THE YEAR OF REVOLUTIONS – that was how the year 1848 came to be known. Clear across Europe: from Hungary in the East to France in the West; massive eruptions of popular discontent, harnessed by mostly young liberal intellectuals, brought the reactionary regimes re-established following the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1815, very close to collapse.
Weeks went by, idealists gathered, constitutions were proposed and debated, but nothing truly revolutionary happened. Slowly at first, and then with gathering speed, the emperors, kings and aristocrats picked themselves up out of the dust, straightened their tunics, and set about putting their noble houses in order. By 1849 it was all over. As things turned out, 1848 had been a year of revolts – not revolutions.
If the story sounds familiar, it’s because something very similar happened roughly ten years ago. Clear across the Arab World, from Tunisia in the West to Egypt and Syria in the East, mostly young liberal intellectuals, using social media, sparked massive eruptions of popular discontent. Months went by. Idealists gathered. Elections were held. New names had to be learned. New faces won recognition. But, nothing truly revolutionary happened.
As Mao Zedong cynically observed: “All political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” By 2013, the men with guns were either back in power or applying the lessons of the deposed military leaders they were replacing. The Arab Spring was fast becoming the Arab Winter.
Imagine how they felt: all those young liberal intellectuals; all those angry workers and peasants. Imagine city squares seething with masses of hopeful people. The extraordinary combination of elation and relief when the regime’s soldiers refused to fire on “the people”. Those great arcs of political electricity illuminating the social darkness when word came of similar uprisings taking place in neighbouring states. It must truly have seemed to the “revolutionaries” that they were witnessing the birth of a new heaven and a new earth.
Now imagine the despair: the sheer, soul-destroying anguish of seeing it all fade and wither and turn to dust on the fickle winds of history. Imagine the dashing of hopes, the detention of friends, the execution of leaders. Imagine the clatter of boot heels on stone, the ringing of sharpened steel, the crackle of rifle fire, the chatter of machine-guns, the roar of artillery. Imagine the death of a million common dreams.
What do people do when their revolution fails? When their Spring of Hope turns to a Winter of Despair? Where do they go?
We know that many refugees from the failed 1848 revolution in Germany made their way to the United States. In the USA, at least, the idea of popular sovereignty had been able to send down roots and acquire a measure of solidity. In America there were no kings and queens, no aristocrats. The Americans, like the French, had made a republic.
But even in Eden, serpents gathered. The German immigrants were shocked to witness black men and women being abducted in broad daylight by the agents of Southern plantation owners – all of them operating perfectly legally under the Fugitive Slave Act. Here was something even more depraved than the dark pretensions of monarchs. Abraham Lincoln warned that an America “half-slave and half-free” could not endure.
Twelve years after the failure of German liberalism, the Union Army was welcoming former Prussian officers into its ranks. Slavery was an evil that simply had to be rooted out. Lustily they sang the new Battle Hymn of the Republic:
In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom
That transfigures you and me;
As He died to make men holy,
Let us die to make men free;
While God is marching on.
It was splendid, but it was bloody. Could freedom and justice ever be established with the sword? Maybe – maybe not. But nations could. As the American Civil War was raging, so, too, were the wars of German unification. In 1862, the great architect of German unity (but not German democracy) Count Otto von Bismarck, with the example of the failed German revolution set firmly before his eyes, delivered his most memorable speech:
The position of Prussia in Germany will not be determined by its liberalism but by its power [...] Prussia must concentrate its strength and hold it for the favourable moment, which has already come and gone several times. Since the treaties of Vienna, our frontiers have been ill-designed for a healthy body politic. Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided—that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by iron and blood.
Blood and iron, ah yes, the solution that does not equivocate. The power that is won with bullets – not ballots. The combination that ended the “speeches and majority decisions” of 1848 and the Arab Spring. And even now, on the broad plains of Ukraine, the grim drama of blood and iron is being played out. For what other answer is there to those who speak only the language of blood and iron, but iron and blood in equal measure?
Do not pretend that it does not thrill you – this open recourse to force. Not when all the tweets on Twitter cannot match the effectiveness of a single artillery shell exploding in the right place at the right time. Not when you see how swiftly all the petty squabbles of the identarians disappear in the all-embracing shadow of a nation’s battle flag.
Denis Diderot: French philosopher, atheist, and republican; quipped that “Mankind will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
What, then, should we make of the fact that 174 years after the Year of Revolutions, an astonishing number of human-beings around the planet are mourning the death of a queen and welcoming a king to his throne? Against the pomp of Charles III, and the heroism of Volodymyr Zelensky, where are we to set the “speeches and majority decisions” of democracy?
Who does not welcome the comity of blood? Who does not hunger for the reassurance of iron?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 20 September 2022.
To be fair to Mao, he'd just seen thousands of his generally unarmed comrades slaughtered when he said political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.
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