Co-Opting the Radical Instinct

In summer 2000, Tom Hayden released the following essay. It’s powerful historical revelation still moves me, and may help you understand further what we’re up against. Even if you don’t see yourself as a radical, read it – it can help anyone in nonprofits, schools, and throughout our communities. – Adam

Co-opting the Radical Instinct, by Tom Hayden.

I think that you all might want to know something about how the other side sees you.

There’s a study done by the Cattlemen’s Society. Now, you may think they’re an irrelevant, marginal group, but they’re quite crucial to the frontier mentality that built this great country on the backs of the native people. They are a big special interest group, and they pay good money to find out who these activists are. A few years ago they did a study. The question was: How do we contain and stop this direct action movement? It wasn’t called the direct action movement then; it was the civil disobedience movement, the protesters, the environmentalists, all the rabble that they were concerned about at the time.

They created a chart. At one end were the radicals, defined as people who believe that the system itself has to be changed. A radical would he anybody who understands that globalization is a system with many fronts and many issues. Their prescription for the radicals was to isolate and discredit them, not because there was something inherently radical in their behavior, but because they were pointing out that it was a system. So, the first goal, they said, was to discredit the radical analysis.

The second group on the spectrum were the idealists. These are people who want to give the system a chance. They believe in the same social justice values that the radicals do, but they’re idealistic; they don’t have a cold, cynical view that nothing is possible under the system. So, it’s extremely important, the study said, that the idealists don’t become radicals. In order to keep this from happening, you raise the stakes of radicalism so that people are afraid to become radical, because they then get smeared, discredited, and worse. You have to give the idealists occasional victories in order to keep their hope in the system alive.

Third on this continuum came the pragmatists. The pragmatists are former idealists who’ve won some victories, who start to believe that the system works. So, they said, it’s extremely important for the idealists to have victories — not because of justice, but because that way they become pragmatists. And you want the pragmatists to be able to say: See? The system works. Be pragmatic.

And the final part of the spectrum — the culmination of your future, if you follow this plan — is that you can become an opportunist. An opportunist is a former pragmatist. An opportunist, they said, is a pragmatist who gets attracted to the money, the glamour, the status, and the power. And then they had a whole workshop on how this could be done. How to discredit the radicals, cultivate the idealists, make them pragmatists, and then find the opportunists among the pragmatists. And there — you have the story of my generation, the 60s generation.

You have millions of people who have radical instincts but little expectation, who have lowered their expectation. You have millions of people who are former idealists, who have become pragmatists. And you have plenty of people who are opportunists. My question is: How can you break this cycle? It’s the most important cycle to break. You can’t break the cycle of poverty; you can’t break the cycle of violence; you can’t break the cycle of corporate expansion; you can’t break the cycle of the arms race; you can’t break the cycle of imprisonment, if you don’t break the cycle by which radicals are isolated, idealists are turned into pragmatists, and pragmatists into opportunists. I have not found an answer to this problem, but I’m here to tell you it is the problem. And you are its answer.

Tom Hayden cofounded Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1959, and in the early 1960s he co-authored the highly-influential Port Huron Statement. After the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he was indicted with the Chicago Seven and later acquitted. Tom Hayden is currently a state senator from Los Angeles and has authored over 175 measures, including animal welfare, campaign finance, education, environmental, prison reform, and worker safety initiatives.

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