Valerae M Hurley. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
Radix, the Latin word for root, is the origin of the word radical. In contemporary political philosophy, the term describes activists who challenge established views and who operate outside the parameters of social convention to achieve political aims, sometimes employing extreme or violent methods in that pursuit.
The concept of political radicalism evolved out of the language and logic of the scientific revolution when educated intellectuals began to view the world in scientific, secular terms. It gained popularity during the Enlightenment as social theorists employed the new method of critical thinking to challenge traditional religious and political dogma.
Political liberalism emerged in the seventeenth century, most notably in the work of John Locke (1632-1704). It spread to colonial America and France and became part of political discourse by the early eighteenth century. Locke’s theory of government—that is, that the governed are sovereign and have the right to replace a dysfunctional, tyrannical government when needed—provided the intellectual basis for the American Revolution of 1776 and was the motivating force behind the French Revolution of 1789. A child during the English Civil War, Locke was aware of the execution of England’s King Charles I (1600-1649) and the subsequent establishment of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). Thirty years later, Locke himself participated in toppling the government of King James I (1566-1625) during the bloodless, Glorious Revolution of 1688.
The term radical took on political connotations in the years prior to the French Revolution when contemporary social thinkers attempted to apply scientific logic to political affairs. By 1792 the word was used to describe the extremist policies and zealous political activity of the revolutionary government, the most radical stage of which began on 10 August 1792 when the Parisian sans-culottes stormed the king’s palace and toppled the throne of Louis XVI. A period of government-sanctioned mass executions followed, lasting from 1792 to 1794—a phase of the revolution known as the Terror.
The French and American Revolutions were an outgrowth of intellectual transformation that began during the Enlightenment. Many social thinkers who adopted the “scientific” perspective during this period embraced Locke’s philosophy of self-determination. Two who proved crucial to future political developments were Thomas Paine (1737-1809), an Englishman of common birth, and Voltaire (1694-1778), a popular French playwright with a talent for political satire. In America, Paine became a primary figure in the struggle for American independence, publishing most notably Common Sense (1776), a radical if not treasonous tract that advocated American federalism and a permanent split with England. A penchant for political activism led Paine to France in 1792 where he became a member of the French National Convention. In 1793 the radical arm of the revolutionary government imprisoned Paine because of his relationship with a faction of liberal moderates. During his incarceration, Paine wrote Age of Reason (1795), a criticism of church theology, for which Americans later ostracized him.
In France, Locke’s philosophy of individual freedom surfaced in intellectual circles via the work of Voltaire who had acquired knowledge of Locke’s treatise on labor, government, and human knowledge while living in exile in England. Voltaire disseminated Locke’s liberal philosophy in hilarious if subversive plays and novels that exposed corruption and misuse of power among the clergy. When Denis Diderot (1713-1784)—editor of the Encyclopédie (1751-1780), a thirty-five-volume tome with antiauthoritarian content—likewise undertook to change the common way of thinking, he found a number of like-minded liberals, Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), author of De l’esprit des lois (1748), among them, who were willing to criticize the old regime of France. Thereafter, liberalism, which called for toleration and liberty, became the new revolutionary creed.
Of all the philosophes to emerge from the French Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was perhaps the most influential political thinker. By 1792, Rousseau’s Social Contract (1763) had become the bible for radical revolutionaries. Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794), a powerful leader in the Committee of Public Safety, embraced Rousseau’s anti-Lockean model of direct democracy, which required the surrender of individual rights to the interest of the common good. Where Locke supported individual freedom, Rousseau argued for forcible imposition of the general will. Of all the eighteenth and early nineteen-century revolutions—which began in America, spread to France, and subsequently to Italy, Spain, Greece, Prussia, the Caribbean, and Latin American—the French Revolution proved most radical because of the Terror, and the excesses aimed largely against French citizens. Robespierre based the use of terror on Rousseau’s theory of just coercion. Since that time, liberal politics on the Continent has been associated with revolutionary radicalism.
