By Aoife O’Leary-McNiece
It’s exciting to feel as though you’ve lived through a major historic event that will be studied and remembered for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Already, people talk about “where they were” when they heard about the planes hitting the World Trade Center with a reverent rhetoric. Similarly, the recent unrest in the Arab World has become a defining moment for our generation. Its importance in public imagination was demonstrated when Time magazine named “The Protester” person of the year in 2011, writing, “In 2011, protesters didn’t just voice their complaints, they changed the world.” This clearly reveals the significance that has been attributed to the Arab Spring.
Indeed when something of historic significance like this occurs, there is always the temptation to look back into our own past in order to find precedent. This urge has led many to compare the Arab Spring to events in recent history, such as the political upheaval in the late eighties and early nineties in Eastern Europe that eventually culminated in the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The iconic image of this period is unquestionably the fall of the Berlin Wall, another moment that made people feel like they were witnessing a slice of history. However, one could go even further back into history to look for precedent for – or a moment of comparison to – the Arab Spring. In 1848 the European continent experienced the most widespread wave of revolutions to date, lending that year the name “the year of revolutions.” By comparing this event to the Arab Spring, one gains an interesting insight into both periods of political upheaval.
There are many obvious comparisons that can be made between the two movements. Both occurred in spread out, but geographically, socially and culturally similar regions, both were characterised by high participation levels among the public and both occurred in several different countries against several different governments. The manner in which both movements accelerated so quickly is also a striking characteristic that they share.
However, there are also copious differences one could point to which counteract these similarities. For example, many of the revolutions of 1848 failed because the governments established did not last long, we have yet to witness the longevity or otherwise of the democracies established in the Arab World. Indeed, this fact alone warns the onlooker to take heed when making comparisons between such diverse issues. A consensus has yet to be reached on the revolutions of 1848. Interpretations range from looking at it somewhat condescendingly as a failed movement run by blow hearts and cowards to idealising it as a romantic revolution of poets, academics and artists (Sperber 1). Indeed, like all major historic issues, it seems unlikely that a consensus will ever be reached on the 1848 revolutions. Similarly, we have yet to witness the outcome of the Arab Spring let alone reach a consensus on its cause, purpose or meaning.
This may lead one to question the very premise of comparing these two movements, which are so similar, yet also so different, and furthermore so contentious. There is one way these events can be examined, which is both rewarding and revealing. Both events occurred in rapidly changing societies. 1848 is right in the middle of ‘The Long Nineteenth Century’, a period that witnessed the gradual development of the Western Word from the Early Modern world to the modern world we now recognise as our own. The Arab Spring occurred in a world in the midst of a communications revolution, brought about by new technological advances. The degree to which these changes and developments influenced and even caused the events in question is subject to huge debate. It is an issue too large an issue to be discussed in an article with limited word count written by a student with limited time. However, what one can argue about both events is that they are reflective of these societal changes, whether or not they are the cause of the movements.
The revolutions of 1848 occurred in the midst of a society in flux. Therefore, they represent a snapshot of this society, and by examining them one may get a grasp of the changes that were taking place across the European continent. The revolutions of 1848 were different from those they followed due to the level of involvement they witnessed from the lower classes and the newly formed working class. Large cities like Berlin, Paris, Vienna and Hamburg were on the cusp of major industrialization, a sizable working class already inhabited these cities. In fact, these movements inspired Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto. Arguably, it was the involvement of this large working class group, along with middle class liberals that led to the widespread success of the revolutions. Previously, the poor in society would be more likely to side with the conservative forces of tradition, however, the 1848 revolutions demonstrate for the first time the birth of worker’s protests. Indeed, one of the reasons for the failure of the governments of 1848 is the inability of the liberal forces representing the middle class to come to terms with more radical forces on the extreme left, who attempted to harness worker’s hardships in their favor (Rapport 187).
The revolutions of 1848 are a snapshot of the societal changes that were taking place across Europe. The large participation rates suggest the level of urbanisation that was occurring at the time, peasants were moving from country to city to work in factories. This in turn facilitated the development of left wing politics and the dichotomy between the conservative monarchic forces, the liberal bourgeois parliamentarians and the radical left. However, in 1848 this tension was just beginning to emerge. The most important thing to take note of in terms of comparison with the Arab Spring is the emergence of mass participation in politics, as this is a point of direct comparison.
The mass involvement in 1848 was a reflection of the major political and social changes that would emerge from the Nineteenth Century, and still define world politics to this day. The mass involvement in The Arab Spring demonstrates one of the largest changes our society has borne witness to – the communications revolution, embodied by social media and portable Internet devices that allow for the immediate spread of information. The degree to which the protests depended on social media for organisation is a subject of debate. However, social media and the internet allowed for a new kind of mass participation that could only be achieved as a result of this new technology. In a sense, participation in the Arab Spring was not limited to those living in the Arab World, due to the immediacy of internet technology, onlookers could experience events in real time through the internet Spectators could even engage and interact with events through social media sites like Twitter.com where many activists and protesters posted updates in real time. In a sense, these sites enabled those involved to bypass traditional media outlets and directly involve all those who were following online. Obviously, this is a completely different kind of mass involvement to that demonstrated in 1848, however, they both serve to demonstrate the major changes – be they technological, social or both – that were occurring contemporaneously.
Living through history is always exciting, it gives you a sense of the large events which will come to define the era in which you lived, and it is particularly exciting if you feel as though you have been able to participate. The revolution of 1848 and the Arab Spring gave many people this sense of participation. However, as Risk Stengel wrote in the Time Magazine article on person of the year 2011, ”History often emerges only in retrospect.” One could apply this comment to the two movements in question. The full magnitude of the social, technological and political change reflected in their mass participation was not realised until after the events occurred. In the case of 1848, the changes that would redefine our political system were only in their earliest stages. Despite the obvious gaping time lapse, and the geographical, ideological and differing successes of 1848 and the Arab Spring, both are reflective of changes occurring in their respective societies. Furthermore, both are harbingers of new ages of mass participation, which manifested in different ways in two different movements.
Rapport Micheal. Nineteenth Century Europe. Palgrave Macmillan. Hampshire: 2005. Print.
Rick Stengel, ‘Person of the Year Introduction’, Time, Dec 14, 2011. Print. Accessed Nov 13 2012. http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2101745_2102139,00.html
‘The Protester’, Time, Print. Accessed Nov 13 2012.
http://www.time.com/time/person-of-the-year/2011/De Long-Bas, Natana J,
Sperber, Jonathan. The European Revolutions 1848-1851. Cambridge University
Press. Cambridge: 1994, 2005. Print.
Slider Photo by Martin Beek
Title Photo by thekirbster