Vol. 41 No. 5 · 7 March 2019

Why should we think about the Revolutions of 1848 now?

Christopher Clark

5521 words

In their combination​ of intensity and geographical extent, the 1848 Revolutions were unique – at least in European history. Neither the French Revolution of 1789, nor the July Revolution of 1830, nor the Paris Commune of 1870, nor the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 sparked a comparable transcontinental cascade. While 1989 looks like a better comparator, there is still controversy as to whether these uprisings can be characterised as ‘revolutions’, and in any case their direct impact was limited to the Warsaw Pact states. In 1848, by contrast, parallel political tumults broke out across the entire continent, from Switzerland and Portugal to Wallachia and Moldavia, from Norway, Denmark and Sweden to Palermo and the Ionian Islands. This was the only truly European revolution that there has ever been.

Carl Steffeck’s painting of the execution of Robert Blum.

Carl Steffeck’s painting of the execution of Robert Blum.

It was also in some respects a global upheaval, or at least a European upheaval with a global dimension. 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.

The revolutions involved a panorama of charismatic actors, from Giuseppe Garibaldi to the Romanian radical Ana Ipătescu, from the French socialist Louis Blanc to the leader of the Hungarian national movement, Lájos Kossuth; from the brilliant conservative liberal social theorist, historian and politician Alexis-Charles-Henri-Clérel de Tocqueville, to the troubled priest Félicité de Lamennais, whose ultimately unsuccessful struggle to reconcile his faith with his politics made him one of the most famous thinkers in the pre-1848 world; from George Sand, who refused to stand for election to the French National Assembly on the grounds that as long as women remained ‘under the tutelage and the dependency of a man’ they could not be free political agents, to the Roman popular tribune Angelo Brunetti, known affectionately as Ciceruacchio, or ‘chickpea’, a true man of the people, who did much to shape the unfolding of the Roman revolution of 1848-49. For politically sentient Europeans, 1848 was an all-encompassing moment of shared experience. It turned everyone into contemporaries, branding them with memories that would last as long as life itself.

These revolutions were experienced as European upheavals – the evidence for this is superabundant – but, as Axel Körner pointed out, they were nationalised in retrospect. The historians and memory managers of the European nations absorbed them into specific national teleologies and path dependencies. The supposed failure of the German revolutions was sucked into the national narrative known as the Sonderweg, where it helped power a thesis about Germany’s aberrant road to modernity, a road that culminated in the disaster of the Hitler dictatorship. Something similar happened in Italy where the supposed failure of revolution in 1848 was seen as pre-programming an authoritarian drift into the new Italian kingdom and thereby paving the road to the March on Rome in 1922 and the fascist seizure of power that followed. In France, the failure of the 1848 Revolution was seen as ushering in the Bonapartist interlude of the Second Empire, which in turn anticipated the future triumph of Gaullism. In other words, focusing on the supposed failures of 1848 also had the consequence of allowing them to be absorbed into a plurality of parallel, nation-state-focused narratives. Nothing demonstrates better the immense power of the nation-state as a way of framing the historical record than these connected upheavals and their place in modern memory – we still feel that power today.

There were three phases to the events of 1848. In February and March, upheaval spread like a bushfire across the continent, leaping from city to city and starting numerous spot fires in towns and villages in between. Metternich, the Austrian chancellor, fled from Vienna, the Prussian army was withdrawn from Berlin, the kings of Piedmont-Sardinia, Denmark and Naples issued constitutions – it all seemed so easy. This was the Tahrir Square moment when one could be forgiven for thinking that the movement encompassed the entirety of society. The euphoria of unanimity was intoxicating. In Milan, complete strangers embraced each other in the street. These were the ‘spring days’ of 1848.

Yet the divisions within the upheaval (already latent in the first hours of conflict) soon became glaringly apparent: in May, radical demonstrators were attempting to storm and overthrow the National Assembly created by the February Revolution in Paris, while in Vienna Austrian democrats protested against the slow pace of liberal reform and established a Committee of Public Safety. In June there were violent clashes between liberal (or in France republican) leaders and radical crowds on the streets of the larger cities in Prussia and France. In Paris, this culminated in the brutality and bloodshed of the June Days, which killed at least three thousand insurgents. This was the long hot summer of 1848, gleefully diagnosed by Marx as the moment when the revolution lost its innocence and the sweet (but deceptive) unanimity of spring made way for the bitter struggle between classes.

