Revisiting the Manifesto for Nonviolent Revolution


This is the first installment of a planned series on George Lakey’s 1976 “A Manifesto for Nonviolent Revolution.” The manifesto, commissioned by the War Resisters International and published as a full issue of the original WIN Magazine, was in many ways groundbreaking. Through the force of its own words and its adoption by Movement for a New Society, the manifesto has had a ripple effect of influence far beyond those immediately in the circle of nonviolent action.

Unlike leftist party manifestos that are about how to seize power, Lakey’s manifesto shows how to create grassroots counter-power that will sustain itself for the long haul. The manifesto is written in stages representing the process of escalation necessary to bring about a truly nonviolent revolution. These are: conscientization, building organization, confrontation, mass noncooperation, and parallel government. Even those who have not read the manifesto itself will be familiar with some its key concepts, which have permeated activist culture: the relationship between strategies and tactics and the danger of confusing the two, affinity groups as the building blocks for mass movements, grassroots dual power and counter-institutions, and strategic revolutionary reforms.

At a time when the Left is largely, but with some notable exceptions, operating reactively and defensively, it is all the more crucial to revisit the Manifesto for Nonviolent Revolution with its bold but not dogmatic plan of action for global nonviolent revolution. In 1976, Lakey wrote: “The ecological challenge especially shows the declining viability of nation-states. Humankind must reorganize to deal with global problems. If the new society of the future is a global society, our movements should reflect that now.”

At once prescient and damning, this statement underscores the urgent need to grapple with nonviolent revolutionary strategy now more than ever. The manifesto is available online at

My 2013 Perspective on a Manifesto for Nonviolent Revolution
By George Lakey

To me the Manifesto was a call for participatory strategizing. We knew when we wrote it that “a different world is possible” and we believed radical activists would strongly want to figure out how to get there.

Radicals have done a lot of fine social change work since the Manifesto was published. strategy-making, however, has been missing in action.

The 2011 Occupy movement was an exciting cultural expression but it was too self-absorbed to bother much with strategy.

Having identified the 1 percent as the enemy, it then oddly directed most of its combative energy toward the 99 percent instead, in the form of police and other working class people who were conveniently available. Most occupy sites were strikingly uninterested in making the alliances that could build a genuinely mass movement, even though the early public attitude toward Occupy (at least in the U.S.) was a dream come true.

What was wonderful about the Occupy movement was the high level of participation in creating the event itself—a relief from boring public events planned by top-down nonprofit groups. Occupy was an example of participatory tactics, and I enjoyed experiencing that in my town of Philadelphia. Participatory tactics, however, is not the same as participatory strategy, which is putting tactics in a sequence that leads to victory. The hope of a breakthrough fizzled out.

The 2011 breakthrough in Egypt, by contrast, showed strategy at work. Egyptian activists, like all of us, made plenty of mistakes, but bringing down a Mubarak regime backed by the U.S. was a substantial accomplishment. The strategy work began in 2002 with gaining broad agreement on the target, continued in the middle of the 2000s by adding middle class participation in working class struggles to build the (essential) cross-class movement, and then continued with serious study of nonviolent strategy, training in leadership skills, and experiments with mass action. By 2011 the activists were ready to use the flashpoint offered by Tunisians’ struggle. They occupied Tahrir Square, which they understood to be one tactic among many in an overall strategy.

Lakey and another U.S. trainer in a guerrilla encampment in Burma in 1990, make music in a dorm with pro-democracy student soldiers who wanted to learn about nonviolent struggle.

Lakey and another U.S. trainer in a guerrilla encampment in Burma in 1990 make music in a dorm with pro-democracy student soldiers who wanted to learn about nonviolent struggle.

