George Lakey under arrest

George Lakey: We Need to be More Revolutionary

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  • Social justice activist George Lakey has a new memoir called “Dancing with History”
  • In this interview he discusses one of his strategic mistakes
  • The economic elite will concede nothing without a fight
  • Systemic economic reform requires revolutionary action

After sixty-plus years of leading social justice campaigns, George Lakey can clearly recall one of his big strategic blunders. It happened in connection with a couple of anti-militarism campaigns he was involved with in the 1980s.

The mistake? Not being revolutionary enough.

It’s one of the lessons he reveals in his eleventh book, Dancing with History. In this memoir Lakey opens up about his extraordinary life, telling tales of family tragedies and miraculous medical cures, but also recounting stories about building movements, inspiring college students, and training activists all over the world.

While the 85-year-old Philadelphia native has campaigned for everything from LGBT+ rights to climate justice, a consistent theme in his activism has been anti-militarism and economic justice.

What follows is an edited excerpt from an interview I did recently with Lakey. Here he talks about his attempts to push forward “peace conversion”—transforming military bases and production facilities into projects that meet civilian needs, while still providing good paying jobs. I have incorporated explanatory text gleaned from his memoir to give context to the campaigns he references in the interview.

In the book you tell stories about the many social justice campaigns that you’ve played a major part in. Most of them were successful, but sometimes mistakes were made. When it comes to missteps or miscalculations, does anything stand out?

George Lakey: Yes, yes. I was so excited about the opportunity that was given to us in Philadelphia by getting a large majority of Philadelphians to vote for Jobs with Peace.

Jobs with Peace was a coalition comprised of unions, church groups and the Philadelphia branch of Movement for a New Society, an activist network of collectives and alternate institutions that Lakey had co-founded.

The initial goal of Jobs with Peace was to get a non-binding measure on the 1983 city ballot asking Philadelphia voters if they wanted some of the money in the massive Pentagon budget be diverted to civilian needs.

The initiative passed by 76 percent, carrying every ward in the city.

Lakey: I saw it as a mandate. I thought, let’s interpret it as a mandate and develop a plan to convert the Philadelphia Navy Yard to a civilian facility that would be making things that civilians need.

The Philadelphia Navy Yard was one of the oldest shipbuilding facilities in the country. It provided good paying jobs for thousands of workers, but there were rumblings that the military would soon close it down. Jobs with Peace research revealed a host of possible beneficial civilian uses for the facility that would allow it to continue employing its highly skilled workforce.

So Lakey and others formed an industrial peace conversion organization and hired a former union president to pressure the city to adopt a “Plan B.” The plan would kick in if the shipyard closed, saving many of the jobs that would otherwise be lost.

Lakey: Part of our anti-military effort would be to show that the 11,000 workers who are now building ships, military ships, could be doing civilian work. And that shows that our economy not only can survive, but would actually be in better shape if we didn’t have the military industrial complex going on.

So it felt like a sideways strategy for demonstrating the possibility of a peaceful economy instead of one in which people think we need to prop up the military.

And that failed. That failed.

The plan was effectively scuttled by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, a public-private partnership tasked with promoting the city’s business interests. Its governing board was staffed by establishment elites appointed by the mayor and the Chamber of Commerce.

Lakey: And it failed, not because we didn’t get tremendous support, but because it was vetoed by the economic elite of Philadelphia.

I thought they would allow that to go forward because it was posed as a backup plan. It wasn’t, “we will tell the Navy to leave,” which would’ve been way too hard. I knew that. But it was a backup.

It was to be a backup plan in case the Navy left. And there were many indications the Navy was going to leave the Navy yard, leaving those 11,000 workers with nothing to do, and therefore losing a huge economic asset for Philadelphia’s economy.

So I thought if we got enough other support, that the economic elite would go [along] with it, on the grounds that they do care about the economic wellbeing of Philadelphia. And how can it hurt to have a plan on the shelf, right? To put [into effect] if necessary. And even then, they blew it out of the water.

(The Pentagon closed the shipyard a decade later without a conversion plan in place.)

Lakey: And at the same time, as I was working on that in the Philadelphia area, I was working on it statewide.

Jobs with Peace was pushing a bill in the Pennsylvania legislature that would set up “alternative use committees” around the state in communities that were dependent on military spending. The committees would be tasked with investigating civilian uses for military bases should they be shut down, or weapons manufacturers if they lost their contracts.

Lakey: And again, that was to create things like we were doing in Philadelphia around the state—wherever there was a military installation or military contract, to create a citizens group that would include business people and so on. And they would develop an alternative use plan so that if that local military base or that local big contract were not to be renewed, then yay, our economy moves forward with this plan that we already have in place.

Despite some effective direct-action tactics by Jobs with Peace that targeted key legislators and the Chamber of Commerce, the bill lost by one vote in the state senate.

Lakey: And again, we lost that. And again, it was not a direct attack on the military. I was thinking we could get it through because it was always being put in terms of a backup plan. This again, was appealing to common sense. What is more sensible than having a backup plan for something that you value?

Two mistakes made on the same wrong assumption—and the wrong assumption was that if you didn’t threaten the power position of the economic elite…

…since we didn’t have that degree of power, I thought well, maybe we could get something going that would be useful in the longer run if we didn’t threaten them directly.

And that failed, because what I didn’t understand was that the economic elite doesn’t just care about its being in control at those other moments, it wants to be in control ALL the time.

Even at the point of imagining an alternative use program, even at the point of imagining a backup plan for the Navy yard, even there, they want to be in control all the time. And they were not willing to share power on economic planning with the non-elite.

So it was very sad. It was very hard on me in terms of my morale. I thought, gee, we’ve been putting in all these years and all this money and [getting] tremendous support around the state, and then failing. I hate to fail.

On the other hand, it was illuminating. Marxists had told me this, but I was hoping that our economic elite in the US had enough—what can I say—rationality and big picture, so that it would share at least a little bit of power.

What a good lesson for me to learn. They don’t want to give up any power.

So, the takeaway is that we need to figure out a way to challenge the…

Lakey: …the economic elite directly. We need to be more revolutionary than I was being then. More upfront revolutionary. I thought I was being sneaky.

You were relying on common sense and a logical plan but…

Lakey: Right, and it was post-Reagan, and I thought the economic elite must be feeling very sweet, very relaxed, and able to…

Give a little…

Lakey: Give a little, exactly. And they were not. I guess that’s why they’ve run the country for hundreds of years. They are really on it. They’re very vigilant.

And so we need to be, we just need to be more out-front revolutionary.

Dancing with History, A life of Peace and Justice is available from Seven Stories Press.

For a related post see George Lakey: Vision and Strategy

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Text by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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