Reform: Europe and the United States

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Reform: Europe and the United States

Reform, from the Latin reformare, to recast or reshape, denotes the overhaul of an existing state or condition with a view to its improvement. Until the eighteenth century the terms reform and revolution were used interchangeably. In the wake of the French Revolution, however, they took on distinct meanings. Reform came to denote substantial change through an orderly and lawful process; revolution described a radical change through violent and illegal means. In modern usage, a reform executed with striking speed and success may be apostrophized as a revolution, as for example in Peter Jenkins's Mrs. Thatcher's Revolution (1987) or Martin Anderson's Revolution: The Reagan Legacy (1988). This "upgrading" of a lawful process to a "revolution" may be regarded as a figure of speech and serves the purpose of demarcating a historical period. In the twentieth century further nuances to the concept of reform were introduced through the use of the term "protest." The word denotes collective action aimed at reform (for example, strikes and sit-ins), which avoids the violence associated with a revolution, yet transgresses normally accepted limits of social behavior. In the late twentieth century scholars noticeably shied away from the use of the term "reform," favoring instead value-neutral descriptions of the process of change. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, reform is an alteration "for the better." Such normative labeling is now seen as problematic. Marxists, for example, would deny that a reform from within the prevailing power structure produces betterment and would argue that this type of reform is in fact counterproductive to the socialist revolution they envisage. In academic discourse, therefore, the term reform has been largely replaced by change or shift. Reform remains the term of choice, however, in popular literature and in the propaganda of special-interest groups lobbying for change.

Categories and Theories of Causation

Already in antiquity we find theories of a "natural" reformthat is, an ongoing reform process or cumulative historical development. In the fifth century b.c.e., the Greek historian Herodotus discussed constitutional change in terms of a natural, cyclical reform: when monarchy deteriorates into tyranny, it is replaced by aristocracy; when aristocracy becomes corrupt, it is replaced by democracy; when it turns into mob rule, it is replaced by a monarchy. Thus the cycle begins anew. The idea of a linear progression, from a flawed earthly to a perfect heavenly life, was central to medieval Christian thinking. In the fourth century the church father St. Augustine of Hippo (354430) postulated that God had implanted in humanity the capacity for advancement. The idea of linear progress was also promoted by secular philosophers, although they differed from Christian writers in attributing the cause of advancement to human reason rather than a divine plan. Enlightenment philosophers spoke of a maturing of the human mind and a progressive improvement of the human condition through science and reason. Expanding on Enlightenment thought, philosophers from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) to Karl Marx (18181883) embraced the idea of progressive historical change through the actualization of the human rational capacity. Marxists introduced the idea that social and economic conditions were instrumental in bringing about reform or revolution. Similarly, sociologists in the twentieth century spoke of a "technological imperative" driving social change.

More frequently, however, reform is seen not as "natural" or circumstantial but as prompted by human agency and deliberately advanced by groups or individuals for ideological reasons. In this category, we must distinguish institutional from personal reform. The latter is an aspect of religion or education and is more appropriately discussed under that heading. This article focuses on institutional reformthat is, social and political changes. The personal may of course become political, as for example in the sixteenth century, when both Martin Luther (14831546) and Desiderius Erasmus (c. 14661536) depicted the invading Ottoman Turks as "the scourge of God" and insisted that repentance and personal reform must precede successful political action. Similarly, Islamic jihad, meaning "struggle," combines the notion of self-purification or striving against one's evil inclinations with political-theocratic ideas and the struggle for the preservation and dissemination of Islam through military means. In modern Western history, however, reform movements have been and are largely secular and concerned less with the emancipation of the individual than with societal change.

Principles of Validation

In modern usage reform is linked to innovation, a concept that is also used to validate it. Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, however, the idea of innovation lacked the positive connotation it acquired later on. In classical Latin the expression cupidus rerum novarum (keen on new things) was an idiomatic expression for "rebellious" and was invariably used in a deprecatory sense. Innovation was seen as dangerous, an assessment that remained the norm even in the Renaissance. Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527), for example, emphasized the dangers of changing the status quo and described the process of establishing a new order of things as risky and therefore to be avoided. In the premodern age, and as long as tradition remained a powerful validating principle, would-be reformers therefore shied away from associating their cause with innovation. Instead, they regularly claimed to revert to a preexisting condition and restore a corrupt state to its original pristine state. Innovation was openly advocated only in utopian literature. There, reform proposals were presented in a whimsical or paradoxical manner and given a deliberately eccentric or unrealistic setting. This device, employed by authors from Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.) to Jonathan Swift (16671745), was often used to circumvent censorship and to air ideas in closed societies, which offered no effective legal channel to bring about change. Incentives to resort to satire and utopian fiction were especially strong when stable political and institutional alignments protected the status quo.

