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What were the social and ideological factors behind the recurrence of revolutions across Europe between 1820 and 1848? Why did this tide ebb after 1850?

  • In order to determine the social factors behind the recurrence of revolutions between 1820-1848, it is imperative to first undertake a brief study of the organization of the European society in the 19th century. 
  • Towards the middle of the 19th century, Europe was a continent of peasants who made up 40 to 55% of the labour force. Agriculture was more important than industries and there was increasing prosperity in agriculture before the 1850s. Sperber gives details about three different kinds of agricultural practices and ownership of land widespread in Europe. In countries like France, Spain, the Low Countries, the states of Italian peninsula and western Germany, feudal and seigneurial relations had been abolished. Economic relations were now governed by market forces. At the other end of the continent, parts of Eastern Germany, Hungarian provinces etc, remained under the realm of feudalism. In the crafts and manufacturing sector, the system of ‘outworking’ was prevalent and even after the introduction of factories, this system continued. 
  • During the 1800s, the dominant class was that of landowners who held large pieces of land. Andre-Jean Tudesq’s study revealed that around 65% of the top government officials and dominant figures in the economy came were large landholders.  However, the composition of the elite and with it the nature of the social structure differed throughout the continent.                                                  
  • The economic changes of the first half of the 19th century had important social implications, perhaps the most important one being the rise of a new middle class or the bourgeoisie. The term bourgeoisie as we interpret it today was not how it was in the 1840s. It was multi-layered and amorphous in nature. The Industrial Revolution had further strengthened the position of the bourgeoisie. 
  • David Ward stresses the ‘impatience of this class’ when it came to the slow pace of economic advance. The bourgeoisie as a class in Germany and Italy desired to unify states and believed that the government should facilitate this development. The fact that in many countries this desired tempo was not achieved, and that there existed rulers who did not share their aspirations, made them demand a share in the power held by the government. Naturally enough, such a situation laid a ground for conflict. 
  • Having analyzed the social and economic structures in various parts of Europe, one may now mention the various ways in which the conflicts in the society manifested themselves. J. Sperber has mentioned that there were two types of conflicts- political and social. The ‘social conflict’ included the following- conflict in the countryside, in manufacturing and crafts, conflicts with the state and conflict over religion. Essentially, European nations experienced the following: antagonism between lord and serf, conflicts over forest use, resistance to taxation, clashes between master and journeymen artisans, hostility between Catholics and Protestants or between Christians and Jews. At the most general and abstract level, the changes per-empted largely by the French revolution of 1789 had made possible the establishment of a new model of state.  There were new forms of governmental organization and political participation, new versions of production and property relations in agriculture and crafts, a new (and subordinate) place for religion within society. These changes thus involved a replacement of an old regime with a post-revolutionary civil society of property owners. 


Let us now analyze the ideological factors that were responsible for the upheavals in early decades of 19th century. As Sperber points out, the single most important factor (if not the only one) which shaped the political doctrine in mid 19th century Europe was the heritage of the French revolution of 1789. The Revolution had created the now familiar idea of a political spectrum, that is, the placing of political positions on a left to right scale. In this context, then, the ideologies of conservatism, liberalism and radicalism – which occupied the right, centre and left in the political spectrum respectively- emerged as important ideologies. 

  • Our entry point into a further discussion may be the Vienna Congress of 1815 which had de-Napolionized the states of Europe. It was reflective of the eventual triumph of Restoration. The new order in Europe rested on restoration that was to be dual in focus: it would ensure the restoration externally and internally. The former implied the preservation of the European state system where the interests of the great powers would be maintained. The latter meant the protection of the ruling regimes form revolutionaries. The French Revolution had given birth to a series of ideas like constitutionalism, democracy and nationalism- the very ideas which the established regimes perceived as different forms of threat to their stability. 
  • From 1840, the political landscape of Europe had experienced major transformations. Monarchy remained the dominant mode of governance. In France, the revolution of 1830 was, as Fisher puts it, ‘the act of a single city’, the single city being Paris. From Paris, the energies of the revolution spread to other parts of Europe. There were uprisings of Belgians against the Dutch, the Poles against Russians and the Carbonari against the Papal States. 
  • In general, by the beginning of the 19th century, the Enlightenment tradition was in disarray. The economic crisis of the 1840s had led to a situation where there was a deep discontent. The existing regimes feared the politicization of this widespread discontent, especially among the middle class. As Price explains, in ideological terms their demands were expressed through ‘liberalism’- a creed which represented a desire for ‘modernization’ for which Britain was looked up to as a role model. Similarly, Jacques Droz states the ‘liberalism’ was an ‘expression of the bourgeoisie’s political and economic interests’. Their objectives included the end of arbitrary government, reduction of powers in the institution of monarchy and church, a parliamentary government that would enable wider political participation and the establishment of the Rule of Law. Liberals rejected the idea of democracy and sovereignty of people. They were in favour of power going in the hands of the propertied class since they had real stake in the society. The liberals most certainly did not advocate for a revolution. 
  • Conservatives in this period knew that there were not many alternatives and that rigid enforcement was critical to the survival of the order of restoration. Repression was thus the logical step to take by these regimes. During this period, the army assumed the new role of a domestic police to clamp down on insurgency and unrest. Not only was Enlightenment under attack, but also individualism. The years between 1815 and the revolutions of 1830, the era of the Restoration, were the period for the formation of conservative political thought.  In other words, the philosophy of Restoration, as Jacques Droz puts it, entailed a movement towards conservatism. Three main themes dominated conservatism- historical tradition, patriarchalism and divine justification

Much of the tension leading up to the 1848 revolution can be understood as involving the interaction between the new political ideas which ultimately stemmed from French Revolution, and the social structure and social conflicts which were present in the early decades of the 19th century. However, this tide of recurring revolutions ebbed after 1850. The principle reason for this was the successful restoration programmes undertaken by the monarchies all over Europe.

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