The association of radicalism and the political left can also be traced to the layout of the French Revolutionary legislature, an arrangement that led to divisions of the left, right, and center—political designations that continue to this day. In 1789 when the Convention moved to the Tuileries, representatives (for reasons known only to them) grouped themselves according to political sympathies, sitting in semi-circular tiers facing a rostrum. To the speaker’s left sat the radical contingency, or the Montagnards, who jokingly referred to themselves as the Mountain because of the height of their seats. To the right sat moderates cum conservatives, a loose association of men known as the Girondins. Between them both sat the vast majority, the Marsh or the Plain, who sided with neither party. The deputies came increasingly into conflict, first over the fate of the king and then over issues of war, property, rights, and the use of terror. In the spring of 1793 left-wing representatives in the Convention joined forces with the radicalized sansculottes and staged an attack against the Girondins, the majority of which were arrested and later guillotined. With the opponents silenced, the Jacobins, as the new coalition was called, were free to enact any legislation they deemed fit. As the Terror intensified, in June 1794, these deputies dictated the Law of Prairial (10 June 1794). Its stated purpose was the extermination of the enemies of the republic. The Law of Prairial initiated a state of political radicalism known as the Great Terror in which crimes were defined as any word, deed, or appearance of guilt that threatened the revolution. In a space of six weeks more than 1,300 persons were beheaded under this law before the Terror was finally brought to an end with the execution of Robespierre on 10 Thermidor (28 July) 1794. The conservative reaction that followed ended terrorist legislation, but it also opened the way for retribution of a different sort as anti-Jacobins took revenge against their previous tormentors.
In England, meanwhile, liberals formed their own party and began to address social ills caused by the excesses of industrial capitalism. Poets William Blake (1757-1827) and William Wordsworth (1770-1850) condemned the modern factory culture in their writing while political philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and his so-called band of radical philosophers—David Ricardo (1772-1823), Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), and James Mill (1773-1836)—instigated reform via social theory based on modern economic philosophy. Bentham’s formula for addressing public ills was based on the utilitarian principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number” (Bentham, p. 505; Mill, p. 509).
Despite such efforts, working-class militancy in Great Britain increased in 1830 and 1845. Luddites staged attacks upon unprotected factories and machinery, destroying property and threatening bourgeois industrialists. That strategy changed with the Chartist movement of 1838 as workers employed petitions to demand universal male suffrage and better work conditions. While workers did not immediately realize their political objectives, such outbursts signaled class-consciousness in formation. Militant liberals, vanguards of this movement, helped bring about duty-free importation of wheat and limited suffrage in 1850. By 1884, with the Third Reform Bill, liberals could add male suffrage and labor laws to their list of accomplishments. As liberalism in England became less radical, with gradual reform replacing political extremism, socialists and militant nationalists branched off and formed more politically aggressive factions.
Early advocates of nationalism drew from the French example and sought republican freedom and unification. Most were liberals in the Enlightenment tradition. The exceptions, however, East Central Europe and the German states, rejected the liberal-rational tradition, preferring a folk community where emotion trumped reason and where the needs of the individual merged nicely with those of the state. In Germany, Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), philosopher and close friend of Goethe, denied the universal nature of man and insisted upon the uniqueness of Volk or culture. Rationalism, he argued, ran counter to the German spirit.
Other Europeans with pro-nationalist sympathies shared similar desire to unite divided territory. Such sympathies led in 1815 to 1840 to nationalist revolts in Italy, Spain, and Greece. Only in Greece did the effort succeed, in 1830. Nevertheless, the demand for self-government did not die. In 1848 a workers’ revolution in France, which forced the abdication of King Louis-Philippe (r. 1830-1848), inflamed the imagination of nationalists everywhere, spurring a new round of insurrections. In Bonn, Carl Schurz (1829-1906), a student radical compelled to write from the safety of Switzerland, described reaction upon hearing the news. “We were dominated by a vague feeling as if a great outbreak of elemental force had begun,” he wrote (pp. 157-158). Indeed, it had. In 1848 revolution spread to nearly every state on the continent. In Italy, Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872) responded to the Paris uprising by writing subversive articles aimed at inciting the Italian masses. “Every privilege which demands submission from you … is a usurpation and a tyranny which you are bound to resist and destroy,” he declared (p. 562). Mazzini’s radicalism manifested itself in his political activity; between 1844 and 1858, he plotted the overthrow of Austrian rule in Italy.
