Redeeming Radicalism, Part 1: Jefferson’s Honor, Radical Politics and the Value of Single-Minded Pursuit
…And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.
Our country was founded by political activists pursuing their ideals with absolute commitment. Today, we would call them radicals, but in our day as in theirs such radicals are absolutely essential to social progress. The demonizing of radicalism in our political discourse, therefore, and the associations that have been drawn between radicalism and fundamentalism, impoverish our democratic order.
Over the next few posts, I want to start patching back together the mantle of dignity that should envelop radicalism. As I will argue, radicalism should be understood as the single-minded pursuit of a political idea. If pursued peacefully in the context of a democracy, radicalism represents a brave commitment to ideals over individual needs, to a vision of the good society over the pleasures we experiences in our personal lives.
From the chemical properties of atoms to the surfboarder’s awesome, we employ the word “radical” in seemingly disparate arenas. The concepts are not as distant as it might seem, however. The word’s origins lie in the concept of the root of a word; overtime, the concept expanded to describe something’s essence. In chemistry, the dominant element in a compound; in surfing, I imagine, the purity of the perfect ride. Radical normally connotes something fundamental, something whole and unitary.
The word has not fared as well in the realm of politics, however. There, as with so many other words, its meaning has drifted along in the wake of partisan affairs. In politics, radicalism is almost exclusively pejorative. It connotes danger, violence and attacks on the established order. The radicals we hear about are Islamic terrorists, Marxists, abortion opponents, or simply those with whom we disagree.
This tendency to equate radicalism with anti-social or evil intent is problematic. It is not only etymologically unsound but more importantly establishes negative associations around a form and model of political participation that is central to a healthy society. Radicalism (at least of the peaceful variety) is a valid and indeed critical form of political participation. Such commitment tends to push innovative ideas into political discourse and establish political poles for which we can strive, or against which we can push. Without radicalism, we would be stuck floundering among torpid compromises with no pure nor inspiring visions of the good (or the bad).
But I advance beyond my argument.
The Founding Radicals
The epigram above comes, of course, from Declaration of Independence. With all due wariness to the dangers of founding myths, it is the case that many of the founders of our republic placed their own lives, and the lives of their families, in substantial danger in seeking to establish a new political order. And not just their lives, but, as the quote above demonstrates, their fortunes and their sacred honor – the material, cultural and social foundations of their lives.
This is the essence of radicalism. I don’t mean radical ideas, or radical actions, but radical men and women, radicalism as a lifestyle.
To elucidate this concept, let’s start with the more common model – the average well-intentioned citizen, a category into which I optimistically place myself. I have some vague ideas about the good life and about the good society. For example, I think I should have a smaller ecological footprint. I’ve given up eating meat, but haven’t been able to figure out how to eat local. I started composting, but couldn’t figure out how to get rid of the rotting, fruit-fly-infested vegetables. I try to take public transportation, but regularly give into the allure of convenience. And, of course, I fly in outlandishly-greenhouse-gas-burning airplanes at least once a year. Likewise, I think our society should do something about climate change. I’ve signed lots of petitions, tried to get a grasp on international negotiations and even worked to engage students in progressive politics. I’ve done more than some and less than many and I hope one day to do better on both fronts.
It is not that I don’t want to do more to live sustainably. It is rather that living in a genuinely sustainable fashion is incredibly difficult as an American. To get even close requires huge sacrifices that most of us (read: me) are simply unwilling to make – living without a car, living without new clothing, living without many of the most basic luxuries we take for granted – luxuries so basic that we don’t even consider them luxuries. It requires living off the grid. Rare is the person willing to go to that extreme for principles.
Principles of Radicalism
It is principles, and our adherence to them, that separate the radicals from the rest of us. Most of us hold principles but do not adhere to them; we make compromises and adjustments to be comfortable and to fit in. To avoid making a stir, to remain safely within the mainstream. We may question the foundations of our lives, but usually remain safely within the edifice built upon them.
To be radical, on the other hand, is to commit fully to an ideal and to follow the logic of that commitment to its full extension. For those committed to sustainability, for example, radicalism would require not just living off the grid, perhaps, but loudly and repeatedly questioning the grid – attacking in print and on air all those who continue to embrace unsustainable lifestyles, all those politicians who fail to act or act to timidly. An environmental radical would commit herself fully to the logic of her ideas, rejecting the whole system of capitalism and environmental exploitation and being willing to bring down any and all social institutions implicated in the continuation of that system.
In my understanding of the word, the paradigmatic radical is Gandhi. Gandhi believed so deeply in his view of the word that he was willing to fast for weeks at a time to achieve his vision. His whole life was in pursuit of a mission of satyagraha. This commitment disembedded him from all existing social institutions; the single-mindedness of his purpose made all other concerns nearly irrelevant, where the sum of those other concerns constitute the lives of most normal people. For example, he held himself and his family to the most stringent of standards, exacting a painful personal price from his wife and disciples and making the lives of many of those closest to him a hardship.
So, too, our founding patriots, who staked not just their lives but the very order of their society (sacred honor) on their commitment to liberty and representative government as expressed in a form of government which had never existed before – indeed, which had been proclaimed impossible by the most respected thinkers of their age (see Federalist 9, and its treatment of Montesquieu’s prescription for “a small extent for republics.”). Jefferson’s words above are imbued with meaning exactly because they are not hyperbolic, but accurate.
A Brief Definition
From the 18th century colonies to 20th century India, we can identify the basic process of radicalization:
(1) Identifying a single ideal and attempting to pursue the ideal to its logical extension, we necessarily divorce ourselves from the compromised mix of ideologies and moralities that are required to navigate socially embedded lives.
(2) In tandem, we seek to express that political ideal in human institutions, committing us to total political engagement.
(3) The resolute commitment to a single ideal combined with the total political engagement necessarily alienate us from our personal lives, which are tied to the existing social order.
In other words, radicalism necessarily entails a rejection of the moderation that is required for the maintenance of a social existence within communities that sustain divergent ideals. In a single sentence,
Radicalism is the attempt to live and act upon a political ideal with an aim of social transformation and at the expense of customary social ties and conveniences.
Could this possibly be a good thing? In my next post, I’ll attempt to show why such a model of political commitment and action is essential to the progress of a just society.