What makes a life “radical”?

If one becomes jaded, some people’s solution is exercise; for others, it is to seek “fuel for the imagination”. Probably best is some combination of both.

Being extremely jaded of late, I’ve been getting flashbacks to my student days, when I had an insatiable enthusiasm for researching in archives and a level of energy that is only a distant memory now. Attempting to understand the lives of obscure “radical” figures mentioned in decaying police reports threw my historical imagination into overdrive, often not stopping to think of a somewhat obvious point that my supervisor threw at me one day: “don’t forget, the one [the radical] cannot exist without the other [political intelligence departments] so they actually keep each other in business.”

These days, “digital storytelling” is often used a synonym for purely personal narratives as a primary focus of interest. The appetite for stories about the lives of individuals, especially “radical” individuals, seems to be paramount. Fascinating stories can emerge all the time, including these recent historical exposes of an Irish nun in the French Resistance and an Irish Buddhist monk acting as a critic of European colonialism in Asia.

Is this a giant revival of the 19th century tradition of romantic individualism we are witnessing within digital media these days? Tim Blanning’s “we-are-all-still-living-in-the-nineteenth-century” Romantic Revolution thesis was based on the idea that people are obsessed with the idea of exciting individual lives, be it as a personal aspiration or as a necessary “fuel for the imagination”.

Apply that to politics and the 1950s thesis of a French sociologist seems persuasive that the appeal of Marxism in the twentieth century was largely the romantic, or intellectual, appeal of individualism, because in an age where all politics was sown-up by political parties acting under the unitary control of party whips, to profess oneself as a Marxist was a means of rejecting all that by claiming for oneself an image of one’s motivations whereby there is nothing obstructing a sense that one’s judgment or freedom of choice was still all one’s own.

A counter argument to that perspective, of course, was the extent to which efforts to create ruled-bound international labour organisations existed, although that was also a mainstream phenomenon: if one considers the history of the International Labour Organisation (1919-to-date) that was operated by the great “capitalist” Western powers (albeit without the United States up until the Cold War), the much smaller and directly rival initiative of Comintern were but a poor state’s variation of the same thing.

If a state is experiencing a devastating civil war (as Russia was) it is not actually initiating an international/world revolution: it is more accurately trying to protect itself from one, although it is still common to witness state and university-funded historians treating the radical/Marxist thesis of “world revolution” seriously enough to portray it as a much greater or central phenomenon than it actually was. In so far as states and, in turn, historians could claim that this “radical” threat was central, then the importance of the other (in this case, the International Labour Organisation) was enhanced to either the same or to a much greater degree: “don’t forget, one cannot exist without the other”. Similarly, in the days before the “Truman Doctrine” led the US to take on the UK’s self-imposed job of containing Russian influence in Europe/the Mediterranean, the US government was evidently more inclined to see Comintern-like initiatives as a tool of British intelligence than of Russian because of extent to which the International Labour Organisation was then a British-dominated body, used to extend British influence in international affairs.

How far is radicalism a tool for promoting polemical attitudes for ulterior motives? Consider this: if society could be persuaded that the social mores of aristocrats (i.e. the most wealthy) had been unfairly discriminated against in the past through having being falsely accused of being perverse, society could be persuaded to march instead to defend and champion the social mores of these poor aristocrats as a “new normal” code of behaviour and as a matter of “policy” to boot. Next up, perhaps: the Caesars were not such bad guys after all, even if they got their kicks by throwing innocent people to the lions (amongst other things). “Roll on the new empire with flags unfurled”. Indeed, if it is as true, as some have claimed (I don’t actually have the figures), that there is a much greater disparity of wealth between rich and poor “now” than at any other time in human history, the new “aristocrats” have evidently been remarkably successful in protecting their own interests, with traditional vehicles of criticisms, such as religious charities or the former US Republican tradition of professed vigilance against corruption or imperialism, having become marginalised, stigmatised or even downright unpopular. Self-interested human behaviour moves in mysterious ways.

And what was the appeal of studying “radical” nineteenth-century Irish lives for me? And why does that appeal still exist, to a significant degree? Irish radical organisations were surely also partly a containment tool of their professed opponents. “OK”. But “the time and the place” still fascinates me. You see: if “the Comintern days” can fascinate all those with an interest in the mental universe of early twentieth-century figures of the Aldous Huxley or George Orwell variety, “the Republican days” can fascinate all those with an interest in the mental universe of the nineteenth century. A sense of aristocratic privilege ruled supreme in church and state and “the common people” simply did not exist in most political, artistic or cultural endeavours.…or, then again, did they? “The usual [Fenian] suspects” police gazettes can seem to tell as fascinating a story as a protagonist of an unknown Charles Dickens or Mark Twain novel. In some nineteenth-century French fictions, these prototype-characters do actually seem to exist (Emile Zola’s “Savage Paris” comes to mind).

So while Gustave Flaubert or whoever was indulging in some “sentimental education”, involving petticoats and scented handkerchiefs or the like, there were some guys meeting in some backroom somewhere, possibly off a street or (Parnell-ite) square that you already know (many Dublin Fenians I read police reports about in Ireland’s National Archives lived and met on the exact same street as where Ireland’s National Archives now sits), dreaming of forming a newspaper of their own or fantasising about turning the world of Dublin Castle upside down. How did the world seem to them? Was their smattering of education and revolutionary fantasies an expression of the same ambition that motivated those who enlisted in armies to acquire some formal education, the rare privilege of international travel or even social prestige (uniforms could do wonders for “the image” in those days)? Did revolutionary journalists, including Karl Marx (whose lifetime coincided with the heyday of the British Empire), aspire to the same prestige as “the great and good” by virtue of their utilising or inhabiting the exact same (print) media? Quite possibly…

And from there can emerge a picture of a whole world of really quite mundane “radical” lives that, unlike those in a novel, did actually exist, but with their stories untold. If there is any greater fuel for the imagination than that, I’m still not sure if I know of one within the world of historical studies. Lives may not, in fact, be radical in their making, but I’m inclined to suspect with Mr. Blanning that “the romantic revolution” still lives on, from the nineteenth century right up until “now” and probably well enough into the future too, in terms of people’s imagination, both public and private. Beethoven still has a lot to answer for or to be praised for, depending on your own point of view.