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Socialism and the Revolutions of 1848

Updated on November 16, 2013

After looking over the list of topics we were asked to choose from to write this term paper, the topic that interested me the most was Socialism and the Revolutions of 1848, specifically in France. This paper focuses on the revolutions in France and attempts to answer three questions I developed that I believe will help me better understand why the revolutions occurred, who participated in them, and how they affected France’s future regarding socialism. The three questions are: 1.) What role did the revolutions of 1848 play in the creation/spread/development of socialism across France? 2.) Who were some important figures of these revolutions and how did they promote or hinder the socialist movement during the revolutions? 3.) And finally, how did the revolutions affect France’s future with socialism?

This paper will answer the questions in the order that they were asked and should be read as such.

Before the wave of revolutions occurred that crossed through generations of French history, before the people of France began to demand equality under the law of a fair and just government, the concept of belonging to a class did not exist for certain socio-economic groups. What the French revolutions did was, “The French Revolution indirectly prepared the arrival of the proletariat. It realized two essential conditions for socialism: Democracy and capitalism. But essentially it meant the political arrival of the bourgeois class.[i]” What the Revolutions resulted in was the creation of classes within French society, including the creation of the proletariat, or the working class. As the political face of France transformed from monarchies, to constitutional monarchies, to republics, and as a greater number of the population moved into the cities, the stronger desire for financial freedom developed the want for a more democratic and capitalistic system. Under capitalism class struggles were born between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie and between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. It was in the development of these classes and the creation of class struggles that gave socialism a clear path into France’s political arena.

Just one of the important roles the Revolutions of 1848 played in changing French society was in its creation of class consciousness. “The Revolutionary crisis of 1848 was necessary for the working class to achieve consciousness of itself, for it to carry out, as Proudhon said, the definitive break with other social elements.[ii]” As people began to identify themselves into specific socio-economic categories, specifically those of the lower classes, they began to feel the unjust and unequal treatment those of higher status treated the lower ones. They, as literate citizens who began to stay in touch with politics and the news around them developed a collective mentality where they could discuss and organize fairer ways of life. The concept of putting the power of money and machines into the hands of the people began to gain support in France.

The years leading into the revolutions played a large role in instigating the revolutions in the first place. Bad harvests and economic hardships tend to effect farmers and the working class, the proletariat, the hardest. Thousands of people from these categories moved into the cities, such as Paris, looking for employment, but found only more hardship. The revolutions were, therefore, revolutions for the right to work from the perspective of the proletariat. “National workshops were organized which by the end of May employed over 100,000 workers and paid out daily in wages some 70,000 livres.[iii]” With conditions never ceasing to ease for the working class and the poor, and the bourgeois class looking to extend its power into politics, they revolted and helped to overthrow the monarchy and formed the provisional government that aimed to amend both socio-economics groups’ grievances. The proletariat demanded for the right to work and the bourgeoisie demanded the right to acquire more wealth through their businesses without the nobility class acting as an inhibitor.

All was not well between the bourgeoisie and proletariat, however. The union created between both groups did not last long because of their differing views as to how the government should work. The national workshops, a socialist product, created new taxes for the people of France that affected the bourgeoisie who were none to pleased to have to pay for others to live; they demanded an end to the workshops. Although the socialists fought valiantly in the June day uprisings, there were defeated and the bourgeoisie, who once fought alongside the proletariat, transformed the government to benefit them over the working class.

Although the proletariats were seemingly out of the cause at this point, the lasting effects of their 1848 revolutions could be observed even into the second empire, headed by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte. Of the provisional government, “Meanwhile, the provisional government also officially adopted the hallowed principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, abolished the titles of the nobility, opened the National Guard to all adult males, and, to assuage fears that a new terror would accompany the new republic, proclaimed the end of the death penalty for political offences.[iv]” To understand the effect the revolutions had on French public opinion and how they shaped the politics of France, we must look at their lasting effects into the second empire. Although Napoleon III was Emperor of France, universal male suffrage continued to exist under his reign, freedom of the press was supported by Napoleon, although as a means to oppress the voice and sway of the Catholic Church, and the continuation of the French people’s involvement in national affairs.

