The Revolutions of 1848 Should Be a Historical Touchstone for Socialists Today

Christopher Clark’s Revolutionary Spring is a gripping account of Europe’s 1848 revolutions. The questions raised by those movements and their ultimate defeat are still vitally important for socialist politics in our own time.

Horace Vernet, On the barricades on the Rue Soufflot, Paris, June 25 1848. (Deutsches Historisches Museum via Wikimedia Commons)

The European revolutions of 1848–49 occupy a curiously marginal place in the collective historical memory of socialists today. The “Springtime of the Peoples” saw mass democratic upheavals burst out across the capitals and provinces of Europe, chasing emperors, kings, and popes from their palaces in terror of armed popular power.

Many on today’s left may recall that a wave of revolutions followed swiftly on the heels of the publication of the Communist Manifesto, or they may be familiar with Karl Marx’s sardonic eulogization of the short-lived French Second Republic, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852). Yet compared with the stormings of the Bastille and the Winter Palace, or even with the Paris Commune of 1871, the actual events of 1848 generally receive little discussion among modern celebrants of the canon of European revolutions.

This may owe in part to what Christopher Clark, author of a monumental new history of these uprisings, Revolutionary Spring, describes as their potentially unattractive apparent combination of “complexity and failure.” Nowhere in 1848 was a durable revolutionary regime comparable with those born in 1917 or 1949 established: all of the newborn insurgent governments succumbed relatively soon to internal or international counterrevolution.

But it would be mistaken, Clark argues, to conclude that the events of 1848–49 were historically inconsequential, or otherwise unworthy of our interest today. The 1848 revolutions were unique in Europe’s history, he observes, with “parallel political tumults” breaking out all over the continent in “the only truly European revolution there has ever been.” Moreover, in his reading, these revolutions “were in fact not a failure” — they were a definite historical watershed, after which “Europe was or became a very different place.”

For Clark, the continental uprising of 1848–49 was “the particle collision chamber at the centre of the European nineteenth century,” within which the decisive political currents of European modernity, from “socialism and democratic radicalism to liberalism, corporatism and conservatism,” were put to the test and changed indelibly, to be set loose in their new forms upon the world.

A European Panorama

Up to this point, there have been relatively few accounts of the 1848 revolutions in continental perspective available in English. This is perhaps partly down to the linguistic prerequisites involved in attempting one, as well as the surfeit of national histories.

Eric Hobsbawm opens The Age of Capital (1975), the second volume of his classic trilogy on the long nineteenth century, with a succinct but illuminative panoramic on the Springtime and its consequences. Of more recent, book-length treatments, Jonathan Sperber’s 1994 textbook is probably the best known — and the best. But Clark’s massive new history, coming in at 754 pages, dwarfs all previous such studies, reconstructing the pan-European experience of 1848 to an extent never previously accomplished.

Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University, Clark has authored a number of works on German and European history, including his celebrated account of the diplomatic origins of the First World War, The Sleepwalkers (2012). Here, Clark similarly takes Europe as such as his subject: while the 1848 revolutions may have been “nationalized in retrospect,” for contemporaries, they “were experienced as European upheavals.” Revolutionary Spring arguably appears in this way as the apogee of Clark’s own style of transnational European history-writing: one need only glance through the polyglot thicket of endnotes to understand that this is a work of passionate craft.

Clark tells the story of 1848 across ten chapters, tracing the subterranean development, eruption, journey from unity to division, ultimate defeat, and lasting legacies of the intertwined revolutionary gambits across varied theatres: France, the kingdoms of preunification Germany and pre-Risorgimento Italy, Habsburg Austria and its imperial territories (notably Hungary), modern-day Romania, and beyond. Although loosely chronological, each of Clark’s successive chapters is a world unto itself, dwelling in impressive depth upon particular thematic dimensions within the making and unmaking of the revolutions.

