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Ian Birchall

The Enigma of Kersausie:
Engels in June 1848 [1]


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2, 2002, pp.25–50.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

What is called a lost revolution – and the expression is purely relative, for a revolution is never lost; it has been, it has served – this revolution, we say, becomes the best guarantee of the future revolution. [2]

THE job of a socialist historian is to try to restore the truth, as against the lies imposed by the representatives of the existing order. While in Paris recently, I saw a notice-board, officially erected by the Paris mairie, which informed passers-by that work on the restoration of the Pont-Neuf had been begun in 1848, on the orders of Napoleon III! Fortunately a passing socialist historian with a thick black felt pen had written across it: ‘It was the Second Republic!’ This paper is conceived in the same spirit of setting the record straight.

The June rising of Paris workers in 1848 was a crucial turning point in the history of the French, and indeed of the European, working class. In the February of that year, an alliance of several classes had come together to overthrow the monarchy of Louis-Philippe and establish the Second Republic. But by June the conflicts between the different classes had come to the surface; when the government decided to close down the ateliers nationaux, set up to provide some minimal support for the Paris unemployed, the working-class quarters of Paris erupted in a rising which was suppressed by the government with the utmost brutality. The working people [3] of Paris were forced to fight on their own for their own demands against an alliance of all the other classes.

Marx juxtaposed the two revolutions in a memorable paragraph; in the translation which many of us grew up with, the February Revolution was the ‘beautiful’ revolution, but in the more recent translation it has become – perhaps more accurately – the ‘nice’ revolution:

The February revolution was the nice revolution, the revolution of universal sympathies, because the contradictions which erupted in it against the monarchy were still undeveloped and peacefully dormant, because the social struggle which formed their background had only achieved a nebulous existence, an existence in phrases, in words. The June revolution is the ugly revolution, the nasty revolution, because the phrases have given place to the real thing, because the republic has bared the head of the monster by knocking off the crown which shielded and concealed it. [4]

The June rising was also a crucial turning point for Marx and Engels themselves, and a vital event in the process whereby they formulated their mature doctrine. At the time of the June Days, Marx and Engels were in Cologne, where they had begun to publish the Neue Rheinische Zeitung at the beginning of June. Their strategy, given the small size of the German proletariat and the virtual absence of any independent working-class organisation, was to establish themselves as the extreme left of the bourgeois democratic movement in Germany. The aim was to win mass circulation for the paper; publicity placards were displayed on walls throughout Cologne, and subscription lists were posted up in wine and beer dispensaries. [5]

The June Days were therefore not particularly convenient for them, since they obliged them to ‘come out’ as Communists rather than as radical democrats. However, there was no hesitation on their part; from the very first reports of the Paris rising, they expressed total and enthusiastic support for the French workers. Indeed, the NRZ, along with the British Northern Star [6], were just about the only papers in Europe to give full support to the rising. This did not, of course, endear Marx and Engels to their bourgeois allies, and it led to a considerable loss of support for the paper. Most of the paper’s shareholders disappeared; in order to survive the editorial staff agreed not to claim their wages, and Marx used what remained of his small personal assets to pay off the paper’s debts. [7] Nonetheless, the issue at stake was quite clear to them; for the first time the proletariat had been forced to fight on its own, for its own class interests, and the principled defence of the Paris workers overrode any other possible tactical consideration.

Marx, and in particular Engels, wrote several articles following the course of events in Paris as closely as their sources of information permitted. Issues 31 and 32 of the NRZ, published on 1 and 2 July 1848, carried an analysis of the military aspects of the insurrection written by Engels. [8] Apart from many other details, this makes several references to the organising rôle of a certain Kersausie:

The workers’ plan of action, which Kersausie, a friend of Raspail and a former officer, is said to have drawn up, was as follows … The success of the uprising depended on the insurgents reaching the centre of Paris as quickly as possible and seizing the Hôtel de Ville. We cannot know what prevented Kersausie from organising insurgent action in this district.

The article concludes with this stirring tribute:

Kersausie was captured and by now has probably been shot. The bourgeois can kill him, but cannot take from him the fame of having been the first to organise street-fighting. They can kill him, but no power on earth can prevent his techniques from being used in all future street-fighting. They can kill him, but they cannot prevent his name from going down in history as the first commander-in-chief of barricade fighting. [9]

Unfortunately, these texts leave us with a problem. Perhaps the best introduction is to explain the route which led me to research and write this article. When I first read Engels’ article some 20 years ago, my immediate reaction was that pleasurable excitement which any socialist historian will feel at discovering a figure who has been ‘hidden from history’. I had implicit faith in the accuracy of Engels’ account, and assumed that the fact that I had not encountered Kersausie in any other context could be explained by a conspiracy of bourgeois historians who had written this revolutionary hero out of the historical record. I vaguely resolved to look into the matter further, and gave it little more thought.

Then, two or three years ago, when working on my book on Babeuf, I was looking at the circles influenced by Buonarroti in the 1830s, and again encountered the name of Kersausie. Once more this provoked initial excitement, for it seemed that I had fallen upon an example of apostolic succession. The Buonarroti–Kersausie connection seemed to provide the ‘missing link’ between Babeuf’s conspiracy of 1796 and the June Days, a red thread of proletarian revolution. When I began to investigate, however, things turned out to be considerably more complex than I had imagined.

Firstly, it became clear that there was no confirmation of Engels’ account. Neither contemporary participants, nor subsequent historians, from whatever point on the political spectrum, mentioned Kersausie. [10] As I consulted volume after volume, simply noting ‘nothing on Kersausie’, I began to feel that if this was a ‘conspiracy of silence’, then it was a very effective one. Moreover, Marx and Engels themselves were clearly complicit in it. For the index to the Collected Works reveals that apart from the article cited above, neither Marx nor Engels ever again mentioned Kersausie in the extensive writings they devoted to the events of 1848 or in any other connection. If the bourgeoisie could not prevent Kersausie’s name going down in history, Engels was apparently doing nothing to ensure that it did so.

Engels’ article has been reprinted several times in various languages. The first English translation appeared in the collection Marx and Engels, Articles from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung 1848–49. [11] Neither the introduction nor the notes make any comment on Engels’ references to Kersausie. To the best of my knowledge, the first publication of the article in French came in a journal called Le Militant Rouge, obviously produced by people in or close to the French Communist Party, which aimed to use historical studies to assist workers with their coming struggles. [12] (I strongly suspect that the historian Maurice Dommanget may have played a rôle in the journal, which later published texts by Blanqui on the June Days.) There was no introduction or notes, nor even indication of source, and Kersausie’s name appeared as ‘Kerkausie’ throughout. Two compilations issued by the French Communist Party’s publishing house, Les Éditions sociales, also published the text in the 1960s, but apart from a brief entry in the biographical index to one volume, which merely states that Kersausie ‘participated … in the June 1848 insurrection’, neither volume offered any critical comment on Engels’ account of Kersausie’s role. [13]

If we hoped for better treatment from the Collected Works of Marx and Engels, edited under the guidance of commissions of British, American and Russian scholars, including our own Eric Hobsbawm, then we were fated to be disappointed. The Introduction to Volume 7 tells us that the whole set of articles about the June Days are ‘imbued with fighting spirit and at the same time they contain a profound analysis of the causes of the uprising and of its historical significance’. Indeed, but are they telling the truth? Engels’ references are not annotated, while the ‘Name Index’ piously tells us that Kersausie was ‘author of a military plan implemented by the participants in the June uprising in Paris’. [14] Obviously, Professor Hobsbawm and his learned fellow-commissioners are not prepared to allow the suggestion that Engels might have been wrong, even if what he states here is in blatant contradiction to what we read elsewhere in the Collected Works. Perhaps this abject deference should not surprise us; the same editorial team cheerfully reprints Engels’ obituary of Helene Demuth without informing the world that she was the mother of Karl Marx’s bastard son. [15] Maybe this is how the lives of the saints are written, but it is not the way to present the works of revolutionaries. I was tempted to describe the approach of Professor Hobsbawm’s commissioners as ‘scriptural’. However, I then recalled that I am in possession of an edition of the Bible printed with a central column which scrupulously cross-references every contradiction and inconsistency within the Holy Book. An edition of Marx and Engels constructed on the same principles would be a distinct step forward.

