This is a letter from Richard Vague, a Philadelphia businessman and co-founder with Steve Clemons of the Afghanistan Study Group. Vague also publishes the daily eclectic ideas of the day blog, Delancey Place.
Perhaps one of your readers has already pointed this out, but the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, etc are instructively similar to a wave of uprisings that occurred in 1848 in Europe – beginning in France and quickly spreading throughout the continent.
That year turned out to be one of the most pivotal in the history of Europe. It was a time when almost every country was still a monarchy, and even in England, where a constitutional monarchy limited the power of the king, the government was not yet a democracy, and lordships and heredity still held sway.
And so across Europe there were violent upheavals as the people, fueled by poverty and stoked by the more rapid communications possible in the wake of the industrial revolution, sought a voice and vote in the governance of their countries. Most of those uprisings fell short of their objectives. But they were harbingers of the demise of monarchy in Europe that came in succeeding generations.
Ultimately, the question was not whether monarchy would survive, but rather which form of government would replace it – and the competition was between inchoate forms of democracy and socialism.
Here is a brief excerpt from the introduction of Mike Rapport’s book 1848, published in 2008:
“In 1848 a violent storm of revolutions tore through Europe. With an astounding rapidity crowds of working-class radicals and middle-class liberals in Paris, Milan, Venice, Naples, Palermo, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Krakow and Berlin toppled the old regimes and began the task of forging a new liberal order. Political events so dramatic had not been seen in Europe since the French Revolution Of 1789 – and would not be witnessed again until the revolutions of Eastern and Central Europe in 1989 or perhaps the less far-reaching Bolshevik Revolution Of 1917. … The brick-built authoritarian edifice that had imposed itself on Europeans for almost two generations folded under the weight of the insurrections. …
“For the Germans, Italians, Hungarians, Romanians, Poles, Czechs, Croats and Serbs, the year was to be the ‘Springtime of Peoples’, a chance to assert their own sense of national identity and to gain political recognition. In the cases of the Germans and the Italians, it was an opportunity for national unification under a liberal or even democratic order. Nationalism therefore was one issue that came frothing to the surface of European politics in 1848. While rooted in constitutionalism and civil rights it was a nationalism that ominously made little allowance for the legitimacy of claims of other national groups. In many places, such narrowness of vision led to bitter ethnic conflict which in the end helped to destroy the revolutionary regimes of Central and Eastern Europe. …
“The revolutions were scarred almost everywhere by a bitter often violent political polarization. Moderates wanted parliamentary government – but not necessarily to enfranchise everyone – and they were challenged by radicals who wanted democracy – frequently combined with dramatic social reform – without delay. …
“A third issue that came boiling to the surface in 1848 and never left the European political agenda was the ‘social question.’ The abject misery of both urban and rural people had loomed menacingly in the thirty or so years since the Napoleonic Wars. The poverty was caused by a burgeoning population which was not yet offset by a corresponding growth in the economy. Governments however did little to address the social distress which was taken up as a cause by a relatively new political current – socialism – in 1848. The revolutions therefore thrust the ‘social question’ firmly and irrevocably into politics. Any subsequent regime, no matter how conservative or authoritarian, ignored it at its peril. In 1848, however, the question of what to do about poverty would prove to be one of the great nemeses of the liberal revolutionary regimes.”
— Richard Vague