English Radicalism 1550-1850.
In recent years, historians of early modern England have taken a fresh look at concepts and labels formerly deployed without much consideration of context or subtleties of meanings. Among the terms receiving renewed scrutiny are "atheist," "Puritan," "deist," along with their respective "isms," and indeed "orthodoxy" itself. Such words are now seen as carrying inherent nuances, not always preserved by historians, and that original usage was more complicated than that conveyed in the scholarly literature. Definitions were taken for granted rather than discovered and depictions of the past constructed upon assumptions of what it meant to be an atheist, for example, instead of first investigating what "atheism" meant for contemporaries. Into such an atmosphere of reconsideration falls English Radicalism 1550-1850. With their important collection of essays, Glenn Burgess and Matthew Festenstein attempt to probe the meanings and origins of the category "radical" and its companion ideology "radicalism" within the English context. To this end, the book addresses questions such as what did "radical" mean at the time, to historians, and how did "radicalism" form as a coherent political outlook, if at all?
The introduction, eleven content chapters, and two afterwords are written by distinguished scholars of English history or political theory, who draw upon careers' worth of work and reflection to move effortlessly and seamlessly across a spectrum of topics and personalities. The result is an exceedingly learned book that ought to find a home in the library of many scholars. Quick-paced, and yet clearly elucidated, describes the engagement with complex issues of historiography and, in many cases, attempts to unhitch decades of latent Marxist ideology from the conception of "radicalism" as conceived by Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson, to name only the two most famous members of that interpretive school. Linked to this re-evaluation of nascent class struggle and proto-class consciousness hidden under historical radicalism, are questions of the very existence of any radical tradition passed like a baton from one age to the next.
Burgess opens the discussion with an introduction which outlines the central queries of the book as "what sense do we get from hearing someone described as radical" and what is the "function of the terms 'radical' and 'radicalism' in the historian's conceptual toolkit" (p. 1)? The remainder of the chapter traces the various interpretive strategies brought to bear on "radical," the most important of which has been Marxist, but other views characterized as "functional" and "linguistic" are charting new ground.
The main chapters of the book begin with Stephen Alford's search for radicals in the Elizabethan era by concentrating on the Bond of 1584. Alford reveals "quite a radical dimension" to sixteenth-century politics even though most scholars see the time as "remarkably unradical" (pp. 18, 19). Luc Borot's chapter takes the reader into the mid-seventeenth century with a focus on the radicalism of Levellers Richard Overton and John Lilburne. The framework of the chapter is made innovative through Borot's use of intertextual analysis. Borot argues that "Overton's 'intertext' is more radically subversive than Lilburne's because the former borrows from a wider referential corpus which extends far beyond the 'godly' tradition and the common law" than did other Leveller texts (p. 38). Burgess' contribution examines the radicalism of the English Revolution with specific attention paid to the Levellers and their debates at Putney in 1647 and Whitehall in 1648-49. He argues that historians' use of terms does not reflect the permeability of such categories, especially in the turbulent times of the 1640s, before stressing that supposed radicalism of the time is really "a product of the religious construction of the political sphere" (p. 80). Richard L. Greaves closes out the pre-eighteenth century section by considering radicals during the Restoration years. Greaves warns historians "that any terminology which focuses on delineating such groups tends to mask the existence of individuals--perhaps significant numbers--who, by minimizing the differences, manifested a fluidity that mocks the historian's efforts to categorize" (p. 89).
Radicalism in the 1790s is addressed by the next three chapters, which begin with Gregory Claeys' comparison of Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790) and her more famous Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Claeys suggests that both works address manners rather than rights and that Wollstonecraft's radicalism is found in her "much-neglected religious beliefs" (p. 115). In a very interesting chapter, Iain Hampsher-Monk tackles issues relating to use of language by radicals and what this might tell us about their identity. Mark Philip examines "popular radicalism and popular loyalism of the 1790s" with the hope of shining light onto the decade's radical movements in general (p. 157).
The nineteenth century frames the remaining four chapters. Margot C. Finn explores Henry Hunt's "gentlemanly radicalism" in efforts to "publicize the plight of imprisoned debtors in 1820-21" (p. 191). Fred Rosen considers what Jeremy Bentham meant when he referred to himself as "the old radical." In so doing, Rosen seeks to restore links between "both the political and philosophical dimension of Bentham's radicalism" (p. 218). J.C.D. Clark states in his chapter that "'Radicalism' was a specific ideology, first coined in England in the 1820s" (p. 241) and seeking anticipations of this ideology in the 1640s or 1790s "is to ask a question which is not wrong only because it is meaningless" (p. 242). While the other contributors might disagree, the eloquence of Clark's presentation makes it worthy of consideration. Miles Taylor considers Joseph Hume's campaign to include colonial representation in the House of Commons as an amendment to the reform bill in 1831. Taylor argues that Hume's experience with the East India Company conditioned his radical notions of imperial rights to a greater extent than has been recognized.
The book concludes with two afterwords written by Conal Condren and by J.C. Davis respectively. Both authors comment on the preceding chapters and yet reach different conclusions regarding the reality of a radical tradition in England. Condren, who advocates a linguistic approach, argues, as does Clark, that "radicalism" cannot exist prior to the creation of the word and that to look for it before this time is anachronistic. Davis is less concrete in his demarcation of dates, as his focus on a functional reading indicates, but he does deny any uninterrupted tradition of radicalism in England. These afterwords anchor the book, which is sure to serve as the point of department for further studies of radicals, however defined, for quite some time. With this book and Jonathan Scott's recent Commonwealth Principles (2004), which questioned assumed notions of "republicanism," Cambridge has positioned itself as leaders in publishing reassessments of early-modern political ideologies. We can only hope that English Radicalism 1550-1850 will soon be available as a paperback so that it will reach the wide audience it deserves. As Burgess stated in the opening pages "Let the debate commence" (p. 14).
Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth
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|Author:||Wigelsworth, Jeffrey R.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
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