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Published on 02 April 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

France, Italy, Hungary, and of course Germany, were swept up in revolutionary movements in 1848.

The London “bobbies” were created to keep the Chartists at bay: it was sheer police power that stopped Great Britain from political convulsions[1].

episodio delle cinque giornate baldassare verazzi1

1848/49 ended in disaster for the progressive forces. Reaction managed to quell the uprisings; patriots had to flee abroad to avoid prison or death. It looked, after the patriotic movements had been defeated, as if restoration would henceforth rule unhindered.

Tvelve years later Italy had united, and Germany emerged as the new political power house in Europe in 1866. Hungary forced Austria to share power within the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867. Many of the patriotic goals of 1848 had been achieved – through other means, by other forces and persons.

In 1848 the ideals of the revolutionaries had been betrayed and the progressive forces shunted aside. Yet what seemed impossible then became inevitable soon thereafter.

The current evolution in the Middle East from last year’s Jasmine Revolutions in some ways reminds me of the wrangling for power in Europe in 1848/9.

True, current developments may not reflect the hopes and aspirations of those who protested in the cities and brought old tyrants to fall. But we live in a democratic epoch these days – had the whole of France at the time expressed its views on the French Revolution in a general election, I suspect the road the Revolution took would have been quite different from the one that eventuated.

Just as in 1848 autocrats were forced to concede Constitutional rights, current rulers have felt obliged to speak out in ways they would have thought impossible only a few months ago. The Arab League is taking a stand over Syria – no mean feat, given the many interests and cultural factors involved. The scope of the “politically possible” in the Middle East has been expanded enormously and irreversibly – if not tomorrow, for sure few years down the line.

The outcome is uncertain, and will certainly be surprising. I’d avoid taking a still photo in black-and-white of this complex process today or tomorrow and make instant judgmental projections. Experience with the revolution in Iran, furthermore, would seem to indicate that instant judging (particularly when from ignorance), and meddling even more, is counterproductive.

We should also give time to time. It took even progressive countries like the US and UK 100 years or more to move from oligarchic structures toward political systems that we would recognize as “modern democratic”. Yes we expect countries around the world to accelerate from 0-100% democracy faster than a FF (4-wheel) Ferrari.

For sure the evolutionary process will neither be easy or “safe” for the West. The world is becoming multi-polar, and it is primarily up to the West to make room for the newcomers. The alternative – returning to the managed stasis of gerontocracy – does not bear thinking about.

[1] On 10 April 1848, a new Chartist Convention organised a mass meeting on Kennington Common, which would form a procession to present another petition to Parliament. The estimate of the number of attendees varies depending on the source (O’Connor said 300,000; the government, 15,000; The Observer) newspaper suggested 50,000). Historians say 150,000.[] The government was well aware that the Chartists had no intention of staging an uprising. However, there were fears that a revolution would start spontaneously and the authorities were intent upon a large-scale display of force both to counter this threat and if possible stamp out Chartism in a year of revolutions across continental Europe. 100,000 special constables were recruited to bolster the police force.[31] In any case, the meeting was peaceful. However the military had threatened to intervene if the Chartists made any attempt to cross the Thames. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chartism

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