It’s 2011, Not 1989 or 1848

Leon Hadar has an interesting piece at The American Conservative comparing the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt to the revolutions that rocked Europe in 1848:

The lessons of the democratic revolutions of 1848 may be instructive. The uprisings in Paris, Milan, Venice, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Krakow, Munich, and Berlin, led by members of the middle classes and the intelligentsia, failed to transform the existing order and replace it with democratic and liberal institutions. In fact, the political upheaval helped expose the conflicting interests and values of the intellectuals and professionals who led the revolts and the workers and the peasants whose support they had failed to win. The result was a successful counter-revolution launched by the ruling elites in France, the Austrian Empire, and Prussia. Conservative forces were able to consolidate their power for many years to come and at the same time initiated limited and gradual reforms to placate the restive population.

This is actually an interesting comparison, and may have some merit, but not in the way Hadar thinks.

First, I believe Hadar way over-estimates the influence of Islamist ideology in the Arab world. Second, he misses a greater point about how successful the Revolutions of 1848 actually were: the Orleans monarchy was toppled in France and the Second Republic was (briefly) created before Louis Napoleon seized power and proclaimed himself emperor; the Austrian empire had to redraw how it was governed; Italian and German unity really begins in this period. Europe was radically altered by the revolution, even if it was in ways no one expected at the time. We also don’t think of the Crimean War, or the various wars of Prussia and France in the 1850s and 1860s leading up to the Franco-Prussian War and the Battle of Sedan, as consequences of the Revolutions of 1848. And the operating ideology of the social democratic welfare state is grounded in many of the demands of this period, for good or for ill, and while conservatives reformed, they are reforms grounded solidly on the demands of the revolutionaries. Otto von Bismark may not have been one of the ’48ers, but he delivered much of what they fought for in Germany. That conservative order built the relatively liberal centralized nation-states the revolutionaries wanted.

Because of that, the Revolutions of 1848 are probably the most successful failed revolutions in human history.

The Middle East could do worse than failed revolutions that create a liberal heritage. Hadar is right to note that the Revolutions of 1848 were also very nationalistic, but that had been building in Europe since Hegel fell in love with Napoleon as an idea and turned him into the World Spirit. Much of the Middle East has already had its bout of nationalism in the aggressive sense with Nasserism and Ba’athism, and while it is possible this could re-emerge, I don’t see it (I could be wrong). There was no room for the ancien regime to really reassert itself after 1848*, and the conservative response of centralization, nationalization, industrialization and the creation of basic welfare states was probably correct given alternatives — poverty and revolution. Yes, the end of proper aristocracy in Europe did give way to many of the horrors of the 20th century, but the Middle East ceased having that aristocracy long ago.

In the end, the decision as to how Arabs govern themselves is not and should not be made in Washington, Tel Aviv, London or Paris, but should — to the extent that it can — be made by Egyptians and Tunisians and Palestinians and Iraqis (&etc) themselves. There will be days when, from our perspective, they won’t get it right. And they certainly won’t govern themselves largely for our benefit. But that is as it should be.


* Even had the Bourbons returned to rule France in the 1870s after the fall of Louis Napoleon, restored France would most certainly have looked more like the Third Republic than the France of Charles X.