Theory that political action must aim at fundamental change.

It is necessary to identify the root (radix) of current institutions and practices in order to begin afresh on superior foundations.

Although radicalism is normally opposed to conservatism, the policies and theories of the new right appeared to unite both, to the frequent consternation of both enemies and friends.


Radicalism and liberalism

The two Enlightenment philosophies of liberalism and radicalism both shared the goal of liberating humanity from traditionalism. However, liberals regarded it as sufficient to establish individual rights that would protect the individual while radicals sought institutional, social/economic, and especially cultural/educational reform to allow every citizen to put those rights into practice. For this reason, radicalism went beyond the demand for liberty by seeking also equality, i.e. universality as in Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.

In some countries, radicalism represented a minor wing within the Liberal political family as in the case of England’s Radical Whigs. Sometimes, the radical wing of the liberals were hardline or doctrinaire and in other cases more moderate and pragmatic. In other countries, radicalism had had enough electoral support on its own, or a favourable electoral system or coalition partners, to maintain distinct radical parties such as in Switzerland and Germany (Freisinn), Bulgaria, Denmark, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands,[1] but also Argentina (Radical Civic Union), Chile and Paraguay.[2]

Victorian era Britain possessed both trends: In England the Radicals were simply the left wing of the Liberal coalition, though they often rebelled when the coalition’s socially conservative Whigs resisted democratic reforms, whereas in Ireland Radicals lost faith in the ability of parliamentary gradualism to deliver egalitarian and democratic reform and, breaking away from the main body of liberals, pursued a radical-democratic parliamentary republic through separatism and insurrection. This does not mean that all radical parties were formed by left-wing liberals. In French political literature, it is normal to make a clear separation between Radicalism as a distinct political force to the left of Liberalism but to the right of Socialism. Over time, as new left-wing parties formed to address the new social issues, the right wing of the Radicals would splinter off in disagreement with the main Radical family and became absorbed as the left wing of the Liberal family—rather than the other way around, as in Britain and Belgium.

The distinction between Radicals and Liberals was made clear by the two mid-20th-century attempts to create an international for centrist democratic parties. In 1923-4, the French Radicals created an Entente Internationale des Partis Radicaux et des Partis Démocratiques similaires: it was joined by the centre-left Radical parties of Europe, and in the democracies where no equivalent existed—Britain and Belgium—the liberal party was to allowed attend instead. After the Second World War the Radical International was not reformed; instead, a centre-right Liberal International was established, closer to the conservative-liberalism of the British and Belgian Liberal parties.[3][4][5] This marked the end of Radicalism as an independent political force in Europe, though some countries such as France and Switzerland retained politically-important Radical parties well into the 1950s–1960s. Many European parties that are nowadays categorised in the group of social-liberal parties have a historical affinity with radicalism and may therefore be called “liberal-radical”.[6]

By country

United Kingdom

According to Encyclopædia Britannica, the first use of the term radical in a political sense is generally ascribed to the English parliamentarian Charles James Fox, a leader of the left wing of the Whig party who dissented from the party’s conservative-liberalism and looked favourably upon the radical reforms being undertaken by French republicans, such as universal male suffrage. In 1797, Fox declared for a “radical reform” of the electoral system. This led to a general use of the term to identify all supporting the movement for parliamentary reform.

Initially confined to the upper and middle classes,[citation needed] in the early 19th century “popular radicals” brought artisans and the “labouring classes” into widespread agitation[citation needed] in the face of harsh government repression. More respectable[citation needed] “philosophical radicals” followed the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and strongly supported parliamentary reform, but were generally hostile to the arguments and tactics of the “popular radicals”. By the middle of the century, parliamentary Radicals joined with others in the Parliament of the United Kingdom to form the Liberal Party, eventually achieving reform of the electoral system.


The Radical movement had its beginnings at a time of tension between the American colonies and Great Britain, with the first Radicals, angry at the state of the House of Commons, drawing on the Leveller tradition and similarly demanding improved parliamentary representation. These earlier concepts of democratic and even egalitarian reform had emerged in the turmoil of the English Civil War and the brief establishment of the republican Commonwealth of England amongst the vague political grouping known as the Levellers, but with the English Restoration of the monarchy such ideas had been discredited. Although the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had increased parliamentary power with a constitutional monarchy and the union of the parliaments brought England and Scotland together, towards the end of the 18th century the monarch still had considerable influence over the Parliament of Great Britain which itself was dominated by the English aristocracy and by patronage. Candidates for the House of Commons stood as Whigs or Tories, but once elected formed shifting coalitions of interests rather than splitting along party lines. At general elections, the vote was restricted to property owners in constituencies which were out of date and did not reflect the growing importance of manufacturing towns or shifts of population, so that in many rotten borough seats could be bought or were controlled by rich landowners while major cities remained unrepresented. Discontent with these inequities inspired those individuals who later became known as the “Radical Whigs”.

