THE DUAL REVOLUTION
By Alex Beard
Coined by Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), the term ‘Dual Revolution’ draws together two ostensibly separate events which together formed the fabric of today’s society. The French and Industrial Revolutions, which at times ran parallel to each other, were responsible not only for the downfall of absolutism in Europe, but also the creation and politicisation of the emerging working and middle classes.
The French Revolution of 1789 led to the foundation first of a constitutional monarchy, as King Louis XVI – later to become known as Citizen Louis Capet – and his family were taken from their palace in Versailles to revolutionary Paris. This first regime was defined not by its social egalitarianism but a liberal bourgeois attitude that sought to bring an end to hereditary privilege; the Girondins believed in free markets and a small government. The Jacobin Republic that emerged in 1793 after the fall of the Girondins, which has perhaps most strongly stuck in people’s minds, extended the revolutionary values of the Girondins to the common people of France. Led by educated men such as Maximilien Robespierre, this new regime, controlled largely through the newly established Committee of Public Safety, was inspired by the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among others. The most radical of republics, it took its power from the labouring sans-culottes and enforced secularism and ‘virtue’ through a state sanctioned Terror, which saw roughly 17,000 men sent to the guillotine.
Despite the short life span of the Jacobin Republic, its implications for hierarchical and pious European society captured the imagination of radicals and struck fear into the hearts of the continent’s ruling classes. The later Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars allowed liberated France to become liberator of the European peoples, and the implementation of the precocious Corsican general’s Code Civil, which established revolutionary principles in and fundamentally changed the societies of conquered territory, left a permanent mark even after Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign and later defeat at Waterloo. In short, the French Revolution represented the greatest threat to the values of the Anciens Régimes – the absolutist monarchies and their aristocratic, religious structures – that Europe, and indeed the world, had ever seen.
The Industrial Revolution is somewhat harder to date and occurred in part parallel to the French upheavals. Yet whilst the French Revolution was marked a significant societal shift, the changes brought about by this British revolution were first and foremost economic ones. The country’s more liberal attitude to land ownership, combined with the advantageous ability to import raw cotton from its colonies, facilitated exponential growth in the cotton industry, which took place largely in Northern factories. Simple technological advancements, such as that of the spinning jenny, which significantly sped up the process of cotton production, as well as the protectionist Corn Laws, meant that Britain soon began to export in vast quantities. Further innovations, such as the building of a vast railway network, and the increasing investment in an emerging middle class, fuelled further growth in all aspects of the economy, turning the UK into the unparalleled workshop of the world.
The consequences of this economic boom for Britain, as well as for societies that mimicked its industrial power, albeit with slight delay, such as Belgium, were vast. It marked the triumph of the classical liberals and rationalists, whose faith in the free market was complete, in a country where the antiquities of a hierarchical society had already been gradually broken down (Britain never experienced such a social revolution as the French did). These men were the wealthy industrialists and emerging bourgeoisie, whose power became seemingly unlimited within the new capitalist economy – their philosophy, that the pursuit of profit was a rational aim and that the individual was the most important aspect of society – appeared to reign supreme.
The emergence of the grim landscape in which the impoverished industrial worker now found themselves living occurred at the same time. They had been forced out of the countryside by vicious Anti Poor Laws and were now destined to work 15 hours a day as agents of profit-making. The dirty grey cities in which they lived, and of which Manchester is the prime example, were devoid of colour or culture and they were left unprotected by the state. Whilst these groups were as of yet largely unorganised, the emerging industrial working class represented a vast new constituent in European politics that could not be ignored for much longer. The Chartist Movement is an example of primitive industrial dissent – it called for universal suffrage, which many self-described ‘liberals’ disagreed with – before the working class was irreversibly politicised, as the ‘proletariat’ by Karl Marx, among others.
These two parallel revolutions could not have been better aligned to fuel the revolutionary year of 1848, the foundation of the European Left and ultimately the societies in which we live today; to this extent, the idea of a ‘Dual Revolution’ is a valid one. Both the Industrial and French Revolutions saw the triumph of liberal ideology, in that the absolutism of Ancien Régimes was toppled – France’s later restored monarchy was a constitutional one – as well as an inevitable split in revolutionary groups, between the classical liberals who believed in free-market rationalism, and the radical liberals and later socialists, who believed in the progress of society through universal suffrage, representation of the working class and a welfare state. The Industrial Revolution lay down the economic conditions in which these new social problems arose – it gave birth to a new disillusioned and potentially powerful class. Meanwhile, the inspiration for the revolutionary and radical ideas that gave these people a voice was produced by the French Revolution, which was immortalised in the minds of academics as well as artists, and became the prime example of popular uprising. This mix would inevitably lead to further upheavals in society; the end of absolutist regimes, the rise of nationalism and the ideals of communism, which can all be attributed to it.