How feasible were the goals of the 1848 revolutionaries?

This essay achieved a high 2:2 (58%) in the first year of my undergraduate.

How feasible were the goals of the 1848 revolutionaries?

To decide whether or not the goals of the 1848 revolutionaries were feasible or not, it must first be defined. A common definition for feasible is “easily or conveniently achievable,”[1] and by this definition the revolutionary aims of 1848 were anything but feasible due mainly to the strength of the opposing conservative forces. There is however disagreement about what the overall aims of the 1848 revolutionaries were: in part a result of the historiography of the period; however the sheer number of different contemporary revolutions also means that it is highly unlikely that they all had the same goals. The historiography of the period is such that some historians (including most up until 1980) follow the Marxist[2] idea that the revolutions of 1848 were “wars of progress.”[3] In opposition to this view however are those challenging Marx, the main idea of which is the ‘unimportance of the workers’[4].

The debate about what the goals of the revolutionaries were can be broadly divided into ideological goals (such as those regarding social and political reform) and practical goals, which were more concerned with the need for food (following widespread failed harvests in 1846/7), or with petty revenge. Normally the more complex ideological goals were far less feasible than the simpler, shorter term practical goals. Very generally, the people in rural environments were less ideological in their aims in 1848, as is shown particularly in the German Confederation, with the unrest in the town of Wiesbaden and the state of Württemberg, where “peasants stormed the residence of the lord and destroyed it, along with records of dues and services owed.”[5] As well as this, there are several instances elsewhere of similarly insignificant goals (in terms of the entire country), as unrest in certain areas of central Europe and Italy originated with “dwindling access to forested lands in which communities had found fuel, pasture and other goods.”[6] This clearly shows that the ‘peasants’ were far more concerned with what they could gain in the short term (or at least, easily) than with grand ideas of political and social reform.

To think of these disturbances as having aims however might be incorrect; it is probable that a lot of what happened was purely spontaneous – set off by the urban uprisings (“once peasants were confident that they could act without risk.”[7]), with very little in the way of planned objectives. Whenever the aims were decided, they were certainly feasible (or more than the ideological goals at least), due to the overwhelming mass of support for the cause in (very regionalist) rural areas (for example, the mob in Wiesbaden was said to have numbered some 30,000[8]) and the fact that it was very difficult to control uprisings outside of the political centres, mainly because of the fact that it was a comparatively (to cities) large area, which “many regimes still had only a tenuous hold on…”[9]

In opposition to this however, is the more stereotypical imagery of the 1848 revolutions: of the revolts in the urban centres (and most importantly those in the capital cities). These urban centres included the likes of Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Venice and Milan, as well as arguably the starting point of the others: Paris.[10] The aims of these urban revolutions were, by and large far more ideological, focusing more on political and social reform than their rural counterparts. It is for this reason that the urban revolutionaries had an extremely difficult (and therefore unfeasible) task; the attitudes towards change, reform and especially revolution had only become more negative between 1789 and 1848. The evidence for these attitudes is shown clearly by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which effectively created the Austro-Hungarian Empire as the main power block in continental Europe by promoting its power throughout northern Italy and the German Confederation. The main aim of creating this power block was to prevent any revolutionaries (most importantly France) from enjoying any success. The creation of this power block shows exactly how impossible the task of ideological (generally urban) revolutionaries was; it was created specifically to prevent exactly what they were trying to achieve.

Urban revolts were far easier to put down (obviously making it more difficult for them to be successful), not only because of the small area which had to be subdued by the armed forces (who generally remained loyal) but because there was unlikely to be an instance where the entirety of the population rose up, due to fear of another ‘Terror’ among the wealthier classes.[11] This fear was certainly also present among the ruling class throughout Europe, due to the general attitudes to change following the events of 1789. The nervousness exhibited by the various major monarchies between 1789 and 1848 produced a certain sense of insecurity, mainly because of the talk of revolution[12] which persisted through the period (most notably in 1820 and 1830). This insecurity and fear is best epitomised by the speed with which Louis-Philippe abdicated; street demonstrations in Paris began on the 22nd February and he abdicated on the 24th February.[13] This example however perhaps gives an inaccurate indication of the strength of the revolutionary movements (particularly in Paris): initially there was very strong support which belies the speed with which it melted away in the face of any hint of adversity (the European revolutions were by and large over by the end of 1848) – this fragility shows clearly the lack of conviction (or the sheer power of the conservative forces) behind the revolutionaries. With such a lack of conviction, the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be considered at all feasible.

