Change Agent: Gene Sharp’s Neoliberal Nonviolence (Part Two)
Gene Sharp (1928-2018), famed theorist of nonviolent action, is known as a “nonviolent warrior” whose ideas have buttressed “nonviolent revolutions” around the world. As The Atlantic put it: “Besides Gandhi, no one in the last century has more systematically laid out the theory of nonviolent power than Sharp.”1 Sharp, often cast as a lonely prophet, offering his contributions from the distant wilderness of his shabby Boston office, is beloved by progressives around the world as one of history’s most important champions of peace, freedom, and democracy, and among its staunchest foes of tyranny and oppression.2
But comparisons to Gandhi and prophets belie Sharp’s complexity. As I showed in Part One of this article, Sharp was no peacenik wilderness-wandering prophet, but one of the most important U.S. defense intellectuals of the latter twentieth century, who furthermore possessed surprisingly neoliberal politics. Sharp developed his core theories about nonviolent action between the 1960s and 1980s, with Department of Defense funding, at the elite Cold War institute, the Center for International Affairs at Harvard. “The CIA at Harvard,” as it was cheekily termed, was co-directed by Henry Kissinger and future CIA chief Robert Bowie. The U.S. defense establishment was interested in the weaponization of protest tactics as part of asymmetrical Cold War counterinsurgency strategy. Sharp was based out of this “academic home” for thirty years, and collaborated closely with Nobel prize-winning game theorist, and progenitor of the “madman theory of international affairs,” Thomas Schelling. Sharp was motivated by a desire to fight tyranny, which he associated with government “centralization” of all kinds. With the USSR and the New Deal in the background, Sharp argued that nonviolent methods were the most effective way to undermine and collapse regimes marked by dangerous economic “regulation,” “state ownership,” and other “controls” over the economy.
Sharp would not simply theorize from the sidelines—he personally strove to promote his “politics of nonviolent action” globally, and left an indelible mark on geopolitics. In 1983, with the rise of Reagan’s foreign policy of communist “rollback,” Sharp founded the Albert Einstein Institution (AEI), whose mission was to promote Sharp’s theories worldwide. Sharp co-led AEI with Peter Ackerman, a passionate neoliberal who would champion the privatization of social security, serve as a Cato Institute board member, and, parallel to his work at AEI, work as right hand man to “junk bond king” Michael Milken at the notorious investment house Drexel Burham Lambert. AEI regularly sought and received funding from U.S. government pass-throughs like the International Republican Institute, and brought on as consultant Colonel Robert Helvey, a former Defense Intelligence Agency attaché and Dean of the National Defense Intelligence College.
Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, AEI trained activists around the world in Sharp’s methods. But AEI consistently avoided dictator-run U.S. client states. Instead, it focused on countries with administrations opposing the austerity, deregulation, and privatization-obsessed “Washington Consensus,” spearheaded by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and U.S. Treasury. AEI’s methods would prove decisive in the destruction of the USSR and Yugoslavia and in regime change operations in places like Ukraine and Georgia. All these events featured the involvement of U.S. soft-power organs like the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID. Where these nonviolent revolutions succeeded, neoliberal “structural adjustment,” also known as “economic shock therapy,” followed: selling off state assets, deregulating and privatizing state- or worker-owned industry, removing price controls, establishing free trade zones, and making cuts to social spending. Such policies delivered the kind of state “decentralization” that Sharp romanticized—but human development indicators tanked.
In order to understand Sharp, and the historical context in which he is embedded, it is vital to see beyond the story told in the mainstream press. We must understand Sharp’s relationship to the U.S. defense, intelligence, and security establishment in and beyond the Cold War, the pattern of his work internationally, and how his personal neoliberal politics harmonize all the above with his commitment to nonviolent action.
All of that would have been legacy enough. But the story of Sharp’s impact on history doesn’t end there.
Gene Sharp also made a dramatic impact closer to home: on the U.S. protest left. Within the protest left, Gene Sharp and his “politics of nonviolent action,” even when unknown by name, serve as political bedrock. By “protest left,” I am talking about that milieu of relatively recent origin that focuses on fomenting, training, and growing nonviolent social movements. The protest left spans numerous issues, but is unified by a passionate belief in the unique power of “nonviolent direct action” or “strategic nonviolence,” as it is sometimes called—a strategy culled from Sharp’s pages. The power of such actions lies generally in their public symbolism and ability to capture media attention, rather than in any disruption to production. There is often a desire for radical decentralization of movement organization, and consensus is a common decision-making method. Its politics tend (though this is changing) to be concerned with “good” and “bad,” rather than interests. Though it has a revolutionary élan and invokes “people-power,” the protest left has a middle-class character and tends to be grounded in institutions like nonprofits (and the foundations that finance them), rather than, for example, labor unions.
Sharp’s ubiquity on the protest left is thanks, above all, to the efforts of a little-known activist network from the 1970s: the Movement for a New Society (MNS). Though Sharp was never a member, he was a mentor to MNS founder George Lakey, and his theory of nonviolent action was essential to MNS’s political strategy. In the 1970s and 1980s, MNS widely promoted Sharpian strategic nonviolence throughout the anti-nuclear, anti-war, environmental, feminist, LGBT, and Central American solidarity movements, using then-novel mass activist “training” programs. MNS alumni and trainees in turn trained activists of the 1990s and 2000s, notably those of the anti-WTO “Battle of Seattle,” the movement against the Iraq War, and Occupy Wall Street. Mass training in Sharpian strategic nonviolence continues into the present.
In protest left quarters, Sharp’s popularity stems in part from his supposed non-ideological, “transpolitical” character. His ideas are billed as mere tactics and strategy. But within the protest left, Sharp’s “strategic” ideas about nonviolent revolution actually nose activists under the tent of an ideology, usually termed “revolutionary nonviolence.”3 Revolutionary nonviolence is relatively young, only loosely configured, and rarely named as such, but it is hegemonic on the protest left. Libertarian in orientation, it is frequently antagonistic to mass politics, to historical materialism, to political strategies that aim to use or take state power, and most critically, to class struggle itself, often implying that it is inherently violent.
One core assertion of revolutionary nonviolence, and a key way it is spread, is consensus decision-making. The manifest function of MNS protest movement trainings was usually building Sharpian nonviolent action skills. But MNS also used and taught consensus decision-making, an ultra-democratic group process wherein all members of a group must come to agreement before action can be taken. Consequently, on the U.S. protest left, Sharpian “strategic nonviolence” has historically operated hand in glove with consensus process. Consensus may seem just cumbersome procedure, but it is actually highly ideological, hinging on revolutionary nonviolence’s implied assumption that it is “violent” to ever impose anything on anyone. This “domination anxiety” ends up hamstringing organizations and helps explain revolutionary nonviolence’s discomfiture with, among other things, the state and class struggle. And so perhaps it is not surprising that the spread of revolutionary nonviolence and rise of the protest left parallels the decline of worker power, class politics, and the “embedded liberalism” of the New Deal state.
There are good reasons for social movements to maintain a commitment to nonviolent action. And as is clear with the rise of movements for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, U.S. left activists are rapidly evolving beyond the limits of Sharpian revolutionary nonviolence. Indeed, we are in the midst of a world-historic stirring of class-consciousness in the U.S. This is precisely the reason we must understand the malaise from which we are rousing—lest we get knocked out again before we’re even back on our feet.
Gene Sharp and the Shift to “Hard-Headed” “Nonviolent Social Change”
The story begins in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was the high point of U.S. labor’s power. Wealth was distributed more equally than ever before in U.S. history, or ever since, thanks to the robust provisions of the New Deal and Great Society programs. Such achievements flowed from, and were defended by, a raucous politics emanating from left organizations like labor unions and political parties.
While activists of this era employed plenty of “nonviolent tactics,” they were, by and large, skeptical of any hard and fast commitment to nonviolence. As Malcolm X said, “Concerning non-violence: it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks,” and “I don’t think when a man is being criminally treated, that some criminal has the right to tell that man what tactics to use to get the criminal off his back. When a criminal starts misusing me, I’m going to use whatever necessary to get that criminal off my back.”4
This was a generation of leftists battered by assassinations: Lumumba, Medgar Evers, JFK, Malcolm, King, RFK, Fred Hampton, Allende, Amílcar Cabral. Unsurprisingly, it had a hard edge—not unlike the left of the 1880s or 1920s. Riots followed assassinations. The Weather Underground bombed the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon. The Black Panthers armed young people trapped in ghettos. Activists broke into FBI offices and exposed COINTELPRO, forcing Congress to hold the Church Committee hearings.
In this era, Gene Sharp was working on his theory of nonviolent action alongside, and at the behest of, U.S. security, defense, and intelligence leadership at the CIA at Harvard. Recall from Part One that the CIA at Harvard would find itself targeted by anti-war protests and even a Weather Underground bombing. But Sharp was also trying to appeal to this unruly American left. In 1970, for example, he published a slim book marketed toward political activists, Exploring Nonviolent Alternatives, its groovy cover featuring a hand held in a peace sign.5 Sharp would sometimes attend protest demonstrations, and for several years he would attend the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change annual nonviolence summer school.6 Coretta Scott King would even write an introduction to one of his books.7
There was no contradiction between Sharp’s work within the CIA at Harvard for the Department of Defense, and his public efforts to appeal to social movements—the U.S. security establishment, after all, wanted pacification of domestic militants. And for this task, regardless of his own agenda, Sharp offered something uniquely valuable: the argument that nonviolent commitment was more “strategic” than violence.8
In April 1970, the New York Times ran an illuminating story titled “Nonviolence Making Quiet Gains in U.S. Despite Disorders.” The Times reported that “the trend to violence as a means of protest has continued both in the Negro revolution and among alienated white youths,” but “the nonviolent movement, nevertheless, has survived and in some respects is now undergoing a revival.” The Times distinguished this new “nonviolent movement” from pacifism: “The renewed interest in nonviolence appears to have gone considerably beyond that aroused by the old-line pacifist organizations that have embraced the concept for years.” The Times quotes one “Gene Sharp of the Center for International Affairs” as saying, “I think we are on the verge of a very realistic interest in nonviolence. … It is a much more hard-headed approach, without the emotionalism and naiveté we have seen in the past.”9
As evidence of this growing movement, the article cites the spread of university courses on nonviolence, and the establishment of new centers dedicated to promoting nonviolence like the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. Also noted was the Center for Nonviolent Conflict Resolution at Haverford College, a Quaker school just outside Philadelphia. This new “trend” had well-heeled champions, like sociologist Paul E. Wehr, leader of the Haverford center, whom the Times described as “an enthusiastic young Quaker.” Wehr—who is variously referred to in the press as Paul Wehr, Paul Hare, A. Paul Hare, and Alexander Paul Hare—held a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and had previously taught at Princeton, Wellesley, Yale, and Harvard.10 He was famous for his work on small group dynamics, and would help found “peace psychology,” a field that “emerged as a distinct area of research and practice during the Cold War” in response to concerns about nuclear deterrence.11 In the early sixties, the Kennedy administration had appointed Wehr deputy representative to the Philippines in the newly formed Peace Corps. Wehr was “fascinated by third-world transformations” and would do teaching stints at Makerere University in Uganda, the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, the University of Rhodesia (now the University of Zimbabwe), and the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He would finish his career at Ben-Gurion University in Israel.12 Clearly, this “nonviolent movement” had some pedigree.
Government and liberal philanthropic dollars alike flowed to support outfits like Wehr’s Haverford center. For example, the Haverford center received a $97,000 a year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health—that is over $600,000 a year in inflation-adjusted dollars—“for recording and analyzing techniques.” As part of this project, “a team from the center participated in and observed the training of marshals for the massive peace march on Washington [in November 1969].”13 Haverford center researchers would also be on the ground for the Kent State shootings, which occurred about a month after publication of the Times article in question.14
Even more impressively, in 1970 the Ford Foundation awarded $180,000–approximately $1.2 million when adjusted for inflation—to Wehr’s Haverford center. In the submitted project, “students go to the poor neighborhoods of Philadelphia, live among the people and work in nonviolent community projects such as consumer and tenant organizations. They learn both about urban problems and how change can be achieved by nonviolent protest.”15 Ford cut this check while under the leadership of the famously shrewd McGeorge Bundy, who played a pioneering role in developing modern liberal philanthropy’s strategy of financing social movements.16
Just a year after this Times article was published, in 1971, another nonviolence initiative was born out of the Philadelphia Quaker milieu: the Movement for a New Society (MNS). MNS was itself profiled by the New York Times in 1972: “Members of the community, not all of whom are formally associated with the Society of Friends or have a Quaker background, live in a half-dozen communal houses in West Philadelphia”—a poor, majority black part of the city. The Times writes, “Unlike most communes, [MNS is] designed not simply to provide an alternative lifestyle for youths who want to drop out of middle-class society but as instruments of bringing about nonviolent social change.” In addition to running the housing co-op, the article notes that the Movement for a New Society also ran a health clinic, “work[ed] with neighbors on nonviolent ways of dealing with the problem of crime in the streets,” offered courses on “building alternative institutions,” organized peace demonstrations, and refused to pay their local telephone tax in protest of the Vietnam War. More ambitious still, they were “trying to build a network of ‘nonviolent revolutionary groups’ around the country.”17
This small organization, a powerful but understudied element of the New Left, would popularize the work of the little-known Gene Sharp throughout progressive American social movements.