Not surprisingly, a similar approach is followed by the editors of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, which serenely informs us that Kersausie ‘worked out a plan for the June days of 1848 that was highly thought of by F. Engels’, and repeats Engels’ promise that Kersausie’s name would ‘go down in history’. [16] At least Engels cannot be blamed for ignoring the advantage of hindsight. Through the brevity of their entry, the editors of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia clearly admitted that Kersausie, unlike Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, did not ‘go down in history’.

Only a handful of historians working outside the tradition of Stalinist hagiography have approached Engels’ article in the critical spirit that a great revolutionary deserves. Maurice Dommanget contrasted Engels’ account, based on ‘unknown reports’ with Blanqui’s assessment that the necessary leadership was missing, and concludes that Blanqui was nearer the truth, for ‘if the insurgents had combined their numerical strength and their fighting spirit with the technical factors Engels speaks of, then they would have won’. [17] Bernard Moss, in a robustly unscriptural account of Engels’ ideas in 1848, states quite bluntly that ‘based on false hopes and misinformation, Engels reported a degree of planning and offensive strategy among the insurgents that suggested political direction and emerging class consciousness.’ [18] But such willingness to criticise Engels belongs very much to a minority on the left. As for right-wing critics, who might have been happy to catch Engels out in error, they seem to have been too stupid or ignorant to pick up on the point.

So who was Kersausie? What rôle did he play, if any, in 1848, and why did Engels imagine that he might have played an important part? There are, to the best of my knowledge, no biographies of Kersausie or substantial studies of his life. He crops up fairly frequently, if often rather marginally, in accounts of the revolutionary current in French politics in the 1830s and 1840s. As much of his life was spent in activity of a conspiratorial nature, he did not leave too many clues as to his activities. Yet at the same time, he acquired something of a legendary status in the 1830s, with the result that a number of anecdotes of doubtful reliability have become attached to his name.

There are two valuable biographical sketches which provide at least an outline of Kersausie’s activities. One is the entry in Jean Maitron’s invaluable biographical dictionary of the French labour movement. [19] The other, which complements it neatly, was published in 1906 by J. Trévédy, a local historian based in Kersausie’s native Finistère. [20] Trévédy clearly had no sympathy whatever with the republican left, and he based himself on family documents. Hence, inasmuch as his account confirms Maitron’s, we can consider it as providing some sort of independent corroboration.

Théophile Joachim René Guillard de Kersausie was born at Guingamp in the Côtes-du-Nord in 1798. His mother was the niece of the famous aristocratic solider who had fought in the American War of Independence, La Tour d’Auvergne. The name Kersausie came from a piece of land owned by the family, originally called Kersauzic.

Coming from a military family, it is not surprising that Kersausie decided on a military career, and in 1815 he became a hussar. He served with distinction in Spain, and rose to the rank of captain. However, his political sympathies were already with the republican left, and in the 1820s he became a member of the carbonari, a radical secret society active in Italy and France.

In 1830, when the Bourbons were overthrown, he supported the revolution, but was rapidly disillusioned when the Republic was not proclaimed and Louis-Philippe acceded to the throne. He resigned from the army in protest, and devoted himself henceforward entirely to revolutionary activity in France and abroad. There is a picture of him painted by Larpenteur in 1832, showing him with Raspail in prison at Versailles. [21] He had ample sideburns, but no beard. According to police reports, he had brown hair and was 1.65 metres high (5 feet 5 inches).

In particular, Kersausie was rapidly involved in one of the new organisations that sprang up in opposition to Louis-Philippe, the Société des droits de l’homme (SDH). The name of this organisation clearly echoed Robespierre’s Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen of March 1793. It stood very much in the Jacobin tradition, and local sections bore such names as Robespierre, Saint-Just and Montagne. [22]

But if the SDH looked back to the golden days of Jacobinism, it also pointed forward to the emergent French working-class movement. Of its 765 members in 1832, some three-quarters were wage-earning manual workers, concentrated especially in metal-working, building, leather and clothing. [23] The SDH thus represents a vital link between the republicanism of 1793 and the socialism of 1848. The aristocratic Kersausie had sufficiently broken the links with his own class to put himself at the service of the Parisian workers.

But just because the SDH belonged to a social movement in process of evolution, political differentiations began to emerge among its members, and in the autumn of 1832 a major split was apparent. On the moderate side stood Raspail and Trélat; on the radical side there were a number of names, some of which would reappear in 1848 – Lebon, Vignerte, Caussidière, Lagrange – and Kersausie. On one level, the two factions seemed to be re-enacting the disputes of the 1790s – Raspail’s faction were known as ‘girondins’, and Lebon’s as ‘montagnards’. The key issue seems to have been the construction of political alliances. Raspail was willing to ally the SDH with sections of the bourgeoisie, in what Alain Faure has with some legitimacy called a ‘Popular Front strategy’. The Lebon grouping insisted on hard-line republicanism and refused any links with Bonapartists or Legitimists. In the course of this dispute, Kersausie seems to have formed his own military organisation, the Société d’action, consisting of some 400 armed workers, within the SDH. Obviously this led to a conflict of authority between Kersausie and the Central Committee of the SDH. The situation led to Kersausie’s resignation, and fairly rapidly to the disintegration of the SDH in the course of 1834. [24]

Yet the political divisions in this period seem to have been fairly fluid; individuals did not remain stuck in clearly defined factional positions. In the dispute in the SDH, Kersausie had been opposed to Raspail, but from now on their destinies were to be closely linked.

François-Vincent Raspail (1794–1878), scientist, medical populariser and revolutionary journalist, was a key figure of the French left in the 1830s and 1840s. He had been active with the carbonari in the 1820s, and went to prison on more than one occasion. He was also a friend of Kersausie’s sister, Madame de Pontavice, to whom (without naming her) he dedicated his book on prison reform of 1839, based on letters he had sent her while in jail. [25]

Raspail had known Kersausie since before 1830; in a dedication dated September 1839, he referred to him as ‘Your fellow accused in 1833, your collaborator in 1834, your comrade in arms since 1829’. [26] Obviously the faction fight in the SDH had not left any very deep wounds.

After the disintegration of the SDH, Raspail seems to have decided to abandon the conspiratorial politics of the secret societies in favour of legal propaganda activity. This took the form of a daily newspaper, Le Réformateur. While much of the political and journalistic input seems to have come from Raspail, Kersausie played a crucial rôle in providing the necessary funds. Obviously drawing on his family wealth, he made available to Raspail the sum of 100,000 francs. (In the 1830s the average worker’s wage was 1.5 francs per day, though building workers might earn double that. So Kersausie’s contribution was a huge sum, at a rough estimate something in excess of £2.5 million pounds at today’s values.)

The first issue of Le Réformateur appeared on 9 October 1834, and between then and its final appearance on 27 October 1835, some 383 issues were published. On the first issue, the paper described itself as a ‘daily paper of the new material and moral, industrial and political, literary and scientific interests. Published by MM. Raspail and Kersausie.’ The subscription was 18 francs for three months and 70 francs for a year, which would put it beyond the pocket of most workers, though it may well have been read collectively in workers’ cafés, etc. The paper carried a broad range of articles, of a cultural and educational nature as well as political – for example, popularising articles on geography, physiology, etc., which probably reflected Raspail’s scientific interests.

But the radical intentions of the paper were not concealed; the Prospectus announcing the appearance of the new paper launched a diatribe against the privileged classes. Proclaiming the editors’ commitment to the ‘happiness of all’, the statement continued:

Happiness for you, rich people, who accept the century’s favours with smug indifference; and happiness for the poor man, who hitherto has had to put up with all its rigours! For we shall not weary of reminding you of these truths, which always leave you indifferent, but which for us still have the capacity to break our hearts as they did the first time, and to make us tremble for the fate of France. While you lie stretched out on your expensive divans, you bless a state of affairs which lavishes on you gold without requiring talent, decorations without danger, and titles without merit; meanwhile the mass of humanity is afflicted with burning pains; there are still today people who are hungry close by your tables; there are still those who are freezing in the attics above your well-heated panelling; there are still children who fall at birth onto the public highway, because their father’s whim bore his name elsewhere; there are still young women paying the price of the degradation you imposed on them; there are talents stifled at birth by intrigue; there are others which are worn out by constant movement; there is work which requires overwhelming effort, and is scarcely able to provide nourishment; there are agreements made in a moment which become the scourge of a whole life; there is a whole people of 20 million persons languishing in ignorance and unemployment; and the happiness of which we are told in fine verse and beautiful prose on the day of your birth, and even of your death, this happiness exists nowhere, neither for you nor for us, thanks to these ancient institutions which you clutch onto with both hands as though they were your finest inheritance.

