How revolution went viral in 1848

University of Texas political scientist Kurt Weyland has done some very interesting work on how revolutionary movements spread during the 1848 "Springtime of the Peoples." In a new paper, (gated) he compares those uprising to the wave of protests that spread through the Arab world in 2011:

During this famous wave, revolution spread immediately, right after the principal spark: the overthrow of France's "Citizen King" Louis Philippe on February 24. Whithin three days, contention erupted on the Rhine in Mannheim, quickly reached Cologne, Leipzig, and Stuttgart (March 3), then Munich (March 6), Vienna and Berlin (March 13), and Copenhagen (March 20). With its dramatic speed this tsunami of contention also covered a vast scope. In April, the impulse arrived in the Americas and ended up fanning the flames of a smoldering rebellion in Northeastern Brazil, stimulating liberal reformism in Colombia, prompting the formation of a secretive Society of Equality in Chile, and helping to inspire the US women's movement for the Seneca Falls Convention.

Among the waves of contention and democratization that the modern world has experienced, the revolutionary wildfire of 1848 thus looks quite similar to the Arab Spring. These two riptides--far apart in world-historical time--share important features, especially the speed and breadth of horizontal diffusion. The two contagion processes also achieved similar outcomes, namely a low rate of successful advances toward political liberalism and democracy. As the exalted hopes of many revolutionary crowds in 1848 were soon extinguished by resurgent princes, a similar cycle of euphoria and siappointment has played out so far in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) from 2011 onward. 

Weyland argues that in both central Europe before 1848 and the Arab Spring countries before 2011, civil societies were weak and fragmented after years of autocratic rule.. "Becuase MENA societies lacked organizational density, the demonstrations and uprising during the Arab Spring were as leaderless, amorphous and fluid as during the Springtime of the Peoples in 1848," he writes. "[T]he decision whether to participate in protest fell to ordinary citizens, individually or within their families, friends, or Facebook groupings. Because political leadership was weak, common people had to make up their own mind." (He points out that even the relatively cohesive Muslim Brotherhood largely stayed on the sidelines during the early days of the Egyptian protests.)

Drawing of cognitive psychology, he argues that the lack of organizational capacity made people more susceptible to the "heuristics of availability and representativeness" -- mental shortcuts which cause one attach disproportionate significance to dramatic events and derive overly confident conclusions from sparse information. These shortcuts the revolutions spread quickly from country to country following the fall of the Tunisian government, but often had difficulty accomplishing their ultimate ends. 

In a phone interview, Weyland discussed how -- as in the Arab Spring -- the European public was very much aware of the spread of revolution as it was happening. 

Once the wave erupted, there was learning and sharing of information between the countries. Before the wave reached Berlin, people were saying, 'Wow, it has already reached Vienna.' People could literally see the wave coming toward them.

One reason why you had preemptive reform in Copenhagen -- in Denmark -- was that they were seeing this wave coming their way. People didn't just think about their specific political system. There was an awareness of what was going on in Europe.

As in the Arab Spring, new technologies played a role in accelerating the distribution of news:

Trains were a fairly recent invention -- the railroads came up in Europe in the 1830s and 1840s. People were literally lining up for the trains to come with the newspapers from Paris. It took 2 or 3 days for the newspapers to reach Berlin.

At that time, they had reading clubs -- like today's internet cafes -- where newspapers were lying around and read with their coffee. But people were so eager for news that when the newspaper came, you had these scenes where people would get up on the table and read aloud.

Though Weyland is critical of the short-term effectiveness of both revolutionary waves, he argues that 1848 could offer some clues for the future trajectory of the countries that saw revolutions in 2011: 

At the time, 1848 was largely seen as a failure of protests to bring political change. Not many reforms actually went forward at that time. There were few cases where protesters achieved their goals -- which were fairly moderate. They didn't want full democracy, just constitutional government. So, in the short and medium run, there was a large rate of failure and the 1850s were a time of stifling repression.

Of course, in the long term you did have a very positive impact since it was the first outpouring of widespread mobilization in politics, so later on, it contributed to nation-building and when social-democracy emerged, they made the conclusion that social change through revolution wasn't very viable so you wanted to build organization and follow a reformist path of moderate change. That could be the case in the Middle East as well. 

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