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Europe in 1858[96]

Frederick Engels

The second half of the year 1858 has witnessed, in Europe, a peculiar revival of political activity. From the 2d of December, 1851, till the middle of the 'present year, the continent of Europe was, politically speaking, covered as with a shroud. The powers which, by the grace of the armies, had issued victorious out of the great revolutionary contest, had been allowed to govern as they liked, to make and unmake, to keep or to break the laws just as they pleased. Representative institutions had everywhere been degraded to a mere sham; there was scarcely any Parliamentary opposition anywhere; the press was gagged; and had it not been, now and then, for some sudden explosion, an outbreak at Milan, a landing at Salerno, a riot at Chalon, an attempt on the life of Louis Napoleon[97]; had it not been for some political trials at Angers and elsewhere, during which the old revolutionary spirit revelled, for a short hour, and no matter at what cost, in a loud and startling self-assertion—one might have thought that the European Continent had given up all ideas of political life after the experiment of 1848, and that military despotism, the rule of the Caesars was generally acquiesced in as the only practicable form of government. Even in England, the spirit of political reform had been constantly on the decline. Judicial, commercial, and administrative legislation, the latter with an undoubted tendency toward centralization, occupied the attention of Parliament. The attempts at keeping alive a popular political movement failed most signally, the Middle-Class Reform party going quietly to sleep and suffering an immense defeat in Lord Palmerston's general election of 1857[98], while Chartism had fallen completely to pieces.

Of all the European nations, Russia was the first to awake from this political lethargy. The Crimean war, though concluded without any very substantial loss of territory, and, so far as the East is concerned, even of prestige, had still humiliated her pride. For the first time, she had been compelled to abandon the principle, that whatever lands she annexes she never again gives up. Her whole system of administration, in its most perfect branch—the military—had broken down completely, and had to be admitted a failure. The work in which Nicholas had labored, day and night, for twenty-five years, had crumbled into ruins with the ramparts and forts of Sebastopol. Still, with the existing political state of the country, no other system of administration was possible than the exclusive and exaggerated bureaucratic system which existed. To lay a foundation for a better system, Alexander II had to recur to the idea of emancipating the serfs. He had two formidable opponents to contend with, the nobility and that very bureaucracy which he intended to reform against its own will, and which at the same time was to serve as the instrument of his designs. To support him, he had nothing but the traditionary passive obedience of that inert mass of Russian serfs and merchants which had hitherto been excluded from the right even of thinking about their political condition. To make their support available, he was compelled to create a kind of public opinion, and at least the shadow of a press. Accordingly, the censorship was relaxed, and civil, well-intentioned and well-behaved discussion was invited; even slight and polite criticisms of the acts of public officers were permitted. The degree of liberty of debate now existing in Russia would seem ridiculously small in any country of Europe except France; but still, to people who knew the Russia of Nicholas, the step in advance appears enormous, and, combined with the difficulties necessarily arising from the emancipation of the serfs, this awakening to political life of the more .educated classes of Russia is full of good omens.

The next political revival took place in Prussia. When the King had temporarily retired from active government, it soon became known that his mental derangement was incurable, and that sooner or later his brother would have to be appointed Regent, with full powers. This intermediate period gave rise to some agitation, which, under the pretext of clamor for a definitive Regency, was, in fact, directed against the existence of an unpopular Ministry. When, two months ago, the Regency was finally established, the Ministry changed, and a new House of Representatives elected, the political movement, so long dammed up, at once cleared a road for itself, and turned the former majority out of the Legislature, almost to a man. What all the present manifestation .in Prussia will ultimately lead to, has been analyzed in these columns on former occasions[a]; here we have merely to register the fact that the political revival has taken place.

The existence of such a movement could not remain unnoticed in the remainder of Germany. In fact, it is already making itself felt in the smaller States; and changes of Ministry, shiftings of majorities and vacillations of policy, are sure to develop themselves as the movement in Prussia takes a more definite shape. And, not only in the small fry of German monarchies, but in Austria as well, is this movement beginning to be seriously felt. The Constitutional party in Austria have, at present, no chance of inducing the Government to make a second trial of Representative institutions; so, the only means they have of keeping the question before the public is to praise the "return to sound Constitutional Government" in Prussia; and, indeed, it is wonderful how popular Prussia has at once become in Austria and South Germany. But no matter what be its expression, the movement is in existence even in Austria.

