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The wave of revolutions that swept across Western Europe in 1848 brought what can be described as lasting reforms to the regimes that governed the affected territories; and even those that watched their neighbors’ revolts changed for fear of the same in their backyards. The genesis of these revolutions is attributed to a number of factors such as political, technological, and economic among others (Dowe 459).
New ideas and values were crafted and people clamored for liberty, nationalism, and socialism. Nobility was considered as the huddle to achieving these values. The working class that was the fuel for most revolutions had undergone radical transformation courtesy of technological changes.
Economic downturns had led to unprecedented hunger due to crop failure and the economic system, capitalism, made the urban poor poorer and the peasants, beggars at the feet of their masters. This is what made France to start the revolution in February 1848. In this paper, the writer discusses what would transpire in an imaginary debate where Karl Marx, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Jonathan Swift converse about these revolutions of 1848.
The Hypothetical Debate
The Hegelian dialectic triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis heavily influenced Karl Marx. Though Hegel used his theory to elucidate the influence of world history to the Spirit (Geist), Marx contextualized it and traced the origin of socio-economic order starting with serfs to proletariat and finally envisioning a classless society (Magstadt 65). In such a discussion, therefore, Marx would attribute capitalism as the cause of the revolutions.
Two years before the revolution, there had been an economic crisis in France caused by the bourgeoisies in Louis-Philippe’s regime. The opposition in the parliamentary session of 1847 representing the workers formed parties (banquets) to shield the poor workers against the occurrence of similar economic disasters.
It was the refusal of King Luis-Philippe to grant parties the permission for meeting that sparked off the revolution, which ended his monarchy and instituted the Second Republic (Horstman 72). Marx would argue that the exploitation of the proletariat by agents of capitalism, bourgeoisies, brought the antithesis – revolutions/class struggles – with a view of bringing a new social order, communism, for the benefit of all.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau would interject by bringing to the attention of his interlocutors the aspect of natural right that man had in the state of nature. He would argue that the revolutions experienced in most part of Western Europe were due to the degeneration of human society through the formation of a secular society. The division of labor and ownership of private property as distinctive features of the latter brought greater injustice and inequality to people (Scott 135).
Man, therefore, became susceptible to competition in almost all aspects of his life with fellow men while depending on them, at the same time, for his survival. Rousseau would say of the upheavals of 1848 in Europe because of competition that punctuated the life of man in a society having abandoned his primitive state of nature where survival was presupposed by compassion and cooperation.
Marx would quickly agree with Rousseau by substantiating his initial claims with the construct of social alienation. He would explain this by inviting his fellow debaters to look at how various states such as Germany, France, Britain, Denmark, Prussia, et cetera had laws that favored the rich (nobles) but harsh on the rest of the populace. Given that the political systems in most regions were led by monarchies, it was obvious that such regimes had to place the interests of their fellow aristocrats above those of commoners.
Therefore, when the economic meltdown swept the region due to crop failure and the infamous potato blight that affected northern Europe, the aristocratic regimes cushioned their own at the expense of other citizens. Marx would then link this situation to a case of blatant social alienation whose climax was the rapturous revolutions aimed at changing the oppressive political systems (Magstadt 68).
At this point, Jonathan Swift would take the floor to point out the reasons for the revolutions, without his characteristic satirical stance. Perhaps quoting from his renowned essay A Modest Proposal, he would attribute the situation to the culminating spirit of people’s will to power after having stomached all the social ills directed to them by those occupying the political offices.
He however, would term as illogical, the means used by the masses to wrest power from the malevolent leaders. The most important thing for him would be the necessity to solve the social and economic injustices that political systems were administering (Real 152).
Consequently, he would absolve the revolutionists of any wrongdoing given that they attempted to right the socio-economic structural wrongs for a better society. He would easily relate the oppressive socio-economic structures of 1848 in most countries to his time and ridicule the mockery projects by those in authority to establish equal superstructures.
In fact, he would openly express his loathe for such schemes and urge the revolutionists to continue pressing on for a change in both political and social systems that would begin by deposing political leaders of the affected countries. In the debate therefore, the three interlocutors would have a common ground as far as support for the revolutionists is concerned.
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Reading through the arguments for each debater, one can clearly tell that they are in agreement with the cause of revolution as economic and political. Other factors such as social and technological are bred by the latter two. That is, they are subsets of both economic and political factors. Karl Marx brings in the concept of classless society as the greatest impetus for the revolution.
The drive was due to alienation in which the workers were given paltry pay despite the huge profit margins that they made to the capitalist who only lazed around. It is also political in the sense that the regimes that were affected by the revolution perpetrated capitalism and abandoned the masses at the mercy of bourgeoisies (Magstadt 66).
Rousseau’s argument is also leaning heavily toward economic and political reasons. The reason was economical in as far as the revolution was caused by frequent competition that pitted men against one another in the society after exiting the state of nature.
By leaving the later state and joining a society in which law and morality were codified to guide the division of labour and ownership of private property, it was clear that one had to struggle to get material wealth. To the extent that the sovereign made these laws, they tended to favor their interests but not that of the common person hence a political anomaly and the need to restructure them.
Swift also finds common ground in the discussion by underscoring the economic and political causes of the revolution. His observation that governments’ unfair economic structures that only favored a given clique of people is congruous with the economic reasons espoused by the previous debaters. Similarly, to the extent that political systems conjured up such structures, he forms a common ground with his colleagues. The skewed political systems the revolutionists; dared to restructure European nations.
The 1848 revolutions across European territories was the culmination of economic and socio-political injustices that the affected regimes administered on their people. The reason behind revolution was to restructure the political systems to cater for the needs of all people under their respective jurisdictions.
In the hypothetical discussion above, the debaters, Karl Marx, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Jonathan Swift have a common argument regarding the fundamental causes of the revolution and the aim of the revolutionists. These causes have been mentioned as economic and political, though the substantiation of each debater is unique. Therefore, it can be concluded that they collaborate on a common manifesto.
Dowe, Dieter. Europe in 1848: revolution and reform. New York: Berghahn Books, 2001.
Horstman, Allen. The Essentials of European History: 1789 to 1848, revolution and the new European order. Thousand Oaks, FL: Research & Education Association, 1996.
Magstadt, Thomas. Understanding Politics: Ideas, Institutions, and Issues. Chicago, ILL: Cengage, 2010.
Real, Hermann. Reading Swift: papers from the third Munster Symposium on Jonathan Swift. Bonn, German: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1998.
Scott, John. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Human nature and history. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis, 2006.