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of centuries-old monarchical rule in Europe, ultimately failed, as we have seen, because those intent on reforming an outdated system of government could not install a new structure fast enough to undermine a counter-revolution by entrenched powers.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.

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