Is 2016 another 1848?
Chartists on Kennington Common, Monday April 10th 1848
According to the historian Andrew Roberts, asked by the BBC, 2016 is a year comparable to 1848
Roberts is a conservative historian rather than one who studies moments of social change and historical comparisons are notoriously difficult to make.
Even so it is an interesting link.
1848 saw revolutions and significant changes in political regimes across the world. Probably the best known was in France where the monarchy was overthrown, but the impulse towards democratic change was felt worldwide.
Marx and Engels, writing the Communist Manifesto in 1848, hoped that changes would usher in an era of socialism. Certainly, where they existed, the working classes played significant roles in the upheavals. In reality though the bourgeois remained in control of events and as John Saville noted in his book on 1848 it was arguable if more than a plebeian democracy could have been achieved in a country like France or England given the balance of class forces. The working class did not become the majority in British society until mid-century.
In England there was no revolution but the threat was taken seriously with Queen Victoria retreating to the Isle of Wight in April 1848 as the Chartists gathered on Kennington Common.
In 2016 as Roberts notes Britain has voted for Brexit, the US has voted for Trump and war has engulfed Syria and elsewhere. None of these events are revolutionary, although on some readings Brexit and Trump are seen as some kind of democratic revolt against the established order.
Here perhaps is the most relevant comparison with 1848. That year saw the sound and fury of revolutionary change. In reality the change that took place, and some did, was relatively modest and took years, sometimes decades, to be carried through.
Both Brexit and Trump may well fall into that category but here is required the most important qualification about historical comparisons. 2016 is not in fact 1848 and the forces at work are rather different.
In that sense 2016 could turn out to be a year that leads to more significant change than 1848, although I’m sure that is not the comparison Andrew Roberts was seeking to make.
Keith Flett convenes the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London.