1848: The Working Class Bursts Onto the Scene of History

Peace to the huts! War on the palaces!

Georg Büchner, The Hessian Courier, 1834

The revolutions of 1848 belong to a now bygone era. Yet, the events of 175 years ago have inevitably shaped the modern world. For our rulers, they leave behind a contradictory legacy. For workers, they represent the dawn of a new movement.

“Springtime of Nations”

The times of that superstition which attributed revolutions to the ill-will of a few agitators have long passed away. Everyone knows nowadays that wherever there is a revolutionary convulsion, there must be some social want in the background, which is prevented, by outworn institutions, from satisfying itself. The want may not yet be felt as strongly, as generally, as might ensure immediate success; but every attempt at forcible repression will only bring it forth stronger and stronger, until it bursts its fetters.

Friedrich Engels, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany, 1851

The Europe of the mid-nineteenth century was a society coming apart at the seams. The rapid development of means of production (the industrial revolution) was gradually outstripping an ossified political superstructure. The monarchies of Europe were being pressured from all directions: the interests of the bourgeoisie, the proletariat and the peasantry coming up against the vestiges of feudalism. The need for the transformation of the existing system was being variously expressed by calls for a democratic republic, for national independence and national unification. But the years 1845-7 were also a time of economic crisis. A shortfall in basic food supplies (caused by poor harvests and the potato blight) led to price spikes. Since grain produce and potatoes were essentials in poorer households, living standards deteriorated. In areas directly affected, famine and hunger riots followed (Ireland, Flanders, Silesia). Meanwhile, a boom in railway financial stocks – fuelled by low interest rates and high profits – created a speculative bubble on British stock markets. The shock to the agricultural sector, in conjunction with the collapse of the speculative boom known as “railway mania”, set the stage for the Panic of 1847, a commercial and banking crisis in Britain. Though capitalism was not yet a world economy, its unceasing search for profits was driving forward the growth of international economic connections, integrating local and national markets. In other words, the crisis soon spread to the continent, particularly Prussia and France.

In the lead up to 1848, there were a number of events which already signalled the upcoming upheaval. From the 1830s onwards, there were a series of uprisings among silk weavers in Lyon, coal miners in Wales, textile workers in Brno and Prague, and weavers in Silesia, whilst the Chartist movement in the United Kingdom saw workers raise their own political demands. Additionally, the failed Kraków insurrection of 1846 attempted to connect the struggle for independence with the emancipation of the peasants whilst the Sonderbund War in Switzerland pitted progressive and conservative forces against each other in 1847. Finally, revolt in Sicily in January 1848 broke out after an anonymous manifesto was distributed, calling the people to arms. However, it was not until February 1848, when mass protests broke out in Paris, that a revolutionary domino effect truly spilled across Europe. Over two years, over fifty uprisings, big and small, took place – we only summarise the key events below:

  • Following the July Revolution of 1830, the Kingdom of France was ruled by the July Monarchy under King Louis Philippe. Nicknamed the “Citizen King”, he attempted to find a middle ground between the absolutist monarchists and the republicans, but was unable to satisfy either faction. The ban on political meetings enacted by Prime Minister François Guizot led to mass protests in Paris on 22 February 1848. The King was forced to abdicate, and a provisional government was installed on 24 February, made up of moderate and radical republicans, as well as the socialists Louis Blanc and Alexandre Martin. On the streets, revolutionary clubs led by the likes of Louis Auguste Blanqui and Armand Barbès agitated for work for the unemployed, and the postponement of elections to a Constituent Assembly (which, they rightly predicted, would marginalise the radicals). Under pressure, the provisional government granted the creation of “national workshops” and delayed the elections, but only to 23 April. Dissatisfied with the pace of social reforms and the elections which brought reactionaries to power, a demonstration on 15 May in solidarity with the Polish national cause turned into a riot. A second, more organised, revolt – the “June Days” – began in response to the closure of the “national workshops”, but it was crushed by military force. The path was then cleared for the re-establishment of law and order. In the presidential election of 10 December, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte became President of the Republic – he swept aside the remains of the domestic opposition and intervened militarily against republicans in Italy. In 1851 he completed his rise to power in a coup d’état.
  • Made up of 39 sovereign states, the German Confederation was only overseen by a loose Federal Convention. On 1 March 1848, in the Grand Duchy of Baden, a crowd led by Friedrich Hecker presented a petition to parliament calling for, among other things, the abolition of feudal rights and popular government. A few days later, peasant revolts broke out across the German Confederation, and there were riots in Berlin, while on 20 March the King of Bavaria, Ludwig I, was forced to abdicate. That same day a Polish uprising against the Kingdom of Prussia started in Posen. As demands for a unified parliamentary republic proliferated, a federal election was held on 1 May for the German states to appoint a so-called Frankfurt Parliament, in which Arnold Ruge represented the radicals. On 12 July, the Federal Convention dissolved itself and power passed into the hands of a provisional government of the Frankfurt Parliament, which however could not gain the recognition of all the German states. In September, revolts in Prussia and in Baden were defeated. On 28 March 1849, the Frankfurt Parliament finally drafted a new constitution which declared the formation of a unified German Empire under King Frederick William IV of Prussia (a position he turned down). Revolts continued in Saxony, the Rhineland, the Palatinate and Baden, but they were all defeated. The rump of the Frankfurt Assembly, fearing repression, moved to Württemberg on 31 May 1849, only to be dispersed by the local army there. The Federal Convention was resurrected in 1851.
  • The Austrian Empire was the other major power of the German Confederation, next to the Kingdom of Prussia. Although Emperor Ferdinand I was its head of state, due to physical and mental difficulties his duties were often delegated to a Regent’s Council. The revolution kicked off with an uprising in Vienna on 13 March 1848, and that same day Chancellor Klemens von Metternich (one of the Emperor’s closest aides) was forced to resign. On 15 March mass demonstrations broke out in Pest and Buda. In response, the Emperor promised a constitution, and accepted the creation of a Hungarian government under Lajos Batthyány. Thanks to the efforts of Lajos Kossuth, the Hungarian government decreed the abolition of serfdom and the introduction of a constitutional regime. But a rejuvenated Hungary was seen as a threat by the newly proclaimed Serbian Vojvodina and Slovak National Council, which organised their own uprisings, while the Kingdom of Croatia under Josip Jelačić marched on Pest. The Emperor, while initially suspicious of Jelačić’s aims, soon began to assist his military advance, seeing it as an opportunity to squash Hungarian aspirations. On 6 October, Austrian troops refused to fight the Hungarians and revolted together with the population of Vienna; the Emperor had to flee. Order was only restored with a siege of the city by troops still loyal to the Emperor and the help of Jelačić. On 2 December Ferdinand I was convinced to abdicate and was replaced by Franz Joseph I. Attempted Czech revolts were crushed and concessions to the Hungarian government were revoked. In April 1849, Kossuth declared Hungary an independent state but the military intervention of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia put an end to the struggle. Hungary was deprived of constitutional rights.
  • The Italian peninsula was divided into a number of states. Most of the North was controlled by the House of Habsburg of Austria, the House of Bourbon held the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the South, and the Papal States covered the centre of the peninsula. Following the January uprising in Sicily, disturbances spread to Naples, Tuscany, Lombardy, Venice, and Rome. The remaining land of Piedmont-Sardinia was ruled by the House of Savoy. Its King, Charles Albert, marched into Austrian-controlled Lombardy on 23 March 1848, thus beginning Italy’s first war of national independence. By August, he was repelled and forced to sign an armistice. A Tuscan Republic was proclaimed in February 1849 after the Grand Duke Leopold II had fled, only for him to be invited back in fear of an Austrian invasion. That same month, the Pope fled and a Roman Republic was proclaimed by Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, but was besieged by France, despite previous promises it would not intervene. The fall of the provisional government of Venice to the Austrian Empire, the city plagued by cholera and hunger, put an end to the war of national independence in August 1849.
  • In the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland constitutional reforms were made without any street fighting. In Ireland, a small rebellion was easily crushed. In Britain, the events on the Continent briefly revived the Chartist movement but it was to be its last gasp. Outside of Europe, there were some reverberations in Brazil and Colombia.

If February and March were the months of revolutionary excitement, in May and June the interests of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat diverged, and by autumn the counter-revolution was in the ascendant throughout Europe. To this day historians continue to debate whether 1848 was a “success”, because it eventually did bring some constitutional change, or a “failure”, because for the most part monarchies were restored and revolutions repressed. Either way, 1848 left its mark on all modern political ideologies, left and right.

