17 Group: “What does the radical instinct look like today?”

The next meeting of the 17 Group will take place on Wednesday the 2nd of April at 7 pm in unit 6 at number 20 Drury St West End. The discussion, facilitated and introduced by a panel of three young Brisbane activists, will answer the question: “What does the radical instinct look like today?”

It will respond to the article (attached) by Tom Hayden called “Co-opting the Radical Instinct”.
Here are some biographical notes on the panel members, along with brief summaries of their different perspectives on the question:

Anna Carlson

Bio: Anna is a student, writer, activist and artist based in Brisbane. Her interests sit somewhere in the murky spaces between intersectional feminist philosophy, critical theory, postcolonial and Whiteness studies and aesthetic analysis. She produces and co-hosts radio program “Radio Reversal” on community radio station 4zzz (102.1fm), and she is a co-founder and organiser of the Brisbane Free University.

Summary: The central contention of this paper seems to be that activists start out radical and are co-opted by “the system” into becoming a part of it. I want to critique some of the ideas embedded in that contention, to suggest that things might not be as bad as the writer fears 🙂

1. “The System”
– Feminist critique

2. “Radicals”

– What does it mean to be radical?
– Contemporary positioning?
– Radicalism is a practice, not a state of being: when we approach the question of why people aren’t “radical” activists anymore, what are we really asking?

3. Who is looking at whom, and where are we looking?

– Too feminist for nostalgia: have activists EVER been radical?

– Which worlds are we theorising (radical action happening all over the place, but its locality and scope means that it is often overlooked by the dominant discursive paradigm of big- P Politics)

Max Chandler-Mather

Max is currently completing his history honours thesis on the rebuilding of the radical left in Indonesia post the 1965/66 communist massacres. He is the editor of the UQ Union student newspaper, Semper Floreat, as well as an organiser and student activist at UQ. His interests include Marxism, critical theory and modern revolutionary history.


​Using both historical and contemporary examples, I wish to argue that the system can abide radical thought and activism when it is isolated and fragmented. In order for radicals to threaten the system in any meaningful way, history has shown that they must disrupt or damage the material functioning of the system. Historically, radical movements have achieved this by connecting with mass organised labour or peasantry. The working class, for instance, possesses the potential to enact actual radical change because it performs an essential role within the system – accumulation of capital. Liberal democracies have traditionally revealed their oppressive, violent and un-democratic nature when confronted with radical movements with established connections with organised labour.

Radical movements have not just been isolated from the categories that Tom Hayden described, but from the very social classes that possess the potential power to change the system. The solution then lies in forming the ideological and organisational modes, which will allow radical movements to organise and link with broad social groups fundamentally disadvantaged by the system.

Abraham O’Neill

Bio: Abraham is a recent UQ graduate, activist and gardener based in Brisbane. He wants to be part of the generation that turns the ship away from our suicidal dependence on fossil fuels and meeting the threat of anthropogenic climate change. He has been involved in movements to resist fossil fuel dominance at University, volunteered for the Environmental Defenders Office and worked for the Greens.

Summary: There is hope for radicalism, even in Brisbane. If “radical” means one who is not content with the existing institutional political means for change, but who seeks to fundamentally reorder the world, then there are an abundance of radicals, and their numbers in Brisbane are growing. It is radical to desire to transform our society and its physical infrastructure from one which ignores ecological limits to one which can exist within them.

The tactics and theory of change which characterise the climate movement are increasingly radical as that movement encounters the resistance of deeply embedded rogue industries such as the coal and gas industries. The fossil fuel divestment movement, and the anti-coal movements are examples of this and will be used as case-studies.

Leon, when told of the meeting, was immediately interested, cautiously venturing, with a sardonic smile, in his still pronounced Russian accent, the idiomatic remark: “It will be on for young and old, what?”
“Apt, as usual, are you comrade”, one of us said obligingly, “ as many of the listeners will be of the generation of Tom Hayden or even more ancient”.
“Ah yes, youth can often instruct experience. But I recall a time when experience instructed youth.” Then he went into a familiar trance of abstraction and was soon in the full afflatus of perfect recollection of his report to the 5th All-Russian Congress of the Communist League of Youth in 1922. Some of us remembered it vividly from its later published form in Molodaya Gvardiya in1923:

COMRADES! Five years have quickly passed since the day when, by the will of the toiling masses of Russia, the Soviet order was set up in our country and by the will of these same masses the guidance of the destinies of our country found themselves entrusted to the Russian Communist Party. I bring greetings to your congress on behalf of the Central Committee of this party.
The history of these five years, in which I suspect the majority of you here had no opportunity of taking an active part, for in October 1917 many of my highly respected audience were still most likely crawling around under the table (this is neither reproach nor praise but a fact) the history of these five years forms a well of the greatest lessons.
Revolutionary epochs, the epochs of social landslides, turn the whole inside of society outwards. When you go past a mountain ridge you can see layers which have accumulated over the course of millenia. One had been deposited on the next. From above they were invisible. But these layers were raised up with a volcanic force, faults were created, mountains and gorges formed and you can see in the cross-section of the mountain the layers of the different rock-forms. That’s what happens with society too. In normal times class lies on top of class, and on the base stands the superstructure made up of diverse ideological formations and even the most refined forms of philosophy. The roots and causes of the inner structure cannot be seen with the unaided eye. 3ut the revolution explodes all this, slices it through and lays it bare. And of course those of us who took part in the revolution practically and in deed learnt best of all from this. But as our revolutionary ground is not yet cold the younger generation must learn from the experience of these five unequalled years.

Well-known it is to us that when his eloquence overtakes him, Leon is lost to hospitable entreaty, so it’s as uncertain as ever whether he heard our invitation to attend. When we quietly closed his door he seemed to have reached a peroration that struck as, give or take a century or so, oddly relevant:
The men of the third draft of the working class i.e. your generation, are entering their conscious life in not such a feverish atmosphere. You have to learn so as to come and take over from the older generation, part of whom are gradually coming to the end of their period of service.
That is why, comrades, the question of the Youth League is a question of life and death for our revolution and a question of the fate of the world revolutionary movement. Let me appeal to you and through you to all the most sensitive, most honest and most conscious layers of the young proletariat and advanced peasantry: learn, get yourself teethed on the granite of science, get tempered and prepare to take over! (Applause)

2014-03-24 Co-Opting the Radical Instinct.pdf

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