Book Review


One of the best qualities of The European Revolutions, 1848-1851 (2005), by Jonathan Sperber, is that it shows common sense. Intellectuals throughout history, from ancient times to the present, have liked to interpret society in terms of ideas, philosophies, “discourses,” etc., as if these were the most important elements of reality. Such an interpretation is understandable, since intellectuals, who traffic in ideas, want to think that what they do is important; therefore, they declare that ideas are the foundation of the world and the prime mover of history. Jonathan Sperber avoids such a naïve idealism; he interprets politics in the light of socioeconomic conditions and treats ideologies as what they are, sublimations of these conditions. Corresponding to his basically materialist approach is his emphasis on the experiences of ordinary people far from the centers of revolutionary activity, the capital cities and parliaments and barricade struggles. Whereas older historiography was seduced by the glamor and romance of national leaders and impassioned parliamentary debates, the newer tradition in which Sperber places himself is largely interested in the neglected uprisings and civil wars of 1849 and 1851, and in “the obscure local activists and the craftsmen, laborers, and peasants who made up a majority of the European population and of the participants in the revolutionary events” (pp. 2, 3). This new tradition also does not treat the revolutions with condescending scorn because of their failure; it takes them seriously, in part due to their lasting impact on the nature of popular political participation.


Sperber’s materialist approach manifests itself in several ways. First of all, he places the revolutions in the context of ongoing social and economic conflicts, including the one “more prevalent than any other in mid-nineteenth-century Europe,” viz., “conflict over the collective use of agricultural land” (p. 40). This particular clash of economic interests was a result of the slow spread of private property across the continent, which entailed the abolition of land held in common by peasants, landowners’ acquisition of forests as their own private property (on which peasants continued to trespass in order to obtain necessary wood), and so forth. In most of central and eastern Europe, the conflict between lord and serf engendered “violent, murderous hatreds” (p. 43). In manufacturing and crafts, there were conflicts between masters and journeymen, “outworkers” and the merchants who employed them, and capitalists and laborers. Aside from emphasizing such ongoing struggles, Sperber argues that the economic crisis of 1845-47 was the “precursor to and precondition for” the 1848 revolutions, in that it escalated popular discontent. 


Not only the revolutions’ origins but also their conclusions get materialist treatment. Briefly stated, the final reason for the downfall of revolution is that it was crushed by military force. This is what happened, for example, in Paris in June, 1848, when thousands of workers who had set up barricades in the streets to overthrow the new bourgeois republican government were massacred by the National Guard. It is also what happened in Germany, Italy, and throughout the Austrian empire, where a number of nationalist uprisings were brutally suppressed.


The attention that Sperber gives to nationalism is perhaps the least “materialist” aspect of the book (although it must be said that integral to the national movements were progressive social and economic programs). He argues, plausibly, that one of the main causes of revolutionary failure in central and eastern Europe was that “the different national movements fought each other, and cancelled each other out” such that they allowed the triumph of their common reactionary enemies in the government, the nobility, the army, and the Catholic Church (p. 147). In the French Revolution of 1789 and the following years, nationalism had strengthened and radicalized the revolution in a country beset by a hostile Europe; by 1848, many nationalisms had spread across the whole continent, clashing with each other and so weakening the revolution.


The most interesting parts of the book are its discussions of the long-term legacies of 1848. “By far the most significant and never altered consequence of the revolution,” Sperber argues, “was the abolition of serfdom and other seigneurial institutions. These changes, won by rural uprising and decision of the revolutionary parliaments, were nowhere reversed, even by the most reactionary of the post-revolutionary governments” (p. 273). Aside from such concrete political and economic achievements, arguably the most significant legacy of the revolution was its introduction of the European masses to political mobilization. Political clubs were the most common means for this. Such clubs were associations whose members met regularly to debate political questions “and to organize petitions, election campaigns, [and] public mass meetings or demonstrations” (p. 167); they dated from the French Revolution of 1789, but in 1848 they introduced millions more to organized political activity. These initial mass political experiences helped shape European politics for the rest of the century.


As an overview of the 1848 revolutions, Sperber’s book has few weaknesses. It is very rich, lucidly written, balanced, sensible, and a comprehensive introduction to recent historiography. Notwithstanding his materialism, Sperber may be a bit too dismissive of the Marxist emphasis on class conflict, for example with regard to the June, 1848 struggle in Paris between workers and the liberal government. On the other hand, someone of an idealist mindset might criticize him for not devoting enough attention to ideological analysis. An author can never please everyone; however, he can probably not come much closer to doing so than Sperber has.



[Insightful comments from Sperber that didn’t make it into my paper: “Possibly the single best way to understand the revolutions of the mid-nineteenth-century [is by interpreting them as] a greatly expanded, partially revised, and, with ‘success’ narrowly defined as long-term change of regime, ultimately unsuccessful version of the French Revolution of 1789. Their outbreak and ultimate suppression both closed the cycle of revolution begun in 1789 and opened the way towards a different version of politics on the European continent.”]


© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright