Left-Activist Work Can Be Liberating

William Morris said, in an article that appeared in The Commonweal on 21 June 1889, “[I]t cannot be too often repeated that the true incentive to useful and happy labour is and must be pleasure in the work itself.”  Morris’s remark pertained to a debate at the end of the nineteenth century on the nature of work in a society without exploitation.  And yet his is an idea that we ought to ponder again today, regarding not just socialist history but also contemporary left-activism.

Left-activism, as I use the term,1 refers to work that directly or indirectly contributes to structural change that could lead to a system that orients itself to socialism.  Left-activist workers and work groups may not be overtly socialist, but the work they do is essential to the socialist goal, however the goal is to be defined.

Work is one of the most complex words in the English language: we do activist work, we work for a living, we work audiences and the media, we get worked into rages or fits of joy, we work out problems, we have work plans, and so on.  Work — whether for pay or not — has been, is, and will continue to be a key component of all social reality, whether in family, community, jobs, or politics.  Rather than focus on work-as-degradation in exploitative settings (which is also an essential exercise if we are to understand capitalist society and the conditions of the working class), in this essay, I shall consider work as a good and necessary human activity when it takes the form of organized physical and mental activities to build working-class struggle toward a more humane society — toward systemic change.  The process of left-activist work often provokes cognitive dissonance, physical pain, even danger to activists’ own lives. The fruits of such work may not be readily apparent.  However, those who undertake left-activist work can receive great pleasure from it.  Besides, without this effort, no desirable social change can happen.

Left-activist goals can only be achieved by well-coordinated, democratically-organized collective work.  Left-activism is a difficult social and political process with both short-range and long-range goals.  Attaining goals (e.g., peace, unionization, health care, education, even socialism) is obviously a manifest purpose of left-activism.  An even more fundamental purpose of it, however, was suggested by Michael A. Lebowitz, who noted that the alternative society must be built “through the process of practice, through revolutionary struggles, through people transforming themselves through their activity.”2  Self-transformation cannot occur in the vacuum of self, nor is it the result of a mechanical work process borrowed from the organizational techniques of those who exploit labor.  There is more to it than that.

Left-activist self-transformation comes hard in a capitalist society where work is almost a dirty word, for good reason.  It is something you have to do to live, like it or not.  For some workers, the pain of exploitative work is mitigated by pride in a well-done job, various social tributes, or financial rewards.  But most workers are burdened by their work lives, regardless of how they score on job satisfaction scales, however pleasant they may appear to others.  Recently I interviewed a young cashier at CVS Pharmacy who reported that she works in a standing position for eight straight hours — without a single break to sit down or eat lunch.  Her “meal” at work consists of nibbles on a sandwich between customers.  A toilet break is the only downtime authorized by management.  Even working under such oppressive conditions for less than a living wage, she is pleasant to the public.  Some would rationalize her work conditions by saying, “Well, she is an unskilled worker.”  Invisible as they may be to careless observers, however, she juggles a remarkable mix of skills: efficiently handling money, expertly using electronic machines, employing knowledge of an ever-changing inventory of products, and exhibiting social graces.  And there are millions of similarly talented workers in this country, who can use their skills for left-activist work, given the right conditions.

My own paid (and unpaid) work experience over the years ran a gamut of services and professions and included membership in five unions.  Each work activity had some mix of pain and pleasure, all adding to my skill set.  I’m now loaded with useful skills at varying levels of competence, but these skills are not being made the most of by a movement that aspires to liberate the working class.

In short, the skills that workers accumulate go underused (as in my case) or altogether unused (as in the aforementioned CVS cashier’s case) in left-activist work.  That is a shame.  The skills sold by workers to make commodities (services as well as products) — from preparing food to engineering electronics to communicating with people — are essentially the same ones needed to transform society into a new people-oriented form.  Furthermore, one of the chief sources of pleasure of work, as I suggested above, is pride in a job well done.  What if left activism provided spaces where we could put our skills to good use, enjoying the sense of mastery and accomplishment?  Why can left-activism not benefit from our skills more?  The reasons are simultaneously simple and complex.

