The fundamental reason why the radical left is so weak today is the gulf between the idea of radical change and the actual condition of movements and what Alan Sears calls the infrastructure of dissent, “the means of analysis, communication, organization and sustenance that nurture the capacity for collective action” . That said, people’s ability to resist political attrition without relying on reassuring false dogmas that help some people stay active (like the belief that they’ll see revolution in their lifetime) can be enhanced by learning from others who have stayed constructive fighters for radical change over the long haul (I stress constructive because there are some people whose political activity doesn’t help, or even does more harm than good). With that in mind, I offer some suggestions about how to stay in the struggle that I’ve learned from other people or from my own experience over the twenty-five years I’ve tried to be an active socialist.
1. Make the effort to understand the society we’re trying to change and how it can be changed – and never stop trying to understand these things better.
Capitalism, patriarchy, racism, heterosexism… it takes work to understand these and other interlocking aspects of society, but this work is essential. Don’t just learn about how they work in general — try to understand how they operate in the part of the world where you live, how they affect how you experience the world, and how they might inform the perspectives of those who experience oppression.
“Learning is a work in progress,” as fellow Winnipeg socialist Teddy Zegeye-Gebrehiwot put it to me. “You must continue to learn about these things. There is no graduation from this type of learning, though there is a huge leap from not having any theoretical framework to learning about it.” Non-dogmatic Marxist theory offers extremely valuable tools for understanding society and how it can be changed. But these aren’t enough – they need to be combined with the best feminist, anti-racist and other analysis coming out of struggles against oppression. For a start, see this list of books and articles.
An important part of this learning needs to come from studying history. The movements, revolutions and near-revolutions of the past, both recent and more distant, reveal what incredible heights of struggle and self-organization people are capable of. These experiences offer us valuable insights, inspiration and the rational hope that another world is possible. The better we understand our social environment, the more likely we are to have realistic expectations about what we’ll experience and about the prospects for change, resistance and movement-building. Having expectations that aren’t grounded in a good grasp of what possibilities exist is a major cause of political attrition and “burnout.”
2. Empathize with the people whose freedom we’re fighting for, even when you disagree with them.
Understanding the interlocking structures of exploitation and oppression is important, but we also need to be able to understand, respect and relate to people — especially people who don’t see the world as we do.
3. Keep things in perspective and cultivate a sense of humour.
This is especially important for those of us who are working on very small political projects.
4. Cultivate humility.
Some of what you are absolutely certain about is undoubtedly wrong. This includes ideas about strategies and tactics. Revolutionary humility can caution us against being overconfident and unwilling to critically re-evaluate our ideas. So far, one of my biggest political mistakes was thinking that the most important thing for socialists to do was to recruit more people to the very small socialist group I belonged to at the time, and that because the 1990s were “the 1930s in slow motion” the group was poised to become a much bigger organization.
Some thoughts of now-retired BC socialist union activist Gene McGuckin are relevant here: “Watch out for your own ego. I remember so many people whose obvious abilities and forceful personalities led them to positions of relative influence in political, trade union or other organizational hierarchies. Recognition by others and elevation to even low-level positions seems to justify past efforts and leads to the theory that more can be accomplished in the future. But the reality is integration into a bureaucracy where only a vanishing few resist being effectively diverted from ‘the struggle.’ You definitely need an ego to do a lot of what we do. The trick is to make sure that your ego is in the service of the struggle, not the struggle in the service of your ego.”
5. Learn from others but think for yourself.
People with more political experience than you are often worth learning from; reinventing the wheel is a waste of time. Never forget that you can also learn from people with less political experience than you, even when you disagree with them (we so often forget how we saw things when we were less experienced, and experience can be both a source of wisdom and of blinkers that keep us from seeing new things). Don’t think you can figure everything out all by yourself, but always think for yourself.
6. Be honest to yourself and others.
“Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories” (Amilcar Cabral). Or, as Zegeye-Gebrehiwot suggests, try to tell the truth as you see it, even when it isn’t easy. There are many things that can prevent people from being honest about political matters. A common one is a deep desire to see what we wish for become reality. So people shy away from recognizing difficult realities because these contradict their belief that the campaign they’re part of is likely to succeed, or that a group to which they’ve devoted so much time and energy is accomplishing something useful.
7. Do what you can, and recognize the limits of what you can do.
Windsor socialist Jeff Noonan puts it simply: “Work towards the goal in the ways in which the situation allows.” Voluntarism – acting as if the sheer willpower and hard work of one person or a group of people can substitute for what can only be done by larger numbers of people – is a danger to avoid.
