“Even though I’ve always loved who you are, I also appreciate the fact that you never stop dramatically changing,” a friend of mine told me once.

I took it as a compliment. But it’s actually rather exhausting. And I’m in the middle of one of those “dramatic changes” right now, which is why I haven’t been posting much. Basically, the latest sea change is this: I no longer think the destruction of either civilization or the government is possible, imminent or desirable.

Whew, I said it.

Advocating the overthrow of the government, for example (”revolutionary anarchism”) no longer makes sense to me. “Overthrow the government and you just become the government,” as someone recently said over on anarkospiritual. I’m kind of surprised it’s taken me this long to clearly realize this. The alternatives — promoting the co-op and labor movements (and making the latter more democratic), working for progressive changes in government, etc.; basically, “evolutionary anarchism“ — are not nearly as glamorous as anything with the word “REVOLUTION” attached to it, but I think they’re likely to take us further in real terms.

The issue of civilization is a much trickier one. I can’t say for sure that industrial civilization won’t collapse soon (be it for ecological or energy-related reasons) – I don’t think it will, but who knows? And I can’t say for sure that it’s wise to try to reform civilization rather than destroy it. Maybe it isn’t.

But neither of these points seem to be adequately proven by the primitivists, in what I’ve read so far. It seems civilization will keep on existing for the forseeable future, so I’m going to devote my energies towards making it a more just and sustainable place. In the end I’d rather be doing what feels right than what is the most “radical.”

The challenge now becomes figuring out how to take part in the matrix of civilization without becoming co-opted by it – how to vote without being sucked into the political machine, for example. As I try to strike that balance I’ll be writing about it here.

Post script: “Moderate radicalism” seems a very Quaker-ly sort of position indeed, at least when considering the early Quakers and women’s liberation. As you may or may not know, the early Quakers were emphatically not in favor of complete sexual equality, just in favor of a greatly expanded concept of women’s rights and roles for their time in the 17th century. But the grain of moderate-ness in their still-very-radical ideas was arguably what allowed it to gain traction, and become perhaps the “cradle not only of modern feminism but of the movements of abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and peace activism, all of which were, and are, enlivened by the presence (even predominance) of Quaker female leaders,” as one historian writes.

7 Responses to “Confessions of a moderate radical”

  1. 1 Matt Nov 14th, 2006 at 12:11 pm

    I feel like I’ve been going through a (moderately) similar change as well, though the change doesn’t seem as radical or foundation-shaking for me as it does to you. Perhaps this is because you’ve held a radical political stance for much longer than I have (at least I think you have). But, I thank you for inadvertantly helping me put some of my feelings into words.

    I think when I first became a convinced anarchist, my views were sort of a knee-jerk reaction to my previous views. Maybe I was trying to to hard to be viewed an anarchist, and was espousing views not necessarily because I believed them, but because I saw them as anarchist. Through a kind of desperation in not knowing how best to work for change, and not wanting to been seen as an armchair theorist, I’ve become more moderate in my anarchism (especially leading up to the mid-term elections and the Marriage Amendment here in VA. I tried to cling to the idea that “anarchists don’t vote”. Even though I didn’t care for either Allen or Webb, I couldn’t justify not letting my voice be heard against the amendment.)

    I still consider myself an anarchist, but I realize now I have to work both within and without the system we have lest I risk being a “lame duck” radical.

  2. 2 Zach Nov 14th, 2006 at 5:14 pm

    I realize now I have to work both within and without the system


    I think I find these sorts of changes so disorienting because I’m a very idea-driven person (perhaps too much so).

  3. 3 Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) Nov 16th, 2006 at 8:44 am

    Zach, you write, “As you may or may not know, the early Quakers were emphatically not in favor of complete sexual equality, just in favor of a greatly expanded concept of women’s rights and roles for their time in the 17th century.”

    No, I do not know that. George Fox came out in favor of total sexual equality for those who had been redeemed by the Spirit from the curse laid on Adam and Eve in the Garden. This is a matter of written record. And most (though not all) Friends went along with Fox on the matter. The major resistance to this program of equality was centered in the Bristol Quaker community — Bristol was always a trouble spot for Friends.

    The sexual equality advocated by Fox and most early Friends was not a matter of identical rôles, but one of equal but complementary rôles. Men were in charge of outside-the-household work, bringing in income; women were in charge of households and spending; but in matters where decisions had to be made affecting them both, their voices were of equal weight. Fox carried this complementarian division of labor over into his vision of the differing duties of men’s and women’s meetings: men were to be in charge of fund-raising and women in charge of disbursement, with the two meetings having equal weight in all joint decisions.

    Sexual complementarianism made more sense then, when industry was in its infancy, the hayfield revolution had hardly begun, and labor-saving household devices were primitive at best, than it makes today. Most folks back then lived on the edge of starvation much of the time, struggling to survive bad harvests and economic downturns and wars. Households were more likely to survive through bad times when men and women really focused on their different rôles and made themselves experts in the differing techniques involved.

    Later generations of Friends subverted Fox’s vision of sexual equality, giving the men’s meetings authority over the women’s meetings. But in the beginning of the movement the equality appears to have been quite real in most places.

