I’ve been left of center all my life. My early politics was influenced by my admiration of Martin Luther King Jr., the Kennedys, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and the social teachings of the time I was in the Catholic church. In the mid 1990s, I attended an evangelical church for 8 years, and I learned to keep quiet about my political views. SInce leaving that church due to conflicts, I’ve been on a mission to rediscover myself, to revisit my liberal roots. I’ve written in a Christian progressive site, and discovered the divide between liberals and progressives, and it got me interested in knowing where I stand in the liberal/radical spectrum. I’ve been reading a lot of books in that time and found a beneficial relationship between liberals and radicals. Though the two groups have at times been hostile to each other, they both were needed to instigate needed social changes in American society.
From what I read, it seems that a basic difference between the liberal reformer and the radical is the extent of the changes that they hope to bring to society. Liberals seem to want to make reforms to the existing system, but they do not want to replace the economic and political system. I found a good definition of liberalism in the book American Reform and Reformers, edited by Randall M. Miller and Paul A. Cimbala. They write in the book’s introduction:
“This dictionary’s interest rests on reform rather than on radicalism- on the reshaping and redirecting of society rather than on its uprooting. In emphasizing reform over radicalism- indeed, in distinguishing between the two- the dictionary borrows from Raymond Williams’s Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (New York, 1976) in recognizing that such terms as “reform” and “radical” are fluid and sometimes interchangeable, and that their meanings are rooted in particular historical contexts. However much American reformers might not deserve the label “radical,” many of them were regarded (and in several instances regarded themselves) as radicals in their own day and proposed substantial changes in social structure and the redistribution of power. In fact, the lines separating reform from radicalism have remained blurred and porous, so that clear distinctions between reformer and radical have often proved problematic. One generations;s radical outcast might be embraced as another generation’s reformer hero or heroine. The abolitionists, for example, were so transformed in Northerners’ collective extimation from the 1830s through the 1860s.
From Thomas Paine’s day onward, radical ideas have inspired reform efforts, and reforms have become radical. Antislavery, for example, moved from the cautious, gradual abolition strategies of the Quakers and the Revolutionary era generation to the immediatism and moral certainty of the evangelicals and Garrisonian abolitionists…
Still, reform and radicalism were (and are) not wholly synonymous. They have sought and have achieved different outcomes. One of the striking common characteristics of American reform over time has been its combination of idealism and realism. Reformers expected to change society by argument and action. Understanding American society and beliefs, adapting to political realities, and appealing to public conscience and self-interest forced reformers to consider the practical aspects of how to enlist popular support for their ideas and programs… They were not just writers or advocates; in most cases they were also builders and coalition seekers. Where true radicals were alienated from the larger American society, which they considered beyond redemption, reformers commonly sought alliances with powerful elements and the general public in a culture they hoped to redeem.”
Radicals, on the other hand, believe the system is so irredeemably flawed that it has to be replaced with a more equitable economic and political system. The best definition that I found for today’s sort of radicalism is in Howard Zinn’s book Postwar America: 1945-1971. He wrote:
“The American system has allowed enough change to ease discontent, but not enough to change the fundamental allocation of power and wealth. That which can be termed progress has taken place within the narrow boundaries of an economic system based on profit-motivated capitalism, a political system based on the paternalism of representative government, a foreign policy based on economic and military aggressiveness, and a social system based on a culture of prejudices concerning race, national origin, sex, age, and wealth.
So far, the major political conflicts in the United States have stayed within these boundaries. The American Revolution itself, while winning independence from a foreign ruling group, substituted the rule of a native group of slave owners, merchants, lawyers, and politicians; the new Constitution legitimized the substitution and created a larger arena for the elites of race and class that already dominated the colonies. With the Civil War, the nation outlawed slavery, while maintaining a general climate of racial subordination. Farm and labor movements succeeding in achieving reforms, but mostly for privileged minorities within their constituencies, and inside a larger framework of corporate control of the nation’s wealth. The political fluctuations, even the violent clashes represented by the farm and labor upheavals, had the look but not the reality of a choice between radically different alternatives.
All that I have said here supports the ‘consensus’ interpretation of American history, which states, I believe, a profound truth about our society, that its great ‘progress’ and its political clashes have kept within severe limits. What is missing in the consensus analysis is the persistent strain of protest that shows up repeatedly in American history and should not be ignored- the voices, the ideas, the struggles of those who defy the American working creed, who will not let the nation forget the rhetorical promises, who keep alive the vision, the possibility of a society beyond capitalism, beyond nationalism, beyond the hierarchies that are preserved in a man-eat-man culture. The existence of this strain justifies the work of the ‘conflict’ school of American history, which insists that Americans not forget the black abolitionists, the Wobblies, the Socialists, the anarchists, that we keep in mind Tom Paine, John Brown, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debbs, Malcolm X.”
I looked into history and found that social movements have always had that conflict between how far liberals and radicals wanted change in society. The fight to end slavery in the 19th Century found the division between the radical abolitonists like William Garrison and Frederick Douglass, who fought for the immediate end of the institution, and gradualist Republicans like Abraham Lincoln, who hated slavery but felt inhibited by the Constitution and were fighting for the exclusion of slavery in any new territories and states that entered the Union. The women’s rights movement had the divisions between women’s suffragists like Susan B. Anthony, who fought for the right of women to have the right to vote and to participate in the political and social system as equals, and radicals like Emma Goldman, who felt that the economic system placed too many barriers for poor and working class women to gain any meaningful equality and felt that the economic system needed to be replaced. In the 1930s, there was the division between the New Deal liberals, who enacted legislation to alleviate the suffering of the millions in the Great Depression, and socialists and radicals, who appreciated the achievements of the New Deal but felt the New Deal programs did not go far enough to fight the racism that forced African Americans into second class citizenship, the economic hardship of farmers and dwellers of city slums, the power of corporations had to exploit their workers.
