So You Think You’re A Radical?

by | 1 Aug 2011

I’ve always quite liked those essays and pamphlets that have from time to time been put out to confront politically active people with their own behaviour patterns. They tend to have a provocative edge and slightly supercilious note that I will attempt to emulate in this post. Because this one is for people who think of themselves as radicals. This is a post about how radicalism might not be radical, and you’re probably to blame. No, not you, obviously, I mean all the people behind you. I should make it clear I’m not talking about spontaneous outbursts of action by people fighting for what they need. It’s not reasonable to discuss what is or isn’t radical about sudden mass movements of people trying to make space for themselves in the world. It simply happens. I’m talking about – and to – the people who sit around discussing how to change things.

Events like the demonstration on the 26th March have begun to bother me. Before it happened there was all sorts of talk about all the cool stuff that was going to happen, yet apart from UKUncut very little happened outside the march. Some people ran around in circles for a bit and had some barneys with the police, but no targets, no occupations, no serious disruptions. It seemed that people were waiting for someone else to organise the cool stuff and when it didn’t they just accepted they were riding on the back of a demonstration created by an organisation many of them despise.

What is the cool stuff anyway? What is radical action? Well we’re all agreed now that radical stuff should feel good. It should feel liberating as well as being liberating. It should be exciting. It should give you a buzz. It should give you some sense of inner release, or expansion, or connectedness. Having read a load of radical literature from the 60s and 70s I think I’ve found the roots of this attitude: the 60s and 70s. And its not only our attitudes we get from there, but also our rhetoric, and our theory, and most of our idea of what radical action is. A startling amount of it comes from the Situationists and if you haven’t read them, you should, because that’s who you’re following.

Problem is, that was a time of a great outburst of individualism among young people. It felt great. I’m sure many people had really interesting experiences of personal liberation. And the structures of society remained largely untouched. I don’t think that was just because the US government shot people at Kent State University or whatever other particular event you choose to blame. I suspect it is because you can’t really challenge large-scale structures – hierarchical collectives if you will – as individuals. And here’s the really horrible thing I’ve begun to suspect: in political terms your personal liberation doesn’t count for diddly-squat.

Yes, I know we’ve all come to believe that the liberation of society and our personal liberation are intimately bound up with each other, and maybe they are bound up with each other a bit, but they are different things. I think when eager young people (like me ten years ago) are inducted into what passes for radical culture, they are really inducted into a sub-culture that is very good at giving a sense of personal liberation. And that’s it. Not much more.

I think this helps to explain why some people in Britain in the late 90s and early 2000s were convinced they were part of an anti-capitalist movement. As individuals they were anti-capitalist. All their friends were anti-capitalist. The fact that 99% of the population didn’t care often seemed to escape their notice and they called themselves a movement. It wasn’t a movement. I don’t think there is an anti-cuts movement at the moment either. Just a few people who agree with each other hanging around with each other and not much will – from what I’ve seen – to try and break out of that bubble. So someone can make a claim like ‘everyone knows the NHS is being privatised’ and not understand how wrong they are.

The truth is, it’s hard work to set up organisations open to everyone. It’s hard to beat the mainstream media at disseminating information outside of twitter. If activism should feel fun, I guess we just won’t do it, because hard work isn’t fun. As for why I would focus on organising: I think the people in charge are really well organised at the moment. The reason every government is more right wing even than we feared is because there is very effective right wing organisation pulling in one direction and there is no organisation at all pulling in any other direction.

One of the problems with radical political circles is the failure to communicate with ‘outsiders’ and another, perhaps even more insidious, is that everyone agrees on what radical action is. Even though in our current social context (by definition, since each context is unique) these actions we are taking have no track record of success, this is what we do. This is radical action. Protest. Direct Action. Solidarity rallies. Occupations. I do these things myself too, but I’ve often been filled with doubt while doing them, and surprised by the certainty of others that they know the right way to fight for change.

