The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements

May 31, 2012

Radicalism characteristically runs in cycles, and after the post-1991 quiescence, the pursuit of democracy has re-emerged in the Arab Spring, in Tibet, Rangoon and Moscow, in the Occupy Wall Street protest and its imitators, and in George Galloway's victory in the Bradford West by-election, to take a few recent examples. Resentment against cliques and oligarchies, dictators, foreign interference, globalisation, and the corruption and exploitation associated with these can fuel and ignite popular discontent until there is an eruption. In all of these instances, some confrontation between "tradition" and modernity, or newly established political and economic practices, is evident. The historical template for understanding this relationship has usually been the emergence of political reform movements in early 19th-century Europe. Craig Calhoun began his work in this field with The Question of Class Struggle (1982), and here returns to his starting point with a selection of essays that move between a focus on theory and the analysis of practice.

Calhoun rejects the Marxist account that associates democratisation with class-based proletarian revolution, urbanisation and political modernisation. He concentrates on social and political protest movements, here chiefly British and French, which emerged from local struggles and often attempted to preserve pre-existing "traditional" (sometimes invented) values - religious, communitarian, economic and social. Artisans and peasants in this period often associated democracy with a reclaiming of the land, with retaining stronger feelings of community than the new cities provided, and with a labour ethic attuned to the rhythm of the workshop and farm rather than the factory. They often aimed, in other words, to recapture something lost rather than to create something new. In the tradition of E.P. Thompson, Calhoun sees much of modernity as, effectively, a lost cause to many of the dispossessed. Collectivisation and cultural revolution destroyed much of traditional peasant life in the two great communist experiments of the 20th century. (The Chinese experience, the subject of another of Calhoun's books, is glimpsed occasionally here.) The exchange of the wooden huts of the mir for the Moscow high-rise with a communal kitchen, of the hutong alley-dwelling for a flat many kilometres away, of the rice paddy and workshop for the factory, has often been an unhappy one. But so too has been its capitalist equivalent.

The closing essay here, "Progress for Whom?", makes abundantly clear the point that preserving autonomy, self-control, local institutions and identity have often been labelled "reactionary" when in fact they may be as valuable as "modernisation", particularly where hegemonic globalisation predominates. The moral of the story is that if the enchantments of the city are outweighed by the oppressiveness of the factory, the poor will not be any happier than they were before being incarcerated in both. The Left's losers, the Spences, Proudhons, Cabets, Owens, Fouriers and Comtes of the 19th century, realised that scale and a balance of rural and urban were more conducive to individual well-being than the mega-industrial, super-urban concept to which Marx, too, seemingly subscribed. Later moderns can learn much from this wide-ranging and intelligent discussion. But disentangling what is reactionary in the defence of "tradition" from what is "progressive" remains perplexing. To feminists and those engaged with religion, this process remains central to any current agenda. The Facebook generation, with its capacity to focus contagion by GPS, will likely help to spawn many powerful protests in the coming decades. We should be better equipped to understand what they want and why, and examining the roots of modern movements will help.

The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements

By Craig Calhoun. University of Chicago Press. 416pp, £48.50 and £16.00. ISBN 9780226090849 and 0863. Published 30 March 2012

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