Monday, December 22, 2014

Book Review: Revolutions of 1848 by Priscilla Robertson

Priscilla Robertson's Revolutions of 1848: A Social History chronicles the revolutionary struggles across Europe in 1848.  Robertson declares that the book's "aim is to show how men lived and felt a hundred years ago rather than to describe at length other important factors." (vii)  Insisting that "no leader was really very important in 1848," (vii) she strives for a "social history."

1848 saw the emergence of the proletariat onto the political scene.  "Sixty years of the swiftest industrial progress the world had ever known had created a new working class whose miseries were likely to be explosive." (4)  In Continental Europe, this class was most developed in France.  Its "miseries" -- including the hitherto unseen scourge of mass unemployment -- were also more developed in France.  Previously, the proletariat and bourgeoisie were united against foreign enemies and their own monarchy and aristocracy.  However, 1848 shattered this bond: "What was lost, in 1848, was the idea that classes and nations had anything to give to each other." (7)

New ideologies developed concomitantly with the class struggle.  The Communist Manifesto, published a year previous to 1848, went practically unread until workers tried to make sense of their betrayal by the liberals.  "Only after the liberals won power did they discover that they were afraid of the workers; when the workers found this out they turned to the Marxian gospel." (6) Despite not knowing about Marxism, the workers still in effect raised Marxist demands: "In 1848 for the first time the working classes were going to assert, unsuccessfully, their demands for redistribution of goods." (14)  In this sense, 1848 was also a struggle between conflicting ideologies: nationalism, liberalism and socialism.

The personalities in France embodied the varying ideologies of the time.  Louis Philippe was the king of the July Monarchy brought to power by the July Revolution of 1830.  Louis Blanc was a liberal reformer who had been agitating for what he called "the right to work" -- essentially guaranteed employment.  Proudhon and Blanqui were anarchists, the former as a polemicist (who eventually took part in government) and the later as a organizer of revolutionary secret societies.

Paris was the spark that lit the fuse of continent-wide revolution.  It was the only city where "a true socialist revolt was possible in 1848.  Other European capitals lacked the working-class leadership for such a fight; it is also true that their energies were more absorbed in the fight for nationality, which the French did not have to bother with." (21)  Liberal reformers established a campaign of banquets to organize politically which exploited a loophole in the law prohibiting large political meetings.  The regime's banishment of these meetings in February enraged Parisians, who started building barricades and condemning the influential minister Guizot.  A series of fatal confrontations between soldiers and citizens led to the king's abdication and the establishment of the Second Republic, declared by Lamartine.

In the wake of the change of regime, the economy collapsed.  The provisional government decided to enact a tax on peasants which "may have saved the republic from bankruptcy, but it also killed it by arousing the hatred of the countryside." (66)  The Luxembourg Commission, the "first workers' congress in the world" (67) was set up by the government under Blanc to study the problems of the laboring classes.  The government also set up national workshops, meant to guarantee work for the previously unemployed, but did so in a way which almost guaranteed their failure: they were woefully inadequate to absorb all the excess labor, under hostile direction and mismanaged.  Finally, the government granted universal suffrage to all Frenchmen to participate in the upcoming presidential election.

As inadequate as they were, the national workshops represented one of the few concessions to the proletariat.  The government's decision to shutter them provoked the June Days fighting, the "first real class war of modern times." (77)  50,000 took to the barricades in despair with the cry "bread or lead," (88) and over a thousand died as the workers were crushed by Cavaignac's forces.  The aftermath also provides us with the "first example of permanent martial law," (96) as Cavaignac kept his troops in the city to suppress any latent uprisings.

Louis Napoleon (Napoleon I's nephew) faced little challenge in the presidential elections later that year, as every other candidate had discredited himself.  Moreover, his namesake carried the glory of a powerful France, appealing to the peasantry and others.  "The truth was, Napoleon was nearly everybody's candidate." (100)  But the reserved nephew would soon betray nearly all his promises: "A professed democrat and nationalist, the future emperor was to kill democracy and nationalism in the Roman Republic; a boastful friend of peace, he led France into several wars; though he publicly courted socialists, he used reactionary ministers and soon cut off his left-wing friends.  Universal suffrage, then, did not give a very good account of itself in its first try in ninetieth-century Europe." (102)

Parts two through four focus on political events in the German states, Austrian Empire and Italian states, respectively.  Robertson quotes an American as observing, "In 1848 both Germany and Italy could have won either unification or liberalism, but because they tried for both, they did not win either." (115)

In her concluding section, Robertson attributes the lack of a revolution in Britain to "free speech and good will and wealth." (407)  Ironically, most of the demands of the 1848 revolutionaries were brought about within a quarter centuries by the enemies of the revolution in various countries.  But the revolutions themselves failed because "in a sense the 1848 revolutions turned into class struggles." (412)  However, "The greatest failure of all in 1848 was that the men who had power never really trusted the people." (419)  She ends, "Out of 1848 and its struggles no important new freedom was wrested.  Instead men lost confidence in freedom and imagined they had made a great advance in sophistication by turning from idealism to cynicism." (419)

Robertson's style makes for smooth reading, although one does get the sense that some important facts about 1848 are either left out or passing emphasized.  Her heavy use of personality studies does fit in with the goal of a "social history."  However, I don't think this book (published in 1952) emulates the extremely bottom-up emphasis of the other social histories I have read, although it does approach that direction.

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