Vive La Commune

Q] What was the impact of the revolutions and political uprisings of 1830, 1848 and 1870 on the French working classes?         

The French Revolution was a critical event in global history. The effects of this revolution continued to reverberate across French society well into the nineteenth century and three subsequent revolutions occurred. The subjects of this essay are these three revolutions in 1830, 1848 and 1870 and the specific effects on the working classes shall be analysed.

In 1789 the sans-culottes played an important role although afterwards conservative consolidation meant that the revolution ultimately favoured the bourgeoisie. Similarly, in the nineteenth century revolts, the power of working classes was often used to fuel the revolutions themselves. Thereafter conservatism dominated politics, resulting in benefits to the bourgeoisie and aristocracy, with the demands of the working classes often overlooked. In focussing on each nineteenth century revolution it shall be necessary to identify the causes of unrest and the results of the uprisings in terms of politics. The very fact that there was a repetitive cycle of revolution indicates that there were underlying political instabilities dominating France.

After Napoleon, France reverted to a Bourbon monarchy. However, revolutionary gains were not entirely reversed and the King was bound by certain restrictions, unlike his ancestors. 1789 can be regarded as a ‘Bourgeois Revolution and ‘the nobles were, along with the clergy, the clear losers from the revolution’ (Magraw, 1988:25). The Restoration aristocracy clawed back much of their political power under the Bourbons and their power climaxed preceding the 1830 July Days. Charles X had supported policies for properties lost during the Revolution to be returned to their owners, a political bone of contention. In the immediate years preceding 1830 a classic economic crisis had emerged, inducing food shortages and forcing up grain prices. This deeply unsettled peasants and the urban masses. Charles X introduced restrictive censorship measures that had an immediate effect on one group of workers: the printers. The disenchanted bourgeoisie succeeded in rallying emotions among artisans and it was this element of the working classes that did the backbone of the fighting during the ‘Trois Glorieuses’. This artisan class were the first to identify as a proletariat and demonstrate the birth of the working class in France. They agreed with progressive republican ideas thrust upon them by the bourgeoisie. Artisans were comprised of the old craft workers and the industrial revolution was increasingly alienating their traditional existence. ‘…Artisans are too readily assumed to be on the defensive, in the face of deskilling, factories and industrial capitalism generally…’(Judt 2011:27). The artisans, through their compagnonnages, were an early form of organised labour and in essence these groups were embryonic unions. The bourgeoisie, post-revolution in 1830, immediately turned to repression of artisan and peasant agitation. The installation of a Constitutional Monarchy through the new Orléanist Louis-Philippe regime took political favour out of the hands of landed aristocracy and empowered a new dominant political class of grande bourgeoisie. In the years that followed the installation of the July Monarchy, workers and peasants continued to exercise their frustrations by expressing grievances with popular disturbances against wine taxes, forest rights, grain prices, unemployment and the threat of machines.

Economic Liberalism was the main economic ideology imposed by the Bourgeois and it was this style of ‘laissez-faire’ economics that is a characteristic feature underlying the causes of economic downturn that precedes each of the three nineteenth century revolutions. Ministers such as Guizot imposed ‘laissez-faire’ capitalism upon such sectors of French industry as the mines and railways and in general this economic policy of ‘liberté’ confronted the working classes with capitalist exploitation.

The uniting of working classes during the ‘Trois Glorieuses’ was not forgotten, even if the new government succeeded in suppressing their demands. In 1831 the first use of the term ‘socialism’ appears and the artisanal compagnonnages and mutuels started to branch out, organise and gain strength, a par excellence demonstration of revolutionary worker solidarité.

‘An organization like the Société de l’Union des Travailleurs du Tour de France, born in the 1830s of a compagnonnage scission, was a half-way house between an organization of compagnons and an attempt at a General Union.’ (Judt 2011:59)

This was a direct challenge to the 1791 Le Chapelier law that banned trade unions and the right to strike. This law was ultimately abandoned in 1864, allowing French citizens the right to strike, although Trade Unions were not legalised until 1884. As the nineteenth century progressed, the labour movement became more organised. Perhaps this was due to the progress of industrialisation and also the emergence of a large urban proletariat. The nineteenth century did see a massive rise in urban migration. Ultimately at the end of the century, after the revolutions, we see a period of relative political stability where protest was led by anarcho-syndicalists whose focus was on the strike to end capitalism rather than the mass upheaval of political revolution.

