Has political radicalism to deal with problems ever worked out

My impression is that when a nation has problems and the people try a radical political solution, it never works out. It always results in dictatorship, war, incompetence or new problems.

The depression in Germany in the 1930s. The poverty that led to communism in China & the USSR (China is doing better now but that’s because they abandoned communism). The Iranian revolution and the Islamist movement in general. People were dancing in the streets when Saddam Hussein took over in Iraq. That didn’t work out for them.

Basically when a country is facing problems and the people and/or government try a radical solution, does it ever work out or does it always just lead to more problems?

The only situation I can think of where maybe it works is overthrowing a dictatorship. But doesn’t that just lead to new dictatorships most of the time (communist and islamist dictatorships are worse than the ones they replace)? The situations where a dictatorship transform into a democracy seem to be more about widespread protests and bureaucrats making changes, not people adopting a radical new ideology (communism, fascism, Islamism, etc).

By problems I mean things like poverty, famine, massive injustice, widespread health problems, oppression, etc.

Is incrementalism always the best choice in these situations or does radicalism ever work?


Was the American Revolution political radicalism?

I think it was viewed as such at the time. I think it has generally been successful.

Were they really radicals though? I wouldn’t consider protesters to be radicals.

I’m thinking of radical ideology, terrorism, etc. Someone looks at widespread poverty and says ‘lets adopt communism’ or they look at widespread immigration and national decline and say ‘lets adopt fascism’.

Thats valid, but I’m not sure if that counts as radicalism (however that term is subjective). Not so much because I have an inherit bias being from the US to see the revolution in positive terms. I guess to me radicalism means doing really extreme things and/or supporting a very extreme ideology as a solution to widespread, serious problems.

I don’t know though. I mean the French revolution led to the reign of terror, then the napoleonic wars, then another monarch (so they were back where they started) while the US revolution just led to democracy.

So yeah, I think you’re right. The question is is a war of independence to start a democracy radical? I don’t know.

If you define “radical” as “bad”, then you’re not going to see a ton of radical movements with positive outcomes.

I think you are going to have to define radicalism more.

There is an good case to be made that the American Revolution was a war of one landowning class against another, not all that radical in fact.

Radical politic movements likes abolitionism, woman suffrage, the civil rights movement, gay right, the environmental movement – these have had very real effects. You can’t make me believe that any of those rights would have just been handed over by our enlightened leaders. They were fought for and continue to be.

Is that what you are talking about? Or something else?

A decent book ;).

I was actually pondering from another thread how the US is much more idealistic than a more pragmatic Europe. We see things in much more radical terms. We have a tendency to see things very black and white and are much more susceptible to “slippery slope” arguments.

I was thinking about plastic straws. In the UK particularly London, they have largely disappeared unless you request them. Why? People largely just discussed it, thought about the pros and cons and they just gradually faded away. In the US, they became some sort of crazy flashpoint. They were seen as either responsible for the extinction of all sea life or a precursor to the government busting down doors and kidnapping our kids for indoctrination camps. Our instincts were to make it a legislative fight with one assumes eventual court challenges.

Anyway, I’m not really sure what I’m saying other than the US is not very good at incrementalism.

The draft was abolished and I don’t think the American people would ever tolerate a foreign war on the scale of Vietnam again.

Extreme radicals frequently serve a useful role. They make the less extreme radicals look like staid gradualists.

Martin Luther King Jr. and SCLC needed folks like Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers. Without the scary guys carrying guns as a backdrop, MLK et al. would have been (more easily) portrayed as violent thugs just trying to start trouble. With those guys, MLK was able to position himself as the lone voice of reason and conciliation. But in actuality, he was a radical. He actually railed against the “moderate” position.

Radicals also wake up the moderates and inspire them to do what they can for the cause. Take the radical John Brown. The fact a white man (multiple white men) would willingly die for the abolitionist cause signaled to otherwise indifferent white folks that something majorly fucked up was going on below the Mason Dixon line.

This may be true now, but it wasn’t always so. The entire first half of the 20th century (and the French Revolution before that) prove that.

