Revolutionary Spring
Europe Aflame and the Fight for a New World, 1848-1849
by Christopher Clark

1848 was, if not the year of failed revolutions throughout Europe, the year of revolutions doomed to fail by the end of 1849. The events of that time usually make for frustrating reading — all that trouble, not to mention bloodshed, for nothing. We shake our heads in condescending pity, and, if we’re so inclined, we raise a fist in anger against the reactionary blocs that prevailed.

Christopher Clark not only asks us to think again; he makes it impossible to see “pointlessness” as the principal feature of all those uprisings, which  raged from Palermo to Berlin, from Paris to Bucharest. He also asks us to consider this question: What would a successful revolution look like? For in fact we have never seen a successful one in the West (as distinct from a technical one, in the form of a palace coup); it’s possible that real revolutions are never successful anywhere. An old régime may be overthrown, but the hopes of the overthrowers are always crushed by a powerful dictator who imposes peace and stability, no matter what the political cost. We are reminded that peace and stability are the good things that make most people put up with despotism. Nobody wants to live amidst revolutionary chaos — not for long. Excitement is ground into misery by confusion and disappointment.

(American note: there has never been an actual revolution in the United States, just has there has never been an actual civil war — yet. If you disagree, drop me a line, and we’ll chat about wars of secession.)

As everybody ought to know, the French Revolution came to an end with the takeover of French government by Napoleon Bonaparte. Experiments in replacing the authority of the Bourbons came to an pause (if not an end) with Napoleon’s successful assertion of his own power. Napoleon himself was in time defeated by reactionaries who wished to recreate the ancien régime. If it was too late for their wish to be granted, they could at least put a stop to the experiments, largely by making empty promises involving constitutions and parliaments. Thirty years after Napoleon’s fall, however, a tide of local uprisings prompted by destitution and squalor made it clear that the reactionaries did not know how to ward off the turbulence generated by the Industrial Revolution. Poor peasants scattered  throughout the countryside had given way to even poorer proletarians concentrated in sprawling cities. Rich bourgeois demanded more practical government and the genuine rule of law. Temporarily united by frustration, the radicals who represented the poor and the moderates or liberals who represented property rights managed to assert themselves against the claims of kings. For a few months, their success seemed inevitable.

Unfortunately, however, nobody really understood political life. The crisis of the French Revolution notwithstanding, one form of despotism after another had precluded the need for compromise that is not only the foundation of political life but the fertilizer required for political identity. Without political identity, you don’t know which side you’re on until you’ve committed yourself, forcing you to choose between deep dissatisfaction and treason. The complex of insurrections that we call “1848” began in January at Palermo and spread quickly to Paris and Vienna. By May, it was clearly “too late” for many of the leading actors. Too late, radicals and liberals discovered that their only shared inclination was the desire to run things according to their respective interests, each at odds with the other’s. This stalled political action and gave the reactionaries time to regroup. Nevertheless, as Clark shows, there emerged from “1848” a genuine political class with at least the beginnings of an education in political options, political aptitude, and the mechanics of enlisting popular support. It would appear from a survey of current events, however, that we are nowhere near completing the course.

If Christopher Clark were not so gifted a writer of history, blessed with an unfailing knack for making minor details not just interesting but surprising and illuminating, Revolutionary Spring might well be too monumental for anyone to read for pleasure. Clark has presents his thoughts in phases, and subordinates chronology to that, so that we can see more clearly the commonalities between all the manifestation of each phase in a given place before discussing the next. This makes for demanding but not arduous reading, and it undoubtedly affords the most articulate way of considering “1848” as a whole. (Louis Namier wrote a short book “about 1848” that confines its attentions pretty much to the Confederation parliament at Frankfurt.)

The Acknowledgments make plain what a thoughtful reader might well have suspected all along: Clark has made adroit use of graduate student research. I don’t suggest for a moment that he has stolen anyone else’s work; on the contrary, he has directed gifted fledgling historians to investigate overlooked corners of the European tapestry. Their research is fresh and surprising, even if each episode ends in the more or less the same sad way. The configuration of players in such outlying places as Croatia and Romania (which was not yet “Romania”) is rather different from the much more familiar outlines of movements in Paris. The early pages of Revolutionary Spring explore some events that foreshadowed “1848,” such as the unrest among the silk weavers of Lyon, a religiously-motivated civil war in Switzerland that I had never heard of, and the horrible consequences of miscalculations made by aristocratic Polish émigrés from Galicia.

The worst outcome of “1848” was virulent nationalism. It was not, properly speaking, a result of the revolutions. Almost all the uprisings, to be sure, were at least partially powered by a desire to achieve governmental recognition of local peculiarities, most especially linguistic ones. But what might have been interesting talking points during the Enlightenment assumed lethal potential in an age of unprecedented growth in communications, transportation, and heavy industry. As was discovered “too late,” it is one thing to support the causes of oppressed people who live far away and quite another to cope with them as next-door neighbors. As Clark writes,

Nationalism was the most dispersed, emotionally intense and contagious experience of all the revolutions. It flared up with extraordinary speed. It abolished or reversed the hierarchy between centre and periphery. Liminal locations like Schleswig-Holstein, the Vojvodina, Dalmatia and the province of Posen suddenly moved to the centre of attention. News from distant epicentres of conflict reverberated in great national assemblies. Nationalism stimulated new solidarities that allowed Bavarians and Neapolitans to emote on behalf of Holsteiners and Lombards. And almost everywhere, this kindling of solidarity within nations went hand in hand with an embitterment of the relations between them. (540)

If Revolutionary Spring has a fault, it is Clark’s decision not to discuss Great Britain at any length. He might have undertaken to explain why Britain was untouched by political disturbances in 1848 — even though authorities were hardly unmindful of the possibility — and in the process examined  the exceptionality of Britain’s vibrant political life, which was admired but not understood on the Continent. Brilliant men and women adopted what they took to be a “liberal” outlook without fully grasping (until it was “too late”) that English life, even at its most high-minded, is not conducted according to principles. Long before 1848, the British had come to terms with the moral risks of political compromise by developing rules that seemed to work for them. Statesmen on the Continent did not share the British sense of fair play, and preferred to turn their backs on unseemly bargaining. That’s my take on “liberalism” in 1848, anyway; I should have liked to have Clark’s.

And if the book weren’t already so exhaustive, I’d want more about the economic transformation of Europe between 1789 or 1815 and 1848. The French Revolution, it is not clearly enough understood, was won not by the shambolic governments that followed Bourbon rule, nor by Napoleon, but by the Congress of Vienna. As a cleanup operation, organizing the shards into which Europe, cracked along fault lines old and new, had been fractured, the Congress did a first-rate job. From a political standpoint, however, it was utterly unsatisfactory. It’s arguable that the Congress still prevailed in the upheavals of 1848-9 — and indeed, that has been the common history-textbook interpretation. Clark shows how wrong this argument is, but he does not explain how the pressure on  the settlement of 1814 ballooned as the achievements of the Industrial Revolution worked their way through Europe, and finally made the ancien régime unbearable. The more I think about it, however, the more I think that this prequel, this history of the Silly Quarter, as I call it (after the often comic blend of Romantic and nouveau riche excesses) deserves a book of its own, one that is framed very much in terms of the revolutions at either end. It is too much to hope that Clark will undertake such a project, but perhaps one of those graduate students of his…