Why Some Revolutions Fail to Make History

In late 2022, historian and Foreign Policy columnist Adam Tooze captured the zeitgeist when he wrote that the world is in the midst of a “polycrisis”—a time when “the shocks are disparate, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts.”

History is littered with such periods. Some we remember because they preceded revolutionary change. Others are less well known because revolutionary change did not occur, even if those who lived through them experienced great upheaval; these periods, to paraphrase the British historian G.M. Trevelyan, are turning points at which history fails to turn.

1848—the year to which Trevelyan was referring—is one such failed turning point. Although that year saw political tumult across Europe, it does not receive as much attention as junctures such as 1789 or 1945. Yet as historian Christopher Clark’s magisterial Revolutionary Spring: Europe Aflame and the Fight for a New World, 1848-1849 makes clear, the long-term consequences of that year were profound.

His book serves as a reminder that if we want to understand why some periods of (poly)crisis lead to change, while others do not, it is every bit as important to closely examine the periods when history fails to turn.

Revolutionary Spring is a history lover’s history book—832 pages (including footnotes) full of details that illuminate the long-term trends that made revolution possible.

The first of these trends was economic development. In the decades preceding 1848, industrialization transformed Europe. Yet the benefits of economic growth were unevenly distributed, and those who benefited least from it lacked basic political rights. Artisans, craftsmen, and shopkeepers saw their status and incomes decline. The poor and workers suffered, as living conditions in new cities were abominable and working conditions despotic. Peasants, by far the largest group in European societies, came under immense strain: Commercial farming encouraged the enclosure and privatization of the common lands that they depended on; they did not have access to the new farming techniques and technology used by large farmers; and, especially in Eastern Europe, many nobles retained feudal privileges.

On its own, lower-class discontent is not enough to lead to revolution. As Clark writes, poverty is “more likely to render people ‘speechless’ and inactive than to drive them to concerted action.” If there were a direct link between suffering and revolution, the places where material conditions were the worst would have seen the greatest uprisings in 1848—but that did not happen.

Instead, Clark argues, revolution is more often the result of broad, cross-class discontent with the reigning order. And this began to emerge in the run-up to 1848. Although the European middle class was relatively small, economic development was increasing its size and wealth. Middle-class discontent stemmed less from economic concerns than political and social ones. At its top levels, businessmen and financiers were amassing fortunes that rivaled those of landed elites. Meanwhile, growing numbers of professionals, merchants, and white-collar workers were becoming more prosperous, educated, and informed. However, in much of Europe, members of these groups lacked the right to vote and were excluded from prestigious government and social positions.

Growing nationalism also fed widespread discontent. This was particularly disruptive in the empires of Central and Eastern Europe, where state boundaries did not coincide with ethnic, religious, and linguistic ones. Demands for autonomy, or even independence, in those places—most notably in present-day Hungary, but also in the lands that would become Czechoslovakia and among various Slavic peoples—threatened dramatic changes to the status quo.

By the 1840s, there was a sense across Europe that the “political horizon was dark,” as Clark describes the observations of one Belgian radical, and that “[n]either nations nor governments knew where they were going.” But even with the polycrisis created by long-term developments, revolution was still not inevitable. As Clark writes, revolutions emerge in two phases: gradually and then suddenly. In the case of 1848, two major triggers finally sparked revolution.

The first was economic crisis. Beginning in 1845, a series of bad harvests hit Europe. The failure of the potato crop across much of Europe was particularly devastating, and these crop failures were accompanied by an economic recession and financial panic. Together, these brought food shortages and even famine to some places, worst of all in Ireland.

The second trigger came in February 1848, when French workers as well as members of the middle class rose up in revolt against an increasingly autocratic king, Louis Philippe, and his prime minister, François Guizot. This led to the collapse of the reigning July Monarchy and the subsequent formation of the Second French Republic. As Klemens von Metternich, then-chancellor of the Austrian Empire, famously noted a decade earlier, “when France sneezes, Europe catches a cold.”

Despite the lack of social media, television, radio, or even widespread literacy, within weeks of the February revolution, massive uprisings broke out across Europe. Regimes that had seemed secure fell or were forced to make concessions that had hitherto been unimaginable. As Clark writes, “upheaval spread like a brush fire across the continent, leaping from city to city.” Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Munich, Milan, Venice, and other European cities all experienced what to contemporaries, at least, seemed to be the beginnings of revolution.

Contemporaries were overwhelmed and overjoyed. One German radical wrote, “I had to go out into the winter cold and walk and walk until I had worn myself out just to calm my blood and slow down the beating of my heart, which was in a state of unprecedented and baffled agitation and felt as if it were about to blow a hole in my chest.”

Yet within 18 months, monarchical dictatorships returned to all the areas of Europe that they had been driven out of in the spring of 1848.

