Varieties of Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century English Radicalism in Context.
Early modern England was a contentious political era, and the various ideologies inspired by the English Revolution became grist for the political mill in later generations. Indeed, British Marxist historians, including most prominently Christopher Hill, linked the radical movements of the mid-seventeenth century to their own political ideas, identifying a radical tradition of substantive thought influenced largely by class conflict. A new generation of historians, however, dispute this "canonical" Marxist interpretation, arguing that radicalism is best defined as less a body of substantive ideas than a contextual response to historical circumstances.
This book, a collection of essays drawn from the proceedings of a 2006 academic conference on early modern English radicalism held at Goldsmiths, University of London, develops this revisionist view more fully by reviewing examples of English radical thought from the mid-seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century. The essays collectively inspire reconsideration of the nature of radicalism (and, by extension, all political ideologies) both in early modern England and thereafter. If radicalism was defined by its relationship to prevailing cultural circumstances, the essayists argue, it becomes necessary to probe more deeply into the specific nature of these movements (and their historical context) rather than merely labeling parties and schools.
In a lucid introduction to the book, editors Ariel Hessayon and David Finnegan explore the shifting definitions and historical interpretations of radicalism. The editors note the common themes that emerge from the essays: 1) an acceptance of the term radical as useful despite its politicized and problematic connotations; 2) a rejection of the canonical Marxist belief in a continuous English radical tradition; and 3) a focus on historical context over substance as defining the nature and limits of radicalism.
Those themes are carried through twelve essays, arranged chronologically by topic. Of particular note are Jason Peacey's essay demonstrating the influence of republican ideas on Royalist pamphleteers, showing that "genuine radicalism can be found in unexpected places"; Jim Smyth's assertion that "radicalism may come in many forms," including surprising radical supports for "republican imperialism" in Catholic Ireland; Stefano Villani's review of English radicalism's lack of influence on seventeenth-century Italy given the very different cultural circumstances of the two countries; and Warren Johnston's analysis of apocalypticism in the 1690s, implying that such thought was not always tied to radical moments but could be used to interpret more moderate political changes (53, 134).
As the essays and topics progress chronologically, it becomes clear that the ideas of later radicals evolved in line with the changing times, so that what looked radical in one age might be considered orthodox in another. Indeed, Sandra Hynes's essay on the letters of the Presbyterian minister Joseph Boyse to his friend Ralph Thoseby clearly illustrates the shifting fortunes of religious dissent in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries based on the reactions of the Established Church and state (i.e., radicalism was defined by its opponents). Mason McElligott warns, however, that continuities (if not substance) did exist and some so-called radicals occasionally attempted to manufacture a radical "tradition."
The book is useful for its introduction, which clearly lays out the current historiographical appreciation of English radicalism, and the implications of the individual essays, which illustrate important points about the adaptability of political/religious ideas and movements. Undergraduates should look to those broad lessons and avoid entanglements with the references to esoteric historical figures and works.
Richard J. Janet
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|Author:||Janet, Richard J.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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