a better world
is probable

A Living Revolution: Andy Cornell speaks on his new book “Oppose and Propose!: Lessons from the Movement for a New Society” in Detroit

July 8, 2011

(This post features streaming audio recordings of Andy Cornell’s presentation on the Movement for a New Society below.)

Andy Cornell, author of the recently released Oppose and Propose!: Lessons from the Movement for a New Society spoke in Detroit yesterday, mostly to members of a recently formed socialist study group that includes younger and older members of the Organization for a Free Society, Solidarity, and independent socialists.  Andy’s book is the second book of a series by AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies called the Anarchist Intervention series.

The Movement for a New Society was formed in 1971 as the new face of a group known as A Quaker Action Group, which itself was formed by a convergence of various radical political currents including anarchists, socialists, feminists, and Christian and Gandhist pacifists.  The MNS was primarily concerned with combining the organizing grassroots opposition struggles (largely against war and ecological destruction) while at the same time building and living the institutions and values we want to see after the revolution (sometimes called “prefigurative struggle”).

Andy’s book and talk below covers the myriad reasons why MNS would eventually collapse, although the veterans of MNS would go on to form organizations that are still around today such as the grassroots training website Training for Change or the economic research group United for a Fair Economy.  However, MNS’s most important legacy is not found in the organizations which formed after it, but in the many practices and tactics that are taken for granted, largely within anarchist currents, as fundamental to doing revolutionary work, including consensus decision making, cooperative or collective living, and so forth.  This latter aspect, Andy argues, is also important in that often times these sort of practices are used by sincere and passionate revolutionary activists today in a context that is removed from their original historical intent and context, and without understanding the lessons learned by the MNS veterans responsible for originally popularizing them.

For more on the Movement for a New Society, buy Andy’s book at the AK Press website, or check out this essay by Andy at the IAS website, “Anarchism and the Movement for a New Society: Direct Action and Prefigurative Community in the 1970s and 80s.”  For some stuff directly from the MNS I would recommend checking out George Lakey’s book Powerful Peacemaking: A Strategy for a Living Revolution, or his briefer essay which is essentially a summary of that book, “A Strategy for a Living Revolution.”

Here is streaming and downloadable audio from Andy’s talk yesterday in Detroit, as well as some photos from the discussion and then some personal comments below.

Download MP3 audio for the presentation from Mediafire.

Download MP3 audio for the questions and discussion.

While there is obviously a lot to discuss and take away from the experiences of MNS and the, this talk came for me at a time where I am doing a great deal of thinking and studying around the question of “prefigurative struggle,” in other words, building the institutions and living the values one wants to see after the revolution in the present to the greatest possible extent.  I believe that successful and widespread prefigurative struggle will be a crucial component of any revolution which seeks to construct a classless, democratic society.  Prefigurative struggle builds the institutions and practices during the process of revolutionary movement and prepares the broad active social forces for governance and self-management in the new society, therefore eliminating any need to rely on any revolutionary elite, allowing the new society to be the expression of the “self-activity of the masses.”

However, this aspect of struggle, as the experience of MNS teaches, can often times become too insular or alienating — leading a group to stifle their growth by over emphasizing the importance of their own behavior or looking too far inward, or leading a group to become estranged from the working-class and oppressed groups by developing a culture of groupthink and groupspeak.  Often in my experience prefigurative struggle can take on a “utopian” (in the old meaning of the word, referring to the utopian socialists of Europe in the 19th century) character, which ignores the present conditions of society and seeks to live outside of them rather than fundamentally change them, not recognizing that capitalism will create social contours and boundaries which act against and limit prefigurative movement.

In my opinion, prefigurative struggle is best intended as a method of experimentation and consciousness raising.  It allows us to explore and expand revolutionary possibilities and our own imagination, while also helping our movement internalize the values of the revolution (solidarity, cooperation, democracy, diversity, justice, equality and so on) through real practice and not just through study.  In this sense, the prefigurative institutions, in a genuine revolutionary situation, can become the “embryos” of the new society, as the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci said of the workers’ councils which formed in and ran the Turin auto plants in the 1920s.

This is obviously a complicated aspect of revolutionary strategy, but a crucial aspect for us to consider, debate and clarify if we hope to be successful in the revolutionary project.  Andy’s book Oppose and Propose is a valuable contribution to the discussion and exploration of the historical lessons of prefigurative struggle.