Making “Class” – Paris under the 2nd Empire (Part 1)

10 Dec

I talk a lot about work. Between participation in our Teaching Assistants’ union, courses on labour and distribution, and more-or-less heated-or-tipsy conversations with friends, it seems to come up a lot. Yes, work is changing, always, and our situation now is marked by precariousness, contract-work, the privatization and individualization of the security net, uncertain futures, fluid and unpredictable financial foundations, etc., etc. No, we’re not sure how to act within this new space, and so we talk about mobilization, aesthetics, demand, collectivity, and on. But seldom do we tackle class. Perhaps we’ve unthinkingly capitulated to the powerful (and erroneous) discourse that tells us class left with factory work – presumably to the “3rd World” – and that we’re united now by our more comfortable and modern Canadian concerns, which range from leisurely stabs at Rob Ford (oaf! Atwood!) to murmurings of ISP-masked revolution re: our nation’s neutered Netflix catalogue.

As though our own working futures weren’t dismal. Or our cities weren’t ringed by suburbs of (to the one side) distant and affluent 905ers and (to the other) geographically isolated and under-serviced migrant enclaves. Or our province wasn’t attacking one of the few remaining bastions of collective worker sentiment, the public employees. Or our council wasn’t debating a 5-cent “plastic bag fee” while our country’s “4th world” native citizens mobilize marches just to have their basic rights and needs recognized.

I think class is still a useful optic because there are many here who are still structurally, materially excluded and collected. Yet we don’t talk about it when we plan or dream; at least, my friends and I don’t, despite all our chat about work and the world.

As a humble first step towards us knowing how to recognize where we’re at, I’ll be posting a series of writings about class consolidation in Paris during the 1800s. This is meant to be a case study of loose contemporary relevance. Working-class struggle there and then was brutal, bloody, and urgent, and to this day is a source of pride to those many that still remember. Knowing how “class” came into their lives as a way of seeing themselves and recognizing others is important, I think, and might help us consider the details of our own confusion today.

This will likely spread across a few days of posts, and works cited will come at the end when I’m able to collect them all.



On the far side of this history is the revolution and violent counter-revolution of 1848, in which 1 500 – 3 000 workers were killed and 12 000 arrested, with many sent to Algeria as punishment (Wright 1987). According to Wright’s history, workers before 1848 lived in horrid abjection, working 15 or more hours a day for wages so low that many people depended on charity to supplement their income, ate meat once or twice a year and spent 30 – 50 percent of their wage on bread. Prompted by these conditions and united with Republicans who opposed the hyper-conservative Bourbon king Charles X, workers participated in the July Revolution of 1830, the “Three Glorious Days” that ousted the king and brought in the relatively more liberal monarch Louis-Phillippe, the Duc d’Orléans. Under his rule, however, dissatisfaction in the lower quarters persisted, as the upper 5 percent had 75.8 percent of the inherited wealth and the bottom 75 percent had only 0.6 percent (Harvey 2003). This inequality, as well as his heightening conservatism, led to resentment that condensed into barricades on February 22, 1848, resulting in his abdication.

The resulting provisional government included both moderate and radical Republicans, and responded to the workers’ plight with a study of potential reforms and the setting up of National Workshops, which organized work for the surplus labour force. Due to a collapse in Parisian industry and an influx of provincial migrants, enrollment in these Workshops increased from 14 000 to 117 000 between March and June (Harvey 2003). Some pro-labour laws were put into effect, including a 10-hour limit to the work day and a prohibition on subcontracted, piece-rate labour. An Executive Commission was also created and sent to Luxembourg to work, in relative isolation, on a comprehensive labour plan (Marx 1959 [1850]). However, on April 23, elections gave control of the National Assembly to conservative forces, who were fearful of losing their grip on workers and so used the National Workshops, unpopular with peasants who paid the bills but saw no benefit, as a leverage point for aggressive attack. They began to make access to the workshops more difficult, making it piece-rate work rather than paying by daily wage, exiling non-Paris-born workers to miserable earthworks projects in Sologne, and eventually even excluding all unmarried workers (Ibid.). On June 22, the day after this latter expulsion was declared, a second insurrection erupted, the “June Days” in which 1 500 – 3 000 rebels (workers and sympathetic radical Republicans) were killed in clashes with the largely bourgeois National Guard. A further 12 000 were arrested, with many exiled to Algeria (Wright 1987). The compromised leaders of the radical Republicans were removed from the playing board. And though the conservatives had secured their position, their betrayal of those who had helped them oust the monarch would long suppurate beneath the surface of the relative peace that followed.

While clearly an uprising against the consolidating power of the conservative faction in the National Assembly, any class lines drawn around the insurrection’s participants can be very easily blurred, despite Marx’s celebrations of it as a distinctly working-class rebellion (1959 [1850]). Craft-workers were certainly key to its organization as well as the bloody fighting that ensued (Harvey 2003). Alongside them was a motley host of less skilled workers, with whom the craft-workers could agitate but probably not identify as being of the same class (as discussed below). Complicating the picture is the presence of the “lumpen-proletariat,” those lowest-class members of the “vile multitude.” Denigrated from above and below, they were considered by Marx (1959 [1850]) to be the main weapon of the counter-revolutionary forces, enrolled by the conservatives into their Mobile Guard. Later academics have since revised this history, noting that the Mobile Guard was in fact indistinguishable from the workers, apart from their having been isolated and given an esprit de corps (Hayes 1993). At any rate, due to the insecurity of labour, the distinction between the “productive” and “non-productive” lower classes was porous to the point of dissolve. Similarly, the petty bourgeoisie, supposed by Marx to have been unequalled in their fanatical fight “for the salvation of property and the restoration of credit” (1959 [1850]: 311) were in fact integrated on both sides of the struggle. Even apart from the close-knit relations many of the workers and owners had with each other, and the sympathies that would result, a portion of the bourgeoisie had economic motivations for participating. Having been indebted by France’s disastrous war against Prussia, many wanted to see the end of the 3rd Republic that had, one week before, enacted a law enforcing repayment of all late debts (Hayes 1993).

Marx describes the 1848 struggle as “the first great battle… fought between the two classes that split modern society” (1959 [1850]: 304). With the exception perhaps of that small minority of those involved who had ingested the radical social theories that had begun to circulate (more on this below), I suspect the participants would recognize little of their experience in this stark binary. Indeed, while brought together in common cause, there is little reason to suppose that even those working men of the same neighbourhood, unless they were part of the same craft guild or workshop, would have thought of each other as being part of the same group. This was most likely a multitude, heterogeneous in background and interest, brought together against a shared enemy.


3 Responses to “Making “Class” – Paris under the 2nd Empire (Part 1)”

  1. Ryan Burke December 10, 2012 at 6:55 am #

    A deftly woven tale, quite worthy of inducing a torrent of praise from the masses. I do look forward to the direction you take this tale in reference to our contemporary circumstances. Perhaps nationally. Perhaps globally. It is a story worth being told.

    • pettitma December 10, 2012 at 7:15 am #

      Thanks, Ryan. I’m afraid it’s bound to get a bit dry, as I’m borrowing from a paper I wrote a while ago that is heavy on detail; but I do think the details are important and worth the burden. Without them we’re left using concepts loosely without knowing how they got their first purchase on the world and how they might again. In particular, I find people, when they do talk about class in Canada today, usually wondering either 1) whether the material conditions of the present actually “give us” class, or 2) how we can get people to think, recognize and act in “class” terms, but very rarely both. And both are of course vital, with each the premise of the other.

      As far as relations to today, I don’t know where this stream of blog posts will end up. I’ll worry about that when I get there, but hopefully this look at history will give some better sense to my later ramblings.


  1. Making “Class” – Paris under the 2nd Empire (Part 2) « The Themitic Snit - December 10, 2012

    […] Part 1 here. […]

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