The term Radical (Latin radix meaning root) was used during the late 18th century for proponents of the Radical Movement and has since been used as a label in political science. It can be described for those favoring or trying to produce thorough political reforms which include dramatic changes to the social order of a society. Historically, early radical aims of liberty and electoral reform in Great Britain widened with the American Revolution and French Revolution so that some radicals sought republicanism, abolition of titles, redistribution of property and freedom of the press. Initially identifying itself as a far left party opposed to the liberal Orleanists, the Legitimists and the Bonapartists in France in the nineteenth century, the Republican, Radical and Radical‐Socialist Party progressively became the most important party of the Third Republic (1871 – 1940). As historical Radicalism became absorbed in the development of political liberalism, in the later 19th century in both the United Kingdom and continental Europe the term Radical came to denote a progressive liberal ideology.
The word was first used in a political sense in 18th century Great Britain. Initially confined to the upper and middle classes, in the early 19th century "popular radicals" brought artisans and the "labouring classes" into widespread agitation in the face of harsh government repression. More respectable "Philosophical radicals" followed the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and strongly supported parliamentary reform, but were generally hostile to the arguments and tactics of the "popular radicals". By the middle of the century parliamentary Radicals joined with others in the Parliament of the United Kingdom to form the Liberal Party, eventually achieving reform of the electoral system.
William Beckford fostered early interest in reform in the London area. The "Middlesex radicals" were led by the politician John Wilkes, an opponent of war with the colonies who started his weekly publication The North Briton in 1764 and within two years had been charged with seditious libel and expelled from the House of Commons. The Society for the Defence of the Bill of Rights he started in 1769 to support his re‐election developed the belief that every man had the right to vote and "natural reason" enabling him to properly judge political issues. Liberty consisted in frequent elections. For the first time middle‐class radicals obtained the backing of the London "mob". Middlesex and Westminster were among the few parliamentary constituencies with a large and socially diverse electorate including many artisans as well as the middle class and aristocracy, and along with the county association of Yorkshire led by the Reverend Christopher Wyvill were at the forefront of reform activity. The writings of what became known as the "Radical Whigs" had an influence on the American Revolution.
Major John Cartwright also supported the colonists, even as the American Revolutionary War began, and in 1776 earned the title of the "Father of Reform" when he published his pamphlet Take Your Choice! advocating annual parliaments, the secret ballot and manhood suffrage.
In 1780 a draft programme of reform was drawn up by Charles James Fox and Thomas Brand Hollis, and put forward by a sub‐committee of the electors of Westminster. This included calls for the six points later adopted in the People's Charter (see Chartists below).
The American Revolutionary War ended in humiliating defeat of a policy which King George III had fervently advocated, and in March 1782 the King was forced to appoint an administration led by his opponents which sought to curb Royal patronage. In November 1783 he took his opportunity and used his influence in the House of Lords to defeat a Bill to reform the British East India Company, dismissed the government and appointed William Pitt the Younger as his Prime Minister. Pitt had previously called for Parliament to begin to reform itself, but he did not press for long for reforms the King did not like. Proposals Pitt made in April 1785 to redistribute seats from the "rotten boroughs" to London and the counties were defeated in the House of Commons by 248 votes to 174.
Popular Radicals were quick to go further than Paine, with Newcastle schoolmaster Thomas Spence demanding land nationalisation to redistribute wealth in a penny periodical he called Pig's Meat in a reference to Edmund Burke's phrase "the swinish multitude". Radical organisations sprang up, such as the London Corresponding Society of artisans formed in January 1792 under the leadership of the shoemaker Thomas Hardy to call for the vote. One such was the Scottish Friends of the People society which in October 1793 held a British Convention in Edinburgh with delegates from some of the English corresponding societies. They issued a manifesto demanding universal male suffrage with annual elections and expressing their support for the principles of the French Revolution. The numbers involved in these movements were small, and most wanted reform rather than revolution, but for the first time working men were organising for political change.
The government reacted harshly, imprisoning leading Scottish radicals, temporarily suspending habeas corpus in England and passing laws prohibiting public meetings and demonstrations. Throughout the Napoleonic Wars the government took extensive stern measures against feared domestic unrest. The corresponding societies ended, but some radicals continued in secret, with Irish sympathisers in particular forming secret societies to overturn the government and encourage mutinies. In 1812 Major John Cartwright formed the first Hampden Club, named after the English Civil War Parliamentary leader John Hampden, aiming to bring together middle class moderates and lower class radicals.
