links between activism and change

To Be or Not To Be . . . a Political Activist

“Philosophers have only interpreted the world [but] the point is to change it.” Many of us, particularly those who spend their lives thinking and writing about the social world, embrace this well-known reflection of Marx. But, if we want to live by the dictum, what actually does being a political activist entail?

To be honest, I should confess that I personally accept Marx’s dictum more in principle than in practice. I have spent most of my life interpreting the world – and in the process gaining tenure, promotions, and a modest amount of glory. Granted, I have often offered advice on what is to be done. Then I have left it for others to do it.

To complete the confession, I may not be temperamentally suited to political activism, even though I wish it were otherwise. Perhaps one or two of you will recognize some of my traits in yourselves. Activists should be highly sociable whereas I like solitude. I don’t enjoy knocking on doors during campaigns. I’m not very comfortable shouting slogans during demonstrations. (Sadly, I don’t believe that “the people united will never be defeated!” though I do feel okay chanting “This is what democracy looks like!”) If you declare that society must have 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, my response is not “yeah!” but “is that even possible?” Although I feel solidarity with fellow activists, I resist the oneness of mind that sets in when engaged people struggle for a common cause. And I sometimes resent the major commitment of time that activism requires, especially the meetings where everyone needs to agree. I sometimes harbor a repressed yearning for old-fashioned hierarchy.

Having established that I am far from a role model for political activists, I should aLso affirm that activism is worthy and essential in our present world. You won’t achieve positive social change without a set of organized and committed civil society organizations. What is positive social change, you ask? It can mean a lot of things. But to be concrete, and in reference to those of us who live in advanced capitalist countries, positive social change involves reversing several destructive trends:

  • real wages have fallen or stagnated;
  • work has become more precarious (part-time, contractual, unprotected by unions);
  • welfare states have been cut back and safety-nets more tightly targeted;
  • inequalities of wealth, income and power have grown to the point of absurdity;
  • many or most young people lack the prospect of a good life;
  • nuclear weapons have proliferated and threats of a nuclear catastrophe have grown;
  • democracies have been diluted;
  • right-wing populisms are threatening cherished liberal values;
  • catastrophic climate change is setting in.

Such issues inspired the surge in support for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party primaries and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the recent British elections. We are in a mess, and we need to take action.So even if you’re like me and not really predisposed to activism, you need to get out there.

Of course, we want to be effective activists. Happily, you can find many useful guides on how to wage successful campaigns and political actions. Perhaps the most informative and entertaining – and the one with the longest title – is Srjda Popovic’s 2015 book <em>Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men and Other Non-violent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators or Simply Change the World If your concerns involve positive social change in the global south or at the international level, refer to Duncan Green’s recent How Change Happens Green, like me, is someone who doesn’t feel at home as an activist, though to judge by this book he has accomplished a great deal. A third book informs us how to anticipate the responses of government and/or corporations, when they are not outrightly repressive or supportive, to non-violent campaigns. These responses are varied and intricate, running from attempts to pacify movements, to efforts to discredit or ignore the dissenters, to public relations campaigns to reframe the issues in more system-friendly terms. Majken Jul Sorensen is the author of Responses to Nonviolent Campaigns: Beyond Repression or Support. There is now even a Journal of Resistance Studies containing articles on every facet of resistance. No dearth of advice for potential activists!

The good news, however, I have saved for the end. Activism is not just a serious activity; it can also be fun, as Popovic emphasizes. it isn’t fun being arrested at a protest, but it does add to your sexual allure. Popovic advocates “laughtivism” not only as a major tool in discrediting pompous leaders through ridicule, but also as a humorous outlet for otherwise serious protesters. And few public things are more likely to heighten excitement than demonstrators experiencing the steady beat of helicopters overhead, the whiff of tear gas in the air, and the sight of a phalanx of advancing riot police and mounted battalions.

But I shouldn’t end on a frivolous note. Activists engage serious issues, and only by forcefully pressing these issues do systems change. Beyond that, novelist and philosopher Albert Camus summed up in The Rebel the broader significance of non-violent rebellion: I rebel, therefore we exist. The act of joining in to create a better world (rather than building your own bunker or taking your last fling at the expense of the environment) is an affirmation that society exists, that it is more than the sum of individuals who comprise it. We see this affirmation in the demonstrations to prod governments on climate change. Many marchers are elderly; they march not for themselves but for their families, the larger community, and indeed the animal species and flora we are destroying. I rebel, therefore we exist!

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About Richard

I am a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. I am currently interested in understanding how the humanistic tradition of the left can be adapted to fit the realities of the 21st century. I am particularly concerned with how we can deal equitably with the deadly challenge of climate change and live with globalization. My most recent academic research has focused on the Left’s experience in the Global South and on counter-hegemonic globalization. Africa has been the major site of my field work; I have also travelled widely in Latin America and Asia. My most recent books include Reinventing the Left in the Global South: The Politics of the Possible (2014), a revised and expanded edition of Civilizing Globalization: A Survival Guide (co-editor and co-author, 2014), and Social Democracy in the Global Periphery: Origins, Challenges, Prospects (co-author, 2007).

One thought on “To Be or Not To Be . . . a Political Activist

  1. eduardo

    Good reflection. Activism can not be an end in itself, nor should it be done without pleasure and fun. But even in tense moments being alongside others reinforces our will to fight and live. Living in a world where institutions are discredited is a danger and opens the door to the fascists. Remembering Che Guevara we have to harden, without ever losing our “temper”. Trade union greetings.


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