Revolution in Paris, Germany, and Italy failed and conservative forces regained control. Nationhood did not come for Italy until 1860 when another political subversive, Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882), led a guerrilla army against Austria. The German Empire took shape in 1870, after a victorious war against France led to increased feelings of Teutonic greatness and superiority. Due to the farsighted vision of Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), Germany adopted a federal constitution that included male suffrage. As a result, conservative nationalism subsequently replaced radical nationalism and the new state embraced the idea of German destiny.
Meanwhile, political radicalism emerged in Ireland between 1845 and 1849, the result of the potato famine and deliberate inaction on the part of the British government to feed the starving populace. In the summer of 1848, Irish republican nationalists attempted a revolution against England. The revolt failed, but the experience increased Irish radicalism, spawning the Fenian movement of 1858. In 1873 the Fenians became the Irish Republican Brotherhood, then the Irish Volunteer Force, and, in 1919, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a paramilitary faction dedicated to the overthrow of British rule and the unification of Ireland. Beginning in 1970 the IRA, yet to achieve national independence, resorted to terrorist tactics while its political arm, Sinn Fein, made use of the ballot. In 1998 a splinter group, the “Real IRA” bombed the town of Omagh.
An inherent weakness in nationalist extremism was a tendency to divide the world into “them and us,” a process that postmodernists call Othering. After 1871 that predisposition caused governments to conflate national pride with militaristic goals, leading in June of 1914 to the assassination of Austria’s heir-apparent by militant Serbian nationalists. The murder of Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife Sophie was an act of political radicalism that provided the pretext for World War I.
The incredible cruelty of World War I—trench warfare, the horrendous effects of mustard gas, and sheer loss of life—caused intellectuals to lose faith in the idea of progress and to abandon their liberal ideals. Fascism and communism rose to fill the vacuum and a new sort of radicalism got underway. In Soviet Russia, that process began with Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924) who established the first totalitarian dictatorship in 1917. In 1922 Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) seized power in Italy and formed the first fascist government. In Germany, militancy coupled with state-worship and the election of Adolph Hitler in 1933 gave rise to Nazism. In all three places, human rights, individual freedom, and social justice gave way to abuses, compulsory labor, and political terror. In terms of violence and challenge to conventional thinking, totalitarianism proved every bit as radical as any previous political movement. It peaked between 1927 and 1953, with the regime of Joseph Stalin (1879-1953).
Utopian socialism emerged as a rejoinder to liberal policies and practices during the Industrial Revolution and assumed different forms between 1816 and 1848. In England, Robert Owen (1771-1858) a civic-minded reformer experimented with planned communes in pursuit of the perfect socialist community. Owen’s strong social consciousness and his belief in the power of science to create a better world led him in 1834 to found the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, England’s first national labor organization. Like Owen, the social theories of Count Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), Charles Fourier (1772-1837), Auguste Comte (1798-1857), and Karl Marx (1818-1883) assumed the possibility of a perfect society. Such thinkers believed in progress and the ability of science to end scarcity and establish a better world, a perfect community supported by moral political institutions.
In France, utopian socialism grew out of the economic ideology of the revolutionary sans-culottes and the social criticisms of Saint-Simon and Fourier. A child of the revolution himself, Saint-Simon envisioned a world where parasites stepped aside and allowed doers to organize a planned community. In that same spirit of progress, Fourier championed sexual freedom and female emancipation. In 1830 he criticized arranged marriage, likening it to prostitution. Such a challenge to conventional thinking marked Fourier as dangerous if not subversive.