Ultimately, in terms of Socialism, the revolutions of 1848 were unsuccessful in bringing about the socialist system in France. The Proletariat class gained little ground on the bourgeoisie and were in fact cheated out of their promises for more equal representation by them. Although universal male suffrage lasted into the empire of Napoleon III, the votes of the working class, or from any class in reality, did not count for much and stood as more of an illusion of equality than actual equality. These revolutions, however, continued to fuel the hope of the French people, specifically those who leaned to the left, that someday they could create a socialist system in France.

The following portion of this paper will attempt to answer the second question: Who were some important figures of these revolutions and how did they promote or hinder the socialist movement during the revolutions?

The first person of importance to the socialist movement I will attempt to answer the question with is Louis Blanc. Blanc was a socialist who used his position in the provisional government to ratify the workshop program where the masses of unemployed could turn to in order to find employment. Louis took a firm stance on programs funded by the taxpayers, such as the workshop programs, because he wanted to limit the competition between workers that characterizes the capitalist state. Blanc states, “who would be blind enough not to see that under the reign of free competition the continuous decline of wages necessarily becomes a general law with no exception whatsoever?[v]” While the proletariat is forced to decrease the amount of money they ask for to complete a task, in order to remain competitive in the job market, those who control the means of production are the only ones who benefit from the lower wages. Capitalism and free competition does not sympathize with a working man who has a family to feed and neither did the bourgeoisie who took advantage of the working class. The working class in exploited under a free market, capitalist system. Blanc, being conscious of this struggle, helped create the workshops in order to balance the scale between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. He says, “If today an extremely rich man were to enter into a contest with another less wealthy, this unequal fight would be only disastrous, for the private man looks only to his personal interest, if he can sell twice as cheap as his competitors, he will do so, in order to ruin them and be master of the situation. But when the power itself steps into the place of a private individual, the question develops a different phase…[vi]” a regulated economy, Louis Blanc believed, is necessary to make fairer the situation between the private investor and the proletariat.

Another man who I found interesting involved in the revolutions was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a socialist and anarchist who recognized the importance of nationalizing the banks of France. He believed that under the privatized banking system the people were being cheated by the banking elites, while those who experienced the greatest financial flexibility received the largest benefits from the banks. In regards to nationalizing the banks he had this to say, “French citizens have the right to agree, and, if desired, to club together for the establishment of bakers, butcher shops, grocery stores, &c., which will guarantee them the sale and exchange, at a reduced price, and of good quality, of bread, meat, and all articles of consumption, which the present mercantile chaos gives them of light weight, adulterated, and at an exorbitant price.[vii]” He believed that the individual citizen is at a disadvantage against the monstrous privatized banks that set prices on good beyond their quality for their own personal gain. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the socialist government to throw its weight in favor of the people and balance the scale. The people have the right to fair prices on goods with no substantial earning from one single, privatized entity. Regarding the peoples power for financial flexibility he said, “By the same rule, citizens have the right to found, for their common advantage, a Bank, with such capital as they choose, for the purpose of obtaining at a low price the currency that is indispensable in their transactions and to compete with individual privatized banks.[viii]”One purpose of the socialist government, therefore, is to protect the people from the bottomless pockets of the private banker.

The last man I found interesting who was involved with the revolutions is Francois Guizot. Guizot differs from Blanc and Proudhon in that he was a conservative liberal who opposed socialism and, instead, supported a constitutional monarchy. He did not advance the socialist agenda, but rather, inhibited it. He believed that not all men are created equal and through natural right some men are inherently more intelligent, and therefore, have more rights than others. He believed that those who wanted financial flexibility should not rely on government handouts. To summarize his economic beliefs, “He was finally appointed Council President (1847-1848) and introduced a rigorous economic policy that was much more favorable to the bourgeoisie (to whom he addressed his famous Enrich yourselves!”) than to the lower social classes.[ix]