William Beckford fostered early interest in reform in the London area. The “Middlesex radicals” were led by the politician John Wilkes, an opponent of war with the colonies who started his weekly publication The North Briton in 1764 and within two years had been charged with seditious libel and expelled from the House of Commons. The Society for the Defence of the Bill of Rights which he started in 1769 to support his re-election, developed the belief that every man had the right to vote and “natural reason” enabling him to properly judge political issues. Liberty consisted in frequent elections and for the first time middle-class radicals obtained the backing of the London “mob”. Middlesex and Westminster were among the few parliamentary constituencies with a large and socially diverse electorate including many artisans as well as the middle class and aristocracy and along with the county association of Yorkshire led by the Reverend Christopher Wyvill were at the forefront of reform activity. The writings of what became known as the “Radical Whigs” had an influence on the American Revolution.

Major John Cartwright also supported the colonists, even as the American Revolutionary War began and in 1776 earned the title of the “Father of Reform” when he published his pamphlet Take Your Choice! advocating annual parliaments, the secret ballot and manhood suffrage. In 1780, a draft programme of reform was drawn up by Charles James Fox and Thomas Brand Hollis and put forward by a sub-committee of the electors of Westminster. This included calls for the six points later adopted in the People’s Charter (see Chartists below).

The American Revolutionary War ended in humiliating defeat of a policy which King George III had fervently advocated and in March 1782 the King was forced to appoint an administration led by his opponents which sought to curb Royal patronage. In November 1783, he took his opportunity and used his influence in the House of Lords to defeat a Bill to reform the British East India Company, dismissed the government and appointed William Pitt the Younger as his Prime Minister. Pitt had previously called for Parliament to begin to reform itself, but he did not press for long for reforms the King did not like. Proposals Pitt made in April 1785 to redistribute seats from the “rotten boroughs” to London and the counties were defeated in the House of Commons by 248 votes to 174.

Popular agitation

In the wake of the French Revolution of 1789, Thomas Paine wrote The Rights of Man (1791) as a response to Burke’s counterrevolutionary essay Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), itself an attack on Richard Price’s sermon that kicked off the so-called “pamphlet war” known as the Revolution Controversy. Mary Wollstonecraft, another supporter of Price, soon followed with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. They encouraged mass support for democratic reform along with rejection of the monarchy, aristocracy and all forms of privilege. Different strands of the movement developed, with middle class “reformers” aiming to widen the franchise to represent commercial and industrial interests and towns without parliamentary representation, while “Popular radicals” drawn from the middle class and from artisans agitated to assert wider rights including relieving distress. The theoretical basis for electoral reform was provided by “Philosophical radicals” who followed the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and strongly supported parliamentary reform, but were generally hostile to the arguments and tactics of the “popular radicals”.

In Ireland, the United Irishmen movement took another direction, adding to the doctrine of a secular and parliamentary republic inspired by the American and French republican revolutions, another doctrine of the French Revolution: civic nationalism. Dismayed by the inability of British parliamentarianism to introduce the root-and-branch democratic reforms desired, Irish Radicals channelled their movement into a republican form of nationalism that would provide equality as well as liberty. This was pursued through armed revolution and often with French assistance at various points over the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Popular Radicals were quick to go further than Paine, with Newcastle schoolmaster Thomas Spence demanding land nationalisation to redistribute wealth in a penny periodical he called Pig’s Meat in a reference to Edmund Burke’s phrase “swinish multitude”. Radical organisations sprang up, such as the London Corresponding Society of artisans formed in January 1792 under the leadership of the shoemaker Thomas Hardy to call for the vote. One such was the Scottish Friends of the People society which in October 1793 held a British convention in Edinburgh with delegates from some of the English corresponding societies. They issued a manifesto demanding universal male suffrage with annual elections and expressing their support for the principles of the French Revolution. The numbers involved in these movements were small and most wanted reform rather than revolution, but for the first time working men were organising for political change.

The government reacted harshly, imprisoning leading Scottish radicals, temporarily suspending habeas corpus in England and passing the Seditious Meetings Act 1795 which meant that a license was needed for any meeting in a public place consisting of fifty or more people. Throughout the Napoleonic Wars, the government took extensive stern measures against feared domestic unrest. The corresponding societies ended, but some radicals continued in secret, with Irish sympathisers in particular forming secret societies to overturn the government and encourage mutinies. In 1812, Major John Cartwright formed the first Hampden Club, named after the English Civil War Parliamentary leader John Hampden, aiming to bring together middle class moderates and lower class radicals.

After the Napoleonic Wars, the Corn laws (in force between 1815 and 1846) and bad harvests fostered discontent. The publications of William Cobbett were influential and at political meetings speakers like Henry Hunt complained that only three men in a hundred had the vote. Writers like the radicals William Hone and Thomas Jonathan Wooler spread dissent with publications such as The Black Dwarf in defiance of a series of government acts to curb circulation of political literature. Radical riots in 1816 and 1817 were followed by the Peterloo massacre of 1819 publicised by Richard Carlile, who then continued to fight for press freedom from prison. The Six Acts of 1819 limited the right to demonstrate or hold public meetings. In Scotland, agitation over three years culminated in an attempted general strike and abortive workers’ uprising crushed by government troops in the “Radical War” of 1820. Magistrates powers were increased to crush demonstrations by manufacturers and action by radical Luddites.