Because U.S. radicals were largely avoiding participatory strategizing, all they could observe was what the mass media made conveniently available: Tahrir Square. And that inclination to go with first impressions is what the Manifesto criticized: organizing around fashion and impulse instead of organizing to achieve revolutionary goals. The Manifesto even names “occupation” as a particularly sexy tactic for activists, easy to flirt with but not easy for reaching mutual fulfillment. (The general strike is another tactic of that kind, enormously powerful when part of a strategy, but demoralizing when simply a flirtation resulting in a withering rejection.)

We went through a similar fashion cycle after the Battle of Seattle in 1999. The Seattle confrontation with the World Trade organization had some great and juicy lessons for all of us, as with the Egyptian breakthrough. If we did participatory strategizing for revolution, we would collectively have studied Seattle, figured out what worked and what didn’t, and asked if and how a series of confrontations with assemblies of powerholders could move us closer to our goal.

Instead, radicals locked into the tactic of mass confrontation, then tried to replicate it in a strategic vacuum. After Seattle came the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000, and it was a disaster by every measure including its impact on local activism. In the eyes of the public, the radical activists even took the discredited Philadelphia police force and gave police the image of a band of shining heroes.

I hoped at the time that the disaster would alert activists to the need to strategize, or at least (if people must fall in love with a tactic) to learn what made it disastrous so the next mass confrontation could be better. Instead, an entire series of mass bashes against assemblies of powerholders developed, extending all the way to Europe and showing the learning curve of a slug.

That’s when I realized that the refusal to strategize prevents learning even from our tactical experience, because evaluating what did and didn’t go well requires having criteria larger than “did it feel good?” or “are we now even more confirmed in our righteousness?” or “do we now have more exciting stories from confrontations with the evil cops?”

A Radical’s Dilemma

What’s odd about this period of time is that the art of nonviolent strategizing has been improving dramatically since the Manifesto was published, cultivated by reformers!

Take the Otpor (Resistance) movement of Serbian youths that catalyzed the overthrow of dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Although in one sense it is radical to challenge a police state, Otpor wasn’t fighting for a visionary economy, polity, or culture. The same limitation can be seen in the other movements in the Color Revolutions of the 2000s, and the recent Arab uprisings as well. Granted, the struggles were opening the space in which radicals could then hope to fight for really visionary alternatives. The first order of business for those mass movements was to remove the rigid dictators that suppressed all progressive change, including the more radical alternatives.

It’s easy for radicals to critique the results of nonviolent regime changes that happened since the 1970s: economies being more fully integrated into the neoliberal order, authoritarian forces shoving aside the pro-democracy forces in parliament, the dogged continuation of corruption, prefigurative efforts that started in the throes of the struggle losing their momentum.

That said, when I look at these struggles that brought down dictators I do see frequent use by reformers of sophisticated nonviolent strategy. They were using skills the radicals badly needed. The strategists planned how to get from point A to point B. They anticipated counter-moves by the opponent, and developed options to stay on the offensive. They planned how to use the weaknesses of the dictator, and also how to undermine the dictator’s strengths.

Otpor worked successfully to neutralize the police, for example, who time and again spied upon, beat up, and arrested the young people. Instead of deflecting their struggle against the dictator into a struggle against the cops, Otpor remembered that police are the enforcers—not the deciders—and they are workers who are actually victims of the oppressive system. Because of Otpor’s strategic approach to the police, the police violence weakened over time, and when the dictator most needed them they refused to carry out his will.

Successful strategists for nonviolent regime change were the opposite of self-absorbed; they figured out how to reach key allies, and how to mobilize cross-class coalitions that would, at a critical moment, generate the power of mass noncooperation.

As always, the challenge I make to radicals is: “Where’s our learning curve? How can we create strategy that borrows from what worked for the reformers and at the same time sets in motion more fundamental change?”

I’ll raise the stakes of my challenge: “Is it really a choice between working strategically for reforms, with the chance of winning, or acting unstrategically for revolution, with the certainty of losing?” If that’s the choice, I know which I choose.

