A Tale of Two Crises: 1848-9 and 2008-?

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Mr. Rapport teaches history at the University of Stirling, Scotland. His latest book is: 1848: Year of Revolution (2009).

An economic crisis cutting deep, rising food prices, a shortage of credit, spiralling unemployment – and the advent of a new government promising radical change, nourishing international hopes of a new start, with fresh ideas and the promise of a new age of international co-operation. The United States and the world in 2008-9?

Perhaps, but this might also pass as a description of Europe in the later 1840s, which witnessed the worst economic crisis of the nineteenth century. This was the underlying cause of the great liberal revolutions of 1848. In the first hundred days of that tumultuous year, a wave of insurrections swept over the continent. From Paris to Kraków, Palermo to Copenhagen, almost every major European city saw barricades built and street-fighting erupt as unemployed workers took up arms side-by-side with angry bourgeois and prevailed against the might of the forces of the conservative order which had held sway over Europe since the fall of Napoleon in 1815. The earliest reviewers of my book, 1848: Year of Revolution (Basic Books, 2009), have quite naturally drawn parallels – and contrasts – between the revolutionary crisis of 1848 and our present circumstances.

In 2008-9 there has not been (as yet!) a collapse of the existing political order as occurred in domino-like fashion in Europe in 1848, which has a more obvious resonance with the Revolutions of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe. The economic crisis which tortured Europe before 1848 was more severe than anything felt in the developed world of the early twenty-first century. In the violent trade slump of the later 1840s, the unemployment reached truly catastrophic proportions. In some French textile cities, as many as eight out of every thirteen workers lost their jobs. To deepen the misery a severe crisis in agriculture brought not only spiralling food prices, but in some places starvation: these were the years of the notorious Irish famine, but it is for good reason that the decade is remembered at the ‘Hungry Forties’ elsewhere in Europe.

Here there are parallels with our own age: only last year, there were food riots in Mexico, Haiti, Morocco, Yemen, Mauritania, Guinea, Senegal and Uzbekistan, caused by rocketing food prices. Gary J. Bass, reviewing my book in the New York Times, has remarked that the descriptions of impoverished peasants and alienated workers in mid-nineteenth-century Europe could well apply to Chinese migrant labourers and farm workers today. The political impact of the recession in China remains to be seen, but in 1847 one alarmed Prussian official wrote that"misery, spiritual and physical, traverses Europe in ghastly shapes .... Woe if they join hands!" They did just that in 1848, when the social protest amongst the workers and peasants was given political leadership by disenchanted middle-class and even aristocratic liberals.

For this reason, the differences between the political circumstances of the 1840s and the present are crucial. Firstly, the European states in the mid-nineteenth century were simply not equipped, financially or ideologically, to cope with the depth of the crisis. In 2008-9, governments – of almost all political stripes - acted decisively, with rescue packages for financial institutions and economic stimulus plans. Critics might legitimately question the effectiveness of these measures, or be anxious about the long-term impact of budget deficits, but the very fact of action separates 2008 from 1848.

Secondly, the conservative order which was toppled in 1848 was based on the rule of monarchs and, at best, the social elites, excluding much of what today we would call civil society, which was expanding everywhere in the nineteenth century. The division between governments and civil society meant that plenty of respectable, moderate people, who might otherwise have tolerated the conservative order, deserted or turned against it when the crisis came. Even in its hour dire need, conservative regimes refused to involve some of the most influential sections of public opinion in its decision-making. The democratic governments which are facing the financial crisis today are formed within a political framework upon which there is broad consensus and which more or less compel politicians to take cognisance of the response of civil society.

This leads to the third difference, which is that the liberals of 1848 had to construct a constitutional order, often from scratch. The problem with most revolutions, however, is that there are always conflicting groups and viewpoints seeking to fill the political vacuum and shape the new order in accordance with their own ideals and interests. There was no consensus over what should replace the old conservative system and the revolutionaries turned on each other. Moderate liberals crushed radicals and socialists on the streets of Paris, Berlin and Vienna, while the conflicting claims of different nationalities in Eastern Europe led the revolutions into the sort of squalid ethnic strife with which the twentieth century became all too familiar.

