The 19th Century Revolutions according to Hobsbawm

"Liberty Leading the People", a painting by Eugène Delacroix depicting the July Revolution in France, 1830. Public domain image.
“Liberty Leading the People”, a painting by Eugène Delacroix depicting the July Revolution in France, 1830. Public domain image.

In the book “Age of Revolution”, British historian Eric Hobsbawm addresses the profound transformations that occurred in Europe and the world as a whole, from 1789 to 1848. These processes destabilized the order that was previously based on absolute states, the monarchies that ruled them, and the mercantilism their economies adopted. In place of these institutions, there was the consolidation of political liberalism, the power of the middle class, and industrial capitalism on liberal foundations. Amid this scenario, Hobsbawm highlights the relevance of two movements: the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution. Additionally, the Napoleonic Era, the European Restoration, and the revolutions of 1820, 1830, and 1848 can also be mentioned.

According to Hobsbawm, the Industrial Revolution represented the transformation of the foundations of economic growth. It consisted of the creation of a system of mass production at low costs, enabled by some key elements: the cultivation of cotton, to be used for producing textiles, the energy of coal, the manufacturing of steam engines, and the transportation of goods on railways. According to Hobsbawm, not many intellectual reformulations were necessary for the advancement of industry. The pioneer country in this process was England, because it had already introduced capitalism to the agrarian economy, practically monopolized the global consumer market, and had ample capital available for investment.

The other movement that, for Hobsbawm, deserves emphasis was the French Revolution. It was a consequence of numerous crises the Bourbon monarchy was experiencing: a political legitimacy crisis, due to the Enlightenment, a social crisis, due to disparities between classes and estates, and a fiscal crisis, given the excessive spending of the French government and unsuccessful attempts at reforming it. With the fall of the monarchy of Louis XVI, radical, conservative, or moderate groups were elevated to power. These new regimes dismantled the pillars of absolutism, such as class privileges and the religious justification for the power of kings (the “divine right of kings”). However, this led France to face opposition from neighboring monarchies.

Thanks to the successful combat against reactionary foreign coalitions, Napoleon Bonaparte gained prestige and, eventually, became the great leader of France from 1799. As consul and later emperor, he reorganized the nation, defeated most external enemies, and dominated the European continent with governments favorable to him. More than once, Napoleonic France sought to defeat England, but the English Channel was an insurmountable obstacle. After bloody battles, including a failed invasion of Russian territory, the French were completely defeated. Napoleon was sent into exile twice, and European leaders sought to redesign the continent on conservative bases.

Gathered at the Congress of Vienna, Austria, Russia, Prussia, England, and France itself (under the command of Louis XVIII and Talleyrand) decided on the legitimacy of restoring the monarchies deposed by force during the Napoleonic Era. Should threats arise against these monarchies, the powers would intervene to protect them. However, the return to the pre-revolutionary status quo would not extend to the European borders. They would be redrawn to ensure a balance between the powers—that is, preventing the aggrandizement of one at the expense of another. With regard to defeated France, for example, a moderate policy was adopted, allowing it to enjoy the status of a power. On the other hand, to contain it, the German Confederation was created.

The Vienna order, articulated by the European political elites, would face a series of challenges in the following decades, due to the outbreak of liberal revolutions across Europe. In general, these movements aspired to the adoption of a constitution (as in the case of Portugal, Spain, and Germany) or to the political autonomy or independence of certain social groups (as in the case of Greece, Belgium, and Poland). The peak of revolutionary sentiment during this period was in 1849, when there were revolts in various places, simultaneously and decentralized. The revolutions of 1820, 1830, and 1848 had varied outcomes, but they contributed to the weakening of absolutist structures and to the political rise of the middle class and industrial bourgeoisie.




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