Project 2: Associations in the European Revolutions of 1848

The PhD candidate Geerten Waling MA studies revolutionary organizations in Paris and Berlin around 1848. The image of organizing as a revolutionary activity challenges our understanding of revolutionary conduct, which tends to focus on barricades, street fighting, and red banners. However, the concept and practice of organization figured prominently in the European Revolutions of 1848. Typical of the revolutionary moment is the sense that anything is possible, that the future is wide open and the world is malleable. During revolutions, the 19th century sensibility for change, possibilities and ambitions was heightened and condensed, which makes it an important case study within this larger project. Even more than during other periods of associational mania, in the 1848 revolutionary context many considered organization an effective tool to shape future events, and preferred it over violent action.


Organizing as a revolutionary tool

The idea that associations were tools to build a better world originated in the 1830s, was widely popularized in 1848, and remained the fundamental principle on which workers built their revolutionary actions. Also, during 1848 the concept of organizing received a more radical connotation: some no longer used it in the sense of a private association, but in the sense of the public (re-)organization of work. This latter meaning was borrowed from early socialist concepts of organizing. With the exception of revolutionary years, however, all associations were hounded by the authorities on the grounds that they were intrinsically perverse and opposed to individual enterprise and hence to liberty itself. There was no right to political association in France until 1901 – based on the conservative horror of mass organization and a phobia for associations.

Old and new forms of revolutionary associations

An important phenomenon that can be studied within the short time span of the 1848-49 revolutions is the transformation from older forms of organizing to modern ones.

In the first months of the revolutions, the older forms were prominent: the unruly meetings in which political information was exchanged and debated, as well as political action such as petitions and strikes proposed, resembled those of 1789 revolutionary clubs. As these were general meetings, in which very different opinions were voiced, they proved relatively powerless as a political instrument.

This is why a new type of association, and a new type of meeting was developed: consisting of like-minded citizens, heavily regulated, and therefore (its advocates sometimes fruitless hoped) much more efficient in deciding a course of action. Socialist associations, in particular, developed speedily and successfully. From the moment the local associations started to reach out to likeminded organizations in other cities to form a national network of associations, they can be regarded as precursors to political parties.

Women’s organizations similarly blossomed overnight when revolution broke out. Generally speaking, the organized women chose a supporting role in the project of the revolution. Nevertheless, the organizations were a courageous step into public political life. The women experimented with civilized ways to engage in revolutionary activity.

Case studies and sources

Based on the availability of sources and literature, the research will focus on new organizations founded in 1848-1849, by two groups in two revolutionary cities: the socialists and women of Paris and Berlin. The critics of their associations include both those who believed in an armed revolution and thought voluntary associations to be weak tools, and the representatives of the post-revolutionary political order, who persecuted leaders of non-violent revolutionary organizations as well as their violent comrades. Their trials will be studied to better understand the fear of organization in Paris and Berlin around the mid-century. The research project draws from a rich literature on revolutionary life in both cities, in which organizations figure prominently. Not only does the study aim to better understand the revolution, it also analyses the role and development of organizing during the revolutionary months. Additional archival research will be conducted in Berlin and Paris to further investigate relevant trials, debates, individuals and organizations.

Aims of the project

  1. analyze the importance and meaning of socialists and women, as well as their critics, attached to ‘organizing’ and ‘association’ as concepts and as a practice
  2. chart the transition from older, heterogeneous revolutionary political associations and clubs to the more modern, homogeneous type
  3. analyze the biographies of the ‘modern’ revolutionary organizers, in contrast to ‘old-fashioned’ ones and to those who rejected and later prosecuted the organizers
  4. reconstruct the way the legacy of the associational mania of the decades leading up to 1848 was employed during the revolutionary years, and how it was challenged again by the post-revolutionary order.

Last Modified: 24-01-2014