The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements

The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements

by Craig Calhoun


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The story of the rise of radicalism in the early nineteenth century has often been simplified into a fable about progressive social change. The diverse social movements of the era—religious, political, regional, national, antislavery, and protemperance—are presented as mere strands in a unified tapestry of labor and democratic mobilization. Taking aim at this flawed view of radicalism as simply the extreme end of a single dimension of progress, Craig Calhoun emphasizes the coexistence of different kinds of radicalism, their tensions, and their implications.
The Roots of Radicalism reveals the importance of radicalism’s links to preindustrial culture and attachments to place and local communities, as well the ways in which journalists who had been pushed out of “respectable” politics connected to artisans and other workers. Calhoun shows how much public recognition mattered to radical movements and how religious, cultural, and directly political—as well as economic—concerns motivated people to join up. Reflecting two decades of research into social movement theory and the history of protest, The Roots of Radicalism offers compelling insights into the past that can tell us much about the present, from American right-wing populism to democratic upheavals in North Africa.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226090863
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/09/2012
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Craig Calhoun is president of the Social Science Research Council, the University Professor of the Social Sciences at New York University, and founding director of its Institute for Public Knowledge. He is the author of several books, including Nations Matter: Culture, History, and the Cosmopolitan Dream and Neither Gods nor Emperors: Students and the Struggle for Democracy in China.

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Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements


Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-09086-3

Chapter One

Resituating Radicalism

The term radical refers to roots—of plants, or words, or numbers. By extension from the botanical, etymological, and mathematical usages, early modern thinkers described analyses as radical when they went to foundations, first principles, or what was essential. Both religious and philosophical arguments informed this usage.

All leaders of the Reformation claimed to grasp what was essential to Christianity and sought to restore the faith to its fundamentals. But early "magisterial" reformers like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin were challenged by other Protestants who asserted that their reforms were too modest, just substituting a new church hierarchy for the old Catholic one but still claiming that learned elites had special access to religious truth. Thomas Müntzer and Andreas Karlstadt called for taking Christianity back to its roots, arguing that the very idea of hierarchical church authority had no Biblical warrant. Karlstadt connected this radical analysis to what later would be another sense of the word "radical," responding in the negative to the question "whether we should proceed slowly." Anabaptists were prominent in this "Radical Reformation" and it is perhaps no accident that some branches were millenarian and gave rise to movements that remained prominent through the nineteenth century as alternatives to conventional politics, capitalism, and social relations: Hutterites, Amish, and Mennonites. Branches of Radical Reformation were significant during the English Civil War, extending leveling ideas from religion to political economy and, during the eighteenth century, shaped political radicalism, not least through figures like William Blake.

In philosophy, the epistemology of René Descartes was radical in its attempt to analyze knowledge by thinking through its elementary conditions anew and from the starting point of the individual knower. It was received by a variety of defenders of the established order as radical in its potential to shake the foundations not only of science or philosophy but also of religion and society. Thomas Hobbes was radical in trying to deduce a rationally consistent account of political order from basic premises about human nature—radical enough that his justification of absolute monarchy threatened even the monarch it purported to legitimate. Though a man of moderate temperament, Immanuel Kant was radical in his insistence on the importance of knowledge, the distinction between human agency and existence as an object of nature, and the reliance on critical reason he thought followed from this. Subsequent philosophers have competed to produce ever more radical critiques (some of them turning against the project of knowledge itself).

Eventually, political positions began to be called radical when they sought systematic, rapid, or thoroughgoing change. Rationalist rethinking of the foundations of social order became one of the most prominent legacies of both Reformation and Enlightenment to radical politics. On the one hand there was the radical, antihierarchical notion that the individual should judge basic matters for himself—guided by his divine inner light, senses, or reason. Likewise, the idea of rebuilding society from its very foundations, rethinking all its basic elements, gained many adherents—not least among intellectuals. Sweeping away the arbitrary accretions of tradition seemed good in itself, a matter of shining the light of reason everywhere. It was also often associated with leveling the unjust power that sheltered in the shadows of traditional justifications (or indeed, traditions that headed off calls for justifications). For many, organized religion became a central target, especially Catholicism with its mysteries, rituals, and reliance on priestly authority rather than open interpretation. Criticisms advanced in the Protestant Reformation were renewed on secular grounds. Radicals expected both analyses of abuses and projects of new design to be unswervingly rational—for example, the introduction of the metric system and the end to monarchy seemed parts of the same project for many French revolutionaries.

This was a more dominant theme on the Continent—in France and Holland especially—than in Britain. Radicalism was widely associated with rationalism and plans developed from first principles. British empiricists were insistently suspicious. But it is in this context that liberalism could come be to designated radical—it could involve the proposal to undertake a thoroughgoing remaking of society on individualist—and usually property-holding individualist—principles. It is in this sense that a number of centrist liberal political parties came during the nineteenth century to designate themselves "radical." Of course there is a great difference between this sort of radicalism—thoroughgoing application of a philosophical position to politics—and both the kind of radicalism that comes from acting on the basis of deep social and cultural roots and the idea of judging radicalism by the depth of change achieved.


