Echoes of 1848

By Astrodem

Parallels in Time

Hi, and thanks for indulging me. If you’ve been reading Planet Waves and you’re reading this essay, you’re probably already familiar with Eric’s observations about the long Uranus-Pluto square. Over the last few years, Eric has made the case that the 2010s are probably going to look and feel a lot like the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s. Eric has offered me the chance to introduce you to another period that resonates strongly with the 2010s: namely, the late 1840s.

Capricorn. Painting by Carlos Cedillo.

Let me be clear about one thing right from the start. I am not an historian and I’m not an expert on this era. I point this out because I hope that if you are an historian or an expert on that era and I’ve somehow gotten it all horribly wrong, you will let me know. I first recognized the resonances between our present era and the 1840s while researching the historical transits of Neptune through the signs. It turns out that Neptune crossed back and forth over the border of Aquarius and Pisces in the late 1840s, just like it’s doing today. I got interested in this because the Ascendant in my natal chart occupies this degree.

Examining the astrology of this era more closely, I soon realized that the late 1840s shared another major outer planet aspect with us: Uranus and Pluto were making a hard aspect as well. Today, we’re dealing with a square reaching from Aries to Capricorn across the outer limits of the zodiac. Back then, it was a conjunction in Aries. In astrology, similarities like this are no coincidence and call for deeper examination. So I decided to do a little research on this era to find out more. To give credit where a great deal of credit is due, Mike Rapport’s phenomenal work on this era, 1848: Year of Revolution (2008), served as the source for this essay. And as the title of that book would suggest, 1848 saw the onset of a major – but largely forgotten – revolution across the European continent. I hope this short essay will give you, the reader, a taste of what it was all about.

Setting the Stage

To sketch a very brief picture of what European politics looked like in the 1840s, the five great powers – Austria (then known as the Hapsburg Empire), Prussia, Russia, France and Britain – were all imperial monarchies. Only France and Britain had parliaments, but these parliaments were dominated by landed aristocrats. To compare this landscape to something we might be familiar with today, Europe looked a lot like the nations of the Middle East and North Africa just prior to the Arab Spring, characterized by a lack of popular representation, vast economic and social inequities, and varying degrees of repression, modernization and influence beyond their borders. This was a very complex and complicated landscape, which is why it’s so intriguing that revolution touched nearly all of Europe simultaneously despite the stark differences from place to place.

In the decades leading up to 1848, there had been an explosion of economic inequality throughout Europe, triggered by the early stages of industrialization. A population boom in rural areas had prompted mass migration into the cities where factory jobs were believed (debatably) to be more plentiful. But for these early migrants into the cities, the reality seldom lived up to expectations. Often they found themselves living in vast, squalid and overpopulated ghettos not unlike the ones you see today in cities throughout Asia and the Middle East. Recall the slums depicted in Slumdog Millionaire to get an idea of what I’m talking about. The Europeans living in these conditions in the 1840s grew increasingly angry and gradually began to organize themselves politically…or at least those who weren’t living in total desperation tried to. Meanwhile back in the countryside, there were still way too many farmers and not enough food and land to go around.

In 1845-6, a potato blight triggered a famine. Suddenly there was mass starvation across the European continent as well as mass agitation for political, economic and social reform. By the time 1848 arrived, the normally soft-spoken and mild-mannered Alexis de Tocqueville couldn’t help but note that Europe was “sleeping on a volcano” — though his friends accused him of being a bit of a drama queen for saying so. What actually started the rebellion was a dust-up in Milan over a tobacco boycott aimed at pinching the treasury of Italy’s Austrian imperial overlords. Another thing you should know about this incident is that it was inspired by none other than the Boston Tea Party. The details of what happened don’t really matter, although what happened next did. As soon as word about the violence got out, people throughout Europe in both city and countryside started rioting against the monarchies. It is said that the rioting spread faster than the fastest forms of communication and modes of travel. Pretty much overnight, a whole continent took to the barricades.


So what did the revolutionaries want? The answer is very, very complicated – just like everything else in this era. Reformers typically held one or more of the following three general goals: 1) national unity for politically fragmented peoples, 2) more political freedom and representation, and 3) more economic equality (at the time, this was referred to as “the social question”). These goals were not held in equal measure. In fact, the rebels were rife with division and disagreement – though this fact was not immediately apparent in early 1848. At the beginning of the revolution, everyone shared a common enemy: the imperial monarchies.

