Field Notes on Activism

The following was meant for a Zine/Pamphlet thing about activism, and was written in the Spring of 2010. The Zine never came about, so I originally posted this article on a friends blog which has since been discontinued.

To begin with I have to make clear that the following is just my views based off of my experiences in activism. People can learn from them, ignore them, argue with them to their hearts content. But anywho ….

There’s an old union song called Solidarity Forever that has a line that goes like this “..what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one..” Now this might be viewed as an overly cynically and depression thing to start off a discussion on changing the world with, but there is a very important kernel of truth in it. The structures that bind, exploit, oppress us are not created by any single person but large groups of them, and therefore can only be dismantled and destroyed by even larger groups of people. Often I will talk about building mass movements, but this is not coming from a place of me liking the idea of it, or support for the basic democratic content of it, but from the simple pragmatic fact that there is no other way of winning. Every single solitary time a great change was won in this country it wasn’t because people got the right leader in office or there was a small cadre of activists fighting for it. It was because there was a mass movement, a mass upsurge from below of hundreds of thousands to millions of people on the streets fighting for change. That’s where change comes from. This is the foundation of most everything I’m going to be saying here, only with mass movements can we win change.

The question then becomes how do we build these movements, and there really is no easy answer. Often times you can do everything right, work your ass off, agitate like hell, and nobody is interested in your cause. Other times you can put up just a few fliers and suddenly the whole campus is in a state of revolt. You shouldn’t get discouraged too much in the former case, things go in waves and there’s no telling when a low point in struggle will suddenly turn to a high point or vice versa. One of the many jobs of an activist is to try to act as a point of continuum between each high point in struggle and be the person patiently rebuilding the movement in the low points.

Anyway, there are certain things, specifically with your own personnel perspective, that we can begin with in answering the question on how to build mass movements.
Firstly, there needs to be a total rejection of any form of elitism. Not to be mean, but you as an activist are not special. All the people out there not engaged in activism aren’t stupid, aren’t “sheeple”, aren’t bought off by the system, you are not any better then them at all. Period. This is in part a very basic democratic principal but also has important practical meaning. The fact is you, me, all the activists, radicals and revolutionaries out there were not born this way. Nobody is born an activist, we develop to this point by many different routes. This same rule applies to everyone who have yet to become an activist as well. If we wish to build a mass movement we must recognize that all those people out there who aren’t yet involved, not just can be convinced to get involved, but must be convinced to get involved if we are to win.


You can call what follows the RedPleb’s Law or some such nonsense, in fact you can ignore everything else in this paper as long as you read this (my little way of saving you time); Every tactic, strategy, action, event, pamphlet, poster, whatever, must be weighed and measured against how well will it get other people involved and plugged into activist organizing. Any action that will marginalize your movement should be jettisoned and any action that can expand peoples’ involvement (either passive, “hey I support that cause”, or active, “I will come to meetings and help fight this fight”, involvement) should be prioritized. An activist is only as good as much as she is able to reproduce herself, that is create more activists.

Pretty much everything else in this paper is based on an application of this idea.
Outreach, outreach, outreach. Never stop outreaching. If a movement is only as good as the quantity and quality of people in it then you better spread the word far, wide and deep. Politics is firstly a battle of ideas and propaganda is your arsenal. Poster often and widely for every event. Use every means of information at your disposable both legal and semi frowned upon. Get on sponsored calendar of events, use newspaper announcements, social media, the radio, the inter-web, announcements in classrooms and offices, banner drops, canvas people’s dorms and homes, set up a soap box in the middle of a busy intersection. What you wish to do is creating a tangible buzz on campus where it is impossible for anyone not to be aware of your event and where knowledge of the event is so wide spread that it actual starts building itself. Build big or go home.

Don’t dumb down you message to people or be overly moralistic about them getting involved. People know when they are being talked down to and rightfully do not like it. In addition it is a good idea to have some informal and more enjoyable events to help outreach to people, such as dance-ins and parties. These can be a good opportunity to meet new people but don’t limit yourself to them. People like parties but no one will join a movement or risk getting arrested for a cause because they throw the best parties alone. Convince people with well reasoned arguments. Be well informed in you cause so that you can teach and convince other people. People are a lot smarter then you give them credit for and they will join something if they can be inspired and convinced to it with logic.

