A popular topic of discussion in my family is, "Why do poor and lower middle class people keep voting for the party of the rich? Why don't they vote in their own best economic interests?"
None of our guesses ever seemed to answer the question. It's an important question to answer because democracy only functions correctly if the public votes in their own best interests.
I've done plenty of research into the topic, including reading the excellent book, What's the Matter with Kansas. It was a great read and I highly recommend it.
However, it still failed to answer my question. Thomas Frank explained why religious people have been captured by the Republican Party and the "cultural war", but he was still somewhat vague about why so many poor and lower middle class people who aren't religious vote Republican.
And then, by mere chance while studying history, I came across the answers to many of these questions.
It turns out that these questions have already been debated by some of the greatest minds in history. The debates have all been written down and published in essays and novels. So why haven't I heard of it before? Why haven't so many Americans heard of it before?
Because you have to know about the history of a country that isn't named USA.
The 1848 Revolution
"We are sleeping together on a volcano . . . A wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon."
- Alexis de Tocqueville
The July Monarchy that followed the 1830 Revolution had fallen far short of its promise. The only real reforms was the acceptance of the idea of popular sovereignty (as opposed to divine right), and changing the voting from nobility-based to tax-based. What this meant was that only the top 1%, the haute bourgeoisie, had a voice in the french government. King Louis-Philippe surrounded himself with conservatives and his only concern was this base of power. There were no social reforms of any meaningful kind.
“No Monsieur, there has not been a revolution: there is simply a change at the head of state."
- Minister and banker, Casimir Perier
Labor unions and secret societies were shut down. Political gatherings and demonstrations were outlawed. Even the term "republican" was declared illegal. Because of this lack of reform the July Monarchy suffered under periodic riots and revolts during its entire lifespan.
The opposition was forced to use funerals, family gatherings, and public banquets to organize. On January 14, 1848, King Louis-Philippe outlawed even these, and combined with economic depression, triggered a revolution.
"Citizens: royalty, under whatever form, is abolished; no more legitimism, no more Bonapartism, no regency.
The provisional government has taken all the measures necessary to render impossible the return of the former dynasty or the advent of a new dynasty.
The republic is proclaimed.
The people are united."
- The formal proclamation of the second French Republic
On the afternoon of February 22, 1848, the first barricades were built.
Up to this point there had been little real violence, but it was beginning to build.
The vanguard of this revolution was led by students and the working men, with the silent approval of the petite bourgeoisie (i.e. the shop-keepers and professionals of the lower middle-class). The National Guard in charge of putting down this revolt increasingly showed its sympathies with the rebels - at least when the choice was between a bloody massacre or surrendering to the crowds.
"Fire on the people? No! Fire on the people who pay us? We shall do nothing of the kind."
- Artillery officer near Hotel de Ville
But at the Hotel de Capucines the soldiers felt threatened by an enormous crowd and fired a volley directly into the mostly unarmed mob. More than 60 people were killed instantly. At this point even the shop-keepers joined in the revolution. Barricades went up everywhere and prisons were liberated. The reign of the last King of France had come to an end, but not before a great deal of bloodshed.
Vive la Republique!
From the very start there was class division in the new republic.
As in 1830, the Palaise Bourbon, led by Jacques-Charles Dupont de l'Eure, tried to assume control over the Provisional Government, while the republican-socialist party set up a rival government headquartered in the Hôtel de Ville (city hall). Unlike 1830, the republican-socialists were not sidelined. Led by leaders such as Louis Blanc, they forced a fusion of the two governments, which meant it was dominated by moderate Republicans.
On March 2, the new Provisional Government approved universal suffrage for men, thus adding 9 million new voters. Soon after the rights of free press and free assembly was passed, followed by banning slavery and the death penalty. The work day was rolled back to 10 hours, six days a week, and child labor laws were finally enforced.
But the biggest measures were done to address the high unemployment problem, the creation of National Workshops and the Mobile Guard.
These two measures were very different methods to address the same problem, and ended up coming into direct conflict with one another in dramatic and violent fashion.
The National Workshop was a bold new idea pushed by Louis Blanc centered around a new concept - the right to work. It was an ambitious idea that might have worked had it been better conceived and implemented. The problem was there wasn't nearly enough paid work for the hundreds of thousands of unemployed men in Paris, and not nearly the oversight necessary for this massive public works program. To pay for this program new taxes were imposed on the entire nation.
The Mobile Guard was a more traditional and less ambitious method to address the unemployment problem - put them in the military. 25,000 of same young men that had recently participated on the overthrow of the government were now being paid to defend it from the public.
