From Classroom Radicals to Transforming Society: An Imperative Shift

Reprinted from Freedom Toast (April 2003)

“Our dreams are their nightmares” (1)

As we contemplate our futures after the university, it is important that those of us who have an interest in changing society do not completely ignore what it was learned during our time at the university. The lessons learned in our classes—the systemic problems that need to be changed, the techniques for changing these problems learned in our activism, and our idealism all must be retained if we are to have any effect on the world around us (2). For the majority of students, graduate school or a “nine-to-five” career are the two choices offered by society, both of which integrate the student into the very system that they spent much of their college years fighting against. For many “radicals,” graduate school is the more attractive alternative, and for good reason. It gives the student the chance to study what they want and provides them with the university environment in which radical ideas are traditionally encouraged and supported. While some good may come out of graduate school, to a large extent graduate school is a way of pacifying “radicals”–isolating them in the university environment during the years in which they are most energetic and preparing them for university teaching jobs in which they will be further removed from the everyday experience of the majority in society, jobs in which they will play the role of the “token radical professor”–a professor talking about the changes that need to be made but unable to put forth the time needed to bring these changes. Anyone making a serious attempt at being “radical” will no doubt reject the notion of a career as a means of instigating revolutionary change, but some “radicals” are seduced by the prospect of “working within the system.” We must not fall into the common trap of “radical student,” radical only until we can get a high paying job in order to afford a luxury car, or even worse, until we can become integrated into the system under the inane notion of “working within the system” a phrase that is nothing more than a euphemism for selling out everything that we have worked towards (3). The system is setup to handle challenges from within and thrives off the labor of those who have been convinced that they can change things by working from within–there is no way one can change anything by having a career, no matter how much one tries to justify their decision (4). Our post-university experience cannot simply be integration into the capitalist system, a system responsible for the conditions we fought against during our university activism, post-university action must involve a concerted effort to break from and abolish the system of ruthless competition and dehumanization brought forth by capitalism (5).

The most radical thing we can undertake is to change the world–a change that will entail the complete destruction of existing forms of power and oppression. As Bakunin said, “the passion for destruction is also a creative passion,” and we must destroy the existing forms of power and oppression, existing both within ourselves and within society, in order to unleash the creativity necessary to build the world of our dreams (6). How do we go from the nightmarish reality of contemporary society into a world that will allow for the shift from existence into the realm of life? It is impossible to say, and indeed anyone that tries to “sell” you the proper way to bring about change, whether in a book or a pompous newspaper articles, should be ignore. Any movement to bring about changes of this magnitude must be instigated by the people seeking a better life. However, one thing is certain—such changes will never come about by working within the system. It is essential that we oppose the system by refusing to participate in the activities that reproduce its power–consumerism, careers, and politics. It would of course doom “radicals” to complete irrelevancy if they abandoned the current system entirely, as nothing is more marginal than a small number of “radicals” engaged in a futile project to destroy capitalism, but at the same time, one must never be seduced by the prospect of “working within the system.” Instead, the system should be approached only in terms of how its products and its existence can be used to undermine its control. To this end, the idea of “dual power” or “building a new society within the shell of the old” is essential–the system must be milked for whatever can be obtained from it, but we must never forget that our ultimate goal is its destruction. In practical terms, this means accepting the fact that we cannot be “anti-capitalist” if we reinforce the system daily by purchasing worthless products, we cannot be “against sexism” if we continue to operate under sexist assumptions, or worse, advocate a sexist “division of labor” in our activities, just as we cannot not be “revolutionaries” if we simply read books about past revolutions without doing anything about the current society.

So, where do we go from here? Wherever we want! We must live in pursuit of dreams—and actually pursue them–not holding on to this idea of “pursuing our dreams” in the same sense that it is conveyed on Hallmark cards or promised by Nike if you buy their new shoes. We all know that a new sports car cannot truly bring about freedom and to this end we must look at the values used to sell you their products, in this case freedom, and work towards true freedom. After all it is true freedom that we want, the freedom to control our own lives and act in pursuit of our dreams–not the false freedom offered by a new car. To achieve this, we need to shift from the idea of “what is possible” or “what is realistic” (two great phrases used by activists to render themselves useless) to the question of “what we want.” The “possible” and the “realistic” assumes that there are only certain things which can be achieved within this system—and indeed there are–but it is no way to effectively attack the systems to which we desire to change as the “possible” and “realistic” leaves out all possibility of change that comes from outside the system. If we begin our activism from the position of what is “possible” or “realistic” we have already set ourselves up for a certain level of defeat, as the system only allows the change that it wants. Imagine the best possible world that could be created within the confines of the system compared with the world that could be created by people committed to making it so that everyone was free to pursue their dreams and desires–the later is infinitely more beautiful and more than worth the work it will take to create.