After this magnificent tirade against the rich, it comes as something of a surprise to find that Le Réformateur carried regular reports from the Stock Exchange! But it also campaigned regularly for a series of issues that came to constitute key themes for the republican left in the course of the nineteenth century – universal suffrage, free education for all, penal reform, progressive income tax, and the abolition of slavery. Certainly it was all too much for Louis-Philippe’s regime. The paper was prosecuted and fined repeatedly; within a year it had suffered fines amounting to 115,000 francs, so that Kersausie’s initial contribution was more than consumed. The paper disappeared. [27]

Kersausie was put on trial on more than one occasion for his revolutionary activities. In May 1835, he was among the 164 accused at a major trial in Paris, where the defendants included those involved in the rising in Lyons in 1834. Kersausie was sentenced to jail in January 1836, but was the beneficiary of an amnesty in May 1837.

At this point he seems to have decided to leave France, aware that the police would make it impossible for him to operate effectively. It is difficult to track down his movements in the decade up until 1848; but he seems to have involved himself in various national struggles. The year of 1848 was to be the first truly international revolutionary wave, and Kersausie saw no frontiers to the cause of human emancipation. In 1839, Raspail dedicated a book to ‘Kersausie, Polish volunteer’, and described him as a ‘Polish citizen, by your enrolment under the flags of the Polish insurrection’. [28] Other reports put him in London, Switzerland, Naples and Messina. [29] Yet he kept contact with his old comrade Raspail. When Raspail went through the distressing experience of having to amputate his own son’s leg, Kersausie returned to France unknown to the police and stayed for a week, comforting his old comrade. [30] Yet he was still regarded as a threat; when he visited Finistère in 1842, the Le Havre police put him under secret surveillance. [31]

From the above biographical sketch and from the various references in contemporary accounts, it is possible to get a sense of Kersausie’s character; courage, honesty, dedication, self-sacrifice are terms that immediately come to mind. But what were his politics? Was he in any sense a socialist, or was he simply a republican in the Jacobin tradition? This is a much more difficult question to answer, not just because of the relatively slender evidence, but because of the fluid nature of the French left in this period. Contrary to the Althusserians, modern socialism did not emerge from an ‘epistemological break’ inside Karl Marx’s skull. Contrary to Jean Jaurès, it is not true that ‘the French Revolution contains the whole of socialism … socialism was contained from the outset within the republican idea’. [32] Socialism emerged within the republican milieu in a slow, messy and contradictory fashion. The contradictions had not been resolved by February 1848, which is precisely why the ‘nice revolution’ was possible; it was the ‘ugly revolution’ which drew the line between republicanism and socialism – and drew it in blood.

As Maurice Agulhon has pointed out, for a rank-and-file militant around 1840, ‘a question like “are you a republican or a communist?” would have been completely absurd or incongruous’. [33] Kersausie would probably have found the question equally absurd. Thus it has been suggested that the subtitle of Le Réformateur (see above) may have been inspired by ‘Saint-Simonianism understood in a very broad sense’. [34] Doubtless Kersausie was aware of such ideas, though Georges Duveau has argued that ‘great systems like those of Saint-Simon and Fourier … had little penetration in the republican societies’. The SDH did not have an homogeneous political orientation; as Alain Faure has pointed out, in the early 1830s republicanism and Bonapartism often overlapped, with demonstrations where the same people would chant ‘Long live Napoleon II!’ and ‘Long live the Republic!’ Where general political demands were popular among workers, it was often for economic reasons. Military intervention in Poland was popular among workers, not so much for reasons of abstract internationalism, as because war would provide a remedy to unemployment, by creating jobs in the army and war supplies. [35] Where political differentiations emerged, they were often over tactics rather than political philosophy. Thus after the collapse of the SDH, Raspail (and apparently Kersausie) drew the conclusion that open propaganda was what was required, while Blanqui saw the lesson as being the necessity for more effective military organisation. [36] There is no indication that they differed significantly on the type of social change at which they aimed.

One important political influence on Kersausie must, however, be mentioned, namely Filippo Buonarroti. Buonarroti had been one of the main leaders of Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals in 1796, and had stood trial alongside Babeuf at Vendôme in 1797. Babeuf’s place in the history of socialism is crucial, for he was the first to go beyond mere Utopian speculation about the possibility or desirability of a Communist society, and recognise the necessity for revolutionary organisation to achieve that end. [37] Alone of Babeuf’s associates, Buonarroti never forgot that principle, and until his death in 1837 he continued to try to build clandestine organisations. He spent many years in Geneva, seeking to coordinate such activity and working closely with the carbonari. In 1828, he published his history of Babeuf’s Conspiracy, a work which was widely studied in republican circles in the following years, and was to have a major influence on such diverse figures as Cabet, Bronterre O’Brien, Moses Hess, Marx and Engels. Though Buonarroti himself was more sympathetic to Robespierre than Babeuf had been, his history scrupulously reproduced the documentation that revealed the socialist nature of Babeuf’s intentions.

Buonarroti returned to France after the 1830 revolution. As Arthur Lehning records, he ‘participated actively in political propaganda and in the elaboration of the policies of the revolutionary wing of the republican opposition to the Orleanist monarchy, while preserving his secret international organisation and creating new ones, with constant attention to the possibilities of a European revolution’. [38]

His reputation was enormous. As one of the historians of babouvisme has put it, ‘he was regarded as the heir of the ideas of the great revolutionary age, as the apostle who possessed the true democratic tradition; as the high priest of a proscribed religion who was maintaining almost single-handed and in a mysterious refuge the sacred flame of Equality’. [39]

Buonarroti took a particular interest in the SDH, although Robiquet tells us he distrusted it because it was imprudent enough to recruit openly, rather than respecting the requirements of clandestine organisation. [40] But as Elizabeth Eisenstein has shown, basing herself on the researches of Armando Saitta, Buonarroti played a considerable rôle in the internal disputes of the SDH. His prestige was considerable – two of the 163 Parisian sectors of the SDH bore the name ‘Buonarroti’. She claims that the dispute between the Raspail and Lebon factions ‘was probably precipitated by Buonarroti’s attempt to exploit this key organisation for his own ends and that, after a temporary setback, he was eventually successful’.

In particular, Buonarroti seems to have been aligned with the faction in which Kersausie played a leading rôle. ‘By the end of 1833, Buonarroti obtained effective control through new elections which placed d’Argenson, Lebon, Kersausie and Vignerte on the renovated central committee of the original society.’ However, there does not seem to have been complete factional polarisation, since she assures us that Raspail was ‘a friend and admirer of Buonarroti’. [41] There is perhaps an echo of babouvisme in the Prospectus for Le Réformateur, where Raspail and Kersausie declare that their aim is ‘the happiness of all’ (le bonheur de tous), a phrase strikingly resembling the term which Babeuf coined to describe his socialist vision, ‘common happiness’ (le bonheur commun).

There is also a possible continuity with Babeuf to be observed in the various political trials of the 1830s. Buonarroti had stood trial alongside Babeuf at Vendôme for 14 weeks in 1797, when the defence had managed to turn the courtroom into a platform for their ideas, and succeeded in reducing the number of death sentences to two, and an acquittal for the majority of the defendants. [42]

In December 1833, Raspail, Kersausie and others stood trial in Paris – the so-called Trial of the Twenty-Seven. They used the trial as a platform for republican ideas, insulted the prosecution, and succeeded in getting the accused acquitted. [43] There was obviously an echo here of the Vendôme tactics, and the defendants probably received advice from Buonarroti. In May 1835, Kersausie was on trial again, together with others accused of participation in the insurrections of 1834 in Paris and Lyons. Some of the defendants succeeded in escaping from jail, but Kersausie refused to do so, regarding it as a duty to use the trial as a political platform. [44] There is a striking account of the opening day of the trial by Frances Trollope (mother of the novelist) who was in Paris at the time:

This interchange of hostilities commenced by some of the accused refusing to answer when their names were called – then followed a demand for free admission to the chamber, during the trials, for the mothers, wives and all other females belonging to the respective families of the prisoners – and next, a somewhat blustering demand for counsel of their own choosing; the body of legal advocates, who, by general rule and common usage, are always charged with the defence of prisoners, not containing, as it should seem, orators sufficiently of their own clique to content them.

