1848: The Opening of an Era
1848: The Making of a Revolution
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.…
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