In England and Britain more generally, the Radical Reformation left particularly prominent legacies and these divided on rationalism. The traditions of radical Dissent included antinomian and more generally antiauthoritarian thought and carried political connections, especially from the seventeenth century. But they were creative and not only backward looking. Many heirs of the Radical Reformation disdained established religion but refused to extend this into the rejection of faith. They embraced thinking but feared the introduction of rationalistic master plans for social organization.

The Dissenting traditions were intensely intellectual but not rationalistic in the sense of the dominant intellectual elites. From religious antinomianism they drew hostility to the displacement of faith by law. E. P. Thompson quotes the Muggletonians, with whom he found an affinity and whose influence he sees in Blake,

Reason's chains made me to groan; Freedom, freedom then unknown.

Blake later wrote in the same vein: "Reason once fairer than the light till fould in Knowledges dark Prison house." Here is a sense of "roots" that could inform radicalism, but that hardly fit the rationalist paradigm. As Thompson emphasized, idiosyncratic as much of Blake's work is, he was not an isolated genius. On the contrary, Blake was the product of a culture of Dissenting churches and artisan autodidacts that produced its own sharply critical account of the social changes underway in the era: "This is writing which comes out of a tradition. It has a confidence, an assured reference, very different from the speculations of an eccentric or a solitary." This tradition continued through the eighteenth century and was interwoven with a number of others in early nineteenth-century England. Tradition clearly means more than just the past, and tradition is not simply in opposition to reason.

Britain did have its own strong rationalist tradition. This too drew on Dissenting Christianity, as well as the scientific tradition that itself had significant ties to religious Dissent in the seventeenth century. More than a few of the radicals were linked through the Unitarian Chapel at Newington Green, for example, where the minister, Richard Price, was a leading public figure. In 1791, Price joined with Joseph Priestley in founding the Unitarian Society. This was not merely a refuge for deists, nor was it explicable entirely through anti-Trinitarian theological lineage. It was also very much part of the late eighteenth-century rationalist current; Price and Priestley would have been happy with a title like Immanuel Kant's Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. Like providential deists generally, they sought not only to unite reason and religion but also to bring faith to bear on this-worldly practical problems as well as theology. The two Dissenting clergymen were implicated in the emergence of radicalism as a political tradition and the demarcation of conservatism as an opposing tradition.

Price's A Discourse on the Love of Our Country was the proximate stimulus for Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France—which not only became a foundational text for conservatism but also in its very attack helped to cement a certain view of radicalism as a sort of liberal extremism, overthrowing all established order. Burke himself had been sympathetic to Thomas Paine and other critics of the British government in the context of the American Revolution. But the bloody French upheaval went much too far for him. He was especially critical of the extent to which the Revolution seemed to be enacted out of newly enunciated principles. The American Revolution had grown as a struggle within English governance and the colonists could be understood as merely claiming the rights and liberties of Englishmen. But, at least from Burke's vantage point, the French Revolution argued for discarding such traditions and the virtues of gradual, piecemeal reform. Instead, politics would be based on such new ideas as might carry the crowds of the day. The idea of "French principles" symbolized both egalitarianism and the idea of extreme, rationalist reform. Burke's text provoked an enormous response, and hostility toward it was as central to forming the Radical discourse that dominated the public sphere of the 1790s as approval was to later conservatism.

Most importantly, Thomas Paine responded with his Rights of Man, a fierce reaction to Burke offering a vision at once of reason and of rights. The rights of man originate in nature, Paine argued, and therefore are more basic than any political charter or regime. Individuals, "each in his personal and sovereign right" may produce a government by making a compact with each other, but they retain sovereignty and the right to judge whether government is serving their interests. Burke had seen government as the creature of historically cumulating wisdom; Paine was sharp in response, insisting that government was made not by such an abstract process but by actual men and the men of the past could not bind those of the present against their own considered judgment. "Every generation is, and must be, competent to all the purposes which its occasions require." Paine abandoned the deism but built on the basis of radical Dissent as well as Locke and other sources more directly in political philosophy. His conception of the basic rights of citizens echoed the Radical Reformation's view that the individual members of a church must appeal to their own reason, consciences, and interpretations of sacred texts in judging what is right to believe and to do.

Paine was radical in his appeal to nature and common interest as the basis for government—and for revolution when government was unjust. He articulated the ideals of political republicanism in a way that also spoke to broader popular claims, arguing that no social institution could be just that did not serve the interests of the nation as a whole. Monarchy, nobility, and standing armies were all thus challenged. But as Paine wrote, "The more perfect civilisation is, the less occasion has it for government, because the more does it regulate its own affairs, and govern itself." This was a basis not only for resisting burdensome government but also for preferring organizations of social and economic life that would encourage such self-regulation. If Paine echoed Adam Smith, he also wrote in a way that would appeal to artisans with an ideal of self-regulating craft production that was being displaced by top-down management of factories and economic relations more generally.

