One hundred and seventy years ago, on March 13th, 1848, Klemens von Metternich, Chancellor of the huge Austrian Empire and a symbol of European post-Napoleonian order, had to escape from Vienna hidden in a laundry basket. He became the laughing stock of the People’s Spring revolutionaries. The flight of the « policeman of Europe » embodies both the hopes and disappointments borne by this formidable European revolutionary wave, that historiography has long underestimated. We are brought back to these thrilling episodes of European history by American historian Jonathan Sperber, author of The European Revolutions, 1848-1851 (Cambridge University Press, 2012). His most recent biography, Karl Marx. A Nineteenth-Century Life (Norton & Cie, 2014), allows us to come back to this thinker’s geopolitics as we celebrate his 200th birthday, as we discussed last January.  


In his book Centrist liberalism triumphant, Immanuel Wallerstein writes that “In France, the revolution consisted essentially of the joining together of Europe’s ‘first great proletarian insurrection’ with the acute discontent of the left liberals. Elsewhere in Europe, in states that were not as yet committed to liberalism, there were no proletarian insurrections; rather, there were liberal uprisings combined with nationalist uprisings”. Do you agree with this sharp distinction between what happened in France and what happened in the other countries ?

Jonathan Sperber. – I would say it was less a sharp distinction than a matter of degree.  In 1848, working class (defining « workers » loosely as craftsmen, outworking artisans and laborers, as well as Marx’s industrial proletariat) movements were most complex and widespread in France and had the greatest influence on political radicalism.  But these working class organizations and movements existed to a lesser degree in Germany, Italy and the western part of the Austrian Empire (Vienna and the Czech lands), and had a certain influence on nationalist and radical movements.  Of course, nationalism was not unknown in France in 1848, as the great political successes of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte would show.

In the 1848-49 chapter of your biography of Karl Marx, you show that his political positions are very discontinuous at that time: as the director of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in Köln, he temporarily “forgets” class struggle to emphasize the construction of a national Republic, “une et indivisible” according to the motto of the French Revolution in 1792-94. Was there a contradiction between Marx’s theory of economic class struggle and the national and constitutional content of the German revolutionary movement?

I would put it a little differently.  Marx aspired to a double recurrence of the French Revolution of 1789.  There would be a literal recurrence in central Europe, complete with a Jacobin republic, revolutionary regime, and, probably, a revolutionary war against the Czar.  There would also be an analogous recurrence : just as the French Revolution had overthrown the previous, aristocratic ruling class, replacing it with the bourgeoisie, and instituted a new, capitalist mode of production, so would this revolution overthrown the capitalist ruling class, replacing it with a dictatorship of the proletariat, and transition from the capitalist to the communist mode of production.  Marx, starting in his essays on the Jewish Question and the Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, envisaged these two recurrences as interrelated and occurring almost simultaneously.  This point also appears at the end of the Communist Manifesto where it is explained that communists turn their attentio to Germany because a repetition of 1789 is soon forthcoming, which will lead immediately to a proletarian, Communist revolution.

During the 1848-49 revolution itself, Marx tried to promote both versions of the repetition of 1789.  He found it much more difficult to organize the workers in the direction of a communist revolution than he did, in his capacity as editor of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung and leading activist in the Cologne Democracy Society and in the Rhenish-Westphalian Federation of democratic political clubs, to agitate for an uprising against Prussia rule.  It was only in the spring of 1849, when Marx, like many other radical leftists in Germany, was becoming frustrated with the possibilities of a democratic and republican revolution (the left wing, one might say of the « national and constitutional content » of the German revolution, as you put it), that he returned to his agenda of organizing the workers for a proletarian uprising.

Another fascinating aspect of your account of Marx’s positions at that time is found in his anti-Russian involvement. How was the geopolitical goal of a war against the czar articulated with his broader revolutionary activity ?

Czar Nicolas I was Emperor of Russia during the 1848 uprisings

Remember the idea of a recurrence of 1789.  Wasn’t it Alphonse Aulard who said, « la guerre a révolutionné la révolution »?  Marx, who had studied the history of the Convention during his time in Paris in 1843-45, wanted to repeat that most radical phase of the French Revolution in Germany.  A revolutionary war against the Czar, the « gendarme of Europe« , seemed like the best way to do so.  Marx was hardly alone in this:  most radicals in 1848 called for a revolutionary war, usually against the Czar, sometimes against the Austrian Emperor.


There seems to be some discrepancy between the first sentence of the Communist Manifesto – “a spectre is haunting Europe” – and the last one : “proletarians of the world, unite”. Has not the meaning of internationalism radically changed since that time, because we can not any more ignore the non European world?

Yes, there definitely is a discrepancy.  Marx saw capitalism as centered in Europe, including Europe’s overseas settler-colony offshoots, the US, Canada and Australia.  He envisaged communist revolution as transforming the world, but through, as he said in the Communist Manifesto, « United action of the leading civilized countries », Europe, in other words.  In his journalistic writings from the 1850s and early 1860s on Asia and Latin America, Marx continued to see the center of change in the global system of capitalism in Europe, and tended to understand social and political movements in other parts of the world—the 1857 Indian uprising against British rule or the Taiping Rebellion in China—as reactionary mass movements, along the lines of the Vendée during the French Revolution.  In the contemporary world, where capitalism is truly global, and China is one of the world’s leading powers, where social and political struggles take a wide variety of forms around the world, Marx’s basically Eurocentric attitudes are no longer sufficient.

