“Citizens’ Politics” – How to do It

“Citizens’ Politics” – How to do It

Last summer Michael Walzer began writing some notes on the problems of “citizens politics”—that is, the kinds of local groups, some tenacious and others short-lived, that have grown up throughout the country during the last few years. Naturally enough, his notes grew into a book, published this spring by Quadrangle Books under the title Political Action: A Practical Guide to Movement Politics (copyright © 1971 by Michael Walzer). Drawn from his own experiences in the Cambridge area, Walter’s little book is a useful guide, and sometimes a very wry and funny one, to the kind of “amateur” politics without which democracy withers. Here, with the kind permission of his publishers, are a few sections.—ED.


Strategic Choices

QUIET MEN AND WOMEN often exaggerate the importance of their own outrage, their long delayed decision to do something. If they are moved, how can the rest of the world stand still? But it is always best to plan one’s moves on the supposition that most of the world will stand still, that established institutions and social practices will survive the shock. All that has changed is that some group of people have decided to use the pronoun “we” and to act together. Nor is it the case in a democratic society that this decision challenges the political system. Quiet citizens are the resources of a democracy, saved up, so we are told, for those moments when professionalism fails. They may feel unconventional; they may behave unconventionally; but their intermittent forays into the political arena are by now one of the conventions of democratic politics. That doesn’t mean that what they do isn’t important, nor that it isn’t sometimes dangerous. Using democratic rights puts them at risk: now there are men and women —now there are enemies—threatened by that use. For this reason above all, it is important for activists to know what they can and cannot do and never to indulge themselves (or frighten their enemies) with fantasies of social and political changes they cannot actually bring about.

Revolution is such a fantasy, less common than is often thought, but worth dealing with early on. Citizen activists may aim at this or that fundamental change, but they cannot hope to make a revolution. It is not very often that anyone actually makes a revolution. Revolutions happen, and all sorts of people find themselves, unexpectedly, participants in the happening. Ordinary citizens will be among them (often yearning not to be), but at such moments it is the professionals, newly recruited professionals perhaps, who take charge. Power of the ultimate sort is at stake, and no one contends for such power in a part-time way, or carries on simultaneously a nonpolitical career, or retires casually from the struggle once some point of special interest has been won. But these are the characteristics of citizen activists; s...

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