Though they were divided on how far to change society, these two forces often influenced each other. In the 1860s, Frederick Douglass met with Abraham Lincoln, and he influenced Lincoln’s decisions to incorporate African Americans and freed slaves into the Union army, fought discrimination against African Americans, and lead to his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Franklin Roosevelt incorporated various ideas espoused by Norman Thomas and the Socialist Party into his New Deal, legislation like Social Security for the elderly, and the Wagner Act for workers to organize into unions. The Freedom Rides and the civil rights marches in Birmingham and Selma pressured Kennedy into introducing the Civil Rights Act and it produced a favorable atmosphere for LBJ’s civil rights legislation. It’s the radical agitation that forces society to take notice of a problem, and the liberals and the sympathetic politicians who do the necessary compromising and reaching out to make the changes palatable to the rest of the society. James Russell Lowell, the abolitionist, summarized this idea: “The reformer must expect comparative isolation, and he must be strong enough to bear it. He cannot look for the sympathy and cooperation of popular majorities. Yet these are the tools of the politician…. All true reformers are incendiaries. But it is the hearts, brains, and souls of thier fellow-men which they set on fire, and in so doing they perform the function appropriated to them in the wise order of Providence.”
In my own personal exploration of the radical/liberal spectrum, I find myself synpathetic to both views. By temperment though, I lean more towards the liberal reformer end of the spectrum. I look at today’s America, after 8 years of President Bush, and I see a nation that’s far worse off than it was before he became President. Over 100,000 American troops have been in Iraq for 5 years now because the administration mistakingly believed the nation had weapons of mass destruction, and it did a bad job of planning the occupation of the country after Sadam fell. I see a country with illegal immigrants being demonized despite working at jobs that no one else will do, average citizens who are struggling with rising gas prices and food prices, an environmental catastrophe in the making, a growing health care crisis. And in response to all of these problems, activist have been on the streets and in protest marches for the past 6 years to try to bring to light to them. The pressure of these activists, and the general sense of unease of the American populace has forced the Presidential candidates in the primaries to promise more substantial changes in our economic and our foreign policies if elected.
The great social changes in American in the rights of African Americans and other minorities, in the rights of women, the rights of workers and the poor, and the rights of gays and lesbians, would not have occurred if the radicals and the liberal reformers hadn’t worked to agitate for change and worked to change public attitudes. I end this with a quote from I.F. Stone. I.F. Stone was a great independent reporter who published his own journal, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, which chronicled news that other news sources ignored, and it became a repected source of progressive news and opinion during the 1950s and 1960s. Stone was a radical of the 1930s, and he had a unique view of the college radicals of the 1960s. His comment on them encapsulates the ambivalence of the radical’s techniques, but states the reinforces the importance of their role in making social change. The book The Best of I.F. Stone reproduces an article In Defense of the Campus Radical that ran on May 19, 1969. Here is a two paragraph excerpt:
“This is what the campus rebels are trying to tell us, in the only way which seems to get attention. I do not like much of what they are saying and doing. I do not like to hear opponents shouted down, much less beaten up. I do not like to hear any one group or class, including policemen, called pigs. I do not think four-letter words are arguments. I hate hate, intolerance, and violence. I see them as man’s most ancient and enduring enemies and I hate to see them welling up on my side. But I feel about the rebels as Erasmus did about Luther. Erasmus helped inspire the Reformation but ws repelled by the man who brought it to fruition. He saw that Luther was intolerant and as dogmatic as the Church. ‘From argument,’ as Erasmus saw it, ‘there would be a quick resort to the sword, and the whole world would be full of fury and madness.’ Two centuries of religious wars without parallel for blood-lust were soon to prove how right were his misgivings. But while Erasmus ‘could not join Luther, he dared not oppose him, lest haply, as he confessed he might be fighting against the spirit of God’. I feel that the New Left and the black revolutionaries, like Luther, are doing God’s work, too, in refusing any longer to submit to evil, and challenging society to reform or crush them.
Lifelong dissent has more than acclimated me cheerfully to defeat. It has made me suspicious of victory. I feel uneasy at the very idea of a Movement. I see every insight degenerating into a dogma, and fresh thoughts freezing into lifeless party line. Those who set out nobly to be their brother’s keeper sometimes end up be becoming his jailer. Every emancipation has in it the seeds of a new slavery, and every truth easily becomes a lie. But these perspectives, which seem so irrefutably clear from a pillar in the desert, are worthless to those enmeshed in the crowded struggle. They are no better than mystical nonsense to the humane student who has faced his draft board, the dissident soldier who is determined not to fight, the black who sees his people doomed by shackles stronger than slavery to racial humiliation and decay. The business of the moment is to end the war, to break the growing dominance of the military in our society, to liberate the blacks, the Mexican-American, the Puerto Rican, and the Indian from injustice. This is the business of our best youth. However confused and chaotic, their unwillingness to submit any longer is our one hope.”