Quaker Universalist Conversations

Universalist Quakerism: A Seedbeed for Change

Over the past months and years there has been much discussion of the universalism and mysticism inherent in traditional Quaker practices.  A recent book (Andrew Cornell, Oppose and Propose!  Lessons from Movement for a New Society, AK Press , 2011) suggests to me that anarchism should be added to the trio.  Like “communism,” the word “anarchism” has been demonized in the 20th century.  But far from being associated with chaos and violence, traditional philosophical anarchism rests on confidence in the goodness of human nature and the absence of any need for hierarchical social structures or authoritarian government.  Its distinctive expression has been utopian communities, not suicide bombing.

 Two 17th-century movements that were closely associated with the evolution of Quakerism could quite properly be called anarchist in the philosophical sense. They were the Diggers, who established short-lived agricultural communes around England in 1649-50, and the Levellers, a more urban and political challenge to the aristocracy.  The leaders of both groups, Gerard Winstanley and John Lilburne, survived the revolution and the restoration of monarchy to become Quakers in their final years.

A 20th-century example of the continuing parallels between Quakers and anarchists is the Movement for a New Society (MNS), which existed in the United States from 1971 to 1988.  Like mystics, which many of them are, Quakers give priority to individual experience of the divine and reject the imposing of “truth” in the form of creeds or dogmas by any outside authority.  In the social sphere they accept democratically agreed-upon rules of conduct but, like anarchists, they reject coercion by force, especially the military force exerted by the state.  Both groups place a high value on peace, justice, and the common good.

The MNS grew directly from Quaker efforts to carry medical supplies to both sides during the Viet Nam war.   Blocked by the U.S. armed forces and disgusted by the bloated consumerism and militarism of American society, they turned hopefully to the task of creating a “New Society” on their home turf.  Writing from an anarchist perspective, Andrew Cornell examines the lessons learned from that experiment.

 After a review of MNS history and core documents supplemented by interviews with its founder, George Lakey, and several long-time members, Cornell concludes:  “One of the most significant dilemmas that MNS helps us think through is the relation between the adversarial and the exemplary, the destructive and creative, the oppositional and propositional moments of social struggle.”  This ongoing tension is reflected in the legacy of the movement.  Still alive are a number of alternative and countercultural institutions (the distinction is not always clear) that were founded and nurtured by the MNS in Philadelphia and other places around the country.  They include co-ops, collectively managed businesses, land trusts, a few intentional communities, and other activities that prefigured the desired future and that allowed members to fulfill their aspiration of “living the revolution now.”  The other legacy of the movement is Training for Change, an international program of workshops for protesters that develops, tests, and teaches strategies for nonviolent resistance, often involving civil disobedience.  These strategies are employed in confrontations over nuclear facilities, trade agreements, environmental destruction, and situations of oppression throughout the world.

 Which approach is the most effective?  Do they complement each other?  Does struggle against abuses without offering alternatives leave a vacuum?  Or does creating counter institutions within an existing society open the way to being co-opted by the status quo?  Since so much depends on the context of the times, Cornell attempts no definitive answer.  One thing this little anarchist tract makes clear, however, is the profound influence of Quaker reliance on personal leadings of the spirit, and of Quaker practices such as consensus decision making, decentralized leadership, and radical pacifism.   Whether a more humane world forms within the crumbling shell of our own acquisitive society, or if it arrives on a tsunami from the future, Quakers will have played a role in shaping it.