“We are on a stormy sea, without a shore”, wrote Alexis de Tocqueville to a childhood friend in the midst of the 1848 revolutions. “The shore is so far away, so unknown,” he added, “that our lives and perhaps the lives of those who follow will pass before we set foot and settle on it.” Though the French aristocrat had prophetically warned about a possible revolution less than a month before the February events, he felt confused about their historical meaning. But he correctly predicted the truth about what Eric Hobsbawm described as the “first and last” revolution that would unfold at the European scale and be experienced as such. More than a straightforward rebellion or even a coordinated uprising, 1848 marked a fundamental transition in the way we conduct politics.
But the great Victorian year of protest actually feels more recent than it has for decades. In its chaos and its power, it resembles our own historical moment, buffeted by populist uprisings and social turmoil, climate rebellion and violent insurrection. “We can take that place,” one man said confidently as he pointed to the Capitol on January 6. “And then do what?” responded his partner in crime. “Heads on pikes!” the first replied without really having the slightest idea of what to do next. As in 1848, radical and even violent protests are now expected, sometimes even desired, but without any clear programme or manifesto. Revolution doesn’t seem unlikely anymore, but at the same time, it’s hard to concretely envision a post-capitalist world.
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Whether it’s the bolsonaristas invading the Brazilian National Congress, the gilets jaunes assembling spontaneously in the streets of France, or the “square movements” following the 2008 crash, the more traditional repertoires of contention that characterised the past century seem to be changing both on the Left and the Right. But far from being on the verge of a carefully planned coup d’état or a new social order, contemporary revolts instead resemble that tumultuous mid-century upheaval: “poorly planned, dispersed, patchy and bristling with contradictions” as Christopher Clark notes in his gripping new history, Revolutionary Spring. “The people of 1848,” he adds, “could see themselves in us.”
While the inter-war period and the rise of fascism has often been raised as a comparison for our present, Clark offers us a different and more accurate analogue. Far from being a failed revolution as Karl Marx had thought, 1848 successfully transformed Palermo, Paris and Vienna, and reverberated in Chile and Martinique. The year progressed not as chain or domino effect, but more like our own “populist revolts”: nearly simultaneous, interconnected and rooted in common socio-economical changes, but without being directly caused by one another. It was the “particle collision chamber at the centre of the European nineteenth century”. “People, groups and ideas,” Clark says, “flew into it, crashed together, fused or fragmented, and emerged in showers of new entities” with “profound consequences for the modern history of Europe”. The world, as Bismarck recalled in his memoirs, would never be the same after. Of course, at the time, the hopes of radicals were crushed. Many fled into exile in the United States or London, like the Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini, the French socialist Louis Blanc, or Marx himself. For them, the disillusion was intense and the prospects of an immediate socialist transformation had rapidly vanished. But in the years to come, 1848 transformed how liberals, conservatives and socialists alike would relate to politics.
In response to the revolts, which were largely defeated, significant constitutional changes were passed, that slowly defined our modern representative politics and shaped for good the nature of the state and government. These new political constellations were more open to reform and to the aspirations of the moderate elements of society, but the state apparatus was significantly expanded, with the establishment of armed police forces trained to combat insurrections. The armed civic state is taken for granted now, but it was a marked novelty after the period spanning from the Vienna congress of 1815 to 1848. Most regimes had obviously been repressive, illiberal and change averse, but were also, as the historian Paul W. Schroeder has noted, inefficient and quite reluctant to use brute force against their own citizens. This allowed for a proliferation of conspiracies and popular revolts.
For a long time, ordinary people did not demonstrate, rally or strike, but would rather parade in mocking routines, seize grain, invade fields, attack tax collectors, destruct tollgates or sack machines. Conflicts unfolded generally at a local level, with a narrow focus and without coherent political aims. And revolutions themselves were rather the preserve of austere figures such as the Italian Robespierrist Philippe Buonarroti, who favoured revolutionary dictatorship over mass movements, convinced of the difficulty of involving the multitudes. Despite censorship, it was, in fact, Schroeder observed, “relatively easy and safe to promote revolution”. As a result, in 1848, the authorities of Europe weren’t ready to respond properly to the insurrections, used instead to small and carefully-planned uprisings.
In that year, something quite different emerged for the first time. As Clark writes, the uprisings were “inchoate, multifocal, socially deep” rather than anchored in the “seditious conspiracy” characteristics of the 1830s. The revolutionary ideas “reverberated in cafés and political clubs, circulating in communicative networks that were incomparably denser, socially deeper and more sophisticated than their late-eighteenth-century predecessors”. Even if there weren’t yet “political parties capable of disciplining their members or binding them to commonly agreed positions” or “doctrinally authoritative ‘ideologies’”, it marked the beginning of the end of a certain form of protest. From here on, not only the middle classes and liberals renounced revolution for good, but the emerging working class would progressively work through parties, unions and strikes rather than coups d’états and barricades.
