Fouad Ajami, Massimo d’Azeglio, 1848, and Optimism about the Arab revolutions

Fouad Ajami, whose writings on the Arab world have been lucid and honest (and therefore earned him accusations of betraying the Arab cause by such stalwarts of honor-shame culture as Edward Said), has written a curious op-ed on the situation today. I quote his final passage and append my own passages on the 1848 revolutions in Europe to which he compares this moment.

Fouad Ajami, How the Arabs Turned Shame Into Liberty

So now, emancipated from the prison, they will make their own world and commit their own errors. The closest historical analogy is the revolutions of 1848, the Springtime of the People in Europe. That revolution erupted in France, then hit the Italian states and German principalities, and eventually reached the remote outposts of the Austrian empire. Some 50 local and national uprisings, all in the name of liberty.

Massimo d’Azeglio, a Piedmontese aristocrat who was energized by the spirit of those times, wrote what for me are the most arresting words about liberty’s promise and its perils: “The gift of liberty is like that of a horse, handsome, strong and high-spirited. In some it arouses a wish to ride; in many others, on the contrary, it increases the urge to walk.” For decades, Arabs walked and cowered in fear. Now they seem eager to take freedom’s ride. Wisely, they are paying no heed to those who wish to speak to them of liberty’s risks.

This is a lot of wishful thinking here. The 1848 revolutions were failures across the board, and Europe was far more “advanced” when it came to a democratic culture (equality before the law, free press, public sphere) than the Arab world today. Here’s what I wrote on the subject of 1848 in my upcoming book (Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience, July, 2011, Oxford U. Press), from Chapter 10: “Egalitarian Millennialism: Marx the Rooster.”

1848: Apocalyptic Moment, Millennial Wave

The question is, as with all millennial movements that want to spread: when and how will the apocalyptic transition shift gears from hell to heaven? For Marx, and most millennial modernists, that meant revolution. And the evidence suggests that, whatever earlier false alarms he might have experienced, the first major moment that Marx believed marked that great and final revolution was 1848, a moment that coincided with his own rise to prominence in the revolutionary ranks and his publication of the Communist Manifesto.

In 1848, starting in Italy in January and moving to Paris in February, a wave of revolutionary movements burst on the European continent like a roll of thunder.[i] The “people” in one capital after another, hearing the news from their neighbors, rose up to demand their rights – constitutional government, equality before the law, freedom.  Roosters crowing awakened roosters all over Europe. The new day finally dawned.

The intoxication of this revolutionary enthusiasm, amplified by song and poetry, convinced people that this was the true international revolution, the one that the French had only dreamed about. A performance of Meyebeer’s opera, Robert le Diable (1831), in Paris after Louis-Philippe’s abdication (February 1848), ended not only with the audience singing the Marseilleise, but a new patriotic song: “Even to the depths of its roots/ The old throne was corrupt… Long live Republican France! Liberty is on the wing!”[ii] The descriptions of elation and fraternity, of joy and deeply felt drama, express the intensity of this apocalyptic time. But this time it was fueled not by celestial signs and wonders and human repentance – the standard Christian passive cataclysmic apocalyptic scenario – but by peoples rising up and taking their destiny into their hands. These active apocalyptic revolutions, part violent, part transformative, mark the use of the public sphere for a self-assertive discourse by people whom most cultures repress – commoners.

Historians tend not to believe that the Communist Manifesto played much of a role in the wave of revolutions that swept though Europe in 1848, even though the violent uprising in Paris in June of that year occurred shortly after the Manifesto had first appeared in French there.[iii] It was written rapidly in December of 1847 and first published in England at the end of February 1848.[iv] On the basis of the documentary evidence one can argue either way – it came out too soon before the outbreak of events, or it set events in motion.

One should not, however, view the spread of ideas in apocalyptic time according to the general rules of dissemination of texts in (relatively) normal time. Oral transmission goes faster and farther than written, and the Manifesto, like any good apocalyptic scenario, lends itself to oral recounting. Certainly, like the Grande Peur of 1789, whose rapid spread so surprises modern historians, apocalyptic news spreads orally, over unidentified paths, very rapidly. Given the extremely strong café and club culture that had arisen in Louis Philippe’s indulgent monarchy, where participants read and debated newspapers and other contemporary texts, a couple of months is ample time for the right publication to make its mark even indirectly, though word of mouth.[v]

Nor was Marx the only rooster crowing at the time.  The same conversations through which the ideas of the Manifesto rippled, found exaltation in Michelet’s extraordinary History of the French Revolution, the first two volumes of which first appeared in 1847.[vi] They described “the tale of the most beautiful days of the Revolution, still credulous, fraternal, clement…”[vii] His colleagues at the Collège de France found his lectures on the French Revolution so incendiary – and wildly popular – that they prevented him from delivering them.[viii] So the Manifesto fully reflected the feverish, radical expectation of the day, the same spirit that inspired the leaders of these revolutions to shape them along lines of class warfare and the destruction of all that stood in the way of a just society.[ix]

These revolutions differed from earlier ones (1789, 1830). They attempted to transform not just the structure of government, but also the social structure.[x] They began in the same demotic enthusiasm of the French revolution, then, partly because of the massive task of restructuring society they tried to effect, rapidly devolved into violence and self-destructive failure.

