Even when progress is reversed, some hard-won gains are permanent. Neil Faulkner examines how the counter-revolution in 1848 failed to entirely turn the clock back.

The defeat of Napoleon by the armies of Old Europe in 1813-1815 could not restore the ancien régime. The ‘dual revolution’ – the French bourgeois revolution and the British industrial revolution – represented an irreversible transformation of human society on a global scale.

There were two insuperable barriers to full-scale reaction – a return, that is, to a world in which kings, bishops, and titled landowners held exclusive sway.

First was the strength of the new property-owning classes: merchants growing rich on commerce and colonial trade; capitalist-farmers who had bought up church land; and peasants who had rid themselves of feudal burdens.

Second was the geopolitical pressure on nation-states to increase tax revenues, improve the infrastructure, develop modern industries, and foster the prosperity necessary to support a growing population. This pressure took the direct form of military competition. Strong armies depended on financial and industrial power.

The regimes of ‘throne and altar’ imposed on Europe in 1815 were wholly reactionary in form, but only partially so in content.

Germany, for example, had been divided into 300 separate states in 1789. Napoleon created a Confederation of the Rhine in 1806 in which serfdom was abolished, freedom of commerce established, and a uniform law code introduced.

Under the terms of the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the Rhineland was handed to Prussia. But the liberal reforms remained in place, and the number of independent German states overall was reduced to 39.

German political development was not reversed; it was simply stalled for 30 years. But economic development continued, and the contradiction between an absolutist police state run by Prussian Junkers (titled aristocrats) and the wealth and self-confidence of the Rhineland bourgeoisie grew wider.

Similar tensions existed across much of Europe. The storm broke in France in February 1848. Paris harboured an unbroken revolutionary tradition stretching back to 1789. This tradition had last been exercised in July 1830.

The Bourbon king Charles X had been overthrown in a four-day urban insurrection prompted by his absolutist pretensions. He had been replaced by Louis Philippe, of the Orléanist branch of the royal family, who had promised to rule as a constitutional monarch.

The 1830 Revolution had shifted power from the old landowning aristocracy to the financial bourgeoisie. The July Monarchy was a bankers’ monarchy. Only the richest 1% of the population had the vote.

In February 1848, republican protests by students and the middle class were attacked by the police. This was the signal for a mass rising of the urban poor of eastern Paris. The sansculottes marched again and brought down a king.

The French revolution was followed by successful insurrections in Berlin, Budapest, Milan, Prague, Rome, Venice, and scores of other cities across Europe. Indeed, the only major European states not affected by this ‘Springtime of the Peoples’ were Britain and Russia.

Everywhere, the ancien régime crumbled. Absolute monarchs withdrew their troops, granted liberal constitutions, and allowed new parliamentary assemblies to install themselves in government buildings.

The dynamic of the 1848 Revolutions was similar to that of the Great French Revolution. The police and troops of the ancien régime were driven off the streets by mass mobilisations of artisans, small traders, and labourers.

Europe had been in the grip of an acute economic crisis since 1845. Millions had been plunged into unemployment and impoverishment. The 1848 insurrections were powered by widespread distress and bitterness.

But power passed mainly into the hands of bourgeois liberals. Whether republicans or constitutional-monarchists, they looked in two directions, fearful of both absolutist reaction and popular radicalism. The result was hesitation and paralysis – fatal in revolution.

The counter-revolution hit back in the summer. In June, the new republican government in Paris announced the closure of ‘national workshops’ that had been set up in the capital in February to alleviate unemployment. The unemployed were told to return to the villages or join the army.

The working people of Paris rose again. But 40,000 insurgents found themselves confronted by 30,000 soldiers and around 100,000 militia. Over four terrible days (23-26 June), General Cavaignac’s forces fought their way, barricade by barricade, into the eastern suburbs and smashed the resistance.

Cavaignac's soldiers fight their way into eastern Paris in the June Days counter-revolution

The June Days in Paris acted as a clarion call to counter-revolution across Europe. Everywhere in the second half of 1848 and well into 1849, the armies of absolutism attacked the radical revolution, while liberal politicians – like the lawyers and landowners who formed Germany’s Frankfurt Parliament – made speeches and passed resolutions.

Why were the 1848 Revolutions defeated? The old idea that the liberals of 1848 were more timid than those of 1789 because of the threat posed by the new working class must be rejected.

It is based on a misunderstanding of the basic mechanism of bourgeois revolution. In each successful revolution – Holland in 1566, England in 1642, America in 1775, and France in 1789 – the driving force of the revolution was mass action by the petty-bourgeoisie. This was necessary not only to defeat the ancien régime, but also to overcome the conservatism of bourgeois leaders.

The industrial working class was embryonic across Europe in 1848. Nowhere did it play an independent political role except in Britain, and the rise and fall of Chartism had no bearing on the outcome of the 1848 Revolutions on the Continent.

Had the revolutionary pressure been great enough, the European bourgeoisie would have attempted to stabilise the rule of private property on the basis of some sort of liberal-constitutional set-up – just as they had in the 1790s. Indeed, events in France between 1848 and 1851 were a re-run of 1789 to 1799 in fast-motion.

The February insurrection destroyed the monarchy. The June counter-revolution destroyed the popular movement. The December presidential election awarded a landslide victory to Louis Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon. Two years later, in December 1851, Bonaparte assumed dictatorial power in a military coup. The following year, he declared a ‘Second Empire’ and proclaimed himself ‘Napoleon III’.

The crucial difference was the role of the peasantry. In 1789, the peasants were paying feudal dues, so the revolution spread to the countryside. In 1848, feudalism had already been abolished, so the villages remained quiet. This meant that red Paris could be isolated and smashed. The peasant-soldiers first shot down the revolutionaries, then voted for Louis Bonaparte.

Something similar happened in other parts of Europe. The counter-revolutionary countryside was used to crush the revolutionary cities.

But just as 1813-1815 could not turn the clock back to 1789, nor could the June Days erase the impact of the February Days in 1848.

Serfdom was abolished in Prussia and Austria. Limited constitutions were established across much of Europe. Movements for unification gained traction in Germany and Italy. The stirrings of nationalism could not be stilled in the polyglot empire of the Austrian Habsburgs.

And other fracture lines had cracked open. From Ireland to Poland to Macedonia, nationalism and social discontent were melding into a potent mixture.

And through the long economic boom of the 1850s to 1870s, a new force would arise – a force with the potential to make the next ‘springtime of the peoples’ a truly earth-shaking event.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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