Authoring a straightforwardly narrative history of 1848 is difficult, Clark explains — especially upon reaching the “almost-simultaneous detonations” of March: “The narrative fractures, the historian despairs, and ‘meanwhile’ becomes the adverb of first resort.” Clark’s emphasis is on immersion, leading readers through a wide-ranging reconstruction of 1840s Europe as a totality, including the worlds of religion, philosophy, art, and culture.

This is clearly the work of someone who has an exceptional familiarity with the literary culture of the period. Political pamphlets sit alongside songs, satires, and novels, such as those of the gender-nonconforming French radical George Sand, as a core part of the contemporary social mind-world in which the reader is submerged.

Extended biographical digressions populate Clark’s Europe with an eclectic cast of characters — romantic insurrectionists, nationalist tribunes, foreign journalists, ambivalent liberals, cautious parliamentarians, determined reactionaries — who, experiencing the journey into the revolutionary maelstrom alongside the reader, become the protagonists of 1848. Chock-full of illustrative anecdotes and asides, Clark’s narrative voice is engaging, authoritative, and often quite funny.

Layer Upon Layer

Building layer upon layer to establish a more complete picture of contemporary Europe, this is serious, ambitious history-writing. Clark’s long-form approach deserves welcome from anyone interested in the nineteenth-century world — though it may test the stamina of readers seeking a light introduction to the subject.

After all, the book does take 266 pages — more than the entire span of Sperber’s study! — to reach the Parisian onset of the titular revolutions in February 1848. Prospective readers should be prepared for a marathon, but this is much more the book’s strength than its weakness, making for a rewarding, substantial read. This can with some confidence be called the new definitive history of the 1848 revolutions, and a strong statement in support of the view of Clark as the authority on the subject.

There are many ways to write the history of a revolution. Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and The Black Jacobins by C. L. R James each depict, in grand, poetic terms, the singular struggle toward victory of a distinct popular revolutionary subject. The 1848 revolutions as Clark recounts them had no such unified social or political agent; they were defined, rather, by “polyvocality, lack of coordination, and the layering of many cross-cutting vectors of intention and conflict.”

Dissension within the revolutionary blocs that coalesced in that spring, and variously split asunder thereafter, is a central theme of the book. Left-wing radicals soon found that their vision of a “democratic and social republic” was not shared by the majority of constitutional monarchist (or moderate republican) liberals who predominated in the organs of power that the initial wave of revolutions had yielded.

Many of the questions facing these revolutionaries remain of pressing importance for the Left today: political pluralism and cross-class coalitions, liberal democracy and extra-parliamentary mobilization, civil unfreedom and emancipation, and the complicated relationship of nationalism to other forms of solidarity. Indeed, while Clark’s account is professedly authored from a perspective of “affinity for newspaper-reading, coffee-drinking, process-oriented liberals,” Revolutionary Spring has much to recommend itself to socialist readers.

The Social Question

“Everything and everyone was in motion,” Clark observes, in the years preceding 1848. He devotes his opening chapters to the contexts and conflicts of a post-Napoleonic Europe that was “pressed and flexed by rapid change” as the dislocating transition to capitalism proceeded apace. Through the lens of the contemporary investigative discourse around the “Social Question,” Clark profiles the prevailing social conditions of the period, including the seemingly new form of “pauperism” that was visible “almost everywhere we look in pre-1848 Europe.”

Clark is impressively conversant with the indices of European urban and agrarian social history, and there are extensive passages where, in the questions he asks and answers, he writes — perhaps even despite himself — like a Marxist. With traditional fetters to the subsumption of labor to capital weakening (especially west of the Elbe), craft workers were increasingly exposed to “processes of ‘proletarianisation.’”

Enclosure of the rural commons generated “emergent class antagonisms” throughout Europe’s countryside, while its municipal slums filled with a burgeoning class of wage workers nakedly dependent upon capricious market conditions. Food riots and agrarian skirmishes proliferated, while famed weavers’ uprisings raised the specter for radical commentators of a working class not just in itself, but also for itself.