Utopian socialism appealed to the working classes primarily because of socialist opposition to laissez-faire capitalism. French workers adopted either a socialist political outlook or an egalitarian republican one. In June 1848 the two factions united against the French king Louis-Philippe, hoping to replace monarchy with a popular democratic government. Within days of accomplishing this goal, class warfare erupted in Paris (primarily over the issue of national workshops), and workers took to the streets. When the army quelled the riot, liberals returned with a constitution featuring a strong executive. Even so, working-class radicalism remained strong. In 1871 workers again stormed the capital (after national elections returned a majority of conservatives to the Assembly), set up the Paris Commune, and demanded the right to govern without interference. At the behest of Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877), the army smashed the rebels and destroyed the Commune. France was slowly stabilizing when in 1898 to 1899 an anti-Semitic controversy, the Dreyfus Affair, once again pitted the old and traditional—Catholics, racists, and the army—against democratic republicans. Under threat of yet another revolution, the government severed ties with the Catholic Church. The literary realist, Émile Zola (1840-1902) played an influential role in exposing the lie and reviving animosity against the church.
On the heels of the Dreyfus Affair came war with Germany. Brutalized by Germany’s threat to “bleed France white” during World War I, survivors of the bloody conflict lost faith in reason and turned a curious eye toward totalitarian regimes. With the Great Depression of the 1930s, an innate weakness of capitalism lay exposed causing widespread panic to set in. As workers began to migrate toward fascism and communism, socialists led by Léon Blum (1872-1950) responded, forming an alliance between radicals and communists in opposition to conservatives and fascists. The Popular Front, the result of this alliance, failed when rapid inflation curtailed Blum’s efforts at reform. Blum resigned in 1937, leaving the French to choose between Stalinist Russia and Fascist Germany. The Parti Républican Radical et Radical Socialiste shifted toward the moderate center.
While a genuine socialist movement existed in France prior to the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848, the real founder of modern socialism is Karl Marx. Marx’s contribution to economic-political theory—the theory of surplus labor—drew from French socialism and Hegelian philosophy and posited that profits were wages stolen from laborers by those who controlled the means of production. The solution to the problem of exploitation, Marx held, was a workers’ revolution. A second concept in the Communist Manifesto was the idea of class struggle, which Marx maintained would end only when the proletariat united against the bourgeoisie. With this understanding, Marx penned the words that set socialism on a radical path: “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!” (p. 179).
During the Soviet period in Russia, Marx’s social theory became the ideological basis of the radical Bolshevik party. Only the anarchists proved more radical. Lenin, a staunch defender of violent revolution, introduced a changed form of radical socialism to Russia in 1917, altering the basic Marxian formula by bringing revolutionary peasants into the proletariat fight against capitalism and by creating a one-party system of communism. While undeniably radical, some historians deny that the Lenin-Stalinist regime was actually Marxian.
After Lenin’s death, Trotskyites in the West rejected the notion of gradual social change, preferring the older concept of permanent revolution. In 1960 followers of Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) reinvigorated the social ideals of the Communist Party while other neo-Marxists such as György Lukács (1885-1971) and Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) endeavored to revive the classical aspect of Hegelian Marxism. Gramsci’s stress on the importance of intellectuals in the struggle against capitalist hegemony encouraged other intellectuals to take up the fight. One such scholar, Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) of Frankfurt School fame, helped formulate popular political opinions using a Marxist interpretation of Freud—a theory of surplus repression and performance principle, which he used to criticize U.S. capitalism. Marcuse’s preoccupation with the politics of emancipation made him an ideal spokesperson for the New Left during the politically explosive decade of the 1960s. Under his leadership, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the radicalized arm of the New Left, undertook a campaign of violence against American imperialism.
In London, meanwhile, the philosopher and political activist Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) linked forces with the New Left in 1960 after resigning as president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Russell then launched the Committee of 100, a confrontational political organization that instigated political activism in Europe and the United States. The political reach of leftist politics spread, surfacing again in Paris in 1964 where Jean-Paul Sartre’s (1905-1980) combination of Marxism and existentialism captured the imagination of French students. By 1968 radical violence engulfed France, Germany, Mexico, and Spain. Even Japan experienced student riots. Ostensibly, the New Left acted in the name of workers, fighting to overthrow capitalism and introduce socialism. In the 1970s, however, antiestablishment political factions, the Weathermen in the United States, the Red Brigade in Italy, the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof) in Germany, the Angry Brigade in Great Britain, and the Action Directe in France, began a campaign of terror. In 1974 the Red Army Faction killed twenty-six and injured seventy-one unsuspecting travelers in Israel’s Lod airport. In 1967 London’s Angry Brigade attacked the U.S. Embassy, and in 1971 they bombed the home of U.K. minister of employment. Both groups cited militant liberation as motivating factors for these attacks. Marxian socialism was not the goal.
