Writers and Revolution: Intellectuals and the French Revolution of 1848 
by Jonathan Beecher.
Cambridge, 474 pp., £29.99, April 2021, 978 1 108 84253 2
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Ascene​ in front of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, 1848: standing on an armchair taken from inside the building, Alphonse de Lamartine addresses the crowd. Around him are the men of the newly formed provisional government. Smoke wafts over the people and there are signs of recent fighting: a small artillery piece, the rubble of a barricade, a dead or dying horse, a man on a makeshift stretcher who bleeds from the bandaged stump of his right hand. On a box marked ‘Collection for the Wounded’ sits a bowl full of coins – this is a generous crowd, mindful of the sacrifice of those who have fought. Near a horde of precious objects looted from the royal palace lies an untidy corpse. It is the body of the journeyman mason Roux, shot by his comrades for committing a theft during the fighting. On his bloodstained chest rests a banner: ‘Death to Thieves’. A statuesque worker points solemnly at the dead man as if to impart a message to another onlooker, who looks at the thief in horror as if suddenly recognising him. Others are shown pushing a cart brimful of silver and gold towards safety inside the building. A little boy hastens to replace a silver spoon that has fallen to the ground. This is a virtuous crowd, one that punishes thieves (with death) and fastidiously abstains from pilfering.

Among more than one hundred individuals, we can make out men of the regular army, national guards, armed insurgents, labourers, apprentices and journeymen, prosperous bourgeois with brushed top hats, small boys and a few women. The space around Lamartine is marked off by three huge tricolour flags bearing the legends ‘Abolition of the Death Penalty’ (words that suggest a tension with the slain thief in the foreground), ‘The Organisation of Labour’ (next to which stands the socialist leader Louis Blanc) and ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’. But advancing slowly through the crowd from the left is a woman in a red Phrygian cap astride a white charger. She holds aloft a red flag inscribed with the words ‘Vive la République’ and representing the cause of social revolution. Lamartine fixes her in his gaze and raises his hand in a gesture whose meaning is deciphered by the painting’s title: Lamartine Rejecting the Red Flag in front of the Hôtel de Ville, 25 February 1848.

On eighteen square metres of canvas, Félix Philippoteaux paints a scene of great dramaturgical complexity. Strangest of all is the timing of the action: the burning powder flaring from guns in the background suggests a revolution that is still going on; the scroll of paper in Lamartine’s left hand – presumably the proclamation of the Republic – suggests a revolution that is already complete. And in the gap between a revolution that is complete and one that is yet to end, Philippoteaux depicts a stand-off between two political options. A woman intends to plant the red flag before the Hôtel de Ville. Lamartine – his waist, like those of the provisional ministers around him, wrapped in a tricolour sash – intends to prevent it. For moderate liberals like Lamartine, the revolution is already over. For the woman with the red flag and the radical opinion she represents, it has only just begun.

The mood of the people is difficult to read. There is a willingness to collaborate, for the moment at least, despite the boundaries of class and occupation. But the facial expressions are too varied and the members of the crowd too embroiled in local transactions to suggest a collective emotion. The image gives us no reason to think that when the sun rises on a new day, these people will still be willing or able to act together.

The most stirring and memorable image of the mid-19th-century revolutions is Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, in which a female figure personifying Liberty holds the tricolour aloft and guides a diverse group of male citizens over the crown of a barricade strewn with corpses. Delacroix’s canvas commemorated the Parisian July Revolution of 1830. The upheavals of 1848 produced no painting of comparable allegorical intensity. In 1851, the historian Marie d’Agoult observed that the arts had proved ‘absolutely incapable’ of rendering into visible form the ‘idea’ that had animated the revolution of 1848. Yet the fascination of Philippoteaux’s panorama lies precisely in its profusion of only partly co-ordinated actions and individuals. Delacroix’s canvas may be more inspiring and magnificent, but Philippoteaux’s more revealingly shows the untidiness and uncertainties of a popular upheaval.

At the heart of Jonathan Beecher’s Writers and Revolution is a simple but powerful idea: to follow nine contemporary intellectuals – d’Agoult, the novelists George Sand, Victor Hugo and Gustave Flaubert, the statesman Lamartine, the liberal theorist and parliamentarian Alexis de Tocqueville and the socialists Karl Marx, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Alexander Herzen – into the revolution, link arms with them as they pass through its euphoria, confusion and violence, and track their steps as they re-emerge into the post-revolutionary world.