This was of course stoutly refused by the court, after retiring, however, for a couple of hours to deliberate upon it – a ceremony I should hardly have supposed necessary. The company of the ladies, too, was declined; and as, upon a moderate computation, their numerical force could not have amounted to less than five hundred, this want of gallantry in the Peers of France must be forgiven in favour of their discretion.

The gentleman, however, who was appointed, as he said, by the rest, to request the pleasure of their society, declared loudly that the demand for it should be daily renewed …

Next came a demand from one of the accused, in the name of all the rest, that permission for free and unrestrained intercourse between the prisoners of Lyons, Paris, and Marseilles should be allowed. This was answered only by the announcement that ‘the court was adjourned;’ an intimation which produced an awful clamour; and as the peers quitted the court, they were assailed with vehement cries of ‘We protest! … We protest! … We will make no defence! … We protest! … We protest!’ [45]

The tactics here – refusal to give names, use of technicalities to delay proceedings, uproar in the dock, are highly reminiscent of the Vendôme trial, and it is easy to suppose that Buonarroti was providing tactical advice.

Thus we can be fairly certain that Kersausie knew Buonarroti, and that through him he was familiar with at least some of the basics of babouvisme. Kersausie thus provides a living link between the socialist conspiracy of 1796 and the workers’ insurrection of 1848.

So what was Kersausie’s actual rôle in 1848? The evidence is often rather thin, but certain points are fairly clear. Not surprisingly, Kersausie returned to Paris for the year of revolution. One account claims that at the time of the February Revolution, he was in prison in Naples, and that Raspail had to persuade the Provisional Government to send three ships to Naples to secure his release. [46] This may well be apocryphal. But certainly he retained his links with Raspail, and was soon active in the frenetic political debate between February and June.

This period saw the creation of large numbers of political clubs, and the Société des droits de l’homme was revived. A number of veterans from the republican left of the 1830s were still active, and Kersausie seems to have rapidly fitted into the political scene. In April, he was adopted as an election candidate by the Société républicaine centrale on a list that also included Albert, Louis Blanc, Flocon, Cabet, Raspail and Blanqui, although he was not elected. [47] At the end of May, he was placed on the Central Commission for Democratic Elections, a body dominated by the SDH. [48]

On 15 May, a massive popular demonstration invaded the National Assembly, an event which led to the arrest of a number of the best-known left-wing leaders. Raspail was present and was one of those arrested, although he seems to have been very unenthusiastic about the event and to have tried to urge the demonstrators to leave the building. [49] Raspail then went to the home of his son, but finding him out, went to visit Kersausie, who lived in the same building. It was at Kersausie’s home that he was arrested. [50] This tells us that Kersausie and Raspail were still closely connected; it also suggests that Kersausie did not participate in the demonstration. Whether this was because he recognised that the events were liable to give the government the ideal excuse to deprive the left of its leadership, we cannot know. [51]

At the beginning of June, by-elections were held for the National Assembly. The left, now rather better organised, presented a list of 11 candidates. This included Proudhon, Raspail, Cabet and Kersausie. These were described as ‘candidates of the people, adopted by the workers’ Corporations, the National Workshops, the Republican and Mobile Guard [52] and the united democratic clubs’. [53] The results were reasonably satisfactory for the left; the same newspaper described the votes for Proudhon, Thoré, Raspail and Kersausie as ‘the social republic at the doors of the assembly; it is knocking there, so to speak, and makes reaction go pale on the benches …’ [54] In fact four of the list were elected – Caussidière, Leroux, Lagrange and Proudhon. Kersausie, with 71,852 votes, came in third place behind Proudhon, the successful candidate with the lowest number of votes. [55] It is clear from this that Kersausie was a well-known and popular figure of the republican left, and that he stood on the same list as socialists such as Proudhon and Cabet.

As far as the June Days themselves are concerned, there is disappointingly little trace of Kersausie. His name does not appear in the great majority of eye-witness accounts that I have consulted. Of course, there are obvious reasons for this. Given the decentralised and often chaotic nature of the rising, participants can generally have had little idea of what was happening in sectors other than their own. In view of the repression, contemporary writers would be unwilling to name those who took a leading rôle. The one eye-witness account, written by a Christian liberal, which mentions Kersausie’s name, suggests he was absent from the fighting: ‘An insurgent asked an agitator why Lagrange and Kersausie were not in their ranks. This man replied that they loved the people too much too allow them to expose their life and liberty in an insurrection.’ [56]

But Trévédy, who used family sources, and is extremely unlikely to have read Engels, insists that Kersausie did fight in the June insurrection, a claim that is more convincing in that he doubtless regarded this as a blot on his hero’s record. [57]

After the June rising had been suppressed, the government immediately launched a major enquiry into the causes of the insurrection. Obviously the aim was to find the ‘agitators’ who had been behind it, and to provide grounds for prosecuting the government’s enemies. The full report ran to three volumes, a total of 967 pages. The pièces justificatives included many interviews, formal minutes and reports from informers on what had been said in limonadiers’ shops, etc. Louis Blanc and Caussidière were given extensive treatment, in an attempt to establish their guilt.

Kersausie’s name occurs a handful of times in the report, and it is obvious that although the authors would have liked to find evidence against him, it was not sufficient to arrest him. (Of course, many workers were arrested and even put to death on the flimsiest of charges, but the authorities were obviously aware that it was necessary to get it right with a man like Kersausie, given his reputation, his family connections and his previous record of using trials as a platform.)

So it is reported that as early as April lists of names for a new government of public safety were being drawn up, including Kersausie. M. Carteret, of the Ministry of the Interior, reported that the Société des droits de l’homme had played a rôle in the events of 15 May. It was rumoured to have 20,000 armed members, but this was said to be an exaggeration. Later, M. Panisse of the police was questioned as to whether Kersausie had become president of the SDH, but he professed ignorance. M. Rocher from Brittany was questioned as to his financial dealings with Kersausie. M. Trouve-Chauvel, also of the police, was questioned on 3 and 4 July as to whether Kersausie – said to have had less brains than Esquiros – had been arrested, but it transpired that he had not.

A document from the préfet de police claimed that the SDH had played a major rôle in the insurrection, and that a large number of its members had been killed or arrested. Documents from the SDH were reproduced, including membership conditions which imposed strict military discipline, and a report of a meeting on 30 April in which a speaker was applauded when he put forward the ideas of Louis Blanc and advocated the equality of wages. Two documents signed by Kersausie were also reproduced: an address to Barbès from members of the bureau of the Club de la révolution, and the text of the règlement of the Société des représentants républicains. [58]

In short, it appears clear that the Commission d’enquête would have quite liked to show that Kersausie was guilty of something, but was unable to pin anything on him, although the likelihood is that, through the SDH, he did give active support to the insurrection.

Engels was also clearly wrong in his claim that Kersausie had been arrested and probably executed. Kersausie remained in Paris, at liberty, until the following year. He was probably involved in the demonstration of 13 June 1849 [59], and his name appeared on a note allegedly written by Charles Delescluze in June 1849. [60] At this point, he seems to have decided that the game was up, and he left the country; he was tried and sentenced in absentia for his rôle in June 1849. [61] We have only the most vague indications of the rest of his life. He is said to have fled to London with Delescluze, the future communard, and others, and later to have lived in Switzerland under the pseudonym of Quercy. [62] He appears to have kept contact with the international revolutionary movement; Trévédy expresses deep shock at the fact that he apparently presented Garibaldi with the sword of honour belonging to his great uncle La Tour d’Auvergne. Garibaldi accepted it ‘as a sign of the sympathy of humanitarian France for the oppressed nationalities’. Trévédy was clearly outraged that a family heirloom should have been treated in this way. [63]

The last description we have of the veteran revolutionary is in a letter by Proudhon, writing from Brussels on 4 February 1860. He recounts having seen Kersausie for the first time in 12 years. He describes him as ‘a thin, bent little old man, already rambling; the poor fellow is over 60’, and notes that Kersausie urged him not to attack Napoleon III at the present time. Proudhon describes him as ‘another ruin’, but concludes that ‘at least we have the satisfaction of telling ourselves that this one is quite full of hope and not depressed’. [64] He died, still in exile, on 24 August 1874. [65]

Thus there is no doubt that Kersausie was actively involved in the events of 1848. Whether his politics were more clearly defined than they had been in the 1830s is much harder to establish. Some sources refer to him as a socialist, but it is hard to define exactly what sense the word had. As we have seen, the ideas of Louis Blanc were current in the SDH, but it would be difficult to describe it as a socialist organisation.

