democracy

The Problem of Democracy: Radical Political Traditions in the Revolutions of 1848

By guest contributor Pamela C. Nogales C.

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Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848

Prompted by the experience of the second world war, historian Lewis Namier described the undemocratic birth of modern republics in his 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals (1944) and warned of the unintended consequences of nineteenth-century liberal ideals. On the process of nation-making, he wrote, “States are not created or destroyed, and frontiers redrawn or obliterated, by argument and majority votes;” rather, “nations are freed, united, or broken by blood and iron, and not by a generous application of liberty and tomato-sauce; violence is the instrument of national movements.” He reminded historians that forging national democracies had required men of influence and wealth, who were capable of combining their force to create a government and to defend it against imperial bayonets. Thus, if successful, the government of a democratic nation was composed of those who were victorious in seizing the political leadership of a new state and using its executive force to fight hostile forces—both from outside and within. While their final aim was a world without war, European liberals of the nineteenth century imagined that this end required a national government ready and willing to defend itself against armed invasion and domestic insurrection. It was common, for example, for liberal papers in Prussia to call for war against the Russian Empire in order to secure the success of democratic republics. Thus, already by 1848, the contest for democracy was bound up with the problem of executive force and raised difficult questions about the appropriate means to an end.

Liberals’ strategic orientation toward state governments corresponded to the political realities of 1848. The Austrian, Prussian and Russian Empires, the pillars of the old eighteenth-century “Holy Alliance,” aimed to extinguish any spark of national revolution. And in the end, they were successful—this time, with the help of the soon-to-be French emperor, Louis Bonaparte. In the German states, the Frankfurt National Assembly was dissolved, and revolutionary governments and rebellions were crushed by Prussian troops; Bonaparte dismantled the French National Assembly in Paris, reestablished the monarchy and helped to restore Papal rule in the Italian peninsula; and the republican Magyar government in Hungary was toppled by a joint army of Russian and Austrian forces. This international defeat was among the most formative, political experiences of an entire generation of reformers and it signaled a split in the liberal tradition in Europe and beyond. Political demarcations shifted and became considerably more pronounced after the failure of the revolutions. The republicans, socialists and anarchists of this generation drew different lessons from these conflicts. But at the center of their disputes was the role of the nation in creating a democratic society.

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Ferdinand Schröder’s caricature of the suppression of the revolutions of 1848 (published in the Düsseldorfer Monatshefte, August 1849)

While the initial American response to the 1848 revolutions was overwhelmingly positive, the excitement over the French revolution was short-lived in the American capital. The Polk administration sustained the recognition of the new French republic by the U.S. Minister in Paris, Richard Rush, but several government officials preferred a mere congratulatory message—if any. South Carolina’s John Calhoun suggested that the Senate withhold their esteem until a new French Constitution was drafted and a permanent government was installed. Only then would it be possible to know if the national government deserved the Senate’s approbation. A cautious attitude was required because, as Whig Congressman Samuel Phelps of Vermont noted, “when the wheel of revolution begins to revolve, who can…tell where it will stop.”

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Walt Whitman’s poem “Resurgemus,” paying tribute to the Revolutions of 1848 (published in the New York Daily Tribune, June 21, 1850).

While Calhoun prioritized the stability of the American republic above the risky upheavals of the Parisian workers, abolitionist Fredrick Douglass argued that to abandon the people of France because they demand freedom, jobs and better wages, amounted to a betrayal of America’s revolutionary roots. But Calhoun’s perspective was more representative of the majority of the Senate than those held by the radical abolitionists.

Ambivalence toward the European socialists was common among the liberals in the United States. Of special concern were the French National Workshops, a state program designed to facilitate the employment of all laborers. Whig Senator Daniel Webster commented on the new constitution, which guaranteed “to all Frenchmen, not only liberty and security, but also employment and property.” For Webster this was an impossible task, “How can any government fulfill such a promise?”

The New Orleans Daily Picayune wondered why the French would riot after they were given the vote. Why rebel against their own constituent assembly? Charles A. Dana, a Boston novelist and European correspondent for the New-York Tribune, offered a radical interpretation. He explained that the Revolution of 1789 aimed to destroy feudalism, while the new revolution was “to destroy the moneyed feudalism and lay the foundations of social liberty.” New England poet James Russell Lowell shared Dana’s interpretation when he called 1848 the first social revolution of the modern world. Lowell wrote that the “first French Revolution was only the natural recoil of an oppressed and imbruted people.” In contrast, “the Revolution of 1848 [was] achieved by the working class,” and “at the bottom of [it] lies the idea of . . . social reorganization and regeneration”.Faced with armed citizens in the streets of Paris, the French liberals were forced to confront the “social question” squarely.

