Lessons from the Movement for a New Society

This presentation and discussion will introduce participants to the history and practice of the Movement for a New Society and draw lessons from the experiences of that organization with the intent of facilitating more effective anti-authoritarian political activism in the contemporary period. The Movement for a New Society was a national network of feminist radical pacifist collectives that existed from 1971 to 1988. Though rarely remembered by name today, many of the new ways of doing radical politics that the Movement for a New Society (MNS) promoted have become central to contemporary anti-authoritarian social movements. MNS popularized consensus decision making, introduced the spokescouncil method of organization to activists in the United States, and was a leading advocate of a variety of practices—communal living, unlearning oppressive behavior, creating co-operatively owned businesses—that are now often subsumed under the rubric of “prefigurative politics.” MNS was significantly shaped by aspects of anarchist thought and practice developed both in the United States and abroad. Participants synthesized these elements with an array of other influences to develop an experimental revolutionary practice that attempted to combine multi-issue political analysis, organizing campaigns, and direct action with the creation of alternative institutions, community building, and personal transformation.

I will argue that studying the Movement for a New Society provides at least four lessons for contemporary organizers. Moving from the general to the most concrete, they can be summarized as follows. 1) Using MNS as a case study indicates the possibility—and necessity—of gaining perspective on contemporary anarchist ideas, practices, and strategies by conducting archival and oral history research on political formations of the recent past. 2) The U.S. American anarchist movement has historically contained an anarchist-pacifist strand (alongside insurrectionary, syndicalist and other tendencies) that merits reconsideration and greater appreciation in the current period 3) We must rethink received wisdom on the “organization question.” MNS shows that movements can be severely hindered by a fetishization the consensus decision-making process and the simplistic rejection of leaders and the concept of leadership tout court. 4) The MNS experience points to the need for long-term organizations that actively oppose all forms of social dominations through a delicate balance of strategic organizing campaigns and prefigurative activity. The workshop will consist of a presentation lasting approximately 30 minutes with the remaining time left for discussion amongst the participants.
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Andy Cornell