Furthest Right

Liberalism was originally designed to pacify the middle class

Fascinating book, fascinating review:

Social conditions by 1848 had piled up tinder for a conflagration. Resentments over everything from unemployment and taxes to labor demands on peasants — not to mention the aspirations among regional elites for greater autonomy — had rallied support for revolution. But transforming myriad grievances into positive program proved difficult. Tocqueville saw France drifting in June from political struggle to a social war of proletariat against the propertied classes. The specter of social revolution turned many toward accommodation with governments that, however imperfect, would at least provide security.

Many older accounts of 1848 depict the year’s events as a flowering of liberal nationalism crushed by the forces of order. A.J.P. Taylor described abortive revolution in Germany as a turning point that failed to turn, thereby directing Germany on a separate path — toward authoritarianism rather than liberal democracy. In “1848,” Mike Rapport sympathizes with European liberals but nonetheless offers a fully nuanced portrait of a tumultuous year. Ethnic conflict and deep social tensions, he notes, complicated the task of constructing liberal, constitutional regimes. Different interests had their own agenda, and Otto von Bismarck, the German statesman, grasped an essential point when he argued that liberalism appealed only to the urban middle classes. That fact gave the revolution a narrower foundation than its architects had expected.

Ethnic conflict had a major role in the events of 1848 because nationalism served to exclude as well as unite. Liberal nationalists were caught in a now familiar dilemma: whether citizenship would rest on pluralism or require the assimilation of ethnic and religious minorities. Smaller nationalities looked suspiciously at German and Hungarian aspirations, especially when nationalist leaders spoke of Slavs with disdain. The Czech liberal Frantisek Palacky argued that Austria protected the Slavonic peoples from both internal strife and Russian domination. Localism, and loyalty to the Catholic Church, remained a strong counterweight to nationalism in Italy. Even Giuseppe Garibaldi came to see “how little the national cause inspired the local inhabitants of the countryside.”

Conservatives before 1848 failed to implement the reforms that the most imaginative of them had envisioned to create a more flexible political order — one that would draw local elites and subjects into closer cooperation. (British leaders had managed to do just that decades before.) After 1848, the backlash against revolution brought an insistence on authority that made politics less flexible. Even where some liberal reforms survived, they operated to consolidate state power. The experience demonstrated that change with continuity works much better than revolution.


You can find 1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport at your local bookstore or online.

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