Historians of the Left have devoted a good deal of attention to the great formative period between 1789 and 1848 -- from Paine and the Jacobins to Marx and the Chartists. They have also shown considerable interest in the development of organised labour and socialist movements beginning in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. On the whole, the post-1848 period has been treated as an interlude of quiescence, a brief pause in the movement towards a radical reconstruction of the established order. Viewed in a broader historical perspective, however, the mid-century decades, particularly in England, bring into focus aspects of the history of the Left that can be overlooked in an interpretation that presupposes a straight line advance towards clearly defined goals.
Working-class radicalism in mid-Victorian England experienced in concentrated form the predicament inherent in the historical development of the European Left -- maintaining the impulse to radical change and preserving radical principles in the face of countervailing ideological, social, and economic circumstances. The mid-Victorian radicals encountered processes of stabilisation and deradicalisation that were to operate later in western Europe. In a difficult situation they preserved their commitment to democratic and egalitarian values and resisted the full consolidation of middle-class hegemony.
Looking back from the 1970s, we are aware of the vulnerability of the Left in the twentieth century -- betrayed by Leninism, assaulted by fascism, and co-opted by liberalism. With the defeat of fascism, the fate of the Left has assumed one of two polar forms. In Russia and eastern Europe it has been transmogrified into the repressive ideology of a new ruling class. The events in Prague in 1968 symbolise the liquidation of the Left in the Soviet Union and its client states. In western Europe the Left has had the good fortune to survive, but under conditions that have made it difficult to sustain the impetus to radical change. Integrated into the structure of welfare capitalism and parliamentary democracy, it has undergone bureaucratisation and deradicalisation. In one sense the Left has been a victim of its success in compelling the removal of so many of the evils that afflicted European society in the nineteenth century. In this situation, however, the Left has been hard put to provide a genuine alternative to liberal reformism.
Because of its reformist, non-revolutionary orientation, working- class radicalism in England has had to face more directly the dilemma of the Left in the industrialised and democratic states of modern . . .