So in the midst of one crisis in 2008-9, we should perhaps spare a thought for the Europeans of 1848, who endured far more. History can be a springboard: it can remind us in sombre times that people have survived through similar, or worse, long before we did. Yet there are also parallels and, perhaps, lessons to be drawn from the 1848 Revolutions. They show that fresh starts are possible and even necessary when enough people demand it, but also that those who implement reform should always be aware of the expectations of those who gave them their mandate in the first place. The"Forty-Eighters" came to power on a groundswell of demands for change, but in some places they then went too far, too fast, while in others they did not go far enough, to retain the support of the majority of the population.

The lesson here is that for reform to have any chance of success, it must carry public opinion with it. Such change need not necessarily proceed at a Burkean, glacial speed, with all reverence for tradition, but if reform is to avoid (at least) creating lasting and poisonous political division and (at worst) violent conflict, it is best carried out through a process of agreement rather than confrontation, even if that means that a progressive movement has to trim some of its more ambitious, ideological proposals.

The most influential and lasting initiatives of 1848 – including some of the new constitutions and the abolition of serfdom in Central Europe - were pragmatically framed so that they survived the reaction which followed. In our age of globalized crisis, the lesson applies both domestically and internationally. If meaningful change is to have any chance of long-term, constructive influence, it works best when it is shaped to win the acceptance of a broad spectrum of political opinion: otherwise, in a domestic context, the reforms might simply be reversed when the opposition regains power (which was the fate of most of the liberal legislation forged in 1848).

Internationally, for those of us, for example, who believe that urgent, global action is needed to combat the impact of climate change, the implications are daunting, for persuading economic powers to work against their immediate interests has never been easy. Herein, however, lies the problem of any government intent on long-lasting innovation: if it must, at one and the same time, satisfy public demand for change and convince the political opposition – or, at least, those moderates open to some compromise - of the utility of the reforms in essence (if not in detail), then it is immediately confronted by the limitations imposed by the politics of consensus, and it is forced to negotiate the contradictory demands which it throws up.

For this reason, the final lesson for our own times is that we should be wary of what a French historian of 1848 has referred to as the"lyrical illusion." When the liberals seized power, almost anything seemed possible, but this meant that high expectations were bound to collapse in disappointment, despair and, ultimately, violence. It is hard to criticize the liberals for inspiring hope and to have visions for the future, but an awareness of the limitations of government action, and, commensurately, the recognition of the responsibilities of the individual citizen, should preserve us from our own, modern versions of the lyrical illusion.

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Robert Goldstein - 4/13/2009

