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Cultural Radicalism


In the last third of the 19th century, an enlightenment movement arose, which later became known as cultural radicalism. Values such as freedom, reason and enlightenment lay at the basis of the new age of enlightenment, which was properly introduced in Denmark when Georg Brandes (1842-1927) held a series of lectures in 1871 with the innocent title Main Currents in 19th Century Literature. These lectures, however, ignited a fire, off which sparks still leap. Even though the new age of enlightenment was not a copy of the classical Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century, it built on the same emphasis of science and “freedom of thought” (including the right to criticise religious tradition), the same aversion to the supernatural and the metaphysical, the same preoccupation with social problems and the same optimism about human nature and history.

Georg Brandes (1842-1927).

Georg Brandes has often been called the Voltaire of the North. He broke with Christian metaphysics and instead identified mankind’s own natural resources as the origin of freedom and individuality. Brandes was a key figure in the modern breakthrough that within literature encompassed authors such as J.P. Jakobsen (1847- 1885) and Henrik Pontoppidan (1857-1943), and within journalism and politics comprised figures such as Edvard Brandes (1847-1931) and Viggo Hørup (1841-1902). In 1883, on the occasion of the centennial anniversary of the birth of Grundtvig, Edvard Brandes wrote a critical memorial article. Brandes believed that Grundtvig's religious and Nordic views were far removed from “the principle of political democracy”, whereas his views on freedom and free speech enabled “a connection between his supporters and all those who love freedom of thought and the full truth”. The article’s publication has later been acclaimed as the event that led cultural radicalism to distinguish itself from Grundtvigianism in Danish culture and politics. The protests namely grew so violent that the Liberal Party’s leader, Chresten Berg (1829-1891), was forced to break off cooperation with Viggo Hørup and Edvard Brandes on the newspaper, Morgenbladet. With the creation of the daily newspaper, Politiken, in 1884, Hørup and the Brandes brothers acquired a new mouthpiece under the motto: “The paper of greater enlightenment.” While Georg Brandes emphasised that progress emanates from “single individuals, not from the masses of the people”, Viggo Hørup highlighted the class struggle as the way to achieving a more democratic society. Through his eminent writings, Hørup came to influence the political debate for a whole generation. He could be scathing in his criticism of the national liberals’ ubehag discomfort at incorporating “the masses” into the democratic fold, and similarly he could be harsh in his criticism of Grundtvigians when they emphasised popular character at the expense of democracy. During the constitutional struggle, he formulated the well-known rallying cry for parliamentarianism:

“The Folketing, nothing above it, nothing beside it.” For Hørup, popular sovereignty lay at the heart of democracy. In a Constitution Day speech in 1884, he emphasised that the future should not be built on “faith and the altar”, but on “the civic spirit in our people”.

“I am not a democrat; that is, I do not believe in the value of majority decisions. I obviously concede to the necessity of having the majority decide, where the issue is the people’s right to self-determination. But like most thinking individuals: In the few areas where I have an expertise, nothing is more irrelevant to me than what hundreds of thousands opine who have no expertise or insight (…). Democracy is one of the forms of government we have known so far, and the least evil one. But a good thing it is not, in my opinion. All decisive progress issues from single individuals, not from the masses of people.”


Viggo Hørup (1841-1902).


Individualism was a prominent feature of the understanding of modernity developed by Georg Brandes, which made the discussion about the relationship between democracy and individualism important. The philosopher, Harald Høffding (1843-1931) and the politician, Viggo Hørup, were among those who in that debate expressed reservation about Brandes’ aristocratic individualism. Tocqueville (1805-1859) also addresses the issue of democracy and individualism. He points out that individualism is “a novel expression, to which a novel idea has given birth”. Whilst selfishness is an age-old phenomenon, individualism is of democratic origin. For Tocqueville, individualism is both a precondition for and a threat to democracy.


groslash;n streg This page is part of the electronic publication "The Danish Democracy Canon"
© The Ministry of Education 2008

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