People in the capital were at their wits end with the government. They were sick of being kept down and poor with no real rights, and an autocratic ruler. Over successive days the crowd started to grow. Soon civilian militias started taking on the government troops and in some places the soldiers agreed with the plight of the people. The military even started to fight along side them. Revolution fervor was contagious and it started to spread to other countries linking the area’s classical liberal movements. Each revolution was unique but the central theme was to increase representation and have a fairer society. In some places there was even talk of women’s rights. What I am describing isn’t the revolutions of today, but the Revolutions of 1848.
During the last month we have seen the burning torch of revolution and freedom blazing across North Africa and parts of the Middle East. Starting in Tunisia, moving to Egypt, Yemen and then Bahrain and now we see freedom fighters in Libya going up against a determined dictator. Some of the revolutions have been successful and in some cases have actually set up new governments. However, time will tell if they are successful
The Revolutions of 1848 didn’t end too well. In France the working class and the bourgeoisie liberal class were growing tired of the policies of King Louis Philippe and his minister Francois Guizot. Political banquets were being held around the country agitating for protests against the King. Louis Philippe sent troops to break up the banquet in Paris. Shots were fired and the people once again, as in 1789, went to the barricades. The Nations Guard, which had become politically disenfranchised, went over to the radical’s side and on February 24, 1848 King Louis Philippe was deposed. Alphonse Lamartine formed a provisional government that promoted the right to vote, to free speech, to property, and to a secular education. This became a problem for the conservative monarchist and the bourgeoisie liberal class. They were concerned that the workers would take over and feared a return to the dark days of the Revolution of 1789. The provisional government set up a social democracy with social programs and national workshops to provide work for the unemployed. This caused a flight of the plutocratic wealth and a crash of the stock market. Taxes were increased against the working class and this created more financial trouble. The stances between the bourgeoisie liberal class and the new social democrat working class grew uneasy because of a number of differences in the nature of work, the right to unionize and to pay levels. Further, there were disagreements over the rights of citizens and laissez-faire capitalism.
In April the elections for a permanent government resulted in a very conservative majority in the National Assembly. Debates began over the various social programs and by June the national workshops were closed. Class tensions rose, worker groups rose up in rebellion. They said the government had betrayed the revolution and they wanted a redistribution of wealth. A bourgeoisie and conservative coalition formed against the workers. The workers revolted trying to force their agenda. Eventually, General Louis-Eugène Cavaignac assumes powers and puts down the rebellion with 10,000 dead and a decided victory for the conservatives. In November of 1848 a new constitution was put in place with an elected president and a one-house legislature. During the December elections Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was elected as the first president of the second French Republic. The nephew and heir of Napoléon Bonaparte was the law and order candidate and defeated Cavaignac with 75% of the votes. The bourgeoisie opinion had moved to the right and under this atmosphere the new president, Bonaparte, purged the government of liberals and replaced them with monarchist and ultra-conservatives. Representing himself as the man of the people Bonaparte disbanded the National Assembly and held new elections. His use of force against anyone who disagreed or dissented was widely known.
During the third year of his presidency and with a four-year term limit looming, he asked the National Assembly for an amendment to the constitution. The monarchists in the assembly refused having designs of reinstituting the monarchy from the House of Bourbon or of Orléans. In a calculated risk and putting his hopes on the lower classes and the backing of the military, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte declared himself Napoléon III ruler of the Second French Empire. A plebiscite was held and his absolute rule was confirmed by the masses.
Here we see an example of a popular revolution with the backing of the common people going through a familiar scenario of rights and services being delivered to the poor. In some cases there is even a redistribution of land. However, over time the plutocratic wealth of the country will, in this case through conservatives and the wealthy bourgeoisie, revamp society. The new regime that comes to power will have more power than the original purported autocracy that was deposed. The common worker will at best stay at status quo but in most cases society is financially ratcheted down with a great majority just holding on. Through it all the taste of freedom still remains on the lips of the common worker.
The scenario may be different sometimes but the outcome seems to be the same. In some cases the rulers of the country gave deference to the working and common poor. In Prussia representative government was, against all odds allowed to flourish by Frederick Wilhelm IV. He permitted an assembly and held the military in check. Across Germany revolts broke out and the movement toward a united Kingdom of Germany was almost realized. The Frankfort assembly formulated a government and even offered the crown eventually to the King of Prussia, Frederick Wilhelm IV. However, in a turn of events the system was repudiated the Prussian army crushed the revolution. Germany didn’t unite until 1870 through, as Bismarck said “Blut und Eisner” (Blood & Iron), the Franco-Prussian War.
In other cases the regime will use the superior firepower and outside allies, to attack and destroy the rebels. Hungary in 1848 wanted to devolve itself from the Austrian Empire. The Austrian forces struck back and attacked the Hungarian forces with the help of Czar Nicholas I of Russia and 140,00 soldiers. Hungary would have to wait until 1867 to have its own parliament. It will be interesting to see what the outcome will be in Libya.
Most other examples people like to draw on eventually lead to the same end. The French Revolutions ended with Napoléon I. The Russian Revolution and reorganization of society ended under Stalin and the 30 million dead left in his wake. Some will ask what about the American Revolution? In the classical sense it wasn’t a revolution but a colonial war, with the colony winning its independence. Unlike the typical revolution where the ruler is deposed and killed (Czar & Louis XVI), King George III lived to 1820 and was still on the throne while Napoléon I was in prison on St. Helena.
 Dr. Ernest R. Rugenstein, “Revolutions of 1848” (lecture, Hudson Valley Community College, Troy, NY, March 8. 2011).