A spectre is haunting the world, the spectre of conservatism. It is everywhere free to put peoples in chains. It claims that it is all of propriety, and sanity, even as its adherents admit that it's basic ideas just proved to be failures. For validation it presents a legendary moment in the late 19th century, when the European world industrialized, while maintaining traditional values rooted in religion. It presents itself as the inheritor of an eternal church, and a social order rooted in medieval God and Country. The truth is more brutal: the reactionary world was born in a series of revolutions and wars, starting in 1857, and reaching the final polish by mid-1870s. In the space of 14 years, a new order came about, one that was as different from what came before as any communist manifesto, or liberal constitution. This essay is an outline of the hidden realist revolutions that are the basis for the neo-age we live in now.
The past is present, because of its presence in our minds: a debased and ghostly present. Conflicts do not go on for hundreds of years, but, instead, a history of conflict creates a weighty image in people's minds, and provides a source of story. The past can be the mythic past, whose vague outlines are presented as some kind of truth, the past can be the legendary past, where events, buildings, and pictures are held up as an example, and then there is the past in the present: that which people believe, but which is no longer true. In the present a mythic conservative past stalks the discourse and the body politic: a past which presents itself as the great wave of industrialization, the path to prosperity and stability. It is a legend of God and Country, Providence and Propriety. It presents itself as the myth of the founders, and stories of "Bond Vigilantes" waiting to crash the dollar. But the myth has roots in a legend, and that legend is the legend of the Victorian Age, with its globalizing trade, and commercializing society. A society that presented itself as eternal, robust, and the culmination, in government, law, art, and society, as the culmination of a uniformitarian, almost geologic, process of human advancement. It was no such thing.
Where does the present conservative reverence for the "gold standard" come from? From the distant past? No, for most of human history, where the was a metallic metal, it was silver. From the lugal of ancient Sumeria, through Newton's assay for Queen Anne, to the Napoleonic wars, it was silver that was the metal used for currency, because there was enough of it. Gold was too precious to circulate, even when it was coined. No, it was largely establish in England by the 1840's, but globally only in 1871 by the creation of the gold Reichmark. Did Germany have a great gold strike? No, it was from their colonies in Africa. Where does the conservative idea of "liberal" "globalization" come from? There have been waves of globalization, but the idea of "liberalized" trade in a globalizing context is from the 19th century theory of Free Trade. Where did the corporation as not merely legal person, but as having the rights of the people? From the late 18th century railroad cases: remember that Adam Smith thought that few businesses should be allowed to be "joint stock companies." While nothing in human history is completely abrupt, many of the pillars of modern traditionalism date, in fact, only to the 1830's and were established as the res or order of things, with the coming of the realist revolutions.
To understand modern neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, neo-classical economics, neo-romanticism, depressionism, limited government, and fundamentalism, one must look, not to the far past, but to the very specific era that took power beginning in 1858. Far from being a century of stability between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War, as it is so often portrayed, the 19th century had two distinct arcs: a Romantic arc which attempted to use human emotion to harness a technological and social substratum that was coming to be, but not yet clearly superior to the post-medieval order, and a Realist arc, which placed faith in industrialization, centralization, and using ersatz traditionalism to harness them as an engine of war. In Japan the Meiji government explicitly linked strengthening the economy to building the military. In America, we take for granted that "superior industrial production" lead to the victory of the North, but one must realize that the American Civil War was the first time this had been attempted in the history of the world, it was not a settled notion that elan could be defeated by mills rolling steel.
The people of the late 19th Century are thought of now as "romantic" and their art often classified so in texts. It is not how they saw themselves. Instead, they saw themselves apart, with a critique of Romanticism as unrealistic, artificial, and shallow. These three critiques would form the basis of realism, naturalism, and symbolism. Post-romantic thinkers included Marx, who excoriated "romantic" socialism in Kapital and a host of pamphlets, Chancellor Otto von Bismark, Alfred Marshall, one of the architects of the divide from "political economy" to "economics," among a host of others. Their critique was embodied in a series of revolutions and wars of union. The major nations of the European world were created, or recreated, by these wars. The most important are the six that created the British Empire, the United States as a national Union, Germany and Italy as nations.