Many Americans actually do work hard as volunteers in the culturally acceptable contexts of faith, charity, and leisure.  The United States is a nation of volunteers.  According to Stephanie Boraas, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 60 million adults (age 16+) perform some kind of unpaid volunteer activity in any given year.3  The group Independent Sector sets the figure at 84 million, each contributing “an average of 3.6 hours per week, totaling 15.5 billion hours with an estimated dollar value of $239.2 billion.”4  There are debates on the validity of sampling procedures, but the fact remains that staggering numbers are involved in volunteer work.  Beyond the perceived rewards of religious salvation, family welfare, and charity, volunteers, some of whom are otherwise friendless, find companionship — a kind of extended family even — in our “lonely-crowd” society by being part of groups that they believe contribute to the quality of life of others or to some common good.5

Left-activism faces great impediments in terms of motivation, recruitment, and retention of a mostly volunteer work force, despite Americans’ demonstrated eagerness to volunteer in socially approved contexts.  First of all, left-activist work normally comes with no (or at best low) pay and benefits and few (if any) social tributes.  Worse, it is nearly always considered a “subversive” activity in America.  Volunteer work with a homeless shelter, bible study group, Little League team, or crime watch group is obviously less controversial than volunteer work with unions, let alone socialist or anti-imperialist groups that want to build revolutionary mettle and facilitate radical systemic change.  The growth of institutionalized conservatism over the past several decades has belittled the ideas of the left and shamed their adherents.  Today’s movements are but a shadow of their former selves, with the limited exception of the anti-war movement.  So, there is much to be done.

External political repression (such as firing of volunteer union organizers), as well as the internalized dominant ideology that regards left-activism with suspicion, diminishes the number of Americans who consider working for social change; but the confusion and fragility of the left makes its own contribution to the problem.  Though debates on the nature of the left are unavoidable and even important, many antagonisms among left ideologues and strategists are a major barrier to progress in left-activist work.  Nothing dries up pleasure in left-activist work more rapidly than pointless conflicts among leftists that drain energy.  It is possible that, unless and until a really serious economic crisis gives rise to spontaneous working-class uprisings and forces the left to rethink itself and to achieve clarity, unnecessary schisms that kill the joy of working together will continue to exist.  Today, in the lull before the storm, so to speak, what can we do to make left-activist work liberating?

A focus on grassroots work at the community level surely must be central to the question of how to make left-activist work the labor of love that rejuvenates the spirits of activists, rather than using them up.  Elitism and all forms of chauvinism, which make some sectors of the left oblivious to the work done by nameless community activists, must be overcome.  Community work has many rewards.  In some cases, left-activist organizers have to start from scratch — talking with people one on one and building new networks slowly — and learn how to organize by doing it.  That can be an eye-opening process of self-education.  But, in untold thousands of communities, there are existing organizations or initiatives that already have some structure and sense of mission, which can use our skills and should become the starting points of our work.  Such community initiatives and organizations that arise out of the most oppressed sectors of the class are not necessarily of the “left,” in terms of their self-perceptions and self-representations, but those are the incubators of new leaders who, having learned from their elders, can now build on their work, articulate new goals, and devise innovative means.  That organic connection between past, present, and future is what makes left-activism most satisfying, “the true incentive to useful and happy labour.”

How can a radically different society, more democratic and egalitarian, be formed, except through the hard work of dedicated bands of community activists who join together and enjoy working together in an expanding web of camaraderie?  How else can working people develop the powers to liberate themselves from the gluttonous hold of a class that robs, impoverishes, and mutilates them?  Objective conditions may be getting worse, motivating an increasing number of workers to think, from time to time, that “something must be done about this problem”; but as long as they perceive left-activist work as unhappy labor — a chore, like hated wage labor, that they avoid like a plague or would dispatch in “spare” time if they must — they won’t say, “We will do something about this problem.”  Only when they become convinced that left-activist work can be personally and socially liberating will they embrace it wholeheartedly.  That is why we must turn to Morris’s insights today and apply them to left-activist work in the present, rather than postponing the cultivation of “pleasure in the work itself” till the arrival of socialist society.


1  I shall avoid the ambiguous expressions “progressive” and “liberal-radical,” even though I once was impressed with Arnold S. Kaufman‘s book The Radical Liberal (1968).

2  Mark Fischer, “Completing Marx’s Project: An Interview with Michael A. Lebowitz,” MRZine, 26 January 2006.

3  “Volunteerism in the United States,” Monthly Labor Review126.8 (August 2003).

4  Independent Sector, “Give Five,” 2004.

5   Volunteers’ positive perception of charitable work is understandable.  However, volunteering can take jobs away from those who need them.  More importantly, it contributes to the right-wing goal of transferring all possible government activities to the private sector (the “thousand points of light” syndrome).

Robert H. Mast has published Detroit Lives (Temple University Press, 1994) and (with Anne Mast) Autobiography of Protest in Hawaii (University of Hawaii Press, 1996), as well as various articles on labor, race, and community. A semi-retired sociologist, he is a member of UAW Local 1981 (National Writers Union), an officer in the Detroit Labor Party chapter, and an activist in Detroit.