THE REVOLUTIONS of 1848 in Europe are a forgotten episode in radical history, particularly in the United States. While revolutionary turning points such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the storming of the Bastille in 1789, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, or even the Paris Commune of 1871 retain some place in popular consciousness, the same cannot be said of the events of 1848–50: the uprising in Vienna, the June Days in Paris, the Siege of Rome, or the nationalist revolt in Hungary.
Particularly for Marxists, however, the revolutions of 1848 have huge significance. For one thing, these upheavals represented the first examples of independent working-class political action in European history—they marked the moment at which something resembling the modern socialist movement began to take shape. Secondly, the revolutions of 1848 gave Karl Marx and Frederick Engels their first major opportunity to put their revolutionary theories into practice—both men participated as central actors in the German wing of the revolutionary movement. Finally, and most importantly for the purposes of this review, the revolution of 1848 in France gave Marx his first chance to analyze and write about the development of the revolutionary movement using the method of historical materialism.
Marx wrote two short books on the revolution of 1848: The Class Struggles in France and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. While this review will focus on the latter text, readers are strongly recommended to read the two books together.
The origins of revolution
Europe was experiencing major economic and social change in the middle of the nineteenth century. The great bourgeois revolutions—the Dutch Revolt of the sixteenth century, the English Revolution of the 1640s, the American War of Independence, and the French Revolution of the 1790s—had swept away the remnants of the feudal order and cleared the way for industrial and commercial development across the Atlantic World. The spread of factories and textile mills had transformed urban life in cities like London, Manchester, Paris, Lyon, New York, and Berlin. Millions of peasants and landless rural laborers poured into Europe’s new industrial cities. Technological innovations such as the railroad, the steamboat, and the canal had revolutionized transportation and created national markets for manufactured goods.
The industrialization of Europe also brought social dislocation and economic misery in its wake. Conditions were appalling in the working-class districts of the new industrial cities. The living standards of textile workers in Manchester, England, were so bad that a young Frederick Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England to document the horrors in 1844.
Capitalism’s tendency to produce periodic crises exacerbated the terrible impact of industrialization. The potato blight, which first began to affect crops in 1845, created a devastating famine across Europe in 1847. Later that year, the end of the railroad boom created a major panic in the British financial markets, leading to a sharp recession and the closing of many factories and mills. The economic turbulence spread to continental Europe and produced an epidemic of bankruptcies in major cities like Paris. Thousands of workers lost their jobs, with perhaps one in three Parisians facing unemployment.
The undemocratic character of many European governments magnified anger at the economic misery sweeping Europe. The bourgeois revolutions had left much of their work undone. Germany remained divided into a host of squabbling principalities and petty dukedoms. The Austrian Empire continued to rule over a multitude of oppressed nationalities in Central and Southern Europe. Even France, the epicenter of bourgeois radicalism in the eighteenth century, grumbled under the rule of a monarchy.
From revolution to reaction
Economic and political discontent came to a head in France in early 1848. Since the previous summer, French citizens had circumvented a ban on political demonstrations by organizing a series of banquets at which diners could voice their criticisms of the regime. Against the banqueters stood Louis Philippe, the so-called July Monarch. Louis Philippe had come to the throne as the result of a popular uprising in 1830, and presided over a constitutional monarchy for almost two decades. Despite the liberal aspirations of his supporters, Louis Philippe had turned out to be a staunch opponent of democracy, and had restricted the franchise so that it included just 1 percent of the French population by 1848. Faced with the growth of dissent, the July Monarch chose to ban the political banquets in February of 1848.
The revolution began on February 23. The spark came when French soldiers fired on a crowd of Parisian protesters, killing fifty-two. Citizens from all classes of Parisian society flooded into the streets and, in homage to the French revolutionary tradition, began to build barricades. When huge crowds began to approach the royal palace, Louis Philippe chose to abandon his throne and flee to England. The July Monarchy had fallen at the first serious challenge from below.
