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The term "Radical" (from the Latin radix meaning root) during the late 18th-century and early 19th-century identified proponents of democratic reform, in what subsequently became the parliamentary Radical Movement.
Historically, Radicalism began in the United Kingdom with political support for a "radical reform" of the electoral system to widen the franchise. Some radicals sought republicanism, abolition of titles, redistribution of property and freedom of the press. In France in the nineteenth century, the Republican, Radical and Radical-Socialist Party, initially identifying itself as a far-left party, opposed to more right-wing parties (such as the Orléanists, the Legitimists and the Bonapartists), eventually became the most important party of the Third Republic (1871–1940). As historical radicalism became absorbed in the development of political liberalism, in the later 19th century in both the United Kingdom and in continental Europe the term "Radical" came to denote a progressive liberal ideology.
According to Encyclopædia Britannica, the first use of the word "Radical" in a political sense is generally ascribed to the English Whig parliamentarian Charles James Fox. In 1797, Fox declared for a "radical reform" of the electoral system. This led to a general use of the term to identify all supporting the movement for parliamentary reform.
Initially confined to the upper and middle classes, in the early 19th century "popular radicals" brought artisans and the "labouring classes" into widespread agitation in the face of harsh government repression. More respectable "philosophical radicals" followed the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and strongly supported parliamentary reform, but were generally hostile to the arguments and tactics of the "popular radicals". By the middle of the century, parliamentary Radicals joined with others in the Parliament of the United Kingdom to form the Liberal Party, eventually achieving reform of the electoral system.
The Radical movement had its beginnings at a time of tension between the American colonies and Great Britain, with the first Radicals, angry at the state of the House of Commons, drawing on the Leveller tradition and similarly demanding improved parliamentary representation. These earlier concepts of democratic and even egalitarian reform had emerged in the turmoil of the English Civil War and the brief establishment of the republican Commonwealth of England amongst the vague political grouping known as the Levellers, but with the English Restoration of the monarchy such ideas had been discredited. Although the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had increased parliamentary power with a constitutional monarchy and the union of the parliaments brought England and Scotland together, towards the end of the 18th century the monarch still had considerable influence over the Parliament of Great Britain which itself was dominated by the English aristocracy and by patronage. Candidates for the House of Commons stood as Whigs or Tories, but once elected formed shifting coalitions of interests rather than splitting along party lines. At general elections, the vote was restricted to property owners in constituencies which were out of date and did not reflect the growing importance of manufacturing towns or shifts of population, so that in many rotten borough seats could be bought or were controlled by rich landowners while major cities remained unrepresented. Discontent with these inequities inspired those individuals who later became known as the "Radical Whigs".
William Beckford fostered early interest in reform in the London area. The "Middlesex radicals" were led by the politician John Wilkes, an opponent of war with the colonies who started his weekly publication The North Briton in 1764 and within two years had been charged with seditious libel and expelled from the House of Commons. The Society for the Defence of the Bill of Rights which he started in 1769 to support his re-election, developed the belief that every man had the right to vote and "natural reason" enabling him to properly judge political issues. Liberty consisted in frequent elections and for the first time middle-class radicals obtained the backing of the London "mob". Middlesex and Westminster were among the few parliamentary constituencies with a large and socially diverse electorate including many artisans as well as the middle class and aristocracy and along with the county association of Yorkshire led by the Reverend Christopher Wyvill were at the forefront of reform activity. The writings of what became known as the "Radical Whigs" had an influence on the American Revolution.
Major John Cartwright also supported the colonists, even as the American Revolutionary War began and in 1776 earned the title of the "Father of Reform" when he published his pamphlet Take Your Choice! advocating annual parliaments, the secret ballot and manhood suffrage. In 1780, a draft programme of reform was drawn up by Charles James Fox and Thomas Brand Hollis and put forward by a sub-committee of the electors of Westminster. This included calls for the six points later adopted in the People's Charter (see Chartists below).
The American Revolutionary War ended in humiliating defeat of a policy which King George III had fervently advocated and in March 1782 the King was forced to appoint an administration led by his opponents which sought to curb Royal patronage. In November 1783, he took his opportunity and used his influence in the House of Lords to defeat a Bill to reform the British East India Company, dismissed the government and appointed William Pitt the Younger as his Prime Minister. Pitt had previously called for Parliament to begin to reform itself, but he did not press for long for reforms the King did not like. Proposals Pitt made in April 1785 to redistribute seats from the "rotten boroughs" to London and the counties were defeated in the House of Commons by 248 votes to 174.
