Revolutions of 1848

Excerpts from

Clark, Christopher. 2019. “Why should we think about the Revolutions of 1848 now?” London Review of Books 7 March.

Conceptualizing Revolutionary Change in Space & Time

Clark depicts the Revolutions of 1848 as having “sparked” an exceptional, spatial “transcontinental cascade.”

Rather than contrasting revolutionary moments, we can regard the 1848 Revolutions as part of a slow-release cascade over time, an “Extended European Revolution” that also included the French Revolution of 1789, the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, the July Revolution of 1830, the Paris Commune of 1870, and the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917.

Yet perhaps under liberal constraint and from a military strategy point of view, revolution has been largely understood not as a complex, non-linear, punctuated process over both space and time, but as the exceptional event. Impressively-social, shared emotion, democratic confidence, has been thought to restructure perception and in so doing diffuse sovereign agency, an unpredictable emotional spasm coordinating signalling and so action. The event, this social-emotional Mayfly moment across space (but not time) that perceptibly, if ephemerally, overmasters elite hierarchy, becomes fetishized in 20th century imperial Western social philosophy as the limit–the romantic simultaneous birth and death– of democratic change. 

“For politically sentient Europeans, 1848 was an all-encompassing moment of shared experience. It turned everyone into contemporaries.” The simultaneous 1848 Revolutions was a shared affective experience, a “euphoria of unanimity.”

Opposed to understanding revolution as a complex, punctuated, non-linear process over time, an Animal Spirits-type explanation for revolution has ancillary functions. It permits liberals and conservatives to tendentiously frame revolution as an exceptionally, unjustly violent eruption, doomed to failure. The explanation further permits conservatives and liberals to maintain a view of the “mob” as a sub-rational species to be managed, making democracy impossible or restricting it to parliamentary process, as Clark observes liberals prefer.

Our conceptualization of revolution has been twice-adulterated by the interests cohering hierarchical social orders.

Further fragmenting and misrepresenting revolution, the shared trans-regional event of the 1848 Revolutions was rewritten ex post facto as isolated, exceptional national events.

“These revolutions were experienced as European upheavals – the evidence for this is superabundant – but, as Axel Körner pointed out, they were nationalised in retrospect.”

Revolutionary organization innovations

Coalitional assembly reformations

“The Revolutions of 1848 were revolutions of assemblies: the Constituent Assembly in Paris, which made way for the single-chamber legislature known as the National Assembly; the Prussian Constituent Assembly or Nationalversammlung in Berlin, elected under new laws created for the purpose; the Frankfurt Parliament, convoked in the elegant circular chamber of St Paul’s Church in the city of Frankfurt. The Hungarian Diet was a very old body, but in 1848 a new national Diet was convened in the city of Pest. When the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I dissolved the Diet by decree, a new Hungarian national assembly met in the Protestant Great Church of Debrecen. The revolutionary insurgents of Naples, Piedmont-Sardinia, Tuscany and the Papal States all established new parliamentary bodies. The revolutionaries of Sicily, seeking to break away from the rule of Naples, founded their own Sicilian parliament, which in April 1848 deposed the Bourbon king in Naples, Ferdinando II.”

Organization innovations introduced by revolutionaries, but reviled by liberals

1848 Revolutions were a fluorescence of both polity and social movement innovation, representing both the included bourgeois citizenry and the working class excluded by absolute private property right. “But the assemblies were merely one theatre of action. By the summer of 1848, they were coming under pressure, not just from the monarchical executives in many states, but also from a range of more radical groups: networks of clubs and ‘committees’, for example, or radical counter-assemblies such as the General Crafts and Manufacturing Congress founded in Frankfurt in July 1848 to speak for workers in the skilled trades whose interests were not represented in the liberal and middle-class-dominated National Assembly. This body in turn split after five days into two separate congresses, because it proved impossible to bridge the divide between masters and journeymen.”

“Liberals revered parliaments and looked with disgust on the clubs and assemblies of the radicals which seemed to them to parody the sublime procedural culture of properly elected and constituted chambers. Even more alarming, from the perspective of ‘chamber liberals’, were organised demonstrations intended to intervene directly in the affairs of parliaments. In Paris on 15 May 1848 a crowd broke into the lightly guarded chamber of the National Assembly, disrupted the proceedings, read out a petition and then marched off to the Hôtel de Ville to proclaim an ‘insurrectionary government’ to be headed by noted radicals.”

