From organizers to activists: “We used to call ourselves, variously, revolutionaries, radicals, militants, socialists, communists, organizers,” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a radical historian with fifty years of social movement experience, told me. The rise of the word activist, she speculated, corresponds with what she describes as a broader “discrediting of the left.”
It was only after the 1960s ended, as new social movements erupted—feminism, gay liberation, environmentalism, and disability rights—that activists truly began to proliferate. By the eighties and nineties, the term was firmly in common usage. These social movements accomplished a tremendous amount in a remarkably short time frame, often by building on and adapting long-standing organizing techniques while also inventing open, democratic, and non-hierarchical procedures. Yet in their quest to jettison some of the left’s baggage, potentially useful frameworks, traditions, and methods were also cast aside.
Yet organizing is what the left must cultivate to make its activism more durable and effective, to sustain and advance our causes when the galvanizing intensity of occupations or street protests subsides. It is what the left needs in order to roll back the conservative resurgence and cut down the plutocracy it enabled. That means founding political organizations, hashing out long-term strategies, cultivating leaders (of the accountable, not charismatic, variety), and figuring out how to support them financially. No doubt the thriving of activism in recent decades is a good thing, and activism is something we want more of. The problem, rather, is that the organizing that made earlier movements successful has failed to grow apace.
The work of organizing has fallen out of esteem within many movement circles, where a faith in spontaneous rebellion and a deep suspicion of institutions, leadership, and taking power are entrenched. That isn’t to say that there aren’t times when rallies, concerts, hashtags, petitions, and online debates are useful—they sometimes are. The problem is that these events or tactics too often represent the horizon of political engagement.’