A Revolution Comes in Stages

George Lakey Oct 8, 2013

All of us hold an idea about how progressive change might happen, whether or not we spell it out explicitly. For some it’s an elaboration of grassroots alternative-building, for others it starts with flooding legislators with advocacy. One way or another, we all have one. But, while reading Nathan Schneider’s important recent piece on the Occupy movement in The Nation, I was reminded of the power of a theory of change to shape our actions.

Nathan — who is also an editor at Waging Nonviolence — turns to the theory of change developed by my friend Bill Moyer, the late civil rights organizer who went on to influence a number of social justice campaigns. Bill identified a series of eight stages that successful movements tend to go through on their way to victory; he called his theory the Movement Action Plan. Nathan finds that Bill’s fifth stage helps us understand Occupy in the past year or so, when a lot of participants have felt discouraged. Bill found that successful movements usually go through a let-down after the adrenalin rush of sudden growth in stage four, only to recover in stage six and have a chance of winning.

Early on in a movement, participants often see victory just around the corner. In their euphoria they imagine walls crumbling and victory within reach. Their theory of change has been influenced by movies and brief historical references to past movements that turn a long and tortuous slog into, for example, Rosa Parks on a bus and Dr. King having a dream. Disappointed when their drama tapers off, as dramas do, they imagine that the euphoria is all there is and go into despair when they don’t see the dreamed-for results.

When social movements succeed, Bill found through study and experience, they survive the wilderness of stage five and advance to the effectual activities of stages six and seven — often with more drama along the way.

Reform or revolution?

Bill’s Movement Action Plan, or MAP, is an excellent guide for movements aiming at reform. I discovered on a training trip to Taiwan in the early 1990s that progressive community and labor organizers were already using MAP to guide their work. However, Occupy’s goals go well beyond reform. Occupy famously wanted to end the rule of the 1 percent, for one thing. To accomplish that goal, we need a model that shows how a movement goes beyond reform to facilitate a revolution.

In the organization Movement for a New Society, Bill and I were very close comrades, doing model-building at the same time but addressing different situations. In my strategy workshops I taught Bill’s model for participants who were into carrying out reform, but I used a second model for the revolutionaries present. The second model was called Strategy for a Living Revolution.

The good-news/bad-news from the Living Revolution perspective is that although Occupy did many things right, there was no reason to expect short-term success because the movement overwhelmed itself with a multiplicity of tasks that couldn’t all be done at the same time.

The movement wasn’t wrong about some elements that are needed for a revolutionary movement; it was simply mistaken to think that it’s possible to do in a New York minute what takes substantial time. Activists somehow forgot an urban farmer’s wisdom and imagined that fertilizing, planting, weeding and harvesting could all be done at the same time. Organic revolutions unfold in stages.

Activists in the first stage of a living revolution share a radical analysis in a clear and memorable way, and Occupy did that brilliantly with its meme of the responsibility of the 1 percent. Considering how thoroughly class analysis had been pushed out of U.S. political discourse by decades of propaganda and repression, Occupy made a breakthrough, and its participants can always be proud of that achievement.

In the first stage, however, a movement also needs to create a vision of what should replace the existing oppressive system, and Occupy wasn’t able to reach a critical mass on that one.

All in good time

Occupy wasn’t the first spontaneous rebellion that failed to project a vision that could win allies for the longer struggle. In May and June of 1968, millions of French students and workers rose up; occupations were a favorite tactic for them too. Some tried in the midst of the insurrection to hold assemblies in which a vision could be hammered out that would offer an alternative to French capitalism and authoritarianism. The activists weren’t trying for a blueprint; a broad vision would have been sufficient. But an agreed-upon vision couldn’t be generated in the heat of the moment.

That proved costly for the movement. I believe it was one reason why DeGaulle’s government ended up surviving the insurrection; wavering middle-class elements wouldn’t side with the students and workers if they couldn’t tell if there was a place for them in a new society. The historically successful anti-authoritarian movements for fundamental change, such as those in Scandinavia, developed their visions over a longer time, giving more people in the society a chance to support them.

The second stage in the Living Revolution model is the work of innovating organizational structures and developing the skills to use them successfully. Occupy participants were right that innovation and skill-building in decision-making needed to happen, but they were mistaken in imagining that it could be done in a matter of weeks, amidst the stress of running an occupation. I once sat with a sadder-but-wiser organizer at London Occupy as she recounted the high human cost of believing that idealism is a substitute for problem-solving. If we have a theory of change that sees a movement growing through successive stages, however, we can keep our idealism and take the time to solve problems, too.

The third stage is confrontation, and I am awed by the amount of creativity and courage that Occupy participants showed in direct action. Because the confrontation stage can bring on serious repression, it’s easy to get distracted by the repression itself, instead of seeing it as one of the factors that can help us achieve our goal. The temptation for Occupy was to waver in its attention on the central issue — the 1 percent and class oppression — and focus instead on the violence of the police.

Barbara Deming, a feminist activist-writer on revolution, used to say that the hardest part when we’re doing confrontation is keeping our equilibrium. That’s why, in the Living Revolution stages, the confrontation stage comes third instead of first. The first stage’s clarity of message and values and vision, and the second stage’s building of an organizational infrastructure of solidarity, are what make a movement tough enough to withstand repression without losing its focus.

Be prepared

As I was reminded while working to assemble the Global Nonviolent Action Database, a great many movements have grown — and have even won — by hanging tough and remaining nonviolent through the repression associated with the confrontation stage. It’s not rocket science. To maximize the chance of succeeding, though, a smart movement prepares for it, just as an army prepares for battles.

Confrontation leads to the fourth stage of mass political and economic non-cooperation, especially if stages one and two were done well. It’s futile — and probably disempowering — to call for something as ambitious as a general strike (as Occupy did in 2012) before the fourth stage, but once the fourth stage is reached, various kinds of strikes can make a major difference.

Events since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt show, however, that while strikes and mass non-cooperation can open up a power vacuum, they don’t fill that vacuum with a new and democratic order by themselves. That’s another reason why stage two — organization-building — is so important. If a critical mass of people have new skills and confidence in non-authoritarian relations, then when the power vacuum opens, democratic and participatory organizations can fill the vacuum and facilitate the transition to a new society. That’s stage five, a very tricky period in which success depends on whether there’s been a clear vision that has won wide support and whether people have released their shackles in the course of the struggle sufficiently to dare to behave in new, more human ways.

I see the Occupy movement as one of the grander “experiments with truth,” as Gandhi might have put it. We’ll all gain from learning what we can from the experiment. Bill Moyer’s MAP reminds us that reflection is a good thing to do during the downtime of his stage five. Meanwhile, the Living Revolution model suggests that what time we spend clarifying our visions and organizing ourselves will go a long way when the next big moment of heightened drama comes along.

First published at

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