Author Archive: George Lakey

GEORGE LAKEY co-founded Earth Quaker Action Group, which won its five-year campaign to force a major U.S. bank to give up financing mountaintop removal coal mining. Along with college teaching he has led more than 1,500 nonviolence workshops on five continents, and nonviolence activist projects on local, national, and international levels. Among his many articles and books, he is the author most recently of Toward a Living Revolution: A Five-Stage Framework for Creating Radical Social Change, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016; and Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right—And How We Can, Too, Brooklyn: Melville House, 2017.

The Lonely Scholar Who Became a Nonviolent Warrior:
Gene Sharp (1928-2018)

by George Lakey

Portrait of Gene Sharp courtesy

Once again I rang the bell at the brick row house in East Boston where Gene Sharp lived. When he opened the door I said proudly, “Today I drove here instead of taking the T.”

“You drove?” he said in mock horror. “Man, are you trying to get yourself killed? Haven’t you heard about Boston drivers? They show no mercy, especially toward Philadelphians!”

That was the Gene Sharp I knew, always loving to find a joke in the moment. So, I was sad to hear the news that he passed away on Sunday at the age of 90. (January 21, 1918-January 28, 2018)

When I had him speak at Swarthmore College he put on his distinguished scholar persona, adding the English accent he’d learned while studying at Oxford. When one of my students asked a particularly penetrating question, Gene, at the time associated with Harvard, peered over his glasses and said, “Hmm, it appears to be true: Swarthmore students really are brighter than Harvard students.”

Even though he charmed my students, he also relished the role of contrarian. Not easy, if your life mission is to bring into the mainstream an area of study previously on the intellectual margin.

I was 21 years old when I met him. I was studying sociology at the University of Oslo. One of my teachers there who knew of my interest in the peace movement said that I might like to meet someone at the university who was researching Norwegian nonviolent resistance to the German Nazi occupation in World War II.

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Why Nonviolent Campaigns, Not Protests, Succeed

by George Lakey

Banner art courtesy Peace & Justice Center;

How do we figure out how to amplify our power and maximize the chance of winning victories? We can start by freeing up the energy devoted to one-off protests, rallies, and demonstrations. When I look back on the one-off protests I’ve joined over the years, I don’t remember a single one that changed anything. The really spectacular failure was the biggest protest in history, in February 2003. I joined millions of people around the world on the eve of George W. Bush’s war on Iraq. We did get a huge front-page headline in the New York Times, but Bush only needed to wait until we went home.

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How to Start a Nonviolent Direct Action Group to Make MLK Proud

by George Lakey

Martin Luther King poster courtesy

Some people feel inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. to do service projects. But the U.S. civil rights movement that he led was not about days of service; it was about days of confrontational action. Think about the hundreds of action groups that sprang up in the North as well as the South, many winning campaigns against racial discrimination. They mobilized and radicalized people; that movement gave me my first experience of civil disobedience.

Some of those early groups, of course, flourished, and some fell apart quickly. Since then we’ve learned a lot about how to start action groups in a way that increases their chance to thrive, wage a campaign, learn from it and grow, often through trial and error.

The steps for beginning a group are not really as simple as a food recipe, but I’ll take the risk of writing this in a recipe-kind-of-way. Remember that every situation is always unique. You’ll need to think with friends through each step, adapting to your circumstances.

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The Suffragettes and the Effectiveness of Property Destruction

by George Lakey 

Cover of program for the 1913 National American Women's Suffrage Association march; courtesy

Suffragette is a 2015 British film directed by Sarah Gavron. It tells a gripping story drawn from the direct action wing of Britain’s woman suffrage movement. Because it spotlights one tactic — property destruction — the film raises the question of effectiveness. Leader Emmeline Pankhurst’s (1858–1928) argument for escalating with arson and explosions was to hasten their win. Did it?

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Book Review: A Guide to Civil Resistance

by George Lakey

Woman protesting Thai coup, June 2014; photograph courtesy

I first encountered Gene Sharp when he was a young man in jeans and sneakers, working in a research institute affiliated with the University of Oslo. Not guessing that he would become a mentor of mine, I met him because one of my Norwegian professors sent me to him. Gene had already served time in a U.S. federal prison for draft resistance and then joined the War Resisters’ International [WRI] Peace News staff to report on activism in the United Kingdom. Now he was in a small cubicle with a typewriter, analyzing the Norwegian resistance to Nazi German occupation during World War II. A half century later, in 2011, Foreign Policy would list Gene among the 100 most influential thinkers in the world.

