Is It 1848 Again?


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.
1848.JPGDear Steve:
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


7 comments on “Is It 1848 Again?

  1. Paul Norheim says:

    “In the contemporary Muslim world, the status of religion
    is ascendant and it is secularism that is in decline.”
    I’m not convinced. Let me suggest another model. Islam
    has been there for centuries, just like Christendom and
    Judaism. Islamism comes and goes, because it’s an
    ideology, not a religion.
    So there was Islam in the Middle East, and later there was
    nationalism and Pan-Arabism and anti-Colonialism and
    Socialism, and then Islamism.
    And now – maybe Islamism will descend, and the
    youngsters in the Arab world will promote a new ideology:
    “Deomcratism”? Nationalism again? We don’t know yet…
    I’m not saying that it is so, but the recent developments
    makes this ideological scenario just as credible as
    insisting that Islamism is still rising. Islamism could simply
    be something that the older generations believed in, a
    generational folly – just like those Westerners who were
    young students around 1968 tended to be socialists of
    I really think there is a huge gap between the young
    generation leading the Egyptian and Tunisian revolution
    and the old Guard within the Muslim Brotherhood. And the
    young generation is definitely the heroes now, it’s they
    who define the times, the demands, the questions. And I
    think they have something in common with the younger
    generation in Iran.


  2. WigWag says:

    The comparison between 2011 and 1848 is a natural one; of course there are a few similarities and many differences.
    One similarity that has not been much commented on (at least I haven’t seen it mentioned very often) is the role of food prices in stimulating revolutionary fervor. 1848 was a period of great commercial and financial advances but it was also a period of agricultural calamity. Food riots broke out all over Europe between 1845 and 1848. Historians have counted 400 such riots in France and almost 175 food riots in the German states. This doesn’t include the food riots in Bohemia, the Hungarian part of the Hapsburg Empire or the Balkan states. Of course 1848 was the worst year of the Irish Potato famine that started in 1845 and didn’t end until 1852.
    All of this is very similar to what’s happening today. There is no question that the increased demand for food in the rising Asian nations and the conversion of crop land for the production of biofuels have led to a spike in food prices that helped precipitate dissatisfaction throughout the Muslim world. Unfortunately for the authoritarian regimes, this rise in food prices occurred just as those nations found that their ability to subsidize food prices was being impaired by worldwide economic difficulties. Food prices were a major factor in stimulating revolutionary activity in 1848 and they play the same role in 2011.
    Perhaps the biggest difference between Europe in 1848 and the Muslim world in 2011 is the different role that religion plays in the two eras. 1848 was a time of rapidly expanding secularism in Europe. While by any measure Europe was far more religious then than it is now, both Protestant and Catholic Europe were witnessing the demise of religious power. Church attendance was down and ecclesiastical authority was diminishing everywhere. In fact, while it is a controversial point of view, many historians believe that the rise of nationalism was fueled in part by the need to substitute a national identity for declining religious identity.
    It is interesting to note that 1848 was the year that the Communist Manifesto was published and we all know Karl Marx


  3. Paul Norheim says:

    Anne Applebaum also drew a comparison to 1848 in today’s Washington Post:
    “Most of the 1848 rebellions failed. The Hungarians did kick the Austrians out, but only briefly. Germany failed to unite. The
    French created a republic that collapsed a few years later. Constitutions were written and discarded. Monarchs were toppled
    and restored. The historian A.J.P. Taylor called 1848 a moment when “history reached a turning point and failed to turn.”
    And yet in the longer run, the ideas discussed in 1848 did seep into the culture, and some of the revolutionary plans were
    eventually realized. By the end of the 19th century, Chancellor Bismarck had indeed united Germany, and France established its
    Third Republic. The nations once ruled by the Habsburgs did gain independence after the First World War. In 1849, many of
    the revolutions of 1848 might have seemed disastrous, but looking back from 1899 or 1919, they seemed like the beginning
    of a successful change.”
    More here:


  4. sanitychecker says:

    Two quick points:
    1. 1848 had few autocracy-to-democracy models to look at; 2011 has tons of them.
    2. 1848 was indeed very influential; so was 1871.


  5. Jay C says:

    While Richard Vague is quite right in his assessments of the importance of the various European Revolutions of 1848, making parallel comparisons to the Arab worlds “Springs” of 2011 misses, or at least obscures, one important point.
    Whatever their ultimate effects on European politics and society, it must be remembered that many, if mot most of the popular uprisings of 1848 were put down – violently and bloodily for the most part – by those authoritarian/monarchial governments whose iron rule, if fitful, would last well into the Twentieth Century.
    While, I think, we ARE seeing history get made before our eyes (and on our TVs/computer screens), we need to remember that history is a matter of the long term. And doesn’t always “work out”


  6. Raclare Kanal says:

    I read 1848 after learning about it from Delancey Place. It often comes to mind as I follow the demonstrations in the Middle East – and Wisconsin. As the excerpt above tells, however, the outcome was not what we are hoping for today. It may have paved a road to the future, but that future was not fast in coming and a lot of dark impulses surfaced on the way. In a number of cases it seemed to empower what today we call the ‘Right’ by alarming many people who feared chaos and destruction of their property. The rise of nationalism and competition between ethnic groups for what they felt was their rightful land still haunts us with the hatreds that surface as immigrants seek a better place to live. The craftsmen displaced and forced into the status of low-paid labor in the factories of the 19th C. in some ways resemble the workers replaced by sophisticated technology now and the lowering of wages and benefits for those who still have jobs. It isn’t just a problem of outsourcing. The disappearance – or redefining of – the ‘Middle Class’. We still are debating the ‘social question’ that came into focus in the years of the 1848 revolutions.


  7. Paul Norheim says:

    Regular commenter WigWag has mentioned 1848, but
    only, as far as I remember, as an historical example
    demonstrating that revolutions seldom succeed. Andrew
    Sullivan at the Daily Dish alludes to the current events as
    the Arab version of 1848.
    Richard Vague said: “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.”
    Let’s hope that history doesn’t repeat itself in this regard:
    It took a world war (1914-18) to eventually bring down
    the most powerful monarchies in Europe – probably the
    most significant outcome of that otherwise meaningless
    mass slaughter.


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