Be open to everyone. Be willing to work with anyone (well at least within reason, you don’t want to work with any White Supremacists or schmucks like that) who is willing to work with you. Be a multi-politically opinioned movement as best you can. Sometime people will try to lower the level of politics, or say that a certain group is too “radical” and there involvement might be “divisive”. Whenever someone says that the general public isn’t ready for a certain set of ideas, 9 time out of 10 times they’re really just expressing their own hang-ups and disagreements. That said don’t allow your movement to be co-oped by the interests of an outside force. There is a certain party, I won’t name names, but it’s symbol is a donkey, that wants nothing more then to suck you into it’s “big tent” of a party and suffocate your movement. Don’t let them.

Be creative and varied with the tactics used. Don’t limit yourself to one type of action alone, if you keep doing the same thing over and over people are going to loose interest. Be realistic about your ability to organize for a certain action. Don’t stretch yourself too thin or you will break. Often times the ideas for actions can become too complex or too difficult for your current strength and they will never happen. If you can, keep it simple, there’s less that can go wrong. Also don’t from the get go limit yourself to one type of action; “we are only going to go through official channels of petitions”, or, “we are only going to use direct action because legal channels are for conformists.” Both of these ideas are foolish, petty and will never succeed.

Have a strategy, a coherent plan of attack, in which every tactic and event is but one piece of it. Know what you want (to win), what you need to get what you want, and how to get there from here. Have an escalation of tactics where each tactic/event is helping to build for the next, getting more people plugged in and facilitating their radicalization and involvement. A strategy is based off a realistic perspective, that is an analysis of what the situation on the ground is, what’s the coalition of forces, who’s on your side, what’s the strength of your opposition. After every event assess it. Even if the action was a complete success you should still assess how it went, what it accomplished, what it cost to put together, where were you stellar, where can you do better. This way you’re in a constant state of learning from experience and perfecting yourself. And most importantly, all of this, crafting a strategy, implementing a strategy, deciding on tactics, developing a perspective, assessing past actions, MUST be done collectively within your entire group.

Now this brings us to likely the most controversial point of this whole discussion, the internal structure of an activism group. Now I remind people that these are just my views on the subject and you can take them with a grain of salt if you like.
To begin with remember “RedPleb’s Law”, the internal structure of an activism group and how meetings are carried out MUST be conducive towards growth. Anything that can limit growth isn’t worth your time. If the internal rules of a group are too esoteric, too complicated, or just too much of a pain in the ass, so that any Joe Schmo from off the street can’t feel like he can get involved, or is too confused by the meeting itself, then you need to change things.

Read The Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman she explains this a lot better then I could but I’ll give it a try. Structure exists no matter what. You can either have a formal structure or an informal structure within a group, but the later is hell of a lot more dangerous. With a formal structure that everyone agrees to or at least is aware of there is accountability and everyone knows what’s going on. When you try to organize without any “structure” what will eventual emerge is that important decisions are made without the collective consent of the rest of the group. An informal leadership clique will emerge who are accountable to no one and are manipulating things outside of meetings. That atypically sucks.

I’m in favor of simple majority (51% vs. 49%) decision making as opposed to consensus (100%) for a number of reason. Firstly consensus is a very big head ache in practice. But importantly it works best in very tiny groups with a very narrow political range of people. The larger your group, and the more diverse the political backgrounds of them the harder and harder it is to make it work. Therefore consensus can be a very significant barrier to further growth. It’s also, in my opinion, very anti-democratic. In a consensus vote a single individual can derail an entire decision making process, even if 99% of people in the room are for something. Therefore it becomes a tyranny of a tiny minority versus the will of the vast majority. If I was an under-cover cop, consensus is basically a god send because I can single handedly force the group to do what I wish, all I have to do is wait them out. This leads to another issue with consensus, it represents the interests of the privileged within movements. When consensus decision making becomes grid-locked, the resolution that wins is the one supported by the people who can stay the longest. There are classes and class privileges (among other privileges) in society and those who are the most financially well off are those who usually have the most amount of free time to spend at meetings. If someone has to work to support themselves in school they usually can’t spend as much time at organizational meetings and are at a disadvantage when consensus is used.

