The revolutionary fevers of 1848 redefined the identities of European powers for generations to come. Their germs came from France. The first banners of rebellion arose in the cause of universal suffrage. The end of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars in 1814, with its tragic aftermath at Waterloo in 1815, ushered in the reactionary restoration of the Bourbon dynasty in the person of Louis XVIII. This new King of France was a brother of Louis XVI, guillotined during the revolution. The key to his fate was forged by Talleyrand. That shadowy architect of French polity, who in 1796 had consigned it to Napoléon’s Brumaire coup d’état, endured to rescue it in 1814 from humiliation by its victors at the Congress of Vienna.
The newly ascended “King of the French” was an offspring of the junior, Orléanist, branch of the Bourbon dynasty. His father was the revolutionary prince and member of the National Assembly, who had voted for the execution of Louis XVI after styling himself Philippe Égalité, only to be executed in his turn during the ensuing Reign of Terror. No better suited than his martyred father to navigate the revolutionary squall, Louis Philippe failed to sustain his liberal bourgeois monarchy in the face of opposition denigrating it with comparisons with the old regime, the republic, and the empire.
The popular resentment found its focus in the occasions of political banquets that conjoined two great passions of the French nation, gastronomic excess and armed insurgency. On the 14th of January, 1848, the authorities banned one such banquet protesting the limitations on the right of assembly. Postponed by its organizers till the 22nd of February, the banquet was cancelled at the last minute, causing disturbances in the streets of Paris. Popular unrest singled out as the focal point for its resentment the Prime Minister Guizot. The hallmark of Parisian pavement, the roughly hewn rectangular cobblestone, lent itself famously to swift and lasting construction of barricades.
The freshly emerged Provisional Government immediately proclaimed every citizen a magistrate of its inchoate Republic. The socialists soon secured a decree proclaiming the workers’ right to work and the right to combine in order to enjoy the legitimate benefits of their labor. This commitment led to the establishment of National Workshops chartered to offer constant work at a fair wage. This government program soon engaged most of the unskilled labor of Paris and drew in its large influx from the provinces. By May it had over 66,000 persons on its payroll. The number of hands soon outstripped their available applications. The work insufficient for all participants in the National Workshops was rationed to two days of the week. The idle days entitled them to a “salary of inactivity” payment of one franc per day. The dole fomented bourgeois resentment in attracting impoverished workers.
An eyewitness testimony of popular intoxication recounted by Alexis de Tocqueville stands out:
|Dès le 25 février, mille systèmes étranges sortirent impétueusement de l’esprit des novateurs, et se répandirent dans l’esprit troublé de la foule. Tout était encore debout sauf la royauté et le parlement, et il semblait que du choc de la révolution, la société elle-même eût été réduite en poussière, et qu’on eût mis au concours la forme nouvelle qu’il fallait donner à l’édifice qu’on allait élever à sa place ; chacun proposait son plan ; celui-ci le produisait dans les journaux ; celui-là dans les placards, qui couvrirent bientôt les murs ; cet autre en plein vent par la parole. L’un prétendait détruire l’inégalité des fortunes, l’autre l’inégalité des lumières, le troisième entreprenait de niveler la plus ancienne des inégalités, celle de l’homme et de la femme ; on indiquait des spécifiques contre la pauvreté et des remèdes à ce mal du travail, qui tourmente l’humanité depuis qu’elle existe.||Since the 25th of February, a thousand of strange systems sallied forth furiously from the minds of innovators, and spread out in the agitated mind of the crowd. All was still standing except for the kingdom and the parliament, and it seemed that the shock of the revolution might have reduced to dust the society itself, and that a contest for the new form appropriate for the edifice meant to replace it would then have to take place; each man proposed his plan; this one presented it in the newspapers; that one, in the posters that quickly covered the walls; another one, out in the open, through oration. One aspired to destroy the inequality of wealth, another the inequality of light, the third undertook to level the most ancient of inequalities, that between man and woman; they advanced specific measures against poverty and remedies against that evil of work that torments mankind since its beginnings.|
|Ces théories étaient fort diverses entre elles, souvent contraires, quelquefois ennemies ; mais toutes, visant plus bas que le gouvernement et s’efforçant d’atteindre la société même, qui lui sert d’assiette, prirent le nom commun de socialisme.||These theories spanned across a great diversity, often contradicting each other, sometimes mutually adverse; but all of them, aiming beneath the government and endeavoring to strike down the society itself, which sustains it, took the common name of socialism.|
| Le socialisme restera le caractère essentiel et le souvenir le plus redoutable de la révolution de Février. La république n’y apparaîtra de loin que comme un moyen, mais non un but.
||Socialism will remain the key feature and the most formidable memory of the February revolution. The republic will not enter into it, but as its means, not as its end.|
| — Alexis de Tocqueville, Souvenirs, p. 129
||— translated by MZ|
The National Assembly convened on May 4th of 1848. As happened in the course of the first French Revolution, the conservative provinces smartly repudiated the radical policies advanced by Parisian utopians. The administration recognized by the Assembly marginalized Louis Blanc. The Assembly declined to support the cause of Polish revolutionaries, whose struggle for independence from the Russian Empire was championed by the French radicals. Within a few weeks the National Assembly faced determined opposition seeking its overthrow and replacement by an administration headed up by Louis Blanc. The National Guard acted to prevent the overthrow of the Assembly. The stage was set for a fatal confrontation between French conservatism and Parisian radicalism.
