Jean-Paul Riopelle, Passage

Revolutionary Failure: 1848 and Politics After Defeat

Instructor: Audrey Nicolaides
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

In 1848, an unprecedented wave of revolutions swept across Europe. And just as quickly these revolutions collapsed, were snuffed out, or destroyed. This exhilarating and defeating experience was vital for the development of a whole generation of social thinkers, politicians, historians, and even artists as varied as Karl Marx, Auguste Comte, Richard Wagner, Otto von Bismarck, and Alexis de Tocqueville. But as new constitutions were issued and popular assemblies formed—in France, Denmark, Germany, Austria and beyond— aristocratic forces, allied with liberal middle classes, leveraged military force to restore themselves to power.  Revolutionary leaders were rounded up; rights and liberties were revoked; and the revolutionary spirit in Europe, first kindled in 1789, was driven to a dormancy from which it wouldn’t awaken, with few exceptions, till the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. A source of excitement, fear, consternation, and bafflement to contemporaries, 1848 and its failures continue to occupy the imaginations of present-day historians, theorists, and radicals alike, posing lingering questions about class, nationality, liberalism, socialism, and, of course—revolution. What sparked the revolutionary outburst of 1848, and why did it become pan-European in scale? How can we understand the shifting class alliances—of factory workers, artisans, students, professionals, and the rising bourgeoisie—that composed the revolutionary forces, and why did they fracture, particularly at the moment of apparent revolutionary triumph? Why did the revolutionaries fail, and what did their failure mean for the subsequent course of European, and indeed global, history—for capitalism, nationalism, imperialism, and the new mass politics of both the socialist Left and the incipient fascist Right?

In this course, we will explore the revolutionary year of 1848 as a turning point in European and world history and an object lesson in the nature, potentialities, and limits of class conflict, liberalism, street politics, and revolution. We’ll delve into the material history of mid-century Europe, a time of growing political and economic instability as industrialization, railroads, and capital rapidly upended centuries-old economic and social forms. What explains the transformation of liberalism from a revolutionary into a conservative force? Why did the middle and working classes ally, and then split? What was the social base for counter-revolution? And to what extent did the class matrix of 1848 set the terms for the ensuing 150 years of European politics? As we go, we’ll consider some of the fundamental questions driving the revolutionary ferment of 1848, and perhaps all modern politics henceforth: What is a nation, and who belongs to it? Who gets to participate in public life? Should private property continue to be the basis of society? What should be the object, politically and socially, of revolutionary politics? Readings will include classic texts such The Communist Manifesto, Engels’s Conditions of the Working Class in England, Marx’s 18th Brumaire, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Recollections, along with shorter journal articles, pamphlets, and essays as well as more recent scholarship by Eric Hobsbawm, William Sewell among others.  

Course Schedule

Wednesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
November 16 — December 14, 2022
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet Wednesday, November 23rd.


Registration Open

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