The Year 1848—why does it matter?
It's the year that changed everything—all of history, and the entire world.
The year 1848 is a huge protagonist on this substack. In this article I will explain why I believe this year, and the study of this year, are both so important.
My main reasons are four:
The year 1848 is, in my view, the most important year in Western history, for it was in 1848 that the modern experiment with liberal democracy really began, improving the lives of many millions upon millions of people.
My basic model of how modern Western democratic politics really works is an updated version of a model first proposed by Maurice Joly, a brilliant theorist writing just a few years after 1848 on the new realities created by that year-long political earthquake.
The present moment is similar to 1848 in terms of the sheer magnitude of the changes taking place in the political sphere; moreover, these changes may soon bring the political experiment begun in 1848 to a catastrophic end, very much in line with Joly’s pessimistic predictions.
If we wish to avoid this outcome, in my view, then understanding the logic of our political evolutionary processes since 1848 is crucial, because we’ll be able to see, in this reconstruction process, the structure and behavior of the system. To do this properly, I believe, we must grok Joly’s model.
I’ll give a brief overview of all this here.
What does 1848 mean, for politics?
The year 1848 is the year that the aristocratic classes of the West concluded—at long bloody last—that the world had changed, and that the peoples of the West would not by force of arms be kicked back into slavery.
They finally understood that. Finally.
For many, many centuries, ordinary Westerners—like people everywhere—had been oppressed with formal or informal slavery, costly wars, punitive taxes, judicial and extrajudicial torture, and sundry other vexations and humiliations too painful even to list. The sheer scale of this suffering—so vast a multitude of broken hearts, of shattered hopes, of ruined lives—is impossible to comprehend.
But the impossibility of comprehending it, at least, can perhaps be conveyed: wishing to imagine the suffering of humanity is like trying picture the size of the Universe.
So you begin with something already incomprehensibly large—the Solar System—which nevertheless feels like it can give you a handle on what is otherwise sheer, total vertigo: the unfathomable—seemingly infinite—dimensions of our own galaxy. For as many as 400 billion star systems might be contained within our galaxy.
What does that even mean? Right you are!
According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, it takes light—the fastest thing in the Universe—about 85,000 years to travel from one end of our galaxy to the other. That’s 85 times longer than the lapse since humans invented agriculture to the present. All that time, the light is traveling, and still it cannot get to the other side of the galaxy.
The fault of course lies with the diameter of the Milky Way. It is pointless to make any effort to comprehend it. But, in these exercises, it is normative to insist on a stepwise futility. So let us honor that. First, consider this number: 1,000,000,000,000,000. That’s a quadrillion. It’s functionally meaningless four our psychology—it’s too big. But the galaxy’s diameter is not one quadrillion miles; it is that number times five hundred.
The distance between the Milky Way and the nearest galaxy is even bigger than that.
And there are perhaps 400 billion galaxies (and all the Space between them) in the larger Universe.
Of course, your mind cannot do this (it is perfectly absurd). Neither can your mind grok the crushing burden of mental agony and horror that have been the lives of so many millions of humans oppressed and brutalized on Earth since ‘civilization’ began. Should your mind succeed, even for a moment, in representing this suffering, it would send you into a coma.
And that’s how things went for most people, century after painful century.
And then, in the Middle Ages, a few dissidents dared to flaunt Church and secular law to translate the Holy Books from the Latin—which none but the priests understood—into the European languages. All of a sudden, ordinary people in ‘proto-protestant’ assemblies heard for the first time the exciting story of the ancient Israelite slaves, officially their ideological ancestors. They read how those slaves had defeated the Egyptian Pharaoh, their master, in revolution, thereupon organizing themselves according to a new Law designed to produce a more horizontal society where none would be oppressed. And they read those laws! And they dared to think that they, the downtrodden, should perhaps inherit the Earth not after but before they died.
Thus began the first attempted revolutions during the Middle Ages. These revolutionaries were exterminated. But the Bible had now been translated and people kept reading. More attempted revolutions—at once religious and political—followed. So the power elites of the West shed more dissident blood. Yea, the blood did flow: rivers of the stuff.
And so it went, century after bloody century.
And then, in 1848, after so many, many centuries, the revolutionaries at last fought the aristocrats back to the edge of a cliff. And these latter finally got the message: the peoples of the West would not again by force of arms be kicked back into slavery.
So the year 1848 became the year of the Great Adaptation—a never-before-seen historical event: the emergency adoption, by the power elites, of a public stance that truly elevated the common citizen to ideological supremacy.
