“A dissonant orchestra of ambitions and intentions” | Christopher Clark on the revolutions of 1848
Christopher Clark talks to Matt Elton about the revolutions that swept Europe in the 19th century, revealing how their speed and synchronicity alarmed authorities across the continent
Before we explore the causes of the revolutions of 1848, could you sketch out where and when they took place?
In January 1848, revolution broke out in Palermo and Naples, two major cities of what was then called the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. This happened against a backdrop of demonstrations and protests that had been building across Europe. And then came the really big news: the revolution in Paris in the last week of February, which led to the flight of the king, Louis Philippe I, from the city and the collapse of the French monarchy.
- Read more | 1848: the year of revolutions
After that, the revolutions enter a kind of fusion phase in which there are chain reactions of uprisings: in Vienna, Berlin, Budapest, Bucharest. It just went on and on, cascading across the continent.
Rewinding to explore some of the causes, then, how important was poverty as a factor in the lead-up to these revolutions?
Poverty was the primary issue, and there was a degree of moral panic around it – although people at the time used the term “pauperisation” rather than poverty. The reason for that distinction was that, although commentators believed poverty had always existed in human societies, they thought that what was happening in the 1830s and 1840s was something new – a kind of systematic impoverishment of large sectors of society which had previously been able to make a living.
Those people were now having to work all the hours god sent, but were still unable to make ends meet or feed their children. One of the chief sources of anxiety in cities was that the poor were getting poorer, and it wasn’t clear how far that process could go before it began to eat away at the bonds holding society together.
Do terms that we recognise today, such as “liberal” or “radical”, map on to this era, or do we need to shift our understanding of its politics to make sense of the upheaval that was to come?
They do in the sense that modern Europe is born out of that world. But the differences are also striking. There were no political parties, for instance, so although there were people we would today call “liberals” or “radicals”, they didn’t often refer to themselves in that way.
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“Liberals” were a loose constellation of people who wanted neither an autocracy of the Napoleon type nor a terrorist dictatorship of the Jacobean type, but something in between. Similarly, conservatives were not solely supporters of the status quo, either, but something much more complex: a diverse group of people who wanted to reinstate some form of traditional authority, or were worried about the decline of religion, or about the growing atomisation of society.
One of the chief sources of anxiety in cities was that the poor were getting poorer, and it wasn’t clear how far that process could go
This lack of clearly delineated political groupings is one of the factors that make the political environment before 1848 so interesting – as is the fact that everyone was continually on the move, ideologically speaking. It was very common for people to reason themselves into entirely new political positions.
Do we need to throw any other ingredients into this heady brew of social turmoil and political movement?
A key concern was the concentration of power. This was, after all, a continent still dominated by the institutions of monarchy. In most cases countries still had no kind of national parliament whatsoever. Where there were parliaments, the franchise was very small: if the right to vote existed at all, it existed only among tiny elites, nanofranchises, who were the only people to have that right.
These were societies in which power was very concentrated, but in which sophisticated critical networks had developed which were becoming increasingly alienated from this concentrated power structure – and were starting to pick it apart, find fault with it, and mobilise against it.
The situation obviously varied from place to place, but can we identify any key milestones in the path to revolution?
We call the 1789 uprising the “French Revolution” for good reason: it didn’t really spark revolutions elsewhere on the European continent. But during the 1820s, a revolution took place in Spain that led to sympathetic revolutions in Naples, in Piedmont in northern Italy, and in Portugal.
And the revolution of 1830, which broke out in Paris, also had a cascading effect: it leapt across the border into Belgium, where a revolution that broke out in Brussels produced the Belgian nation state that broke away from the Kingdom of the United Netherlands.
People had images from these prior tumults flickering in the backs of their heads like old films, and had a kind of remembered script of what to do when a revolution broke out. People knew in 1848, for instance, that the first thing to do was to build barricades. In that way, the historical instances of violence and political protest did inform and prepare the ground for what was to come.
What kinds of people took part in these revolutions?
We often think of revolutions as events made by revolutionaries, but that’s not how 1848 happened – and may not be how any revolution happens. It seems to me to be much more the case that revolutions make revolutionaries than the other way round, and that’s certainly how it was in 1848.
