Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

The promise of organization. Political associations, 1820-1890, debate and practice

The central theme of the NWO-project ‘The Promise of Organization’ is the evolution of political organization during the 19th century. We focus on the enthusiasm, arguments and concrete activities of the organizers as well as the criticism offered by opponents of modern political organization.

Duration
2010  -   2017
Contact
Henk te Velde
Funding
NWO NWO

The three projects study three waves of associational mania and debate: modern antislavery organizations and other early pressure groups (United States and United Kingdom); organizing during the revolutions of 1848 (France and Germany); mass political parties during the 1870s and 1880s (Germany, the Netherlands and United Kingdom).

Political parties have often been seen as obstacles on the road to true democracy, and as instruments of over-ambitious career politicians. And before modern parties even existed, political associations were seen as dangerous 'machines', producing 'oligarchies'. Still, the modern voluntary association was 'democratic', because it integrated ordinary men and women into the political process in a disciplined, civilized manner. Without it, many people would never have been able to use the political system. Voluntary organizations could fit into the system of representative government which rejected unrestrained popular passions, but also be an instrument of mobilizing the common people. The contested machine-like appearance of voluntary organizations and political parties was the nearest one could get to the ideal of respectable democratization. This program will focus on the enthusiasm, arguments and concrete activities of the organizers as well as the criticism offered by opponents of modern political organization.

The three projects focus on three waves of associational mania and debate: modern antislavery organizations and other early pressure groups; organizing during the revolutions of 1848; mass political parties during the 1870s and 1880s. Together they give an overview of the introduction of organizations into politics. We will study the separate discussions about the merits and dangers of voluntary associations and political parties as parts of a general debate during the 19th century, and assume that the intensity of the debate was caused by the controversial issue of democratization and the related issue of inclusion and exclusion. By studying the contested nature of modern organizations, and in particular by thick description of the perception and introduction of new forms of organization, by biographical research, and by studying the debate on organizing in particular in (recently digitized) newspapers, the program will throw new light on one of the most hotly debated issues of modern politics.

Connection with other research

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