Essay--Revolution of 1848

"The revolutions of 1848 were based on the principles of socialism..."

By Jaffer Zaidi from Manila, Philippines. E-mail Brett Silva with comments and questions.

It is obvious that the failure of the revolutions of 1848 was not primarily the result of the disunity among the individuals or groups that led the revolutions. There were many large revolutions throughout Europe, of which almost all of them failed, and the fact is that not all of them shared one single primary cause for their failure. The revolutions of 1848 were based on the principles of socialism (a new ideology at that time), liberalism, and nationalism. Unfortunately for the leaders of the revolutions, their movements usually died down fast, and did not reform the political, social or economic landscape towards the ideas of socialism and liberalism as much as they would have liked them to, and in some cases, had no effect at all. One cause for this was indeed the disunity among the individuals that led the revolutions. However, there were also two other causes of the failure of the revolutions which were prevalent in a number of the revolutions: the lack of support from the peasants, and the strength of the reactionary powers (Britain, France, Russia, and Austria). And so the failure of the revolutions were caused by the disunity of the leaders of the revolts, but only to a certain extent- and that was definitely not the primary cause. The best way to see this would be to look at the major revolutions which occurred in France, Austria, Germany and Italy.

In France, the revolutions started with a riot by the Parisians, which, after Louis Philippe’s fleeing to Britain, led to the formation of the second republic. Yet, after the new government had settled in, the people grew more discontent with their situation. There was in fact disunity in the second government, as Louis Blanc, obviously known for his socialist views, was at odds with the rest of the ten man liberal government. The bloody June Days gave the Parisians a chance to battle the government troops. The result was a new monarch-to-be, and a move back to where the revolution had started. Throughout all of this, it is important to note that it was only the Parisians (the first people to riot) that were active in the revolution. They (the upper middle class men) were the ones that participated in the government, and that fought to the death in this revolution. The farmers and peasants, on the other hand, seemed to be to preoccupied with their agricultural problems (such as the continuing poor outcomes of the crop harvests) in the countryside. And while there was disunity among the leaders of the revolution, the revolutions actually failed because the peasants (which made up a huge majority of the population-not only in France but the rest of Europe as well) were not involved, the revolution really did not have the power needed to fight against an army with the strength of the French one.

In Austria, the same pattern occurred. First, there was an initial revolt, in which the students and workers demanded a constitution, and an end to feudalism. The fact is that the peasants played a limited role in this revolution, as the students and the socialists were simply looking out for their own interests. The outcome was quite unexpected. Not only was Prince Metternich thrown out of power, Franz Joseph, the new monarch replacing Ferdinand, granted a constitution and an end to serfdom (the imperial manifesto). This was a disaster for the revolt (which obviously brought Louis Kosuth to despair), as the peasants had gotten what they wanted, and had no incentive to further support the revolutions. Because of this, without any other revolts which posed a major threat in Austria, the government was later able to crush all of the smaller revolts, which now only had the power of the working class behind them. Louis Kosuth was quite a prominent figure in the revolution, and with him as a clear cut leader, disunity was not really a factor.

After that, the revolution in Germany (which had been a started by the revolutionary atmosphere in Austria proper) was quite vulnerable because, in this one instance, the leaders of the revolution simply could not agree on basic decisions (and major ones as well-they could not even decide if they wanted a Germany which included Prussia and Austria, or a Germany simply made up of the German states). This was simply a lost opportunity. So the Austrian military, allowed to do so by the inefficiency of the Frankfurt Assembly, simply marched in and crushed the rebellion. So, the disunity among the leaders of the revolution in this case, was the primary cause for the failure of this revolution. After accepting that, it can also be seen that there really was no other possible outcome in Germany. Britain and France did not want a unified Germany, and would have assisted the Austrian military if they needed the support (which they obviously did not).

South of Austria, Guispe Mazzini, and his ‘Young Italy Society’ created the atmosphere of revolution throughout the Italies, with their nationalistic call for a unified Italy. And while they were in fact successful in forcing constitutions into the Kingdom of Two Scicilies, Sardinia, the Duchies, Venice and Milan, their initial success was quite deceiving. The reactionary powers once again did not find it in their best interests for there to be a unified Italy. Thus, Austria, who considered the revolution in the Italies to be a threat to her national security, decided to march into the Italies, crush the revolts, abolish the constitutions and restore the monarchs to power. And Italy was in no position to fight Austria alone, with their weak forces (something which Count Cavour was able to comprehend using Realpolitik a few years later). Yes, there might have been some disorganization within the process of the revolution. However, the disunity in the revolution was not apparent among the leaders of the revolts. The disunity was present in the Italian people as a whole- Italy (or the Italies as that area was called at the time) was simply not a homogenous state. It had to face natural barriers throughout the land which prohibited the sharing of common ideas, beliefs, and even language, as the dialects in many regions differed from one another.

Through the above analysis of the revolutions, to say that the failure of the revolutions of 1848 were primarily caused by the disunity of the leaders of the revolts, would simply be a careless assumption, as while that may have been the case in Germany, it was not the case in all of the other nations which experienced significant revolts.. As for the other revolutions (in France, Austria and Italy) there were two other major causes (again, not primary causes) of the failure of the revolutions: the lack of support of the peasants (also known as ‘the masses’- a clear indication of their gigantic force and their make-up of the European population as a whole), and the resistance of the reactionary powers to the revolutions.