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Real Causes Why the French Proletarians
Remained Comparatively Inactive
in December Last [146]

Frederick Engels


[Notes to the People, No. 43, February 21, 1852]

Ever since the 2nd of December last, the whole interest that foreign, or at least continental politics may excite, is taken up by that lucky and reckless gambler, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. "What is he doing? Will he go to war, and with whom? Will he invade England?" These questions are sure to be put wherever continental affairs are spoken of.

And certainly there is something startling in the fact of a comparatively unknown adventurer, placed by chance at the head of the executive power of a great republic, seizing, between sunset and sunrise, upon all the important posts of the capital, driving the parliament like chaff to the winds, suppressing metropolitan insurrection in two days, provincial tumults in two weeks, forcing himself, in a sham election, down the throat of the whole people, and establishing, in the same breath, a constitution which confers upon him all the powers of the state[147]. Such a thing has not occurred, such a shame has not been borne by any nation since the praetorian legions of declining Rome put up the empire to auction and sold it to the highest bidder. And the middle-class press of this country, from The Times down to The Weekly Dispatch, has never, since the days of December, allowed any occasion to pass without venting its virtuous indignation upon the military despot, the treacherous destroyer of his country's liberties, the extinguisher of the press, and so forth.

Now, with every due contempt for Louis Napoleon, we do not think it would become an organ of the working-class[a] to join in this chorus of high-sounding vituperation in which the respective papers of the stockjobbers, the cotton-lords, and the landed aristocracy strive to out-blackguard each other. These gentlemen might as well be remembered of the real state of the question. They have every reason to cry out, for whatever Louis Napoleon took from others, he took it not from the working-classes, but from those very classes whose interests in England the aforesaid portion of the press represents. Not that Louis Napoleon would not, quite as gladly, have robbed the working-classes of anything that might appear desirable to him, but it is a fact that in December last the French working-classes could not be robbed of anything, because everything worth taking had already been taken from them during the three years and a half of middle-class parliamentary government that had followed the great defeats of June 1848. In fact, what, on the eve of the 2nd of December, remained to be taken from them? The suffrage? They had been stripped of that by the Electoral Law of May 1850. The right of meeting? That had long been confined to the "safe" and "well-disposed" classes of society. The freedom of the press? Why, the real proletarian press had been drowned in the blood of the insurgents of the great battle of June, and that shadow of it which survived for a time, ' had long since disappeared under the pressure of gagging laws, revised and improved upon every succeeding session of the National Assembly[148]. Their arms? Every pretext had been taken profit of, in order to ensure the exclusion from the National Guard of all working-men, and to confine the possession of arms to the wealthier classes of society.

Thus the working-classes had, at the moment of the late coupd'état, very little, if anything, to lose in the chapter of political privileges. But, on the other hand, the middle and capitalist classes were at that time in possession of political omnipotence. Theirs was the press, the right of meeting, the right to bear arms, the suffrage, the parliament. Legitimists and Orleanists, landholders and fundholders, after thirty years' struggle, had at last found a neutral ground in the republican form of government. And for them it was indeed a hard case to be robbed of all this, in the short space of a few hours, and to be reduced at once to the state of political nullity to which they themselves had reduced the working people. That is the reason why the English "respectable" - press is so furious at Louis Napoleon's lawless indignities. As long as these indignities, either of the executive government or the parliament, were directed against the working-classes, why that, of course, was right enough, but as soon as a similar policy was extended to "the better sort of people," the "wealthy intellects of the nation," ah, that was quite different, and it behoved every lover of liberty to raise his voice in defence of "principle."

The struggle, then, on the 2nd of December lay principally between the middle-classes and Louis Napoleon, the representative of the army. That Louis Napoleon knew this, he showed by the orders given to the army during the struggle of the 4th, to fire principally upon "the gentlemen in broad-cloth." The glorious battle of the boulevards is known well enough; and a series of volleys upon closed windows and unarmed bourgeois was quite sufficient to stifle, in the middle-class of Paris, every movement of resistance.