Gene Sharp and George Lakey, Intellectual Companions
The Movement for a New Society had been established by George Lakey, William (Bill) Moyer and George and Lillian Willoughby, all former members of A Quaker Action Group (AQAG), a pacifist direct action outfit best known for its protest sailing of the Phoenix to Vietnam in 1967.18 For MNS, the modern problems of war, racism, sexism, ecological degradation, and poverty were systemic and interconnected. Big change was needed. As MNS saw it, “in an age when the American government has troops in over one hundred countries, and the income of one multinational corporation is greater than the gross national product of any African country, real change must be effected on a global level…”19
But MNS was unsatisfied with existing revolutionary theories. In 1973, the same year as Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action came out, MNS co-founder George Lakey published Strategy for a Living Revolution, one of the “primary statements of MNS politics.”20 Gene Sharp is footnoted throughout and is one of eight people thanked in the Acknowledgments.21
Though other MNS members would also have personal relationships with Sharp—MNS member David Hartsough would, for example, join Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution for their anti-Soviet protest trainings in Moscow in November and December 1991, a tour that immediately preceded the Soviet Union’s collapse—Lakey was the main conduit between Sharp and MNS.22 In 1959, twenty-one year old Lakey, then a young mover-and-shaker activist, had moved to Norway to marry a woman he met at a Quaker student program.23 In Oslo, one of his professors introduced him to Sharp, who was then working at the university alongside deep ecologist Arne Naess, researching Norwegian nonviolent resistance to the German Nazi occupation in World War II. As Lakey recounts, “One of my teachers there who knew of my interest in the peace movement said that I might like to meet [Gene Sharp].”
I dropped by his office and found a 30-year-old in jeans and sneakers with a quick smile. We both welcomed the chance to speak English, although his Norwegian was much better than mine. My eyes widened when he told me he was not only digging into stories of Norwegian resistance, but was going to conferences where he interviewed Africans in anti-colonial struggles who told him of nonviolent tactics being used there, sometimes alongside armed struggle.
Lakey was struck by Sharp’s interest in nonviolence for strategic purposes, rather than moral ones. “At first I couldn’t make sense of it,” Lakey writes. “What happens to moral choice when we research violent and nonviolent methods as if they are alternative means to an end?”
In dialogue with Gene over time I realized he was not closing the door on ethics. Instead, he saw much more promise through opening the door of practical advantages of nonviolent struggle. He and I wanted the same thing: maximum attraction to nonviolent struggle to win justice.
It would prove the beginning of a long collaboration, with Sharp coming to serve as an important mentor to Lakey. As Lakey writes, “it wasn’t hard for Gene to convince me that I should write my own thesis on nonviolent struggle.”
We stayed in touch after I returned to the United States, and—with his encouragement—I persuaded the University of Pennsylvania’s sociology department to allow me to write that thesis…. Gene then adopted [some of my ideas] for his own work.
In 1964, Sharp invited Lakey to join him “to present a paper at the first international conference on civilian-based defense, or CBD, at Oxford University,” where together they rubbed shoulders with defense top-brass like famed British military theorist Sir B.H. Liddell Hart.
That same year, Lakey cited Sharp in a guide he co-wrote to help train Mississippi Freedom Summer participants, A Manual for Direct Action: Strategy and Tactics for Civil Rights and All Other Nonviolent Protest Movements.24
The intellectual admiration was reciprocated: Sharp would thank and cite Lakey in books of his as well, including Exploring Nonviolent Alternatives, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, and Social Power and Political Freedom.25
“Training” for a Nonviolent Revolution
Lakey’s 1973 book, Strategy for a Living Revolution, remains one of the most important texts in the ideological canon of revolutionary nonviolence. In it, Lakey describes MNS’s vision of revolution as “fundamentally different from any before proposed.”26 Theirs would be a “revolution for life” based on “changed lives and changed values.” This revolution would “confront lies with openness and repression with community,” and usher in “a decentralized, democratic and caring social order,” an order “decisively on the side of life against death, of affirmation rather than destruction.”27 Translated, the MNS revolution would be perfectly nonviolent, in means and in ends.
Lakey broke down the “nonviolent revolution” into five overlapping “stages”: cultural preparation, building organizational strength, propaganda of the deed, political and economic noncooperation, and finally, intervention and parallel institutions. One practical application of this strategy was building ranks through urban communes where member-activists lived, worked, and campaigned together. These were called “Movement Action Groups.” The largest was in Philadelphia—per the Times profile—which was home to the “Philadelphia Life Center,” a number of communal houses, the New Society Land Trust, a grocery co-op, health clinic, and publishing house, New Society Publishers. As described in a 1977 profile, “The Philadelphia Life Center is the hub of the Movement for a New Society (MNS), a network of nonviolent revolutionary groups in the United States and a half dozen other countries. In West Philadelphia, the 150 or so members—who range in age from sixteen to sixty and also include some twenty preteen children—live in about twenty communal houses. MNS members in Chicago, Seattle, Madison, Minneapolis, and many other parts of the United States do not always choose to live communally, but they all participate in common direct-action projects and in building alternative institutions.”28 Other MNS chapters included ones in San Francisco and Kansas.29
Building communes was only the beginning of MNS’s revolutionary efforts. MNS strategy also hinged on driving a “nonviolent training movement.”30 Even at its height, MNS had only 300 members. But according to Andrew Cornell, an activist, academic, and sympathetic historian of the group, it “bore an influence on 1970s’ radicalism disproportionate to its size,” owing in part to “the strategy and skills trainings in which the group specialized.”31 Indeed, MNS helped “establish a culture of training within the antiauthoritarian Left that continues to the present day.”32
Gene Sharp’s rationalized and routinized “politics of nonviolent action,” still little-known, were a key source of direction and inspiration for MNS’ training activities. As Lakey recounted in 1974, “We’ve come to see ourselves as leavening agents…. Like Gene Sharp in Politics of Nonviolent Action, we are demystifying nonviolence. We are transforming it into skills that can be learned by anyone who cares enough.”33 In 1982, Lakey would write, “Rather than being the only expert marshal trainers in town, we pass our skills along to others so that they can do the work as well as we can. We regard the campaigns of today as important for themselves, but also as training grounds for the campaigns of tomorrow, so that skills learned in Take Back the Night marches can be used in a Reagan protest rally or an El Salvador march.”34
Though common now, in the 1970s “training” remained a somewhat novel pedagogy.35 It stood in contrast to “political education,” or “PE” in the lingo of the sixties and seventies. Political education tended toward cultivating a mass, class-oriented intellectualism, and was generally candid in its ideological purposes. MNS was “not impressed” by this tradition.36 Instead, their trainings purported to be non-ideological, emphasizing immediately actionable skills over history or political theory, and the direct life experience of participants over the “expertise” of facilitators. Ostensibly, this would disrupt the hierarchical student-teacher dynamic and better empower participants.
MNS offered trainings on an array of topics, but of central importance were those trainings on “nonviolent direct action” (NVDA), alternatively termed “strategic nonviolence.” Supplementing NVDA trainings were guides and manuals on the topic. Here, Gene Sharp’s new quasi-scientific and seemingly secular theorization of nonviolence was essential to presenting nonviolent action as a credible, “strategic” route to revolutionary change. Throughout MNS resources on NVDA, Sharp’s theories are highlighted. Butcher paper from 1970s MNS trainings, transcribed and digitized by Swarthmore College, include discussions about “Gene Sharp’s Theory of Power” and “Gene Sharp’s Categorization of Methods of Nonviolent Action,” with no other intellectual given similar treatment.37 In a 1976 organizational assessment, MNS co-founder Bill Moyer notes that Sharp’s work had been “really helpful” to developing MNS nonviolence training.38 In 1977, Moyer recommends Sharp’s work in his MNS-published book A Nonviolent Action Manual: How to Organize Nonviolent Demonstrations and Campaigns.39 Sharp’s ideas buttressed the widely distributed 1978 MNS pamphlet Why Nonviolence? Introduction to Nonviolence Theory and Strategy.40 Sharp is prominently featured in MNS member David Albert’s 1985 book, People Power: Applying Nonviolence Theory.41 Though it was principally focused on group process, Sharp also comes up in the 1977 MNS book Resource Manual for a Living Revolution: A Handbook of Skills & Tools for Social Change Activists—sometimes termed the MNS “Monster Manual.”42
Through its Sharp-inspired NVDA trainings and materials, MNS developed a “distinctive strain of nonviolent direct action in the United States…”43 MNS famously trained much of the anti-nuclear movement, including many of the 1,400 activists of the Clamshell Alliance who were arrested at the historic action at Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in 1977.44 In the 1980s, MNS would train activists in the “feminist, gay rights, antiapartheid, and Central American solidarity movements.”45 By the 1990s and 2000s, MNS’s training methods had proliferated, and its “norms and tactics would run through the major environmental, global justice, and anti-war mobilizations.”46 And, as we will see, MNS’s training methods live on yet today, still billed as non-ideological opportunities for “skill-building.”
“Revolutionary Nonviolence”: An Alternative to “Marxist Revolution”
MNS avoided talk of “ideology”—but that’s not to say they didn’t have one. As historian of MNS Andrew Cornell puts it, “Revolutionary nonviolence formed the bedrock of MNS’s political analysis and strategy,” infused into all the group’s activities, including its trainings.47
It is not easy to find a straightforward definition of revolutionary nonviolence (sometimes referred to simply as “nonviolent revolution”).48 In 1979, Gene Sharp described it as “still very much a direction of developing thought and action rather than a fixed ideology and program.”49 Sharp and MNS alike cite Gandhi, the 1946 Committee for Nonviolent Revolution, and the American civil rights movement as touchstones for revolutionary nonviolence.50 A 1978 MNS pamphlet “Why Nonviolence?” describes Committee for Nonviolent Revolution founder A.J. Muste—the famous Trotskyist labor organizer who, on the eve of World War II, became a pacifist and anti-Marxist campaigner, and for whom Sharp had served as secretary during the 1950s—as “perhaps the chief pioneer of revolutionary nonviolence in America….”51
One core assertion of revolutionary nonviolence is that violence in the world is borne of deeply-rooted “structural” or “systemic” failures. Thus, ending violence requires fundamental, revolutionary change. In this way, revolutionary nonviolence distinguishes itself from mere pacifism. As Gene Sharp put it, “‘Nonviolent revolutionaries’ believe that the major social problems of today’s word have their origins at the roots of individual and social life and can therefore be solved only by a basic, or revolutionary, change in individuals and society.”52 In the aforementioned MNS pamphlet, MNS notes that Muste “demanded of pacifists who were critical of the violence in some labor actions that they recognize ‘the violence on which the present system is based.’” The same pamphlet quotes anarchist philosopher Paul Goodman arguing, “‘Pacifism is necessarily revolutionary…. We will not have peace unless there is a profound change in social structure.”’ “But,” the pamphlet continues, “this conclusion has by no means been obvious to everyone—or at least, most pacifists have shied away from the size of the task it implies.” More recently, in the 2012 edited volume Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, War Resisters League activist Matt Meyer writes that, “revolutionary nonviolence suggests that…any popular movement must push beyond mere reformist change that leaves structures of oppression intact, even though this requires active confrontation.”53
Despite efforts to distinguish itself from pacifism, revolutionary nonviolence retains pacifism’s commitment to nonviolence. As Gene Sharp writes in Gandhi as Political Strategist, one important aspect of a “nonviolent revolutionary program” is “combating what are regarded as social evils by nonviolent action.” According to Meyer in Beautiful Trouble, revolutionary nonviolence “proposes a militant nonviolent praxis based on revolutionary transformation and mass civil resistance.”54 But proponents of revolutionary nonviolent often emphasize, in Sharpian fashion, that their commitment to nonviolence is for “strategic,” rather than moral, reasons. In Strategy for a Living Revolution, Lakey emphasizes that for MNS, a nonviolent commitment was a strategic choice: “Bourgeois pacifism is clearly an inadequate ideology for a revolutionary program. But nonviolent struggle as a strategic commitment is something else again.”55
Like pacifism, revolutionary nonviolence still interprets history in moral terms—good and evil—rather than in terms of material interests. And like pacifism, the key world-historical problem revolutionary nonviolence seeks to solve, the great evil, is “violence” — albeit “violence” in a more systemic sense than traditional pacifism. As Cornell writes, MNS believed that “war is inherent to capitalism and 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.”56 MNS similarly emphasized that ecological problems, sexism, and racism were also expressions of violence.
