Back when I was last active in political circles, for a period of a couple of years that ended about 18 months ago, I used to warn some of my most enthusiastic comrades about the dangers of burnout. Little did I realise that that was soon to prove a case of the pot warning the kettle about its tendency to turn black. Not long after pouring my wonderful wisdom into their patient ears, I burned out myself. I quit the party I (and my partner and many others) had helped to found, and returned (as activists often say, with a suitable note of criticism and disapproval) to private life. I did not plan to reemerge.
And I did not change my mind either, except by accident. The universe conspired against me. Just before I joined Left Unity, I had decided to join the Labour Party with a view to contributing to Ed Miliband’s efforts to become prime minister. Just as I was about to sign up, however, a letter appeared in The Guardian that changed my mind. Perhaps a more radical alternative to Labour was worth one more shot? It was certainly more in keeping with the politics I was used to. OK, then, one more shot it was – but it had better not disappoint me, or that was that, I was out of there.
That is, of course, a stupid attitude with which to engage with anything, and one that no party, or indeed any collection of human beings, could fail sooner or later to rub up the wrong way. Eventually, after two years of mostly rewarding and enjoyable work, the dissatisfactions began to weigh more heavily on my mind. A straw broke the camel’s back (I can’t even remember what the straw was). I quit. When asked why I had left the party I had spent a good few years of hard work building up, I had no better answer than, I just wanted to. You can always find a more reasonable justification for joining or leaving anything if you put your mind to it, but really it rarely or truly amounts to much more than a desire that that is what one wants to do. I joined because I wanted to; I left because I wanted to. And I wanted to because I’d burned out.
Anyone with a God’s eye view of my life and levels of activity might raise an eyebrow at that. It was not like I was a Mother Teresa or Ghandi figure, with no time to myself, dedicating every last scrap of spare time to serving the cause, let alone lifting a finger for anyone in real need. But the comparison is an apt one. Burnout is not connected so much with the quantity of work you do, but the quality and one’s attitude to it. If you are doing work that you know deep in your soul is worth doing, that it is noble to do, then you can keep going for ever. You’ll find resources deep in yourself you never knew you even had. If, on the other hand, you’re in the midst of writing letters and minutes of meetings and reports and replying to correspondence and so on and so on, and you look up from the work you’re doing and the whole day has passed by, and you say to yourself, “What the fuck am I doing?”, and you can’t answer that, then burnout has begun. It sounds like a joke, but it’s a true story: someone we knew was a hyper-activist who lived near by and he would write letters as secretary of one campaign group to another campaign group requesting affiliation and support, and he would get the letter, as secretary of that campaign group, and write himself a reply. Life of Brian has nothing on the reality of life on the left.
So, anyway, I quit, and months and months of “private life” went by. With the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, I raised my weary eyebrows, and tried to join the Labour Party so I could vote for him. I could do that at least. And when he became leader, I joined the party so I could bung him a few quid. I could do that at least. But that was about the limit of the activity I could bring myself to.
Then, out of the blue, just last week, an old comrade contacted us and asked if we wanted to go to a Labour Party meeting. I said yes and I’ll be honest about why. It would be nice to see old friends again of course. But I also thought it would satisfy a curiosity about how the Labour Party worked and what its members were like. I thought that once I’d had a look at how it worked, and slipped out of the meeting early, I could roll my eyes, declare my suspicions correct about how shit everything is, and, once again, retire to private life, having satisfied myself that at least I’d “done my bit” and at least I was giving Jeremy my couple of quid every month, and that was something.
I’m happy to report that the meeting had quite the opposite effect on me. Now, as I’m sure anyone at the meeting could confirm, this could not be because of any particular or intrinsic interest the meeting itself held. I mean no criticism to anyone, but it was just as you might expect: pretty dull, dealing with uninteresting matters of party business and organisation and campaigns, spilling over into the odd personal and/or political feud. I said nothing, just raising my hand occasionally to vote for the most-left alternative wherever there was one, listening as intelligent and eloquent and committed campaigners got to their feet to put their points of view and argue their corner. But I felt so happy! After an 18 month hiatus, it was like I’d come home. I was back where I belonged: in the back room of a bar, with like-minded and committed people of all ages struggling to get their voices heard over the juke box next door, arguing the toss about the issues of the day and how to get our point of view over and our politics in power. Did I say the meeting was dull? Well, if so, this is the kind of dullness that blood was spilt for. The right of ordinary people of no property to meet together and discuss issues of mutual concern and seek to put things right – our ancestors were struck down with swords or shot dead for trying it. Dullness is our victory. Dullness is thrilling when you can see it right, when you know your history and your current affairs.
It is actually a very satisfying experience to be politically active. We live in a democracy and, because most of us were brought up in one, when the battles to win it were over (at least apparently), we take it for granted. And because our democracy has been hollowed out and largely taken over by elites, it seems reasonable to turn out backs on it. But it’s not reasonable. It’s wrong. Our ancestors paid in blood and with their very lives for the freedoms we take for granted. Around the world, people are still paying in blood and with their lives for the freedoms we take for granted. When we take them for granted, we betray them – and we help create a hell for our children tomorrow. We live in a democracy, and it is our duty to participate in it – to defend it, to make it work, to extend it.
I don’t say that to guilt-trip people into coming to boring meetings. There are many ways to participate in a democracy, from using your vote to trying to understand the issues to joining a party or a union to going on a demo or signing a petition and so on and so on. People are different and at different times in their lives will want to participate in differing ways. That’s fine. But your participation on some level is a matter that deserves your serious consideration. One of the things I learnt at my recent party meeting – something I had learned before, from experience and from Chomsky, but had forgotten – is that participating in collective decision making is the only way to become really informed about what’s going on in the world. You only need go along to one public meeting to understand that you can learn precisely nothing about what is really going on in this world by reading newspapers or watching the news – not even the very best papers or programmes. This is because newspapers and news programmes are essentially entertainment – they’re trying to tell interesting, arresting stories to people who are about to reach for the remote control. But the issues on which their trivial stories are based are serious – deadly serious, in so many instances. Listening to well-informed people try to share their knowledge about these issue may be “dull” by the standards of cheap media entertainment. But they will nourish your mind and soul like nothing else. It’s the difference between a good home-cooked meal and junk food.
Many people, when they hear you are political, will tell you that they share your disgust with what’s going on in the world, but are at a genuine loss for what to do about it. But the answer couldn’t be more simple. Wherever you are in the world, just have a look around. It won’t take long before you find some issue that needs your attention, and a group of people who are trying to do something about it. Just turn up. Join the movement. Do your bit. Out of duty? Well, yes, it is your duty. But it can be a whole lot of fun too. As Maya Angelou said, nothing will work unless you do.