But this is not possible “the liberals” argue–one must work within the system, it is our only way of “changing” society. Oh how mistaken they are–by working within the system, we support the system, the system will never allow anything else. In the aforementioned paragraphs, it was explained that one should not ignore the system entirely, but to put all of our hopes for change into the system will only guarantee our failure. The only way things can be challenged is by working towards the world we want to see. While this may sound like irrelevant and idealistic rambling, it really is true. When we make our dreams our goals, we unleash the only force capable of improving society. The “liberals” will argue that this is nonsense and that the only way to achieve our goals is through “reform,” but after all, they have been too integrated into the system to realize that there are chances for actually changing the society and we have seen what they have done–social programs that are decimated by budget cuts a few years after they are passed. But how does this, or can it, actually work for activist groups? Surprisingly, it is possible to pursue activist goals on the premise of “what we want” without becoming bogged down in self-important rhetoric without actually changing things. In Canada, a country similar to the United States in terms of its capitalist development, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) has been operating since 1990 with the goal of “eliminating poverty,” a goal that bypasses liberal “reforms” and attacks the system that creates poverty. OCAP seeks to mobilize poor and homeless people to fight back, through militant and direct action, against the system responsible for the creation of poverty. Through a variety of tactics, OCAP has pursued its mission to “fight to win” against those that hold economic and political power, and as a result, they have won numerous victories—victories that have not been achieved by asking what the system allows (7). OCAP is just one example of the successes that can be won when activists actually get serious. The numerous squatted social centres in Europe provide another example–rather than waiting for low-cost housing, people have taken over abandoned buildings and made them community spaces. Furthermore, the 1999 shutdown of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle was certainly not considered “realistic” or “possible,” but that did not stop people from using direct action to achieve what they wanted. We can win (and indeed we may only be able to win) if we start from the position of what we want, not from what is possible.

For this to work, we are going to need to start by reevaluating the basic assumptions that structure our lives. For starters, we do not need to choose a career after college; we can chose not to work in a traditional job. We can achieve, and indeed deserve, much more than integration into a work force designed to support ritualistic consumption. Getting a long without a “career” may seem difficult at first, but in the end, it is the only option that will allow us to take control of our lives. Imagine the revolutionary potential of a whole generation of people learning to love and live without the constraints of the 9 to 5 job. We will have the capability to change the world, not only through collective action and mutual aid, but also by being able to relate to people as people. Freed from the cycle of work and consumption, which pits neighbors against neighbors and forces relationships to be evaluated in terms of “cost benefit analysis,” we will actually be able to appreciate and cultivate what is truly beautiful about humanity. The critics will no doubt argue that if everyone withdrew from the system of work and consumption that the entire capitalist system would break down–but such a break is exactly what we should be seeking, as this destruction will be the final step that allows for the creation of a new world.

So how are we going to do it? We need to start by actually being serious and not just talking all the time about what we want to do–we need to actually do something. Moreover, it is naïve to think that this will not require a large amount of work, indeed it will, but at least it will not be the “work” that we are forced to do to get by under capitalism. We need to reorganize our lives on the principles of mutual aid–helping others in anyway we can. We can trade labor, trading or donating our skills in bike repair, while the people that know plumbing help us, volunteering to do childcare, or whatever else. We can live lives without careers if we shift our emphasis in life from competition to cooperation, no longer will we be stuck in a stage of existence, separated from authentic life. We can plant gardens and share the fruits of our labor with those around us. We can get along without needing to fear those around us. We can truly love our friends and neighbors without constantly measuring our status against theirs. We can create new institutions that will provide alternatives to capitalism, while also working to improve the existing institutions, as long as we remain aware of the fact that the old institutions are merely temporary improvements and that our ultimate goal is to create a new world with new institutions. So let’s work towards what we want, not what is possible–we have a new society to create.


(1) Graffiti from the walls of occupied Nanterre University, May 1968.

(2) However, I do think a good argument could be made that we should forget much of what we learned in school, especially as it relates to writing in a manner that alienates the majority of the population. Moreover, the opposition to the current system on a theoretical basis, which is fostered in a variety of departments, must be abolished. We can only change the system by action, never by theoretical babbling. Even this paper is a pointless exercise unless it motivates its readers and authors to put it down and actually do something about the conditions we hate.

(3) If you see your post-university “activism” involving a job “working within the system” you might as well drop out of radical politics now, because you will not do shit.

(4) We should pursue a strategy of “dual power” to destroy the system–working within it to gain temporary improvements while also creating institutions which will replace it and eventually render it useless.

(5) This is not to say that I am naïve enough to think that my post-college activities will bring about the end of capitalism–that would be absurd. But at least I am willing to try.

(6) Bakunin,

(7) For more information on the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, visit their website at


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