Revolutionary nonviolence has a clear libertarian orientation. As Sharp wrote in Gandhi as a Political Strategist, revolutionary nonviolence seeks to build “a more equalitarian, decentralized, and libertarian social order,” “largely or entirely without use of the State machinery.” MNS “promoted the idea of a ‘decentralized socialism,’” and hearkened to the “nonviolent, libertarian socialism” of the New Left magazine Liberation.57 Though in disagreement with the average anarchist on the question of violence, MNS studied anarchist thinkers like Murray Bookchin, whose tract “Listen Marxist!” was a particular favorite. In its “macro-analysis seminars”—MNS’s version of political education—MNS also relied on “selections from the Black Rose volume The Case for Participatory Democracy, edited by Dimitri Roussopoulos, early works on libertarian socialism by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, and even selections from [19th and 20th century anarchists] Alexander Berkman and Kropotkin.” 58
Somewhat incongruously, Lakey—whom the late anarcho-pacifist political scientist Geoffrey Ostergaard compared to Muste, in terms of importance within the revolutionary nonviolence tradition—also admires state-centric Scandinavian social democracy.59 A comment of Lakey’s from 2012 illustrates the odd tension: “The anarchists claim me but I’m always a little surprised when they do because I’m fond of social democracy as it’s been developed in Norway….” Yet Lakey continues, saying, “I like decision-making to happen on the lowest possible level. I think that’s why I missed out on Communism because of their preference for putting a lot of power on the state level, even of very large states.” 60 Though few would mistake Norway for a fully communist country, its economy features enormous amounts of centralized state planning and management. Lakey’s frequent celebration of Sweden and Norway, as well as Sharp’s, seemingly incongruous with their otherwise libertarian politics, can’t help but call to mind the Eisenhower administration’s insight that Scandinavian countries were “valuable in international organizations and for general [anti-communist] propaganda purposes” since they were regarded “throughout the world as prime examples of Western democracy.”61 This peculiar combination of MNS’s pacifist roots, anarchist methods, and selective embrace of liberal democracy may distinguish MNS as a critical antecedent of the tendency described by Bhaskar Sunkara as “anarcho-liberalism.”62
MNS’s revolutionary nonviolence may have been a loose and sometimes contradictory worldview, but one feature was clear: it was consistently and explicitly opposed to Marxism. In notes, MNS’s “nonviolent revolution” is distinguished from “Marxist revolution,” and early forums were held on “Marxist revolution vs. nonviolent revolution.”63 MNS emphasized it was not trying to organize a “proletarian vanguard party.” In notes, the question, “Why isn’t MNS Marxist-Leninist?” is marked for discussion. Why indeed?
Some answers are found in MNS member David Albert’s 1979 essay, “Working Toward a New Society and a Critique of American Marxism.”64 In this piece, Albert initially suggests that his critique of Marxism is narrow and merely practical: Marx’s ideas were an “an alien import which flies directly in the face of a specifically American cultural ideology.” Plus, the American ruling class had successfully suppressed “the best which Marxist analysis and vision has to offer.”
But Albert quickly moves on to more substantive issues, like the state. For the vast majority of political projects, including Marxism, the state is an essential, if fraught, political vehicle. But Albert, like Gene Sharp, and consistent with revolutionary nonviolence’s worldview, demurs. He writes: “We need to learn how to reject governmental ‘solutions’ to our problems.”65 Instead, Albert urges us to advocate only for “alternatives which increase control over our lives by empowering us to meet our own needs.” For example, Albert suggests, activists’ “main energies should not be directed toward National Health Insurance…” but rather toward something described as “complete community-based control” of medicine. Similarly, and very pessimistically, Albert writes, “campaigning for higher government expenditures for solar energy research…is bound by its very nature to…result in the production of ‘solar weapons’ and an increase in the possibilities for satellite warfare.”
In Strategy for a Living Revolution, Lakey describes states as “bullies,” which is odd given his professed fondness for Nordic social democracy.66 More paradoxical yet, Lakey also casts states as too pathetically ineffectual to actually impose limits on corporations: “The efforts of labor movements and others in the past century to force some responsibility on corporations through political structures, never very effective, are now hopeless because the corporations have outgrown their political structures.”67 It seems, according to Lakey, that states are, by turn, too forceful, not forceful enough, and great if in Scandinavia. Lakey declares that the “egalitarian world revolution will not be led by large nation-states no matter what their ideology or how frequent their cultural revolutions. Such a task must rightly belong to the peoples movements with a genuinely transnational vision.” Lakey cautions, “such movements must remain keenly aware of the mistakes of revolutionists who were caught in the nation-state framework.”68 Instead, in Sharpian fashion, after the nonviolent revolution there would be no states, but rather a new, world society.
Neither did MNS share Marxism’s emphasis on parties and mass politics. Lakey asserts that “mass politics is very thin,” because “the search for the common denominator deprives it of cultural richness.” Plus mass politics were “sexist” and “macho.” Lakey feels the nature of mass politics contradicted the “massive revolutionary consciousness” needed for nonviolent revolution. Instead, “the decline of the old culture, felt differently but increasingly in our society, means that a counter-culture is essential.”69
Parties, according to Lakey, were the exact opposite of this counter-culture: “Working within the party means endless compromise as party leaders shift among the coalitions, looking for votes by means of the lowest common denominator. With occasional exceptions, party workers cannot hope to do much radical education and survive with any influence in the party… the arena of mass party work is not an environment for the discovery or even the transmission of new, compelling symbols of identity.”70
Parties were also viewed as untrustworthy. For example, as Lakey writes, “The tragic failure of the socialists in Europe to strike against the First World War is more understandable when we remember that most of them had taken the parliamentary road.”71 Though Lakey selectively quotes the likes of Marx and Mao in Strategy for a Living Revolution, he charged the party-bearing Bolsheviks with a willingness “to manipulate their way into influencing mass movements.” Though MNS would come to understand itself as a “cadre organization of…basically full-time revolutionaries,” MNS “said no to manipulation.”72
There were also objections to Marxism’s historical materialism. David Albert was uncomfortable with the “materiality” of historical materialism. He conflated it—incorrectly, and quite dimly—with consumerism: “The major problem with materialism as an ideology,” he writes, “is that it leads to massive resource scarcity, creating conditions for mass conflict.”73 As another MNS member put it, “I worry about those who try to provide for men’s material needs without a spiritual dimension.”74
To deal with ecological problems like resource scarcity, MNS proposed “de-development”—reversing industrialization.75 Lakey argues the nonviolent revolution should “check population growth,” a policy that would supposedly reduce “mass violence.”76 Lakey quite correctly notes, “Traditional Marxism does not take kindly to population control, much less to the needed reduction in population to an optimum size in relation to resources and quality of life.”77
Incidentally, MNS shared its view of “de-development” with Sharp’s former Norwegian supervisor and father of deep ecology Arne Naess. In the 1980s, the matter of “de-development” drove an acute, movement-dividing conflict between deep ecologist Naess and social ecologist Murray Bookchin. In 1987, Bookchin wrote an essay, “Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology,” in which he criticized Naess as “pontiff” of a kind of “eco-brutalism” that, in advocating for policies like “de-development,” cast humanity as a “malignant product of natural evolution,” and which disconcertingly shared a fair amount with “blood and soil” style political programs.78 That summer, at the first national meeting of the U.S. Greens, Bookchin was to give the keynote speech. In advance of his lecture, he laid a copy of his article in every seat. It was not well received. The deep ecologist poet Gary Snyder accused Bookchin, an anarchist, of acting “like a Stalinist thug.” After the event, Bookchin was “effectively read out of the green movement,” being “much too radical for the mainstream NGOs, and much too politically principled for the lifestyle and direct action greens.”79 As for Naess, “he did not feel the need to confront the social ecologists.” Deep ecologists and de-developmentalists did, however, “face embarrassment…when activists of Earth First used its concepts to justify violent action, green Luddism, and a campaign to enforce sterilisation and end food aid to developing nations.”80
There was something even more fundamental that estranged MNS from Marxism: the issue of class itself. MNS was skeptical about the world-historic importance of workers. In notes from 1977, it is deemed “paternalistic” and “imperialistic” to suggest that “only the working class can do revolution.”81 Despite it being the 1970s, a period of historic labor militancy, MNS possessed “grave reservations” about “re-radicalizing the labor movement.”82 Albert, echoing the right-wing monetarists of the time, cautions, “We must… remain unmoved by the tendency to uncritically support unionized worker demands for more ‘bread and butter’ simply because they are put forward by fellow workers.”83 The implication was that such demands were misguided expressions of mindless consumerism.
Furthermore, MNS thought class struggle required violence—which of course it does not. In its widely circulated pamphlet “Why Nonviolence?” MNS celebrates Muste for abandoning “class war” in search of a politics that could be “simultaneously revolutionary and nonviolent.”84 Lakey charges liberals and Marxists alike of trading in a “John Wayne” culture where power is “equated with violence.”85 (This turn of phrase is deployed in Gene Sharp’s 1970 Exploring Nonviolent Alternatives as well.86 ) Socialism had failed to end “organized mass violence,” “national competition,” and “relationships of domination,” Lakey writes.87 Albert claims “American Marxists have long criticized those openly committed to nonviolent direct action as a means of struggle as either lacking in a theoretical framework or as simply naïve.” But tellingly, Albert has to concede, “there are very few even among Marxist Leninists today who advocate for the need for violence in the present.”88
Nevertheless, MNS’s opposition to Marxism was fundamental to the group’s identity. Consider this letter from David Albert giving feedback to comrades about an MNS brochure: “Imagine giving [this MNS] brochure to a committed Marxian socialist: will s/he recognize the deep fundamental commitment of MNS to revolutionary nonviolence, including a specific critique of violence in all spheres of American life which isn’t class-bound…[and MNS’s] proud rooting in a nonviolent revolutionary heritage beyond national borders which we fully own as our own, commitment in the present…to specific nonviolent modes of conflict waging and resolution from the interpersonal to the international level, specific ideas about how decentralism, community control, de-development, non-materialism and personal empowerment relate to nonviolence, and the importance of the development of concrete nonviolent alternatives in the here-and-now.”89
From Class to Classism, from Class Consciousness to Cross-Class Movements
Perhaps the most significant expression of MNS’s attitudes about class was its ambivalence about class consciousness. In Strategy for a Living Revolution, Lakey imagines that the nonviolent revolutionary movement would need to adopt a “world consciousness” that “transcends sectional loyalties such as class….”90 Though Lakey claims his idea of world consciousness “is different from the old appeal to the common good which has been the ideological stock-in-trade of capitalists who want to deny the reality of class conflict,” he cautions that “the exaggeration of group differences to the exclusion of our common humanity would make likely our common destruction. We are, even when fighting with each other, sisters and brothers.”91
Important members of MNS would build on Lakey’s notion of a “global consciousness,” and come to argue that “cross-class movements” were actually the most effective way to make “social change.”92 As Lakey writes in the forward to the 2012 edition of Strategy for a Living Revolution, “Activist-sociologist Betsy Leondar-Wright [an MNS alumna] compiled a list of social movements in the U.S. history (sic) and analyzed them by class composition; she found that success went more often to those that were cross-class rather than composed of only one class.”93
But there was an obstacle to these cross-class movements: “classism.” Classism, a then-novel category, referred not to the exploitation of workers by owners, but rather to prejudicial attitudes and hurtful behaviors constituting “class oppression” and “class domination,” like the “stereotyping [of] working class people as ‘Archie Bunker’ types or as racist or dumb.”94 As defined by MNS in 1979, “Classism is the systematic domination of working class people by rich and upper middle class people and their institutions, corporations, governments, etc. Middle and lower middle class people are caught in this system also, sometimes being in oppressor roles and often being oppressed themselves.”
The solution to classism was not necessarily an end to the class system through socialized ownership of the means of production, but a “non-classist movement” that “reached out to working class people” and featured the “inclusion” of “working class issues.”95 The concern to “include” workers seemed mainly tactical, and was often framed in therapeutic terms: as written in a 1979 MNS network newsletter, “We will find in the coming years that the movement for fundamental change will involve more and more people from the working class… To facilitate this development and build unity among all people working for change, we need to combat classism. A non-classist movement needs to give space for working class people to get in touch with our own intelligence and power. It needs support groups of working class people to nurture and help each other…”
MNS’s fixation of class as a cultural category, rather than as an objective relationship to the means of production, calls to mind Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle, where the entry for “Class” is subdivided into two concepts, “Political Class” and “Social Class” — no mention anywhere of class as an economic category.96 It also calls to mind Sharp’s “social theory of power,” which, as I write in Part One, “is preoccupied with the way the ‘centralized state’ possesses political power. In this theory, there is little recognition of how power is articulated through the material process of production…[and] if the base relations of production are invisible, the objective reality of class also becomes obscured, relegated to mere cultural identity.”97
MNS’s unusual emphasis on “classism” corresponded to the beginning of a decades long campaign by liberal social scientists to naturalize the “identity” of class, reformulating it into a category of culture, rather than political economy. According to Google Ngram, the term “classism” was virtually non-existent in the late sixties, but in the 1970s, experiences a meteoric rise. Meanwhile, “bourgeoisie” and “proletariat” begin plummeting in the mid-1970s, with no end in sight.
