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"Getting Organized"

In January 2014, the research project The Promise of Organization hosted a fruitful three-day conference: "Getting Organized. The Emergence of Political Parties, Clubs and Reform Organizations in the long 19th century". Twenty scholars from all over the globe joined forces in Leiden to present and discuss papers dealing with several forms of political organization. A report.

Conference theme

In the 19th century politics changed drastically because ‘the people’ learned to organize themselves into voluntary associations to put pressure on the political system. Pioneers developed new modes of organization, including national single-issue organizations and member-based political parties. Their influence on government was at first conceived as ‘pressure from without’ but would eventually be understood as part of the political process: the practice of organizing had extended the conception of politics.

Many of the new voluntary associations can be considered ‘democratic’ because they integrated ordinary men and women into the political process in a disciplined, civilized manner. These organizations fitted in with the respectable politics of representative government which rejected direct democracy, let alone unrestrained popular passions. For their leaders and participants they were an instrument for mobilizing the common people and fighting social and political abuses. Yet the political parties and other political organizations were often criticized as obstacles on the road to effective and balanced politics or to true democracy and as instruments of over-ambitious career politicians. A special case is offered by the hybrid forms of organization positioned between (permanent) association and (ad hoc) meeting in revolutionary situations. In these ‘moments of madness’, experiments in political organizing were the necessary means for those who wanted to influence the outcome of the revolution. To a lesser extent, this holds true for the whole long 19th century, when politics was redefined and many people wanted to create a new political community – and in order to get recognized and accepted, they engaged in a continuous search for effective forms of organization.

Four overarching themes led us to structure the conference in four sessions: on 1) pressure groups, 2) revolutionary organizations, 3) early political parties and 4) party criticisms and alternatives. After a Call for Papers (see below for the initial CfP) resulting in a rich response, we drafted the following program.


Session 1 - January 16, 2014 

Maartje Janse (Leiden University) -  'Association is a mighty engine': the early history of the pressure group 
Roshan Allpress (Oxford University) -  The transformation of philanthropic organisation, c. 1770-1815 
Henry Miller (University of Manchester) -  'Petition! Petition!! Petition!!!': Petitioning and the organisation of public opinion in Britain, c. 1800-1850 
Kevin Butterfield (University of Oklahoma) -  Law and voluntary association in the early United States 
Chair/Comments: Johann Neem (Western Washington University)

Session 2 - January 17, 2014 

Reeve Huston (Duke University, Durham) -  Can "the people" speak?: Popular meetings and the ambiguities of popular sovereignty in the United States, 1816-1828 
Gita Deneckere (Ghent University) -  The dialectics of recognition in the Age of Revolution. Popular assemblies and the discourse of civil rights, Belgium 1830-1848 
Samuel Hayat (CNAM (laboratoire HT2S) & American University, Paris) -  The 1848 Paris club movement in the history and theory of republican government 
Geerten Waling (Leiden University) - Conservative theory, revolutionary practice. Anti-revolutionary clubs in revolutionary Berlin (1848) 
Chair/Comments: Ruud Koole (Leiden University)

Session 3 - January 17, 2014 

Anne Heyer (Leiden University) -  Organizing efficient participation? Representation in the party organizations of the German SDAP and the British NLF 
Andreas Biefang (KGParl, Berlin) -  The German National Association of 1859 as a role model of a modern mass party 
Keisuke Masaki (University of Edinburgh) -  Provincinal Toryism and British associational culture: the Pitt Clubs, 1808-1832 
Jürgen Schmidt (Humboldt University, Berlin) -  The early German labour movement as civil society actor? 
Chair/Comments: Joost Augusteijn (Leiden University)

Session 4 - January 18, 2014 

Henk te Velde (Leiden University) -  The political party as a machine. The debate about political parties around 1900 
Hanneke Hoekstra (University of Groningen) -  The strange death of the political hostess? Gender and party in British politics 1850-1914 
Nicolas Roussellier (SciencePo, Paris) - Brilliant faillure: political parties under the republican era in France (1870-1914) 
Rob Allen (Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand) -  Agitate, educate, organize: radical networks in New York in the early 1880s 
Chair/Comments: Mieke Aerts (University of Amsterdam)

Aim & outcome

The aim of this conference was to reflect on the origins and meaning of the increasing role of political organizations in political life. We were interested in the organizers' motivation, arguments, concrete activities and experience as well as the contemporary debate about the merits and perils of political organizing. Because of this research agenda, we decided to discuss the emergence of both single-issue organizations and political parties, which are usually studied separately.

The participants - historians and social/political scientists from all over the world - all joined in an animated discussion stretched out over all four of the sessions. All contributions were highly appreciated by the hosts, but also by fellow participants who repeatedly underlined the usefulness of this encounter for their own particular research. The result of the conference was a flow of insights and ideas, supported by sixteen interesting papers. To preserve and materialize this result, our purpose is to publish an edited volume on different practices and ideas concerning political organization in nineteenth-century Europe and the USA.

This conference is organized by the research team of the NWO-project The Promise of Organization: Henk te Velde, Maartje Janse, Anne Heyer and Geerten Waling - with the assistance of Eveline van Rijswijk. We thank all participants for their contributions.

For any questions, contact us at organization@hum.leidenuniv.nl.

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