Another focus of agitation is Italy. Comparatively quiet since the peace with Russia, the political infection, aided by Bonapartist intrigues, was sure to spread to this inflammable nation. The old anti-smoking movement has begun again in Lombardy; the Duchess of Parma[b] finds it convenient to allow Ristori to declaim against the Austrians under the cloak of Judith preaching a holy war against the Assyrians[99], and that within hearing of the Austrian garrison of Piacenza. The position of the French army of occupation at Rome, and of the Papal Government there, are becoming equally difficult. Naples is even ready to rise, and, to crown all, Victor Emmanuel of Sardinia calls upon his generals to be prepared, for they may possibly have to smell powder again in the Spring.[c]

Even France has been seized by this new spirit. Montalembert's paper against Bonapartism[d] was a striking proof of a reawakening life among the French middle classes. It now appears that not only had Montalembert prepared another essay, but M. Falloux, the ex-Minister of Louis Napoleon, is also coming out with a strong article against the existing state of things. The trial of Montalembert[e] resolves itself into a solemn protest of the parliamentary celebrities of France against the present system, and a declaration that they still aspire to the restoration of parliamentary government. De Broglie, Odilon Barrot, Villemain and many other men of that class were there, and Berryer spoke for them all when, under the shelter of that inviolability which to a certain degree adheres to the forensic speeches of an advocate, he exclaimed:

"No, we shall never and on no account be renegades to our past. You hold this country too cheap. You admit, yourselves, that it is changeful and inconstant. What guaranty, then, have you that it will not one day return to those institutions which it has loved, and under which it has lived for half a century? Ah, our strength is greatly exhausted by our protracted struggles, by our painful trials, by the bitterness of our disappointments—no matter when our country wants us, it will ever find us at our posts. We will devote ourselves to it with the same ardor, the same perseverance and the same disinterestedness as in bygone days, and the last cry of our expiring voice shall be—'Liberty and France!'"

Surely, such an open declaration of war against the whole of the existing institutions of France would never be ventured upon unless there was a strong party out of doors giving the speaker their moral support. Finally, we find even in England a resuscitated reform agitation, and an all but certainty that this question must now be kept before Parliament, in some definite shape or other, until a measure is passed which will alter materially the balance of parties, and thereby attack the foundations of the venerable but rickety British Constitution.

Now, what is at the bottom of this uniform and, so far, uncommonly harmonious movement in almost all the countries of Europe? When the volcanic upheavings of 1848 suddenly threw before the eyes of the astonished liberal middle classes of Europe the giant specter of an armed working class, struggling for political and social emancipation, the middle classes, to whom the safe possession of their capital was of immensely higher importance than direct political power, sacrificed this power, and all the liberties for which they had fought, to secure the suppression of the proletarian revolution. The middle class declared itself politically a minor, unfit to manage the affairs of the nation, and acquiesced in military and bureaucratic despotism. Then arose that spasmodic extension of manufactures, mines, railways, and steam navigation, that epoch of Crédits Mobiliers, joint-stock bubbles, of swindling and jobbing, in which the European middle class sought to make up for their political defeats by industrial victories, for their collective impotence by individual wealth. But with their wealth rose their social power, and in the same proportion their interests expanded; they again began to feel the political fetters imposed upon them. The present movement in Europe is the natural consequence and expression of this feeling, combined with that return of confidence in their own power over their workmen which ten years of quiet industrial activity have brought about. The year 1858 bears a close resemblance to the year 1846, which also initiated a political revival in most parts of Europe, and was also distinguished by a number of reforming princes, who, two years afterward, were carried away helplessly by the rush of the revolutionary torrent which they had let loose.

Written late in November 1858
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5514, December 23, 1858 as a leading article;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1417, December 24, 1858
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 902, December 25, 1858
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] See this volume, pp. 65-81, 96-109, 115-19.—Ed.

[b] Louise de Bourbon.—Ed.

[c] Victor Emmanuel's address to Colonel Rolland after the review of the Savoy brigade, November 1858, The Times, No. 23168, December 4, 1858.—Ed.

[d] Ch. Montalembert, "Un débat sur l'Inde au parlement anglais", Le Correspondant, new series, Vol. IX, October 1858. See also this volume, p. 93.—Ed.

[e] On November 24, 1858.—Ed.

[96] The heading is given according to the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune and the New-York Weekly Tribune.

[97] The insurrection at Milan on February 6, 1853 was raised by the followers of the Italian revolutionary Mazzini and supported by the Hungarian revolutionary elements in the Austrian army. Marx analysed it in a number of articles (see present edition, Vol. 11, pp. 508-09, 513-16 and 535-37).

The landing at Sapri (province of Salerno) of a small detachment for the purpose of raising a revolt in the south of Italy took place late in June 1857.

The republican uprising in Châlon-sur-Saône took place on the night of March 5, 1858.

This attempt on the life of Napoleon III was made by the Italian revolutionary Orsini on January 14, 1858.

[98] The reference is to the party of radical Free Traders.

[99] The Italian actress Adelaide Ristori played the title-role in Giacometti's drama Judith. At the end of the play she sang a hymn containing the words:

"Sappian essi che sacra é la guerra
Se straniero minaccia la terra"
("Let them know that sacred is the war
if the foreigner threatens the country").

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.120-124), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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