“The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850” by Karl Marx
Part I: The Defeat of June 1848
The July Revolution that took place in 1830 ushered in a new era in France. With the installation of Louis Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, as the king, the country entered a new era marked by a major shift from the ideals of the French revolution. The finance aristocracy comprised wealthy bankers, and businessmen took control of the country’s economic, social, and political direction. This elite class of wealthy individuals arrogated significant powers to themselves at the detriment of the common man while also relegating the wealthy industrialists and small-scale merchants to minor positions of power and influence (Marx, 1969, pp. 15 – 16). From their influential position, they determined legislation to be passed and individuals to be appointed in all key public offices.
The power and influence of the faction increased manifolds when the July Monarchy, headed by King Louis Philippe I, became increasingly reliant on the finance aristocracy for financial support to sustain government spending. The aristocracy ensured that its interests were protected and sustained through legislations in the Chambers. Particularly, the finance aristocracy ensured that the state was continually in debt. Operating in deficit translated into the state seeking loans from the financial institutions, which were owned by the finance aristocrats who also dominated the Chambers and the king’s cabinet in terms of numbers. The bankers, who were privy to the state’s financial situation and secrets, ensured that the negotiation process for the government loans was favorable to them (Marx, 1969, pp. 16 – 18).
Finance aristocracy had a foothold in every key government operation and exerted and maintained its grip on power through corruption and bribery. By creating government credit instability through stock exchange manipulations and the passing of skewed laws, the ruling class ensured that it defrauded the state, the small-capitalists, and the masses on a continuous basis. The extensive defrauding of the state by the Chambers under the control of the wealthy bankers and financial ruling class seeped down to other government expenditures, including infrastructural development. The manipulation was both subtle and explicit with the individual interests of members of the Chambers, such as the construction of railway lines readily transforming into state-funded projects. The lion’s share of the proceeds would go to the manipulative ruling class. The July Monarchy operated like a powerful company with cartel-like tendencies and snuffed out any attempts that challenged the status quo, such as the proposed postal reform. Despite Rothschild’s objection to the Chambers’ decision to block such reforms, the reforms did not see the light of day (Marx, 1969).
With Louis Philippe serving as the director of the cartel-like organization and Robert Macaire operating through the Chambers as the de facto ruler, the July Monarchy stifled any reform agenda. The primary objective was to ensure that the national wealth was divided among the ruling, each according to their influence and power distance. At the bottom of the food chain were the cronies of the finance aristocrats and the 240,000 voters who had a say in the politics of the country. The next tier of beneficiaries were members of the Chambers, with ministers occupying the topmost tier. The lusts and greed of this faction of the French bourgeoisie were perpetuated through intricate and well-calculated policy decisions and muzzling of media outlets and individuals that opposing views. With the courts in their corner, the ruling finance aristocrats ensured they shaped public opinion in their favor and bent justice backward to satisfy their debauched and unhealthy pleasures and desires (Marx 1969).
The excesses of the finance aristocrats did not sail under the radar. Their corruption and greed led to discontent among the industrialists and the proletariat class, who openly expressed their indignation and indifference to the direction the bankers and wealthy merchants were taking the country and for the total subjugation of effective national foreign policy by individual lusts. Buoyed France’s failure to influence the outcomes of Cracow conflict involving Poland and Austria and the Swiss war that pitied liberals against separatists, and the Palermo’s bloody rebellion, the proletariat class, and industrial bourgeoisie resoundingly denounced the current state of affairs in the country. While there was growing discontent in the country among the masses, the revolution fervor reached a fever pitch following the 1847 famine as a result of the 1845 and 1846 crop failures. The economic crisis in England in 1847 that gripped key economic sectors such as industries, finance, and commerce, further bolstered the case for a revolt against the finance aristocracy in France (Marx, 1969).
Part II: From June 1848 to June 13, 1849
The wealthy class who were confined to the sidelines of politics and decision-making as opposition leaders pushed for a revolution holding that electoral reforms were critical in reversing the country’s misfortunes. The timing of such sentiments was right. Many local grocers were suffering as a result of the economic downturn as foreign markets, especially in England, were in dire straits. Furthermore, the grocers were increasingly being pushed out businesses of well-established and large traders who had opted to trade in the local markets (Marx, 1969, pp. 31 – 35). With an unresponsive government keen on confining wealth in the hands of a few individuals, the stage was set for the February Revolution and a provisional government.
The February Revolution, marked by bloody conflict fought between civilians, saw the army and the cementing of the position of the National Guard in the new political dispensation in France. Once the July Monarchy was overthrown, a new Provisional Government was formed on the foundation of compromise among factions that played a vital role in the February Revolution. Additionally, power was divided among the wealthy industrialists and small-scale merchants to accommodate the antagonistic interests of the instigators of the revolution. The representation of these different interests in the Provisional Government was not uniform with the lion’s share of the seats going to the wealthy industrialists. The rest of the socio-economic substratum of French society, including the laborers, were represented by a maximum of two people. Persuaded by opinion leaders and over 200,000 protesters, the leaders of the new government declared France a republic on 25 February 1848 (Marx, 1969, pp. 36 – 40). It was a march into the next chapter of the country’s history.
The February Revolution opened a new era in France’s history characterized by a significantly powerful working class and the entry of all socio-economic classes into the political arena. The semblance of an inclusive political system began to emerge in the country, and the full emancipation of the French was in the offing. Factions such as the Legitimists and landowners who had been confined to political cold rooms by the finance aristocrats emerged. Besides, gag orders that suppressed the opinions of the private newspapers were lifted while the country moved towards universal suffrage as the peasants who were the majority were given voting rights. Organized labor was permitted. The formation of a special labor commission led by Albert and Louis Blanc (Luxembourg Commission), despite the lack of funding and power and privileges, soothed the cries of the workers (Marx, 1969).
The wealthy class sought to maintain the status quo: a system in which power and privileges remained with the wealthy while offering little to the workers. It ensured that the working class was satisfied enough to prevent them from instigating another resistance. In return, the working was rewarded with seats on the high table where the national wealth was served. With the economic situation worsening, a situation exacerbated by the government’s proclivity to bragging about its mode of operation and financial prowess, the Provisional Government was forced to run to the ousted finance aristocrats for financial support. Nevertheless, the bankers seized the momentum and instigated a counterrevolution move by discrediting both the government and the wealthy businessmen, including merchants and manufacturers (Marx, 1969).
The wealthy industrialists were at a crossroads as the financial and commercial crisis deepened. The workers who played a vital role in the establishment of the February Republic grew impatient with economic hard times, including lack of wages, thus pushing the wealthy industrialists who controlled the Provisional Government to be more receptive to embracing the rich bankers, who had plundered the wealth of the nation during the July Monarchy. The ruling class, therefore, instigated a plot to protect the status quo by declaring that France was a bourgeoisie republic and not a proletarian republic as envisioned by the workers. What ensued were revolution and counterrevolution tactics, including trickery, propaganda, dictatorship, and police brutality that further angered the workers. The ruling class put in place strung and oppressive labor laws, including employment restrictions, low wages, and taxes that constricted space for the liberation of the proletariats. The growing discontent among the workers led to the June Revolution that overthrew the February Republic (Marx, 1969).
The events that preceded the June Revolution were characterized by a shifting of position and alliance by the republican wing of the wealthy ruling class. At some point, these republicans worked with the leadership of the Provisional Government to oppress the proletariats who were championing a proletarian government of the tricolor. However, the Republicans jumped ship and sided with the workers to ouster the wealthy industrialists who had a stranglehold of the government when they noticed that the revolutionary momentum had shifted significantly in favor of the workers. The faction, comprising of Legitimists and Orleanists ‘ bankers, layers, and prominent leaders in the army and other sectors, was led by Saul Cavaignac and Marrast. The latter headed the Constituent National Assembly. The leaders of the Constituent Assembly tried and sentenced the June insurgents through a commission of inquiry. These trials were used as avenues to eliminate the other classes of the bourgeoisie who held opposing ideologies such as socialism and democracy, such as Louis Blanc, who had led the Luxemburg Commission. The commission, led by M. Odilon Barrot, a staunch liberalist, was used by the National Assembly as a legal front to sanitize their blatantly politically motivated drive to silence their rivals (Marx, 1969).
Even with the coming of a new government, little had changed in terms of the ideologies and balance of power in the country. The republicans gradually turned Cavaignac into a dictator who passed down the burden of the country to the peasants and middle-class workers. The reforms instituted by the new government changed the status of the wealthy aristocrats who served in the old government. Their influence was streamlined by giving authority and power to a few of them who worked at the behest of the state. The small traders, shopkeepers, and small merchants suffered the most as their businesses were weighed down by bankruptcy. Many of them lost their properties due to debt. The unpaid rent by firms continued to accumulate, forcing small-scale merchants and traders to push for an inquiry into their predicament. The push coincided with the National Assembly witch hunt against political rivals disguised as an inquiry into a political insurgency of the past months (Marx, 1969).
