At this rate, soon, on this planet, we will all have to be either activists or victims.
Denis G. Rancourt
University courses do not prompt students to consider their role in shaping the world. That is why I facilitate a course about activism at the University of Ottawa.
Registered students span the spectrum of engagement in society, from experienced campus activists to environmentally conscious community members to mainstream-misinformed clients picking up a free elective. The material presented by guest speakers is compelling enough that all students question their place in society and the nature of their agency.
There is relatively little polarization between the right and the left in the class. Representatives of both political tendencies are genuinely interested in hearing the other side and in re-considering their positions in the light of the challenges presented, or are happy to reaffirm their positions having heard the other side. Instead, the main axis of polarization tends to be between liberals and radicals. Here I consider the origin of this tension.
I argue that the heart of the tension lies in opposite fundamental beliefs about societal structures and corresponding opposite allegiances with power: The liberals are elitists who believe that the system works (because it works for them) and that one does best to preserve and enhance the system, whereas the radical activists are egalitarians who believe that societal structures need to be transformed through action and direct democracy. This brings me to elaborate on the definitions of both activism and radicalism. Militant activists are not necessarily radicals and radicals are not necessarily activists, in fact most are not. There emerges the notion that risk is a necessary component of activism, without which one can be certain that one is not changing anything. Regarding the false dichotomy of working from within versus working from without, I point out that activists from within can be effective agents for change through organizing as well as through sabotage and overt or covert mutiny.
Seeking to define activism, right and left
Many students in my class first strive to define activism. One dominant tendency is to want to be all inclusive and to suggest that activism is acting out of personal initiative to “contribute positively” to society – being personally motivated to do good. Here, volunteers who help out at the local soup kitchen and students helping others with their homework, for example, are activists, as are people who recycle and who are vegetarians, according to their beliefs of what is good.
The latter definition is not the one in common usage and is not specific enough to be useful. The latter behaviours by themselves should instead be referred to as: volunteering, altruism, responsible behaviour, community service, ethical consumerism, and so on. These behaviours are the result of natural individual impulses to cooperate and to contribute to community.
There are also natural impulses to compete and to be socially territorial. Each individual chooses to adopt either an altruistic or a defensive stance depending on her perception of the circumstances, depending on whether the human environment is perceived to be either safe or threatening, respectively. We all draw boundaries between what we do to contribute and what we do for ourselves. Few commit suicide to avoid consuming or to avoid emitting CO2 by breathing.
Activism is something else. Activism is political. In activism one acts directly to change circumstances, change power balances, or change hierarchical structures. One does this either to achieve greater justice by moving society toward equally distributed power (left-wing activism) or to advantage or protect oneself or one’s group (right-wing activism).
The left assumes a safe environment where all people can be trusted to share in power, whereas the right assumes an unsafe human environment where one must protect oneself. Both environments exist, but the left has a tendency to believe that a safe environment in which cooperation thrives does or could easily dominate whereas the right believes that there is an inescapable tendency towards aggression, oppression, and competition, and that, therefore, the best strategy is to fight others and win.
Too often the cooperation versus competition debate ignores the facts that humans respond in kind and that shared decision-making power is the greatest known catalyst for learning and personal development. This has been shown, for example, in the participatory democracy movement that has transformed Brazil. The “masses” are ignorant only to the extent that they have no power.
Altruism is not activism
An animal rights activist may treat her pets humanely or may be a vegetarian but she is an activist only because she directly confronts the system that abuses animals. She may do so via intense discussions, petitions, lawsuits, lobbying, outreach events, demonstrations, challenging authority, denunciation, direct action, civil disobedience, or some such direct means. In activism one confronts in order to change the norm.
A vegetarian may practice vegetarianism in political silence and simply adapt to all eating circumstances by abstaining from eating meat, whereas another vegetarian may defend her choices and engage in every occasion to communicate her reasons and to advance her justice-based political motives. The first is a vegetarian while the latter is a vegetarian and an activist – someone whose discourse is more than a personal style.
The same is true of volunteer work, charity, and so on. These behaviours are not activism by themselves. On the contrary, they often help maintain an unjust status quo. It has been shown, for example, that the non-profit and NGO sectors taken as a whole do more harm than good. Similarly, activists can be effective and dedicated agents without adopting any particular lifestyle practices that are advanced by others. An environmental activist can drive a car if she judges this to make her activism more effective overall or for whatever personal reasons. A public school activist can choose to send her children to a private school, given the family circumstances or for whatever personal reason. What matters is dedication to activism, not personal survival, convenience, and lifestyle choices.
