Anarchism and the Movement for a New Society: Direct Action and Prefigurative Community in the 1970s and 80s
By Andrew Cornell
Institute for Anarchist Studies
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.
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