1848. A failed year, perhaps “The” Failed Year. Like 1956, like 1968, like 2011, a year when it the world seemed turned upside down by revolution, and the forces of light achieved their long-delayed triumph over the darkness. But just as in those later years, 1848 ended with a whimper as quiet as it began with a bang.
First Italy, then France, then Germany, then Denmark, then Austria-Hungary, then Switzerland, then the Ukraine, then Poland, then Moldavia, then Belgium, then Ireland, then Columbia, then Brazil. And it was almost completely due to labor conditions:
Unskilled laborers working 12 to 15 hours a day, traditional artisans losing their guilds; mechanized textile manufacture putting tailors out of business, harvest failures which put the price of bread and potatoes out of reach for families living on industrial wages (aka, Irish Potato Famine); decrease for the demand in manufactured goods, rise in unemployment; peasant grievances against noble landlords who treated their families as property for hundreds of years.
Like 1968, “The Failed Year” of the 20th century, these revolutions happened because of problems that could only arise from enormous prosperity. The end of The Napoleonic Wars, and the ten million casualties those wars engendered, was a full generation in the past. The Industrial Revolution, for all the suffering it brought to the working classes, still improved their lot from living on farms. Life expectancy rose, modern policing made cities safer, the telegraph and the electric motor were developed, anaesthesia was used for surgery, slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire, The Spanish Inquisition finally ended.
But as with all progress in the world, it’s never enough. New solutions create new problems, and for a generation which does not know total war, the solutions can seem just as bad as the problems. The 1820’s, 30’s, and 40’s was a pretty good time to be a European, yet prosperity breeds frustration. Is it legitimate to risk all the gains humanity has made for a still better future? Or is it simply in humanity’s nature to destroy any situation that’s livable?
Regardless of the answer, the end result of 1848, just as in 1968 and 2011, was more authoritarianism, more fear of liberalism, more state violence, more war. Just as America’s answer to 1968 was Richard Nixon, and just as history’s answer to the Arab Spring is Bashar al-Assad, France’s answer to the 1848 revolutions was Louis Napoleon, nephew of Emperor Napoleon - the first French president to be elected by direct popular vote, a vote achieved with promises to restore France to its Napoleonic glory. When the constitution barred him from a second term, he simply managed a Coup d’Etat in 1851 and crowned himself King Napoleon III. He sent six thousand opponents of his regime to prison, and many thousands more chose exile (including Victor Hugo).
In a strong echo of our current era, war broke out between England and Russia over the Crimean Peninsula - 600,000 people died in the conflict and the borders of Eastern Europe were redrawn in a manner that provokes nationalist violence to this very day. Meanwhile, the German National Assembly met nearly every year between 1815 and 1866, and every year they failed to reach an agreement that would unite German people into a single nation. It was only with a series of wars with Austria and France (causing 1 million casualties) that Germany finally resolved its differences under the banner of the sword, a sword they would find terribly difficult to relinquish.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire faced insurrections everywhere within its borders, as did the British Empire in Ireland and on faraway continents. Everywhere in the world, Europe meant to reestablish peace, and do so by inflicting a violence so terrible that no one would ever think to oppose their rule. In desperation, millions began dreaming of a new life in America, a democratic land of opportunity, seemingly untouched by violence. And yet by 1861, even the land of opportunity was enmeshed in a Civil War that claimed 635,000 lives over the issue of whether men could enslave other men.
But if you were an intellectual on the run, the American wilderness was not the place for you. It was too remote, too uncivilized, too cut off from the action of History’s wellspring. Intellectuals looked to England, that constitutional monarchy, and its capital, London, bastion of European civilization, seemingly forever stable against the European upheavals, and only touched by the 1848 revolutions in passing. This fortress built by Nature for herself against infection and the hand of war was haven for nearly all those major intellectuals on the run from European police. Victor Hugo from France, Kossuth from Hungary, Garibaldi and Mazzini from Italy, Bakunin and Herzen from Russia, Engels and Marx from Germany. To England Marx went, a refugee due to the 1848 publication of the Communist Manifesto, and in England he stayed until his death thirty-four years later.
