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The first polycrisis

Aug 10,2023 - Last updated at Aug 10,2023

PRINCETON — The historian Christopher Clark’s profound and illuminating new book, “Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World, 1848-1849”, is a masterly demonstration of how remote historical periods can sometimes speak with urgency to the present. Indeed, the distant past can be a better guide than even the most informed analyses of current events. In this magisterial study of the revolutions that swept through most of Europe in 1848-1849, Clark concludes that, “It is impossible not to be struck by the resonances” to our own time.

Then as now, Clark notes, multiple crises erupted simultaneously, exposing the chaotic potential of an interconnected world. And then, too, the era was characterised by a “loss of cohesion under democratic conditions, the failure of dialogue, the hardening of orthodoxies impervious to argument, the inability to prioritise key objectives and coalesce for the purpose of pursuing them”. People were torn by “churn and change without a settled sense of the direction of travel”.

Europe’s famous revolutionary year was just as much of a polycrisis as anything we are experiencing today. But how should one analyse it? Given the multiplicity of events unfolding centrifugally across the continent, Clark’s ability to package it all into a comprehensible, fast-flowing narrative is itself a formidable achievement. The only recent analog I can think of is Simon Schama’s compelling interpretative narrative of the French Revolution, Citizens, which he wrote for the revolution’s second centenary in 1989. Schama’s book also moves elegantly between the centers of revolution and reaction in France, but he had the advantage of confining his focus to just one country.


In their own words


Clark paints his European panorama by drawing from vivid contemporary accounts, including those provided by a host of brilliant women. Excluded from the political process but highly educated and literate, they mastered the kind of sharp critical analysis that could only ever have come from well-connected outsiders.

The French romantic writer Marie d’Agoult, for example, provided what Clark considers to be the finest contemporary account of the events in Paris that year. Of particular relevance today was her focus on the circulation of unreliable information: “Our friends, our neighbours, our staff, all frightened, each with his or her sinister piece of news.” Likewise, the Rome-based American journalist Margaret Fuller had a fine ear for the openness of history and the predicament of those in power: “I often think how grave and sad the Pope must feel, as he sits alone and hears all this noise of expectation.”

Textbook accounts of the 1848 revolutions generally struggle to balance a story that shifts from Palermo to Paris to Vienna to Berlin. But Clark’s scope is even broader. In addition to offering fascinating accounts of Spain and Portugal, he also makes a powerful case that the Ottoman principality of Wallachia (modern Romania) is central to understanding the revolutionary wave’s political and constitutional development. The Proclamation of Islaz, a 22-point programme drawn up in a tiny hamlet in southwest Wallachia, included not only standard liberal demands for constitutional reform and freedom of speech and the press, but also land reform and education for all children of both sexes.

In 1848, the old order was vulnerable not because of the networks of conspirators and revolutionaries that the Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich feared so much, but because of the spontaneity with which unrest erupted. Sentiment was driven by journalists, Clark provides a compelling demonstration of the power of the media, but it then became ubiquitous. Reflecting on a campaign to stage oppositional banquets as a way of mobilising pressure on the French monarchy, the French newspaper La Réforme remarked, “So this is a crisis, a true crisis of the state that is opening up before our eyes!” More to the point, the crisis in France was just one “part of an interconnected disorder.”

The idea of a continent-wide conspiracy fired both the revolutionary imagination and the nightmares of the old order; but this narrative was fundamentally a distraction. What really tied the continent together was shared social immiseration, fuelled by the shortages that followed bad harvests and crop blights, notably the potato fungus that devastated northern Europe [with the worst effects in Ireland]. “The task of the insurrectionists,” Clark explains, “was thus to have distracted the attention of the authorities from the real task at hand, which was to recalibrate the process of government in such a way as to meet and channel the expectations of an increasingly politicised and critically aware society”.

This, then, is a genuinely European story. As Clark shows, 1848 emerged out of European debates about what governments had failed to do — and what they should do — which had, in turn, produced a general European consciousness. As a result, all new governments had to focus on improving the efficiency of the state, fostering economic development, opening up trade and communications, and reforming banking and financial institutions. The post-1848 regimes were not simply a restoration of the 1815 settlement that had been engineered by diplomats at the Congress of Vienna to formalize the end of the Napoleonic wars. Rather, they inaugurated a new era in which administrators and intellectuals looked open-mindedly to what was being done elsewhere. As Clark puts it, the effect of 1848 was to shift the debate from questions of ends (what to do) to questions of means (how to do it).