The autumn offered a more complex picture. 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. But at the same time 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. By the end of the summer, the revolutions were largely over.

These bitter and often very violent days of reckoning mean, among other things, that the narrative of the revolutions lacks a moment of redemptive closure. And it was precisely the stigma of failure that put me off when I first encountered them at school. Complexity and failure are an unattractive combination.

Why, then, should we make the effort today of reflecting on 1848? There are many reasons, it seems to me. First: the 1848 Revolutions were not a failure at all – in many countries they produced swift and lasting constitutional change. It is more interesting to think of this continental uprising as a particle collision chamber at the centre of the European 19th century. People, groups and ideas flew into it, crashed together, fused or fragmented, and showers of new entities emerged whose trails can be traced through the decades that followed. Political movements and ideas, from socialism and democratic radicalism to liberalism, nationalism, corporatism, syndicalism and conservatism, were tested in this chamber; all were transformed, with profound consequences for the modern history of Europe. The revolutions also produced a transformation in political and administrative practice across the continent, a European ‘revolution in government’.

Second: the questions the insurgents of 1848 asked have not lost their power. There are exceptions, obviously: we no longer wrack our brains over the temporal power of the papacy or the Schleswig-Holstein question. But we do still worry about what happens when demands for political or economic liberty conflict with demands for social rights. Freedom of the press was all very well, as the radicals of 1848 never tired of pointing out, but what was the point of a newspaper if you were too hungry to read it? The problem was captured by German radicals in the playful juxtaposition of the ‘freedom to read’ (Pressefreiheit) with the ‘freedom to feed’ (Fressefreiheit).

The spectre of pauperisation had loomed over the 1840s. How was it possible that even people in full-time work could scarcely manage to feed themselves? Entire sectors of manufacture – weavers were the most prominent example – appeared to be ensnared by this predicament. But what did this tide of immiseration mean? Was the gaping inequality between rich and poor a divinely ordained feature of man’s estate, as conservatives claimed; a symptom of backwardness and over-regulation, as liberals argued; or was it something generated by the political and economic system in its current incarnation, as the radicals insisted? Conservatives looked to charitable amelioration and liberals to economic deregulation and industrial growth, but radicals were less sanguine: to them, it seemed that the entire economic order was founded on the exploitation of the weaker by the stronger. These questions have not faded away. The problem of the ‘working poor’ is today one of the hot-button issues in social policy, and not just in Britain. And the relationship between capitalism and social inequality remains under scrutiny.

Particularly difficult was the question of labour. What if work itself became a scarce commodity? The downturn in the business cycle in the winter and spring of 1847-48 had pushed thousands of men and women out of work. Did citizens have the right to demand that labour be apportioned to them, as something essential to a dignified existence? It was the effort to answer this question that produced the controversial Ateliers Nationaux, or National Workshops, in Paris. But it was never going to be easy to persuade hard-working farmers in the Limousin to pay extra taxes in order to fund work-creation schemes for men they regarded as Parisian layabouts. On the other hand, it was the sudden closure of the workshops that poured a hundred thousand unemployed men back onto the streets of the capital and triggered the violence of the June Days.

The Düsseldorf artist Johann Peter Hasenclever captured such a moment in Workers before the City Council. Painted in 1849 and widely exhibited in a number of versions, it shows a delegation of labourers whose work-creation scheme – excavation work on the various arms of the Rhine – had just been shut down in the autumn of 1848 for lack of funds. They are presenting a petition of protest to the city fathers of Düsseldorf in an opulent council chamber. Through a large window, an orator can be seen in the square outside addressing a raging crowd. Marx loved this painting for its stark depiction of what he saw as class conflict. In a rave review for the New York Tribune, he praised Hasenclever for conveying in one image a state of affairs that a progressive writer could only hope to analyse over many pages of print. Questions about social rights, poverty and the right to work tore the revolutions apart during the summer of 1848.

