What Liberals Can Learn from Radicals

Liberals and Radicals

Tension between liberalism and radicalism runs deep in the history of Western political thought and practice. Liberals often misunderstand why radicals hold certain beliefs and take particular stances on issues. It is, therefore, important to inquire into what, in fact, differentiates a liberal from a radical. In this piece I will outline five core tenets that distinguish the radical from the liberal—underlying principles that are crucial in understanding the thinking of radicals.

I'm using the terms “radical” and “liberal” in a general sense. When I say radical, I'm referring to someone generally coming from a socialist, communist, and/or anarchist current. When I say liberal, I'm referring to someone who would roughly identify with the modern-day Democratic Party (not classical liberalism, which, in some cases, is more akin to radical traditions than modern liberalism). There are, of course, exceptions to this behavior of liberals and radicals, and I don't claim to represent the views of everyone in either group. I simply hope to give a sketch of what radical thought looks like, often in contrast to its liberal counterpart, and why it would be beneficial for more people, organizations, and movements to adopt.

Radicals See the Root Causes of Societal Problems

Radicals have a long history of deeply insightful analysis into societal problems. They often look beyond currently accepted dialogue to expose deeper truths about political, economic, and social problems. Marx's writings are a good example. Whereas liberals have usually sought to increase workers' wages while accepting a socially stratified society as a given, Marx urged workers: “Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!"”1 Marx and other radicals have realized that, unless systems of institutionalized coercion and violence are rooted out, many social problems will continue to persist. They, for example, see the innate structure of capitalistic production to be the core issue, not a simple lack of regulations or a handful of nefarious individuals in the corporate world. In other words, they see these type of issues in the context of systemic problems, not as isolated cases that simply require minor policy adjustments.

This analysis is applicable right up to the modern day. After the rampant criminality of rapacious “too big to fail” financial institutions that led to our current financial crisis, the response from radicals has been markedly different than that of liberals. Left liberal political economist Robert Reich recently wrote an article entitled “The Answer Isn't Socialism; It's Capitalism That Better Spreads the Benefits of the Productivity Revolution.”2 In it he suggests some helpful reforms like limiting executive salaries, resurrecting the Glass-Steagall Act, etc. (things that radicals would generally support in an effort to mitigate the destructive forces of unfettered capitalism), but says in his concluding paragraph, “We don't need socialism. We need a capitalism that works for the vast majority.” Conveniently, Reich provides no argument as to why he doesn't want socialism, or why “capitalism that better spreads the benefits of the productivity revolution” is preferable to socialism.

On the other hand, Marxist geographer David Harvey responded to the crisis with his 2010 book The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism. In a lecture on this topic, Harvey has argued that capitalism never solves its crisis problems, it just moves them around geographically.”3 He, and other radicals like economists Richard Wolff and Robin Hahnel, have focused on capitalism's role in causing crises like our present one, advocating a radical reconstruction of the current economic system itself. Rather than focusing on band-aid solutions, radicals have consistently pointed to economic solutions, based on workers' self-management, that don't rely on incessant growth, environmental desecration, and financial (and therefore power) concentration—all things that endure in regulated capitalism.

Anarchists have been particularly keen and persistent in pointing out social problems' root causes. Economist Micheal Albert has said of anarchists, “They focus on political power, economic power, power relations among men and women, power between parents and children, power among cultural communities, power over future generations via effects on the environment, and much else as well.”4 In essence, anarchists don't see the political realm as separate from other aspects of society. They know that how we act in interpersonal relationships is inextricably linked to how nation-states behave in international relations.

Another way radicals target root problems is by analyzing things that are unquestioned in mainstream liberal political culture. For example, radical environmentalist Derrick Jensen has harshly criticized grades in school, calling them “a cudgel to bludgeon the unwilling into doing what they don't want to do, an important instrument in inculcating children into a lifelong subservience to whatever authority happens to be thrust over them.”5 Likewise, radical historian Howard Zinn has criticized nationalism and encouraged us “to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed.”6 Zinn reveals that nationalism has been the impetus for many imperial wars, from the massacre of indigenous peoples to the invasion of Iraq. Whereas liberals often overtly or tacitly support the Empire's wars, radicals expose lies and imperialism at every step of the way—not just when it's convenient. In short, radicals look beyond the limiting dialogue of the mainstream media culture and open their minds to and analyze the pernicious conditioning so often imbedded in unquestioned beliefs and institutions.

