Engage, Plan or Fail, Part III

December 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

This is the third in a series on the dangerous consequences of passivity, immobility, in the face of  political, social, and economic challenges.

Springtime of the People

In March 1848 Karl Marx had a choice, to support liberal democratic candidates in Prussian national elections or back more radical communists.  A third option was to advise readers of his Cologne newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, to sit out the polls in protest. The elections that spring were a landmark. Earlier that year businessmen, financiers, shop owners, intellectuals, students, workers, and, significantly, soldiers rose up in spontaneous revolts across Europe against absolute monarchs and the aristocrats who supported them. The cause was quite simply that the system under which Europe’s leaders had ruled for centuries no longer fit the needs of society. Industrialization had given birth to two new powers — capital and labor — and those who traded in capital and those whose hands produced their wealth were united in opposition to Europe’s thrones. Both believed they would only prosper, could only prosper, if kings were forced to give  people basic rights and popular representation.

The revolts, called the “Springtime of the People” (which remain the only Europe-wide uprising of the people against their rulers), struck terror in the hearts of continental kings and aristocrats. Most were caught completely off-guard by the demands of the subjects they thought they knew so well. Some rulers — memories of the French Revolution and its guillotine still fresh — fled to the safety of England, while others, including Prussia’s Friedrich Wilhelm, wagered that concession was the key to survival. The Prussian king realized that to retain his throne he had to throw his subjects the sop of citizenry. He promised national elections and a constitution.

The run-up to the election was chaotic. Prussians had no experience with such a vote. Savvy observers, including Marx, knew the poll would be flawed, if not corrupted, and a debate began about whether perfection was a requirement for participation and whether boycotting the election was not the purer response from the left. But as the revolutions sweeping Europe became threatened by a counter-revolutionary backlash, Marx could see the danger of not participating. He was a master political chess player and he knew if the left remained on the sidelines in Prussia the right would be back in power — this time legitimized by an election. Any gains made toward winning basic freedoms  would be lost, and that backward momentum in one kingdom would affect all of Europe.

Marx decided that not only should people vote, they should support democratic — or moderate — candidates. The few far left candidates had little chance of winning enough support at that point to become a powerful force and so he opted for the safer route, the slower route. It may seem surprising, but Marx generally preferred that path. He knew change, fundamental change, required one particular element — time. For Marx, the key at that dangerous juncture was to hold ground, to protect the fragile gains won in revolution. The best way to do that, he determined, was at the ballot box.

Unfortunately in his political calculations, Marx either ignored or did not recognize that man’s natural inclination toward self-preservation also applied to entire classes of people. This was made painfully clear when the liberal bourgeoisie he had helped elect formed the first post-revolt government in Prussia: once in power, they quickly abandoned those they had fought beside. The liberals had grown fearful that their gains, as opposed to the greater society’s gains, were at risk if they agreed to the political demands of an agitated working class. Promises made to win the support of that vast underclass were quickly forgotten. Much to the king’s delight, the bourgeoisie governed in its own and the throne’s interests. Why the throne? Because the king still controlled the military, which might be called upon if the masses decided to return to the street.

Marx and the workers learned a terrible lesson from the 1848 elections throughout Europe. Once the prize that had united the revolutionaries was won, and the kings were either dethroned or deflated, the unity of the revolution eroded. The lower classes, who had provided the muscle in the Springtime revolts, were abandoned. They felt betrayed. Marx never forgot that experience and his thinking changed.  From 1849 on, he refused to seek political accommodation with the bourgeoisie. Instead, Marx dedicated his life to helping the numerically powerful but politically mute working class learn how to become a governing force.  By having elected officials taken from within its ranks, it would not have to rely on  untrustworthy and unsympathetic ‘social superiors.’

 It would take another decade before Marx’s efforts truly began to flower and a quarter century more before they bore fruit.  

The Rise of Political Labor

By the 1860s, capitalism in Europe was not only entrenched, it was instrumental in the expansion of empires. Workers had furthermore become fully aware of their role in this system: they produced all the wealth without enjoying any of the benefits. Or, as Marx said, “In capitalist society spare time is acquired for one class by converting the whole lifetime of the masses into labor time.”  This new generation of workers did not take the situation lying down. They began to organize locally, forming modern trade unions, and, across borders through the International Working Men’s Association. To confront the power of industrial capitalism they stood side-by-side in strikes, financially supported one another’s work stoppages, and unfurled reams of propaganda in the form of labor newspapers, pamphlets, and speeches that were then published and widely distributed. 

