The year 1848—the Year of Revolution, the dawn of the WEIRD world, when everything changed for everyone—in context.
What can we compare it to?
If you want to understand your current world. Your current situation in the year 2023. The dangers to Western democracy. All that. Then you need to understand the system you are in. The only way to do that is to study it historically. And the history of this system began in 1848.
The year 1848 midwived the birth of a new world—the modern Western world that we are still living in. It is a WEIRD world (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic), as many now call it. And it certainly is weird, by any standard.
This is the world of parliaments, constitutions, bills of rights, political representation, universal suffrage, separation of Church and State, institutionalized alleviation of poverty and sundry other ills, ethnic and religious tolerance, low-crime, no civil wars, and broad economic progress.
This world has many faults, and citizens of WEIRD societies are quick to protest these shortcomings. They are not wrong. But, for all these faults, WEIRD societies are still the best we have ever lived in.
Is this relatively benevolent world too weird to last? Perhaps. The writing is on the wall: we may not be in this world much longer. And if that does come to pass, we are in for a lot of pain. For the fall of the modern democratic order will bring back human suffering on an incomprehensible scale, the kind of suffering all too common for the great majority of our ancestors throughout the bulk of our ‘civilized’ history.
The year 1848 is therefore an emotional, symbolic, historical, grammatical, and theoretical anchor to everything that we do here at MOR (The Management of Reality). I elsewhere have a more detailed discussion of why 1848 is so important to MOR; in this piece my purpose is to give you a bit of perspective on that year, that you may see it in its social and historical context, and thus appreciate better the sheer size of events and their political consequences.
I see a dark storm approaching yet I am—almost by duty—an incurable optimist. I believe we can get through our present crisis, preserve the gains of 1848, and continue to improve our Western societies. But to fight for a democratic future we need really to grok what it is that we are in danger of losing, and that requires a contextualized appreciation of our modern experiment, running since 1848.
I’ll begin with the question of scale.
The scale of 1848: think 1968 but much, much bigger
How can I make you relate to this year, 1848? What do you possess that can possibly compare? Perhaps the year 1968.
In fact, there is a relationship of function, historical consequence, and structural similarity between these two years that makes it theoretically profitable to consider them simultaneously. In particular, the grammatical consequences of 1968 for the political left—now firmly institutionalized in mainstream bureaucracies, private and public, all over the West—may soon bring about the end of the political experiment begun in 1848.
Now, judging by my millennial and post-millennial students, the memory of 1968 is—Alas…!—also quickly fading. But it is more easily recovered. Even my youngest readers will have heard about the sexual revolution, the boom in psychedelics, the great music: “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.”
Yet, though images of dancing, smiling, dazed, unwashed, and sometimes unclothed counterculture hippies flashing V-signs for ‘peace and love’ still register, and though such images may help millennials, and those younger, to ‘place’ 1968, we must remember that “[though] counter-culture was part of revolutionary euphoria, [it] was not politically central to 1968.”1
The hippies were a colorful and sometimes influential minority. But the ubiquitous street fights of 1968 happened because young people all over the West—the overwhelming majority of them non-hippies—decided, in the same year, that their ruling elites were no good, and were emboldened to imagine they could overhaul the system and make it into something new. That is what was politically central to 1968. And it is the most relevant similarity to 1848.
The other profoundly relevant similarity is this: they acted, all over the West, simultaneously.
I do mean all over the West.
The only year in recent memory that even remotely compares is 2020. There were protests and riots all over the West in 2020, the first pandemic year. Remember? The year 1968 was like that but much, much bigger.
Large student protests and workers strikes, often in combination, with plenty of middle-classers, erupted everywhere in 1968. It happened, as Dr. Seuss might say, in the capitalist countries and in the communist countries. In the First World and in the Third. In the North and in the South. It happened here, it happened there. It happened everywhere.
I will here give you a light—but functionally useful—summary of what happened.
As the year began, the United States had already been seeing widespread protests in many towns for civil rights and against the US war of choice in Vietnam. And then, on April 4, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Then it got worse.