A third point: as a non-linear, convulsive, intermittently violent and transformative ‘unfinished revolution’, 1848 remains an interesting study. In 2010-11, many journalists and historians noticed the uncanny resemblance between the untidy sequence of upheavals that are sometimes called the Arab Spring and the Revolutions of 1848, sometimes known as the ‘springtime of the peoples’. Like the upheavals in the Arab states, they were diverse, geographically dispersed and yet connected. The single most striking feature of the 1848 Revolutions was their simultaneity – this was a puzzle to contemporaries and has remained one to historians ever since. It is also one of the most enigmatic features of the recent Arab events, which had deep local roots, but were clearly interlinked. It would be tedious to push this parallel too far: in a lot of ways, Cairo’s Tahrir Square was not like the Piazza San Marco in Venice; the Vossische Zeitung was not Facebook. The important point is a more general one: in their swarming multitudinousness, in the unpredictable interaction of so many forces, the upheavals of the mid-19th century resembled the chaotic upheavals of our own day, in which clearly defined end-points are hard to come by.

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.

Johann Peter Hasenclever’s ‘Workers before the City Council’ (1849)

Johann Peter Hasenclever’s ‘Workers before the City Council’ (1849)

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.

One interesting point emerges from the chaotic closing phase of the revolutions, which is that there was an international dimension to them, but it was not revolutionary, as the radicals and some liberals had claimed, or at least hoped. It was counter-revolutionary. 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. 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. To borrow the binary categories of Niall Ferguson, ‘towers’ prevailed over ‘squares’. Hierarchies beat networks. Power prevailed over ideas and arguments. The effort to make sense of this outcome gave rise to one of the most interesting and important intellectual consequences of the revolution: the quest for theories or forms of politics founded not on ideas but on the realities of force. You find this 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.

Of course, 1848 wasn’t just a story of revolutionaries, even if 20th and 21st-century historians of liberal instincts have naturally been drawn to the cause of those whose demands – for freedom of association, speech and the press, for constitutions, regular elections and parliaments – helped to form modern liberal democracy. While I share this affinity for newspaper-reading, coffee-drinking, process-oriented liberals, it seems to me that an account that views events only from an insurgent or liberal standpoint will miss an essential part of the drama and meaning of these revolutions. They were a complex encounter between old and new powers, in which the old ones did as much to shape the shorter and longer-term outcomes of the revolutions as the new. Even this correction falls short, because the ‘old powers’ that survived the revolution were themselves transformed by it. The future Prussian minister-president and German statesman Otto von Bismarck was a minor player in 1848, but the revolution enabled him to fuse his personal destiny with the future of his country. Throughout his life he continued to acknowledge 1848 as a rupture between one epoch and another, as a moment of transformation without which his own career would have been unthinkable. The papacy of Pius IX was profoundly altered by the revolutions, as was the Catholic Church and its relationship with the modern world. Today’s Catholic Church is in many respects the fruit of that moment. 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. He 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.

This was an upheaval in which the lines between revolution and counter-revolution were and sometimes are hard to draw. Many 1848ers died, or suffered exile and imprisonment, but many others made their peace with post-revolutionary administrations that had themselves been transformed or chastened by the revolutionary shock. Thus began a long march through the institutions. 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. Counter-revolutionaries were as often as not – in their own eyes – the executors, rather than the gravediggers, of the revolution. Understanding that enables us to see more clearly how this revolution changed Europe and the world.

For many participants, in memory the revolutions took on a stark emotional chiaroscuro: the bright euphoria of the early days, and then the frustration, bitterness and melancholy that came when the ‘iron net’ of counter-revolution (as the Berliner Fanny Lewald put it) descended on the insurgent cities. Euphoria and disappointment were part of this story, but so was fear. Soldiers feared angry townsmen almost as much as the latter feared them. The sudden panic of crowds confronted by troops produced unpredictable surges that were seen in every insurgent city. ‘Fear,’ wrote Emile Thomas, the architect of the National Workshops in Paris and later a zealous Bonapartist, ‘has been the presiding emotion of our revolution.’

