Do something! A critique of activism

Do something! A critique of activism

Alasdair critiques aspects of student and political activism in the UK.

"Revolution is made everyday despite, and in opposition to, the specialists of revolution" - Raoul Vaneigem

Reading Kate Harris' post on the state of the student far-left in Scotland and England sparked a discussion about the problems of 'student activism' and led me to think a bit about a number of issues I've been mulling over recently around how we organise. The problem is in fact less with the student and more with the activism part of that phrase; students, perhaps, have a more pronounced tendency to some of the problems I discuss below, but they are far from the only culprits and in fact I believe the problems exist across most of the contemporary far-left.

It is easy to think that students exist within a bubble and that this leads to the problems Kate describes, and that when they get into the "real world" things will improve, but while people perhaps gain more space from the sometimes rather insular world of student life, fundamental problems remain. Moreover, I believe students should organise as students. Students should see themselves as workers, if perhaps in some ways a privilged sector of workers. Indeed, increasingly many students are also workers due to financial pressures, but even where they are not, we should recognise the university and college as a site of production, and one in which students play an important role. In fact, even the privilged nature of students' position in the workers' movement is being undermined as more people go to university, fees and debt increase dramtically and job prospects diminish. So as teachers organise as teachers and construction workers as construction workers, so students need also to organise sectorally. That must, however, go hand-in-hand with a recognition of their place in a wider movement and, in the first place, much closer links with other university workers - from lecturers, with whom there has been some collaboration so far, to cleaners and technitions, with whom there has been very little joint industrial organisation - and more generally with other workers, the unemployed and so on.

If the organisation as students is not the problem then, I would like to address the issue of activism. Much of what I say below is not new, and reflects a perhaps fairly standard libertarian communist type position, but not everyone will have heard it before, and it expresses, and in writing has allowed me to examine, my own position. In addressing the problems of activism I went back to re-read the excellent Give Up Activism, written in 1999 in the aftermath of one of the anti-capitalism movement's days of action. In structure I will quote fairly extensively from that acticle and comment on its conclusions, at times reproducing the arugment therein and in places developing or critiquing it.

Before we develop the critique then, we should begin by clarifying what we mean by 'activism', from the pamplet:

"By 'an activist mentality' what I mean is that people think of themselves primarily as activists and as belonging to some wider community of activists. The activist identifies with what they do and thinks of it as their role in life, like a job or career. In the same way some people will identify with their job as a doctor or a teacher, instead of it being something they just happen to be doing, it becomes an essential part of their self-image.

The activist is a specialist or an expert in social change. To think of yourself as being an activist means to think of yourself as being somehow privileged or more advanced than others in your appreciation of the need fo social change, in the knowledge of how to achieve it and as leading or being in the forefront of practical struggle to create this change."

"Activism is based on [the] misconception that it is only activists who do social change - whereas of course class struggle is happening all the time"

"activism can bring down a business of stop a road but capitalism carries merrily on, if anything stronger than before"

In fact the examples of activism having even that large a direct effect are limited to say the least, it might be more accurate to say that activism can cause inconvenience and slight losses in profit for a business or delay a road but in the long run the effect on even these specific locations will likely be wiped out.

To accept the role of activist is to accept a particular set of stereotypes and cliches around what defines an activist, the type of person who engages with that kind of activity and the manner in which it is carried out. But in accepting the role that image is in fact realised and the stereotype becomes self-fullfilling - see, for example, the history of road protests where masses of local people crossing a wide spectrum of backgrounds usually developed into a particular stereotypical counterculture which then discouraged 'ordinary' people from staying, or becoming, involved.

"The supposedly revolutionary activity of the activist is a dull and sterile routine - a constant repetition of a few actions with no potential for change."

I have to admit that much of the activism I myself have been involved with over the past 18 months falls very easily within this description. Edinburgh Uncut performed - and I use that word deliberately - over 20 actions over the course of about 6 months. We built a strong bond between our group in taking that level of action and I think the uncut movement as a whole was worthwhile - it certainly helped me personally to develop my politics - but the actions did become dull and repetitive, our numbers gradually shrank, we achieved none of our direct aims and built little real movement or awareness that has carried on into this year; when the boycott workfare campaign replicated the tactics of standing outside (or sometimes inside) a shop handing out leaflets and arguing with the police, other than a core of 5 or 6 of us who were active in Uncut from the start, very few of the people who had taken part in Uncut stunts also came to the workfare actions. It should be noted that this is despite the fact that there has been far greater success for the workfare campaign, it might win, and if it doesn't the results will very likely materially affect the people (mainly students at the time) who took part in Uncut.

So what of the activists themselves, who take on this identity? On this Give Up Activism is, in my mind, too harsh:

"Like union bosses, activists are eternal representatives and mediators."

We need activism to fail, fundamentally, so that we can preserve our position and carry on in our self-allotted role. Here, I disagree fundamentally with the comparison, though both union officials and activists have problems, they not the same. The same vested interests do not exist for activists to perpetuate the struggle without result, nor to demobilise and mediate it. Many activists I know would far rather sit in the park or down the pub with our friends, than stand in the cold and rain handing out leaflets and sitting through endless meetings with them, but we feel we have to 'do something'. A better comparison might be not with the union boss, but the shop steward, a role we as a vanguard of the struggle feel we must take on, but which does not personally benefit us much - except perhaps in what I might uncharitably describe as a feeling of superiority.