By definition all feminist movements are radical because they challenge established views. Nevertheless, most feminists would agree that modern radical feminism began with the women’s movement in France and the United States during the 1970s and 1980s. The publication of Germaine Greer’s (b. 1939) The Female Eunuch (1970) and Simone de Beauvoir’s (1908-1986) release in 1949 of The Second Sex (Le Deuxième Sexe), led to the politicization of sexuality. Greer’s book invited debate on issues of female sexuality and the role of patriarchal influence in shaping female destiny. Both Greer and de Beauvoir cited Freud’s (1856-1939) study of female sexuality as a sample of male hegemony, which empowered men at the expense of women. The theory of universal patriarchal dominance over women, the primary issue upon which many feminists agree, is the intellectual foundation for radical feminist thought. In England, the feminist critique of Freud was not widely accepted. Juliet Mitchell (b. 1940), for example, argued in her 1974 publication of Psychoanalysis and Feminism that Freud had merely analyzed the biological relationship between mental life and sexuality and did not intend a misogynistic model of human development. In linking the unconscious to economic and political ideologies that oppress women, Mitchell, like Marcuse, offered a psychoanalytical reading of Marx. Her views influenced British feminists through the 1980s. In France, the féministes révolutionaires shared the growing interest in the role of psychology in shaping attitudes, but they looked to the work of Jacques Lucan (b. 1947) and Jacques Derrida (b. 1930), who emphasize the role of language in shaping attitudes. Hélène Cixous (b.1937) borrows from both traditions, employing Derrida’s binary system to demonstrate ways in which male/female opposition in language is used to subordinate the female to the male and Lucan’s theory of objectification through looking. Luce Irigaray (b. 1932) shares a similar conviction that language produces sexual difference at the psychic level. Irigaray holds that Freud contributed to the creation of a phallocentric mind-set.
Radicalism in the Twenty-First Century
Since the 1990s, anti-globalization protestors have appeared throughout Europe and the United States. In June of 1999 demonstrators vandalized the city of Cologne, Germany, during the G8 Economic Summit and managed to disrupt business by staging a five-hour cyber attack upon computers. Financial districts were the target. Protestors repeated those tactics in November and December of 1999, at the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, and again in April of 2000 in Washington when student activists joined forces with environmentalists, labor leaders, and human rights advocates to strike against the International Monetary Fund. Protesters accused large corporations such as Nike, Gap Inc., and Starbucks of union-busting and unfair labor practice, and they indicted McDonald’s, Monsanto, and Shell Oil for paying low wages and minimal health benefits, using unsafe pesticides, creating ecological damage, and “colluding with repressive regimes” (CSIS, p. 3). “Underlying the anti-globalization theme,” according to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, “is criticism of the capitalist philosophy.” The largest of these, a group called Third Position, a European organization with both conservative and liberal members, has achieved notoriety for violence and destruction of property. This group and others communicate via Internet and, according to intelligence reports, are funded partially by organizations such as Direct Action Network and Alliance for Global Justice (CSIS, p. 9).
Terror is the extreme form of radicalism. On 11 September 2001, Islamic fundamentalists, who dreamed of restoring a religious caliphate, flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing thousands of innocent civilians in pursuit of that aim. Meanwhile, in Spain, Basque separatists employed similar tactics in their fight for the creation of a single Basque nation. Both used terror to create and exploit a climate of fear—a means of advancing political goals. Whether conservative or extreme leftist, radicals of every generation have often been willing to employ unconventional methods to achieve political objectives.