Movement for a New Society (1971 - 1988)

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Movement for a New Society member George Willoughby.  Photo credit:

A loose community of activists founded in West Philadelphia in 1971. It spread to at least eight cities in the United States and established worldwide connections for nonviolence training and action.

By living as groups, buying food through a cooperative, and sharing child care, big appliances, and a few cars, they were freed from the pressure to make more money just to survive. Many had part-time jobs, which allowed them time to write manuals, act as trainers, and participate in social and political actions. Moreover, a certain sense of joie de vivre pervaded their lives through dancing and group singing.

While it was a predominantly secular organization, certain prominent Quaker activists (including Ross Flanagan, George Lakey, Berit Lakey, Gail Pressberg, Richard Taylor, and George Willoughby) provided a spiritual base to MNS.

The philosophy of "living simply that others may simply live" undergirded all MNS actions. Those against nuclear power (such as demonstrations at the Seabrook, New Hampshire, plant) are only one example. This philosophy of living is particularly relevant in our era of ecological deterioration, as most Westerners continue to expect a constantly expanding gross national product - while the gross earth product continues to decline.

Nonviolent training and action focused predominantly on social and political problems. Gandhian, Quaker, and ad hoc methods were practiced - a fusion emerging from group consensus within MNS. The aim was to systematize what had been learned in the past through single-issue campaigns. Nonviolent training and action were the visible part, but community was the internal holistic vision; it enabled MNS members to continually interact and learn to live together on an ongoing basis.

It was a time when leaderlessness and consensus decision making were in vogue in progressive social movements. MNS used these principles in discussions of divisive issues such as classism, ethnocentrism, racism, and sexism. But these discussions often highlighted the prejudices of many members, thus undermining the organization's coherence and contributing to MNS's eventual demise. George Lakey, for example, cites MNS's inability to fully use its developed leadership, an inability influenced by the antileader currents of the period, as the most important factor in its decline.

Perhaps the most dramatic and well-organized nonviolent MNS action was the 1971 blockade of U.S. arms exports to West Pakistan. Richard Taylor's Blockade describes the campaign in full during the civil war with East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). More than two hundred people took part in the campaign, which ran up and down the East Coast of the United States. Actions included marches, picketing, paddling canoes in front of Pakistani freighters, and all-night vigils at the White House. The campaign succeeded in blockading Philadelphia's port, preventing the shipment of such material until the war ended in 1972.

Crucial to the victory was support from the head of the International Longshoreman's local union, an African American sympathetic to the victims of West Pakistani genocide, who cooperated in getting longshoremen to refuse to load Pakistani ships. The most important achievement, says Taylor, was helping to educate the public, whose outrage eventually led to a cut-off of U.S. government aid to Pakistan.

MNS was "laid down" in 1988, but a number of members continued to participate in nonviolent training and action all over the world. Some worked on an individual basis as consultants; others joined groups such as Witness for Peace, which struggled for peace in Nicaragua. New Society Publishers continues to flourish in West Philadelphia.

Marjorie Hope and James Herbert Young, reprinted with permission, from Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women's Suffrage.  Roger Powers, William Vogele, Christoper Kreugler, and Ronald McCarthy, eds. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Selected material about Movement for a New Society
Selected material by Movement for a New Society

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