To me the way out of the radical dilemma is to break out of the radical bubble, learn from what works in reform campaigns both from observation and participation, and embrace lessons and relationships for the broader task of transformation. Because the broader task is really tough, the Manifesto offers a framework that supports participatory strategizing with revolutionary goals.

A New Resource for Activists: Implications for the Manifesto

We now have an online resource not available when the Manifesto was published: the Global Nonviolent Action Database (GNAD). Almost 900 cases of nonviolent struggle have been researched and written up so far, drawn from 190 countries and from historical periods going back as far as 12th century B.C.E. Egypt. The campaigns include dozens of regime changes forced by mass nonviolent movements, including entire “waves” of them like the Arab uprisings, the 1980s waves in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the 1940s wave in Latin America, and a couple of waves in Europe.

Each case in the GNAD has a narrative plus searchable fields. Activists can look up campaigns that used one or more of 199 nonviolent methods, and read about the kind of repression the movements have faced. The database includes struggles that lost as well as campaigns that won.

One way resources like this help us strategize is to help us think about the optimum timing of the tactics we can use. Research using the GNAD can reveal the timing of methods in both successful and unsuccessful struggles. Take the general strike: So far, it seems that the campaigns that have best tapped the power of the general strike have used it close to the finish line, rather than early in the campaign. That gives support to the Manifesto’s suggestion that the general strike might best be called in the fourth stage, when a movement is prepared with a set of democratic alternatives to the oppressive order.

What does it look like to organize with the Manifesto in mind?

The Manifesto was translated and published in a number of countries. In the U.S. even study groups in prison read and discussed it. A network of autonomous groups with strong international ties sprang up in the U.S. and Canada and officially adopted the Manifesto as its consensus statement on how to advance revolutionary change. That network called itself Movement for a New Society (MNS).

Founded in 1971, MNS organized itself to serve people’s movements and continued until 1988. It was a kind of laboratory for trying out many of the ideas consistent with the Manifesto, including consensus decision-making, spokescouncils, affinity groups, and counter-institutions. Through MNS training and participation in vital movements, many MNS-tested practices came to be widely adopted in activist culture.

Anarchist author and activist Andrew Cornell recently studied the two decades of MNS experience and published Oppose and Propose: Lessons from Movement for a New Society (AK Press, 2012). (Read WIN's review in our Summer 2011 issue.) Cornell’s young, fresh eyes agree with my old man’s experience as a founder of MNS: The use of the Manifesto’s organizing ideas gave MNS a radical influence far out of proportion to its numbers, which hardly topped 200 members during much of its existence. MNS found synergy—the whole greater than the sum of its parts—when it combined the following:

  • affinity groups as the basic work unit—we called them collectives,
  • counter-institutions that provided services people need—like food co-ops, a publishing house (New Society Publishers),
  • group living, to reduce expenses and environmental load, boost time available for revolutionary work, and create a culture in which we could taste the experience of “living the revolution now,”
  • training workshops and study groups, for members as well as for movements we served,
  • vision-development.

MNS began during a post-sixties movement slump characterized by fatigue and discouragement. We found that vision stimulated and inspired activists, making them attractive instead of “gloom-and-doomers.” (Sound like a good idea for now?)

MNS knew the multiple values of nonviolent direct action campaigning. One example of many is the MNS connection to the antinuclear power movement of the 1970s. That movement was tackling a staggering conglomeration of power: in the U.S. the electrical utilities, the giant companies that produced reactors, the construction companies that built them, the banks that loaned the money, the mining companies that produced the material, and the federal and state governments that insured them.

Obviously, a grassroots movement couldn’t win against such forces. But Bill Moyer and other MNSers thought otherwise. It would probably take a nuclear meltdown to tip the balance, but we knew that disasters by themselves don’t make change; the country previously came close to losing the city of Detroit to a nuclear meltdown and that event didn’t make even a blip in changing policy, just as Katrina and Super-Storm Sandy plus tornadoes and wildfires don’t by themselves influence climate policy. Disasters make a difference when there is already a social movement that is prepared to seize the day, and that’s exactly what the anti-nukes movement was ready to do when the Three Mile Island plant melted down.