Radicals Utilize a Diversity of Tactics

When thinking about how to effect change, radicals draw from a larger palette than that of liberals. Liberals, who see current political institutions as legitimate and functional, value working within these institutions. Radicals, many of whom see efforts to influence political institutions as useful, and many who don't, distinguish themselves from liberals by engaging in direct action. Furthermore, radicals who choose to work to influence political institutions usually do so by putting political pressure on elected officials from outside the realm of electoral politics. They see that there's a difference between working inside institutions and working outside institutions in order to influence them. And they do so with an understanding that their goals cannot be reached through appealing to political institutions alone. Although many radicals can be found lobbying their city councils or fighting environmental degradation in court, they don't put all of their eggs in this basket. They supplement, and sometimes replace, this work with ample direct action.

Why not work within electoral politics? I'll address this important question in a subsequent section. For now, rapper Immortal Technique (Felipe Andres Coronel) states it well in his song “The Poverty of Philosophy”: “Niggas talk about change and working within the system to achieve that. The problem with always being a conformist is that when you try to change the system from within, it's not you who changes the system; it's the system that will eventually change you.”7

As I mentioned, direct action is the distinguishing feature of radical political activism. The metaphor often used for direct action revolves around a community that doesn't have drinking water because it lacks a well. The conventional method of political action would be to sign a petition to the governor asking her to build a well. While this is not a bad thing to do per se, and is usually a good first step, it can often be ineffective if the governor decides not to support the construction of the well. Practitioners of direct action would take things a step further: they would go and dig the well themselves. Much of this type of direct action has been used very effectively by the Occupy Movement. For example, in Eugene, Oregon, local Occupiers started a weekly medical clinic with doctors and now a dentist to give much-needed care to the uninsured.8 While liberals were fretting over the Affordable Care Act's constitutionality, Occupiers were engaging in direct action to give immediate care to those in need.

Radicals Would Rather Be Honest with Themselves Than Live in Blissful Ignorance

A major pitfall of many liberals is their faith in the Democratic Party, even when evidence proves such faith to be groundless. Even after Clinton's neoliberal assault on the American public (e.g. NAFTA, the dismantlement of Glass–Steagall, the Telecommunications Act etc.), Congressional Democrats' overwhelming support of the Patriot Act, and Obama's tyrannical foreign policy, which has prompted Aaron David Miller, a long-term Middle East policy adviser to both Republican and Democratic administrations, to state that “Obama has become George W. Bush on steroids"9, etc., most liberals continue to find reasons to not just support but campaign for Democrats. If you think the problem is only at the national level, think again. Did you hear about West Virginia's Democratically controlled governorship and state legislature's refusal to grant collective bargaining rights to public employees for the last twelve years?10 What about top Oregon Democrats' support for increased logging in state forests?11

In spite of these undeniable facts, liberals always seem to contrive reasons to support Democrats. The apologetics are often quite astounding. For example, a recent Washington Post/ABC revealed that 77 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats approve of the use of drones. What's more, these same self-described liberalsapprove of drone strikes on American citizens 55 percent to 35 percent. If that's not enough to make you cringe, 53 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats support keeping Guantanamo Bay open.12 Civil rights lawyer and columnist Glenn Greenwald said of these nauseating results: “Repulsive liberal hypocrisy extends far beyond the issue of Guantanamo. A core plank in the Democratic critique of the Bush/Cheney civil liberties assault was the notion that the President could do whatever he wants, in secret and with no checks, to anyone he accuses without trial of being a Terrorist–even including eavesdropping on their communications or detaining them without due process. But President Obama has not only done the same thing, but has gone much farther than mere eavesdropping or detention: he has asserted the power even to kill citizens without due process.”13 (His emphasis). These liberals' blind allegiance to President Obama has led them to push aside any questioning of his illegal and immoral national security policies. As Noam Chomsky has said: “If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion.”14 Sadly, this is exactly what many liberals choose to do.

While radicals certainly hope that Democrats pursue progressive polices, you won't see them apologizing for Democrats who don't. More often than not, you'll see radicals criticizing Democrats for being beholden to corporate interests, perpetuating the military-industrial complex, and repeatedly caving in to right-leaning politicians on the few issues they differ on in theory. Radicals would prefer to honestly confront inconvenient truths like anthropogenic climate change, homelessness, and imperialism, just to name a few, than blindly support the other party of the one percent.

