Wednesday 29 April 2009

Tips for activists

Last night, I came home from one of the most frustrating activist meetings I've ever been to and, yknow, that's really saying something. We couldn't do the hand-gestures because we were in a public place, but it was definitely at that stage of ludicrously unhelpful: voices were lowered threateningly, faces were reddened, and I began to fret that one or more of us would be taken in for posession of anti-capitalist theory with intent to wound. When I got home, my head was full of what holds us back. Since then, I've been drawing up a list of ideas for how the left can move forwards from this position of constant kvetching, infighting and failing to get anything fucking done because of factionism. This will probably added to, so feel free to contribute.

Nine tips for twenty-first century activists

1. This is not a souped-up 60s battle reenactment. Your enemy is never, not ever, the group along from you who happen to disagree with you on one small point of policy, however important you believe that policy is. And if we can't put disagreements aside and focus on larger issues, if we can't play nicely with all the other little activists and anarchists, then we'll all be going to bed without our revolution.

2. On the other hand, this is not Woodstock. We do not all have to get along, hold hands in a circle and think about rainbows in order to work together. That's not what successful politics is about - just take a look at the right wing factions dominating governments all over the world. They hate each other's guts, but it works, because they can all agree on common goals like submerging abortion rights and keeping themselves in power. Internal debate and personal disagreements are part of life, and we need to be mature enough not to get bogged down in flame wars if we're going to take these bastards on. Just because someone across the table from you doesn't agree with your economic analysis/position on sex work/ does not make them your enemy. Not when you have a common enemy to contend with.

3.It ain't about you. No, really. The chances are that if you have the time, energy and personal empowerment to join a political or activist group, that's great, but it means that it isn't about you any more. The people on whose behalf you are planning action and getting organised, those people come first, and their needs and wants come before your personal political qualia. Your politics, your individual, most deeply held political and spiritual beliefs, are supremely important - to you - and you can discuss and debate them in groups or in private as much as you want. But as soon as you let personal ideological quibbles counteract the progress of positive action, you're doing it wrong.

4. If anyone at all starts advocating physical violence, intimidation or bullying, it's time for them to leave your group. If anyone starts advocating racism, sexism, homophobia or intolerance as constructive strategies, it's time for them to leave your group, and it's time for you to warn the next group along from you of their motives.

5. If your strategy for achieving social justice won't work until every single mechanism of capitalist society is dismantled from the ground up, then it's time to start work on a back-up plan. Plan A (world socialist revolution) is absolutely fantastic, as long as there's also a Plan B in play for the meantime.

6. Listen. Please, listen. Listen to everything everyone has to say, not just people in your approximate camp, but everyone with something to say on your issue, even if they're a frothing fascist throwback. Don't just wait for your turn to shout. Listen, and then when it's your turn to be listened to, start talking *to* people, not at them. This is the only way we're going to be able to build the bridges that we desperately need to build to keep radical left politics alive.

7. Stop mistrusting and start recruiting! Don't write off 90% of people you meet as inherently unreceptive to your politics - get out there and start talking about what you do and why you do it (point 6 will prove very useful to you here). In our separate factions, we are very small and very powerless - but by building bridges between activism and everyday life, by reaching out to anyone and everyone we touch, by forming the debate rather than just guarding our own small corner of it, the possibilities are limitless.

8. London isn't everywhere - it just feels like it. Even past the end of the central line, social injustice happens. (As you may have guessed, this is the one I personally have most trouble with).

9. Watch this, and when you think you've understood it, watch it again, and remember that it was made in the 1970s, and ask yourself how long it's going to be until we pull our bloody socks up.


  1. Good rant :)

    As I was recently saying on LibCon there are at least two problems for socialists, and the "Left" in general, to deal with by comparison with the right.

    Firstly, the past is a stationary target and the future, intrinsically, isn't. It's considerably easier to unite feuding factions when, fundamentally, what all of you want is nothing to happen, because at the moment you and your mates are the ones winning. It's much harder when you're looking into a future variably six weeks away and six hundred years away, and trying to build it according to your group's ideology.

    Secondly, ideology is a problem. Stop the War was the most transcendentally successful populist movement of modern times (and still got ignored...) because they pulled exactly the trick you're talking about here. These guys don't want war because they think it's racist; these guys are actual pacifists; these guys are afraid of increased domestic terror, these guys just don't like George Bush, these other guys don't like having an army at all, and the only thing that matters is that they can all shout "Stop the War" and mean it.

