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CLUBS During 1848-49 in a number of major cities throughout revolutionary Europe, political clubs (or popular societies, as they were called interchangeably) played a significa nt political role. In the absence of pre-exiting institutions that could be adapted to democratic political life, popular societies offered a tempting vehicle for mass participation in a setting of revolutionary ferment and great popular expectations. Yet it was Paris, whose experience was to serve as inspiration to the rest of Europe, that witnessed the fullest flowering of the club phenomenon. Even though the precedents of the French Revolution of the 1790s were also influential, the immediate impetu s for the founding of popular societies came from the perceived gap between the aspirations of those having overthrown the July Monarchy in February, and the "inert" provisional government they had installed. This underlying concern was reinforced by the revolutionaries' sense of urgency before the impending democratic elections in which their "social and democratic republic" -- or indeed any republic -- might be swamped by an unenlightened, conservative electorate. In these circumstances, revolutionaries active under the July Monarchy, returning exiles such as Napoléon Lebon and freed political prisoners like Auguste Blanqui and his rival, Armand Barbès, were prominent among early club founders. Between the end of February and their high point in mid-April 1848, at least two hundred what might be called "open admission" popular societies were started as well as dozens of special and regional interest clubs ranging from shopkeepers renting their premises to separate political organizations for Parisian residents born in the provinces, with their own club for natives of almost every French département. More than anything else, the availability of meeting places -- schools and other municipal buildings were put to use -- determined the location and geographical distribution of clubs. Even though the restrictive Laws of September (1835) had been abrogated, the clubs' legal standing was dubious, since unenforced anti-club legislation spanning the years from 1791 to 1835 remained on the b ooks: from the beginning, political clubs depended on official toleration and cooperation not only for their practical needs, but for their very existence. Changes in governmental attitudes and policies, as well as a post-election let-down, explain the downward trend in the number of active clubs: between April 16 and early May, their number was halved to about a hundred; there was a second sharp decline to perhaps again half that number in the wake of the failed pseudo-insurrection of May 15. Fewer tha n fifty popular societies survived until the June Days. At their peak prior to the April 23 national elections, in a population of under 400,000 adult male Parisians, the popular societies attained a membership in the 50,000 to 70,000 range, possibly as high as 100,000. Since an additional audience of tens of thousands of non-members, including substantial numbers of women, attended clubs for which they had not signed up, the popular societies' influence must have extended well beyond their actual membe rship. Save for Etienne Cabet's Central Fraternal Society which did admit women members and for a few feminist for-women-only societies, the club movement was hardly more hospitable to feminine political aspirations than were conservatives. Even though clubs varied in their social composition and ideological stance, a working class rank-and-file committed to a socially oriented republic predominated in most of them. Given the public speaking and organizational skills required, club presidents tended to b e better educated than their members and disproportionately of middle or lower-middle class background. In the very broadest sense, the Paris clubs saw themselves collectively as a training ground for popular democracy. This somewhat hazy claim had at least three distinct, although often intertwined, aspects: ideological indoctrination, electoral politics, and direct pressure on the government. Ideological propagandizing played the least significant role in most popular societies: programmatic discu ssions had a way of getting put off for more pressing business. Most club audiences were exposed to the world of political ideas only when candidates to public or National Guard office aired their views or when a popular society discussed what became the touchstone of left-wing republicanism, the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Directly or indirectly, electoral politics took up more of the clubs' time than any other activity. Campaigning certainly predominated in the weeks leading up to, first, the na tional guard officer elections of March, then the April 1848 parliamentary elections. By mid-April, nearly one hundred-fifty clubs had united behind a Club of Clubs with large ambitions and secret government funds to shape the elections in both the capital and the provinces. The organization proved unable to live up to its aims, having little effect on the elections anywhere. Electoral politics also tended to monopolize the popular societies' time and energy in the two weeks preceding the complementary n ational elections of June 4. A successor organization to the Club of Clubs, the Central Commission for Democratic Elections, founded on May 29 by some thirty clubs, confined itself to these partial elections in Paris and was demonstrably much more effective. As self-proclaimed embodiments of popular sovereignty, the clubs also opted for direct action by exerting pressure on the government through mass demonstrations among which those of March 17 and May 15 loom largest. These exercises in direct democr acy were by their very nature only intermittent. The club-organized demonstration of March 17 was ambiguous from its inception, seeking to push the provisional government to the left, while at the same time supporting it against conservative pressures: the result was a stand-off. The botched insurrectionary demonstration of May 15 on behalf of oppressed Poland led to the flight or arrest of the best-known club leaders who had compromised themselves. On the other hand, the clubs' involvement in the faile d demonstration of April 16, in the abortive Banquet of the People in early June, and in the June Insurrection itself was at most marginal, which did not deter General Cavaignac from dissolving popular societies under the state of siege. Although hamstrung by new legal restrictions passed in August and harassed by the judiciary, a handful of Parisian clubs did reemerge in September 1848 without ever regaining political influence. All popular societies were finally suppressed by law on June 19, 1849.

Peter H. Amann


Amann, Peter H. Revolution & Mass Democracy. The Paris Club Movement in 1848. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.

"Political Justice in the Second French Republic." Journal of Modern History - University Microfilms, 1976.

Lucas, Alphonse Les clubs et les clubistes: histoire complète critique et anecdotique des clubs et comités &e acute;lectoraux fondés à Paris depuis la révolution de 1848. Paris: Dentu, 1851.

Thomas, Edith Les femmes de 1848. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1948.

Wassermann, Suzanne "Le club de Raspail" La Révolution de 1848, V 1908-09. 586-605, 655-674, 748-762.

_______. Les clubs de Barbès et de Blanqui en 1848. Paris: Cornély, 1913.

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