The 1848 Revolutions: the hoped-for prelude to the proletarian revolution

"The year 1848 is turning out well", wrote Engels. "By this glorious revolution the French proletariat has again placed itself at the head of the European movement. All honour to the workers of Paris!" That revolution spread across the whole of Europe, marking an important development in the class struggle.

"A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Communism", wrote Marx and Engels in the opening passage of the Communist Manifesto. "All powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police spies." Prophetically, on the day of the Manifesto's publication in London, Europe was ablaze with revolution.

King Louis-Phillipe of France abdicated immediately. Guizot the French Prime Minister was dismissed and Prince Metternich of Austria fell within a few weeks. Marx and Engels hoped that the revolution would only serve as "the immediate prelude to the proletarian revolution." They immediately hailed the revolution which first broke out in France on 24th February 1848.

"The year 1848 is turning out well", wrote Engels. "By this glorious revolution the French proletariat has again placed itself at the head of the European movement. All honour to the workers of Paris!

"Our age, the age of democracy, is breaking. The flames of the Tuileries and the Palais Royal are the dawn of the proletariat. Everywhere the rule of the bourgeoisie will now come crashing down, or be dashed to pieces." (Marx Engels Collected Works, vol.6, p.558)

After a prolonged period of reaction with the defeat of the 1830 revolutions, the revolutionary masses of Paris, guns and red flags in hand, took to the streets, built barricades, drove out the monarchy and forced the Provisional government to declare a Republic. The worker Guibert burst into the Chamber brandishing a pistol, bringing the debate to an abrupt end with the words, "No more deputies, we are the masters."

It was the workers and the lower middle class that propelled the revolution forward. The bourgeoisie, who would eventually gain from the revolution, had not expected or wanted such an outcome. "We wanted to climb from step to step", said one, "but we were forced to leap over a whole flight of stairs."

Above all, the bourgeoisie feared the working class, who pushed forward their own independent class demands: the right to work, a minimum wage, shorter hours, pensions for the disabled, the creation of workshops, compulsory universal education, universal suffrage, progressive taxation, and other working-class demands. In turn, the working class did not trust the bourgeoisie deputies, who wanted an accommodation with the monarchy. As a result, on the walls of Paris revolutionary posters urged the masses: "Let us keep our arms!"

The new bourgeois republican administration was forced to bring in two socialists into the government, one of whom was Louis Blanc, a popular workers' leader. His role, however, became that of class conciliator, struggling to keep the revolutionary movement within acceptable legal limits. Under the pressure from the radical masses, some reforms were introduced, including the establishment of national workshops, in effect, poor law relief for the unemployed.

The elections to the Constituent Assembly were held in late April and recorded big gains for the bourgeois parties, largely due to the support of the conservative peasantry which made up 84% of the new electorate. The new government failed to address the plight of the workers and attempted to undermine the revolution by attacking the workers' leaders, particularly Blanqui and Cabet, as "communists". Trust in the bourgeois government melted away. It was becoming obvious that growing frustration was preparing a new showdown. The government's announced closure of the national workshops in Paris was the last straw. "The February revolution raised the problem of property and labour", stated the revolutionary Paul-Louis Deflotte. "This problem must be solved."

However, the government was making its own plans to teach the workers a lesson by sending them to the school of General Cavaignac who was brought back from butchering the peoples of Algiers, a faithful servant of the counter-revolution.

On 21st June a decree was promoted, abolishing the national workshops. That day the workers of Paris arose again and threw up barricades throughout the capital. Flags were raised with the inscriptions: "Bread or Death!" and "Work or Death!" It was a purely workers' uprising, devoid of the carnival atmosphere of the February revolution. "The insurrection [is] growing into the greatest revolution that has ever taken place", wrote Marx, "into a revolution of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie." (MECW, vol.7, p.128, emphasis in original.)