In the struggle between principle and expediency, the last word befell to the late diplomat. As dramatized by Vautrin, the demonic archcriminal seducing the youthful ambition of Eugène de Rastignac, no one made Talleyrand’s case better than Honoré de Balzac:
|J’ai un ami pour qui je me suis dévoué, un colonel de l’armée de la Loire qui vient d’être employé dans la garde royale. Il écoute mes avis, et s’est fait ultra-royaliste : ce n’est pas un de ces imbéciles qui tiennent à leurs opinions. Si j’ai encore un conseil à vous donner, mon ange, c’est de ne pas plus tenir à vos opinions qu’à vos paroles. Quand on vous les demandera, vendez-les. Un homme qui se vante de ne jamais changer d’opinion est un homme qui se charge d’aller toujours en ligne droite, un niais qui croit à l’infaillibilité. Il n’y a pas de principes, il n’y a que des événements ; il n’y a pas de lois, il n’y a que des circonstances : l’homme supérieur épouse les événements et les circonstances pour les conduire. S’il y avait des principes et des lois fixes, les peuples n’en changeraient pas comme nous changeons de chemises. L’homme n’est pas tenu d’être plus sage que toute une nation. L’homme qui a rendu le moins de services à la France est un fétiche vénéré pour avoir toujours vu en rouge, il est tout au plus bon à mettre au Conservatoire, parmi les machines, en l’étiquetant La Fayette ; tandis que le prince auquel chacun lance sa pierre, et qui méprise assez l’humanité pour lui cracher au visage autant de serments qu’elle en demande, a empêché le partage de la France au congrès de Vienne ; on lui doit des couronnes, on lui jette de la boue. Oh ! je connais les affaires, moi ! J’ai les secrets de bien des hommes ! Suffit. J’aurai une opinion inébranlable le jour où j’aurai rencontré trois têtes d’accord sur l’emploi d’un principe, et j’attendrai longtemps ! L’on ne trouve pas dans les tribunaux trois juges qui aient le même avis sur un article de loi. Je reviens à mon homme. Il remettrait Jésus-Christ en croix si je le lui disais. Sur un seul mot de son papa Vautrin, il cherchera querelle à ce drôle qui n’envoie pas seulement cent sous à sa pauvre soeur, et… Ici Vautrin se leva, se mit en garde, et fit le mouvement d’un maître d’armes qui se fend. ― Et, à l’ombre ! ajouta-t-il.
― Le Père Goriot
| I have a friend for whom I have sacrificed a great deal, a colonel in the Army of the Loire, who has just been transferred into the royal guard. He has heeded my advice and turned ultra-royalist; he is not one of those idiots who hold fast to their opinions. If I have any advice to give you, my angel, it is not to attach yourself to your opinions any more than to your words. Whenever anyone asks you for them, sell them. A man who prides himself on never changing his mind is a man who consigns himself to perpetual advance in a straight line, a fool who believes in infallibility. There are no principles, but only events; there are no laws, but only circumstances: a man of talent embraces the events and the circumstances, in order to control them. If there were fixed and invariable principles and laws, nations would not change them as readily as we change our shirts. The individual is not obliged to be more sound than the nation. The man whose services to France have been of the very slightest is venerated as a fetish because he has always seen red; but he is good, at the most, to be mounted at the Museum of Arts and Crafts, among the automata, and labeled La Fayette; whereas the prince at whom everybody flings a stone, the man who despises humanity so much that he spits in its face as many oaths as he is asked for, has saved France from being torn in pieces at the Congress of Vienna; and they who should have given him laurels, fling mud at him. Oh! I know something of affairs, I can tell you; I have the secrets of many men! Enough. I shall adopt a fixed and immovable opinion as soon as I find three minds in agreement as to the application of a principle ― and I shall have to wait a long while. In the Tribunals you will not find three judges of the same opinion on a single point of law. I return to my man. He would nail Jesus Christ back onto his cross, if I only asked him. At a word from his daddy Vautrin, he will pick a quarrel with that clown who does not send so much as a hundred sous to his poor sister, and… here Vautrin stood up and assumed the stance of a fencing-master about to lunge. ― And send him off into the shadows! ― he added.
― translated by MZ
The fluidity of principle in its submission to circumstance became manifest in mid-Summer of 1848. As General Cavaignac’s cannons battered down the insurgents’ barricades in the climactic confrontation of the Second Republic, the June bloodshed marked the beginning of the end to hopes for social harmony that accompanied its unfolding four months earlier.