As the sociologist Charles Tilly later argued in the case of France, 1848 therefore stands in the middle of two crucial intertwined changes that would transform the repertoire of collective action for the following century. The first involved the centralisation of the state into a more complex apparatus, internally coordinated and with enhanced means of coercion. This was coupled with an unprecedented expansion of capital, producing a large and modern working class which populated large units of production. And within this new nexus of capital and state, social movements as we know them began to take hold within an emerging civil society. Change couldn’t be the product of a few heroes dedicated to the revolution, but had to come from organised and ideologically-driven masses. If class struggle was the steam of History, it would now require strong and sophisticated engines to move forwards and channel collective struggles into specific directions. The “social”, as Clark notes, could now “be grasped as an autonomous category, irreducible to politics”.
This transition wasn’t just a concern for revolutionaries. Even conservatives, as Eric Hobsbawm noted, “would have to defend themselves in new ways” and “to learn the politics of the people”. “Public opinion” — a distinctively liberal notion — could not be ignored any more. Defeating insurrections or censoring the press was not enough, and influencing and controlling the masses would become increasingly important over the next decades, shaping a new form of statecraft and political activity. It marked, Hobsbawm argued, “the end…of the politics of tradition”. As the rate of literacy increased, all political forces had to develop their own ideological apparatuses to shape the mentality of large groups, through political newspapers, youth movements or rallies. Politics was slowly embedded in a “thick” civil society, with a large range of deeply networked organisations and institutions that served as intermediaries between citizens and the state. Parties became not just machines to conquer power, but mediators between institutions and citizens, embodying the interests of mobilised and conscious social groups.
This kind of politics, that culminated with the total mobilisations of the first half of the 20th century, would shape the whole political spectrum. From socialists and communists creating their own counter-society within capitalism, to fascists who, while they crushed unions and labour organisations, still tried to fully integrate a broad range of voluntary associations and organisations within the fascist state. In that sense, everything was political, from the sport club to the local newspapers. This held for much of the 20th century, where even during the post-war period, politics remained transactional, and programmes and reforms generally reflecting pre-electoral deals with specific constituencies. It’s only with the more individualised ethos following the century’s own year of global protest, 1968, that this settlement began to unravel, opening the space for the more speculative and public relations-driven public sphere of the Eighties.
And with the demise of social democracy and the collapse of the Soviet Union, collective engines to define human needs and collective endeavours slowly disappeared in favour of a more atomised civil society. That is why, as Alex Hochuli, George Hoare and Philip Cunliffe recently argued, “our political world…retained its external appearance, but if you crack open the shell, there’s nothing inside”. The formal institutions of democracy are still there, but are “divested of popular energies and innovation”. The populist explosions of the 2010s marked therefore what we could call the final disintermediation of politics, an exit from the associative structures that shaped politics for a century: parties, unions, mass organisations. And while the era of apathetic citizens characteristic of the Nineties has come to an end, the renewal of social turmoil and ideological battles hasn’t brought back such engines. People assemble and demonstrate not on the orders of parties and unions leaders but through the spread of messages and call for action posted on social media. We have been plunged back into the spontaneous, disorganised and unpredictable world that shaped 1848.
In the newly digitalised public sphere, political figures combine a strong and charismatic authority with a less mediated relation with their base. They speak to them through Facebook, Twitter, or even their own social media platform, rather than the outmoded bureaucratic structures of the mass parties. Within such a shift, in a sense ending the dynamic that began in 1848, even ideologies are not stable but rather, like in the era of Tocqueville, “an archipelago of texts and personalities across which [are] plotted quite idiosyncratic courses”. Large and influential newspapers have been replaced by a proliferation of media platforms, shaping the ideas of evanescent crowds on specific issues rather than precise political projects. Even the decorporation that went along the proletarisation of labour echoes this. Rather than a labour movement built upon a formalised labour market, we have witnessed a proliferation of the “working poor” and the “Uberisation” of workers. Social conflict has itself deserted the workplace, where the “great resignation” replaced coordinated strikes and mass labour militancy.
Whether it be the syncretic nature of their ideas, the irruption of spirituality into politics, the resurgence of violence, the tension between representation and direct forms of democracy, or even the rise of influential feminist figures and writers, our past decade has allowed the rebirth of the radicalism that ended with the mid-century revolutions. A world that would probably appear more familiar to Blanqui than Jaurès. Politics is now everywhere, but in a very different and more elusive sense than during the mass mobilisations of the 20th century.
But among all these similarities, there is a difference. If 1848 led to an ascendency of the centre and the idea of superseding politics through technocracy and scientific government, our time appears to be heading the other way. Technocracy has been shattered, and the ability of the state to effectively govern is at its lowest since the late Sixties. Even if the idea of revolution has made a comeback, we still lack of engines to actually allow collective forms of decision making and to politicise human needs. Despite the development of new forms of digital engagement, the participation of citizens remains narrow and unable to sustain enduring political participation. There isn’t a week without headlines mentioning a riot or spontaneous assemblies or demonstrations. But the question still remains: what’s next?
But as Tocqueville had himself experienced, the end of an era is always an unpredictable process. “I cannot say and have no idea when this long journey will end,” he wrote in his Souvenirs, “and often wonder whether the terra firma for which we have so long been searching actually exists, or whether our destiny is not rather to ply the seas forever”. If the agony of the old can be a long and a painful thing it also, as the story of 1848 demonstrates, opens history to unexpected turns and innovations.
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