I’ve been reading an impressive work of historical synthesis about the Revolutions of 1848 (Christopher Clark’s Revolutionary Spring). It’s certainly not a “mass market” book (although even at 700+ pages, it’s pretty accessible); but it addresses one of the most problematic set of events in modern European history.
That winter and spring of that year saw a widespread series of uprisings across continental Europe, in dozens of locations from Poland to Sicily to Belgium. The ‘top-line’ description of these events is “the revolutions that failed,” since virtually all of them did (at least eventually, and at least on the surface). Governments were toppled, absolute monarchies granted constitutions, radicals and socialists tasted power—briefly—and then “the forces of reaction, entrenched social/political/military elites reasserted control, and scores of people were executed. In France, where the most extensive activity took place, the constitutional monarchy established in 1830 fell, to be replaced by a radical republic in 1848, then a more conservative republic, then by the re-establishment of the Empire under Napoleon’s nephew by 1852.
Yet, despite these reversals, the ideas of change, still strongly echoing across the Continent from the great French Revolution of 1789 (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity!), sometimes hung on or were reinstated over the course of the following decades.
We in the US tend to dismiss revolutions as somebody else’s opportunity/problem. We tend to think, as Sinclair Lewis wrote in his 1935 dystopian novel-turned play about a fascist take-over “It Can’t Happen Here.” Those revolutions that have occurred recently—the fall of Communism thirty+ years ago, the brief moment in Tien-a-min Square in Beijing in 1989, the short-lived “Arab Spring” of 2011—have been distant blips for most of us. Our own Insurrection of 2021 was appalling but highly localized and easily dismissed as a fringish fluke. But just because we’re out of revolutionary practice doesn’t tell us much about the present or future.
Most modern revolutions have come from the “left,” embodying demands for social justice and more distributed political power; testing whether the embedded power structure was too ossified to withstand the energy of the “people.” Some were implemented (more-or-less) through existing legal/constitutional structures, but most involved violence. Nor have they been distinctly “Western” affairs, despite the disproportionate amount of ink spilled on Europe and the Adams/Jefferson/Washington events of the 1770s-80s.
The events of 1848 offer us some useful reminders in our current situation:
1) You can never be sure what will happen next. The Revolutions of 1848 were, generally, surprises. There were agitations, protests, and intellectual ferment to be sure. But the uprisings and violence were each the result of local culture, personalities, and power structures. Most incumbent governments were caught off-guard. Contingencies were dispositive. In times of turmoil, politics (not to mention violence) have been highly dynamic; those who lit the match were often supplanted by others with different priorities or even completely different orientations. We can see in France in the 1790s, again in the 1840s, and in Russia in 1917 a bewildering array of claims to power, some of which lasted only a few weeks.
Is the current environment similar? There is certainly vast discontent in the country and a lot of ideas for change. We had an unsuccessful insurrection three years ago and there are more than a few echoes from Napoleon III to our own orange-haired would-be emperor. There are vague rumblings of a “civil war.” Just as Monty Python famously said: “No one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition,” so too revolutions, while plotted and feared, are rarely announced in advance. The only claims of inevitability (of success or failure) come from lazy historians in retrospect. In the US, the propensity to violence from the 1960s to 1980s has lain mostly in the “left;” but lately it is the “right” that seems most agitated and ready to force issues. History gives us enough examples of different revolutionary paths that most general story lines have been written, even if specifics will vary significantly.
2) Outbursts of “revolutionary” energy often dissipate quickly. Coalitions of convenience and discontent don’t easily translate into coherent government and stable public order. Many are just along for the ride or are quickly disillusioned and return to the sidelines. Sicily and several parts of the Austrian Empire colorfully illustrated this in 1848. It’s much easier to critique and disrupt and much more challenging to articulate policies and gain widespread support (as the House GOP has regularly demonstrated recently in their own small way).
3) “Progress” is an illusion. 1848 saw great claims, excitement, and celebrations. Then not. Constitutions granted were revoked, newly-minted parliaments were disbanded, freed people were enslaved, and cultural changes stuttered. Steps forward do not inherently build on themselves; but sometimes, they do. This is particularly true over time. Narratives of progress—whether for the US, Europe/the “West,” or the world—are fine as history; but, as stock brokers all tell you: “past results are no guarantee of future performance.” Moreover, what counts for “progress” depends not only on one’s political predilections, but on digesting the actual results of past events. Things often don’t turn out the way their sponsors hoped.
4) Historical assessments depend on when they are being made. This is closely-tied to the last point. One way historians distinguish themselves from journalists is that the latter write while it’s far too early to tell what will happen. But even at some distance, assessments change and not just because of differing historiography. Early 1848 revolutionary jubilations were pretty much reversed by the following year. The dispersal of political power to the “lower” classes moved incrementally over the following century. The Austrian Empire remained intact for another twenty years, until the shock of a loss to the Prussians forced modest changes. France, too remained as a monarchy/empire until 1870 when the Prussians (again) knocked them over and a republic finally took root. In other places, social services, and the spread of the franchise moved incrementally and locally for decades. There was little of what we would recognize as full-on democracy until after WWI. Historians along the way (and through today) have talked about the “success” or “failure” of the Revolutions of ’48; but if we stop focusing on the initial spasm and stretch our view to a century; much of what the “revolutionaries” sought actually resulted. It all depends on when you ask the question.
These are not, I hasten to reiterate, “lessons of history.” Restating and interpreting (& reinterpreting!) the events of the past is what historians do, but projecting those past events into current or future situations is a game for mugs and pundits. Precedents make for plausibility and merely help the historian be “not surprised” by current events. It’s a long way from plausibility to prediction, or at least it should be.