“A spectre is haunting Europe–the spectre of communism.” So Marx and Engels declared in the Communist Manifesto, a text written in anticipation of the revolutionary wave that swept Europe in 1848. And yet, at the conclusion of that great struggle, Europe looked much the same as it had before.

But despite their ultimate defeats–and in many cases because of those defeats–the 1848 Revolutions were formative to the development of Marx and Engels’ theory of social transformation. While not as familiar to Marxists today as the Russian Revolution of 1917, the 1848 Revolutions are an important part of history for socialists to understand. They provide the key context when reading Marx’s writings during and after the revolutionary wave. These revolutions were the background for the writing of Marx’s famous Communist Manifesto, and their defeat decisively informed Marx’s theory of class struggle and workers’ revolution.

The Long Shadow of the Great Revolution

It is impossible to understand the 1848 Revolutions, and the approach of the different actors within them, without some sense of the era that came before. The seventeenth century, and even moreso the eighteenth, were times of social revolution in Europe and the Americas. Capitalism had been growing in the cities of old Europe, and in a few countries the bourgeoisie had grown strong enough to challenge the feudal ruling class for state power. The English Revolution of the seventeenth century was the opening act, but the most decisive and terrifying to the old order was the Great Revolution of 1789-92 in France, which saw the royal family guillotined and noble privileges abolished.

As a revolution to overthrow one minority class only to put another in its place, the French Revolution contained contradictory dynamics. The French bourgeoisie, and the intellectuals who spoke for it, sought at most to overthrow the most backward and irrational of feudal restraints, but to do that they needed the aid of the urban masses. Over the three radical years of 1789 to 1792, the pressure of the poorest social layers pushed the revolution forward to more and more radical conclusions. Ultimately, though, the revolution was constrained, and the more radical gains wound back.

Even six decades later, in 1848, the Great Revolution was the yardstick by which all politics was measured. Conservatives detested the revolution. Liberals thought the revolution had gone too far. But another strain of thought had developed based around the idea that the revolution had not gone far enough. The most identifiable progenitor of these ideas was Gracchus Babeuf and his Conspiracy of Equals, active in the mid 1790s. Babeuf proclaimed the problem was not just feudal property, but private property in general, and he sought to organise the working class and urban poor to fight for its abolition. After a failed attempt at insurrection, Babeuf was killed. But his ideas would live on in the working class of Paris and those intellectuals who empathised with their plight–ideas that would eventually be called socialism.

Socialism, then as now, meant many things to many people. When Marx and Engels first entered the scene of radical politics in France there were many workers who identified with and contributed to socialist thought through the many workers' clubs in Paris, but there was not yet a theory of socialism that had class at its core.

Instead, the key socialist thinkers of the early nineteenth century were idealists. For them, the central problem was that society was dominated by bad ideas. Some understood this in religious terms, others were more or less secular. But to all of them, capitalism was a problem of all humanity that fell to humanity in general to solve–and usually with a special place for enlightened individuals such as themselves. It fell to Marx and Engels to win the socialist movement to a material perspective of class struggle. They spent the years running up to 1848 embroiled in bitter polemics, debates, and organisational battles in order to do so.

It was not just the radicals who were trying to figure out the way forward, though. There were also differences of opinion among those who supported capitalism. There were divisions inside the capitalist class itself, especially between the richest and most powerful capitalists, who had often come to a mutually beneficial understanding with the rulers of their country,  and the smaller capitalists, who faced barriers to their ability to influence government and pursue their own social advancement.

This material divide in the capitalist class was reflected in a political divide. On one side, speaking for the biggest capitalists, were the bourgeois conservatives. They wanted liberty for business and industry, but had no interest in the extension of democracy even to other capitalists: it was better for them if they were the only ones involved in decision making. On the other, speaking for the smaller capitalists, the professionals, and the middle class were the bourgeois liberals and democrats. These layers wanted first and foremost the right to vote and participate in government themselves, and so supported the extension of the franchise. But not so far as to include the popular masses, who had so terrorised them in the Great Revolution.

