Skip to main content



The development of modern radicalism


The term “radicalism” always points to some analytical or revisionist function. It implies a concentration of the focus of relevance on a particular principle, at the expense of the traditionally sanctioned regard for the complexities of context. The element thus abstracted becomes the salient core on which inference and action are based. Radicalism tends to be comprehensive; no matter where it starts, it tends to assimilate all aspects of life to the initial principle. In its positive sense this tendency implies a projection of a completely new version of human life and enterprise. In its negative sense it implies a threat to all aspects of ongoing life. Although many forms of radicalism eschew violence, there is little doubt that the overthrow of the existing order is part of the radical agenda. The radical reduction and its extension into a comprehensive doctrine need not have the character of logically derived conclusions. Quite often the assertions are the result of directly intuited truth, and the forms of expression range from scholastic demonstrations to rhapsodic prophecy. Whatever the form, the impulse behind it is to announce the sovereignty of a principle and to render a principled, unified, and internally consistent interpretation of the cosmos and the meaning of human life. It is expected that the believer’s perception of and attitude toward reality will be synthesized accordingly into an internally coherent outlook and ultimately translated into a principled conduct of life.

Zealotry and rationality. There exists a close but somewhat misleading affinity between radicalism and zealotry, particularly in the areas of politics, morality, and religion. Zealotry, being a form of unquestioned and permanent obeisance, may, and often does, become the routinized pursuit of radical ideals. The zealot’s commitment to radical causes is accompanied by deep-seated emotional problems. The particular psychological structure of motives and attitudes that leads to or is compatible with expressions of zealous radicalism has been identified as the “authoritarian personality type” (Adorno et al. 1950).

However, even when the attitude of the radical is wholly immersed in feeling, its expression is not compatible with emotional impulsiveness but is always pervaded by its own peculiar rational discipline. The rational structure of radical thought and action is the expressive mold that fits the unconscious-need dispositions of many persons; to others it is a matter of deliberate moral choice and closely reasoned inference; and to some it may be no more than a mask they can plausibly and deliberately display while being motivated by considerations of momentary expediency.

The conception of radicalism as rational does not imply that it is ruled by logic, science, or economy but merely that the drive toward some sort of explicit intellectual generalization of the meaning of human action and experience is a constitutive property of radicalism. By methodically correlating its interpretive principles with its maxims of conduct, radicalism provides ultimate, permanent, and “objectively valid” grounds for moral choice. Radicalism usually attaches its single-minded emphasis to something that is already known and valued, albeit as one thing among many. What is new is not the tenet itself but the militant assertion of its sovereign and unqualified supremacy. However, while the banner of radicalism derives from the outlook of the society in which it occurs, its arguments turn against that society.

Although radicalism is characteristically rational or at least rationalized, it is clearly and implacably inconsistent with reasonableness. In principle, pure radical thought and action is entirely devoid of practical wisdom, of sensitivity for the occasion, of opportunistic economizing, of the capacity to learn from experience, of flexibility and looseness of interest. In sum, it lacks that bargaining side of intelligence that characterizes the conduct and thinking of “reasonable” persons. Indeed, the principal polemic adversary of the radical is the normally competent, fully franchised member of his society whose orientation to reality is governed by conventional standards of “reasonableness.” While the latter moves in a world of ambiguity and uncertainty with apparent ease and comfort, varying the perspective of his interest and judgment in accordance with practical considerations and changing circumstances, the radical finds in such behavior decadence and philistinism. Because of the radical’s dedication to the salience of his reduction, he is, qua radical, divested of realistic concern for the passing complexities of everyday life, and he views them with contempt. He scorns the demands that issue from “the way things are,” and eschews partaking in the respect that is accorded to persons and arrangements on purely conventional grounds.

The radical ideology. It has been shown that radicalism has its origins and permanent focus of appeal in the socially displaced strata of society (Lipset 1960). Although this phenomenon is probably not present in every form or instance of radicalism, it is immensely important for the understanding of the social structure of radicalism. The socially eccentric locus of origin of radicalism appears to be a particularly auspicious perspective for the deliberate appraisal of the ordinarily taken-for-granted texture of everyday life, and it may well be that man’s consciousness of himself and of the world around him is the assimilated aggregate of past and forgotten radicalizations.

When men of radical persuasion look into the past, one of two alternative views is obtained. In one, the tendencies contained in mundane history are disregarded entirely in favor of tracing some doctrinal claim to a distant and mythical past. All that happened between some golden age and the radical discernment in its modern setting is defined as an ironic departure from the intended direction of the original state. In the second and more common view, mundane history is seen as a script of a determined sequence of events. In the huge historical panoramas of Hegel and Marx, all that is truly historical is defined as accidental and insignificant, and all that matters is the permanently lawful sequence of general tendencies. What Hegel called die Tiicke des Geistes merely deludes man into thinking that what he does as a free agent matters historically. From either point of view, the polemic highlight of radical historiography is the announcement of an eternal truth. In either case, the image of the past urges that the full meaning of man’s misery and degradation cannot be fully grasped by beholding it now and that the proposed remedies cannot be fully justified without considering them as links in a process of cosmic proportion. Knowledge of the past has as its principal function the exemplification and the aggrandizement of the timeless truth contained in the radical doctrine and the demonstration of its compelling necessity.

