America has a propensity for dismissing people and ideas with labels. Terms like "socialist" and "communist" are frequently hurled at those who dare to promote substantial programs that address poverty, or suggest that government provide what many other "developed nations" deem fundamental services – like universal healthcare. Anyone who openly identifies with such positions is assumed to have nothing legitimate to contribute to public debate, irrespective of the plausibility, merit, and true ideology informing their arguments.
It's a similar scenario with "radical" – a word often used to evoke associations with extremism, instability and an absolutist approach to politics. But the popular usage belies the important role many radicals have played in promoting democracy and justice throughout history, not to mention the continued role radical ideas and activism have to play in unfinished projects.
A recent op-ed in the Chicago Tribune illustrates the common abuse of the term in the media. The columnist, Dennis Byrne, rightly criticizes a tendency in America to privilege individual liberty over community solidarity, but he then attempts a "balanced" perspective by presenting examples of "radicalism" on both sides of the aisle. On abortion, Byrne writes: "Radical individuals on the right and the left demand the supremacy of a woman's body. … For [those who are pro-choice], a woman's rights are nearly absolute."
Squaring the false equivalence circle he adds: "Similar absolutist views are held on the right by those who interpret the Constitution's Second Amendment to mean that government regulation of firearms should be extraordinarily limited, if not nonexistent."
But the mischaracterization of radicals extends beyond mainstream media and politics. While discussing feminist activism with several friends, one retorted, "there are radicals in every group". I challenged the presumption that radicals were inherently a liability to social movements, given the positive history of radicalism in America.
Indeed, it was "radicals" who were responsible for sowing the seeds of two of America's most important social movements: worker rights and racial justice. The labor movement, in its nascent days, was a radical movement. A confrontational approach to management was necessary to win many of the concessions now sorely taken for granted: the minimum wage, the eight-hour day, even the very possibility of forming a union.
Prior to the American civil war, "radical abolitionists" occupied the fringe with the seemingly absurd and absolutist demand that people should not be property. Perhaps its most infamous member, John Brown, attempted to lead an armed slave uprising in the south. His failed raid on an armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia and subsequent execution for treason are portrayed historically as the act of a madman – an idealistic extremist with delusions of grandeur, despite the fact that it inspired greater opposition to slavery – a portrait sociologist James Loewen properly skewers in his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.
Brown's message of (what was then considered) radical equality was carried forward by activists in the 20th century, many of whom struggled at the intersection of economic and racial justice, and were, like Brown, labeled radicals by much of the status quo in their time, from Martin Luther King to Cesar Chavez. Contrary to Brown however, many (King most explicitly) have been subsumed into the natural arc of American history, minimizing the role radicalism played in their movement's disruption of entrenched practices. They are now "mainstream".
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One group, highlighted in James Tracy's book Direct Action: Radical Pacifism from the Union Eight to the Chicago Seven, embraced the banner of "radical pacifists" explicitly, and pioneered the tactics employed within the civil rights movement. It began with eight students at Union Theological Seminary in New York, who were opposed to forced conscription during the second world war – which they viewed as a form of the fascism they were supposed to be fighting. Their fascinating protest of conscientious objection morphed into, in the words of one participant, George Houser:
a movement based on non-violence as a method, with the immediate aim of opposing the war, of preserving as much democracy as possible here at home, and of working ultimately for a more socialistic society.
Members of this group went on to help form the Congress of Racial Equality, staging the "first well-organized, systematic use of the sit-in tactic against Jim Crow facilities in American history" at a restaurant called Stoner's in Chicago in late 1942.
The following year, the president of Harvard, James Bryant Conant wrote a call for the reinvigoration of American radicals in The Atlantic Monthly. Despite his belief that radicals "in [their] extreme moods … will be utterly impractical", Conant articulates the need, which seems particularly relevant today:
...[W]e must invoke our radical ancestors and with their spirit attack the problems of a stratified society, highly mechanized and forced to continue along the road of mass production. Without further apologies, therefore, I recommend to the attention of all who are interested in preserving freedom the need for the American radical – the missing political link between the past and future of this great democratic land.
Saul Alinksy, the father of American community organizing, echoed the call in Reveille for Radicals, writing, "America was begun by its radicals. America was built by its radicals. The hope and future of America lies with its radicals." He defined the radical as "that unique person who actually believes what he says. … that person to whom the common good is the greatest personal value. … that person who genuinely and completely believes in mankind."
To me, radicalism means working tirelessly for more democratic workplaces, communities, households and relationships. But it is also open to the substantial societal change needed to undermine the continued oppression, poverty and despair so many face globally. It isn't as dogmatic as it's often portrayed, and requires a willingness to sacrifice some of our own sacred cows to create a better, more just world – a truly radical notion. It's time that America dumps its fear of "radicals" and embraces their political beliefs.