With an international commercial and industrial crisis following harvest failures in 1845–47, the impact on the lower strata of Europe’s population was “immediate and severe.” Clark takes pains to insist that the revolutions were not simply straightforward outgrowths of popular poverty and hunger, stressing the relative autonomy of politics. But he understands this “material distress” to have been “the indispensable backdrop to the processes of political polarization that made the revolutions possible.”

Anatomizing the eclectic political ideologies that emerged amid this buckling social reality, Clark displays an expert fluency with the intellectual culture of Europe in the age when terms like liberalism, socialism, and conservatism were “only just making their way into circulation.” This was the Europe of Saint-Simonian technocracy, Mazzinian nationalism, free-trade liberalism, and neo-Jacobin revolutionism — as well as embryonic forms of popular conservatism.

Liberals and radicals are the axiomatic political tendencies within Clark’s account of the revolutionary party in 1848. They shared substantial common ground: opposition to monarchical absolutism, support for the principle of political representation, anticlericalism, and the championship of “progress.” As Clark makes clear, however, there were significant contradictions between their respective programmatic visions.

Radicals were republicans, while liberals usually supported constitutional monarchies. Radicals advocated universal (male) suffrage; liberals, on the other hand, were “emphatically not democrats” and envisioned a limited electoral franchise based upon property qualification. Radicals supported forceful confrontation with authority, while liberals, although “deeply implicated in the revolutions” of 1848, were “reluctant revolutionaries.”

The sharpest and ultimately most consequential distinction between them came over questions of redistributive social (as opposed to narrowly political) reform. Champions of the market and the sanctity of private property, with a base among the rising bourgeoisie and professoriate, liberals were far less likely than radicals to countenance government interference with the capitalist economy to remediate social problems.

Clark provides an illustrative example from the French liberal republican Alphonse de Lamartine. He condemned the socialist Louis Blanc’s proposals for sustained state intervention in labor markets to remediate unemployment as a return to the principles of the Jacobin-dominated 1792 Convention, “applied to the field of labour.”

Breaking the Dam

Revolutionary Spring follows the trajectory of European politics from 1830 — through the emergence of an underground insurrectionary tradition, proliferation of reform clubs and publications, and popular enthusiasm for liberal and patriotic cultural figureheads — to the microcosmic Swiss Sonderbund War and French “democratic banquet” campaign of 1847–48. Amid long-term social unrest, liberal and radical political agitation, and governmental deadlock in many states, cracks began to show in the dam of the established order. Clark vividly portrays a pervasive contemporary sense that something had to give. “In 1848, the metaphorical dam would break.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, liberal representative and renowned man of letters, addressed the French Chamber of Deputies in January 1848 amid news of uprisings throughout the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies:

Do you not feel, by some intuitive instinct which is not capable of analysis, but which is undeniable, that the earth is quaking once again in Europe? Do you not feel . . . what shall I say? . . . as if a gale of revolution were in the air?

Tocqueville’s warning proved prescient. The middle third of Clark’s study portrays the exhilarant unfurling, country by country, of this revolutionary spring. Resistance in France to the government’s attempted suppression of the banquet campaign exploded into days of street fighting. After failing to contain the crisis, King Louis Philippe abdicated, and a republic was declared.

Uprisings “spread like a brush fire” from Vienna and Pest to Milan and Venice, as well as German capitals like Berlin, later reaching Prague, Bucharest, and other centers. Monarchies elsewhere, scrambling to preempt the spirit of change, conceded liberal constitutions. Klemens von Metternich and François Guizot, the two representatives of the “powers of old Europe” referenced personally in the Communist Manifesto, fled into exile. From Sicily to Scandinavia, Clark notes, this was “an all-encompassing moment of shared experience.”

The author’s reconstructions of the epic social set pieces of that spring — barricade battles, demonstrations, celebrations, massacres, funerals — draw from varied eyewitness accounts at ground level. This is where his book is at its most dynamic. The streets and squares of 1848, and the new ways in which people inhabited them, are integral to Clark’s depiction of the uprisings: “These were places where people became part of something larger than themselves.”

