Martin Luther King about Power and Love

“Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change. … What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Thanks to Marc Steinlin of IngeniousPeoplesKnowledge for pointing this quote out to me. When I work with groups or individuals on understanding who can drive change in their networks, I often feel that people shy away from the term “power” and much prefer talking about “influence” instead. I don’t mind what you call it (on the one hand), as long as we can talk about it… though (on the other hand) I feel that often it helps to call things by their proper names to be able to start an open dialog about things that really matter.

13 Responses

  1. Power and Love?
    Power is belong to negative things, love is belong to positive things..
    That’s what I know.

  2. Dear Tiann,
    Thanks for your comment that reflects how many people see the term “power”. However, I like to see “power” simply as the ability to make things happen (good things and bad things). If you have that ability (power) then it becomes a question of your motivation (love) whether you do good or bad things with it. Very often I see groups where no one dares to take the driving seat, out of fear of sticking out and in the end nothing (neither good nor bad) happens…

  3. These are fascinating questions. The debate points towards classical thoughts about “power over (others to make them do things they otherwise wouldn’t do)” and “power to (achieve)”, with the latter emphasized quite a bit in the communitarian tradition of collective action, and liberty. I would like to register that social-economic and political context in traditional societies offer plenty in terms of “power over”, which many a time may overshadow the “power to”. It is important to differentiate between the two as well as to consider that none of them can be ignored. Indeed, there is Luke’s “third face of power”.

  4. So, Prakash, you would say that in traditional societies there is a better understanding of “power over” than of “power to”? Interesting… A friend who worked in India said that the expression “whose word has weight” was a generally understood concept on the village level and I think this does include the “power to”…

  5. Eva, I wanted to suggest that “power over” operates more frequently in traditional societies as compared to “power to”. If I understand your friend’s statement right, “whose word count” means who is influential in getting his/her way over others. or whose opinion matters (more than others). In that sense, “power to” when concentrated in a few hands, becomes “power over” others. And, this discussion is interesting precisely because in local collective action, village leaders have ‘power to’ bring together the rest of the community but the reason that they can do that easily many a times is to do a lot with the fact that they have power over other users etc. Your thoughts?

  6. What I see in practice is that mostly things happen when someone (group or individual) takes leadership and responsibility for it. Unstructured groups of people where no one takes something up and says: “Ok, let’s make it happen.” rarely get anywhere. I agree with you that sometimes people get up to make something happen that is against the interest or the goals of the majority. But I also see that to shy away from power and responsibility out of political correctness often makes us achieve nothing – or at least far less than we could. And I sometimes experience that these discussions are so much more important for us outsiders than for the villagers: Their first priority is the new well or the improved road. If you ask them whether they were content with the process of getting it, they will most likely look at the infrastructure and if the thing is working, they’ll say yes…

  7. Mannn, How true!

  8. I recommend you read Adam Kahane’s book – Power and Love – it is about social change. He posits that both are needed in a generative way. It was published Jan 2010.

  9. Can anyone tell where this quote of MLK’s comes from? a speech? a book or article, etc?
    Thanks.

  10. The quote is from dr. King’s speech
    Where Do We Go From Here? (1967)
    Address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (16 August 1967)

    More of dr. Martin Luther King on my weblog http://alainvolz.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/martin-luther-king-using-ghana-as-an-example/

  11. […] over people, we rightly recoil.  But power can be a force for good, as well as for ill.  As Martin Luther King once said, “Power is the ability to achieve a purpose…  It is the strength required to bring […]

  12. […] in and of itself is no bad thing.  As Martin Luther King once said, “Power is the ability to achieve a purpose.  It is the strength required to bring […]

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