“Riots erupted in more than 100 cities across the [United States] as some 15,000 people were arrested in what’s widely been called the greatest period of civil unrest in U.S. history since the Civil War.”2
This was not exactly independent of the anti-war agitation. Many believed then, and still today, that King’s assassination was a US government conspiracy to silence “King’s increasingly anti-Vietnam and anti-establishment rhetoric in his final years.”3
In August, this anti-Vietnam (anti-Vietnam War) agitation continued at the Democratic National Convention, where MOBE, an umbrella organization that brought together many opponents of the Vietnam War and Abbie Hoffman’s Youth International Party (yippies—radicalized hippies) were prominent in truly gigantic mass demonstrations.
Street protests against the Vietnam War were also seen in London, Berlin, Rome, and Paris.
But the Vietnam War was hardly the only fuel to the street fires. Plenty other agitation was also taking place in Europe.
In April, brave workers and students in Spain joined to defy the fascist Francisco Franco after his government held a mass for Adolf Hitler. The University of Madrid had to be closed for over a month because of student demonstrations.
In France things overheated. In fact, the country came to a virtual standstill in May as students, and then workers, too, denounced… everything. Eleven million people (a full 22% of France) simultaneously went on strike and protested across the country. The president, Charles de Gaulle, thought a revolution might be in the offing and fled.
As that was happening in France, every Italian university—save one—was occupied by angry student protesters (try to picture that).
Meanwhile, Czechoslovaks took to the streets to decry the Soviet troops come to smother a widespread social movement that had meant to liberalize communist Czechoslovakia: the ‘Prague Spring.’ The world held its breath as the USSR demonstrated that Eastern Europe would be a communist prison and the governments of the Free West acquiesced.
Other students demonstrated in Belgrade and elsewhere in Yugoslavia.
In London, many protested government immigration policy.
Students in Warsaw demanded modern democratic rights. Soon they were joined by the general public. The Polish government, in perfect Nazi style, accused these protesters, absurdly, of being ‘Zionists.’ Even as they did, West German students at over a hundred universities protested, non-absurdly, to demand that former Nazis among German government officials (quite numerous) be removed.
Swedish students stormed the streets to protest apartheid in South Africa and occupied the Student Union Building at Stockholm University.
Back in the American continent, during the summer, Brazilian students organized the ‘March of the One Hundred Thousand,’ and garnered widespread support and participation from other sectors of the population, all of them demanding an end to Brazil’s military dictatorship.
Also during the summer, and also to denounce an authoritarian government, a large student movement expressed dissent in the streets of Mexico.
In October, students and many others rioted and destroyed property in Kingston, Jamaica, after the government banned a historian of Africa from teaching at the University of West Indies.
And in November, a mass student movement erupted—later joined by many other sectors of society—against Pakistan’s military dictatorship.
Believe it or not, I left some stuff out. But even this selective summary makes the point: there was a lot of commotion. Commotion everywhere. And it seemed that every new movement and crisis inspired the next few outbursts. What happened in Paris affected Mexico City and vice versa. That gave the power elites pause. It made them think.
Then they got their clubs out and started breaking some bones. And they cocked their guns. In some cases, the protesters themselves were violent from the start. In other cases, the police responded to peaceful protests with brutality. And often brutality fueled more protests.
A lot of anti-war agitation in the US was attended by police violence, as were the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King. The yippie demonstrators in Chicago, who meant to provoke a police overreaction, got their wish. The French government cracked down on the widespread protests and strikes (then it called for new elections and the whole thing sputtered out). The Brazilian government fired upon and killed protesting students. In Mexico there were riots, some caused by grenadiers who had been promised a bonus for each demonstrator they clubbed. Hundreds were injured and perhaps a thousand arrested. And then the Mexican military opened fire on student demonstrators in the infamous October 2nd massacre in Tlatelolco—just 10 days before the 1968 Olympic Games, hosted by Mexico, were to begin! (The games were utterly normal.) The Pakistani government also fired on protesters; dozens were killed, hundreds injured.