I hope you will forgive me for dwelling at length on the differences between the revolutionary factions – because understanding these differences is the key to understanding the outcome of the revolution. There were two major realms of division. The first was over political ideology and the second was over economic class. Let’s deal with the ideology first.

All those years the new city dwellers had spent organizing and laying the groundwork for their big moment had divided them into two opposing political camps. First there were the liberals – moderate reformers who strongly preferred to work within the system. In most European states, they were committed to a project of national unity (e.g. unification of the German states or the Italian principalities), which they believed would produce solutions to the most pressing political and economic problems down the road. They supported parliamentary systems, but didn’t necessarily believe all people should get to participate or vote.

Then there were the radicals. They wanted to overthrow the monarchies through revolution, violently if necessary. The radicals wanted to aggressively deploy the state to achieve popular political freedoms and greater economic equality. They saw national unity as a secondary aim at best, a distraction from the real social problems at worst.

It’s important to understand that these two factions, these two sets of goals, were operating in a much broader context of political discussion and debate. The middle of the 19th Century saw the emergence of the popular press in Europe. While literacy rates weren’t even close to what they are today, this was the era in Europe when ordinary people started paying attention to current events and forming coherent ideas of their own about how to solve problems. The word “ideology” was first used in 1796, but many of the things that we would recognize today as political ideologies got their start in 1848. For instance, both nationalism and liberalism took off that year. 1848 was also the year that Henry David Thoreau wrote his famous treatise, Civil Disobedience, which was published the following year. 1848 also planted the seeds of socialism and communism. Did you know that Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto was published in 1848 after the first wave of rebellions? Well it was.

I’m bringing up this point about ideology because it illustrates the magnitude of the problems people faced in that era and the diversity of possible solutions. Pretty much anyone in this era who knew how to read and use their brain who wasn’t already part of Europe’s establishment power structure was trying to figure out what to do about their failing political, economic and social systems. And there was a staggering, breathtaking amount of disagreement over what to do. Popular ideological disagreement of this kind had never really happened before. In earlier revolutions (mainly the American and French ones), ideological debates had been left to the elite. The idea that the masses would form opinions about and take sides in an ideological/political disagreement was something entirely new at the time – and something that we are once again revisiting today.

The second major division amongst the rebels fell along the lines of economic class. At the start of the revolution in 1848, there were roughly five socioeconomic classes – and there was little or no class mobility. At the bottom of the totem pole there were the poor peasant farmers who lived in rural areas. Slightly above them were the urban factory workers, what Karl Marx described at the time as the proletariat, or what in modern times we call “the working class.” Then there was the middle class made up of professionals, craftsmen, bureaucrats, officials, businessmen, retailers and small landowners. Most of the organized political activists mentioned above came from middle-class backgrounds – though there were also quite a few urban factory workers involved as well. Next up there were the nobles, the landed aristocrats and other assorted wealthy elites. And finally at the top, there were the monarchies and their appendages. These appendages consisted of the ruling statesmen (dubbed “the old guard” in the historical literature) and the armies. The statesmen and the armies may have earned middle-class salaries, but it’s crucial to understand that they were paid directly by and therefore loyal to the monarchies. With minor variation, this class structure existed almost everywhere in 1840s Europe.

Snapshots from the Revolution

In the initial rebellion, it was pretty much everybody (including even a few of the nobles) versus the monarchies, the armies and the “old guard” statesmen. Clashes between the rebels – who sometimes numbered in the hundreds and sometimes in the tens of thousands – and the armies were at times brutally violent. Take for example this harrowing scene, which occurred on February 23, 1848 in the aftermath of the Paris massacre that killed about 50 people:

News of the slaughter pulsated around the city: for Parisians, the massacre seemed to signal the onset of a government effort to reassert its authority by crushing force. After midnight people huddling fearfully behind closed shutters were drawn out by a spectacle worthy of Dante’s Inferno: a horse and wagon, drawn by a muscular, bare-armed worker, bore five lifeless bodies, including the corpse of a young woman whose neck and chest were stained with a long stream of blood. The tableau was lit by the flickering, reddish reflections of a torch held aloft by a child of the people, with a pallid complexion, eyes burning and staring as one would depict in the spirit of vengeance. Behind the cart another shook his sparkling torch, passing his fierce gaze over the crowd, crying “Vengeance! Vengeance! They are slaughtering the people!” The insurgents, fired up again, prepared to fight once more and raced back to the barricades. At that moment, the corpse of a woman had more power than the bravest army in the world. (Rapport, 2008)

Scenes like this were common in 1848 and 1849. I don’t want to get too bogged down in the specifics of what happened, because the revolution played out a little differently in every country. It’s a bit like trying to tell the stories of recent events in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, the anti-austerity riots in Europe, and the Occupy movement all at the same time. The specifics in each case are worth studying if you’re really interested, but not if you’re just trying to get a general sense of what it was all about – which is what I’m trying to do here. Check out the Wikipedia entries for a timeline of the historical events. Rather than try to retell the story of what happened, I want to make a few passing observations about the revolution that may bear some relevance to what we’re going through today.

First, the revolution was an international phenomenon. Revolutionary movements sprung up in France, Germany, Italy, Sicily, Austria, Denmark, Hungary, Switzerland, Poland, Romania, Belgium and Ireland – simultaneously. All of the revolutionaries were paying close attention to what their counterparts in other lands were doing, and found inspiration in the victories and triumphs of their counterparts anywhere and everywhere.

Second, the 1848 revolution gave millions of Europeans their first taste of popular politics and their first taste of political freedom during the brief period in 1848-1849 when the monarchies lost any ability to clamp down on those freedoms. Even the conservative counter-revolutionaries who defended the old guard were doing so consciously and through the exercise of their own free will. That was new.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the lack of solidarity among the opponents of the monarchies proved determinative.

Divide and Conquer

After some initial blunders and military defeats, the monarchies, the old guard and the armies that served them responded to the revolution and to the challenges to their authority with brilliant military strategy and deviously Machiavellian cunning. In nearly every country, the “old guard” power brokers of the established monarchies did precisely what they had always done best: divide and conquer. First, they paid off the nobles who had been rebelling out of frustration with absolute rule. As has so often been the case with aristocratic elites throughout history, these dissatisfied nobles were more than happy to put aside their political grievances in exchange for a big, old bribe or two.

Next, the monarchies threw a few proverbial crumbs to the rural peasants – mainly by ending the last remaining legal vestiges of feudalism. Ending legal serfdom meant that peasants were no longer legally bound to the land they worked on and had to be paid. One way of thinking about this reform is to treat it as Europe’s version of ending slavery. If we want to think about it that way, the analogy may fit a little too well because – as in America – what followed was hardly an improvement. Ending serfdom came with a huge price tag: peasant wages were fixed by law at a level well below market prices and ownership of the animals and equipment they used was summarily transferred to the land-owning class. Beyond that, the dire conditions most peasants lived and worked in remained otherwise unchanged. By 1849 the peasants had all but abandoned the revolution, satisfied with meager reforms that really didn’t change much of anything.

That left the urban middle class and factory workers for the monarchies to deal with. So the old guard responded by deftly exploiting the disagreements and divisions between the rebelling liberals and radicals. Like I said earlier, it played out a little differently from place to place, but in each country the establishment manipulated the circumstances, so that the revolutionaries would be forced to choose between the project of national unity and the political and economic freedoms they sought. Instead of reaching for mutually agreed-upon goals, the liberals and the radicals both reached for power. In some instances, they turned to authoritarian means to achieve their aims, which gave counter-revolutionary and reactionary (read: conservative) forces the upper hand. In other cases, infighting between the classes or the various ideological factions tore the rebellion apart, and led to the collapse of the few liberal regimes that were established. The imperial armies retook the initiative and ultimately control of the lands they had lost. In the end, the revolutionaries achieved virtually none of their goals, and the monarchies retook power.

