The revolutions of 1848 have been both lucky and unlucky in their historians. They were fortunate to find contemporary analysts of unusually high quality. The layman who has read Marx’s Class Struggles and Eighteenth Brumaire and Engels’s Revolution and Counterrevolution can still hold his own reasonably well even among the experts. On the other hand, there has, until a few years ago, been very little in the record of 1848 to encourage the sort of serious and multi-dimensional analysis and reappraisal which the 1789 Revolution has almost continuously stimulated. Most of the revolutions of 1848 failed obviously and abjectly; few had even the limited achievements of 1830 to their credit. Historians, like politicians, tend to shy away from failure, unless it can be transmuted into heroic myth (such as that of the Paris Commune of 1871), and there is not much in 1848 which lends itself to this transmutation. Those countries like Italy and Hungary, in which 1848 has become part of the mythology of national liberation and unification, are the exception, but the effects on the many writers who have celebrated Mazzini, Garibaldi, Kossuth, and their activities have been dispiriting.

Liberal democrats have looked back on 1848 with considerable pain. It contains little that they would care to remember, one way or another. Marxists, of course, have analyzed the revolutions at greater length, in order to dwell on the readiness of the bourgeoisie to abandon its fight against reaction when faced with the greater threat from the rising proletariat. Yet, though both the fear and the betrayal were real in 1848, and the June Rising in Paris is still the classic illustration of both, the revolutions have provided little encouragement for them. It was, after all, bitter to observe a revolution which began with the actual inclusion of workers and socialists in a insurrectionary government—and in which serious discussions were held about substituting the red flag for the tricolor as the symbol of the French Republic—only to abandon these beginnings so quickly. It was even worse to find that what had seemed the first European revolution in the era of industrialism turned out to be the last, at least in Western Europe. Those who cared less about specific theories, but in 1848 lived through one of those occasional moments in history when human freedom actually seems to have been achieved, looked back on it as the time when illusions were lost; a process both experienced and described definitively by Flaubert. No revolution has been more spontaneously romantic than the “springtime of the people,” in none were revolutionaries so lost in clouds of vague idealism, which, alas, too often took its form in lamentable rhetoric. Cynicism or the escape into aestheticism were the natural reactions. Eighteen forty-eight has been the revolution to get away from fast. Its historiography has long reflected this aversion.

FORTUNATELY the centenary of 1848, an occasion which would have produced automatically much commemorative literature, happened at a time that was unusually favorable to intelligent reappraisal. Revolutions have been, for obvious reasons, the subject of increasingly intensive study since the end of World War II, but quite apart from this, the Liberation of 1944-45 was, after all, the nearest thing to a general revolution in Western and Central Europe since 1848, and in some respects comparable to it. Nobody was likely to idealize 1848 any more, not even historians of Italy and Hungary, who were now able to analyze them retrospectively and critically, from the vantage point of a new type of movement of liberation. Still, 1848 became easier to understand. A few years later, the centenary would have been turned into a cold war confrontation, but in 1947 (when most historians started to think and write about it in preparation for the centenary) the international atmosphere was still congenial.

Indeed, 1848: The Opening of an Era, first published in 1948, reflects its time very well. Its editor, a Hungarian of French background, was then a Marxist who had thrown in his lot with the new popular regime in his country, and his most valuable service was to assemble a number of East and West European Marxist contributors. The French chapter, by the late Georges Bourgin, is competent but unoriginal, representing an older generation of local socialist historians of France’s nineteenth-century Left. The German chapter (as one might expect for that date) was written not by a native but by a slightly eccentric French Germanist, less interested in 1848 than in the tragic peculiarities of Germany: it is a poor piece. The Anglo-Saxon contributors are dull because the subject does not seem to have been important to them. On the other hand, the chapters on Italy and the various countries of Central and Eastern Europe are illuminating and sometimes brilliant, and for the first time since Marx’s and Engels’s own writings made Marxist interpretations of 1848 generally available to a broader public. There is, characteristically, no contribution from the USSR.


Speaking broadly, this was an excellent volume when it was first published, though some chapters were even then inadequate. So much has appeared since that all but a few chapters (e.g. the late Delio Cantimori’s on Italy) would now need to be extensively revised. It would for instance be impossible today to write about Germany in 1848 without considering—to list some works almost at random—Jacques Droz’s magisterial book on the subject, Schilfert’s monograph on the democratic franchise, the ample studies of the “Vormaerz” social problems by Conze and his colleagues, the East German analyses of the social composition of the Berlin riot casualties, journeymen’s associations, the Communist League, and other relevant topics, not to mention Namier’s brilliant and bitter Revolution of the Intellectuals. As for Britain, practically all the serious work on the impact and local echoes of 1848 has been done since 1948, though the subject is still by no means exhausted.

