Motives in Radicalism and Social Reform

Stuart A. Rice


Radical or reformist behavior is a function of two types of variables: (I) "Circumstance" must be equated with (2) "motives" to produce it. "Altruistic" impulses provide an outlet for suppressed tendencies in other directions. In the process, emotional elements are heaped up and tend to throw off the influence of reason. Radicals become "reconditioned" when old types of behavior become attached to new stimuli. They become "tired" when impulses contributing to radical behavior acquire normal satisfactions.
The existing economic structure, since it does not conform to the distribution of ability, fails to provide adequate satisfactions for assertive impulses. Hence, these are prominent among the unrecognized motives of radicals. Leadership in the labor movement is assured thereby. Working-class radicals are realistic.
Middle- and upper-class radicals are idealistic. They are of three types: (1) Some become assimilated into working-class movements because of an extremism that is greater than that of the workers-born. (2)"Liberals" are sought for aid, but will not be given control. (3) "Parlor revolutionists" are without importance.
Unrecognized motives must be considered in evaluating the claims of radical and reform movements. To make their work both rational and effective, social reformers must adopt not only the scientific attitude, but the scientific emotion,


During mellow autumn days in the middle nineties, two little boys of six or seven played "war" in the outskirts of a Minnesota village. Regardless of military requirements, the Home Government frequently imposed upon them a camp follower in the person of a Brother. This individual was about the age of the youngest character in one of Fontaine Fox's cartoons. As a combatant he was without value. Nevertheless he came to serve as a raison d'etre for all campaigns. The elder boys, with deep conviction, would solemnly assert: "We are doing this all for your sake, Bobbie!"

Some years later, one of these boys entered high school and presently became an agitator. The issue involved the curriculum; specifically, whether a group of students might take a course in geometry without a particular prerequisite that was insisted upon. There was much talk about "rights," "liberty," and "justice." The struggle ended with a complete victory, apparently, for the insurgents. Their request for permission to take the course without

( 558) further preliminaries was granted. What was the astonishment among them to discover that not one of them actually availed him-self of the privilege!

Again years passed and our idealist-agitator neared the dose of his undergraduate work in a state university. He became one of a coterie of students, having some influence among their fellows, who were imbued with the spirit of revolt against things as they were. This spirit was directed alike toward affairs national, state, or local, and within the realms of politics, economics, or university administration. The latter, being closer at hand, was the more available to intervention. The coterie grew into a movement of protest against the acceptance by the university authorities of a gift of chimes from the owner and editor of a great newspaper. This man had recently been under indictment for ownership of illegal houses in the restricted district, and for similar offenses. His great power had apparently served to secure the dismissal of the indictment and the stiffing of public criticism. By his munificent gift, so it seemed to the students, he hoped to utilize the good name of the university to accomplish his moral rehabilitation before the community.

The protest gained momentum under the stimulus of attempted repression. It presently obtained support from ministerial associations, women's clubs, and other representatives of the "moral forces" in the state. It likewise received indorsement from labor and socialist bodies who hated the reactionary labor policy of the editor's newspaper. It soon became the nucleus of a "reform wave," contributing to the political overturn of the state and leading to a reorganization of the state university.[1]

Viewed objectively, the three episodes seem widely divergent in character. The idealist-agitator-radical who experienced them, nevertheless, now regards all three as products of substantially similar impulses and emotions. In each there was the zest of righteous conflict and the self-laudation that accompanied it; there was a satisfaction of impulses toward leadership, together with an. emo-

( 559) -tional devotion to a cause; there was an unrestrained opportunity to take one's self seriously and a thrilling consciousness of cutting a figure in affairs; finally, when the fight was over, when it had been sucked dry of the emotional satisfactions it contained, there was an amazing indifference to the specific outcome.

"Today," he says, "I rather fancy that I enjoy the sight of those chimes." Why not ? They are associated in his experience with a golden epoch of impulse satisfaction and emotional outlet.