What was missing was knowing the direction of the new government. On March 5, under pressure from the Parisian political clubs, the provisional government adjourned until a direct election could be held in April. It was to be a huge mistake.
So far the revolution had been strictly a Parisian affair. The peasants had not participated in the February uprising. The provisional government leaving the country directionless for nearly two months, rekindled memories of the chaos of the early years of the first republic. Despite the fact that most of the revolts under the July Monarchy had happened in rural areas and the smaller cities of France, they did not sympathize with the urban working man. The new taxes to pay for the workshops were largely hated and ignored in rural France.
The peasants weren't the only ones who remembered the first republic. The wealthy fled Paris in droves. Businesses shut down and credit dried up. The revolution was having a negative effect on bread and butter issues.
Alphonse de Lamartine
On April 23, the national elections took place with full universal male suffrage, something that America had not seen as yet. Much to the surprise of the political clubs, the nation elected a majority conservative Assembly. In fact the rural district candidates were majority royalist. Instead of uniting the country, this election split it further. The leftist republicans and socialists whose blood was spilled to make the revolution happen felt betrayed, and suspected vote rigging.
The new Executive Commission was led by such figures as moderate republicans Alphonse de Lamartine and Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin. The conservatives hated to share power with Ledru-Rollin, but couldn't form a coalition without Lamartine, who threatened to resign unless he was included.
Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin
On the other side of the coin was the socialists. When it became obvious that the new government was going to reject all of their cherished proposals, they decided on a demonstration march. On May 15 several thousand peaceful demonstrators marched on National Assembly. By mere chance security failed to prevent the demonstrators from entering the assembly building. For three hours the floor of the assembly was taken over by the demonstrators, until the National Guard finally drove them out.
While there had been almost no violence in the event, the conservative government was furious. Left-wing newspapers were shut down, the right of public assembly was restricted, and political clubs were banned. Radical leaders were imprisoned and Louis Blanc was put on trial. Politics in Paris was getting polarized on every level.
One man who managed to gain broad support from conservatives, peasants, and some of the working class was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte.
Louis had tried to mount a coup in 1840, and for that he was sentenced to life in prison. In 1846 he managed to escape to England by changing clothes with a mason worker at his prison fortress. After the revolution he came back to France and became a member of the Assembly in the June 4 election.
The June Days Revolt
"...the most extensive and most singular insurrection that has occurred in our history..."
- Alexis de Tocqueville
Paris, June 1848
The conservative government was hostile to the National Workshops from the very beginning. After the May 15 demonstration even the moderate republicans began turning against them, especially when it became obvious that the costs were unsustainable. By May 23 the conservatives had proposed a new law that forced all men between the ages of 18 and 25 to either enlist in the army or leave the workshops. This was a direct threat to the livelihood of the poor. The teaming masses of Parisian poor lived hand-to-mouth, and an interruption of their meager wages meant starvation for their families.
On June 23rd the decree was passed that the national workshops were to be closed in three days. The reaction was immediate.
"Work! Work! Bread! We will not leave!"
- the chant of the demonstrators on the first day of the June Days
The first street barricade was built on Rue Saint-Denis. By the 24th the entire eastern section of Paris was in full-scale revolt. The National Guard performed no better than it did in the February Revolution. In the eastern parts of the city most never reported for duty. To a large extent, the government was forced to call on soldiers from outside the city.
The insurgents who tore up the paving stones for the barricades were not the radicals--Ledru-Rollin was on the side of the government and other radicals were in prison. They were primarily those who had worked with their hands for wages and many unemployed.
barricade at Rue Saint-Antoine
Probably the most notable element of the June Days Revolt is that there was simply no leader, or leaders, present. It was the most purely proletariat uprising in modern history.
It was also the most clearly defined class warfare.
General Louis-Eugène Cavaignac
The government's reaction was also swift. On the 23rd General Louis-Eugène Cavaignac was appointed supreme commander of all government forces in the Paris area. The following day the National Assembly declared martial law and then invested all executive powers in Cavaignac. Thus he had become dictator of France, with only limited dissent from liberals and republicans.
Cavaignac decided to concentrate his forces first before launching a counter-attack. Some historians speculate that the reason for this was to draw out all the rebels before slaughtering them.
Unlike the February Revolution, the students were nowhere to be found. The petite bourgeoisie were largely hostile. This was the poor working man against the establishment and the middle class took a pass.
Almost all of those later arrested were between the ages of 17 and 40, with young families, and were often immigrants from the country. Construction workers, metal workers, those engaged in the textile and shoe industries, laborers, and furniture workers were especially prominent.
barricade at Rue De La Mortellerie
However, there was one military force that distinguished itself on the side of "order" during that bloody week - the Garde Mobile.