    The way we (by which I mean 'progressive and compassionate thinkers' not 'the Left') will win is not by re-drawing old battle lines in any configuration; it's by finding issues, figuring out who agrees on them, and then all shouting at once.

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  3. YES, and the first two really feed into each other. point 1 excludes the other groups, and point 2 whips everyone into the party line within your own so you can never talk to the others.

    also, as someone relatively new to actually acting on what i've always thought about this stuff anyway, it's incredibly off-putting in terms of trying to join in with anything.

    my basic view is that i'm happy to help out where i can, and if i'm really uncomfortable with something then i won't participate in that particular thing. but with so many groups you just get the bush vibe that you're either with them or against them. i want to make a positive contribution; i just don't want that reason prescribed me like a naughty schoolgirl.

  4. This is where the commune and the cooperative comes in. Here you have power over your own destiny. Big meetings only result in splits and ineffective actions.

  5. You forgot point 10:

    Infiltrate. Become part of the establishment and work for political and social change from the inside stealthily, patiently and persuasively. Rome wasn't build in a day but it was destroyed in a night. Be constructive rather than destructive; build on the ruins rather than lay waste to what already exists; serve the light don't curse the darkness.

    Why don't you try to become an MP yourself Penny Red? The Labour Party's forthcoming long period in opposition would be an ideal time to try to revivify what is left of its all but dead soul post-Blair, post-Brown, post-Mandelson.

  6. If we're allowed to add points, I'd like to add a deeply unpopular suggestion...

    2b) This ISN'T Woodstock. Don't dress like hippies and block a road with hugs and vegan cake (witness the recent 'carbon trading' protest). Block the road by all means, but if this protest is going to leave you enough room to breathe, dress like you would for a job interview: Neatly. Anyone seeing your protest is much more likely to respect your point of view if you seem to have made an effort.

  7. Ain't it nice - the way things never change - although in my day it was the 1930's battle re-enactment.

  8. This reminds me of some Frank Turner's songs, particularly the title track from Love, Ire & Song.

    Although the conclusions are more positive.

    The sectarian/not sectarian question doesn't have an easy answer - there are some people that I don't want to work with, even on specific issues where I agree with them, because the badness of the bad stuff they support overrides everything else.

  9. Good list.

    There's a potential conflict between 3 and 7.
    I believe that initially the only way (or-quickest way??) to connect with people is to demonstrate to them in concrete terms that it is about them, that global turbocapitalism is ruining their own personal quality of life. Where I live there have been a surge of protests and a local referendum re: the council's decision to turn a green space/public leisure centre into a school. A local socialist group attempted to demonstrate in a meeting that this was the result of unsustainable polict affecting all aspects of our eduction. Meeting fell apart. Local people got angry at socialists because they didn't agree with most of their agenda - they just wanted to keep their park.

  10. I really liked this post - useful and mature writing. I particularly agree with 9 and, above all, 5!

    But what did Lucie say to so offend you?

  11. @Penny Red
    "The people on whose behalf you are planning action and getting organised, those people come first."

    How about asking them first?
    Or are you assuming that any future action will have popular support?

  12. Bartolomeo Venzetti30 April 2009 at 19:50

    An anarchist without a bomb is like a condom without a cock!

  13. Superbly put.

    I endorse John Q. Publican's latter point, because until (large-scale) activists work out the "people on whose behalf [they] are planning action" demonstrations a la G20 will remain very appealing, and provocative, but ultimately directionless.

    "An anarchist without a bomb is like a condom without a cock!"That as may be, there's rarely been consensual bombing. Now pipe down; you're supposed to be innocent.

  14. @BenSix
    The most surprising causes seem to be able to draw people of varied political persuasions together.
    It seems that everyone bar the BNP and our beloved PM wanted the Gurkhas to get a fair deal.
    Whether you'd get some sort of consensus with anything on a larger scale seems doubtful. Certainly any sort of shift in the socio-political attitudes of the nation as a whole seems as far away as ever.

  15. Some good points. Particularly 1, 6, 7 and 8. All people involved in politics face these issues.


    2. Do the left know who they are fighting anymore. You're already in power in this country and control much of the media. Therefore not so easy to blame evil capitalists for everything.

    3. This is always going to be a problem for people who think they know what other people want. When will you ever really know what other people want. To think you do is arrogance on a rather grand scale.

