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THE NEW RADICALISM

Leopold Kohr

First published in Resurgence under John Papworth's editorship in 1967

The question has frequently been asked: Is radicalism dead? With the advent of the affluent society, which the Labour Party's socialist reforms did so much to usher in, have not all its aims been fulfilled? What can Labour still be radical about?

Before one can answer the question, it is necessary to have a clear picture of what radicalism really means. Obviously it is an ideology urging change. But this would turn everybody into a radical. For who does not want change? Life itself is change - the change of seasons, of growth, of ageing, of generations. What characterises a radical is that he desires change at an accelerated pace. Hence the first criterium concerns a question of mood, of temperament. A radical is impatient. He wants change fast.

But so does a criminal anxious to kill a person long before his time is up; does this make him a radical too? There are quite a few who think so, and therefore reject all radicalism on grounds of temperament alone. But temperament alone is not the only element defining an ideology. It is also the purpose that counts.

And the purpose of radicalism is not just to bring about change fast, but to do so in order to improve the human lot. The emphasis is on the human, not the social, lot. Considering society's practically indefinite span of life, no speed is needed to improve the social condition. Time's process of evolution will take care of this in the same way as it has taken care of the condition of ant and bee societies whose present stage of social perfection it accomplished without the need of radical assistance.

But it is different with the human condition whose improvement must be accomplished within the brief span of life available to the individual. While society can thus wait, its citizens cannot. It is because of the latter that impatience and speed are both necessary and justified.

This gives us two defining elements of radicalism: impatient temperament, and a purpose benefiting the human person.

But while this excludes the criminal, it would qualify the Archbishop of Canterbury as a radical - a high minded reformer anxious both to improve the lot of individual man, and to achieve the results fast enough to improve his condition as long as he is still alive. Yet we know that the venerable clergyman does not quite fit our image of a radical.

A third defining element is therefore necessary. The non-radical reformer is continuously hampered by institutions which, owing their origin in an outmoded social environment, have long frozen all human relationships into patterns of customs and law which resist change not because of conservative tradition or evil intent but because of the rigidities inherent in the structure of every established order. Yet, the non-radical accepts all this because of his fondness for ancient trimmings to which he sees no other alternative.

The radical, on the other hand, does not accept it. In his effort to overcome the delaying effect of existing institutions, he feels he must step outside the established order. He becomes a revolutionary.

With this we have the three essential ingredients that go into the make-up of a radical. His temperament is impatient for change. His purpose is the improvement of the lot of individual man. His method is revolution - the attempt to accomplish his purpose through the use of tools beyond the reach of the established system.

It is this last criterium that distinguishes him from the well-meaning Archbishop who, though equally impatient for improving the human condition, tries to achieve it within the existing system.

But what distinguishes him from a fascist or a communist?

Each of the two latter is impatient for change, and each aims at bringing about this change by stepping outside the established order, through revolution. Nevertheless they too fail to qualify as true radicals. For though they fulfil the requirements of the first and third criterium, they fall short in the case of the second. They want improvement, but not of man.

Their concern belongs to society as a whole. In the interest of improving the stock, health, race, status, productivity and power of an organism whose longevity makes it practically imperishable anyway, they may sacrifice the short- lived human being by the millions.

Rather than being the beneficiary, the individual citizen becomes the victim of their grand design, undertaken for the glory of a future he will not live to enjoy, and as oppressive in its effect on the living as a prince building pyramids and palaces. If he ventures to make reference to his own purposes, he is called a traitor and liquidated.

This is why neither fascists nor communists, neither Castros nor Francos, though revolutionaries and reformers both, are true radicals. They hurry where there is no need to hurry.

They reform, but the wrong condition. This does not mean that the radical is insensitive to social reform. On the contrary. But he considers it the means, not the end of his aims. His end is the improvement not of the social but the human lot. The only question still to be answered is: what is exactly meant by improving the human lot?

Since the beginning of time, man's full enjoyment of life has been jeopardized by one principal condition: lack of freedom. This means that improvement as applied to the human lot can have only one meaning: liberation.

The true radical is therefore a liberator. His purpose is to bring freedom to the individual.

He is not interested in a free society. The most tyrannical societies are free. For this reason, the freedom of society may often be the very cause keeping the individual in subjection. Rome was a free society. No other society could impose its will on it. But what good did it do to Cicero whose life it demanded as a sacrifice to its appetites? In our own time Switzerland is a free society in the sense that it has no sovereign above itself. But this of course also makes the Soviet Union a free society, or Communist China, or Nazi Germany, or Trujillo's Dominican Republic, Castro's Cuba, Franco's Spain, Tito's Yugoslavia. What the radical is interested in is a society of the free - a vastly different proposition. Improvement in the radical sense means therefore not improvement in diet, health, life expectancy. Every tyrant wants this for his soldiers; every exploiter for his workers.

It means liberation - liberation from servitude; liberation from tyranny, including the tyranny emanating from society itself. A radical can be anti-social. He can never be anti-human.

Since there are four types of circumstances capable of depriving the individual of his freedom, radicalism has in the course of history produced not one but four movements of liberation.

The first and most ancient was directed against religious superstition. The earliest radicals were therefore religious liberators. Fiercely resisted by the established order of priests, priest-kings, and god-kings, whose sinister power as sole interpreters of the divine will they had to break before they could liberate man from his terror of supernatural influences, each of them - Socrates, Christ, the Apostles - had to step outside the existing religious framework. Each was a revolutionary. And the freedom they brought was the first of the great freedoms that have helped man to realise his humanity; the freedom of mind, the freedom of conscience, the freedom to have his own identity, to be himself. Indeed by prying him loose from the collective haze of his superstitious group in which he had up till then been submerged like a diffuse image in a block of marble before the arrival of the sculptor, the religious liberators not only freed but created the individual. From now on his soul was his own, and God in him, not in priest, king, or society.

