Looking Back at 1848, 1968 and 2016—Three Revolutionary Years

Much has been written about 2016 as it came to an end – it was a year of dramatic surprises, traumatic events, uncertainty, and the deaths of many well-known figures – and it has the makings of one of those years that goes down in history as particularly significant.  Two others, one of which I experienced personally, seemed to rival the year gone by in historical importance—1848 and 1968—and so, for reasons I am not even sure I fully comprehend, I thought to write a bit about all three.  (Note: This is very much a “Western” perspective—but I am very much a Westerner, having been born in the USA).  Initially I had hoped that by analysing and contrasting these three years, I might be able to better understand what is happening today, or even gain some insight into what might come next. Although conclusions seem hard to draw, I hope that some of my reflections strike you, the reader, as worthwhile.  What I have also noticed, for those of you with a particularly numeric orientation, is that all these years are evenly divisible by 2,3,4,6 and 12.  Not suggesting these numerical properties are causal factors, just that this fact caught my eye.  J

 

1848—The Year of Revolutions and a Yearning for Democracy

Across Europe, the year of 1848 saw a series of unprecedented political upheavals in many countries, especially in Europe and Latin America, with France and the Habsburg Empire (which had been the political centre of Europe for many decades) being particularly affected.  I am not an historian, and I defer to those of you who are, but it seems widely accepted that these uprisings were democratic in orientation following the widespread disaffection of the mass of people with their political leaders, many of whom were the remnants of European monarchic dynasties.  Many failed, some succeeded, but change eventually followed—to put it in the modern context, it had some features of the “Arab Spring” of recent years— often leading to messy, violent and sometimes chaotic attempts of the populace to secure for themselves rights denied to them by the privileged and the powerful.  Their rewards were similarly not immediately apparent, yet change did eventually take place and western societies slowly became more democratic.

Technological advances played a huge part in the spread of disaffection, with the growth of the popular press.  Wide swathes of Europe followed global events to an extent that was previously impossible.  What is interesting, and is a pattern which repeats throughout history’s significant years, is how such media enables the mood of events in one location to spread to/inspire another.  Populations also became even more concentrated, a feature of industrialisation, which further facilitated the rapid spread of ideas.  And ideas directly relevant to the lives of overworked and exploited urban labourers were developed in response.  For example, in February of 1848 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Communist Manifesto.  The failures of harvests (e. g. the Great Irish Famine) and rapid rises in food prices, suggests nature also played her part in this dramatic year.

Yet things were not bad for everyone—the California Gold Rush began in 1848!

 

1968—A Calamitous End to Post-war Simplicities and the Liberal Age

As a kid born in New York in 1957, I could easily be accused of overestimating the significance of 1968.  But it was a traumatic year for America, which felt, and still appears to have been, the centre of the industrialised “free world” at the time.  In 1968, the Western world was flooded by Coke/Pepsi, Hollywood movies, Boeing airplanes (the first 747 jumbo jet was introduced in September) and Ford cars, and in the same way global the USA dominated global events.  Also, I came of age—or at least felt I did—that year.

By any standards, it was a massive year, beginning with the capture by North Korea of the USS Pueblo and the lengthy and scary standoff which followed.  However, US involvement in Asia in that year was dominated, as was the entire decade, by the defining conflict in Vietnam.  The “Tet Offensive” began at the end of January, surprising the United States, which in February suffered more casualties than at any other time in the conflict.  The war cost $77 billion in that year ($527 billion in 2016 dollars), the most spent in any single year.  In March was the “My Lai Massacre” of Vietnamese civilians, which, together with the gloomy death toll reported nightly on the news, caused popular support for the war to plummet.  Later that year, in October, President Johnson finally announced the cessation of all bombing operations in North Vietnam.   These and other events eventually forced him to abandon hopes of seeking re-election.

Violence was not limited to Southeast Asia, and hit home domestically with a vengeance.  In April, the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.  In June, presidential candidate and Democratic Party hopeful Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) was murdered in Los Angeles (his brother, President John F Kennedy, was killed in November 1963).  At that time, RFK was looking likely to win the nomination of the Democratic Party (putting him on a path to challenge Richard Nixon in November).  The Democratic convention, in Chicago, was famously marred by violence as police (apparently unprovoked) attacked protesters, sending over 100 to hospital, and arresting many more.  This politically tinged clash took place as “race riots” flared up in cities like Newark, Baltimore, Washington DC, and Los Angeles, partly in response to the King assassination.

