T. Theories and Strategies

In this Chapter:

What is the nature of our society? How can we best bring about positive change? Social change theories and strategies answer these questions in various ways.

Study Questions

  1. Strategy for progressive change comes in several forms: grand strategy (our overall plan to transform society); individual campaigns (e.g., getting the federal government to provide free universal healthcare); and specific tasks (e.g., how to distribute a flyer). In trying to choose a strategy at any of these levels, what are the key aspects of “good” strategizing (that leads to useful and effective strategies)?
  2. Debates about the best approach to bring about social change can devolve into binary arguments (such as violence versus nonviolence), and lose the range and depth of the many possible options. What are a few different approaches to grand social change?
  3. Given the situation right now, which strategy for progressive social change is most useful and effective?
  4. What are some skills that you personally bring to the task of strategizing?

Overview Article T

14 pages total

“From Despair to Revolution,” Michael Albert interviewed by Chris Spannos, ZNet, June 19, 2004, 14 p.

While Bush is in the saddle in the U.S., this ranks among the worst of times; but people’s movements are globally rising and renovating, and so this ranks among the best of times. Thoughtful consideration of big picture vision and strategy issues.

Reading Set T1: Strategizing for Change

68 pages total

“Charting a Course — Long-Range Strategic Planning” by Sharon Behar, The Volunteer Monitor, Environmental Protection Agency, Volume 8, Number 1, Spring 1996, 7 p.

A brief introduction to long-term strategic planning for grassroots groups. Randy: The Kehler article is no longer on the web, but this one may have much of the same content.

“Strategy: The Fundamentals,” Virginia Organizing Project, 7 p.

A good strategy makes it possible to do four things at once: (1) clearly define an issue and its possible solutions, (2) make it easy to get more people involved, (3) arrange contact with those who have the power to bring about the solutions you want, and (4) raise the money or other resources you need to carry out the work. Added by Randy.

“Midwest Academy Strategy Chart,” 1 p.

A chart to help activists who are developing a social change campaign to determine their goals, resources available to their organization, various constituents who might help, possible allies, possible opponents, a person to target to ask for change, and possible tactics to get that person to grant the change.

“Strategizing Against the Iraq War,” by George Lakey, ZNet, September 15, 2002, 5 p.

Categorize the world into those who are closest to our position, those furthest away, and various levels in between. To win, it’s usually enough to move each group one step in our direction.

“Breaking Through to Great: Smart Strategies for Developing Winning Communications Campaigns,” Spitfire Strategies, 20 p.

Spitfire Strategies Smart Chart is a step-by-step guide to building a successful communications campaign.

“The Battle of the Story Worksheet,” SmartMeme, 1 p.

Worksheet to help activists create more compelling narratives to communicate campaigns.

“The Points of Intervention Worksheet,” SmartMeme, 1 p.

Worksheet to help determine the ”points of intervention“ in both physical and narrative space where activists can take action in order to change the story.

“Influence Map,” SmartMeme, 1 p.

Worksheet to help determine the “avenues of influence” for getting a message heard by key targets.

“Alt Media vs. the Corporate Coup — Publicizing Truths with Consequence,” Truth Emergency, 4 p.

Truth movements can expose wider patterns of illicit control, deception and propaganda, and use their revelations to rouse entire societies to reject a malignant status quo. Strategic consideration of media potential.

“The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Activists,” by Andrew Fong, November 9, 2005, 8 p.

Activism requires serious organization, planning, and reflection. Here are seven things to consider while planning a campaign for change.

“Why Strategic Practice?” Grassroots Policy Project/Strategic Practice, 2 p.

Seven activities and processes that can come together as strategic practice.

“Power and Social Change,” Grassroots Policy Project/Strategic Practice, 11 p.

There are three ways to wield power: (1) engage in direct political involvement in visible decision-making, (2) build infrastructure and shape the political agenda, and (3) shape meaning (ideology and worldview). Conservatives have dominated American ideology but progressives can counter it.

Reading Set T2: Nonviolent Movements

52 pages total

“Gene Sharp’s Theory of Power,” by Brian Martin, Peacework, May 2005, 11 p.