Some of the actions are even actions known to have failed. I was surfing the internet while distracting myself from writing this post and I came across the Jarrow March 2011. A bunch of unemployed workers are planning to march from Jarrow to London to highlight their situation, in imitation of a similar march in 1936. Now, I don’t know how to point this out without sounding like the bad guy, but someone’s going to have to say it. Guys, you know it didn’t work in 1936, right? You know it made bugger all difference? I suppose the reference to history is supposed to create certain resonances with another time of austerity. But couldn’t we try something that might work this time?

It might seem counter-intuitive that I’m talking about a lack of hard-work organising and that people are organising things that don’t work in the same post. But they are related. They’re both about people pursuing their personal liberation along lines laid down in another time, by other people. And the personal liberation can be such a good feeling that people end up sure they know how to liberate others and throw themselves into ‘radical’ activism with all their might. And often what they’re really doing is continuing their personal journey of liberation. Don’t get me wrong: personal liberation is good, and the first direct actions anyone does can be amazing for that reason, but it should be the start of other things.

I really don’t want to denigrate people’s efforts within anti-cuts groups. But more and more I start to get the feeling that many people are campaigning within a bubble of them and others who agree with them. I think this is in part a consequence of the idea that activism is meant to feel good. And I don’t see much reflection on how we can bring change prior to taking action, or see enough thinking about how society is different now than in the past, and how we might have to adjust our methods to deal with that. I see very few people admitting that we aren’t sure how to be radical yet. And it may turn out we want to be as individualistic as mainstream culture – or even more so – but I don’t think we should just adopt that culture with self-fulfilment without thinking about it.

I don’t know how to be radical, but I would like to propose two ideas that might lead in that direction. The first is to analyse in detail the structural and social landscape in which you live. It is different to at any time in the past. Any radical actions proposed in the past may no longer be radical. Like the TUC march, they may be mere ritualised resistance, bothering the people in power not one bit. So let’s examine the possible routes to change as society stands right now. To do this properly doesn’t quite mean throwing away everything you know about radical action, but it requires you to bracket it while you imagine doing things completely differently. It might mean never going on a protest again. Probably not, but it might.

The second idea is for you to challenge your notion of yourself, the way you relate to the world, and what you expect of the world. Because I don’t think radical action will always feel good right now – though I agree that if it doesn’t feel good in the long run that’s a problem. I don’t think it will always feel liberating in the moment of doing it. And I don’t think how you feel about it should matter as much as most people seem to think it should. If we care about change we need to have an effect on the world, and that’s a very different thing from the satisfaction of individual desires. I certainly wouldn’t want people to engage in hair-shirtism for the sake of it, or return to the days of moralistic mutual discipline in political organising, but I wish at least more people would start thinking about – for instance – how we can really get organised outside of the traditional leftist modes and the boring legwork that will be necessary for it to happen.

I think the lack of self-reflection among people who consider themselves radical is so great that to some extent I wish people would stop doing stuff. Stop marching, stop occupying, stop publishing, stop tweeting, stop doing direct actions, stop everything. Just for a bit. As you become ‘radicalised’ you become inducted into a culture of ‘radicalism’ that is as individualistic as the culture it claims to oppose, and adheres as strongly to ritual forms as our would-be masters do. I think we still need to work out how to be radical: how to think radically, how to act radically, how to relate radically. I don’t think we know yet.

I think the assumption you know how to be radical is killing radicalism.

In Bed With the Resistance


  1. Interesting, and I think you might be right in a lot of way. Although it’s interesting to note that it’s those places where change has been forced recently (Egypt, Tunisia) have all used strikes, marches, protests, occupations etc, and did so with vast sections of the population on-side. It seems to me this may be more a problem of organisation and outreach more than a particularly fixed definition of radicalism.

  2. Solid post – it reminds me of a lot of leftists/radicals I know, and also of an old Noam Chomsky quote I’m going to botch: it’s more important to do something effective than to do something that makes us feel good.

    I think you’ve made a lot of good points, but I’ll argue the other side simply in the interest of provoking some discussion around the issue.

