From Hobson's Choice
A broad range of political philosophies, with widely divergent ends and contexts. However, radicalism in politics means a fundamental critique of both the political order and the underlying social relations.
The term "radical" is often misused as a synonym for "extreme," as, for example, "Radical conservative." Such usage is incorrect if there exists no coherent philosophy whatever.
Variances in Meaning
The use of the term "radical" as a political term of art is obscured by its usage in Usonian slang as a synonym for "extreme" or "very good." In professional politics, the term is totally meaningless; one's opponent, if imperceptibly less conservative than oneself, is a member of the "radical left"; often conservatives are, in turn, characterized as the "radical right," although that's accurate in only a few cases. "Radical" implies "root"; generally speaking, the radical is distinguished from other political tendencies by a philosophical backstory, or systematic analysis, of the root causes of some objectionable thing. So, for example, terms like "leftist" are relative and refer to conclusions; a person might well be "leftist" on economic issues purely out of vulgar self-interest, with no underlying principles or sense of moral self-discipline. However, a radical supposed to have some notion of why social organization is the way it is, and has identified a set of necessary changes.
The term is sometimes used to refer to refer to politics that aspires to be orthogonal to the right-left divide; so, for example, while the spectrum of acceptable politics lies between balancing the budget by raising taxes and doing so by cutting benefits, the radical believes that the economic system needs to be overhauled to abolish the need for government benefits. In this case, the radical is attacking the problem that government benefits are supposed to solve by scrutinizing the system by which employment and trade conditions translate into necessities for the labor force. In cases where there is a small number of activities the state is focused on restricting, such as smuggling drugs, smuggling foreign goods on which tariffs are high, and so on, the radical is likely to propose that the state give up, on the grounds that the restrictions are "unnatural" and distort social relations.
To the best of my knowledge, the term "radical" was first used in the 18th century to the new Christian denominations that had appeared during the English Revolution (1642-1649). These denominations appealed to New Testament accounts of the early church and its communal organization. The radical sects (as David Hume called them) believed that the problem with the established church was not a superficial one pertaining to the sacraments, priestly vestments, or even church governance. The real problem, as the radical Christians saw it, was that the structure of society itself was unchristian; and that this unchristian society was perverting the message of Christ into one of hierarchy and oppression. After the Revolution crippled the aristocracy, a period of drastic religious experimentation followed.
Shortly afterward, the term was applied to English parliamentarians who wished to reform the Parliament. Many of these reforms would seem uncontroversial now, but in the late 18th century, were very threatening because they would have ended the guaranteed powers of the oligarchy then ruling Britain. In particular, they included extending the franchise, proportional representation, annual meetings of Parliament, and elections by secret ballot.
In the 16th and 18th centuries, as well as succeeding ones, movements calling for the socialization of land, universal manhood suffrage, and so on, were quite dangerous but emerged immediately whenever it became remotely tenable (as, for example, during peasant revolts). One important thing to remember was that the creation of markets in private property such as land, labor, and capital was itself a revolution, and one that was not to the benefit of the great multitude of Europe. There was naturally a permanent standing movement for reversing, and redirecting, that revolution.
19th Century Radicalism
Hence, it is erroneous to imagine that the radicalism of the 19th and early 20th centuries was an entirely new thing. What was new was the weakened state of the aristocracy and its reluctance, or inability, to hand off power to the bourgeoisie. In Northern Europe, where the trend was for the embourgeoisiment of the aristocracy, there was an especially sharp tension between the two. A notable example is Prussia, where the Hohenzollerns of the 19th century harbored a deep ambivalence toward the capitalist class. The bourgeois were associated with liberal ideas that could lead to a drastic revision of the social order, and worse, appeared to be convinced their position was the most secure; it was the proletariat and the aristocracy who required protection. In Spain, Italy and the [Balkans]], "radical" acquired the same sense as 19th century "liberal"; even today, the Radical parties of Italy and Argentina are mostly conservative, but distinguished for promoting civil liberties.
At the time, there was a natural logic to this: a host of theories about social organization (the nascent social sciences) were emerging, ranging from economics to linguistics. Many of these theories predicted that what was needed was a reform of the political structure that would bring the social classes into harmony (i.e., idealistic images of free markets leading to endless growth and rising standards of living for all), or else, were very middle class-oriented visions of a cleaner and more efficient society, in which order and regimentation replaced the squalor that characterized nearly all 19th century Western cities. This was rationalist radicalism, and it often spun off into crank notions about currency reform and other tweakings.
But this form of "radicalism" was a cul-de-sac. It provided little hope to the fifth of the English population, for example, who had been driven off the land and into the abject squalor of the industrial settlements. Those who were concerned with the plight of the masses were often stuck in a twilight zone between classes: the bourgeois and the aristocracy tended to regard the "swinish multitudes" almost as a colonized race of Untermenschen, without the ethical regard to which one would assume humans were entitled. John Stuart Mill, in Principles of Political Economy, often addresses his readers as if he expected them to be actively hostile to the interests of workers (he takes the scandalous view that rising incomes for the workers is prima facie a good thing). The thing that distinguished genuine radicalism and 19th century "radical" parties was the identification of social institutions as part of a system, in which results were achieved through changes in the processes, as opposed to changes in the laws or parliamentary provisions (budgets, tax schedules) related to those results. Whereas radicals like John Bright and Richard Cobden claimed liberating economies from legal intervention would create immense wealth (it did), this shifted the target of regulation from trade to the poor: the huge new industrial entities spawned by the end of the Corn Laws created the need for a vast new police state in Britain.
