An Arab 1848?

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In 1848 popular revolutions swept across Europe. The lessons from these events can help us to understand the revolutions in the Middle East today.

The sheer scale of the Arab revolutions has sent commentators searching through the historical record to find parallels to help make sense of events and guess where they might lead. Repeatedly they turn to the revolutions that swept Europe in 1848. It's not hard to see why.

Like 2011 in the Middle East, in early 1848 revolution appeared to move triumphantly from one capital city to the next. A revolt in Sicily was the signal for an uprising in Paris. Within three days the king had fled and a republic was declared. The flame of revolt then leapt to Berlin, Vienna, Budapest and Milan. Even the Pope was forced to flee as revolutionaries overwhelmed his Swiss Guard and declared Rome a republic. In total, almost 50 uprisings took place in the first four months of 1848.

The second parallel with 2011 is that the revolutions in 1848 began as democratic revolts against authoritarian regimes, aiming to establish political freedoms, elected parliaments and so on.

But there is a third reason why the Europe's "springtime of peoples" seems such a compelling precursor to the "Arab Spring" for many - 1848 occurred before the emergence of mass socialist organisations rooted in the working class.

Socialist ideas have had a mass followings in the Middle East. Mass Communist parties in Iraq, Syria and Egypt were all important forces in the 1940s and 1950s, for example. But under the impact of Stalinism, they repeatedly pursued a strategy of allying with "progressive" wings of the capitalist class that led repeatedly to disaster. This eroded their support, often creating a vacuum that political Islam stepped into.

The assumption for many commentators is that without a mass following for Marxism, the only real question facing the Arab spring is whether democracy wins out or authoritarianism returns, dressed up in new clothes (which seemed to be the result in 1848).

But this is a misunderstanding of the nature of the 1848 revolutions. What Marx called the "property question" - that is, class - though initially hidden within a democratic revolution of the "people" increasingly came to the fore.

Political revolutions in the capital cities were the signal for the exploited to launch battles for material changes in their lives. So peasants physically attacked landowners and invaded forests that had been turned into private property (sometimes marching behind tricolour flags). Strikes broke out, especially among printers and the construction trades.

A thirst for political ideas erupted. Political clubs were formed that met in neighbourhoods to debate and organise. By the spring of 1848, Paris alone had around 200 clubs with 70,000 members. In Germany the Central Association for the Preservation of the Accomplishments of March had half a million members. Revolutionary newspapers found a huge readership.

This upheaval from below terrified a section of the new capitalist class that had participated in - or at least sympathised with - the initial revolutions. Such people had quickly been able to place themselves at the heads of the new revolutionary governments.

Now they feared the masses would sweep all property away - not just that of the landowners and the old order. In Paris in June 1848, the new bourgeois government provoked an uprising that it then drowned in blood - 1,500 insurgents were killed in the fighting and another 3,000 shot after capture. Thousands more were arrested and deported. Marx called it the "first great battle between the two classes which divide modern society."

Reaction in Paris was a signal for counter-revolution everywhere. There were further uprisings but by the end of 1849 the revolutions from below had been defeated. Marx and Engels concluded that only the working class had an interest in driving the revolution forward, pulling the peasants behind them. "Our interest and our task is to make the revolution permanent," they said.

Yet (as Marx and Engels themselves concluded soon afterwards) the working class was still too little developed to play this role in mid-nineteenth century Europe. Industrialisation was still in its early phases. Even Paris was largely dominated by small workshops and artisan production even if this was increasingly bound up with the market.

Here is the key contrast between 1848 and the Arab Spring. In Egypt alone the working class today numbers in the millions. The biggest factory in the region the Mahalla textile factory in Egypt. Even the Gulf States, mostly so far outwardly immune to revolution, have been transformed by capitalism in the last 30 years. So for example, the percentage of people living in cities is comparable to the US, with Kuwait at 98 percent, Qatar, 96 percent and Saudi Arabia, 82 percent.

The "property question" is even more central to the Arab spring - something reflected in the recurrent waves of strikes in Egypt and Tunisia (or Kuwait) for example - than it was in 1848. Over 160 years of global capitalist accumulation, however uneven, have transformed the potential for "making the revolution permanent" in the region. The working class in Middle East in 2012 is much bigger, more concentrated and powerful than anything that existed in Europe in 1848. And it is through workers' battles to connect the fight for political freedom to wider social transformation that the ideas of socialism can regain a mass audience.