Radicalism revisited | Inquirer Opinion

Radicalism revisited

The statement “We live in revolutionary times” is as contemporary as it is ancient. Humankind has always lived in revolutionary times, and it is an open question whether periods of political stability are not the aberrations rather than the rule. Every human being—peasant, worker, soldier, philosopher and king—has been conditioned by the forces of political change. It would be ideal, but impossible, to grasp the significance of human history by learning every social, economic, technological, or political detail that constitutes it.

To Polanyi in “The Study of Man” (1959), this is a troublesome prospect. For “as soon as we had completed one such study, our subject matter would have been extended by this very achievement.” So we should have now to study that we had just completed in an endless endeavor to comprise completely the works of man. Hence, we are constrained by the finite capacities of the mind to go by labels, flags and faiths.


By the historical record, there existed in every nation individuals who disagreed with the behavior of institutions and the conduct of political affairs. Perhaps, contrariness is a programmed characteristic of the human psyche, energizing us away from the static perfection of apiculture, and giving us an evolutionary edge over the beaver, who seems to have settled on the talent of building earthen dams.

The point remains that the contrarian, the maverick, the scholar suffering from acne rosacea (Karl Marx), or the bodegero (Andres Bonifacio) has dragged kings to guillotines, destroyed czardoms, and broken colonial empires. He has been variously labeled in various societies as traitor, patriot, blasphemer, messiah, prophet and more—all connotative of visions, danger, the extreme, the outré.


Let us draw out the passions and confusions inherent in this categorizing and give him the syncretism “radical.” But the radical on whom I focus is not a Kalyayev, whose influence ended with the assassination of Grand Duke Sergei of czarist Russia and was hanged in 1905 for his terrorist activities. Nor a Nechayev, whose only program was destruction and pushed nihilism to the extreme. And neither the
partisans of the contemporary Islamic State. We see in their acts only spasmodic kicks and leave no progeny in man or institution.

My radical is not a specific historical archetype. The minions of the power elite, for instance, cannot say, “Watch this group PDP-Laban. From it will come our radical.” He is  Proteus, who can be recognized only when he sheds his myriad forms: from all races, economic levels and social membership. Loyal to his class, disloyal to his class, loyal always only to his vision.

The political radical can be identified in history’s crowd by these characteristics: He opposes an established political structure wholly or partly; he possesses a vision of a better order; he acts to achieve what he envisions.

The radical is first of all someone who says “No” to the surrounding society, and emotionally and mentally rebels against the existing order; he repudiates the world as it stands. He is not simply a rebel but a visionary. Tucker in

“Deradicalization of Marxist Movements” explains in the American Political Science Review (June, 1967): “His negation of what exists proceeds from an underlying affirmation, an idealized image of the world as it ought to be. Indeed, it is the very perfection of his alternative universe that
explains the depth and totality, i.e., the radicalness of his act of world-repudiation.”

The element of activism must be stressed as definitive characteristic of the radical. History, has its dilettantes, but it passes over them with indifference. The mere dreamer is alive only in his world. The orator or the writer must be able to inspire demonstrably at least one member of his audience, else, he cannot be said to have caused any movement in the dynamic of history. Action, in the realm of politics, is the  cogito of the existential world.

In brief, the radical to be such, must be a discernible participant in the process of radical change and his participation is radicalism. In his “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” Marx clarified: “To be radical is to grasp things by the root. But for man the root is man himself.”


To be sure, my insistence on activism will debunk a great many talkers and pamphleteers, but it will include a Marx, whose writings constitute the galvanic creed of the movement that conquered half the world, and a Rodrigo Duterte, whose electoral coup versus the yellow horde of Mar Roxas promises the nation-state radical change.

By the historical record, radicalism has three elements. Objectives or opposition to some sociopolitical status quo—from enfranchisement to disenfranchisement, monarchism to republicanism, more civil liberties to less. Entities which have ranged from the peasantry to the aristocracy—from literates to illiterates, from civilians to soldiers, from the “haves” to the “have nots.” The means employed have been verbal and physical—with violence upon person or property, or without.

It is dynamism as it roils and shapes historical processes, that compels us to understand radicalism. We can view it from the Bastille, or from the besieging mass. The monarchist keepers of a Bastille would define republican cries as radicalism, while to its keepers, monarchial cries is radicalism. There is no distinction as to the varieties of demand—only the overt challenge against any of its ways and institutions, which constitute acts of rebellion where sanctions are imposed in every criminal code in the world.

Neither is there certitude in the means of radicalism. Bastilles have been stormed and entire social classes have been exterminated. Bolshevism would be radicalism even if every Bolshevik had been exterminated by the czar.

Since historically radicalism has made contradictory demands, and established political order has defined it as overt challenge of various persuasions, there is a conceptual problem of relativism. To Caute in “The Left in Europe since 1789,” radicalism is a “dynamic force which must be studied in terms of a dialectical progression of demand, concession and renewed demand.” But so is a new technological application, and it is an open question whether inflation or Marxism-Leninism has overthrown more governments. History has not disclosed a specific archetypical force which we may call, beyond semantics, radicalism.

In this welter of objectives, entities and means, what constants of political radicalism remain? Only the historical element of opposition to some sociopolitical status quo. Radicalism then is: a deliberate and persistent thrust toward a qualitative change in the sociopolitical status quo, with violence sought or actualized upon the system constituting the status quo.

Reynaldo V. Silvestre, is former chief of the Office of Strategic and Special Studies of the Armed Forces, retired Army colonel, and multiawarded writer. He taught political theory at UP Manila.

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