Public life acquired a “theatrical quality,” as the avenues that had lain strewn with bodies were occupied with costumed processions, grandiose oratory, and ubiquitous candlelight. When feminist journalist Fanny Lewald arrived in newly republican Paris, Clark writes, “she was astonished by the constant singing.”

The “stark emotional chiaroscuro” of the revolutionary period is depicted dramatically here: the euphoria of the revolutionary crowd set against the grief of slain combatants’ families, and the horror of suddenly insecure incumbent elites. No monarchs were executed in 1848, but the fate of Louis XVI remained fresh in the minds of Europe’s rulers.

Pressured by the empowered revolutionary crowd into attending the mass funeral for the slain insurgents of Berlin’s March Days, Prussia’s royals were frozen with fear; Queen Elisabeth remarked that “the only thing missing now is the guillotine.” The Austrian emperor, cast into nervous breakdown by recent events, implored his Hungarian viceroy: “I beg you, please don’t take my throne away!”

A Future Blown Open

Clark also discusses the “Dogs That Didn’t Bark” in 1848: Belgium and the Iberian kingdoms, where attempted uprisings were promptly suppressed. Cutting against a traditional, self-satisfied historiographical consensus, he rejects as a myth the idea that there was no “British 1848,” belied by the realities of significant Chartist mobilization, even vaster police countermobilization, and the “franchising out of political contention through the [colonial] periphery.”

Police power and “the weeding out of agitators through arrests and transportations” were, he argues, sufficient to block “the potential for a major rebellion” in famine-stricken colonial Ireland. There are assorted references to Ireland throughout the book, though greater discussion of the Young Irelander revolt might have been welcome.

Clark situates 1848 in admirable global perspective, tracing the extra-European influences, lives, and afterlives of the revolutions throughout the wider world system. From Ceylon to Cape Colony to Chile, the “Global 1848” — including the abolitionist “Black 1848,” outlined previously in the work of Robin Blackburn — receives its first systematic reconstruction here.

It’s worth noting just how astronomical a paradigm shift the Springtime’s events would have seemed for European contemporaries. Monarchical absolutism, ostensibly divine, had seemingly been felled: “the future was suddenly blown open.”

Emancipation is a persistent motif in Clark’s presentation of this utopian moment, from the abolition of French colonial slavery to the civil liberation of much of Europe’s Jewish population (despite waves of popular antisemitic violence), and from the manumission of the “Roma slaves” of Wallachia to the dissolution of many remnant “feudal” obligations. A notable exception in this regard was the emancipation of women. Their ubiquitous presence yet near-universal exclusion from the political conquests of 1848 stands out throughout Revolutionary Spring.

However, the progress of political reform toward deeper social transformation would face unanticipated obstacles. Clark details how many of the new legislative assemblies, products of the considerable (albeit not universal) postrevolutionary extensions of the male electoral franchise, proved hostile to the insurrections to which they owed their very existence. His assessment of the parliaments and constitutions of the new Europe throws into clear relief the vulnerability of the Springtime’s achievements.

Dominated by “liberals and moderate conservatives,” the representative institutions of the democratic revolutions were stuffed with avowed opponents of revolution and democracy. Meanwhile, the actual champions of the Revolutionary Spring found themselves increasingly disempowered and marginalized: “What was to be done if a revolution unexpectedly generated the conditions of its own negation?”

Toward Defeat

The factors behind the slow, and then very fast, death of the revolutionary governments occupy Clark’s final chapters. Nationalism, which Clark describes as “the most powerful and influential of the phantoms that haunted European politics in the 1840s,” appears prominently among these.

Breaking out in an era before the consolidation of modern nation-states, many of 1848’s revolutions acquired a nationalist character: striving to combine co-linguistic polities into a unitary state, through initiatives like the German Frankfurt National Assembly; achieve national autonomy from supranational dynastic empires, like Lajos Kossuth’s Hungarian independence-movement-turned-war; or do both simultaneously, as with the all-Italian crusade against Austrian suzerainty. Yet as Clark observes, nationalist sentiment also repeatedly “trumped revolutionary solidarity” between patriots of neighboring nations, to the advantage of Europe’s resurgent counterrevolutionary powers.