In the wake of the French Revolution of 1789, Thomas Paine wrote The Rights of Man (1791) as a response to Burke's counterrevolutionary essay Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), itself an attack on Richard Price's sermon that kicked off the so-called "pamphlet war" known as the Revolution Controversy. Mary Wollstonecraft, another supporter of Price, soon followed with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. They encouraged mass support for democratic reform along with rejection of the monarchy, aristocracy and all forms of privilege. Different strands of the movement developed, with middle class "reformers" aiming to widen the franchise to represent commercial and industrial interests and towns without parliamentary representation, while "Popular radicals" drawn from the middle class and from artisans agitated to assert wider rights including relieving distress. The theoretical basis for electoral reform was provided by "Philosophical radicals" who followed the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and strongly supported parliamentary reform, but were generally hostile to the arguments and tactics of the "popular radicals".
Popular Radicals were quick to go further than Paine, with Newcastle schoolmaster Thomas Spence demanding land nationalisation to redistribute wealth in a penny periodical he called Pig's Meat in a reference to Edmund Burke's phrase "swinish multitude". Radical organisations sprang up, such as the London Corresponding Society of artisans formed in January 1792 under the leadership of the shoemaker Thomas Hardy to call for the vote. One such was the Scottish Friends of the People society which in October 1793 held a British convention in Edinburgh with delegates from some of the English corresponding societies. They issued a manifesto demanding universal male suffrage with annual elections and expressing their support for the principles of the French Revolution. The numbers involved in these movements were small and most wanted reform rather than revolution, but for the first time working men were organising for political change.
The government reacted harshly, imprisoning leading Scottish radicals, temporarily suspending habeas corpus in England and passing the Seditious Meetings Act 1795 which meant that a license was needed for any meeting in a public place consisting of fifty or more people. Throughout the Napoleonic Wars, the government took extensive stern measures against feared domestic unrest. The corresponding societies ended, but some radicals continued in secret, with Irish sympathisers in particular forming secret societies to overturn the government and encourage mutinies. In 1812, Major John Cartwright formed the first Hampden Club, named after the English Civil War Parliamentary leader John Hampden, aiming to bring together middle class moderates and lower class radicals.
After the Napoleonic Wars, the Corn laws (in force between 1815 and 1846) and bad harvests fostered discontent. The publications of William Cobbett were influential and at political meetings speakers like Henry Hunt complained that only three men in a hundred had the vote. Writers like the radicals William Hone and Thomas Jonathan Wooler spread dissent with publications such as The Black Dwarf in defiance of a series of government acts to curb circulation of political literature. Radical riots in 1816 and 1817 were followed by the Peterloo massacre of 1819 publicised by Richard Carlile, who then continued to fight for press freedom from prison. The Six Acts of 1819 limited the right to demonstrate or hold public meetings. In Scotland, agitation over three years culminated in an attempted general strike and abortive workers' uprising crushed by government troops in the "Radical War" of 1820. Magistrates powers were increased to crush demonstrations by manufacturers and action by radical Luddites.
To counter the established Church of England doctrine that the aristocratic social order was divinely ordained, radicals supported Lamarckian Evolutionism, a theme proclaimed by street corner agitators as well as some established scientists such as Robert Edmund Grant.
Economic conditions improved after 1821 and the United Kingdom government made economic and criminal law improvements, abandoning policies of repression. In 1823, Jeremy Bentham co-founded the Westminster Review with James Mill as a journal for "philosophical radicals", setting out the utilitarian philosophy that right actions were to be measured in proportion to the greatest good they achieved for the greatest number. Westminster elected two radicals to Parliament during the 1820s.
The Whigs gained power and despite defeats in the House of Commons and the House of Lords the Reform Act 1832 was put through with the support of public outcry, mass meetings of "political unions" and riots in some cities. This now enfranchised the middle classes, but failed to meet radical demands. The Whigs introduced reforming measures owing much to the ideas of the philosophic radicals, abolishing slavery and in 1834 introducing Malthusian Poor Law reforms which were bitterly opposed by "popular radicals" and writers like Thomas Carlyle. Following the 1832 Reform Act, the mainly aristocratic Whigs in the House of Commons were joined by a small number of parliamentary Radicals as well as an increased number of middle class Whigs. By 1839, they were informally being called "the Liberal party".
From 1836, working class Radicals unified around the Chartist cause of electoral reform expressed in the People's Charter drawn up by six members of Parliament and six from the London Working Men's Association (associated with Owenite Utopian socialism), which called for six points: universal suffrage, equal-sized electoral districts, secret ballot, an end to property qualification for Parliament, pay for Members of Parliament and Annual Parliaments. Chartists also expressed economic grievances, but their mass demonstrations and petitions to parliament were unsuccessful.