There is nothing unique about these true incidents in the life of one social reformer except the present recognition of elements of motivation that were unrecognized at the time of the behavior to which they led. To turn the proposition about, radicals and social reformers are largely actuated by motives other than those with which they credit themselves in the midst of their activity.[2]

One of the first interpretations of radical or reform behavior in terms of these unrecognized motives was made by the late Carleton Parker.[3] It has remained for William F. Ogburn to bring the concept more definitely into harmony with the objective evidence.[4]

Radical behavior is a function of two variables, or kinds of variables, of which motives represent the one, and "culture," "environment," or "circumstance" the other. For example, abnormalities of life, as Dr. Ogburn suggests, surrounded the casual workers in the West before the organization of the militant I.W.W. Repressed impulses by themselves, then, cannot explain the peculiar radical behavior of that movement. But this is not to say that repressed impulses had no outlet in the lives of these workers before 1905. The "red-light" districts of Seattle, Spokane, Butte, and other western cities, in which these casual laborers congregated to "blow" their savings, offered many, diverse, and perhaps almost equally "satisfying" opportunities for release of the same thwarted motives.

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The restrictions upon such opportunities that have arisen in recent years are believed by many observers to have stimulated radicalism. This belief is reflected in the strong support given to prohibition by many leaders of western radicalism who were once its bitter opponents.

In an individual, pure chance may determine the impulsive and emotional outlets that are found. It may be only accident that determines whether a particular person is a religious dogmatist in a New England town, a Tammany henchman in New York, or a class-conscious "Wobbly" in a western camp.

This paper will attempt no derivations of sociological equations for radical or reformist behavior. As the variable more frequently overlooked by reformers in reviewing their own activity, the factor of motives will be singled out for further discussion.

The viewpoint followed is that of a considerable number of motives or impulses in readiness for expression in each individual. One category comprises those which may be loosely characterized as "altruistic." Some of the individual's impulse tendencies, when stimulated, are denied a normal completion in behavior. Individuals may vary considerably in the number and selection of impulses which are thus "balked." Professor Woodworth says: "Let any reaction-tendency be first aroused and then interfered with, and pugnacious behavior is the instinctive result. . .  With this impulse often goes the stirred-up organic and emotional state of anger."[5]

In civilized society the agency by which an impulse is "balked" is rarely accessible to retaliation. Social standards of conduct, moreover, dictate modes of constraint upon both pugnacity and anger. Their expression, in modified form, becomes in some way attached to, and to some extent brings about, other forms of behavior. The completion of the latter then provides something of the same satisfaction as would the completion of the reaction-tendency that has been thwarted. The emotion that would normally be associated with the actual behavior seems, nevertheless, to be augmented. This augmentation of emotion may lead to nothing more than innocent enthusiasms or hobbies. It may supply the impetus

( 581) to rationally calculated behavior. On the other hand, it may lead to such a heaping-up of emotion that the particular activity to which it is attached falls outside of the realm within which the individual's reason exercises a co-ordinating influence.

In the case of most social reformers, especially those of upper or middle-class traditions, this heaping-up of emotion has occurred around what I have termed the "altruistic" impulses. Radicals, social reformers, and social workers are as a rule unselfish and even self-sacrificing. They "burn with conviction" that they are helping to bring about a "better world." Their belief is scarcely distinguishable in this regard from that of the religious enthusiast.

This enthusiasm, being purely emotional, tends to lose touch with the individual's reasoning processes. The program of reform or radicalism that is to "remake society" serves principally as a vehicle for expressions of impulse and emotion. Like the gods of the religious devotee, the reformer's "movement" is a matter of faith. Reason is indeed employed in a secondary manner. Minor points in the program are keenly debated, while the cause as a whole may be promoted with a great amount of skill and intelligence. In its essentials, nevertheless, it is beyond the reach of rational criticism. It reposes in an emotional holy of holies into which unbiased analysis is not permitted.

The fortuitous manner in which a "cause" may be selected is to be illustrated by the apostates to radicalism. Every anti-radical organization or propaganda is filled with supporters who have deserted radical movements. In most cases these men and women have not, as former comrades suppose, "sold out." The new cause is promoted with the same emotional conviction and sincerity as was the old. Such radicals are not "tired." Their emotional satisfactions have merely become reconditioned.