Liberal leaders feared they might be unable to control the social energies released by the revolution. People of humbler standing feared that a conspiracy was underway to stitch up the revolution, reverse its achievements and plunge them into poverty and helplessness. Urban middle-class residents winced when uncouth figures poured in through the city gates, now abandoned by their military guards. They feared for their property, and sometimes for their lives. In Palermo, there was a rough, diverse and potentially ungovernable social undercurrent to the uprising in the city. The early leaders of the Palermo revolution were stolid and predictable dignitaries who could be counted on to behave with moderation and good sense. But as Ferdinando Malvica, author of a major unpublished contemporary chronicle of the Palermitan revolution pointed out, the streets soon also filled with armed maestranze (members of craftsmen’s corporations) and, more disturbingly, with squads from the surrounding countryside: these, he wrote, were ‘ferocious men, almost devoid of human feeling, as bloodthirsty as they were boorish, ugly people [by whom] the beautiful civic capital of Sicily found itself surrounded, infernal tribes [razze infernali] peopled only by creatures in whom nothing was human but their sunburned countenances’. It may be that without the driving force and supposed menace exercised by such people, the risings of 1848 could never have succeeded; on the other hand, a pervasive fear of the lower orders paralysed the revolution in its later stages, making it easier to play different interests off against one another, to woo liberals into the arms of the authorities, and to isolate radicals as enemies of the social order.

Displays​ of emotion could be portrayed as articulations of revolutionary sensibility and some of them convey the distinctiveness of 1848 as a moment of middle-class revolt. Late in September 1848 Robert Blum, a former apprentice gardener and left-liberal deputy at the Frankfurt National Assembly, agreed to travel to Vienna bearing the fraternal greetings of the German parliament to the revolutionary assembly. His journey was badly timed, to put it mildly. He arrived just as the Austrian armies under Field Marshal Windisch-Graetz were closing in to crush the revolution in the city. In the desperate fighting that followed, Blum accepted the command of a company of troops. He survived the fighting, but was captured after the surrender of the insurgent forces and sentenced to death, despite his very reasonable plea that, as an emissary of the Frankfurt National Assembly on official business, he enjoyed parliamentary immunity. On his way to be shot by a company of Croat riflemen, a tear was seen rolling down his cheek. When one of the officers remarked, ‘Don’t be afraid, it will all be over in an instant,’ Blum brushed off the effort to comfort him and, drawing himself up to his full (but not very great) height, retorted: ‘This tear is not the tear of the parliamentary deputy of the German nation Robert Blum. This is the tear of the father and husband.’

Blum’s tear was not forgotten. It entered liberal and radical legend: the ‘Song of the Death of Robert Blum’ sung across the southern German states well into the 20th century includes a reference to this moment of private grief amid the public ritual of a political execution: ‘The tear for one’s wife and children,’ it solemnly intones, ‘does not dishonour a man.’

Die Thräne für Weib und Kinder
Entehret keinen Mann!
Lebet wohl! Jetzt gilt es zu sterben
Für die Freiheit mit Blute zu werben
Ihr Jäger wohlauf! schlagt an!

The tear for his wife and children
Do not dishonour a man!
Farewell, the time has come to die,
To pay in blood for liberty.
Riflemen, shoot straight if you can!

Christopher Clark sings the ‘Song of the Death of Robert Blum’

The tear lived on in memory because it identified Blum as a man of middle-class attachments and values, a private man who had entered public life. This was politics in a bourgeois key. (To this day, ‘as dead as Robert Blum’ is a proverbial expression in parts of southern Germany.)