Perhaps some indications of Kersausie’s political milieu can be obtained from examining one of the short-lived radical newspapers which supported his election campaign in 1848. L’Aimable faubourien (The Likeable Suburb-Dweller) [66] took its name from an ironic reference to a phrase of Louis-Philippe’s about the Paris suburbs, that is, the main working-class districts (notably those to the east of the city which were the main theatre of the June rising). It was subtitled ‘Journal de la canaille’ (Paper of the Rabble), and cost five centimes (a sou) per issue (workers in the ateliers nationaux got 23 sous per day).

An editorial in the first issue states: ‘We are socialist republicans, and that is why we shall vote for socialist republicans.’ [67] A later issue declared that ‘we fully approve of the plan for an Exchange Bank proposed and developed by citizen Proudhon’. [68] It followed closely the situation in the ateliers nationaux, carrying a letter from an unemployed cabinet maker complaining of poor management in the ateliers and warning of the danger of closure. [69] Interestingly, it published a report on the little-discussed subject of the women’s ateliers, showing that it was not afflicted by the misogyny that characterised so much of the French republican left in the nineteenth (and twentieth) centuries. It should be recalled that the men’s ateliers did elect low-level officers:

The following fact has been reported to us: A large number of women workers, when putting their names down at the mairie of the tenth arrondissement, had demanded the right to choose and elect their leaders, arguing that in other ateliers, leaders brought in from convents had stirred up disorder by their unfraternal conduct. The right was granted. As a result, last Monday, these women went to the premises where they were to work, in order to immediately get down to the choice of leaders. The election was just about concluded, when MR …, sent by citizen Pagnerre, burst into the room and had the women occupying it driven out in order to replace them with nuns. [70]

But the most striking feature of L’Aimable faubourien was the editorial which appeared on the front page of the first issue under the heading To the People, and clearly prepared the ground for the rising three weeks later. This immediately preceded the item on elections cited above:

O people of the likeable suburbs! You who know how many generous hearts beat in the sturdy breasts of your children, how many noble minds shine out from behind the burnished foreheads of your sons – O people, do you know where you are being led, do you know? Do you know what trap they want to make you fall into? Do you know what plots are being hatched in the shadows against your liberties, heroic people of the barricades? No, you don’t know! You who suffer, to live in hope, like all those who suffer! You are counting on better days, and calm as strength, steady as righteousness, you await the future which will put right so many evil days, the future dreamt of by your poets and proclaimed by your prophets!

You are waiting! And you have deserted your gun in favour of your work tools! Your gun! O! Hide it, for today, when the law against suspects has been decreed, you might be taken for a conspirator! Hide it, but all the same don’t let it out of your sight, so that at the first signal it will be held in your virile hands!

For your nine hundred representatives, O people, are preparing for you a surprise which you don’t expect! The assembly is pregnant with plans for reform, and it will give birth to a hoax! Yes, the word is written, and I shall not cross it out. The February Revolution, like her sister the July Revolution, is a revolution which has been STOLEN! [71]

These sentiments may not have precisely echoed Kersausie’s own, but they reflected those of the people campaigning for his electoral success.

As far as the leadership of the actual insurrection is concerned, we have already seen that Engels’ claims are unsupported, and that there is no evidence of any leading rôle played by Kersausie. Most contemporary accounts and subsequent historical analyses agree with Albert Soboul that ‘Whatever may have been the rôle played by the secret societies, especially that called “The Rights of Man”, the insurrection had no overall leadership.’ [72] But this does not mean that there was no leadership on a political or military level. One late twentieth-century historian, surveying the evidence, concludes in agnostic terms:

Whether the June days were preceded by a systematic consideration of military and political strategy by which the revolutionaries hoped to seize power is a question as obscure today as it was in 1848. It is difficult to believe that no one talked about the prospects of a revolution that everyone felt to be coming. The Union of Brigadiers of the National Workshops, who emerged as genuine spokesmen for the workers on relief, or the paramilitary Society of the Rights of Man must at least have weighed alternatives … There is no solid evidence pointing to overall planning or to its prerequisite, the existence of a disciplined, hierarchical revolutionary organisation with a devoted mass following. In 1848 we know of no Bolshevik party plotting an October Revolution …

The apparent absence of any master plan did not preclude tactical preparation for the expected showdown. When, where and how the insurrection would break out might remain unpredictable, but anyone could foresee some down-to-earth, practical problems. The democratised Paris National Guard had handed a rifle to every able-bodied man, but the rifle was unloaded. Bullets and cartridges were stored in district municipal armouries. On this level, preparations did take place, though we know less about them than we would like. [73]

Certainly the main radical leaders had been arrested after 15 May, but many second-rank figures – including Kersausie – remained at liberty. As François Pardigon, a participant in the insurrection, put it:

The June insurrection was carried out, it is true, without overall plan, without conspiracy in the full sense of the term, without general staff, but it was not carried out without the people working on by itself, without prior agreement. [74]

Obviously some reference should be made to Louis Ferdinand Pujol, the worker from the ateliers nationaux who first urged and inspired his fellow-workers to resist, and who is said to have called for the building of the first barricade, near the porte Saint-Denis. [75] Pujol is a strange figure; having been a seminarist, he listed his profession as ‘merchant’ (négociant). [76]

But Pujol seems to have played little part in organising the actual fighting, and individuals are difficult to identify; for obvious reasons, those who knew the names of those who had played a leading rôle were not going to make such information public. Victor Marouck, a former communard, gives the fullest list of names in his history of the June Days published in 1880, when the danger of repression was well past. He gives around a dozen names, and assigns each to the particular street in which he was responsible for the barricades. The names are of largely unknown figures, and there is no independent corroboration of his account. [77] Dommanget has identified a certain number of blanquistes who played a leading rôle in the insurrection, notably the former naval officer Paul de Flotte. [78]

Certainly there was no lack of military leadership among the insurgent workers. As Charles Schmidt has pointed out, there was experience enough of barricade building among the Paris workers. Most would have been involved with the barricades that went up only four months earlier, in the February Revolution; quite a few would have memories of 1830, only 18 years earlier. [79] And as de Tocqueville pointed out, half the workers of Paris had done military service, and would be able to put their training at the service of the insurrection. [80]

But if it is true that a military leadership emerged in the course of struggle, it is also the case that the insurrection revealed genuine mass involvement. Thousands of workers and their families contributed their skills and ingenuity to the cause of their class. Lead characters from printworks were melted down to make bullets; pharmacists were recruited to manufacture gunpowder. In one factory in the faubourg du Temple, a cannon was manufactured in the course of the insurrection; local women and children threw damp sand over it to cool the metal more quickly. [81] Women smuggled munitions from one area to another concealed under their clothes, passing themselves off as pregnant. [82] Such initiative could not have been the product of a single master-plan; it was evidence of the creativity manifested by working people when they sense the possibility of their liberation.

As for Engels’ criticism that the insurrection should have aimed to capture the Hôtel de Ville, it seems clear that there was no central coordination that could have set itself such a goal. However, the marquis of Normanby, the British Ambassador to Paris, reported that such a capture was seriously feared by the government; at 8.30am on 24 June, the Assemblée Nationale was warned that the Hôtel de Ville could fall within an hour, and that this outcome was narrowly averted later that morning. [83]

It is clear, then, that the June insurrection was not the product of a centralised individual leadership; but nor was it simply the fruit of spontaneity. There was a complex pattern of local leadership of which we still know relatively little. The question remains: why did Engels attribute such importance to the figure of Kersausie?

