Revolutions are generally presented as the work of minorities. But history shows that during revolutions, even defeated ones, the mass of working people display the creativity and capacity for organisation normally crushed by the realities of everyday life.
In 1848 France was ruled by the unpopular king Louis-Philippe, a puppet of the bankers. In February a demonstration spilled over into insurrection. The king fled.
The revolutionaries came from nearly all groups in society. For a brief time there was a sense of unity between classes. The Provisional Government contained two socialists.
For Parisian workers the vital issue was the “right to work”. Unemployment was high and there was no dole. Those out of work had to turn to their families or charity—otherwise they starved to death.
The solution offered was the establishment of “national workshops”. The unemployed were signed up to do back-breaking manual work for low pay. It was still better than being left to starve.
Large numbers of militant workers were concentrated together in the workshops. They elected their own supervisors. This provided an element of democracy and a basic structure of organisation.
There were separate national workshops for women. These had no democratic rights, but in June the women demanded the right to elect their supervisors and took direct action to achieve their aims.
Between February and June dozens of new newspapers were set up. Political clubs sprang up where new ideas were debated. Though women didn’t have the vote, they began to organise clubs and newspapers, demanding equal rights.
In April national elections produced a conservative majority in the National Assembly (parliament). What Karl Marx had called the “nice revolution” was giving way to the “ugly revolution”. The government arrested a number of left wing activists, notably Blanqui, the most popular leader in the working class.
While workers had no single organisation, there was widespread discussion of the coming clash. One workers’ newspaper warned, “Hide your gun, but all the same don’t let it out of your sight, so that at the first signal it will be held in your virile hands!”
The Paris National Guard had given an unloaded rifle to every able bodied man. Bullets were stored in district armouries. In June it was announced that the workshops were to be closed immediately.
A young man called Pujol took the initiative in calling for resistance and urging the building of the first barricade.
The workers went back to their homes in the slums of eastern Paris. The news spread quickly through the district, and people prepared for insurrection.
Barricades were built by pulling furniture out of houses and blocking the narrow streets. The barricades provided cover for those with guns, and made it harder for the forces of order to clear the area. Unfortunately the lack of central organisation meant barricades were put up at random, often in the wrong places.
Many workers were armed, and more weapons were rapidly obtained from gunshops.
Thousands of workers and their families contributed their skills to the cause of their class. The metal from wine bar counters and printworks was melted down to make bullets. Pharmacists were recruited to manufacture gunpowder.
Railway workers brought metal from their workshops. In one factory a cannon was manufactured during the insurrection. Women smuggled munitions under their clothes, passing themselves off as pregnant.
Such initiative was evidence of the creativity manifested by working people when they sense the possibility of liberation. Their slogans showed great variety, ranging from “Bread or bullets” to “Abolition of the exploitation of man by man”.
The workers held out for three days, but they were doomed to defeat. The military force of the state was too strong for a spontaneous movement.
One historian estimates that up to a quarter of the working class played an active part in the armed struggle—50,000 out of 200,000.
The conservative politician de Tocqueville admitted, “This formidable insurrection was not the undertaking of a small number of conspirators, but the uprising of one whole population against another. The women took part just as much as the men.”
Many workers were killed, and more were thrown into jail and deported after rigged trials. The national workshops were closed, and those who had worked in them conscripted into the army or sent off to newly colonised Algeria.
The workers were crushed and the new president, Louis Bonaparte, soon staged a coup that destroyed all opposition.
But the memory of those three days of struggle remained with Paris workers as a powerful inspiration in 1871, when the Paris Commune established the first workers’ government.