European Radicalism

The chief result of the defeat of the French revolution was the relative isolation of American radicalism making necessary further prolongation of the compromises that Jefferson’s generation had accepted in the hope of later progress. There followed the period of most intense struggle in US history between masonic and antimasonic forces resulting in a redeployment of conservative influences among a more deceptive, less clearly demarcated arrangement of factional politics. In Europe radicalism failed to overcome the legacy of confusion and extremism bequeathed by the Jacobin republic, while the British political establishment led the way to general conservative adaptation to the American revolutionary victory by abolishing slavery and incorporating limited elements of representative democracy within constitutional monarchy. It was against the background of this realignment of the longstanding polarization of relations between rich and poor within regimented factions called parties in which conservatism sought to adapt to and constrain democracy to its own purposes that Marxism emerged as the chief representative of leftist ideology.

Had European radicalism maintained the standard of competence demonstrated by its Jeffersonian forbears left strategy could have incorporated as minimum demands the main democratic achievements and future aspirations of American revolutionary radicalism: First, incorporation of all the Rights outlined in the US Bill of Rights. Second, further development of jury forms of political participation using sortition as a non partisan form of election for use not merely in law enforcement but also throughout the constitutional order, including in the legislative and executive departments. Third, incorporation of the Jeffersonian principle that the ‘earth belongs to the living’ as means to effect redistribution of inherited wealth and facilitate systemic change upon the basis of a regular, long term electoral cycle. These reform aims would have made clear that the Left sought to create the main preconditions for non partisan testing of different systemic economic options: first, containment of the influence of hereditary power, not only in regard to its direct political form but also in regard to wealth inheritance; second, development of non partisan jury forms of election better able to reach impartial decisions in regard to opposing systemic options; third, democratization of state security as a means to prevent usurpation of radical power by conservative factions.

These proposals would have actually been more relevant to radicalism in 1848 than a half century earlier, because the possibility of systemic economic options had become more clearly defined thanks to experiments in cooperative production such as those undertaken by Robert Owen. European Left strategists failed however to draw such connections in policymaking. An important factor which helps to explain this failure was the legacy of confusion and incoherence bestowed by French radical thought during and following defeat of the Jacobin republic. Jefferson’s associate De Stutt de Tracy dominated the European academic establishment during the reign of Napoleon, who blamed all the ills of the French revolution upon its proceedings. Napoleon’s verdict is of course unreliable, but may be understood not merely as the opinion of a sole individual but also as an expression of the frustration of his followers with the apparently impractical and abstruse nature of French radical theory. The work of Compte appears to bear out this negative view, certainly in the eyes of Chernyshevsky, who regarded the founder of ‘sociology’ and ‘positivism’ as incapable of understanding the ideas even of John Locke leave alone adding anything substantial to the fund of human knowledge.

The mixed accomplishments of French radical thought continue with the work of Saint Simon, the founder of ‘socialism,’ who grasped the centrality and importance both of inheritance tax and banking regulation but like Robespierre became fixated on inventing a new religion. The least crackpot of later European theorists of radicalism - for example Blanqui, Blanc, Weitling - all failed to adequately study and grasp the importance of American revolutionary radicalism, and aside from occasional moments of insightful clarity had little or no systematic idea of its philosophical basis and constitutional significance. A similar though less volatile state of political backwardness prevailed in England. A common failing among European leftists (with some partial exceptions such as Blanqui and perhaps Hodgkinson) was confusion and conflation of the preconditions for testing systemic options with the speculative possibility that one or other such option would prove superior. In failing to distinguish the self evident from what can be derived from the self evident the leftist vision of the future tended towards a narrow, one dimensional conception, based on one option alone – usually socialism - with the accordingly dogmatic belief that even without any large scale testing one preference will prove to be the best or even only viable choice.

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