‘In the early twentieth century, before the First World War, a strike was seen by revolutionary syndicalists as the ultimate weapon that would lead to worker emancipation through revolution and the overthrow of the capitalist system. (Parsons 2005:154)

An Orleanist financial and railway elite were the notables that most benefitted from the July Monarchy. Although in comparison with neighboring countries France experienced industrial retardation, there was enough progress in terms of industry to satisfy the dominant bourgeoisie. Flying profits, however, hit a barrier in the buildup to the 1848 revolutionary threshold and economic cyclical slump affected the industrial entrepreneurs. Again, a failure in the crop harvest drove up food prices with them doubling due to disastrous grain and potato harvests. Despite an increase in the franchise to include 200 franc taxpayers, a means of consolidating the bourgeois political dominance, the vast majority of the population had no means of direct electoral address to the government. Food riots broke out across France. The spring and summer of 1948 saw urban workers demanding the formation of a social republic.

‘No amount of talk about ‘universal fraterity’ could erase the bitter memory of betrayal of 1830, evoked even by the moderate artisans of L’Atelier.’(Magraw 1988:125)

In government a schism had formed between Legitimists and Orleanists with the Legitimists questioning about whether or not to side with the artisans and peasants. The narrow focus of Orleanist policies had isolated the middle and lower strata of the bourgeoisie. In July 1847 reformists of all shades were were circumventing restrictive laws on association by holding banquets where they would toast ‘La République Française’. Literacy levels were on the rise as education improved, even among the lower strata of society. Socialist philosophers such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had influence and anarchists and socialists began to converge. There was a call for universal suffrage. Ultimately, revolutionary conditions were yet again ripe and the rulers had failed to satisfy wider society’s demands.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed: ‘We are sleeping together in a volcano. … A wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon.’ (Coutant 2008)

A banning of the Campagne des Banquets brought the people out onto the streets during the February Revolution. The workers were ‘organized, armed, and masters of the terrain, at the mercy of the most fiery demagogues’ (Bastiat 2012). Prime Minister Guizot resigned and was closely followed by an abdicating Louis-Philippe, who sought refuge in England. With the immediate creation by the liberal opposition of the Second Republic, one of the workers’ demands was immediately achieved and universal male suffrage bought nine million new voters into the French political stream. National workshops ended the immediate unemployment problem. Yet, scared of the working classes gaining too much, again the forces of conservatism rolled back the immediate achievements of revolution. The ‘June Days’ brought bourgeoisie and working classes into opposition. Bourgeois politicians had again turned their back on working class support. Karl Marx identified class conflict in the ‘June Days’ uprising that effectively signalled a termination of the short-lived Second Republic. A Thermidorean reaction in the ensuing presidential election saw, mainly driven in by nostalgic peasant support, Louis Napoleon, in an overwhelming electoral victory, seize control of the State apparatus and lead the Second Empire. A right-wing political lurch after initial success by the working classes was nothing new in Revolutionary France.

The new authoritarian regime produced an immediate economic recovery. Louis Napoleon, with social Caesarist gestures, succeeded in appeasing the working classes, leading to a prolonged period of relative industrial stability. For the first time since the 1820s, when real wages had fallen behind, remuneration increased in real terms for wage earners. The economic livret was used to restrict workers’ freedom and served as a means of police surveillance on the ‘dangerous classes’. However, the new Imperial government did concede certain rights to the working classes, and actively encouraged a degree of economic self-organization.