In the latter 19th century radical views tended to be evolutionary, meaning that large organizations promoting them survived long enough to allow continuous refinement and experimentation; and they tended to be international, so that they could develop universal principles applicable everywhere. In this way, a general testable body of theory could emerge that was independent of popular notions of "national character."
20th Century Radicalism
Radicalism as a branch of political philosophy was in some ways set back in the 20th century; essentially, "tendencies" (rival ideologies) became captives of political party bureaucracies, which jettisoned their theories, took power, and governed with disastrous results; or else, their ideologies metastasized into dogmas, destroying any value that radical theorists had created. Marx's most valuable insights tended to be overridden by his most strident ones, leading to revolutionary Marxist organizations that were essentially conspiratorial and totalitarian. Radicalism fused with the political left, but tended to be either marginal or tyrannical; it also was readily incorporated into hard right movements, although usually as a parody. The "radical right" tended to be a case of absurd auto-projection; unable to come up with anything like a rigorous theory of social relations, it therefore could not be radical; it could only attack that of the radical left, or try to substitute radical ideologies without a right-left orientation.
Moreover, radicalism was subjected to singularly violent stresses in the 20th century: in addition to numerous purges against radicals as subversives, radicals were faced with events overtaking reality. The collapse of imperialism, the Counterculture, the social transformations under totalitarianism and consumerism, and the world wars, exposed radicals to far broader scope of debate than had existed before. Instead of discussing fairly moderate changes to the social order, radicals were compelled to ask the most sweeping questions imaginable, while denied many of the organizational tools of 19th century radicalism.
However, elements of progress have occurred. During the 20th century, coherent radical ideals of how society could be made better emerged. It is often forgotten how scatterbrained and fragmented 19th century revolutionary thinking was. The 19th and early 20th century were characterized by extreme creativity and a luxuriance of ideas about the contradictions of the world, but for precisely this reason, they were also a theoretical shambles. While theories were developing, and accommodated much of the new social sciences, 19th century radicals had largely ignored process, assuming that the revolution would usher in a society that could be magically free of the very social forces they were examining; they were very much like science fiction writers. Moreover, most had only the foggiest notion of what a revolution was like, having only seen—at most—abortive ones. Most seriously, the period of High Imperialism (1870-1911) was accompanied by some fairly successful European and North American politicians who associated imperialism with progressive social transformation: social imperialists, they sometimes argued that the TEP "owed it to mankind" (i.e., to its future global mastery) to confiscate natural resources in undeveloped lands like Africa. By the 1920's, radical doctrines had begun to develop a clear, coherent outline. They coalesced into three main currents of radicalism that appear in all matters addressed by radicals.
The social democratic approach to radical change is based on the argument that progress in any direction requires a firm grounding in human rights. Since the collapse of Communism, radical social democrats have observed that the human project of extensive mastery over the environment, and intensive mastery over either crime or malingering, must be contained by respect for the individual if it is not to become an all-devouring monster. Humans with rights can object to the misallocations and corruption of big enterprises; without them, socialism will be a planet-destructive tyranny. On matters other than the social relations of production (or economics), the social democrats are interesting in pragmatic reforms.
The hard left has little patience for the social democrats, whom it accuses of crypto-liberalism. Firstly, it objects to the woolly-headed reformism: reforms are meaningful only if they threaten the future of the ruling class. If the reforms do this, the ruling class will always thwart them—with fascism, if need be. If the reforms do not threaten the ruling class, then they merely preserve the old order. The ruling class has to be decisively beaten, which sooner or later requires an actual revolution—and that means a civil war. On matters other than economics, the hard left is typically single-issue: radical feminists, for example, is not usually considered to be compatible with conventional economic radicalism since the latter insists on worker solidarity while the former insists on gender solidarity.
The postcolonial critique is, as the name implies, a generic philosophical critique of both the hard left or the social democratic approach. From the point of view of the postcolonialist, the social democrat is stuck with the power of the ruling metropole over the colonized; she may be an activist, but her entire democratic polity is collectively benefiting from a power relationship over the colony. Hence, the problem of (say) the social democratic antiwar activist is that she is confronted with a society whose democratic institutions control a military that then projects power over other societies. The United States provides the vote to US citizens only, but it has considerable power over, e.g., Haiti, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Usonians may not only be reluctant to cede that power, they may be unable to know if they have.
And while the social democrat is stuck reforming something that is inherently resistant to reform, the hard left tends to be guided by a mechanistic notion of the social order, For example, classical Marxism treats the entire range and scope of social relations as a product of alienated labor, and also as an instrument for future alienation. Radical feminism may be used to de-legitimize the colonial struggle, since it rejects the idea that the colonized society—almost certainly a patriarchy—is worthy of defense or solidarity. In short, the hard left tends to take a reductionist theory whose context is the metropole, and apply it uncritically to the world.
