Combating Activist Burnout: Our Stories of Radicalization

Posted June 24, 2008

When I joined Solidarity, the first thing everyone asked was “what brought you here?” “How did you become a radical?” This question is crucial for activists because it’s part of the overall puzzle of how to mobilize more people.

I love my own story of “radicalization,” though it came so early that I can hardly attribute it to my conscious self. My dad has always been committed to leftist ideals, and he participated in the civil rights movement and worked for the UAW when he was young. When my brother and I were young, bedtime songs and stories were his opportunity to express these ideas to us. He sang union songs and told us stories about holding sit-ins for restaurant integration with SNCC or getting beaten up by a police officer at an antiwar rally. We sang “Joe Hill” and “We Shall Overcome” and asked questions about what it meant to be a scab. Through these childhood memories, my dad gave me and my brother a sense of how important it was to take action on personal beliefs — even if those actions carried consequences. Radicalism was always part of our personal narratives, and we felt that activism would be a natural part of our adult lives. We wanted stories to tell our own children.

By joining in the ritual of telling my personal narrative of radicalization, I’m perpetuating the belief that these stories somehow give us a key to future recruitment. If we learn what brought each of us to radicalism, maybe we can replicate it in others. The answer, of course, is never this simple. Most people, no matter what their histories, choose not to participate in political action. Those of us who join radical organizations – especially when they lack mass public support – are anomalies. Who says that what worked for us will work for others?

Although they may not be the keys to organizational growth, there is something satisfying about personal narratives of radicalization. As activists, we often work for years with little or nothing to show for our labors. We hold events that are poorly attended, we lead spectacular actions that seem to make no dent in corporate or government action, and we put so much of ourselves into our activism that we frequently face burnout.

At the moment, I’m dealing with this burnout myself. I’m involved in an anti-sweatshop group and a graduate student unionization effort that are struggling just to survive. Graduate students at my university just won a huge victory when the school agreed to give us dental insurance after a five-year battle led by the union movement. Nonetheless, student interest in unionizing seems to be at a low point. Our call-out meetings rarely attract more than one or two students, and the steering committee is overwhelmed at the task of simply keeping the organization afloat. Similarly, the anti-sweatshop group, which definitely generates more enthusiasm on campus, is mired in a seemingly endless campaign to end the university’s Coca-Cola contract. Years of repetitive actions and little progress have left me feeling demoralized, dragging my feet on attending meetings and participating in the campaign.

I wonder, then, whether the personal narratives that we often request of others are at their most useful when they attempt to combat burnout. While day-to-day activism can feel stagnant and frustrating, personal narratives of radicalization are stories that help us remember the emotions behind our activism. Because when activist work goes well, it’s exhilarating and addictive. They are also stories about progress—we move from a point of lesser understanding to a point of greater understanding. In these narratives, we see our ideal activist selves, and we gain some hope that this progress will continue.


8 responses to “Combating Activist Burnout: Our Stories of Radicalization”

  1. Anony mouse Avatar
    Anony mouse

    My parents were conservative Catholics. I grew up in a small German Catholic farming community. My grandma said the anti-Catholic KKK had marched in the town next to ours in the 30’s. The Knights of Columbus where the only social organization in town other than the Church itself. A few people had changed their names to avoid appearing too German during W.W. II. My mom was a big Joe McCarthy supporter. I guess that makes me the opposite of a red diaper baby, although she later admitted her anti-communist hysteria was a mistake. She also later admitted that trying to form your kids into robots through physical punishment and abuse was not the best child rearing technique. I believe it was a reaction to this abuse that caused me to gradually radicalize. When someone smacks you and then tells you, “don’t get smart”, you start thinking maybe getting smart is what you need to do. At least I did. My brother became a right-wing Chaplain. The last straw for me was the Dean of Men “smacking me up side the head” in the cafeteria, in front of the entire student body. I went to a catholic seminary for High School, run by monks. When your dad smacks you, the nuns smack and and then the priests also smack you, you start to see a pattern.
    After the last class on the last day of school in the 6th grade, I led a chant outside the classroom window, “2 4 6 8, who do we especially hate, Sister Rosalita”. I made more than one teacher cry. I had reserves of anger.
    I guess I better try to get to some kind of point.
    When I was in the Seminary at one point the Dean told us in one of his sermons that we should all start watching the news once in awhile so we would not be totally divorced from the outside world. This is one of those things they occasionally tell you but don’t really mean. The underlying idea is that there is not really anything useful out there but you should force yourself to take an interest anyway. A few people did start watching the news in the Rec room. I walked by one night, and what I saw was you people out there in the street somewhere protesting in what looked like full scale rebellion. Anyway, that gave me a thrill. That was probably the first real nurturance my inner rebel ever got. So thanks for that and thanks for keeping it up these many subsequent years. I don’t know why some people decide to fight back while many don’t. You will and do inspire people in ways you don’t always know. So maybe that’s a reason not to give up. Maybe all the invisible support will one day erupt. I discovered Marx and Lenin in a used book store. It shocked me. It was like being smacked in the head from the other direction, in a good way. You all deserve immense respect.

