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Radical Liberalism

Political liberalism emerged in the seventeenth century, most notably in the work of John Locke (1632–1704). It spread to colonial America and France and became part of political discourse by the early eighteenth century. Locke's theory of government—that is, that the governed are sovereign and have the right to replace a dysfunctional, tyrannical government when needed—provided the intellectual basis for the American Revolution of 1776 and was the motivating force behind the French Revolution of 1789. A child during the English Civil War, Locke was aware of the execution of England's King Charles I (1600–1649) and the subsequent establishment of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658). Thirty years later, Locke himself participated in toppling the government of King James I (1566–1625) during the bloodless, Glorious Revolution of 1688.

The term radical took on political connotations in the years prior to the French Revolution when contemporary social thinkers attempted to apply scientific logic to political affairs. By 1792 the word was used to describe the extremist policies and zealous political activity of the revolutionary government, the most radical stage of which began on 10 August 1792 when the Parisian sans-culottes stormed the king's palace and toppled the throne of Louis XVI. A period of government-sanctioned mass executions followed, lasting from 1792 to 1794—a phase of the revolution known as the Terror.

The French and American Revolutions were an outgrowth of intellectual transformation that began during the Enlightenment. Many social thinkers who adopted the "scientific" perspective during this period embraced Locke's philosophy of self-determination. Two who proved crucial to future political developments were Thomas Paine (1737–1809), an Englishman of common birth, and Voltaire (1694–1778), a popular French playwright with a talent for political satire. In America, Paine became a primary figure in the struggle for American independence, publishing most notably Common Sense (1776), a radical if not treasonous tract that advocated American federalism and a permanent split with England. A penchant for political activism led Paine to France in 1792 where he became a member of the French National Convention. In 1793 the radical arm of the revolutionary government imprisoned Paine because of his relationship with a faction of liberal moderates. During his incarceration, Paine wrote Age of Reason (1795), a criticism of church theology, for which Americans later ostracized him.

In France, Locke's philosophy of individual freedom surfaced in intellectual circles via the work of Voltaire who had acquired knowledge of Locke's treatise on labor, government, and human knowledge while living in exile in England. Voltaire disseminated Locke's liberal philosophy in hilarious if subversive plays and novels that exposed corruption and misuse of power among the clergy. When Denis Diderot (1713–1784)—editor of the Encyclopédie (1751–1780), a thirty-five-volume tome with antiauthoritarian content—likewise undertook to change the common way of thinking, he found a number of like-minded liberals, Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), author of De l'esprit des lois (1748), among them, who were willing to criticize the old regime of France. Thereafter, liberalism, which called for toleration and liberty, became the new revolutionary creed.

Of all the philosophes to emerge from the French Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) was perhaps the most influential political thinker. By 1792, Rousseau's Social Contract (1763) had become the bible for radical revolutionaries. Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794), a powerful leader in the Committee of Public Safety, embraced Rousseau's anti-Lockean model of direct democracy, which required the surrender of individual rights to the interest of the common good. Where Locke supported individual freedom, Rousseau argued for forcible imposition of the general will. Of all the eighteenth and early nineteen-century revolutions—which began in America, spread to France, and subsequently to Italy, Spain, Greece, Prussia, the Caribbean, and Latin American—the French Revolution proved most radical because of the Terror, and the excesses aimed largely against French citizens. Robespierre based the use of terror on Rousseau's theory of just coercion. Since that time, liberal politics on the Continent has been associated with revolutionary radicalism.

The association of radicalism and the political left can also be traced to the layout of the French Revolutionary legislature, an arrangement that led to divisions of the left, right, and center—political designations that continue to this day. In 1789 when the Convention moved to the Tuileries, representatives (for reasons known only to them) grouped themselves according to political sympathies, sitting in semi-circular tiers facing a rostrum. To the speaker's left sat the radical contingency, or the Montagnards, who jokingly referred to themselves as the Mountain because of the height of their seats. To the right sat moderates cum conservatives, a loose association of men known as the Girondins. Between them both sat the vast majority, the Marsh or the Plain, who sided with neither party. The deputies came increasingly into conflict, first over the fate of the king and then over issues of war, property, rights, and the use of terror. In the spring of 1793 left-wing representatives in the Convention joined forces with the radicalized sansculottes and staged an attack against the Girondins, the majority of which were arrested and later guillotined. With the opponents silenced, the Jacobins, as the new coalition was called, were free to enact any legislation they deemed fit. As the Terror intensified, in June 1794, these deputies dictated the Law of Prairial (10 June 1794). Its stated purpose was the extermination of the enemies of the republic. The Law of Prairial initiated a state of political radicalism known as the Great Terror in which crimes were defined as any word, deed, or appearance of guilt that threatened the revolution. In a space of six weeks more than 1,300 persons were beheaded under this law before the Terror was finally brought to an end with the execution of Robespierre on 10 Thermidor (28 July) 1794. The conservative reaction that followed ended terrorist legislation, but it also opened the way for retribution of a different sort as anti-Jacobins took revenge against their previous tormentors.

In England, meanwhile, liberals formed their own party and began to address social ills caused by the excesses of industrial capitalism. Poets William Blake (1757–1827) and William Wordsworth (1770–1850) condemned the modern factory culture in their writing while political philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and his so-called band of radical philosophers—David Ricardo (1772–1823), Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), and James Mill (1773–1836)—instigated reform via social theory based on modern economic philosophy. Bentham's formula for addressing public ills was based on the utilitarian principle of "the greatest good for the greatest number" (Bentham, p. 505; Mill, p. 509).

Despite such efforts, working-class militancy in Great Britain increased in 1830 and 1845. Luddites staged attacks upon unprotected factories and machinery, destroying property and threatening bourgeois industrialists. That strategy changed with the Chartist movement of 1838 as workers employed petitions to demand universal male suffrage and better work conditions. While workers did not immediately realize their political objectives, such outbursts signaled class-consciousness in formation. Militant liberals, vanguards of this movement, helped bring about duty-free importation of wheat and limited suffrage in 1850. By 1884, with the Third Reform Bill, liberals could add male suffrage and labor laws to their list of accomplishments. As liberalism in England became less radical, with gradual reform replacing political extremism, socialists and militant nationalists branched off and formed more politically aggressive factions.

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