The forceful confrontation with the social question was provoked from outside liberal circles. Outside of France, European liberals were supporters of constitutional monarchies, that is, they were the defenders of parliamentary sovereignty over the dynastic power of kings. But they displayed outright contempt for the uneducated masses and had no intention of giving working people the vote. During the revolutions of 1848, it was those who fell under the label “social democrats” who were alone in demanding the extension of the franchise beyond the propertied classes. Among them was a motley crew of utopian socialists, Christian communists and “red Republicans” who rejected an elite democracy for a greater vision of political participation. These radicals were also in conversation with anarchists of different stripes, as well as women like George Sand, the revolutionary French socialist, who included women’s emancipation as part of her utopic demands. These radicals targeted the problems posed by the “hungry ’30s,” the rampant famine in the countryside, the rise in unemployment among city laborers and the decline of the artisan system of production. They argued that contemporary social inequality was hardly a natural outcome of talent, rather, it was a problem of society and thus could be resolved if made subject to politics. The disparate political tendencies grouped under social democracy were thus connected by the belief that the democratic revolutions of previous centuries promised a vision for human emancipation yet to be realized, but one that was receding from view amidst the changing social relations of the nineteenth century. While trying to recover past promises, radicals began to demand a future otherwise unimaginable from the perspective of European liberals alone.

What is the role of the modern nation in the long battle to achieve democracy? This was the question posed in 1848.  Liberals, anarchists, and socialists all attempted to answer this question in thought and political practice. Their ideological differences did not correspond to sociological demarcations—they did not “express” a class position. Rather, the differences between these traditions must be found in their intellectual histories as well as their political practice. And we can hardly understand the meaning of these differences without a grasp of the shared concerns across these traditions.

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Thibault, “Barricades After the Attack, Rue Saint-Maur” (June 26 1848)

It has become commonplace over the course of the twentieth century to imagine the political traditions of anarchism and socialism as fundamentally opposed to classical liberal values. From this perspective however, it is impossible to understand why an insurrectionary anarchist like Louis-Auguste Blanqui spoke of the French liberal Benjamin Constant as “one of the firmest upholders of French freedom”; why Karl Marx felt indebted to Adam Smith and John Locke for their conception of civil society; why during 1848 and ’49, the red flag was carried sometimes in opposition to but sometimes as a supplement to the tricolor of French republicans; or why the radical tailors of the 1840s reading Gracchus Babeuf out loud in their Parisian workshops still supported small-property ownership as a fundamental right of all free citizens. What we miss by setting up a strict antinomy between these political traditions are their embedded intellectual histories and their entanglement in the revolutionary history of the nineteenth century. We overlook how these ideas were tested, reconfigured and revised in response to the on-going attempts to transform society. And we do a disservice to intellectual history by treating political ideas as static concepts (as hardened “ideology”), rather than deriving their hermeneutic force from the transformative potential they carried at the time of their articulation.

Pamela C. Nogales C. is a Ph.D. candidate in American history at New York University, working on radical political thought on both sides of the Atlantic, with a special interest in the mid-nineteenth century crisis of democracy, the social question, and the contributions by nineteenth-century European political exiles in the United States. She is currently working on her dissertation, “Reform in the Age of Capital: The Transatlantic Roots of Radical Political Thought in the United States, 1828–1877.” She is based in Berlin and can be reached at pam.nogales@gmail.com

French Liberals and the Capacity for Citizenship

by guest contributor Gianna Englert

M.L. Bosredon, “L’urne et le fusil” (April 1848). A worker sets aside his weapon to engage in the act of voting—a faith that universal suffrage would mitigate violence. This was a claim that liberals rejected.

2017 has done a lot for the history of ideas. “Post-truth” politics, tyranny, nationalism, and the nature of executive power have pushed us to make sense of the present by appealing to the past. The history of political thought offers solid ground, a way to steady ourselves—not to venerate what has come before, but to use it to clarify or challenge our own ideas.

Debates surrounding citizenship also lend themselves to this approach. They return us to foundational political questions. They force us to ask who is in, who is out, and why.

These questions are not new, nor are they distinctly American. We can learn about them from a seemingly unlikely time and place: from liberal theorists in nineteenth-century France, who were similarly concerned to find solid ground. As Jeremy Jennings notes in his Revolution and the Republic, “the Revolution, and the Republic it produced, gave birth to a prolonged and immensely sophisticated debate about what it meant to be a member of a political community…. It was a debate about the very fundamentals of politics” (25). Democrats used the language of rights, primarily the right to vote. Liberals defended capacité (capacity) as that which preceded political rights. Capacity conferred the title to political participation—it defined who was and who was not a participant in the franchise. There was much at stake in this definition. Only a capable citizenry could overcome revolutionary passion by reason, and safeguard the freedoms and institutions that would ensure a stable nation.

The discourse of capacity drew criticism from liberalism’s nineteenth-century opponents and later scholars. French liberals have been criticized for espousing exclusionary politics that tied citizenship to wealth and social class. Yet this interpretation misrepresents their theory of citizenship. Capacity was actually an elastic, potentially expansive standard for political inclusion. The liberal definition of the citizen was similarly flexible, designed to evolve alongside changing social and economic conditions.