8. Try not to worry about what you can’t change, whether alone or as a member of an organization.
The Polish-German socialist Rosa Luxemburg put it well in a January 1917 letter from prison to a friend: “Everyone who writes to me moans and sighs in the same way. Don’t you understand that the overall disaster is much too great to be moaned and groaned about? I can grieve or feel bad if Mimi [her cat] is sick, or if you are not well. But when the whole world is out of joint, then I merely seek to understand what is going on and why, and then I have done my duty, and I am calm and in good spirits from then on. Ultra posse nemo obligatur [None are obliged to do more than they can.]”
9. Don’t tie your commitment to victories.
If your commitment to the struggle for radical change rests on the expectation that you’ll be part of winning struggles, you won’t be in the struggle for long. Expect times when serious attacks don’t meet any resistance. Expect battles that end in defeat. Savour every victory, however small. Remember that every setback has the potential to help at least one person learn how to do better next time.
The late French Marxist Daniel Bensaid’s idea of making a “melancholy wager” is a good one. We don’t know what the odds are of humanity liberating itself from capitalism and the different forms of oppression interwoven with it. However, we know that the stakes are incredibly high, so we should make the bet.
10. Learn to pace yourself.
Learn the difference between the times when political opportunities make it worth devoting huge amounts of time and energy to political activity and the times when the situation calls for a lower level of effort. Learning about the history of movement struggles and the Left can be helpful in figuring this out.
Pacing yourself is important to avoid the phenomenon of people being extremely active in an unsustainable way, eventually bailing out “as a survival reflex,” to quote McGuckin, and then deciding that they should never have been radical activists in the first place. “When you’re exhausted and feel yourself approaching burn-out, retire to the rear for a while and rest.”
11. Take care of yourself
Being physically or mentally unwell makes it hard to be a constructive fighter over the long haul, so do what you need to do to keep or become healthier. Listen if others suggest you need to pay attention to your health. Former student activist Brian Latour’s advice is good: “Make sure you have hobbies outside of political activity, and friends outside of those you have a political relationship with.”
12. Seek the support of comrades
Working for radical change is a collective effort. Don’t try to be a lone wolf. We all need advice, inspiration, encouragement and comradely criticism from people who share our commitments.
13. Never confuse what you do for pay with working for radical change.
If you’re lucky enough to have paid work that allows you to discuss or write about radical ideas (like some university teachers and researchers) or help people in some way (like some jobs that involve advocating for people’s rights), don’t forget that what you do for pay isn’t building collective power to change society from below. There’s almost no paid work that does that. Being politically active is not what you get paid to do.
The thoughts of two Winnipeg activists are worth quoting here. As Jacquie Nicholson observes, “In social services or other ‘helping professions,’ you can easily confuse progressive program design or facilitating a small improvement in the life of a ‘client’ with doing something substantially good in the world. Always be suspicious if you are getting paid!” Latour says of staff jobs in unions and advocacy organizations: “Sure, you’re helping some people in the here and now, but it’s usually about being the ‘expert’ that swoops in to help out a ‘client’ – say, a full-time union rep who swoops in to take care of someone’s grievance. It’s sending the exact opposite message that we need to be sending: ‘you need an expert, so let me take care of your case for you’ versus ‘we can do this ourselves, together.'”
14. Beware of false promises, but expect the unexpected
We should be very wary about enticing promises about big breakthroughs for radicals around the corner, since they usually lead to disappointment and demoralization. Don’t count on breakthroughs. But expect the unexpected (like the Occupy movement and Idle No More, to give just two recent examples).
15. Remember that fighting for radical change is the right thing to do.
In his must-read Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Victor Serge wrote (in the sexist language of the 1940s) that “the only meaning of life lies in conscious participation in the making of history. The more I think of that, the more deeply true it seems to be. It follows that one must range oneself actively against everything that diminishes man, and involve oneself in all struggles which tend to liberate and enlarge him.
This categorical imperative is by no way lessened by the fact that such an involvement is inevitably soiled by error: it is a worse error merely to live for oneself, caught within traditions which are soiled by inhumanity.” There are dangers in saying that taking part in making history is the only source of meaning in life. For one thing, being able to find meaning elsewhere is important in sustaining ourselves through the times when there’s no history-making movement to participate in. Yet Serge’s essential point about being involved in struggles that promote well-being (or that seek to minimize harm) and point towards freedom is compelling.
David Camfield is one of the editors of New Socialist Webzine. He thanks everyone who commented on the reflections that this article is based on (most of whom are not quoted here) as well as the other editors, who suggested turning those thoughts into an article.
1. Alan has written an important book that analyzes this in historical perspective and draws some conclusions for the next left, which I hope will soon be published. His initial thinking, which influenced my “Letter to a New Anti-Capitalist,” can be read in articles in issues 52, 61, 63, 64 and 66 of New Socialist.