Beyond Activistism

Why we need deeper thinking in our protests

“Get active!” It’s an important call heeded by many who want a better world. At the same time, it can be tempting for can-do, results-oriented Americans (even those of a radical stripe) to prize action over thought, the street protester over the “mere” intellectual. In this section we hear from a trio of theorists who think American progressives are addicted to action for its own sake — and from a front-line activist who’s convinced that thought is alive and well. And we look at the rise and decline of French theory in American academia, a story that highlights the glories — and pitfalls — of deep thinking. — The Editors

We can’t get bogged down in analysis,” one activist told us at an antiwar rally in New York in the fall of 2001, spitting out that last word like a hairball. He could have relaxed. This event deftly avoided such bogs, loudly opposing the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan without offering any credible ideas about it. But the moment called for doing something more than brandishing the exact same signs — “Stop the Bombing” and “No War for Oil” — that activists poked skyward during the Gulf War. This latest war called for some thinking, and few were doing much of that.

So what is the ideology of the activist left (and by that we mean the global justice, peace, media democracy, community organizing, financial populist, and green movements)? Socialist? Mostly not — too state-phobic. Some activists are anarchists — but mainly out of temperamental reflex, not rigorous thought. Others are liberals — though most are too confrontational and too skeptical about the system to embrace that label. And many others profess no ideology at all. So, overall, is the activist left just an inchoate, “postideological” mass of do-gooders, pragmatists, and puppeteers?

No. The young troublemakers of today do have an ideology. The cadres who populate those endless meetings, who bang the drums, who lead the “trainings” and paint the puppets, do indeed have a creed: They’re activistists

That’s right, activistists. This brave new ideology combines the political illiteracy of hypermediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a 19th-century temperance crusade. In this worldview, all roads lead to more activism and more activists. And the one who acts is righteous. The activistists seem to borrow their philosophy from the factory boss in a Heinrich Böll short story who greets his employees each morning with the exhortation “Let’s have some action.” To which the workers obediently reply, “Action will be taken!”

Activists unconsciously echoing factory bosses? The parallel isn’t that far-fetched, as another German, Theodor Adorno, suggests. Adorno — who admittedly doesn’t have the last word on activism, since he called the cops on University of Frankfurt demonstrators in 1968 — nonetheless had a good point when he criticized the student and antiwar movement of the 1960s for what he called “actionism.” In his eyes, the movement displayed an unreflective “collective compulsion for positivity that allows its immediate translation into practice.” Thus people who see themselves as radical agitators actually end up living out the pragmatic empiricism of the dominant culture — “not the least way in which actionism fits so smoothly into society’s prevailing trend.” Actionism, he concluded, “is regressive

. . . it refuses to reflect on its own impotence.”

It may seem odd to cite this just when activistism seems to be working fine. Protest has been on an upswing in recent years. But is action enough? We pose this question precisely because activism seems so strong. The flip side of all this agitation is a corrosive and aggressive anti-intellectualism. We object to this hostility toward thinking — not only because we’ve all got a cranky intellectual bent, but also because it limits the movement’s transformative power.

Activistism as an ideology renders taboo any discussion of ideas or beliefs, and thus stymies both thought and action. Activists who treat ideas as important — who ask the difficult questions that push into new political terrain — find this censorious hyperpragmatism alienating and may drop away from organizing as a result. But that’s not the only problem. Without an analysis of what’s really wrong with the world or a vision of the better world they’re trying to create, people have no reason to continue being activists once a particular campaign is over. In this way, activistism plus single-issue politics can end up being self-defeating. Activistism is tedious, and its foot soldiers suffer constant burnout.

ACTIVISTISM IS INTIMATELY related to the decline of Marxism, which at its best thrived on debates about the relations between theory and practice, part and whole. Unfortunately, much of this tradition has devolved into the alternately dreary and hilarious rants in sectarian papers. Marxism’s decline (but not death — the three of us would happily claim the name) has led to woolly ideas about a nicer capitalism and indifference to how the system works as a whole. This blinkering is especially virulent in the United States, where bourgeois populism is the native radical strain and anti-intellectualism is almost hardwired into the culture.

Because activistism tends to embody such values, a theory dedicated to understanding (and changing) deep structures necessarily gets shunted aside. The practical effects are obvious. Without a serious understanding of how capitalism works, it’s easy to delude yourself into thinking that moral appeals to the consciences of CEOs and finance ministers will have some effect. You might think that central banks’ habit of provoking recessions when the unemployment rate gets too low is a policy based on a mere misunderstanding. Or that imperial war is just bad lifestyle choice.

Unreflective pragmatism is also encouraged by much of the left’s dependence on foundations. Everyone wants a grant (including us), but philanthropy’s role in shaping activism needs more discussion. Foundations like to reward entities that undertake specific, polite fixes. They don’t want anyone to look too closely at the system that’s given them buckets of money that less fortunate people are forced to pay for.

Needing that money, nonprofits essentially become businesses that sell press coverage of themselves to foundations. Action — regardless of its value or real impact — is the product they trade in return for access to more grants. They thus fall prey to the same hyperpragmatism and short-term thinking that shapes the profit sector.

In fact, nonprofit culture fosters an array of mind-killing practices. Brainstorming on butcher paper and the use of breakout groups are effective methods for generating and collecting ideas and organizing pieces of a larger action. But when these nonprofit tools are used to organize political discussions, nothing really happens.

OUR POINT IS NOT that there should be less activism. The left is nothing without visible, disruptive displays of power. We applaud activism and engage in it ourselves. And we’re not arguing for conformist ideologies. The impulse to resist hierarchy and mind control is one of the more appealing and useful facets of the new activism.

What we are calling for is an assault on the stupidity that pervades American culture. This implies a more democratic approach to the life of the mind. We challenge left activists to become intellectuals. Ideas belong in the street, at work, in the home, at the bar, and on the barricades.

The current moment demands some thinking. In recent years, the movement has been undergoing a fascinating rhetorical shift as activists reject terms like antiglobalization, which emphasizes — not very lucidly — what they’re against in favor of slogans like “Another World Is Possible,” which dare to evoke the possibility of radically different economic arrangements. What would that other world look like?

Activists must engage that question — and to do so, they have to do a better job of understanding how this world really works. In other countries, activists still read radical thinkers like Mikhail Bakunin, Karl Marx, and Frantz Fanon. We need that kind of engagement here. And judging at least from the European experience, it would pay off even in activistism’s own pragmatic terms: Protests in major European cities routinely dwarf our own, and activists there have far more social and political influence. In the long run, movements that can’t think can’t really do too much either.

Adapted from the premiere issue of LiP Magazine (Summer 2004). Subscriptions: $16/yr. (4 issues) from Box 3478, Oakland, CA 94609; The complete essay first appeared in Radical Society (April 2002). Subscriptions: $43/yr. (4 issues) from Routledge Journals, Taylor & Francis Inc. Customer Services Department, 325 Chestnut St., 8th Floor, Philadelphia, PA 19106;

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.