The two wings of bourgeois politics may not have agreed on much, but they were certain of one thing: they did not want another revolution. But it was coming nonetheless.

The Volcano

Marx and Engels were not the only ones to foresee the rising revolutionary tide. In France the liberal politician Alexis de Tocqueville warned his fellows on the eve of the struggles of 1848, "We are sleeping together in a volcano. ...A wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon."

The volcano in France was not the same as it had been in 1789. Then, the contradiction had been between an emerging capitalist class and an archaic feudal state. In 1848, the regime, named the July Monarchy, was quite openly for and of the capitalist class, and especially the large capitalists of the financial sector. The king, Louis Phillipe, filled his cabinet with bankers like Casimir Perier, who was appointed President of the Council. Instead of a class struggle between a rising bourgeoisie and the feudal ruling class, the political struggles that were brewing were between the increasing authoritarianism and tyranny of a conservative bourgeois state and the desires of liberal reformers.

In the rest of continental Europe, it was a different story. The economic and military success of the more fully capitalist states, Britain and France, had posed the question of modernisation. But the great powers of Europe–the Austrian Habsburg Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Kingdom of Prussia that dominated Germany–had answered the question with a decisive no. Even liberal opposition, which demanded no more than a constitutional monarchy and the rationalisation of laws, was suppressed.

Another complication in these countries was the national question. In the old days, feudal regimes the world over had claimed legitimacy to rule through divine right. But the bourgeois revolutions in England and France had challenged that assumption. In place of divine right, they put forward the “will of the nation”. Nationalism is a thoroughly bourgeois concept. In the hands of a capitalist ruling class, it is used to try to weld together people who have different class interests on the basis of a shared common language or ethnicity. But nationalism can also be a framework for the oppressed to articulate their struggle against a foreign power. And in an age of arbitrary and superstitious feudal monarchies, the creation of a capitalist nation-state with laws and rights was in any case a great leap forward.

These nationalist pressures were both divisive and unifying. In the Austrian Empire, the Magyars (Hungarians) and Czechs sought the right to break away and establish autonomy or even independence. In Germany, on the other hand, bourgeois nationalists sought to unify the German peoples in a single empire, sweeping away the patchwork of feudal principalities to create a single state with one legal and regulatory framework. In the Italian city-states, under the direct control or indirect pressure of the Austrians, it worked in both directions: independence from the Habsburgs, and unification with the other city-states of the peninsula.

The first of the revolts of 1848 was one such bourgeois nationalist struggle in Sicily, but it was soon overshadowed by that old centre of revolution in Europe: France.

The Revolution in France

On 22 February 1848, a campaign by the liberal opposition to the July Monarchy culminated in a tense standoff in Paris. For years, these bourgeois would-be reformers had been denied the right to politically organise by the increasingly authoritarian French state. Over the past few months, they had sought to skirt the ban by organising a campaign of private banquets. These political banquets were not hotbeds of leftist radicalism. Most of the participants hated socialists and anarchists, were disgusted by the working class, and feared the thought of revolution just as much as King Louis Phillipe. All they wanted was electoral reform, to include a larger portion of the capitalist and professional classes in the decision making of the state. It was, they thought, quite reasonable.

The French government disagreed. On the eve of 22 February, when the campaign’s final banquet was scheduled to take place in Paris, the king and his minister of the interior, Guizot, banned the gathering and any future banquets. The liberal opposition organised a symbolic march to show their dissatisfaction, chanting “long live the reform” and “down with Guizot”, before settling down to work on legal appeals and petitions.

But it was not only the bourgeois reformers who had a problem with the July Monarchy. The decade of the 1840s had been nicknamed the "hungry forties" because of the agricultural crises that had wracked Europe. Ireland’s notorious Potato Famine was a part of this process, but the ramifications of the agricultural failure went far beyond one crop. Shocks in the food industry pushed the financial sector over the edge too, and the French economy fell into sharp decline.

