“The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naïve and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.”

H.L. Mencken


“Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.”

Mignon McLaughlin

I have always disliked using the word ‘radical.’ To be fair, I tend to dislike any word that can be twisted in some hyperbolic fashion. The truth is radicals, and radical, is inextricably linked to the idea of revolutions and, well, revolution often gets twisted in some hyperbolic fashion. So let me speak of radicals, being radical, and revolutions in a non-hyperbolic way to show that radical ideas are rarely truly radical, yet, over time they will encourage a radical departure from ‘the norm’. Hence, in reflection, it will look like a revolution occurred.

To get started let’s go to one of the most demonized radicals of all time – Saul Alinsky. In 1971 he wrote a book called “Rules for Radicals: a Pragmatic Guide for Realistic Radicals.” The reality is that most of his ideas were not particularly radical nor was he much of a radical. He was a community activist seeking to empower the ‘community’ to take back some power from the institutions. Needless to say, institutions didn’t like this and, therefore, he was a radical and his ideas and thinking were ‘radical.’

Which leads me to why radical is so scary.

Radical implies anti-status quo. Anyone residing, with benefits from, within the status quo hates ‘radicals’ and fears ‘revolutions.’ Simplistically, its all trouble and that trouble is created by troublemakers. Suffice it to say, trouble is found in the nuance. As John Lewis said “making good trouble” is what progress is all about. Shit. I would argue good trouble is found in the basis of doing the business of good business. What do I mean? Hearkening back to good ole Saul Alinsky, almost 10 years ago I used his ‘radical ideas’ to make a point about how to conduct business successfully in my piece “a pragmatic primer for business radicals.” That said. Revolutions are never particularly selective in their affect. Therein lies the fear of. Revolutions start with some, fairly simplistic, ‘radical idea’ – which is actually a fairly simple well embraced existing concept – and then, well, you are never really quite sure where it will go and expand its effect into. And that is what makes revolutions so scary (and radicals).

“Every important institution in the public life of the nation – education, employment, unions, churches, entertainment, housing, politics, commerce, investment, welfare, transportation, public accommodations – is immediately affected by this revolution, and this revolution will not spend its course until every such institution surrenders to its objectives.”

Revolutions are social events with social dynamics and, well, institutions are made up of people who interact and these institutions are only effective if they do things in a dynamic way. I imagine the scariness resides in ‘losing power’ or ‘losing control’ (2 things inextricably linked) and any true radical, and radical idea, is always interested in changing the way a system works or does things, i.e., challenge existing power and control. With that I bring in the next scary person – Marx. To be clear. Simply because I reference Marx or admit to reading Marx makes me a Marxist or even a Communist. That may sound radical, but its not. anyway.  Virtually all revolutions revolve around the individual right to self-define one’s situation and possibilities for behavior and the definition of the boundaries and rights of the greater ‘We’ that self is associated with. I would suggest any of the famous ‘radicals’ emerge from the basic belief that people are enabled to self-create their own rules of maximizing potential. Just as a reminder, nobody ever creates rules from nothing in an empty space, i.e., the system or the status quo exists and inflicts their rules on individuals. Reminder. Karl Marx said human beings make their history themselves, but they do not do so voluntarily, not under circumstances of their own choosing, rather under immediately found, given and transmitted circumstances. Yeah. So, radicals seek to change the underlying circumstances.

Which leads me to who is a radical.

I have said, many times, anyone can be a radical.

“Look. I believe everyone is a potential revolutionary. What I mean by that is I believe everyone has the ability to be a revolutionary given the interest to engage. Sometimes you join a revolution or sometimes the revolution is within oneself. From a personal perspective you must ask whether school, community, work, life, etc. produces what we wish humanity to be made of and, if it is not, what we wish and what do we need to change – AND what your place is within that. The reality is many things can change society, but I would argue it always begins in one place – the world as it is and you. You can wish it was different, but the world as it is is kinda stubborn.”