    In the US, we certainly have our share of single-minded radicals who are certain that direct action, protests, and occupation are the most effective tools of social change, but I think this is a really microscopic number of people compared to those who are uncertain of their tactics. Many radicals I’ve known choose to “build a new society in the shell of the old” by starting community gardens, running small democratic workplaces in bakeries and bicycle shops,and so on, which are heroic small-scale efforts to make a better world possible but are also kind of a way of disengaging from the larger attempt to rectify society’s injustices.

    And if we think of the left writ-large, there are obviously tons of people (in my experience, anyway) who sympathize with the attempts to make the world more just, equitable, and free for all but are incrementalists or feel powerless to do anything.

    As to the personal and the political, I agree completely that the 60s and 70s created an environment of personal liberation for activists while leaving much of the social structure intact. However, I think that leaning too much in this direction can lead to a kind of dour class-only analysis of human flourishing and social justice that doesn’t comport with people’s lived experience of justice and freedom. This is on my mind because I have just recently been turned on to radical feminist and cultural critic Ellen Willis, and she had a great article responding to Tom Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas” in which she persuasively puts forward the argument that non-class liberation matters, too (it’s free on the internet here:

    I think this is particularly clear when we think about the feminist and racial justice movements. The kinds of advances made by minorities and women in the last 50 years, in the US in particular, have been huge. While it may be true that capital seeks more laborers and consumers and is not against the demolition of Jim Crow as long as the wage-labor relationship persists safely, it is still a huge leap forward in overall human welfare to have loosened many of these old social repressions – and there is still much more work to be done on this front.

    So, I don’t know! You made great points, but I think it cuts the other way a little too.

  3. First, I want to say that I always welcome this kind of critique. The only people not interested in it, I’d hazard, are people who haven’t been politically active very long, or are not actually politically active, but like to appear to be. At a certain point, if you’re really invested in something, you like it to be productive, whether that be golf, or direct action.

    Second, this set me off:
    ” What is radical action? Well we’re all agreed now that radical stuff should feel good.”

    I’m not actually agreed with that, nor have I ever been. That’s actually a very western idea about activism, and within it is the question of what ‘feeling good’ actually is. I think you hit the nail a little later in your essay by describing the individualism in which radicalism, so called, is rooted. In other cultures with political traditions and activism, there are other paradigms at play—collectivism, a connection to family and community are often greater motivators than personal achievement. The difference is in what “feels good” means, and how its quantified. I lived in Palestine at the beginning of the intifada with a bunch of Gazan dudes who’d spent a couple of years in jail for their political action in the late nineties. One thing they said to me that always reverberates was this: “there’s more to life than being happy”. And even though they said this, and given the situation they were in, which was particularly awful, since they were trapped in Ramallah and could never go back to Gaza without relinquishing their right to return to the West Bank, they were probably the happiest people I’ve ever met. They saw what I considered happiness—getting laid, drinking, partying, reveling, focusing on my individuality at the expense of raising a family and connecting back to my traditions—as flatulent bullshit. For them, happiness was not even something I would call happiness, it was a greater and very subtle fulfillment of being at peace with your family and culture and their needs. That’s why they could have an intifada that was actually painful to wage, and still be “happy” seeming from my perspective.

    The problem with radicals is that most of the time they’re not fighting for community and family, but for their own ideas of what the world should be like. They’ve been lucky to find some other dudes who share that vision, and they call that a community. But its not, they’re not fighting for each other, or for their way of life, or for the betterment of their children. That’s the biggest problem in Western movements. The people who would be fighting for all those things, who are really invested, are working, or trying to find a job, or trying to make things work out; they don’t have time for all that crap, and won’t until their at poverty’s door. There’s always been this class difference, and its been the subject of a lot of discourse, particularly around the collapse of the civil rights movement. But people seem to have forgotten it over and over again. You can’t trust radicals to remain invested in movements, or to be true to the goals that affect the people who have the most to lose; that vestment has to come from the people who have lives at stake and they have to build their own power base. Whether or not that can happen in a capitalist society where activism has come to be a career of its own, is an open question.


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