Issue 217 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review

Feature article: Springtime of the peoples - the revolutions of 1848

Sean Vernell

An extraordinary wave of revolution swept through Europe in the early months of 1848. Revolutions broke out almost simultaneously in France, Italy, Germany and Austria-Hungary. Shockwaves were felt through many other countries. Eric Hobsbawm says, 'There has never been anything closer to...world revolution...than this spontaneous and general conžagration.' Though they were eventually defeated, those revolutions helped form the basis of the revolutionary socialist tradition as we know it today.

The revolutions of 1848 did not come as much of a surprise to many of the key political thinkers of the day. Alexis de Tocqueville expressed sentiments which many Europeans shared in early 1848: 'We are sleeping on a volcano, do you not see that the earth trembles anew? A wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon.' Around the same time as these words were spoken, Marx and Engels published the Žrst edition of the Communist Manifesto. The events which were to unfold in the same year not only conŽrmed what they had written, but would leap ahead of it, further developing their understanding of the revolutionary process.

The Žrst half of the 19th century was a period of rapid industrialisation. Cities like Paris, Milan, Vienna, Berlin and Cologne grew enormously as the development of industry sucked in workers from the countryside. Living conditions in these cities were appalling. The spread of industrialisation was uneven, but every country in Europe experienced it. A new class was born with its own potential power, the industrial working class.

Almost all the countries of Europe at this time were ruled by absolute monarchies. People lacked basic democratic rights such as elected parliaments and freedom of the press. Demands for such rights were to be central to the 1848 revolutions. Some countries had made reforms already. After a revolution in France in 1830, Louis Philippe was installed as a 'bourgeois' king, a constitutional monarch rather than an absolute one - an attempt to head off revolt from below. But nowhere in Europe, except Britain, were the most dynamic sections of the bourgeoisie, the new industrialists, represented in national political institutions.

Throughout 1847 economic crisis hit Europe, creating horrendous conditions for the working class and peasants. It was the worst year of the Irish potato famine and there was famine in Flanders. Europe was a tinder box waiting to be ignited.

The Žrst sign of the whirlwind of revolution occurred in the last months of 1847 in Switzerland. In February 1848 a republic was proclaimed in France as Louis Philippe was overthrown. He had ruled France in league with corrupt Žnanciers. Both were hated by the working class, peasants and those industrial capitalists who had no political inžuence. When troops opened Žre on an unarmed demonstration, barricades were immediately thrown up and the 'beautiful revolution', as Marx called it, had begun.

This was a revolution where the industrialists in alliance with the lawyers, small traders, workers and peasants rose up against the old order. Tensions within the alliance of classes which overthrew Louis Philippe were much more in evidence than in revolutions of the past.

In a matter of weeks no government was left untouched in the core European states. By March Berlin had established a constituent assembly, barricades had been thrown up in Vienna, Hungary, Milan and Sicily. Revolutions for national independence were taking place. The politicisation of the masses was enormous. Demands put forward in Germany included a uniŽed democratic republic run by constituent assemblies and press freedom. Demands for independence for nation states from the powerful monarchies of the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire were also an integral part of the 1848 revolution. Poland, Czechoslovakia and Sicily all had mass independent revolts taking place. In Britain the Chartist movement was given a new lease of life by the French events and organised two massive demonstrations.

The revolutions spread quickly from one country to another partly as a result of the development of communication, a spinoff of industrialisation. News of the storming of the Bastille in Paris on 14 July 1789 took 13 days to reach Milan. In 1848 postal services, rail, and most importantly, the telegraph enabled news of revolution to arrive in one city after another almost instantaneously - 1848 was the Žrst truly international revolution.

The signiŽcance of 1848 lay not only in the fact that it spread rapidly, but also because for the Žrst time communists gained an inžuence over the direction of revolutions. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels threw themselves into organising and agitating. By March they had moved to Cologne. Marx edited the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (the New Rhineland Gazette), a daily newspaper funded by the most left wing industrialists of the area. The Žrst issue came out on 1 June. Its aim was to organise the democratic bloc of classes - the extreme left wing of the emerging capitalist class, workers, peasants and small traders - against the leaders of the new assemblies. Marx also took part in many of the workers' clubs and socialist societies that already existed. Engels fought alongside the revolutionary forces in Baden in southern Germany in 1849 in a doomed attempt to fend off the counter-revolution.

Marx and Engels' theory of revolution was Žrst tested in 1848. They believed that the revolution would initially be a bourgeois revolution, setting up a democratic republic and ushering in the conditions for full capitalist development. They recognised that the bourgeoisie was too cowardly to do this on its own initiative and would have to be pushed to do so by the 'democratic bloc' of classes. The struggle for socialism would follow quickly afterwards. They did not envisage that there would be a long period between the two, as they made clear in the Communist Manifesto: 'Bourgeois Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.'