The doctrine and the ethic of radicalism is inevitably invested with tensions. On the one hand, it is systematized by internal standards of warrant and sensibility; on the other hand, radical beliefs remain responsive to tests of everyday life experiences. Even while the great goals and the order of the future are within the grasp of the imagination, there remain the petty vexations and distractions of everyday life. Even while he holds steadfast to the grand scheme, the believer must resist temptations to suspend the relevance of the doctrine for considerations of momentary interest. Worse yet, his resoluteness is threatened continuously by counterevidence that tends to discredit the doctrine. In the long run radicals succumb to these worldly pressures; they pay their price in sacrifice, settle for partial gains, and become assimilated. Often when they surrender their totalitarian claims, they become selectively dogmatized and develop the art of casuistry. This process is best exemplified in the transformation of sects into churches. The alternative to the corruption of rational purity and consistency, i.e., the maintenance of radicalism in its pristine state, requires that radical movements impose upon their members a form of discipline that makes doctrinal impurity as difficult and unattractive as possible and that peremptorily discredits the relevance of all possible distraction and counterevidence.

Several well-recognized features of extreme radical movements have precisely this effect. Most noteworthy are the following: (1) The believers are organized into a charismatic fellowship. Within this collectivity the tenets of the faith can be exercised freely and, thus, are validated, i.e., the fellowship is “a living example.” (2) the distinctness of the radical creed and program from the rest of the world is symbolically emphasized. A common device to accomplish this is to associate it with the inspiration of a prophet. The particularistic access to truth discredits a variety of polemic opponents. (3) There is a sustained concern for the purity of belief and conduct. The state of permanent purge functions at the level of self-critique, as well as that of collective and authoritative discipline. (4) The manner in which the doctrine pertains to the lives of believers is diffusely comprehensive. All interest and activity is “normalized” through participation in the movement. Not only does the movement usurp enormous powers of restraint over its members; it also annuls the significance of all external sources of sanction. (5) The movement monopolizes the commitments of the believers. Loyalty to the movement requires that no personal interest or obligation may be admitted as legitimately contesting a demand issuing from participation in the movement. This condition is substantially satisfied by dissolving all possible human ties and by deindividualizing members in the direction of some heroic ideal. (6) Suffering and martyrdom must be made acceptable and be brought within the purview of immediate possibility. While members are desensitized to pain, their conception of the relationship between the assailant and the victim becomes impersonal, and brutality becomes morally neutral. (7) The movement exploits outside sentiments against it to its own organizational advantage. That is, members who are publicly compromised by participation in it are forced to burn their bridges behind them.

The development of modern radicalism

The original cause with which modern radicalism is associated is the attack on the traditionally inherited corporate structure of power, in the name of an equal and liberal distribution of political franchise—i.e., the ideals of democracy. Although movements of democratic reform and rebellion appear sporadically throughout history, radicalism in this sense became endemic only to the Western world, and only since the late eighteenth century. During the Reformation, the main Protestant denominations, notably the Evangelical Lutheran church and the Church of England, never lost their footing in the established political hierarchy and have settled their quarrels with temporal authority under the doctrine, Cuius regio eius religio. Other sectarian movements, however, have been sporadically involved in partisan warfare against traditional secular privilege. The opening and the closing of this period of complicated plebeian upheavals are marked by the Bauernkriege in sixteenth-century Germany and the Levellers’ movement of the Puritan revolution in England. In 1685, at the time of the suspension of the Edict of Nantes, the fight for religious and political freedom was largely exhausted, muzzled, or confined to insignificant enclaves, from which irreconcilable partisans embarked on their voyages to the New World. Even in eighteenth-century England the dissenting bodies in the Bunyan tradition became reconciled to the status quo.

Founded in part upon the largely academic discourses of Locke and Montesquieu, the doctrine of modern democratic radicalism was formulated, by Rousseau and a host of lesser writers, with full awareness of its seditious character. Their relentless argument urged that all existing conditions and customs are unnatural and must be destroyed and replaced by a new and rational order (Talmon 1952). In contrast to the religiously inspired radicalism of the Reformation period, the new formulation was wholly secular.

Foremost among the objects of attack was the belief, never seriously challenged in previous ages of Western civilization, that only a select few, an elite, had the wisdom and right and power to govern. In its place there was formulated a doctrine that proclaimed every man the patron of his own life and established the sovereign right of all the people to order their common affairs. The vision of individual liberty and popular sovereignty was made compelling by the endorsement of reason. Although it is now easily seen that this enlightenment of reason contained a strong admixture of romantic sentimentality, there is little doubt that the protagonists themselves perceived their arguments as appealing to discretion rather than feeling. Of course, the radicals did not invent or monopolize the use of reason as an instrument of politics. Other forms of governing and the opposition to radical innovation also had their rational apologists. None, however, depended to the extent the democratic radicals did on the persuasive power of reason and excluded so completely other considerations.

