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France: Political Mobilization, Intellectuals, People

Over the last thirty years historians have shown that 1848 in France marked a great watershed in the emergence of modern democratic political mobilization which narrowed the gap between social elites and the masses. Ernest Labrousse and Charles Tilly have inspired two generations of research on this matter. The students of Labrousse have been more concerned with the question of political acculturation; those of Tilly with political action. As in the previous revolutions of 1789 and 1830, the people of Paris initiated the revolutionary process. The February days in Paris precipitated a proliferation of clubs, voluntary associations, public meetings, cooperatives, mutual benefit societies, and electoral committees. Similar developments occurred in France's other major cities such as Lyon, Marseilles, Toulouse, Rouen, and Limoges. Peter Amann has shown that in Paris the club movement (with two hundred clubs comprising between 50 and 100,000 members) was a precursor of the contemporary mass political party in that the clubs implanted modern ideological concepts such as the democratic and social republic and right to work. Political repression during and after the June Days of 1848 cut short this urban political ferment.

A host of historians has recently shown that political mobilization, stalled in the cities after June 1848, picked up momentum in the countryside. Philippe Virgier, Maurice Agulhon and Ted Margadant, to cite only the most comprehensive studies, have traced a national political network in the small towns and villages of central and southern France, developed by the republican left, called Montagnards or dem-socs. Basing his work on these earlier historians, Edward Berenson has shown that these networks created elaborate national channels for information and propaganda and formulated a coherent strategy for winning the rural population. In the process they created France's first national political party. Ted Margadant in particular reveals how, when Louis Napoleon Bonaparte staged his coup d'état in December 1851, these networks rose in defense of the republican ideal. Allegiance to the village or locality had thus declined in importance. Nevertheless, this transformation in political orientation occurred not in spite of but because of the use to which republican politicians harnessed local and traditional culture to an incipient national political culture. Vertical ties of local patronage receded in the face of the rise of horizontal ties of social class and political solidarity. The result, as Margadant has chronicled, was the largest peasant rising in western Europe during the nineteenth century, involving almost one-hundred-thousand men from around nine-hundred communes. The political mobilization in 1848-1851 was especially notable and effective because of the extraordinary interaction between intellectuals and the masses. Again Paris, Lyon, and other cities during 1848 provided intimations of this interchange, which would become much more extensive in the provinces after 1849. Working-class spokespersons such as Martin Nadaud and Agricole Perdiguier were merely the most famous and prominent of a new generation of working class and peasant militants that emerged. However, in the urban upheavals of the first half of 1848, only in Lyon did lower class radicals play a prominent political role. Only after the June days, as the steadily rising level of repression sent increasing numbers of middle-class militants (especially lawyers and journalists) to jail for their political activities, and as the political awareness of proletarians grew, did artisans, shopkeepers, and peasant farmers became prominent and often pivotal in republican organizations. Agulhon and Margadant in particular have shown that the proto urban villages of the south, from Allier to the Var, proved to be ideal spaces for these "cultural brokers" who diffused a new political awareness to the local peasants. Many of them were the educated sons of prosperous peasants who kept strong ties to their native villages. This intricate and elaborate view of political acculturation in the French countryside, however, has not persuaded all historians. A lively debate has ensued as to whether agitation in the countryside was truly modern and national or merely traditional and local. For Eugen Weber these villagers were still essentially peasants and not yet the Frenchmen he argued they would become by 1914. Yves Marie Bercé a historian of early modern peasant revolts, also saw more continuity than rupture in the peasant behavior of 1849-1851. Both historians argue that peasants had not yet acquired substantial leadership roles, patron client relations still predominated, and peasants' orientation was still local and their vocabulary still traditional. Thus the 1851 rising was a traditional Jacquerie that saw the country pitted against the city. Tax records went up in smoke and forest and pasture rights were returned to peasant hamlets. A national perspective and ideological issues, they argue were still too abstract for these peasants. This historiographical controversy has still not been fully resolved. Indeed, it may never be because it centers on the definitions of traditional and modern, concepts that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Margadant's final assessment that the 1851 mobilization embraced both modern and traditional elements provided the best present perspective on the matter. Eighteen-forty-eight in France mobilized an unprecedented of people, first in the cities and then in the villages. Politics in 1848 was inclusive rather than exclusive; it incorporated tradition and modernity simultaneously. This mass mobilization accommodated newspapers and clubs along with songs, folklore, and village fairs and cafés. Thus the gap between the intellectuals and the people was bridged in an unprecedented fashion. Agulhon's phrase captures this well: politics made its decent into the masses. This was the great political legacy of 1848 in France.

W. Scott Haine


Amann, Peter. Revolution and Mass Democracy: the Paris Club Movement in 1848. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Agulhon, Maurice. The Republic in the Village: The People of the Var from the French Revolution to the Second Republic. trans Janet Lloyd London and Paris: Cambridge and Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 1982.

Berenson, Edward. Populist Religion and Left-Wing Politics in France, 1830-1852. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Margadant, Ted. French Peasants in Revolt: The Insurrection of 1851. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Stewart-McDougall, Mary Lynn. The Artisan Republic: Revolution, Reaction, and Resistance in Lyon 1848-1851. Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1984.

Weber, Eugen. Peasants into Frenchmen. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1976.

Vigier, Philippe. La Seconde République dans la région alpine: Etude politique et sociale. 2 vols. Paris, PUF, 1963.

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