I was born shortly after this, in 1969, right as the peoples of the Earth were being mesmerized by scenes, beamed to televisions around the planet, of US astronauts walking on the moon, and just a few days before the world would again be mesmerized by the music and outlandish scenes of the Woodstock music festival.
Growing up in Mexico City, in the 1970s, we kids could hear everybody still talking about 1968. It was a big deal. Yes, because of Tlatelolco. But also everything else. The West had been grinding, turning, churning, foaming—everywhere. It had been a moment, one of those, when the ‘Western collective’ becomes manifest, allowing us to see that our polyglot Western hearts, despite their differences, beat in synch and evolve together, because the West really is one big thing, a civilization, moving coherently through time, as evidenced by the felt appropriateness of trans-Western labels such as ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Enlightenment.’
This was one of those great collective moments. There is for the West—all of it—a Before 1968 and an After 1968.
The consequences were vast, for this historical moment transformed the way we talk. Some things became politically incorrect—unsayable. Others became obligatory. And there was a sudden garlanding of public discourse with new ritual genuflections and taboos. All of it amounted to a kind of ‘phase transition’ in the political grammar.
It was in this moment, as embodiment and defender of this new political grammar, that the New Left, still with us, came into its own and ‘identity politics’ took center stage. It would continue to grow in importance, transforming over a few decades the very substance of university curricula, and has now become institutionalized as ‘woke’ dogma in our corporate and government institutions. (It is, however, also being vigorously resisted).
Yes, 1968 was a political whale of a year.
Well, 1848 was much bigger.
It was much, much more violent. It recruited even larger hordes. And its grammatical consequences were more profound, still, than those of 1968 (which I hardly mean to belittle, for they will perhaps prove strong enough to destroy the WEIRD world that 1848 begat).
So one way to begin grokking 1848 is to understand that, as tremendous as 1968 was, 1848 was by comparison, in every dimension, like the sun to our planet. Yet even this is not enough to properly gauge the vast consequence of 1848 as a political phase transition. For that, one must first have a sense for the conditions in which people suffered before that fateful year.
So let us jump backwards in time from 1968, a little more than a century, and anchor ourselves back again in the year 1848, when our current Western democratic experiment really began. And let us stretch back even further, just a bit, to the years before 1848, so that we can better appreciate, in context, what happened.
The great French poet and novelist, Victor Hugo, a contemporary of Maurice Joly, and thus writing in the second half of the nineteenth century, labored to communicate to his countrymen what the period 1815-1848, the previous generation, had been like. “An English statistic” of that time, he wrote, “states that in London four out of five acts of stealing have hunger for immediate cause.”4 He didn’t share the French statistic; perhaps nobody had bothered to compute it. But he did share a French story: Les Misérables (The Wretched).
That’s the famous story of Jean Valjean, who spends nineteen years in prison (nineteen) after stealing one loaf of bread (one) to feed his widowed sister’s seven children (seven), then regains his freedom in the year 1815, right as Napoleon was being shown the door to make way for Louis XVIII, the new king of France in the Bourbon restoration. The story follows Valjean and other characters over the next four decades so that Victor Hugo can paint a damning picture of how peasants and workers were mistreated under the restored monarchy. “Society really ought to look at such things,” he scolded his readers in his chapter, ‘The Depths of Despair,’ “since it is society that makes them.”5
My own attempt to convey this period must use fewer words (Victor Hugo goes on for about 1,900 pages in the French original!). And I must cover a broader geography to give you a sense of the European, not just the French, situation. For compared to the poor elsewhere in Europe, the French, desperate though their lives indeed were, were a bit less wretched.
Imagine, then, that the luck of the draw has made you a peasant, not in France, but somewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, sometime during the period 1815 to 1848. You are a serf. A slave, basically. How goes your life?
In 1848: Year of Revolution, historian Mike Rapport explains that peasants in Bohemia and Hungary “were obliged to pay heavy dues to their landlords while also being forced to perform compulsory labor services (the robot) on their lord’s land.”6 Nobody paid you for robot, but you still had to do it.
