Feeling Good or Doing Good?

People engaged in political campaigning claim to be trying to achieve certain aims and objectives. For example, in the case of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament the general aim is to abolish nuclear weapons throughout the world and one important objective is to stop the British Government’s Trident replacement programme. The ways in which campaigners try to reach out to people and bring pressure to bear on people in authority include petitioning, picketing, street stalls, marches and demonstrations.

Very often people do not clearly think out what type of political action is likely to be effective given what they are trying to achieve. Rather they chose to do something simply because this what campaigners have always done. Holding a “national” demonstration in London is a popular choice, e.g. against austerity, against anti-trade union laws, in support of refugees. Usually such demos have no impact on those they are directed at, especially British governments, e.g. the one million plus demo against invading Iraq in 2003. Afterwards the participants usually complain about the lack of media coverage. So why do they do it?

An important reason is that it makes them “feel good”. People say things such as “It may not have achieved anything but at least we tried” or “It was better than doing nothing” and “Oh well, it was a nice day out and it didn’t rain”. For many of the participants on these sort of occasions their subjective feelings are more important to them than the objective outcome of the activity. This is no good. It has been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The most important aspect of any type of political action is the impact it has on its declared target. For example, the usual aim of leafleting in public places is to get a particular message across to people. Some people enjoy giving out leaflets and chatting to passers by as they do so. This is fine but really is no good if the leaflet does not have the desired impact on at least some of those who take it. Other people do not like approaching members of the public and asking them to take a leaflet. They feel trepidatious about doing so and are relieved when they have finished their stint. Even so it may be that the leaflet has been at least partly successful in having its desired impact. In this case the activity has been worthwhile even if some of those participating did not really enjoy it.


There are a number of possibilities:

ACTIVITY TYPES              Participants’ Feelings           Objective Outcome

1                                                        +                                          +

2                                                        +                                           –

3                                                        –                                           +

4                                                        –                                            –

Examples of Types 2 and 3 have been mentioned above. Type 1 is obviously most desirable and Type 4 a complete waste of time in terms of a positive outcome.

For some campaigners their subjective feelings are more important to them than are the objective outcomes of political activities (Type 2). For example, some people like approaching others and asking them to sign a petition about some issue, e.g. against bedroom tax, against privatisation of the NHS. The fact that in the light of past experience the petition is highly unlikely to achieve its objective is secondary. The main thing for such persons is that they get a buzz out of collecting lots of signatures.

Type 4 activities are interesting because not only do they not achieve their objectives but engaging in such activities is unpleasant. A case would be when people picket an arms manufacturing plant in an out of the way location where few members of the public will see the protesters. This sort of activity does not usually influence the people working in the plant and gets little, if any, media attention. The activity is not very pleasant especially if the weather is bad. So why do they do it?

The main reason is that such protesters think that if they personally experience some discomfort then this in some vague way will somehow help to achieve their objectives. The colder it is and the heavier the rain is for them all the better. This sort of personal mortification has a certain religiosity about it. It’s not far off praying for some supernatural force to intervene to bring about the desired objective. Indeed some campaigners of this persuasion hold silent “vigils” often clutching lit candles and wilted bunches of flowers. Traditionally a vigil is a Christian religious rite awaiting the second coming of Jesus Christ. But experience shows that JC is most unreliable and never seems to turn up to sort things out.

The ideal case is Type 1 activity where the people doing it feel good and there is actually a positive outcome. However carefully planned are any activities there is no guarantee that this will happen. Only the repeated experience of trying various activities will determine which activities are Type1. Also we are in a changing playing field. What works at one point in time may not in the future because of changing circumstances. We must be careful of not falling into the trap of mindlessly repeating a given type of political activity simply because it worked in the past. There must be continuous re-evaluation and development of the methods employed to achieve given objectives.

In the case of Type 2 activities people feel good when they first participate in them. For example, in recent years there have been mass demonstrations at the time and place where the annual Tory Party Conference is held. By coming together in a common cause people feel temporarily elated, achieve catharsis, and imagine that they have done something effective even though they have not. There is no evidence that these demos have any impact on the Tory conference delegates and their leaders or anyone else. After a few attendances at such demonstrations people come to realise that their actions have been ineffective and they won’t participate in such events in future. The problem here is that this negative conclusion some people reach about one particular type of political activity can lead them to regard all types of political activity as a waste of time. The outcome is that these people give up hope and shun all radical political activities.

Case 3 type activities are interesting because they can bring about a change in the subjective feelings of campaigners. As already mentioned, many people supporting progressive campaigns feel uncomfortable in engaging with members of the public at large. They try to avoid such activity. But if these people are encouraged or even cajoled into doing so they can be pleasantly surprised. They may find that they receive a positive response from those they approach. Also through dialogue with strangers, including opponents, they are stimulated to improve and sharpen up the ideas they are trying to put across. What seemed like an activity which would be endured rather than enjoyed comes to be seen in a more positive light and one to be repeated.

Another important consideration in evaluating political activities is not only whether or not they achieve their declared objectives but also their impact on the general public. For example, in so far as people notice a silent vigil of participants with pious and self-righteous looks on their faces they usually wonder what on earth these people are doing. Most people these days do not believe that prayers achieve anything whatsoever. The problem here is that regardless of whether or not some political activities make the participants feel good or bad they can have a very negative effect on the public at large and thus discredit the campaign.


Which is more important? Changing people’s subjective feelings or bringing about positive changes in objective reality? In philosophical terms this difference can be characterised as the difference between an idealist approach and a materialist approach. There are class differences in which type of approach is favoured. Middle strata people, who are the main participants in progressive political activity at present, tend to be idealist (in this sense) seeing their subjective feelings as of primary importance. By way of contrast working class people are more down to earth i.e. take a materialist approach. What matters to them are the practical outcomes of political actions and not the good intentions of their initiators. This is an important reason as to why the working class are not much involved in radical political activity. This must change if we are to change the world. This means that a more critical and reflective approach to carrying out and evaluating existing methods of political activity is necessary. Only if we raise the level of political action occurring will we make any significant advances against the forces of reaction predominant at present.

October 2015

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