Despite initial disagreements, after their failure their cause was taken up by the middle class Anti-Corn Law League founded by Richard Cobden and John Bright in 1839 to oppose duties on imported grain which raised the price of food and so helped landowners at the expense of ordinary people.
The parliamentary Radicals joined with the Whigs and anti-protectionist Tory Peelites to form the Liberal Party by 1859. Demand for parliamentary reform increased by 1864 with agitation from John Bright and the Reform League.
When the Liberal government led by Lord Russell and William Ewart Gladstone introduced a modest bill for parliamentary reform, it was defeated by both Tories and reform Liberals, forcing the government to resign. The Tories under Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli took office and the new government decided to "dish the Whigs" and "take a leap in the dark" to take the credit for the reform. As a minority government, they had to accept radical amendments and Disraeli's Reform Act 1867 almost doubled the electorate, giving the vote even to working men.
The Radicals, having been strenuous in their efforts on behalf of the working classes, earned a deeply loyal following—British trade unionists from 1874 until 1892, upon being elected to Parliament, never considered themselves to be anything other than Radicals and were labeled Lib-Lab candidates. Radical trade unionists formed the basis for what later became the Labour Party.
Following the Napoleonic Wars and until 1848, it was technically illegal to advocate republicanism openly. Republicans therefore tended to call themselves "radicals" and the term came to mean a republican (who by definition supported universal manhood suffrage). From 1869, a faction led by Georges Clemenceau calling themselves Radicals claimed to be the true heirs of the French revolutionary tradition and drifted away from the moderate republicanism of Léon Gambetta. At Montmartre in 1881, they put forward a programme of broad social reforms. At that time, Radicals located themselves on the far-left of the political board, opposed to the "Republican opportunists" (Gambetta), the liberal Orléanists, the Legitimists (both monarchist factions) and the Bonapartists.
These radicals then formed the Radical-Socialist Party (or Republican, Radical and Radical-Socialist Party, to give it its full name) in 1901, which was the first French left-wing modern political party. Four years later, the socialist French Section of the Workers' International (SFIO) party was formed by the fusion of Jean Jaurès's and Jules Guesde's rival tendencies; and the French Communist Party (PCF) was created in 1920. The Radical–Socialist Party continued to be the main party of the Third Republic (1871–1940), but was discredited after the war due to the role of Radical members of the National Assembly in voting for the establishment of the Vichy regime. The Democratic and Socialist Union of the Resistance was established after World War II to combine the politics of French radicalism with credibility derived from members' activism in the French resistance.
Opposing Gaullism and the Christian democratic People's Republican Movement (MNR), Pierre Mendès-France tried to anchor the Radicals to the political left. Although he managed to put an end to the First Indochina War through the Geneva Accords signed in 1954 with North Vietnam's Premier Pham Van Dong, he finally left the party in 1961 to join the Unified Socialist Party (PSU) which advocated workers' self-management, while the Radical Party split into the more conservative Radical Party "valoisien", the legal successor of the Radical Party; and a faction advocating alliance with the centre-left, named the Radical Party of the Left. The Parti radical valoisien moved to the centre-right and affiliated itself first with the pro-Giscard d'Estaing Union for French Democracy, then with the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), while the Radical Party of the Left, which claims to be the political heir of the Republican Radicals, has close ties to the Socialist Party.
Continental Europe and Latin America
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In continental Europe and Latin America, as for instance in Italy, Spain, Chile and Argentina (Radical Civic Union), Radicalism developed as an ideology in the 19th century to indicate those who supported at least in theory a republican form of government, universal male suffrage and particularly, supported anti-clerical policies. In German-speaking countries, this current is known as Freisinn (literally "free mind", as in German Freeminded Party from 1884 to 1893, then Eugen Richter's Freeminded People's Party; and the Free Democratic Party of Switzerland). In Denmark, the left-wing of the Liberal party Venstre was known as the radicals and founded their own party Radikale Venstre in 1905. However, by the twentieth century at the latest radicalism, which did not advocate particularly radical economic policies, had been overtaken as the principal ideology of the left by the growing popularity of socialism and had become an essentially centrist political movement (as far as "radicalism" survived as a distinct political ideology at all).