The fighting was ferocious. The bourgeois counter-revolution gave no quarter. The workers were shot down like wild beasts. "The bourgeoisie, fully conscious of what it is doing, conducts a war of extermination against them", wrote Marx. He went on to quote a captain of the republican guard, describing events on 23rd and 24th June. "The cannon replied and until 9 o'clock windows and bricks were shattered by the thunder of artillery. The firing was terrible. Blood flowed in streams while at the same time a tremendous thunderstorm was raging. The cobblestones were red with blood as far as one could see... The number of dead is immense and the number of injured much greater still." (ibid, p.138)

The workers, on the other hand, fought for four solid days with unequalled bravery. "The courage with which the workers have fought is truly marvelous", wrote Marx. For three full days, 30,000 to 40,000 workers were able to hold their own against more than 80,000 soldiers and 100,000 men of the national guard, against grape-shot, shells, incendiary rockets and the glorious war experiences of generals who did not shrink from using these methods employed in Algeria! They have been crushed and in large part massacred. Their dead will not be accorded the honour that was bestowed upon the dead of July and February. History, however, will assign an entirely different place to them, the martyrs of the first decisive battle of the proletariat."  (ibid, p.143)

After almost a week of battles and street-fighting, the full might of the state was used to crush the movement in blood. A frenzy of shootings and torture were on the order of the day. Some 15,000 were killed and wounded during and after the uprising. The ruling class exacted its revenge for the independent movement of the French workers. The workers' demand "contained a threat to the existing order of society; the workers who put it forward were still armed; therefore, the disarming of the workers was the first commandment for the bourgeois, who were at the helm of the state." (Engels)

The revolutions of 1848 were essentially bourgeois-democratic in the tasks they attempted to solve. Their fundamental aspect was the destruction of the old feudal structures and the creation of the independent nation state. While Marx and Engels hoped that this bourgeois revolution would be the immediate prelude to the proletarian revolution, given the weakness of the Communist League, they had no alternative but to form in Germany the extreme proletarian wing of the democratic movement. Its aim was to destroy absolutism and to unity the backward states into one democratic republic. This could only be brought about by revolutionary means. The daily paper, Neue Rheinische Zeitung, edited by Marx, was the organ of democratic revolution, but, as Engels wrote, of "a democracy which everywhere emphasized in every point the specific proletarian character." The paper, which had widespread support, became the true headquarters of the militant proletariat, the leading centre of the Communist League.

Not only did Marx and Engels fight for national independence for the oppressed nationalities, but put forward a genuinely internationalist approach. There were other nations oppressed by reactionary German states, such as the Poles in Prussia, the Italians, Czechs and others in Austria, as well as Russian Tsarism. At this time Tsarism was the most counter-revolutionary force in Europe in the same way that American imperialism is on a world stage today.

Marx and Engels sharply criticized the cowardly bourgeois leaders for failing to support the struggles of oppressed nations such as the Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and Italians against Prussian and Austrian despotism. The leadership of the revolution will fall to the working class. "... not the cowardly German burghers but the German workers; they will rise up, put an end to the whole filthy, muddled official German rule and with a radical revolution restore the honour of Germany", explained Engels. "Germany will liberate herself to the extent to which she sets free neighbouring nations."

Revolution broke out in Germany on 18th March with fighting in nearly every town and barricades erected in Berlin and Vienna. The people won a series of democratic rights but control passed into the hands of the big bourgeoisie, which quickly betrayed the struggle.

It was out of these experiences that Marx and Engels were to raise the idea of permanent revolution. The bourgeoisie were more afraid of the working class than the forces of feudal despotism. They were to play an increasingly counter-revolutionary role. They were incapable of bringing about genuine national unification, as history proved. Marx and Engels put their confidence in the working class. They believed that a successful bourgeois-democratic revolution, under the leadership of the workers, would become the prologue of the proletarian revolution and the transformation of Europe. "Before reaction can be destroyed in Italy and Germany, it must be routed in France", explained Engels. "A democratic social republic must first be proclaimed in France and the French proletariat must first subjugate its bourgeoisie before a lasting victory of democracy is conceivable in Italy, Germany, Poland, Hungary and other countries." (ibid, p.403) Marx agreed: "The Hungarian shall not be free, nor the Poles, nor the Italians, as long as the work remains a slave."

The defeat of the 1848 revolutions removed any threat of proletarian revolution. The forces of capitalism were still maturing. It took a further 23 years before the glorious Paris Commune (the first workers' state in history) would place proletarian revolution once again on the agenda of the European continent.