What 'Radical' Means to Us

Posted by Tom on Apr 19th 2021

It's a word we throw around a lot... but what do we actually mean?

Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

People often ask us at Radical Tea Towel: Why don’t you make tea towels about right-wing figures? Isn’t Donald Trump a pretty radical guy?

Now these questions may be tongue-in-cheek, but they do pose an important point: what do we mean by ‘radical’? And is radicalism necessarily left-wing?

Well, the best place to begin is probably the beginning – that is, the first time the word was used in a political context.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces it back to the late 18th century, when the word ‘radical’ described the progressive movements in Europe and America fighting for electoral reform and wider suffrage.

But radicalism wasn’t just about opening up democracy. Inspired by the French Revolution, it was also often a fight for equality and freedom, for republicanism or the abolition of aristocracy.

Revolutionary writer Thomas Paine was responsible for shaping many ideals of the Radical cause.

Click to view our Thomas Paine tea towel

These radicals did not look to the past, nostalgic for some bygone era: they looked with hope to the future.

Radical societies and organisations sprang up across the United Kingdom in the late eighteenth century. In fact, radicalism was so popular that the UK government tried to stamp it out with the Seditious Meetings Act of 1795.

The point is that this was a grass-roots movement. It may have had a few parliamentary advocates, but it really gained traction among ordinary people. And that’s why those in power were so afraid.

Think of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in Dorset, England, who founded the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers to protest against the cutting of wages. Or the Luddites, who destroyed textile machinery to protest against poor working conditions and rising unemployment.

It was radical movements like this that inspired Marx and Engels when they were formulating their political philosophy. In 1845, the two of them visited England to meet the leaders of the Chartists, a working class movement fighting for universal male suffrage.

These movements shouldn’t be seen as distinct from each other. In fact they were often deeply interconnected: the leader of the Tolpuddle men, George Loveless, later went on to become an active Chartist.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs provide one of the earliest and most famous examples of labour organising in England.

Click to view our Tolpuddle Martyrs tea towel

So ‘radical’ used to refer specifically to progressive working-class groups like this. They might have had slightly different aims, but together they form the history of radicalism in 19th century Britain.

So what the hell happened to the word ‘radical’?

Nowadays it’s been almost completely excavated of meaning, and it tends to be used simply to describe the strength of someone’s opinions. In short, it’s become synonymous with extremism and often violence.

True, some radicals may be seen as ‘extreme’ by those who disagree with them, but the conflation of radicalism and extremism is a mistake – if only because it completely ignores the history and etymology of the word ‘radical’.

It actually comes from the Latin word ‘radix’, meaning ‘root’. So to be radical, as Angela Davis has argued, means “grasping things at the root.”

And what does that mean? Well, it means fundamentally changing the nature of society. Or rather, it means creating a new society.

Oscar Wilde, the Victorian playwright and poet, was also a socialist and political campaigner, supporting the causes of women's suffrage and Irish nationalism.

Click to view our Oscar Wilde tea towel

Oscar Wilde gives us a good example of this in his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”.

As Wilde argues, we must address the root cause of society’s problems, rather than simply trying to remedy the symptoms. Wilde didn’t want painkillers, he wanted to cut out the tumour – and for Wilde, the tumour was the capitalist system itself.

As he puts it, the aim is not to reduce poverty, it is “to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible."

So radicalism has its origins in the grass-roots (‘radix’) movements of the 19th century. And these working-class movements changed and developed into many of the left-wing ideas and movements that we recognise today: socialism, trade unionism, social liberalism, anti-racism, and so on.

We don’t have a fixed definition of the word ‘radical’. And frankly, we wouldn’t want to limit ourselves with one.

But we do want to reclaim the word from those who think that radicalism simply means extremism.

We care a lot about history. And when we call ourselves Radical Tea Towel, this is the history we want to invoke: the history of those who fought for the rights we have today, whether it’s the right to vote, the right to freedom, or the right to organise.

And to answer the question about Donald Trump, well – a Reality TV star and businessman who wants to take us back in time? He may have extreme views, but there’s nothing radical about him.

Anyway, enough about what we think – what does ‘radical’ mean to you?

Read more radical stories on our blog