As an example of a "reconditioned" radical, I venture to suggest Mr. Ole Hanson, who, as mayor of Seattle, gained national prominence, at the time of the general strike of 1919 in that city, for his alleged suppression of "the Reds." That Mr. Hanson had been for many years prior to this event a somewhat radical reformer is a fact not generally known outside of his own community. It is current belief among many former supporters that he "sold out to the

( 582) enemy" in the person of traction and other interests. To the writer, a more plausible explanation is to be found for his change of front: Rebuffs sustained from earlier supporters, particularly in a personal appearance before the Central Labor Council at the outset of the strike, served to destroy the accustomed stimuli with which Mr. Hanson's behavior had been associated. Simultaneously, new stimuli in the form of support and applause, substantially the same as the old in kind, but appearing from unfamiliar quarters, were substituted. Hence, the type of response continued unchanged but its objects were largely reversed.

Occasionally it happens that the emotional structure of radicalism is reabsorbed, as it were, at its source. Normal completions are established for impulses that have been interfered with. The emotional pressure behind the radical activities is then reduced.

Thus, happy marriage has frequently withdrawn the driving power of an individual from a radical movement, just as unhappy marriage may place such a drive behind it. The paralyzing effect of a good income upon the radical activities of an individual has often been noted. The effect may be due not so much to a new identification of personal interests as to new possibilities of satisfaction for impeded impulses. Advancing age, even though it brings no additional means of satisfaction, may yet soften the vigor of some of the youthful impulse-tendencies that were drained into radicalistic channels. In all such cases, radicals become, not "reconditioned," but " tired."

If the writer were to single out any group of impulses as pre-eminent among the hidden springs of action in the life of reformers and radicals, it would be those which have to do with leadership, dominance, and "aggressive self-assertion," in Woodworth's phrase. There is a vital association between the thwarting of such impulses and the question of leadership in the labor movement. Many radical labor leaders have the qualities that would make them successful business men and "labor haters" under other circumstances.

Professor Ogburn suggests that, whereas human ability follows the normal curve of error in its distribution, the economic organization of society is to be symbolized rather by the pyramid. Super-imposition will indicate the larger number of men and women who

( 583) do not find within organized productive processes a sufficient outlet for the abilities that they possess, in whatever degree, to lead and influence their fellow-men. Lacking the training, the environment, the income, or the inclination to seek an outlet in cultural, intellectual, or religious spheres, they naturally become active in the promotion and leadership of class-conscious movements among their associates.

The same reasoning may serve to explain in part the higher qualities of leadership that are said to be exhibited within the labor movement in Great Britain as compared with that in the United States. If it is true that America is a land of greater opportunity, men of native ability will more often rise out of the American working classes into the middle and upper strata of society. The greater resistance to change of social status in Great Britain would tend to retain for the working classes there the services of men of ability born within their ranks.

In general, the leader of working-class birth is likely to "have his feet upon the ground" as regards the realities of life within his group. He is likely, on the whole, to emphasize the economic aspects of the labor struggle, concerning himself with hours, wages, and working conditions. His radicalism remains realistic rather than becomes utopian. Trades unions may affiliate with radical political parties, yet they rarely spend themselves on the political struggle. Win or lose, the economic line-up against employers remains the same on the day after election.

It is the leader of middle- or upper-class birth or training, who, failing to obtain his emotional satisfactions within those classes, is more likely to become a champion of idealistic movements of social reform or radicalism. Generally referred to as an "intellectual," he should oftentimes more properly be termed an "emotional," with reference to the horny-handed variety of leader. Lacking an intimate acquaintance with working-class life and character, he is usually tolerated, but seldom trusted, and rarely really liked by the mass of those men with whom he seeks to affiliate.

A few manage to assimilate themselves into the atmosphere of the labor-born, by means of an excess of devotion to the "cause." An example is that of George F. Vandeveer, a highly successful attor-

( 584) -ney of bourgeois antecedents, who defended the I.W.W. in the "Centralia Massacre" cases of 1920. His courage and conviction of the justice of his case won the admiration of ardent enemies and gave him tremendous prestige within the outlawed organization. The I.W.W. as a whole probably contains a larger proportion of members of bourgeois origin than most of the milder labor organizations. In view of its extreme and doctrinaire tenets, such a fact would be quite consistent with the thesis here presented. It is these very higher-born individuals, however, who are usually loudest in their denunciation of "the intellectuals" and the "white collar class."