As usual, the poor and the working class were made to pay for the crisis. In France, this took the form of massive lay-offs of workers in the city, and tax hikes for starving peasants in the countryside. Even sections of the middle classes suffered as demand for artisanal goods and for professional services collapsed, hurtling these once affluent families into or near to destitution.

So when the liberal opposition abandoned the streets for the courts in February, the workers and the urban masses stayed out. In the radical workers' clubs, many had been organising for months, waiting for this exact moment. Some of the older generation had been there in the July Revolution of 1830, and the memory of barricade-fighting was alive and well in the Parisian working class. That memory was put to good use. Blocked streets and demonstrations brought the city to a standstill.

The next day, Guizot resigned. The king had decided that he would sacrifice the minister in order to save the regime. But it was too little too late. Rather than satisfy the protestors, Guizot’s resignation spurred them on. The insurrection truly began when a demonstration outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was fired upon, killing 52 protestors. After that, the masses of Paris were no longer protesting but fighting street by street against the forces of the July Monarchy. Importantly, the National Guard, an institution of the French state that was drawn mostly from the middle classes, refused to fire upon the workers. King Louis Phillipe’s fate was sealed, and he fled the country.

The July Monarchy was gone, but it was not clear what would replace it. While the king and his regime remained, the liberal opposition and the radical workers had a common foe: something to struggle against alongside one another. With the departure of the king, there was no such common ground. As Marx wrote in an article in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung,Fraternité, the brotherhood of antagonistic classes, one of which exploits the other, this fraternity which in February was proclaimed and inscribed in large letters on the facades of Paris, on every prison and every barracks–this fraternity found its true, unadulterated and prosaic expression in civil war, civil war in its most terrible aspect, the war of labour against capital.”

Immediately following the first uprising, much was uncertain about what the future state would look like. Would it be a true republic or a constitutional monarchy? Would the franchise be extended to the working class and peasantry? And what would the state do about the mass unemployment?

The July Monarchy was gone, and a Second Republic was declared mere days after the flight of King Louis Phillipe. The vote was granted to every adult male, a massive victory for democracy. But when the demands of the workers came up against the limits of the capitalist system, they were defeated or undermined. Even the right to vote, which was fought for by the left, was used against them. Knowing the political mindset of the peasantry in most of France, the conservatives campaigned hard in the provinces to win a majority of the National Constituent Assembly. From this position of strength, they could attack all the gains of the radicals.

The key battle line ended up being the National Workshops. These were imagined as utopian schemes for changing the nature of labour, removing the profit motive and replacing them with works for the public good. Under the immediate pressure of the revolution, the Second Republic had allowed these National Workshops to be created, but they made sure they functioned much more like social welfare, guaranteeing a wage to unemployed workers in exchange for their labour on public works. But the liberals and moderates hated even this, because it infringed on the rights of capitalists to exploit workers at will by hiring and firing on an unregulated labour market. They sought to eventually destroy the National Workshops.

Lamartine rejects the red flag
Lamartine rejects the red flag: a symbol of the liberal renunciation of socialism.

The workers did not take this lying down. In the following months, battles were fought between the radical working class political clubs and the conservative-dominated Constituent National Assembly. The first big confrontation was on 15 May, when 20,000 workers marched to the Chamber of Deputies, took over the building and spent hours making speeches demanding the resignation of the government’s executive, the creation of a Ministry of Labour that would defend workers’ rights, and for military aid to the national minorities around Europe that were fighting for their freedoms as part of the Europe-wide wave of democratic uprisings that was taking place in 1848.

Forebodingly, this demonstration and occupation was broken up by the very force which had defended revolutionaries from the government forces in February: the National Guard. The middle-class soldiers of the National Guard had sided with the workers against the king, but they had shown that they would side with the bourgeoisie against the workers. This was a portent of things to come.

