The Complexities of European Society: A Result of the Socio-Political Changes


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The European society underwent many astonishing changes and developments during the late 19th century. On the one hand, the Industrial Revolution continued to spur enormous growth in the manufacturing production in European countries, thus strengthening their capitalist economies; on the other hand, the legacies of the French Revolution greatly induced and motivated the European people to demand more rights and freedom in their civil lives, thereby leading to numerous conflicts and clashes between different classes of society, as seen in the Revolution in 1848. Many of the phenomena at that time, e. g. imperialism, could then be attributed to these root causes. Above all, the period between the late 19th century and the early 20th century was one that was marked by acute political and social changes.

Among the various historical sources that reflect the reality of this era are “The Communist Manifesto”, ‘King Solomon’s Mines” and “All Quite on the Western Front”, to name a few. In this paper, I will briefly discuss the contexts that led to the creation of these documents, as well as their contents and significance, and then try to establish a link through which these sources are related to each other. Finally, based on these discussions, I will provide a generalization of the situation of Europe at that time and extend to other events or facts that are not covered by these sources.

Following a chronological sequence, let us examine “The Communist Manifesto” first. This masterpiece written on the eve of 1848 European revolution is the most distinguished socialist documents of all time and represents a landmark in the history of thought. Karl Marx, the author, began the book with the famous generalization that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle”. These thirteen words serve as the essence and the very foundation of the Manifesto. What Marx is arguing here is that the ceaseless conflicts and clashes between opposing classes in different historical times were the main forces that drove society forward. He gave us many examples: “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in a constant opposition to one another…” and he went on to say that the result would be “a fight that each time ended either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large or in the common ruin of the contending classes. ” In that historical era when Marx lived, the class of working people, or “proletarians” as designated by him, grew tremendously in terms of their number and political influence, thanks to the Industrial Revolution that made this development possible. The “proletarians” and the capitalists (“bourgeois”) became conspicuously opposed to each other, in which the bourgeois took control of the means of production and used this dominating power to exploit the proletarians; the proletarians, on the other hand, revolted and fought for higher wages and more rights from their oppressors. Marx believed that this would eventually lead to the overthrow of the class of bourgeois and the formation of a new type of “communist country” governed by the sole class of proletarians. In fact, even the proletarians would cease to exist because there would no longer be class difference in that utopian state. That would indeed be a fantastic idea to dream about, and it was this fancy idea that later led to the creation of many communist countries or socialist governments across the world in the 20th century. We have thus seen the great influence it has had on the world.

Marx also provided in the Manifesto a review of the different types or versions of socialism that existed before that era. This is particularly useful because he gave us a complete picture of the popular thoughts in Europe at that time and on what foundation his socialist thoughts were based on. According to him, Feudal Socialism was the earliest form of socialism and was developed by aristocrats who were opposed to the social changes brought about by the expanding bourgeoisie. Followed by that were the other variations like “Petty-bourgeois socialism”, “German socialism”, and so on. Marx criticized them as being either backward looking, i. e. seeking to establish the old organization rather than forming a new one, or conservative, wishing to reform their class rather than destroy it. His analysis not only showed the gradual development of the socialist thoughts, but also reflected the fact that socialism was a popular ideology in many European countries.

Above all, the Manifesto was a remarkable piece of historical document that illustrates the major political conflicts that existed in many European countries at that time. Though it now seems that many of its predictions have failed to realize, it nevertheless served as a valuable guidance and spiritual support for the millions of the working people to fight for their political rights and freedom. It marked a new phase of the communist movements across Europe.

In the late 1890s, the capitalist economy of major European powers continued to achieve tremendous growth. New breakthroughs in scientific fields and new methods of production were continuously being utilized, thereby driving the manufacturing industry towards a more efficient level of production. In this process, those countries sought to export the excess capitals to other poorer Asian and African countries, thereby economically dominating those countries. Also, the great chaos resulting from the 1848 Revolutions made the ruling class aware that they should listen to and respect the public opinions more often, and military conquest over other poorer countries overseas was a good way to alleviate the domestic tensions and also establish popularity among the public. These factors accounted for the extreme prevalence of a phenomenon known as “imperialism”. The many colonies that spread all over the different continents on the Earth were characteristic of imperialism, and increasingly it became a manifestation of the power that a country possessed.

“King Solomon’s Mines” was a novel that reflected the imperialistic activities and explorations at that time. Written in 1880s, when imperialism became an overwhelming political force, this novel accurately depicted the mindsets of many Europeans who were pro-imperialism. Though the story was set in a hypothetical African country known as “Kukuanaland”, the main characters were nevertheless Europeans. Furthermore, being a colonial administrator himself, H. Rider Haggard, the author, wrote the book so that the main characters reflected the feelings and thoughts of a British imperialist.

The story was basically about three Europeans exploring to find the diamonds located in an African country, or tribe, according to an ancient myth about King Solomon. Their primary motive, apart from looking for Sir Henry’s brother, was to search for wealth, because they believed the person who got the diamonds would become “the richest person in the world”. This was evidently the first reason why European countries considered imperialism as a lucrative action. More importantly, in the novel the indigenous African people were viewed as the “others” who were superstitious, irrational, and were ignorant of European customs and technologies. The author even used one whole chapter to describe a game known as “The Witch Hunt”, in which a group of girls were ordered to dance in front of the guests and the one who was prettiest and performed best would be killed in the end. That was full of cruelty but was still popular among the people there. Hence, the author used these descriptions to demonstrate his belief that imperialism was necessary for the enlightenment of the native colonial subjects. He portrayed the indigenous African people negatively and even as being in desperate need of British imperial rule, as seen at the end of the book where the new King, Ignosi, begged Quartermain, Good and Henry to stay to “teach my people how to build them (houses)…” Though the novel on the whole appears somewhat racist, it is not a big distraction and it still managed to provide convincing reasons why imperialism was justifiable and popular at that time.