British Empire: Indian Rebellion 1857-1858
United States of America: American Civil War 1860-1865
Germany: German Unfication 1860-1871
France: February Revolution 1858
Meiji Restoration/Boshin War 1867-1869
il Risorgimento 1858-1871
The leading edge of this was in France a decade before, at the decisive turning against Romanticism that was 1848. Often seen as "the turning point where history failed to turn," instead it was a turning point in that reactionary forces understood the limitations of technology, social order, and ideas, and set about creating the tools to build a new form of state. Bismark would call it "realpolitick" which plays on real, meaning royal, as well as realistic. The politics of power, is the politics of an assertion that pragmatic acceptance of central power, is realism.
Napoleon III had been elected in late 1848, and toyed with the Second Republic less than three years, before declaring himself emperor, and, at the same time, the ideal of reason and Democracy. He and Bismark could form the great antagonism on continental Europe, and their struggles would define the age. Their hands would reach into the creation of Italy, and the dismemberment of Spain. Into Denmark, Russia, and Turkey. France as both a continental power and an ocean power, with dreams of a world spanning empire, would aid and clash with the rise of British sea power.
Each of these revolutions was a reactionary revolution, which simultaneously defeated the highly decentralized feudal and early aristocratic systems of complex tenure, and held at bay the forces of liberalism and socialism. Each had a period of establishing the new order, whether American Reconstruction, or Germany under the "Iron Chancellor." One could neatly book end the period with two failed Congresses of Europe, that of Paris, and Berlin, in 1856, and 1878 respectively, where the "Concert of Europe," the concept created in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars for a quintuple alliance against instability, faced momentary issues, and ignored even large ones. In 1856 the Congress dealt with the stalemate that was the Crimean War â one of the most ineffectual wars in history, in that it left almost everything as it was before the war â and ignored the growing pressures that were about to explode in Italy and Germany.
By the end, these revolutions would create a new kind of state, and a new world. The old world was of a "company-colonial" order of conquest, and an aristocratic-satrap system of rulership. These were both largely the products of the solutions to problems in the 1500's. Not just in Europe, but in the Ottoman empire, in the Arabic states, in India, and in China. Central governments were metal poor, and needed to work through intermediaries. There just wasn't enough surplus. They were also economic players, setting up factories, granting patents, and running businesses, all in the quest for the money that fueled the aristocratic court, by which they kept their once feudal nobles out of trouble. Or to put it simply: kings were always on the make, because it was expensive to bribe order, and the society was still not much more advanced than the medieval. So monarchs had to give a great deal of power to which ever freebooter promised the fastest riches for the investment of letters of marque, patents, and a loan of ships and gold. It worked for Ferdinand and Isabella.
The new world, though it would maintain the forms and norms of the old one, was to consume it utterly.
That world was like a fire, with the lightening bolt that struck on May 10th, 1857, in Meerut, a town in the Bengali Presidency, a vast and populous chunk of what is now India. On that day an open mutiny of the native soldiers boiled over, ostensibly over having to bite grease, defeating the British garrison, and then making for Delhi, then the capital of the vestigal Mughal Empire, hoping to proclaim a new pan-Indian empire to evict the British and other European invaders. The mutiny would expand to rebellion and war, with independent princely states, native governed areas under the control of the East India Company, and native military units even in loyalist or British allied areas taking up arms against the hated occupiers. There had been rebellions before, but why, at the end of this one, had the very old and successful East India Company been dismantled, and the Raj installed? Why this rebellion? Why in 1858?
At that time the Crown of Great Britain did not govern directly in India, but, instead, it had long ago given power to the East India Company. This was the pattern for four centuries in Europe: the crowns were did not undertake great ventures, but acted like investment banks in conquest: financing and providing legal cover for independent adventurers. From Cortes, through the "Massachusetts Bay Company," through the East India Companies commercial backed empire in India, commercial decentralization was the took by which conquest and war were carried out. An army may travel on its belly as Napoleon quipped, but the states of the time, unable to raise great revenues, instead sold away the rights to tax and rule, to finance private ventures of colonialism or imperialism, demanding only a sometimes very nominal control.
This was part and parcel of the old order, very much in line with there being hundreds of sovereign states in Germany and Italy, a divided and weak union in the United States, a patchwork of local and commercial control in India, warlords across China, and so on. Central states were only partially able to control their own domains, the networks of communication, transportation, and social control were only then being built.