As Revolutionary Spring makes clear, perhaps the most important reason for Europe’s failure to turn was the weakness of opposition movements. These movements were united by a desire to get rid of the old order but lacked any consensus on how to build a new one. Almost as soon as the old order collapsed, deep divisions within opposition movements came to the fore.

Members of the middle class generally wanted a liberal order, but not a fully democratic one, to replace the old one. They sought a political order they could participate in—and that did not grant the nobility special privileges—but they also rejected workers’ demands for universal suffrage and significant economic and social reforms. Peasants were less interested in political reform than in protecting their property or securing it via the abolition of feudal privileges and landholding in places where they still existed, including much of Eastern Europe.

Influenced by the memory of the 18th-century French Revolution, monarchs rapidly gave in to the more moderate demands in 1848—for example, by agreeing to establish constitutions and eliminate many feudal privileges—and thereby largely satisfied liberals and the peasantry. These changes did not, however, appease workers and radicals. These groups continued to riot and organize in an attempt to secure not only full democratization, but also significant economic and social reforms, such as minimum wages, price controls, and the right to work.

These demands, along with the emergence of the working class as a political actor, are the reason that scholars consider 1848 to be the birthdate of the modern socialist movement. It was in 1848, of course, that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto was published with its famous first line: “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.”

The demands of the working class and radicals frightened liberals and much of the middle class. By the summer of 1848, Clark writes, liberals had a deep fear of the “lower orders” and “subaltern violence,” and they “saw themselves locked in a zero-sum conflict with an enemy that represented the absolute negation of the social order.” This fear, he writes, “paralysed the revolution in its later stages” and drove liberals back into the arms of conservatives.

Nationalist disputes also weakened opposition movements. In the Austrian Empire, various ethnic and linguistic groups that had been united in opposition to the old order began fighting among themselves. Germans and Czechs clashed over their relationship to each other and the emerging movement for German unity. Soon after the emperor granted Hungary significant autonomy, conflict broke out between the country’s dominant Magyars and its other groups, since the Magyars were unwilling to provide them with greater autonomy. Poles also dismissed the demands of minorities. (As Clark cleverly puts it, “like many Nationalists, the Poles were primordialists when it came to their own nation and constructivists when it came to the claims of others to the same terrain.”) And attempts by Slavic groups to demand rights and autonomy were met with fury by Germans and Hungarians who viewed them as “a sinister conspiratorial operation to prepare the ground for a Russian pan-Slavist hegemony in Eastern Europe.”

Across Europe, political, socioeconomic, and national conflicts ripped apart opposition movements, enabling counterrevolutions that rolled back the revolutionary wave of 1848. By the early 1850s, monarchs and conservatives were back in power—and aspirations of national autonomy in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as hopes for Italian and German unification, were crushed.

Yet the Europe that emerged from the ashes of 1848 was not the same Europe that existed before. Some reforms instituted that year were not repealed—notably, the abolition of serfdom and other feudal privileges, including the right to collect dues, avoid certain taxes, and monopolize some political and military offices in Austria, Prussia, and other lands in central and southeastern Europe.

This marked the beginning of the end of the politics of tradition and a society of orders and eliminated major hindrances to capitalist development in parts of Europe. The end of the nobility’s privileges gradually enabled members of the emerging middle classes and wealthy businessmen to hold positions of power in government and the military. It also enabled the expansion of land ownership, as peasants gained access to private property and control over the goods that they produced for the first time.

The monarchs, dictators, and conservatives who returned to power after 1848 understood that if they wanted to avoid another conflagration, they would have to rule differently. Most of them accepted that a constitutional rather than absolutist monarchy was the wave of the future. King Friedrich Wilhelm IV made Prussia a constitutional state that year (though a much less liberal one than revolutionaries had proposed). Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph soon began a cautious reform program, and in 1860, he agreed to form a constitution and parliament. In France, monarchy disappeared forever—and though it was not democratic, Napoleon III’s regime rested at least in part on popular consent.

1848 was also the first time that some parts of Europe experienced popular mobilization, an open public sphere, parliaments, and elections, as well as freedom of the press, assembly, and association. Many of the political organizations, civil society associations, and publications that were established that year remained in the decades to come.

The problems and grievances that caused Europe to explode in 1848 would continue to propel European politics in the years that followed. These included the struggle between monarchy and democracy; the working class’s fight for political, social, and economic change; and the tensions that drove desires to reorganize existing states, such as the Austrian Empire, and form new ones, such as Italy and Germany.

Over time, the painful process of addressing these issues would indeed revolutionize Europe, leading to two world wars and political turmoil during the interwar years—but also eventually to the spread of democracy, the formation of welfare states, the collapse of empires, and the emergence of new nation-states. Although revolutions may seem to happen all at once, 1848 proved that their consequences may only gradually appear.

The post Why Some Revolutions Fail to Make History appeared first on Foreign Policy.

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