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Nonviolent Peace Training as a Means of Linking Research and Action

by George Lakey

Poster art courtesy

Editor’s Preface: This previously unpublished essay was a paper presented at the International Conference of Peace Researchers and Peace Activists (Noordwijkerhout, Netherlands, July 1-6 1975), and is another in our series of important discoveries from the War Resisters’ International archive. Please see the notes at the end for archival information, and for a note about George Lakey.  JG

Training for peace action is a fairly new phenomenon. By training I mean the systematic sharing of skills and knowledge. Activists in former years could learn by apprenticing themselves to experienced leaders, or could pay special attention to those conferences and institutes featuring nonviolent organizers. But there was nowhere they could go to get systematic, long-term training.

The burst of nonviolent action in the nineteen-sixties stimulated people in a number of countries to seek to remedy this. In 1965 the first international conference on training for nonviolent action was held in Perugia, Italy, by War Resisters’ International. Activists came from as far away as India and the U.S. to compare notes on training experience.

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A Manifesto for Nonviolent Revolution

by George Lakey

Editor’s Preface: The Manifesto, originally published in 1976 as a complete issue of the War Resisters League magazine WIN, continues our series of important historical documents that have helped shape our current understanding of the meaning and uses of nonviolence and nonviolent civil resistance.  Along with Lakey’s “Strategizing for a Living Revolution”, which we previously posted, Manifesto has generated a lively debate, which still continues, as the planned series by WRL on the Manifesto demonstrates. Setting current trends in their historical context, and showing their influences, is an often neglected but essential grounding for a deeper understanding of the role, extent, and effectiveness of personal nonviolence, and nonviolent civil resistance. JG

Cover courtesy Peace News;

How can we live at home on planet Earth?

As individuals we often feel our lack of power to affect the course of events or even our own environment. We sense the untapped potential in ourselves, the dimensions that go unrealized. We struggle to find meaning in a world of tarnished symbols and impoverished cultures. We long to assert control over our lives, to resist the heavy intervention of state and corporation in our plans and dreams. We sometimes lack the confidence to celebrate life in the atmosphere of violence and pollution, which surrounds us. Giving up on altering our lives, some of us try at least to alter our consciousness, if through drugs. Turning ourselves and others into objects, we experiment with sensation. We are cynical early, and blame ourselves, and wonder that we cannot love with a full heart.

The human race groans under the oppressions of colonialism, war, racism, totalitarianism, and sexism. Corporate capitalism abuses the poor and exploits the workers, while expanding its power through the multinational corporations. The environment is choked. National states play power games, which defraud their citizens and prevent the emergence of world community.

What shall we do?

Rejecting the optimistic gradualism of reformists and the despair of tired radicals, we now declare ourselves for nonviolent revolution. We intend that someday all of humanity will live on Earth as brothers and sisters. We issue this manifesto as guidance in the next decades to ourselves and to others who choose not to escape, who want to recover their personhood by participating in loving communities, who realize that struggle is central to recovering our humanity, and who want that struggle to reflect in its very style a commitment to life.

The manifesto includes a vision of a new society, its economy and ecology, its forms of conflict, its global dimensions. The manifesto also proposes a framework for strategy of struggle and change, which is presented here.

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Strategizing for a Living Revolution

by George Lakey

Otpur (“Resistance” in Serbian) began as hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of young people took to the streets to rid their country of dictator Slobadan Milosevic. Impatient with the cautious ways of many of their pro-democracy elders, the youths organized in coffee bars and schools, posted graffiti almost everywhere, and used their street actions to embarrass the regime.

Milosevic counter-attacked. His police routinely beat up the protesters, in the streets and more thoroughly in the police stations. His spies were everywhere. His monopoly of the mass media meant that the Otpur was described as hoodlums and terrorists.  In October 2000 Otpur won; joined by hundreds of thousands of workers and professionals, the young people threw Milosevic out. His party was in disarray, his police in confusion, his army was split.

From the moment Otpur began it had a strategy. The young people were immensely creative in their tactics and at the same time realized that no struggle is ever won simply by a series of actions. Otpur activists knew they could only succeed by creating a strategy that guided a largely decentralized network of groups.  Cynical outsiders were skeptical when Otpur activists claimed not to have a leader, when the young people said they were all leaders and shared responsibility for their actions and their common discipline. What the skeptics overlooked was the power of strategy as a unifying force, taking its place beside the rebel energy and the lessons of recent history that the young people shared. Otpur activists didn’t need an underground commander giving them their marching orders because they shared a strategy they believed in; they were happy to improvise creatively within that strategic framework.

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“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi