1848 revolutions

From Anarchy In Action

In 1848, revolution broke out in fifty countries around the world, and although revolutionaries did not succeed in holding onto state power, their efforts transformed political common sense. Over subsequent decades, political radicalism became a widely-known force and radical policies such as universal primary education became implemented almost everywhere.[1] According to Wikipedia, “Significant lasting reforms included the abolition of serfdom in Austria and Hungary, the end of absolute monarchy in Denmark, and the introduction of parliamentary democracy in the Netherlands.”[2]

Kropotkin later commented on how the revolution spread across national borders: “No sooner had it broken out in Rome than it spread to France, to Vienna, to Berlin.”[3] The revolutions spread to parts of Latin America, with uprisings in New Granana and Brazil.[4] World-systems analyst Immanuel Wallerstein refers to the “world revolution” of 1848.[5]

One lesson that many radicals learned from the revolutions was the need to organize independently from bourgeois democrats. While Marx during the uprisings urged radicals to subordinate themselves to bourgeois parties[6], he reversed this position by his 1850 Address to the Commmunist League which advocated independently toward a "revolution in permanence" that seeks full social liberation.[7]


Food shortages, economic crisis, soaring unemployment, and many years of socialist agitation sparked a growing unrest in Paris by February of 1848. Criticizing the government at public banquets, and organizing into reform clubs and secret societies, workers organized for deep social change. Rebellious members of the National Guard planned a banquet for 20 Feb 1848, with an admission price low enough that working-class masses could attend and use the occasion to publicly criticize the monarchy. The state intervened, installing a conservative committee to plan and co-opt the banquet. This new committee raised the admission price and rescheduled the picnic from a Sunday to a weekday. Then, the day before the planned event, the government banned it and banned all public meetings in Paris.[8]

On 22 February, the day after the banquet’s cancellation, many Parisian workers went on strike, and students protested. Across the city, people set up barricades.[9] The following day, the president Francois Guizot stepped down.[10]

As a Parisian crowd gathered to celebrate the president’s dismissal that night, the National Guard opened fire and killed 52 people.[11] Rebels and Guard members clashed, with more and more people Guardsmen discarding their posts and joining the rebels. They replaced cries of “Long live the king” with “Long live reform.” By the end of the 24th, the king Louis-Philippe fled to England.[12]

On the 25th, Alexis de Toqueville spent the day in Paris and saw no authority figures: no police, no soldiers, no Guardsmen. “Throughout the whole day in Paris I never saw one of the former agents of authority: not a soldier, not a gendarme, nor a policeman; even the National Guard had vanished. The people alone bore arms, guarded public buildings, watched, commanded and punished; it was an extraordinary and terrible thing to see the whole of this huge city in the hands of those who owned nothing.”[13] Parisians established a provisional government at the Hôtel de Ville. At first, the new government started implementing popular demands. They reduced the work day by one and a half hours, and they implemented national workshops that gave jobs to the unemployed. After a while, bourgeois moderates in the provisional government put an end to these programs. On 21 June, they got rid of the national workshops.[14]

From 23 to 26 June, radical workers once again took up arms and demanded a “democratic and social republic” that would complete the revolution betrayed by the provisional government. About 40,000 insurgents took part, including women who in some cases fought along the men in the barricades. The provisional government sent out all the firepower it had to brutally crush the uprising. The moderate republicans killed an estimated 400 to 500 radical revolutionaries and arrested 12,000.[15]

Not long after the massacre, Napoleon’s nephew Louis Bonaparte ran for president of France and won. At his term’s end, in 1851, he launched a coup, and the next year he declared himself emperor, bringing an end to France’s brief period of universal manhood suffrage.[16] Some moderate rebels such as Victor Hugo, who had just overseen the June 1848 massacre, now urged workers to rise up against Napoleon III and defend the revolution. The masses “turned him a deaf ear,” as Crimethinc summarizes: “Why should they risk their lives to preserve the authority of the Republicans who had massacred them last time they rose against their oppressors?”[17]

  1. Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004), 63-64. David Graeber, The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2013), 274-275.
  2. Wikipedia, “Revolutions of 1848,” accessed 2 September 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revolutions_of_1848.
  3. Peter Kropotkin, “1848-1871” in Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology, ed. Iain McKay (Oakland: AK Press, 2014), 431.
  4. Wikipedia, “Revolutions of 1848.”
  5. Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis, 63-64.
  6. Murray Bookchin, The Third Revolution: Popular Movements in the Revolutionary Era, Volume 2 (London and Washington: Cassell: 1998), 170.
  7. The Marx-Engels Reader, Second Edition, ed. Robert Tucker, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978), 511.
  8. Bookchin, The Third Revolution, 80-84.
  9. Bookchin, ‘’The Third Revolution, Vol. 2’’, 85.
  10. Bookchin, ‘’The Third Revolution, Vol. 2’’, 87.
  11. Bookchin, ‘’The Third Revolution, Vol. 2’’, 88.
  12. Bookchin, ‘’The Third Revolution, Vol. 2.’’, 92.
  13. Quoted in Chris Harman, ‘’A People’s History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium’’ (London: Verso, 2008), 335.
  14. Harman, ‘’A People’s History of the World’’, 338-339.
  15. Bookchin, ‘’The Third Revolution, Vol. 2’’, 144, 156. Harman, ‘’A People’s History of the World’’, 339-340.
  16. Harman, ‘’A People’s History of the World’’, 339.
  17. Crimethinc, “The Democracy of the Reaction, 1848-2011,” 23 July 2016, https://crimethinc.com/2016/06/23/the-democracy-of-the-reaction-1848-2011.