One can see from these maps that in the course of the century before 1857, the East India company grew from the Presidency of Bombay, and the Presidency of Bengal, to controlling almost half of the Indian continent – I say continent because it sits on the same plate, not as the rest of Eurasia, but as Australia, and it only lately in geologic time collided with Eurasia. It is, like Europe, protected by barriers, in the case of India, the mountains spawned by its epic collision with Eurasia. The confused nature of the governmental system had had frequent political effect. Several times wars were fought between one arm of the East India Company and various polities in India, where another division denied or overturned the peace treaty or alliance, or sent aid to the other side.
In the 19th century a more unified hand was applied to control of Indian affairs, and the result was that the periodic wars between the East India Company and Mysore, the Sikh Kingdom, and the Maratha Empire swung from being chaotic and often indecisive affairs, with the Indian powers often managing to stave off or defeat the British company armies, or at least pry back concessions over time, to a string of short, sharp, decisive annexations for the British, the Second and Third Anglo-Maratha Wars (1803-05 and 1817-18) were clear and short, in contrast to the chaotic conflicts before.
However, by 1857 several important factors were in play that would lead to a very different kind of conflict, more reminiscent of the 18th century. The first is that the East India Company was in tremendous financial difficulty: it increasingly could not bear the cost of the very empire it had built, since much of it was not economically productive in the sense of extractable value. The result is that the previous Governor-General, James Broun-Ramsay, had codified a policy of annexation at will called "The Doctrine of Lapse." While previously the East India Company had seized principalities under its rule into formal company control, Broun-Ramsay had set this to paper as a formal law.
The year he did this? 1848.
It is to be remembered that the Marquess of Dalhousie saw himself as a liberal, a utilitarian, and an enlightened despot of his area of command, much as Napoleon III did. The era of 1848-1858 was, in fact, marked by this attempt to use an imposed, rational, calm, and enlightened rulership to bring about moderation, balance, sound currency, trade, and above all, modernization. He had been in charge of the powerful Board of Trade, and had helped resolve the bubble associated with "the railway mania." He was an enormously hard worker, widely read, well spoken, from a minority in England that was only just coming into its own.
His policy was to build up India, reform and rationalize the laws, and continue the very long standing policy of first gaining tax concessions in an area, collecting revenue in the name of a prince, and then annexing the principality when that same prince no longer could control his own realm. Tax farming then, as now, was the engine of corporate control. It was a policy that had worked well for almost a century.
He was also absolutely inflexible, and annexed a string of countries: Satara, Jaitpur and Sambalpur in 1849, with Karauli annexed but disallowed; Jhansi and Nagpur in 1853; three others were returned to "home rule." He left office in 1856, and was dead by 1860, but this was long enough to see the India he thought he had built out of continuous construction and conscientious reform, brought to ruin in a few short months.
The nominal cause was also a child of 1848, and a tremendous change in and of itself: the introduction of the Minié rifle type musket. This is a weapon that you have heard about by not hearing about. The old style musket either had a smooth bore, or had to be made by hand. Interchangeable parts for firearms had been demonstrated by Blanc in 1778, by Eli Whitney in his famous demonstration before Congress in 1801, by the 1830's his company was involved in mass manufacture of muskets. The problem was that rifling was not precise enough to do in this means. Thus in 1847 the Algerians were outranging the French muskets. The solution that Captain Claude-Étienne Minié hit upon was not particularly elegant, but it was subtle: he invented a conical bullet, that had grooves that were greased. The greased grooves would lock into the rifling, and thus allow a rifled musket to be made with the then possible degree of manufactured precision. In 1849 he prefected a rifle that used this bullet. The resulting weapons type was put into service for the Crimean War, and it was adopted by major armies, including the United States, Austria, and Great Britain.
The other major firearm innovation was to aim for rate of fire, instead of accuracy, this was the famous "needle gun," which the Prussians adopted. It featured a paper cartridge, but inside it had a primer which would set off the powder, the innovation of Pauly in 1808 had been to use a needle to ignite mercury fulminate.
The year? 1848. It was used to help put down the revolutions in Germany.
The minie ball changed the nature of muzzle loading weapons, which, it must be remembered were still quite slow in terms of rate of fire, however, the new weapons were accurate at short range, durable, and had long range fire capabilities. Instead of lines attacking with a blunderbuss close range, by sheer weight in general, it was possible to both skirmish, and stand off. The change was dramatic. In the Second Anglo-Sikh War, it was expected to be able to charge infantry with infantry: because the attacked forces would get only one or at most two powerful volleys off. While this lead to terrible casualties, it was not entire suicidal. For example at Battle of Chillianwala General Gough, acting under the already mentioned Marquess of Dalhousie's orders, attacked the Sikhs straight on. While he was checked, and it was a surprise to the British establishment, the fight was close to even in casualties, and it was a very near thing.