Obedient workers contribute to maintaining existing structures whereas, for example, whistle-blowers and employee justice organizers make a difference. In this world of continental-scale exploitation, it is superficially satisfying to have a job where one does seemingly useful work, but being a dedicated employee in any such job does not directly change power structures to maximize social justice. At work, you only make a difference if you work for change by going outside of what is expected and imposed. This is necessarily in opposition to the established order and therefore involves personal risk.[5, 6]
Essence of activism
Two essential components, method and goal, define activism. The method involves confronting authority directly or through defiant or non-subordinate assertion. The goal is to redistribute power in the workplace and society. Left-wing activists want to democratize power whereas right-wing activists want to secure power. Risk is a hallmark of activism because activism seeks to redefine power structures.
At the heart of activism is a belief that things are wrong, a belief that injustices are institutionalized or socialized and are maintained by those who benefit from the established structures. The justice of left-wing activism is social justice, in which one shares rather than steals opportunity and resources; it is social justice in its broadest sense including animal justice and environmental justice.
Justice is synonymous with democracy: distributed power and horizontal structures rather than concentrated capital and lap dog elites. Anything that moves us towards more democracy and the associated greater individual responsibilities is a step in the right direction. Employees taking power from bosses, students and professors taking power from the university administration, students taking power from professors, board members taking power from the chair, community members taking power from the board of directors … by whatever effective means … all move us toward more democracy.
Democratic influence derived from activism is both empowering and educational. It may be the most powerful form of education ever practiced. How better to learn what the system is really like and your place in it? How better to increase your knowledge and your influence? All progress of civil society has been catalyzed by and based in activism. Only strong popular movements have ever wrestled concessions from the ruling class.[7, 8, 9] Service intellectuals by comparison to activists are spineless and serve only to placate and deceive in order to strengthen the power structure and erode past gains.
Resolving methods and motives
With the above definition of activism, we must make the important distinction between methods and motives. Both activists and hippies want a just society. The latter actors look for it by attempting to create ideal but somewhat isolated communities. They are morally supportive of activists, may show up at rallies, and often contribute to a community that activists need, but they are not activists except when they act to transform the broader society in order to defend their ideals.
Likewise, the extreme right wing and fascists use direct action to transform power structures toward aims that are the opposite of egalitarian. They are right-wing activists. But they are at least often honest and transparent in their goals.
Liberals are elitists. They believe that the system should be moulded by an enlightened elite, is primarily just, and needs only to be adjusted by following the guidelines for change that have already been established. They believe that the best method to obtain positive change is to negotiate and cooperate with power. They are allergic to direct action. The more the direct action is likely to be effective, the more allergic they are to it. They are a major force for maintaining present power structures and they go into overdrive when activists appear to be making gains.
What emerges is a two-dimensional map. On one axis, from left to right, we have the justice and equality variable, going from distributed power and complete democracy (that is, the anarchist ideal [9, 10]) to plutocracy, fascism, and hierarchy. On the vertical axis, from bottom to top, we have the methods variable, going from direct action by whatever effective means to non-confrontation and cooperation. Activists are in the bottom left, hippies in the top left, fascists in the bottom right, and liberals in the top right. True conservatives are in the middle.
Too many observers confuse method and motives: There are four poles and a middle in the action-justice plane. What liberals offer amounts to cooptation, not genuine negotiation, which can occur only between power equals.
Too many observers confuse choice of methods (collaboration versus confrontation) with choice of focus (working from within versus working from without). One can be an activist either from within or from without or both; but one can only be a true liberal from within and only be a true hippie from without.
This brings us to an analysis of the liberal-radical polarization introduced in the first paragraphs. Liberals believe that the system is fundamentally sane and needs only to be improved using methods approved by the ruling elites who are needed to protect us from the ignorant masses, whereas anarchists or socialists (radicals for short) believe that the present system and society that hosts it are deeply flawed and must be changed in their structural roots, at the level of their dominant underlying assumptions or myths, and that people are capable of great collective wisdom and growth. Given these opposed perceptions of society’s architecture and fabric, it follows that liberals would insist on cooperation and “gradual change”  whereas radicals would insist (at least intellectually) on challenging the structures and rules themselves.
Radicals, by definition, go to the root of phenomena. In a capitalist society, in a plutocracy, anarchists and socialists are radicals. However, radicals are not necessarily activists. Indeed, most radicals are not activists. Many academics, for example, are left intellectuals well versed in alternative power structures, but they are not engaged in activism. They do not risk their privileged positions by taking action, nor are they defiant on campus , which is not a niche of participatory democracy.
The liberal-radical antagonism, therefore, is not between passivity and activism or fundamentally between cooperation and actual resistance. Instead, it highlights two opposing world views that include beliefs about the associated methods that follow from these views. One can get rather overheated about protecting one’s world view (and consequently one’s view of oneself in the world) even if one is not about to risk action that would change the world toward one’s ideal. Conversely, those already engaged in activism often don’t loose much time with this debate.