Counter-revolutionaries had emotions too. At the end of an extraordinary speech to the United Diet in Berlin, in which Bismarck reluctantly declared that he now accepted the revolution as an irreversible historical fact and the new liberal ministry as ‘the government of the future’, he left the podium sobbing violently. These tears, unlike Blum’s, were emphatically public, both in their performative character and in their causation. It is surely pertinent to the unlovely career of Field Marshal Windisch-Graetz, faithful servant of the House of Habsburg and one of the gravediggers of the revolution in the Austrian lands, that his wife was killed by a stray bullet while observing a demonstration from a window of their residence during the Pentecost Uprising in Prague in June 1848. The cry ‘Berlin pigs!’ uttered by peasant army recruits from backwoods Brandenburg as they beat suspected barricade fighters in the capital with clubs and iron rods during the March days tells us something (though certainly not everything) about the feelings country youths brought to the task of urban counterinsurgency. Vengefulness and anger played a crucial role in the brutality of Austrian generals such as Julius Jacob von Haynau, who appeared to delight in the death sentences and executions he meted out to defeated Hungarian insurgents.

One of the striking things about these revolutions is the intensity of historical awareness among so many of the key actors. This was one key difference between 1848 and the French Revolution of 1789: contemporaries of the later revolutionary events read them against the template of the great original. And they did so in a world in which the concept of History had acquired tremendous semantic weight. For them, much more than for the men and women of 1789, history was happening in the present. Its movements could be detected in every twist and turn of the revolution’s development. For some, this made the events of 1848 a miserable parody of the original: the most eloquent exponent of this view was Marx. But for others the relationship was the other way round. It was not that the epic energy of 1789 had wasted away into caricature, but rather that the historical awareness made possible by the first revolution had accumulated, deepened and propagated itself more widely. ‘The French Revolution of 1848 produced a powerful echo in Chile,’ the contemporary Chilean writer, journalist, historian and politician Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna wrote in his memoirs, and added: ‘For us poor colonials living on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, its predecessor in 1789, so celebrated in history, had been but a flash of light in our darkness. Half a century later, its twin had every mark of brilliant radiance. We had seen it coming, we studied it, we understood it, we admired it.’

Across​ North and South America, South Asia and the Pacific rim, the ripples generated by the revolutions polarised or clarified political debate, reminding everyone of the malleability and fragility of all political structures. In the colonial Caribbean, the news of revolution in Paris triggered local insurrections that put an end to slavery even before the French government could issue edicts of emancipation. And once the slaves of Martinique and Guadeloupe had secured their freedom, it proved impossible to sustain the authority of the slave-owners on the nearby Dutch islands of the Lesser Antilles: St Martin, St Eustatius and Saba. Something broadly similar happened on Saint Croix, a Danish possession. In other words, the ‘impact’ of edicts from the centre has to be balanced with what Sujit Sivasundaram has called the ‘south-to-south signalling’ of societies on the colonial periphery.

The news of 1848 initially prompted scenes of euphoria in the great American cities. There was broad support in the Senate for a motion by Senator William Allen (Ohio) that the Senate formally congratulate the French people ‘upon their success in their recent efforts to consolidate liberty by imbodying [sic] its principles in a republican form of government’. But the news of the Caribbean slave emancipations complicated the issue. When debate on Allen’s resolution began the following day, Senator John P. Hale (New Hampshire) proposed an amendment that the French were also to be congratulated for ‘manifesting the sincerity of their purpose by instituting measures for the immediate emancipation of the slaves of all the colonies of the republic’. This amendment brought the pro-slavery senators into open opposition. Senator John Calhoun (South Carolina) spoke against it, conceding archly that the upheaval was ‘a wonderful event’ but arguing that the real test of a revolution was whether or not it would continue to ‘guard against violence and anarchy’ and that ‘the time [had] not yet arrived for congratulation.’ The motion to congratulate was kicked into the long grass.

The point is sometimes made that if we compare the worldwide impact of 1848 with the transformative power of the transatlantic revolutions of the axial era between the 1770s and the end of the Napoleonic Empire, then the achievements of the 1848 Revolutions must appear rather modest. But this contrast is only meaningful if we exclude the enormous political and social impact of warfare. Between 1792 and 1815 the continent was wracked by wars in which vast conscript armies were pitted against each other, with correspondingly enormous casualties. Across the wider world, many places, from India and the Caribbean to Egypt and Java, were flexed by conflict among the great powers.