“The tension between parliamentary and other forms of representation – between representative and direct forms of democracy – is another feature of 1848 that resonates with today’s political scene, in which parliaments have fallen in public esteem and a diverse array of competing non- or extra-parliamentary groups has come into being, using social media and organising around issues that may not command the attention of professional politicians.”

Revolution promulgates a cascade of non-linear transformations

Within 1848, the spring “euphoria of unanimity” degraded into summertime “violent clashes between liberal (or in France republican) leaders and radical crowds on the streets of the larger cities in Prussia and France,” and by fall the conservative reaction was ascendant. “In September, October and November, counter-revolution unfolded in Berlin, Prague, the Kingdom of Naples and Vienna. Parliaments were shut down, troops returned en masse to the streets, insurgents were arrested and sentenced.”

A radical revolt redoubled its efforts before they were crushed by conservative-commanded European militaries in the summer of 1849: “a second phase, radical revolt dominated by democrats and socialists of various kinds broke out in the southern German states (especially Baden and Württemberg), in western and southern France, and in Rome, where the radicals, after the flight of the pope on 24 November, eventually declared a republic.”

“In the south of Germany, this second-wave upheaval was only extinguished in the summer of 1849, when Prussian troops captured the fortress of Rastatt in Baden, the last stronghold of the radical insurgency. Shortly afterwards, in August 1849, French troops crushed the Roman republic and restored the papacy, much to the chagrin of those who had once revered France as the patron of revolution. At about the same time, the bitter war over the future of the Kingdom of Hungary was brought to an end, as Austrian and Russian troops occupied the country.”

Legacy: Strategizing how to counter the international/global power of elites’ military-force infrastructure

While revolutionary organizers strove to build internationalist networks, conservative elites own the military infrastructure that has allowed elites to successfully, and violently, operate across boundaries.The radicals and liberals were impressively successful in creating transnational networks, but these networks were horizontal: they lacked the vertical structures and resources required to wield decisive force. The counter-revolution, by contrast, drew on the combined resources of armies whose loyalty to the traditional powers had never been seriously in question.” “The Prussians intervened against the revolution in Baden and Württemberg. The French intervened in the Papal States against the Roman republic. The Russians intervened in Hungary.”

Clark argues that this collective experience of the international military might of hierarchical conservatism was also profoundly influential on the development of Western ideas. While revolution was reduced to senseless, brutal failure–or at best, beautiful but doomed, youthful, romantic folly–and dismissed in the minds of most conservatives and liberals, others put much thought to how democratic progress could advance in the face of conservatism’s military command efficiency–how networks could beat hierarchies. “You find this (latter) quest in Marx and Engels (especially Engels), in Ludwig von Rochau’s Grundsätze der Realpolitik (1853), in the Saint-Simonian technocracy that infiltrated administrative practice in France after 1848, and in the primacy of ‘blood and iron’ so memorably articulated by Bismarck.”

Yet the revolutions prompted a vast transformation in ideas, and in political and especially administrative practice across Europe. 

Legacy: Administrative practice shifts

Saint-Simonian technocracy… infiltrated administrative practice in France after 1848.”

In Social Structures of the Economy (2005) and Manet (2019), Bourdieu showed how Saint-Simonian French administrative practice provides ample space for elites to legitimately commandeer the state, deftly avoiding Weber’s  dreaded “Iron Cage” of rationality. First elites’ sons are washed through elite universities, where they learn to master articulating elite interests in an abstract, neutral register–either technocratic or philosophical. Then, starting immediately upon graduation, they are imported into state-supported leadership positions within bureaucracies, academies, and the public sphere. They don’t follow bureaucratic career steps to influence. The state bureaucracies and institutions are subordinated to politically-organized French capital.

Legacy: A 3-way division of political vision and prescription

Ideas forwarded by the 1848 revolutions include the necessity of social rights to secure or counterbalance the economic and political liberty of elites, such as are protected by states–law and militaries. Leading up to the 1848 Revolutions, in the 1840s Europeans realized that full-time (overtime) labor in exploitative and extractive capitalism would far too often result in pauperization, while the rich enjoyed the elite liberty of unbounded accumulation and political power.

