To understand what it’s like to be a radical, it helps to speak to those once held under the sway of a radical ideology. Broadly defined, radicalism implies a rejection of compromise and incremental progress in favor of radical change, and for years I believed that Western capitalist society was beyond redemption and in need of a sweeping revolution. There were those who perpetuated a system of oppression and exploitation, and those who sought to overthrow it.
In The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope, the philosopher Roger Scruton outlines the fallacies underlying this mindset, such as “the best case fallacy,” which “imagines the best outcome and assumes that it need consider no other,” and “the utopian fallacy,” which insists that the perfect is the enemy of the good. These can be summed up under the rubric of “unscrupulous optimism,” a concept originally coined by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Assuming that intentions translate directly into results, radicals tend to be unscrupulous optimists in that they operate on the premise that well-intentioned radical change, however destructive, can only lead to improvement.
They forget, however, that “human societies may retrogress disastrously,” as the economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell puts it in his analysis of Marxism. “Ignoring the dangers of retrogression can mean sliding into the belief that ‘nothing could be worse’ than the existing society being criticized.” This belief is reinforced by a tendency to compare the status quo not to history but to an imaginary future of human perfection. Any society that falls short of this fantasy is seen as an abomination. This can lead to false and dangerous equivalencies. It may, for instance, obfuscate the distinction between democracy and autocracy, between being governed and being ruled, which, from a utopian standpoint, can seem like a distinction without a difference.
This attitude often goes hand in hand with what Scruton calls “the born free fallacy”—the view that the laws and institutions of modern civilized society reduce human freedom. In fact, as the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker expertly demonstrates in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, these laws and institutions free us from living in constant fear and danger of violent death. Much the same is true for poverty, famine, and a host of other scourges, which have also declined thanks to what the MIT scientist Andrew McAfee calls “the four horsemen”: capitalism, technological progress, public awareness, and responsive government.
The widespread misconception that the reverse has been the case partly explains radicals’ unscrupulously optimistic assumption that the existing social order can be overthrown without detriment to the social fabric and human wellbeing. In short, peace and prosperity are assumed to be the natural order of things; it’s the capitalist system that disequilibrates society. The anarchist authors of Contradictionary: A Bestiary of Words in Revolt thus describe capitalism as “[o]ne of the most advanced forms of disorder,” a “disruption” of the “anarchic harmony” that would otherwise characterize our world.
In my experience, this is typical of the radical mindset. Radicals tend to conceive of the world as a fallen place while believing themselves to be on the side of virtue. This means, in Sowell’s words, that “opponents [can] be simply labelled and dismissed as moral lepers or blind reactionaries.” Similarly, the fact that radicalism does not usually receive broad public support is taken as a sign of “false consciousness.” This imbues radical activists in their special role of promoting the “true” interests of “the exploited and oppressed masses,” to borrow Lenin’s phrase. After all, “the masses would have neither the experience nor the theoretical insight to cope with anything as momentous as a change in the whole institutional structure of society,” explains Sowell.
Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, thus argued that “[c]lass political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without.” According to Sowell, this approach, which led to tyranny, bloodshed, and economic devastation, “represented the hubris of imagining that a whole society could be constructed from the ground up on the vision of one man, rather than evolving from the experiences of millions, spread over the generations or the centuries.” I found this same hubris to be prevalent among modern radicals. Convinced of the nobility of their mission, they imagine themselves to be the vanguard of a redemptive revolution that will finally remedy all social ills and conflicts. In short, they believe in the perfectibility of man in their own image: a combination of unscrupulous optimism and narcissism.
Political radicalism appealed to me because it seemed to hold the solution to society’s most deep-seated problems and injustices. However, the so-called “revolutionary struggle” turned out to be largely a struggle against reality—facts and evidence carried little or no weight. What mattered was the grand vision. Like many others, I “miss[ed] the point that a vision that departs from reality must be either abandoned or changed,” as Sowell argues. Even worse, I condoned the use of violence as a necessary means to the pursuit of that vision.
