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What is a radical thinker?
Pulling up the roots

Sarah Boyes
posted 24 August 2007

The recent case of five British Muslims jailed for downloading extremist material is a disturbing example of how we imagine and deal with, ‘radical thinkers’ today. Whilst many things are casually described as radical: ideas, sports, razors, flowery flares from the sixties; in a political sense it seems only jihadists (or even potential jihadists) aiming to establish a Sharia state warrant the name; but surely not all radicals are Muslims and not all radicals want to blow themselves up.

So what is a radical thinker? The word comes from the Latin radix, meaning ‘root’: it means to cut to the fundamentals, to advocate an overhaul of rudimentary principles to ‘protract thorough political or social reform’ (OED, 1998). A radical thinker, then, is anybody engaged with the very core of her material, who challenges and changes the key beliefs we all have about the way the world is – and should be. And as for the often forgotten flipside of thinking – action – radical thinkers develop and propagate practical methods of challenging and changing the status quo. By questioning deeply ingrained platitudes about ourselves and society, radical thinkers force us to rehash who we think we are and how we want society to be.

And yet there lies the problem. Many of the theorists selected for this second series of Radical Thinkers published by Verso have been charged with everything from obscurantism, irrelevance, and banality to sheer bloody-mindedness. In many ways they have heralded and developed the very ideas that seem to make any positive project for grand social change inconceivable – postmodernism, relativism, and particularity. Bereft of a common subject, theirs has often been a radicalism of method – Laclau anchors his theories in impenetrable Saussurian semantics; Baudrillard seeks to explain the world by reducing it to signs – rather than substance. An obsession with technicalities, to some extent necessary, means the possibility of reaching a wider audience to stimulate action is woefully diminished. But how should thinkers balance intellectual integrity with the need to be understood; how should radicalism express itself in order to be received positively; and if the ultimate aim is doing something, how can theories become manifestos?

One of the main ideas running through these texts is the doctrine of multiculturalism (developed most strongly by Will Kymlika), an endorsement of cultural diversity that sees each person as ultimately ‘culturally embedded’, ultimately alone and ultimately unable to identify with and understand others. Different cultural groups have distinct moral values, religious ideas and political persuasions which make up complete ‘world views’, so there are few – either political or social – collective principles to challenge or rework. While a multicultural society is rich with ideas, beliefs, texts and artworks, if we privilege group identities – or particularisms – over universal rights and citizenship more generally, this leaves little space for the traditional notion of a radical thinker and radical action. It’s not about changing the world anymore, because we all live in different worlds (not one world; more sensibly, six billion of them). And existing only as part of mutually exclusive groups with mutually exclusive ways of engaging with the world, it’s hard to see how any one issue can affect everybody, and how radical thinkers can attract enough support ever to challenge society as a whole.

Nevertheless, some issues do interest and affect large sections of the British population – climate change to name a high-profile obsession; terrorism another; then the recent furore over rubbish bin collection; the ongoing thrash-out over primary and secondary school syllabuses and university fees; immigration laws and of course, taxes. But apart from the first two (mainly media-spun, celebrity-guzzling projects), how do the others appeal? Rubbish bins, we’re told, are the problem of local councils; school syllabuses matter only to teachers and parents; immigration laws are lethal ammunition for the far right and the mainstream is afraid to talk about them; whereas tax, a friend tells me, ‘is going to be big’ but in the absence of the ideological conflict that used to shape the issue, it is confined to policy documents and economics departments. And none of these bitty issues provide enough meat for radical thinkers concerned with change on a massive scale to get their sharpened theoretical teeth into.

Perhaps climate change and terrorism will have to be ripe for radical thinkers after all, but that will mean changing the way we think about these issues rather than simply climbing on a bandwagon. It will also mean reaching a wider audience. While radical thinkers expound on theory at carefully selected events like the Institute of Contemporary Arts talk series run in tandem with the release of Radicals II, more open public spaces often become monopolised by nitwits who simply recycle conventional wisdom. And whilst academics are attacked for their impenetrable prose, celebrities on the climate change circuit similarly co-opt terminology that marks them out as part of the in crowd. Hence ‘carbon footprint’ and ‘carbon thumbprint’. With the terms of debate fixed, any dissenting view is difficult to formulate, let alone understand. Without an actor’s charm and the right lingo, it is hard to make it to the A-listers’ podium. And challenging the official line on either of these matters doesn’t help either, as recent censorious activity reminds us. Genuinely radical thinking does not attract immediate approval, but can be deeply unsettling, especially to a conservative society.

As the case of British Muslims jailed for storing ‘extremist material’ on their computers illustrates, what sends shivers down the proverbial spine is the notion of ‘extremism’ itself, which is apparently a force in its own right rather than having to do with any particular ideas. BBC Online’s headline reads, ‘Students who descended into extremism’ [my italics]. This implies extremism of any sort is the last desperate refuge of an emotionally weak and intellectually crippled mind. The part of the article subtitled, ‘online radicalisation’ implies any radical must have been brainwashed and is a passive victim rather than having made a sane and rational choice. Looking for a more satisfying explanation of radical Islamic thought and of why some young Muslims find it attractive becomes unnecessary, especially when the youngest defendant claimed his attraction to radical Islam, downloading videos of suicide bombers and reading ‘terror-related material’, was because he had been lonely and depressed. To echo the more sympathetic tone of the news reports: poor boy.

A deluge of articles and reports has descended recently, considering how we should stamp out extremism (read: jihadism); media mechanisms have mobilised to shout down radicals (read: violent Muslim radicals); everybody has knocking knees and nobody asks: how can we both lament the loss of genuinely radical thought and make out radicalism is a dirty word?

Whatever happened in the above case the message is clear: extremism means killing people and radicalism must not be tolerated. Perhaps it’s worth pausing to consider the illustrious history of coveted British radicals – Thomas Paine with his revolutionary Rights of Man in 1791; the academics in Verso’s Radical Thinkers II series, including the innocuous Terry Eagleton and Zizek the cult-classic; Adam Smith the free marketeer recently installed on the back of a twenty pound note; Charles Bradlaugh who successfully campaigned for atheists to become MPs; and broadening out, Martin Luther, Ghandi… Whilst radical thinkers historically have not always had their praises sung by the grateful emancipated, and many enjoyed violent tactics, our understanding of radicalism and its many methods should not be constrained by its current high-profile expression in certain strains of Islam.

So where does this leave the notion of a contemporary radical thinker? – needing to be radically refreshed. Whilst it’s no good to try and fit an outmoded idea of what radical thinking means into contemporary society, or to advocate a straightforward regression to past modes of activism, neither does it do to have a simplistic understanding of both radicalism and extremism. If anything, the history of radical thought shows radical thinkers are always radical in a particular context, and it’s possible to be a political radical in many ways, about many things. It’s not just platitudes that need to be pulled up and replaced, but the very notion of being a radical concerned with action in contemporary society.



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