Book review: The Activists’ Handbook by Aidan Ricketts

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Originally published on Inky Needles on 28th August 2013

There are libraries upon libraries of books considered essential reading for any aspiring activist; from the classics like the analytical toolkit offered by Marx to the consistently astute criticisms of modern democracy by Chomsky. Indeed, there are so many seminal texts that an activist could shut themselves away from the world, reading them behind closed doors for their entire adult life and still not have scratched the surface. But then again, that wouldn’t make for a very active activist, would it?

And herein lies a fundamental malaise for the modern revolutionary; even the most insightful, inspiring works rarely offer much practical advice on how to effect  positive change, and when they do, it is usually consigned to a few meagre paragraphs at the end of the book.

The Activists’ Handbook is an attempt to plug this apparent gap with a wealth of hands-on practical advice gleaned from author, Aidan Ricketts’s twenty years of experience helping various social change campaigns. The book covers everything from dealing with the media and how to structure a social change organisation, to advice on bringing strategic litigation against governments and corporations.

To be clear, this book is intended for people looking to start or already involved in a social change campaign; it’s not a manual for hardcore revolutionaries looking to smash the system.

Putting these limitations to one side for a moment, for those activists who do want to start a social change campaign, Ricketts’s step-by-step guide is no doubt imperative reading. The book is at its strongest when it is meting out advice backed up by visible, concrete examples. For instance, there is an entire chapter dedicated to planning and mapping techniques with illustrated examples which would be invaluable for bringing some structure to a social change campaign which can be notoriously chaotic and fragmented.

Ricketts encourages the reader to identify the difference between strategies, such as raising public awareness and political pressure; and specific tactics such as rallies and lobbying MPs. In short, he encourages a holistic approach to social change campaigns. An actual example of a media release is another particular highlight of where the book works well.

Due to the ambitious nature of the book, which tries to cover so many different areas, several chapters such as the one on strategic litigation are very general, without much concrete information. Indeed, the entire book should really just be taken as a starting point, a loose framework. Credit to Ricketts, he does a good job of signposting the reader to other useful resources with internet links where appropriate.

Theoretically, the book makes a convincing argument for the vital role of social change campaigns in society, arguing that they epitomize a more participatory form of democracy in stark contrast to the passive act of voting in a representative democracy. For Ricketts, the two can and should co-exist.

Additionally, Ricketts is fervently dedicated to the philosophy of non-violence and this commitment can be defended both in philosophical and pragmatic terms; the latter is especially true in western democracies were the coercive apparatus of the state holds a monopoly on violence.

But on more than one occasion Ricketts expresses his disdain for ‘black-clad youths’ who frequent protests, dismissing their righteous fury as ‘counter-productive’. And this in itself seems a little short-sighted. By alienating these types of activists, Ricketts is only serving to homogenise social change movements and shows little sympathy for the marginalization and powerlessness these ‘black-clad youths’ feel. Their ‘violence’ against private property is after all, a response to the systematic violence of neoliberal hegemony. It seems that Ricketts’ vision for social change movements is a very middle-class one.

The mantra of The Activists’ Handbook is ‘Accept things are the way they are and then work out a resourceful way to respond,’ Ricketts constantly encourages the reader to work within the confines and avenues of the existing socio-political system. Of course, this makes inherent pragmatic sense and whether one can theoretically work outside those limits is debatable.  However, mentally imposing such restrictions at all times can stifle more creative ways of thinking.

And rather than changing the system from within, what often happens is the reverse; the system changes you. One only needs to look at the executive pay at organisations that started off as humble social change campaigns for evidence of this – the top earner at Save the Children, earns over £160,000 a year.

Ricketts’s writing, whilst functional at times leaves a lot to be desired. Too often sentences are stilted and clumsy with phrases like ‘of significant political significance’ and ‘for this reason you have every reason’. It’s certainly not flowing prose, and the chapters are broken down in a structured manner.

Ricketts should be applauded for boldly going where few other authors have gone before. The Activists’ Handbook is a call to arms, a timely reminder that the world won’t change itself but instead needs dedicated, compassionate individuals to take a stand. It also offers positive encouragement in a world where apathy and nihilism are all too pervasive; Ricketts shows how the art of activism can be an empowering and life-changing experience. That’s not to say it’s not without its limitations. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as a bit of light bedtime reading. But if you find yourself getting involved in a social change campaign, you should make grabbing a copy one of your first priorities.

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