1848: Year of Revolution
1848: Year of Revolution
Mike Rapport
Basic Books, 2009
496 pp., $29.95

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Reviewed by Ryan Sayre Patrico

You Say You Want a Revolution

What changed—and what didn't—in the revolutions of 1848, and why it still matters.

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The enthusiasm created by these early uprisings, however, would not last long. For the initial political victories won by rioters and revolutionaries to bear fruit, liberals needed to be united against the conservative governments that, although weakened, still held power. Unity, however, is exactly what the liberals failed to achieve. Some in the middle class, for example, encouraged moderate forms of rebellion, hoping to loosen the grip of absolutist rule in their countries. Working-class radicals, however, tried to fan the small fires of local revolts into continent-wide revolution, hoping to turn 1848 into another 1789.

Split in two, the liberals ended up helping the conservatives. Radicals and "the threat of social revolution and working-class disorder allowed conservatives to feed on the widespread public fear of social disintegration. Anyone who had anything to lose from further chaos was drawn progressively away from the political center to support the forces of law and order." Eventually, the conservatives would use these techniques to regain popular support, but, from the beginning, they were able to survive by keeping their strength united.

One figure who capitalized on liberal infighting was Otto von Bismarck. Distressed at the fall of the old absolutism, the newly elected representative to the Prussian parliament worked hard to brand liberalism as "the ideology solely of the propertied, urban middle class—a narrow social group." Peasants, artisans, and retailers, Bismarck argued, were betraying their own best social and economic interests when they rallied around liberalism. The strategy worked, and in the end, popular support became, as Rapport notes, "enrolled behind the traditional elites, an alliance that would be invincible against liberalism and radicalism."

Although many of the reforms sought by revolutionaries would not be achieved until the next century, the struggles of 1848 did bring the abolition of serfdom, compulsory labor, and dues for the peasantry, as well as a limited expansion of male suffrage. The lessons of 1848, however, are larger than a list of established rights and abolished injustices. As Rapport rightly contends, the revolutions of 1848 focus our attention on a problem that still confronts modern societies today: how to reconcile social justice with individual liberty. It was this tension that shattered the fragile unity of the revolutions' first supporters. Liberals and radicals squabbled over individual liberty and social justice, while the peasants, once their immediate situation improved, sided again with the traditional authority.

Without the widespread frustration of peasants, artisans, and lower-class workers who broke under the pressures of the industrial revolution, the uprisings of 1848 would never have occurred. But Rapport reminds us that the revolutions were also the result of political thinkers and revolutionaries who sensed that governmental reform might indeed be possible if enough people were willing to fight for it. 1848, therefore, is a nuanced look at a time when Europe was struggling to resolve the contradiction between the changes promised by Enlightenment philosophy and the new economic realities brought about by the industrial revolution.

In November 1852, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned emperor in Paris, closing the book on France's Second Republic and the last vestiges of the revolutions that began in 1848. The fires of revolution had all but died out. Still glowing underneath the rubble, however, were the embers of nationalism, socialism, and communism that would flare up time and again until the end of the 20th century. As Mike Rapport shows in 1848, the year of revolution scorched an indelible mark on the psyche of Europe.

Ryan Sayre Patrico is a junior fellow at First Things.

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