Readers of Prof. Rapport's fine essay might be interested in an article I published in late 2007 in the journal Society comparing 1848 and 1989:
Comparing the European Revolutions of 1848 and 1989
> Robert Justin Goldstein1, 2 Contact Information
> (1) Center for Russian & E. European Studies,
> University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA
> (2) Prof. Emeritus of Political Science, Oakland
> University, Rochester, MI, USA
> Contact Information Robert Justin Goldstein
> Email: goldstei@oakland.edu
> Received: 11 May 2006 Accepted:
> 22 June 2007 Published online: 3 August 2007
> ------------------------------------------------
> Without Abstract
> Robert Justin Goldstein is currently a research
> associate at the Center for Russian and East
> European Studies at the University of Michigan at
> Ann Arbor. He is the author of ten books, including
> Political Repression in Modern America (University
> of Illinois Press, 2001) and Political Censorship of
> the Arts and the Press in Nineteenth-Century Europe
> (MacMillan, 1989).
> ------------------------------------------------
> The revolutionary years of 1848 and 1989 stand out
> in modern history as unique and extraordinary
> periods in which essentially spontaneous popular
> disturbances simultaneously brought down many
> governments. The 1848 revolts were far more
> widespread than those of 1989 (narrowly defined as
> that year only), seriously affecting, if one counts
> all of the then-separate lands of Germany and Italy,
> about 50 countries in almost all corners of Europe,
> while the 1989 revolts were confined to about five
> countries in eastern Europe. However, major
> aftershocks followed 1989 during the next 3years in
> Albania, Yugoslavia and the USSR, which, if
> included, brings the total number of countries
> affected or ultimately created to about 30 and
> extends the geographical impact even further than
> 1848, with post-2000 clearly related developments
> including mass-inspired overthrows of regimes in
> Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrghizstan. 1848 was
> clearly a far more violent year then 1989, costing
> (if one includes its immediate aftermath in 1849)
> tens of thousands of lives in battles and another
> several thousand in executions, not to mention over
> 100,000 jailed or forced into exile when the
> reaction came, while in 1989 the loss of life was
> confined to at most several thousand in Rumania
> (followed by thousands more during the Yugoslavian
> civil war during the first half of the 1990s, the
> continuing post-1991 revolt against Russia in
> Chechenya and the 2005 unrest in Uzbekistan).
> Despite these evident differences, the commonalities
> in 1848 and 1989 of background and causation, and
> the similarities in patterns of development,
> spontaneity and contagion, not the least of which
> was the almost immediate collapse of seemingly
> well-entrenched regimes in both years, go far beyond
> the bare facts that each saw widespread upheavals,
> and both witnessed major developments in many of the
> same cities, such as Prague, Berlin, Leipzig,
> Budapest and Bucharest. In fact, a combination of
> often fundamentally similar political, economic and
> nationalistic grievances created both revolutionary
> years.
> Anger over long-standing and suffocating forms of
> political repression was the single most important
> impetus in both years, as demonstrated by the fact
> that middle class intellectuals as opposed to
> starving peasants or urban workers played the key
> leadership role in almost all of the affected
> regions in both 1848 and 1989 (Poland in 1989 and
> perhaps Albania in 1990–1991 are
> quasi-exceptions). In the lands most deeply affected
> in both years, the regimes were characterized by
> rigid censorship, bans on political opposition and
> extensive secret police networks. Many of these
> factors are too well known today as part of the key
> background to 1989 to require any extended comment
> here (it is reported that the German secret police
> [Stasi] files weighed 5,000 tons and would have
> stretched for 100 miles, perhaps giving even
> American Federal Bureau of Investigation head J.
> Edgar Hoover a run for the paranoid sweepstakes),
> but the striking similarity to 1848 requires
> attention. Rudolf Stadelmann, in his Social and
> Political History of the German 1848 Revolution,
> analyzed the background to the 1848 revolts as
> follows: “The heaviest grievance of the nation
> remained the suppression of the freedom of
> expression. What caused a deep and apparently
> implacable rage against the police and military
> state was constant petty pestering by gendarmes and
> border officials, the secretaries and the
> bureaucrats who harassed individuals...what bore
> down on all citizens without distinction was the
> disgrace of constraint. This was called to mind
> daily by the blanked passages of the censor in the
> newspaper, by the never-ending measures of
> conscientious state officials and teachers...In
> terms of numbers there were actually not so many, a
> few hundred perhaps who sat in prisons or were
> involved in degrading trials. But they were all
> known and their cause was taken to everyone’s
> heart [shades of Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, who
> became presidents of Czechoslovakia and Poland,
> respectively, soon after the 1989 revolutions]. If
> Austria and Prussia...had allowed public opinion
> free expression, then, from all that we know,
