Halifax Media Co-op

News from Nova Scotia's Grassroots

More independent news:
Do you want free independent news delivered weekly? sign up now
Can you support independent journalists with $5? donate today!

Remember When - Strategy for a Living Revolution

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Remember When - Strategy for a Living Revolution


Author: George Lakey
Published: 1973
Publisher: Fitzhenry and Whiteside
234 pages


“I am proposing a revolution which is decisively on the side of life against death, of affirmation rather than destruction. The revolution for life confronts the old order, but confronts lies with openness and repression with community...[T]he pain of a collapsing culture is also an opportunity: to change is hard, but not to change is impossible.”

George Lakey

Has there ever been a more pressing time to find economic and political alternatives? The left has long opposed capitalism from the perspective of labour. But now with knowledge of climate change and the imminent threats it brings, the situation has never seemed so urgent.

Whether one views the social consequences of a capitalist-framework economy as fundamentally positive or fundamentally negative (a sizeable segment of self-described progressives are still of the former perspective) the real inconvenient truth is that capitalism cannot be made environmentally sustainable. While we might buy time, the growth imperative of our economies will always sooner or later ensure increased use of resources, increased pollution, and environmental destruction. Changes in our day-to-day lifestyles may make some measurable difference on the environmental front, but the reality is that unless such changes take place in the context of a deeper structural reformation, they will not account for enough.

There is arguably no shortage of ideas about how an alternative economics might function, at least. Insofar as we might be able to conceive of end goals, though, how are we supposed to get from here to there?

It is clear that the electoral strategy, taken by itself, won’t be adequate; lobbying or choosing between one or another established political parties in elections, all of which are invested to varying degrees in the status quo, will never produce the fundamental changes necessary. Twentieth-Century approaches to transformation, largely anti-democratic in content, in any case also seem like highly-removed fantasy for the left today.

Lakey’s strategy

It was from the standpoint of such realizations that George Lakey wrote Strategy for a Living Revolution. In large part drawing upon past domestic and international precedents of social movements, and analyzing their successes and failures, Lakey attempted to outline a strategy for democratic revolutionary transformation of the United States. Mainly focused on the US, the content of Strategy for a Living Revolution is broadly applicable and potentially still instructive for activists both inside and outside of the US. Lakey’s book remains a helpful and encouraging reminder to activists who might struggle to see the effectiveness of their individual actions, or how their actions might fit into a larger picture.

The author insisted on a specifically non-violent strategic approach. He simultaneously criticized bourgeois pacifist points of view as well as advocates of violent tactics, arguing that both ideologies were unrealistic and did not pay sufficient attention to existing realities in the US, or past precedents elsewhere in the world.

Lakey wrote that any successful revolutionary strategy would likely follow, generally, and not exactly linearly, a five stage process. He referred to these strategic phases as cultural preparation, building organizational strength, propaganda of the deed, political and economic non-cooperation, and intervention and parallel institutions.

Cultural preparation

“In the first stage, cultural preparation, the people who for reasons of their own most acutely feel the oppressiveness of the status quo become agitators.”

In the initial revolutionary phase there is a lack of organization, and few people are initiated. Primarily through individual acts of expression, a minority of citizens attempt to draw accurate connections about the systemic causes of problems people are experiencing in their daily lives. Through written word, spoken word, research, music and art, educational events, principled individual acts of protest and other means, the initiated promote the growth of collective awareness of systemic problems by commenting on and critiquing existing conditions.

The cultural preparation stage is also a time for visionaries, said Lakey. The initiated need to help determine and define the values of an alternative way of living; to outline - in broad terms at least – what a better way of life could look like, and how it might work.

Building organizational strength

“Organization is essential for a struggle movement, for only through organization is it possible to generate enough force to slough off the old order and create new institutions. Isolated, spontaneous incidents of resistance can no more accomplish substantial change than can occasional rioting – each is a witness which can be appreciated in symbolic terms but does not change structures.”