One inevitable consequence of the widely seen imperialistic activities among European countries was that their interests would clash; the desire for bigger colonies and more wealth overseas would lead to fierce competitions among them. Until the early 20th century, the tensions became so escalated that the First World War ultimately broke out. This was the first huge scale war in the history of civilization; many countries were involved, and its degree of destruction was tremendous on all levels of society. However, many historians still refer to it as an “imperialistic war”, as they thought it was merely a war fought by the imperialistic powers for those interests they had obtained and those they desired to obtain.

The extreme cruelty of the First World War was without doubt. The novel “All Quiet on the Western Front”, written by Erich Maria Remarque, a soldier in the German Army at that time, provided one of the best descriptions for this purpose. The story was about a group of teenage boys, who quitted school and joined the army to fight on the front, after their school teacher lectured them about the importance of doing so. These young boys naively believed that it was a great act of patriotism, until they have experienced personally how the war was like; until they have lost their last sense of innocence; until they saw how their dear friends were dying horrible deaths; until Paul, the main character, suddenly realized that his enemies, the Russians and the French, were enemies just because someone said so; until he felt that his own officers were more of a true enemy than the Russians and the French.

The brutal realities of the war not only tore their lives apart (“The war has ruined us for everything”), but also totally changed the way these young soldiers, representative of one generation destroyed by war, perceived the war and the world (“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow”). They once tried to discuss the meaning and purpose of the war, but they quickly found out that there was no need to. For the men on the front, nothing exists besides life and death; all other distinctions are gone. For them, they once believed that they fought the war because they were patriotic; now they felt that they fought the war because they were made to do so. After reading the novel (which was actually less of a fictitious production but more of an autobiography of the author), we could sense how many years of political and social developments in Europe ultimately led to such a disastrous consequence. We begin to doubt whether Europe was still the ruler of the world, because it appeared that it could not even rule itself.

These three sources collectively provide a good reflection of the European society in chronological order. The relation between “King Solomon’s Mines” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” is obvious to see: the phenomenon described in the former resulted in the war illustrated in the latter. Imperialism seemed to be a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it undoubtedly benefited the capitalist economies of the European countries, making huge profits and bringing cheap raw materials and labor forces into their hands; on the other hand, the resulting tensions between European powers were so escalated that were unparalleled by any of the era before. “The Communist Manifesto”, however, has a more subtle connection to the other two sources. The Manifesto was written on the eve of the 1848 Revolution, so it definitely influenced the participants of the revolution, especially among the circle of workers. As we have discussed above, the 1848 Revolution caused the rulers of European countries to resolve the internal political conflicts and make the public satisfied, and imperialism turned out to be a popular choice. Hence we see that there is a slight connection between the Manifesto and the other two sources. There are, of course, many historical facts that are not covered in these three sources, and they are essential towards a complete understanding of Europe at that time. Firstly, we should note that Europe as a whole were not at the same stages of economic and political developments. In the middle and late 19th century, Britain had already completed Industrial Revolution, and hence became the strongest and wealthiest European powers. The rest of Western Europe, for example France, was at their transition stage from rural economies towards industrialized economies. They quickly utilized and assimilated the newest technologies brought about by the Industrial Revolution in Britain to develop their capitalist economies.

Other parts, like Central and Eastern European countries, were not only economically lagged behind but also politically backward. These differences not only implied that they would be affected differently by the socio-political changes discussed above, but were also a determining factor for the relations between European powers.

Secondly, there were three different, but almost equally popular, ideologies that were prevalent in Europe at that time: nationalism, liberalism and socialism. Only socialism was discussed in great detail in “The Communist Manifesto”, and the other two were not much treated. In fact, liberalism, i. e. a desire of more freedom, played an important part in the 1848 Revolution, and because of this series of revolutions occurring in almost all continental European states, the governments started to realize that they should allow a certain degree of democracy to the public. Nationalism, an ideology that could easily turn to danger (as seen from the fact that aggressive nationalism was one cause for the First World War), nevertheless served an important role for the unification of Italy and Germany.

Thirdly, it would be interesting to examine the cause of the First World War from another angle. The unification of Germany was a political event that had crucial impact: the presence of a strong, united Germany would be a threat to all other great powers, complicating their already very complicated relations among each other. France, for example, suffered heavily during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, which was the last of the three wars fought by Prussia in its unification of Germany. The hatred between the French and the Germans thus grew very strong. History later showed that they eventually became the two basic members of the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente. Germany, a newly risen power, was considerably behind Britain and France in terms of the colonies it had conquered. With its strong economic and military power, the Germans started to demand more colonies out of their sense of “national pride”. Therefore, we could see how nationalism led to German unification, which in turn stirred the complicated politics and rivalry in Europe.

In conclusion, the acute socio-political changes in Europe led to great complexities and even chaos in the European society. The First World War was the climax for that. This not only was the period when Europe changed most dramatically but also shaped the embryonic form of the modern Europe. History once again shows that fast and uneven social developments and changes would not necessarily lead to desirable consequences.

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