France 1848

The revolutions of 1848 have gotten renewed attention in light of this year’s “Arab Spring” uprisings. (The amazing photo above depicts the barricades in Paris, 1848.) The parallels are obvious — uprisings in a number of countries, similar grievances across countries, and a degree of cross-communication among the movements and leaders. And, of course, widespread optimism among progressives and activists about the prospects for fundamental social and political reform. The outcomes of 1848 were discouraging to progressives — repression and authoritarian governments were usually successful in turning back the progressive tide. So one hopes that the prospects for democracy and equality are better in the MENA uprisings.

Particularly interesting, of course, is the example of France. So it is intriguing to look back at the causes and processes of demonstrations and resistance in May and June, 1848, in Paris and in other parts of the country. Roger Price’s Documents on the French Revolution of 1848 (Documents in History Series) is worth reading for a number of reasons. First, it provides an astute analysis of the economic, social, and political situation of France in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the events that unfolded into the revolution of 1848. But second, it is a genuinely interesting book from an historiographical point of view. The analytical text takes up roughly 50 pages of an introductory essay. The remainder of the book consists of short extracts from primary documents of the period. The extracts are selected and ordered according to the author’s conception of the factors and turning points that were historically central to the moment; so they constitute a narrative of an unusual kind. Price presents his analysis and framing of the events entirely through the extracts he provides; the participants tell the story.

Price’s framing essay begins with the point that France was a backward country in the first part of the nineteenth century, compared to Britain. The population was overwhelmingly rural, the economy was primarily agricultural, and the infrastructure of roads and railroads was underdeveloped. Industry was in the most embryonic state of development, and markets were primarily local because of the weakness of the transport system.

The great weakness of the system, however, lay in its transport infrastructure. Communications by water and, particularly, road were slow and costly. Only the first unconnected lines of the future railway network had been constructed before the 1850s. (12)

And, unlike Britain, there were few signs of an emerging proletariat in large factories and industrial cities, along the lines of the Manchester documented decades earlier by Engels:

The typical French worker would be the artisan working in a small workshop rather than the factory worker. This was true in Paris, for example, where the majority found work in industries catering for the material needs of the population — food, clothing, furniture and housing — or in the typically Parisian luxury industries, all traditionally operating on a small scale. (18)

These factors had social consequences. Hunger in the countryside was a recurring possibility. Landlords and gentry had great power over the rural population. Social inequalities in both town and countryside were visible and extreme. And neither peasant nor urban worker had a strong social basis for resistance.

The contrast in the living standards of rich and poor that daily greeted the eyes of the urban populations, especially in the larger towns, was often extreme. For as long as such a contrast was felt to be inevitable, it could be accepted only with resignation, or with a resentment that might burst out in violence. But new ideas and the diffusion of a more critical outlook were bound to erode this attitude. (20)

At the same time as economic inequalities were increasing the power of a small sector of elites was increasing as well.

The grand notables — landowners, financiers, major industrialists, but also politicians and administrators — collaborated in extending their economic power and safeguarding their social and political authority. This was a group given unity not simply by shared material interests, but by an entire style of life. (23)

Of course it is clear that this is one particular framing of the historical episode, and another historian would have highlighted other issues and other turning points. So the book doesn’t serve as a broad repository of documents, potentially relevant to many different interpretations; instead, the documents have been specifically selected to serve as waypoints on a particular path through Price’s interpretation. That said, the documents are fascinating to read, from observations by elite participants, to government announcements, to confessions by activist leaders and followers.

Was this a social revolution? Some of the goals of the activists involved radical social transformation; but these goals were entirely unsuccessful. The balance between the propertied and the property-less did not change in any meaningful way. Was it more successful as a political revolution? Again, not really. Universal suffrage was established before the June repression; but what followed was autocratic rule and eventually the election of yet another dictator, Napoleon III. So it is hard to see that the revolution of 1848 in France had much effect on the conditions of freedom and well-being of the majority of the poor in France.

It would be very interesting to have a similar compilation of documents and framing social descriptions for Egypt, 2011. I’m sure that researchers and observers in Cairo have been collecting interviews, posters, and other kinds of documents that will shed more light on the social and political grievances offered by ordinary Egyptians as they participated in the demonstrations and collective resistance that led to the fall of Mubarak. And, likewise, it will be valuable to document the timeline of reaction by the state during these crucial several weeks, including repression, accommodation, and eventually capitulation by the ruling circles in favor of — the army.

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