Serbia and Montenegro
Radicalism had played a pivotal role in the birth and development of parliamentarism and the construction of the modern Serbian state leading to the Yugoslavian unification. The People's Radical Party formed in 1881 was the strongest political party and was in power in the Kingdom of Serbia more than all others together. The 1888 Constitution of the Kingdom of Serbia that defined it as an independent nation and formalised parliamentary democracy was among the most advanced in the entire world due to Radical contribution and it is known as The Radical Constitution. In 1902, a crack had occurred in which the Independent Radical Party left and "the Olde" remained in the party, leading it to its considerable downfall and veering into conservatism. In the Yugoslavian kingdom, the Independent Radicals united with the rest of the Serbian opposition and the liberal and civic groups in the rest of the new country and formed the Yugoslav Democratic Party as the central, while several Republican dissidents formed a Republican Party. The NRS had promoted Serb nationalism and put itself as the defender of Serb national interests. Democrats and Radicals were the dominant political parties, especially since the exclusion of the Communists.
In Montenegro, a People's Party was formed in 1907 as the country's first political party and remained the largest in the period of country's parliamentary history until the Yugoslavian unification. Later, a True People's Party was formed, which never got widespread popular support and whose bigger part had joined the original NS, but the difference was not ideological and instead was opposition and support of the Crown and sometimes in foreign relations to Serbia (the clubbists were the crown's dissidents and supporters of the people as well as Serbia as a regional power and brotherly ally—the rightists were generally anti-democratic and autocratic monarchist and also distrustful to the Serbian government's acts on the national plan).
Radicalism and liberalism
In some countries, the radical tendency is a variant of liberalism. Sometimes it is less doctrinaire and more moderate while other times it is more extreme. In Victorian era Britain, the Radicals were part of the Liberal coalition, but often rebelled when the more traditional Whigs in that coalition resisted democratic reforms. In other countries, these left-wing liberals have formed their own radical parties with various names, e.g. in Switzerland and Germany (Freisinn), Bulgaria, Denmark, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, but also Argentina (Radical Civic Union), Chile and Paraguay. This does not mean that all radical parties were formed by left-wing liberals. In the French political literature, it is normal to make a clear separation between liberalism and radicalism in France. In Serbia, both radicalism and liberalism have had their distinctiveness during the 19th century, with the Radical Party being the dominant political party throughout the entire multi-parliamentary period before the unification of Yugoslavia. It had cracked in 1903 when the Independent Radical Party had left, leaving the old People's Radical Party straying far from liberalism and into right-wing nationalism and conservatism. The Independents had created the Democratic Party, whereas the Radicals of today are a far-right political group.
However, even the French radicals were aligned to the international liberal movement in the first half of the twentieth century (founded on August 29, 1924 and dissolved in 1934) in the Entente Internationale des Partis Radicaux et des Partis Démocratiques similaires. Many European parties that are nowadays categorised in the group of social-liberal parties have a historical affinity with radicalism and may therefore be called "liberal-radical".
- Cultural radicalism
- Danish Social Liberal Party (lit. The Radical Left)
- Industrial Radical Party, a fictional party in the British Empire in the novel The Difference Engine
- Italian Radicals
- Progressivism (comparison)
- Radical democracy
- Radical Party (France)
- Radical Party of the Left (France)
- Radicals (UK)
- Transnational Radical Party
- Hloušek, Vít; Kopeček, Lubomír (2010), Origin, Ideology and Transformation of Political Parties: East-Central and Western Europe Compared, Ashgate, p. 108
- See for more information the section on Liberale und radikale Parteien in Klaus von Beyme: Parteien in westlichen Demokratien, München, 1982.
- Compare page 255 and further in the Guide to the Political Parties of South America (Pelican Books, 1973)
- Internacional Liberal|Movimento Liberal Social – Liberalismo em Portugal, Social Liberal Movement official website.
- Internationale Libérale, Europe Politique | europe-politique.eu.
- See page 1 and further of A sense of liberty by Julie Smith, published by the Liberal International in 1997.
- anonymous (c. 1870). Radicalism : a letter to a West Kent elector. Tonbridge.
- Davidson, John Morrison (1880). Eminent English liberals in and out of Parliament. Boston: James R. Osgood.
- British History Online – London Radicalism
- Kramnick, "English middle-class radicalism in the eighteenth century"
- London Chartism
- Public & Republic – The New English Radicals
- Radical Reformers
- Reformers – William Cobbett
- Scotland Guide – Thomas Muir (and the 1820 Radical War: extracts from Steel's Scotland's Story)
- The Transatlantic 1790s: Project: Loyalists – Radical Activities
- USA: Readers Companion to American History – Radicalism
- WWW-VL: History: US Radicalism