The great struggle came in June, when the government closed the National Workshops. It gave workers a choice: enlist in the regular army and fight in France’s colonial wars, or face poverty and starvation.

The workers chose insurrection.

For three days, the working class of Paris struggled heroically against the forces of the French army. Workers fought tooth and nail for every inch of territory against a foe that had them both outnumbered and outgunned. Women workers threw off the chains of their oppression and led the fight: heroes emerged like Elisabeth Guibal, who was arrested for running about the streets armed with a sword and smashing windows to facilitate the seizure of arms, and Veuve Henry, the 76-year-old veteran of the 1830 Revolution, who led other women at the barricades of the Rue des Trois-Couronnes at Belleville.

On the other side, the government had prepared by recalling their best commander from the colonial wars in Algeria, General Cavaignac. Street by street, and block by bloody block, his army bombed, shot and cut down workers to reclaim Paris. Despite their best attempts, the workers of Paris alone could not hope to defeat the French army. The June Days uprising was drowned in blood.

Once the city was under his control, Cavaignac was given special powers by the Second Republic so he could to maintain “order”. He essentially oversaw a military dictatorship with liberal trappings. His regime would pave the way for the more overt dictatorship of Louis Napoleon. In this way, the French Revolution of 1848 ended in much the same way as the Great Revolution of 1789-92, with the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte aping his uncle: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”, Marx would later write.

The Springtime of the Peoples

A similar story would play out across the rest of Europe. The French example had spurred revolutions from Rome to Vienna to Berlin to Budapest, in a series of revolts and revolutions that were quickly called the Springtime of the Peoples. But capitalism was not as developed in these countries as it was in France. The working class was smaller, and the fighting in the cities was undertaken mostly by students and the middle classes. Where they did make an appearance on the stage of history, the workers or proto-working class layers were the most radical and determined section of the revolutions–they could see that they would need to fight for their liberation.

But the capitalist class and its allies in the middle and professional classes had learned a different lesson. To capitalists, the example of the French Revolution–both in 1792 and now in 1848–proved that there was a greater threat than the tyranny of the old regimes. Some bourgeois liberals wanted constitutional reform, national autonomy, and sometimes even a limited democracy, but not as much as they wanted to maintain their position in society and to prevent unrest below.

The bourgeois liberals could see that a truly democratic transformation of society, where the toilers were able to decide the nature of their labour, and to what ends it would be put, would mean an end to the capitalists’ existence, as they would no longer be able to freely exploit workers. Middle-class democratic liberals who supported capitalism had to defend it from the threat of workers organising for economic equality and radical democracy. And so, when the dust cleared on the initial uprisings, they sought most of all to establish order and make peace with the powers that be.

This was perhaps starkest in the German principalities, where the liberals were so desperate to maintain their negotiations with the old nobility that they opposed continuing the struggle. The more radical and working class forces were left to fight on their own, and were easily defeated by the German kings and princes.

By the April of 1849, the only remaining bastion of the national independence struggles was Hungary. Fierce resistance by the Magyars had fought off the Austrian Habsburgs several times, but in April the Habsburg emperor called for aid from the Russian Tsar, and tens of thousands of Russian soldiers invaded the country to finally stamp out the Springtime of the Peoples.

Rather than being unified and turned into capitalist republics through democratic struggle from below, the nations of Italy and Germany were eventually forged together with military might by their old ruling classes. The Prussians conquered and absorbed the remaining German principalities, and the kings of Piedmont-Sardinia eventually brought the rest of Italy under their heel.

The Legacy of 1848

The 1848 Revolutions went down to brutal and bloody defeat. Many of the things that they fought for are no longer relevant for us: capitalism is no longer a force of development revolutionising old feudal production techniques, and in any case, it already exists all around the globe today. And it would be up to later revolutions to answer key questions about what it takes to destroy and displace the capitalist nation-states that were being built in the nineteenth century, and what kind of organisation socialists and revolutionaries would need to do so.