MNS struggled earnestly to theorize “classism”—in large part because class was a sore spot in the organization.98 There was conflict over the “middle-class-ness” of the group. Lakey writes, “It would be years before working class people came out of the closet in MNS.”99 Lakey counts himself among these “closeted” working class members.100 Betsy Raasch-Gilman reflects that MNS spent lots of time mulling the question, “…why middle-class and upper-middle-class values are so important even in the movement. How do working-class and poor people claim their rightful place in a movement organization?”101 There were disagreements over MNS’s unusually involved, only quasi-voluntary process of cost-sharing. The process required an uncomfortable level of exposure for low-income members, to whom MNS offered as remedy “cost sharing support groups.” As one member recounted, “The combination of feeling poor, having to prove I was poor enough to be worthy of reduced payment, and sensing a begrudging spirit from the upper income people, all felt like I was again applying for welfare in mainstream America with my mother.”102
The theoretical limits of revolutionary nonviolence became an ever-tougher bone of contention too. In group notes from the 1970s, an upstart named “Nancy” raises disruptive points like, “MNS not looking at real problems…Unrealistic to fight oppression on personal basis; is material base for sexism, etc…. Have to change mode of production, way we produce things…Base for new society exists in working class due to cooperative work. This makes workers revol. …Can’t look to oppressors for change because is no material base for them to fight for change.”103 It seems Nancy’s highly salient points were chalked up to her being a grump. Later in the notes, under an “Energizers” section, someone thought it worthwhile to record the seemingly patronizing observation, “Nancy smiling!”
Apparent dismissals of Nancy notwithstanding, throughout the 1970s, many MNS members grew increasingly aware that class was a blind spot in the organization. In a 1977 profile of MNS, a member named Pam reflects the following: “I think that MNS simply has to reach a broader constituency to achieve its real purpose of social change… Some of us here have formed a group to study Marxism and we see many strengths in it. We do recognize that it has serious drawbacks… But it does provide a very clear and compelling analysis of the forces operating in society. It also deals directly with the issue of taking power. Finally, it fuses us with the majority of ordinary real people in the country. Not all but certainly most of us here have a middle-class background. We need to be speaking to black people, welfare recipients, blue-collar workers, clerical workers. We believe in de-development. What most workers and the poor see in such a program is self-denial—which is all they have known… We must come to understand our own class consciousness… We should be devoting more time to studying the labor movement… We need to be finding better ways to move from training into practice…”104
Some MNS members even decided to take jobs as workplace union organizers. But this created dissonance in the communes. The organization was increasingly divided into two groups: the “hard-bitten shop floor organizers,” and the “new age hippie flakes.”105 As Lakey describes, “[The organizers would] want to come back and talk at the dinner table about this happened at the break, or that happened at the break and the people at the dinner table weren’t necessarily all that interested, because there was a tone in the community of middle-class-ness, even though a lot of the leadership was working class.”
MNS did not substantively adjust its analysis or strategy in effort to overcome its internal class contradictions. Instead it redoubled its efforts to address “classism” within its membership. A “Working Class Identity Group” was formed, as was something called the “Working Class Strategy Support Collective.”106 There were working class speak-outs and in 1979 a whole issue of the MNS newsletter Dandelion was dedicated to “Classism.” MNS developed “anti-classism” trainings, inventing these workshops “from whole cloth” as “no one else was running them, or ever had run them.”107 The anti-classism efforts were not just for the rich: working class members worked on undoing “internalized” class oppression and focused on “separating personal hurts from classism,” so that they might “act powerfully and not out of our own painful emotions.” There was a “cross-class dialogue group” that met for six hours every month for six years.108 Members of this group included “Felice Yeskel, Jerry Koch-Gonzalez (who identifies as lower-middle-class), Linda Stout (a working-class activist and author), Jenny Ladd (a multi-millionaire inheritor) and some other owning-class people who have not wanted to publicly identify themselves.”
MNS felt that classism—like sexism, racism, and homophobia—was individually internalized, and needed to be purged at that level. Indeed, according to Gene Sharp in Gandhi as a Political Strategist, one key focus of revolutionary nonviolence was “improvement by individuals of their own lives.” According to Cornell, MNS’s commitment to individual transformation “was perhaps the most ambiguous aspect” of their project.109 It combined New Age spirituality, counter-cultural lifestyle politics, and “the unlearning of oppressive behavior through a variety of radical therapy practices…”110 MNS members regularly engaged in “Reevaluation Counseling,” a therapy method that purported to liberate people from the childhood trauma that underlay their oppressive behaviors. Reevaluation Counseling, now considered by some professionals to be a psychotherapy cult, was created by a man named Harvey Jackins, who developed the protocol according to Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s theory of dianetics.111
The Lost Critique: Howard Ryan’s Essay, “The Nonviolent Movement and The Working Class and A Critique of Movement For a New Society”
In 1980—the year that Ronald Reagan would be elected—MNS’s challenges around class would become more interesting still. That year, a young man named Howard Ryan, an MNS trainee who had “been active in anti-nuclear, anti-draft, and anti-sexist issues,” dropped a bombshell: a thoroughgoing Marxist critique of MNS entitled, “The Nonviolent Movement and The Working Class and a Critique of Movement for a New Society.”112 Ryan’s essay and the ensuing correspondence with MNS, all housed in the Swarthmore Peace Collection, should be noted as first-rate primary texts for illustrating leftwing activist consciousness in the U.S. at the moment of the neoliberal turn.
On November 30, 1980, Ryan submitted his 30-page type-written manuscript to MNS’s own New Society Publishers, seeking its publication: “It is my hope that you will find my critique to be an affirming and supportive one,” he writes, optimistically. “I have been a firm admirer of your group since being introduced to it in 1977 and, honestly speaking, I would most likely be living and working with you folks today were it not for your approach to class issues.”
In his essay, Ryan first recounts his own process of coming to class consciousness, all thanks to his girlfriend, Margo: “It’s been ten months since that fateful evening when Margo, a new acquaintance, had asked me about my class background…. I hardly knew my father—they divorced when I was two. My mother worked in a cleaners when I was younger; later, she ran a parking lot business. My grandfather worked a drill press at Hughes Aircraft and my grandmother cleaned houses, part-time. ‘I had a feeling you were working class,’ [Margo] said…. [She] proceeded to tell me things that really turned my head around. Things that struck deep. For example, she had picked up on my tendency to hold knowledgeable people in awe…. Over time I begin to grasp the significance of people’s class background in shaping their character and their relationships. I was becoming class conscious—at least on an interpersonal level.”113
Ryan then describes finding the “nonviolent movement,” and becoming “fascinated” by—surprise, surprise—Gene Sharp’s book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action.114 Clearly a young man with an organic intellectualism, Ryan wrote a paper about Sharp, and presented it to Margo. Alas, “she was very critical of it.”
“I was admittedly hurt,” Ryan writes. “Margo was a Marxist. She said that my theory didn’t start with the ‘material conditions,’ that it was ‘idealist.’ I staunchly defended my paper.” But Margo gave Ryan some books that explained the distinction between “materialism” and “idealism.” “I had to admit,” Ryan writes, “Marx’s materialism made a lot of sense. I’ll tell you what really won me over though; it was the class stuff.” In plainspoken yet powerful prose, Ryan goes on to describe the history and current nature of the class system as he saw it after his ten months of study: “The constituency of these social classes are determined not so much by their income brackets as they are by their relationship to the means of production. Are you an owner? Or not an owner? Do you make a living off of other people’s labor? Or do other people make a living off of your labor? These are the bottom questions which determine your relation to production and, consequently, your class position.”115
Ryan then proceeds to critique the class politics of the “nonviolent movement.” He focuses on Movement for a New Society because “their abundant books and pamphlets are well-disseminated,” they “offer what is perhaps the most thorough and explicit expression of the politics that I wish to challenge,” and because his own politics “were strongly influenced by MNS’s materials.”116
For one, Ryan was skeptical of MNS’s emphasis on “classism.” He writes: “I keep wanting to put ‘classism’ in quotations because whenever I see the term being used…I feel like its meaning has very little to do with class struggle…. The Winter ’79 issue of the MNS Dandelion newsletter was devoted to the question of classism…[but] nowhere in any of the articles are the most important aspects of class oppression talked about, such as the exploitation of working people at the workplace. There is no discussion about doing workplace organizing, or on the need to organize working people as a class in order to overthrow the capitalist class. Instead the articles focus almost exclusively on the interpersonal oppression of working class people by middle class people…Thus classism is seen as another form of prejudice that needs to be overcome like racism, sexism, ageism, etc.”117 Ryan, by contrast, says he believes that “the class nature of how production is organized is the most fundamental aspect to our social existence.”118 Ryan is earnestly complementary of MNS’s efforts regarding class analysis; his “hope” is that MNS will “begin to move beyond the limits of ‘non-classism’ and toward a full support and involvement in the working class struggle.”119
Ryan also picked up on, and objected to, Lakey’s invocation of “world consciousness.”120 In Ryan’s view, “there can be no basis for achieving world peace and justice, or for the development of ‘world consciousness,’ until the class relations that dominate our planet have been done away with. In order for this to happen, the working peoples of the world must engage in class struggle against the ruling classes. Until the time that such a struggle has been won, I see a world-consciousness, or the notion that we are all sisters and brothers, as standing in contradiction to the very pressing need for an international class-consciousness…”121 Ryan acknowledges that Lakey “supports the recognition of group differences and of conflicting interests,” but does not like that Lakey “prioritizes the stressing of our ‘common humanity’ (read: our common humanity with our ruling class oppressors) over the recognizing of differences…”
“Unlike the capitalists,” Ryan writes, “Lakey does not deny the reality of class conflict. Rather, he subordinates it.” Ryan explains that he is “wary of this subordinating of the class struggle to a ‘higher calling’ for the embracing of all humanity…I think the working class needs now, more than ever, to embrace their class sisters and brothers…they need to realize that 98% of us (or thereabouts) share a common oppression, and a common interest in struggling together.”
Ryan also takes to task David Albert’s characterization of the American working class in his aforementioned MNS paper “Working Toward a New Society and a Critique of American Marxism.” Ryan writes, “Albert assails Marxists for uncritically supporting workers’ demands for higher wages. He claims that we should not necessarily give our support to such demands just because they are being made by our fellow workers. As Albert sees it, the majority of American workers are being paid sufficiently to meet their essential needs and that the excess wages are being used to meet artificial, capitalist-induced ‘needs’ such as campers, 4-slice toasters, color TVs, etc.”122
Using an impressive degree of statistical detail, Ryan deflates Albert’s characterization of an opulent American working class, and sensibly points out that “it is essential to include a wage demand” in worker organizing “to ensure the broadest possible participation.”123
Ryan further illustrates how Albert’s rhetoric mirrors the anti-worker, inflation-obsessed tropes of the mass media: “Wage demands are frequently pitted against inflation-fighting, as in a Time article (July 24, 1978) entitled ‘Labor Looks to Some Big Gains—loss for inflation fighters.’”124
Ryan was a prescient young man. The 1940s through the 1960s was global capitalism’s “golden era.” But as Christian Parenti lucidly describes in his classic Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, “By the early 1970s…postwar growth and industrialization meant chronic excess capacity on a global scale. It was a classic crisis of ‘over-accumulation.’ In other words, capitalism was suffering from industrial success. In this economic environment, American manufacturing and merchandising firms found it increasingly difficult to maintain their amazing (if not aberrant) postwar profitability.”125 At the same time, the victories of the New Deal and Great Society programs had translated into an empowered working class capable of winning higher wages and defending them from cuts. The upshot was “stagflation”—a stagnant economy, coupled with price inflation—economist code for rising wages. Consequently, profits were falling, from a high of 10 percent in 1965, to a low of 4.5 percent in 1974.126 What was the owning class to do?
As Parenti writes, “The solution, according to New Right theorists like Milton Friedman, Lawrence Mead, and George Gilder, was to cut government. That is, cut taxes on the corporations and the wealthy, deregulate health and safety regulations, and slash state spending on education, welfare, and social programs. And to initiate this the government would have to plunge the economy into a ‘cold bath recession’ to scare and discipline labor.”127 That is precisely what happened—with little resistance from the New Left, unsurprising given its own “poststructural” turn away from class analysis and political “truth claims” altogether. In 1979, President Carter appointed Paul Volcker as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. “Late in 1979 Volcker dramatically tightened the money supply by boosting interest rates, thus cutting borrowing power and buying power, and diminishing economic activity in general…. As a direct result, the U.S. economy plunged into its most severe recession since the Great Depression.” The “Volcker Shock” also triggered a debt crisis throughout the developing Third World, creating political openings for bank-mandated neoliberal “structural adjustment.”