Marx, thirty years old at the time, surfed the revolutionary wave with growing confidence in his conviction that Now! had at last come. “To Marx the outbreak and rapid spread of Revolution represented the fulfillment of a personal prophecy, and a chance to immerse himself in a struggle in which the whole destiny of humanity was at stake. Now his faith in the power of revolution both to reveal and to realize the meaning of history would find its rest.[xi]” He visited Paris briefly after the February overthrow of the monarchy, where he set up a Communist League club. Then after the March revolution in Berlin, he went to Cologne.

There he manned the Neue Rheinische Zeitung for three months, his “most formidable period as a publicist,” during which every article, as Friedrich Engels later recalled, “struck like a shell and burst.”[xii] “Marx’s goad dug the shanks of the Assembly, inciting it to bolder action, the breath of his freezing criticism blasted the backs of their necks.”[xiii] He was his own “sans-culottes gallery” driving the revolution forward. Lenin later held up Marx’s editorial work in this period as the “unsurpassed” model of an “organ of the revolutionary proletariat.”[xiv] Marx, along with a host of others like Nicolas Restif de la Bretonne and Armand Marrast, had founded a major school of apocalyptic journalism.[xv]

Meyebeer and Marx: Dealing with the Cognitive Dissonance of Apocalyptic Failure

But by late 1849, all the revolutions had failed, leaving a bitter legacy of half-baked demotic reforms. One of the more acute observer/participants of 1848, Massimo d’Azeglio used the metaphor of the stallion of liberty: “The gift of liberty is like a horse, handsome, strong, and high-spirited. In some it arouses a wish to ride; in many others, on the contrary, it increases the desire to walk.”[xvi] If anything, these revolutions frightened people, who preferred to walk than mount that spirited stallion. Marx, along with many other millennial enthusiasts of 1848 found themselves in the aftermath, bitterly disappointed, deeply embarrassed, and isolated. Ruefully, Marx would later comment to Engels, “The pleasant delusions and the almost childish enthusiasm with which we greeted the revolution before February, 1848, are for the devil.”[xvii]

The revolutionaries were in the depths of cognitive dissonance, and no matter what story they told themselves to keep going, things only got worse. Richard Wagner described with considerable honesty the intensity of his disappointment in 1852 when Louis Napoleon should have, in principle, stepped down from office.

I always pointed… to this hopeful year [1852]… I cannot measure how deeply this hope had taken root in me; I soon, however, was forced to recognize that the confident pride of my assumptions and affirmations was largely due to the greatly increased excitement of my nerves. The news of the coup d’état of the 2nd December in Paris seemed to me absolutely incredible: I was certain the world was coming to an end. When the news was confirmed, and it became clear that events no one had thought possible had happened and seemed likely to endure, I turned away from the investigation of this enigmatic world, as one turns from a mystery the fathoming of which no longer seems worth while.[xviii]

If 1848 had disappointed, some worked with a four-year buffer offered by the man who destroyed the initial dream. The very intensity of the German Wagner’s attachment to a French event in 1852 – “the greatly increased excitement of my nerves” – testify to the even greater passion surrounding the initiating moment of such delayed hopes, 1848.

Among those to reflect on the tragedy of 1848, rather than turn away from it, however, were two German Jews, one a reform Jew in the tradition of Moses Mendelssohn – the opera impresario Giacomo Meyerbeer – and one the son of a Jewish Kantian enthusiast who had converted to Lutheranism for the sake of his legal career – the communist ideologue Karl Marx.


[i] Priscilla Robertson, The Revolutions of 1848: A Social History (New York: Harper & Row, 1960).

[ii] See A Year of Revolutions: Fanny Lewald’s Recollections of 1848, ed. Hanna Lewis (Providence, RI: Berghahn Books, 1997), 70.

[iii] “The Communist Manifesto… exercised no influence on the February Revolution.” Georges Duveau, 1848: The Making of a Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1967), 206.

[iv] Hal Draper, Marx Engels Chronicle: A Day-by-Day Chronology of Marx and Engels’ Life and Activity (New York: Schocken Books, 1985), 30.

[v] On the growth and politicization of café culture see W. Scott Haine, The World of the Paris Café: Socialbility among the French Working Class, 1789-1914 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 140-2.

[vi] “…my teaching, my history, and its all powerful interpreter – the spirit of the Revolution,” Michelet, Histoire de la Révolution Française, ed. Ernest Flammarion, 5 vol. (Paris: Près L’Odéon, 1898); tr. Wright, 1:1.

[vii] Ibid. “Introduction de 1868” 1.

