Republicanism, Socialism, and Democracy in Britain: The Origins of the Radical Left

By Bevir, Mark | Journal of Social History, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Republicanism, Socialism, and Democracy in Britain: The Origins of the Radical Left


Bevir, Mark, Journal of Social History


The more powerful the state, and thus the more political a country is, the less it is inclined to look in the state itself, that is in the present organisation of society whose active, self-conscious, and official expression is the state, for the cause of social evils, and thus understand their general nature. Political intelligence is political just because it thinks inside the limits of politics. The sharper and livelier it is the less capable it is of comprehending social evils. [1]

When Engels wrote about chartism, he described the movement as the first to embody the true class consciousness of the workers, a consciousness focused, as Marx had implied, on social evils that had social causes and afflicted the workers as a class. [2] Many subsequent historians, whether Marxists or not, took a similar view. The chartists, they argued, broke with old traditions of popular radicalism to inaugurate the history of a working class movement progressing towards a mature socialist ideology. Recently, however, numerous social historians have challenged this orthodoxy by tracing continuities from the traditions of popular radicalism through chartism and even on into various movements of the 1860s and 1870s. [3] Although the reasons for this challenge to orthodoxy are many and complex, two stand out. The first is the linguistic turn. An increasing reluctance among historians to define the nature of a movement in terms of the objective social position of its participants has encouraged a new interest in the beliefs and languages by which people constructed their world, and when historians have looked at the beliefs and languages of nineteenth-century radicals, they have found ample evidence of the continuing strength of popular radicalism. The second is the work of historians of political thought on the republican tradition. They have recovered a republican tradition centred on concepts such as virtue, corruption, and liberty as an important and persistent alternative to Enlightenment liberalism. [4]

The linguistic turn in social history has combined with a growing awareness of the place of a civic republican tradition in the history of political thought to make us aware of the continuing strength among radical workers in the nineteenth century of things such as a concern with the political rather than the social and a belief in the people rather than the working class. But an awareness of these things raises a clear transition problem: how did the socialism of the twentieth-century emerge out of, or perhaps even supplant, the republican tradition of the Victorian era?

The Republican Inheritance

Before we can resolve the transition problem, we have to be clear about the nature of the republican radicalism that constitutes our starting point. What we now have is a story in which a republican tradition passes through Thomas Paine into the chartists and even later radical movements. Nineteenth-century Britain continued to provide a home to a republican tradition inspired by Machiavelli and Harrington. We should be cautious, however, neither to over-estimate the importance of the republican tradition nor to under-estimate changes in it. Indeed, if we equate the republican tradition with a narrowly defined civic republicanism, then we should say that it was disappearing rapidly from Victorian Britain. Civic republicanism incorporates a view of the self as firmly embedded in a particular tradition or community. Hence it stresses both the individual's location in a particular commonwealth, and the importance of the glory of that commonwealth. By the nineteenth-century, civic republicanism generally had bee n displaced by the more individualist and universalist doctrines associated with the Enlightenment and the romantic movement. [5] To some extent, therefore, we can resolve the transition problem by saying that the recent historiography over-emphasises the republican presence in Victorian thought. The dominant strands of nineteenth-century political thought derived from rationalist and romantic traditions set apart from civic republicanism. …

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