Again, the details of how this happened varied enormously from place to place – but in most nations the revolution followed the general trajectory outlined here. The democratic order that rebels might have established throughout Europe in the 1850s got postponed for another century in Western Europe, and another 140+ years for Eastern Europe. That is the great tragedy of 1848. We can trace a direct line from the failure of these revolutions to both the imperial excesses of the late 19th Century, and to the cataclysmic world wars during the first half of the 20th Century. Historians remember 1848 as a failed revolution: an historic turning point where history never turned.

We can’t let that happen again.

Lessons of 1848

So what can we learn from all this? Here are just a few of the lessons I’ve drawn.

First, we’re not the first. There is often a sense – conveyed by members of our media and our leading intellectuals – that when something out of the ordinary happens, it is “unprecedented.” You’re going to hear that word a lot over the next few years, but I would advise everyone to double check and see if it’s actually true. The political, economic and social upheavals we’re going through today are not new and the issues we’re dealing with – by and large – aren’t new either. It’s just that few people are old enough or informed enough about history to know about the similarities to other eras of history.

Case in point: we often hear about today’s young people being the first generation to think globally and act locally. But nothing could be further from the truth. Revolutionaries embraced this ethos in the 1840s. Actually, so did many of the reformers in the 1960s in the U.S. and elsewhere. The precise meaning and geographic scope of “global” and “local” have evolved over time, but the idea behind the principle is still the same. Very little under the sun is truly new. So go out and read some history – even if it’s just a Wikipedia page or two. You might learn something useful, and you might avoid making a mistake that someone else already made.

Second, might doesn’t make right, but neither does right make might. In the end, it doesn’t much matter which ideology is the correct one; what matters is which ideology’s adherents are the best organized. In 1848, the monarchies and their agents were the best organized and that’s a large part of why they prevailed. Consider what’s happening in Egypt right now for an illustration of this lesson in real time. The Egyptian people won an enormous victory when they got rid of the dictator Mubarak, but they’re currently being ruled by their country’s military – by far the most organized and powerful institution in Egyptian society. And the military council is badly mismanaging Egypt’s transition to democracy. Their quick resort to brutal violence against their own people is enough to make you wonder whether they actually intend to allow the transition to democracy to happen. Furthermore, the group most likely to win the upcoming elections (should they take place) is the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s no coincidence that they are the best-organized political movement in Egyptian society. Who is organized matters much, much more than who is right.

Third, solidarity matters. I can’t help but wonder how 1848 might have played out differently if the urban reformers had made more of an effort to incorporate the concerns and interests of the rural peasants into their political and economic program. Likewise, I can’t help but wonder how the Occupy movement might look different if they had made more of an effort to include racial and ethnic minorities. Their failure to do so was starkly illustrated after the first few days of police brutality in New York City. The Occupiers reacted to the violence with righteous indignity. The reaction of the African-American community was best summarized in this tweet from blogger Elon James White: “Oh? The NYPD are treating you badly? Violent for no reason? Weird. – Black People.” Seriously, folks, if you’re going to claim to stand for all of the people, you need to stand for ALL of the people. In this age of social pluralism and information abundance, there is simply no excuse for any forward-thinking movement to ignore the injuries and injustices borne by any community. We all need to hang together, or we will surely all hang separately.

Fourth, non-participation is the definition of failure. The withdrawal of the peasantry from the 1848 revolution proved decisive. Likewise, the retreat of the emergent Obama coalition in the 2010 mid-term elections also proved rather decisive. Change doesn’t come for those who stay home, for those who decide to “sit this one out,” and for those who express their disapproval by retreating from political life. If you want progress and change, you have to commit to being involved, staying involved and actually remaining involved – especially when it’s the last thing in the world you want to do. Change isn’t easy, but it NEVER comes for those who sit on the sidelines or will be satisfied with empty symbolism. Packing your bags and going home IS defeat – and whether or not you do that is entirely in your control.

I hope this essay has piqued your curiosity about another time and another place not unlike our world today. Alexis de Tocqueville once said, “History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals but many copies.” Indeed, we would all be wise to remember this advice. 1848 has much to teach us about the present moment, as do other eras of rebellion and revolution. Let us all hope that THIS period of upheaval and change brings progress on some of the longstanding issues that have challenged humanity from time to time and from one generation to the next.

Back to the Featured Articles