Rethinking Radicalism

By Anthony, David | Free Inquiry, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Radicalism


Anthony, David, Free Inquiry


I recently had the pleasure of engaging in an interesting discussion with an old-time Marxist, a respected author, university professor, and activist. The subject of our discussion was the state of radical thought, but in the midst of this discourse the subject of religion emerged. "I agree with Marx that religion is an opiate," the esteemed professor said. "When we solve fundamental problems of peace and justice, religion will fade in importance."

This, of course, is the standard Marxian line on religion. While Marx paid more than lip service to the subject of religion, his historical analysis--indeed, his entire philosophy--gave primary importance to economics. Not surprisingly, when Marxian thought became a philosophical force in the twentieth century, its followers continued to view religion as relatively insignificant, certainly secondary to issues of economic and social justice. Twentieth-century Marxists considered religion a curious premodern institution that temporarily continued to enamor the masses. Most Marxist radicals simply paid little attention to it.

Although Marx's historical importance cannot be denied, by the close of the twentieth century the heyday of Marxian philosophy was clearly past. This is perhaps partly because twentieth-century communist practice was often a perversion of Marxian theory. But even so, we cannot blame Marxism's late twentieth-century decline entirely upon its misapplication. Indeed, the primary reason for its decline is that Marx underestimated the ability of capitalism to appease the masses. Whereas he predicted large-scale revolution by disgruntled, exploited industrial workers, the highly developed capitalist countries usually managed to provide the musses with sufficient material comfort to avoid widespread insurrections.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, then, radicalism in the West finds itself in disarray. Marx, the philosopher upon whom radicalism placed all bets during the twentieth century, has lost his authority. Having been synonymous with Marxism for so long now, can radicalism evolve past its dependence on the old master? Without Marx radicalism is a ship without a rudder. Without Marxian doctrine, what's a good radical to do? If one looks at modern society and sees not just a need for change, but a need for great change, what is the philosophical foundation for achieving it? To answer these questions, one must consider the fundamental notion of radicalism itself.

If a social system is generally acceptable but nevertheless in need of some mild improvements, then radical change is not necessary. One could argue that such is the case in the West today--that the dominant political and economic systems may need to be altered modestly, but not reinvented overall. Certainly large pockets of injustice remain, and the West has no shortage of social problems. But to the extent that these problems can be addressed through mainstream politics and economies, few would argue that revolutionary measures are necessary Major legislation and ambitious policy changes, rather than a complete upheaval of the system, could be sufficient to address most social problems. Is it possible, then, that there is no justification for urging radical change in modern Western society?

Hardly.

While it is hard to deny the material abundance and technological advances that Western society has produced, one need not look far to find areas ripe lot revolutionary change. It may be that even poverty, militarism, nationalism, economic exploitation of undeveloped countries, and excessive corporate power can be addressed through less-than-radical measures. Rut if we dig still deeper, we encounter fundamental problems that mere legislation or policy changes cannot solve. These problems manifest themselves in the difficulty most Westerners seem to have in meeting basic needs for mental and physical health, spiritual peace, and a sense of fulfillment. …

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