That does not mean that there was nothing to learn from the failures, though. Marx and Engels had participated in the German events of 1848, and so experienced the soaring heights and hellish lows of revolutionary struggle. From this experience, they drew valuable lessons that revolutionaries and socialists even today would do well to keep in mind. Marx’s Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, usually referred simply as the March Address, is perhaps the most concise and clear enunciation of these lessons.

In the address, Marx and Engels lay out the central historical truth: that the interests of the working class and popular masses were betrayed by the liberal wing of the capitalist class. “We told you already in 1848, brothers, that the German liberal bourgeoisie would soon come to power and would immediately turn its newly won power against the workers,” they told their comrades. “You have seen how this forecast came true.”

This was not just a singular event. It represented the politics of the capitalist class and its middle-class supporters everywhere. “The democratic petty bourgeois, far from wanting to transform the whole society in the interests of the revolutionary proletarians, only aspire to a change in social conditions which will make the existing society as tolerable and comfortable for themselves as possible.”

All of this meant that in all future struggles, the bourgeoisie and the middle classes could no longer be trusted to be revolutionary–even if revolution would achieve their own professed goals. Instead, they would turn to the forces of the old regime to crush the greater threat to their social status: the revolutionary action of the working class. In light of this historical evaluation, certain political and organisational measures were necessary.

Firstly and most immediately, the parties of revolutionary socialism needed class independence. The liberals and middle-class democrats sought unity with the working class only in order to constrain them to the liberals’ own limited agenda. “Instead of lowering themselves to the level of an applauding chorus, the workers, and above all the League, must work for the creation of an independent organization of the workers’ party, both secret and open, and alongside the official democrats, and the League must aim to make every one of its communes a center and nucleus of workers’ associations in which the position and interests of the proletariat can be discussed free from bourgeois influence.”

Barricades on the Rue Saint-Maur after the June uprising.
Barricades on the Rue Saint-Maur after the June uprising.

This was the case even in regards to elections, which Marx and Engels did not dismiss engaging in. There was a guiding principle in such campaigns, though: “that workers’ candidates are nominated everywhere in opposition to bourgeois-democratic candidates… Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention.”

Secondly, in the time of future revolutionary upheavals, the working class must gain and maintain its own arms. “To be able forcefully and threateningly to oppose this party, whose betrayal of the workers will begin with the very first hour of victory, the workers must be armed and organized.” These workers’ militias would be opposed by the bourgeois forces, but in no circumstance could revolutionaries support their disarmament or their absorption into classless–and therefore in reality bourgeois-dominated–citizen or national guard corps.

Thirdly, at the time of the overthrow of the old regime and the creation of a new democratic or liberal bourgeois government, revolutionaries must immediately begin the struggle against this new regime. “As soon as the new governments have established themselves, their struggle against the workers will begin. If the workers are to be able to forcibly oppose the democratic petty bourgeois it is essential above all for them to be independently organized…”

Marx summed up these principles at the end of the address. “But [the workers] themselves must contribute most to their final victory, by informing themselves of their own class interests, by taking up their independent political position as soon as possible, by not allowing themselves to be misled by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeoisie into doubting for one minute the necessity of an independently organized party of the proletariat. Their battle-cry must be: The Permanent Revolution.”

Many so-called Marxists throughout history were either ignorant of or intentionally avoided the lessons of 1848 and the March Address. These were, of course, the forces of “socialism” who sought to compromise with liberals, democrats or nationalists– from reformist “Social Democracy” to the right-wing Stalinism of the Popular Front period in the 1930s.

But the main dynamics of the 1848 Revolutions–the wavering of the liberals and reformers, their fear of the radicalism of a revolutionary working class, and the inevitable emergence of class antagonisms during a revolution–will remain central in all revolutions so long as capitalism continues to exist. Those who want to win the next revolutionary struggle would do well to heed the lessons learned, which led to some of the most important developments in revolutionary Marxist thought.