François Guizot (1787-1874)

The discourse of capacité originated with François Guizot (1787-1874), whose politics and personality have long been associated with the revolution of 1848. But his historical lectures, delivered from 1820-22 and again in 1828, offer an alternative to his image as unpopular, uncompromising politician. Prior his role in the July Monarchy, he was known for his narrative history of European institutions—praised by theorists in France, Germany, and even by John Stuart Mill in England. His method of “philosophical history” linked politics to society through the study of the past. Political institutions had to fit the given “social state,” a term that encompassed both economic and class structure. “Before becoming a cause,” Guizot wrote, “political institutions are an effect; society produces them before being modified by them” (Essays on the History of France, 83). Philosophical history was most valuable for how it informed French politics. From the perspective it provided, Guizot saw that neither aristocratic nor democratic rule was well suited to post-revolutionary French society. He championed the alternative of a representative government with capable rather than universal suffrage.

What did it mean to be capable? Guizot associated capacity with individual rationality, independence, and economic participation. Most importantly, the capable citizen could recognize and promote “the social interest,” a standard apart from the individual and the family. The citizen, a participant in the franchise, was first and foremost a member of the community, capable of recognizing what the public good demanded. Guizot named commercial participation among the signs of capacity, as it revealed one’s engagement—indeed, one’s membership—in society.

Those signs of capacity were also variable. Just as political institutions depended upon historically variable social conditions, so too did the requirements of citizenship change over time. Given capacity’s historical character, it was simply wrong to define the capable electorate as a permanently exclusive class. Capacity should remain ever open to “legal suspicion,” since:

The determination of the conditions of capacity and that of the external characteristics which reveal it, possess, by the very nature of things, no universal or permanent character. And not only is it unnecessary to endeavor to fix them, but the laws should oppose any unchangeable prescription regarding them. (History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe, 337)

But Guizot’s own political career was at odds with his theory. If we limit our study to his writings and speeches under the July Monarchy, the image of a dogmatic, inflexible thinker inevitably surfaces. In 1847, he condemned universal suffrage before the Chamber as a destructive force, “whose day would never come” (Speech of 26 March, Histoire Parliamentaire V, 383). Absent from Guizot’s later thought is any mention of the fluidity of capacity or of the potentially more inclusive electorate that might follow.

Guizot’s politics show the path liberalism took on the question of citizenship. Liberals tried to impede the progress of mass politics, and to restrict the franchise to a small, permanent class of the capable. Unsurprisingly, they failed.  In an effort to avoid the rule of the multitude, liberals proposed increasingly stringent residency and property requirements for suffrage, which at once disenfranchised and frustrated much of the population. In a democratizing society, liberals vainly stood astride history. But they also failed to live according to their own standards. They tried to preserve as static that which was intended, as Guizot first argued, to be elastic: the concept of capacity and the idea of the citizen. When liberals sacrificed their theoretical foundations to defend political power, they lost the battle for both.

Despite liberalism’s political limits, we should not dismiss the promise of its theory. In his historical discussion of capacity, Guizot separated citizenship from social class. Capacity was not an exclusive, permanent possession for certain persons or classes, but an evolving, potentially progressive standard for inclusion. If capacity was tied to history, extension of the franchise was possible and in some cases, necessary.

Can liberalism’s past help us make sense of the present? The tradition’s complicated history, marked by tension between theory and practice, offers both a rich vision of citizenship and a cautionary tale of political exclusion. Guizotian capacity would preclude exclusions based explicitly on ascriptive characteristics like race, ethnicity, and gender. But as Guizot’s practical politics revealed, “capacity” could also be co-opted to justify these kind of exclusions, or to import fixed standards for citizenship under the guise of so-called progressive appeals to rationality or independence. This is the darker side of any standard for inclusion, and we should be worried about the potential abuses associated with such standards. The political positions of nineteenth century liberals remind us of these darker possibilities, which persist under different forms even in present-day liberal democracies.

Still, capacity has advantages for thinking about liberal citizenship more broadly. Though French liberals most often addressed the right to vote, they also explored what made someone an informal member of the community, with ties to a given place, way of life, and common cause. And they urged that these informal elements of social membership distinguished the individual from the citizen, arguing that the law ought to track social realities rather than resist them—that citizenship was not just suffrage, but a set of practices and relationships that the law ought to recognize. This resonates with our contemporary experience. There are entire groups of people who are undoubtedly members of American communities without being citizens, who participate in society without benefit of the full complement of civil and political rights. Guizot’s thought shows that we need not invoke thick, idealized conceptions of participation to inform liberal democratic practice or its standards for inclusion. For all of its difficulties, the liberal discourse of capacity prompts us to reconsider what it means to be a member of a political community—a question that has not lost any urgency.

Gianna Englert is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Political Theory Project at Brown University. She holds a Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University. Her current book manuscript, Industry and Inclusion: Citizenship in the French Liberal Tradition, explores the economic dimensions of citizenship and political membership in nineteenth-century French liberalism.