Early radical movements

The American and French revolutions in the closing decades of the eighteenth century were significant expressions of modern radicalism. They did not, however, express all existing radical tendencies, and they encompassed a great deal more than merely radical idealism. More specifically, five movements, all derived from ideals of the enlightenment, show the directions and development of modern radicalism.

Jacobinism. The most direct translation of enlightenment ideals into political action was Jacobinism, which had been effectively practiced primarily in France—although Jacobin clubs existed in most European countries and in the United States—and for only a relatively short period of time. Yet it made a permanent contribution to the subsequent organization of all radical agitation. The small, locally based Jacobin clubs were focal points for revolutionary propaganda campaigns and were employed to mobilize mass support whenever the small core of activists needed such support. Furthermore, the tight network of relations within the clubs and the efficient network of communications between clubs provided for a state of permanent purge that made Robespierre’s slogan about the tyranny of liberty a practical possibility. Jacobinism is an early model of a movement that requires for its perpetration a very high level of activist tension.

Populism. Populism assumed a variety of forms, depending on the place of its occurrence. In the United States it traces back to the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy. Despite Jefferson’s own cosmopolitan mind, these ideals contained physiocratic elements that in the hands of Jackson became a permanent radical trend in American politics. The core of strength of American Populism was always agrarian, but Populism directed some of its appeals to, and derived some of its support from, the urban masses. In Russia a variety of influences, most notably Slavophile sentiments, led to the formation of the Narodnik movement around the time of the emancipation of the serfs. Here imported enlightenment ideals combined with romantic nationalism in the revival of the concept of the mir, an ancient Slavic form of agricultural polity. In Germany, starting with Herder, scholars and writers with a romantic medievalist bent cultivated an interest in folklore, ethnic history, and ultimately, national sovereignty. Although the German development concentrated on the intellectual glorification of the concept of Volk and did not lead to the formation of a populist movement in Germany, it furnished the ideological underpinning for a number of populist-peasant parties in eastern and central Europe. The common element of all these trends was a strong belief in the rights and creative powers of the common man, living close to nature, whose interests are naturally opposed to the oligarchic tendencies of large central governments and to professional political administration.

Philosophical radicalism. The ideals of Jeffersonian democracy and those of the philosophical radicals of England are similar in that historically both are of Whig origin. The English reformers, however, were of distinctly bourgeois persuasion and appeal. Their idea of reconstructing government according to the principle of utility was an exercise in business rationality. Although the ideals of Bentham, the leading theoretician of this group, were close to the ideals of the Jacobins, and although he was in his own way as much a rationalistic simplifier as they were, the characteristic difference between them is that for the English reformer the fight for a rational social order did not admit the possibility of violence and chaos, even as a tactical instrument [SeeBentham].

Anarchism. The strongest and most systematically radical version of radicalism is to be found in anarchism. William Godwin first formulated the complete version of anarchism, teaching that to compel men to act according to reason is superfluous and to compel them to act against reason is unjust. On this basis, he called for the abolishment of all institutions. With Proudhon, anarchism

adopted a program of economic reform that far exceeded anything contained in other contemporary radical tendencies. Later the movement assumed the character of a quasi political party, always, however, refusing to participate in the affairs of government [see Anarchism].

German idealism. German idealism has been called “the theory of the French Revolution.” Starting with the powerful influence of Rousseau on Kant and continuing through Schelling and Fichte, this tendency culminated in the work of Hegel. Here the ideas of freedom and reason were wholly emancipated from man as a concrete being and were objectified in the modern state. Hegel’s statism is the perfect obverse of anarchism. Whereas for Godwin man in his natural state is the paradigm of reason and freedom, for Hegel reason and freedom are the attributes of a transcendental subjectivity whose only possible concrete manifestations are institutions. Although Hegel’s own thinking turned to the glorification of the existing Prussian state, the logic of his argument exerted a powerful influence on the formation of all subsequent radical doctrines.

From its beginning and through the first few decades of the nineteenth century, modern radicalism had a certain enthusiastic unity, expressed in the slogan, Pas d’ennemis a gauche! Even Fichte and the young Hegel stood on the left, in opposition to the conservative restoration forces of the post-Napoleonic era. From approximately the middle of the nineteenth century on, there appeared a split into what came to be known as right-wing radicalism and left-wing radicalism. The split was first manifest among the disciples of Hegel and ultimately led to the realignment of all radical forces.

Right-wing radicalism

By and large, right-wing radicalism is not readily discernible in nineteenth-century politics. The consolidation of the European states followed closely the Hegelian blueprint, and right-wing radicalism appeared mainly in the form of programs seeking to perfect an already existing state of affairs. Revisionist radical right-wing tendencies appear only at the close of the century, through the infusion of a new element. Statism achieved a new formulation, in a doctrine that based national sovereignty on historical missions of distinct races. The principal protagonists of this idea were Joseph Arthur de Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Although this movement explicitly repudiated the influence of Hegel, it drew heavily on the translation of the idea of Weltbiir-gerthum into the idea of the Nationalstaat, and there is little doubt that it absorbed the bulk of the forces that were earlier affiliated with the Hegelian right [SeeGobineau].

