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You Say You Want a Revolution...
A review of Christopher Clark's "Revolutionary Spring: Europe Aflame and the Fight for a New World, 1848-1849"
It’s hardly surprising that the European revolutions of 1848 receive scant attention in the United States—and for completely understandable reasons. Our own Civil War naturally overshadows just about every other historical event of the nineteenth century in our collective national memory, with the bloody drama of Napoleon’s rise and fall serving as the backdrop for period pieces like the 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World from time to time. But historian Christopher Clark’s recently published tome Revolutionary Spring: Europe Aflame and the Fight for a New World, 1848-1849 makes a compelling argument for the enduring importance and relevance of these mid-century upheavals that spread like wildfire across the continent.
Indeed, Revolutionary Spring is a work of enormous range and ambition, a 754-page brick of a book that lays the groundwork for the revolutions of 1848 and details their eruption, evolution, and eventual demise amidst their own internal contradictions and the sheer mass of counter-revolutionary force. It's not necessary to agree with all of Clark’s conclusions to profit from this book in one way or another, even if his prose veers into the academic a little too often and his attempts to draw parallels with recent events don’t seem fully developed. Still, these are minor criticisms given the depth and detail of Clark’s sweeping narrative, and Revolutionary Spring nonetheless throws light on our own present-day challenges and debates in interesting ways.
The Long and Winding Road to Emancipation
Take Clark’s account of the impulses toward emancipation that arose in the wake of the 1848 revolutions: the abolition of slavery by France and efforts to lift the widespread social and legal restrictions on Jews across the continent. While the revolutionary French government issued a decree abolishing slavery in April 1848, it proved far more difficult to put into practice than to proclaim; as in the United States and other societies, Clark observes, “slavery proved a sticky, recalcitrant institution.” In the French Caribbean, for instance, a “great majority of the formerly enslaved remained in their places of employment,” while in French-ruled West Africa indigenous African polities dependent on slavery threatened to cut off trade with France unless the new republic weakened its emancipation laws. It would not be until 1905 that slavery would finally “definitively suppressed’ in France’s West African colonies.
Similarly, European Jews had good reason to see 1848 as a watershed for their rights as citizens of various polities across the continent. Demands and proclamations made by radicals and revolutionaries from Hungary and Romania to Prussia and Italy promised civil equality to all regardless of religion. But it was one thing to proclaim emancipation and another to make it stick: anti-Jewish violence often accompanied the revolutions themselves, many Christians opposed moves to lift the draconian medieval restrictions on their Jewish neighbors, and ideologies of anti-Semitism began to coalesce on both left and right as old anti-Jewish prejudices found “new and modern modes of articulation.” As the revolutions faltered, so too did progress toward Jewish emancipation—it would take until the 1860s and 1870s for Italian, German, and Hungarian Jews, for instance, to achieve civil equality.
But if the 1848 revolutions didn’t necessarily fulfill the most ambitious promises of emancipation, Clark makes clear that they set into motion or accelerated political and social processes that would eventually yield results—except for women, many of whom vigorously participated in the revolutions but whose basic rights rarely (if ever) came up for serious discussion. “Those women who pushed directly at the legal and political disabilities of women,” Clark observes, “achieved remarkably little.”
As Revolutionary Spring shows, the road to emancipation proved long and winding indeed.
Ideas Beyond Borders
More than that, Clark foregrounds the unpredictable and complicated ways ideas and movements, liberal and illiberal alike, crossed borders and influenced one another—sometimes decisively. The continent’s whole political and social zeitgeist shifted almost overnight, with an uprising in Sicily serving as the initial spark for upheavals that would rock Paris, Vienna, and other capitals. For many politically aware and informed Europeans of the day, Clark notes, “episodes of conflict and political dysfunction abroad were not observed piecemeal, as isolated, contingent mishaps, but as parts of an interconnected disorder.” If the revolutionaries of 1848 had any one common demand, it was for constitutions—a demand that was often fulfilled, whether as prophylactic measures taken by governments or the work of national assemblies in the wake of revolutions or imposed by monarchs after counterrevolutions.
New political pathologies also burst into the open across Europe, with far-left radicals expressing contempt for the “empty chitchat” of parliamentary politics and embracing “romantic revolutionism” instead. Some radical activists merely mocked parliaments and moderates, while others mounted armed uprisings that proved more farcical than dangerous to the authorities. While Clark argues many radicals—especially those of the second wave of revolutions that washed over Europe in late 1848 and early 1849—adopted “a more mixed and politically moderate leftist programme” that would eventually evolve into modern social democratic politics, romantic revolutionism and scorn for the work of ordinary liberal democratic politics remain calling cards of far-left ideologues to this day.
Nationalist ideologies likewise erupted with a vengeance in 1848, possessing a “miraculous alchemy” that created “new forms of solidarity” between Europeans while presenting itself “as the oldest and thus the most legitimate of all things.” Though some revolutionaries maintained that all nations shared a common cause (or at least a common enemy), across the continent “solidarity within nations went hand in hand with an embitterment of the relations between them.” Mutually exclusive territorial claims and counterclaims by national movements were rife; Polish nationalists rejected Ukrainian nationalist demands to territory in Galicia by asserting, as Vladimir Putin does today, that a Ukrainian nation did not exist. Now as then, Clark remarks, most nationalists remain “primordialists” about their own nations but become social constructivists when it comes to rival claimants: our nationalism is real and authentic and deserves recognition, yours is fake and fabricated and lacks standing.