The powerful central Jacobin State, characteristic of post-revolutionary dirigiste government in France meant that political unrest always focused on the central authority as the ultimate cause of intolerable conditions. The increased franchise, gradually gained as the nineteenth century unfolded, ultimately broke the cycle of full-scale revolution. They key demands of working classes were universal suffrage, an end to poverty and increased living standards or reduction in poor working conditions. The ending of the Le Chapelier law was a milestone for the nascent voice of the proletariat. Following each revolution that was driven by the workers’ movement there was a ‘subsequent emergence of a more homogenous working class’ (Jefferys 2003:28)

There was reckless foreign policy from a characteristically Bonapartist Emperor, whose narcissistic Jupiterism had also succeeded in isolating much of his support in France, as the economy struggled to deal with increased military campaigning. An unnecessary war with Prussia meant that a weary, weaker French army of conscripts faced the emerging powers of Prussian troops, successfully led by Otto Von Bismarck. Napoleon III’s capture on 1 September 1870 at the Battle of Sedan saw his imperial reign collapse. The population of Paris had been starved to submission by a Prussian encirclement, forcing the populace to eat the exotic animals of the Paris Zoo. The Treaty of Frankfurt was signed and the Law of Maturities to deal with reparations payments was a further stranglehold on dire French economic conditions.

The Government of National Defense heralded the start of the Third Republic under right-wing Thiers. He had succeeded in alienating the State from predominant left-wing political tendencies in the Paris population. A rebellious National Guard refused to follow government orders to disarm and joined Blanquist socialist groups from the working classes to rise up against the government and form the Paris Commune, a situation of radical left-wing democratic government that Marx identified as an example of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. It was the first real example of a socialist revolution. During the Commune there was a focus on improving workers’ rights, and the Communards represented the zenith of working class political aspirations during this revolutionary century. ‘La Semaine Sanglante’ beginning 21st May 1871, saw the fearful return of revolutionary backlash Conservatism and government troops entered the Commune and crushed aspiring socialists.

‘The seizure of power aside, the movement prefigured a hitherto undreamt-of municipal socialism and held promise of a great future.’ (Charle 1994:104)

In the Third Republic, memories of the Paris Commune strengthened working class solidarité and in the wake of the three nineteenth century revolutions, the true face of organized labour began to unmask itself. Anarcho-syndicalists co-ordinated strikes and focused on ending capitalism and achieved great success into the early years of the following century. Syndicalism was the logical progression of revolutionary ideology and had at its heart socialist values that would use the strike as a direct political weapon against the State.

‘Revolutionary, violent, antiorganization, individualistic – these terms seem to describe both the French character and syndicalism.’ (Stearns 1971:3)

Also, on the back of the left-wing successes of the Commune, left-wing politics gathered force with the creation of the POF (Parti Ouvrier Français) in 1882.

In conclusion, the common theme of each of the revolutions is that working classes were betrayed by bourgeois politics and return to economic liberalism. These economic factors and the political betrayals led to the perpetuity of revolution throughout the nineteenth century. Although each revolution could be seen as a failure on behalf of the working classes, the ideas and memories from each event led to gains and most of the initial grievances had been addressed by the end of the century. The progress of the working classes had been consolidated by the advent of the Third Republic and the working classes had succeeded in achieving a true organized labour movement. The creation of socialist political parties and the anarcho-syndicalists were the offspring of the working class struggle during the revolutionary events of 1830, 1848 and 1870. The trends that can be identified during the nineteenth century are that the working classes, through struggle, raised their living standards, improved democratic rights and reduced the oppression that they faced. These achievements meant that the cycle of revolution in France could finally cease and everything was in place so that the voice of the working classes could not be ignored long into the age of the modern political age. The revolutions were all catalysts for improvements in working class conditions.



Bastiat, Frédéric. 2012 A letter to a Group of Supporters in Law State Other Political (Collected Works of Frederic Bastiat) Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Inc

Charle, Christophe. 1994 A Social History of France in the 19th Century Oxford: Berg

Coutant, Arnaud. 2008 Tocqueville et la constitution démocratique: Souveraineté du peuple et libertés. Essai. Paris: Mare & Martin

Jefferys, Steve. 2003 Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité at Work – Changing French Employment Relations and Management Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Judt, Tony. 2011 Marxism and the French Left – Studies on Labour and Politics in France, 1830-1981 New York: Oxford University Press

Magraw, Roger. 1988 France 1815-1914 The Bourgeois Century London: Fontana

Parsons, Nick. 2005 French Industrial Relations in the New World Economy Oxon: Routledge

Stearns, Peyer N. 1971 Revolutionary Syndicalism and French Labor: A Cause without Rebels New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press