The manner of speaking of politicians and bureaucrats, the way of discussing society, government, and the future—it all suddenly changed. The political grammar, the rules about what is politically correct and incorrect, what claims and purposes are allowed and disallowed, how certain statements must be combined, what certain things are held to imply, which preambles are obligatory for which questions, what is sacred and what profane, etc., all of that was, in one historical instant, transformed. And so from 1848 onward, across the West, public institutions began adopting their present official vocation and public justification: to serve the general public.
(To get a sense for the scale of this change, consider that poverty as such became an officially urgent State ‘problem’ only after 1848.)
We are now living in times of change. At this juncture, too, Western political grammar is undergoing radical transformations. Will these transformations be completed? Will they be effectively resisted? What is at stake?
What is at stake is the most profound gain of 1848, the notion of political progress. This is the idea that finding new tweaks to our institutional and legal arrangements, peacefully debated in our parliaments, can make life better for everyone, and that we don’t need any more civil wars, nor must we fight each other internationally (democracies famously don’t fight each other, a most amazing and eloquent statistic). This notion of political progress, since 1848, has been the evolutionary guide for our gradual and piecemeal reforms as we have tinkered with our constitutional systems.
So what is at stake? This: whether this key idea—the idea of political progress—will survive or be destroyed. Democracy, folks, now hangs in the balance.
It will do us well, therefore, to understand the year 1848, so that we may better understand our own historical moment and the implications of what we are doing to our Western societies. We need to see clearly that which, in another historical instant, might be lost.
A light taste of 1848
Plonk yourself at the end of the year 1848.
The year has done a lot. And now it is over. Neither its destructive nor its creative energies have been satisfied, but neither have its purposes been defeated. It is the month of December and voilà, in La France, the earth-shattering fruit after a long fight: the French Second Republic. And something never-before-seen: universal male suffrage.
(Okay, I exaggerated. This was briefly tried during the French Revolution, from 1792 to 1795, but it didn’t take.)
And this newfangled thing, universal suffrage, as if to avenge Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1815 defeat, has elected Louis Napoleon Bonaparte! The exiled theorist of democracy, also the great conqueror’s nephew, is now the president of France. As the year 1848—Year of Revolution—concludes its great final act, the curtain rises on a civilization remade.
Year of Revolution? Wait, you say. What about 1789? Yes, a very important year. But the Year of Revolution is 1848.
Here’s the context. Yes, the French Revolution of 1789 had spread its ideas all over Europe with the help of Uncle Bonaparte’s guns. But Napoleon the Great was defeated, as we said, in 1815. From that year forward, the slave masters, back in charge, had quashed the hopes of millions for freedom, equality, and fraternity. Quashed but not extinguished—the embers of 1789 still burned! And those embers, in 1848, ignited a giant bomb underneath the West, all of it, and the crust of the Earth shook like a dusted carpet. Not just France this time, but the West—the entire West.
Yes, in 1848.
As that fateful year had begun, one keen observer of contemporary events, the famous Alexis de Tocqueville, intoned as follows on 29 January in the French Chamber of Deputies:
“ ‘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?’ ”1
Ears to the ground, beseeched De Tocqueville: hear that faint rumble, growing louder, of a thunderous march heading our way. What was going to happen? Before these enraged masses could set the ground literally to shaking, De Tocqueville urged, some concessions should be made. Reform the system! Fast, ere it becomes too late!
It was too late already. Even as de Tocqueville spoke battles were raging in Sicily and Naples. They would soon climb the Italian boot like a lit fuse on the map of Europe hastening to Paris. And Paris blew. And then, as if by social chain reaction, the rest of Europe. And even some of the colonies. An entire civilization, gripped by revolution. Everywhere! All at once!
“We live in times which have no parallel in the history of the world,” exclaimed from across the Atlantic and without hyperbole an amazed Frederick Douglass, a former slave and now a powerful author and thinker leading the North-American abolitionist movement that would soon fight a great war for freedom. “The grand commotion is universal and all-pervading. Kingdoms, realms, empires, and republics, roll to and fro like ships upon a stormy sea.”2
Would every wigged head roll? Perhaps.
But perhaps not. Perhaps the owners of those heads had learned something. And… yes they had. Lo and behold, they had indeed learned something. And they now decided to learn more—to learn quickly.
This newly found humility, born of emergency, allowed for some quick adaptive moves. “From Sicily to the Baltic,” writes historian Arnold Whitridge, “rulers were tumbling over themselves in their hurry to grant the reforms demanded by their peoples.”3 Yes, open that valve, give them something—fast, or we’ll have to give them everything!