  2. lindsay Avatar

    i really appreciate reading these postings… its such a good reminder to hear others’ experience and know we are not alone.
    in august i am facilitating a workshop for youth aged 15-19 about activist burnout and self care.
    if anyone feels so inclined, i would love your thoughts on what it takes to get through burnout and keep motivated, especially for people who are young. what are some practical ways you keep afloat? what inspires you to keep on keepin on?
    i would love to recieve your thoughts at

  3. Nick L Avatar
    Nick L

    Figuring out where to get involved is a challenge I’ve also been grappling with lately. Instead of looking to a party for a way of getting involved, look for a local struggle to get involved in. Then consider talking with other socialists to develop an analysis of that struggle and for ideas on how to best operate within it and promote socialism within it. Maybe there is an Army Recruitment center or coal power plant people are working to shut down? If you give me more info about your location, I could help you with ideas. Asking for advise on this blog is a good start in joining this collective process. This is why I say join with other Socialists. Agreed that sects and dogma are lame. But thats no reason to go it alone. We can be more effective as a collective. Reply with a post or shoot me an email at

  4. proletariandan Avatar

    As someone who adopted Marxism spontaneously and independently, I feel like those who were raised by leftist parents certainly have quite an advantage, at least in that they have a support network and an inroad to organizing. My parents were not political but voted Democrat before becoming Christian fundamentalists (as did I for a short time; something that helped imbue me with a strong hatred for injustice and ironically aided my adoption of revolutionary socialist ideas). As I became disillusioned with Christianity and consumerism, I was searching for something to believe it and unknowingly found it in the 2004 film documenting Ernesto Guevara’s early life; ‘the Motorcycle Diaries.’ Though the film didn’t really touch on politics, it sparked an interest in history that eventually led me to develop anti-capitalist/imperialist and later Marxist thinking.

    The challenge for individuals like myself is deciding where to get involved in the first place – something I still have not done more than two years after the above-mentioned occurrence. With so many different socialist organizations/sects I have always been hesitant to become involved anywhere for fear of leading myself into a political dead end so-to-speak. I can’t help but wonder how many others like me are out there just waiting for a single, united left party (or at least the beginnings of one) to emerge and wondering what they can do to help make that a reality.

  5. Jimbo Avatar

    I grew up in a right-wing, Christian-fundamentalist household in Texas. The last thing that anybody around me would have expected is that I would become a socialist and a radical.

    I grew up in the 60s. I’ve been told that I cried when the battle images of Vietnam would be shown on TV, though I don’t remember it. I find it tremendously sad that there are no such images from the current occupations being shown. I also have to credit the humanizing influence of television shows like The Twilight Zone. I know that may get a laugh, but liberal cultural messages nurtured my empathy.

    It probably also helps that I was a little gay boy in a fundamentalist Christian home. I knew very early that I would not meet the expectations of patriarchal family perpetuation.

    “Christian” messages conveniently reinforced ruling class values. “Servants obey your masters” was one of the favorites. The use of the story of god scattering the Babylonians was also used as a cautionary against tolerating, let alone valuing, diversity. God bestowed power, if you didn’t have it, you were out of favor. Peace and justice were what you had when authority was obeyed.

    Most of my 20s were preoccupied with escapist sex and alcoholism. I quit drinking in 1987. Coming out of that was an agonizing process. I’m not preaching to anyone here. I’m just telling my story. My experience is that when I stopped “self-medicating” and had to deal with the depression that resulted from my personal feelings of powerlessness. The personal slowly became political.