However, having become conscious of himself, man soon began to realise that, though his mind had been set free, his person had not. He was a slave, a serf, a subordinate, human as any other but without status, without equality, without full dignity. The circumstance whose oppression he now felt most was no longer his religious but his political environment.

The new representatives of radicalism, frequently evolving out of religious radicalism, were therefore the political liberators. From the Gracchi of ancient Rome to the Wilhelm Tells of the Middle Ages and the Liberals of 19th century England, they had as their object the dignity of full citizenship and political equality for all.

To the freedom of the mind they wanted to add the freedom of the human person. And again they had to step outside the existing order committed as it was to hierarchy and privilege.

To accomplish their aims, they replaced aristocracy with democracy, monarchy with republic, or absolute monarchy with constitutional monarchy. The change of system was not always violent. But it was always fundamental and revolutionary.

As spiritual liberation resulted in the quest for political freedom, political liberation now led to the quest for economic freedom. For without the latter, the former would have remained a vain achievement. The seemingly last mission of radicalism was thus the economic liberation of man.

Again the main obstacle lay in the existing order, this time capitalism which, though it had proved itself eminently capable of producing in abundance the goods necessary to insure a good life for all, seemed hopelessly at a loss when it came to distributing them in an equitable manner.

The economic radicals therefore felt, that they, too, must step outside the established system if they were to achieve the rapid pace of improvement they desired. The new system they introduced was socialism.

Transferring the central power of production from the individual to the state, it now became possible to re-transfer an increased power of consumption from the state to the individual, thereby liquidating the last of the circumstances obstructing the happiness of the individual - the fear and tyranny of poverty.

With this all seems to have been accomplished.

Religious radicalism had liberated man's mind through the establishment of modern faiths such as Islam, Judaism or Christianity which should not be confused with the political organisation of these faiths in the form of church, mosque, or synagogue.

Political radicalism had liberated his person by introducing representative liberal democracy.

Economic radicalism has liberated his body through the establishment of the socialist welfare state. Now the age of affluence has set in.

As a result, the question posed at the beginning seems indeed legitimate:

Is socialism a spent force?

And more than that: Is radicalism itself dead? Is there anything left that it could still achieve? Switch over from the improvement of the human to that of the social lot? And, in the process, re-enslave man in the grand manner of Egyptian kings? With the difference perhaps of putting us to work on traffic circles instead of Sphinxes? Or sputniks instead of pyramids?

And making us lay down our lives for the glory of the state or the improvement of future generations who will bear us no more gratitude than we hold for the past, and who will justly admire no one except the society-reforming monster who managed to extract our purposeless sacrifice?

Actually, however, there is a fourth circumstance threatening the freedom of the individual, a fourth freedom to be secured, and hence a fourth type of radicalism.

And it is this, not liberalism or socialism, that is beginning to fight the battle for freedom in our age.

Unlike the others, the fourth threat to freedom has inadvertently but inescapably emerged as a by- product of the liberation from the third.

For in order to fulfil its mission of freeing man from the iniquities of capitalist distribution, socialism had to increase first the scope, then the function, and finally the power of the state. And it is the power of the state that constitutes both the newest and the most terrible threat to freedom.

For as this power increases, the danger rises that the tool of the citizen's welfare becomes the master of the citizen; and the pluralist state in which the individual is sovereign becomes the unitarian state in which the state is sovereign; that the society of the free turns into the meaningless self-glorifying concept of the free society of 1984.

Though up to a certain point the interests of the two are complementary, they become mutually exclusive when the power of the state assumes such proportions that its sheer weight begins to obliterate the freedom-serving institutions which it had previously provided.

The fourth and last form of Radicalism is therefore no longer directed against capitalist exploitation, political privilege or religious superstition. Socialists, Liberals, and Christians have taken care of these. It is directed against the power of the state, symbolised by the swollen sponge of Parkinsonian bureaucracy.

Since this is proportionate to the size of society on which it feeds, it follows that the most modern form of radicalism, having again to step outside the existing order to accomplish its ends, must aim at centering social life in national communities whose size is so reduced as to render excessive governmental power both impossible and unnecessary. For what good is the welfare state if its costs of administration become larger than the benefits it yields?

The new radicals are therefore the decentralisers, the federalisers, the regionalists, the regional nationalists (in contrast to the centralizing, expansionist and hence non-radical nationalistic power megalomaniacs) such as they begin to emerge in all corners of the world.

We need only to think of the old movement in such traditionally radical communities as Sicily, Catalonia, Brittany, Scotland, Wales, or of such newer ones as they have recently appeared in Nage, Quebec, Tibet, Goa, Somalia and elsewhere.

The freedom they offer to ensure the trinity of the other freedoms is the freedom from government, not in the economic sense of laissez faire but in a personal sense.

As Gwynfor Evans, one of the most inspiring representatives of this new radicalism fighting to protect the individual from the tyranny of government, writes so succintly in his programme for an independent Wales:

'The decentralist would limit the power of the State…In a totalitarian order even the nation may be swallowed by the State, and this complete inversion of the right order has not been uncommon in our time. Still more often, in countries not rigidly totalitarian, we see within the nation religious, social and economic communities being weakened or destroyed by State action. This is a very grave loss, for these communities do much to develop man's personality and to provide bulwarks against the State 's erosion of individual freedom…The individual person must therefore be enabled to withstand the State when it overreaches itself. . . In the Welsh nationalist view therefore the nation is a community of communities, and the State fails in its proper function if these communities are weakened rather than strengthened by it.'
Thus, while socialist radicalism may indeed have fulfilled its mission, radicalism itself is far from being dead. Its fourth manifestation is only just beginning.