> Germans would not have relinquished the path of
> peaceful reform.”
> Economic grievances were also long-simmering and
> chronic in eastern Europe during the pre-1989
> period, while the economic background to the 1848
> revolts was especially rooted in the extremely acute
> crisis of 1845–1847. The economic background to
> 1989 included the combination of far lower living
> standards in Eastern Europe as compared to the west;
> a marked slowdown in economic growth, as average
> increases in GNP collapsed from a respectable 4% or
> so annually across Eastern Europe in 1960–1980 to
> a catastrophic 1% or so after 1980; and the
> frustrations of daily economic life caused by this
> stagnation, combined with the well-known problems
> associated with often-incompetent central economic
> planning and the lack of incentives. In 1848, the
> economic crisis resulted from the lingering effects
> of the unprecedented and massive agricultural
> failures of 1845–1847, which in turn set off a
> serious industrial–commercial crisis as high food
> prices devastated people’s ability to buy anything
> else. One third of the population of western Germany
> was on relief by 1847, over a quarter of a million
> died of starvation and disease in both Prussian
> Silesia and Austrian Galicia, and food riots became
> common in much of Europe by 1846–1847.
> Nationalistic grievances in 1848 and 1989 were
> certainly significant but took a back seat to
> political and economic travail. In 1848 it was
> anti-Austrian sentiment in Italy, Hungary and
> Bohemia, anti-Russian and anti-Turkish sentiment in
> Rumania, German-nationalist sentiment in divided
> Germany and Polish nationalism in partitioned
> Poland. In 1989 lingering resentment over Russian
> domination clearly played some role in Poland,
> Hungary and Czechoslovakia (if not much in Albania,
> Bulgaria and Rumania), German nationalism again
> played a key role in a once-more divided Germany,
> and, soon after 1989, resentment of Great Russian
> domination played a key role in unrest in the
> minorities states of the USSR that helped bring down
> the Russian Empire, strikingly so in the Baltics.
> Finally, in discussing causation, one must mention
> the parallel roles played by key changes in
> political leadership. The encouraging role played by
> Mikhail Gorbachev for democratic movements in
> eastern Europe was extremely important, not only for
> his reform example in the Soviet Union, but for his
> increasingly clear hands-off east Europe policy,
> while in Poland the role of the recently elected
> Polish Pope John Paul II was clearly of major
> significance. In the pre-1848 period, the reforms of
> Pope Pius IX in Rome following his election in 1846,
> which included an amnesty for political prisoners
> and an easing of censorship, had a truly catalytic
> effect in encouraging democratic movement throughout
> Italy, not to mention creating true despair among
> conservatives like Metternich, who lamented, “A
> liberal pope! That’s really something new.”
> Other seemingly more liberal rulers who came to
> power in several countries as the result of royal
> deaths also proved important, especially in Prussia
> and Denmark, where the respective accessions of
> Frederick William IV in 1840 and Christian VIII in
> 1839 spurred enormous and ultimately futile hopes
> for reform.
> The actual outbreak and spread of the 1848 and 1989
> revolutions were strikingly similar, marked in both
> cases by mass demonstrations which spread as if by
> contagion in 1848 from France and in 1989 from East
> Germany. In both cases, this contagious combustion
> was partly attributed to recent perceived
> revolutions in transportation and/or communications:
> in 1848, the recent explosion of literacy and
> newspapers and the introduction of the railroad, in
> 1989 the growing penetration of radio and television
> in Eastern Europe (the internet had not yet
> arrived). Although there were quite serious clashes
> and significant loss of life in 1848 in Paris,
> Vienna, Berlin, and, above all, in Milan, before
> regimes capitulated, while in 1989 serious fighting
> occurred only in Romania, what is striking in both
> years is how quickly almost all governments gave in,
> without really using anything like the force they
> had at their disposal. It is clear that the vast
> majority of the regimes quite simply lost their
> nerve, having suffered a collapse in confidence that
> they could, and often, one suspects, that they even
> should, prevail. The general atmosphere is well
> captured by the reported remark of the feeble-minded
> Emperor Ferdinand of Austria, who stated in 1848,
> “Tell the people that I agree to everything.”
> The first demands and the first concessions almost
> everywhere in 1848 and 1989 were the granting of
> various political freedoms, including expansion of
> the suffrage and the granting of constitutions in
> 1848, the introduction of multi-party politics and
> free elections in 1989, and the abolition of
> censorship and liberation of political prisoners in
> both years. The result in both cases was an
> immediate explosion of newspapers and political
> organizations and a carnival atmosphere celebrating
> the new liberties. By January, 1990, for example, 51
> political parties had registered in Czechoslovakia;
> in Hungary the number of private book publishers
> increased from two or three underground
> organizations in 1988 to three hundred open
