Revolution: 1848 and 2011

Extracts from an article by Robert Zaretsky in Le Monde Diplomatique (February 21):

The dead weight of brutal and autocratic rulers; a young and professional middle class deprived not just of liberty, but jobs; a deep and persistent economic crisis; and a revolution in communications that renders traditional borders obsolete and, finally, the bursting of the dam that unleashes a surge of revolution that sweeps across a continent: these conditions describe not only North Africa and the Middle East today, but Europe in 1848. If nations from Tunisia to Bahrain are, in fact, reviving the so-called “springtime of peoples,” the winter of political disenchantment may not be far away.

The backgrounds to the two series of revolutions are eerily similar. The Great Recession of recent memory was a blip compared to the economic depression, known as the “hungry years,” that flattened Europe in the 1840s. Disastrous harvests pushed up grain prices across Europe; city dwellers, spending more on food, bought fewer commodities; industrial and commercial activity slowed to a near standstill. No wonder Alexis de Tocqueville recoiled from the consequences: “a world divided between those who had nothing joined in common envy against those who had everything joined in common terror.”

New forms of communication nevertheless bridged Tocqueville’s world divided. While newspapers remained relatively rare and were carefully watched over by government censors, they were growing more powerful due to increased literacy and the appearance of the penny press, filled with advertisements that made the papers more affordable. Equally important, railroads and telegraph networks, metastasizing across the continent, made for the rapid movement of social actors and dissemination of political events.

As was the case in Tunisia, the revolutions of 1848 were sparked by an act of self-immolation: not by a desperate young man protesting an old and brutal ruler, however, but by a desperate (though less brutal) old ruler attempting to stifle popular protest. On February 22, Parisian republicans, prevented from organizing a political meeting, plumped for a very French solution. They planned a mass banquet where they would toast the end of King Louis Philippe’s rule. When the government moved to suppress the banquet, the predictable occurred: street demonstrations erupted.

A series of bloody, pitched battles between insurgents and Municipal Guard followed; the French army’s commanders, like their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts, kept their soldiers out of the fray. On the night of February 23, the Guard fired into a group of protesters, killing or wounding more than fifty men and women. Rather than quelling the “Paris street,” the massacre instead ramped up its anger. On February 24, Louis-Philippe, deaf to the advice of ministers and generals, finally listened to words of Emile de Girardin, the owner of La Presse, France’s print equivalent of Al-Jazeera: “Abdicate, Sire!” The next morning, the poet Alphonse de Lamartine stepped onto the balcony of City Hall and, to the immense crowd gathered below, declared the birth of the French Republic.

Whereas news in 1789 of the Bastille’s fall required weeks to ripple across Europe, news of the resurrected French Republic surged across the new lines of communication within a matter of hours and days. Trains that rumbled along the metastasizing network of rail lines, steamships that plowed across Atlantic sea routes all carried news accounts and witnesses, fleshing out the headlines tapped out across telegraph lines. The sheer speed with which the news arrived, no less than its content, galvanized the continent. By the first days of March, students from Berlin to Budapest, Piedmont to Prague, were piling into cafés in order to scour the newspapers. Debate spilled into streets and events across Europe mirrored the dramatic arc first cut by Paris.

But here the parallels between the rest of Europe and Paris end. France was the only country that succeeded in actually toppling its monarch; elsewhere, thrones were rocked, but never fell. Kings instead retreated and watched while the protesters, now given the opportunity to govern, instead squabbled amongst themselves. This was hardly a recipe for holding onto power, especially as their countries still faced dire economic problems. Within short order, the Houses of Habsburg and Hohenzollern exploited this confusion and regained power. For the all those who lived east of the Rhine, the springtime of peoples was over scarcely before it began.

Even the French Second Republic eventually succumbed to the lure of authoritarian rule. Following the infamous June Days, when republican guardsmen shot and killed more than 4,000 protesters denouncing the government’s decision to end unemployment insurance. Six months later, to the horror of republicans, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon I, won the presidential elections. Republicans fears were soon confirmed when Louis Napoleon overthrew the republic and declared himself emperor. In a national referendum, eight of ten Frenchmen signed off on the change from Republic to Empire.

The revolution of 1848 in France was crushed by a new kind of authoritarian regime that had the wit to exploit the language of populism, wiliness to co-opt potential opponents and will to crush those who refused to fall into line. It is, of course, too early to say if conditions in Egypt, for example, will encourage a “Bonapartist” solution. But it is not too early to recall Tocqueville’s observation, made after Bonaparte had buried the Republic: “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.”


2 responses to “Revolution: 1848 and 2011

  1. Zaretsky is right about 1848 when more than 50 revolutions broke out in Europe. All were crushed only to reignite later. There is also another economic indicator: whenever a revolution erupts, it occurs not when the economy is at its lowest, and the masses are at their most downtrodden, but when the economy starts to improve raising peoples’ hopes. It is the failure of the rulers to see this rise in expectations that inevitably proves disastrous. Barrington Moore wrote about this in his book The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Still the best study on what feeds a revolution.

    • Very true, very true.

      I have a personal connection with the Revolution of 1848. My great grandfather, Hermann (his Hebrew name was Chaim), fought in it. He was a young firebrand – he later became a banker – in a small town in impoverished Baden (from which during the eighteen ‘forties there had been a mass emigration to the U.S.). After the Prussians crushed the revolution, he was tried and convicted. If his mother had not made a huge fuss with the Grand Duke (I have her memoirs) and if there had not been an amnesty a couple of years later, I would not be writing this blog.