People had images from these prior tumults flickering in the backs of their heads like old films, and had a kind of remembered script of what to do when a revolution broke out
Who did make the revolution is an interesting question. In the weeks immediately beforehand, newspapers ran a lot of liberal critique, sentiments that were widely shared by journalists and other people in the public sphere. But when the outbreak of upheaval finally came, the crowds included people of all classes – and those who wound up building the barricades and clashing with troops were overwhelmingly people who made things with their hands.
They weren’t members of the bourgeoisie, they weren’t owners of the means of production: they were more likely to be apprentices, factory workers, people who made locks – or, indeed, people who worked for the people who made locks.
Can we trace the first moments of these revolutions?
People at the time did feel there was a moment of inception. In Berlin, for example, the trouble began with a confrontation between crowds and troops in the square near the royal palace. The mood hadn’t been negative: crowds had gathered to cheer the king announcing concessions made due to pressure from the growing protest movement in the city.
But then people refused to disperse, and a long-standing antipathy between urban crowds and troops came to a head. People started chanting “Truppen raus, Truppen raus” – troops out, troops out. At that point, dragoons were moving into the crowd on horseback when two of their rifles went off by accident. Neither bullet struck anyone, but people thought they were being fired on. From that moment on, the situation was out of control.
A similar thing had happened in Palermo, where a poster signed “the Revolutionary Committee” appeared announcing that there was going to be a revolution in a few days. Nobody knew who had put it there, but plenty of people thought it was interesting. In reality, there was no committee; the poster had been put up as a prank by a young man who thought the Sicilian people were ready to rise up and that it might be enough to spark something.
It was indeed enough – at least, enough to bring people into the city curious to find out what would happen. The authorities also responded, of course, tripling the military presence in the city. It resembled what would later happen in Berlin: soldiers, crowds, shots fired, and a situation suddenly out of control.
In Palermo, a poster signed “the Revolutionary Committee” appeared announcing that there was going to be a revolution in a few days. In reality, the poster had been put up as a prank
So there was an element of happenstance and a sense of self-combustion in both cases. Alphonse de Lamartine, a French liberal who authored a history of the revolution, wrote that it was almost as if the curiosity of the crowd that came to witness an event engendered that same event. That’s a paradox, of course, but in a sense it’s also true: the event imagined itself into existence simply by the expectation that it would happen.
How should we understand the apparent synchronicity of these revolutionary events happening all at the same sort of time?
That’s a difficult question. Communications moved slowly: there were a few telegraphic networks in continental Europe, but not many, and in most places information had to move on horse, in a carriage or, in a few places, by train. So the wave of revolutions moved faster in some cases than we can easily explain in terms of the information technology that was available.
I think the only way to understand it is to avoid thinking of the revolutions in diffusionist terms. This was not, for instance, a Parisian revolution which diffused across the continent. The correct unit of analysis is Europe: this was a European upheaval. As a result, we shouldn’t marvel over the fact that events took place in different parts of the continent any more than the fact that different parts of Paris were ready to rise up at the same time.
In other words, these upheavals were part of the same culture of growing resentment of government authority, a growing willingness to challenge that authority, and growing numbers of eloquent leaders who became causes célèbres and whose names were mentioned everywhere. And, of course, all of this was built on growing large-scale social and economic distress.
By the summer of 1848, forces had emerged that slowed and complicated the course of these revolutions. What happened?
Initially, the revolutions were bafflingly successful. The revolutionaries were astonished by how quickly the forces of order retreated. But after their initial success, it quickly turned out that they didn’t agree about what to do next. There were differences between liberals and radicals about what “revolution” should mean.
Liberals largely saw revolution as an event which should be followed by a period of stabilisation – their message for the masses was: “thank you very much to everybody for what you did on the barricades, now go home and leave it to us to create a constitution and bind the revolution in ropes of law”.
For radicals, however, revolution was not an event but a process, and they thought that the revolution had scarcely begun when the liberals started their constitution-making and parliament-electing. They feared being left behind or excluded: that the liberals would get what they wanted, but that their demands for social amelioration and a rebalancing of the relationship between labour and capital would be ignored. So a deep bitterness and distrust emerged at the heart of the revolution, which became a serious impediment to its success.