There was quite a lot of it. If you can imagine this, Ukrainian peasants in Galicia were forced to spend more than one of every three days doing robot on their landlords’ estates. And that was in addition to doing public work for the government!
You wouldn’t want to be a Czech peasant, neither:
“Besides the robot, Czech peasants were also weighed down by payments in money and kind to their landlords—and this was in addition to taxes owed to the state and the tithe paid to the Church.”7
With all that free work for others, and so many taxes, you may be wondering, how could anybody feed a family? They couldn’t: many went hungry.
Though starving, these wretches were told, and in no uncertain terms, that they should keep their dignity in check and properly grovel before their ‘betters.’ “[Czech] peasants were meant to be subservient in their behavior; right up to 1848 they had to address state officials as ‘gracious lord.’ ”8
If you got smacked you’d grin and bear it, for “landlords could strike a peasant with a fist at will, although beating with a cane required the formal approval of the district government official.” That “formal approval” requirement sounded nice, but it was no real benefit, because Gracious Lords wouldn’t likely present proper documentation to you, the underperforming peasant (nor could you read it), before dispensing your richly deserved caning.9
And yet everything is relative: a caning looked good to peasants living and working in Polish estates, for they were getting the cudgel.
Strictly speaking, that was forbidden: “since 1793 landlords were not permitted to use cudgels with which to batter their serfs.” But again, who cares about laws? Not Gracious Lords. “The prohibition was almost universally ignored; so much that the government had to reiterate the ban repeatedly, the last time in 1841.”10 One doesn’t want to go there, but it seems these Polish landlords may have been psychopaths.
“A Polish democrat despaired …: ‘The peasant in the eyes of the magnate was not a man, but an ox, destined to work for his comfort, whom it was necessary to harness and thrash with a whip like an animal.’ ”11
Yes, it was bad. But perhaps not quite so bad as what happened in the vast Russian Empire, and in Austrian-ruled Galicia, were the peasants were literally and formally slaves.
And what about the Western cities? Suppose the luck of the draw made you not a peasant but an industrial worker. Were you doing much better?
In Britain, the latter years of an English laborer’s life, “beyond those of self-supporting activity, were almost certain to be spent in an almshouse. The end was a pauper’s grave.” But if the end was bad, his years of labor were not much better. A process of rapid industrialization had brought “large agglomerations of poor and ignorant persons in manufacturing towns,” and these easily became the victims of swindlers and alcohol.12
Even without these predatory social challenges, it was already difficult to feed oneself: “Before the close of the [Napoleonic] war with France, bread was at famine rates and wages at their lowest.” After 1815, though the war had ended, “the landed aristocracy” in Britain “was grasping enough to desire to continue war prices,” and so they manipulated the corn laws. Lots of people went hungry in the cities. In the countryside, needless to say, it was not much better.13
It wasn’t a party in France, neither, as we all learn from Victor Hugo. And we learn it, too, from government reports of that time, which, though lacking the French master’s style, sometimes edge passionately into his genre of ‘outrage literature.’
“In 1832 a report on the northern French industrial town of Lille described the squalor in which the poorest workers lived: ‘In their obscure cellars, in their rooms… the air is never renewed, it is infected; the walls are plastered with garbage… If a bed exists, it is a few dirty, greasy planks; it is damp, putrescent straw… The furniture is dislocated, worm-eaten, covered with filth.’ ”14
Once again, however, the lot of the poor in Central and Eastern Europe was direst.