Radicals are Principled

Being principled goes hand-in-hand with not living “in a world of comforting illusion.” When you judge policies by their merits instead of by who is enacting them, you're able to stick to your core principles. When it comes down to it, certain compromises are unacceptable—especially when people's lives or the environment are at stake. Supporting another war, another extension of the surveillance state, another risky offshore drilling operation, or another devastating logging project is simply unacceptable. Yet, we see liberals initiating, supporting, or condoning these sorts of things all the time.

Radicals, on the other hand, consistently call out liberal betrayals, usually to the consternation of lemming-like liberals. In addition, radicals push wholeheartedly for the society they wish to see, even when it's unpopular to do so. A good example is the development of the radical environmental movement in the late 1970s. Earth First!, one of the primary voices of the radical environmental movement, adopted the slogan “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth.” When asked about this phrase, Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman responded: “I'm all for compromise. It's just that our opportunity for compromise passed about one hundred years ago. We're down to the last 5 percent of old-growth forest. We could have compromised at 50 percent, but we didn't. We've got to save all that's left and begin to restore some. Paul Sears, one of the great botanists of America back in the thirties, forties, and fifties, said we needed to protect 25 percent of the United Stares in inviolate condition. Conservation biologists today are saying it's more like 50 percent, if we are going to have the whole range and diversity of species. When we're down to the last four percent of the redwood forests, we're way beyond that kind of compromise.”15

It's this sort of attitude that runs through the radical tradition—an attitude that knows where to draw the line on compromises. On the other hand, there is a noticeable dearth of this sentiment in liberal political culture. The debate over the Affordable Care Act illustrates this very well. Liberals have been vigorously defending this act that will leave at least 26 million Americans without health insurance, still leave patients with serious illnesses vulnerable to insolvency, and fail to control costs.16 And, don't forget, the model for Obamacare was born in the right-wing Heritage Foundation and implemented by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. Radicals, not liberals, have been the only sector of the population to point out the numerous shortcomings of this law (I don't count the misinformed right-wing as offering constructive criticism of Obamacare), which, by the way, includes approximately $447 billion in subsidies for insurance and pharmaceutical interests.17 Why aren't liberals demanding Medicare for all? There are many who no doubt want it (two-thirds of the US population, in fact, supports Medicare for all), but very few are actively pushing for it.

Another recent example is an extremely hawkish letter sent to President Obama on June 15thby 44 U.S. Senators, 22 Republicans and 22 Democrats, enjoining him to institute even harsher sanctions on Iran while making it clear to the Iranian government that force is an option.18 Specifically, the letter states that “if the sessions in Moscow produce no substantive agreement, we urge you to reevaluate the utility of further talks at this time and instead focus on significantly increasing the pressure on the Iranian government through sanctions and making clear that a credible military option exists. As you have rightly noted, 'the window for diplomacy is closing.' Iran's leaders must realize that you mean precisely that.”19 You might be tempted to think that it's just Republicans and moderate or center-right Democrats who signed this letter. Unfortunately, several of the most liberal Democratic Senators were signatories, including Ron Wyden, Jeff Merkley, and Sherrod Brown. This sort of liberal war-mongering is simply unacceptable. Where is the outcry?

When you use electoral politics as your primary, or only, avenue for effecting change, you're bound to either be repeatedly disappointed or end up molding your principles to those of a candidate you've supported. Conversely, when you don't have allegiance to any particular candidate or party, you're free to consistently push for the change you truly wish to see.

Radicals Think Long Term

Long-term thinking, always a strength of radicals, has become even more important as we teeter on the precipice of ecological catastrophe. Radicals have long realized that we need to move toward a drastically different approach to social, political, and economic life than that encouraged by the capitalist industrial system and its corporate overlords. Radicals have emphasized the need to truly empower disenfranchised sectors of the population, not just make their situations a little better in the short-term.

Short-term gains, of course, have been won time and time again by radicals, especially when radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World had large membership bases. Now these gains are often won by relentless non-union direct action campaigns. The radical environmental movement is a good example: Activists engaging in “tree-sits” have been able to save ancient old-growth forests from logging, and indigenous resistors have salvaged native lands from exploitation. Staying with the environmental example, liberals often only see the short-term, blinding themselves to long-term consequences. Kate Brown, Oregon's liberal Secretary of State, said of increased logging in the vulnerable Elliot State Forest: “I knew from every million board feet we harvested from the Elliot, we put 20 to 30 people back to work in Coos and Douglas County.”20 Instead of looking at the harm to biodiversity, instead of seeing how logging companies have repeatedly betrayed the public trust, instead of considering the many other ways we could put people back to work, she green-lighted and defended increased logging.