With the monarch gone, the liberal opposition came together to declare France’s Second Republic. With a major social and political crisis convulsing the nation, the republic would have two central goals: expanding the democratic elements of the government, and providing aid to the thousands of unemployed workers. On March 2, the new government declared the advent of universal suffrage, adding nine million French men to the voter rolls but continuing the exclusion of women from the right to vote. A relaxation of censorship and repression allowed for the flowering of a new political culture, with hundreds of newspapers and political clubs springing up all across France. The system of National Workshops, or government-run businesses, expanded to employ tens of thousands of French workers and guarantee the right to work.
But the Second Republic faced a growing polarization in French society. On the one hand, throughout the spring and early summer, the working classes of Paris mobilized to attempt to push the government of the Second Republic to the left. On the other hand, however, French business owners and farmers were beginning to resent the increased taxation necessary for the National Workshops, and had begun to worry that the current government was incapable of restoring order.
Conservative and moderate candidates triumphed in the elections of April 1848, and began to shift the government of the republic along a more right-wing course.
On June 23, the government announced the closure of the National Workshops, and immediately deployed troops to the most rebellious working-class neighborhoods of Paris. The three days of fighting that followed came to be known as the June Days. Although workers and artisans resisted heroically, they fought without any allies and suffered defeat at the hands of the National Guard.
The defeat of the workers’ insurrection left what Marx called the “pure bourgeois Republicans,” or what we might think of as liberals, in charge, and they set to work drafting a new constitution through a Constituent Assembly. The overall trend in French politics remained to the right, however. In particular, the election of Louis Bonaparte as president in December of 1848 signaled the growing conservatism of the French bourgeoisie. The ensuing debate over the nature of the French Constitution led to a set of laws that were much more conservative than might have been expected—leaving the educational establishment in the hands of the Catholic clergy, for example.
In this context, the elections for the Legislative Assembly in May of 1849 gave a majority to the conservative Party of Order, albeit one that would face strong opposition from a sizable minority of radical Republican and Social-Democratic legislators, known as the Montagne faction. The struggle between the radicals and conservatives in the Legislative Assembly came to a head the following month, when representatives of the Montagne organized a peaceful demonstration, leading to the arrest and expulsion from the Assembly of their leaders.
Despite its victory over the Montagne, the Party of Order became increasingly subservient to Louis Bonaparte, and in November 1849, the president felt strong enough to dismiss the royalist ministry and appoint a government of men loyal only to him. At this point the Party of Order might have attempted to mobilize all the pro-democracy forces against the growing executive power of President Bonaparte. In fact it did just the opposite. In March 1850, elections were held to replace the radical leaders who had been expelled from the Legislative Assembly the previous June. When Parisian voters handed a sweeping victory to the Montagne and Social Democrats, the Party of Order moved to abolish universal suffrage, disenfranchising 30 percent of the French electorate.
From this point on, the Party of Order began to collapse as a political force. Having lost its majority in the Legislative Assembly, it was forced to rely on a coalition with the radicals of the Montagne—the very force it had just been in conflict with. The weakness of the conservative parliamentarians allowed Louis Bonaparte to consolidate his power over the course of the summer and fall of 1850, wresting control of the army away from the Assembly and appointing an even more conservative and sycophantic ministry. In October, he undermined the Legislative Assembly still further by declaring his intention to restore universal male suffrage. Finally, on December 2, 1850, Bonaparte carried out a coup and dispersed the Legislative Assembly—he would soon go on to declare himself emperor of France.
The second time as farce
Marx wrote The Eighteenth Brumaire to explain how and why the revolution of 1848 in France had led to Louis Bonaparte’s coup d’état in 1851. The very title of his book provides one important clue to his analysis of these events. Although the date “eighteenth of Brumaire” means virtually nothing today, in Marx’s day it was laden with symbolism for the revolutionary movement. During the first French Revolution, which began in 1789, the revolutionaries got rid of the Roman calendar and renamed the months of the year. Intended to symbolize a complete break with the old, pre-revolutionary way of doing things, the new names were in use from 1793—the most radical stage of the revolution—to 1805. The date “Eighteenth Brumaire” refers to November 9 in our calendar, and is significant because it was the day in 1799 on which Napoleon Bonaparte, uncle of Louis, overthrew the French government and established himself in a position of dictatorial power.
