Historical Perspective on Failure

By Patrick Huang, Contributing Writer ||

Starting from the late 18th century, many historians have associated the word modernity with civilization, especially emphasizing the role of modernization in the making of a civilized society. The intense conflict between radical ideas and traditional values was the most prevailing force in giving meaning to the word modernity. The most effective way to understand the process of modernization was to look at the most politically, socially, ideologically, and economically turbulent era, ranging from 1789 to 1840. The French Revolution signaled the beginning of this long but fruitful conflict.

Their main task was to analyze the failure of many revolutions that found their inspiration and foundation in the French Revolution. In order to understand what triggered other similar revolutions in the Atlantic, a prior knowledge of what Enlightenment means and does was required. Although important ideologies, such as nationalism and radical liberalism, emerged as the by-products of the French Revolution, their emergence would be impossible without the underlying principles of reasoning and individualism that were the core of Enlightenment ideas.

Those empowering ideologies would evolve and provide incessant inspiration for many revolutionary generations, who, in turn, attached more and more new meanings to those ideas. Paradoxically, revolutionary failure provided a hotbed for germination of nationalism and liberalism. The gradual failure of Spanish uprising in 1812 and 1820, Polish nationalist movement in 1830, Italian Carbonari, and most importantly, French revolution in 1830, 1831, and 1834, all disheartened and disillusioned many contemporary revolutionary participants. But the values of those failures subsisted in the spiritual legacy they left, from which more daring and successful revolutionaries drew sustenance to their motivation.

From looking at the revolutionary failure, we could know the cause and derive from this cause the essential problems that permeated the “modernizing” society. In France in 1830, there was a revolution that centered on the stage of street fighting. The direct cause was the passage of the oppressive Four Ordinances, prescribing restrictive actions (censorship, raising vote qualification, etc.) to be done on the restless crowds.

Yet the dominant causes were the persistent political unrest, economic problems, and social divisions that existed for decades. The leaders of this revolution mainly comprised parliamentary opponents of Charles X and cautious young liberals, while the majority of revolutionaries were lower bourgeoisie, urban citizens, workers, and peasants who bore great grievances to the government.

The revolution took place in Parisian streets, beginning with the storming of the Bastille in 1789. The result of this revolution was the overthrowing of an unconstitutional monarchy and the establishment of another unconstitutional monarchy. Provisions in the Constitution of 1830 guaranteed civil rights and religious freedom and greatly ensured benefits to the middle and upper class. The people who sacrificed themselves in the fighting, however, gained almost nothing. Issues of poverty and hunger went unaddressed, wants of artisans unsatisfied, the purpose of solving social problems unanswered — the nation was going to be troubled again by ensuing revolts in 1831 and 1834.

The failure of this French revolution connoted an essential problem in a “civilizing” society — the unsolvable clash of class interests. And, very interestingly, the poor, being the majority, were always the victims. The Belgian independent movement, though culminating in success, was another example of a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight. The industrial workers who suffered unemployment, low wages, and filthy working conditions and thought the revolution might change their lives fought in the movement for the middle class in return for nothing. Karl Marx later used this fundamental problem to argue for the causes of grievances in society, though he put it in a more economic context. In conclusion, the failure of revolutionary movements not only had contemporary effects on revolutionaries, but also provided insight for us in dealing with social problems.

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