It’s an approach that might be made to work for many modern events: the Russian Revolution, the Vietnam War, the Partition of India. But it works exquisitely well for 1848 because there has never been a more garrulous or self-reflective revolution. Everywhere in Europe, the personal testimony produced in such prodigious quantities by the protagonists reveals a remarkable intensity of historical awareness. This was one important difference between 1848 and 1789: contemporaries of the mid-century revolutions read them against the template of the great original. And they did so in a world in which the concept of History had acquired tremendous semantic weight. For them, much more than for the men and women of 1789, history was happening in the present. Its movements could be detected in every twist of the revolution’s development. Only three of Beecher’s writers – Lamartine, d’Agoult and Tocqueville – wrote works of history in the formal sense, but all of them were sophisticated historical thinkers. They were also gifted observers. The image of the revolution that swims into focus under their convergent gazes is granular and mobile, with an uncanny depth of field.

The nine writers were acutely aware of one another. George Sand and d’Agoult had once been close friends, but intellectual rivalry and other personal frictions had driven them apart. Sand corresponded at length with Lamartine, Tocqueville and Flaubert, was a ‘moral mentor’ to Herzen and visited Proudhon in prison. Herzen was an associate of Proudhon and Hugo and an opponent of Marx. Marx had been close for a time to Proudhon and was an excoriating critic of Lamartine and Herzen. Lamartine and perhaps Herzen frequented the Paris salon of d’Agoult. D’Agoult interviewed several of the protagonists when she was researching her three-volume history of the revolution – the best by a long margin of the contemporary histories of the event. These affinities and antipathies give Beecher’s account the intensity of a novel.

Revolutions broke out across Europe in the spring of 1848, but the French tumult was especially consequential. At the end of February, after bitter fighting in the streets, King Louis Philippe, the beneficiary of the July Revolution of 1830, fled Paris. The resulting power vacuum was filled by a provisional government assembled in great haste from a list drawn up by newspaper editors and acclaimed by delirious crowds. A new electoral law replaced the tiny July Monarchy franchise with something approximating universal male suffrage. But the elections of April produced a traumatic shock for the left: the majority of votes in most constituencies went to moderate and conservative representatives. On 15 May, in a scene that brings to mind the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 (but with the political polarities reversed), a crowd of radicals broke into the new Constituent Assembly, disrupted the proceedings and announced the dissolution of both the chamber and the government. The national guard arrived and the Assembly resumed its deliberations.

In the weeks that followed, the government cracked down on the radical clubs and closed the national workshops, a refuge for the unemployed of Paris. These measures set the scene for the ‘June Days’, a brutal showdown between the armed forces and a last-ditch worker insurgency. The fighting of 23-26 June was bitter, with a much higher body count than the February insurrection. Fifty thousand men and women took up arms against the government and about twice that number were deployed against them. Thousands were killed in the fighting and there were numerous atrocities, including killings of captured insurgents. The revolution was over, but the counter-revolution was not. It would rumble on through the election of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte to the presidency of the Republic in December 1848 and the presidential coup of 2 December 1851, by which Louis Napoleon broke the power of the National Assembly and prolonged his period in office. In November the following year, he would submit a referendum to the people and have himself elected Emperor Napoleon III.

Beecher plots the paths of each of his protagonists out of the 1840s into the revolution, through the turbulent Second Republic and back out again into the pacified, heavily policed, post-revolutionary world of the Second Empire. The narrative patterns that result are interesting for being highly contingent. His characters zigzag like subatomic particles through the collision chamber of the revolution, emerging from it at unexpected angles. Lamartine was already one of the luminaries of the July Monarchy opposition when the February Revolution broke, and he was immediately appointed to the provisional government that emerged amid the turmoil. For the next two months he was one of the most popular men in France, mobbed by admirers wherever he went. But the chamber invasion of 15 May broke his spell: as the capital polarised around radical and conservative options, the ground underneath him was eaten away. After the June insurrection, he moved, like many moderates, to the right, but he never regained his former ascendancy over French public opinion. The last years of his life were consumed by efforts to pay off his enormous debts.