However, by the American Civil War, it is difficult to point to a single example of an infantry charge being successful, and many that became famous slaughters. The German Needle Gun, and the Minie-ball, as well as its breechloaded descendant, would be the major arms of the 1857-1873 wars. They would duel many times. While not as large a shift in fire power as the later automatic weapons, such as the Browning Automatic Rifle, they changed the nature of battle. Instead of lines, which had been used in European gunpowder warfare since the 30 years war in the 1600's and which had been maintained by the great generals such as the Duke of Marlborough, Fredrick the Great, Geoffrey Amherst, and Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington - infantry could strike devastating blows hundreds of yards away. Very close in fighting grew even more important, because suddenly even bayonets and cutlasses seemed preferable to being shot to pieces at range. The new muskets shattered bones more effectively, leading to more deaths after combat and more horrible wounds. Modern nursing was given a kick by tending to the masses of wounded during the Crimean War.
The problem with these new cartridges is that they had to be greased to fit tightly down the barrel. This lead to the problem of with what – since petroleum was not in great supply, the oil of choice was tallow from pigs or cows. This lead to a problem in India, since the drill of a breach loaded weapon, such as the Enfields, not to be confused with the later bolt action metal cartridge .303 Lee Enfield, was to bite the cartridge open, so as to create a hole for the spark that would set it off. Islamic troops were shocked by having to possibly bite pig, and high caste Hindu by the possibility of biting cow. While this has been over done in history, it was the cause of the nominal spark.
So the beginning of the Reactionary Revolution was at the end of a chain of commercial and corporate annexations in India. A dozen states, including the powerful Maratha Empire, the formidable Sikh Kingdom, and proud principalities such as Oudh, had been brought under the tax farming system of the East India Company.
On May 9th, a regiment was harshly disciplined for refusing to use the new guns at drill. 85 native Sepoy were court-martialed, some sentenced to years in prison. The rest of the native troops at Meerut then rescued them, defeated the British and loyalists, and set off for Delhi, hoping for support and reinforcements. The new weapons would make the rebellion that was about to occur bloody, dangerous, and surprising. In part because promotions came slowly in India, and much of the military leadership of the East India Company consisted of old men, unwell, inflexible, and unaware that they, and their opponents, now had weapons that could hit harder, farther, and in small groups, rather than being required to meet in massed firepower.
Gustavus Adolphus Magnus of Sweden would have recognized the battles of the Anglo-Sikh Wars of the 1840's, with lines attacking lines. He might have been surprised by the artillery duels, but the Duke of Marlborough, active in the the late 1600's and early 1700's, would not have been. However, the sieges of Delhi and the reliefs of Lucknow were animals of a very different kind. The commanders of the British were, however, closer in mindset to the 1600's, than to their own moment.
Thus the company colonial order, which had for 300 years dominated European conquest, and the patchwork state order, which came out of the 1400's in both India and Europe, were about to receive a jolt. Not so much in the technology, but in a wave of changes that made it possible for states to bite off more than they could chew. The corporate system was not capable of creating and enforcing loyalty to the very centralized order that its own economic arrangements demanded. This is because when feasting on low hanging fruit, it is enough to graze the most profitable businesses. But as one drills farther and farther down, the margins grow slimmer. Without the ability to create elan, one must squeeze harder. This is what elites had learned in the wake of 1848: squeeze harder with better weapons and the tide can be survived.
But starting in 1857, the wars would not be so easily withstood, because the very tools of empire made revolt as dangerous as the rulers. The "mutiny" of Sepoys turned into a war between the East India Company, and states that were supposedly under its control. It was the first of many such wars. The solution was unification under new principles. These principles of unity, based on corporations rather than companies, on God and Country under a Crown or central government, rather than a feudal-aristocratic confederation or colonial empire, of a unified hard currency system, and personal acetic militarism, are still the icons of today. The 1858-1876 period created the conservative world view as we know it, however often they may quote Burke, it is an attempt to fuse the company-colonial system with Bismark's real politick that is their real model.
In the next essay, the course of the 1857-58 War in India, and how and why it formed a model for the realist revolutions that were to follow.