eighteen forty-eight

The revolutions of 1848 were the stage upon which the “spectre haunting Europe” danced. Karl Marx, Mikhail Bakunin, Alexandre Herzen, Alexis de Tocqueville, and numerous other critical observers of Europe’s trajectory looked at 1848 as a moment of continent-wide social and political revolution. Mike Rapport’s 1848: Year of Revolution is a very interesting effort to synthesize the movements and events of the year in a specific attempt to try to assess the degree to which events in Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Milan, and dozens of other European cities hang together as a “year of revolution.” It’s worth reading — even for those for whom the history is pretty familiar.

One reason that the book is so interesting is that the period itself is fascinating — the events, the social movements and causes, the mechanisms through which social contention spread and intensified, and the personalities who were drawn into engagement and commentary. The three men pictured above — Tocqueville, Herzen, and Bakunin — are only a sliver of the powerful and enduring personalities who played important roles during the critical weeks and months of unrest in a variety of cities. Another reason for the interest of the book is Rapport’s effort to separate out some of the causes and claims that led to mass protest in city after city — relief of impoverishment, anger at the impersonal economic relations of the time, and the claims of ethnic and national groups for self-determination. Fundamentally, Rapport suggests that mobilization and political demands flowed from two basic issues: the crushing poverty that segments of urban society experienced at mid-century, exacerbated by financial crisis and crop failures (Paris, Berlin), and the demand for political autonomy for national and ethnic groups (Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary). Finally, the book is distinguished by its effort to treat the full canvas of unrest and violence across much of the continent — not simply focusing on France, as one is sometimes inclined to do in thinking about 1848.

Tocqueville’s Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 is a particularly intimate view of the events in Paris in spring, 1848. Tocqueville was a Deputy of the National Assembly and an aristocrat, and in January 1848 he gave a prescient speech in the Chamber of Deputies:

I believe that right now we are sleeping on a volcano … can you not sense, by a sort of instinctive intuition … that the earth is trembling again in Europe? Can you not feel … the wind of revolution in the air? (quoted in Rapport, 42)

In Recollections he chronicles his own experiences only a few months later, walking the streets of Paris during the street fighting in February 1848. He writes of his experience of February 23, 1848:

I took my leave early and went straight to bed. Though my house was quite near the Foreign Office, I did not hear the firing which so greatly changed our fate, and I went to sleep unaware that I had seen the last day of the July Monarchy. (Recollections, 35)

As I left my bedroom the next day, the 24th February, I met the cook who had been out; the good woman was quite beside herself and poured out a sorrowful rigmarole from which I could understand nothing but that the government was having the poor people massacred. I went down at once, and as soon as I had set foot in the street I could for the first time scent revolution in the air: the middle of the street was empty; the shops were not open; there were no carriages, or people walking; one heard none of the usual street vendors’ cries; little frightened groups of neighbours talked by the doors in lowered voices; anxiety or anger disfigured every face. I met one of the National Guard hurrying along, rifle in hand, with an air of tragedy. I spoke to him but could learn nothing save that the government was massacring the people (to which he added that the National Guard would know how to put that right). (36)

Rapport describes the massacre to which Tocqueville’s cook and the National Guardsman apparently refer, as being the instigating event that led to successful insurrection in February. It took place on rue des Capucines:

When the marchers came to a halt, they pressed against the soldiers, and the officer, apparently hoping to nudge them back a little, ordered his men to ‘Present bayonets!’ As the troops performed the manoeuvre, a mysterious shot burst into the night air. In a knee-jerk response the nervous soldiers let off a volley, the bullets killing or wounding fifty people. (52)

Tocqueville continues with his stroll on the morning of February 24:

The boulevard along which we passed presented a strange sight. There was hardly anyone to be seen, although it was nearly nine o’clock in the morning; no sound of a human voice could be heard; but all the little sentry boxes the whole way along that great street seemed on the move, oscillating on their bases and occasionally falling with a crash, while the great trees along the edge came tumbling into the road as if of their own accord. These acts of destruction were the work of isolated individuals who set about it silently, methodically and fast, preparing materials for the barricades that others were to build. It looked exactly like some industrial undertaking, which is just what it was for most of those taking part. (38)

(I’ve always thought it would be very interesting to take a group of students on a walking tour of the sites that Tocqueville mentions in Recollections — though many of the locations must have disappeared in the work of Haussmann in reconfiguring the urban geography of Paris. Timothy Clark has some very interesting analysis of Haussmann’s designs in The Painting of Modern Life.)

