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Goodbye To All That?

John Roberts finds nationalism a better bet than the idylls of Marx for the longue duree of historical understanding.

Among the few lectures I heard as an undergraduate which has left still vivid impression were those given by Alan Taylor for the centenary of 1848, the year of revolutions. The date sparked off a characteristically brilliant and intellectually stimulating performance. Week after week, we sat in the Examination Schools and traced the flowering around Europe of the 'Springtime of the Nations'. Of course, other themes of that year cropped up, above all, social conflict.

We were encouraged to read Blanc's Organisation du Travail In Tocqueville's Souvenirs we learnt about what he called the 'servile war' of the June Days. There was, too, the French revolutionary tradition itself, notably embodied in Lamartine's memoirs (from which Taylor drew the materials for a hilarious description of the provisional government retiring from room to room in the Hotel de Ville, until its meeting ended in a broom cupboard – (or so I remember him telling us). It became clear that sheer mythology, the idolisation of the Revolution itself, was a historical force. But in the end one always came back to nationality, nationalism, nationhood at the heart of 1848. Whatever the detonators, they provided the explosives.

Surely no other part of the legacy of the French Revolution has had such historical resonance. I find it odd that people should have treated as a joke the remark of Chou En-lai, who, when someone asked him about the significance of the French Revolution is said to have replied, 'It is too soon to tell'.

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