- ↑ David Neiwert uses the term correctly:
Even absent violence, there is no excuse for failing to respond to hate-mongers, because silence in the face of their lies and distortions amounts to acquiescence. This is true not just of facing down radical right-wing extremists like the Montana Freemen and the Aryan Nations, but the steady stream of hate that has been directed over the airwaves at liberals over the past decade and more.Neiwert typically uses the term to refer to groups that are not only rightwing, but do indeed have a sweeping reactionary critique of existing social relations. His specialized expertise focuses on the seepage of this ideology into mainstream conservativism.
["Healing the Heartland," 15 Nov 2004]
My own usage of the term has changed over the years, so there are many examples of my own abuse of the word in a search of this site.
- ↑ New Testament accounts of the early Christian church: Acts of the Apostles, esp. 3:32ff. For a detailed account of the radical English denominations and their role in the Commonwealth, please see Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, Penguin (1982). Hume's reference is to the "Levellers"; see footnote 66.
- ↑ See, for example, Wikipedia's entry on Thomas Spence.
- ↑ An example would be Thomas Rainsborough's position in the Putney Debates of 1647. See transcript.
- ↑ Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, esp. p.78ff' Beacon ed. (1943)
- ↑ Prussia and Japan were fairly unusual nations insofar as they had a large, authentically military-bureaucratic caste serving as an adjunct to the aristocracy. In Prussia, this was, of course, the Junkers. In Japan it was the samurai. In both countries, modernization saw this caste migrate from the estate to the government ministry. In both cases, the caste was intensely devoted to the monarchy, and had contributed to its recent rise to absolute dominence in the new nation (German Empire, 1870; Japan, 1867). In both cases, the caste despised the emerging parvenue class, and sought to exclude them from power, and in both cases this backfired by expanding the social basis for bourgeois rule (Germany and Japan both saw the development of limited parliamentary rule in the early 20th century). In both cases the caste's distaste for the bourgeois was tempered by (a) the latter's slavish admiration and hero-worship, and (b) the need for bourgeois commercial success to preserve German hegemony. See entries for Junker & samurai.
- ↑ In this way, economics became an almost exclusively rightwing field. Economics was inadequate to serve as a systematic theory of social relations, since it explicitly avoided social relations as outside its scope. Economists like F. von Hayek, J.A. Schumpeter, and James Buchanan tendentiously ignored this.
- ↑ An example of what I mean is Karl Marx's "Letter to J B Schweizer," 1 Feb 1865, in which he humorously describes Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. It is important to remember that, until 1890 or so, Proudhon was probably the most influential of the 19th century political philosophers. See also this essay "Political Indifferentism." For his controversy with Ferdinand Lassalle, see "Critique of the Gotha Programme I." The reason I am citing these critiques by Marx of other radicals is, of course, because he outlines the theoretical confusion that gripped 19th century radicalism. Further to the center of the political continuum lay John A. Hobson (to whom this site is dedicated), who wrote:
In my early approaches toward economic study it had struck me as odd that the private ownership of land and the receipt of its rent seemed a matter of no importance to our political economics...Not until Henry George stirred the issue up to a boiling point in his Progress and Poverty (1879) did [it]... get much attention...For [his] contention that the whole gains of the Industrial Revolution were absorbed by private landowners was far less plausible in England than in America, The career of this doctrine is, indeed, and interesting testimony to the naïveté of the British mind. It was never accepted as a working class creed. Its followers here [i.e., in the UK—JRM] were mostly middle-class townsmen... By concentrating upon a single form of unearned wealth it enables its adherents to evade and arrest the wider claims of Socialism. "A single-taxer" is free to take every economic advantage he may enjoy as a capitalist.He goes on to discuss, with his customary politeness, the silly profusion of half-baked radical ideas of middle-class Victorian London.
[Hobson, Confessions of an Economic Heretic, George Allen & Unwin (1938), p.27-28]
- ↑ See J.A. Hobson, "Socialistic Imperialism" (1901). Hobson critiques a specific argument made by the Socialist Imperialists, viz., that they selectively invoked the universal claim of mankind to resources in the nations of weaker races.
- ↑ Catharine A. MacKinnon, "Feminism, Marxism, method and the state: an Agenda for Theory" , Signs, Vol. 7, No. 3. (Spring, 1982), pp. 515-544. Please note that my citation for this claim is from the radical feminist angle; I'm not aware of a significant Marxian assessment of radical feminism. MacKinnon equates heterosexuality with capitalism (516) and generalizes that Marxism and [radical] feminism are inherently at odds (517 & 518). She evidently excludes the possibility of other currents of feminism besides her own.
Now is perhaps a good time to remind the casual reader that citing a work as evidence of a significant opinion, does not constitute an endorsement of that opinion. MacKinnon's abuses of logic are frankly horrifying. Her analogy with Marxism could have been interesting, but she badly tangles the threads.