The association beween ethnic identity and territorial sovereignty became universally accepted during the nineteenth century and furnished the basis for the political division of Europe at Versailles. During the two decades following World War i, nationalism achieved its most radical expression in the totalitarian dictatorships of Italy, Japan, and Germany. The doctrinal underpinning of these systems varied, emphasizing alternatively race, cultural heritage, or a combination of both. Associated with them are attitudes of superpatriotism and a belief in the superiority of one’s ethnic group, and they encompassed policies of belligerent imperialism. Movements of this sort were active and continue to be active in virtually all nations of the world, and many autocrats have found in the rhetoric of radical nationalism the justification for claiming power [SeeFascism; National Socialism].

A number of phenomena of somewhat lesser significance deserve mention in the context of right-wing radicalism. In France the Radical Republicans stood in opposition to the “opportunist” left wing of the Parliament of 1875 and subsequently became allied with militarist, proclerical, and royalist groups. This alliance was consolidated during the Dreyfuss affair and remained a sporadically active extreme right-wing faction in French politics. Phenomena such as the Falange in Spain and the Black Guard in Rumania also belong to this category [SeeFalangism]. Standing apart from the above but related to them are anti-civil liberties tendencies in American politics. The latter include, among others, such heterogeneous elements as the radicalism of Thaddeus Stevens and his followers, certain nativist movements, and the outlook referred to as McCarthyism.

Left-wing radicalism

The structural affiliation of right-wing radicalism with established political power led to its development as the philosophy of the existing polity, i.e., as an apologia. Hence, the term “radicalism” came to mean left-wing radicalism. But from its very onset this movement was torn by schisms. The last left-wing synthesis, during the two decades following the revolution of 1848, encompassed some socialists of the Jacobin heritage, some English reformers of the labor-class movement, the anarchists under the leadership of Bakunin, disciples of Moses Hess and Ferdinand Lassalle, and, of course, Marxists. By the time of the Paris Commune, this shaky alliance was in shambles. Since then, left-wing radicalism has been divided into numerous factions, which have often fought each other with bitter hostility.

Anarchists have maintained their intransigent alienation from normal political processes. Occasionally they have displayed some strength in the organization of labor movements (e.g., the Industrial Workers of the World in the United States) or in Latin-European politics (e.g., in Spain during the 1930s). On the whole, however, anarchism has remained conspicuous mainly because of real or alleged acts of terrorism. Its occasional associations with criminal elements, i.e., forces inimical not only to the established order but to anarchist ideals themselves, have caused anarchism to be generally regarded as the most virulently destructive form of radicalism.

Marxist communism achieved a strong international party organization, maintaining an orthodox revolutionary line, and gained political ascendancy in several European states in the aftermath of World War I. Of these, the Soviet Union is the only one that remained stable. Following World War II a number of states within the traditional sphere of political influence of Russia came under the domination of the Communist party. These governments instituted nationwide collectivization of productive property and strong central organizations of power, in strict opposition to anarchist teachings.

Evolutionary socialism, which is in part a continuation of English philosophical radicalism and in part an offshoot of Marxism, worked toward the assimilation of elements of the radical doctrine into the mainstream of twentieth-century politics, thereby eliminating the very conditions that were the foundation for the Marxist prophecy. Some socialist parties include the word “radical” in their party designation with justification. Others, like the French Radical Socialists under the leadership of Paul Herriot, are more properly located in the center of the general political spectrum.

Of the many lesser schismatic left-wing radical movements, syndicalism is perhaps the most important. Although mainly a hybrid offshoot of Marxist and anarchist influences, it contained some original ideas and retained a distinct identity over a protracted period of time. Syndicalism exercised a strong influence in some Latin countries of Europe and the Americas, and contributed, inter alia, to the formulation of the doctrine of Italian fascism [SeeSyndicalism].

Radicalism is still very much alive everywhere, but particularly in those countries that recently became free of European domination. It is in the nature of the situation that those who are in this fight must share the forum and spotlight with others, who irresponsibly exploit vulgar frustrations. But even as the fight against the old tyrannies continues, the very polity that radicalism has built has become the focus of new discontents. The conscious and deliberate effort to bring the human community under the rule of reason has led to the development of complex institutions. Intended to insure and increase freedom, equality, and popular welfare, these institutions have recently been attacked as a new, dehumanized tyranny. The theme of alienation is heard again after a century of dormancy, and on the fringes of society there are groups that view the existing social order as their antagonist. Thus, radicalism, which started by abolishing all sanctions of history, has returned to the fold of history, partly by its triumph and partly by its own sins. While the incorporation of the ethics of political freedom and universal rational justice into human consciousness appears to be a permanent achievement, the shadow of new radical questions about the human condition is cast upon the stage of human life.

Radicalism is a part of the general theme of the growth of rationalistic ethics. To the extent that Western civilization has been the most fertile soil for this development, radicalism is native to the West. Of course, neither rationalism nor radicalism is an Occidental monopoly; nor is Western history the record of a sustained development of rational ethics. However, as Max Weber pointed out, the prophetic origin of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the development of a rational economy, the growth of rational science and philosophy, the organization of authority along legal-rational lines, together testify to the fact that reason is the guiding demon of Western man. But the search for an intellectual synthesis of the meaning of life forever transcends life. Reason, like myth, in attempting to grasp and express the roots of being, always idealizes the realities of everyday existence. In radicalism the ideal is the supreme taskmaster. The tension between the activist ethical principle and the exigencies of existence is the core of the radical dilemma.