First of all, it is clear that Engels had reservations about the information. This is clear from two sentences in the original German of the article: ‘Der Schlachtplan der Arbeiter, der von Kersausie, einem Freund Raspails und ehemaligem Offizier, gemacht sein soll, war folgender.’ Here the verb sollen has the sense of ‘is said to’ or ‘is reported to’ (equivalent to the French use of the conditional); Engels is conveying reports he has heard, rather than guaranteeing their truthfulness. The second reads: ‘Kersausie ist gefangen und in diesem Augenblick wohl schon erschossen.’ Again the use of wohl – probably – indicates that Engels does not guarantee the accuracy of the reports he is quoting. [84]

But what were Engels’ sources? Although the fighting in Paris had initially delayed the arrival of French newspapers (which normally arrived in Cologne on the evening of the day following publication), by the time the article on Kersausie was written, Engels had studied reports of the insurrection in the French, German, Belgian and English press. On the same day that he began the article on Kersausie, Engels published a devastating attack on the Kölnische Zeitung’s account of the insurrection, comparing it to reports published in the French press. [85] But it is unlikely that Engels gleaned any information about Kersausie’s rôle from the public press. A more likely source is private correspondence. Again, we know that Engels expected to receive correspondence from Paris on a daily basis, and that this correspondence was disrupted at the outbreak of the insurrection. [86] Engels had spent much time in Paris in the 1840s, most recently in the autumn of 1847 and the early months of 1848. He had been in contact with a number of well-known figures on the French left – Blanc, Flocon, Cabet, Imbert – as well, doubtless, as with many lesser-known individuals, both from the French left and in the German community. [87] Correspondence from Paris doubtless reflected the various rumours that were rife during and immediately after the insurrection. [88]

It is also important to remember that when Engels wrote his article, he believed that Kersausie was probably dead, and therefore judged that it could do no harm to name him as the leader of the insurrection. We may presume that if he learnt subsequently that Kersausie was not only alive but not yet arrested, he would have decided that fraternal prudence dictated that he should omit further reference to his name.

More interesting, however, than Engels’ possible sources is the question of the political reasons that led him to write the article. Whatever reports he may have received, it is significant that Engels seized upon the alleged leading rôle of Kersausie because he was grappling with certain problems about the nature of revolutionary leadership. These may be illuminated by comparing Engels’ account of the June days with those of Blanqui and Karl Marx.

In 1849, Blanqui wrote a short article entitled Military Lessons of the Street Warfare in 1848. [89] This is in many ways a remarkable document. Blanqui was, of course, in jail during the insurrection, but he had clearly received detailed reports from members of his organisation, and he set out to examine the causes of the defeat.

He began by arguing that in 1830 it had been possible for spontaneous ‘élan populaire’, without organisation, to overthrow the Bourbons. Since then, however, the ruling class had learnt from experience much more than the popular forces. Indeed, he claimed, the February Revolution had been a lucky ‘fluke’; if Louis-Philippe had seriously tried to defend himself, he could have stayed in power.

In June, the government had been in disarray, and the workers ‘almost certain of victory’. Why had they lost? Blanqui’s answer was simple – ‘for lack of organisation’. Thus barricades had been put up at random, often in the wrong places, and with no overall plan. Of the 600 barricades built in June, only 30 had been serious obstacles to the enemy; most of the rest had been taken without a shot being fired.

The overall weakness was summed up for Blanqui in the phrase: ‘No general command, hence no leadership.’ There was little communication between one barricade and the next, and poor discipline. Those defending the barricades came and went as they felt like it, and at night went home to bed, leaving inadequate forces to resist any attack.

Blanqui saw it as a weakness that insurgents fought in their own quarters, and hence were much more liable to denunciation after defeat. He thus gave little or no importance to the fact that the insurrection was deeply rooted in the local communities. He regarded grenades as inferior weapons which wasted gunpowder and did little more damage than cobble-stones.

In civil conflicts, Blanqui argued, the people had an enormous advantage over the army. The professional soldiers fought reluctantly, only kept going ‘by constraint and brandy’. The popular forces were superior morally, intellectually and even physically. But for victory ‘they need organisation. Without it they have no chance. Organisation is victory, dispersion is death.

Blanqui’s analysis stressed military factors, as opposed to social and political ones, but it represented a serious attempt to analyse the causes of defeat. Interestingly, Blanqui’s position began from assumptions quite opposite to those of Engels, and yet in a sense they converged. For Blanqui there was no overall plan, hence the workers lost. Engels too saw the overall plan as crucial, but he asserted that it had existed, and the workers had lost despite its presence, not because of its absence.

Marx’s writings at the time of the insurrection are less detailed than Engels’, and at times descend into a strange triumphalism. On 26 June, he wrote:

Paris bathed in blood; the insurrection growing into the greatest revolution that has ever taken place, into a revolution of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. Three days which sufficed for the July revolution and the February revolution are insufficient for the colossal contours of this June revolution, but the victory of the people is more certain then ever. [90]

Marx’s strength is, of course, the recognition of the significance of the June days as the first independent rising of the proletariat, but in terms of the concrete circumstances of the rising it is less than adequate. His longer analysis, The June Revolution, written on 28 June, is in some ways even worse:

The workers of Paris were overwhelmed by superior strength, but they were not subdued. They have been defeated but their enemies are vanquished. The momentary triumph of brute force has been purchased with the destruction of all the delusions and illusions of the February revolution, the dissolution of the entire moderate republican party and the division of the French nation into two nations, the nation of owners and the nation of workers. [91]

It would obviously be too harsh to compare this to the way that the German Communist Party saw Hitler’s victory as a step forward for the working class; but there is certainly a dangerous triumphalism which fails to recognise that the French working class had suffered a defeat from which it would not recover for 20 years.

When Marx returned to the subject in 1850 in one of his finest historical writings, The Class Struggles in France, he took a rather detached view. The question of proletarian organisation was left aside, for now Marx simply assumed that it had been non-existent:

It is well known how the workers, with unexampled bravery and ingenuity, without leaders, without a common plan, without means and, for the most part, lacking weapons, held in check for five days the army, the Mobile Guard, the Paris National Guard, and the National Guard that streamed in from the provinces.

But in Marx’s revised analysis, the question of organisation is in any case of little relevance, since the defeat of the workers is now seen as inevitable:

The Paris proletariat was forced into the June insurrection by the bourgeoisie. This sufficed to mark its doom. Its immediate, avowed needs did not drive it to engage in a fight for the forcible overthrow of the bourgeoisie, nor was it equal to the task. [92]

In 1895, the year of his death, Engels returned once again to the experience of 1848 in writing a new introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France. As an honest revolutionary, Engels made no attempt to claim consistency with his earlier writings. In 1848, he and Marx had been too absorbed in the day-to-day course of political events to analyse the more long-term economic context. As a result: ‘History has proved us wrong, and all who thought like us. It had made it clear that the state of economic development on the Continent at that time was not, by a long way, ripe for the elimination of capitalist production …’ [93]

Engels reassessed the military aspects of 1848, arguing that developments in the subsequent period meant that the specific tactics of 1848 were of declining relevance. Already in 1849 ‘the barricade had lost its magic’. [94] In the context of such a major re-evaluation, the detailed contribution of Kersausie must have seemed of little or no importance.

But in the summer of 1848, Engels’ priorities were very different. Bernard Moss has argued that between 1848 and 1850 Marx and Engels turned to a more ‘sectarian and ultra-revolutionary position’. [95] There is an element of truth in this, but the turn must be seen in the context of the changing situation. In June 1848, the revolutionary process in Europe was still advancing, and it was the duty of all revolutionaries to encourage that advance; only when the movement was defeated would it be time to analyse the causes for failure.

During and immediately after the June insurrection, there was a flood of slanders from the right, and from sections of the left, accusing the workers of Paris of having been misled by outside agitators and bribed by foreign money. The Leipzig paper Der Leuchtturm, more than 50 years before the Bolshevik Revolution, blamed the rising on ‘Russian gold’. [96] In Cologne itself, the Kölnische Zeitung spread and exaggerated French reports of sums of money found on the insurgents. [97] In France, even more bizarre reports circulated. Marouck tells us that a journal called Le Lampion claimed that on the corpse of one insurgent had been found a ticket bearing the words ‘This entitles the bearer to three ladies from the faubourg Saint-Germain.’ (Marouck, who was not free of the prejudices of the Republican milieu, retorted that socialist men were happy with their own womenfolk and did not want ‘noble ladies … gangrenous with the practices of Lesbos’.) [98]

The Marquis of Normanby reported a speech in the National Assembly, where Ferdinand Flocon, now Minister of Agriculture (who had discussed cordially with Engels the previous October) [99], blamed the uprising on money from neighbouring countries (a charge that Normanby, as British Ambassador, was anxious to deny). [100] The same theme, of conspiratorial agitation against the government, ran through the report of the official enquiry into the rising.