Over time, as cultural awareness spreads, a second stage of organizational growth begins. Community associations form, new unions, student groups, protest organizations, study groups, environmental organizations, small groups and committees and various other advocacy organizations are created. Radical caucuses form within already existing organizations. Community self-help and skill-sharing projects take shape. These organizations and groups organically take on a leadership role in society, and through their actions for their respective causes help to further define the values of an alternative way of life. Alliances between various groups may start to appear.

Lakey stressed the importance of organizing out in the open; citing examples, the author argued that insular, conspiratorial methods of organization ultimately tend to work against movements and blunt the further growth of cultural awareness. Likewise, he also stressed that the message of organizations must be one of non-violence. Growth of the movement is still needed and much of the middle class tends to be uneasy with violent tactics, Lakey argued; such tactics will stop many from becoming allies.

The author argued that organizing must take place on the local, regional, national, and to the extent possible, international levels.

Propaganda of the deed

“[P]ropaganda of the word is not enough. The message must also be spread through action. In the drama of action and counter-action the people can see more clearly the brutality of the old order and the virility of the new.”

Once a level of organization and direction has emerged, the movement enters a third stage: propaganda of the deed. This stage is simultaneously a period of attempting to resolve real problems through direct acts, as well as a time to continue spreading the message to non-allied members of the public.

The organized should, the author argued, choose actions the content of which will largely speak for themselves; an anti-establishment movement cannot depend on favorable or accurate coverage from commercial media outlets to explain the goals or intents of their actions. Local food initiatives, new housing projects, free breakfast programs, community co-ops or medical clinics, and many other activities will attempt to address real existing problems, and due to their inherent positive character will be difficult for non-allied media to malign. Various groups may band together for various projects in this stage, jointly organizing activities through coordinating councils.

The third stage should also be a period for the organized public to undertake "dilemma demonstrations" said Lakey. That is, whether through simple street protests, humanitarian work or other means, the goal should be to choose actions that, no matter how the government reacts, the movement will advance. For example, if a nonviolent protest is allowed to proceed without incident, the message will be sent; if the protest draws a forceful response from government, the government can easily lose credibility in the eyes of the greater public.

Forceful and violent reprisal by government is certainly a real possibility during the propaganda of the deed stage and should be expected, stated the author. Lakey stressed however that such reactions in no way mean defeat, and can instead be a time for the movement to strengthen resolve and win new allies, provided there is sufficient foresight and preparation. Through the process of action and counter-action, the unity of the movement grows.

Political and economic non-cooperation

“In the stage of political and economic non-cooperation the movement challenges the government to meet concrete demands for change. Through mass participation in tax-refusal, rent-refusal, strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, and so on, the movement enforces its demands.”

Lakey argued that it is during the fourth stage that the possibility exists for the movement to take on a truly mass character. With more of the public organized and viewing their interests differently, there is widespread participation in various forms of political and economic non-cooperation. Through the withholding of labour via strikes, non-participation with existing government functions and other disruptive action, government and corporate interests find it increasingly difficult to maintain normal operations. Unity of organized society is of high importance by this stage.

More violent reprisals or overwrought legislative tactics on the part of government coupled with an increasingly disrupted daily life may cause still uncommitted members of the public to take the side of the movement, or simply acquiesce to movement demands out of self-interest for order. Citing examples, Lakey argued that rank and file or senior members of police and military units, time and again ordered to forcefully confront a "militantly nonviolent" public, question their role and also begin a process of non-participation with the existing government. Faced with such difficulties, governments and business interests have little ability other than to concede to movement demands.

Lakey referenced Andre Gorz's concept of "revolutionary reforms" as a potentially important part of the stage. As Gorz's noted, certain kinds of reforms, aside from alleviating immediate issues and strengthening class consciousness, can actually alter the balance of power relations in favor of the political movement.

Intervention and parallel institutions

“After working through the overlapping stages of cultural preparation, of organization-building, of propaganda of the deed, and of non-cooperation, the people have the chance to root new institutions and values firmly in the soil of the new society.”

In the final revolutionary stage, the movement undertakes the work of intervention and the consolidation of new institutions. By intervention, Lakey had in mind direct actions such as occupations and sit-ins of existing governmental and economic institutions. Some of these old institutions may be reformed, others will be dismantled altogether or replaced.