Egon Bittner

[See alsoAnarchism; Conservatism; Marxism; Nationalism; Personality, Political; Social Movements; Socialism; Totalitarianism. Also related are the biographies ofBakunin; Fanon; Marx.]


Adorno, Theodor W. et al. 1950 The Authoritarian Personality. American Jewish Committee, Social Studies Series, No. 3. New York: Harper.

American Academy Of Arts And Sciences 1954 Totalitarianism. Edited with an introduction by Carl J. Friedrich. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. Proceedings of a conference held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, March 1953.

Bell, Daniel (editor) (1955)1964 The Radical Right. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. An expanded and updated edition of The New American Right.

Bittner, Egon 1963 Radicalism and the Organization of Radical Movements. American Sociological Review 28:928-940.

Brinton, Clarence Crane (1930) 1961 The Jacobins: An Essay in the New History. New York: Russell.

Cohn, Norman (1957)1961 The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Messianism in Medieval and Reformation Europe and Its Bearing on Modern Totalitarian Movements. 2d ed. New York: Harper.

Fish, Carl R. (1927) 1946 The Rise of the Common Man: 1830-1950. New York: Macmillan.

Geyer, Curt 1923 Der Radikalismus in der deutschen Arbeiter Bewegung: Ein soziologischer Versuch. Jena (Germany): Thiiringer Verlagsanstalt und Druckerei.

Halevy, Elie 1901–1904 La formation du radicalisme philosophique. 3 vols. Paris: Alcan.

Hoffer, Eric 1951 The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. New York: Harper. → A paperback edition was published in 1958 by New American Library.

Kornhauser, William 1953 Liberal and Radical Political Careers: A Study of Group Loyalty. Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of Chicago.

Landauer, Carl 1959 European Socialism: A History of Ideas and Movements From the Industrial Revolution to Hitler’s Seizure of Power. 2 vols. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. → Volume 1: From the Industrial Revolution to the First World War and Its Aftermath. Volume 2: The Socialist Struggle Against Capitalism and Totalitarianism.

Lipset, Seymour M. 1960 Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Mannheim, Karl (1929-1931) 1954 Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Harcourt; London: Routledge. → First published in German. A paperback edition was published in 1955 by Harcourt.

Marcuse, Herbert (1941) 1955 Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. 2d ed. New York: Humanities; London: Routledge. →A paperback edition was published in 1960 by Beacon.

Meinecke, Friedrich (1924) 1962 Machiavellism: The Doctrine of Raison d’Etat and Its Place in Modern History. New York: Praeger. → First published as Die Idee der Staatsrdson in der neueren Geschichte. Contains a general introduction to Friedrich Meinecke’s work by W. Stark.

Michels, Robert 1925 Psychologie der antikapitalis-tischen Massen Bewegungen. Section 9, part 1, pages 241–359 in Grundriss der Sozialokonomik. Tubingen (Germany): Mohr.

Milosz, Czeslaw (1953) 1955 Captive Mind. New York: Vintage. First published in Polish.

Nicolet, Claude 1957 he radicalisme. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Palmer, Robert R. 1959–1964 The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800. Princeton Univ. Press.

Pohlmann, Robert Von (1893-1901) 1925 Geschichte der sozialen Frage und des Sozialismus in der antiken Welt. 3d ed. Munich: Beck.→First published as Geschichte des antiken Kommunismus und Sozialismus.

Polanyi, Michael 1960 Beyond Nihilism. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Selznick, Philip (1952) 1960 The Organizational Weapon: A Study of Bolshevik Strategy and Tactics. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Shils, Edward 1954 Authoritarianism: “Right” and “Left.” Pages 24–49 in Richard Christie and Marie Jahoda (editors), Studies in the Scope and Method of The Authoritarian Personality. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Shils, Edward 1956 The Torment of Secrecy: The Background and Consequences of American Security Policies. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Sombart, Werner (1896) 1909 Socialism and the Social Movement. London: Dent; New York: Dutton. First published as Sozialismus und soziale Bewegung im 19. Jahrhundert. Title later changed to Sozialismus und soziale Bewegung. The 10th edition was published in 1924 as Der proletarische Socialismus (“Marxismus”).

Talmon, Jacob L. (1952) 1965 The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. 2d ed. New York: Praeger.

Venturi, Franco (1952) 1960 Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth Century Russia. New York: Knopf. → First published as II populismo russo.

Wilson, Edmund (1940) 1953 To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Radicalism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 28 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Radicalism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (March 28, 2017).