Prussia, for instance, really wasn’t a good place to find yourself in. In this period, “the growth of the rural population was such that between the Napoleonic Wars [ended in 1815] and 1848, the number of landless agricultural workers in Prussia grew at almost double the rate of the overall population.” Many were “living on the margins of existence and [were] especially vulnerable to famine when poor harvests struck.” Even landowning peasants had a hard time: according to estimates, “a hundred thousand” of them were forced to sell their land and joined “the struggling masses of landless rural laborers.”15
Things were so bad for the urban poor in Germany and Czechoslovakia that workers had a “standard of living below that of convicts in prison.” You were often better off committing a crime! If you stayed within the law, you’d feed yourself on “potatoes and hard spirits,” and you’d shiver violently in the winter—assuming you survived it, for you possessed no winter clothing. “The towns and cities were teeming with poverty-stricken masses crammed into hideously overcrowded tenements.” Mortality for children below the age of 5 was at 50%. Few of those who survived could hope to live beyond their late thirties.16
From the point of view of our 21st century Western reality, it is only natural to ask: What were the European elites thinking? After all, suffering on a similar scale had helped produce the French Revolution of 1789—not (indeed!) so long ago. Were they not worried that something like the French Revolution might remanifest?
They were scared. They had been scared ever since the French Revolution of 1789 had broken. From Day One of that business aristocrats all over Europe had been scared witless. They quickly plotted with the French king and queen and many French aristocrats to quash the revolution, lest it be exported. From abroad, they accused the French people of treason, plotted counterrevolution, mobilized troops to the French border, and issued ultimatums to the revolutionaries that they should restore the French king in his full powers—or else!
This hysterical overreaction convinced the French insurgents that either the Revolution would be exported or it would be destroyed. In consequence, the continent was wracked by the Revolutionary Wars. And inside France, the paranoia over counterrevolution fueled the Terror of 1793.
Then came Napoleon, who brought internal peace to France, and who continued—rather successfully—the European wars.
But eventually Napoleon overreached.
After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, the carnage of those wars “weighed heavily on the minds of policy-makers. So, too, did the grim, angular shadow of the guillotine,” which had so cleanly separated the necks of the French king and queen—and of so many others—from their bodies. The aristocrats were still scared. Very scared.
Perhaps from that fear they should have reasoned that, if they wished to keep their heads, the best idea was to engage in widespread reforms to improve the conditions of the poor, thus defusing the desperation that bred political violence. But fear suggested to these aristocrats a different idea: they would slide their legs into their shiny black military boots, like they loved to do, and they would step once again on the peasant’s neck. Push his face back into the mud. Teach him respect. As one historian puts it: “The post-Napoleonic political system… tried to be muscular in the face of subversive threats to its existence.”17
The chief architect of that “muscular” system, the Austrian Prince Klemens von Metternich,
“[deplored] liberals and nationalists who called for constitutions, national independence and political unity. Sovereigns should not yield to these demands, [Metternich believed,] not even in an effort to make timely concessions to avoid revolution.”18
To stop the liberal train in its tracks, Metternich cobbled together the ‘Holy Alliance,’ a coalition of the great absolutist powers: Russia, Austria, and Prussia. And he remonstrated (successfully) with the Russian Zar Alexander I when, in 1820, “he was flirting with the hair-raising idea of introducing a constitution.”19
Nevertheless, some concessions were made; even Metternich made them, for it was obvious that without them an uprising was guaranteed. But such concessions were few; repression plentiful. So the poor lashed out and they were crushed.
Britain saw the Luddite Riots of 1811-1816, the Spa Fields Riots of 1816, the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, and the Swing Riots of 1830.20 There were revolutionary insurrections in Italy and Spain in 1820-21; in Russia in 1825; in France, Belgium, Poland and Italy in 1830; in 1831 in the papal states; and a massive protest movement in Germany in 1832. In 1844 there was a revolt of Silesian handweavers. “Roughly three-quarters of the forty thousand weavers simply did not have enough money on which to feed their families. Factories were sacked, but no one was hurt until the Prussian army stepped in to crush the weavers, killing ten of them.”21 The papal states saw revolts again in 1843, 1844 and 1845. “At the time of Pope Gregory’s death (June 1, 1846), the papal prisons were filled with conspirators and reformers.”22 And in Switzerland, in 1847, the liberals won a civil war between liberal and conservative cantons.23
1848 was coming.
