The importance of radicalism

Eric Foner, whose studies of Reconstruction and marvelous biography of Abraham Lincoln The Fiery Trialproved considerable influences on me, stands at the sunset of his teaching career but encourages readers to buttress their radicalism with history. The idea of packing freedmen into ships and returning them to Africa had a lot of centrist support in the 1850s; Henry Clay believed in recolonization, and Abraham Lincoln’s most harebrained impulse was to present this idea to a meeting of freedmen as if it would delight them. But it took radical action to delegitimate them:

Teaching the class as Barack Obama’s presidency neared its end and Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign ignited the enthusiasm of millennials was an interesting experience. I began with the premise that radicalism has been a persistent feature of our history and that radicals, while often castigated as foreign-inspired enemies of American institutions, have usually sprung from our culture, spoken its language, and appealed to some of our deepest values—facts that help to explain radicalism’s persistence even in the face of tenacious opposition. American radicalism entails a visionary aspiration to remake the world on the basis of greater equality—economic, legal, social, racial, or sexual. Despite the occasional resort to violence, most of these movements have reflected the democratic ethos of American life: They’ve been open rather than secretive and have relied on education, example, or political action rather than coercion. Not surprisingly, they have also reflected some of the larger society’s flaws; radicals are a product of their society, no matter how fully they reject certain aspects of it. While I made clear my sympathy with most of the groups we studied, I also insisted that we should not be surprised that some abolitionists were antifeminist, some feminists racist, some labor organizations hostile to immigrants. Neither history nor politics is well served by simple hagiography.

Foner also addresses Barack Obama’s own relationship to radical social movements; Foner’s theorizing coincides with some of the conclusions Ta-Nehisi Coates drew about Obama and white power structures in his own essay, which I’ve only half read.

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