On the other hand, the working-classes, although they could no longer be deprived of any direct political privilege, were not at all disinterested in the question. They had to lose, above all, the great chance of May 1852, when all powers of the state were to expire simultaneously, and when, for the first time since June 1848, they expected to have a fair field for a struggle; and aspiring as they were to political supremacy, they could not allow any violent change of government to occur, without being called upon to interpose between the contending parties as supreme umpires, and to impose to them their will as the law of the land. Thus, they could not let the occasion pass without showing the two opposing forces that there was a third power in the field, which, if momentarily removed from the theatre of official and parliamen¬tary contentions, was yet ever ready to step in as soon as the scene was changed to its own sphere of action, to the street. But then, it must not be forgotten that even in this case the proletarian party laboured under great disadvantages. If they rose against the usurper, did they not virtually defend and prepare the restoration and dictatorship of that very parliament which had proved their most relentless enemy? And if they at once declared for a revolutionary government, would they not, as was actually the case in the provinces, frighten the middle-class so much as to drive them to a union with Louis Napoleon and the army? Besides, it must be remembered that the very strength and flower of the revolutionary working-class have been either killed during the insurrection of June, or transported and imprisoned under innumerable different pretences ever since that event. And finally, there was this one fact which was alone sufficient to ensure to Napoleon the neutrality of the great majority of the working-classes: Trade was excellent, and Englishmen know it well enough, that with a fully employed and well-paid working-class, no agitation, much less a revolution, can be got up.

It is now very commonly said in this country that the French must be a set of old women or else they would not submit to such treatment. I very willingly grant that, as a nation, the French deserve, at the present moment, such adorning epithets. But we all know that the French are, in their opinions and actions, more dependent upon success than any other civilised nation. As soon as a certain turn is given to events in this country, they almost without resistance follow up that turn, until the last extreme in that direction has been reached. The defeat of June 1848 gave such a counter-revolutionary turn to France and, through her, to the whole continent. The present ascension of the Napoleonic empire is but the crowning fact of a long series of counter-revolutionary victories, that filled up the three last years; and once engaged upon the declivity, it was to be expected that France would go on falling until she reached the bottom. How near she may be to that bottom it is not easy to say; but that she is getting nearer to it very rapidly every one must see. And if the past history of France is not to be belied by future deeds of the French people, we may safely expect that the deeper the degradation, the more sudden and the more dazzling will be the result. Events, in these times of ours, are succeeding each other at a tremendously rapid rate, and what it took formerly a nation a whole century to go through, is now-a-days very easily overcome in a couple of years. The old empire lasted fourteen years; it will be exceedingly lucky for the imperial eagle if the revival, upon the most shabby scale, of this piece of performance will last out so many months. And then?


[Notes to the People, No. 48, March 27, 1852]

Although at a first glance it might appear that in the present moment Louis Napoleon, in France, sways with undisturbed omnipotence, and that, perhaps, the only power, besides his own, is that of courtly intrigues that beset him on all sides, and plot against each other for the purpose of obtaining sole favour with, and influence over, the French autocrat; yet, in reality, things are quite different. The whole secret of Louis Napoleon's success is this, that by the traditions of his name he has been placed in a position to hold, for a moment, the balance of the contending classes of French society. For it is a fact that under the cloak of the state of siege by military despotism which now veils France, the struggle of the different classes of society is going on as fiercely as ever. That struggle, having been carried on for the last four years with powder and shot has only now taken a different form. In the same way as any protracted war will exhaust and fatigue the most powerful nation, so has the open, bloody war of the last year fatigued and momentarily exhausted the military strength of the different classes. But class-war is independent of actual warfare, and not always needs barricades and bayonets to be carried on with; class-war is inextinguishable as long as the various classes with their opposed and conflicting interests and social positions are in existence; and we have not yet heard that since the blessed advent of the mock-Napoleon, France had ceased to count among her inhabitants large landed proprietors, and agricultural labourers, or métayers, large money-lenders, and small mortgaged freeholders, capitalists, and working-men.

The position of the different classes in France is just this: the revolution of February had for ever upset the power of the large bankers and stockjobbers; after their downfall every other class of the populations of the towns had had their day. First, the working-men, during the days of the first revolutionary excite¬ment,—then the petty republican shopkeepers under Ledru-Rollin, then the republican fraction of the bourgeoisie under Cavaignac, lastly, the united royalist middle-classes, under the late National Assembly. None of these classes had been able to hold fast the power they for a moment possessed; and latterly, among the ever reappearing divisions of the legitimist royalists, or the landed interest, and the Orleans royalists, or the moneyed interest, it appeared inevitable that power would again slip from their hands, and return to those of the working-class, who themselves might be expected to have become fitter to turn it to account. But then there was another mighty class in France, mighty, not by the large individual properties of its members, but by its numbers and its very wants. That class the small, mortgaged freeholders, making up , at least three-fifths of the French nation was slow to act, and slow to be acted upon, as all rural populations; it stuck to its old traditions, distrusted the wisdom of the apostles of all parties from the towns, and remembering that it had been happy, free from debt, and comparatively rich in the time of the Emperor[b], laid, by the means of universal suffrage, the executive power in the hands of his nephew. The active agitation of the democratic socialist party, and more still the disappointment which Louis Napoleon's measures soon prepared for them, led part of this peasant-class into the ranks of the Red party; but the mass of them stuck to their traditions, and said that if Louis Napoleon had not yet proved the Messiah he was expected to be, it was the fault of the National Assembly that gagged him.- Besides the mass of the peasantry, Louis Napoleon, himself a species of lofty swell-mob's man, and surrounded by the élite of the fashionable swell mob, found support in the most degraded and dissolute portion of the population of the towns. This element of strength he united into a paid body called the "Society of the 10th of December." Thus, relying upon the peasantry for the vote; upon the mob for noisy demonstrations, upon the army, ever ready to upset a government of parliamentary talkers, pretending to speak the voice of the working-classes, he could quietly wait for the moment when the squabbles of the middle-class parliament would allow him to step in and assume a more or less absolute sway over those classes, none of which, after a four years' bloody struggle, had proved strong enough to seize upon a lasting supremacy. And this he did on the 2nd of December last.

