Many had seen it coming. “I believe that right now we are sleeping on a volcano", warned a French politician, "can you not sense... that the earth is trembling....? Can you not feel... the wind of revolution in the air?”


The British Prime Minister warned that the “oppressive and suffocating” regimes, faced an “explosion”. “Just as certainly as would a boiler that was hermetically sealed and deprived of an outlet for steam.” Across a continent, regimes relied not on consent but coercion. Absolutism, said one revolutionary, “dulls our nerves and paralyses our spirit.” Another writer noted that his government’s power rested simply on “a forest of bayonets”.

In January the first crowds gathered to demand reform – barricades went up, and within hours the news was transmitted to millions. Like a virus, the unrest leapt from host to host. Encouraged by what they saw and heard, crowds turned out in cities thousands of miles apart to demand votes, jobs, constitutions and their human rights.

Governments were caught utterly unaware, paralysed they watched helplessly as troops refused to fire on crowds. Ministers fell, kings fled. The year was 1848, and if you think 2011 has been turbulent, it has a long way to go before it matches the seismic events of 1848, the Year of Revolutions.

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I have just returned from Syria. While travelling there I read accounts of that tempestuous year, such as the excellent 1848 by Mike Rapport, while soaking up the revolutionary zeitgeist on the streets. It was as close as I will ever come to time travel: conversations I never imagined I would be part of, spoken in hushed tones over hookah pipes and sweet tea; interrogations with thuggish security officials; late night drinks in underground bohemian bars, where the talk is of ‘the uprising.’

The young people feel exactly as their forebears did 150 years ago; the system is hopelessly anachronistic, crushes creativity, and is being undone by new technologies and lifestyles. As with 1848, there is optimism, but also fear of religious, ethnic or nationalist forces unleashed.

History is never more important than in a crisis. While people flap their arms or gape like surprised goldfish at the wave of unrest in the middle East and North Africa, historians recognise the tell tale signs and point to possible outcomes. They know that above all else, economic collapse breeds revolutions.

The years 1848 and 2011 both followed poor harvests, a spike in food prices and an industrial recession. What we remember as the Irish Potato Famine was in fact a blight that struck the whole of Western Europe between 1845 and 1846. This was compounded by a devastatingly bad harvest in the latter year. It was impossible to meet the demand of a vastly increased population.

They were known as the ‘hungry forties’. As people spent what they had on food, they had less to spend on consumer goods, leading to industrial slowdown and more unemployment. Around 10,000 workers were laid off in Vienna alone in 1847. In 2011 global grain and wheat yields are down thanks to poor harvests, which have pushed up prices. As has China’s ever growing demand, as the newly affluent seek a richer diet. Parts of the global economy are moribund. In North Africa the collapse in living standards has triggered protests against ineffective governments who their people blame for the mess.

People may be destitute and angry, but they will struggle to cause trouble unless they are also connected. In 1848 there had been a massive increase in popular literacy in the previous few decades. In France and Austria more than half of the population could read – in parts of Germany it was as much as 80 per cent.

Newspapers sprang up to slake this new demand. They carried news from across the world as steam ships and telegraphs brought unimaginable connectivity and information, sped from place to place with no respect for roadblocks, censors or city walls. In 1848 disruptive new technology caught anachronistic regimes totally off balance.

Ideas spread instantly. Revolutionaries themselves were not much slower: Verdi, Mazzini, Garibaldi, Marx and Engels were mobile as never before, traversing Europe by steam ship and railway. In Syria I was surprised to see BBC Worldwide and Al Jazeera on televisions, while internet cafes in every town zing with social networking sites such Facebook and Youtube, despite the authorities attempting to block the latter last month. Syrian kids in the south are now buying Jordanian SIM cards to circumvent eavesdropping.

In 1848 there were uprisings in Sicily, Naples, Rome, Florence, Tuscany, Piedmont, Baden, Wurttemberg, Nassau, Hesse-Darmstadt, Bavaria, Saxony, Venice, Milan, France, Denmark, Holland, Prussia, Austria, Hungary, Prague, Sweden and Belgium. There was an insurrection in Ireland and riots in London and Glasgow. Queen Victoria was sent to the Isle of Wight for her protection and the ancient Duke of Wellington, victor of Waterloo, brought to London to command government troops in one last battle, this time against his own people. (Thankfully, it never happened.) Wildly enthusiastic German liberals proclaimed it the Volkerfruhling: 'Springtime of Peoples.'

Yet after spectacular initial successes, most of the 1848 revolutions failed to deliver on their utopian promises. Their failure may help us to predict the eventual outcomes of our current crop of revolutions.

Revolutions are violent events. They are subject to the laws that govern military activity. Despite all the nonsense about protestors overwhelming tanks armed only with a pure heart and a working knowledge of John Locke, revolutions are usually - like battles - decided by the equipment, leadership, training and morale of the opposing forces.

In 2011 the forces of reaction seem to be learning this, as they did in 1848, and are recovering from their initial astonishment and paralysis. Gaddafi’s robust response has put backbone into dictators from Bahrain to Syria. Depressingly revolutions are not won and lost by the size and enthusiasm of the crowds but by the willingness and ability of government forces to coerce.

The real problems surface when revolution succeeds. It is far easier to destroy the existing order than to build a new one, particularly because the process of revolution itself is often deeply inimical to state formation. In Naples in 1848, revolutionary politicians presided over a land where factories had been smashed by angry workers, land squatted on, records destroyed and the economy even more dislocated.

The new leadership was made up of well meaning and utterly inexperienced academics, and they were totally unable to meet demands for higher wages, cheap food or economic stability. Terrible schisms emerged. Workers came to believe that the bourgeoisie had got into power thanks to the mob and then pulled up the ladder after them. The proletariat’s cared less about constitutions and more about jobs. Their demands started to get louder and more threatening. They had provided the muscle and bled for the revolution, they wanted the spoils.

Revolutions accelerate. The political revolutions of the spring morphed into full social revolutions by the summer. The left talked of the abolition of private property. In May 1848 the French radical left almost succeeded in seizing power through a coup. In Naples, Vienna, Krackow and many other cities, the liberal centre found the ground cut away beneath them. They had to choose between the reactionary forces who promised order or the radical left and anarchy. Faced with anarchy or tyranny, property owners have always reluctantly plumped for the latter.

In Egypt today, riots between Christians and Muslims, under-reported in the west, have followed their revolution. In 1848 the brief removal of absolutist rule from multi-ethnic empires ensured that a wave of sectarian violence as different religious and cultural groups jostled for position or settled old scores. Even democracy is not always progressive.

European liberals in 1848 were fervent nationalists and dreamed of war with Russia. The French parliamentary elections of that year returned a strongly conservative parliament. One depressed French revolutionary noted that ‘universal suffrage is counter revolution’.

History is not destiny, but it is all we have. Our past suggests that revolutions usually end in reaction. Either the ruler holds his nerve and destroys the revolution, even if it takes a grinding civil war or a Bonaparte, Lenin or Khomeini emerge to seize control. The liberal centre, initially the intellectual engine of revolution, disappears, or is eclipsed as the parties of reaction and radicalism on either periphery grow in strength.

There are exceptions, but they are rare. Summing up the events of 1848, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French politician and intellectual, wrote: "Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom".


This article was first published by History Extra in April 2011.