The neuroscientist-cum-philosopher Sam Harris once remarked that “the true horror of religion” is that it “allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions what only lunatics could believe on their own.” And as Voltaire warned us, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Radical ideology has a similar effect—it inspires and justifies immoral actions. After all, morality is, according to Lenin’s fellow revolutionary Leon Trotsky, only “a product of social development” that “more than any other form of ideology has a class character.” In other words, it’s nothing but “bourgeois ideology.” Radicals are, therefore, not bound by it. As a Ukrainian communist paper wrote in 1918, “To us, all is permitted, for we are the first in the world to raise the sword not in the name of enslaving or oppressing anyone, but in the name of freeing all from bondage.”
From the Bolsheviks’ Red Terror to Germany’s murderous Red Army Faction (RAF), the radical Left has a long and bloody history of justifying violence and inhumanity. Even today, many radical leftists and anarchists condone violence as a political tool. They consider themselves to be at war with the capitalist system and, as Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, “in war the end justifies almost any means.” This dangerous mindset makes radicals prone to another pernicious fallacy—that their enemy’s enemy is their friend.
Initially, the September 11th attacks, which killed 2977 people, elicited in me a feeling not of horror but of excitement. After all, a devastating blow had been dealt to American hegemony. My moral compass was completely thrown off by the notion that the terrorists’ jihad was best understood as a liberation movement against Western capitalist imperialism—the chickens had come home to roost. This view was quite common among radicals. A friend of mine even got a tattoo of the burning World Trade Center captioned “FWT”: Fuck World Trade. At the time, this didn’t strike me as particularly obscene.
When it finally dawned on me that the jihadists’ goal was diametrically opposed to my own idealistic vision, I briefly endorsed the then-fashionable conspiracy theory that 9/11 was an “inside job” executed to provide a pretext for the suspension of civil liberties and the waging of wars. This sentiment was captured in slogans like “Bush is a Nazi,” which implied that American democracy under George W. Bush was tantamount to fascism. False equivalencies of this kind allow radical leftists and anarchists to hide behind the guise of antifascism. I participated in a number of “antifascist” protests myself, some of which escalated into riots and violent confrontations with law enforcement. Often, however, the targets of these protests weren’t fascists as commonly defined, but political adversaries who had simply been branded as fascists. This meant that they were fair game. As Mark Twain said, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
I also participated in a number of squattings (occupying vacant buildings without permission in order to create a rent-free, public-use space). The outcome was always the same: The police were called, and the squatters were forcibly evicted. I remember a young police officer asking me if I really thought they’d just give up and withdraw, as he pulled me away from the human chain we had formed in front of the building. I wasn’t that naïve. But I was convinced that our eviction was unjust, even though we were the ones violating property rights. My attitude at the time reflected the radical view that “property is theft.” A combination of economic illiteracy and moral confusion, this belief implied that it was ethical to take from those who “withheld” from us what was “rightfully” ours. So, like many of my radical peers, I turned to shoplifting in protest against the capitalist market economy. Needless to say, when I eventually got caught my father, a police officer, gave me an earful. Though I no longer lived with my parents, I had to inform him right away in order to preempt police gossip.
My radical attitude didn’t sit well with the fact that my own father was a policeman. After all, the prevailing view among radicals is anti-cop. In radical circles, the police are generally seen as the guards of an oppressive social order. This is not to deny that some police officers abuse their power. What many radicals, especially anarchists, assert, however, is something else entirely—that we would be better off without law enforcement and the penal system. Again, the underlying assumption here is that humanity would thrive in the absence of such institutions. But as Pinker and others have shown, such assumptions mistake the cure for the disease. One afternoon, two friends of mine, both fellow radicals, sat me down and suggested that I disown my father on account of his profession. I heard them out, even agreed with what they said, but in the end, blood proved to be thicker than ideology.