Increasingly, however, as the struggle went on and the stakes got higher, it became clear that the bourgeoisie would not fulŽl this role. The bourgeoisie had led the English Revolution of 1649 and the French Revolution of 1789, which successfully overthrew monarchs and set up new political structures. By 1848 the working class was much larger, and was becoming conscious of its own distinct political and economic interests. The bourgeoisie became more fearful of this new class than of the old rulers. It could not carry out the democratic stage of the revolution for fear of unleashing a further revolt from below which would sweep it away as well. Instead the bourgeoise preferred to unite with its previous enemies, the old feudal monarchs, to crush any further development of the revolution.

After the overthrow of Louis Philippe a new provisional government was established in France. For the Žrst time a workers' representative was in the government. A number of important reforms were won: abolition of the death penalty, universal male suffrage, the army was made open to workers as well as property owners. National workshops were introduced to solve the problem of unemployment and to secure a ten hour day. The national workshops provided meaningless and soul destroying work for the unemployed, but they were also places were workers could meet and organise.

The 'beautiful revolution' of February quickly turned ugly. In April new elections under universal male suffrage brought in a conservative government majority. As the initial wave of revolutionary enthusiasm faded, small property owners like peasants and shopkeepers had objected to paying higher taxes. Albert, the only worker representative, was dropped from the government. The fragile unity between the classes was Žnally broken when French workers attempted to move towards social revolution.

The Žnal straw came when the government abolished the national workshops. All members of the workshops who were not born in Paris were forced to work on the land in far žung provinces and unmarried members were drafted into the army. The workers responded immediately and set up barricades in Paris. Armed workers went into the centre of Paris to attack the Hotel de Ville. The government responded by sending in troops. The workers fought heroically for several days, but they remained isolated in Paris. Eventually the might of the government forces mercilessly butchered the revolution, leaving over 3,000 workers dead and many more imprisoned. Marx understood the great signiŽcance of the June insurrection, which he described as 'the Žrst great battle between the two great classes which divide modern society. It was a Žght for the preservation or the destruction of the bourgeois order.' The defeat in France gave conŽdence to other European rulers to launch a counter-revolutionary offensive.

In Germany, where the process of industrialisation was much less developed, the bourgeoisie was even weaker and moved quickly to collaborate with the old rulers to crush the revolution. Marx and Engels argued openly for a revolutionary government and advocated popular insurrection. In mid-September a popular insurrection took place in Frankfurt. The Frankfurt assembly responded by calling on Austrian and Prussian troops to put down the insurrection. Martial law was proclaimed in Cologne with the support of the city's constitutional assembly. In Berlin the assembly was Žnally Žnished on 9 November, as the Prussian king moved in 10,000 troops and declared martial law. Also in November, the insurrectionary forces which had held Vienna for three weeks were crushed by the Hapsburgs using Croat troops.

How can we assess the outcome of the 1848 revolutions? Within months all the revolutions had been defeated. The old order had reorganised and violently crushed the insurrectionary movements. As Hobsbawm writes, 'In 1848 moderate liberals made two important discoveries in Western Europe: that revolution was dangerous, and that some of their substantial demands (especially in economic terms) could be met without it. The bourgeoisie ceased to be a revolutionary force.'

The liberal bourgeoisie quickly realised that they preferred order to implementing their full democratic programme. From the 1850s onwards most European governments realised that they needed to make political and economic changes without resorting to revolution. Hence by 1867 skilled workers and artisans in Britain were allowed to vote - a concession to the Chartists' demands. In Germany the conservative Bismarck carried through the tasks of 1848 in practice through national uniŽcation. In France Napoleon III quickly got rid of the 1848 constitution, and ruled for 20 years - his rule ending in another revolution.

Marx and Engels also drew important lessons which were to be invaluable in future revolutions. It became clear to them that their original belief that the revolution would inevitably be carried through by a 'democratic bloc' was not viable. The June events in France had shown that the bourgeoisie was more frightened of the working class than of the old order.

The working class of 1848 was just being born. It was still weak, both numerically and politically. It was only beginning to become a conscious political entity in its own right. Marx and Engels had a greater hearing for their ideas than ever before, but they lacked the kind of inžuence that would be necessary to achieve the goals they had set out in the Communist Manifesto.

Marx and Engels were exiled in Britain following the defeat of 1848. They outlined the lessons of the failed revolution and speciŽcally argued that the working class needed to organise itself independently of other classes, forming an organisation which would lead workers to take power for themselves. Marx argued that the revolution needed to be 'permanent' or ongoing if it was to be successful:

'It is our task to make the revolution permanent until more or less all possessing classes have been forced out of their position of dominance, until the proletariat has conquered state power...not only in one country but in all the dominant countries of the world.'


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