Obviously it was the duty of revolutionaries to refute such charges, and to show that the rising had its causes in the social oppression of working people. In the same issue of Neue Rheinische Zeitung as the first part of the Kersausie article, Engels published a reply to the accusations of the Kölnische Zeitung. Here he quoted in support M. Payer, a conservative member of the National Assembly who had spent 12 hours as a prisoner among the insurgents: ‘Most of them were workers who had been driven to desperation by four months of misery. They said: Better to die of a bullet than of starvation![101]

But though this was an important argument for the left to carry, it was not sufficient. Indeed, some of the intelligent representatives of the right – those concerned to understand, rather than to make a political point – recognised that the rising had its roots in social conditions and not in foreign agitators. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: ‘… this formidable insurrection was not the undertaking of a small number of conspirators, but the uprising of one whole population against another. The women took part just as much as the men.’ [102]

Engels was well aware that the invocation of ‘spontaneity’ did not resolve the very real problems of revolutionary leadership. Indeed, earlier that year in Cologne he had observed the sad results of excessive reliance on spontaneity. On 3 March, a demonstration called by the Communist League at the Cologne Town Hall had been dispersed by troops and its leaders arrested; as Engels lamented in a letter to Marx:

It’s a bad business in Cologne. Our three best men are in jug. I have been speaking to someone who took an active part in the business. They wanted to go into the attack, but instead of supplying themselves with weapons, which were easily obtainable, they went to the town hall unarmed and let themselves be surrounded. It is said that most of the troops were on their side. The thing was initiated without rhyme or reason; if the chap’s reports are to be believed, they could very well have gone into the attack and in two hours all would have been over. But everything was organised with appalling stupidity. [103]

For Engels, the question of revolutionary leadership went beyond the abstract dichotomy of ‘outside agitators’ or ‘spontaneity’. So, on the basis of some tenuous report from Paris – and it must have pretty tenuous, for it did not surface anywhere else – Engels seems to have made Kersausie into the centralising leadership which he recognised the insurrection needed. Kersausie thus became a composite symbolic representation of missing revolutionary leadership. Indeed, had Kersausie not existed, Engels might have found it necessary to invent him. The Kersausie article is bad history, but good politics.

Kersausie fitted the bill in two respects. Firstly, he was a veteran of the opposition to the July monarchy. He was a republican, an internationalist, and in some sense a socialist. He had supported the 1830 revolution, had participated in both the secret societies and the radical press of the 1830s, and had associated with the most left-wing currents in the Second Republic. Through his connection with Buonarroti he was linked to a revolutionary line that stretched back to Jacobinism and to Babeuf. Hence he came to symbolise the necessity for revolutionary organisation to be implanted well in advance of the revolutionary upsurge.

Secondly, Kersausie was a military man. He had served, with conspicuous success, under the Bourbons before 1830. Engels had a lifelong interest in military questions [104], and he recognised the need for the insurgent working class to take military questions seriously. Whatever the relations of class forces, workers needed to have guns at the right time, and guns with bullets in them. If they were to challenge the power of the ruling class, workers needed to draw on the best and most advanced military knowledge. In this sense, Kersausie became a symbolic forerunner of the Tsarist officers whom Trotsky drew into the Red Army with the justification: ‘As industry needs engineers, as farming needs qualified agronomists, so military specialists are indispensable to defence.’ [105]

Engels gave importance to the rôle of an individual in the June Days because he saw it as a situation when history was on a knife edge. His formulations from this period are both optimistic and voluntaristic: ‘The insurgents … would have triumphed had they used the same violent means as were employed by the bourgeoisie … The Paris workers … were within a hairbreadth of victory … The mobile guard … needed but a slight impetus to make them go over to their side.’ (Later historians have been particularly critical of this belief that the mobile guard might have changed sides.) [106]

Bernard Moss claims that ‘Engels’ work is marked by a dichotomy between an overarching historical determinism and instances of political voluntarism’. [107] This is a much better way of putting it than the common but implausible attempt to juxtapose Engels’ alleged determinism to Marx’s ‘humanism’. [108] But in fact Engels did not see determinism and voluntarism as a dichotomy. Rather, he recognised that history was made by social forces that transcended individuals; unlike Blanqui, he did not believe that a small group could impose its will on history. But at certain historical turning points, Engels realised that individual intervention could tip the balance and decide between two possible futures. Hence the importance attributed to the symbolic figure of Kersausie.

As Lenin wrote in December 1906, when the revolutionary wave of 1905 was ebbing: ‘The Marxist is the last to leave the path of directly revolutionary struggle, he leaves it only when all possibilities have been exhausted, when there is not a shadow of hope for a shorter way …’ [109]

In the same spirit, Engels clung to the hope of victory in 1848 until all possibility of success had passed. It is easy to criticise his voluntarism in retrospect, but the problem of when to give priority to activism and when to analysis has always been a difficult one. [110]

We do Engels no service by failing to criticise his mistakes. His article on Kersausie was historically false, and it should be recognised as such. Only by such criticism can we begin to appreciate Engels’ real insights, his recognition of the necessity for effective political and military organisation. Engels had many differences with Blanqui, but when the latter wrote ‘Organisation is victory’, Engels would not have disputed its applicability to the June Days. It remains true today.


1. This paper was originally presented to a conference organised in Manchester in September 1998 by the Northern Marxist Historians’ Group to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 1848 revolutions.

2. F. Pardigon, Episodes des journées de juin 1848, London and Brussels 1852, p. 64.

3. I use this phrase to include both artisans and proletarians in the strict sense. Both groups were involved in the rising; the proportions remain a matter of historical debate.

4. K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, London and Moscow 1975ff., Volume 7, p. 147.

5. T. Carver, Friedrich Engels, Basingstoke and London 1991, p. 223.

6. A. Cornu, Karl Marx et la révolution de 1848, Paris 1948, p. 27.

7. G. Mayer, Friedrich Engels in seiner Frühzeit, Berlin 1920, p. 323.

8. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 7, pp. 157–164.

9. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 7, pp. 157, 158, 164.

10. I make no claim, obviously, to have consulted more than a tiny fraction of the vast literature on 1848. But I have tried to look at the main eye-witness accounts and the most recent historical syntheses in English and French.

11. K. Marx and F. Engels, Articles from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung 1848–49, London, 1972.

12. Le Militant Rouge, no. 1, November 1925, pp. 14–20.

13. K. Marx, Les Luttes de classes en France (1848–1850) suivi de Les Journées de juin 1848 par Friedrich Engels, Paris, 1967; K. Marx and F. Engels, La Nouvelle Gazette rhénane, tome 1 (ed. Lucienne Netter, Paris 1963), p. 481. It can also been found in various other anthologies, such as Antimilitarisme et révolution (ed. A. Brossat and J.-Y. Potel, Paris 1975), Volume 1, and F. Engels, Théorie de la violence (ed. G Mury, Paris 1972). Neither the former, of Trotskyist inspiration, nor the latter, edited on Maoist principles, offers any attempt to explain Kersausie’s rôle.

14. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 7, pp xx-xxi, 620, 666.

15. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 27, pp. 529, 634, 642.

16. Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, English version, New York and London 1976, third edition, Volume 12, p. 424.

17. M. Dommanget, Auguste Blanqui et la révolution de 1848, Paris and The Hague 1972, p. 199.

18. B.H. Moss, Marx and Engels on French Social Democracy: Historians or Revolutionaries?, Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 46, no. 4, October–December 1985, pp. 539–57.

19. J. Maitron (ed.), Dictionnaire biographique du mouvement ouvrier français, Paris 1964ff., tome 2, p. 319. Note that the entry is given for the name Guillard de Kersausie and appears under the letter G.

20. J. Trévédy, La Famille Limon du Timeur, Bulletin de la société archéologique du Finistère, tome 33, 1906, pp. 222–46.

21. X. Raspail, La Vie et l’oeuvre scientifique de F.-V. Raspail, Paris 1926, p. 43.

22. See B.H. Moss, Parisian Workers and the Origins of Republican Socialism, 1830–1833, in J.M. Merriman (ed.), 1830 in France, New York and London 1975, pp. 203–21.

23. Alain Faure, Mouvements populaires et mouvement ouvrier à Paris (1830–1834), Le Mouvement social, no. 88, July–September 1974, pp. 51–92.

24. On the dispute in the SDH, see Faure, op. cit.; Moss, Parisian Workers …, op. cit.; G. Sencier, Le Babouvisme après Babeuf, Paris 1912, pp. 52–61.

