Knowing right from right-on

A question that is asked pretty regularly as our young folk are chaining themselves to gates and breaking into laboratories to free the research subjects is, simply, how do you know you're right? It is a fair question because direct action is undemocratic.

I was talking to one activist who said that what he likes about direct action is that he doesn't have to ask anyone's permission. Yeah, but . . . what about the electoral process? What if no one else wants the same thing? Why do we bother voting if you just go ahead and do whatever you feel like, assuming you're right?

So far, the ratio of answers to questions in this column is not good. I can't promise that it's going to improve, because I'm not sure I've got a satisfactory answer to this question - a question that is becoming even more pertinent as new-look successors to the National Front, such as the English Defence League, toddle around the country, trying to get on people's nerves. There are many wonderful things about campaigning and protesting, and I would defend to the . . . not death, exactly, but serious injury, certainly, and being quite uncomfortable for a long time, our rights to protest.

But there is not necessarily a correlation between the "rightness" of a cause and the effectiveness of the people campaigning for it. Most of us would argue that it's right to end third-world poverty, but some of the people at the forefront of that cause are smug and irritating, and run campaigns that aim to make us feel as guilty as possible, which end up putting us off. In the meantime, Nick Griffin, the racist, horrible pig that he is, has turned out to be a remarkably effective campaigner. Also, activists themselves are just human beings like everyone else. There are progressive activists and there are right-wing activists, and there are idiots. The causes vary similarly.

Finally, all of this is coming to us through the even more human (or flawed) prism of the media: journalists, who have the attention spans of incontinent puppies. The most shocking picture, the one with nipples or bottoms or blood in it, is the one most likely to be published.

Against this, the only consolation I can offer is that of numbers (and for those of you who believe that most activists are idiots, even that is not much consolation). Sure, initially the campaigns fronted by the most charismatic may win out. But the campaigns that really win are the ones
that end up with huge numbers behind them. I'm thinking of the best-known struggles - women's suffrage, Indian independence and civil rights in the US - where, in their final stages, hundreds of thousands of people were turning out because they felt so strongly that the cause was just. That kind of campaign may make fewer appearances in the news but, over the years, it adds up.

The numbers keep the protest going, and they refresh the leadership when they're worn out. Wearing down the other side - that's the meat and potatoes of campaigning, as Martin Luther King would have told you.

But that still doesn't answer the question: "Is it right?" It just means that a lot of people think that it's right. Not the same thing at all.

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, GOD