Others approach sufficiently near to realities to be rated as "liberals" or "labor sympathizers." In time of labor's strength, the liberals are often ridiculed or charged with ulterior motives by the genuine class-conscious laborite or his counterfeit. In time of need, the liberals' assistance, particularly their financial assistance, is sought and welcomed; but they will not be given control. Witness the 72-hour struggle at Chicago in July, 1920, between laborites and the liberals of the Committee of Forty-eight. The latter, with the assurance of Senator La Follette's leadership, wished to create a "liberal" party that would be a real contender in the presidential election. They were defeated by class-conscious labor leaders who knew that they could not control such a movement. These labor leaders instead formed a Farmer-Labor Party, with the farmers conspicuously absent.

There is a third type of middle- or upper-class radical who is unable or disinclined to make even a partial adjustment to working-class realities. Misunderstanding and misunderstood, he becomes a parlor revolutionist and withdraws into the society of small and unimportant groups of a type associated in the public mind with Greenwich Village.

The general conclusions that I seek to draw from the foregoing analysis are these: Programs of social reform win support largely because they offer an outlet to suppressed tendencies and emotions, and not because of reasoned conviction in the validity or practicability of their aims or promises. Discrepancies are very likely to arise between the professed objects of the movement and the behavior associated with it, either in its promotion or in the event of its pos-

( 585) -sible triumph. Hence, reform programs are to be explained, judged, and their right to support determined not alone by the comparative legitimacy of their formal aims, but by all of the emotional currents that are caught up and expressed in them.

It would be more rational, for example, deliberately to affiliate one's self with the I.W.W., disapproving of its program but hoping to improve recognized abnormalities in the living conditions of the migratory workers, than it would be, on the other hand, to join that organization merely to promote its avowed theory of industrial democracy, in which one might rationally believe.

We live in a dynamic age. Customs, laws, and institutions very rapidly become unadapted to human needs and interests. Social reform is a vital and a continuing necessity. "Laissez faire" is untenable, for civilization no longer has time to wait for undirected trial-and-error progress with regard to its social problems.

A coldly rational attitude toward social problems will by itself accomplish little, especially when it runs counter to hot passions and seething emotions. Cold rationality would perhaps counsel that one give up the attempt to better the world and see what may be obtained in the way of satisfactions for one's self.

How, then, may emotion be put into harness with reason to provide the driving power behind rationally derived projects of social adjustment and social control? How may the reformer be sure that his projects are really directed toward social betterment and not merely toward satisfaction of his own egoistic impulses ?

The answer is found, so it seems to the writer, if the scientific approach toward all social problems is itself selected as the object of emotional attachment. "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." The sentence is overflowing with emotional drive. To find the truth with the best of whatever scientific ability one may have, to have courage as well as intelligence to face it, and to follow its implications whatever the sacrifice to earlier beliefs, prejudices, and emotional indulgences-this is the scientific attitude. It is also the scientific emotion. There can be no worthier "cause" of social reform.


  1. I refer to the defeat of Governor Hay, Republican incumbent, in the state of Washington in 1912, and the election of Ernest Lister, a Democrat, as his successor, President T. F. Kane of the state university resigned, and an entire new board of regents was appointed by the new governor.
  2. The term, "motive," or "impulse" is here used in the sense given by Professor Woodworth: "In general, a motive is a tendency toward a certain end-result or end-reaction, a tendency which is itself aroused by some stimulus, and which persists for a time because its end-reaction is not at once made." Psychology, p. 84.
  3. The Casual Laborer and Other Essays, especially IV, "Motives in Economic Life."
  4. Article, "The Historical Method in the Analysis of Social Problems," Publications of the American Sociological Society, Vol. XVI, 1921.
  5. Psychology, p. 159.

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