Engage, Plan or Fail, Part I

August 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

People today, dismayed by the extreme imbalance of wealth generated by the capitalist system which dominates the globe — and the resultant social chaos — often say with a shrug that it is so firmly entrenched it would be impossible to alter it, let alone exchange it for something better. But citizens in 19th century Europe, seeing the necessity of social change at the dawn of modern capitalism, faced an even bigger challenge. They confronted a centuries-old monarchical system that allowed none of the freedoms most in the West presently take for granted. Such a system not only made their lives unendurable, but threatened to follow them beyond the grave because challenging the king was viewed as tantamount to treason against God. Rebellion, therefore, whether by word or deed, produced two sure ends: Earthly torture and the fires of hell. They did it anyway. There was no alternative to reform, to revolt. The numbers demanding change were too great, their sufferings too manifest.

There are lessons to be learned from their experience, which can be applied to our own. This is the first in a series on the dangerous consequences of passivity, immobility, in the face of  political, social, and economic challenges.


In the mid-nineteenth century, when absolute monarchs still ruled in many parts of Europe as God’s chosen (and therefore infallible) emissaries, a new class of businessmen, whose stature derived from work and ingenuity, not their birthright, began grumbling that that particular myth had outgrown its usefulness. The kingdoms that had been defended with blood and financed by taxes, so that a parasitic few could live in luxury while the rest struggled to exist in near animal squalor, did not reflect the new reality. Europe was moving slowly but surely away from the agriculturally based economy upon which such kingdoms rested. Technological advances showed clearly that the future was industrial, and that industry would by necessity change society; its effects felt from its lowliest peasant to its loftiest crown. This industrial system required the participation of men actively engaged in charting their own future. They could no longer be subjects, they had to become citizens, and be allowed to negotiate and trade without undo restriction in order to reach potentially vast new markets.

At first, this growing business class tried to reason with the various kings and princes occupying the palaces of Europe, explaining that in order for this new economy to function properly, steps had to be taken to reform the social and political order. The king and his minions could no longer dictate policy, which then had to be followed at pain of death. Men — ordinary men (in those days, exclusively men) — had to have a voice in government. They had to be able to speak to the king as an elected assembly in order to bring their petitions and ideas to his attention. In return, they promised, the king’s coffers would swell with more tax revenues. Industry was a path to wealth beyond even their gilded imaginings.

Some monarchs, those from politically enlightened countries, listened. In France, for example, which had shaken the earth a half century earlier by enshrining the rights of man through revolution, King Louis-Philippe was all for the idea of expanding business if it meant more money for his court. With that in mind, his government issued the challenge to its citizens to “Get rich!” In England, too, Queen Victoria was enthralled by industrial advances — partly on their own merit but partly because her beloved Prince Albert so embraced them. But neither France nor England was prepared to share wealth beyond a select few. The aristocracy would of course be taken care of, and the new breed of financier and industrialist would (grudgingly) be accepted and allowed to prosper, but the masses who comprised the bulk of society would remain what they had always been — disposable tools employed to generate wealth or fight wars. Elsewhere in Europe, especially Prussia, Austria, and Russia, the monarchs were even more reluctant to embrace a new reality. They would happily accept the wealth pouring out of industrial factories but they were unwilling to share power with the men who would be generating it.

That response — No! — should have been sufficient to quell thoughts of reform.  These kings were, after all, the final word. God’s word. But it wasn’t enough. Beginning in 1847 and culminating in 1848, after several years of crop failures and famine that drove desperate people by the tens of thousands into cities in search of jobs that didn’t exist, Europe rose up in revolt. It was called the “Springtime of the Peoples.” It was the first and remains the only European-wide social uprising in history. Its causes were simple: Leaders would not acknowledge or adapt to a changed society. It had moved under their very feet and yet they still believed they were on firm ground.

Violence spread from capital to capital and across the countrysides. The initial gains were monumental. Louis-Philippe abdicated and fled to England. The almighty Metternich in Austria soon followed. In Berlin, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, taking off his hat and bowing to the masses assembled in Berlin, promised elected officials, a constitution, and the arming of the citizenry. But within a year most of those gains would be reversed. After being initially caught off guard by the force of revolt and the fury of subjects, subjects who kings had never known to be anything but docile, the counter-revolution that swept through Europe was brutal, well-organized, and well-funded. By 1852 France had not only a king, it had an emperor.

Why did the uprisings fail? Each country had particular reasons but there were commonalities. One was especially pervasive: There was no plan. The uprisings were relatively spontaneous, the outbreak of a contagious disease, and the leaders of the various movements had had no time to plan what a post-rebellion government might look like. They were left to invent one quickly, in the midst of much euphoria but also much fear. While they were busily, chaotically, and boisterously forming a government the forces of counter-revolution — the previously entrenched powers — quickly recollected themselves to regain control. It was easy for them. They had much experience if not in governing, in the sense that we know it, then at least in manipulating men. They knew how to control a mob. They were able to take advantage of the chaos, pitting one group against the other, weakening the solidarity of the rebellion, making concessions to some (invariably the wealthier classes), while violently suppressing others. It didn’t take long for the “Springtime of the Peoples” to be crushed — or at least that round of the rebellion. The seeds were well planted for a future revolt.

Another reason for the failures of the various rebellions was that they were not organized across borders. And that is a subject for the next history lesson.


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