 I would argue a radical with a valid idea is how progress is nudged along. I would also argue that the power of any radical, and radical idea, is found in evidence; not feelings. In today’s fragmented world this becomes a relatively important point because proof is relational in character and the success as an instrument of mindset & behavioral change is dependent on the criteria the audience assesses the evidence. We often assume scientific proof transcends culture and politics, but that is not true in today’s world. Well. That is not true for people blinded by the status quo and the existing institutional ‘rules of believing.’ The reality is there is no self-evident truth and radicals create contexts where truths do become more evident.  The challenge is, when assessments of evidence are subordinated to system or institutional considerations, the evidence almost has to be framed as radical in order to be heard. Maybe my point here is a radical is someone who seeks to open the closed existing universe to other possibilities. A radical points out how freedom is oppressed, how ideas are oppressed, and maybe most importantly, how potential is oppressed. I use oppressed because that is where ‘revolution’ comes in. It is within this idea where different ideas battle each other for a future unifying truth where people can be organized to change the system which changes society.  Radicals are effective at sensemaking. They narrate an idea which enables some common sensemaking in order to have effective collective and overall choicemaking. I would argue at the core of any revolution is the idea that within the status quo, the existing system, a person isn’t really free, doesn’t really have full freedom, and doesn’t really have the opportunity for full potential. Radicals are troublemakers in the sense they seek to break out of the existing cage. To be clear, I don’t think seeking freedom is radical.


“Every revolution promises paradise.”

William Stringfellow

Which leads me to ‘what is the solution revolutions and radical seek?

Maybe the solution resides in making sense of the same planet, and community environment, we all live on and in. The reality is 99% of people have a reason for why they think the way they think. Maybe if we better understand what people think now about the world, where they would like the world to be and why the world hasn’t got there, we can begin having some pragmatic conversations about, well, the real world.

Let me say, while this is a sweeping generalization, the main way to connect with someone quickly is to do something or say something that appeals to “me.” Me as in self-interest, self-esteem, self-view and self-actualization.  That may sound like a selfish world view, but it really isn’t. It isn’t as cold & harsh as “what’s in it for me?” as the foundation for all attitudes & behaviors, but rather it is a nuanced world view of individual survival within a larger world – a world which can seem quite uncertain. If I think I am seeing the real world crumbling or spinning out of control in its orbit, and I only view people as far right or far left radicals where I am the only one who can think independently, I then see it as a threat to my interests and ultimately my survival <survival can be physiologically or culturally>. Therefore, I am going to want to be part of a world in which an orbit is established, general prosperity & fairness <however that world may establish it>  exists, and a place where it appears my world view and wealth survival is insured. To be clear. This may sound like ignorant close-minded thinking or simply stagnant status quo thinking or simply ‘conserving and no progress,’ but it is not that clear cut. There is a bit of tug of war between what to conserve and what to gain progress on. I say that because “what’s in it for me?” sounds too small for what I view as ‘alternate world thinking’ or even ‘revolutions,’ but any ‘radical idea’ always has to address ‘what’s in it for me’ to gain any traction. The pragmatic truth is self-interest always incorporates some progress because all people always want the future to be better than the present which demands some progress. And maybe I add that because I think far, far, too often radicals are seen as “I” people when in reality the true radicals, and the true revolutions, are collective self-interested people working together for a greater collective change.

Let me end with a Limits of Growth thought: systems pursue their own Goals. Yeah. Systems, and institutions, tend to pursue goals which are not necessarily good for the common wealth and mental well being. Radicals tend to point that out and revolutions tend to want to rearrange those systems. And maybe that is why we should celebrate troublemakers just a bit more. I think we all know the more a society postpones problems, the more likely it is to run into multiple simultaneous, and larger, problems later. In other words, postponing the problem makes it worse. Radicals don’t want to postpone addressing problems. Ponder.

Written by Bruce