Monday, December 22, 2014

Book Review: Revolutions of 1848 by Priscilla Robertson

Priscilla Robertson's Revolutions of 1848: A Social History chronicles the revolutionary struggles across Europe in 1848.  Robertson declares that the book's "aim is to show how men lived and felt a hundred years ago rather than to describe at length other important factors." (vii)  Insisting that "no leader was really very important in 1848," (vii) she strives for a "social history."

1848 saw the emergence of the proletariat onto the political scene.  "Sixty years of the swiftest industrial progress the world had ever known had created a new working class whose miseries were likely to be explosive." (4)  In Continental Europe, this class was most developed in France.  Its "miseries" -- including the hitherto unseen scourge of mass unemployment -- were also more developed in France.  Previously, the proletariat and bourgeoisie were united against foreign enemies and their own monarchy and aristocracy.  However, 1848 shattered this bond: "What was lost, in 1848, was the idea that classes and nations had anything to give to each other." (7)

New ideologies developed concomitantly with the class struggle.  The Communist Manifesto, published a year previous to 1848, went practically unread until workers tried to make sense of their betrayal by the liberals.  "Only after the liberals won power did they discover that they were afraid of the workers; when the workers found this out they turned to the Marxian gospel." (6) Despite not knowing about Marxism, the workers still in effect raised Marxist demands: "In 1848 for the first time the working classes were going to assert, unsuccessfully, their demands for redistribution of goods." (14)  In this sense, 1848 was also a struggle between conflicting ideologies: nationalism, liberalism and socialism.

The personalities in France embodied the varying ideologies of the time.  Louis Philippe was the king of the July Monarchy brought to power by the July Revolution of 1830.  Louis Blanc was a liberal reformer who had been agitating for what he called "the right to work" -- essentially guaranteed employment.  Proudhon and Blanqui were anarchists, the former as a polemicist (who eventually took part in government) and the later as a organizer of revolutionary secret societies.

Paris was the spark that lit the fuse of continent-wide revolution.  It was the only city where "a true socialist revolt was possible in 1848.  Other European capitals lacked the working-class leadership for such a fight; it is also true that their energies were more absorbed in the fight for nationality, which the French did not have to bother with." (21)  Liberal reformers established a campaign of banquets to organize politically which exploited a loophole in the law prohibiting large political meetings.  The regime's banishment of these meetings in February enraged Parisians, who started building barricades and condemning the influential minister Guizot.  A series of fatal confrontations between soldiers and citizens led to the king's abdication and the establishment of the Second Republic, declared by Lamartine.

In the wake of the change of regime, the economy collapsed.  The provisional government decided to enact a tax on peasants which "may have saved the republic from bankruptcy, but it also killed it by arousing the hatred of the countryside." (66)  The Luxembourg Commission, the "first workers' congress in the world" (67) was set up by the government under Blanc to study the problems of the laboring classes.  The government also set up national workshops, meant to guarantee work for the previously unemployed, but did so in a way which almost guaranteed their failure: they were woefully inadequate to absorb all the excess labor, under hostile direction and mismanaged.  Finally, the government granted universal suffrage to all Frenchmen to participate in the upcoming presidential election.

As inadequate as they were, the national workshops represented one of the few concessions to the proletariat.  The government's decision to shutter them provoked the June Days fighting, the "first real class war of modern times." (77)  50,000 took to the barricades in despair with the cry "bread or lead," (88) and over a thousand died as the workers were crushed by Cavaignac's forces.  The aftermath also provides us with the "first example of permanent martial law," (96) as Cavaignac kept his troops in the city to suppress any latent uprisings.

Louis Napoleon (Napoleon I's nephew) faced little challenge in the presidential elections later that year, as every other candidate had discredited himself.  Moreover, his namesake carried the glory of a powerful France, appealing to the peasantry and others.  "The truth was, Napoleon was nearly everybody's candidate." (100)  But the reserved nephew would soon betray nearly all his promises: "A professed democrat and nationalist, the future emperor was to kill democracy and nationalism in the Roman Republic; a boastful friend of peace, he led France into several wars; though he publicly courted socialists, he used reactionary ministers and soon cut off his left-wing friends.  Universal suffrage, then, did not give a very good account of itself in its first try in ninetieth-century Europe." (102)

Parts two through four focus on political events in the German states, Austrian Empire and Italian states, respectively.  Robertson quotes an American as observing, "In 1848 both Germany and Italy could have won either unification or liberalism, but because they tried for both, they did not win either." (115)

In her concluding section, Robertson attributes the lack of a revolution in Britain to "free speech and good will and wealth." (407)  Ironically, most of the demands of the 1848 revolutionaries were brought about within a quarter centuries by the enemies of the revolution in various countries.  But the revolutions themselves failed because "in a sense the 1848 revolutions turned into class struggles." (412)  However, "The greatest failure of all in 1848 was that the men who had power never really trusted the people." (419)  She ends, "Out of 1848 and its struggles no important new freedom was wrested.  Instead men lost confidence in freedom and imagined they had made a great advance in sophistication by turning from idealism to cynicism." (419)

