From the fight for civil rights in the early 60s to opposing the Vietnam War, setting up Men Against Patriarchy and the anti-nuclear mobilisation of the late 1970s, George Lakey’s extensive activism reads like a recap of the major social conflicts of post-war US history. The 74-year old American has written eight books and given over 1500 social change workshops on five continents – to coal miners and striking steel workers, homeless people, Sri Lankan monks and Burmese guerrilla soldiers. Today he is Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College.
In London at the start of a UK, Lakey explains what has kept him going over 50 years of activism: “I pray a lot, I cry a lot and I believe in vacations”. Slightly off-balanced by his honesty, I realise it is still unusual for a man to be so open about his emotions.
He defines himself as a decentralised socialist. “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”, he says. “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.”
Lakey is best known for co-founding the Movement for a New Society (MNS), a radical US group which was active between 1971 and 1988. Advocates of non-violent revolution, MNS was a highly innovative organisation, popularising now widely accepted activist tools such as consensus decision making, spokescouncils and affinity groups. “The idea of it being a non-violent revolution has several parts to it”, he explains. “One is that it be achieved through non-violent struggle rather than violent struggle. These days that doesn’t seem as amazing as it did when I first started advocating it. There have been so many non-violent struggles that have thrown out dictatorships that it is no longer a new idea.” In addition he sees non-violent revolution as implying a sea change in values. “In the new society there is more respect for human beings and for nature.”
Lakey makes a clear distinction between non-violent revolutionaries and pacifists. “Historically the ideology of pacifism has been associated with the middle class and with conflict aversion. Conflict is seen as a negative, so the idea is how to fix it so we won’t have conflict.” In contrast Lakey, like his mentor in non-violence Gene Sharp, considers conflict to be positive, or at least a necessary step, for progress. “I think one of the differences that really stands out between working class life and middle class life is that in general in the working class conflict is much more positively appreciated.”
“I think that it one reason sports are much more celebrated, especially the more rugged sports, in the working class life than middle class life”, says Lakey, who was brought up working-class. “There is something very empowering and deeply human about contention and struggle and being direct and being open”. Along with Marx’s concept of class struggle, Gandhi has been a key influence on Lakey. “He hugely valued conflict, was very unhappy if people weren’t fighting nearby! Philosophically he believed that truth is more likely emerge when people are waging conflict with each other over their different perceptions of truth, rather than just having a polite conversation about it.”
Lakey’s core beliefs on non-violence can be found in his 1973 book Strategy For A Living Revolution, which has just been re-published by Peace News. In the book he maps out a framework of five stages for achieving non-violent revolution: cultural preparation, organisation building, confronting powerful institutions, mass non-cooperation and finally replacing the existing power structures. “The reason why there is a fifth stage, not just a fourth stage, is shown in the case of Egypt these days”, he says. “It is possible to create a power vacuum, atleast temporarily, through non-violent struggle. Then the question is what fills the vacuum? If the vacuum is filled by the one percent then we haven’t gotten very far.” He sees his model as more relevant to dictatorships than Western democracies. “The genius of the flexibility of Western capitalism is its ability to postpone stage four through co-optation – and especially if it’s an imperial power the co-optation of the working-class by giving it goodies. In 1926 there was a General Strike in Britain but it can be accommodated. Put the Labour Party in, let the Labour Party run the Empire for a while.”
Last year it was the Occupy movement that had the elite rattled in the US and around the world. “The huge contribution of Occupy was to give us a language for talking about class that we didn’t have in common use.” The hysterical reaction to Communism in the US has meant the vocabulary which Europeans use to discuss the reality of class rule has not been available to most Americans, he argues. “So Occupy saying it’s the one percent was a breakthrough.”
Lakey is very supportive of Occupy but his main concern today is climate change “because it is so overarching – if we don’t solve that one there is a whole lot else we won’t get much space to work with. We will be on such a survival level. It will be very, very tough.” In particular his focus is mountaintop-removal coal mining, which causes huge environmental degradation and increased cancer rates in the surrounding area. As part of the Earth-Quaker Action Team Lakey has been occupying and shutting down branches of PNC bank, which is investing in mountaintop-removal.
He believes having Obama in the White House has meant the number of mountaintop-removals is smaller than it would have been under a Republican president, although he is under no illusions about the US two party system. “The one percent owns both parties in the US, and that’s always been true”, he says. “Sometimes the Democrats have given more respect to the working-class but historically the role of the Democrats has been co-optation and the role of Republicans has been repression. They’ve had that division of labour. Good cop, bad cop – but they are both cops who are responding to the wishes of the ruling class.”
On the other hand he is keen to emphasise he will vote for the president in November “because I like good cops better than bad cops.”
“I’ve been arrested by both kinds and when I get arrested I prefer a good cop any day of the week. I’ve been beaten up by cops. Please, send a good cop when I am arrested. And there is no question Obama is a good cop.”
The key, Lakey believes, is for progressives to put more pressure on Obama. As the late people’s historian Howard Zinn said in 2008: “Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.”
Lakey laments there has been “a collapse of faith and hope among liberals and the left in the US.” Always the strategist, he explains that the many reversals and rollbacks since the Reagan Administration have put progressive activists on the defensive. “Gandhi always said the number one principle of strategy is be on the offensive and stay on the offensive no matter what.”
Toward a Living Revolution, a revised edition of Strategy for a Living Revolution, is published by Peace News Press, priced £15. www.peacenews.info.