As successful and satisfying as these efforts were, however, the leaders of the various workers’ movements realized that direct confrontation with industry alone was not enough to win them what they truly sought. Though workers might arise from a particular industrial skirmish victorious, they would not be a step closer to securing their rights as citizens. To do this, they needed to have a voice in lawmaking — to become a political force. Their focus shifted from the factory floor to the halls of government. Their weapon of choice, once again, became the vote. But this time the path was much clearer than it had been in 1848. It was the result of a natural, steady progression. There was nothing impetuous or emotional about their campaign. It had taken nearly twenty years, but workers had matured politically.

There had been men in European governments who claimed to represent the working class, but these were almost exclusively upper class intellectuals (identifiable as such by their silk top hats). Their hearts were in the right place, but their heads remained in comfortable salons and men’s clubs, and their stomachs were always full. They did not speak the language of the workers, and they had not suffered their humiliations and defeats. By the late 1870s it became clear that only real working men could adequately express the desires of their class or, more importantly, be trusted to secure a better future. Europe’s lower classes had learned from the mistakes of 1848, but also from the triumph of their contemporaries in America who, a decade earlier, had not only gained seats in local and national government, but had elected a member of the laboring classes as president. Karl Marx called Abraham Lincoln a “unique figure in the annals of history.” Marx further believed that the U.S. Civil War, which pitted working-men soldiers against a wealthy slave-owning oligarchy, advanced the fight for working-class rights around the world just as the U.S. War of Independence had “initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class.” 

Working men in Europe, many under the socialist banner, formed political parties in Germany, Britain, France, and Spain. The task was monstrous, partly because they were starting from scratch and partly because existing political powers (including the now firmly entrenched liberal bourgeoisie) tried mightily to destroy them. In Germany especially, working-class political parties were persecuted and its members prosecuted. But each new law enshrined to repress political participation only ensured that it grew. By 1892, the National Assemblies and Parliaments of Europe included workers, and though their political fortunes rose and fell, from that point on labor parties would become a major and established political force, fighting to protect the mass of civilians from the excesses of capitalism and to ensure that governments protect the most vulnerable members of society, especially its children.

It had taken about seventy-five years, from the time European workers awakened to the fact that they had no representation in governments they supported with their taxes and secured with their blood, to the moment when members of this class took their seats as duly elected members of government. But historically, seventy-five years is a moment. And, in any case, those involved may not have even been aware that their fight for political and social rights had taken so long. Each generation inherited the battle from their elders, as surely as a father was expected to pass along his trade to his son. It was a duty, a social responsibility. The lessons of 1848 had taught them that entrusting ones’ future to a professional political class was a sure path to disenfranchisement. Only direct political action by all classes ensured equal representation.

Engage, Plan or Fail, Part II

September 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

This is the second in a series on the dangerous consequences of passivity, immobility, in the face of  political, social, and economic challenges.

The 1848 uprisings, a euphoric burst of revoltion that shook the foundations of centuries-old monarchical rule in Europe, ultimately failed, as we have seen, because those intent on reforming an outdated system of government could not install a new structure fast enough to undermine a counter-revolution by entrenched powers. There were other reasons though, as well, that guaranteed the failure of the “Springtime of the Peoples.” One of them was that there was no coordination across borders.

As people took to the streets in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Milan, and Madrid there were cries of support for their fellow revolutionaries but there was little communication. These were first and foremost national fights aimed at dislodging a particular  king or, short of that, forcing the king to accept a more just, representative, and constitutional system. But because these revolts were conducted in relative isolation — the Austrians fighting Hapsburg rule, the Prussians demanding reform in Berlin, the Milanese struggling to oust Austria from its northern Italian territory — they were vulnerable. They had limited resources, limited manpower, limited experience in either revolution or governance, and were thus easily overpowered by the various endangered crowns. All it took was the defeat of the weakest of the revolts to send a chill through the entire movement.

The grand bourgeoisie, those industrialists, financiers, and wealthy intellectuals inclined toward business who had actually instigated the revolts, began to see that  it might be prudent to strike a deal with their respective kings and aristocrats to protect their interests rather than continue to align themselves with a losing rabble of tradesmen, petty shopkeepers and workers. Without the bourgeoisie’s financial support and shield of respectability, the prospect of loss for the rebels became greater, and the battles more violent. In 1849, those still demanding reform fought desperately to retain the gains won in 1848 but they were no match for a king and his army, bankrolled by a new power, industry.