Whether this volume was worth reprinting textually unchanged for American readers in 1967 is a question which belongs therefore not to history but to the economics of academic publishing. The reprinting of scarce texts has in the past ten years become both cheap and, in a modest way, lucrative, and it is common knowledge that some publishers have made a very good thing out of the happy conjunction of photographic reproduction and a vastly expanding institutional market for learned works. Many essential books and periodicals have thus been made available. So have several inessential and some misleading ones. It could be argued that The Opening of an Era is still as good a general treatment of the 1848 revolutions as we have, though this is merely another way of saying that writing on this subject has lagged behind the advance since 1948 of scholarship generally. This argument would be specious. Nothing about this volume suggests that it has been published to help students of 1848. The publishers have not even troubled to add even a brief book list referring the reader to the more important works published since 1947. Indeed, anyone who does not read the fine print may well be unaware that the book is practically twenty years old.

GEORGES DUVEAU’S book, though first published in the 1960s, also belongs to an earlier era. Its author, who died seven years ago, was an unsystematic impressionist historian, not much at home in the world of quantitative measurements in which even the student of 1848 must operate, and certainly not in the main stream of recent French work in this field. His book covers the period between February and June, 1848, but modern readers will look in vain for material of value on the economic crisis of 1846-1851 which, as Labrousse and his collaborators have shown, formed the background to the revolution and the Second Republic. There is nothing on the important regional and social changes, especially among the working class, of which there have been numerous studies; nothing much about the urbanization of Paris or its classes, nor about the problem of crowd behavior and public order, or the nature of the July Monarchy’s power structure, or other matters about which even undergraduates expect to be informed nowadays. Some recent works are listed in the brief and useful bibliography, which refers to Tudesq on the Notables of the July Monarchy, Daumard on the Parisian bourgeoisie, Chevalier’s well-known Classes Laborieuses et Classes Dangereuses, though not, curiously, to Labrousse or any of the important regional monographs.

But this does not matter, and in any case George Rudé’s Introduction tactfully fills in some of the gaps. The strength of Duveau as a historian was that combination of erudition, intelligence, and empathy which enabled him to think and feel himself into his subject. More than most other modern historians of 1848, he was himself a Quarant-huitard, a man who could see himself on the barricades whose construction he describes so graphically. He writes as a contemporary, though with sufficient distance to make his judgments convincing—for instance, about the relative importance of various ideologies and groups of the Left. He writes less as an analyst, let alone a critic, than as the recorder of tragedy. Whereas Marx rose to the full heights of his genius as the historian of the collapse of the Second Republic and the victory of Napoleon III, Duveau stops short in June, 1848. He is the historian of the dream of 1848, and the dream ended among the corpses lying behind the June barricades.

It is easy to demonstrate the weaknesses of this kind of history, but important also to point out its strengths. At the lowest level, anyone wanting to make a serious movie about 1848 could use this book as a script. But even the analytical historian of great events cannot do without his knowledge of what men and women were like, felt, and thought.


BOTH THESE BOOKS thus represent a particular phase in the interpretation of the Revolutions of 1848, and both are written substantially from a point of view sympathetic to its extreme Left. Yet both in their different ways avoid a mid-twentieth-century evaluation of these revolutions; Duveau’s images of the eternally cheated and repressed workers and the eternally radiant ideal of the Republic are of little use to the historian; Fejtö’s more interesting contributors remain too faithful to the judgment of the founders of Marxism that (to quote Engels’s formulation, as usual less cautious than Marx’s) “the mode of struggle of 1848 is today obsolete in every respect.”

Curiously enough, there is common ground between this classic inquest on 1848 and modern non-revolutionary views, as illustrated by A.J.P. Taylor’s irritating but stimulating Introduction to the Fejtö volume. The crux of Taylor’s interpretation is that 1848 was not the beginning but the end of an era. It was not the first of the revolutions of the industrial age—it is a commonplace that it did not greatly affect the only industrial countries of the time, Britain and Belgium—but the last of the preindustrial ones. In many respects this is obviously so. Where the two views diverge is in their judgment of the consequences of its failure. The classical Marxist view, at least in the countries of the West, was that, having demonstrated the profundity of the conflict between bourgeois and proletarians, it would initiate the era in which the class-conscious proletarian movement, stripped of the “traditional appendages…—persons, illusions, conceptions, projects, from which the revolutionary party before the February revolution was not free,” would recognize and combat its true enemy. The skeptical liberal view was that it did not initiate the epoch of proletarian or any other revolution, but marked the beginning of the integration of the masses, now recognized as, or kept, safely non-revolutionary, into the political systems of bourgeois society.