This 1840s recognition promoted a distinct political tri-furcation: Conservatives argue that socio-economic inequality is divine and natural, a good thing; liberals demur that socio-economic inequality is negative, but they argue that socio-economic inequality is a symptom of illegitimate state interventions undercutting natural market equilibrium; socialists argue that socio-economic inequality is the result of elite interest maximization prioritized by capitalism, as that unbalanced, unchecked elite interest maximization destroys life, and stunts and militarizes polity, institutional, and disposition development.

What is to be done about socio-economic inequality? 

For conservatives, divine social inequality provides an opportunity for elites to express their monopoly on human virtue via absolute, exclusive Herrenvolk liberty, including discretionary, ad hoc forays into chivalrous charity.

For liberals, illegitimate social inequality provides a theoretical pretense for reorienting states to support further wealth accumulation, deregulating markets and liberating capitalists from social and ecological responsibilities.

Socialists strategize how egalitarian ideas and network organization can effectively contend with international, militarized conservative and liberal opposition, to permit democratic development.

Legacy: Revolutions constrain and channel elites’ discourse and tactical degrees of freedom

Yet aspects of the democratic ideas persisted through the counterrevolution, channeling inegalitarians’ behaviour, their degrees of freedom. “Counter-revolutionaries were as often as not – in their own eyes – the executors, rather than the gravediggers, of the revolution.” For example, “Louis Napoleon, who became president of France at the end of 1848 before making himself emperor in 1852, did not depict himself as the crusher of revolution, but as the restorer of order.” Against the far more laissez-faire liberal and conservative prescriptions, Napoleon “spoke of the need not to block, but to channel the forces unleashed by the revolution, to establish the state as the vanguard of material progress.”

Revolutions are also driven by anti-revolutionary, imperial socio-spatial management

Clark explains the global quality of the European Revolutions of 1848 with reference to how British ruling elites, managing the spatial distribution of disruption, dispersed protest to British Empire tributaries.

“The news of revolution in Paris had a profound impact on the French Caribbean and the measures adopted by London to avoid revolution on the British mainland triggered protests and uprisings across the imperial periphery as the historian Miles Taylor has shown. The transportation en masse of potential trouble-makers from England and Ireland triggered protests in Australia and the Cape Colony. To keep sugar cheap the British government abandoned the system of tariff walls known as ‘imperial preference’, exposing colonial planters in Jamaica and British Guyana to competition from outside the British Empire and giving rise to protests, riots and political paralysis. In Ceylon, the introduction of new taxes to cut costs without burdening British middle-class taxpayers triggered the emergence of a protest movement that soon encompassed around sixty thousand men.”

An empire, as a militarized hierarchy, controls the spatial distribution of disruption in order to contain revolution. After 1776, Atlantic elites successfully contained revolution in the Anglo-American empire, including both the Commonwealth countries and the US. London’s role–managing disruption spatially–in maintaining capitalist stability in the face of the Extended European Revolution, has over time resulted in a consumption-stimulating Anglo-American domestic class settlement. This successful system of imperial redirection, on behalf of capitalist metropole stabilization, is what has earned London and New York their status as secure depositories for global wealth in the capitalist-extractivist-slavery era. 

However, the Extended European Revolution shows that in prioritizing the accumulation of power over the development of life, the imperial disruption shell game contributes a procession of social and mounting environmental destabilization globally over time.

Legacy: Revolutions embed revolutionaries within some states, channeling institutional and policy development

Revolutionaries became embedded in the militarily-imposed state, constraining its conservative capacities. “More than a third of the préfets of post-1848 Bonapartist France were former radicals; so was the Austrian minister of the interior from July 1849, Alexander von Bach, whose name had once stood on the lists of suspect liberals kept by the Vienna police department.”

Revolution promoting the integration of some revolutionaries into European states has not overcome militarized, inegalitarian capitalism. But it has forged a more socially- and environmentally-rational, more-democratic Continental Europe, despite European elites’ command of international military force.

This is a fundamental distinction between Continental Europe and UK class compromises. In that sense, I am not really surprised about Brexit.

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