"Radicalism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved March 28, 2017 from







The word radical has a number of meanings, one of which involves getting to the root of the matter. This analogy is helpful in focusing attention on the key characteristics of the term, and on its various usages within social science. When people talk about radicals, they mean those who take ideas and concepts back to first principles. They are those who are unafraid of laying bare what is hidden, subterranean, or uncomfortable to discuss. Radicals do not mind upsetting the status quo, received wisdom, or common sense conceptions of any kind. To talk about radicalism is therefore to talk about the belief systems of radicals. Yet what is it that characterizes radicalism, and how does this impact our understanding of knowledge generally?

As is clear from the above, radicalism is not a concept that denotes a particular set of ideas or a particular approach, in the manner of many other terms in the lexicon of social science. When one discusses Marxism, it is clear that this relates to the word and ideas of Karl Marx and his many followers. The same cannot be said of radicalism, which is a concept that is positional or contextual. Whether a given ideology or stance can be regarded as radical depends on where it stands in relation to dominant or accepted ideas. Thus a radical conservative (if this is not an oxymoron) is someone whose radicalism is defined in relation to dominant conservative ideas. He or she wishes to get to the root of conservatism, or of the problems discussed by conservatives. Radical conservatism is therefore not inherently radical, it is only radical in relation to other conservative ideas. Likewise, radicalism only exists insofar as there are ideas that are mainstream, orthodox, and widely accepted.

Radicalism can also be regarded as contextually dependent. In other words, whether a set of ideas is radical depends on the context in which these ideas are being offered or pursued. Many ideas that were once perceived to be radical have, over the course of time, come to be regarded as mainstream. Thus, radicalism should be understood less as a description of a core orientation of the kind associated with labels such as Marxist, liberal, or conservative, and more as a set of ideas that is inclined to query orthodoxy, whether it be secular, religious, social, or scientific. A starting point of this article is thus the contention that radicalism does not denote a particular set of ideas or arguments, but rather any ideology or position that takes issue (or appears to take issue) with settled, accepted or otherwise mainstream views. Some examples will help to clarify the above.


As mentioned above, radicalism does not denote a particular set of ideas or arguments, but any argument that takes issue with accepted positions, however defined. In this positional sense, radicalism can be mapped in terms of certain well-known debates. To take an obvious starting point, Darwins account of evolution was once regarded as radical (as well as absurd and despicable) by mainstream commentary. However, from the late nineteenth century onward, more and more scientists in the West began to hold Darwinian views. A great deal of the evidence, from a wide variety of scientific and social scientific investigations, seemed to support the view that evolution takes place over very long periods of time and can be adduced to random genetic mutations. Darwinism, therefore, once a radical and heretical doctrine, became mainstream science. Likewise, those who opposed Darwinism, such as Christians and other religious groups, were once in the majority, but over the course of a century or so they became minoritarian in relation to issues in basic science. One might ask whether Darwinism or intelligent design should now be regarded as the more radical position. This is a moot point, however. In areas or communities that are deeply committed to a deist view of the universe, Darwinism remains a radical doctrine to be combated wherever possible. To Darwinists, the claims of creationists are radically conservative.

It is often held that radicalism is necessary because progress is impossible without challenges to orthodoxy. Thus, philosophers of science frequently reserve a special place for radical ideas as necessary, and indeed desirable. This usually comes with the caveat that radicals submit to the norms of falsification and experimentation. Radicalism can be good if it is seen to be in tune with the general tenor of scientific understanding, but it is less so when it appears to take issue with a certain set of expectations. Albert Einsteins radicalism is useful on these terms, for example, but Sigmund Freuds is less so, at least according to figures such as the philosopher Karl Popper (19021994). Those who oppose such a conventional view of scientific progress, such as Jean-François Lyotard (19241998) and Paul Feyerabend (19241998), are themselves regarded as radicals by philosophers of science and social science because of their insistence on the relativism of knowledge claims. This kind of radicalism equates to the view that science does not deserve the special status many accord it, for it is merely one kind of narrative to set alongside other narrativessuch as Creationismthat claim to offer privileged access to the true nature of things.


More generally, there have always been radical views that have challenged or undermined the mainstream. The twentieth century, for example, is often noted for the variety and impact of unorthodox, extreme, and nonmainstream views that surfaced during this period. To illustrate the way in which radicalism is context-dependent, the century can be divided up into four periods: the interwar years; the postwar era up to the oil crisis of the mid-1970s; the period of conservative preeminence to the fall of the Berlin Wall; and finally the period of the PostCold War Order, which carried over into the twenty-first century. Traversing a century of radicalisms will illustrate the changes in the nature and form of radicalism from modernity to what is often termed postmodernity or a second modernity.

In the interwar years (19181939), the world witnessed an astonishing burst of radicalism, radical parties, and radical politics. This was due to a number of factors, principally the impact of war, the rise of capitalism, and the perceived shortcomings of individualism. The radicalism of the Russian Revolution came out of a deep discontent with the inherited monarchic order. Bolshevism promised a world without hunger, hierarchy, or war, and a world without capitalism, individualism, or imperialism. The rise of Hitler owed a great deal to similar sentiments, although it translated into a different set of demands. Nevertheless, radicalism in this period meant collectivism, as opposed to individualism; state control, as opposed to the free market; and universalist claims, in the name of proletarian internationalism or Aryan superiority. The individual counted for little when compared with the needs of the class or the race. This common set of characteristics offered commentators such as Hannah Arendt, Karl Popper and Carl J. Friedrich license to roll up these otherwise diverse radicalisms into one overarching phenomenon: totalitarianism. This was a radicalism that threatened the annihilation of prevailing orthodoxy, whether characterized as liberal or conservative.