The Reformation of the sixteenth century, epitomized by Martin Luther, evinces the typical characteristics of a successful reform movement: a well-developed ideology, a conscious intention of overthrowing the status quo, and, given the stigma attached to innovation in early modern Europe, an appeal to a preexisting condition and a promise to restore the corrupt church to its original state. The Reformation also exemplifies the political circumstances favoring success. It enjoyed broad popular support and benefited from an unstable political climate. This allowed Protestants in Germany and Huguenots in France to align themselves with dissenting secular authorities. In Germany, the reformers were supported by cities and principalities that opposed the centralizing tendencies of the Catholic emperor. In France, Huguenots benefited from the power struggle between court factions in the dying days of the Valois dynasty. Similar crisis conditions allowed reformers and reforming groups in the seventeenth century to realize their goals. A new idea, however, emerged at that time and came into its own in the eighteenth century: the idea that the common people had not only duties but also rights. This was the theory underlying the 1649 Leveler's Agreement of the People and was the basic assumption of the 1776 Declaration of Independence as well as the French charter of rights drawn up in 1789. Its slogan, "freedom, equality, brotherhood," associated reform/revolution with freedom from religious and secular hierarchical power.

Although the revolutions of the eighteenth century shared with the sixteenth-century Reformation the rejection of traditional authority and references to individual responsibility, philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries appealed to reason rather than the divine will as the source of life-structuring norms. René Descartes (15961650) first presented the reductionist theory that dictated rejection of values based on tradition and experience unless they could be fitted into a rational context. His thought supplied the basic motivation for reform until Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (18201895) substituted material and economic conditions as initiating factors. Even they, however, presented reform as a rational attempt to achieve change.

It was only in the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment, that the negative connotation of innovation was overcome. The French philosophes unabashedly offered new ideas, which were taken up by European rulers, especially in Prussia and Austria, and found their way into parliamentary debates.

Agencies of Reform

Popular support has always played an important role in successful reforms, but there is a noticeable shift in the nineteenth century in the structures that serve as a means of galvanizing popular support and promoting bonding. Until then collective action to further reform and the intellectual solidarity on which it is predicated were promoted by kinship groups, regional networks, and religious congregations. The goals were specific and parochial, with the action typically arising from particular circumstances and ceasing when the specific objectives had been achieved. From the nineteenth century on, the role of these groups was increasingly taken over by governments, political parties, firms, or unions and involved long-range, sometimes cosmopolitan, goals. Realizing such goals required a permanent organization and planned action and often involved either coercion or reward for the participants. Already in the eighteenth century, major social and economic reforms were introduced from above, through the agency of "enlightened despots" like Frederick the Great of Prussia (r. 17401786) and Joseph II of Germany (r. 17641790). The civil service they created to implement the reforms may be seen as a harbinger of the developments in the nineteenth century, which saw a large number of reforms passed through legal channels and mediated by politicians and political parties. Indeed, "reform" became the watchword of socialist parties and was generally associated with their platform. In England, for example, the Tories who were dominant between 17701830 were opposed to reform, whereas the Whigs promoted and enacted a succession of reforms (for example, the Reform Act of 1832, which expanded suffrage). In the twentieth century reform was associated in Britain with the Liberal government before 1914 and the Labour government after 1945. In the United States, administrative reforms were seen as the result of the Progressive movement in the nineteenth century and associated with the Democratic Party and more specifically with the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (18821945) in the twentieth century. In the USSR the term "reform" was applied to Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to restructure key state institutions and to bring about a fundamental change in social values through glasnost.

