It was a revolutionary year. In more than 50 countries spontaneous street alliances formed of disgruntled urban workers and left-behind rural folk.
Of course, there were dedicated reformers, ardent revolutionaries and hardened nationalists among them, too, and fearful governments tottering on the edge immediately accused them of causing all the trouble and of grasping at impossible theories of government or being manipulated by foreign enemies.
This year or 1848? The description could be used for either.
A hundred and seventy years ago, the ruling elite and European monarchies were at a loss to know how to deal with the turbulence and anger tearing through the continent and turning their world upside down. The series of political upheavals that shook Europe in 1848 became known variously as the Spring of Nations, the People's Spring, Springtime of the Peoples, or simply the Year of Revolution.
It was the year Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto but their time was yet to come. French historian and diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville subscribed to the view that 1848 was a struggle between the “have nots” against “the haves.” “I saw society cut into two: those who possessed nothing, united in a common greed; those who possessed something, united in a common terror.”
But his view was in many ways distorted. For many of those protesting, 1848 was about asserting national identities — certainly that was the case for many taking to the streets in Italy, Hungary, Poland and the Balkans. For others out on the streets, including those from the affluent, aspiring middle class, it was about getting rid of hidebound, backward-looking regimes that were holding back the emerging capitalist age. They wanted a new liberal, modern constitutional order. For other it was just an opportunity to express pent-up frustration at their left-behind status.
Media's role then and now
In 1848, the printing presses were the communication channels for the demands for change and for the expression of anger, much as social media sites and mobile phone apps are used now to organize and spread the word. In Hungary, the poet Sándor Petőfi with the writer Mihály Táncsics put together a 12-point manifesto and had thousands of copies churned out on overworked printing presses.
The bloodless uprising they led in the city of Pest forced Ferdinand I of Austria to abolish censorship.
“The revolutions of 1848-9 are worth revisiting because they have such contemporary resonance,” according to historian Mike Rapport in his book, “1848: Year of Revolution.” He noted that Italians use the phrase “un vero quarantotto” (a true 1848) to mean “a real mess.”
And that would seem to sum up the reaction of many established politicians and those favoring the status quo now as they scratch their heads at the disparate uprisings the world is witnessing today with protests from Barcelona to Bolivia and Hong Kong to Honduras. In the last few weeks, large anti-government protests have erupted on every continent, including Algeria, Britain, Chile, Ecuador, France, Guinea, Haiti, Iraq, Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Lebanon.
The various 1848 upheavals had some common themes but there were also contradictions, as there are now. The protests of the 1960s and the 1980s seemed much more focused, more inter-connected in terms of aims and causes, say analysts.
And in 1848, many of the protests, like now, were often leaderless, making it harder for governments to know how to handle them or to find anyone they could negotiate with who had any real authority. Something that challenged France’s Emmanuel Macron in his efforts to take the sting from the tail of the Yellow Vests.
This year’s protests appear to have four broad themes — income inequality, public corruption, political freedom and climate change. Some commentators and radicals have tried to tie them together but it appears to be a stretch to do so, although some protests in the West have featured all four.
In France, the Yellow Vest protests, now in their 52nd week, were triggered by higher ‘Green’ taxes on fuel with the demonstrators being drawn mainly from low-income earners in small-town and rural France.
They are not the Communist students and factory workers of the 1960s. The Yellow Vests’ determination to reverse planned eco-tax hikes, higher levies meant to dissuade the French from using climate-polluting cars, has been on the opposite pole of the climate debate from the Extinction Rebellion activists, who are drawn mainly from metropolitan, well-shod middle classes, sowing havoc in Britain and Australia. In Ecuador and Chile as in France, planned sharp rises in fuel prices were the trigger for protesters drawn largely from low-income and rural communities.
Populist nationalist protests in in the past year in Italy and Germany have nothing in common with huge pro-EU protests in Britain, where those taking to the streets want to force a second referendum on leaving the European bloc, one they believe they can win.
Social media, of course
What maybe links the protests this year more, say analysts, is not the substance of the demonstrations but the means or organization and recruitment. Online platforms have been used to accelerate the growth of political and social movements, according to Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, a professor of social change and conflict at VU University Amsterdam.
In recent years, social media has changed the way in which activists are able to organize, promote their message and mobilize swarm-like support globally for physical demonstrations, she argues. But while online networks have increased political participation, by allowing participants to frame their ideas through interactions with allies and opponents, physical protests remain vital to achieving change in the age of social media, she said in a recent symposium in London. Online and offline campaigns can be effectively combined to deliver maximum political impact, she said.
And the protesters across the globe appear to be combining smartly offline and online tools, copying each other, even street opponents, feeding on a new era of anger, in which losers even in countries that hold fair elections are not prepared to accept the results and winners demand all too often total obeisance from those vanquished at the polls.
When it comes to countries where elections are not free but carefully managed, those in control seem determined to give their opponents little space to organize and to gather strength. In Russia, the Kremlin has overseen a sharp crackdown on dissent even though protests have done little to weaken the grip on power of Vladimir Putin — a reflection of the Kremlin’s high level of insecurity.
In 1848 coalitions behind the protests did not hold for long. In many countries challenges to the status quo were rapidly suppressed with tens of thousands killed and others forced into exile.
Lasting reforms, though, in some countries did take effect. Serfdom was abolished in Austria and Hungary. Denmark’s absolute monarchy came to an end. The Netherlands embraced the beginnings of representative democracy. But in other countries there were backlashes — notably in France, where Louis Napoléon Bonaparte — Napoleon III — was elected president of the Second Republic, in 1848, but turned round three years later, suspended the elected assembly and established the Second French Empire with himself as dictator.