The Taiping revolt (1851-1864) led to a civil war that made tens of millions of victims

In your book The European Revolutions, 1848-1851, you underline the major outpouring of political expression that characterizes these revolutions. Other changes introduced in 1848 were substantial and durable as well, including abolition of serfdom in many states and introduction of constitutional governments. So should we consider these revolutions not as a failure, but a success and the birth of modern Europe?

Talk of « failure » and « success » of revolutionary movements always struck me as problematic.  The usual definition of success was instituting a permanent change in the existing governments, so 1848, unlike 1789 or 1917, did not count as a success.  But the communist regimes initiatived in 1917 all came to an inglorious end in 1989, so their « success » was retrospectively retracted.  It might be better to say about 1848 that while the pre-revolutionary authorities returned to power relatively quickly, many of the social and political changes made by the revolution remained, and, especially, the revolution developed political aspirations and created an agenda for future developments.

In your last chapter, « The mid-century revolutions in European history », you underline that the 1848 Revolution spread from one country to the next at an astonishing speed and only by force of example, affecting very different forms of governments. How can you explain this nearly “freakish” development in the poorly connected 1848 Europe?

It is interesting, isn’t it?  It’s certainly a reason to doubt communications and media-studies scholars, who are convinced that they have the clue to understanding the process of political change.  Probably the best answer is the rapid spread of revolutionary change in 1848, across a large geographical space and very varied political and social systems, is twofold: (1) the widespread presence of discontent in much of Europe ; (2) the memory of the events of 1789 (and their repetitions in 1820 and 1830), which provided a framework for political action.

You describe the 1848 Revolution as the most “Eurocentric” revolution, compared to the world changes of 1789, 1917 and 1989. According to your conclusions, a possible explanation for those limited consequences could be the absence of colonial Empires, since “Great Britain was little affected by the events of the years”. Does it mean that Europe can’t diffuse its ideals without imperialism?

War is the dirty little secret of revolutions.  The ideals, political and social innovations of the French Revolution of 1789 spread primarily on the bayonets of the victorious revolutionary and Napoleonic armies.  The world’s first communist regime appeared in Russia as a result of that country’s defeat in the First World War.  Communism spread throughout the world in the wake of the victorious campaigns of the Red Army in Second World War (China, Eastern Europe) and through communist leadership of or exploitation of anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist struggles in Southeast Asia, Africa, and, to a lesser extent, Latin America.  So maybe it was not imperialism that spread European revolutionary ideals, but it definitely was warfare.

In your last chapter, you compare various European revolutions. The most recent one happened in 1989 in Eastern Europe. Is it a ‘successful European spring’?

As always, the question is how do you judge « success » ?  One way would be to consider how many people in the former Eastern Bloc vote for political parties descended from the former communist parties, or who propose to return to the state of affairs as it existed under communism.  There are some, but a distinct minority.  So looking at it that way, the 1989 revolutions were a success.  Another way might be to ask whether there is a certain nostalgia for some features of pre-1989 life :  no unemployment, free childcare, affordable healthcare.  There is, although this nostalgia tends to blend out other features of the pre-1989 Eastern Bloc :  political oppression, lack of civil liberties, a very polluted environment and endless shortages of consumer goods, or provision of very low-quality consumer goods.

Finally, one might ask if the activists who brought about the 1989 revolutions—the feminist-environmentalist-pacifist-Christian socialists of the GDR, the Charter ’77 group in Czechoslovakia, or the trade-unionists of Solidarność in Poland are happy with the outcome of their struggle.  I would say that a lot are not :  they were generally not particularly excited about capitalism, and, usually, not big fans of nationalism (some exceptions in Poland, of course) so the current state of affairs in the former Eastern Bloc is not entirely attractive to them.

Worker strikes in Gdansk, birthplace of Solidarność

Moreover, you underline the importance of memory and experience of precedent revolutions in the development of the 1848 Revolutions: is there still such a memory among in Europe? Are not the revolutions too far in the West, and too specific (against communism) in the East?

In 1989, people in eastern Europe were waving tricolor flags and calling out for liberty, equality and fraternity, so it seems that revolutionary memories lasted rather a long time.  Whether this will continue in possible future revolutionary events is hard to say, until they happen.

The comparison between the 1848 revolutions and the insurgencies in Arab countries starting in 2011 is frequent and embedded into the name ‘Arab spring’ itself. Does it make sense to a historian?

Yes, there are many similarities.  The rapid spread of the revolution in 1848 as in 2011 is one, as is the way that revolutionaries in one country were inspired by the success of revolutionary forces in another.  Other parallels are less heartening.  In both 1848 and 2011, once elections were held, it turned out that the main political forces who profited from the sudden creation of democracy in authoritarian regimes were religious conservatives, rather than the revolutionaries themselves.  The relatively quick suppression of the revolutionary movement and the return to power of the previous regimes within a couple of years is another unpleasant parallel.  It remains to be seen if the Arab spring has created aspirations and laid out an agenda for political change over the subsequent two decades as the 1848 revolutions did.  One very large difference between 1848 and 2011 has been the large scale of outside intervention in the Middle East, most pronounced in the Syrian civil war, emerging from the 2011 uprisings.  The Arab Spring was a global political event in a way that the 1848 revolutions were not

Interview by U.L. and Etty Januel