Some of the new economic and political institutions will already have been planted in the organization-building and propaganda of the deed stages, argued the author: worker-owned enterprises, free universities, independent news media, community medical centres, neighbourhood-controlled police forces, poverty lawyer’s cooperatives, and so on. Amidst the pressures of the non-cooperation stage, these new organizational forms develop further, increasingly becoming replacements of the old institutions. “People transfer allegiance from the discredited institutions of the past to these new institutions” stated Lakey.

The author maintained a belief in a minimum amount of governmental institutions, as a forum for democracy and as a coordinating body for some essential services – what did remain of “the state” would coordinate and ratify change, rather than initiate it. The author envisioned that the delegation-based coordinating councils that emerged during earlier stages would, in the last stage, form a new and more democratic government.

A strategy for the 21st Century?

It’s difficult to summarize Lakey’s book and do it justice. The subject matter inevitably leaves the book open to criticisms of being unrealistic, but throughout, Lakey maintained a sober and often convincing analysis. His constant references to past precedents, frequently drawing his examples from the US itself, show how pieces of the strategy, at least, have existed already. The book is filled with memorable passages and insightful commentary.

Is the kind of strategy Lakey proposed realistic or possible in Canada or the United States? Is it the case that Western capitalism is still too “flexible” for a revolutionary movement to develop?
A copy of George Lakey’s Strategy for a Living Revolution is available through Novanet.

Want more grassroots coverage?
Join the Media Co-op today.
1922 words


advice for today from 40 years ago

Thanks for drawing attention to this book, Steve. Neither the work nor its author were known to me although I did have some awareness of the Movement for a New Society, of which George Lakey, it turns out, was a founding member.

I can’t forbear saying that, as you’ve summarized it, Lakey’s five step plan for non-violent revolution is much of a piece with the ideas of constructive and obstructive resistance that I’ve developed in several essays on the Halifax Media Co-op over the past year, including "Initiating Movement Towards Socialism in Canada" as well as my most recent post, “How to Tell your Left from your Right.” From your description it also sounds as though Lakey (some four decades earlier than me) based his recommendations on a political analysis very much in keeping with that which I’ve been foregrounding of late.

You mention that Lakey was accused of being unrealistic. Perhaps such criticism might have seemed legitimate at the time of publication when trade unions and social movements appeared to be making great strides using the liberal democratic apparatus of the day. If such a view was understandable (though I do not say it was correct even then) in the early 1970s, it is decidedly less excusable today, as I have been at pains to point out in my postings to the Media Co-op.

I'll give you the $5 later

Thanks for commenting Antoni.

I definitely see some similarities in the strategy proposed by Lakey and your own. There are a number of things I found satisfying about the proposed strategy:

  • First of all, it is a revolutionary strategy, not a reformist one. If a socially just and environmentally sustainable society is the goal, capitalism will never provide this. We might argue with some until we’re blue in the face about the social consequences of capitalism, but the environmental sustainability question isn’t really up for debate, as I see it
  • Lakey correctly puts the emphasis on the need for grassroots mobilization. Nobody could accuse him of having an elitist approach and I think he correctly views the grassroots as the driver of the process
  • It shows the value of and gives meaning to certain activities that might otherwise seem wholly ineffective on their own e.g. the various activities that can help spread cultural awareness, which help overall even if an immediate effect is not seen
  • It emphasizes the need to build momentum and support before undertaking other activities, and as such gives some insight into why some recent movements died off (e.g. Occupy)
  • It is a pluralistic approach that would involve people from many walks of life
  • It correctly views the electoral strategy as a dead end at this juncture, although as he says in the book, he is not contemptuous of the idea of casting a ballot either, as the right to do so has been hard won by the working class
  • It sees a value in fighting for certain kinds of reforms, both for their short-term immediate effects and as building blocks for later advances.

There is more to the book as well than what is summarized here I suppose. Hopefully some people will pick it up.

The site for the Halifax local of The Media Co-op has been archived and will no longer be updated. Please visit the main Media Co-op website to learn more about the organization.