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Radicalism in Europe

612 words 3 page(s)

Europe changed drastically in the last several hundred years. It emerged from the Middle Ages with a strong aristocracy as a predominant form of government. However, the rational aspects of the Enlightenment forced the people of Europe to reconsider the need for greater civil liberties for all individuals. The success of the American people in freeing itself from the tyranny of absolute monarchy encouraged many to imagine a freer form of life for citizens. The French Revolution also gave way to cries for greater power for the average citizens. Many countries, fearing revolution, offered changes in their political structure. These offerings arose from both the fear of massive revolution and true desire for greater liberties for individuals. Radicalism represented the extreme of these desires. Radicalism in Europe may have been prevented if countries offered greater change and civil liberties throughout the early Enlightenment period.

Obviously, the success of the American Revolutionary War greatly encouraged the development of radicalism. The Revolutionary War occurred due to the high levels of taxation and the lack of representation among the British governmental system. If Britain had reasoned with the American colonists and opened up electoral and taxation reform prior to the writing of the Declaration of Independence, America may have remained loyal to the crown. However, the inability of England to do this led to the eventual break between the two countries. Reform and progress did not occur at a brisk pace. Eventually, the success of the American colonists helped spur thoughts of civil liberties among other countries.

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Radicals wanted to see greater change at a quicker pace. England pushed for electoral reform. Many believed that through electoral reform, the aristocracy and Church could be transformed. The electoral reform was meant to benefit the middle and lower classes. This would help create greater equality among the classes. However, after decades of discourse on the topic, electoral reform did not progress as desired. Finally, in April, 1864, radicals established the Reform Union. Other reform groups by radicals quickly followed (Klooster 214-15). If England had merely achieved the desired goals at a quicker pace, perhaps these groups would not have the necessary clout to grow. This may have helped to stem the growth of radicalism. Individuals were more likely to support a radical agenda when they realized that the pace of reform under less radical figures would not benefit them.

One problem that helped create radicalism was the inability to recognize that opposition could coexist peacefully with loyalism to one’s country. This was especially true in the east. As Robert Gildea explains, “All opposition in eastern Europe was in some sense radical, because the concept of a loyal opposition did not exist” (Gildea 76). In Western Europe, a chasm developed between the liberals and the radicals. The radicals pushed for greater reforms than did the liberals. The radicals also did not believe that political means could achieve all of the desired goals. This inability to reconcile these helped to further fuel radicalism.

Even when the governments did adopt some reform measures, radicals criticized them “for standing in the way of democracy” (Gildea 76). Unfortunately, what eventually created the growth of more radicalism was the desire for freedom mired against the slow pace of reform. Furthermore, since not all radical groups agreed upon the necessary changes, the radicals also stopped reform. This created the belief that reform would never happen at a rapid enough pace to benefit the current generations. For radicals, by standing in their own way, they fueled their movement with even greater want.

  • Gildea, Robert. Barricades and Borders: Europe 1800-1914 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Klooster, William. Revolutions in the Atlantic World. New York: NYU Press, 2009.

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