    Citations and bibliography on request.

  4. 4 Zach Nov 17th, 2006 at 12:11 am

    Marshall, as always, I enjoy spirited debate with you about early Friends. But I think you’re completely wrong here.

    There are two sub-issues you raise: first, “women’s speaking,” and second, women’s power inside the sect as it became more organized (roughly beginning in 1660). After I address those, I’ll raise one of my own.

    • (1) You are right about what Fox’s views on women’s preaching were, but I don’t think you can defensibly read them as supporting more than a limited, theological kind of gender equality. The standard Quaker argument in the 1650s was that the Pauline injunctions against “women speaking” were directed at women who were “under the Law” rather than the Spirit, and that they therefore did not apply to “redeemed” women speaking by commandment of the Spirit. As Fell says, “you ought to make a distinction what sort of Women are forbidden to speak,” namely, those who “were under the Law, who were not come to Christ.”

      This led most if not all early Friends to theologies that were either patriarchal or misogynistic:

      • * Those who leave the argument there are guilty of a double standard, where women (and only women) must meet a special spiritual requirement to be permitted to speak. Keith, for example, explicitly endorses this, saying that men may speak both of their own wills and by divine command, but women only by divine command. This is clearly patriarchal.
      • * Many other Friends, however, took this interpretation of Paul to its logical conclusion, namely, that whoever is an “inward woman” must be silent, and whoever is an “inward man” may speak. Hence two Quaker women ministers imprisoned in 1655 in Exeter, write in a tract to the priests of England that “it’s weakness that is the woman by the Scriptures forbidden…. Indeed, you your selves are the women, that are forbidden to speak in the Church, that are become women.” You find the same inversion in the Quaker men’s writings – femininity is used as a symbol of spiritual weakness: women may only speak by transcending their womanhood and becoming spiritually “male,” and an unspiritual man is branded as inwardly “female.” This is clearly misogynistic.
    • (2) As for the authority of the women’s meetings, your argument that women being assigned largely private, domestic duties is “equal but complementary” puts you in bad company: “separate but equal” is the cry of patriarchal (etc.) ideologies everywhere. The very concept of universalized “gender roles” (however supposedly economically necessary) is inegalitarian. And yes, I would like to see your references on the men’s and women’s meetings having equal say in all joint decisions.
    • (3) And finally, if early Friends were so egalitarian, then why do a number of early Friends repeat the Pauline mantras that “wives must be in subjection to their husbands” (while men are merely told to “love” their wives)? This also is clearly patriarchal.

      And it directly contradicts your belief that Fox in particular was in favor of “total sexual equality,” because Fox recites the very same argument – in the very same tract where he first defends female ministry (titled The Woman Learning in Silence, referring to the “unredeemed” woman, per above). If Fox wrote “let the Wives be subject to their own Husbands in everything,” is it really a subversion of “Fox’s vision of equality” for later Friends to have made the women’s meetings subject to the men’s? Or does this also count as “equal but complementary”?

    • None of which detracts from my original point: that early Quaker women were allowed radically greater freedoms compared to what was normal for the 17th-century – public speaking/preaching, publishing, travelling, and certain administrative duties in the women’s meetings – but that the notion that Friends were in favor of full gender equality from day one is pure hagiography.

  5. 5 Pam Nov 28th, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    Zach -

    I appreciate this perspective, and even find it much like my own. I also appreciate what I could get through of your mini-debate with Marshall (I get overwhelmed by academic things easily these days)

    I find that I strive, and have almost always striven (?) towards a life outside “civilization” - not completley of course, I am still pretty well mired in it really. But my fantasies have always been back-to-the-land ones. I would love to make all my own clothes out of flax I’d grown myself, for example (except if I REALLY wanted to, I probalby could, it would be a heck of a lot of work, and I don’t know if I’m actually up for it!)

    But in any case, I’d love to see a transition to smaller scale life, local economies and such, but I think that you’re right that that’s not going to happen by overthrowing anyone, but by small and gradual cultural shifts (if at all)

  6. 6 Marshall Massey Nov 30th, 2006 at 8:11 am

    Dear Zach, I definitely plan to respond to your response to my earlier comment. Unfortunately, I’m having trouble finding the time for it — your statements require a properly-researched and properly-documented answer, which would take me half a day to put together, and half-days aren’t that easy to come by.

    So it will be a while longer. But you are not forgotten!

    God bless you (O unbeliever!) for your willingness and readiness to talk such matters through. Words cannot sufficiently express how much I appreciate that trait in you –

  7. 7 Zach Dec 2nd, 2006 at 3:27 pm

    Marshall, thank you.

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  • So his initial message was always the same: give up your dependence on doctrines, rituals, preachers and everything else that is external to you, and find the light within you because that will teach you all you need to know. And you already know what the light is, because it's that that makes you uncomfortable about the things you do wrong. So take note of those uncomfortable feelings, and let 'the light in your conscience' show you what they're all about it. If you allow it to, the light will show you the whole truth of your life, and if you then accept that truth, it will set you free – free from guilt and shame, but also free from the powerful desires that made you act wrongly in the first place.

    Rex Ambler,
    Light to Live By p. 7

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