The demands of the representatives of the small-scale traders and workers were rejected by the National Assembly, which essentially left the fate of the petty bourgeoisie at the mercy of the wealthy class. This move by the Assembly opened a battlefront between the Cavaignac’s leadership, including the republicans and the petty bourgeoisie. Further alienation of the small-scale merchants and traders was also witnessed in the new draft republican constitution. The drafting of the new constitution was led by Marrast. The drafted constitution retained the status quo and cast away the ideals of the social revolution that many workers had fought for. The old society characterized by power and influence by the wealthy over socio-economic and political dispensation in the country was retained. Additionally, it instituted a class system while introducing universal suffrage as the primary source of political power. The masses were given a façade of power while most bourgeoisie was put at crossroads between embracing democracy and anarchy. The real power rested with a clique of republicans led by Saul Cavaignac (Marx, 1969).
For a Constituent National Assembly keen to ensure that Saul Cavaignac clung to power, it drafted a rather suicidal constitution and supportive laws. By October 23, 1848, the country was set for a new era. With the Assembly dissolved and a constitution stipulating that a presidential candidate should garner at least two million votes to be considered a winner, Saul Cavaignac and his legion of republicans suffered a blinding blow at the ballot box. David Napoleon won the presidency with a landslide. There was no need for the Assembly to intervene in electing a new president since the closest competitor, Cavaignac, garnered a paltry one million votes. It was a protest vote by the peasants who were keen to vote out a republic of the rich that imposed taxes on the poor. It was a coup d’état that ousted an oppressive regime and installed a new hero. They were joined by other French of different socio-economic sub-strata, including the working class, the small-scale merchants, the army, and traders (Marx, 1969, pp. 36 – 42). Napoleon’s resounding victory over Cavaignac had the symbolic connotation of a royalist restoration with an Orleanistic touch.
Part III: Consequences of June 13, 1849
Following his proclamation as the president on 20 December 1848 by the Constituent Assembly, Napoleon embarked on a restoration exercise that saw many ministers of the old regime restored. The likes of Odilon Barrot, who served in the July Monarchy, were appointed the country’s prime minister. Major political and government positions were filled by individuals who served in the last monarchy of Louis Philippe upon the advice of royalist bourgeoisies. Still smarting from their resounding fall from grace, the National Assembly under the leadership of the ousted regime hatched a plot to undermine the ministry of finance headed by Barrot. The Assembly reduced the salt tax and positioned itself as the defendant of the peasants to overthrow Barrot’s ministry (Marx, 1969, pp. 50 – 53). This was a move aimed at frustrating Bonaparte and stirring public opinion.
The salt tax led to conflicts between the presidency and the National Assembly, with each flexing its power muscle. The Assembly abolished the tax, and the presidency restored it. A tug of war between the two centers of power ensued for several months with Ledru-Rollin taking center stage in the sustained attacks against the presidency. He introduced a vote of no confidence against the cabinet, including the president, but it was later rejected by the Assembly. Additional efforts to rally the masses, especially the National Guardsmen into a full-blown revolution bore little fruit. What followed were arbitrary arrests of republicans and their sympathizers in the media industry, demolition of properties, and disbandment of several infantries of the National Guard (Marx, 1969).
On the backdrop of a by-election in Paris boycotted by many workers, the Assembly went on a recess and ironically put two royalists, Molé and Changarnier, in charge. With distrust between different factions in Bonaparte’s cabinet becoming increasingly evident and conflict of interests sometimes clouding Bonaparte’s decisions, the president dismissed Barrot’s ministry on November 1, 1849, and replaced him with Fould. His first address to the assembly saw the introduction of the wine tax. It was a policy decision that was struck down and reinstated by the Assembly. The wine was an emotive issue among peasants and merchants. Increasing wine tax readily earned the Assembly and Fould a devilish comparison (Marx, 1969, pp. 55 – 65). It drew the ire of the peasants who started a revolution, as manifested in the subsequent election of local officials.
Part IV: The Abolition of Universal Suffrage in 1850
Increasingly beleaguered by opposition from the Assembly and the workers, the government hatched a plot to win a by-election in early 1850. The main strategy was to instigate a state of emergency by provoking the masses to revolt. The Assembly and the masses failed to take the bait. The government ended up losing its seats. During the March 10, 1850 elections, Bonaparte further lost ground to his detractors. The victory of the party of Order under the guidance of the Montagne leaders during the March 10 elections marked the end of the constructional republic and a return to a bourgeoisie republic: a return facilitated by a bourgeoisie constitution. The election of new representatives struck the last blow to democracy and republicanism as envisioned by the peasants and workers. Universal suffrage was abolished having served its purpose (Max, 1969, pp. 75 – 78). And with its abolition, France entered into a new era.
Marx, K. (1969). The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969