The reactionary attitude of the European monarchs meant that there were very few parliaments throughout the continent (and even fewer which had any real power), and this meant that in terms of the average man, there was very little interest in socialism (this also applies to liberalism and nationalism, but not necessarily due to the lack of parliaments).  The sheer indifference present was a massive obstacle to the revolutionaries, as it meant that they had to first politicise the masses; a difficult task in the face of such oppressive reactionary states. Initially then, the aims of the revolutionaries seemed unfeasible to say the least. An obvious example of an ineffectual parliament is the Frankfurt Parliament in the German Confederation, which spent too long deliberating over who deserved the new German crown, only to realise they had no real authority (mainly due to the lack of military power) without socialist support (perhaps something to do with the minority which elected them[14]). Socialism[15] receded very quickly with the restoration of the Conservative powers, which meant that initial surges in support for Socialist movements dwindled very quickly later into 1848 (a possible reason for why they failed so quickly). The fact that the socialist movements of Europe were so short-lived could not really have been predicted, although their ultimate failure was easier to foresee (due the strength and age of the established order), thus making their aims for a more egalitarian type of government naive (and therefore not very feasible).

Similarly to Socialism, the Liberalist movements were also only at prominence for a very brief period in 1848, for many of the same reasons. In the time preceding the 1848 revolutions, Europe was almost exclusively ruled by absolute (and therefore very conservative) monarchies with the associated views on liberalism. The rise of the revolutions did cause liberal officials to rise to office (as well as conservative ones to fall, or be exiled – most notably Metternich in Austria), although this was merely a fearful attempt to placate the masses rather than any genuine liberal feeling on the part of monarchs. Despite the similarities, the two movements did not support each other, or even necessarily have the same goals[16]. These differences meant that each movement was incredibly open to interpretation by almost every level of society, and these divisions in turn made the task of each revolutionary group far more difficult as they were struggling with each other, as well as the overwhelming superiority of the conservative powers.

In terms of historiography, the revolutions of 1848 were indeed (as argued by Marx and Engels) “wars of progress.”[17] Although in the short term they failed, there were some key progressive advances in the move towards more constitutional forms of government, notably the survival of the Piedmontese constitution (which arguably led to the unification of Italy). The fact that many of the aims of the revolutionaries were achieved in the long term (if not because of them) perhaps shows that their goals were not very feasible by virtue of their being so short sighted; if they had not tried to implement such sudden changes to such an established order, the revolutionaries may have enjoyed more success (though they would then no longer be termed ‘revolutionaries’ rather, reformists).

In short, while the achievements of what can be termed the ‘rural revolutionaries’ were more easily gained than their urban counterparts, it would be wrong to say that the goals of these revolutionaries were feasible. It does not appear as if there were any established goals at the beginning of the ‘campaign;’ it was focused purely on the mindless destruction or defiance of anyone in authority.[18] By contrast the urban revolutionaries had clear, established goals which can be considered the legacy of the French Revolution of 1789. This meant that, although the targets were clearer, they were exactly what the conservative forces expected and feared (and so were prepared for – with the Congress of Vienna), in turn making these objectives much more difficult to achieve (and less feasible to begin with). Since the 1848 revolutions are best characterised by the urban unrest, and the aims of the urban revolutionaries were so impossible in such a short period of time, it has to be said that they were not at all feasible.

