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The In Our Time newsletter: 1848 - The Year of Revolution

Friday 20 January 2012, 10:59

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg

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Editor's note: In yesterday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed 1848, the year that saw Europe engulfed in revolution. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PM.



I waited for two or three minutes after the programme had finished. I chatted away with the others of course, but I knew that really I was waiting. But nobody said it. I think this is a record and deserves to be noted.

Nobody said "I wish we'd included this..." or "why didn't we have time to do that..." or "we missed out an entire section, or the whole point of it, or the core of the subject, or the meaning of it all..."

There was cautious but modest agreement that, on the whole, given the time and given the fact that it was a radio programme and not a seven-day seminar in Frankfurt, we had covered the field pretty comprehensively.

I wonder if you'd had a coach with a fast set of horses you could have chased the revolutions around Europe in those months, as a sort of revolutionary Grand Tour?

Let's see how they're revolting in Budapest. Off to Venice to see how good they are at it... The programme demonstrated that there are an infinite variety of patterns in history. So many explosions. So little gunfire. So soon over. So much achieved in the long after-effect.

Over the years of this programme the pieces are starting to fall into place, all over the place, and this centre of the 19th century - almost literally - was a big piece of the jigsaw. Perhaps we didn't make enough of the fact that the Communist Manifesto was published in 1848.

But at the time nobody else did either.

Tim Blanning said afterwards that Louis Philippe, in his dash away from Paris, was an old man; he didn't want any blood or any trouble, his son had just died in a bad coach accident and he was tired. He adopted the disguise of a servant and forgot to take any money.

When he got to Boulogne he was broke and couldn't find the cash to pay his ticket for the boat. To his great credit, the British Consul in Boulogne dug into his pocket (or were trousers in those days too tight to have pockets; in that case his coat pocket) and brought out the lucre to pay for the passage of a king of the French to safety in England.

He seems to have lived reasonably contentedly ever after; probably, Tim thought, well-subsidised. Or was that tongue in cheek? But certainly someone subsidised him. Claremont House was no Left Bank garret. He is said to have met Metternich on the steps of the British Museum reading room. I do hope that's true.

I decided to go the direct route and not loop around St James's Park today. So I went down Wardour Street and across Shaftesbury Avenue and - behold - walked into the wonderful decorations for the Year of the Dragon in Chinatown. Yellow and red lanterns swaying in the streets everywhere. Gerrard Street itself a carnival.

And then through Trafalgar Square where Leonardo still nestles, and to my right, just along a bit and up a bit, the Royal Academy, where I saw Hockney in all his great Yorkshire pomp the other night, with an exhibition which, in every way, fills that great gallery.

And down to the House of Lords, to be met by several of their Lordships who deeply approved of the revolutions of 1848.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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    Comment number 1.

    I think Melvyn the elephant in the room of your discussion of the 1848 revolutions was the Communist Manifesto,haunting it like a spectre.The 1840s was a time of severe economic crises:bad harvests,potato blight, mass unemployment,demographic increases in the big cities, poverty, migration,destitution,bankruptcies,expansion of literacy in the public sphere,the transition from feudalism to capitalist society,cholera epidemics, hunger.An absolutist ossified state could not cope with the rising bourgeoisie,police spies were rampant,a creaking bureaucracy.A bourgeois press reiterated the hostility of people to private property, that they would attack if allowed.In Germany people articulated this in the press as Communism.This became the scare story in the German and French press.

    In Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto,a small movement through the use of the word ‘spectre’ looks like it’s overshadowing the whole of Europe in 1848.There is the class struggle as the motor of historical change between those who hold power and wealth and the repressed with the rise of capitalism.Although all the revolutions were to fail fairly quickly many reforms were brought in:serfdom abolished,slaves emancipated,people mobilized and entered politics for the first time.In Marx material conditions had replaced Hegel's 'ideas' and the 'spirit' as
    religion was in demise,having become 'the opium of the masses''.

    This programme was important if we see parallels in out own time with Greece,the Arab Spring,the use of people’s movements of mass protest in place of old left wing solutions,a youth turned off by mainstream politics with its hierarchies,corruption and power.At the moment there is a search for replacement to state-ised capitalism.This is not a left wing revolution but a personal democratic cultural thing(cf. technology’s influence) and politics too.1848 ended in reaction within a year,but it also ushered in the modern world.The restored regimes and dictatorships that took over in 1849 developed the economy. The fear at the moment is whether this ends up in dictatorhips or continued democracies.Where is the growth,the innovation,the stability to come from?How is western capitalism going to recover its dynamism?

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    Comment number 2.

    1848: Year of Revolution was, as ever, really interesting listening but what has happened to the past tense? It seems to me from listening to academic contributors to the radio and TV (and particularly In Our Time) that only scientists and foreigners are now able to speak in the past tense. In does seem rather ironic that this wanton destruction of a significant part of the language is apparently being led by academics from the humanities? The very people who see themselves as the guardians of the language and are usually most vocal about undergraduates entering their institutions being unable to express themselves in plain English. More strangely still historians seem to be the worst offenders. Almost to a man none appear capable accepting that their subject is about past events. Consequently whether it is Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the tentative steps of prehistoric man or indeed revolutions in 1848, all are now precariously suspended in the present. What on earth is going on? The past tense was quiet adequate for the likes of Austin, Conrad and Dickens. Why are the current academic community trying to consign it to History?

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    Comment number 3.

    I agree with you Melvyn. Excellent programme. Brilliantly accomplished in the given time.

    Just one thought though. Albeit that drawing historical parallels can be problematic, given the comparison that has been made between the events of 1848 and the Arab Spring, I wonder if in retrospect one of the most pertinent images of 2011 might well prove to be that of the Emir of Qatar clapping in time to the music of the traditional encore of the New Year's Concert in the Musikverein in Vienna - the Radetsky March.


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