In the second half of the twentieth century, however, reform movements began to transcend class and party lines as well as other traditional groupings and increasingly signified personal choice and self-identification (for example, as gay, disabled, or black). On a broader level, reformers appealed to the communal good and a global human fellowship (for example, environmental, disarmament, anticonglomerate, and civil rights movements). The move from adherence to a cause determined by incidental membership in a group (class, gender, nationality) to a cause that was personally meaningful and from reform initiated by political parties to nonaligned protest organizers or organizations (for example, Ralph Nader, Greenpeace) was accompanied by a shift of authority from "without" to "within." This shift may be seen as a consequence of two recognized social trends in the twentieth century: the encouragement of individualism and the rejection of ritualization.

Academic Approaches to Reform: Methodology and Conceptualization

Reform ideas were traditionally regarded as the bailiwick of political philosophers and intellectual historians. In the twentieth century, however, reform became the object of study of a newly formed discipline: sociology. The shift from philosophy to sociology was accompanied by a shift in focus. Sociologists examining the concept of change were more interested in the origin and dynamics of reform, the conditions that facilitated or impeded change, and strategies of mobilization that brought about reform than in the content of the reform program or the outcome of the movement. They avoided the value judgment inherent in gauging the success of a movement and shied away from stating whether its outcome was the result of a reform movement or a matter of cultural milieu. An example of this development in methodology is the rise and decline of the theory of "modernization," which was based on the idea of progressive historical change. "Modernization" was first advocated by social historians and sociologists in the 1950s. Proponents like Daniel Lerner and Alex Inkeles regarded the characteristics of the modern society as preferable to traditional societies, equating it with more political freedom, higher income, better health, better education, and the triumph of science and reason over superstition. Western societies were thought to furnish the template for the modern society and expected to become the standard of other societies. The modernizations introduced in Turkey by Kemal Atatürk (18811938) in the 1920s were seen as the prototype of such a development. By the 1980s, however, the concept of modernization was recognized as problematic and was eventually discredited. Objections were raised against its ethnocentricity, facile optimism, and attempt at leveling cultural differences. Although globalism remains a buzzword today, social and intellectual historians have found it difficult to accept the idea of globally common dynamics and have generally come to favor pluralism over theories emphasizing uniformity. In the context of pluralism, reform is seen as an initiative of special-interest groups, usually antiestablishment, whose goals range from specific concessions to a large-scale overhaul or even a reordering of society.

Sociologists studying reform have drawn up a schema or typology of reform movements: They are often associated with pragmatic goals (as opposed to revolutions, which are informed by radical ideologies). They may be regarded as the second stage of a revolution, with an overtly radical movement ebbing into a reformist movement. Revolutions and/or reforms are generally launched in crisis situations and as the result of political malaise. Conversely, protest movements are less likely to make headway when political, social, and economic conditions are reasonably good and the prevailing powers are therefore able to defuse resentment. Effective government and moderate prosperity will generate a reluctance to harm vested interests for fear of losing the benefits already enjoyed. Support for a change of the status quo is also less likely when the group in power has been successful in public relations, promoted an image of success through self-congratulatory rhetoric, and created a sense of common interest. Such conditions generally impede a society's ability to recognize the need for change or develop a desire for it.

In the 1980s, theories about reforms and their desirability were jolted by postmodernists like Jean-François Lyotard in the field of political philosophy and Michel Foucault (19261984) in the field of social studies and ethics. They promoted a skeptical attitude toward the traditional assumptions of Western thought, among them the belief in the inevitability of progress, the power of reason, and the value of originality/innovation. One might associate their critique with the move away from authority and toward individualism that characterizes modern reform movements. The fundamental thrust of the postmodernists, however, is antiauthoritarian. Overtly, at any rate, postmodernists do not advocate political stances or social causes. Indeed, Ernesto Laclau has rejected "foundational" reform movements, whose leadership would become the new authority and issue a blueprint for a society reorganized along rational principles. In other words, the radical social and cultural relativism of postmodernists renders the concept of reform problematic if not senseless. A reaction against postmodernism has set in, however. Indeed, Jürgen Habermas notes the tendency of the critical impulse consuming the movement itself.

See also History, Idea of ; Modernity ; Revolution ; Secularization and Secularism .


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Erika Rummel

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Reform: Europe and the United States

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