Revolution of 1848 in France

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Revolution of 1848 in France


the bourgeois-democratic revolution that overthrew the bourgeois July Monarchy and established the Second Republic in France, which lasted from 1848 to 1852. One cause of the revolution was the growing contradictions within the French bourgeoisie—the conflicts between the financial aristocracy, which had gained complete ascendancy after the July Revolution of 1830, and the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie, which had grown strong in the course of the industrial revolution and demanded the right to participate in the government of the country. Another cause of the revolution was the exacerbation of class conflicts between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The ripening of the revolutionary situation was stimulated by the crop failures of 1845 and 1846, the economic crisis of 1847, and the “crisis of elites,” reflected in the campaign of banquets of the liberal-bourgeois opposition, which held banquet meetings to call for electoral reforms and the replacement of the government of F. Guizot.

The revolutionary explosion was triggered by the government’s prohibition of a banquet and a demonstration by the advocates of reform in Paris, both scheduled by the opposition for February 22, 1848. Despite the cowardly appeal of the liberals to submit to the authorities, tens of thousands of Parisians joined the demonstration on February 22. Clashes occurred between the demonstrators and government troops. A popular uprising broke out on February 23–24, in which workers, supported by the petite bourgeoisie, played a decisive role. Under pressure from the insurgent workers who defeated the troops in street fighting, the Provisional Government was formed on February 24. (The revolutionary events of February 22–24 are conventionally known as the February Revolution.) With this victory, the armed proletariat of Paris imposed its will not only on the monarchist bourgeoisie but also on the republican bourgeoisie, which had been brought to power by the people. However, the bourgeoisie soon launched a counterattack. In contrast to the 1789 French Revolution, the Revolution of 1848 developed along increasingly conservative lines.

The first, or February, period (Feb. 24 to May 4, 1848). The initial period was marked by a regrouping of class forces, which prepared the way for the establishment of the bourgeois republic. The Provisional Government was a coalition government, a “compromise between various classes” (K. Marx, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 7, p. 13). The bourgeois republicans A. M. Lamartine, J. C. Dupont de l’Eure, I. A. Crémieux, and L. A. Garnier-Pagès dominated the Provisional Government, which also included democrats from the petite bourgeoisie, notably A. A. Ledru-Rollin and F. Flocon. L. Blanc and Albert represented the working class.

At first the Provisional Government was obliged to reckon with the working class. The Republic was proclaimed on February 25, as demanded by the workers, and the Luxembourg Commission was created on February 28 to work out measures to improve the condition of the working class. A decree issued on March 4 introduced universal male suffrage in France, and a decree issued on March 2 shortened the workday by one hour, to ten hours in Paris and 11 hours in the provinces. However, the lack of ideological maturity among the proletariat and the influence of petit bourgeois socialists enabled the bourgeoisie to prepare its counterattack against the working class. The workers’ trust in the republican bourgeoisie and the Provincial Government was strengthened by the participation in the latter of Blanc and Albert, whose conciliatory policies lulled the masses and paralyzed the revolutionary activity of the proletariat.

In order to split the ranks of the proletariat, the Provisional Government created armed detachments, called the Mobile Guard, composed of déclassé elements and unemployed working class youth, who were placated by relatively large wages. The government counted on using the Mobile Guard against the revolutionary Parisian proletariat. Under the slogan of the “right to labor,” a right that had been promised to the proletariat, the government created in Paris and several other towns national workshops for the unemployed in order to gain support of those employed in the workshops for the bourgeoisie. The Provisional Government increased for one year all direct taxes paid by landowners by 45 percent. It justified the increase by citing expenditures resulting from the “wastefulness” of the working class. The brunt of the levy fell on the peasants, leaving them disillusioned with the Republic and hostile to the Parisian proletariat.

The elections to the Constituent Assembly, held Apr. 23–24, 1848, clearly demonstrated the extent to which the proletariat had been forced back from the position it had achieved in February. The bourgeois republicans were victorious; a considerable number of monarchists were also elected; and the candidates of the workers, progressive democrats, and socialists suffered a setback. The Constituent Assembly met on May 4, 1848.

The establishment of the bourgeois republic and the Constituent Assembly (May 4, 1848, to May 1849). The second period saw the overt offensive of the bourgeoisie against the working class, the defeat of the latter’s revolutionary forces, and the transfer of power to the monarchists.

The socialists were not included in the new government, called the Executive Commission, whose ministers were chosen from among the most reactionary elements of the bourgeois republican camp. The popular demonstration held in Paris on May 15, which developed into an attempt to disband the Constituent Assembly, ended in failure and the arrest of the revolutionary leaders, including L. A. Blanqui and A. Barbès. At the instigation of the monarchists, the bourgeois republican ministers closed the national workshops by an edict issued June 22, 1848. On June 23 the workers of Paris took to the barricades. The June Days were the first armed uprising of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie.

