What creates radicals?

A spectre is haunting Aotearoa. A wave of public sector strikes, successful anti-fascist actions and the emergence of new political formations like Organise Aotearoa all suggest that something is happening, even though it is too early to say what it is.  

At the same time, issue based groups like People Against Prisons Aotearoa, Peace Action Wellington, and Renters United are all pressing their demands on a government coalition whose best offer is capitalism with a human face.

At times like this, on our campuses and in our workplaces and communities, many more people are attracted to radical politics; not just internet memes, but real, visceral, face-to-face, political formations. But let’s be honest, sometimes first contact with the left can be confusing, contradictory and even discouraging.

At Wellington Socialists we believe in the critical importance of workers’ education – not as a means of induction into the programme of this or that group, but as genuine engagement with socialist ideas in a spirit of participation, openness, democracy, dialogue and debate. In the article below, Mirky Tannit of Wellington Socialists, reflects on the process of radicalisation and the role of workers’ education.



Some leftists have coined the abbreviation “FDCKs.” This stands for “First Day Communist Kids” and it’s indicative of a kind of worryingly elitist and short-sighted current in modern socialism. Very rarely do we listen to people who are at the meeting for the first time, because if we did, we might learn a bit about what creates radicals in the first place. This piece is an attempt to analyse that process, and see what lessons we can learn from various theories of ideology and psychology. I will use some intentionally broad terms (ie. radical rather than socialist) as many of the processes here could equally describe a person’s descent into fascism, as after all, every fascism is an index of a failed revolution.

The starting point of a lot of radicals is a sense of inequality. It’s usually only when we come into contact with the well-off (whatever that may mean) that we first start to think about radical solutions. This is where the concept of relative deprivation starts to become useful, it’s only when our position in society is implicitly questioned by the existence of people in higher positions that we start to get a sense of politics.

As Marx says:

“A house may be large or small; as long as the neighboring houses are likewise small, it satisfies all social requirement for a residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks to a hut. The little house now makes it clear that its inmate has no social position at all to maintain, or but a very insignificant one; and however high it may shoot up in the course of civilization, if the neighboring palace rises in equal or even in greater measure, the occupant of the relatively little house will always find himself more uncomfortable, more dissatisfied, more cramped within his four walls.”

However, there is much more to relative deprivation than mere economic inequality, indeed it’s often more of a psychological problem, and doesn’t have to reflect reality at all. A family that loses their home through war suffers from relative deprivation, so too does the rich caucasian male who doesn’t feel he can criticise minorities as much as he used to. Creating a narrative of inequality is more important than actual wealth differences, and the only real requirement is a real or imagined Other (including a past-self) who is better off. This process of creating a narrative of inequality doesn’t explain why a person becomes a radical, but it does act as a gateway into exploring real or imagined root causes of problems in society.

How that initial desire to look critically at society manifests is entirely dependent on the environment we’re conditioned in. This process is painfully obvious among teenagers, who often latch on strongly to whatever the first convincing explanation for deprivation might be. The language that a person is exposed to also impacts on how a person can express that explanation – for example without the word “capitalism” I would only be able to express an explanation for economic inequality using moralistic or vague words – in this way, people who are gaining political consciousness can have completely accurate explanations for deprivation, but lack the language to convey that explanation. Sometimes we can use morals as a substitute for material analysis, but this in itself doesn’t make the analysis incorrect – it just makes material solutions harder to see.

Normalising and encouraging these keywords, then, is one of the foremost tasks of propaganda. Often these words are the missing piece in a puzzle otherwise completed through lived experience. Attaching a word like Capitalism to problems, leads to solutions based on ending Capitalism. But this is a very dangerous time – without having access to the right words, all sorts of scapegoats can be substituted for the real root causes of society’s problems. After all, most ideologies only need an Other to rally against.

But if a radical solution is presented to a person, there’s often a clash of ideologies within them. The ideologies that a society uses to reinforce and maintain its production are always in opposition to ideologies that offer material solutions to a society’s’ problems. Cognitive dissonance happens when a person has two competing beliefs and tries to overcome the contradictions between them – it’s an unstable time that’s often quite unpleasant, as it means re-evaluating a lot of ideas at once. Cognitive dissonance can lead to a person avoiding new information that reinforces one idea or another, or can lead to a person avoiding expressing their views because they believe them to be embarrassing or incomplete.

Eventually though, most people need internal resolution of contradictions. This can happen in many ways, including simply denying evidence and sticking with preconceived ideas, or gradually incorporating new ideas into our personalities. Irony is often a gateway into the adoption of new ideas, and a way to test the water before committing to ideologies. Irony acts as a sort of buffer-zone between our ideas and other people’s potential rejection of them – a safe shield of plausible deniability that lets people express ideas without consequence. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people in radical politics start as ironic radicals.

To be embraced, ideologies still need to be reconciled with personality. Personalities under capitalism are very complex constructs, much more superficial than a person’s consciousness. A personality can be constructed out of our culture and how we look (aesthetics), our language, and an ongoing performance of personality (personality traits). All three of those things interact with ideology to create a political identity – we need to integrate all three separately and holistically with ideology. Political language can be understood through aesthetics, and political aesthetics need words to describe them. Both processes have to be constantly performed in order for a person to integrate into an ideology. This is often the hidden part of radicalisation, an unconscious process of testing the water in various ways – through subtle changes in sensibilities and language as a person seeks to express ideas in ways other than dry explanations.

Losing individuality, or deindividuation, is often brought up as a part of radicalisation. Individuality is a relatively new concept in human societies, and it’s no coincidence that the origin of the concept can only be traced back to the dawn of bourgeois thought, but it’s nonetheless an important part of living under capitalism. Individuality becomes our selling point in the labour market, which simultaneously homogenises the underlying traits that are seen as individual. A radical politics can often destroy the more superficial kind of individuality, but it can also lead to finding the underlying traits that make up a personality, and integrating them into ideology.

What can these processes teach us about radicalisation in a more general sense? It’s important to realise as socialists that adopting ideologies isn’t simply about selecting the best choices out of a “marketplace of ideas,” rather it’s an ongoing, sometimes unconscious process that we all go through – a tedious elimination of internal contradictions that keep arising. The development of a political consciousness is just a process of realising how contradictory our ideas are, which sometimes leads to a synthesis, but more often leads to further contradictions.

In addition, it’s not simply about making the better arguments, radicalisation is a holistic process that involves an integration of ideology into psychology on multiple levels. We need socialist art, socialist music, socialist language and socialist action just as much as simple discussion and reading. Culture needs to be drenched in socialist ideology in order for any message to be conveyed, and we’re not up to the task yet.

This is why an ongoing process of worker’s education can be so important – we’re all just as confused as each other, but through shared understandings and helping each other resolve contradictions, we might be able to work a few things out.

If you want to get involved with Wellington Socialists, make contact.

Mirky Tannit, September 2018

Foreword by Neil Ballantyne

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