The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Three Types of Radicalism

Painting: Washington Crossing the Delaware

Painting: Washington Crossing the Delaware

The term radical is used, often, without a clear understanding of what it means.  A radical is:

someone who believes the system can no longer change itself

That’s all.

Note that a one can be a radical for one’s self or own group while admitting that others can create change. For example, you could believe that America is an oligarchy with a mere democratic gloss. That admits that people who are rich enough can create change thru the system, but that almost no one else can. If you aren’t rich enough, you’re a radical; if you are, you probably regard yourself as a realist.

Radicals come in degrees. You might believe that voting in elections can’t change anything, but that it is possible to take over a party thru primaries and make change that way. You might believe that the best way to make change is to offer politicians good jobs and lots of money after their careers are over, so they take care of you while in power (and to make sure their family members are rich during their careers).  Since bribing politicians is, if not illegal, at least not supposed to be part of the system, this is radical as a matter of degree. (The size of bribes matters).

There are three basic types of radicals.

Passive Radicals

If, in a democratic society, you don’t vote, protest, run, or lobby because you figure the system is rigged, and you don’t do anything else to make a change, then you’re a passive radical. The passive radical has “opted out.” You can be a passive radical about various part of a society. For example, if you refuse to call the police or use the justice system, you are a radical about that part of the system.

Active Radicals

You’ve decided change isn’t possible thru the system and you’re doing something about it. Maybe you’re schooling your own kids, maybe you’ve set up an alternate justice system (common in many countries that suffer from anarchy or government failure), maybe you’ve gone off the grid and grow your own food.

Here, there are degrees as well. Say you create your own political party and it takes off (the Pirate Party in Sweden, for example). That indicates some faith that the change is possible thru the system, but you’ve chosen to create a new part of the system. In America, if you really believe in third parties, that’s fairly radical, given how long it’s been since any third party did more than act as a spoiler.

The key feature of an active radical is that they are trying to create change, but are trying to do it either outside the system, or by taking control of part of the system and then changing it. (The takeover of the Republican party, for example. The Netroots tried to take over Democrats in the 2000s and failed.)

Violent Radicals

A violent radical has decided that change will only come thru violence and has decided to apply that violence themselves or actively support those who do. Most readers’ minds will leap to Muslim radicals of various stripes, but much of union history is full of violent radicals: willing to fight the police or even the army toe-to-toe. Maidan protestors in Ukraine who engaged in violence qualify, and if the Bundy ranch protesters were serious about fighting, so did they. The Black Bloc members who aren’t police plants are another example.

So, for that matter, were the Founding Fathers of America, Parliament in the English revolution, and all who fought to overthrow the monarchy in England and elsewhere.

Radicalism is neither good nor bad, all it is is a belief that you can’t make change thru the existing power structures. Almost always, it is accompanied with a belief that a different type of system is required: Republicanism for American revolutionaries; the caliphate for ISIL; parliamentary democracy for the British or; communism for the Bolsheviks.

The job of the radical or revolutionary, peaceful or not, is to convince people that the system cannot fix itself; then to convince them to take action, whether that action is peaceful or violent. There have been many peaceful revolutions: FDR issued one in in America, for example, and so did both Reagan and George W. Bush, capped during the Obama presidency both by Obama actions such as continuing the vast destruction of civil liberties and the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizen’s United to allow unlimited money into the system.

The change from a patronage system to a professional bureaucracy was another radical idea, by the way, and changed American government hugely, not always for the better. It was the start of the decline in electoral participation and it reduced the ability of politicians to make significant change, as well, since they were no longer as firmly in control of all levels of the bureaucracy.

This speaks to the fact that revolutions can come from the left or the right, from elites or populists. To be against Keynesian economics, redistribution, and for oligarchy in the 1970s was to be a radical. Nixon believed in Keynesian politics, wanted universal healthcare, and started the Environmental Protection Agency.

The radicals on the right won: They broke the unions, concentrated wealth and power in the hands of people who would continue to support their policies, and eventually changed the effective interpretation of law and the constitution to gut the first and fourth amendments, the presumption of innocence, and the safeguards put in place to make sure that money was not the deciding factor in elections or policy making.

To be a radical is neither innately good nor innately bad. As with all other human endeavours, it depends on what the radicals are trying to accomplish (their ends) and how they do it (their means). We celebrate a great number of violent radicals every year in various national holidays, and daily revile radicals, peaceful or violent, with whom we disagree.

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  1. V. Arnold

    …someone who believes the system can no longer change itself…

    …or be changed, through accepted channels/means…

  2. JustPlainDave

    When has the system *ever* changed itself? Near as I can see, political systems of any scale, effectiveness, and time depth trend towards homeostasis. Someone always has to make it change – doesn’t seem that radical to me.

  3. V. Arnold

    April 20, 2015
    When has the system *ever* changed itself?

    Exactly! That was actually my very first thought!
    System changing itself???
    Oxymoron, no?

  4. S Brennan

    When has the system *ever* changed itself?


    When has the system *ever* changed itself?