Word Count: 1,981

 

[1] Google Dictionary, http://www.google.co.uk/search?hl=en&sa=N&q=feasible&tbs=dfn:1&tbo=u&ei=Xie4TqGdCsmy8QPq38mLBQ&ved=0CB4QkQ4&biw=1366&bih=651 accessed 5/11/11

[2] Supported by F. Engels (1820-1895) in Germany, and more recently by R. Sewell: http://www.marxist.com/1848-revolutions.htm, accessed 6/11/11. For further reference and context, as well as different views see M. Malia (ed. T. Emmons) History’s Locomotives: Revolutions and the Making of the Modern World, pp218-9,

[3] C.A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914, p.156

[4] For these views, see: G. Rudé (ed. H.J. Kaye), The Face of the Crowd: studies in revolution, ideology and popular protest, T.S. Hamerow, Restoration, revolution, reaction: economics and politics in Germany 1815-1871 and R. Price, The Revolutions of 1848.

[5] J. Breuilly, The Revolutions of 1848, from D. Parker (ed), Revolutions and The Revolutionary Tradition in the West, 1560-1991, p.110

[6] C.A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914, p.156

[7] J. Breuilly, The Revolutions of 1848, from D. Parker (ed.), Revolutions and The Revolutionary Tradition in the West, 1560-1991, p.114

[8] J. Breuilly, The Revolutions of 1848, from D. Parker (ed.), Revolutions and The Revolutionary Tradition in the West, 1560-1991, p.110

[9] C.A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914, p.156

[10]Some historians such as J. Sperber state Palermo in Sicily as the starting point of the 1848 revolutions (see The European Revolutions 1848-51, pp.111-17). Paris is suggested by J. Breuilly, The Revolutions of 1848, from D. Parker (ed.), Revolutions and the Revolutionary Tradition in the West, 1560-1991, p.110.

[11] C.A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World 1789-1914, p.156

[12] See M. Malia (ed. T. Emmons), History’s Locomotives: Revolutions and the Making of the Modern World, p.216

[13] J. Sperber, The European Revolutions 1848-1851, pp.111-17

[14] T.S. Hamerow, “The Elections of the Frankfurt Parliament,” The Journal of Modern History, 33 (1961), pp.15-32.

[15] For an opposition to the Socialist view, see Alexis de Tocqueville, http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1270&Itemid=262 accessed 7/11/11

[16]Again, see Alexis de Tocqueville, http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1270&Itemid=262 accessed 7/11/11

[17] C.A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914, p.156

[18] J. Breuilly, The Revolutions of 1848, from D. Parker (ed.), Revolutions and The Revolutionary Tradition in the West, 1560-1991, pp.110-115

Bibliography

Primary Sources

de Tocqueville, A, http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1270&Itemid=262 accessed 7/11/11

Marx, K., The Class Struggles in France, (originally published 1895 by Engels).

Secondary Sources

Bayly, C.A., The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914, (Oxford, 2004).

Breuilly, J., ‘The Revolutions of 1848’, in D. Parker (ed.), Revolutions and the Revolutionary Tradition in the West 1560-1991, (London & New York, 2000).

Hamerow, T.S., Restoration, revolution, reaction: economics and politics in Germany 1815-1871, (Princeton, 1958)

Hamerow, T.S., ‘The Elections of the Frankfurt Parliament’, The Journal of Modern History, 33 (1961), pp.15-32.

Hobsbawm, E.J., The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848, (London, 1962).

Malia, M. (ed. Emmons, T.), History’s Locomotives: Revolutions and the Making of the Modern World (United States of America, Yale University Press, 2006).

Price, R. People and Politics in France, 1848-1870, (Cambridge, 2004).

Price, R., The Revolutions of 1848, (Basingstoke, 1988)

Rudé, G. (ed. H.J. Kaye), The Face of the Crowd: studies in revolution, ideology and popular protest, selected essays of George Rudé, (New York, 1988)

Sewell, R., http://www.marxist.com/1848-revolutions.htm, accessed 6/11/11

Sperber, J. The European Revolutions 1848-1851, (Cambridge, 1994).

 

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