The significance of the date gives meaning to Marx’s famous statement in the very first passage of work, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”1 This gets to the heart of Marx’s explanation of the revolution of 1848: it was a farcical attempt to reenact the Great French Revolution of fifty years earlier. As he notes on the first page:
Just when [people] seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries, and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language….
The revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793 to 1795.2
Some of the main questions Marx asks in the Eighteenth Brumaire are: why was it impossible to reenact the French Revolution fifty years later; what had changed in French society in the intervening years; why was any attempt to recreate 1789 fated to result in the dictatorship of a frankly rather buffoonish character, Louis Bonaparte?
The politics of social classes
In order to answer these questions, Marx studied the events in question with a method he called historical materialism. From the mid-1840s, Marx and his collaborator Frederick Engels had been developing a theoretical framework for understanding the development of human societies. In contrast to Marx’s first mentor, Georg W. F. Hegel, they insisted that the material conditions of life, and not ideas, drove the development of human society; in contrast to the materialist philosophy of German thinkers such as Ludwig Feuerbach, they insisted that humans were capable of altering the world around them. Historical materialism began to emerge as a fully formed theory in works such asThe Holy Family (1844) and The German Ideology (1846).
The Eighteenth Brumaire was one of Marx’s first attempts to apply the method of historical materialism to the political events of the time. As Frederick Engels wrote in the 1890s:
Marx…first discovered the great law of motion of history, the law according to which all historical struggles, whether they proceed in the political, religious, philosophical or some other ideological domain, are in fact only the more or less clear expression of struggles of social classes, and that the existence and thereby the collisions, too, between these classes are in turn conditioned by the degree of development of their economic position, by the mode of their production and of their exchange determined by it. This law, which has the same significance for history as the law of the transformation of energy has for natural science—this law gave him here, too, the key to an understanding of the history of the Second French Republic. He put his law to the test on these historical events, and even after thirty-three years we must still say that it has stood the test brilliantly.3
Marx’s method is absolutely essential for understanding the course of the revolution in France. On the face of it, the events of 1848–1851 can seem pretty confusing, especially for readers unfamiliar with the basic contours of French history. Marx’s account features a somewhat dizzying cast of characters: feuding royalist faction, pretenders to the throne, dissident generals, pure republicans, social democrats, secret societies, priests, schoolmasters, and so on.
Marx’s method, however, goes beneath the superficial appearance of events in order to find the social forces at work during the revolution of 1848. For him, it isn’t sufficient to explain the revolution by saying, for example, that one faction of the Party of Order wanted this particular prince to become king while another faction wanted a different prince on the throne. Marx wants to know the social and economic interests that these different factions, parties, and individuals represent, and how the conflicts between them reflect the struggles taking place at the base of society. Here’s how Marx explains this method in his own words:
Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of distinct and peculiarly formed sentiments, illusions, modes of thought, and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundations and out of the corresponding social relations. The single individual, who derives them through tradition and upbringing, may imagine that they form the real motives and the starting point of his activity….
In historical struggles one must distinguish…the phrases and fancies of parties from their real organism and their real interests, their conception of themselves from their reality.4
The French bourgeoisie
The main protagonist of Eighteenth Brumaire is the French bourgeoisie. Marx had a love-hate relationship with this class. When he argued in The Communist Manifesto that “the bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part,”5 he meant not only the role that the bourgeoisie had played in developing the means of production, but also the progressive role that the French bourgeoisie had played in the Great Revolution of 1789–93 when, under the leadership of the Jacobins, it abolished the monarchy and instituted a democratic form of government.
The French bourgeoisie plays a much less revolutionary role in The Eighteenth Brumaire. One of the major goals of the book is to explain why the vanguard of the European bourgeoisie could, just a couple of generations after its heroic role in one revolution, do everything in its power to limit the spread and scope of another revolution.
Marx identifies three main factions within the French bourgeoisie: the big landlords, the industrialists, and the finance capitalists. Two of these factions, the landlords and industrialists, form antagonistic wings of the Party of Order—the landlords favoring a return to the Bourbon dynasty of Louis XVI and operating under the name of Legitimists, and the industrialists supporting the Orleans dynasty of Louis Philippe.
Despite being united in a single party, these two factions maintain a perpetual state of intrigue against one another, not because there was any real historical significance to which the royal family had a legitimate claim to the throne, but because, in Marx’s words, “each of the two great interests into which the bourgeoisie is split—landed property and capital—sought to restore its own supremacy and the subordination of the other.”6 In fact, as Marx points out, their position as representatives of the bourgeoisie actually trumps the commitment of the Party of Order to the restoration of the monarchy.
For Marx, the political rule of the bourgeoisie is in a certain sense at its strongest and most secure under a democratic republic. He argues that the democratic republic allows the different factions of the capitalist class to work out their differences and disagreements in a peaceful fashion and to put the interests of the class as a whole above the sectional interests of any particular group of capitalists. “Only under this form [of the democratic republic],” Marx suggests, “could the two great divisions of the French bourgeoisie unite, and thus put the rule of their class instead of the regime of a privileged faction of it on the order of the day.”7
Despite the utility of the democratic republic for bourgeois class rule, the bourgeoisie’s main political party, the Party of Order, “also insulted the republic and expressed their repugnance to it.”8 The republic played a contradictory role for the bourgeoisie: as well as providing a means for uniting the capitalists as a class, it formed an arena in which the bourgeoisie was forced to contend with the other classes in French society. Marx expresses this phenomenon with a neat dialectical formulation:
The republic, true enough, makes their political rule complete, but at the same time undermines its social foundation, since they must now confront the subjugated classes and contend against them without mediation, without the concealment afforded by the crown, without being able to divert the national interest by their subordinate struggles among themselves and with the monarchy.9
This is the key to the different political role played by the bourgeoisie in 1848 as compared to 1789: the class struggle between the workers and the capitalists was now at a much more advanced stage than it had been fifty years earlier, and the bourgeoisie had consequently become much more conservative.
Although the working class plays a relatively minor role in the series of events described in The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx clearly sees the June uprising as one of the driving factors in the whole process leading up to Bonaparte’s coup. He puts it this way: “The social republic appeared as a phrase, as a prophecy, on the threshold of the February Revolution. In the June days of 1848, it was drowned in the blood of the Paris proletariat, but it haunts the subsequent acts of the drama like a ghost.”10
In other words, the capitalist class was so terrified about the independent political activity of the working class, so afraid of the emergence of the socialist ideal, that it was willing to sacrifice the parliamentary republic in order to maintain a state of social peace. According to Marx, this is why the bourgeoisie was willing to tolerate the dictatorship of Louis Bonaparte. All of its factions were worried that continuing political tumult would only disturb the conditions necessary for the serious business of business. As Marx put it, the conduct of the French bourgeoisie “proved that the struggle to maintain its public interests, its own class interests, its political power, only troubled and upset it, as it was a disturbance of private business.”11
The petty bourgeoisie
If the bourgeoisie was too scared of working-class revolution to lead the struggle for democracy in France, then what of the other classes in society?
Between the capitalists and the workers sat the petty bourgeoisie, represented by the democratic republicans of the Montagne and the reformists of the Social Democrats. In Marx’s analysis, this class sees the struggle for democracy as a means for blunting the antagonisms in class society, of reconciling the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and allowing them to live together in peace. The political representative of the petty bourgeoisie thus “imagines himself elevated above class antagonism generally. The democrats concede that a privileged class confronts them, but they, along with all the rest of the nation, form the people. What they represent is the people’s rights; what interests them is the people’s interests.”12
During the period from 1848 to 1851, this put the democratic petty bourgeoisie in a hopelessly contradictory position. On the one hand it had, through the National Guard, participated in the bloody repression of the working class in June 1848. On the other hand, it found itself locked in parliamentary struggle with the Party of Order and the bourgeoisie. Its answer to this conundrum was the futile semi-insurrection of June 1849, when the petty bourgeois elements of the National Guard staged protests against the government but neglected to take their weapons with them. Their movement was thus defeated without striking a blow.