    It also helps that I went to work in the word processing center of an investment bank. Typing and charting the bone-chilling analysis of the ruling class put me over the edge. “Increasing efficiencies” was a term for eliminating workers. There were off-shoring schemes, and schemes to drive up prices. I was in the belly of the beast. The war on the workers was always right in my face. It was the cushiest job I ever had, and the most toxic. I longed for, and still long for, work that sustains me as I contribute to others.

    I’m a late bloomer. My activist work didn’t really get started until 2001. I sought out and found people opposed to the invasion of Iraq. Working with these people, over time, I got a more thorough education. I’ve come firmly to the conclusion that it is impossible to reform capitalism.

    I’ve been out on the streets at home. I’ve gone to Washington several times. I attended the US Social Forum in Atlanta. I just came back from the National Assembly to End the War. I’ve participated in actions on behalf of the Imokalee workers, university janitors and the Cuban 5.

    It’s an election year. It seems the ruling class is successfully discouraging mobilization against the war. The immigrant rights battle is a shadow of its formal self. I don’t know why people aren’t absolutely enraged by the economic problems of housing, food, and gas prices.

    The main the reason I’m contributing to this discussion is that I need to remember where I came from. I’m discouraged at the moment. I want to remain in the struggle. At the same time I need to nurture some integrity in me. I need to choose wisely what I do.

    Stephanie made a great point about doing some things out of discipline as opposed to excitement. Gramsci promoted (but did not originate) “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Sometimes there are long stretches without evidence of progress.

    I’ve decided to focus on trying to contribute only to things that I believe will help the working class to discover its own power.

    I try to connect with my friends who are also comrades. This is sometimes tough when I’m not agreeing with them politically.

    I’m also trying to find left-wing humor. I recently discovered the lectures of Mark Steel, the routines of Mark Thomas, and of Jeremy Hardy. If you know of others, particularly humorous radical sisters, let me know.

    I know that writing this has helped me. I hope that others find value in it.

    I’ll close with the Che quote “the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”

    In Solidarity Sisters and Brothers

  6. R Avatar

    Thanks for posting. I think there’s a tendency to gloss over what radicalization means for most people, though. I really enjoy hearing stories about very young people adopting radical politics, or people with radical history in their family. Since my experience was a bit different, I’m always curious about what that is like–maybe someday, I can help younger generations along with that. However, as it has been pointed out to me by comrades before, these are probably exceptions to the rule. (and as you point out, we are already exceptions, making this an exception to an exception!)

    What about narratives of radicalization that include personal experiences with oppression? I mean, there’s definitely a positive collective history of struggle within, for example, the African-American community, but along with that comes a catalog of experiences of apartheid, violence, terrorism, etc. On a separate, but much less dramatic note, many radicals (like me) became active with the price of being disowned from family, cut off from friends, and cast out of social circles (and I have to include the caveat that privileged radicals can very often “repent” to regain access to what’s forever out of grasp for most). Sure, there are definitely elements of fondness in my more privileged “radicalization,” but it was also a struggle that in itself has left me with burnout. Organizing can be easy compared to being cut off from family and friends.

    For folks like me, my burnout “cure” has been developing close relationships with comrades who can provide support, advice, and criticism when I need it most. It’s something that doesn’t in itself keep me on my feet, but definitely something I couldn’t do without. We live blocks away, run errands with one another, eat frequently together, joke around constantly, etc. Even when burnout leaves one with NOTHING that seems to work, spirits and analysis can be kept up to a level necessary for future work.

    I’ve seen the most devastating burnout among people who maintain relationships with downright reactionary friends who promote very cynical and incorrect ways of seeing and interacting with the world (sometimes at the expense of developing positive social relationships with comrades). This seems to be the “dealmaker” for complete de-radicalization if you’re burnt out.

    One more thing I’ve noticed helps with my periods of burnout is the recognition of a the grand scale of historical resistance of which we are but a tiny part. We concentrate so often on those “hot” moments where things seem to be popping up all over the place because they are great lessons for our work–but they are the exception to the daily grind of capitalism, the normal overwhelming hegemony of white supremacy and patriarchy, etc. We also like to concentrate on “world historical” figures like Lenin, Rosa, Big Bill, Malcolm, and the rest but forget that our goal isn’t to “measure up” but to be a part of creating the conditions for the emergence of similar leaders. I think this is another part of the very important thing Stephanie mentioned about maintaining humility.