In the postwar period (19451975) the dominant or mainstream ideology in most Western states was that associated with the work of the British economist John Maynard Keynes. The postwar consensus insisted on the growth of the public sector or welfare state, the extension of basic rights and liberties (as announced in the UN Charter), and the pursuit of policies of growth through the management of demand. Social-democratic or welfare-state thinking became dominant across the developed world.

In terms of political ideas and positions, radicalism at this point referred to two main tendencies: those who were opposed to Keynesian because it was too statist, and those who argued that it was not statist enough. With regard to the former, the period is noted for the emergence of neoliberal ideas associated with figures such as Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman and, later, Robert Nozick. Their radicalism consisted in the suggestion that the welfare state was despotic and heralded the end of choice, the end of the individuals control over his or her fate, and the elimination of the entrepreneurial and risk-taking characteristics upon which economic growth depended. The state should give way to the market, they believed, not the other way around. At the same time, considerable interest developed in models of socialism that radicalized the terms of the postwar consensus while also seeking to avoid the perils of communist dictatorship. Multiple left-wing radicalisms emerged and flourished (e.g., The Frankfurt School, situationism, Maoism, humanist Marxism), reflecting the postmaterialist discontent with both Western and Eastern society that was to be such a feature of the late 1960s.

Other kinds of radicalism arose in this period out of the desire for liberation, particularly liberation from racism, colonialism and, patriarchy. Antiracism became a powerful current and gave birth to a number of radical groups and figures across the developing and developed world, including the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, and various figures in the civil rights movement, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Anticolonial or postcolonial demands were articulated in the work of writers such as Paolo Freire, Frantz Fanon, and Jean-Paul Sartre, while radical anticolonial movements swept the globe, led by figures such as Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh. For feminists, the problem was the patriarchal assumptions of mainstream political theories and practices. Radical feminism spared little in its critique of the exclusionary and demeaning character of patriarchal practices. Women had to assert not equality, but their difference from men. This entailed developing novel and inclusive strategies in relation to oppressive discourses wherever they were found.

The oil crisis of 1973 and 1974 was followed by a period of conservative preeminence, which put into relief what was at stake in these ideological battles and allowed advocates of what had been regarded as a deeply radical position to win support in the mainstream. In a matter of a decade, neoliberalism moved from being a deeply heterodox and radical position to being common senseas described by prominent advocates such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Orthodoxy now shifted away from being protective of public services and demand-fuelled economic growth, moving toward a position hostile to the welfare state, dependency culture, and public spending. This, in turn, encouraged a new set of radicalisms highlighting the perceived shortcomings of the prevailing political orthodoxy. Chief among these was the emergence of environmentalism. Associated with figures such as James Lovelock, who developed the Gaia hypothesis, E. F. Schumacher and Ivan Illich, environmentalism was a response to the oil crisis and the perception that there were structural limits to growth. The problem was not too little market, as advocated by the neoliberals, but too much. In particular, there was too much unfettered market activity in relation to scarce natural resources.

There was also a change in the morphology of radical activism during this period, coinciding with the decline of the mass party in the wake of the emergence of so-called new social movements. These movements were much more diffuse than mass parties, less ideological, and often very radical. This radicalism expressed itself in terms of a rejection of mainstream political processes in favor of direct action or DIY (do-it-yourself) practices.

The era of the PostCold War Order, which began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, has witnessed an explosion of radicalisms in response to widespread discontent with several new orthodoxies, particularly the Washington Consensus, associated with the extension of neoliberal policies to many different areas of economic and social activity; the idea of the clash of civilizations, positing an inevitable conflict between cultures; and the continuing dominance of individualism and consumerism.

In the 1990s an antiglobalization movement emerged in response to the neoliberal ideology that had come to prominence. This involved a panoply of radicalismssome old, some newall responding to the perceived shortcomings of the free-market policies pursued by global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the World Bank. The antiglobalization movement gives witness to one of the more remarked-upon features of the contemporary period, namely the proliferation of radical currents and energies, as opposed to their crystallization within mass parties united by a single ideology. This is not to be mistaken for the end of ideology, as long lamented by cultural commentators such as Daniel Bell, Herbert Marcuse, and Francis Fukuyama, but rather the proliferation of ideologies, some of which are radical, while others are much less so.

Samuel Huntingtons clash of civilization thesis is perhaps both a result and a cause of the profusion of cultural and political radicalisms across the world. This is paradoxical in the same sense that globalization is, for while globalization seems to be drawing people closer together, it also renders local resistance more intense and radical. Thus, key radicalisms that emerged at the start of the twenty-first century include neoconservatism and Islamic fundamentalism. Both are responses to perceived isolation and cultural embattlement: the former in defense of values associated with the imperiled Greco-Roman civilization; the latter in defense of an ever more literal reading of the Quran. Each faces the other as a defensive response against incorporation into what are perceived to be homogenizing global forces beyond the control of distinct nations and cultures.

