activism books

Book review: Five Rules for Rebellion, by Sophie Walker

“This is a book that explores how we can maintain energy and determination in the face of enormous barriers,” writes Sophie Walker, “and how we can adopt activism as a philosophy for life, rather than seeing it as a few pitched battles.”

That’s a promising idea for a book, not least because ‘activism as a philosophy of life’ is very much what I’m going for myself. It’s a subject Sophie Walker knows a thing or two about herself, and the book is also full of interviews with established activists in a variety of different fields. What they have in common is that they’re all women and they’re all campaigners of one sort or another. Beyond that, it’s a very diverse mix of contributions that includes feminists, environmentalists, designers, economists, entrepreneurs.

There’s a good international spread too, with voices from Syria, Finland, Somalia, Japan, Ireland, Nigeria and Indonesia, among others. Taken together, it feels like the distilled wisdom of a generation of women activists.

The title, Five Rules for Rebellion, echoes a certain climate campaign I could mention, but the rules here are more to do with resilience and perseverance than political agitation per se. It’s more about personal activism than a how-to for movement building, though of course those things overlap. Drawing on her own experiences and the stories of her interviewees, Walker looks at how to overcome despair; how to channel anger productively; or how to collaborate and build alliances.

There are loads of useful tips and hard-won lessons here. I have significantly defaced my copy with underlining, which authors should take as a compliment. (It’s exclamation marks in the margins that you want to avoid, in my books.) I often found myself pausing to think about wise advice in simple phrasing, such as the fashion designer Laura Krarup Frandsen suggesting people “act from the anger, not in anger”, or guerrilla gardener Pam Warhurst complaining about her town’s “lack of investment in joy”. There are also warnings about where activism can go wrong – “a hurtful, judgemental activist culture is not going to help us achieve our goals.”

Walker’s own activism has mainly been around women and feminism, including as a founder of the Women’s Equality Party. Naturally the book is particularly strong on that subject, and she writes with eye-opening frankness about the frustrations and abuse that she has experienced. For those involved in activism in other sectors, the lessons are transferable. Fundamentally, it’s a state of mind, a disatisfaction. As Walker writes, “becoming an activist means rejecting that what we’re told is simply the way of things, and instead demanding a better world.”

  • Five Rules for Rebellion is published by Icon Books and is available from Earthbound Books UK.
  • Three more books along these lines:

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