Thus the dictatorship of Louis Bonaparte did not represent the dictatorship of any of these classes—the bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie, or proletariat—but rather represented the fact that none of them were able to impose their rule on society. His rule represented the growing size and power of the state machinery in France and its apparent separation from, and domination over, all of French society.
Marx described the massive growth of the state, and in particular, the executive power, as a result of the historical development of French society. As feudalism began to decay and give way to capitalist social relations, powers and privileges that had once belonged to the aristocracy or the urban elites increasingly became vested in the absolutist state, transforming “the feudal dignitaries into paid officials and the conflicting pattern of conflicting medieval plenary powers into the regulated plan of a state authority whose work is divided and centralized as in a factory.”13
Under the openly capitalist governments of the post-revolutionary period, the state continued to grow and evolve as an enormous and centralized power capable of exerting its authority over all local and particular interests, from the building of a bridge or schoolhouse to the arming and outfitting of a great army. Nevertheless, this great machine very clearly served the interests of a definite class—the rising bourgeoisie. The contending factions of this class came to see access to and control over the state machine as one of the most important spoils of victory in their political squabbles.
With the advent of Louis Bonaparte’s dictatorship, however, this situation seemed to have changed. As we have seen, the rising strength and militancy of the French working class, along with the deep economic crisis of the 1840s, had destroyed the bourgeoisie’s confidence in its own ability to rule. By acquiescing to the rise of Bonaparte, and surrendering the executive power to him with barely a fight, the French bourgeoisie had demonstrated that it was unfit to exercise its political authority over society.
Indeed, Bonaparte’s dictatorship suggested that the state could step in and lead society when none of the contending classes proved capable of doing so. As Marx noted:
Only under the second Bonaparte does the state seem to have made itself completely independent. The state machinery has so strengthened itself vis-à-vis civil society that the Chief of the Society of December 10 suffices for its head—an adventurer dropped in from abroad, raised on the shoulders of a drunken soldiery which he bought with whisky and sausages and to which he has to keep throwing more sausages.14
The bureaucratic and military apparatus seemed to have become utterly independent of the will of any particular social group.
Ultimately, however, Marx understood that Bonaparte did derive his support from a distinct class in French society—the small-holding peasantry. This class had come into being as a result of the first French Revolution, when many of the great noble estates had been broken up and the land given to the peasants. Many peasants associated the glory days of their class with the rule of Louis Bonaparte’s uncle, Napoleon, and provided the main basis of support for the nephew’s conflict with the other classes in French society. But the class of freeholding peasants, which had been created by the bourgeois revolution, was, by 1848, being ruined by the hegemony of the bourgeoisie. Marx described how this process worked:
In the course of the nineteenth century the urban usurer replaced the feudal one, the mortgage replaced the feudal obligation, bourgeois capital replaced aristocratic landed property. The peasant’s small holding is now only the pretext that allows the capitalist to draw profits, interest, and rent from the soil, while leaving it to the agriculturist himself to see to it how he can extract his wages.15
But despite the contradiction between the domination of the capitalists and the interests of the peasantry, the latter is fundamentally incapable of leading a struggle against the bourgeoisie. The social conditions of rural and village life prevent the peasants from coming to a collective awareness of their interests as a class. This is how Marx described the material conditions of the French peasantry:
The small-holding peasants form an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is furthered by France’s poor means of communication and the poverty of the peasants. Their field of production, the small holding, permits no division of labor in its cultivation, no application of science, and therefore no multifariousness of development, no diversity of talent, no wealth of social relationships. Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient, directly produces most of its consumer needs, and thus acquires its means of life more through an exchange with nature than in intercourse with society.16
Hence the fact that Bonapartism rested on the passive support of the French peasant did not mean that his dictatorship represented the interests of the peasantry. Far from it. Bonapartism was about preserving and maintaining the conditions of bourgeois exploitation. By accepting Bonaparte, Marx writes,
The bourgeoisie confesses that its own interests dictate that it should be delivered from the danger of its own rule; that to restore tranquility in the country its bourgeois parliament must, first of all, be given its quietus; that to preserve its social power intact its political power must be broken; that the individual bourgeois can continue to exploit the other classes and to enjoy undisturbed property, family, religion, and order only on condition that their class be condemned along with the other classes to like political nullity; that in order to save its purse it must forfeit the crown…17
The bourgeoisie, fearful of popular democracy and revolt from below, prefers to keep its property, which the Bonapartist dictator defends by force, even at the expense of its own political power.
