Michigan Paper Series 2008 - Ascherson

Europe: Heir to the Ages or Pregnant Widow

Description: Lecture given as part of the "EUC Annual Distinguished Lecture on Europe" series. "'The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. But what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass'. These were the words of Alexander Herzen, the Russian democratic exile, written shortly after the failure of the 1848 revolutions in Europe. Herzen understood the revolutions’ message to be that the old empires of the Holy Alliance were doomed — although he could not know that their final doom would not come for more than seventy years. Although the empires had reasserted control, the real victors of 1848, he thought, had been the European bourgeoisie and their values which Herzen despised as narrow, repressive and selfish. But he was certain that the middle-class victory was doomed too, and that the bourgeois order would itself collapse as the peoples of Europe, the urban and rural masses, rose and created their own unimaginable forms of freedom. Like many things Herzen said and wrote, this magnificent prophecy seems to say more about Russia itself than about western Europe. Many of you will remember his bitter comparison, during his London exile, between the traditions of Polish and Russian émigré revolutionaries. The Poles, he said, could look back to countless holy relics; the Russians had only empty cradles. Some Russian intellectuals, after about 1860, might feel that the Tsarist regime was dead on its feet and that dark forces were slowly gathering to sweep it away. But was the second half of the 19th century really 'a long night of desolation and chaos’ in France, Britain or Germany? We think of it as the supreme historical moment of European self-confidence; the maximum expansion of colonial empires, the decades of breakneck industrialisation and urbanisation as Germany, France and Italy caught up with British pre-eminence, the period of the first effective globalisation though trade and through intercontinental transport and communications, the emergence of modern cities with their blaze of middle-class wealth and their enormous proletarianised workforces. Nevertheless, when I read that prophecy I cannot help thinking about Europe - the big Europe — of today. For 1848, we can read 1989, or 1991 — the collapse of external and then internal Soviet Communism, and the end of the 50-year Cold War which had at once divided Europe and frozen it into a sort of unnatural stability."

Publication Date: 2008