> publishers in mid-1990; in Poland an estimated six
> hundred new publications emerged within 5months; and
> even in Romania the number of periodicals quadrupled
> within 1year. One reporter noted in April 1990 that
> Polish writers were keeping practically every
> printing press, mimeograph machine and photocopier
> in Poland working round the clock.
> The importance of the civil liberties reforms which
> were demanded in 1848 can be easily grasped by
> reading accounts of the celebrations which followed
> their concession. For example, after Sardinian King
> Charles Albert announced that he would grant a
> constitution, a parade was held in Turin on February
> 27, 1848 to celebrate, during which, “In all, some
> 50,000 men marched in a procession that took 5hours
> to pass before the king...Every city of Piedmont was
> represented, every guild, every procession and
> division of laborers and peasants...In the arcades
> along the way no one could move, so great was the
> crowd, and at every window and balcony were cheering
> people.” Similarly, in Prague, in the Habsburg
> Empire, “The announcement [of Metternich’s fall
> and the granting of a constitution] loosed a wave of
> merriment and wild enthusiasm such as Prague had
> probably never witnessed before...Thousands milled
> about in the streets; strangers embraced...Within
> hours, the term ‘constitution’ hitherto
> proscribed, became a magic word...Special
> ‘constitutional hats,’ low and wide-brimmed,
> were introduced and promoted vigorously. One
> enterprising merchant began to sell
> ‘constitutional parasols;’ another peddled
> ‘constitutional rolls’.”
> As in 1989, the developments in 1848 affected
> virtually everything and everyone. Thus, years
> later, an aristocrat who had participated in the
> 1848 anti-Austrian uprising in Milan wrote, ‘From
> that moment on all was rapidly changing, in our
> household habits as in city life, in our customs and
> in our thoughts.” A contemporary German observer
> asked, ‘Where could one find in Europe a clod of
> earth which has not been shaken, strongly or
> lightly, by the massive shocks and struggles that
> rage in the foundations of our society?’
> Reflecting the general sense of a world turned
> ‘upside down’, a German washer woman yelled at
> her mistress, the wife of a businessmen, ‘Now
> things are going to change! Now you women will have
> to wash and clean and we’ll move into your
> house.’ The spirit of the times was similarly
> captured by a goldsmith named Bisky, who noted while
> addressing an outdoor meeting of thousands in Berlin
> on March 26, 1848, “Until now we were the big zero
> in the state. Finally we have a chance to speak
> up.”
> Both 1848 and 1989 were marked by extraordinary
> levels of popular mobilization in societies where
> repression had stifled virtually all non-official
> political activity for decades. For most who read
> this paper, memories of the massive crowds in the
> streets of eastern Europe during 1989 are still
> fresh. But similar episodes marked 1848 in many
> countries. In Berlin alone, about a dozen major
> demonstrations drew over 10,000 people in 1848; even
> in Bucharest, 30,000 attended a celebration of the
> revolution there on June 27, 1848. During the 1848
> legislative elections in France and Germany, the
> first granting universal male suffrage, the turn-out
> was 84% in France (a figure subsequently exceeded
> only in 1928) and up to 75% in some of the German
> states. In the small German state of Mecklenburg,
> 50,000 people signed petitions calling for the
> abolition of feudal vestiges.
> With the collapse of restrictions on freedom of
> association and assembly in 1848, formerly forbidden
> political clubs sprang up throughout Europe. Thus,
> about 400 political clubs attracted an estimated
> 100,000 members in Paris, where the most popular
> clubs regularly attracted audiences of up to five
> thousand for their meetings. French novelist George
> Sand later recounted that when she found herself
> locked out of her Paris apartment one evening in
> March 1848 all three locksmiths she tried to summon
> could not be reached as each was attending a club
> meeting! Political clubs were also extremely popular
> in Rome, Vienna, Prague and other cities, especially
> in Germany, where the largest such group, the
> liberal middle-class Central March Association,
> attracted almost a half million members belonging to
> over a thousand affiliate branches within a few
> months of its organization in late 1848. In Germany,
> the ‘association man (Vereinsmensch)’ became a
> recognized figure, so much so that one German
> newspaper remarked that associations had been formed
> ‘for all possible and impossible purposes’, and
> one German democrat boasted to a meeting in Mainz
> that ‘our entire state is a democratic
> association’. In Germany and France, and to a
> lesser extent in other countries, the revolutionary
> ferment and politically free atmosphere of 1848 was
> also reflected in the most significant trade union
> movements yet to appear in continental Europe. In
> Paris, an estimated three hundred workers’
> associations attracted about 50,000 members.
> National trade unions were formed by German
> printers, tailors and cigar makers, and regional and
> national workers’ congresses were held throughout
> Germany. The most ambitious attempt to form a
> national German workers’ organization attracted an
> estimated 20,000. Printers organized the first
