The moral basis of activism

In settings where there are few restrictions on political activity, the question of activism is often reduced to technical issues of tactics and messaging. Remembering what activism costs when basic political freedoms are denied or when the forces stacked against seem irresistible opens a path to rethinking activism as a profoundly moral act.


In authoritarian states, broad social movements can be built out of the common experience of repression. Here activism feeds off itself: it puts people at risk and binds them into a community of people also at risk. The challenge for NGOs operating in states where basic freedoms are protected is to make people feel as if they are part of a ‘community of suffering’ with those on whose behalf they act, to feel that they suffer in the same way as the human rights activist or low paid garment industry worker for whom – with whom – they are campaigning. Read more...

Suicide-as-activism has a long tradition in east and west alike. The cases of Szmul Zygielbojm, Jan Palach and others are worthy of remembrance for the sacrifice that they represent. They are not examples to follow but teach us an important lesson: the need to recognize that activism is ultimately an issue of self-respect. Read more...

On 25 February 1969, eighteen year old Jan Zajic burned himself to death on Wenceslas Square in Prague in protest at the suppression of the Prague Spring, just over a month after twenty year old student Jan Palach did the same. How does the fact that history remembers Jan Palach more than Jan Zajic – and that the democratic cause in Czechoslovakia arguably needed only one martyr – affect how his act is evaluated? Read more...

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