepare the country for revolution. Movement for a New Society (MNS) stands out for its tactical and constructive innovations and active contributions to feminist, environmental, and other movements. Born out of a radical Quaker group—with members who had worked on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff—the MNS network grew quickly, to a point when it was able to quickly mobilize activists from seven cities to drive to South Dakota in support of the American Indian Movement’s 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee.

The core of MNS’ recruitment and leadership development was skills-based training seminars. They also led a nine-month political education program continuously for eleven years. Their “macro-seminars” looked at US imperialism in connection with capitalism, racism, and other forms of oppression. They intended to be “the leaven in the bread that makes the bread of revolution rise,” and put priority on preparing cadre to disperse themselves into movements beyond their Philadelphia base.

As a mostly-white group with their largest base in West Philadelphia, they had a unique approach to antigentrification work and racial solidarity. Realizing that racial blockbusting was driving white people and resources out of the neighborhood, they chose to focus on a particular part of West Philly to invest in buying property—including 15 houses that still exist today in a land trust, largely populated by multigenerational activists. MNS sought to organize with white residents wary of new Black neighbors, offering a home repair service to support existing residents in staying. Their community safety patrols—armed with air horns—were designed in part to reduce the racial fear that was a cause of white flight. They also worked in solidarity with Black-organized eviction defense of squatted vacant buildings.

In addition to the land trust, the group’s legacy includes a publishing house that remains active, three training collectives, a sliding scale summer camp for children of queer parents, and a West Philly community center that has incubated multi-issue organizing for decades.

Their 1975 book Moving Toward a New Society, with its constructive vision and multi-issue analysis, is an earlier analogue to theoretical texts like POWER’s Towards Land, Work & Power. MNS distinguished between the “alternative” institutions they had become known for and what they called “counterinstitutions,” which are alternative institutions built or positioned within the context of revolutionary struggle.

“Neighborhood cooperative stores cannot challenge the corporate giant…,” wrote MNS. “The cooperative store, neighborhood school and so on are not movement organizations, usually, and tend to harden with success to become part of the status quo.” (Counterinstitutions, according to trainer, author and former MNS member George Lakey, include Black Panther breakfast programs and the United Farm Workers’ newspaper, health clinic and gas station created to support their grape boycott.) This distinction reflects the group’s avid self-awareness, with many members recognizing the limits of their small-scale work outside movement-anchored campaigns.

Transformative organizing

MNS encouraged collective living to make more time available for organizing. “Living the revolution now” included making space for families while confronting homophobia in living spaces. Sharing resources and the burden of financial costs was also a priority—including sharing the cost of childcare or lost work, a practice the US Left should re-popularize. As healing work and transformative organizing have drawn more visibility today, it’s worth investigating MNS’ experiments with personal growth work. They connected explicitly with activists who had been burned out by the 1960s pace, who were drawn to MNS’ vision of “analysis to action to community.”

Their decision to close the group came after recognition that they would need to develop multiracial membership and leadership if they were to propel the large-scale societal change for which they hoped. It’s unclear why it took so long for this reality to sink in. There are other questions that reading this book raises. What relationship, if any, did they have to other contemporaries, like Prairie Fire Organizing Committee? Why did MNS experience much less state repression than other anti-imperialist formations? Cornell frames the movement analysis of MNS largely within the anarchist tradition—it would be interesting to more extensively consider them within feminism and environmentalism (which are also discussed here)—as well as discuss explicitly where MNS stands in relation to broader anti-imperialism, democratic socialism, or other (overlapping) strands of movement.

Cornell rightly allots much of the space in this short book to interviews with MNS organizers—less concerned with providing answers than in offering lessons, to support Lakey’s promise that, “when you organize your equivalent of MNS, it will be better than ours.”