Thus the reign of Louis Napoleon is not superseding the' class-war. It merely suspends for a while the bloody outbreaks which mark from time to time the efforts of this or that class to gain or maintain political power. None of these classes were strong enough to venture at a new battle, with any chance of success. The very division of classes favoured, for the time being, Napoleon's projects. He upset the middle-class parliament, and destroyed the political power of the middle-class; might not the proletarians rejoice at this? And certainly, the proletarians could not be expected to fight for an assembly that had been their most deadly enemy! But at the same time Louis Napoleon's usurpation menaced the common fighting-ground of all classes, and the last vantage-grounds of the working-class—the Republic; why, as soon as the working-men stood up for the defence of the Republic, the middle-class joined the very man that had just ousted them in order to defeat, in the working-class, the common enemy of society. Thus it was in Paris thus in the provinces, and the army won an easy victory over the contending and opposing classes; and after the victory, the millions of the imperialist peasantry stepped in with their vote, and with the help of official falsifications, established the government of Louis Napoleon as that of the representative of almost unanimous France.

But even now, class struggles and class interests are at the bottom of every important act of Louis Napoleon's, as we shall see in our next.


[Notes to the People, No. 50, April 10, 1852]

We repeat: Louis Napoleon came to power because the open war carried on during the last four years between the different classes of French society had worn them out, had shattered their respective fighting armies, and because under such circumstances, for a time at least, the struggle of these classes can only be carried on in a peaceful and legal way, by competition, by trades' organisations, and by all the different means of pacific struggle by which the opposition of class against class has now been carried on in England for above a century. Under these circumstances it is in a manner of speaking in the interest of all contending classes that a so-called strong government should exist which might repress and keep down all those minor, local and scattered outbreaks of open hostility, which, without leading to any result, trouble the development of the struggle in its new shape by retarding the recovery of strength for a new pitched battle. This circumstance may in some way explain the undeniable general acquiescence of the French in the present government. How long it may be ere both- the working and capitalist classes may have regained strength and self-reliance enough to come out and openly claim, each for themselves, the dictatorship of France, of course nobody can tell; but at the rate events are going now-a-days, either of these classes will most likely be brought into the field unexpectedly, and thus the fight of class against class in the streets may be renewed long before, from the relative or absolute strength of the parties, such an occurrence might seem probable. For, if the French revolution¬ary, that is the working-class party, has to wait till it is again in the same conditions of strength as in February 1848, it might resign itself to submissive passiveness of some ten years, which it certainly will not do; and at the same time, a government like that of Louis Napoleon is placed in the necessity, as we shall see by and by, to entangle itself and France into such difficulties as ultimately must be solved by a great revolutionary blow. We will not speak of the chances of war, nor of other occurrences which may, or may not come to pass; we will only mention one event which is as sure to come as the sun is sure to rise tomorrow morning, and that is a general commercial and industrial revulsion. The bad trade and bad harvests of 1846 and 1847, made the revolution of 1848; and there are ten chances to one, that in 1853 trade, all over the world, will be far deeper uprooted and far more lastingly upset than ever it was before[149]. And who is there who thinks the ship, Louis Napoleon sails in, [is] sea-worthy enough to stand the gales that then must of necessity spring up?

Title-page of the journal Notes to the People, in which Engels' article
"Real Causes Why the French Proletarians Remained Comparatively Inactive in December Last"
was published.

