During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the way in which kingdoms of western Europe (and their associated territories and colonies) were organised and ruled became increasing challenged by those who wanted a share in government. Throughout this period, the medieval structures of feudalism that were in place in many kingdoms gradually gave way to what are to us more recognisable as elements of modern government. In many of these kingdoms, the political revolutions that took place were accompanied by the rise in political and economic power of a new group in society who had hitherto been excluded from a true stake in government – the Middle Class (or bourgeoisie). This new educated and investing class would ultimately rise to replace the royal families and aristocracy of Europe as the true decision makers in government and the holders of economic and political power.
It was in the mid-1600s that Britain (after a violent Revolution and English Civil War lasting some 9 years) created the form of parliamentary system that was later adapted by Australia. In the 1700s, writers of the Enlightenment (sometimes referred to as Philosophes) began to promote similar democratic reforms in Europe. These writers often promoted ideologies that challenged the centralised Kingdoms or feudal systems of Western Europe. In 1775, the British colonists in what would become the United States of America embraced these Enlightenment ideals for government when they rebelled against British rule during the American Revolution. When their War of Independence was won in 1783, they had created the world’s first modern democracy. It embodied many of the liberal principles of the Philosophes. In 1789, the French Revolution began. Also proclaiming liberal values, the revolutionary leaders of France were (in part) reacting to the largely autocratic system created by French kings of the Ancien Regime – a modified form of feudalism.
In Europe, in the years after the fall of Napoleon (1815), there was a period in which it seemed that many of the conservative forces of politics had triumphed over the challenges of liberals after all. In France, Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia despotic and autocratic rulers seemed to have once again taken control of government. In Britain, wealthy capitalists seemed to have formed a new (informal and unwritten) alliance with the aristocracy to benefit from the economic and social changes of the Agrarian and industrial Revolutions. In this period, as Britain’s social order began to be transformed by industrialisation, ideological challenges continued to arise. In this period, the British establishment began to fear, not only liberal challenges (such as Chartism) but a new “socialist” ideology taking shape in the minds of social progressives. Likewise, in mainland Europe, despite efforts by despotic government to supress the forces for societal change, liberalism continued to be a radical force for change in society.
In 1848, the Year of Revolutions, liberal revolutions and uprisings rocked governments across Europe. While the revolutionaries of 1848 were largely unsuccessful, western European societies were on the cusp of a new era in which liberal and nationalist values would become the mainstream and the social order would be forever changed. Perhaps symbolic of the transformative social forces about to be unleased on Europe, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1948 published their influential Communist Manifesto in Britain. In this text they warned of an age of change to come despite the efforts of those conservative forces in power: “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies” and called upon the “workers of the world” to unite in their efforts to take power from their “class enemies”. After 1848, liberalism was joined by a new and galvanised revolutionary ideology in Europe, the ideology of socialism. Marxism became the most potent form of socialism to emerge at this time.
By 1880, it seemed that the forces of liberalism and nationalism had transformed the western world. In Britain and the United States, liberal capitalism had become the dominant ideology. France had become a liberal republic, and in the newly formed Italy and Germany new forms of government had reshaped and reorganised society. In 1900, of the great powers, only Tsarist Russia had seemed immune to the forces of change. At the turn of the 20th century, Russia remained under the control of a feudal and despotic leader. Its society had retained a social structure more typical of an earlier age. All of this would change in 1917. A revolution in Russia would bring into being the world’s first Marxist state and begin a radical social experiment which would be central to world affairs until the end of the 20th century.