Movement for a New Society
The Movement for a New Society (MNS) was a U.S.-based network of social activist collectives, committed to the principles of nonviolence, who played a key role in social movements of the 1970s and 80s.
According to a description from the MNS publication, Building Social Change Communities (1979),
- Movement for a New Society (MNS) is a nationwide network of groups working for fundamental social change through nonviolent action. Together we are developing an analysis of present-day society; a vision of a decentralized, democratic and caring social order; a nonviolent revolutionary strategy; and a program based on changed values and changed lives.
The precursor to the MNS was A Quaker Action Group (AQAG), founded by Lawrence Scott in 1966. Dissatisfied with the response of the mainstream Quaker church to the United States involvement in the Vietnam War, Scott founded AQAG with the intention of sparking a renewed commitment to the Quaker Peace Testimony.
Frustrated by their failure to achieve this end, AQAG members including Scott and Quaker George Willoughby, refashioned the group as the Movement for A New Society in 1971. Other founding members included Bill Moyer and George Lakey and Lillian Willoughby.
The members of MNS consciously sought to develop tools and strategies that could be employed to bring about revolutionary change through nonviolent means. The three-part focus of MNS included training for activists, nonviolent direct action and community. The main location for MNS activity was in West Philadelphia. Other locations included Boston, Minneapolis, Seattle, Tucson, Western Massachusetts, and more.
During the 1970s and early 1980s Philadelphia was the base for weekend, two-week and nine-month programs that trained US and international activists in direct action organizing, group process, consensus decision-making, liberation/oppression issues and more. Activist training also happened in other locations and through traveling trainers programs.
MNS did not focus its energies exclusively on one issue or injustice. Its members were involved in working for social change on many fronts, most notably in the movement to end US involvement in the Vietnam war, and during the citizen-led opposition to the expansion of the US nuclear industry in the mid to late ‘70s. MNS members were also active in the anti-nuclear weapons movement, the Pledge of Resistance (anti-US intervention in Central America), feminism, GLBTQ, community organizing, and food/worker cooperatives.
MNS was unusual in combining feminist group process, broad analysis of interrelated people's struggles including class and culture, and personal empowerment techniques ranging from music and street theater as political organizing tools to Re-Evaluation Counseling. With their group process skills, MNS members often played roles of facilitating meetings and training peacekeepers for large protests. Several MNS techniques, including small-to-large-group consensus decision making, an action structure based on affinity groups, and the idea that proper training was key to successful actions, were widely adopted by several social change movements, starting with the Clamshell Alliance occupation of the Seabrook nuclear power plant construction site, continuing through the network of affinity-group-based alliances that took direct action for safe energy nationwide and worldwide, and also influencing later movements such as the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and the Occupy movement of 2011-2012. Gene Sharp, a theoretician of nonviolence with ties to MNS, was a major influence in social justice movements around the world, including the nonviolent liberation of South Africa and the Arab Spring.
The sense of community and the quality of interpersonal relationships was important to MNS members and many lived in cooperative households, practiced Revaluation Co-counseling, and went through waves of exploring issues of race, class, gender and sexual orientation. Learning from these experiences informed the training for activists. In Philadelphia many MNS members lived in cooperative houses loosely networked as the Life Center Association. Initially several buildings in Philadelphia were land trusted to serve as training centers and an organizational office and, as class consciousness grew, a number of cooperative houses were transferred to the land trust from private ownership. The land trsut was incorporated as a non-profit Life Center Association and survives to this day.
Through the cooperatively owned and managed New Society Publishers, MNS members published numerous pamphlets and books providing practical advice on working for social change, as well as republishing important works on non-violence (e.g. We Are All Part of One Another a Barbara Deming Reader in 1984). The publications of NSP, most notably the cooperatively authored Resource Manual for a Living Revolution (known affectionately within movement circles as the “monster manual”) were a primary source of inspiration and guidance for citizens across the United States as opposition to nuclear expansion grew, and influenced movements as far afield as the Tasmanian Wilderness Society’s campaign to prevent the damming of the Franklin River. NSP also published Marshall Rosenberg's Handbook on Nonviolent Communication which became the basis for Rosenberg's work with the Center for Nonviolent Communication.
After several years of decline, MNS was dissolved by its members in 1988. Other social change organizations declined and/or folded during this time. During harder economic times for activists during the years of the Reagan presidency, many moved from being active members of revolutionary organizations such as MNS to more mainstream organizations or to college and graduate school. Internal issues included its inability to achieve its objective of becoming multi-cultural, the lack of unifying focus for its activism, and the decline of the training programs in Philadelphia as many skilled trainers moved away. It could also be argued that MNS had achieved its primary goal of making Gandhian style non-violent action a primary method that American social change activists use to effect change.
New Society Publishers, now based in British Columbia, continues to publish social-change related titles, with an increased emphasis on the practical aspects of environmental sustainability. Douglas & McIntyre bought New Society Publishers in 2008. It was repurchased by the original Canadian New Society publishing group in 2013.
In 1995, members of the New Society Publishers Philadelphia office started a website, Nonviolence.org, which continues to publish resources, inspiration and analysis. Until his death in October, 2002, Bill Moyer continued to teach his influential eight-stage model for social change movements, the Movement Action Plan, to activists around the US and around the world. George Lakey, as founder of the Philadelphia based Training for Change organisation, continued to promote nonviolence as a powerful technique for resisting injustice, along with other MNS members Betsy Raasch-Gilman and Erika Thorne. Other former MNS members (Felice Yeskel, Chuck Collins, Betsy Leondar-Wright, Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Anne Slepian Ellinger, Christopher Mogil Ellinger) were key in founding and sustaining organizations focused on class issues, such as United for a Fair Economy, Class Action, Bolder Giving, and the Program on Inequality and the Common Good. Other MNS alumni have taken leadership in creating amore environmentally friendly and socially conscious business culture, including Shel Horowitz, Herb Ettel, and D. Dina Friedman.
- Cornell, Andrew (2011). Oppose and Propose: Lessons from Movement for a New Society: AK Press. ISBN 978-1-84935-066-2
- Coover, Virginia ... [et al.] (1985). Resource Manual for a Living Revolution. Philadelphia, PA : New Society Publishers. ISBN 0-86571-015-5