More generally, any set of ideas that challenges the supremacy of the free market, of dominant interpretations of ideals such as equality and freedom, or of the idea of the individual as preeminently a consumer will be perceived by the mainstream as radical. In this sense, there are many sources of radicalism, including religion (and not just Islam). There has also been a rise in the influence of all manner of fundamentalisms, New Age ideas, alternative therapies and perspectives, and postmaterial ideas and ways of living that stress the need to escape from the dominant ethic and values.


In the political sense, radicalism has ceased to express itself on the same terms that marked the radical currents of the twentieth century. Radicalism had one goal during that period: the transformation of the existing world into a world that would, so it was claimed, be markedly better than the one displaced. Todays radicalisms are rarely built from such certainties. Nor are they, in the main, built on the kinds of universalist ambitions that characterized earlier radicalisms. Instead, they are partial, sectional, particularistic, local, and fragmented. Where commentators once lamented the prospect of being engulfed by a singular countervailing radicalism (totalitarianism), there are now many radical currents and tendenciessome benign, and others much less so. Orthodoxy, however defined, does not have one rival but many, and radical ideas are often resolutely minoritarian. Ideas, positions, philosophies, and therapies no longer seem to harbor the ambition, once shared by the world-transforming ideologies of modernity, to transform the world itself. What they demand is a space of difference, a space in which heterodoxy, otherness, and particular identities and positions can stand apart and flourish.

These postmodern radicalisms are modest, even parsimonious, in relation to the claims they make for themselves. With the end of grand narratives, as Lyotard put it, many radical groups and movements have evidently lost or abandoned that sense of certainty that was such a hallmark of the ideologies and movements of the twentieth century. In a world of skeptics, radicalism (as expressed in the ideas of the leftist Zapatistas in Mexico, for example) can only be sustained by thin or partial affinities and affiliations, by appeals to shared intuitions and the desire for dignity. This is hardly the basis for the kind of mass mobilization hoped for by yesterdays radicals, but it seems to be enough to sustain the radicals and radicalisms of today.

In sum, radicalism is not on the wane or in danger of being made redundant by an overarching conformity to ideas and values, no matter how expressed (as per Fukuyamas end of history thesis). Any such view reveals a certain naivety about the role of ideas in history. As this brief overview suggests, mainstream and conventional ideas are always faced by ideas that challenge or undermine them. Indeed it makes little sense to talk about the mainstream or the conventional without reference to ideas or positions that lie outside them. Radicalism is, in simple terms, the name given to whatever is different, challenging, or otherwise difficult to digest. As such, radicalism is just as much a feature of contemporary life as is the status quo, however defined.


Bell, Daniel. 1960. The End of Ideology. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Festenstein, Mathew, and Michael Kenny, eds. 2005. Political Ideologies: A Reader and Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fukuyama, Francis. 1992. The End of History and the Last Man. London: Penguin.

Gleason, Abbott. 1995. Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hobsbawm, Eric. 1994. Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 19141991. London: Abacus.

Huntington, Samuel P. 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Lyotard, Jean-François. 1984. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Marcuse, Herbert. 1964. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon Press.

Popper, Karl. 1959. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York: Basic Books.

Tormey, Simon. 2004. Anti-Capitalism: A Beginners Guide. Oxford: Oneworld.

Simon Tormey

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Radicalism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 28 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Radicalism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (March 28, 2017).

"Radicalism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved March 28, 2017 from


radicalism seeks a fundamental change in political structures through a programme of far-reaching but constitutional reform. Its features include some or all of individualism, democracy, minimal government, a market economy, freedom of speech and publication, and opposition to tradition, hereditary privilege, and religious influences.

There was never a single radical party in Britain, though three loose groupings may be identified. The philosophical radicals were the utilitarian followers of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) who formed a small but influential reforming group in the 1830s, including George Grote and Joseph Hume within the Commons, and Edwin Chadwick, Joseph Parkes, and James and John Stuart Mill outside Parliament. Their ideas were publicized through the Westminster Review. Secondly, from the later 1830s, the Manchester School radicals, led by Cobden and Bright, campaigned for free trade and against aristocratic privilege through organizations such as the Anti-Corn Law League. They were supported by nonconformist religious opinion opposed to the established church. Thirdly, outside Parliament, admirers of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (1791–2) formed a loose alliance of democratic agitators which gave leadership to the chartist movement (1838–52). These extremists were often in conflict with the other, more middle-class radicals. To a large extent they coalesced in the later 1850s into the radical wing of the Liberal Party under Gladstone's leadership. Notable parliamentary radicals in the 1870s and 1880s were Charles Dilke, Joseph Chamberlain, and Charles Bradlaugh. Radicalism declined as the most advanced school of progressive political opinion with the rise of socialist ideas at the end of the 19th cent.

Edward Royle

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"radicalism." The Oxford Companion to British History. . 28 Mar. 2017 <>.

"radicalism." The Oxford Companion to British History. . (March 28, 2017).

"radicalism." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved March 28, 2017 from