 The kings and the bourgeoisie emerged from the 1848 revolts jubilant over having reached a grand alliance: Business would be free to operate, there would be token gestures toward representative government, and the kings could remain comfortably on their thrones cushioned by piles of industrial wealth. The rest of society was shut out of the bargain. Most now found themselves serving two masters: king and capitalist.

If, however, the national revolts had crossed borders, if the Prussians, Austrians, and Italians, not to mention the Hungarians, had coordinated their fight against the Hapsburg Empire, for example, their sheer numbers might have tipped the balance in their favor or, at the very least, prolonged the fight and permanently damaged the empire. Strategists would have devised a plan of multiple, simultaneous fronts. Precious resources could have been diverted to the most difficult battles. Austria’s emperor surely would have turned for help to his nearest allies, but they were engaged in their own battles and would have had little manpower or weaponry to spare (except for Russia, which had the power to be a massive spoiler because the Peoples’ Spring had not reached St. Petersburg.) If the people, coordinated across borders and concentrating their offensive, had defeated the mighty Hapsburg Empire the remaining thrones of Europe would have rushed to make concessions and institutionalize reform. They would have been terrified that they would be the next target of a massive and orchestrated assault.

That, however, did not happen in 1848 and perhaps could not have because there was little organized opposition within the various countries and next to none internationally. The lessons of 1848, however, were well learned and when it came time nearly 20 years later for workers to confront the new supreme power, industrial capitalists, who in some cases were so exploitative that they made feudalism seem comparatively benevolent, they traveled across borders to build broad and strong coalitions. There was no choice. The capitalist system had expanded beyond national boundaries in search of commodities — including labor — and markets, anywhere and everywhere. What capitalists sought was to make goods as cheaply as possible and sell them as dearly as they could. To counter that workers, too, had to internationalize.

In 1864, in London, they did. The International Working Men’s Association was born. It was organized to fight for workers’ rights throughout Europe and, later, North America. It would do what the 1848 revolutionaries did not: It would concentrate money, manpower and (in some cases most importantly) propaganda to help resolve labor disputes wherever they occurred. Whole trade unions joined the organization. Suddenly, if an employer tried to break a strike, or impose egregious working conditions, he had to face not just a handful of angry laborers, but a veritable army of workers united under the banner of an international organization. The playing field that had given the advantage to the capitalist, was leveled somewhat. Make no mistake, the workplace of mid-19th century Europe was far from a Utopia, but at least working men and women had a voice; they had a power at the negotiating table to speak on their behalf.

By the last quarter of the 19th century, some of those workers who had been involved in organizing to protect workers on the factory floor, began preparing themselves for another fight, for a political fight. They had discovered that true reform required political change and that activism could not be concentrated solely on the workplace. The First International Working Men’s Association died quietly as its members turned their attention back to their respective countries to create political parties. These largely self-taught workers, having seen the power of their numbers and the advantages gained by organizing, decided to fight for their fellows on new hostile terrain: The legislative halls of power.

 They had learned from 1848 (after having been abandoned by the bourgeoisie) and from the International (which gave working men a taste of their own power) that only those who understood the trials of the worker — deprived of everything but the means to survive — could be trusted to represent his interests. Only a fellow worker could fight to give the class who spilled their blood in war; whose hands had built the nation’s cities, railways, and industry; and whose taxes had filled government coffers, the rights that they had earned.

Exactly how these workers used their hard-won political power is the subject of the next blog.

Engage, Plan or Fail, Part I

August 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

People today, dismayed by the extreme imbalance of wealth generated by the capitalist system which dominates the globe — and the resultant social chaos — often say with a shrug that it is so firmly entrenched it would be impossible to alter it, let alone exchange it for something better. But citizens in 19th century Europe, seeing the necessity of social change at the dawn of modern capitalism, faced an even bigger challenge. They confronted a centuries-old monarchical system that allowed none of the freedoms most in the West presently take for granted. Such a system not only made their lives unendurable, but threatened to follow them beyond the grave because challenging the king was viewed as tantamount to treason against God. Rebellion, therefore, whether by word or deed, produced two sure ends: Earthly torture and the fires of hell. They did it anyway. There was no alternative to reform, to revolt. The numbers demanding change were too great, their sufferings too manifest.

There are lessons to be learned from their experience, which can be applied to our own. This is the first in a series on the dangerous consequences of passivity, immobility, in the face of  political, social, and economic challenges.