In fact this is what did happen in the developed countries of the West. The triumph of reaction in 1848-49—as deceptively “total” as the triumph of the “people” in the spring of 1848—delayed this effect, except in France where Louis Napoleon immediately recognized and never forgot that the anti-revolutionary leader must henceforth be a demagogue. Yet it is startling to see how many of the themes of 1848 recur in the politics of Western and Central Europe after 1857, this time no longer haunted by the celebrated specter of 1840s communism, and with the addition of the increasingly important factor of organized workingclass movements. Even the Marxists recognized this by tacitly abandoning the insurrectionary perspective in the developed countries. They hoped for revolution, but after the 1850s no longer expected it in the form of classical uprisings. Indeed, Marx was skeptical of the only insurrection of this kind to occur in a developed country, though his impassioned obituary of the Paris Commune turned that doomed local upheaval into a powerful model for later revolutionaries. Neither Marx nor Engels became social democrats in the later sense of the word, but it is not difficult to see how, say, Engels’s 1895 Preface to the Class Struggles in France made it easier for the parties they inspired to do so.

Yet it is increasingly clear in the mid-twentieth century that this dismissal of 1848 is no longer as convincing today as it was before 1900. It is simply not true, as Engels thought in 1895, that

an insurrection with which all sections of the people sympathize will hardly recur; in the class struggle all the middle strata will probably never group themselves around the proletariat so exclusively that in comparison the party of reaction gathered round the bourgeoisie will well-nigh disappear. The “people” will therefore always appear divided, and thus a most powerful lever, so extraordinarily effective in 1848, is gone.

The major revolutions of this century have, at least at the crucial moments of their triumph, acted precisely like this, though very soon after this triumph, the unity (or the demoralization, paralysis, and impotence of the counterrevolution) has tended to disappear. The model which fits this century better is that of the “revolution in permanence” which Marx sketched out in the immediate aftermath of 1848, and it is no accident that the famous “Address to the Communist League” of 1850 forms the point of departure of the modern Leninist developments in Marxism. The conditions in which these vast, though impermanent, movements of unity against an isolated enemy have developed—whether in China, Vietnam, or Algeria—are clearly not the same as in 1848. Moreover, where they have been effective, they have introduced two “improvements” on the 1848 model: they have backed urban movements with the new version of the peasants’ war which Marx and Engels called for in their inquest immediately after 1848; and they have developed far more powerful and effective proletarian components, or parties claiming to represent the proletariat. Nevertheless the similarity to 1848 is striikng.

Nor is this similarity confined to the backward or underdeveloped countries. It is no doubt true that 1848 failed because, in Engels’s words, capitalism still had plenty of development left in it; and conversely that twentieth-century revolutions have tended to occur in countries in which the bourgeoisie seemed unable to achieve modernization and economic development except by social revolution. Yet the conditions of a united “peoples’ movement” under the hegemony of the Left have from time to time occurred, even in the developed countries, most obviously during the period of anti-fascism from 1935 to 1945. Anyone today who wants to understand the mood of the early days of 1848 should seek parallels not only in Vietnam and Cuba, but in the intoxicating moments of liberation in Western Europe in 1944-45. Conversely, the specter that haunts the counterrevolutionaries of our time is not only that of peasant guerrillas in remote tropical hills. It is, as any reading of the press will demonstrate, also the specter of the “popular front.”

IN THIS SENSE 1848 is still a matter of political interest. It has not yet entirely become a part of archaeology: both those who believed that 1848 was the last upheaval of a now prehistoric regime, and those who believed that it would initiate the era of strictly proletarian revolutions were mistaken. The major revolutions of the twentieth century—which has seen more and greater revolutions than the nineteenth—have not been made exclusively by any one class, though they have been led by, or turned into, the victories of one class (or of organizations claiming to represent such a class). They have been, and perhaps must be, the phenomena of many groups. One may suspect that future historians of 1848 will explore the nature, dynamics, and the fragilities of such “common fronts” more than they have done hitherto. They will find a good deal of material in the two books under review, but they may also find that it is desirable to stand farther away from the barricades of June, 1848 than the intellectual formation or national tradition of most scholars in the left-wing tradition has permitted them to do.

This Issue

June 1, 1967