No matter the pain, Volcker’s maneuver worked to stop and reverse wage growth, which was his priority. “Before the 1980-82 cold-bath recession, wage freezes and pay cuts in unionized industries had been almost non-existent…. By 1982, 44 percent of new contracts conceded wage freezes or outright cuts.”128 Most economists agree that the power of the American wage still has not recovered.129 The gap between wages and living expenses was covered by the expansion and loosening of consumer credit markets. Consumer indebtedness deepened, and economic inequality with it. Profits, meanwhile, shot back up, and “[b]y 1987 Reagan had delivered the richest 1 percent of the population a next tax saving of 25 percent, while the poorest tenth of workers saw 20 percent more of their incomes ‘swallowed by taxes.’”130
Ryan’s final critique of MNS is its fixation on “simple living”: “It is my contention,” he writes, “that the vast majority of working people are living a heck of a lot simpler than is often suggested by simple living advocates.”131 Ryan also takes issue with MNS’s call for “de-development”: “I think that modern industry is a potentially liberating force, provided it is shifted toward ecologically sensible technologies. As I see it, if workers planned production then they could take satisfaction in what is otherwise alienating factory work.”132 Plus Ryan has a “broader strategic concern…regarding counter-institutions, such as co-ops and community energy projects.” He argues it essential that “they not be seen as a substitute for a mass political movement that directly challenges the big companies and the capitalist system as a whole.”
Ryan concludes with this: “Any discussion of the working class experience is incomplete if it fails to consider internalized oppression: the guilt and self-hate which are encouraged by society and which permeate our thoughts.” He offers this moving hypothetical to illustrate the average working man’s situation. As it remains so strikingly relevant to our modern political situation, and as it did not get published back in 1980, it deserves quotation at length.
“By the time he’s old enough to walk,” Ryan writes, “little Johnny gets into mischief—he’s a bad and naughty boy. A few years later Johnny’s friends notice that he doesn’t like rough games or fighting—bad little Johnny’s also a sissy. In school Johnny gets restless and can’t pay attention, and so falls behind—bad little Johnny the sissy gets labeled a ‘slow learner.’ On through his teens the bad messages continue to get compiled in Johnny’s head—Johnny’s fat, Johnny’s got pimples, Johnny jacks off, Johnny can’t get girls, Johnny’s a faggot. Later, he’s married, with kids, a blue collar job—Johnny’s a nobody, his family lives in a crummy apartment, his wife has to get a job to make ends meet, Johnny’s not a good provider. Johnny’s not a real man. Being of American working class stock, Johnny has bought into the myth that it’s his fault that he’s poor. It’s his fault that his family doesn’t have a nice home in the suburbs. By American standards, Johnny is a failure…. If he had only tried harder in school, he might have gotten a scholarship and went to college. If only he wasn’t so dumb, or so lazy, if he hadn’t fooled around so much, etc.
“Johnny’s quite a failure, all right. But there is one thing that he can do, and he can do it better than anyone else he knows (with the possible exception of his wife, who feels just as guilty as he does). Johnny can sacrifice. He sacrifices so much; puts in all the overtime he can. He works 55, sometimes 60 hours a week. Johnny’s dream is to save up enough to make a down payment on one of the new tract homes. His wife would love it. But every time he manages to get a little ahead, something always seems to come up. One of the kids breaks an arm or needs braces; his mother gets sick and needs help; the car needs an overhaul; he gets into an accident and his insurance won’t cover it; a temporary layoff at work; the union goes on strike; on and on. Still, he continues to plug away…. Johnny’s life may not be the grandest. Most of it’s spent busting ass on the job…. He may not be the greatest success, but Johnny’s determined to prove to himself and to the world that he can do something good in his life, something important. He’ll work and work, and save and save; and if he’s very lucky maybe he’ll get his family one or two of the good things in life, something they can be proud of. Maybe it’ll be a color TV; maybe a second family car. Or, maybe he’ll be among the fortunate few who lands a promotion to supervisor. Then they might talk about the possibilities of a camper, or a house, or—most importantly—the possibilities of getting his kids into college so that they’ll be educated and not have to go through the same crap that he’s been through.
“Can we expect Johnny to be open to our telling him that he shouldn’t demand higher wages? That he and his family could live comfortably on his present income—and their life would be much more fulfilling—if they turned to a simple lifestyle? That the things Johnny wants for his family and for which he slaves—the new car, the color TV, the tract home—are artificially induced needs which will bring them no happiness and which will spoil the environment, besides? My guess is that he will not be open to hearing us, but he will respond angrily and defensively, and that he will be justified in doing so. In a sense we have colluded with the capitalist by denying Johnny his humanity. The capitalist denies his humanity by refusing to allow him to be anything other than a piece of production machinery; we deny his humanity by telling him that the things that he wants are not legitimate wants.
“Before we decide unequivocally that the material things which the working class family strives for are artificially induced needs, I think we should look beyond the commodities themselves and toward the actual social functions that they serve. We might then find that capitalism has not so much created artificial needs as it has touched upon peoples real, gut-level, human needs and then developed various perverted, inefficient, ecologically unsound, and highly profitable ways of filling them.”
But, Ryan says, MNS has instead “placed themselves on a political pedestal, established an impeccably pure, revolutionary code of conduct, and announced that they will refuse to support the struggles of American workers until they begin living up to MNS’s standards of politically correct living. They have attacked workers’ values as regressive, illegitimated their needs, and offered no validation of the real concerns and truly human aspirations toward which working people strive. At the same time, they have asked of workers to sacrifice those precious material prizes which represent to the worker their sense of well-being; the sense of their human individuality which their working lives otherwise deny them.”133
At the very end of his essay, Ryan offers a few suggestions: workers organizations MNS could work with, and the idea of supporting rank-and-file wildcat strikers. He signs off with this: “As for myself, I’m not quite sure what my political future has in store for me. At present, I’m trying to find a union job (I’m a school bus driver). But whatever activity I end up doing, you can bet that it’ll be working class-oriented.” Indeed, Ryan would go on to work at Labor Notes, and in 2017 published a book with Monthly Review Press, Educational Justice: Teaching and Organizing Against the Corporate Juggernaut, based on his experience organizing to defend public education.134
Copies of Ryan’s paper were made available throughout MNS, and a month later, on January 7, 1981, the “MNS Working Class Strategy Support Collective” met to discuss it.135 By and large, members of this group found Ryan’s piece stimulating, if a little harsh. But tellingly, there was an effort to distance MNS from Ryan’s critiques by pointing to the organization’s free spirit of ideological diversity. As MNS member Joan Nikelsky wrote in her five-page response to Ryan on behalf of the group, “MNS is a network of collectives and in each collective are individuals with varying shades of political opinion. We have no ‘party line’ or ‘central committee’… Although MNS publishes a lot of literature, most of it is not meant to be an ‘official’ MNS position.”136
Ryan quickly responded to Nikelsky with an eight-page letter, and disagreed politely but pointedly: “About your claims that MNS has no ‘party line,’ I don’t agree. When I was applying to join an MNS training program back in ’78, they had a very clear set of political and personal requirements which I would have to meet in order to be accepted. Not the least of these is that I was expected to have a commitment to nonviolence as a means of social change. Yes, I’ll admit that the party line is applied somewhat flexibly, if you’ll admit that the party line does exist….”137 According to Ryan, MNS’s party line is observable in “Albert’s pamphlet [on Marxism], MNS’s current packet, and nonviolent philosophy in general” — and, Ryan continues, “all blame the victim [i.e. worker].”
Ryan goes on to issue a much more specific critique of Gene Sharp’s theory of power (very similar to the one I assert in Part One of this essay), which was so central to MNS’s program: “The problem in Sharp’s analysis—and in all nonviolent theories that I have seen—is that the emphasis is on the subjective factors and there is no understanding of how our subjective consciousness is determined by our objective existence…. Sharp makes me mad because he offers analyses and prescribes solutions for the problems of the oppressed, yet it seems to me that he has little understanding—and has made little investigation—of the concrete situations of working people’s lives.”
In response to this letter, George Lakey, one of MNS’s co-founders and among its most important ideological leaders, weighed in with a personal missive of his own to Ryan: “At last I have the chance to turn my attention toward the dialogue you’ve been conducting with MNS via Joan Nikelsky and the Working Class Strategy Support Collective,” Lakey writes.138 “I like the quality of the dialogue; it seems that people are proceeding on the basis of mutual respect, expressing points of unity, acknowledging areas for growth, and expressing differences in direct and clear ways.”
Lakey does not so much respond to the larger argument Ryan is making, but proceeds to explain why MNS isn’t Marxist—though, he clarifies, “I’ll [just] speak for myself.” Here, Lakey is perhaps at his most candid about his and MNS’s rejection of class politics.
Lakey objects to an “abstract adherence to a strategic conception (say, Leninism) which prevents learning from history-as-it’s-happening-in-the-present.” He disagrees with the idea that class is the “primary contradiction,” quoting Sheila Rowbotham. He believes an economic class must first become a “status group” before it can in engage in revolutionary struggle, citing Stanley Aronowitz. Lakey believes that the “prefigurative tradition” is more dynamic than doing politics through unions, parties, or the state.
Lakey also tells Ryan that Ryan misunderstands his meaning of “world consciousness”: “You criticize my thinking in Strategy as being insufficiently supportive of class consciousness because I want in addition a ‘world consciousness.’ Since, you say, ‘world consciousness’ prevents polarization of workers vs. capitalists, it stands in the way of revolution…. You missed most of my book, for it is mostly about polarization, how to induce it and how to manage it!” But Lakey does not comment on the specific merits of “inducing” and “managing” polarization between workers and capitalists via class consciousness — i.e. Ryan’s critique.
Finally, Lakey writes, “another whole area where [MNS] would like to be inventive, daring to depart from the assumptions of mainstream Marxism, is in the means of struggle.” By this, Lakey means “departing” from mainstream Marxism’s supposed insistence on violence. He quotes the Italian then-Marxist Lucio Colleti: “My basic aim in writing my essay on ‘State and Revolution,’” says Colleti, “was to confront and attack a conception that Stalinism had entrenched in the workers’ movement, that simply identified revolution with violence. For this tradition, it was only violence that was the real hallmark of a revolution; everything else—the transformation of the nature of power, the establishment of socialist democracy—was of no importance.” Setting aside the incorrect implication that class politics can be reduced to the Soviet experience, and specifically to Stalin’s reign, Colleti is a strange person to rely on for any definitive interpretation of Marxism, as he “ended his days as a parliamentary deputy for the party of [right-wing and famously corrupt] premier Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s richest capitalist.”139
Lakey’s conclusion is dramatic: “Not only does exploration of nonviolent revolution defy Stalinist orthodoxy, it goes against the prevailing assumption of our whole culture! Howard, we are proposing nothing less than a paradigm shift in how people look at power, as fundamental as the idea that the earth goes around the sun instead of vice versa.”
Lakey’s response, with its invocation of ideological flexibility, the multiplicity of identity, the “prefigurative tradition,” and “paradigm shifts,” is poetic and appealing. But bear in mind its date: May 11, 1981.
The following month, Fed Chairman Volcker would turn the economic screws tighter than ever, jacking up the federal funds rate to a shocking 20 percent.140 Three months later, on August 5, President Ronald Reagan would fire 11,359 air traffic controllers, crushing the Professional Air Traffic Controllers’ Organization (PATCO), and sending a menacing shot across labor’s bow. On August 13, Reagan would sign the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, slashing the top marginal tax rate from 70% to 50%; the rate would be cut again from 50% to 33% just a few years later. In October, Reagan reanimated the B-1 bomber program, and construction on the Pershing II missile system began, signaling a turn away from disarmament, and toward renewed nuclear build-up and a more aggressive posture of Communist “rollback.” That year, Reagan would also deepen U.S. support for the rightwing Contra guerillas trying to overthrow the socialist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. In February 1982, Mexico was the first Third World country to succumb to the Volcker-induced debt crisis, and within the year, the International Monetary Fund would be using its leverage to force free market reforms. In June 1982, Reagan would launch the War on Drugs from the White House garden.
Neoliberalism had arrived.
Over the next two decades, U.S. labor would be steamrolled by off-shoring, deindustrialization, and right-to-work laws, immiserated by stagnant wages, ballooning consumer debt, and the roll-back of healthcare, education, and housing subsidies. The Soviet Union would fall, thanks in part to the helpful trainings provided by Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution to secessionists. Under Clinton, the party of Roosevelt would sign the free trade agreement NAFTA into law, slash welfare, and expand the police and prisons system further. U.S. military interventions around the world would multiply. They would be launched to advance “freedom,” “democracy,” and “peace,” but more often, they would produce failed states. The solar panels would be taken off the White House and climate change would accelerate, unabated.
How would MNS theorize and respond to this assault? Howard Ryan’s simple, admittedly old-fashioned class politics could have offered tools for analyzing and understanding these material conditions as they were evolving, and pointed a way forward.
But New Society Publishers would not publish Ryan’s work. Rather, while Reaganomics crushed labor and dismantled the welfare state, MNS would spend the 1980s training what remained of left movements in the young tradition of revolutionary nonviolence.
