Power and Love. A Theory and Practice of Social Change

I’ve been working for social and environmental change since 1969. That’s even longer than my time in marketing, which started in 1972. Back then, what I was marketing was my views on social issues, especially the Vietnam War.

During my early times of active organizing, I would have found this book incredibly helpful. Much later, without knowing it, I used Kahane’s model in the most successful organizing I’ve ever been involved with: Save the Mountain, in my own town of Hadley, Massachusetts, US.

Kahane traces the evolution of his thinking through his direct involvement in all sorts of global struggles, from rebuilding South Africa after the end of apartheid to looking for peaceful solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to helping Guatemala and Colombia emerge from totalitarianism. Serious struggles, in other words. And he acknowledges that he did many things wrong before he discovered his key insight:

“Power and love are the yin and yang of organizing. Neither one is effective without its “opposite.” Either one by itself will eventually evolve from a generative, positive focus at the start to a degenerative, socially hostile outcome—but together, they help us achieve great things.”

You can look at this through an Eastern Taoist lens, as I did just now. But you can also frame it as a Germanic Hegelian or Marxian dialectic: power and love are the thesis and antithesis; their synthesis is positive social change. A third lens is one I learned studying comedy improv about ten years ago: replace either-or with both-and.

Whichever lens you look through, the combination of power and love is very effective. They balance each other, keep each other in check, and maintain a generative focus. And we need this kind of holistic approach to move forward.

Martin Luther King defined power as the ability to achieve a purpose. Unchecked by love, power-to (positive, change-oriented) devolves into power-over (oppressive, protective of inequality). Paul Tillich notes that power-to destroys oppressive institutions, but power-over destroys people—sometimes in ways that are hard to see. Kahane says that his own wife, a South African and veteran of the struggle there, would rather deal with overt than covert racism. But when love comes in to bring power into balance, you can achieve power-with, and real unity. And that’s when things start to move forward.

Love can morph in similar ways. Validation of another can crumble into a stifling forced unity/false consensus or a state of mind that feels good but can’t change anything. But combining awareness of power relationships leads to a multipartisan (NOT bipartisan) approach that recognizes the need to collaborate with opponents—and you don’t have to like them in order to love them.

Kahane suggests inquiring specifically about the power and love in any situation, and poses key questions to determine who brings what into the mix:

Where is the power here?
What is each of the actors (including ourselves) trying to achieve and realize?
What are their positions, needs, and interests?
Who is employing what kind of power-to and power-over?
Whose voices are being heard and whose are not? And where is the love here?
How are the actors separated, and how are they unified?
What is it that is driven to be reunited?
What is being kept united that is not driven to be?

Although I took four pages of notes, I’m keeping this review short and deliberately omitting many of Kahane’s key points. Why? Because if you’re doing social change, or running a social change business, you will get far more out of Kahane’s ideas and experiences by spending a few hours with the book, and I want you to be able to apply the many powerful lessons I haven’t even touched upon.

But here’s a really good offer for you: I actually typed out my notes (something I almost never do) and if you read the book, I’ll share with you. Email me a receipt that shows you bought the book or a photo that shows you got it out of the library and I’ll send my notes so you get more value out of your reading.


Power and Love. A Theory and Practice of Social Change
Adam Kahane
2010, 172 pages.

Available from Amazon.

Adam Kahane and Reos Partners are Clarity clients. Since the election I’ve been drafting a review of this important book. In light of an incoming administration that seems bent of exercising power without love Adam’s observations that meaningful, constructive change is built on both power and love are especially salient. Then, this week my colleague Shel Horowitz spontaneously shared this review he had written. Thanks, Shel.

Want to build social change, eco-friendliness, and PROFIT into your business? Then visit Shel, the award-winning author of Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World, at goingbeyondsustainability.com. If you want to take him up on his offer to share his reading notes you can reach him there, too. – MA

Header image from Planetcentric. They liked the book, too. There’s also another good review there.

Leave a Comment