But like most of those revolutionaries, the 1848 revolution took a terrible toll upon him. Upon moving to London, Marx was nearly destitute, nearly friendless, with little command of English, chronically ill, and chronically depressed. His partner in crime, Friedrich Engels, moved to Manchester, earning a living for them both. Marx made whatever little money he could as a journalist for a radical American newspaper: the New York Tribune. His only thought: When would the Revolution arrive? If it didn’t happen in 1848 when economic depression made conditions so perfect for it, how could it ever? At 1848’s beginning, it seemed as though a worldwide revolution would change everything forever, but by 1849, Europe seemed on the verge of another cataclysm of Napoleonic proportions; but in all fairness, a second Napoleonic apocalypse didn’t happen. By 1851, Europe was its usual self, occasional bloody wars, with its upper and middle classes living high off cheap labor and imperial resources. Another economic depression came in 1857, but this depression caused hardly a stir.
In these conditions of isolation and despair, Marx burrowed himself like a hedgehog into every work he could find - determined to determine how the revolution would finally come. Finally, in 1859, he came up with a spiritual preface to his final answer, Das Kapital - a preface whose contents are in many ways the most incisive he ever formulated. The Critique of Political Economy.
And within The Critique of Political Economy, the most incisive formulation of his theory is in the Preface, a preface to a preface:
“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.
In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.
Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation. In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient,[A] feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society. The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals' social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation.”
There are, generally speaking, two requirements for a philosophical system to inflame the world.
1. A theory simple enough to be understood by anyone.
2. A justification for the theory so bafflingly jargon-laden that only initiated believers would have the passion to devote the necessary time to understanding all the complexities of its justification. Therefore, any common-sense critiques can be dismissed by believers as a lazy misunderstanding.
For two-thousand years, this is how theologians perpetuated every monotheistic religion, creating a two-tiered system of believers that discouraged laymen from critical thought. In the world of Critical Theory, this is similarly how academics intimidate anyone who dare point out when the Emperors wear no clothes.
What you see above is Marx in a nutshell - his entire theory laid before us in embryo. But even in this most incisive moment of Marx’s theorizing, his approach is so jargon-laden that the uninitiated must spend hours upon hours parsing the meanings - obtaining a proper definition for each of Marx’s terms and trusting that Marx put as much effort into writing so sloppily as we must into comprehending what he says. Entire books and doctoral theses are devoted to parsing the meaning of a single sentence within it.
But the true question of these posts is not the ‘What?’ of Marx, but the ‘Why?’. Why did Marx come to the conclusions he did, conclusions which other people can state far more pithily than Marx ever did himself. And as to the ‘Why?’, Marx provides his own best answer in the same preface:
“I was led by my studies to the conclusion that legal relations and the forms of the state could neither be understood by themselves nor be explained by what was called the general progress of the human mind, but were rooted in the material conditions of life . . . Men, in the social production which they carry on, enter into definite relations which are indispensable and independent of their wills; and these relations correspond to a definite stage in the development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society - the real foundation on which rise legal and political superstructures, and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond.”
Part of this second quotation can be found in the first. But this second quotation explains precisely what Marx means, because he talks about himself biographically. During Marx’s youth, humanity put all its trust in itself - in human progress, in human ingenuity, in human goodness. Hegel’s theory of a true world beyond ours and the eternal progression of history toward a true perception of it could only attain popularity in an era when optimism was the surveyor of all, and the human self seemed the master of all its domain. In the early 19th century, when Mankind finally through off the shackles of the Ancien Regime, certain outlooks of the old world remained, even if the old world was perceived through new lenses. In the Romantic Era, Religious Man, with his Inner Soul and Divine Spark, is freed from the shackles of feudal obligation, and finally entitled to experience the world of the spirit without thinking himself unworthy of it.
But after 1848, something in this equation seemed clearly amiss. Man was proved worthy of his Spirit, and yet he kills so many millions of himself in pursuit of letting the Spirit soar. Is man still unworthy of the Spiritual world? Or is there simply no spiritual world at all?
It is the difference between two eras - before and after ‘the fall,’ Romanticism to Realism, the age of innocence to the age of corruption, Beethoven to Wagner, Keats to Thomas Hardy. It is a fall that occurs in every era: France’s age of Revolution to its Age of Robespierre, Europe before World War I to Europe after World War I, the United States under Kennedy to the United States under Nixon, Israel as the scrappy underdog to Israel the occupier, the European Union’s dream of unification and eternal prosperity to the reality of Southern Europe’s great depression, the Obama era’s hopeful dream of a united United States to the Obama era’s reality of the Tea Party. The clever hopes expire of every low, dishonest decade, and in its place comes a pessimism, a moral apathy, a triage of cherished priorities, in which every society compromises their most deeply-held ideals for a better chance at survival and prosperity - their souls warped by experience’s tragedies.