"Capitalism is based on work; our struggles against it are not based on our work but quite the opposite, they are something we do outside whatever work we may do. Our struggles are not based on our direct needs (as for example, going on strike for higher wages); they seem disconnected, arbitrary. Our 'days of action' and so forth have no connection to any wider on-going struggle in society. We treat capitalism as if it was something external, ignoring our own relation to it."

Activism can very easily lead to a ghettoisation of 'politics' into the meetings and actions we do as activists, separate from our daily lives - where politics should exist. We work at our jobs, or do our coursework, depressed at the alienation of it all, sure that we would like to organise there but don't know how to, or don't think we can succeed. We go home to our flats for dinner where we are pissed at the price of our rent and how who? hasn't fixed the repairs they said they would, then we go out to a meeting to talk about what's happening in Quebec, or Palestine, or welfare reform, and feel better that we're doing something. We fill our free time designing posters and leaflets, writing press releases and emails. We measure the success of our campaigns in media coverage and attendance at the next meeting where we begin it all again. But too often the strategy to link it to anything larger simply doesn't even exist. When it does, building links usually means with other activist groups or perhaps with union officials, rarely does it reach to any larger community by any direct measure.

There is an illusory unity in activism, where we are forced to work with people who do not share our aims: liberals, communists, reformists, revolutionaries, trotskyists, anarchists and so on. We are all part of the same activist community, we have common problems and common enemies and so we demand that the others work with us, and complain when they don't come to our meeting, or our action, or when they don't share our position. But we shouldn't expect them to and the only way 'unity' could be imposed is to water down our own ideas to a lowest common demonimator. Correspondingly, this demand for cross activist unity serves to distance us from non-activists who do share our views, and, perhaps more importantly, our material conditions and self-interest - other members of our class, who for any real change to happen must move with us.

"However, the shadow of the failure of the workers' movement still hangs over us. And if this is not the model of how a revolution might happen, then what is? And no one has any very convincing answers to that question."

More than 10 years on I'm far from sure that any progress has been made on that question. I've read a fair amount of communisation theory recently, and whilst it certainly has it's problems I think it makes a number of useful critiques. Foremost among those are the assertion (and I think it remains to be proven) that the workers' movement has not only failed, but is now no longer meaningfully existent, or at least structurally incapable of succesfully shifting the balance of power between labour and capital let alone driving revolution. But if this is true, where does that leave us? Where will revolutionary change come from? And what can we do to advance it, if anything? Though I certainly don't like the thought of falling into a nihilist communism that says that we cannot do anything, and attempts to do so will even be counter-productive, conceptualising a practical alternative is hard.

It seems to me, however, that to do nothing and to think that we must wait for a general upsurge in class struggle, or for 'ordinary workers' to become more radical is in fact to construct a new divison between us as a privileged sector that understands struggle and the average worker who does not, but now in reverse of the traditional Leninist vanguard we must deliberately do nothing, rather than lead, because of this division. We have, instead, to see ourselves as part of the working class and that revolutionary activity will only come because of a drive towards that from the working class. We shouldn't try to lead this, but to refuse any kind of activity is simply to ask someone else to lead it. The struggle then, is to build a revolutionary movement grounded in our everyday lives, which builds working class self-organisation and autonomy, which will require organisation, but which does not become fixated on the building of particular organisations or caught up in its own activity. A movement which realises and constantly reaffirms that we are all involved by nature of our material position in society, and that we who sit through meetings and read about critical theory are not more advanced, nor have more of the answers than those who, probably with good reason, don't take those actions.

Posted By

May 28 2012 23:07


  • The struggle then, is to build a revolutionary movement grounded in our everyday lives, which builds working class self-organisation and autonomy, which will require organisation, but which does not become fixated on the building of particular organisations or caught up in its own activity.


Attached files


Joseph Kay
May 29 2012 06:53

Nice one for pulling this together. I've been meaning to write a blog on 'worker activism' for a while (i.e. the stuff that straddles weekend activism and self-interest like anti-workfare), this should give me a kick up the arse to do it!

I think the critique of activism is as important as ever, especially as UK Uncut has drawn in many people who were born in the decade of J18. But I also think it's important to note the activist impulse is rooted in a rejection of powerlessness - that apocryphal Margaret Mead quote does the rounds* - even if it ends up performing that powerlessness through ineffectual, ritualistic stunts against abstract nouns (capitalism, oppression, war...).

I think part of the reason the author of Give Up Activism backtracked a bit was that the alternative seemed to be accepting powerlessness, and therefore doing nothing. Indeed, it never ceases to amaze me how much effort goes into 'radical theory' explaining how we're powerless and collective action is impossible, simply echoing what has become orthodoxy since Thatcher in radical garb.

And of course there's some truth to this. Working class power has been smashed. Old centres of militancy in the mines and car plants have been shut down and/or off-shored. Service-sector militancy is more a hypothetical concept than a successor. But describing and interpreting this situation doesn't seem like communist theory. 'The point is to change it' etc.