The calculated ascent of Louis Napoléon to the presidency of the Second Republic on the 10th of December, eventually followed by his coup d’état and enthronement in its Imperial successor, the parodic echo of Bonapartist glory, flowed from this tragic confrontation between utopian ideal and republican grapeshot. Commenting in real time on the class struggle aspects of this development, Karl Marx excoriated the Society of December 10 in its role propelling Louis Bonaparte to the head of the French state:
Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origins, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaus, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term la bohème; from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the Society of December 10.
― The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, p. 75
The antipathy expressed by Marx towards la bohème is integral with the animosity he lavished upon Napoléon le Petit: “Bonaparte, […] precisely because he was a Bohemian, a princely lumpenproletarian, had the advantage over a rascally bourgeois in that he could conduct the struggle meanly” (ibid, pp. 85–6). The Bohemians, definable only by opposition to the bourgeois, were indeed located “in a twilight zone between ingenuity and criminality.” (See Jerrold Seigel, Bohemian Paris, p. 4.) Their assimilation to the lumpenproletariat is borne out for Marx by the fact that both groups stand in an ambiguous relation to the means of production. This ambiguity denies to them a definite place in the Marxist taxonomy of classes. The likes of Baudelaire, included by Marx in the unselfconsciously ironic guise of the literati, fell squarely into the Bonapartist camp. The fact that confounds the Marxist historian is that the poet was not to be found amidst these scamps. In 1848, following through the bitter days of the June insurgency the heady intoxication by the “beautiful revolution” of February, Baudelaire fended off the forces of law and order on the barricades.
In the deliberate contradiction of his thought, the author of Les Fleurs du mal appeared at different times to maintain different social views. Yet, in spite of his carping against republicanism after 1852, in spite of his recurring appeals to the “right of self-contradiction”, there remains a hard invariant at the core of his thought. Dolf Oehler rightly insists that in the poet’s political views, as captured in his writings,
| il n’y a que changements de tonalité, de rhétorique : en 1846, Baudelaire est ironique et allusif, en 1852, il est explicite, voilà tout. Et après 1852, il redevient elliptique et encore plus profondément rusé qu’auparavant. Mais jamais il ne demord de son socialisme satanique.
―Dolph Oehler, “Le Caractère double de l’héroïsme et du beau modernes”, p. 212
|there is nothing but changes in tone: in 1846, Baudelaire is ironic and allusive, in 1852, he is explicit, that is all. And after 1852, he returns to ellipsis more cunningly than before. But he never ceases to chomp at the bit of his satanic socialism.
― translated by MZ
|Proudhon, duquel vous me parlez, devait être l’homme qui vous était le plus antipathique. Tous ces philosophes et socialistes ne veulent de la littérature que comme d’une institution ou d’un instrument de moralisation pour le peuple. C’est le point de vue le plus opposé à nous autres, nés dans un intervalle de brillante et heureuse fantaisie……………||Proudhon, of whom you speak to me, should have impressed you as the most disagreeable man. All these philosophers and socialists wish for literature that serves as nothing but an institution or an instrument of moralizing for the masses. It is the viewpoint most adverse to our kind, born in an interval of brilliant and happy fantasy……………|
|― Lettre à Mme Victor Hugo, 12 janvier 1866, C II 568; cf. Lettres à Baudelaire, publiées par Claude et Vincenette Pichois, 1973, Etudes baudelairiennes IV-V, Neuchâtel, La Baconnière, p. 346||― translated by MZ|
|Philosophie de maîtres de pension et de préparateurs au baccalauréat.||Philosophy of boarding house masters and college admission coaches.|
|Je n’ai jamais si bien compris qu’en la voyant la sottise absolue des convictions.||I never understood so well, except in observing it, the absolute stupidity of convictions.|
|Ajoutons que quand on leur parle revolution pour de bon, on les épouvante. Vieilles Rosières. MOI, quand je consens à être républicain, je fais le mal, le sachant.||Let us add that whenever one speaks to them of revolution for good, they are terrified. Old maids. As for me, in agreeing to be republican, I do evil, knowingly.|
|Oui ! Vive la Révolution !||Yes! Long live the Revolution!|
|toujours ! quand même !||always! Even so!|
|Mais moi, je ne suis pas dupe ! je n’ai jamais été dupe ! Je dis Vive la Révolution ! comme je dirais: Vive l’Expiation !||But as for me, I am no dupe! I was never duped! I say, Long live the Revolution! as I would say Long live the Revolution!|
|Vive le Châtiment ! Vive la Mort !||Long live Punishment! Long live Death!|
|Non seulement, je serais heureux d’être victime, mais je ne haïrais pas d’être bourreau, — pour sentir la Révolution de deux manières !||Not only would I be happy to be a victim, but I wouldn’t hate being an executioner — to feel the Revolution in both ways!|
|Nous avons tous l’esprit républicain dans les veines, comme la vérole dans les os. Nous sommes Démocratisés et Syphilisés.||We all have the republican spirit in our veins, just as the pox in our bones. We have been Democratized and Syphilized.|
|— OC II 961||― translated by MZ|