    The idea that the USA has been HOMOGENEOUS throughout it’s history is a contrived attempt to excuse ones own individual physical & moral lassitude.

  5. Tom

    Its a common failing to all Governments. It requires good leaders to function properly, but the good leaders themselves are human, and all make the same fuck ups of not grooming their successors.

    So an otherwise good system slowly breaks down over successive leaders, IE Rome and Ottoman Empires, because the initial system is good enough to survive for a time with bad leaders, but as time passes there is only so much the system can handle and it starts breaking down and the current leaders can’t fix it and the radicals come in.

    If the leaders are open to change, you have the peaceful changes. If not as is all too often the case, violence.

    FDR created a good system, but failed to groom Truman to replace him and Truman made very big errors of recognizing Jewish militants genocidal campaign as legitimate and setting in motion the current mess today.

    Johnson didn’t have the moral courage to pull away from the corrupt as fuck South Vietnamese, or hold Generals to account creating the dangerous worship of the military today.

    And so on.

    As things stand, it would probably be best for world security if this nation suffers a Syrian collapse and purges itself of all the dead weight, because its not changing otherwise. Obama and his successors will kill this world otherwise.

    But at some point you have to ask, can the system even be saved as is? If no and the government responds with violence, then the only moral duty is to overthrow it and purge it. Egypt failed to do that and Morsi would have been far better than Sissi. Now IS is gaining power.

    Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan are going through those purges.

    Turkey has successfully purged the military and put it in its place subordinate to the civilian leadership and destroyed its civil connections it had no business forging, including executing and jailing coup leaders. Under Erdogan, Turkey is growing economically and gaining more freedom while ending and marginalizing a PKK insurgency and shoving it into IS firing lines so those scumbags who commit the same atrocities of IS except in the same of communism, get killed while Kurds who just wanted their cultural rights now have them. Is Erdogan perfect, no as he is human, but his real test will be who succeeds him.

  6. Hvd

    That depends on your interpretation of events like the Roosevelt presidencies both of which upended established orders while preserving others and the Reagan-bush-Clinton-Obama presidencies which did the same. Some would claim that both were radical transformations of the system accomplished from within. One can believe this to be true while noticing that the tendency of the system is towards oligopoly/monopoly. I would argue that the roosevelts accomplished significant changes that put a radical check on this tendency.

    The system of course didn’t effect these changes but rather allowed for them. My sense now is that the system has had the capacity for such change squeezed out.

  7. willf

    It may not be correct that “Nixon wanted universal health care”. Certainly he campaigned on the idea, but in private it was a very different story.

    John D. Ehrlichman: “On the … on the health business …”

    President Nixon: “Yeah.”

    Ehrlichman: “… we have now narrowed down the vice president’s problems on this thing to one issue and that is whether we should include these health maintenance organizations like Edgar Kaiser’s Permanente thing.


    Ehrlichman: “This … this is a …”

    President Nixon: “I don’t [unclear] …”

    Ehrlichman: “… private enterprise one.”

    President Nixon: “Well, that appeals to me.”

    Ehrlichman: “Edgar Kaiser is running his Permanente deal for profit. And the reason that he can … the reason he can do it … I had Edgar Kaiser come in … talk to me about this and I went into it in some depth. All the incentives are toward less medical care, because …”

    President Nixon: [Unclear.]

    Ehrlichman: “… the less care they give them, the more money they make.”

    President Nixon: “Fine.” [Unclear.]

    Ehrlichman: [Unclear] “… and the incentives run the right way.”

    President Nixon: “Not bad.”

    Full transcript here

  8. The Roosevelt’s work radically.

    excellent work Ian.

  9. Montanamaven

    I liked the categorization of the rich calling themselves “realists”. I’ve experienced this. When discussing My not voting, my rich friends call me a purist. By this logic, purist then is another name for radical.

  10. someofparts

    “I liked the categorization of the rich calling themselves “realists”.”

    Me too. From now on I’ll understand who I’m dealing with when I hear that phrase.

  11. Where did you get that definition for radical? I cannot find it in any dictionary or political treatise. I keep finding it defined as an adjective meaning, “favoring drastic political, economic, or social reforms,” or “having extreme political or social views that are not shared by most people,” or as a noun meaning, “a person who advocates fundamental political, economic, and social reforms by direct and often uncompromising methods.”

    Your definition, I would guess, supposes that the “direct and often uncompromising methods” are caused by the system being unable to change itself, but they could also be caused by a belief that other methods are too slow or would not result in the specific changes that are desired by the radical.

  12. Peter

    The definitions offered here for the word radical except for BH’s seem to show just how degraded our language and lexicon have become.

    Liberals are called progressives, right wing extremists are called radicals, centrists are called leftists and clowns are called leaders.

    The word radical ‘ related to roots’ has a clear meaning and a radical strikes at the root causes of problems.

    Calling FDR’s actions radical or revolutionary only denigrates Radicals and Revolutionaries. All of FDR’s actions were designed to stop radical/revolutionary change in the US to save Capitalism and perpetuate the status quo. They were mostly good Social Democratic programs intended to coopt the growing Socialist movement in the country that did threaten the roots of our system.

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