How We Got From There to Here

In 1848, a wave of democratic revolutions swept across more than fifty nations in Europe and parts of Latin America. Ideas such as nationalism, socialism, and liberalism, as well as growing labor militancy meant that the status quo of royal absolutism was no longer tenable for many Europeans who were restless for social and political change. To make a long story short, the revolutions failed for the most part, leading to the re-entrenchment of reactionary politics across Europe. However, the desire for a definitive end to feudalism and the establishment of liberal democratic nation-states did not end with the defeat of the revolutions of 1848, although it would be almost a century before this dream was realized for most of Western Europe. During this interim period, the Continent experienced numerous uprisings and skirmishes, two world wars, a detour into fascism, the Holocaust, and the largest refugee crisis in human history. The nations of Eastern Europe that had fallen behind the Iron Curtain would have to wait longer for their liberal democratic moment, although it is still very much up for debate whether the post-Soviet period has yielded real liberal democracy for the former Warsaw pact countries.

Whenever the political problems of the Middle East and/or Islamic world are mentioned, I find it odd that the West’s own tortuous path to liberal democracy is largely glossed over, as if one day, all of Western Europe woke up to find constitutional monarchies and well-run social democracies had replaced the feudal system, with no political agitation or social change required. MLK famously asserted, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” and this is true regardless of whether the oppressed are black Southerners in the twentieth century or peasants in eighteenth century France. As the failed revolutions of 1848 show, “progress” is never a given, and more often than not, a society can advance in certain aspects, while going backwards in others. It is up to the oppressed to keep agitating, even when the forces of reaction seem to be in an unassailable position. 

As I wrote my previous post on Peter Hitchens’ yearning for the “good old days” of the Blitz, I realized that both he and the late Christopher Hitchens both make the mistake of assuming that history is more or less over for the West, to borrow a phrase from Francis Fukuyama. For Peter, the “real England” as embodied by traditional rural life began to decline during the Industrial Revolution, and will probably disappear for good during this century. While England and the West may continue into the future, it will not be the kind of world that Peter is willing to recognize as valid. For Christopher, I get the impression that he thought that the West had reached the maximum level of progress possible, and needed to export these values through the barrel of a gun to recalcitrant Islamists intent on threatening the West. However, like many liberal whites with an inflated view of their own enlightenment, Christopher took offense when he was reminded of his own blind spots, particularly around women, and refused to admit that he could be wrong about anything. If Peter thinks that most Westerners must have been like Thomas Cramner, Christopher seems to have thought that most were like Voltaire. I don’t believe in the “Great Man” view of history, but in terms of Western intellectual history, progress was very much done by a handful of eccentrics, while the bulk of the population engaged in folk magic. The establishment of free and mandatory public education is what helped improve the minds of the European masses, and the bio-medical revolution made going to “cunning men” and other folk magicians less appealing.

It took one hundred years for the countries of Western Europe to establish functioning liberal democracies after the failed revolutions of 1948, with the notable exception of Spain and Portugal, which remained under fascist control under the 1970s. Given the West’s own difficult political evolution, it may take the Middle East one hundred years to shake off Islamism. While Islamism, whether of the ISIS, Wahhabi,  Hizbollah, or Houthi variety, may seem to be the only game in town, there are some brave dissenters against religious orthodoxy in the region. “Arabs Without God: Atheism and freedom of belief in the Middle East” by Brian Whitaker provides a fascinating look at atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers in a region where belief is taken for granted. There is no way of knowing exactly how many nonbelievers there are in the region for obvious reasons, but Whitaker quotes a fascinating Gallup poll from 2012 that indicates that 19 percent of Saudis proclaimed themselves “not religious” and 5 percent described themselves as “atheist.” Given that Saudi Arabia is a country that punishes deviation from religious orthodoxy with death, these numbers are nothing short of astonishing. Perhaps these individuals could be the Voltaires, Spinozas, or Diderots of the Middle East.

The history of the world is still being written, with Fukuyama’s post-Cold War predictions about the end being near having been thoroughly discredited. I don’t expect the economic and governance systems that will be employed one hundred years into the future to be similar to what we have today, whether in the West or anywhere else. Hopefully, some kind of linear progress will have been made, but the revolutions of 1848 show that going backwards is just as likely an outcome as going forwards.