“ ‘Can you not sense, by a sort of instinctive intuition… that the earth is trembling again in Europe? Can you not feel… the wind of revolution in the air?’ ”24
Thus intoned in the French Chamber of Deputies the famous Alexis de Tocqueville on 29 January, 1848. De Tocqueville—all are agreed—was a jolly smart fellow. But he didn’t need to be a genius. He just needed to be awake: 1848 was coming.
And then it came. The suffering peoples of Europe had had enough. All of a sudden, in 1848, the entire continent—in fact, all of Western Civilization, save for the British Isles and the Russian Empire—was suddenly ablaze, consumed by political violence. This was big.
1848 changed the political grammar of the West
There can be no gainsaying the shock that 1848 caused to the ruling classes of the West. Picture how they must have felt through the first few months of that year.
“Broadly speaking, the first half of the year 1848 saw startling triumphs of the revolutionary upsurge: the overthrow of kings in Italy and France; the flight of Metternich and steps toward constitutionalism in Austria, Prussia, and other German states throughout the spring months; the meeting in Frankfort in May of the liberal assembly designed to unite the Germanies in a federal republic; and the June Days in Paris, which marked the height of the socialistic phase. …Pope Pius IX fled from Rome in November and a republic was proclaimed the following February. In the spring of 1849 the Hungarians, who had been fighting for autonomy, set up a republic.”25
It was all happening everywhere and at the same time. All of the peoples of the West had risen—simultaneously!
This was the ‘European Spring’ of 1848—the original ‘spring’ from which other movements have since borrowed the name. And it taught the aristocrats an important lesson.
That lesson, so profound, was this: the world had changed forever. Many signs there had been, and aristocrats slow to read them, but now the sheer scale of events all around them was a most effective teacher. Mindful of history, adapting at last, they yielded, granted, compromised, and conceded in their rush to appease and conciliate—lest they forsake all their power and, like the French monarchs, perhaps even their noggins!
“From Sicily to the Baltic, rulers were tumbling over themselves in their hurry to grant the reforms demanded by their peoples. In every state existing ministers were jettisoned and more liberal ministers appointed… In Italy it was said to be raining constitutions. The spark kindled by Sicily spread through the peninsula at such a pace that within the course of 35 days four states—Naples, Tuscany, Piedmont and Rome—had all agreed to give the people the precious scrap of paper they were clamoring for. ‘Everything is demanded of us,’ wrote the distracted Duke Ernest of Saxe-Coburg, ‘even the establishment of perfect health and the gift of long life!’ ”26
Though much of this was reversed, and aristocrats in many places restored to power, the shock did not wear off. And therein lay the enduring lesson. One hundred years later, looking back, Arnold Whitridge was right to observe that, despite the reversals suffered by insurgents,
“The Revolution of 1848 cannot be dismissed as a mere flash in the pan. It produced solid results though these results were not immediately apparent. After 1848, in spite of their defeat on the barricades, the workers had acquired a new status in the community. Never again could a politician suggest that the men in the factories and the workshops should accept their lot with humble resignation.”27
Never again. 1848 transformed Western political grammar.
By ‘political grammar’ I mean all those rules governing that which, in politics, it is obligatory or forbidden to say; rules governing how claims should be combined; rules on what is politically correct and incorrect. A political grammar, like other cultural grammars (including of course linguistic grammars) is a product of a time and place. Our modern times, built on our unique and oh-so-modern political grammar, began in 1848.
After that year, the Western power elites found themselves forced to speak the language of liberty, of popular sovereignty, of constitutional government, of assistance to the poor, and so on. They found themselves carried inexorably—two steps forward, one step back—on the path of political progress that would build the modern West of constitutions, parliaments, universal suffrage, freedom of thought, expression, religion, and charters of rights. That’s the new political grammar.
“By the end of the year  the forces of reaction were back in the saddle, but the working man had acquired an importance in the eyes of the politician that he has never since lost.”28
That’s the entire lesson right there: the modern West emerged when “the forces of reaction,” though “back in the saddle” and very much hating the idea of democracy, nevertheless decided to reform institutions in the direction of political progress because they could no longer deny the “importance” of the “working man.” Which means this: the working man had shown that he could and would break everything, and spill enough blood, if provoked to the limit.