The antinuclear power movement got prepared partly through MNS influence: training for direct action, maintaining its grassroots vitality through democratic decision-making and organizational structures, smart strategizing. I ran into one participant who moved from one part of the country to another, joined an antinuke alliance in his new location, and found the strategy and practice the same—“just like home.”

The various efforts to capture the growing people’s movement by national leaders didn’t work because the ideas in the Manifesto worked. Building skills, self-confidence, knowledge, organizational structures, and strategy equip a grassroots movement to have the unity and power it needs without top-down authoritarian leadership. Participants in the movement also became more open to a radical environmental analysis and vision, especially when shared by fellow participants they’ve learned to trust.

A larger people’s movement can, in short, be influenced by radicals that join it, openly and with an expansive and positive attitude. To magnify the influence, a network made the intervention rather than assorted individuals. Further, the network internally was a place of radical nurturing and accountability.

Note the symmetry: the unity of the larger movement was supported by the unity of the small network of nonviolent revolutionists within it.

The Manifesto speaks of “leverage points” provided by larger historical forces, and nuclear power was such a point in the 70s. Today the choice by the 1 percent to flush public education down the toilet is a leverage point in many countries. Mass movements of resistance are waiting to happen, and networks borrowing from the MNS model could make a difference in those movements’ degree of radicalness and potential for change.

A major reason why MNS didn’t continue into the 1990s was the contradiction noted in the Manifesto in Stage Two: “The organizational forms can reflect so literally the radical vision that they become the end instead of the means to social change.” MNS reached a tipping point where fascination with its own attempts at becoming ever more internally consistent got in the way of growth and usefulness. Self-absorption yet again. Perfectionism did not support creativity; does it ever?

Dancing with History

The large impact of the MNS experiment, with a couple of hundred activists, suggests the enormous potential if thousands of nonviolent revolutionists tried this approach. That number of individual radicals may have existed in the U.S. at that time, but they didn’t come together with a framework like the Manifesto to make them powerful.

That’s not only because most radicals spurned strategizing at the time, but also because the right wing re-took the offensive after losing ground in the sixties and seventies and so radicals joined liberals in defending against the “Reagan Revolution.” The Manifesto’s suggestions such as revolutionary reforms and burgeoning counter-institutions couldn’t be followed while at the same time playing defense.

Gandhi said the first principle of strategy is to stay on the offensive. Even now in 2013 most radicals are defensive, especially in countries with austerity policies. To re-take the offensive—the only way to halt the losses—activists must create an idea of how to win, and it’s now so much easier to do participatory strategizing.

Even the limited MNS experience of trying out ideas in the Manifesto suggests that the framework is a powerful springboard. The framework makes it easier for radicals in each country to create a specific strategy for their own unique situation, in a way that promotes unity in the larger movement.

I still recommend collective rather than individual efforts to strategize. I realize that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but given how lost radicals are without strategy, it is in everyone’s interest to get it done. Perhaps those who don’t have a strategizing kind of brain should lock into a room those who do, and insist they get busy drafting plans that everyone can give feedback on!

George Lakey

George Lakey’s first time arrested was in a civil rights sit-in, and most recent was in a bank that funds mountain top removal coal mining, along with comrades in Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT). He has led over 1,500 social change workshops on five continents, for groups ranging from Buddhist monks to British anarchists to Canadian labour unions to pro-democracy students in a guerrilla encampment in the Burmese jungle. He was a co-founder of Movement for a New Society and Training for Change. He is a weekly columnist for the website Waging Nonviolence and a professor at Swarthmore College. His most recent book is Facilitating Learning Groups (2010, Jossey-Bass).