Issue 242 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

Red Letter Days

22 June 1848

Paris at the barricades

Barricades on the Rue St Maur 1848
Barricades on the Rue St Maur 1848

On 22 June 1848 Paris workers rose in revolt. Barricades went up in the eastern part of the capital and 50,000 armed insurgents tried to move on the centre. The full force of the government's reaction hit them. General Cavaignac, who had waged a brutal colonial war in Algeria, used 30,000 regular troops, 80,000 members of the National Guard and 25,000 gardes mobiles (drawn from the dregs of society) to wage war on workers. Fighting raged for four days, with the wealthier western parts of Paris taking revenge on the poorer eastern areas. Some 1,500 workers were slaughtered. Nearly 12,000 were arrested and in the show trials which followed thousands were deported.

The rising and repression marked a turning point in the European revolutions of 1848. These had started on 24 February in Paris, where an uprising uniting republican students, sections of the middle class and (more importantly) workers toppled the king, Louis Philippe, and declared the republic. The spark of revolution then spread like wildfire. Within days revolution had shaken south west Germany before gripping Berlin, Vienna, Hungary and Milan. By mid March no government had been left standing in those areas consumed by revolution. Faced with losing power, monarchs had been forced to concede democratic reforms, such as universal male suffrage, freedom of the press and the right to trial by jury.

This February revolution was 'the beautiful revolution', as Marx put it. There seemed to be no divisions between the different classes that had made the revolution. Louis Philippe and the corrupt financial elite round him were hated by all. Everyone wanted reform--yet the democratic republic could be no more than a temporary compromise between the different classes that had made the revolution. The talk was of social harmony, but the reform-minded bourgeoisie, no less than the rest of propertied classes, was terrified of the power of the working class.

The sentimental romantic poet Lamartine, who headed the provisional government, believed that the terrible 'misunderstanding' that existed between the different classes could be suspended. But the government could not avoid the dilemma of trying to serve two rival interests. Born of revolution of below, it had to make concessions to the workers. So the government included a socialist reformer, Louis Blanc, and a manual worker (something unprecedented). It set up national workshops to create jobs and a labour commission representing employers and workers.

At the same time business was squealing. Investment dried up. Bank of France reserves fell. Industry and agriculture declined. The government was compelled to react to the crisis. But in whose interests would it act? In the immediate aftermath of the February revolution the propertied classes were in too much of a shock. They passed themselves off as republicans, grateful for any government which stood between them and the abyss. But once their panic passed they began openly to blame the concessions made to workers for the deepening crisis. It decreed a cut in the working day. The new government rapidly backed down. Instead of introducing income tax and inheritance tax measures which would have financed welfare and public works for the unemployed, the government stuck to laissez faire financial orthodoxy. It recognised the debts of the old regime in order to keep the financial aristocracy sweet. It appealed to the goodwill of the Bank of France, thus becoming a hostage of the very 'bankocracy' the revolution had sought to destroy. And, like the pre-revolutionary governments of Louis Philippe, it massively increased taxes in order to balance the budget, thus burdening an already hard-pressed peasantry. Elections, based on universal male suffrage, were called for a Constituent Assembly for the end of April. The field was open to reactionary landlords, lawyers and clergy to spread lies among the peasants. To the peasant, all evils come from the town. Since Paris, dominated by workers, was responsible for the new taxes, then they had to be the fault of the 'reds'. The peasantry, numerically by far the largest class in France, voted overwhelmingly for the party of 'order'. The new assembly, meeting on 4 May, was packed with royalist supporters.

Emboldened by their success, the reactionary majority sacked the two socialist ministers. This and other provocations goaded workers into demonstrations, which were broken up by the National Guard, now firmly under the control of the middle classes. Then, on 21 June, the government announced that the national workshops would cease to exist, and with it a worker's right to work.

This was a declaration of war on the gains Paris workers had conquered in the February revolution. They had no option but to fight back. The following day they rose in revolt. The 'beautiful revolution' of February vanished. In its place was the prosaic reality of civil war between capital and labour.

It was a defeat that gave heart to reaction across Europe and ensured that monarchs whose thrones had trembled were able to stifle revolution and reinstate 'order'. Yet Marx was able to draw positive lessons for the future. The first was that the working class, even in defeat, had become the decisive opposition in modern society. The second was that never again would the bourgeoisie play the kind of historically progressive role it had played in the great French Revolution of 1789. Its fear of the class below it now outweighed its willingness to fight for its democratic birthright. That task, as well as the task of challenging inequality and oppression in society, would pass to the working class. The history of every struggle since has proved Marx right.
Gareth Jenkins


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