To counter the established Church of England doctrine that the aristocratic social order was divinely ordained, radicals supported Lamarckian Evolutionism, a theme proclaimed by street corner agitators as well as some established scientists such as Robert Edmund Grant.

Political reform

Economic conditions improved after 1821 and the United Kingdom government made economic and criminal law improvements, abandoning policies of repression. In 1823, Jeremy Bentham co-founded the Westminster Review with James Mill as a journal for “philosophical radicals”, setting out the utilitarian philosophy that right actions were to be measured in proportion to the greatest good they achieved for the greatest number. Westminster elected two radicals to Parliament during the 1820s.

The Whigs gained power and despite defeats in the House of Commons and the House of Lords the Reform Act 1832 was put through with the support of public outcry, mass meetings of “political unions” and riots in some cities. This now enfranchised the middle classes, but failed to meet radical demands. The Whigs introduced reforming measures owing much to the ideas of the philosophic radicals, abolishing slavery and in 1834 introducing Malthusian Poor Law reforms which were bitterly opposed by “popular radicals” and writers like Thomas Carlyle. Following the 1832 Reform Act, the mainly aristocratic Whigs in the House of Commons were joined by a small number of parliamentary Radicals as well as an increased number of middle class Whigs. By 1839, they were informally being called “the Liberal party”.


From 1836, working class Radicals unified around the Chartist cause of electoral reform expressed in the People’s Charter drawn up by six members of Parliament and six from the London Working Men’s Association (associated with Owenite Utopian socialism), which called for six points: universal suffrage, equal-sized electoral districts, secret ballot, an end to property qualification for Parliament, pay for Members of Parliament and Annual Parliaments. Chartists also expressed economic grievances, but their mass demonstrations and petitions to parliament were unsuccessful.

Despite initial disagreements, after their failure their cause was taken up by the middle class Anti-Corn Law League founded by Richard Cobden and John Bright in 1839 to oppose duties on imported grain which raised the price of food and so helped landowners at the expense of ordinary people.

Liberal reforms

The parliamentary Radicals joined with the Whigs and anti-protectionist Tory Peelites to form the Liberal Party by 1859. Demand for parliamentary reform increased by 1864 with agitation from John Bright and the Reform League.

When the Liberal government led by Lord Russell and William Ewart Gladstone introduced a modest bill for parliamentary reform, it was defeated by both Tories and reform Liberals, forcing the government to resign. The Tories under Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli took office and the new government decided to “dish the Whigs” and “take a leap in the dark” to take the credit for the reform. As a minority government, they had to accept radical amendments and Disraeli’s Reform Act 1867 almost doubled the electorate, giving the vote even to working men.

The Radicals, having been strenuous in their efforts on behalf of the working classes, earned a deeply loyal following—British trade unionists from 1874 until 1892, upon being elected to Parliament, never considered themselves to be anything other than Radicals and were labeled Lib-Lab candidates. Radical trade unionists formed the basis for what later became the Labour Party.


The territories of modern Belgium had been merged into the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815. Aside from various religious and socioeconomic tensions between the Dutch north and proto-Belgian south, over the 1820s a young generation of Belgians, heavily influenced by French Enlightenment ideas, had formulated criticisms of the Dutch monarchy as autocratic. The monarch enjoyed broad personal powers, his ministers were irresponsible before parliament; the separation of powers was minimal; freedom of press and association were limited; the principle of universal suffrage was undermined by the fact that the largely Catholic south, despite possessing two-thirds of the population, received as many seats to the Estates-General (parliament) as the smaller Protestant north; and the Dutch authorities were suspected of forcing Protestantism onto Catholics. These concerns combined to produce a pro-Catholic Radicalism distinct from both the anticlerical Radicalism of France, and the Protestant Liberalism of the Dutch north.

Following the political crisis of 1829, where the Crown Prince was named prime minister, a limited reform was introduced establishing constitutional rights, similar to the charter of rights of France’s autocratic Restoration Monarchy; the Belgian Radicals, like their French counterparts, regarded such a charter of rights as insufficient, potentially revocable by a whim of the monarch. Belgian Radicals closely followed the situation in France when, on 26 July to 1 August 1830, a conservative-liberal revolution broke out, overthrowing the autocratic monarchy for a liberal constitutional monarchy. Within a month a revolt had erupted in Brussels before spreading to the rest of the Belgian provinces. After Belgian independence, the Constitution of 1831 established a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary regime, and provided a list of fundamental civil rights inspired by the French Declaration of the Right of Man.

As in Britain, Radicals in Belgium continued to operate within the Liberal Party, campaigning throughout the 19th Century for the property-restricted suffrage to be extended. This was extended a first time in 1883, and universal male suffrage was achieved in 1893 (though female suffrage would have to wait until 1919). After this Radicalism was a minor political force in Belgium, its role taken over by the emergence of a powerful social-democratic party.

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