Think of all that blood spilled on the streets of Europe as a great sacrifice performed by your forefathers, in whose mysterious social alchemy was born the notion of legitimate popular pressure, bequeathed to you. This is the idea that government (naturally) should listen to all the citizens and serve all their interests, not just a few. (Because, went the argument, as Judeo-Christians, we know that God made us all equal.) It was this new phenomenon of legitimate popular pressure—with its implied threat of a new revolution if satisfaction was not minimally guaranteed—that transformed the political grammar.
The new public language that power elites now committed themselves to, and the ongoing implicit (and sometimes explicit) threat of popular violence, locked the power elites into the path of making piecemeal concessions, as needed, to avoid revolution. And so was a gradual and progressive political evolution of the West managed.
In this, as in so many other modern things, the continental elites were following in the footsteps of their British counterparts, from whom they earnestly tried to learn.
Learning from the British
The year 1848 did not see political violence in Britain. There certainly was a surge of popularity for Chartism, “always deeply concerned with the movement toward popular representation in parliament and the enfranchisement of the masses.”29 And a Great Chartist Meeting did convene in Kennington Common, London, in 1848. The power elites took notice. But political violence as such was avoided in Britain that year—a white spot on the 1848 map even as revolution raged everywhere else.
The argument has commonly been made, and it is difficult to dispute, that Britain avoided violence in 1848 thanks to the British Reform Act of 1832, which had “reduced property and wealth restrictions on voting and increased the total electorate to 813,000.”30 This argument is made compelling by a simple but powerful fact: before 1832 there had been several years of riots in Britain (see above).
The 1832 reform had not created a full democracy or anything remotely near it, but it had appeased the British middle classes, now included in the franchise. And it had given the workers and peasants, still on the outside, a certain confidence that a peaceful way forward existed for later parliamentary reforms that would give them greater participation and liberty.
Aristocrats on the continent could appreciate that these British reforms of 1832 had been strategic rather than ideological. After all,
“[The British] Parliament was dominated by the landed aristocracy, which was not concerned with the troubles of the manufacturing population. At this time Parliament was probably more often thought of as a council to assist the King than as a body to represent and act for the people.”31
The British landed aristocracy was indeed not concerned to alleviate the suffering of workers, but that hole in their heart—that place where compassion should have been—could be filled instead with fear, and fear could make these people think. Hence: the Reform Act of 1832, the first draft of which prime minister Earl Grey introduced as follows:
“ ‘There is no-one more decided against annual parliaments, universal suffrage and the ballot, than am I ... The Principal [sic] of my reform is to prevent the necessity of revolution.... I am reforming to preserve, not to overthrow.’ ”32
Modern historians, write Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, have recognized the obvious: Earl Grey was being transparently honest. The Reform Act of 1832 was just “ ‘a measure to stave off any further threat of revolution by extending the franchise to the middle classes.’ ”33 Open the valve a little, release some steam.
This was not just Earl Grey’s view, of course. Acemoglu & Robinson find no heartfelt aristocratic conversion, in the parliamentary discussions, to the ethical imperative of building an inclusive democracy. What is obvious in the documents from that time is that these reforms
“were immediately viewed as a success not because of some ideal of enlightenment or democracy, but because the threat of revolution and further unrest were avoided.”34
Indeed, from this point of view, British aristocrats could congratulate themselves on their astute political management when the violence of 1848 did not touch Great Britain—they had gotten ahead of the curve.
But even so, in shock from the violence on the continent, and in response to Chartism, Lord John Russell proposed additional reforms in the 1850s, arguing
“that it was necessary to extend the franchise to the upper levels of the working classes as a means of preventing the revival of political radicalism.”
Once again, the point was to keep Russell’s own class in power. But his colleagues, not so high strung, felt they had given quite enough for the moment.35
Continental aristocrats, by contrast, had some catching up to do, and after the violence of 1848 they began learning from their British counterparts how to stay in power.
