Revolution resurrected

2011-02-26 13:06

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 the continent; city dwellers, spending more on food, bought fewer commodities; and industrial and commercial ­activity slowed to a near halt.

No wonder Alexis de Tocqueville recoiled from the consequences of “a world divided between those who had nothing joined in common ­envy against those who had ­everything”.

New forms of communication nevertheless bridged Tocqueville’s divided world.

While newspapers remained relatively rare back then 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, the explosion of railroads and telegraph ­networks across the continent made for the rapid movement of social actors and dissemination of political events.

Forms of social networks much older than Facebook also ­contributed to the stunning events of 1848.

For example, cafés ­subscribed to newspapers to ­attract and retain customers, thus providing a public space where the clientele not only read the news, but also debated and discussed it.

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 organising 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 and a series of bloody, pitched battles ensued.

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, the king deaf to the advice of ministers and generals, finally listened to the 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.

The sheer speed with which the news arrived, no less than its ­content, galvanised the continent.

By the first days of March, students from Berlin to Budapest, ­Piedmont to Prague, were piling into cafés 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 among 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 those who lived east of the Rhine, the springtime of the people was over scarcely before it began.

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, the wiliness to co-opt potential opponents and the 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 than how to use that freedom.”

» Zaretsky is Professor of History at the ­Honors College, University of Houston.

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