Clark’s discussion of the Austrian Empire conveys this point most clearly. The revolutions “triggered a chain of interlocking national mobilizations” in the Habsburg domains. Allying themselves to the emperor in hopes of gaining future autonomy, “Slavic and Romanian groups counter-mobilized against the national claims of Hungarians, Poles or Germans,” which had not taken sufficient account of the other nationalities in the territories they hoped to rule. The Hungarian hinterland descended into an inter-ethnonational bloodbath from which restored Austrian imperial absolutism emerged triumphant.

Besides nationalist divisions, the escalating tension between “radical and moderate liberal understandings of the revolution” appears in Clark’s reading as the decisive, fatal disjuncture at the heart of 1848. This contradiction unfolded most violently in Paris, foreshadowed in February by Lamartine’s iconic rejection of the red flag for the new Republic, insisting instead upon the classic tricolor. Clark reveals at length the ensuing breakdown of relations between “liberals, people of the tricolour” and “radicals, people of the red flag,” which reached its denouement in the infamous Parisian June Days.

This “last-ditch worker insurgency” against the liberal-conservative government’s plan to shut down the National Workshops — a watered-down version of Blanc’s radical proposals — saw thousands killed through barricade warfare and summary executions. When things finally came to blows, Clark writes, the “spectral presence of colonial violence hung over the streets of Paris.” The liberal republicans set General Louis-Eugène Cavaignac, already well versed in genocidal counterinsurgency from his time in Algeria, upon the supposedly “barbaric” proletarians.

Having progressively suppressed the capital’s left-wing clubs and frozen out socialist demands, France’s government had, as Clark notes, proven that “republicanism and the commitment to social causes were different and separable things.” Indeed, the liberal victory that June represented over the social expectations stirred by February was codified in the subsequent republican constitution, which supplemented the “hallowed revolutionary principles” of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity with a new mantra: “Family, Work, Property, Public Order.”

Clark’s grasp of contemporary socialist commentary serves him well in a memorable section on the reactions of European radicals to the June Days. Karl Marx argued that the events in Paris symbolized the collapse of “the dream of a united revolutionary front under the banner of ‘universal suffrage’” beneath the irreconcilability of class antagonisms, while George Sand fell into suicidal depression: “I do not believe in the existence of a republic that starts out by killing its proletarians.”

An Iron Net

Clark’s study depicts similar tensions throughout the other European theaters. While the “political initiative gradually slipped to the right in Paris and Berlin,” things were moving in the opposite direction in Vienna. Here, a series of radicalizing steps widened the gap that was opening up within the revolutionary camp, with conservative and liberal deputies ultimately following the Imperial Court’s (second) flight from the capital.

Prussia’s revolution was ultimately suppressed, along with those of the other German states, by the resurgent monarchical power that Berlin’s liberal ministries had failed to check, while the Habsburg Empire regained its capital through overwhelming military force. The execution by Austrian firing squad of German radical parliamentarian Robert Blum, who appears as something of an author’s favorite throughout the book, dramatized the fate of the pan-Germanic revolution of which he was for Clark “the embodiment.”

The victorious descent of a counterrevolutionary “iron net” across Europe owed, in Clark’s perspective, to the combination of external vulnerability and internal discord that weakened the revolutionary governments. Now under the presidency of Louis Napoleon, republican France launched a counterrevolutionary intervention against the embryonic, radical Roman Republic in 1849. This typified the geopolitical dimensions that the foundering of revolutionary solidarity acquired.

Although eventually vanquished by French troops, the famed defense of Rome by Giuseppe Garibaldi’s legionnaires stands among the most stirring sections of Revolutionary Spring. Latter-day uprisings across southern Germany, in which Engels fought Prussian troops on the barricades, tried to keep the flame alive, but by August 1849 it was all over. A short, powerful chapter on “The Dead” lists off the executions, in this counterrevolutionary aftermath, of many of the characters that the reader has come to know across the book.