Radical ideologues have sought to undermine the family for centuries. Many decry it as a patriarchal institution that acts as a unit of capitalist consumption and teaches passive acceptance of hierarchy. What they ignore, however, is that most people find meaning in family (for which there are good evolutionary reasons). This relates to radicals’ contempt for liberal democracy. In a liberal democracy, people are free to choose what they think is right for themselves as long as their choices don’t infringe on the freedom of others to do the same. Furthermore, each individual is protected by rights, enshrined in laws and institutions, and therefore cannot simply be sacrificed for the collective or a “higher cause.”
These principles violate the radical mindset, which assumes that the end justifies the means, and that ordinary people can’t be trusted to make the right choices for themselves. But why would ordinary individuals, in a future utopia without institutional regulation or capitalist incentive, make the “correct” choices, given that human nature would remain unaltered? And how exactly would such a society work? Since it’s much easier to criticize and tear down existing structures than to develop functionally better alternatives, “technicalities” of this kind are typically postponed until “after the revolution.”
As a former radical, I understand the appeal of this mindset. But I also know that there is a way out of it. An appreciation of reason and evidence and a willingness to consider the other side of an argument offer a good start. Alas, these qualities are not sufficiently encouraged in today’s society. We increasingly live in a partisan culture, in which beliefs function as signals of loyalty—“the more improbable the belief, the more credible the signal,” as Pinker puts it. Radical culture is the same, but on steroids.
None of this is to suggest that radicals are wrong about everything. However, their radicalism tends to alienate those who might otherwise be on their side. When, for example, the radical environmental group Extinction Rebellion chants slogans like “System change not climate change” and “Only revolution will save us now,” they not only display their true colors, but they discredit the environmental movement as a whole. There is widespread agreement that CO2 emissions must be reduced, but that does not imply the end of the capitalist economic system. Particularly troublesome is radical environmentalism’s tendency to slide into misanthropy: Humans are portrayed as a plague upon the planet, which implies an environmental imperative to drastically reduce their numbers. This has a dehumanizing effect: People are treated not as moral agents to be reasoned with but as obstacles to be removed.
I’ve seen the same thing happen in the animal rights movement. A slogan like “It’s OK to kill humans to save animals” is clearly not designed to convince ordinary people to support animal rights. Rather, it serves to radicalize those who are already on board with the movement. It also functions as a loyalty signal: a belief so radical that if you express it no one will doubt your commitment. I was guilty of this too: I would wear a vegan T-shirt bearing the image of a machine gun captioned, “This is a fucking war.” A friend of mine recently told me a disturbing story from his past as an animal rights radical: “There was a professor at Indiana University who had published some articles which made it clear that he did some sort of animal testing. So I showed up at his house with a baseball bat and threatened him.” Before long, however, my friend found himself on the receiving end of fanatical anti-vivisectionist agitation: “Once I got cancer, friends from the animal rights scene told me that I should rather die than benefit from medicines tested on animals.”
Is there any point in reasoning with radicals? From my own experience, I believe Pinker is right when he says that although people tend to “dig in and double down when evidence challenges a sacred belief that is close to their social identity … evidence can change people’s minds, even on highly politicized issues.” When I was faced with contradictory evidence, my echo chamber started to crack, and my ideology began to crumble. It’s certainly possible to persuade radicals out of their radicalism. But it’s difficult. Their ideological beliefs are not just “close to their social identity”; often, they are their social identity. Their social life is centered around those beliefs. Thus, they feel a strong social pressure to reject outside criticism.
Not coincidentally, the prevailing mentality in radical circles is “us versus them.” We should be careful not to make their same mistake. It’s tempting to condemn radicals as enemies of society, to dehumanize them, or to write them off as lunatics. But if we’re serious about opposing radicalism, with its disregard for human life and its contempt for liberal democracy, we have to treat them as independent human beings capable of rational thought and action.
Gerfried Ambrosch is a heterodox academic and writer with a PhD in Literary and Cultural Studies. You can follow him on Twitter @g_ambrosch