To say “nationalism” today is generally thought to sound a politically conservative note. Contemporary nationalists are generally thought to be for what the liberal theorist Karl Popper once criticized as the “closed society.” But the claims of nationalism can be liberal, even radical, and they have been in the past. After the defeat of Napoleon, attempts were made to return to the ancien régime in the Restoration, but these failed and the so-called “Revolutions of 1848” were their terminus. The Revolutions were a cluster of uprisings that swept across European nations simultaneously. The respective peoples of each nation demanded the repudiation of the old forms of governance and social structure precisely in favor of what were then thought to be the democratic, liberal politics guaranteed by the nation. In the Catholic Church, as Russell Hittinger has observed, it was the claims of nationalism that, in part, provoked Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors. The politics of nationalism are not fixed, but historically contingent.

I’m slightly late to noticing this interesting new book on the understudied Revolutions of 1848: Revolutionary Spring: Europe Aflame and the Fight for a New World, 1848-1849 (Penguin RandomHouse), by Christopher Clark.

As history, the uprisings of 1848 have long been overshadowed by the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian revolutions of the early twentieth century. And yet in 1848 nearly all of Europe was aflame with conflict. Parallel political tumults spread like brush fire across the entire continent, leading to significant changes that continue to shape our world today. These battles for the future were fought with one eye kept squarely on the past: The men and women of 1848 saw the urgent challenges of their world as shaped profoundly by the past, and saw themselves as inheritors of a revolutionary tradition.

Celebrated Cambridge historian Christopher Clark describes 1848 as “the particle collision chamber at the center of the European nineteenth century,” a moment when political movements and ideas—from socialism and democratic radicalism to liberalism, nationalism, corporatism, and conservatism—were tested and transformed. The insurgents asked questions that sound modern to our ears: What happens when demands for political or economic liberty conflict with demands for social rights? How do we reconcile representative and direct forms of democracy? How is capitalism connected to social inequality? The revolutions of 1848 were short-lived, but their impact on public life and political thought throughout Europe and beyond has been profound.

Meticulously researched, elegantly written, and filled with a cast of charismatic figures, including the social theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, the writer George Sand, and the troubled priest Félicité de Lamennais, who struggled to reconcile his faith with politics, Revolutionary Spring offers a new understanding of 1848 that suggests chilling parallels to our present moment. “Looking back at the revolutions from the end of the first quarter of the twenty-first century, it is impossible not to be struck by the resonances,” Clark writes. “If a revolution is coming for us, it may look something like 1848.”

Leave a Reply