Which is where I think the 'worker activism' comes in; picking winnable fights, involving people beyond the existing milieu, organising on the basis of shared material interests, building a capacity for collective action and hence power to take on employers, landlords, temp agencies etc. And doing all this autonomously from trade unions, political parties and without relying on the legal system.

* "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

May 29 2012 09:52

I think that a lot of the Alasdair's critiques are dispelled by accounts from the organizing tactics used by the students in Quebec. Thoughts?

Joseph Kay
May 29 2012 10:52

Which critiques specifically, and in what way? I don't think what's happening in Québec has much to do with activism in the 'Give Up Activism' sense?

May 29 2012 16:11

Well the critiques of student organizing. Of student activists. The Quebec activists are saying: "don't reinvent the wheel", the old tactics work fine they just need long term commitment.

Caiman del Barrio
May 29 2012 16:41
Soapy wrote:
I think that a lot of the Alasdair's critiques are dispelled by accounts from the organizing tactics used by the students in Quebec. Thoughts?

Surely that depends on your criteria of 'success' though? I mean, presumably we not only want l'étudiants québecois to win, we also want them to nurture & incite a stronger, larger & more radical movement against the present state of things.

As such, although it's been pretty inspiring and exciting thus far, how do we know whether they can be considered a model to be emulated? i mean, not 18 months ago we were all eulogising the strength of the British students' movement, only for us to be all too aware of its weaknesses in the wake of its crushing defeat.

May 29 2012 16:47

Really like it - well done!

Joseph Kay
May 29 2012 17:00
Soapy wrote:
Well the critiques of student organizing. Of student activists. The Quebec activists are saying: "don't reinvent the wheel", the old tactics work fine they just need long term commitment.

Ok that makes sense. Alasdair can speak for himself, but personally I was a student in 2010/2011 and there was nothing like (CL)ASSÉ. There was the NUS, then NCAFC. The latter was in the right place at the right time (having the next event after Millbank, and thus a facebook contact list of 20-30k), but was dominated by leftist infighting prior to Millbank and returned to it shortly after, despite the best efforts of many. And its on-the-ground presence was nil for the most part, as it wasn't really a federation of groups but a conference of individuals (thus self-selecting for student activists who like spending weekends at lefty conferences).

And NCAFC was by far the least shit student organisation; the rest are basically fronts for the various Trot sects who dominate 'student politics' outside of moments of mass struggle. I know some students who've tried to organise around rent, housing conditions, printing costs and the like and it's not got anywhere (so far at least). Organise a meeting on Palestine on the other hand...

Tbf students from across the board have been supportive of education workers' struggles, but that still doesn't get over the issue that UK student politics is generally, in the activist mode, about other people. Part of that's the material position of students, which for many is (an albeit debt-financed) break from the capitalist normality of wondering whether the next paycheck will cover the rent etc. And the short term nature of being a student which makes alternative student organisation difficult to sustain (I don't know how ASSÉ manage it over in Québec?).

Jun 7 2012 16:53

I think a good deal of the anarchist 'activity' intended to be rooted in our everyday needs as workers (and including for instance much of the recent anti-workfair protests and other solidarity type 'pickets') still ends up being little more than individual and group self-justification for anarchist activists as described in both the original quoted text and Alasdair's blog. This isn't intended by those involved (including me on occassion) to end up that way, but does so by default as a result of our collective diminutive size and divorce from the wider class. It might help if we had (and publicly expressed) a more realistic, honest and transparent understanding of what such activities represent, without at the same time feeling we need to be embarrassed or apologetic about them? Possibly Joseph's 'picking winnable fights' addresses this to some extent but then these will be pretty limited, few and far between and remote from any explicit libertarian communist politics seperate from those of the wider left.

Our small libertarian, anarchist and communist groups are only able in practice, (outside of mass movements which they are unlikely to have themselves been significant in initiating), to contribute in a small, and often not very unique way, to the everyday class struggle in the workplace and 'community', but do have a very specific communist critique which we need to retain a focus on and contribute to the wider movement, even if that sometimes means not joining in the latest protest to hit the headlines and not living up to claims to be in 'the leadership of ideas'. It's not 'doing nothing' but may be represented as such by our leftist critics.

Jul 19 2012 11:25

Thanks for this post and the discussion that followed. It sparked me into writing something of my own (pretty much what is said here, but with some local context thrown in):

Jul 19 2012 12:55


A useful contribution and describes a series of experiences many of us have been through (but taken much longer to get through to a conclusion than you!).

You seem to have reached a sensible balance in your approach to activity in your current situation and the wider cuircumstances of the class struggle around you but you may need to reassess that if things change.

We perhaps have to accept however that our more fully developed libertarian communist ideas will remain those of a minority and will not have traction outside of major upsurges in the class struggle. That is not a reason to abandon them and submerge ourselves in the everyday activities you describe.

Jul 19 2012 13:25

To quote a mate of mine who used to work on the buses, and who has pretty sound politics..."You can spot an activist a mile off. They look like fucking wankers."