1848: The Spring of Half-Measures

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The latest book I’ve been reading is 1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport. It’s been a fascinating read about a series of liberal European revolutions in its titular year. These revolutions weren’t covered in my world and European history classes. American classes generally cover industrialization of Europe during this time, with cursory mentions of the lack of republican government and universal suffrage. This is a shame, as much of modern political thought has its origin in the revolutions of this year.

For example, modern liberalism might have changed in substance, but it hasn’t changed in style over the almost past two centuries. Mid-19th Century liberals had a half-formed idea of liberty at the time. They wanted democratic government, organized along national identity lines (if they existed), with an electorate of males who had money. The last part might have been expressed in land ownership, but some places opened it up to people of economic means.

The promise of having a say was a powerful siren song, and as such it lured many people to the streets across Europe. Mass demonstrations occurred in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and elsewhere. Everywhere the mobs went, they extracted promises of constitutions and elections from autocratic monarchs. During the spring of 1848, it seemed like Europe was headed to a more liberal society.

Any student of history knows this didn’t happen (it still technically hasn’t). What amazes me is that liberalism has the same tendency of their ancient forebears. Their thoughts on liberty are fixated on small things, like votes and representation and constitutions. They are the means to their own ends. Anything outside accepted norms of the day is either reactionary or radical.

There are plenty of examples of how this isn’t the case. Votes do not create liberty on their own, and neither do constitutions. Representation does nothing for anyone who can’t get their views expressed in the law. It also does nothing for people that are economically handicapped. In short, votes can be divorced from any action they call for.

I mention all of this not to slam liberalism outright. Rather, it’s interesting to see some of the same logical mistakes that persist throughout time. The right to vote is a good thing, but it is not a destination unto itself. And countries do not magically form simply because they share an electorate. Anyone can draw a line on a map. It takes people working together to actually make it mean something.

At any rate, liberals started 1848 with a Spring of small successes. Rapport goes from that hopeful Spring to a socialist Summer and a reactionary Autumn. Each turning of the season presented problems that were as foreseeable as they were unavoidable.

I have to admit, I am disappointed that some of these problems still exist.