As I concluded in Part One, Gene Sharp’s politics of nonviolent action segued easily with the global neoliberal turn,which produced the “state decentralization” Sharp favored. His own Albert Einstein Institution was, in fact, key to this global political shift. But, as I write in Part One, “tellingly, and perhaps somewhat tragically, it takes only a quick glance at the news to recognize it is very hard to argue that neoliberal hegemony has produced, as Sharp hoped it would, more democracy, more freedom, or more peace.”
MNS found itself in a similar situation. It is true that many MNS members seemed genuinely distraught by the Reagan Revolution. Clearly no force proved capable of stemming the neoliberal tide. But MNS’s ideology of revolutionary nonviolence – with its state-phobia, skepticism of mass politics, and aversion to class struggle – rendered it uniquely ill-equipped to fight back against the one-percenter ambush. Distressingly, their politics, like Sharp’s, were to some degree even simpatico with neoliberalism’s assault on the state and workers.
But there was another way that MNS’s politics hamstrung it in the face of the 1980s “riot of the rich,” an issue that would be key to MNS’s undoing: the group’s insistence on the supposedly nonviolent group process of consensus decision-making.
The Challenge of the Consensus Method
MNS’s impact on social movements extended beyond spreading the gospel of nonviolent direct action. According to MNS historian Cornell, MNS also trained activists in “democratic group process,” a specialty that would be among “MNS’s primary and most enduring contribution[s]….”141 Thanks to MNS, anyone who has been involved with protest activism over the last thirty years will have almost certainly encountered this “democratic group process”—consensus decision-making.142
Consensus decision-making requires unanimous agreement among group members before a decision can be made or action taken. For MNS, it was a form of prefigurative politics, an immediate expression of supposedly nonviolent social relations that could model, and so deliver, the fully nonviolent world to come. As Lakey described it, “Consensus is a structural attempt to get equality to happen in decision-making, so it’s very much about equality. So again, back to Gandhi: where we are pushing equality, we are pushing nonviolence. Where we are allowing or encouraging inequality there is a violent back up there somewhere, even though it might be masked.”143
The consensus method was supposed to be equalizing, nonviolent, and empowering, featuring no coercion, and allowing for the perfect wisdom of the group to emerge by honoring all voices in same measure. But by the 1980s, it was creating serious problems for MNS. Strangely, MNS discovered that consensus was a “conservative influence, stifling the prospects of organizational change.” 144 Consensus made it difficult to get work done, and even harder to develop shared programs and positions. MNS used consensus in pursuit of decentralized social relations wherein each individual would be equal and honored, but in practice, it thwarted individuals’ voices and creative energies, thus asphyxiating the group imagination. It would pathologize leadership, and render collective action itself suspect. Despite MNS’s role in popularizing consensus in social movements, alumni interviewed by historian Andrew Cornell are admirably candid about the process’ downsides. Lakey himself mused to Cornell, “I think that one of the reasons that MNS isn’t still around is the downside of consensus.”145
Indeed, though consensus was not developed as counter-insurgency strategy—it goes back to the Quakers—its effects, highlighted below, tend toward paralysis. They call to mind a 1944 Office of Strategic Services how-to field manual on sabotage, which has a section on organizational obstruction. Its advice includes, “Never permit shortcuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions,” “Refer all matters to committees… Attempt to make the committee as large as possible—never less than five,” and “Be worried about the propriety of any decision—raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group…”146
Requiring unanimous agreement within large groups before taking action was a serious procedural burden, making it difficult for MNS to establish formal collective positions, much less formulate ambitious programs capable of responding to the political tire fire that was the 1980s. According to MNS historian Cornell, “Members of MNS elected to use consensus in making all decisions that impacted the network as a whole—including the writing of ‘official’ literature…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.”147 Lakey makes the salient observation that “culturally, working class people…are more likely to get impatient with the time amount of time that consensus characteristically takes….”148 Setting aside questions of “culture,” working people often simply and literally do not have the time to endure consensus decision-making.
Debate, or even the recognition of disruptive facts, became a time-consuming obstacle to the uniform opinion required for the group to move forward, discouraging people from “stating clearly where they thought the organization should be moving.”149 Under these circumstances, dissent could become taboo.150 In a 1994 essay, Murray Bookchin himself recounts how in the MNS-trained Clamshell Alliance, supposedly consensus-based decisions were actually reached by “pressuring dissenters into silence.”151
On the other end of the spectrum, Lakey points out that consensus could empower anti-social elements to block group actions just for kicks. “What about when we needed to make really big changes…? We weren’t able to do it because the ability to block consensus was available to, really, anybody. I got really frightened about this when I heard some of our newer members explaining that the main benefit of being a member of MNS was, ‘You get to block consensus!’”152
Consensus decision-making both sprung from and exacerbated anxieties about hierarchy, which revolutionary nonviolence often associated with “violence.” Member Pamela Haines reflected, “Another thing that holds 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 backward. 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, them we give up part of our human potential—and we give in to our feelings of powerlessness.”153 Haines noted that MNS’s attitudes about leadership, and impliedly its rigid commitment to consensus, had meant that “people have at times held back from taking initiative….” Thus “hardheaded decisions about the most effective use of energy have not been made.”154
Member Betsy Raasch-Gilman described the problem in even more perfunctory terms: “MNS had a positive allergy to leadership.”155 Those with expert knowledge were suspect, complicit in the maintenance of hierarchies and part of the problem. Lakey recalls that one of MNS’s catch phrases was “The wisdom of the whole is wiser than the wisdom of the wisest member.”156 But, Lakey said, “It’s really different when a group is seeking wisdom through consensus, and when a group is making a decision, and it’s like, ‘You’ve said enough. This is the third time you’ve spoken!’ ‘Yeah, but he happens to have done co-ops for twenty years, and we’re talking about the co-op now!’ ‘It’s the third time he spoken!’”
MNS’s commitment to consensus decision-making brings to mind modern calls for “leaderless revolutions.”157 Of course, groups are not actually leaderless; rather, leaders simply exist outside of formal structure. Sometimes such leaders may have self-seeking agendas, but often they are stepping forward simply to help the organization avoid total immobilization. Regardless, the effect is that sources of power in the group are somewhere between murky and hidden, and power struggles go underground. Confusion, exhaustion, and resentment accumulate.
Consider Lakey’s reflection on how leadership functioned in MNS: “At one point, an organizational development consultant volunteered to work with MNS because it seemed as an organization we were getting sick. She had us do an exercise where she said, ‘All of you who are leaders in the organization, you go over there.’ So like three people, blushing, go across the room. And she smiled and said, ‘Ok, all of you who do covert leadership, you go over here.’ And about a third of the room gets up, including me, and goes over there. So it turned out there was this group of covert older male leadership—and this is so traditionally male, too, like we’re holding the family together. So that’s what we were doing, but not even talking to each other about it. It was just so fucked up. So I got us to be a men’s group for two years and we cried a lot with each other about how we didn’t want to be covert and have to manipulate to keep an organization afloat because we can’t come out of our closets as resourceful people.”158
Even more incisively, MNS member Nancy Brigham reflected that MNS’s structure belied more fundamental anxieties about the very use of political power itself: “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.”159
Unable to devise substantive political programs and allergic to leadership, the organization was left spinning its wheels politically. “An unspoken ‘do-your-own-thingism’” set in.160 In fact, some members became hostile to the idea of common programs and positions. Efforts to plan collectively were sometimes decried as the imposition of unjustly coercive “blueprints.” Lakey recalls, “I do remember sometimes when people would say, ‘No blueprints, we’re not going to have any blueprints. You know, that kind of anti-blueprint thing.”161 Efforts to establish common positions confronted similar challenges. Robert Irwin recounts an attempt to “take certain items from our literature list and designate them as representing our ‘official’ positions as an organization.” But when the proposal was brought forward, someone forcefully said, “We don’t want to have a party line!”162 Irwin describes this charge as “a bullet to the brain.” He felt that “‘Party line’ put an ugly label on a perfectly legitimate function: telling the public, and those in other organizations who might have allied with or joined us, where we stood. Amazingly, the remark effectively ended the discussion, killing the proposal.”
Revolutionary nonviolence was discomfited by the centralized state, but in 1982, Lakey lamented the practical contradictions of MNS’s “laissez-faire” policy: “The approach to [the MNS] program has been laissez faire; ‘each for herself, and good luck!’”163 According to Lakey, it was as though “Adam Smith’s invisible hand was presumably left to guide the network.” But, Lakey argued, “Our genuine wish for cooperation is undermined by our Adam Smithian ‘free market’ laissez-faire design…Other radical organizations find us difficult to understand, because we do not have a well defined set of political tasks for the short and medium term.”
Tellingly, as the 1980s wore on, the only thing that MNS could get group agreement on was the importance of training ever more activists in nonviolent direct action and consensus decision-making. Indeed, this became the organization’s central priority in its waning years.164 Increasingly, MNS came to think of itself as a “‘movement building’ cadre organization”—not so much an organization with a political agenda of its own, but simply one seeking to spread “skills.”
This phenomenon brings to mind Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti’s idea of “activistism,” an ideology wherein political means are confused for political ends, in which “…all roads lead to more activism and more activists.”165
Indeed, when not buttressed by substantive political education and a clear political program, protest can begin to assume a dangerous, cynicism-inducing hollowness, leaving movements with a politics that feels all cage and no bird.166 In a word, protest can become instumentalized, turned into an aesthetically revolutionary, but strangely bloodless cargo-cult style liturgy. For example, in Virginia Hotchkiss’s 2017 article “Ritual Protest and the Theater of Dissent,” she describes the creeping superficiality she has observed within U.S. social movement mobilizations over the course of the 2000s.167 As a protest producer, she is hired “to choreograph events intended to appear as manifestations of dynamic, broad based social movements,” but “many of the protests that make headlines are less a coalescing of organized dissent than manufactured feel-good content for an activist’s social media feed.”
Unsurprisingly, an instrumentalized politics of protest can lead to a simplistic, and dangerous, romanticization of regime change. As Lakey himself acknowledges, when he began writing Strategy for a Living Revolution, he was “enamored by regime change.”168 Wherever the heart-trending symbols of “people power” appear—crowds in streets, colorful banners, raised fists, buttons on backpacks—celebration ensues. To inquire into the interests that may be at work is deemed conspiratorial or, even worse, apologizing for dictators.
Where lack of consensus forecloses the possibility of political program, lifestyle politics also become an easy substitute. As Raasch-Gilman acknowledged to Cornell, “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.”169 This “internal work” led increasingly to MNS dropping away into “subculture”: “MNS’s commitments to simple living, expanding intramovement jargon, and counterculture-derived social norms created a subculture that served to glue members together, but also threatened to alienate nonmembers in the broader left and the public at large.”170 Cornell writes, “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.’”171 According to Cornell, “MNS became one of the first organizations to insist that members’ ‘working on their shit’…was a central task of every radical group…. At times, internal discussions evidenced a tone ‘shrill in moral judgment,’ where tendencies soon to be identified with political correctness—such as guilt-tripping righteousness—began to emerge and test the bonds of many local MNS collectives.”172
MNS and its Sharpian revolutionary strategy by no means invented the mode of group dysfunction described above. Jo Freeman described it in a feminist New Left context in the 1970 essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” And just like Freeman warned, these entropic dynamics take a toll.
In a 1994 essay, Murray Bookchin recounts the role of consensus decision-making in the disintegration in the MNS-trained Clamshell Alliance.173 He describes how the organization’s de facto leadership—among them unnamed “cynical Quakers”—“manipulated many Clamshell members into subordinating their goodwill and idealistic commitments” to “hidden,” “opportunistic” agendas. This had the effect of “undermining morale and will.” Bookchin observes that such conditions contradicted leadership’s genuflections to “democracy.” In fact, it was “precisely because the Clamshell was not sufficiently organized and democratically structured,” that the collective could not “countervail the manipulation of a well-organized few.” Bookchin concludes grimly: “Consensus practices finally shipwrecked this large and exciting organization.”
MNS itself befell a similar fate. According to Raasch-Gilman, “The decline and eventual disbanding of MNS can be attributed to four interrelated factors: a growing emphasis on lifestyle over strategic organizing, the manner in which members carried out antioppression work, weakness in the group’s decentralized structure, and a fetishization of the consensus decision-making process.”174
Despite a re-organizing attempt—called a “Five Year Plan,” redolent of the Bolsheviks efforts in the Soviet Union, it seems un-ironically—MNS dissolved in 1987.175
The Achilles Heel: “Domination Anxiety”
Consensus decision-making may appear to be mere idiosyncratic procedure, but it is, in fact, highly ideological. Within nonviolent direct action training, it is one of the most potent political lessons, transmitting one of the core assumptions of revolutionary nonviolence: that all “domination” is “violent.”
Recall that though proponents of revolutionary nonviolence distance themselves from pacifism, “violence” remains for them the key world-historical contradiction.
