The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements

By Rosenberg, Daniel | The Historian, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements


Rosenberg, Daniel, The Historian


The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements. By Craig Calhoun. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Pp. xii, 425. $25.00.)

The author of this study examines the complex roots of early nineteenth-century radical movements in England, France, and the United States. Given the importance of his premise--that historians have traditionally treated such movements statically and narrowly--he has a huge challenge. Writing in the first person and with an honest sense of inquiry, Craig Calhoun devotes special attention to the stultification he imputes to Marx. Taking the path-breaking work of E. P. Thompson on class formation as exemplary, Calhoun insists that Marx acted to "reduce to variants of a basically economic conception of class consciousness the many different visions of alternative social orders," including those that "drew on a variety of traditions" influenced by culture and community (x). "Class gained its definition in social and political conflicts, as well as in economic production and exchange," yet historians have oversimplified class as a ready-made phenomenon (179). Classes are "composed of interpersonal relationships" and are "not things," he writes (182).

Hoping such movements may lead to precisely what its historians politically desire, Marxist and liberal scholars write off a host of antecedent and accompanying experiences shaping social movements in favor of "the idea of a singular course of progress" (72). Marx saw the force of tradition as "mere epiphenomena," a cobweb through which proper movements had to slice, rather than recognizing that "preexisting communal relations and attachments to tradition are essential to revolutionary mobilizations" (282, 88). Calhoun, however, esteems Marxist historians Christopher Hill and E. J. Hobsbawm who explored the layers of movements Calhoun believes Marx neglected. Perhaps one may see Marx's premise as key, not lock, but Calhoun's interpretation seems strict.

Nevertheless, "Marx's hoped-for and predicted working-class movement" failed to materialize as anticipated (93). He did not see that movements unfold "in a process" (79). …

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