> national strike in German history, and altogether
> more strikes occurred in Germany in the spring of
> 1848 than had occurred in the previous 50years.
> Newspapers exploded throughout revolutionary Europe
> in 1848, as later in 1989, so much so that they ran
> out of distinct names: in Germany, at least 40
> newspapers featured variants of the term Volk in
> their masthead, while scores of French newspapers
> used peuple or republic. In Paris, an estimated 450
> newspapers (many of them ephemeral) sprang up in the
> aftermath of the revolution, and the combined daily
> press run of Parisian newspapers skyrocketed from
> 50,000 to 400,000. One observer spoke of an
> “infinite number” of newspapers in Paris, while
> another recalled the “pele-mele of multicolored
> titles,” the “hubbub of criers in the streets
> and on the boulevard” and the “varied hopes and
> formulas thrown to the winds of the sky!” In
> Vienna, Rome and Venice, the granting of press
> freedom led to the emergence of a hundred new
> newspapers each. Women in Frankfurt complained in
> 1848 that ‘disastrous politics’ had chased
> ‘love’ from the hearts of their husbands, and
> that ‘when waking up the first word is newspaper,
> when going to bed...the last word is newspaper’;
> as if in counterpoint, reflecting the politicization
> of many women, a Wiesbaden newspaper lamented that
> women were neglecting their housework because ‘the
> major newspapers must be read, regardless of what
> has to be done in the kitchen and cellar’.
> Despite the harsh repression which ultimately
> crushed the 1848 revolutions, they were not nearly
> so complete a failure as is often depicted. While
> constitutional government was abolished in the
> Hapsburg Empire and in most of the German and
> Italian states as the revolutions collapsed,
> constitutions, albeit of a highly-limited nature,
> survived in formerly absolutist Prussia and Sardinia
> and the concept of constitutional rule survived in
> suspended animation in the Hapsburg lands, to be
> revived in the 1860s. Moreover, significant liberal
> constitutional reforms (usually including press
> freedom and an expanded suffrage) survived in
> Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium,
> and universal manhood suffrage was maintained in
> France (although rendered rather nugatory until
> after 1860 by election-rigging). Finally, in many
> ways the 1848 revolutions established the basic
> political agenda of nationalism, civil liberties and
> social reforms that were to play a major, and
> sometimes dominant role in European domestic
> politics for the next 70years, and their
> “defeat” foreshadowed the upper class–middle
> class political coalition that was to prove supreme
> thereafter for decades throughout most of Europe.
> While the 1848 revolutions clearly did not entirely
> fail, neither did the 1989 revolutions suddenly
> bring about the promised land in Eastern Europe and
> the former USSR. While truly astonishing progress
> has been made in many of the latter lands, as in
> 1848 in Europe, difficulties quickly arose in the
> areas of economics and nationality conflicts,
> spawning, in both revolutionary years, strikes and
> other forms of disorder which collectively soon
> created a considerable sense of disillusionment and
> sometimes encouraged or created serious internal
> division within the new governments. In both 1849
> and 1989 the revolutions led to enormous economic
> uncertainty, with resultant adverse consequences for
> business confidence and investment, increases in
> unemployment, rising crime rates (in the first half
> of 1990 crime rose an estimated 40% in Hungary and
> 70% in Poland) and strikes unprecedented in numbers
> and magnitude. In 1848, the demands for alleviation
> of the economic grievances of the working class led
> to the bloody suppression of a working class
> uprising in Paris in June, with thousands killed,
> and of labor protests in Berlin and Vienna; such
> developments led almost everywhere to growing unease
> among middle class members of the revolutionary
> coalition, and ultimately to class-based splits
> within the new reform governments which paved the
> way for the subsequent reactions. In the wake of
> 1989, internal divisions among reform elements also
> quickly became serious, leading to quick, peaceful,
> collapses or electoral ousters of the new regimes in
> Romania, Albania, Poland and Bulgaria, and,
> eventually during the 1990s, election victories for
> “post-Communist” (but usually not authoritarian)
> parties in many countries of Eastern Europe and the
> former USSR. Except for a few instances in Romania
> and the tragedy in Yugoslavia during the 1990s, and
> the post-2000 uprisings in Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia
> and Kirghizistan, such upheavals have been
> relatively undramatic and, in general, based on
> potentially compromisable political/ideological
> differences rather than deep and largely
> unbridgeable class cleavages as typically marked the
> defeat of the 1848 revolutions. In some countries,
> such as Belorussia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan,
> democratic governments never took root after 1989.
> Clearly the post-1989 East European economic crisis
> has posed and continues to pose the greatest threat
> to the new regimes; surely it is symbolic that in
> East Berlin the former secret police headquarters
> quickly became an unemployment office. The early
