Thursday, November 10, 2011

Learning More about the 1848 Springtime of Nations in 2011

By Gary Berg-Cross

The Europe of 1848 was not a time and place that my high school history courses focused on. Only much later did I stumble on good histories of the populist, revolutionary period which erupted in Italy 1848 and spread to France and then more widely across the Europe of Prussia, Austria and the German Confederation only to be overturned and usher in 50 years of conservative rule. The most I knew was something of the America of the Gilded Age and oligarchic robber barons and plutocrats of the era.

Now one can read more readily about the speculative parallels between that revolutionary period and our world of 2011. For example, the years before 1848 were like the last few years. There were socio-economic stresses of rising commidity prices during generally depressed economic conditions that promoted widespread unemployment. Leading up to 1848 there was a general sense of repression, complaint about the system and a weakness in the established order. There was resentment against the governing classes, who seemed sheltered from the impacts of a system grinding to a halt.

More specifically there seem to be interesting parallels between the Arab Spring and The Revolutions of 1848. (Perhaps for common underlying reasons the Revolutions of 1848 are often called the "springtime of nations.”) A deeper parallel between the two is a common motivating drive - to change the existing political systems from central power regimes, as in Egypt, to more democratic and moderate systems. In 1848 Metternich’s 23-year-long repressive dictatorship in Austrian vanished. Later this spread to regimes in Italy, France, and the German states. Jonathan Steinberg, compares this starter scene to what we saw in Tunisian as President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's fled from power like Meddernich. In each case a wave of revolutions spread across the region.

“In both cases, the crowds in the streets were glad to see the dictators go but unclear on the social and political orders that should replace them.” 1848 and 2011: Bismark and the Arab Spring. That unclarity about how to replace the old regimes is something we see being played out in the Middle East.

Another parallel noted by some is the diversity of the types of revolutions that spread from a small start:

Though inspired very generally by the ideas of liberal nationalism and democracy, the mostly middle-class demonstrators of 1848 had, like their Arab contemporaries, very different goals in different countries. In Hungary, they demanded independence from Habsburg Austria. In what is now Germany, they aimed to unify the German-speaking peoples into a single state. In France, they wanted to overthrow the monarchy (again). In some countries, revolution led to pitched battles between different ethnic groups. Others were brought to a halt by outside intervention

While some analysis focused on the Arab Spring we now have the Occupy movement and one might see some of the parallels here too. In the 1848 citizen revolutions, as with the Arab Spring, the mobilization of power was far from the big centers of power, but they have now spread to centers of powers, such as Wall Street, in the West. Relatively conservative “regimes’ and oligarchies are now being challenged by citizen power. The complaints are somewhat similar and the forcefully reactions of establishment forces are also disappointingly familiar -perhaps because the changes needed might come at some cost to entrenched interests, traditionally influential groups, lobbies or their religious allies. In the Paris of 1847 citizen "banquet meetings” were held occasionally organized by 'liberal' interests. They subsequently spread widely across France, until authorities banned them. A broad range of citizen protested the crackdowns as limitations on the right of assembly. Moderates and intellectuals warned of the possible clash and the language and core ideas resonant still today. This was how Alexis de Tocqueville spoke the situation on January 29, 1848 to the French Chamber of Deputies warning them of the danger of over reaction and the need for reform and the possibility of a non-destructive way of doing it if the forces in charge act quickly and decisively:

  • “Keep the laws as they are, if you wish. I think you would be very wrong to do so; but keep them. Keep the men, too, if it gives you any pleasure. I raise no objection so far as I am concerned. But, in God's name, change the spirit of the government; for, I repeat, that spirit will lead you to the abyss.”
  • “Do you not feel -- what shall I say? -- as it were a gale of revolution in the air?...”
  • “We are sleeping on a volcano... A wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon”

De Tocqueville & the 1848 revolutionaries shared a model on which to base their fight with the establishment - the ideals of French Revolution such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which the French National Assembly approved in 1789.

One humanist ideal expressed there is that:

"Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good."

This idea of equality remains powerful today as part of the Occupation movement along with populist human aspirations variously expressed as constitutional or liberal reform.