That this sort of nationalism became the dominant motif of the 1848 revolutions was in no sense preordained, even if it seems so in retrospect. After all, Clark reminds us, few men and women of that time could be put into such rigid boxes; indeed, eight of the thirteen national heroes of Hungary’s revolutionary war were not Hungarian by ethnicity, while not all of the five ethnic Hungarians were themselves familiar with the Hungarian language. In practice, nationalism could prove quite cosmopolitan.
The Romance of Realism
Most of all, though, Revolutionary Spring undermines the romantic notion of balance-of-power realism that still exerts a strong hold over the imaginations of present-day academics and contemporary policymakers alike. According to this modern fairy tale, international affairs ran smoothly and seamlessly as the great powers worked together to maintain an equilibrium without much regard for or interference in the internal affairs of its constituent states. In reality, however, the opposite was the case: autocrats and monarchs routinely intervened in the domestic politics of other nations, viewing such interventions as necessary to combat the perceived threat of revolution—even before 1848.
Indeed, the continental order set up in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars was deeply concerned with the domestic politics of European states. Clark reminds us that one of the architects of that order, Austrian statesman Clemens von Metternich, believed “arrangements regulating the interaction between states” needed to be founded on “a stable social and political order within them.” While the elderly Metternich found himself tossed out of power in 1848, the settlement he helped orchestrate had “an unusually deep purchase on the political life of the continent of a whole” and encouraged European powers to “view internal challenges to these arrangements as a threat to ‘European order’ that might justify an intervention.” And so Russia’s absolute monarchy launched a counter-revolutionary war against Hungary in 1849, saving the Austrian Empire from having to negotiate a compromise peace with the revolutionary regime. That same year, France’s recently elected post-revolutionary caudillo Louis Napoleon Bonaparte likewise mounted a military expedition that strangled the infant Roman Republic in its crib and restored the papacy to temporal power for another two decades.
Clark contends that the revolutions and counter-revolutions of 1848 and 1849 gave birth to modern political realism, defined not just as a recognition of the reality and importance of power but the pursuit of power as an end in itself. Figures as different in ideology and political orientation as Karl Marx and Otto von Bismarck came to the conclusion, as Clark puts it, “that the revolutionary networks never mustered a power capable of fending off the threat posed by the counter-revolutionary international… Towers prevailed over squares. Hierarchies beat networks. Power prevailed over ideas and arguments.” Elevated to the fundamental and highest goal of politics, as it inevitably was, the pursuit of power for its own sake eventually led Europe down the dark road to the horrors and bloodbaths of the twentieth century: Nazism and fascism, Leninism and Stalinism, and two world wars.
The lessons European statesmen, ideologues, and activists learned—or overlearned—from 1848 amounted to a systematic and unrealistic denial of the role ideas and values play in politics and public life. If the revolutionaries of 1848 overestimated the power of ideas, their successors underestimated it in their after-action assessments. In the aftermath of 1848, many chose to throw out ideals in favor of power rather than find a better way to balance or integrate these two necessary facets of politics and public life. Principle without power is impotent and ineffectual, while power without principle yields little more than cruelty and eventual catastrophe.
Did the revolutions of 1848 “succeed?” Clark rightly demurs, as a matter of both principle and evidence. After all, he points out, it’s hard to make such a sweeping judgement about the French Revolution itself, and like any comparable historical phenomena the 1848 revolutions had their share of complicated and unintended outcomes. Still, it’s hard to say that these upheavals succeeded—save in places like Denmark and the Netherlands, where exceptionally liberal constitutions for their day emerged with the acquiescence of monarchies. Indeed, Denmark went from an absolute monarchy to “one of the most democratic political cultures in the world” almost overnight, and the country’s 1849 constitution remains in force today.
For the most part, however, the revolutions crumpled beneath the weight of counter-revolutionary power or their own internal divisions. That doesn’t mean they were futile or that they led to no political change whatsoever—far from it. What Clark calls a “post-revolutionary synthesis” emerged, where conservatives, moderate liberals, and one-time radicals worked together in new political coalitions to pursue “technical, managerial solutions” to the problems confronting European societies. This synthesis accomplished quite a lot in terms of material progress, building out infrastructure like railroads and telegraph lines while creating standardized administrative bureaucracies. It also marginalized the truly reactionary right as well as more radical democrats, though more by serendipity than design or intent.
There was no going back to the world before 1848, and almost everyone in Europe knew it. The continent became more liberal and democratic, albeit nowhere near as quickly or as thoroughly as many revolutionaries of that year would have hoped. Political and social change came, but not in the ways activists and political leaders predicted or could control.
That’s something we’d do well to remember in the midst of our own political uncertainty at home and around the world today.