Conclusion: the proletariat and permanent pevolution
Through his analysis of rural society and the political limitations of peasant revolt, Marx is led to the conclusion that the peasantry could only challenge capitalism under the leadership of an urban class: “The interests of the peasants are no longer…in accord with, but are now in opposition to bourgeois interests, to capital,” Marx wrote. “Hence they find their natural ally and leader in the urban proletariat, whose task it is to overthrow the bourgeois order.”18
The idea that the peasantry can play a revolutionary anticapitalist role only under the leadership of the urban working class is another example of the ways in which Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire anticipated the development of the socialist movement in the years after 1851.
Most obviously, Marx had demonstrated that the growing strength of the working class, and its intensified struggle with the bourgeoisie, was the dominant feature of French society. The Eighteenth Brumaire had shown that the working class could now only play a revolutionary role when it acted independently of the bourgeoisie. Although the period after Bonaparte’s victory would be one of reaction, within a generation the French workers would be ready to reveal their strength once again. In 1871, the working people of Paris rose up, banished the existing state power from the city, and built the Commune to represent their interests. For Marx, the experience of the Paris Commune demonstrated that the working class could not build socialism through the bureaucratic and administrative power of the bourgeois state, but would need to smash that power and build a state of a totally different kind.
Moreover, several of the key themes in The Eighteenth Brumaire would become factors in the debate among Russian revolutionaries in the early twentieth century. While some Russian radicals maintained that the peasantry would lead any revolutionary movement in rural Russia, Lenin and other Marxists argued that leadership would have to come from an urban class. At the same time, while some Marxists thought that the coming Russian revolution would be a bourgeois revolution, and would therefore be led by the liberal bourgeoisie, Lenin and Trotsky insisted that Russian capitalists were far too timid and reactionary to play any such role. Only the small but militant Russian working class could lead the peasantry to victory over the autocracy.
Indeed, Leon Trotsky would draw on the lessons of 1848 when he came to elaborate his theory of permanent revolution. Having played a leading role in the Russian Revolution of 1905, Trotsky wanted to demonstrate that the Russian working class was destined to play the decisive leading role in the movement. To defend this position, Trotsky reminded his fellow revolutionaries “that already in the middle of the nineteenth century the problem of political emancipation could not be solved by the unanimous and concerted tactics of the pressure of the whole nation. Only the independent tactics of the proletariat, gathering strength for the struggle from its class position, and only from its class position, could have secured victory for the revolution.”19
Just as important as the particular strategic and political lessons it contains, however, Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire is an invaluable example of the Marxist method. It provides one of the clearest early examples of historical materialism in action, and remains one of the most important models for Marxists attempting to write the history of revolutions today.
- Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 1963), 1.
- Ibid., 14.
- Ibid., 47.
- Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, in The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 43.
- Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire, 48.
- Ibid., 49.
- Ibid., 118.
- Ibid., 105.
- Ibid., 54.
- Ibid., 121–22.
- Ibid., 122–23.
- Ibid., 127.
- Ibid., 123–124.
- Ibid., 67.
- Ibid., 128.
- Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects (1906), available online at: http://eprints.cddc.vt.edu/marxists/archive/trotsky/1931/tpr/rp03.htm.