After the Napoleonic Wars, the Corn laws (in force between 1815 and 1846) and bad harvests fostered discontent. The publications of William Cobbett were influential, and at political meetings speakers like Henry Hunt complained that only three men in a hundred had the vote. Writers like the radicals William Hone and Thomas Jonathan Wooler spread dissent with publications such as The Black Dwarf in defiance of a series of government acts to curb circulation of political literature. Radical riots in 1816 and 1817 were followed by the Peterloo massacre of 1819 publicised by Richard Carlile who then continued to fight for press freedom from prison. The Six Acts of 1819 limited the right to demonstrate or hold public meetings. In Scotland agitation over three years culminated in an attempted general strike and abortive workers' uprising crushed by government troops in the "Radical War" of 1820. Magistrates powers were increased to crush demonstrations by manufacturers and action by radical Luddites.
To counter the established Church of England doctrine that the aristocratic social order was divinely ordained, radicals supported Lamarckian Evolutionism, a theme proclaimed by street corner agitators as well as some established scientists such as Robert Edmund Grant.
The Whigs gained power and despite defeats in the House of Commons and the House of Lords the Reform Act 1832 was put through with the support of public outcry, mass meetings of "political unions" and riots in some cities. This now enfranchised the middle classes, but failed to meet radical demands. The Whigs introduced reforming measures owing much to the ideas of the philosophic radicals, abolishing slavery and in 1834 introducing Malthusian Poor Law reforms which were bitterly opposed by "popular radicals" and writers like Thomas Carlyle. Following the 1832 Reform Act the mainly aristocratic Whigs in the House of Commons were joined by a small number of parliamentary Radicals, as well as an increased number of middle class Whigs. By 1839 they were informally being called “the Liberal party.”
Despite initial disagreements, after their failure their cause was taken up by the middle class Anti-Corn Law League founded by Richard Cobden and John Bright in 1839 to oppose duties on imported grain which raised the price of food and so helped landowners at the expense of ordinary people.
When the Liberal government led by Lord Russell and William Ewart Gladstone introduced a modest bill for parliamentary reform, it was defeated by both Tories and reform Liberals, forcing the government to resign. The Tories under Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli took office, and the new government decided to “dish the Whigs” and “take a leap in the dark” to take the credit for the reform. As a minority government they had to accept radical amendments, and Disraeli's Reform Act of 1867 almost doubled the electorate, giving the vote even to working men.
The Radicals, having been strenuous in their efforts on behalf of the working classes, earned a deeply loyal following; British trade unionists from 1874 until 1892, upon being elected to Parliament, never considered themselves to be anything other than Radicals, and were labeled Lib-Lab candidates. Radical trade unionists formed the basis for what would later become the Labour Party.
These radicals then formed the Radical-Socialist Party (or Republican, Radical and Radical-Socialist Party, to give it its full name) in 1901, which was the first French left wing modern party. Four years later, the socialist French Section of the Second International (SFIO) party was formed by the fusion of Jean Jaurès's and Jules Guesde's rival tendencies; and the French Communist Party (PCF) was created in 1920. The Radical Socialist Party continued to be the main party of the Third Republic (1871 – 1940), but was discredited after the war due to the role of Radical members of the National Assembly in voting for the establishment of the Vichy regime. The Democratic and Socialist Union of the Resistance was established after World War 2 to combine the politics of French radicalism with credibility derived from members' activism in the French resistance.
Opposing Gaullism and the Christian Democrat People's Republican Movement (MNR), Pierre Mendès-France tried to anchor the Radicals to the left wing. Although he managed to put an end to the First Indochina War through the Geneva Accords signed in 1954 with North Vietnam's Premier Pham Van Dong, he finally left the party in 1961 to join the Unified Socialist Party (PSU) which advocated workers' self-management, while the Radical Party split into the more conservative Radical Party "valoisien", the legal successor of the Radical Party, and a faction advocating alliance with the left, named the Left Radical Party. The Parti radical valoisien moved to the center right and affiliated itself first with the pro-Giscard d'Estaing UDF, then with the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), while the Left Radical Party, which claims to be the political heir of the Republican Radicals, has close ties to the Socialist Party.