All this being said don’t obsess over the organizational structure your group is using. This can lead to your group becoming too inwardly focused, self-centered and clique like. You can have the perfect organizational structure but that alone won’t change anything. You are all in this activist group to change the world, not to fetishize how to organize.

Anywho there you go. My rough take on activism. I guess some last notes would be to be flexible, be ready to turn on a dime at any moment. Be positive, no body is going to be inspired by a wet blanket. Avoid unnecessary risks but at the same time realize the biggest risk in life is not taking any. Also, if “war is politics continued by other means” then the reverses is also true. Politics is war, it’s a battle, it’s a fight. You want a victory not a “moral victory”. Fight it to win.

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About redpleb

I'm a socialist, an activist, a worker and an all around troublemaker here in New Jersey. You can find me on twitter @RedPleb
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3 Responses to Field Notes on Activism

  1. If every organization asks you to come to an event, and they are all on different days, HOW ARE YOU GOING TO GO? HOW DO YOU CHOOSE?

    1) Collective Bargaining

    T-shirt: ORANGE

    solution: Labor Union Rights Law

    Organizations: AFL-CIO, LAWG, Fair Trade

    2) Corporations are not Natural People

    T-shirt: WHITE

    solution: Equal Access Amendment (being written)

    Organizations: ALEC

    3) Voting Issues

    T-shirt: RED/WHITE/BLUE

    (solution): Bill of Rights for Voter Equality

    Organizations: “third” parties, Ballot Access, B.O.R.D.C. activist org.

    4) Non Profit Media

    T-shirt: GREY


    Organizations: Media Matters, FAIR, LINK-TV

    5) Peace

    T-Shirt: PINK


    Organizations: Code Pink, WILPF

    6) Sexual Orientation

    T-shirt: Rainbow

    solution: Equal Rights Amendment (does this include sexual orientation?)

    Organizations: HRC, Equality NC, Get Equal

    7) Separation of Church and State

    T-shirt: PURPLE

    solution: remove tax free? sanitize schools?

    Organizations: Americans United, People for the American Way, Freedom From Religion

    8) Environmental Concerns (Energy to Food)

    T-shirt: GREEN

    solution: Natural Resources Amendment (stolen from Green Party)

    Zero waste, MERF’s at every landfill, organic food, no GMO need a natural resources amendment.

    Organizations: NRDC, Greenpeace, NC Conservationists,

    9) Poverty

    T-shirt: BLACK (bleak)

    solution: employment?

    Organizations: NAACP

    10) Police/Court/Prison




    11) Healthcare for All/Reproductive/Marijuana

    T-shirt: RED/GOLD/GREEN

    solution: HR676/Right to Choose/Legalize it (“breath of life” law)

    Organizations: Medicare For All, Planned Parenthood, American Cannabis Coalition, NORML

    12) Educational reform

    T-shirt: RED (their wearing red on Tuesdays already)

    solution: Get religion out, teach the people’s history


    13) Ethnic Equality/Affirmative Action

    T-shirt: RED/BLACK/GREEN

    solution: reparations,


    14) Immigration

    T-shirt: BROWN

    solution: Open Borders (perhaps with a capitalist twist?)

    make whole procedure take only one year.



  2. Pingback: After Forward On Climate March, Where Do We Go From Here? | The Red Plebeian

  3. crvenitalas says:

    Your article is short, but content-packed. I believe that every sentence is in its place and makes sense. Some of the troubles that I have encountered in my efforts to organize is the lack of time for many people (sometimes including myself!) because we all have to work and/or attend classes. This is hard to overcome because these are “life” problems. It’s good, also, that you touched on the topic of “structure”, or I dare say leadership. Look, in every effort or action, there are going to be people who are the first to propose it, who put more time and energy into making it happe. This is natural so we should give credit where credit is due. I believe its very important to give every participant the chance to show themselves and to give their input. If there are disagreements, there should be open discussions where anyone can put forward proposals, and, if need be, put to a vote and a decision taken. The participants should accept the decisions taken by the majority, if this decision is shown as incorrect then it can be corrected. Anyways great article, I will tweet it! TALAS

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