> 1990s saw an extraordinarily economic collapse in
> eastern Europe and much of the former USSR, roughly
> comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930s,
> with massive increases in unemployment and inflation
> which severely impacted the well-being of most
> inhabitants. Although economic conditions improved
> in most parts of these regions after about 1995 and
> by 2005 some countries were generally considered
> “success stories” (notably Latvia, the Czech
> Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovenia), in most
> countries affected by 1989 and its aftermath average
> living conditions remained below 1990 levels 15years
> later in many countries. Across the entire region,
> poverty and unemployment remained far higher in 2005
> than in 1990, as were inequalities in economic
> distribution and many other indicators of poor
> social and economic health, such as divorce rates,
> crime, mental illness, malnutrition, prostitution
> and drug addiction. Thus, with the closing of
> inefficient or uncompetitive factories and unneeded
> positions in societies which had formerly guaranteed
> employment for all, unemployment rates averaged well
> above 10% in 2005 across eastern Europe and the
> former USSR.
> In both 1848 and 1989, economic turmoil was
> compounded by nationality conflicts. In 1848, the
> stability of the revolutionary regimes was severely
> undermined by conflicts which pitted Hungarians
> against Austrians, Slovaks and Rumanians, Poles
> versus Germans, and Austrians versus Italians,
> Czechs and Hungarian. After 1989, Yugoslavia was
> blown apart by nationality conflicts and Czechs and
> Slovaks split up the Czechoslovak state, while
> severe tensions have continued between Russians and
> Moldovans (Rumanians) in Rumania, Russians and
> Ukrainians in Ukraine, Baltic governments and their
> Russian minorities, and various ethnic groups in
> many of the other countries.
> In 1848, the combined effect of the economic, social
> class and nationalities conflicts, together with the
> continued power of reaction in Russia, the failure
> of the new regimes to gain control of their own
> armies and bureaucracies (or even to oust, in
> Austria and the German states, the old monarchies)
> and the continued strength of
> monarchical–aristocratic–clerical ideologies in
> large segments of the population, especially in
> rural areas, led to the downfalls of the regimes and
> a new period of harsh reaction by 1849. A similar
> return to the status quo ante seems inconceivable,
> however, in Eastern Europe and the former USSR
> (although, again, a few areas never underwent a
> significant democratic transformation). Communism in
> eastern Europe, which was generally a largely
> foreign-imposed ideology bolstered and festooned
> with place holders, corruption and secret police,
> has been far more discredited in 1989 and the forces
> for change are correspondingly far stronger than was
> the case with the pre-1848 regimes, which were not
> only based on an ideology cemented with
> place-holders, corruption and secret police, but
> were also genuinely rooted in hundreds of years of
> tradition and gradual historical development. While
> the bulwarks of the old regime remained largely
> intact after the 1848 revolutions, communist parties
> have largely disintegrated, have been rendered
> toothless or appear to have become genuinely
> transformed throughout Eastern Europe and in much
> for the former USSR. The survival of a reactionary
> Russian Empire ready, able and willing to suppress
> the 1848 revolts compared to the disintegration of
> the Soviet Empire and triumph of reform forces in
> Russian after 1989 (if somewhat incomplete or
> ambiguous) is another absolutely critical
> difference, and even a successful right-wing (or
> left-wing) putsch in Russia would probably create a
> regime which had its hands full domestically and
> thus unable to seriously entertain thoughts of
> either renewed east European hegemony or a revived
> USSR. Another major difference between 1848 and 1989
> is the existence of an ideologically friendly (if
> financially stingy) west after 1989 (symbolized by
> the 2004 entrance into NATO and the European Union
> of the Baltic states and some East European
> countries), compared to a disinterested Britain and
> France and an essentially inward-turned United
> States in 1848. In short, while only a true optimist
> would expect an stable, peaceful transition to an
> entirely democratic and prosperous eastern Europe
> and former USSR during the early twenty-first
> century, a reactionary restoration a la 1848 is just
> as certainly not in the cards. History may repeat
> itself in striking bits and pieces, but Eastern
> Europe and the former USSR are not about to enter a
> time warp.
> --
> Robert Justin Goldstein
> Emeritus Professor of Political Science,Oakland
> University
> Research Associate, Center for Russian & E. European
> Studies, The U. of Michigan at Ann Arbor

Jonathan Dresner - 4/12/2009

This seems to be based on a very optimistic reading of the 1848 uprisings, most of which were clearly short-term failures. In the long term, the 1848 uprisings were a symptom of the process started by the French Revolution: integrating popular will and social welfare into the state.

To see 2008-9 as a parallel, we'd need to identify not just a similar crisis, but a similar process which that crisis might accelerate; and I don't see that here.