Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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RADICALISM. One may be radical, that is to say, absolute, in all opinions, in the monarchical as well as in the republican party; but, as a general thing, the words radicalism and radicals are applied to democratic doctrines more or less advanced, and to their adherents. It has long been said that extremes meet: consequently, they are equally false; the truth lies in the middle. Hence those who claim the designation of radicals are to be boldly condemned. They wish to go to the very end, being aware or ignorant (either supposition is equally unfavorable to them) that the end is an abyss. We are less severe toward those who are called radicals by their opponents. In that case the question is often only one of degree, of relation; according to the point of view at which one is placed, it will be as correct to consider the latter very backward, as the former very advanced. We should never stop at party names, but seek to penetrate to the foundation of things.


—Radicalism is characterized less by its principles than by the manner of their application. Its political doctrine is that of democracy, and as a general thing liberal men will approve of it. Who would raise the slightest objection against liberty, equality, fraternity, against national sovereignty, the responsibility of power, universal suffrage even? But what are we to understand by liberty? Should it be the universal leveling of all social enjoyments to the level of the lowest classes? Should fraternity encourage idleness and vice? Should national sovereignty or the responsibility of power constitute a permanent insurrection, and take away the right of decision from peaceable majorities to confer it on ambitious, turbulent, audacious minorities? Does universal suffrage admit of absolutely no limit? Thus political formulas lend themselves to more than one interpretation, and radicalism has its own; but it is, above all, the manner of its application which characterizes it. It knows only one method of procedure, which is to make a tabula rasa, to clear away the ground in order to raise on it a new structure complete in all its parts. Is it not as unreasonable to wish to break the chain of the ages, as to condemn all the accused in a lump, to declare all diseases incurable, to claim to know, to foresee everything, and even, which has actually happened, to wish to change the nature of things?


—Nature never makes a tabula rasa. She does not proceed by fits and starts, but by slow and continuous development, and society itself is a product of nature. Can any one deny it? Will any one question that society is composed of men endowed with reason, and often swayed by passion? Does any one think that this reason can be curbed, these passions silenced, by a decree, however solemn the deliberation and promulgation of it may have been? Nothing lasting is established by sudden or extreme measures. First, because such measures clash with received opinions, established interests, opinions and interests which have often their raison d'etre, and which have a right to demand consideration. But the principal obstacle to the success of radical measures lies mainly in the complex nature of man. He has necessities, aspirations, multiple duties, often contradictory; you can not fully satisfy some without, to a greater or less extent, injuring others.


—Radicalism is generally wedded to a few principles, sometimes to a single one, to which it refers everything, and which it would wish to adapt to everything. Now, the infinite variety of social facts are neither caused nor explained solely by the principles inscribed upon the banner of a radical party; these facts overflow in every direction, and force alone can compel them to return within their bounds. But radicalism does not draw back before violence. It is as absolute in its doctrines as the despot the most thoroughly imbued with the rights conferred on him by his hereditary power.


—It is by this absolutism, which is always found united to narrowness of views, that radicalism is distinguished from liberalism (which see), with which it has, however, some principles in common. Absolutism prevents all progress, and narrowness of view renders a lasting foundation impossible, for it does not permit all the important circumstances to be taken into account, and produces a certain social blindness, which makes those afflicted by it incapable of serving as guides. Thus, even should the radicals have principles identical with those of the liberals, they would differ from them by their tendency to abstraction, to idealization, they would see the mathematical line, surface or body, where, with the liberals, the real line, surface or body should be seen, with all the qualities and defects given them by nature.


—It is perhaps for all these reasons that Rohmer (see PARTIES, POLITICAL) attributes to radicalism the character of the boy; it has the same capacity as well as the same defects. It is enthusiastic, imaginative, to a certain extent generous, lives in an ideal world, pursuing a single idea, and pursuing it frantically, without regard to the evils caused by the efforts to realize it. Happily, the idea pursued is often a good one, the realization of which, even if somewhat dearly bought, compensates more or less for the ills which it has caused. Only one thing remains to be desired, namely, that the end be not attained with such violence as to go beyond it and give rise to a reaction which shall call everything into question again.


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