The Gathering Storm: Before the Revolutions of 1848

From Academic Kids

The Revolutions
of 1848
Prelude
Revolution in France
Revolution in Habsburg areas
Revolution in Germany
Revolution in Italy
Revolution in Poland
Aftermath
Contents

The poor

French rural areas had grown fast, spilling population into the cities. The higher classes feared the working poor, who had shown their muscle in 1789, and their uneducated, teeming masses seemed a fertile Petri dish of vice to "respectable" classes.

There had always been drink, freethought, crime, itinerancy, illiteracy, and food riots, and despite leftish analyses, in many ways the French working class was no worse off under industrialization than before. But there were salient facts -- the worker toiled from 13 to 15 hours per day, living in squalid, disease-ridden slums. Traditional artisans felt the pressure of industrialization, having lost their guilds. "Dangerous" writers became popular (note: Karl Marx would not finish the first German edition of The Communist Manifesto until February 1, 1848). Secret societies sprang up.

The German states were similar. Prussia had quickly industrialized. Worker living standards had dropped; alcohol consumption had gone up in the 1840s. Feudalism was inarguably horrible for the poor, but the worker saw little gain from the new socio-economic system of capitalism and the accompanying social change.

The rural areas

Rural growth had of course led to food shortages, land pressure, and migration, both from (i.e., to the United States) and within Europe. Population concentration led to disease, specifically, cholera, which at the time had not been tied to water supplies. The Irish potato famine exploded in 1845 and had migrated to the rest of the continent; there were poor harvests in 1846. But some lived restively well.

The aristocracy's wealth (and corresponding power) was synonymous with land. Land, of course, was practically synonymous with peasants under one's control. In a problem mirroring that of slavery in the United States, a principle aristocratic problem was controlling one's sometimes-dangerous source of wealth. Peasants were often duty-bound to do labor for their masters, called robot (from Slavic roots, work). Their grievances exploded in 1848.

The early rumblings

Until 1789, no one had earnestly contested the rule of kings on the Continent. In 1815, after Napoleon, the Ancien régime was restored at the Congress of Vienna. This was no sooner established when the monarchies, the church, and the aristocracy were again threatened. There had been revolutions or civil wars in England, France, and the born-of-revolution United States. And Mexico. A revolution against the Netherlands produced Belgium in 1830. Unrest was in the air.

"Dangerous" ideas kept upwelling, despite forceful and often violent efforts of established powers to keep them down: democracy, liberalism, nationalism, and socialism.

In short, democracy meant universal male suffrage. Liberalism fundamentally meant consent of the governed and the restriction of church and state power, republican government, freedom of the press and the individual. Economic liberalism was also a factor here; this is sometimes called Classical liberalism. Nationalism believed in uniting people bound by (some mix of) common languages, culture, religion, shared history, and of course immediate geography; there were also irredentist movements. We here note that both Germany and Italy were collections of small states. Socialism was a then-fuzzy term with no solid definition, meaning different things to different persons, but it roughly meant more rights for workers in a typically collectivist system.

The 1840s before 1848

In 1845- 46, economic conditions worsened over the already-bad early 1840s. Causes are disputed, but one may clearly point to crop failures (in an age where about 70% of working-class money went to food), and financial crises (notably in France) and resulting unemployment. Many left the farms for the cities, with resultant pressures. The working class was largely male, itinerant, uneducated, and sometimes violent. Corruption in high places in France reduced faith in the leaders; the textile sector of Germany was depressed in 1844 - 47.

Now the middle classes began to get agitated. Whatever dreams Karl Marx and his followers may have had, the workers had little solidarity, and practically no organization. Both the lower middle classes and the working classes wanted liberal reform, and finally a group with some organization pushed for it.

While much of the impetus was from the middle classes, much of the cannon fodder came from the lower. Things first exploded in the cities.

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