Issue 35: In Praise of Radicalism

By Nathan Davis

The English word “radical” comes from the Latin word “radix”, which means “root”. To be a radical, then, is to be concerned with roots: the fundamental principles and assumptions from which our societies and lives grow. Radicalism exists in many flavors: certainly those of the historical American and European far left and far right, but also those that don’t fall neatly into this spectrum, for example agrarian pacifism or Islamic fundamentalism. What radicals tend to have in common is the belief and desire that fundamental change at the root will ramify (from the Latin “ramus”, or “branch”) through the tree of civilization.

Depending on our specific political and philosophical orientations and life experiences, we may find some radicalisms enticing and some abhorrent. So rather than discuss the merits of specific radical positions (though I do suggest some for Rockland at the end of this article), I argue that the virtue of radicalism in general is as an antidote to the sclerosis of thought that afflicts all of us when we get too comfortable with ourselves and our ideas. That is, any specific radicalism may (or may not) lead to an unproductive rigidity or destructive absolutism, but radicalisms collectively prod us all to flexibility and freedom of thought and action.

Radicals rarely succeed outright in their goal of transforming their worlds from the root — though there are big-name exceptions to this: Martin Luther, Karl Marx, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and others. But regardless of their ultimate success or failure, they introduce new ideas (sometimes extreme, often unacceptable to the mainstream) into the public consciousness and conversation, expand the range of morally and politically acceptable thought and behavior, and create a zone of freedom and experimentation between the center and the radical position. Regardless of the merits of an individual radical position, this zone of freedom is what allows unconventional ideas and free thinking to develop. This is the gift of radicalism in general: to cast off the fetters of received thought and tradition and imagine the world not in terms of how it has been, but in terms of what it could be.

Radicalism exists in necessary but productive tension with moderate pragmatism. Neither can exist without the other. History tends to sanitize radicals (because radicals who alter the course of history tend to be absorbed into the mainstream), but I think it’s worth quoting Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, one of the greatest documents of social activism ever written, to remind ourselves that King wasn’t a meek and mild pragmatist — he was a radical. He wrote: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice”. His point was that moderation for the sake of order is as pernicious as the systems of oppression he was trying to dismantle.

What might be some radicalisms here in Rockland? I’ll suggest a few:

  1. Close Main St. to motor vehicle traffic.
  2. Plow sidewalks before streets.
  3. Be the first municipality in Maine to use exclusively renewable energy.
  4. Establish a city-wide health insurance co-operative.
  5. Establish a municipal obligation that no one in Rockland suffer food insecurity.
  6. Grant legal rights to our harbor, parks, and natural resources.

I encourage you to suggest some others by calling in to next week’s Rockland Metro!