Just recently, liberal organizations like MoveOn tried to de-radicalize the Occupy Movement,21 and liberal unions effectively destroyed the radical ferment in Wisconsin by pouring all their resources into a failed recall election.22 There is a place for reformist activism, but when liberal reformists blatantly divert energy from successful movements like those in Wisconsin, or betray their fellow activists by attempting to mold movements like Occupy to their liking, it becomes a problem. And, worst of all, these types of reformist actions fetishize short-term goals at the expense of fundamental systemic change.

What to Do

Rather than increase the divide between liberals and radicals, I hope radicals can convince liberals, if they'll listen, to open their minds bit by bit. Hopefully, liberals can embrace things like direct action, the importance of systemic change, and learn to be more principled. Liberals need to concede that, after all, radicals have been right about a large number of issues. Radicals have opposed wars before it was popular to do so, radicals have pushed for animal rights when others remained entrenched in staunch anthropocentrism, radicals have stood up for the poor when the rest of society turned a blind eye, and radicals have defended the biosphere before others knew it needed defending. Liberals owe a lot to radicals. It's high time more liberals adopt radical principles if they're serious about creating a better world.


1Karl Marx, Value, Price, and Profit (New York: International Co., Inc, 1969). Marx exhorts workers to inscribe this on their banner in the section “The Struggle Between Capital and Labour and its Results.”
2Robert Reich,The Answer Isn't Socialism; It's Capitalism That Better Spreads the Benefits of the Productivity Revolution,” Huffington Post Business, May 6, 2012.
3 David Harvey, “Crises of Capitalism, ”<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOP2V_np2c0>.
4 Micheal Albert, “Anarchism?!,” ZCommunications, May 10, 2001.
5Derrick Jensen, Walking On Water: Reading, Writing And Revolution, (Chelsea Green, April 30, 2005), 71.
6 Howard Zinn, “Put Away the Flags,” The Progressive, July 3, 2006.
7Immortal Technique, “The Poverty of Philosophy,” Revolutionary 1, (Nature Sounds, 2004).
8R.L. Stollar, “Occupy Eugene medical clinic serves low-income families and homeless,” Eugene Daily News, July 9, 2012.
9 Aaron David Miller, “Barack O'Romney,” Foreign Policy, May 23, 2012.
10Mike Elk, “On ‘Left Anti-Unionism’ and the Reason We Lost Wisconsin,” The Nation, July 1, 2012.
11 Daniel Simmons-Ritchie, “Top Dem defends Elliot State Forest logging,” The World, May 9, 2012.
12 Scott Wilson and Jon Cohen, “Poll finds broad support for Obama’s counterterrorism policies,” Washington Post, February 7, 2012.
13Glenn Greenwald, “Repulsive progressive hypocrisy,” Salon, February 8, 2012
14Noam Chomsky, 9-11, (Seven Stories Press, 2001), 68.
15Derrick Jensen, Listening to the Land: Conversations About Nature, Culture and Eros, (Chelsea Green, 2004), 10. This quote is Foreman's response to Jensen commenting (to Foreman) in an interview “You were one of the founders of Earth First! and helped make famous the phrase, 'No compromise in the defense of Mother Earth.'.”
16“Health law upheld, but health needs still unmet,” <http://www.pnhp.org/news/2012/june/%E2%80%98health-law-upheld-but-health-needs-still-unmet%E2%80%99-national-doctors-group>, June 28, 2012. Doctors from Physicians for a National Health Program described these downsides of the Affordable Care Act in this June 28 statement.
17Chris Hedges, “The Real Health Care Debate,” Truthdig, Apr 9, 2012. Hedges compares the Affordable Care Act to the bank bailout bill because of its major giveaway to the pharmaceutical and insurance industries.
Glenn Greenwald, “Bipartisanship and Iran,” Salon, June 18, 2012
19This excerpt can be found in the complete letter at: <http://www.scribd.com/doc/97228310/Obama-Letter-P5-1-Final>.
Daniel Simmons-Ritchie, “Top Dem defends Elliot State Forest logging,” The World, May 9, 2012. Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler and Governor John Kitzhaber (both liberal Democrats) are the other two members, in addition to Brown, of the Oregon State Land Board which unanimously approved the plan to nearly double the logging in the Elliot State Forest.
21 Steve Horn, “MoveOn.Org and Friends Attempt to Co-Opt Occupy Wall Street Movement,” Truthout, October 11, 2011.
22Mike Elk, “On ‘Left Anti-Unionism’ and the Reason We Lost Wisconsin,” The Nation, July 1, 2012.

Leave a comment