Marx’s writings of the events of February and June in France are more analytical and more political at a nuts-and-bolts level. Marx’s face-to-face experience of the events was more fleeting than Tocqueville’s — Rapport recounts Marx’s rather unsuccessful efforts as a political speaker, attempting to raise class consciousness (231). (Blanqui and Proudhon both seem to have been more successful in this vein.) But Marx followed the events carefully through available journalism, and he made every effort to interpret the comings and goings in a way that made sense to him from the framework of historical materialism and politics as class conflict. Here is how Marx described the outcome of the bloody June repression of the revolution in Paris:

The Paris workers have been overwhelmed by superior forces; they have not succumbed to them. They have been beaten, but it is their enemies who have been vanquished. The momentary triumph of brutal violence has been purchased with the destruction of all the deceptions and illusions of the February revolution, with the dissolution of the whole of the old republican party, and with the fracturing of the French nation into two nations, the nation of possessors and the nation of the workers. The tricolour republic now bears only one colour, the colour of the defeated, the colour of blood. It has become the red republic. (N.Hr.Z., 29 June 1848)

There remained only one way out: to set one section of the proletariat against the other. For this purpose the Provisional Government formed twenty-four battalions of Mobile Guards, each composed of a thousand young men between fifteen and twenty. For the most part they belonged to the lumpenproletariat, which in all towns, forms a mass quite distinct from the industrial proletariat. It is a recruiting ground for thieves and criminals of all sorts, living off the garbage of society, people without a definite trace, vagabonds, gens sans feu et sans aveu, varying according to the cultural level of their particular nation, never able to repudiate their lazzaroni character…. Thus the Paris proletariat was confronted by an army of 24,000 youthful, strong, foolhardy men, drawn from its own midst. The workers cheered the Mobile Guard as it marched through Paris! (Eighteenth Brumaire, 52-53)

For me, one of the most interesting questions about 1848 is also the most basic: were these disturbances “revolutionary,” or were they something different and perhaps less historically significant over the long sweep of the century? Were perhaps the “February days” better described as simply a short period of civil unrest and plebeian rioting; and were the “June days” simply a show-down with a state and military increasingly willing to use force to exert its will? And might we think that it is best to look at Berlin, Milan, Vienna, and Paris in 1848 as largely separate social upheavals brought together in a relatively short period of time, but lacking the internal connections that would constitute a large revolution? In other words, was 1848 really a “year of revolution”, as Rapport says in his subtitle, or was it less dramatically, a year of unrest, rioting, and eventual political change?

One reason for posing the question in these terms is the fact that the concept of “revolution” is a very imposing one. When we think of “revolutions,” we think of the great examples — France 1789, Russia 1917, China 1949. We think of organized revolutionary parties; mass movements; political contest over control of the state; a program of fundamental social and economic change; and eventual seizure of state power. Against this sweeping set of unifying ideas, one might say that 1848 never reached this threshold of significance and unity.

But perhaps this way of putting the question gets it backwards. Perhaps it is the “great” revolutions that need a second look — as Rapport suggests somewhere in a single sentence. Perhaps it is the Russian Revolution that has been over-dramatized, and the widespread social and political upheavals of 1848 are more genuinely revolutionary than the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in one corner of Europe. The upheavals across Europe in 1848 are continental in scope; they involve a confluence of related claims (for autonomy for national groups, for poverty relief, for a democratic voice in government); and they did in fact result in “regime change” in Italy, France, Austria, and Germany. And, as Rapport, Tocqueville, and Marx seem to agree — by June 1848 in France, at least, there was a polarization around class lines and the primacy of the social question.

So it’s a simple question, really: were there any “revolutions of 1848”?


One response

  1. Bruce Wilder comments …”might we think that it is best to look at Berlin, Milan, Vienna, and Paris in 1848 as largely separate social upheavals”Why the synchronizing of political upheaval?If the events of 1848 had disparate results and varying magnitude, we are, nevertheless, drawn into treating even the minor events associated with that year as having enhanced significance, as part of a larger whole.What justifies seeing the events in disparate cities and countries as related, as unified, social and political phenomena?The waves of political “revolution” and reform in Europe in the 19th century seem oddly synchronized: 1830-32, 1846-1850, 1867-1871. To which, we might add 1917-1920.Some of this might be overreaching, as when historians try to bring in events in Brazil or Sri Lanka, and some, certainly, due to common economic causes — potato blight and the lessons taught by the response from the state. How much is an artifact of storytelling hubris, and how much to common social and political processes (e.g. the effect of the industrial revolution on the rise of new social classes and the decay of feudal institutions)?

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