The same rulers who just a few months ago had been firing on these wretches for daring to protest their inability to feed themselves now couldn’t move fast enough to grant what these enraged masses, many holding small firearms, were demanding. Yes, yes, the bosses were learning—finally learning.
The revolutionaries wanted elections, constitutions, bills of rights, parliaments, freedom of speech and association, separation of Church and State—everything we now consider fundamental to the modern West. And they wanted minimally decent conditions for a working life. By the end of the year, in France at least, they had universal male suffrage and a new Bonaparte for president: The Second Republic.
But Maurice Joly wasn’t buying.
In Paris, Maurice Joly, a committed democrat, surveyed this entire scene and found it hopeless. Where others saw the dawn of a new world this man saw an ugly stillbirth. He yearned for democracy but he smelled a rat: the Second Republic did not convince him. He would soon compose its epitaph: The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu (1864).
Democracy would fail, Joly predicted.
The bosses would adapt. They would learn to speak the democratic language (only too well!) and by their silver tongues they would stay in power. Keeping their foothold up top, they would bide their time up there, making all the necessary concessions, and meanwhile, behind the scenes, they would undermine via corruption the very institutional foundations of the modern democratic system. It might take a while, but they would do it. Because they could—they had found a loophole.
And here’s the loophole: if they could only get parliament to vote ‘yea’ on the creation of a secret service under control of the Executive Branch, they could doom the entire democratic experiment. They would first have to scare the people with something—terrorists or some such—but how hard was that? Once equipped with a secret service, spending the people’s money with zero need to account for it, they could begin pulling strings behind the scenes. With such powers of corruption, they would daze and soften the victim by stages. And one day that victim, the citizenry, would be ready for the final blow. What comes next is frank totalitarianism.
Can we forgive Joly this pessimism? Some of us can. Those of us who see the curtain now falling everywhere over the Western democratic experiment, so hopefully begun in 1848, cannot but recognize in Joly a true prophet.
Help us do MOR! Get a free or paid subscription.
Joly knew that Westerners would be made to forget one day the dramatic year of 1848—this most important year—when European mobs from Palermo to Paris to Bucharest rose together, and, not without shedding their own blood, shuddered the aristocrats in their breeches, swiveled history on its axis, wrenched the Western train from its tracks and plonked it back down on modern rails, establishing a world of relative peace, brotherhood, progress, and freedom for us to tinker with and improve.
We would be made to forget all that because the enemies of freedom, Joly was sure, would end up running (and ruining) Western democracies by corrupting our meaning-making and knowledge-making institutions so they could manage our reality.
Was he wrong?
Popular consciousness of 1848 today
I managed to graduate from three top US institutions of higher learning without any real understanding of the year 1848. Far from making 1848—the year my modern civilization was born—the central component of my historical identity as a modern Westerner, my educators hardly made a point of it.
When, through my own work trying to understand Western history, the cataclysmic importance of the year 1848 finally slammed my consciousness with full force, I sought actively to establish how bad the amnesiac neglect of 1848 might have become. I had a good vantage point: for years, I taught at Mexico’s elite, boutique institution of higher learning: ITAM.
Though a tiny place, ITAM’s graduates account for over 80% of all Mexicans pursuing graduate degrees at Ivy League universities. And ITAM prides itself on having copied the University of Chicago’s famous ‘common core’ and ‘Great Books’ traditions for teaching Western Civilization.4 Yet ITAM students—including those in political science and international relations—could give me only blank stares when I asked them to explain the importance of 1848!
The problem is not ITAM—it’s the entire system. Modern Westerners—even those with the priciest, highest-quality education—know little about the origin of their own modern and democratic world. They cannot understand, therefore, what is at risk, what will soon be lost. And—guess what?—that’s why it will be lost.
We can still turn this around, but not without injecting some historical consciousness. Modern Westerners need to grok the size and importance of 1848, and that requires two things: 1) seeing events on the scale at which they happened; and 2) understanding what the Western world was like before 1848.
I’ve got two pieces that I hope will help a little. The first is on the year 1848, to give a sense for its dimensions and cultural importance. The second is on why Maurice Joly believed this new democratic world was vulnerable to clandestine management by undemocratic elites, and his pessimistic prediction—now coming true—that democracy would be destroyed from within.
Here follow those two pieces:
Rapport, Mike. 1848: Year of Revolution. United States, Basic Books, 2009. (p.42)
THE REVOLUTION OF 1848; Speech at West India Emancipation celebration, Rochester, New York, August 1, 1848; The North Star,August 4, 1848
Whitridge, A. (1947). 1848: The Year of Revolution. Foreign Affairs, 26, 264. (pp.267-268)