[viii] Arthur Mitzman, Michelet, Historian: Rebirth and Romanticism in Nineteenth-Century France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 154-5; Oscar Haac, Jules Michelet (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982), 83-6. Wilson, Finland Station, 20.  With Michelet’s enthusiasm for the early years of the revolution as a spur to further revolution, and his opposition among his colleagues, one might find the first iteration of the “revisionist debate” of the French Revolution (see above, chap. 8, for its current reiteration).

[ix] The Communist Party was started by a group of German radicals in Paris who formed a club they modestly called the Bund der Gerechten or “Society/Covenant of the Just.”

[x] Robertson, The Revolutions of 1848, 4-7, 412-9.

[xi] Jerrold Siegel, Marx’s Fate: The Shape of a Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), 193.

[xii] Wilson, Finland Station, 200.

[xiii] Ibid, 201.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] James Billington, “The Magic Medium: Journalism,” Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 306-24.

[xvi] Recollections, trans. Count Maffei (London: Chapman and Hall, 1868), II: 8; cited in Robertson, Revolutions of 1848, 415.

[xvii] Marx to Engels, Feb. 13, 1863, Marx-Engels Werke, ed. Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus. 43 vol. (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1956-90) [MEW], 30: 324; cited in Siegel, Marx’s Fate, 233.

[xviii] Richard Wagner, Mein Leben, quoted in Siegel, Marx’s Fate, 217. Note the inversion of norms here: “events no one thought could happen” refers here to the failure of the revolution and the return to autocracy in the form of Napoleon III’s empire. Thus in referring to “no one,” Wagner speaks entirely from the perspective of the revolutionaries: rooster’s cognitive egocentrism. Compare Wagner’s comments with those of Adam of Salimbene after the failure of 1260, the Joachite annus mirabilis: “I entirely laid aside this [apocalyptic] doctrine [of setting dates], and I am disposed henceforth to believe nothing save what I see,” Chronicle of Salimbene De Adam, trans. Joseph L. Baird et al. (Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1986), 440f.

7 Responses to Fouad Ajami, Massimo d’Azeglio, 1848, and Optimism about the Arab revolutions

  1. oao says:

    I found Ajami overrated. He is given to style and poetic language over substance and it was only rarely that he wrote or said something that enlightened and impressed me. It seemed to me that he had the prominence he had because he was that rare entity: a non-left academic.

    I think he has also fallen victim to the general wishful thinking that has taken over the west, the neocons being the leading delusional. I mean, check out Abrams and Wolfowitz, particularly their rebuke of Israel. I should write something about it at my blog The PostWest (www.thefallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com).

    If they all believed in the potential of the arab people why is it that when they were in power they may have talked a lot about freedom but instituted NO policy whatsoever to bring the tyrants down.

    I guess the arabs will have to teach them yet another lesson but based on what we know to date, they never learn these lessons because their implication is the demise of the west and they are desperately trying to convince themselves that this does not happen because arabs are just like us. Some arabs are, but they are too few and they have no status in the arab world.

    I suggest people read the JPost interview with Bernard Lewis. He is too nostalgic about the Ottoman system and Turkey, but he tends to be more open-eyed about the realities of the ME.

  2. Sérgio says:

    I also think this guy is overrated, but at least he is not that ventriloquist Atwan.

    As of 1848, I think in only one respect there might be some possible similarity (though the contexts are so different that it´s hopeless anyway) namely, that
    it was a reaction to the Restauration, which tried unsuccessfully bring back throne & altar. Of course that too late and impossible and it was a big reactionary farce. The Napoleonic revolutionary cesarism had a huge impact and moreover, the Industrial Revolution was spreading and creating major social dislocations. In any case, Metternich was able to abort a German liberal experiment, with dire future consequences. In France, revolution would return after Sedan and the bloody Paris commune.

    • oao says:

      Atwan is not an intellectual. And he is as partisan as they come.

      The western projection onto the ME is something to behold. No matter how overwhelming the evidence is against it, it persists without any weakening.
      That indicates to me that somewhere in the subconscious the west understands they’re gonners and they just won’t allow this to come to the conscious. The projection is their psychological defense mechanism.

      I am referring, of course, to the elite — politicians, wall streeters, media, academics. The plebos are excusable to the degree that they are kept ignorant and without the ability to reason and think independently and critically. But that was the whole purpose of the destruction of the educational system and is one of the drivers of western demise.

  3. Sérgio says:

    Taguieff calls this behavior “voluntary dhimmitude”. Laqueur mentions the “capitulation” or “abdication” of Europe. I guess it´s the result of a left that lost itself completely but which still has, amazingly indeed, an intellectual influence, though it produces just trash, from Lacan and Foucault through Zizek and Ramadan.

    • oao says:

      Regardless of what you call it, IMO it’s an underlying fear which induces appeasement. They rationalize it differently — human rights, guilt over colonialism, etc. — but essentially that’s what it is.

      The left are the drivers, but that’s not limited to them. Crises of the scope and depth that the west has caused to itself usually evoke scapegoats and the jews are the traditional ones.

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