Gene Sharp, the world’s leading writer on nonviolent action, uses a theory of power based on a division between rulers and subjects and on the withdrawing of consent as the main avenue for effecting political change. From the point of view of structural approaches to the analysis of society, Sharp’s picture leaves out much of the complexity of political life, such as the structures of capitalism, patriarchy, and bureaucracy which do not fit well with the ruler-subject picture. As a set of conceptual tool for social activists, however, Sharp’s theory of power is far superior to structural approaches.

“Why Nonviolence? Introduction to Nonviolence Theory and Strategy,” by Bob Irwin and Gordon Faison, 1978, revised 1983, 26 p.

Nonviolent action is action that goes beyond normal institutionalized political methods (voting, lobbying, letter writing, verbal expression) without injuring opponents. It takes three main forms: (1) protest and persuasion, (2) noncooperation, and (3) intervention.

“Pushing Our Thinking About People Power,” by George Lakey, ZNet, April and May, 2002, 6 p.

Nonviolent action is a broad term that includes 3 very different applications: social change, social defense, and third-party nonviolent intervention.

“Arms and the Movement: Pacifism Equals Pacified to this Activist,” an excerpt from How Nonviolence Protects the State by Peter Gelderloos, Utne Reader, May-June 2007, 9 p.

Frequently cited examples of nonviolennt success are India’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule, the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s, and the peace movement during the war in Vietnam. In claiming these as victories for nonviolence, however, pacifists have engaged in a pattern of historical manipulation and whitewashing. If a movement is not a threat, it cannot change a system that is based on centralized coercion and violence.

Reading Set T3: Violence, Nonviolence, and Civil Disobedience Debate

58 pages total

“A Violent Proposition: Against the Weighted Chain of Morality,” by an anonymous activist, 2 p.

Anyone who desires a world without exploitation and domination does not share the values of the society that spawned them. Thus, it is necessary to avoid getting drawn into its viewpoint — the dominant viewpoint with all that implies. The dominant viewpoint in the present era is that of democratic dialogue.

“A Practical Christian Pacifism,” by David A. Hoekema, Christian Century, October 22, 1986, 12 p.

Pacifism need not be politically naive, nor need it place undue faith in human goodness.

“Can Love Save the World?” by Walter Wink, Yes! Magazine, Winter 2002, 9 p.

Neither fight nor flight, the third way of nonviolent resistance has occasionally been tried, and it has frequently succeeded.

“Revisiting Civil (Un)arrest and (Dis)obedience,” by Jessica Azulay, ZNet Daily Commentaries, March 2, 2003, 12 p.

We need a movement that is both defiant and empowering for participants. So let’s cut the rhetoric and the dogma and think practically and creatively. Tactics that are designed to land us in jail or make us suffer will not be enticing to most people, while actions that get results will.

“On Winning Hearts and Minds,” by Ted Glick, Future Hope column, Independent Progressive Politics Network, April 23, 2001, 11 p.

Our primary work, the touchstone of all of our discussions concerning tactics, must be about winning the hearts and minds of literally tens of millions of North Americans. It is only that broad base of support, out of which can grow a bigger and bigger movement of organizers and activists, which will make the changes we seek possible.

“Different Strokes for Different Folks?” by Michael Albert, ZNet Daily Commentaries, December 18, 1999, 4 p.

There are no universal rules about specific tactics and the best we can do is assess each tactic in each situation, seeking to maximize potential benefits and minimize potential ills.

“Diversity of Tactics and Democracy,” by George Lakey, Clamor Magazine, March-April 2002, 8 p.

A strategy isn’t democratic if it intrinsically alienates the majority of oppressed people and shuts the door to their participation.

Reading Set T4: Building Mass Movements

56 pages total

“Mass Action Since Seattle: 7 Ways to Make Our Protests More Powerful,” by George Lakey, Training for Change, October 2000, 34 p.

Seven ways to make protests more powerful and open up new options for future mass direct action scenarios.

“Populism in Time of War,” by Betsy Leondar-Wright, Training for Change, 2002, 6 p.

