Rudolf Eucken had a beard and a way of tucking the ends of his bow tie under his collar that I remember Macmillan using in the 1970s. But it was in 1908, a year after Kipling, that Eucken won the Nobel prize for literature. (Anyone read a book by him?) His belief was that truth is arrived at through active striving after the spiritual life, and he called this principle activism.
Within a decade, Eucken’s fellow Germans were concentrating on quite a different meaning of activism. It was the name of a movement, in neutral Sweden and among Flemish nationalists in Belgium in particular, in favour of the Axis Powers.
Neither of these ideas of activism are invoked today by people who call themselves activists. Implicit in the word today is that activism is by its nature a good thing. The singer Nadine Shah on the wireless last weekend praised an ‘activist’ who left her children with their father in Britain while she went back to Syria. Nadine Shah celebrated this activism in a song with the chorus: ‘I’m a mother and a fighter, I can do both just as well.’
Activists, necessarily political, were, even before the Russian Revolution, involved in direct action. This ranged from strikes to sabotage. Its practitioners were known by the term direct actioners or the equally awkward direct actionists. But both terms were still in use on the 1960s in the New Left Review or on the lips of Pat Arrowsmith, who in 1979 stood for the Socialist Unity Party (Trotskyist) against James Callaghan.
He got 23,871 votes; she got 132, but she still made a speech when the results were declared.
In the past half century any campaigning cause claims activists. Members of Greenpeace, founded in 1971, became known as eco-activists, and were joined by animal rights activists. I’ve even seen reference to Conservative Party activists. In the past, were they called volunteers, or perhaps just members?
The activist badge might be fashionable now, but it is not brand new. ‘We are no longer all Socialists, to recall Harcourt’s classic gibe, but we are certainly all activists,’ someone wrote in the periodical Public Opinion. That was in 1927. The urge has yet to reach me.