And, of course, not everybody was happy with what was happening, and once the shock of the original insurrectionary moment had passed, the old powers started putting their heads together and thinking about how to claw back the ground they had lost. The first place in which this happened was Naples, where the king reimposed authority following a bloody exchange of fire between troops and the insurgents manning the barricades.
This is part of the complexity of the events of 1848. It wasn’t simply the case that the revolutionaries secured all of the power for themselves. The revolutions weren’t shaped by the will of the revolutionaries alone, but instead by a complicated, incredibly fractious process of wrestling and negotiation between new and old powers.
So it was these twin forces – one within and one without, as it were – that eventually brought the revolutions to a halt?
Yes, and the counter-revolution turned out to have many cards up its sleeve. One is that the armed forces, by and large, remained loyal. As we’ve mentioned, the revolutionaries had an impressive capacity to build a transnational network. But as great as this network was, it didn’t have the ability to deploy or focus armed forces – whereas the old hierarchies, the tower-like structures of the old regimes, had clear chains of command and loyal militaries.
The other card up the counter-revolutionaries’ sleeve was that they found that they had more support than they could have imagined among the people left out of the process of the revolution – and these were often people in the countryside. One of the shortfalls of the revolution was its failure to make itself understood by a large part of the rural population.
The revolutionaries had an impressive capacity to build a transnational network. But as great as this network was, it didn’t have the ability to deploy or focus armed forces
As the energies of the revolution were ebbing away in Paris, for instance, people in rural France had no interest in the experimental politics of the radicals or even the liberals. They wanted an authoritarian figure who would impose order, so the votes of four million peasants went to Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte.
Given the fact that by the summer of 1849 the revolutions were largely over, is it fair to see them as a failure?
That question has haunted the whole literature on this subject, but I don’t think that “failure” is a very helpful term. When we hear there’s been a huge snowstorm, we don’t ask, “Was the snowstorm a success or a failure?”. We establish that it happened and measure its effects.
Of course, one might point out that revolutions are political rather than natural events. But the problem with that is that whereas individuals may have particular intentions which may or may not be realised, a revolution doesn’t. The 1848 revolutions were a dissonant orchestra of wills and intentions which, in many cases, cancelled each other out or pointed in different directions.
So there was no will or intention which failed to be realised but an immense roar of dissonant demands – those people who saw that they had not achieved their objectives naturally also felt that the revolutions had failed.
Can we usefully compare this revolution and others in history?
Common to nearly all revolutions are situations in which the governed suddenly decide they’re no longer afraid of the government. At the core of all revolutions is the fact that something ceases to be there which was there before – and that thing is fear. That absence can be over very briefly, but it can nevertheless be deeply consequential.
People sometimes ask how the events of 1848 compare to the great iconic revolutions – that of 1789, or the Russian revolutions of 1917, for instance. The French Revolution of 1789 and its Napoleonic aftermath had profound geopolitical impacts of a kind that didn’t happen in 1848, which left the political map of the continent looking more or less the same. Similarly, we might say that the revolutions of 1917 were more consequential because they created a new kind of state that evolved into a superpower in the form of Soviet Russia.
- Read more | Are revolutions doomed to failure?
Yet it seems to me that we have to look in slightly different places to see how the events of 1848 changed things. We need to consider instead the emergence of new nation states, the shift in administrative styles, the apprenticeship effects of political mobilisation and the rise of advocacy groups calling for specific reforms, such as the enfranchisement of women.
These revolutions broke out in peace, not in war, and so their effects were not magnified by the movement of armies across continents. They were revolutions wearing civilian clothes, travelling in mufti – and that doesn’t mean that their consequences were less important; it just means that they were more subtle.
Christopher Clark spoke to Matt Elton on the HistoryExtra podcast. You can listen to the interview here.
Christopher Clark is the regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge. His research centres on the history of 19th-century Germany and continental Europe. His latest book is Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World 1848-1849 (Allen Lane, 2023)
This article was first published in the May 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
Matt Elton is BBC History Magazine’s Deputy Editor. He has worked at the magazine since 2012 and has more than a decade’s experience working across a range of history brands.
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