The motivations of an activist
A blog, though a useful outlet for thoughts and opinions, is never going to change the world. As I pointed out in Social network radicalism, it can be a useful tool to aid in such goals, but ultimately it can’t do the work for you on the ground. That is why, as well as venting my spleen on my two blogs, I also engage in more than my fair share of activism.
Simply defined, activism is action in support of a particular goal, cause, or ideology. Thus, going from my own experiences, trade union activism consists in organising a workforce, raising peoples’ awareness of their rights, attending rallies, marches, and meetings, making representations to management, and so forth. Anti-fascist activism involves delivering leaflets against far-right candidates, organising rallies and demonstrations, fund raising, and defending people and communities from violence. Pick any cause, list the things that people do in aid of it, and that’s activism.
But not everybody who believes in any given idea is an activist. In fact, most supporters tend to be passive, even to the point where they might consider withdrawing said support if asked to act upon it. As a result, if you follow any form of activism closely, you tend to notice the same faces appearing again and again.
I have written before on the problem of apathy, and I intend to look at the inactivity of even the politically minded and how movements can foster mass participation at some point in the future. Here, my focus is on those people who are exercised and active.
My reasons for writing this post are personal, rather than political or philosophical, and so the tone of it shall be. But I’m not writing it to have a gripe, and I have no intention of pouring over the particulars of my own situation. For my money, navel gazing and self-pity are things to be done in private and left there. Rather, I want to look more broadly at the effects of political activity upon the lives of those involved in it. What keeps activists going even as everybody else watches passively – and what burns them out?
Why do it at all?
The most obvious starting point is the question of why people decide to take their political views to the streets in the first place. After all, the idea isn’t one promoted at school, in the workplace, or on the television.
Indeed, the bread and butter of political activity – knocking on doors, pushing leaflets through letterboxes, selling your wares on street stalls – are considered the most demeaning and soul-destroying of tasks when done in paid employment. The only difference is that what the activist is selling is a political idea rather than a product or a charity. Apparently, this is enough of a distinction, as it is only the political idea which has people selling it without any personal financial incentive.
Speaking personally, the distinction for me is that I’m not simply doing it for somebody else’s profit. When I deliver or hand out leaflets, talk to people about what we’re doing, or any other kind of propaganda work, I’m helping to spread ideas that I believe in. This is not just a job, done for somebody else, but my own philosophies put into practice or offered as an alternative to the status quo.
Dame Anita Rodderick, founder of the Bodyshop and a prolific campaigner, had similar thoughts (PDF);
I am not an activist in pursuit of recognition or fame.
I am not an activist so that strangers will think I am a good person.
I am not an activist because it’s good for business (although more often than not, it is).
I am an activist because being an activist makes me feel alive.
This is a sentiment that I can certainly sympathise with. My politics is not just a set of beliefs, but a passion which drives me and which fuels me. I cannot see this being much different for others if they care about a cause enough to put enormous effort into trying to make it a reality or bring it to fruition.
Certainly, Emma Goldman seemed to feel the same. For her, “revolution is but thought carried into action.” After all, “the history of progress is written in the blood of men and women who have dared to espouse an unpopular cause, as, for instance, the black man’s right to his body, or woman’s right to her soul.”
But what gain is there, beyond sating zealotry? Certainly, one can point to the concrete social, political, and economic gains of activism through history – whilst politicians may take the credit, it is those on the ground who make real change, and it shows in everything from our right to freely associate in trade unions and other organisations to the fact that we no longer have child labour. But, surely, there must be personal benefits as well?
The most obvious one, beyond the feeling that you are fighting for something you believe in, is empowerment. It makes ordinary people realise that they can achieve considerable successes and victories in the name of a cause or movement. They don’t have to look up, waiting for great leaders to come along and bring with them sweeping change. We gain a measure of our potential and our power as individuals, as a collective, and can begin to throw off the shackles of a dominant culture wherein only leaders can change anything and that we must follow rather than think and act for ourselves.
There is also the building of solidarity and comradeship. Precisely because you see the same faces over and over, you can build relationships with people that you otherwise wouldn’t if you stayed at home to watch X Factor or whatever. Within trade unions, political organisations, and even broad movements comprising a variety of groups, a sense of community develops and you get to know who you can trust and rely on.
“Get a life”
Unfortunately, one of the most considerable pitfalls of being politically active is the toll that it can take on your personal life. This is true for the staff of political parties, and the “team” of any given candidate seeking election, but it is doubly so for those whose activism is not conducted within fairly comfortable, well-funded party-political parameters.
Getting involved requires commitment, and hence can take a toll on other aspects of your life.
Emma Goldman, again, offers a particularly harrowing example of this. When, in 1901, US President John McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgosz, Goldman was accused of planning the action. She had been the last person he heard speak, and she had interacted with him on numerous occasions. After his execution, separated from her lover Alexander Berkman and vilified by the press, she withdrew from the world, noting that “it was bitter and hard to face life anew.”
Returning to anarchist activism in 1906, she wrote a letter to Berkman proclaiming that “I never felt so weighed down,” and that “I fear I am forever doomed to remain public property and to have my life worn out through the care for the lives of others.”
Plenty of other examples will be far less extreme, but nontheless there remain risks and potential costs. As well as the potential of suffering violence or arrest, there are the strains that being away from home in such circumstances put on relationships, friendships, work, and indeed all aspects of life. The simple fact is that this is not a hobby or a passtime – it is a cause which requires commitment and carries risks.
This can be particularly hard to understand for partners and family members who do not hold such conviction or passion, and disagree with the reasoning that nothing changes if people aren’t willing to fight for it. Their cry is the same as the cry of the inactive and the apathetic: “why can’t somebody else do it?” Except, of course, that they are asking on your behalf out of a desire to keep you from perceived harm or have more time with you. It is not always easy to get across the point that if everybody relies on “somebody else” to do the job, it will never get done.
The solution to this conundrum, of course, is mass participation. If everybody was willing to chip in and do their bit, then nobody would have to do the whole lot.
But practically, especially in the short term, this answer fails to satisfy. Not only because of the hurdles to overcome in encouraging mass participation, especially in organisations and movements which still consist of but a few people, but also because a family or a loved one cannot be expected to wait whilst you stir the masses to revolution. Even if such a thing were possible outside of the movies.
At the same time, quitting is also not a viable option. There may be many comrades, longer in the tooth than I, who claim that they would jack it all in tomorrow if they could. But their cynicism is overplayed. Especially since nobody is stopping them from doing just that, and they remain in the game. I certainly couldn’t just stop and leave it all behind. Not without a feeling of anxiety for not being involved, and of powerlessness as I watched current affairs unfold. I know others who are the same, including at least one person whose medical condition prevents involvement and who talks as though they are going to take up the fight again tomorrow.
The only feasible option then, is to find a balance between the political and the social. In most situations, activists find ways to unwind and be shut of their activities for at least some time – such as a few pints in the pub after a demo, a hard day of leafletting, or standing on a picket line for hours on end. But this is not always enough.
Even if you were able to afford the pub afterwards on every single day, working seven days a week would still take its toll on you, physically and mentally. Those who get involved in campaigning and activism outside of an ordinary job can end up working the equivalent of this or more without realising it, and no amount of social pints will change that fact. If they have a family, then it even exacerbates matters by meaning that the time away from them is even longer.
As well as potentially breaking apart the family, one potential issue is burn out. It is far from unheard of for activists, taking on far too much, to collapse under the weight.
So how does one work out the balance?
Ultimately, that is for the individual to decide. They have to take their own circumstances, their own health, and the roles they performinto account and decide for themselves what is the best way to go about things. It cannot be prescribed or forced upon them, as this will often only make the problem worse. You cannot feel the benefits of something that may be good for you if you are stressed because you feel forced into it.
There is also the tug of war with other interested parties. Your parents, your partner, your children, et al might have other ideas about the importance of what you do or where the balance lies. This will have to be thrashed out in some way or another, with total victory for one side or the other being the worst possible option.
I don’t have the answers to this dilemma. I’m trying to work them out for myself, even now. I suspect most people are the same, even if they have been active for 30 years. It’s something that you continually have to adapt to.
It’s also an issue that goes unseen by most people, and ought to be more widely recognised. No positive change is handed down from above, and it is those who give out leaflets, attend rallies, organise workers, and stand up to fascists who do the real work. We ought to remember that.