So: progress — association — moral law — freedom — equality — brotherhood — association — family, community, state — sanctity of property — credit — education — God and the people — Dio e popolo. These phrases figure in all the manifestos of the 1848 revolutions, from the French to the Wallachian …

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Review: May-October, Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 1850

Yet, beyond the quagmire of liberal, democratic, republican, and nationalist interpretations, thanks to which today 1848 is mainly remembered as the “Springtime of Nations”, a seed of something else was planted.

“La République démocratique et sociale”

While it was mainly the bourgeoisie that took their seats on the various provisional governments, whether it was Paris, Vienna or Berlin, it was the workers, the artisans, the peasants, the unemployed, and the troops who refused to follow orders, that constituted the masses on the streets and the barricades. The French liberal aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, who had been elected to the Constituent Assembly on 23 April 1848, was horrified by the atmosphere in Paris which preceded the “June Days”:

One thing was not ridiculous, but really ominous and terrible; and that was the appearance of Paris on my return. I found in the capital a hundred thousand armed workmen formed into regiments, out of work, dying of hunger, but with their minds crammed with vain theories and visionary hopes. I saw society cut into two: those who possessed nothing, united in a common greed; those who possessed something, united in a common terror. There were no bonds, no sympathy between these two great sections; everywhere the idea of an inevitable and immediate struggle seemed at hand. Already the bourgeois and the peuple (for the old nicknames had been resumed) had come to blows, with varying fortunes, at Rouen, Limoges, Paris; not a day passed but the owners of property were attacked or menaced in either their capital or income: they were asked to employ labour without selling the produce; they were expected to remit the rents of their tenants when they themselves possessed no other means of living. … Meanwhile, a gloomy despair had overspread the middle class thus threatened and oppressed, and imperceptibly this despair was changing into courage. I had always believed that it was useless to hope to settle the movement of the Revolution of February peacefully and gradually, and that it could only be stopped suddenly, by a great battle fought in the streets of Paris.

Alexis de Tocqueville, The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville, 1896

In fact, Paris – with the experience of 1789 and 1830 at hand, with the richest socialist tradition at the time, with a working class that had already flexed its muscle in previous years – was the stage for the pivotal confrontation of 1848. The provisional government brought to power in February had created the “national workshops”. It resulted in thousands of workers flooding into Paris in the hopes of finding employment; the lucky ones were offered low-paid, menial jobs. The closure of the overwhelmed “national workshops” was the spark that lit the fire; it now became clear the “Democratic and Social Republic” that the masses had fought for had been betrayed. They went from house to house, rallying in the workers’ quarters, they seized armouries, built barricades, flew the red flag, and marched on the City Hall (Hôtel-de-Ville). The squabbling republican and monarchist factions united as one class in order to crush the rising of the “plebeians”. The fighting went on for four days, some 3,000 insurgents were killed and many more injured or deported. The “June Days” were over, the bourgeoisie had re-established its grip. The working class was defeated.

As with every defeat, however, there came important lessons. If, for the most part, in 1848 the working class was still constrained by the political traditions of the past and not yet able to raise demands independent of other classes, individual Forty-Eighters began to reflect on what their experience meant for future revolutionary movements.

February 25, 1848, granted the republic to France, June 25 thrust the revolution upon her. And revolution, after June, meant: overthrow of bourgeois society, whereas before February it meant: overthrow of the form of government.

Marx, The Class Struggles in France, 1850

From the Bourgeois to the Proletarian Revolution

Though it hardly made a ripple in 1848 (it was not until the 1870s when it gained more recognition), the most influential document published that year was undoubtedly the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Authored by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and released the day before the February Revolution in France broke out, it was produced on behalf of a small organisation – the Communist League – whose membership likely did not exceed 300. The Manifesto predicted that society was “more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” – and the latter would eventually become the “grave-diggers” of the capitalist mode of production. It criticised the various strains of socialist thought popular at the time, those who did not understand or intentionally obscured the role of the working class in the “revolutionary reconstitution of society”.

