Marx and Engels wrote far more about capitalism than they did about revolution for the very simple reason that they had unfortunately more opportunity to observe the former than the latter. They opposed the idea, popular at the time, that a revolutionary’s role was to outline the plan for the masses to follow. When they wrote about revolutions, they did so primarily to support and learn from ones actually taking place.
The June Days uprising of Parisian workers, which was brutally suppressed after just four days, was the first working-class revolution Marx and Engels were able to follow closely. The June Days showed them how different a workers’ revolution would be from anything they had experienced before, the lengths that even the progressives in the capitalist class would go to stop it, and the true nature of the society they were fighting to defend.
1848: year of revolutions
At the beginning of 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had just finished writing their most famous book, published today under the title The Communist Manifesto, when a series of revolutions broke out across the European continent. These were not communist revolutions, they were revolutions for liberal reforms against the old European autocracies.
Nevertheless, Marx and Engels threw themselves into the revolutionary movement, establishing themselves on the far left of the democratic struggle in Cologne. On 1 June 1848, they launched a newspaper under Marx’s editorship, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, with the subtitle ‘organ of democracy’.
Marx and Engels understood that the more gains the bourgeois (or capitalist) class was able to make, the more the conditions would be created for a working-class anti-capitalist struggle. They did not appreciate, however, just how quickly those class tensions would surface.
Paris: revolutionary city
It was in Paris that the tensions between bourgeois and workers were most intense. In February 1848, a revolution in the city overthrew the last French king and replaced him with the French Second Republic. The majority in the new government were content to recycle the slogans and symbols of the great 1789 French Revolution, proclaiming liberty, equality, fraternity, and flying the tricolour flag.
However, during the 1830s and 1840s, socialist and communist ideas and organisations had proliferated with the expansion of the city’s working class. These groups were interested in achieving working-class emancipation, which would mean going beyond the traditions of 1789. In 1848, France was in the middle of an economic depression with high unemployment. In the February revolution, armed workers demanded that the new government commit to the ‘right to work’, specifically to guarantee the welfare of the working class.
This was only ever grudgingly conceded. The government set up national workshops for the unemployed, but these offered sporadic, low-paid work which was menial, monotonous and resented by the unemployed skilled artisans of Paris.
On 22 June the government terminated the national workshops, telling the workers who had enrolled in them that they would instead have to enlist in the army or be deported from Paris to work elsewhere.
That evening, workers began to build barricades. The June Days uprising had begun.
From the moment they received news of the uprising, Marx and Engels supported the revolutionaries. This was an exceptional position to take; by contrast with the earlier wave of revolutions, the June insurrection had hardly any prominent defenders. As a result of their stance, the Neue Rheinische Zeitunglost all its remaining shareholders.
When the publication closed down the following year as the counter-revolution gained ground, Marx had the final edition defiantly printed entirely in red ink. These red words proclaimed that the June insurrection was ‘the essence of our paper’.
The ugly revolution
Marx and Engels were able to gain information about what was happening in Paris from two of their journalists who were based in France: Sebastian Seiler, who worked as a stenographer in the French National Assembly, and Hermann Ewerbeck, a doctor who treated the wounded revolutionaries and reported what they were telling him.
In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote that: ‘The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.’
They were describing the way in which working-class revolution would necessitate a complete break with the old society. The truth of this was confirmed by the experience of the June Days which, as Ewerbeck told them, was very quiet compared to the February revolution: the barricade fighters in June were not singing songs about 1789.
This was why Marx characterised the February revolution as the ‘nice’revolution, when the class divisions in society were denied, obscured by the universalist rhetoric of brotherhood. June, by contrast, was ‘the ugly revolution, the nasty revolution’ because it made those class divisions appallingly visible. The new French government went to war with the workers on the barricades: it called up the army.
General Eugène Cavaignac, the French colonial governor-general of Algeria, was placed in charge of the armed forces. Engels observed that Cavaignac approached the Parisian workers like rebellious colonial subjects. No distinction was made between combatant and civilian. Cavaignac ordered canons and shells to be fired into densely populated working-class neighbourhoods.
Marx and Engels identified that the June Days were a turning point in the 1848 revolutions. Growing working-class consciousness revealed the bourgeoisie’s true priorities as they demonstrated they would rather abandon their own democratic gains than concede anything to the workers. On the second day of the uprising, the government dissolved itself and handed dictatorial power in France to the governor-general of Algeria.
After the June uprising, it was illegal to say, ‘Long live the democratic and socialrepublic’. Three years later, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (nephew of the famous French Emperor) seized dictatorial power and declared himself emperor, terminating the Republic altogether.
The June uprising showed Marx and Engels that the bourgeoisie was no longer the revolutionary force it had been a few generations earlier. The era of working-class revolutions had begun.
Violence and counter-revolution
Marx and Engels emphasised the scale of the violence employed against the June insurgents. It revealed the lengths to which a frightened bourgeoisie would go to safeguard their power.
The violence was a proportionate guide to their fear. In 1871, when working-class Parisians actually took power and ran the city as the Paris Commune for 72 days, the French government (now the Third Republic) massacred workers in ways that resembled the June Days, but on a far larger scale over the course of seven days, which would be remembered as ‘bloody week’.
Marx and Engels’ descriptions of the way the Republic and then the populist Louis-Napoléon used military and paramilitary forces which recruited from the most atomised and brutalised sections of the urban poor have been seen to foreshadow analyses of fascism in the twentieth century.
In 1919, after a failed workers’ uprising, the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote her last article, hours before her murder by the proto-fascist Freikorps. She titled it ‘Order reigns in Berlin’. That was a reference to Marx’s article on the June Days, which recalled that the French government, like other repressive regimes, slaughtered in the name of ‘order’.
It was only partly a satirical point. Marx, and later Luxemburg, were also making the point that fundamentally the bourgeois social order was based on violence and subjugation. That was why they dedicated their lives to overthrowing it.