Clark’s postmortem on the experience of 1848–49 follows the constitutional, administrative, economic, and long-term political impacts of these upheavals: “There was no return to the pre-revolutionary status quo ante. Too much had changed.” But the popular-democratic political vision of redistributive social reform that had inspired the radical left and significant layers of the revolutionary crowd in these years was forced underground for a generation, with the consolidation across much of Europe of a “liberal-conservative capitalist order.”

Was there anything that the revolutionaries could have done to prevent this? Clark concludes that the transnational revolutionary networks of 1848 ultimately failed to muster “a power capable of fending off the threat posed by the counter-revolutionary international.” He discusses at length the question of whether there were viable alternative routes not taken in 1848.

Clark acknowledges the numerous accounts that attribute the failure of 1848 to the “erroneous path” followed by various actors, “the most common suspect being the liberal bourgeoisie.” Yet he seems to resist endorsing this conclusion, pointing instead to a dearth of compromise efforts between liberal and left-wing voices. It was the “failure of liberals and radicals to listen to each other” in that Revolutionary Spring, he asserts, that proved to be “one of the central impediments to a deeper political transformation.”

He identifies this missed juncture as “one of the central tragedies of 1848”:

What if the liberals had opened themselves to the social logic of radical politics instead of clinging to the skirts of the traditional powers? What if the radicals had managed to agree a minimal social programme, a platform for a politics of amelioration that might have overcome the objections of the liberals?

Having spent its pages detailing at length how most “private-property liberals” stood implacably against the deeper democratic and social demands of 1848 — and often, eventually, against the revolutions as such — only to ultimately apportion culpability for the collapse of the revolutions to a more generalized, mutual “failure of dialogue” between the political center and left, it might be said that Revolutionary Spring, at its conclusion, lets the liberal bourgeoisie somewhat off the hook.

From Springtime to Polycrisis

Clark’s lamentation for the unrealized coalescence of a “united front of liberals and radicals” in 1848 arguably speaks to the political spirit in which the book is written. His closing discussion of liberalism as a historical project is notably positive: recalling, against modern critiques from both the Right and the Left, “what a rich, diverse, risky and vibrant thing liberalism was” in the period of its ascendancy — with its “vision of a metapolitics focused on the discursive mediation of interests” remaining “indispensable,” now as much as in 1848.

He acknowledges that contemporary liberalism also represented “a constellation of interest groups,” whose “blind spots” and “inconsistencies born of self-interest” the radicals of 1848 were correct to condemn. But he suggests that “radical arguments for democracy and social justice” could have proven “a crucial corrective for liberal elitism,” had dialogue been seriously attempted.

There is an implicit faith here that the liberals and radicals (including socialists) of 1848 were not necessarily bound to come to blows but could have potentially collaborated, had different pathways been taken, to forge a progressive reforming synthesis. At several points throughout the book, Clark appears to be venturing to claim the 1848 revolutions for the (pre-)history not of communism but of modern social democracy.

With this, and an entertaining reference to the present “polycrisis,” out of which no clear “non-revolutionary” routes seem visible to the author, Revolutionary Spring concludes. Socialists today might hold a less than rosy view of liberalism, or of the present state of social democratic politics. But the questions that Clark’s counterfactual intimations raise about the possibility of building viable progressive coalitions across substantial ideological differences are hardly ones that the Left can afford to ignore.

For radical exiles scattered across the world, Marx and Engels included, the shattering experience of defeat in 1848 was politically formative. There was scarcely a socialist grouping or tendency across the next half century that did not understand itself and its program in light of the perceived lessons of 1848.

Whether one takes from 1848 the necessity of keeping broad swathes of liberal opinion onside with any socialist project, or alternatively of ensuring absolute socialist independence from corrosive liberal influences, for left-wingers there can be no escaping the political questions thrown up by the 1848 revolutions. Those seeking to understand this history will find no better guidebook than Clark’s Revolutionary Spring.