In the spring of 1848 Europeans rose up on the streets of dozens of continental cities from Budapest to Paris and Berlin to Milan. Their demands were disparate and sometimes contradictory: free assembly, representative government, national self-determination, economic reform and much else besides. After initial successes, many of these revolutions followed a common pattern: reform, violence, division, repression and ultimately failure. By the following year constitutions had been torn up, newspapers banned and activists exiled.
After Brexit it is not the revolutions of 1848 that should capture our attention but rather what came next. As Chris Clark has shown, the 1850s witnessed a collective European experiment in which ruling elites mixed politics in new combinations in an attempt to respond to and address the instability that had produced revolutionary situations across Europe. The regimes that took over after 1848 did not simply carry out a conservative ‘reaction’, shutting down elections and newspapers. Innovative and expansive, they sought to provide the sort of order that would reassure threatened elites while also alleviating the social tensions that had made politics so dangerously volatile.
Importantly, governments in the affected countries began adopting a newly assertive role in economic and public life. The Spanish government laid telegraph cables to the Balearics, Central European states built railways and drove tunnels through the Alps. Many regimes also experimented with novel techniques for managing public opinion through the press and measuring social problems by gathering statistics.
France’s Emperor Napoleon III was emblematic of this trend: first elected as President Louis-Napoleon under universal suffrage in the wake of 1848, his longer-term survival relied on his ability to build a coalition of interests that represented apparently contradictory drives. His governments appeased big financiers and banks while granting workers the right to strike, renovated Parisian slums while expelling many of their residents, and ruled by plebiscites held under universal suffrage while all but outlawing conventional party politics.
We may not have seen a revolution in the past two months, but we are certainly living through another age of trans-European political disillusionment and ideological remixing. Brexit is but one symptom of the contradictions that are rapidly dismantling assumptions about the politics-as-usual status quo. Political forces across Europe and beyond are engaged in a struggle to fuse the popular appeal of protectionism and nativism with the interconnection and cosmopolitanism they see as intrinsic to modern societies and essential to their economies. At the same time, they seek to reconcile these divergent impulses with the distinctive features of their national political cultures – secularism and the republic in France, the union in Britain, and so on.
Yet just because these forces look irreconcilable does not mean that the Louis-Napoleons and Bismarcks of our age will not find ways to fuse them together, however delicately.
Faced with these challenges and a hostile public in much of England and Wales, pro-European Brits might be tempted to throw in the political towel altogether. But as writers such as Flaubert and Marx recognised from very different political perspectives back in the mid-nineteenth century, there is no ‘elsewhere’ outside history to which one can flee. Equally, while Britain’s role in the specific political institution of the European Union is now coming to an end, our implication in common European historical processes is, if anything, becoming even clearer.
On 26th June I tweeted:
No government, economic stagnation, anti-immigrant populism, political fragmentation: my fellow Brits, today at last we are true Europeans!
I was only half-joking. We may soon cease operating within some of the legal, administrative and economic channels with which we have become familiar, but there is no escaping the broader structural and cultural bonds between Britain and the rest of the continent. Only through sharing ideas with our neighbours will we be able to develop responses to the centrifugal forces of our age that can challenge the populist and quasi-democratic solutions on offer to European publics.
In recent decades Britain’s pro-Europeans did not always bang the drum about the benefits of certain forms of collaboration, integration and exchange with our neighbours loudly enough. We are now entering a new era, and we need a new drum.
Robert Priest is Lecturer in Modern European History at Royal Holloway, University of London. His first book, The Gospel According to Renan: Reading, Writing and Religion in Nineteenth-Century France, was published by OUP in 2015.