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.


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