George Sand, already a literary star when the revolution broke out, worked closely with the ministers of the new government, and threw herself into the work of writing articles and brochures in their service. ‘The republics of the past,’ she wrote in March 1848, ‘were incomplete sketches. They failed because they had slaves. The republic that we are founding will only have free men, equal in rights.’ In a letter to a friend, the stonemason and ‘worker-poet’ Charles Poncy, she described her feelings: ‘I spent nights without sleeping, days without sitting down. You are crazy, you are drunk, you are happy to fall asleep in the mire and to wake up in heaven … The Republic has been won. It is assured.’ But the euphoria was shortlived. The news of the June insurrection plunged her into despair. ‘What is there to say?’ she wrote to a friend. ‘The future looks so dark that I feel a great desire and a great need to blow my brains out.’ Even Sand, who had stuck loyally to her left-republican friends during the turbulence of May, was starting to lose faith in the new order. ‘We were not ready for the Republic,’ she wrote to a friend. ‘The people were not with us.’

Victor Hugo followed a very different route. He was horrified by the June Days: how could it be legitimate to rise against a government elected by the people? He joined the fight against the insurgents, leading repeated assaults on the barricades under heavy fire. ‘I am safe and sound, but what disasters!’ he wrote to his mistress Juliette Drouet when it was all over. ‘I will never forget the terrible things I’ve seen during the past forty hours.’ In the months and years that followed, Hugo remained convinced that it had been necessary to crush the uprising, but an underlying sympathy with the defeated insurgents continued to nag at his peace of mind. Surely, he suggested in Les Misérables, it was possible to understand the roots of such a rebellion and to ‘venerate it, even while attacking it’. His ambivalence evolved to the point where his politics pivoted away from the Bonapartist party of order towards the advocates of a ‘democratic and social republic’. After the coup of December 1851, he became the single most outspoken republican opponent of the regime of Napoleon III.

For the radical Russian writer Alexander Herzen, 1848 was an important turning point. He did not take part in the June insurrection, but on the morning of 24 June, after a night of intermittent cannon fire, he walked with a friend, the journalist P.V. Annenkov, towards the Champs-Élysées to inspect the scene where the fighting had taken place. The cannon had fallen silent, but occasional bursts of gunfire still echoed across the city. On the Place de la Concorde, a boy of about seventeen was addressing a small audience of ragpickers and poor women with brooms, along with concierges from the surrounding houses:

He and all his comrades, boys like himself, were half drunk, their faces blackened with gunpowder and their eyes bloodshot from sleepless nights … ‘And what happened then, there’s no need to describe.’ After a pause he went on. ‘Yes, and they fought well too, but we paid them out for our comrades! … I stuck my bayonet up to the hilt in five or six of them; they’ll remember us,’ he added, trying to assume the air of a hardened criminal. The women were pale and silent; a man who looked like a concierge observed: ‘Serve them right, the blackguards!’ But this savage comment evoked not the slightest response. They were all of too ignorant a class to be moved to pity by the massacre or by the wretched boy whom others had turned into a murderer.

Near the Madeleine, Herzen and his companion were stopped and arrested by soldiers at a checkpoint: an officer claimed to have seen Herzen ‘more than once at [radical] meetings’. It was a moment of real danger: Herzen had not fought in the insurrection, but in those days many captured suspects were shot in the holding cells. The two friends were eventually released without incident, but there was one vexing detail. On his way to the police station, Herzen happened to recognise a member of the Constituent Assembly. It was Alexis de Tocqueville. But when he begged the famous writer for help, Tocqueville bowed politely and slipped away, saying that it would be inappropriate for the ‘legislative authority’ to interfere with the operations of ‘the executive’. Looking back in December 1852, Herzen recalled that, before his departure from Russia in 1847, he had longed for ‘breadth, depth, open struggle and free speech’; since then, he wrote, he had experienced only ‘the loss of all hopes’ and ‘indescribable moral disintegration’. Out of this mood of alienation came the notion that Russia would one day show the world the road to socialist redemption.

