Reviewed by Paul Pickering (Research School of Humanities, The Australian National University)
Published on H-Albion (January, 2008)
Reassessing Radicalism: Noun, Adjective, or "intolerable anachronism"?
In his afterword, the first of two in this book, Conal Condren divides the essays within into two "fairly neat groups": those about a time when the nouns "radical," as a political actor, and "radicalism" existed and those about periods when they did not (pp. 311-12). Another division, equally simple, suggests itself: those contributors who think that the terms "radical" and/or "radicalism" have some use (irrespective of whether they are used by the historian anachronistically) and those who do not. The two sets of "neat" piles are not the same. On the contrary, this collection contains essays by scholars intent on defining and refining the nouns even though they were never used by the historical actors who form the object of their study, and those who totally reject the use of the terms for precisely the same reason. Condren himself is one of the foremost scholars who regard the term as an "intolerable anachronism" when applied early modern England (p. 63). In fact it is ironic that Condren should contribute such a wonderfully useful commentary to a book with a title that he surely rejects wholeheartedly. None of this tension is actually reflected in the title. There are no "ambivalently protective and subversive inverted commas" around radicalism in the title; no eroteme to suggest an open-ended enquiry. Nevertheless, this is a fine book that will be compulsory reading for any student of the development of oppositional political ideas in England.
Together with Glen Burgess's thoughtful introduction, the afterwords by Condren and J. C. Davis do a lot of the work for the reviewer by summarizing the critical issues in the volume. Three issues emerge: what was radicalism (in various historical epochs); should be it be used (as a noun, adjective and/or heuristic concept) before it was coined; and does this use imply a tradition of radicalism in England linking the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries? These issues are variously examined in a series of well-written and meticulously researched essays by a range of prominent scholars. Unlike many collections that begin their life as a series of conference papers, there are no weak efforts here (including those which retain the language of a spoken paper). Among many excellent pieces--Fred Rosen's essay on Jeremy Bentham's links with Francis Place; Richard Greaves on the manifestoes of late Stuart "radicals"; Miles Taylor on the indomitable Joseph Hume and India--the outstanding essay for this reader is Margot Finn's "peep" into the prison experiences of Henry Hunt. Finn explores Hunt's campaign in support of the conjugal rights of prison debtors showing how it related directly to the growing restriction of his own sexual activities within the walls of Ilchester Prison. Finn skilfully shows how attitudes to sexual conduct are a useful measure of the change in attitudes to political leaders over the course of the nineteenth century. The contrast between the relatively open behaviour of the libertine Hunt with his numerous sexual partners (including the prison governor's wife) and William Gladstone's private self-flagellation to curb a penchant for pornography and prostitutes provides an image that will linger long (p. 207).
Despite its many excellent features the volume has not escaped all of the problems that commonly afflict collections of conference papers. Although the book covers 1550 to 1850, for example, the essays are in fact bunched into another two fairly "neat" groups: those dealing with the seventeenth century and those focused on the end of the long eighteenth century. It is remarkable that a book on radicalism which extends to 1850 does not contain an essay on either of the two radical movements which dominated the decade 1838-1848: the Chartists and the Anti-Corn Law League. Richard Cobden is not even in the index. Essays on one or both of these movements (or John Wilkes) would have provided more balance. Nor is "English" in the title an accurate description; the contents of numerous essays are not so limited. And nor should they be. Taylor's essay on India points to a dimension that is otherwise largely ignored: the development of "radicalism" in the wider British world.
Readers of this collection will not find a neat resolution to the burning question of whether radicalism as a term should be used freely, protected by "scare quotes" or dispensed with altogether for studies of political ideas before the 1820s. Nor will they feel more or less confident about invoking a universal radical tradition spanning the centuries. But they will be far better informed of the issues on the agenda.
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Paul Pickering. Review of Burgess, Glenn; Festenstein, Matthew, English Radicalism, 1550-1850.
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