Paine was enduringly influential. Mary Wollstonecraft had actually written her Vindication of the Rights of Men (and thus of the French Revolution) a few months earlier, but it was overshadowed by Paine's work. Her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, however, was more significant in both contemporary and later debate. Reacting to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who thought girls should be educated differently from boys), as well as to Burke and to the apparent omission of women from the assertion of rights, Wollstonecraft was as rationalist as Paine in making her argument, and indeed on the central point that women's capacities for reason entitled them to full rights. Both Wollstonecraft and Paine presented arbitrary tradition as a form of repression. Wollstonecraft's husband, the influential libertarian political theorist William Godwin was part of the same rationalistic current, focusing especially on political liberty and capacities for collective self-organization among reasonable people. If Godwin was a pioneer of anarchism, Jeremy Bentham took an opposite position in seeking active government, but they were united in a general rationalism, opposition to most of what both Whigs and Tories had to offer in the way of government policies, and a determination to reason everything through from first principles that was distinctive of the philosophical radicalism prominent in public discourse of the 1790s.

At first the new political usage of "radical" was much indebted to the more philosophical ones. It emphasized the thoroughgoing nature of proposed reforms, the way they struck at fundamental issues, and how they proceeded by rethinking first principles and their logical entailments. This sort of radicalism had been brewing since John Wilkes agitated for parliamentary reform and responsiveness to public opinion in the 1760s; it grew with the debates around the American Revolution and flourished most fully in the 1790s. During the era of the American Revolution, there was widespread identification with the cause of the colonists—partly because denouncing tyrannical behavior toward them was a way of scoring political points at home. Even after the French Revolution there was substantial support from the elite Whig political faction. In 1792, the Whig politician Charles James Fox gave a famous speech to Parliament that enduringly linked Radicalism (the respectable, election-oriented sort, with an upper-case "R") to rationalizing electoral reform. In the wake of Fox's speech (which went too far for many elite Whigs), reform societies sprang up throughout England, many imitating at least in name London's pro-French Society of the Friends of Liberty. Without any change to the ideas—in fact, mainly a simplification and focus on a single issue—this wider mobilization made the movement appear more radical and threatening to the established order. Although parliamentary reform remained a rallying cry for decades, in the early nineteenth century—and in the country beyond London—it was increasingly connected to broader socioeconomic as well as political agendas. Participation of (and leadership by) plebeian activists made Radicalism much more radical.

As had been the case during the English Revolution a century before, public debate was informed by sophisticated political philosophy as well as an active occasional literature of pamphlets and broadsides, the partially theatrical production of petitions, and a vital circuit of oratory and debate. The Times was founded in 1785; the Morning Chronicle was older but underwent a transformation when James Perry took it over in 1789. With these in the lead, the major national newspaper became a centerpiece of the British public sphere; a heterogeneous mix of such print media was available thereafter. But through the late eighteenth century, privately printed books remained extremely important. In two ways this helped to keep the print public sphere relatively elite. First, they were expensive. Second, the costs of printing them had to be paid up front, which meant that unless the author was wealthy he or she needed a patron.

The Scottish Enlightenment contributed not only ideas from moral philosophy and political economy, but the notion of a learned journal serving simultaneously as an anchor to discussion about policy. The Edinburgh Review (founded in 1802) was also important in London and indeed is a good example of the way in which a print public bridged a relatively solidary group of Scots who were themselves not so much a public as a community with a much broader field of readers and eventually contributors. The Review brought the institution of dispersed contributors from the realm of newspapers into a forum for more sustained discussion. By the same token, it embodied something of the notion of conversation itself, as did the newspapers with their multiple "correspondents." The Edinburgh Review was eventually complemented by Bentham and the Mills' Westminster Review as London became a center for discussions of public affairs that aspired to be informed by science. These and other Reviews gave the public sphere a less occasional character than reliance on newspapers, pamphlets, and conversation alone, and provided a bridge to the world of books. This was important to the idea of radical reform, for this implied a discourse that was responsive to current events, but that also went beyond such response to develop deeper analyses and a more cumulative program for change. Writers in the Reviews analyzed contemporary issues and intended immediate effects, but they also wrote for posterity. They most especially sought elite readers able to make policy, but at the same time they engaged a broader public. This mixture was important to the British public sphere from the late eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth century. Although public discourse often took place among people of similar backgrounds who were well known to each other, at least sometimes it joined strangers in public houses. This informed later accounts of a golden age of coffeehouse debates, such as that in Habermas's classic account of the structural transformation of the public sphere.


Excerpted from THE ROOTS OF RADICALISM by CRAIG CALHOUN Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Resituating Radicalism....................12
2. Social Movements and the Idea of Progress....................43
3. The Radicalism of Tradition: Community Strength or Venerable Disguise and Borrowed Language?....................82
4. The Public Sphere in the Field of Power....................121
5. The Reluctant Counterpublic (with Michael McQuarrie)....................152
6. Class, Place, and Industrial Revolution....................181
7. Industrialization and Social Radicalism: British and French Workers' Movements and the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Crises....................197
8. Classical Social Theory and the French Revolution of 1848....................228
9. New Social Movements of the Early Nineteenth Century....................249
10. Progress for Whom?....................282

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