Should we count that as a bad thing? So what if reforms have been offered just to avoid revolution? Was it not a blessing that the bosses—resigned to the incremental extortions of ‘creeping equality’—could be goaded, inexorably, on the path of political progress?
Yes, it was a blessing—the blessing of parliaments. For civil wars are costly affairs all around, whereas in parliaments the various orders, classes, and factions of society can meet and negotiate incremental reforms rather than fight. They can also learn from each other. One could thus reasonably hope that, as the social structure changed, and as the bosses participated in the new institutions, they might soften their values and become honest democrats.
Some of this did happen, of course.
But there was also the reaction. Many aristocrats retained an older ideology of power and, from Day One, though they grinned and back-slapped in public their alleged satisfaction with the new order, yet they were already scheming to recover their lost power. That struggle continues.
But how to know who in the political arena really works for progress and who for reaction? It ain’t easy to know, because people can represent themselves in public in ways utterly at variance with what they privately hold dear, and the same florid and irate pro-democratic language might pour from aristocratic lips as much from principle as from strategy. Today’s reactionaries are wise not to be so transparent as Prime Minister Earl Grey was in his time.
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It bears repeating: enemies of democracy can strut about as supposed defenders. For strategy is clever, fickle, and adapts to the evolving situation. Reactionary bosses, without shedding any of their scorn for the ‘lower orders,’ can learn to stop firing on the poor, make concessions, and allow some democracy. And more concessions later, too, if it means staying on top. If there is no other way. So be it.
But then, later, with the passage of time, the moment may ripen for a more profound—and more refined—adjustment.
The bosses might in time fully come to grok the grammar of triumphant progressive liberalism, the discourse of democratic rights and liberties. And one who groks can use. Thus, with their liberal camouflage convincingly donned—you know, defending liberty and equality left and right as if truly on principle, and paying always lip service to the ‘sovereignty of the people’—the bosses might learn to leverage the rules of this new political grammar and thus recover, without quite seeming to, every ounce of their lost power.
How exactly? By managing reality.
This is what Maurice Joly—writing just a decade and a half after 1848—warned us would happen in his masterpiece: The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, or the Politics of Machiavelli in the 19th century.
Joly explained how covertly reactionary bosses, busy pretending to be modern liberals so they could continue to run all of our institutions, were already—right before Joly’s very eyes—gaining clandestine control of the democratic system, undermining it, and laying the groundwork so they could eventually take it utterly down.
In other words, immediately after 1848—because that’s when Maurice Joly was writing—the power elites had developed already the theoretical scaffolding and practical smarts to leverage the democratic grammar against democracy.
It was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte doing all that—Louis Napoleon, who had just spent several years of exile… where? Why, in London! Yes, he’d been rubbing elbows with the very aristocrats who’d been refining the art of managing political pressure from below, learning how to open the valve ever so gently, just enough, to stay in power, learning meanwhile to coopt the forces of political liberalism. And Louis Napoleon was now doing the same in France, taking this art to entirely new heights, for he was doing it in the face of universal male suffrage!
Louis Napoleon’s strategies are old. We The People have got some catching up to do. Maurice Joly’s book, known only to a few, should be our political Bible. In the following piece, I’ll discuss his observations:
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Acemoglu, D., & Robinson, J. A. (2000). Why did the West extend the franchise? Democracy, inequality, and growth in historical perspective. The quarterly journal of economics, 115(4), 1167-1199. (p.1183)
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‘1848: The Year of Revolution’ (op. cit) p.275
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‘Why did the West extend the franchise?…’ (op. cit) p.1183
Chartism—a Chapter in English Industrial History (op. cit.) p.512
‘Why did the West extend the franchise?…’ (op. cit) p.1182
‘Why did the West extend the franchise?…’ (op. cit) p.1182
‘Why did the West extend the franchise?…’ (op. cit) pp.1182-1183
‘Why did the West extend the franchise?…’ (op. cit) p.1183