Choosing Activism

Updated: Jun 9

Richard Sandbrook is professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto and President of Science for Peace



Contributed article for the Working Group on Nonviolent Resistance



© Alisdare Hickson


“Philosophers have only interpreted the world [but] the point is to change it.” Those of us in the peace, justice and environmental movements embrace this Marxian aphorism. If we want to live by the dictum, what does that entail?


I should confess, upfront, 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. However, 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 among engaged people struggling 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 both worthy and essential in our present world. We won’t achieve positive social change without coalitions 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:


· nuclear weapons have proliferated, threats of a nuclear catastrophe have grown, and defence budgets are expanding;

· catastrophic climate change is looming;

· work has become more precarious (part-time, contractual, unprotected by unions);

· inequalities of wealth, income and power are vast within many countries and globally;

· structural racism persists;

· authoritarian tendencies are strong;

· right-wing populisms threaten advances already made.


In short, we’re in a mess, and we, the people, need to take action. And that action needs to go beyond simply casting a ballot in a periodic election or writing your representative from time to time. More is required to move forward lethargic systems laden with vested interests. So even if you’re like me and not 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. An informative and highly engaging book has the longest title: Srjda Popovic’s 2015 book "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". Another that is a little less entertaining but remarkably comprehensive in its treatment of the theory and practice of nonviolent action is Erica Chenoworth’s "Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know", published in 2021.


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 fourth book -Majken Jul Sorensen’s "Responses to Nonviolent Campaigns: Beyond Repression or Support "– informs us how to anticipate the responses of governments and/or corporations, when they are not outright repressive. These responses run from attempts to pacify movements, to efforts to discredit or ignore the dissenters, and to public relations campaigns to reframe the issues in more system-friendly terms. There is also a Journal of Resistance Studies containing articles on every facet of resistance. No dearth of advice for potential activists!


But, you may think, all this sounds pretty dreary. In fact, activism is a serious activity; however, it can also be highly engaging, and even fun. Popovic suggests it isn’t fun being arrested at a protest; however, it does add to your sexual allure! He also 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 one’s excitement than 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. Ask any veteran from the 1960s’ and 1970s’ protests.


I shouldn’t end on a frivolous note, however. Activists address serious issues, and only by forcefully pressing these issues do systems change. Beyond the issues, activism is an affirmation of the reality of society. As Nobel laureate Albert Camus put it in The Rebel : “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 assertion that society is more than the sum of individuals who comprise it. We see this affirmation in the demonstrations 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"!

Recent Posts

See All