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38.3 The Fermentation of Ideas, 1848

To trace any broad outlines in the fermentation of ideas that went on during the mechanical and industrial revolution of the nineteenth century is a very difficult task. But we must attempt it if we are to link what has gone before in this history with the condition of our world to-day.

It will be convenient to distinguish two main periods in the ‘hundred years between 1814 and 1914. First came the period 1814-48, in which there was a very considerable amount of liberal thinking and writing in limited circles, but during which there were no great changes or development of thought in the general mass of the people. Throughout this period the world’s affairs were living, so to speak, on their old intellectual capital, they were going on in accordance with the leading ideas of the Revolution and the counter-revolution. The dominant liberal ideas, were freedom and a certain vague equalitarianism; the conservative, ideas were monarchy, organized religion, social privilege, and obedience.

Until 1848 the spirit of the Holy Alliance, the spirit of Metternich, struggled to prevent a revival of the European revolution that Napoleon had betrayed and set back. In America, both North, and South, on the other hand, the revolution had triumphed and nineteenth-century liberalism ruled unchallenged. Britain was an uneasy country, never quite loyally reactionary nor quite loyally progressive, neither truly monarchist nor truly republican, the land of Cromwell and also of the Merry Monarch Charles; anti-Austrian, anti-Bourbon, anti-papal, yet, weakly repressive. We have told of the first series of liberal storms in Europe in and about the year 1830; in Britain in 1832 a Reform Bill, greatly extending the franchise and restoring something, of its representative character to the House of Commons, relieved the situation. Round and about 1848 came a second and much more serious system of outbreaks, that overthrew the Orleans monarchy and established a second Republic in France (1848-52), raised North Italy and Hungary against Austria, and the Poles in Posen against the Germans, and sent the Pope in flight from the republicans of Rome. A very interesting Pan-Slavic conference held at Prague foreshadowed, many of the territorial readjustments of 1919, it dispersed after an insurrection at Prague had been suppressed by Austrian troops.

Ultimately all these insurrections failed; the current system staggered, but kept its feet. There were no doubt serious social discontents beneath these revolts, but as yet, except in the case of Paris, these had no very clear form; and this 1848 storm, so as far as the rest of Europe was concerned, may be best described, in a phrase, as a revolt of the natural political map against the artificial arrangements of the Vienna diplomatists, and the system of suppressions those arrangements entailed.

The history of Europe, then, from 1815 to 1848 was, generally speaking, a sequel to the history of Europe from 1789 to 1814. There were no really new motifs in the composition. The main trouble was still the struggle, though often a blind and misdirected struggle, of the interests of ordinary men against the Great Power system which cramped and oppressed the life of mankind.

But after 1848, from 1848 to 1914, though the readjustment of the map still went on towards a free and unified Italy and a unified Germany, there began a fresh phase in the process of mental and political adaptation to the new knowledge and the new material powers of mankind. Came a great irruption of new social, religious, and political ideas into the general European mind. In the next three sections we will consider the origin and quality of these irruptions. They laid the foundations upon which we base our political thought to-day, but for a long time they had no very great effect on contemporary politics. Contemporary politics continued to run on in the old lines, but with a steadily diminishing support in the intellectual convictions and consciences of men. We have already described the way in which a strong intellectual process undermined the system of Grand Monarchy in France before 1789. A similar undermining process was going on throughout Europe during the Great Power period of 1848-1914. Profound doubts of the system of government and of the liberties of many forms of property in the economic system spread throughout the social body. Then came the greatest and most disorganizing war in history, so that it is still impossible to estimate the power and range of the accumulated new ideas of those sixty-six years. We have been through a greater catastrophe even than the Napoleonic catastrophe, and we are in a slack-water period, corresponding to the period 1815-30. Our 1830 and our 1848 are still to come and show us where we stand.

« 38.2 Relation of the Mechanical to the Industrial Revolution |Contents | 38.4 The Development of the Idea of Socialism »

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