These former unemployed working men took the lead in fighting their former comrades. This surprised even the establishment, who were suspicious of their class loyalties beforehand. One possible reason for this was because the average Garde Mobile earned one france and 50 centimes a day, while the average soldier earned twenty-five centimes per day. Unmarried, with an average age of just 21 years old, they lived isolated in barracks, separated from the average working class.
The fighting was even more severe than what was seen in either the 1830 Revolution or the February Revolution. Both sides showed bravery and determination, although given the lack weapons, the rebels' bravery and sacrifice was especially significant. Running low on ammo, the rebels actually began manufacturing gunpowder and bullets.
Repeatedly the army and Garde Mobile were driven back from barricades and had to call in greater and greater numbers of reinforcements. Eventually the army relied almost exclusively on cannon fire to blow holes in the barricades before attempting bloody bayonet charges. Slowly the forces of "order" began overwhelming the rebels while the bourgeoisie class cheered them on.
By the night of the 26th, the insurrection had been crushed.
Government forces saw nearly 1,000 die in the fighting. The rebels lost anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000.
"After the victory the reprisals were terrible. Prisoners huddled together in the vaults beneath the terrace, in the garden of the Tuileries, which faces the Seine, were shot at random through the air-holes in the wall; other were shot in masses in the Plaine de Grenelle, in the cemetary of Mont Parnasse, in the quarries of Montmatre, in the cloister of Saint Benoit, in the courtyard of the Hotel de Cluny.
- Louis Blanc
There were few trials. There was even less mercy. It was a campaign of extermination against a rebellious underclass by the ruling class.
The prisoners in the vaults underneath the Tuileries had it worst. Prisoners who were shot weren't immediately removed. Thus they rotted in the June heat underneath the feet of the prisoners who still lived.
Several thousands prisoners who managed to avoid random executions were deported to Algeria, which was in the process of a brutal colonization.
There was some violence outside of Paris, the worst being in Marseilles, which resulted in twelve deaths. But mostly the provinces remained quiet. In the provinces the 45 centimes tax was a more explosive issue than the closure of the national workshops and the brutal suppression that followed.
In fact the institutional violence that followed the June Days was justified with all sorts of wild rumors that had no basis in fact. The rumors included the cutting off of hands of prisoners by the insurgents, the whole revolt had been underwritten with British gold, and that women had given soldiers poisoned food and drink. It was all done to reinforce provincial prejudice against Parisian workers.
Next came punishment for those who didn't revolt. Newspapers who were sympathetic to the insurgency saw their editors arrested and the newspapers shut down.
The National Guard which had mostly abstained from the fighting (or in some cases, fought with the rebels), was disbanded.
Paris resembled a city under foreign occupation all through the summer. Revenge attacks against lone soldiers were reported. Random house and personal searched continued for months as the city remained under martial law.
Many famous and not so famous writers and philosophers lived in Paris during the June Days. The events shaped their ideas, and the ideas of their readers for decades to come.
Political leaders/writers such as Blanc and Lamartine I've already mentioned.
Tocqueville and Hugo also witnessed and wrote about these events. But the most influential of these writers/philosophers Karl Marx (who returned to Paris shortly after the February Revolution) and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, both of whom visited the barricades during those violent days.
Each had a different opinion and I can't hope to do justice to the depth of their understanding.
Louis Napoleon Bonaparte won the presidential election on December 27, 1848. Leftists and republicans largely no longer voted in elections after the June Days and voter participation fell to as low as 25%.
Bonaparte continued to gain power until he launched a coup on December 2, 1851. Victor Hugo, one of the moderate republicans who had supported the repression of the June Days (along with Alexis de Tocqueville and others), fled into exile.
The provinces, students, and petite bourgeoisie which had ignored or even fought against the June Days Uprising, began a massive protest against the end of the Republic. Leftists and socialists participated in this latest uprising too, but their strength had been broken in 1848. The type of rebel in this uprising was very different from June Days.
If we examine the occupational background of our sample of arrestees, we find that 44% were employed in agriculture, 48% in crafts and commerce, and 6% in liberal professions. Peasants were especially liable to prosecution in southeastern France, where 53% of the arrestees in our sample were cultivators.
The government launched another massive crackdown, which was much easier without the socialist/workers vanguard that was decimated three years earlier. 26,884 persons were arrested and tried in a special court. Around 10,000 were deported to Algeria.
While those arrested made their way through the criminal system, they sometimes encountered prisoners still languishing there from June 1848. These veterans of June Days were known to heap abuse upon these new rebels who failed to fight alongside them when the republic could still have been saved.
The leftists/socialists wouldn't rise again for another 20 years.