Readers of Part One will remember that Gene Sharp’s official definition of “violence” is an inch deep: he defines violence only as directly injurious acts. As I discuss at length in Part One of this essay, this definition has the serious problem of obscuring indirect forms of injury, such as those inflicted by market forces. With such a thin definition of “violence,” it is no puzzle how Sharp’s AEI co-founder Peter Ackerman can shift seamlessly from boostering nonviolent action to calling for the privatization of social security. Like a Yankee financer of the Triangle Trade who never cracked a whip, Ackerman sees no suspect connection between his political efforts to impose bare-knuckled “free market” policies around the world, the consequent intensification of inequality and human immiseration, and his fortune.
But throughout the writings of Sharp, MNS, and other proponents of revolutionary nonviolence, one also notices a tight association, even a slippage, between the concepts of “violence” and “domination” — the latter is sometimes signaled as “inequality,” “hierarchy,” “elite controls,” or “political violence.”176 For example, as Lakey tells Cornell, “…I think hierarchy promotes violence internally in order to maintain itself.”177
“Violence” and “domination,” while related in a general way, correspond to quite different phenomena. Violence, derived from the Latin vis, implies using one’s strength to injure or insult, to commit an affront or an indignity. Perhaps there are instances of “just” violence, but the fundamental concept suggests an anti-social abrogation of commonly observed norms, something illegitimate. That is why it shares a cognate with “violation.”
Domination, by contrast, is from the Latin dominatio, to rule. Effective domination is the capacity to force people to do things they would not otherwise do, and features the possibility of uncomfortable direct coercion. Domination is frequently morally fraught, and can be and often is unjust and cruel. And so it has, not unfairly, assumed a negative cast.
But the root of dominatio is revealing: dom, the home. From this root likewise springs concepts like “domicile” and “domestic.” Unlike “violence,” “domination” invokes themes of home management, rules for shared living. And indeed, domination can serve pro-social ends: insisting children turn off screens and go to bed, requiring drivers stop at red lights, regulating pollutants, enforcing taxes to provide universal K-12 education, or imposing wind farms upon second-home owners who would prefer unobstructed vistas.
Of course, the question of when and how much to “dominate,” is one of the oldest moral and philosophical quandaries known to man. In fact, struggles to define “violence” might well be thought of as struggles to determine what types of domination should be censured as anti-social, and what types permitted.
But if all domination is flatly pathologized as “violence,” we get problems. Revolutionary nonviolence’s conflation of the two implies a practical and moral equivalence, rendering the meaning of “violence” not just an inch deep, but also a mile wide.178 This is a kind of philosophical bait-and-switch that produces what I call “domination anxiety”: a subconscious and exaggerated terror of ever imposing one’s will upon another, as doing so feels it would be the moral equivalent of inflicting some kind of malicious bodily injury upon them. Management of this anxiety requires indulging in the fantasy that it is possible for large communities of people to regularly come to perfect agreement on a wide variety of topics, and on timescales of practical lengths, so that hierarchies, leadership, plans, and rules—all of which risk the need for domination—can be avoided.
“Domination anxiety” has a number of negative effects, one of which is the highly entropic impact on internal political life. As happened with MNS, activists are taught that it is “violent” to ever impose anything on anyone. And so, wanting to “be the change,” they enthusiastically and optimistically agree to a “leaderless” group structure based on consensus.179 MNS is an excellent case study in the probably insurmountable challenges that flow from that endeavor.
Domination anxiety also produces problems with political theory and strategy: namely, squeamishness about the state, and power more generally. We are a social species. Living together requires contribution and guidelines, which inevitably entail some degree of force. This is the basic stuff of Rousseau’s social contract. Especially in a modern, urbanized society full of potentially dangerous technologies like airplanes and the electric grid, regulation of economic behavior—that is, pro-social domination—is reasonable, and frequently essential. Without it, catastrophe comes sooner rather than later. As Max Weber observed, the organization that possesses this right of force in a given territory—a right granted to it by the consent of those it governs—is called the state.
But if domination is ipso facto violative, exercise by the state of its regulatory powers becomes taboo. Indeed, recall from Part One of this essay that Sharp, in libertarian fashion, understood there to be a positive, causal relationship between the degree of a state’s centralization, or hierarchy, and the amount of violence in the society. And what marked a state as too centralized? Not a secret police, but “government regulation, state ownership, and other forms of ‘State intervention’ and ‘controls over the economy.’”
Pathologizing the state and its definitional power also strikes a blow at the effectiveness of class struggle. The vast majority of people, while prepared to defend the individual liberties established by the Bill of Rights, also intuitively recognize that collective life necessarily imposes certain restraints upon the individual, and they are comfortable with this—or at least begrudgingly tolerant—where the “dominator” is operating with legitimacy.
But those who own and control the means of production generally do not like submitting to regulation by the collective, even where the need for it is clear. It cuts into profits and they reason that if there is a crisis, they can buy their way out of it. Even if an owner is socially minded, the dynamics of private competition being what they are, she too is often drug into bad behavior. If she is virtuous, but her competitors continue to cut corners and undersell her, she is at risk of a takeover.
This is one of the most fundamental ways class struggle presents itself: how are the many to proceed in the face of the anti-social but powerful few? Historically, the most effective response is for people to straighten their backs, get organized, get disciplined, struggle, and win political power at the level of the state. If in possession of the state, the laboring public can impose pro-social rules upon the market, especially recalcitrant members of the owning class. Indeed, the public can “dictate” terms through regulation, taxation, and sometimes outright expropriation and decommodification.
But if suffering from domination anxiety, workers are at risk of feeling bad for wanting to do “dominative” things like this to the owning class. The very act of winning and wielding political power is pathologized. And so political solutions will remain in the field of the voluntary. Recall from Part One that Sharp endorses worker ownership—as does revolutionary nonviolence generally— but “argues for the use of ‘purely economic means—as distinct from political means’—to ‘resolve economic problems and to restructure economic institutions’ in a cooperative fashion.” In other words, “Sharp wants firms and markets to voluntarily transition to a cooperative economy, rather than be forced to cooperatize as an outcome of political struggle.”180 It is no surprise that many MNS alumni went on to pursue market-oriented change-making strategies that allow owners to choose to do the right thing.181
Domination Anxiety and the Return of the Repressed
A final problem with domination anxiety is this: in politics, domination cannot be avoided. Where denied, it nevertheless ends up appearing, spectre-like, in even more jarring form.
In the first two-thirds of Strategy for a Living Revolution, Lakey warns against centralized, dominative states, and those leftists who would seek to control them. But then, at the end of his book, Lakey does a remarkable about-face. He recommends—like the Freudian “return of the repressed”—what sounds like an expert-driven world state.182
As if straight from the pages of Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, Lakey proposes that after the nonviolent revolution fells all nation-states around the world, affairs should be managed by a suite of “transnational institutions”—global “Commissions” led by “respected and public spirited” “experts.”183 They would make “humankind-sized decisions,” and their decisions would be “supreme.”184
Lakey concedes, vaguely, “The question of enforcement of decisions remains an awkward one.”185 “The major means of enforcement of decisions,” as well as the “main check against centralized tyranny,” would be public engagement in nonviolent action.186 But local police would still be necessary, as would “world marshals,” though only a “small force,” as “only extraordinary circumstances [would] require them.” And there would be a “world ombudsman,” i.e. prosecutor, to investigate abuses of power.187 (There’s no mention of public defenders in this new order.)
Eventually a “world legislature” might be elected and “world referenda” held. But in Bolshevik fashion, Lakey counsels patience: these bodies would come “at a late stage of development because the revolutionary process is ragged and uneven.”188
To achieve this system, Lakey recognizes some “re-education” of “those accustomed to authoritarian styles and violent purposes” might be necessary.189 Also, Lakey notes, the Revolution should “check population growth,” a policy that would supposedly reduce “mass violence.”190 How such a program will be undertaken without use of force is not explained.
It turns out Lakey’s 1973 book had been published by World Order Books, printing house of the one-world-government-seeking World Federalist Movement, described as a “transnational effort to free the future from the past, and to shape a new world order.”191
Strategy for a Living Revolution is now in its third edition, its concluding call for world government effectively unchanged.192 Its new, more conservative title is Toward a Living Revolution: A Five-Stage Framework for Creating Radical Social Change. It, like Sharp’s Politics of Nonviolent Action, remains a lodestar text in the U.S. protest left, one of Movement for a New Society’s many important legacies.
Movement for a New Society’s Legacy
MNS may have disbanded in 1987, but its members’ work of advancing revolutionary nonviolence continued, shaping the U.S. protest left in dramatic ways from the 1990s up to the present.
An important word about the following account: my description of the broad ramifications of MNS’s Sharpian methods and theories throughout the U.S. protest left is included to help establish MNS and Sharp’s widespread impact so that readers might better understand our political circumstances—not to imply that relevant organizations or individuals are terminally “tarnished” by association with the ideas in question. That would be ridiculous, as I anticipate nearly all activists reading my essays on Sharp will be able to identify multiple themes salient to their own political experience. I myself spent years protesting with groups that use Sharp and MNS’s theories, studying activist books from the revolutionary nonviolence canon, earnestly inflicting consensus on long-suffering comrades, and experiencing the interpersonal and ideological dysfunctions that flow from domination anxiety. Even as I see the contradictions and cul-de-sacs, I also see the moments of victory and I remain proud of much of this work, as I think all such activists should be. In general, people do their best with the ideas available to them. But it is not enough to congratulate ourselves for best efforts and carry on with business as usual. Intellectual responsibility calls us to probe the contradictions, even when it ruffles feathers, because this is how we improve our shot at more profound political success. That is my work here.
Back to the story: after MNS’s closure, alumni like George Lakey, Bill Moyer, Betsy Leondar-Wright, Chuck Collins, Felice Yeskel, Jennifer Ladd, Betsy Raasch-Gilman, Nancy Brigham, Bob and Lynne Irwin, Shel Horowitz, and Stephen Zunes continued their work in U.S. social movements, promoting nonviolent revolution by Sharpian means. Some wrote new social movement tracts, like Moyer’s popular 2001 social movement primer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements.193 Some wrote books about “classism,” and founded new organizations focused on combatting it, like United for a Fair Economy, Class Action, and Bolder Giving.194
Others started new Sharpian strategic nonviolence training organizations for activists, like Future Now, New Society Trainers, and most importantly, George Lakey’s Training for Change. Since its founding in 1992, Training for Change has worked with hundreds of organizational clients around the world, including major unions like SEIU.195 In turn, the late 1990s and 2000s saw the creation of new strategic nonviolence training institutes informed by Sharpian and MNS strategy, often with relationships to Lakey’s Training for Change: the Ruckus Society, Social Movement Technologies, the UK-based Campaign Bootcamp, The Wildfire Project, and the Center for Story Based Strategy (formerly smartMeme).196
Thanks in large part to this training network, Gene Sharp and MNS’s ideas have influenced a wide array of activist leaders: examples include Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers Union; David Solnit, key organizer for the 1999 Battle in Seattle and 2003 San Francisco anti-Iraq War mobilization; Starhawk of the Alliance of Community Trainers; The Yes Men; writer and activist leader L.A. Kauffman; and climate leader Bill McKibben.197 References to Sharp, Lakey, and other Sharpian trainees like Otpor!, feature throughout the popular 2012 activist handbook, Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution.198 MNS references are common in the online activist news site Waging Nonviolence, whose tagline is “For nonviolent revolution,” and whose masthead includes George Lakey, as well as Albert Einstein Institution executive director Jamila Raqib.