When liberals say “we should work from within,” they mean we should work in such a way as to preserve and ameliorate the present structure rather than question it deeply. They also incorrectly imply that working from within necessarily means working with and in support of the system rather than against it: They do not recognise the legitimacy of sabotage as a method of fighting unjust rule in society, because they do not see present rule as mostly unjust.
Liberals believe that their methods lead to the most and best results, whereas radicals believe that the methods promoted by liberals cannot possibly increase justice overall because they legitimise and strengthen a system that is overwhelmingly unjust. Liberals tend to be insiders who have had many “productive” exchanges with other insiders. Liberals are leaders and enjoy joining the elite agents for “good”… whereas radical activists tend to be outsiders who are compelled to confront and to challenge. Rather than take power, left-wing activists make power via solidarity and creative contribution.
Real mutual threat
This is how I understand the visceral confrontations that I have observed between liberals and radicals (or between different left factions), as arising from the above fundamental differences in beliefs and perceptions, coupled with a correct mutual sense that the other side represents a significant threat to both position and goals.
It’s easy for radicals and egalitarians to understand the fascist position and to find effective ways to combat the fascist drive, but the liberal threat is more insidious. Conversely, radicals are the greatest threat to the ruling liberals of present First World so-called free democracies, because liberals can cooperate with the right to the degree that serves and preserves them, but radicals present a refractory opposition.
Left-wing radical activism is beyond good – risk is life
In conclusion, left-wing activism is what effective anarchists, socialists, progressives, and egalitarians do. These agents are radical in that they go to the root and identify the underlying basis of injustice. They are activists because they understand that standing up in defiance is the only way to exert influence in the direction of greater democracy. Personal risk is necessarily a consequence.
Finally, because defiance and confrontation are characteristics of activism, and because such action is limited by the risk involved, it is often the case that more risk equals more effect. This leads to the conclusion that we should take as much risk as will maximize the effectiveness of our activism. Whereas Third World activists often don’t need to consider how much risk they should be taking, because they often don’t have a choice if they are to survive, First World left-wing activists who want to be worthy of the title probably should consider actions that will involve more risk. Having survived and learned from the backlash, experienced activists live a life of action, anchored in community and solidarity, and instinctively know how far to push it. Proportionate rewards are guaranteed. Risk is life.
 Jeff Schmidt as cited by the author. The present essay is partially based on a lecture given in the activism course, 2006: http://www.yayacanada.com/rancourt_lecture_11-10-06.html . Course material is posted at http://www.alternativevoices.ca/ .
 Rebick, Judy, 2000, Imagine Democracy. Stoddart, Toronto.
 del Moral, Andrea, 2002, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. http://www.lipmagazine.org/articles/featdelmoral_nonprofit_p.htm
 Schmidt, Jeff, 2000, Disciplined Minds. Rowman & Littlefield.
 Rancourt, Denis G., 2006, Gradual Change Is Not Progress. http://globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=viewArticle&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;code=RAN20060503&articleId=2377
 Murphy, Brian K., 1999, Transforming Ourselves Transforming the World. Fernwood.
 Zinn, Howard, 2001, A People’s History of the United States. Perennial Classics.
 Mitchell, Peter R. and Schoeffel, John, 2002, Understanding Power, the Indispensable Chomsky. The New Press, NY.
 Noble, David F., 2005, Beyond the Promised Land, The Movement and the Myth. Between the Lines, Toronto.
 Malatesta, Errico, 1891, Anarchy. New translation from the Italian by Vernon Richards, Freedom Press, 1974, 1994.
 Said, Edward W., 1994, Representations of the Intellectual. Vintage Books, NY.
 Rancourt, Denis G., 2006, Malalai Joya Breaks the Fear Barrier in Ottawa.
Epilogue: Alternative definition of activism, and a parallel goal
I am grateful to Jeff Schmidt who provided critical comments on this essay. Jeff also pointed out that another goal of left-wing activists is to make more activists: This automatically creates more democracy, as more people exert influence.
In defining activism, I struggled with the enticing alternative choice that activism would be restricted to left-wing activism whereas ring-wing activists would be termed militant right-wingers. This would be consistent with most of mediascape usage of the term activism, including the term activist judge. In the mainstream media, the term activist has a negative connotation and is usually reserved for left-wing activists. Right-wing activism is downplayed or is termed extremism rather than activism. The implication is that it is an extreme of legitimate aspirations whereas activism, like radicalism and anarchism, are incorrectly equated with chaos and destruction. Most activists are left-wing activists because present social structures are more in line with right-wing ideology and because ring-wingers are more easily controlled by fear and can more easily be made to fight other groups rather than the power structure. Fear and perceived danger cause one to want to be protected and this often overrides democratic aspirations. Perceived safety breeds cooperation. Perceived danger breeds tribalism. We need to actuate that cooperation breeds safety and distributed power breeds education and responsibility.