    Well, I think I’ve written a bit too much, but it’s only because I welcome this discussion that definitely doesn’t come often enough. Thanks again for starting it off!

  7. stephanie Avatar

    I’m glad you wrote about burnout, since we don’t talk about it enough, and certainly don’t have great ideas for what to do about it. I like the link to activist stories.

    I was thinking that for me, I’ve gotten better at avoiding total burnout as I got older, but that has come from me treating the activism more like work. I do some things because I said I would and I think I should, and not because I feel excited or passionate about them. It isn’t like earlier days of always being driven by anger and outrage (though that can still happen). I wonder if there is a way to develop the right balance between all of this – the anger and excitement as well as the slow and steady. Perhaps its like a close friendship or relationship, where you learn to move through different phases of highs and lows.

    I also think its important to remember our own activist stories because hopefully they keep us a little humble – about mistakes we might have made or grand crazy ideas we had when we first became politically active. But also humble about our current selves, who might have be more afraid to take risks or less willing to try something new.

  8. Maeve66 Avatar

    Man, thanks, Ursula — and Stephanie and R. (from Atlanta? I’m guessing, because I’m totally jealous of how close y’all are, socially, and I *do* think that is part of preventing or mitigating burnout — of course, if it’s not R. from Atlanta, pardon me!)

    Like Ursula, I don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t a radical, and my parents were socialists and civil rights activists and antiwar activists in the 1960s. Some of my earliest memories are demonstrations and signs and banners and passionate discussions of imperialism late at night, when I would climb out of my iron crib and sneak into the living room, wanting to be part of it, somehow. And like Ursula, when my dad told me bedtime stories, they featured Che Guevara, Bernadette Devlin, (and for some reason, Tony Benn, which confused me when I finally saw pictures of him later in life and realized he was OLD; I’d thought he was an English revoutionary youth, like Che and Bernie). The first song I knew how to sing was “Solidarity Forever”, and then “John Brown’s Body.” I’m sure “The Internationale” wasn’t long after that.

    There was a period when I was kind of worried because I didn’t go through any sort of “rebellious” phase… I mean, what was I going to do, become a Democrat to spite my parents? And there was a longer period when my father was hella concerned by my manic activism through high school, because he was convinced *I* was going to burn out, and at a young age. My father and mother– and a group of comrades who have hung together for forty years, now — did not burn out, even though they’ve weathered some shitty times for the left, and even though sometimes it seems like the times do nothing but get worse.

    I do think that avoiding burnout has partly to do with building and maintaining human relationships with other activists — and comrades — and also, as Stephanie says, with treating activism and revolutionary commitment itself LIKE a relationship, one you want to nurture, support, and grow into.

    There are ebbs and flows in relationships, and in political engagement. But a commitment to revolutionary socialism is something I’ve always viewed as for the long haul. I am interested, though — since this is not an issue I have to deal with — in how revolutionaries in THIS period (that is, people who radicalized not during the 60s or 70s, or earlier, but in the 80s, 90s, or ‘naughts) are dealing with avoiding burnout, and especially with remaining active if they have young children. In a period where political activity is at a high and exciting tempo, that kind of pulls one along with its urgency, I can see how parents sort of superhumanly managed, and sometimes subordinated their kids to the demands of the moment. I think that the 1960s were that. But today? How do people meet the demands of radical or revolutionary activism in a downturn that is depressing enough, anyway, with kids and a need to care for themselves?

    Secondly (or wherever I’m at, in terms of points) — Like R., I am very curious about how people radicalize who do NOT come from some sort of a red diaper baby background. My experience, and Ursula’s, is not common (and it’s always something of a nice feeling to encounter other people from such a wacky family history — especially the organized socialist or communist kind, which might be a bit like two kids from different snake-handling or glossolalia churches meeting each other as grown-ups: recognition and relief and shared bits of incredibly rare culture) — but the OTHER experience — coming to a radical or revolutionary consciousness on one’s own, almost ex nihilo, seems very nearly miraculous to me. I always want to hear those stories. I find it hard to imagine, believing one way, and then shifting my perspective and seeing things so differently. I hope lots of people will use this thread to tell their stories. Please do!

    maeve66 is a middle school teacher in a working class suburb of Oakland.