But let us look at the position in which the bastard-eagle found himself on the evening of his victory. He had for supporters the army, the clergy, and the peasantry. He had been opposed in his attempt by the middle-class (comprising the large landed pro¬prietors), and the Socialists or revolutionary working-men. Once at the head of the government, he had not only to retain those parties that brought him there, but also to gain over, or at least to conciliate to the new state of things, as many as possible of those that had opposed him hitherto. As to the army, the clergy, the government officials and the members of that conspiracy of place-hunters by which he had long since surrounded himself, direct bribes, ready money, open plunder of the public resources, was the only thing required; and we have seen how quick Louis Napoleon has been at coming down with the cash, or at finding out berths for his friends which gave them glorious opportunities for enriching themselves at once. Look at DeMorny, who went into office a beggar, crushed by a load of debts, and who, four weeks afterwards, walked out again with debts paid and what even in the neighbourhood of Belgrave Square[150] would be called a handsome independence besides! But to deal with the peasantry, with the large landed proprietors, with the funds, monied, manufacturing, shipping, trading and shop-keeping interests, and lastly with that most formidable question of the century, the labour¬-question—that was quite another thing. For all the silencing measures of the government notwithstanding, the interests of these different classes remained as opposed as ever, although there was no longer a press, a parliament, a meeting-platform to proclaim this unpleasant fact; and thus, whatever the government might try to do for one class, was sure to hurt the interest of another. Whatever Louis Napoleon might attempt, he was to be met everywhere by the question, "who pays the piper?"—a question which has upset more governments than all other questions, Militia questions, Reform questions, &c., together. And although Louis Napoleon has already made his predecessor Louis Philippe contribute a good share to pay the piper[151], yet the piper requires a good deal more.

We shall begin, in our next, to trace the position of the different classes of society in France, and to inquire how far there were any means at the disposal of the present government to improve that position. We shall at the same time review what that government has attempted and will most likely attempt later on for this purpose, and thus we shall collect materials from which to draw a correct conclusion as to the position and future chances of the man who is now doing his best to bring into disrepute the name of Napoleon.

Written in February- early April 1852
Reproduced from Notes to the People
First published in the weekly Notes to the People, Nos. 43, 48 and 50;
February 21, March 27 and April 10, 1852


[a] Notes to the People.— Ed.

[b] Napoleon I.—Ed.

[146] This series of articles by Engels was printed anonymously in three issues of Notes to the People under the editors' headings: "The Continental Correspondent of the 'Notes'", "Letter of Our Foreign Correspondent" and "Our Foreign Correspondent's Letter". Only the first article was provided with a title. Judging by the concluding paragraph of the third article, the published articles did not exhaust the author's plans. However, the continuation of the series did not appear in this weekly, which ceased publication on April 24, 1852. It is not known whether Engels had written the rest of the series.

[147] The reference is to the attempts at armed resistance to the Bonapartist coup d'état in Paris and to the republican uprisings in a number of French departments (see notes 116 and 117).
Having suppressed these actions in defence of the republic, the Bonapartists staged a "plebiscite" in an atmosphere of fierce police terror, on December 20-21, 1851, thus giving the coup d'état the semblance of popular approval. On January 14, 1852 a new constitution was introduced which conferred all state power upon the President, elected for ten years; the composition and legislative functions of the Council of State, the Legislative Corps and the Senate—the supreme state institutions modelled on the corresponding bodies of Napoleon I—were placed under his direct control. This constitution in fact restored the regime of the Empire in France. On December 2, 1852 the Second Republic was abolished and the Prince-President was formally proclaimed Emperor of the French under the name of Napoleon III.

[148] This refers to a number of press laws passed by the Constituent and Legislative Assemblies— "Décret relatif aux cautionnement des journaux et écrits périodiques du 9-12 août 1848"; "Décret relatif à la répression des crimes et délits commis par la voie de la presse du 11-12 août 1848"; "Loi sur la presse du 27-29 juillet 1849"; "Loi sur le cautionnement des journaux et le timbre des écrits périodiques et non périodiques du 16-23 juillet 1850." These laws introduced high caution deposits for the publication of newspapers, a stamp-duty on newspapers and pamphlets and severe punishment for attacks on "the principle of property and family right" and for "incitement to civil war". These laws virtually abolished freedom of the press and freedom of speech in France.
Engels called these press laws "gagging laws" by analogy with the six English acts adopted by the British Parliament in 1819, which abolished inviolability of the person and freedom of the press and assembly.

[149] As Engels foresaw, in late 1853 and in 1854 there were signs of economic crisis in the major capitalist countries. Gluts in the market, above all in America and Australia, resulted in production cutbacks in the English textile and iron industries. Similar processes took place in France. The US industry also experienced serious difficulties. But a world economic crisis did not occur until 1857.

[150] Belgrave Square a fashionable residential district in London's West End.

[151] The reference is to the confiscation of the property of the House of Orleans decreed by Louis Bonaparte on January 22, 1852.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 11 (pp.212-222), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1979
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