Civil rights were a key theme of 1968, as the Olympics saw runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave their famous “Black Power” salutes causing immense controversy.  America had become a violent and divided nation—or at least these long-established divisions came to the surface and into our living rooms, courtesy of Walter Cronkite and other respected news “anchor-men”.  Racial division was not only limited to the USA as in April, British politician Enoch Powell delivered his “Rivers of Blood” speech.  Violence was also not a US monopoly—riots spread to London, Berlin, Rome and, most spectacularly, Paris. The “Troubles” also began in Northern Ireland as Catholics protested over inequality in housing provision, eventually sparking the first Civil Rights march there in August.  Ideas spread globally, as did action, as downtrodden groups took inspiration from what they saw as their international “brethren”.  Whereas 1848 saw revolutionary fervour was spread by newsprint, the spirit of 1968 was disseminated by the cathode ray tube—the images of bombing in Vietnam and major cities ablaze entered our living rooms—and I recall these images vividly.

1968 also saw the hopeful “Prague Spring” eventually crushed by Soviet tanks in late August, with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

But 1968 also struck some hopeful notes on issues such as race and women’s liberation.  Star Trek aired America’s first interracial TV Kiss (between Lt. Uhuru and Captain Kirk).  Yale announced it would admit women (it is shocking that this was not the case until 1968) and several groups launched targeted protests against the Miss America Beauty Pageant.

It was also the year which saw Apollo 8, a manned spacecraft, orbit the moon and rock music took the world by storm.  The Beatles formed Apple Records that year, filmed the Yellow Submarine and launched the famous “White Album”.  Arlo Guthrie, for the first time, performed “Alice’s Restaurant”, a song with strong anti-war messages, at the Newport Folk Festival.

In summary, it was a year when nations divided and clashed, and we saw nearly all of it on TV.  For me, the year seemed to be:

  • The end of the post-war era.
  • A year when the prosperity enjoyed since the early 1950s started to come to an end.
  • A time when socially conservative norms of nations, around race, gender, religion, sex, drugs and music were challenged.
  • A moment when a Liberal agenda came into focus, which advocated for loosening restrictions on how we as individuals could behave in our private lives.
  • A point in time when the spirit of individualism came into focus, in accordance with the promise of the US Declaration of Independence of, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all.
  • A year when this “happiness” was seen, in part, to be measured by the individual prosperity achieved—and that freedom to further individual prosperity had come to be seen as a vital component in the development of liberal democracy.
  • The moment when liberalism, democracy, and capitalism were seen together three intertwined and key bulwarks against the feared spread of global communism.
  • But a year when, despite the fear of the Soviet Union and its ideology, popular support for an ongoing military Cold War came to be questioned, as did the US permission to act as global policeman.

Interestingly, although many of the notable actions and developments were inspired by the left or progressive forces, they were met with a resolute reaction from the conservative forces of the right, and nowhere that I can remember did the political left emerge.  When I consider the direction of the protests, the art and the songs of the era, it is striking what followed.  George McGovern was badly defeated by Nixon, who won over 60% of the vote and every single state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.  In fact, nowhere in the major western countries did a radical left wing alternative emerge.  The UK saw Harold Wilson and Ted Heath trade places, Germany was run by Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt and France by Pompidou, Giscard d’Estaing and Mitterand.  The “Empire” was challenged by the 60s, struck back, and came out clearly on top.  Not very different from 1848.

But at the same time there were also important progressive changes in social policy—especially in areas like civil rights, gay rights, and gender-based issues—despite politicians who were rather ill-suited to implement these.  However, it was certainly not the dawning of the “Age of Aquarius” for which some had hoped, and sung about.

 

2016—Shock, Awe and a Changing of the Guard

It is far too early to assess the impact of the wrenching changes in 2016.  We shall come to the electoral events below, but one of the key aspects of the year as it unfolded was the death of so many of our heroes—the heroes of this “Liberal Age” which began in the 1960s.

I think this is best exemplified by the death of Muhammad Ali, whose life embodied so much of the aspects of the section above on 1968.  A black man, an African-American, a convert to Islam, a championship boxer, a poet of sorts, a challenger of the obligation to go to war in Vietnam (and went to jail, in his prime, because of his convictions), an astute user of the medium of television—and perhaps the greatest sports personality of all time.  This is not to denigrate Arnold Palmer, who was an excellent golfer, had a dramatic impact on the sport, and also died this past year, but Muhammad Ali shook and shaped the world.

In music, which may well have been the art-form-of-the-era, there were many important deaths.  David Bowie and Prince Rogers Nelson (Prince) challenged sexual norms and were among the greatest rock musicians of all time.   Sexual issues also were important in the illustrious career of pop musician George Michael.  A host of other musicians, including Leonard Cohen, passed away in 2016.  The importance of pop/rock to those of my generation, and the fame these performers achieved, helped to mark an already momentous year.

The other monumentally significant death was that of Fidel Castro, the communist thorn in America’s capitalistic side for over half a century.  His death, perhaps more than any other, at least from a political perspective, marks the end of an era.