Back in 1848 warnings such as from de Tocqueville were not well heeded and the old regimes fell for a while. If the start of revolutionary activities in 1948 and 2011 look similar we might ask about how they progressed and ended up. People often ask about the motivations of a movement like Occupy Wall Street and what objectives it seeks. It may make sense to see the OWS movement as something that focuses a spotlight on issues and is useful to get conversations started about topics that may get fresh thinking on lingering problems and lead to change. Intellectual elites like George Lakoff are providing advice on how to get a message of change out. Matt Taibbi suggested a few possible demands for the Occupy Wall Street protestors to change the financial system such as breaking up monopolies, taxing "hedge fund gambling" and the like. OWS seems to me to be more diffuse than than the 1848 movements and better informed by history and events. While it shares similar grievances and seeks remedies outside of the existing power structure it has not spawned revolutionary groups seeking power. But a question that might be asked is what idea of progressing forward towards fairness and equality does the movement afford and what can be learned from the efforts that started in 1848?

Here one chilling lesson, and something for movement liberals to keep in mind, is the consequences of not following opportunities with wise, consolidated action . A simple lesson from the "springtime of nations" is that it is easier for movements to overthrow an existing power structure than build a new one. While liberal forces were able to seize a degree of power in 1848, they had no clear vision of how to govern. There were many visions, which resulted in clashes of ideas and the agendas of different revolutionary groups. The lack of agreement and consensus allowed relatively conservative forces to draw up plans, consolidate resources and to eventually retake power. Liberal “Republics” were never able to check the power of holdovers from the old regimes including control of military power. They were never productive enough to get buy in from the Bourgeoisie & what we might now call the 99%. Conservative interests, who were determined to restore the old order, did reach some consensus and get enough buy in to regain power. One thing they were willing to do was to modernize their management techniques to appeal to more strands of society as productive.

These anti-revolutionary forces also borrowed heavily from the revolutionary playbook. Aided by new technologies and railroads, they strengthened administration and modernized the bureaucracy. Pope Pius IX whipped up the fervor of the masses through the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary, pilgrimages, and popular festivals to show where the public's loyalty truly rested. The 1840s had been years of poverty and unrest, but 1850¬-73 saw the first modern economic boom, and a long wave of prosperity followed. 1848 and 2011: Bismark and the Arab Spring

By 1852 conservatives could take advantage of the weaknesses of the new Republic forms of government and regained power, although is some cases there were now constitutions in effect that served to check conservative interests. By 1852 the revolutionary regimes were largely overturned and various forms of moderated conservative rule reestablished. My guess is that a core of the Occupy crowd has assimilated this message a bit and those who act on it have a chance of jumping towards the more progressive movement that succeeded to some degree at the end of the 19th century. We'll see. Something to keep in mind as we see events unfold in 2012.


lucette said...

I am reading a very interesting french version of "Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte, 1852", by Karl Marx. According to Wikipedia, it is "An account of the 2 December 1851 coup by Napoleon's nephew, which begins with the oft-quoted 'Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He(Hegel) forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second-time as farce.'" The book describes the coup d'etat in terms of class struggles.
Although I am still struggling with the complexity of the events and the actors, relying on the minimal help from Wikipedia, I think that class struggles explain these events much better than an analysis based on the American notions of conservatives, liberals, springtime, citizens power, Wall Street, fight with the establishment, spirit of the government etc... The division into 2 groups, the 1% and the 99% is a first step, but it is obvious that the 99% and the 1% don't have the same interests. This simplistic division is very likely to be the cause for the lack of clear objectives of the Occupy movement. And can you imagine a slogan like "Occupy Afghanistan" or "Occupy Palestine"? I hope I did not scare you off by citing Karl Marx. LOL

Gary Berg-Cross said...

We shouldn't be afraid of Marxian thinking. It was probably the best socio-economic thinking of the time. I can imagine that Marx and Engels was highly influenced by living in time when the revolutionary tide was spent, there remained class warfare and a Global Capitalist System, as we came to know it, emerged in the Gilded Age. It's a period of time I was not well educated in but seems like we should be listing to it's lessons now.