However, the document was in many ways ahead of its time. In 1848 industrial capitalism was still an emerging system and the working class hardly existed outside of a few industrial hubs in Europe. Therefore, the Manifesto recommended that communists, those who “represent and take care of the future of that movement”, should for the time being ally themselves with “the bourgeoisie whenever it acts in a revolutionary way, against the absolute monarchy”. This is what members of the Communist League who took part in the events of 1848 did. Engels organised the barricades in Elberfeld and fought in Baden, while Marx was the chief editor of a popular daily newspaper – Neue Rheinische Zeitung – which attempted to track and influence the course of the revolution. Although it called itself an “organ of democracy”, and sought the creation of a “democratic German republic”, it published a number of economic essays (later collected and released as Wage Labour and Capital), openly expressed solidarity with the “June Days” uprising, and its last issue, as it was being suppressed by the Prussian state, proclaimed itself in favour of the “emancipation of the working class”.

Marx and Engels initially thought bourgeois revolution would be swiftly followed by proletarian revolution. The experience of 1848 made them revise their perspectives:

History has proved us wrong and all others who thought similarly. It has made clear that the status of economic development on the Continent was then by no means ripe for the abolition of capitalist production; it has proved this by the economic revolution which, since 1848, has affected the entire Continent and has introduced large industry in France, Austria, Hungary. Poland, and, more recently, in Russia, and has made of Germany an industrial country of the first rank … Thereby has the struggle between these two great classes, which in 1848 existed outside of England only in Paris and, perchance, in a few large industrial centres, been spread over the whole of Europe, and has attained an intensity unthinkable in 1848. … And if this powerful army of the proletariat has not yet reached the goal, if, far from winning the victory by one fell blow, it must gradually proceed by hard, tenacious struggle from position to position, it proved once for all how impossible it was in 1848 to bring about the social transformation by a sheer coup de main.

Friedrich Engels, Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France, 1895

1848 also revealed the need to adopt new forms of revolutionary organisation:

With the defeat of the revolution of 1848-49 the party of the proletariat on the Continent lost use of the press, freedom of speech and the right to associate, i.e. the legal instruments of party organisation, which it had enjoyed for once during that short interval. … After 1849 just as before 1848, only one path was open to the proletarian party — that of secret association. Consequently after 1849 a whole series of clandestine proletarian societies sprang up on the Continent, were discovered by the police, condemned by the courts, broken up by the gaols and continually resuscitated by the force of circumstances.

Karl Marx, Revelations Concerning the Communist Trial in Cologne, 1853

In light of this, for Marx the task now became “forming not the government party of the future but the opposition party of the future”. An independently organised political organisation for the struggles ahead, one which could not be misled by other classes. This led to a fallout with the group around Karl Schapper and August Willich who, in Blanquist fashion, wanted to plot new insurrections. Divided amongst themselves, infiltrated by the secret police and facing trial in Cologne, the Communist League finally dissolved in 1852.

In exile, Marx and Engels dedicated their efforts to elucidating a theory and practice for the proletarian movement. It was not until 1864 that they became involved in another revolutionary organisation (the First International), and it was not until 1871 that the proletariat faced its next big clash with the bourgeoisie (the Paris Commune). When they republished the Manifesto in 1872, they did so with a note that “in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February Revolution (1848), and then, still more, in the Paris Commune (1871), where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months, this programme has in some details been antiquated.”

Today, we continue with Marx by building on the experience of another century of capitalist development and working class struggle. Capitalism is a world economy, and the bourgeoisie has ceased to act “in a revolutionary way”. It is now a class only concerned with the perpetuation of a system which – through imperialist war, environmental degradation, and economic crisis – is bringing the planet and humanity closer and closer to catastrophe. Organised into nation states and would-be states, the bourgeoisie rules everywhere; it has divided the world among themselves, and now simply wrestles over its redivision. Alliances with the supposedly “progressive” faction of the ruling class – whether in China 1927, Spain 1936, or Iran 1979 – have only led to defeat. The programmes for a “democratic revolution” that Marx formulated in 1848, and Lenin in 1905, are now obsolete.

The epoch of imperialism is the era of the universal nature of capitalist domination and this demands a more direct and universal revolutionary strategy. ... The era of democratic struggles ended a long time ago and they cannot be repeated in the present imperialist epoch.

ICT Platform, 2020
Communist Workers’ Organisation
17 June 2023

Some Further Reading:

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

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