Radicals, activists, and reformers

Several posts have drawn attention to the acts of criticism of the present and advocacy for change. But both criticism and programs of advocacy have enormous variation when it comes to analytical and theoretical rigor. Babeuf’s conspiracy of equals set the stage for radicalism during the French Revolution. But how good were his diagnosis of the present and his vision of a possible future? And what was he really trying to accomplish as a radical?

Criticism and advocacy can combine into several rather different stances — think of Mill, Bakunin, and Lenin and the very different ways in which they combined reasoned thought and political activism. It is worth asking the question, what are the different states of mind and intentionality that characterize different kinds of social activists. Fundamentally, how do we distinguish between liberal reformers, radical activists, and revolutionaries? We might say that the difference parallels that between amelioration, opposition, and transformation; systemic change and piecemeal improvement; gradual and abrupt; but can we say more? Here are some sketches.

Radical activists are … radical.  They want largescale, rapid change in society.  The radical opposition surveys the existing social world; identifies a set of institutions and practices that currently exist; judges that these institutions and practices are fundamentally flawed in some important way; and demands fundamental change or replacement for these institutions and practices. So the radical activist demands immediate, concerted action to bring this complex state of affairs about.  The radical activist is not intellectually committed to proving the feasibility of alternatives; he/she is committed in the heart to the abolition of the present injustice.

The liberal reformer is a critic as well. There are feature of the existing social world that he/she strenuously rejects. But the liberal reformer accepts the reality of the present. He/she proposes a set of immediate and mid-range reforms that will work to modify the unacceptable features of the present and move society towards a more satisfactory set of institutions and practices in the future. Gradual transformation is the model of change for the liberal reformer.  Having confidence in the feasibility of a given set of pathways of reform is the highest intellectual value.

The revolutionary is an architect of change, not just a radical activist. The revolutionary wants to sweep away the bad institutions and social relations of the present. And the revolutionary has a vision of the new society which the movement is aiming at creating.  The revolutionary is intellectually committed to the achievement of a concrete social order that is better than the present; and this means he/she is committed to demonstrating the feasibility of the new order.   So the revolutionary, like the liberal reformer, needs to be a social engineer making good use of historical insights and social analysis into the ways that social change works.

So one way of distinguishing the radical from the liberal is in terms of the scope of change that the critic demands. The radical demands sweeping change of a wide range of institutions; the liberal demands a more limited set of changes. The revolutionary is distinct from the activist as well, in that the revolutionary is intellectually committed to the feasibility of the new order.

Here is another way of drawing the distinction — in terms of pace and means of achieving change. The radical demands change in a very short period of change — and therefore rejects “gradual reform and improvement”.

Here is yet another way of drawing the line between liberal reformers and activists and revolutionaries.  The radical activist and the revolutionary sometimes advocate for means of social change that the liberal reformer would reject: the use of violence, dictatorship of the proletariat, authoritarian use of state power. The liberal reformer advocates for a process of change that takes place within existing institutions, over an extended period of time, perhaps leading to a less sweeping transformation of society.

The distinction between liberal, activist, and revolutionary is perhaps not as sharp as indicated here. The categories are not mutually exclusive. On the topic of racial justice, for example, we might say that the abolition of slavery was a radical demand, requiring profound and discontinuous change. The movement in the 1950s and 1960s for a raft of legal reforms in support of full equality for African-Americans was a liberal and gradualist strategy. So both radical and liberal steps were involved in the quest for racial justice in the United States. And each set of demands was crucial for the achievement of racial justice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: