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16 May 2023

Europe’s false dawn

After the revolutions of 1848, liberals helped create a conservative international order that has shaped the world since.

By Samuel Moyn

Liberals today are being shamed, once again, by their connivance with the forces of hierarchy and money. They trumpeted their victory over the Soviet Union in 1989 but corrupted it through government of, by and for elites, an endless series of centrist political compromises, and the enthronement of neoliberal economics.

Those who “took the trouble to cast off the comfortable veil of selfish complacency” would see “a prosperity that is only apparent”, some European observers wrote in the 1840s, of a similar moment. Beneath the appearance of bourgeois order there lurked profound discontent – and revolutionary threat. In 1848, that threat awakened. Is our 1848 coming?

Then it was a Europe of empires, not nation states. All were governed by monarchs, who often had far more than nominal power, relying on aristocracies and notables ruling for their mutual benefit. And yet political liberalism, chastened by the experience of the French Revolution and Napoleonic rule, had also emerged as a self-conscious theory, calling for less arbitrary government, fewer perquisites for the powerful nobility, and even equating human progress with civil liberties, representative parliaments and written constitutions. Meanwhile, advancing industrialism and increasing urbanisation exacerbated class inequality, even as cultural mythologies of nationhood that fitted poorly with the imperial order were being forged.

In that year in France, liberals who once defined themselves against the Jacobins threw in their lot with radicals, toppling a “bourgeois monarchy”. That liberals attempted to extricate themselves from their errors in a bid for revolutionary freedom may seem remarkable and relevant for our own time – when many suspect liberal choices are neither accidental nor honest.

As Karl Marx showed in his 1852 essay “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”, the 1848 coalition did not last, as a new Napoleonic regime emerged within a few years of the farce to which the revolution gave rise. One lesson of Christopher Clark’s magnificent new narrative of 1848 is a reminder of just how quickly liberals switched sides in throwing in their lot one more time with counter-revolutionary order. But there is more. For 1848 was not merely a French event, nor even a European one. The broader consequences of the uprisings of 1848 beyond the classic revolutionary site of Paris reflected the intersection of liberalism with what seemed like a liberatory ally: nationalism. If liberatory politics returns in our time, it will have to grapple with a paradox. States are easier forums for breakthroughs, but Clark shows that the global order above those states helped clamp down on revolutionary change – and it is liberals themselves who control that global order today.

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Clark, the Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge, is known for his relativising treatment of the First World War, The Sleepwalkers (2012), which portrayed how European statesmen blundered into war, with no one – no nation – particularly at fault. His latest work brings his lavish prose and many-sided imagination to 19th-century revolution. This time, though, he is less concerned to distance himself fully from the ideological sides in the disputes he dramatically portrays. Clark knows that, unlike the clash of aristocrats and empires that led Europe to ruin in 1914, three-quarters of a century earlier it was liberals not dissimilar to those in charge today who were attempting a bold and fraught move.

Europeans were beginning to talk, Clark records, about the “social question” – which was “a way of seeing” and not merely “a constellation of real-world problems” involving “economic precarity”. He insists that political identities were fluid, and spontaneous uprisings could begin in part because camps such as “liberals” and “radicals” hadn’t yet formed. And those political tendencies cut across other social divisions, between men and women and the religious and the secular. Alluding to the silent world of subterranean radicals who cherished the memory of 1789, Clark listens carefully to how his actors across Europe talked as dissent coalesced and climaxed: “There has never,” he writes, “been a more garrulous revolution.”

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There was a failed uprising in Palermo in Sicily in January 1848, against a branch of the ruling Bourbon dynasty, but it convinced many that a “gale of revolution is in the air”, as the French liberal Alexis de Tocqueville said at the time. The cancellation of some Parisian political banquets exposed just how few enjoyed enfranchisement while a larger group was left out in the cold, making visible what Clark calls “the high wall separating the much smaller political nation from the much larger social nation”. François Guizot, the “doctrinaire” liberal philosopher and politician who ran Louis Philippe’s Orleanist phase of the French monarchy through the 1840s, believed he and his chums represented reason – and that reason, not the people, should have sovereignty. If they even wanted a vote, he counselled them to get rich to qualify. In the face of protest, the king dismissed him. A day later, the king abdicated and fled.

[See also: Why read life-writing?]

Attempts to think about the terms of a new state combining liberal and radical forces led to iconic scenes such as the poet Alphonse de Lamartine speaking in the new French parliament alongside Tocqueville (who also served), while Louis Blanc experimented with “national workshops” to address joblessness and penury. But what had begun in Palermo and Paris set the whole continent on fire. Years of government repression drove some liberals into rowdy alliance with left-wing forces in order to secure constitutions and protections of free press and speech. As the spring of 1848 dawned, uprisings broke out in many places.

The German lands and Hungary became focal points in a continental riot of upheaval. Clark – who is Australian – says only “condescension” towards other Europeans explains why Britons didn’t (and don’t) recognise how close they came to revolution in 1848. And he emphasises far more than prior historians how global in its ramifications the revolutionary surge was – especially in ending slavery for good in the French empire. But across Europe and eventually the world as a whole, the enduring legacy of 1848 was the intersection of liberal choices with nationalist ideology.

Some leading liberal figures had been nationalists long since, not least the Italian sage Giuseppe Mazzini, who in English exile preached uprisings of nations against empire (and counselled terrorism if push came to shove). For Mazzini, however, nations were a step towards the liberal unification of Europe and, someday, humanity. Nationalism of a cruder sort mattered everywhere, but most especially where nationalists offered a mythical vision of peoples trapped under the yoke of alien rule, disrupting multinational polities such as the Austrian and Russian empires.