    5. Read some history when has this ever worked? However plan B is already in action -- see communitarianism.

  16. steveshark...

    Yeah, I agree. There has, however, been a lot of supposed single issues that have broadened into a) far larger *ugh* narratives and b) far more widely held concerns. So, there's an increasingly united front on, say, opposition to anti-terrorism laws, or involvement in military expansionism.


    "Do the left know who they are fighting anymore. You're already in power in this country and control much of the media.""[T]he left" isn't a monolith; yer basic Marxists and yer basic Keynesians are separated by a good revolution or two. Lumping the whole grab bag under the teetering flagpole of the Labour Party is as clumsy as, say, calling the LPUK a bunch of Tories...;o)

  17. Ha, ha, ha. A list of "rules" that need to be obeyed by revolutionaries seeking to spark a step-change in society. How very polite. How absurdest. You didn't mention what kind of dress code you recommend so I'm a all at sea as far as my wardrobe goes. Are parkas still de reguir? And all this po-faced twaddle like "... I prefer tip two to tip five but like tip nine the best...". Oh! That is funny. How impotent and limp you people seem to be. You all, even the girls and women, need a double dose of political viagra. All I can say is that, while you remain politically pre-pubescent, don't run with a pair of scissors in you tiny hands!

  18. "You're already in power in this country and control much of the media. Therefore not so easy to blame evil capitalists for everything."

    I don't think very much of the media in the UK is controlled by people who aren't capitalists.

    Some bits may be run by liberals (who are generally strongly committed capitalists) but I don't know of any major media organisations currently run by people who are actively committed to more equal distribution of wealth and power.

  19. @BenSix I think you misinterpret me slightly. I think once the Tories get in power the LPUK will also have to work hard to distance ourselves considering we will hopefully agree with some of the stuff they do. I think the left face a similar problem today.

    @Floyd The BBC, The Grauniad, The Independent. They all represent strong left of centre view points.

  20. "@Floyd The BBC, The Grauniad, The Independent. They all represent strong left of centre view points."

    I'd agree with you that The Guardian and The Independent are on the left of the British media spectrum.

    But given that they between them they sell roughly a quarter of what the Daily Mail sells every day, this isn't really much of at an argument for the power of relatively left-of-centre forces in the media.

    I'd say that the centre-left views are heavily under-represented in the print media given the percentage of people who vote for broadly centre-left parties (Labour, Lib Dems, Greens).

    But more important neither The Guardian or The Independent is any sense anti-capitalist - The Independent is even part of a multi-national conglomerate.

    The economic policies both these papers advocate are generally more right-wing than those of many European conservative governments.

    The BBC is wider issue because I know that for many right-wingers the existence of a substantial state-owned broadcaster is in itself proof of leftiness but I would point out that the current BBC political editor is a former Young Conservative and another recent political correspondent is now Boris Johnson's press man.

  21. Good post. It sometimes strikes me that certain factions on the left like nothing more than bickering with their own side. It is almost as if they prefer opposition. I reserve the right to disagree with anyone, but I never forget who the real opposition are.

  22. Perhaps the best approach would be have small groups with representatives from different 'persuasions'. Each group could decide objectives and the means of achieving them.

    Each group could then have a spokesman that would address the main body.

    Seems better than a free for all.

  23. Make that a spokesperson .. sorry

  24. Great post!
    It reminded me why I left the Communist Party and will no longer be voting Labour again.

  25. ffs. honestly.

    The chances are that if you have the time, energy and personal empowerment to join a political or activist group, that's great, but it means that it isn't about you any more. The people on whose behalf you are planning action and getting organised, those people come firstDo you really, HONESTLY think that oppressed people can't particpate on activism about their own issues on their own terms and in their own ways. Do you really think it takes special, middle-class people like you to organise and create direct action? Maybe that's not what you think. But it's what you SAID with those words.

    If you believe that all people who are really oppressed don't have the time for this shit, then you must also understand that you are acting on their behalf and without their permission, putting forward YOUR IDEAS about what's best for them. It's paternalist. It's patronising, and ugly.

    Do things WITH people, not FOR them.

  26. nice article

    your post is informative

  27. I am not a team player. I do not want to convert or be converted, but I do want my POV to be considered. Ironically it is just about the only POV that is almost totally excluded from public, political and feminist activist discussion, yet IMO it is the very origin of the elitist attitudes against which we struggle and progressive activism revolves.

    View Elephant In The Room -


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