When there are no solutions


But can polycrises be ameliorated? This is a central question for today, and Clark has a striking answer: “All governments face insoluble problems, that is what government is for. It is in the nature of political problems that they cannot be ‘solved.’” This implies that the entire enterprise of searching for solutions is a distraction. The great achievement of the mid-nineteenth century was to create a society that was capable of seizing on new developments and opportunities, so that all the apparently insoluble problems of the past could simply be left behind.

There were traps along the way, of course. One complicating factor was the proliferation of new terms, or what Clark calls “semantic inflation”. As his account shows, this abiding feature of modernity can be traced directly back to the 1848 upheaval.

Paris, the centre of Europe’s revolutionary imagination, produced no shortage of “magic words”. But particular rhetorical emphasis was placed on “nation”, a reliably flexible but highly emotive term that could be used to mean almost anything. Europe was a continent of nationalities, each wedded to its own collective imaginary. Sándor Petofi may have become Hungary’s national poet and died for the Hungarian patriotic ideal, but he was of “Serbian” heritage and spoke with a Slavic accent.

The “nation” became the bridge to the future, “a word through which time flowed”. But the sheer capaciousness of the concept was also a source of danger. As in his influential account of the origins of World War I, The Sleepwalkers, Clark once again offers a powerful description of how violence can become pervasive.

The Sleepwalkers opens with a prelude, the bloody putsch in Serbia in 1903, when King Alexander I and Queen Draga were killed in the royal palace in Belgrade. The equivalent episode in Revolutionary Spring is the uprising in Galicia in 1846. When aristocratic Polish nationalists tried to rally the rural population to their cause, they soon learned that those in the countryside considered themselves to be “imperial peasants”. In the end, they butchered the nationalists.


Seeing the blind spots


In other cases, the social problem was best dealt with by relocating to the periphery. Consider Britain. Despite the severity of the famine in Ireland, the political and imaginative strength of the Chartist movement, and the ills of early industrialisation, Britain largely escaped the revolutionary process, because its social tensions had been kept away from the metropolitan centers. To raise revenues without inviting a backlash at home, the British imposed harsh taxes elsewhere, such as in the Ionian islands and Ireland (as historian Charles Read demonstrates in a brilliant recent book).

This points to what Clark regards as the insurrectionary mentality’s biggest shortcoming: it was not very good at solving real problems where they actually existed, that is, outside the urban settings that became the focal points of the 1848 revolutions. Those mobilising the uprisings generally neglected the rural question, and only a small minority even realised the extent of the issue.

One such figure was Hans Kudlich. A radical member of the Austrian parliament and the son of peasants, he openly denounced other 1848 leaders for failing to grasp the real practicalities of peasant land reform. “If you take the trouble and have the patience to enter into the peasant’s train of thought, then it will not be difficult to connect with his rationality,” he explained. But, failing that, “It won’t be enough to write smart factual articles, or to go to meetings and old speeches that are pitched for a Viennese lawyers’ club.” As Clark interprets that imperative, the revolutionaries would “have to have spent more time listening to, rather than preaching at, the people who worked the land”.

There is surely a lesson here for us in the post-2016 world of Brexit and Donald Trump. Liberal leaders lost in 1848 and 2016 because they could not understand or communicate with a broader society that was both suffering and confused. Deepening one’s political understanding requires filling in the gaps.

Ultimately, Clark delivers a ringing, and, to my mind, convincing, defence of liberalism. Though it is still as relevant as ever, it is now under threat because it is “equated on the left with colonial violence and market-driven economics, and on the right with leftist fads and social licence”. Liberalism’s strength lies in its capacity for self-correction, and in its ability to embrace and take up the concerns and ideas of its opponents. In that sense, it is resilient. The same cannot be said for autocracies.


Harold James is professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University. A specialist on German economic history and on globalisation, he is a co-author of “The Euro and The Battle of Ideas”, and the author of “The Creation and Destruction of Value: The Globalisation Cycle”, “Krupp: A History of the Legendary German Firm”, “Making the European Monetary Union”, and “The War of Words”. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.


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