The suppression of the uprising marked the turning point in the Revolution of 1848. The bourgeois republicans proceeded to make a number of major concessions to the monarchists. On November 4 the Constituent Assembly adopted the constitution of the Second Republic, which contained a number of antidemocratic articles. The constitution established a strong executive authority in the person of the president of the Republic, whose powers almost equaled those of a monarch. The presidential elections of Dec. 10, 1848, brought to power Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the representative of the monarchistic bourgeoisie. The nephew of Napoleon I received the votes of millions of peasants for whom he was the “peasant emperor.”

The transfer of governmental power to the various monarchist factions, which united to form the Party of Order, led to a series of sharp conflicts between the president and the republican majority in the Constituent Assembly. The conflicts ended in the capitulation of the bourgeois republicans, who feared the popular masses more than they feared the monarchists and agreed to the latter’s demand that the Constituent Assembly be dissolved before the end of its term. The bourgeois republicans suffered a total defeat in the elections to the Legislative Assembly, held May 13, 1849. At the same time, the democratic forces gained strength, and a bloc of petit bourgeois democrats and socialists, called the New Mountain, was formed. The bloc was dominated by the petit bourgeois democrats who counted on defeating the reactionaries by legal means, without calling upon the masses for revolutionary action.

The parliamentary bourgeois republic and the Legislative Assembly (May 28, 1849, to Dec. 2, 1851). The third period was marked by the legislative dictatorship of the united monarchists. The bourgeois counterrevolution, embodied in the Party of Order (which controlled a majority of votes in the Legislative Assembly that was convened on May 28, 1849), transformed the Second Republic into a police state and paved the way for the restoration of the monarchy. The defeat of petit bourgeois democracy—reflected in the failure of the demonstration organized by the Mountain on June 13, 1849, to protest an anti-constitutional presidential decision to dispatch French troops to suppress the revolution in Rome—was used by the Party of Order to further undermine the achievements of the February Revolution. The Legislative Assembly placed the press, clubs, meetings, municipalities, and public education under the supervision of the police and the clergy. The abolition on May 31, 1850, of the last important democratic measure achieved by the Revolution of 1848—universal suffrage—meant that the French bourgeoisie could not ensure its dominant position if the principles of bourgeois democracy and the republic continued to exist.

A severe conflict developed in 1850–51 between competing monarchist groups. The struggle was won by the Bonapartists, whose protégé, Louis Napoleon, exerted a tremendous influence as president on the bureaucracy, the army, and the politically backward masses, chiefly the peasantry. On Dec. 2, 1851, Louis Napoleon carried out a coup with the support of the wealthy bourgeoisie, the bureaucracy, the officer corps, and the Catholic clergy. He dismissed the Legislative Assembly and gave dictatorial powers to the Bonapartist leaders. While demagogically proclaiming the restoration of universal suffrage, he carried out a policy of terror against republicans and democrats. The Second Republic was thus abolished de facto, and in December 1852 the monarchy was officially restored in the form of the military-police state of the Second Empire.

The Bonapartist coup was thoroughly analyzed by Marx in his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, as well as by V. I. Lenin, who wrote that “Bonapartism is a form of government which grows out of the counter-revolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie, in the conditions of democratic changes and a democratic revolution” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 34, p. 83).

The Revolution of 1848 was defeated because of the counterrevolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie at a time when a clear class consciousness and revolutionary character had not yet developed among the proletariat. The peasantry, which the working class did not succeed in rallying, remained allied with the bourgeoisie and became, for the most part, one of the mainstays of Bonapartism.


Marx, K. Klassovaia bor’ba vo Frantsii s 1848 po 1850 g. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 7.
Marx, K. Vosemnadtsatoe briumera Lui Bonaparta. Ibid., vol. 8.
Lenin, V. I. “Luiblanovshchina.” In Poln. sobr. Soch., 5th ed., vol. 31.
Lenin, V. I. “Iz kakogo klassovogo istochnika prikhodiat i ‘pridut’ Kaven’iaki?” Ibid., vol. 32.
Zastenker, N. E. Revoliutsiia 1848 g. vo: Frantsii. Moscow, 1948.
Revoliutsii 1848–1849, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1952.
Soboul’, A. Iz istorii Velikoi burzhuaznoi revoliutsii 1789–1794 gg. i revoliutsii 1848 g. vo Frantsii. Moscow, 1960. (Translated from French.)


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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