Maybe Europe has simply learned from their PTSD experience of being literally destroyed by two world wars to take a more moderate approach.

The US had the Civil War of course, but even as destructive as that was, it wasn’t on nearly the same scale as WW1 and WW2. It also wasn’t as driven by extreme ideology.

I think we (the United States) got really lucky in that George Washington was a decent guy and did not want to declare himself president / dictator for life. Had Washington had the personality of other revolutionary leaders (Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Chavez, Castro, etc) , things may have turned out differently and for the worse.


By the time of the civil war in America the rest of the world was already moving to make slavery an extreme ideology. (Some nations like Britain had banned slavery earlier, but still continued with it on some of the colonies and traded with them for awhile, still the main idea was that slavery was on the way out by the time of the civil war)

Would you consider the change from minority rule to full democracy in post-Apartheid South Africa a valid example of “working out”? By every reasonable measure the average South African is better off now than before, even with the ongoing corruption and crime problems.

Hitler was opposed to smoking and a big fan of the humane treatment of animals (dogs, specifically).

Similarly, Communism favored gender parity and was opposed to religion, superstition, etc.

The Metric system comes thanks to the French Revolution.

The American Revolution was, probably, started off by radicals (e.g. the Boston Tea Party), but it was taken over by the more reasonable sort who saw the whole thing as an opportunity to improve their financial status via local sovereignty.

The signing of the Magna Carta was thanks to rebellion (and not in the political grandstanding sense) by a number of the barons against the King.

One suspects that there have been any number of cruel and crazy rulers or potential rulers who were taken out early by the more reasonable folk. Along similar lines, there’s this guy:

So I’d say that there are at least two buckets:

  1. Radicals who brought in some of the big, logical changes that were probably in the pipeline but would have taken a longer amount of time to get past conservative politicians had the radicals not blasted them away.
  2. Reasonable people who were forced to take radical actions, due to living in a time and/or place where less extreme options weren’t viable.

The American Revolution doesn’t really fall into either of those, so I’d call it the thread winner.

Radical ideas can work, but you need to have radical people implementing them. Most revolutions fail because the people involved think about getting power and much less about how to deal with the realities of being in power. Not everyone’s going to agree with a revolution and having power doesn’t necessarily change that. What having power does is change the level of responsibility for those who now find themselves in the position of governing. Whereas they once just swept the floors and counted inventory, now they own the shop. It’s their job to keep customers happy and keep the ink black. Where revolutions most frequently fail is their intolerance for dissent and dissenters, some of whom might actually make the revolution stronger if listened to. Over time, the focus shifts away from running the show to shutting people up. And over time, that creates a cycle of new enemies, with a tendency to prefer loyalty over competence, which leads to bad decision after bad decision.

The American Revolution almost failed several times, but the young country was lucky in that it was led by intelligent revolutionaries who embraced the values of consensus building and understood that their little experiment wouldn’t succeed without some compromise. They also set a standard for behavior that has been emulated ever since - until now. Over the past 10 years, however, we’re seeing glimpses of behavior that seems to reject this philosophy. We’re beginning to see a fraying of these values of compromise and negotiation. We’re witnessing polarization, and it could spell the end of the republic.

I disagree with this premise.

I think that the Revolution succeeded because a few reasonable people saw that the popular zeitgeist was to head into crazy land and that there was no stopping that train. As such, they were left with the two options of letting everything spin out into chaos, destruction, and death, or step in and say, “Okay, if we’re going to do the stupid, let’s do it this way.”

It’s sort of a Brexit that ended up working out in the long run, thanks to leaving the job of making it happen to the dull and sober folk.

IMHO South Africa is an example of “working out”. They were also lucky in the sense that they had Nelson Mandela as a leader rather than say, Robert Mugabe.

You guys were hugely fortunate that the hero of your revolution stepped down voluntarily, establishing a civilized procedure for the peaceful transfer of power. Personally, I think that alone might be the single most important element of your republic’s longevity, as opposed to what happened in, say, France at around the same time.