In terms of bringing about the change demanded by the socialist revolutions of 1848, they were unsuccessful, made evident when the people of France voted Napoleon III as first president of the French Republic. In 1852 he became the emperor of the second French Empire and proceeded to make the French parliament irrelevant, while extending his executive power. Why did the revolutions fail to bring about a change that such a large portion of the population demanded? The answer to this question is that there were too man differing classes demanding very different things from their government. There was very little unity between the revolutionaries. For example:

“This very lack of planning and unity of purpose would also serve to tear the Revolutionaries apart. The wealthier bourgeoisie wished to see an end to state interference in the economy so as to bring about an equal distribution of wealth and opportunities. The small communist element wanted to see the end of the state altogether and the introduction of the dictatorship of the proletariat so as to prevent both the aristocrats and the bourgeoisie from ever being able to seize power again. Each of these three groups feared the other.[x]

All was not lost for the socialist movement in France, however. As is typical in French politics the downfall of Napoleon’s second French Empire reigned in the third Republic of France, creating a new battleground for leftists and conservatives once more. Today France once again is experiencing a socialist government headed by Francois Hollande as their socialist president.

Do I believe that the revolutions of 1848 promoted or hindered the socialist movement? I do not believe that the revolutions neither promoted nor hindered the socialist movement. I believe that the underlying forces behind the revolutions were the harsh economic times of the day. The masses of poor people did not believe that they could rely on a monarchical government that favored the aristocracy, so they revolted. The bourgeoisie did not believe that they should support a government whore purpose was to maintain its political power and maintain the wealth of the aristocracy over their potential to acquire wealth, so they revolted. I believe that the revolutions, although unsuccessful in creating a socialist run government, speaks to the nature of the French people and how aware they are of their politicians and how their lives are effected by them. In my opinion, these revolutions were more about the French people demonstrating to their government that they are the ones in power and if they so feel the need to demand change they will more so than the revolutions being about advancing the socialist movement.

In conclusion, I found the consequence of completing this term paper to have been an enlightening assignment for me. I believe that understanding the revolutions of 1848 in France helps me better understand why people make the effort to demand change against what they perceive to be a corrupt, oppressive, and backwards government. I learned that socialist philosophers were sincerely dedicated to their movement and that they were trailblazers in the sense that they were demanding for equality never before demanded by a citizen of his government, such as Proudhon demanding to nationalize the banking system in France. I learned that although the French were unsuccessful in creating a socialist government as a result of their revolutions, the ability to revolt and dismantle a government that is perceived to be worn is an important and honorable characteristic amongst the French people, something we Americans should look to and reinstitute back into our own society! I am by no means a proponent of anarchy or a proponent of taking extreme, radical measures to overthrow an abusive and corrupt government, but perhaps a collective punch to the face of our own abusive and corrupt government would help to give the American people more power and influence on our own politicians.

Socialism in America

Do You Believe We Should Take to the Streets and Demand Change from Our Politicians Like the French?

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[i] "Introduction to Socialist History of the French Revolution by Jean Jaurès 1901-1907." Introduction to Socialist History of the French Revolution by Jean Jaurès 1901-1907. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2013.

[ii] "Introduction to Socialist History of the French Revolution by Jean Jaurès 1901-1907." Introduction to Socialist History of the French Revolution by Jean Jaurès 1901-1907. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2013.

[iii] "Fr." Glossary of Events:. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2013.

[iv] "Provisional Government of the Second French Republic." Provisional Government of the Second French Republic. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2013.

[v] "Internet History Sourcebooks." Internet History Sourcebooks. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2013.

[vi] "Internet History Sourcebooks." Internet History Sourcebooks. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2013.

[vii] "General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (1851)." Fifth Study. Social Liquidation. (1851). By Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in GENERAL IDEA OF THE REVOLUTION IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY (1851) // Fair Use Repository. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2013.

[viii] "General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (1851)." Fifth Study. Social Liquidation. (1851). By Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in GENERAL IDEA OF THE REVOLUTION IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY (1851) // Fair Use Repository. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2013.

[ix] "His Convictions/Political Figures." His Convictions/Political Figures. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2013.

[x] "The 1848 Revolutions in Europe." The 1848 Revolutions in Europe. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2013.


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