Thanks to all the foregoing, Gene Sharp’s politics of nonviolent action, as refracted through the MNS experience, have become ubiquitous in U.S. social movements, shaping ACT UP, the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle and other “global justice movement” mobilizations, the anti-Iraq War mobilizations, Occupy Wall Street, the climate movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, the new women’s movement, and the #Resistance.199 Activist and journalist Nathan Schneider recalls Occupy comrades “eating well, singing protest songs, and debating the theories of Gene Sharp, the scholar who from his home office in Boston helped inspire revolutions as far away as Serbia and Egypt.”200 In 2012, Lakey, while a professor at Swarthmore College, helped some of his students organize the very first fossil fuel divestment campaign in the country.201 In 2015, Daniel Hunter, a trainer with Lakey’s Training for Change wrote an organizing guide to accompany Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow, endorsed by Alexander herself.202 In 2016, Sharp’s ideas helped shape the 2016 coalition effort “Democracy Spring.”203 Just this year, Sharp’s official biographer wrote, “Through Occupy Wall Street, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, the new women’s movement and, increasingly, constitutional defenses against Trump administration policies, Gene’s work has been a rich resource.”204 Indeed, Sharp’s regime change protocol has been frequently invoked in the Trump era.205
Frequently, these movements struggled with the same domination-anxiety-wrought contradictions as MNS. For example, the consensus-based Occupy movement had a conspicuously indeterminate quality, and activists’ lack of program and demands was subject to considerable public debate.206 Some Occupiers defended their demands-free environment, arguing, “The process is the message,” “Demands are for terrorists,” “Demands are disempowering,” “The notion of demands connotes…hostage-taking,” and “The government shouldn’t need us to make ‘demands,’ because it should be of us.”207 Other Occupiers felt differently. Some of them created a Demands Working Group. Their initial proposal: calling for “a massive public works and public service program” that would create “jobs for all.” But the effort was tabled “after a heated and messy deliberation.”208
Gene Sharp and MNS have had a broad impact, but their most important American descendants are likely the brothers Mark and Paul Engler, progenitors of Momentum, the popular activist “training institute and movement incubator.” Like Sharp and MNS, Momentum’s focus is on “training movements” that will, according to one representative, “wake millions of people up to our power” and transform “our entire government to reflect the will of the people for the first time in U.S. history.”209 Momentum seeks to build “decentralized” movements in the tradition of “international civil resistance,” and so bring about “structural change” — a type of change, Momentum says, that “won’t come from within the political system.”210
A long and admiring profile in Vice Magazine titled “These Activists are Training Every Movement that Matters,” describes Momentum’s start: “The seed for Momentum was planted in 2013 at the [inaugural] James Lawson Institute….” The James Lawson Institute is an elite North American strategic nonviolence training program launched in 2013 by Peter Ackerman’s International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, at the invitation of James Lawson, the famous civil rights minister. At the Institute, Carlos Saavedra, a high profile immigrant rights activist, got to know Paul Engler, the director of the Los Angeles based non-profit, the Center for the Working Poor. Saavedra describes himself to Vice “as a ‘movement nerd,’ constantly reading books about protest theories by academics like Erica Chenoweth, Gene Sharp, and Rick Falkvinge.”211 (Chenoweth is another of Sharp’s important intellectual descendants. Falkvinge is a tech entrepreneur and the founder of the Swedish Pirate Party.)
“‘I mean, you have to understand, I eat them for breakfast,’” Saavedra said. “‘But when I met Paul I was like, OK, you’re the nerd. You’re way more obsessed.’ Momentum was born.”
The ideas and persons of Gene Sharp and MNS co-founder Bill Moyer star in Momentum’s social movement theory, which is outlined in the 2016 book, This is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the 21st Century, co-written by Paul Engler and his brother Mark, a journalist. The Englers’ theory is grounded in Sharp’s theorization of nonviolent revolution, and also draws from MNS co-founder Moyer’s “Movement Action Plan,” Alinksy’s community organizing theory, Frances Fox Piven’s theorization of civil disobedience, as well as the work of Gandhi and King. It is illustrated with familiar examples: the freedom struggle in India, the American civil rights movement, Otpor! in Serbia, and the Arab Spring.212 Naomi Klein praised the book as “Absorbing… Ambitious… Indispensable. A genuine gift to social movements everywhere.”
According to Vice, since its 2015 founding, Momentum has trained 1,500 activists in at least 30 states, many of whom “have gone on to be at the center of protests that have ricocheted throughout the nation.” Some of the activist organizations Momentum has coached include #AllOfUs, Black Lives Matter, BYP100, Cosecha, Dream Defenders, #IfNotNow, National People’s Action, Standing Up for Racial Justice, the Sunrise Movement, United We Dream, and 350.org. As a measure of Momentum’s growing influence, “several of Momentum’s co-founders and trainers have become high-ranking staff at the Justice Democrats, and on Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaigns.” Also of note, “Democratic presidential candidates are mimicking…language used by Momentum…”
Some of Momentum’s trainees appear to have shaken off at least some of the state-phobia and class-ambivalence of their predecessors. For example, “[Momentum] training was pivotal in the rapid rise of the Sunrise Movement, the environmental activists who deployed Momentum’s methods to put the Green New Deal on the map after organizing demonstrations at Dianne Feinstein’s and Nancy Pelosi’s offices in 2018 and 2019.” The Green New Deal, though still only loosely construed, calls for massive government action within the economy, redistribution, and worker rights. Sunrise’s example illustrates that it is of course possible to use nonviolent tactics within a class program. This should come as no surprise: nonviolent tactics have been used in all manner of struggles throughout history. Sharp did not invent nonviolent action, after all, but merely theorized it, embedding it in his anti-“centralized government,” class-confused social theory of power.
Momentum itself also notes “the growing gap between the 1% and the rest of society,” and “the increasing concentration of wealth and power” in the hands of a few.213 But like MNS, what these facts mean exactly for Momentum’s politics is ambiguous. The Englers’ book This is an Uprising, which builds explicitly upon Sharp’s social theory of power, is conspicuously silent on questions of political economy. In a 2016 radio interview with the Belabored podcast, Mark Engler was asked why. He explains on the show: “You’re right, this book doesn’t do everything. You have to make a choice as to what your intervention is…. What we are talking about is at the level of organizing traditions and movement strategy…”
And according to Engler, “socialism is not an organizing tradition.”214 He concedes, “No doubt that there are social, economic conditions that are going to determine and arguably predetermine the success or failure of a movement.” Also, “political and economic trends very much affect the outcomes of movements.” But the nature of such conditions and trends is, according to Engler, “not a question that is useful for organizing because you have to deal with the situation that you have.”
Engler’s contention that socialism “is not an organizing tradition” is ridiculous, and echoes MNS’s ambivalence about class politics. Even socialism’s critics recognize that it has an organizing tradition, one that flows directly from its goals, emphasizing unionization, strikes, political parties, and campaigns that champion the working class, up to and including taking state power. In fact, Bernie Sanders was reminding the whole of America about the power of socialism’s organizing tradition at the very moment of Engler’s interview.
Engler’s comments also call to mind one of those major risks that stalk Sharpian movements: the risk of instrumentalizating protest. As the MNS experience illustrates, pretending there is a firewall between practical “movement strategy” and supposedly esoteric matters of political economy is a recipe for political aimlessness, threatening to elevate mere protest into an ends unto itself. Of course organizers need to understand the political economic terrain upon which their movements operate. The power of a given mobilization depends on the strength of the organizing from which it springs, and the strength of the organizing is in large part a function of the quality of internal political education.
For Ideological—and Class—Struggle
Thanks in large part to Movement for a New Society training programs in the 1970s and 1980s, and those established by MNS descendants in the 1990s and 2000s, Gene Sharp’s politics of nonviolent action have become the modus operandi of the U.S. protest left. It is important to bear in mind that since labor’s defeat in the 1980s, the protest left has constituted an extremely significant proportion of the politically engaged left at large.
It is true that strategic nonviolence training institutes and the movement organizations they educate are brimming with intelligent, committed, creative, and very courageous people standing up against all manner of injustice. But Sharp’s un-interrogated ubiquity is a problem. It is not a problem merely because Sharp had unseemly political associations with the U.S. defense, intelligence, and security establishment. Nor is it a problem because nonviolent tactics are a ruse—far from it.
Sharp’s unquestioned influence on the U.S. protest left is a problem because his supposedly neutral theories are not neutral. They are a constitutive, legitimizing mainstay of a rarely named post-war, anti-communist ideology, revolutionary nonviolence — an ideology which has been consistently antagonistic to political strategies that cultivate class consciousness with an eye to state power. In practice, Sharp’s “tactics and strategy” have served to obscure, scramble, and ultimately sideline such class politics. Unsurprisingly, revolutionary nonviolence has a very weak record with respect to effectively confronting capital. Its “domination-anxious” fixation on consensus decision-making leaves activist groups hamstrung. Its ideologically-shrouded “trainings” reproduce “skills” without cultivating commensurate capacities for independent, critical thinking. It seems highly improbable that this ideological framework will be capable of supporting the clear, enormous, and sustained political pressure necessary to shift the balance of class power globally in an era of intensifying contradictions.
Lest we think phenomena like Bernie Sanders’ rise mean revolutionary nonviolence is no longer a relevant political force, or that its proponents have since resolved all the issues noted in this essay, consider this. In 2016, with Sanders’ historic campaign in the background, MNS alumni and progressive stalwart Chuck Collins—a grandson of Oscar Meyer’s who famously gave away all his wealth as a young man—published a book, favorably reviewed by Barbara Ehrenreich and Ralph Nadar, titled Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good.
Collins begins thusly: “The extreme levels of inequality in our society are personally painful to behold. As someone who was ‘born on third-base,’ I watch these polarizations and know that no good will come of them. In the jostling and shrill voices, I hear the dogs of war approaching, a war between the classes. Actually, there are two class wars, though they are not comparable. There is a top-down class war against the non-rich…. But there is also a bottom-up class antagonism expressed in rhetorical attacks against the rich…. Does rich-bashing move us forward? As Gandhi said, ‘An eye for an eye is making the world blind.’ Can we suspend the economic class hostilities long enough to consider what would move humanity forward?”215 Collins advises that there are “limits to fomenting ‘class antagonism’” because the rich, who are merely “disproportionately” advantaged in the current system, “are no different from the rest of humanity.”216
Collins invites his “fellow wealthy” to “come home,” to “make a commitment to place, to put down a stake, and to work for an economy that works for everyone.”
Collins also makes an invitation to “the 99 percent.” “…We need to stand in solidarity against the rapacious rich. But to succeed, we need allies among the reachable wealthy. We must find ways to engage and invite the one percent home, back to the table, to be partners in transforming the future… Instead of a class war of shame, I advocate an appeal to common humanity and empathy.”
Collins has some sensible stuff in his book about how the rich need to pay their taxes, and about how charity is of next to no political use. And it was nice that Collins gave away most of his wealth. But his suggestion that the American working class—only recently reminded of its interests and potential power by, most notably, Sanders—really ought to tone it down and “invite to the table” enlightened elements of the owning class to forge a future together is so stunningly misguided it takes the breath away.
Collins’ proposal is ahistorical. Major victories for the working class have been achieved when class-consciousness and class polarization are high. Also, Collins’ misunderstands the requirements of class struggle. By invoking the specter of a coming “war between the classes,” Collins implies, as revolutionary nonviolence so often does, that class struggle is synonymous with violence. This is not true and has been one of the most insidious and damaging class messages of revolutionary nonviolence.
Nor does class struggle require hating the rich. It requires understanding that the owning class has material interests that are in opposition to workers—interests that owners, as a class, feel entitled to, and that they will, as a class, defend and extend, by dent of force if necessary. Consequently, the working class also must feel entitled to a dignified lot, and struggle to defend and extend its rights as well.
Indeed, this struggle does require recognizing that the owning class is different. They own and control the means of production, far exceeding what is necessary for their own existence, and on the basis of that ownership, can live off of rents, profits, interest, etc. Everyone else must labor to survive. Indeed, the rents, profits, interest, etc. that flow to the owning class all derive from the surplus value generated by this work which everyone else does. These are stubborn, objective differences between owners and workers. This is not to deny the humanity of the owning class, nor to say they are “evil.” It is not even to say members of the owning class are condemned to anti-worker politics.
But Collins’ implication that workers’ engagement in trenchant, spirited struggle is politically misguided, or somehow evidence of moral failure, is disturbing. Workers are taught to shut up and do our jobs. As a class, we have been getting hammered for forty years. And just as proletarian fury starts to rise, just as labor is finally, and somewhat spontaneously, gathering its forces after decades of body blows, Collins urges moderation in tone and reminds workers that the world is really one. Really? It looks like an effort to spread domination anxiety.
The substance and timing of Collins’ argument shows that Howard Ryan, the working class MNS trainee who wrote that “Lost Critique,” was right to be skeptical of revolutionary nonviolence’s notion of “world consciousness”—that is, a cross-class consciousness. In 1981, at the very moment of the neoliberal turn, Lakey reassured Ryan that “world consciousness” was compatible with class struggle; after all, Lakey pointed out, Strategy for a Living Revolution was all about polarization. But MNS alumni Collins watches the class polarizations of the present and claims to know “nothing good will come from them.” At the very least, this suggests there persists a very real, and from a class perspective debilitating, ambiguity among adherents of revolutionary nonviolence as to the political merits of class-consciousness and class struggle.217
But whether adherents of revolutionary nonviolence like it or not, class struggle is back. And just in the nick of time. Because despite the extremely encouraging incursion of movement-driven democratic socialist candidates and legislative aspirations in the U.S., the left political bench is thinner, less ideologically developed, and its technical capacities more rudimentary, than is generally admitted.218 Meanwhile, since the 1950s, the hard activist right, led by the Birch Society Koch clan, has been focused and busy with its multi-generational political project of training and installing judges, building think tanks, developing and passing model legislation, taking over pulpits, taking over economics departments, and generally vacuuming up political power. They control the Senate, the presidency, the Supreme Court, and nearly enough U.S. states to hold a Constitutional Convention.
Meanwhile, carbon concentrations stand at 415 parts per million, and global climatic changes continue to accelerate.
This political moment require that all ideas on offer before the left, regardless of popularity or patina, get their proverbial tires kicked—now. To make it through the accelerated historical phase that we are by all appearances entering, we must accept only the sturdiest.