Robertson's style makes for smooth reading, although one does get the sense that some important facts about 1848 are either left out or passing emphasized.  Her heavy use of personality studies does fit in with the goal of a "social history."  However, I don't think this book (published in 1952) emulates the extremely bottom-up emphasis of the other social histories I have read, although it does approach that direction.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Book Review: Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction by Jack A. Goldstone

Jack A. Goldstone's book Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction examines the nature, causes and trajectory of revolutions.  The first half of the book generalizes about revolutions while the second half is a series of case studies, from stirrings in ancient history to the Arab Spring revolts.

Goldstone opens the book with a discussion of what revolutions are.  There are two narratives of revolutions, one which holds they are processes in which "downtrodden masses are raised up by leaders who guide them in overthrowing unjust rulers," and the other which maintains they are "eruptions of popular anger that produce chaos." (1-2)  The reality, Goldstone argues, is that revolutions are both.  Ultimately he settles on a definition of revolution as "the forcible overthrow of a government through mass mobilization (whether military or civilian or both) in the name of social justice, to create new political institutions." (4)  He then lists many circumstances which are not, by themselves, revolutions: peasant revolts, grain riots, strikes, reform movements, coups, radical social movements, civil wars, rebellions, uprisings, insurrections and guerrilla warfare.

In the subsequent chapter Goldstone answers the question of what causes revolution.  First he dismisses conditions that do not by themselves cause revolution: poverty (revolutions occur more often in middle-income countries), modernization, and new ideologies.  He then names five conditions that he considers necessary and sufficient for revolution: 1) national economic or fiscal strains 2) growing alienation and opposition among the elites 3) increasingly widespread popular anger at injustice 4) an ideology that presents a shared narrative of resistance 5) favorable international relations.  Goldstone maintains that, like an earthquake, revolutions are very hard to predict, even if one knows fault lines where one is likely to occur.  He draws a distinction between common structural causes of revolution -- demographic change, a shift in the pattern of international relations, uneven or dependent economic development, new patterns of exclusion or domination against particular groups, the evolution of a personalist regime -- and common transient causes: food price spikes, defeat in war, riots, etc.

Chapter three examines the process of revolution.  Revolutions usually progress through a series of steps: stake breakdown (which can come in the form of a central collapse, peripheral advance or negotiated revolution), postrevolutionary power struggles which see splits between moderates and radicals -- or even counterrevolution, institutionalization of the revolutionary regime, and sometimes a second radical phase years after the initial revolution led by radicals who feel that the revolutionary aims have not been obtained (e.g. the Cultural Revolution).  To be successful, revolutionaries must have both visionary leadership and organizational leadership.  Goldstone also enumerates a set of principles regarding revolutionary outcomes: outcomes do not emerge quickly, they depend on the type of revolution (social / anticolonial / democratizing), they are likely to lead to democracy in countries that have previous experience with it, and women's issues tend to not get much attention in the new regime.

The next several chapters give brief case studies of revolutions, from ancient to modern.  Revolutions were quite frequent in the ancient world (including attempts by "history's first socialists" (45)) before becoming unlikely under emperors and kings (1CE - 1200CE).  Revolutions picked up again after that (Goldstone mentions the Bonfire of the Vanities), progressing from constitutional revolutions to communist revolutions to color revolutions and the Arab Spring.

The final chapter has Goldstone mentioning sub-Saharan Africa as a region where the conditions for revolution are building because of demographic change.  He also offers the Middle East as potentially revolutionary when key resources run out, as well as China.

Goldstone seems to hold a pretty expansive definition of what a revolution is, something like "a change in power through non-formal means that wasn't a military coup."  I would say that the word "revolution" refers to what he calls "social revolutions" -- namely, a Goldstone revolution plus the construction of a new socio-political order.  Goldstone also seems to have a preference for formal democracy and free markets as a social order, and seems to harbor a historical teleology pushing in that direction: "Someday, all countries in the world will have stable, resilient, inclusive and just regimes." (133)  He also makes some claims that I found questionable.  One is that revolutions generally shortchange women.  While this may be true in general, I would think restricting the definition of revolution to social revolution might make that claim less true.  The Russian Revolution, for instance, immediately instituted "Western feminism's maximum program, to which no government in the West ever came close to agreeing." (Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy, 188)  Lastly, Goldstone makes the claim that the end of the Cold War reduced the willingness of the US and others to support unpopular regimes.  The Cold War may have ended, but this dynamic seems pretty stable (the US's support of authoritarian Arab states, for instance).  All in all, Goldstone's book provides a useful centrist overview of the nature of revolutions.