Monday, January 26, 2009

The Year of Revolutions


A. J. P. Taylor, my new rabbi in the field of history, wrote a number of essays about the year of revolutions, 1848, many of them for the hundredth anniversary. (If you have ever heard me say that I am suspicious of dances since 1848, that would be a comment upon the relative merits of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 – when the Viennese waltz was at the height of its craze – and the revolutions of 1848. But I digress.) Should I teach a European history course some day, a passage like the following would do much to clarify the significance of the year within a broader historical framework:

Eighteen forty-eight was the link between the centuries: it carried to the highest point the eighteenth-century belief in the perfectibility of man, yet, all unexpectedly, launched the social and national conflicts which ravaged Europe a century later. Socialism and nationalism, as mass forces, were both the product of 1848. The revolutions determined the character of every country in Europe (except Belgium) from the Pyrenees to the frontiers of the Russian and Turkish empires; and these countries have since shown common characteristics not shared by England, Russia, the Balkans, or Scandinavia. Politically speaking, a 'European' is an heir of 1848.

-Taylor, 'Year of Revolution', Manchester Guardian, 1 January 1948, in Napoleon to the Second International, 158.

As this passage suggests, however, the revolutions of 1848 did not affect Russia or the United States. Taylor explains:

The ideas of 1848 spread later to Russia; and the Russian revolutions of the twentieth century were in the true spirit of 1848. In fact, Russia, missing the disillusionment which followed the failure of 1848, alone retained faith in the revolutionary course. America was already democratic, and therefore for her, though there was no need for revolution, there was no need for disillusionment either. For a generation after 1848, and even longer, America offered to the peoples of Europe the economic and political prizes which failure had denied them in Europe. Still, 1848 left no tradition in either Russia or America.

-Taylor, introduction to The Opening of an Era: 1848, ed. Francois Fejto, in Napoleon to the Second International, 175.

Eighteen forty-eight created the modern obsession with economic equality, but this value surpassed political liberty for a strange reason:

'The right to work' was a protest as much against social inequality as against harsh living conditions. Nevertheless, by formulating this protest in economic terms, it launched the idea that liberty and political equality were negligible, or indeed valueless, in comparison with food and clothing. This idea was not intended by the social revolutionaries of 1848, who took up economic grievances principally in order to add greater force to their political demands. All the same, the damage had been done. Continental socialism, which had its origins in 1848, wrote off political democracy as bourgeois and accepted the doctrine that violence and intolerance were a small price to pay for social change. Class war took the place of the struggle for political liberty, and the Rights of Man were a casualty of 'the right to work'.

-Intro to The Opening of an Era, in Napoleon, 177.

Finally, Taylor, who saw himself as a man of the Left – though his greatest joy was smashing golden calves wherever he found them – provides this interesting insight into the limits of reason in the political sphere and the importance of tradition:

Peaceful agreement and government by consent are possible only on the basis of ideas common to all parties; and these ideas must spring from habit and from history. Once reason is introduced, every man, every class, every nation becomes a law unto itself; and the only right which reason understands is the right of the stronger. Reason formulates universal principles and is therefore intolerant: there can be only one rational society, one rational nation, ultimately one rational man. Decision between rival reasons can be made only by force. This lesson was drawn by the great political genius who observed the events of 1848: 'The great questions of our day will not be settled by resolutions and majority votes - that was the mistake of the men of 1848 and 1849 - but by blood and iron.' After 1848, the idea that disputes between classes could be settled by compromise or that discussion was an effective means of international relations was held only in England and America, the two countries which escaped the revolutions.

-Intro to The Opening of an Era, in Napoleon, 184.

Taylor believed in reason and therefore recognized what modern liberals do not: there can be only one truth. The zebra may be both black and white, but he cannot be both striped and not striped. Likewise, either all men are created equal and endowed with certain corresponding rights, or they are not. Holders of each position might both consider themselves rational, but they cannot agree and would be hard pressed to coexist except on the basis of some shared belief which could circumscribe their disagreement, a belief springing from habit or history.
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