25. F.-V. Raspail, Lettres sur les prisons de Paris, two volumes, Paris 1839.

26. F.-V. Raspail, De la Pologne sur les bords de la Vistule et dans l’émigration, Paris 1839, p. 7.

27. J. Wogue, Raspail, Paris 1939, p. 50.

28. F.-V. Raspail, De la Pologne …, op. cit., pp. 1–2.

29. E. de Mirecourt, Raspail, Paris 1869, p. 27.

30. De Mirecourt, op. cit., p. 52.

31. Maitron, op. cit., p. 319.

32. Cited J. Godechot, Un jury pour la révolution, Paris 1974, p. 245.

33. M. Agulhon, editor’s introduction to Martin Nadaud, Mémoires de Léonard, Paris 1976, p. 28.

34. Maitron, op. cit., p. 319.

35. Faure, op. cit., pp. 74–6.

36. See L.-A. Blanqui, Oeuvres, ed. D. Le Nuz, Nancy 1993, Volume 1, p. 246.

37. See I.H. Birchall, The Spectre of Babeuf, Basingstoke and London 1997.

38. A. Lehning, De Buonarroti à Bakounine, Paris 1977, p. 76.

39. P. Robiquet, Buonarroti et la secte des égaux, Paris 1910, p. 87.

40. Robiquet, op. cit., pp. 220–1; Buonarroti doubtless remembered that Babeuf’s conspiracy had been betrayed by the traitor Grisel, who was allowed easy access to the secret directory.

41. E.L. Eisenstein, The First Professional Revolutionist, Cambridge 1959, pp. 101, 122–4.

42. See the complete stenographic record in Débats du procès instruit par la Haute-Cour de Justice contre Drouet, Baboeuf et autres, Paris 1797, four volumes, or for a brief account, I.H. Birchall, The Vendôme Defence Strategy, British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Volume 20, no. 2, Autumn 1997, pp. 141–53.

43. G. Perreux, Au Temps des sociétés secrètes, Paris 1931, p. 320.

44. J. Lucas-Dubreton, Louis-Philippe et la machine infernale, Paris 1951, p. 223.

45. F. Trollope, Paris and the Parisians in 1835, London 1836, Volume 1, pp. 141–3.

46. De Mirecourt, op. cit., p. 27.

47. Dommanget, op. cit., p. 144.

48. P.H. Amann, Revolution and Mass Democracy, Princeton NJ 1975, p. 256.

49. L. Ménard, Prologue d’une révolution, Paris 1849, p. 157.

50. Assemblée Nationale, Rapport de la Commission d’enquête sur l’insurrection qui a éclaté dans la journée du 23 juin …, Paris 1848, Volume 1, p. 67.

51. For the not at all implausible argument that 15 May saw the success of a plan designed to facilitate the arrest of the main leaders of the left, see H. Guillemin, La première résurrection de la république, Paris 1967, pp. 327–52.

52. Before the June Days, many observers thought the garde mobile would take the side of the workers; in fact they helped to suppress the rising, which makes this list rather contradictory. See P. Caspard, Aspects de la lutte des classes en 1848; le recrutement de la garde nationale mobile, Revue historique, no. 511, July–September 1974, pp. 81–106.

53. L’Aimable faubourien, no. 2, 4–8 June 1848, p. 1.

54. L’Aimable faubourien, no. 4, 11–15 June 1848, p. 1.

55. S. Wassermann, Les Clubs de Barbès et de Blanqui en 1848, Paris 1913, p. 205; Maitron, op. cit., p. 319.

56. Journées de juin – 1848 écrites devant et derrière les barricades par des témoins oculaires, Paris n.d., pp. 56–7.

57. Trévédy, op. cit., p. 243.

58. Rapport de la Commission d’enquête sur l’insurrection …, Volume 1, pp. 16, 253, 332, 343, 359–61, Volume 2, pp. 84, 105, 94–5, 255–7.

59. Trévédy, op. cit., p. 243.

60. Marcel Dessal, Charles Delescluze (1809–1871), Paris 1952, p. 139.

61. Trévédy, op. cit., p. 243; Maitron, op. cit., p. 319.

62. A. Saint-Ferréol, Les Proscrits français en Belgique, Brussels 1870, Volume 1, p. 47, Volume 2, p. 19.

63. Trévédy, op. cit., pp. 243–4.

64. P.-J. Proudhon, Lettres au citoyen Rolland, Paris 1946, pp. 44–5.

65. Trévédy, op. cit., p. 243.

66. This appeared twice a week, from 1 June 1848 onwards; each issue consisted of a single two-sided sheet. E. Hatin, Bibliographie historique et critique de la presse périodique française, Paris 1866, p. 462, says seven issues appeared, but the British Library at Colindale has only numbers 1–5, covering the period of 1–18 June.

67. L’Aimable faubourien, no. 1, 1–4 June 1848, p. 1.

68. L’Aimable faubourien, no. 4, 11–15 June 1848, p. 2.

69. L’Aimable faubourien, no. 2, 4–8 June 1848, p. 1.

70. L’Aimable faubourien, no. 4, 11–15 June 1848, p. 1.

71. L’Aimable faubourien, no. 1, 1–4 June, 1848, p. 1

72. A. Soboul, The French Revolution of 1848, London 1948, p. 32.

73. Amann, op. cit., pp. 298-9.

74. Pardigon, op. cit., p. 69.

75. D. Stern, Les Journées de juin 1848, Oxford 1907, p. 125.

76. M. Traugott, Armies of the Poor, Princeton NJ 1985, p. 249. According to Dommanget (op. cit., pp. 194-5), his conduct after his arrest was highly questionable. He later served as a colonel on the Northern side in the US Civil War (Maitron, op. cit., Volume 3, 1966, pp. 263–4).

77. V. Marouck, Juin 1848, Paris 1880, pp. 36–7.

78. Dommanget, op. cit., p. 195.

79. C. Schmidt, Des Ateliers nationaux aux barricades de juin, Paris 1948, pp. 44–5.

80. A. de Tocqueville, Souvenirs, Paris 1893, p. 209.

81. C. Schmidt, Les Journées de juin 1848, Paris 1926, p. 70.

82. Marquis de Normanby, Une Année de révolution, Volume 2, Paris 1858, pp. 110–11.

83. Normanby, op. cit., pp. 103, 108.

84. H. Neef, Vier Tage rote Fahnen in den Strassen von Paris, Berlin 1983, pp. 91, 100 (my emphasis – IHB).

85. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 7, pp. 121, 123, 135, 150–6, etc.

86. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 38, pp. 121, 123.

87. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 7, pp. 8; Volume 38, pp. 152, 156, 169, etc.

88. Schmidt, Les Journées de juin 1848, op. cit., p. 113.

89. L.A. Blanqui, Les enseignements militaires de la guerre de rues en 1848, Le Militant rouge, no. 11, November 1926, pp. 242–5. This text should be used with some care. As pointed out by Dommanget (op. cit., p. 197), it was subjected to later revisions. The text as published contains a reference to the chassepot rifle, introduced to the French army only in 1866 (I am grateful to Edward Crawford for pointing this out). But the general line of argument represents Blanqui’s considered response to the experience of June 1848.

90. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 7, p. 128.

91. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 7, p. 144.

92. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 10, pp. 67–9.

93. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 27, p. 512.

94. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 27, p. 518.

95. Moss, Marx and Engels …, op. cit., p. 555.

96. Neef, op. cit., p. 117.

97. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 7, p. 155.

98. Marouck, op. cit., p. 70.

99. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 38, p. 136.

100. Normanby, op. cit., pp. 103–4.

101. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 7, p. 155.

102. Tocqueville, op. cit., p. 209.

103. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 38, p. 159.

104. In 1862, in the course of correspondence about the American Civil War, Marx mildly reprimanded Engels, writing: ‘It strikes me that you allow yourself to be influenced by the military aspect of things a little too much.’ Engels had predicted the likelihood of the North getting ‘the terrible thrashing it deserves’. (Marx to Engels, 10 September 1862; Engels to Marx, 30 July 1862, Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 41, pp. 416, 388)

105. I. Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, Oxford 1970, pp. 407–8.

106. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 7, pp. 139, 164; Traugott, op. cit., pp. 51–2 (see also note 51 above).

107. Moss, ‘Marx and Engels …’, op. cit., p. 552.

108. For a critique of this position see J. Rees, Engels’ Marxism, International Socialism, no. 64, 1994, pp. 47–82.

109. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 11, Moscow 1960, p. 351.

110. I personally recall being accused of crowing ‘exultantly and … ignorantly’ for trying to analyse the causes of Allende’s overthrow rather than celebrating those who had resisted Pinochet’s coup. See Jane Scott Paul, letter in Socialist Worker, 6 October 1973, p. 13.

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