While we may feel like a minority as peace activists, we are in a majority in outrage over the gap between rich and poor. To build a more powerful movement than we have in the last 40 years, we have to form tactical alliances with the many, many people we only partially agree with.

“What Prevents Radicals from Acting Strategically? Ritual & Engagement,” by Matthew Smucker with Madeline Gardner, Beyond the Choir, August 28, 2006, 16 p.

We must scrap the chapter of the righteous few, and replace it with a story of collective liberation in which, instead of setting ourselves apart, we engage in the hard work of bringing people together.

Reading Set T5: Reform, Revolution, and Global Strategies

70 pages total

“Fighting For Reforms Without Becoming Reformist,” by Robin Hahnel, National Conference on Organized Resistance, February 2005, 50 p.

How to make reforms most effective within an overall unjust system; how to combine reform work with experiments in equitable cooperation.

“Active Revolution,” by James Mumm, Infoshop.org, 1998, 19 p.

An anarchist-based overview of how to think about societal change.

“Can We Change the World without Taking Power?” by John Holloway and Alex Callinicos, ZNet, August 16, 2005, 27 p.

Should our strategy be focused on getting state power, or building alternatives to the state? — A debate at the World Social Forum, January 27, 2005.

“Activists with Staying Power — Acting Globally: Transnational NGOs and Political Networks,” by David Walls, The Workbook, Fall/Winter 1998, 6 p.

Acting locally is not enough; we need to network globally. Focus on global environmental networks — with historical depth and practical suggestions for action.

“Global People’s Law?” by Jeremy Brecher, Z Strategy and Vision Sessions, May 4, 2006, 14 p.

Given the corruption, usurpation, and bias of the established means for interpreting and enforcing global constitutional law, it is the obligation of the people of the world to correct the failures of interpretation and implementation of the global constitution. Given such an obligation, there must also be a right to take the action necessary to fulfill the obligation.

“Turning the World Upside Down: Building an International Order from the Grassroots Up,” by Milan Rai, Z Strategy and Vision Sessions, May 23, 2006, 5 p.

In the absence of real equality, the global majority can check the excesses of the powerful, institutionalize those restraints, and form watchdog institutions that pose a significant countervailing influence.

“We Can Win!,” by Michael Albert, Z Magazine, November 1, 1994, 11 p.

The possibilities for change, with five strategic lessons learned over the last few decades.

Additional Resources


“A Pacifist Dictionary,” by Kate Maloy, Nonviolence.org, 4 p.

Pacifists say: In every moment, act, vote, speak, and choose not for that moment but for what it can give rise to — hatred or compassion, war or peace. Be alert for the old ways and the old rhetoric and recognize what they truly stand for, which is more and deeper peril. Uphold humanity’s first principle at every personal and national decision point, not just when it is convenient.

“Philosophy of Nonviolence,” by David McReynolds, Nonviolence.org, 56 p.

The basic philosophy of nonviolence and nonviolent action.

“Nonviolent Action as the Sword That Heals: Challenging Ward Churchill’s ‘Pacifism As Pathology,’ ” by George Lakey, Training for Change, March 2001, 33 p.

Like Churchill, Lakey is looking for sources of power that are strong enough to cut away the chains of injustice and oppression, and at the same time support the healing of this scarred planet Earth and its trampled people. Like Martin Luther King, Lakey believes that nonviolent action is that “sword that heals.”

“How to Develop Peace Teams: the Light Bulb Theory” by George Lakey, Training for Change, 10 p.

Nonviolent action is a broad term that includes 3 very different applications: social change, social defense, and third-party nonviolent intervention. The light bulb theory of development is that we need to know what we want to invent and how that is different from other (equally worthy) applications of nonviolent action.

“History is a Weapon: Strategizing for a Living Rebolution,” by George Lakey, Training for Change, June 2002, 254 p.

In overthrowing Serbian dictator Slobadan Milosevi, Otpur activists asked: which are the pillars of support needed by the dictatorship? Then: what are the tactics that will weaken those pillars?


Next Reading Set Collection: U. Next Steps