But surely what sticks out in any analysis of the events of 2016 was the long string of political surprises, as it seemed as if nearly every single key democratic plebiscite went exactly in the opposite direction to the way the pundits expected and to the way the “Liberal Elite” had hoped.  The first domino to fall was the UK’s Brexit vote on 23 June.  Days before the vote odds in excess of 5-1 were available to those courageous or insightful enough to bet on “Leave”.  Even on the night, well after the polls opened, despite the sense that “something was going wrong”, foreign currency markets and betting odds persisted for a long time in signalling a “Remain” victory.  Financial markets and their participants seemed to be in a state of denial.  Such a pattern was repeated in the shocking upset in the US Presidential election—which was odd given that the mood of an angry electorate was clearly in the air and Donald Trump was on a roll.  Odds of 4-1 were available days before the election and it was late in the night when Trump became the betting favourite.  Matteo Renzi, the former Italian Prime Minister lost his constitutional vote and in Colombia, citizens voted down a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas that took years to negotiate—democracies were observing their electorates becoming stroppy, unpredictable, anti-elitist and vengeful.

The other thing that marks 2016 was the fact that this became the revolution spread by social media—what newspapers were for 1848 and TV was for 1968, cyberspace was the way in which ideas and images spread in 2016.  Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and other sites did not cause anything, but facilitated ideas and moods to spread like wildfire.

 

Conclusions—maybe a few

At the top of this piece I made the point that it was very difficult to draw any conclusions from the short summaries of the three years above.  Now, as I often do, I will summarily ignore my own advice, and attempt to draw out a few points of interest—at least to me:

  • After revolutionary years, the empires do strike back—and normally win. They have the power, the resources and all the old cards are stacked in their favour—but as the years pass, the hard-fought-for changes often materialise.  Frequently, there is a difference between political change—which may or may not even take place – and social change, which can be immense, although frustratingly slow.
  • Substantial changes in the media (from printed press, to TV, to social media) can facilitate revolutions. They do not cause them, but innovations clear the path for revolutionary ideas to spread.  In all three years, radical ideas spread across borders likes flames in a raging fire—like-minded souls are the tinder in an ideological conflagration.
  • In some senses, the “Revolution of 2016” can be said to have begun in the Middle East in 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi (in Tunisia, on 17 December) set himself ablaze in despair at the state of corruption in his country and the ill-treatment he suffered. This triggered the “Arab Spring”, which spread into over a dozen other countries, the consequences of which are still being felt.  I have not cited 2010 as my third year, not because it lacks the properties of numerical divisibility of 2016, but because this is a story about “the West”.  Citizens in Western countries have taken longer to rise up—it could be lack of courage, having more to lose, living in more established democracies or a host of other explanations, but the dynamic is similar, and is a function of the fact that………
  • ………the issue of our age is the “haves versus the have-nots”. Arabs rebelled against rulers whose corruption filled them with rage.  The elites’ pockets seemed to be lined with the wealth of the nation, and the grotesquely unequal way it was shared was no longer acceptable, especially with the majority suffering in a terrible state.  I see the same pattern and fundamental reality in the West.  The pathways to inequality may differ but the affect is the same—fewer people getting much, much richer, while the lives of the many become poorer, more uncertain and more miserable.  So far, Western citizens have resorted mostly to the ballot box to express their anger, but this may not last.  African-American rage at police shootings in the United States surfaced during 2016, and became violent.  This may not have ended in 2016 and the anger may not have surfaced solely because of racial division.  The dividing lines are also multiplying: rich vs. poor, old vs. young, homeowners vs. renters, immigrants vs. the “entrenched”, savers vs. borrowers, urban vs. rural, cosmopolitan vs. nationalist, educated vs. uneducated, elite vs. the rest.  Across the West, societies are bitterly divided, with many 50/50 splits (the Brexit vote, the Trump election)—this is before we start going into ethnic, religious, and other sources of division.
  • Racial, ethnic and religious strife has been a feature of the revolutions of each of these years, but I do not believe that this sort of tension is the cause of any of our conflicts. I just think that when things turn ugly, political leaders and others with malicious intentions prey upon such biases to achieve their aims.  This was evident in the Trump victory, it was there in the Brexit vote, as it was in 1968 and, from what I have read, in 1848.  Sadly, I fear that it will always be with us—a dastardly lever for the malevolent to pull when the time feels right.

Irrespective of the gloomy sound of much of the above, I feel the broad overarching thrust of history is progressive (yes, I am ever the optimist).  Long term changes have been and will be towards the good, even if established powers use all means of treachery to thwart progress.  It is odd indeed that folks like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump became champions of the angry citizens who felt let down by their leaders, but the hero of the proletariat, Karl Marx, was very far from working class.  History has a sense of humour.

All the best in 2017!!