In the mid-nineteenth century, when absolute monarchs still ruled in many parts of Europe as God’s chosen (and therefore infallible) emissaries, a new class of businessmen, whose stature derived from work and ingenuity, not their birthright, began grumbling that that particular myth had outgrown its usefulness. The kingdoms that had been defended with blood and financed by taxes, so that a parasitic few could live in luxury while the rest struggled to exist in near animal squalor, did not reflect the new reality. Europe was moving slowly but surely away from the agriculturally based economy upon which such kingdoms rested. Technological advances showed clearly that the future was industrial, and that industry would by necessity change society; its effects felt from its lowliest peasant to its loftiest crown. This industrial system required the participation of men actively engaged in charting their own future. They could no longer be subjects, they had to become citizens, and be allowed to negotiate and trade without undo restriction in order to reach potentially vast new markets.

At first, this growing business class tried to reason with the various kings and princes occupying the palaces of Europe, explaining that in order for this new economy to function properly, steps had to be taken to reform the social and political order. The king and his minions could no longer dictate policy, which then had to be followed at pain of death. Men — ordinary men (in those days, exclusively men) — had to have a voice in government. They had to be able to speak to the king as an elected assembly in order to bring their petitions and ideas to his attention. In return, they promised, the king’s coffers would swell with more tax revenues. Industry was a path to wealth beyond even their gilded imaginings.

Some monarchs, those from politically enlightened countries, listened. In France, for example, which had shaken the earth a half century earlier by enshrining the rights of man through revolution, King Louis-Philippe was all for the idea of expanding business if it meant more money for his court. With that in mind, his government issued the challenge to its citizens to “Get rich!” In England, too, Queen Victoria was enthralled by industrial advances — partly on their own merit but partly because her beloved Prince Albert so embraced them. But neither France nor England was prepared to share wealth beyond a select few. The aristocracy would of course be taken care of, and the new breed of financier and industrialist would (grudgingly) be accepted and allowed to prosper, but the masses who comprised the bulk of society would remain what they had always been — disposable tools employed to generate wealth or fight wars. Elsewhere in Europe, especially Prussia, Austria, and Russia, the monarchs were even more reluctant to embrace a new reality. They would happily accept the wealth pouring out of industrial factories but they were unwilling to share power with the men who would be generating it.

That response — No! — should have been sufficient to quell thoughts of reform.  These kings were, after all, the final word. God’s word. But it wasn’t enough. Beginning in 1847 and culminating in 1848, after several years of crop failures and famine that drove desperate people by the tens of thousands into cities in search of jobs that didn’t exist, Europe rose up in revolt. It was called the “Springtime of the Peoples.” It was the first and remains the only European-wide social uprising in history. Its causes were simple: Leaders would not acknowledge or adapt to a changed society. It had moved under their very feet and yet they still believed they were on firm ground.

Violence spread from capital to capital and across the countrysides. The initial gains were monumental. Louis-Philippe abdicated and fled to England. The almighty Metternich in Austria soon followed. In Berlin, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, taking off his hat and bowing to the masses assembled in Berlin, promised elected officials, a constitution, and the arming of the citizenry. But within a year most of those gains would be reversed. After being initially caught off guard by the force of revolt and the fury of subjects, subjects who kings had never known to be anything but docile, the counter-revolution that swept through Europe was brutal, well-organized, and well-funded. By 1852 France had not only a king, it had an emperor.

Why did the uprisings fail? Each country had particular reasons but there were commonalities. One was especially pervasive: There was no plan. The uprisings were relatively spontaneous, the outbreak of a contagious disease, and the leaders of the various movements had had no time to plan what a post-rebellion government might look like. They were left to invent one quickly, in the midst of much euphoria but also much fear. While they were busily, chaotically, and boisterously forming a government the forces of counter-revolution — the previously entrenched powers — quickly recollected themselves to regain control. It was easy for them. They had much experience if not in governing, in the sense that we know it, then at least in manipulating men. They knew how to control a mob. They were able to take advantage of the chaos, pitting one group against the other, weakening the solidarity of the rebellion, making concessions to some (invariably the wealthier classes), while violently suppressing others. It didn’t take long for the “Springtime of the Peoples” to be crushed — or at least that round of the rebellion. The seeds were well planted for a future revolt.

Another reason for the failures of the various rebellions was that they were not organized across borders. And that is a subject for the next history lesson.

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