Tocqueville’s​ memoirs of 1848 make no mention of Herzen, but he too had vivid memories of the June Days. He recalled walking towards the scene of the fighting on 25 June, driven by a curiosity to understand ‘why the combat was lasting so long’. As he approached the Château d’Eau, he found the first traces of recent fighting: ‘houses pitted by cannonballs or bullets, trees knocked down, paving stones piled up, straw mixed with blood and mud’. At the chateau itself, he found government troops still engaged in a mopping-up operation against the rebels. The street ahead of them ‘bristled with barricades all the way to the Bastille’. He recalled the terror when insurgents appeared on a nearby rooftop and began firing on the troops below. The men around him fell into confusion, shooting in every direction without any idea of what they were doing. In the panic of the rout, Tocqueville was knocked down and trampled by cavalry: ‘I lost my hat and came close to losing my life.’

For politically active contemporaries, the inarticulacy of the June uprising was one of its most striking features. ‘Deceived and beholding unabated misery at their firesides,’ the radical former chief of police Marc Caussidière wrote, the people ‘threw themselves into this insurrection of despair’. The insurgents were never joined by the great personalities of the Parisian left who could have shrouded the enterprise in the language of a great cause. Even Louis Blanc refused to support them, though he did try to persuade them to stand down in the hope of avoiding further bloodshed. The lack of a clear doctrine or principle, beyond the forlorn cry ‘Liberty or Death!’, had an unsettling effect, even on hostile observers. Why had they done it when the odds were so perilously stacked against them? And why had so many of them persisted in the struggle, even when its suicidal character was obvious? This was the question that continued to trouble thoughtful contemporaries. Tocqueville had no sympathy with the rebels. And yet he kept returning in his thoughts to the idea that the insurgency had been motivated by a ‘sincere belief that society was founded in injustice’. And might this not be true? After all, as Tocqueville would write in a passage reflecting on the failure of socialism in 1848, ‘what we call necessary institutions are often just the institutions to which we are accustomed.’

Marx had no time for the melancholy equivocations of his fellow intellectuals. He discerned in the bloodshed of the June Days a grandiose moment of clarification. In an article he wrote for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung on 29 June, he extracted a characteristically paradoxical lesson from the violence in Paris. Yes, the workers had been ‘crushed by a superior power’. But the deeper reality was that the vanquished had defeated the victors. In enacting their momentary triumph over the workers, Marx wrote, the ‘moderate republican party’ had murdered the very revolution it claimed to be defending, because it had annihilated the ‘delusions and illusions’ of February. Small wonder that the National Assembly had been ‘paralysed’ with stupor: its members had seen at last how their questions and answers could make blood run across the cobblestones of Paris; they looked on stunned as their dreams disappeared in the smoke of gunpowder. Did the reprisals of June mark the end of the revolutionary workers’ movement? Should democrats abandon the political struggle as ‘meaningless, illusory and futile’? ‘Only weak, cowardly temperaments’, Marx answered, could pose such questions.

The collisions that are generated by the very conditions of bourgeois society have to work themselves out through struggle, they cannot be reasoned out of existence. The best form of state is one that does not blur social contradictions or seek arbitrarily … to contain them. The best form of state is one in which these contradictions play themselves out freely and thereby come to a resolution.

This was more than an observation: it was a revelation that would continue to power Marx’s thinking through The Class Struggles in France, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and beyond.

As the author of outstanding biographies of Charles Fourier and Victor Considerant, Beecher is an authority on 19th-century French intellectual life. He is also a sharp observer whose writing fizzes with thoughts. He brings not just the persons but also the books of his writers to life, illuminating their structure and demonstrating their power as a way of making sense of the world. Readers of his earlier work will recognise these features of his technique, but they are particularly effective for this revolution, with all its dissonant polyvocality.

Beecher’s nine writers include some of the commanding figures of the pre-1848 literary and political scene in Paris. And yet, in the course of that year, they all became observers of a convulsion they struggled to understand. The problem is not that we need to look elsewhere to find the true leaders of the February Revolution of 1848. It is rather that there were no leaders. For many years, the police authorities in Paris and across Europe had been preparing for a conspiratorial insurrection led by committed, full-time revolutionaries. They were waiting for the wrong revolution. The hardened radicals of the Parisian leftist underground were as surprised by the upheaval as everybody else. They, too, struggled to stay abreast of the events. In 1848, it was the revolution that made revolutionaries, not the other way around.

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