When was the last time you strolled into your local tavern and someone yelled, "Yo, bub, doesn't that turmoil in the Middle East remind you of 1848?" Mostly, we recall the usual televised revolutions: the Soviet bloc, 1989 (the Wall); Tiananmen Square, 1989 (the tank); Iran, 1979 (hostages); the '60s (hair). If you're Glenn Beck, you're fixated on the Russky Revolution, 1917 (George Soros as Vladimir Lenin). Then come the standbys: The American and French revolutions (wigs, Chryslers, guillotines). Textbook stuff. That about empties the revolution database.
But in its day, revolutionary fever swept through Europe like a forest fire, an infection, a financial crisis, metaphors we have recently learned to toss about like beach balls. The conflagration of 1848, in retrospect, was foreshadowed by minor disturbances, pressures, forebodings; but when it came, it exploded spontaneously, like Tunisia, fed by a thousand grievances. A few nations resisted it -- Britain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Russia (too far, too autocratic) -- as it hopscotched through pre-unified Italy, from Milan to Sicily, leapt to France, where the first blood ran, then through the German states, including Prussia, then the Hapsburg Empire, then back to France, Europe's Egypt. The middle classes and nobility poured into the streets; the poor joined in. Absolutism quaked. Protests led to riots, barricades, tossed paving stones, deaths.
And then, as the calendar flipped to 1849, the reactionaries took back the streets. The revolutions "failed," raising the technical question of whether you can have a "revolution" that fails. The Springtime of Peoples ended. The crowds often lacked leadership and pursued divergent goals. Mostly, they were just tired of the same old lantern-jawed despots in charge. Expectations had been rising. Technology was on the march, and a popular press had emerged. Globalization stirred. But there had been famine across Europe -- the potato blight wasn't just Irish -- and a trade slump. New ideas percolated: socialism, nationalism, liberalism, romanticism; 1848 was a boost to Karl Marx's career. And yet, in the longer view, 1848 proved to be a beginning, not an end. The old men in charge, the Hosni Mubaraks, were shaken. The folks in the street had both demography and age on their side. After 1848, Germany and Italy unified; liberal institutions took root and pursued reforms, and Europe mostly drifted on a tide of bourgeois prosperity until World War I blew everything up.
"Revolution" may be one of the most overused words in the vocabulary of modernity. There is a torrid romance about the concept, particularly when it's occurring in far-off lands, or a past when soldiers rode horses and wore feathers. What is it we're seeing in Egypt and beyond? Alas, the greater the distance, the stranger the milieu, the looser grasp we have on events. Revolutionary moments worship a glowing, if hypothetical, future. But even from the inside, they are chaos. Revolutions are profoundly unpredictable, not only in their direction but in their result: democracy, autocracy, kleptocracy, theocracy. They are a moral arbitrage between means and ends. Like a bubble, it's hard to discern a true revolution as it's unfolding; the test comes after, usually when the revolutionaries are old men themselves. True revolutions release energy, unmoor populations. The notion that any group or individual can control these forces -- Mubarak, Obama, the Saudis, Google -- is farcical, despite the "success" of the Chinese in Tiananmen, the Bolshevikis in St. Petersburg. "Winning" is subjective, a dice roll, not a Beckian dream of infiltration and mind control. A coup requires a cabal and a plot; a revolution dispatches bodies into heated Brownian motion.
The term "revolution," of course, has long been absorbed into our world of hype, self-promotion and status seeking. Jefferson nudged this along when he suggested a revolution every generation or so, just to clear the sinuses. Revolution is a key element of what used to be called radical chic and it attaches itself to technology like a leech. NPR recently asked people to write in about their experiences in revolutions. This is a weird form of political tourism, like saying, "Tell us your experiences in your last nuclear attack. Was it fun? Informative? Exciting?" This inflationary tendency is well known and not worth pursuing, except to note another similarity of revolutions to the notion of financial bubbles. Bubbles represent the separation of value from price; there's no anchor tethering the price of tulips, mortgages or stocks to earth. They are unhinged, floating freely, creatures of their own gassy momentum. When we attach the word "revolutionary" to every new development, from the Tea Party to the iPad to political victories (Reagan, Gingrich, Obama), we debase its meaning and lose any sense of its seriousness -- the blood, toil, destruction. We become a little stupid, a little blind and more than a little superficial -- not to say a little more prone to the true revolution we never saw coming.