The Revolutions of 1848 were not born in war. For all their cruelty, the wars sparked by the revolutions in Italy, southern Germany and Hungary were counter-revolutionary police actions that, for the most part, came to an end once ‘order’ had been restored. They tended to shut the revolution down, rather than to diffuse its ideology. A revolutionary power capable of projecting and embodying ideology by force of arms in the manner of 1790s or Napoleonic France never emerged.

In the absence of revolutionary armies, the good tidings of revolution in 1848 had to travel in civilian clothes. They arrived in the form of books, newspapers and charismatic personalities; they reverberated in cafés and political clubs, circulating in networks that were more dense, socially deeper and more sophisticated than their late 18th-century predecessors. They could do this because imperial structures, post-colonial social and cultural ties, migrant diasporas, or common institutions still connected Europe with countless locations in the wider world. The architecture of intercontinental communications was much more diverse and robust than it had been at the turn of the century – after all, the revolutions were the first overseas conflict to which several American newspapers sent correspondents. If the revolutions failed to work deep social transformations in most places outside Europe (the Caribbean was an exception) this was because in differentiated public spheres the spectacle of revolution tended to trigger responses that were nuanced, selective and ambivalent. The understanding of revolution that took root in such settings was not necessarily less deep or important: it was just more subtle.

The true legacy of 1848 on the European continent is to be seen in the breadth and depth of the administrative change triggered by the upheavals. In Europe, pragmatic, centrist coalitions emerged in the aftermath of the turmoil – the connubio (‘marriage’) in Piedmont, the Unión Liberal in Spain, the Regeneração in Portugal – whose rhetoric and outlook marked a clear departure from the ideologically polarised positions of left and right in the pre-revolutionary era. The rigid and unimaginative official censorship of the Restoration gave way to a more nimble, collaborative and systematic approach to the press; governments bribed friendly newspapers and siphoned news stories to selected newspaper editors. To a greater extent than ever before, the European governments of the post-revolutionary years legitimated themselves by reference to their capacity to stimulate and maintain economic growth. They refurbished Europe’s urban environments, from Paris, transformed by Haussmann, to Vienna, where the old city walls were demolished to create space for the immense Ringstrasse construction project, to Madrid where the urban planners Mesonero Romanos and Castro aimed to heighten the city’s socio-spatial homogeneity. They launched public works projects on a scale that exceeded anything attempted during the Restoration era. They embraced a technocratic romanticism focused on the improvement of infrastructure and the pursuit of a form of material progress that would make the polarised politics of the 1840s obsolete.

In other words, the Revolutions of 1848 may have ended in failure, marginalisation, exile, imprisonment, even death, for some of their protagonists, but their momentum communicated itself like a seismic wave to European administrations, changing structures and ideas, bringing new priorities into government or reorganising old ones, reframing political debates. The Vienna-based political theorist Lorenz von Stein captured the meaning of these changes when he observed that, as a consequence of the revolutions, Europe had passed from the Zeitalter der Verfassung, the age of constitution, to the Zeitalter der Verwaltung, the age of administration. And the enabling phenomenon at the core of this transformation was the ascendancy of the political centre over the polarised formations of left and right that had dominated the 1840s. Many radicals and conservatives moved inwards from the fringes to affiliate with centrist groups close to the state authority, bringing with them new ideas about what the state was for. Those who did not risked irrelevance and ridicule. The result was a new kind of politics – uma nova política – as the Portuguese Regenerators liked to put it. It was, one might say, the exact reverse of what is happening right now, when the centre is weakening and ideas and personalities that once seemed extreme or outlandish command an increasing share of public attention.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 41 No. 7 · 4 April 2019

Not all the conclusions reached about new forms of political legitimacy after the 1848 Revolutions were as benevolent as those Christopher Clark identifies (LRB, 7 March). King Louis Philippe of France, deposed in February that year after his soldiers fired into a crowd, watched from exile as the new government brutally put down radical uprisings in June and mused, ‘Republics are lucky: they can shoot people.’

June Farrow

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences