The Arab revolts have come in waves. Beginning in Tunisia, unrest spread across Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman and Yemen within weeks. Chants against autocratic rule echo beyond the Arab world, in Iran and China. Dictators between Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa follow the rapid escalation of events with apprehension. Most commentators are captivated by the momentum of the revolutionary wave. For historians, though, the phenomenon is anything but new.
Few events in history have captured the attention of scholars more than revolutions. Over centuries revolts have brought about the most radical change of political order in societies--and they have spread, crossing borders and even oceans, at times engulfing entire regions of the world.
The earliest revolutionary wave in modern history was the Atlantic Revolutions, which began with the American Revolution of 1776 and, in 1789, swept over to France. Inspired by the idea of liberty, revolutionaries fought against aristocratic and colonial rule. They sparked the Haitian Revolution of 1791, the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and revolutionary wars in Latin America.
More closely linked were the upheavals of 1848. Across Europe, revolutionaries, radicalised by the ideas of liberalism and nationalism, went to the barricades to confront absolutism. Revolts began in January in the streets of Palermo, the Sicilian capital, soon sparking unrest on the Italian peninsula. The February Revolution in France toppled King Louis-Philippe and led to an escalation of events. Civil war spread across the German states, the Habsburg Empire, Denmark and Ireland. In many places martial law was declared and most upheavals were put down, with thousands killed. For many who took part in the uprisings the international scope of their revolt was crucial. In early 1848 Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto calling on 'workers of the world 'to unite. For decades socialists would promote the idea of 'world revolution', a concept based on the notion of revolutionary waves.
In Asia the events of 1848 were mirrored in the Constitutional Revolutions of the early 20th century. Japan's defeat of Russia and the ensuing Russian Revolution of 1905 sparked the Persian Constitutional Revolution in the same year, the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 in the Ottoman Empire and, finally, the Chinese Revolution of 1911 and the 1912 Palace Revolt in Siam (now Thailand). In the Russo-Japanese War a non-European country with a constitution had prevailed over a European country without a constitution. Meiji Japan was a shining model of modernisation in the eyes of many activists and reformers in Asia, eager to confront traditional society and autocratic political order. Its example even provoked uprisings in European colonial dominions, most notably in British India and Dutch Indonesia.
Surprisingly, the immediate effects of the October Revolution of 1917 were less extensive. Outside of Russia most attempts to establish socialist states were soon shattered. The November 1918 Revolution in Germany and the proclamation of the Munich Soviet Republic, the socialist uprisings in Italy, the Hungarian Revolution of 1919 and the foundation of the Hungarian Soviet Republic all failed, as did the Iranian revolutionaries, who, led by the charismatic guerrilla leader Mirza Kuchik Khan, in 1920 proclaimed the short-lived Persian Socialist Soviet Republic.
More intense was the wave of anti-colonial and national upheavals after the First World War. Fuelled by President Wilson's promises in 1918 of national self-determination, anti-colonial demonstrations ensued in Egypt, India, Korea and China. …