The Real Radicals at Universities

by Joey Wilson Brooke

For someone like myself, who has been a strong believer and defender of human rights and particularly freedom of expression, it is great to see that it has become the buzzword on everyone’s lips. It is great to see so many people engaging with how freedom of expression fits into a democratic society. What isn’t so great is when we as citizens are missed out of this debate – when it is decided for us.

We like to think we live in a world of ‘negative will’, to use Isaiah Berlin’s terms. This means that we are free, to the extent that no one is stopping our activities, stopping us from doing as we please. Except when we cross a line, and what we want to do interferes with what someone else wants to do – that’s when we have an issue. So we have to compromise; it’s what civilised people do I’ve heard… We work on what is called a ‘harm principle’ where people can do what they want unless they bring harm to others, and if this occurs then restrictions can be imposed. This is what the government is focusing on when thinking about radicalisation in universities. What we should be thinking about his ‘positive will’ – the intrapersonal struggle between social reasoning and base appetite to do what we want. When we see a child about to put something unpleasant in it’s mouth, we can see from the outside that perhaps that isn’t the best idea, so we go to remove the object. The adult, who is wiser than the child, thinks that they were justified in separating the child from the object because they could see the consequence. But what about if that small taste of bitterness is what the child needs to never try and eat it again? What if the child was going to put it down? The point I make, and it is one that Berlin himself worried about too, is that this justification of ‘knowing best’ can be used by governments to decide, without our say, what is good for us.

I’m not saying I want to invite jihadi or other ‘radical’ leaders to university platforms, but if we aren’t given the opportunity to critique or abstain the views that are present in the world, how are we ever going to change anything? University is meant to incite engagement with difficult issues about society. It is meant to help you challenge what you’ve been told about and how you feel about it, which isn’t always a pretty battle.

The thing is, radicals at university isn’t a new thing, they just aren’t so obviously on display. In fact, I would hold my hands up and say that I believe in radical ideas. So I want to give a brief outline of my favourite radicals that I have met at university, and what made them ‘radical’.

William Blake, 1757 – 1827:


This guy, well he really was outrageous. Did you know that he once wore a red bonnet in public! Yep. It was a sign that he was a Dissenter, someone who opposed the interference of the state in religious matters, and this did not fit into the nice box of Protestantism at the time. The only reason Blake wouldn’t be on the ‘watch’ list now, and indeed at the time, was because his work wasn’t highly popular or circulated. Nonetheless, here are the ‘radical’ ideas he spoke about in his writing: the conditions of the poor in 18th century London; the plight of the young children forced to clean chimneys; the growing number of women forced to pursue prostitution to survive; and the industrialisation of mills that was doing people out of jobs. A truly terrifying man in retrospect.

Thomas Paine, 1731 – 1809:


This guy was a serious radical. He was even charged for seditious libel by the British Government, the punishment being the death penalty, and had to escape to France for fear of his life. But why would our democratic, civilised government sentence a man to death? It must have been for a pretty good reason, right? Well, Paine wrote a response to Edmund Burke, another chap at the time, who had written about disregarding the issues being raised by the French Revolution and just sticking to our nice little class hierarchy as the citizens have no right to revolt against a government, as it was formed out of social and political consensus. So Paine wrote Rights of Man (we will ignore the gender-specific terminology for now…) and essentially said that when a ruling system is no longer safeguarding the natural rights of its people (as was being seen in France), then political revolution was permissible. Now, we hear the term “revolution” thrown about and we start to get a little edgy, even nowadays, but what Paine is arguing as that it should never reach that stage initially. Paine was one of the first ‘radicals’ to suggest that our liberty and equality is born when we are born, not something given to us by a ruling class.

Thomas Hardy, 1752 – 1832:


This radical is not the actor Tom Hardy, nor the brilliant author of Tess of the D’Urbevilles but is in fact the founder of the London Corresponding Society. It doesn’t seem like a very glamorous society but like Tom Hardy, they had their share of front-page space. Originally formed in 1792, the LCS aim was the reform of parliament, especially the representation of the working class. They printed pamphlets for circulation amongst the masses to try and educate people on their beliefs on suffrage. But Hardy, along with another 29 ‘radicals’ were arrested in 1794 under the Pitt administration, and three of these radicals were tried for high treason – punishable by death. One of these three was our ‘radical’ friend Thomas Hardy. The three radicals were acquitted but this attempt to silence them was part of the general government movement to quash radicals trying to preach reform and inciting public unrest with their current social conditions.

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