It is no wonder that nationality loomed so large for liberals, and some radicals, in 1848, as imperial rule covered so much of Europe. Asserting even liberal freedom depended on banding together against transnational power, even when that choice entrenched and inflamed the identity of nations themselves. The liberal tactic had consequences for the decolonisation of the world – including empires that European liberals themselves continued to build through the 19th century.

In the face of rightist miscreants, liberals have since learned to treat appeals to national identity as a threat to the cosmopolitanism they like to think they hold dear – even though it is often a cipher for the universalism of money. But today, pushed relentlessly to join radicals as their ancestors once were, they are likely to offer their own form of nationalism in response. Indeed, they are already doing so. Liberals have called for “positive” accounts of national history against radical critics of enduring hierarchies. And liberals have offered their own spin on the programmes of rightist adversaries, in domains such as immigration and trade. But what alternative do they have?

It should frighten liberals that in 1848 they helped awake – and could again – the demons of nationalist exclusion, as an inadvertent consequence of appealing to the nation for more universalistic purposes. No less a figure than Adolf Hitler could appropriate the legacy of 1848, travelling to Frankfurt 90 years later, after the Anschluss with Austria, to claim that he was fulfilling a “yearning” of the German uprising. You may hitch liberal emancipation to the nation, only to unleash devastating forces beyond your control.

Clark’s pioneering account emphasises that, in the face of a disruptive and sometimes economically radical set of foes, the right saw supra- or transnational strategies as their salvation. And as the revolutionary elan became entropic, liberals often reverted to their counter-revolutionary politics.

The Austrian reactionary-in-chief, Klemens von Metternich, had relied on an internationalist approach before 1848 – sitting like a spider at a vast web of diplomacy and intelligence. Before he fled Vienna in March that year, he suppressed discontent both within and outside his multinational empire, in order to protect a conservative European order that he hoped to see evolve rather than revolt. Metternich pioneered a conservative internationalism that has probably dominated the modern world (even as historians have preferred to look at liberal and radical cosmopolitanism) to construct what Clark nicely calls “an all-embracing system of tranquillity”. And after 1848, conservatives, like liberals appalled by where their choices had led, turned to the doctors of order without borders.

Much repression took place within challenged states and empires, not least in the bloody “June days” of Paris, when more than a thousand workers were killed. Having escaped the need to do so on its home islands, in 1849 Britain engaged in “exemplary brutality” in Cephalonia, an Ionian island it then controlled, where 21 Greek nationalists were hanged publicly and hundreds flogged into submission.

Clark’s narrative of conservative retrenchment in 1848-49 and the restoration of liberal connivance with it is masterful, but he emphasises that it reached beyond the borders of empire. The French assisted the pope in putting down Italian rowdiness, while Russia helped to return Hungarians to their Austrian cage. “The transnational revolutionary networks never mustered a power capable of fending off the threat posed by the counter-revolutionary international,” Clark concludes. Nor was this international exertion of power wholly through violence; in later years it continued as bureaucratic control.

In her Cold War classic On Revolution, the philosopher Hannah Arendt offered a nostalgic portrait of the American founding of 1776, while denouncing what became of the revolutionary tradition that began in France in 1789. One had constituted liberty, in a neo-Roman spirit of reconstitution; the other, more orientated to clearing oppression and fulfilling wants, had led to blood-dimmed horror. Not much had changed since, Arendt thought. “Freedom has been better preserved in countries where no revolution ever broke out, no matter how outrageous the circumstances of the powers that be,” she commented.

It is interesting that Arendt never saw fit to mention 1848, except as one more date when the stench of the French Revolution wafted above ground. She did not discuss the anticolonial movements and creation of new postcolonial states that did more to define her times than any other events. Revolutions, Arendt sniffed, were unlikely to make the world a better place, especially when driven by simmering rage at class hierarchy and misery, and when their leaders extolled violence in response. The alliance of revolution and nation would never bring freedom, Arendt surmised.

She left out, as Clark refuses to do, the observation that when liberals side so often with the counter-revolutionary right they invite resistance from the left in response. And, in a class-riven world, where else is such rebellion to take place except within states? Indeed, Clark notes, bureaucrats ultimately worked beyond borders after 1848 to “absorb the waning energies of a revolution” through “a technocratic, transnational form of politics, capable of lifting the management of contentious resources out of the force fields of partisan and national strife”. They had not dreamed of the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organisation yet. But the bureaucrats had invented their early forms. Of course, no stability can postpone demands for freedom and justice forever.

[See also: The problem with Peter Frankopan’s theory of history]

Which returns us to liberal choices past and present. Because of how they lived through 1848, liberals betrayed their erstwhile radical allies to join the counter-revolutionary forces once again – which is more or less where they remain today. The big difference is that now – despite autocratic leaders in China, Russia and elsewhere – it is liberals who control much of the global order, with fewer reactionaries around and less need for liberals to connive with them. Having exported nationalism everywhere, liberals later set up the long-range possibility of establishing today’s international order of coercion and control.

It is true that since the 2008 financial crisis liberals have been growing visibly unhappy with the conservative alliances they continue to make and the orders of repression and surveillance they have willingly built. Some liberals, as in 1848, may evolve in the face of burning social questions. But they simultaneously left nations everywhere as the most plausible forum of emancipation, and a globalised prison house from which no one knows how to break free.

Samuel Moyn’s books include “The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History” (Harvard University Press)

Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World 1848-1849
Christopher Clark
Allen Lane, 896pp, £35

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This article appears in the 17 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List