The Party of Order

Lamartine and the red flag

Lamartine rejects the red flag by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux

By Duncan Riley



In 1848, revolution broke out across two continents. In Venezuela, a conservative government was toppled after angry crowds stormed the national legislature, and within a month the July Monarchy collapsed beneath the weight of popular protest in Paris’s streets. The Hapsburg empire crumbled beneath twin blows from Milan and Budapest, while the students and workers of Vienna put the Emperor to flight. On the streets of Berlin the rebels crawled on their stomachs to avoid the hail of bullets, while in Colombia (then known as Nueva Granada), a chain of events had been set in motion that would culminate in the Zurriago, the revolt of the enslaved and formerly enslaved Afro-Colombian population, in 1851. From Bucharest to Bogotá the strains of La Marseillaise sang the Atlantic World’s conservative order off the stage of history, as the Springtime of the Peoples burst asunder the winter of reaction. But, in less than a year, it was all over. Shattered barricades dotted Europe’s streets, while tattered tricolors lay abandoned and the last traces of blood were washed from the cobblestones. Almost everywhere the old monarchies had reasserted themselves, and where republican and constitutional governments did prevail, they quickly lost their revolutionary luster. This sudden and shocking reversal was only possible because of the emergence of one of the most effective counter-revolutionary forces in history, mounting an assault which tore apart the revolutionary wave of 1848 on the basis of its own internal contradictions, and which today, as the specter of international revolution once again raises its head, still threatens to extinguish all hope for a better and more just world – the Party of Order.

Perhaps the most useful case study of the emergence of the Party of Order can be found in the events of from February to June 1848 in France. When the barricades went up across Paris on the 22nd of February, it was, naturally enough, the Parisian workers who played the pivotal role in the insurrection. The 1840s had been a decade of economic depression, unemployment, and hunger, and the patience of France’s long-suffering working class with the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe, had worn thin. The contradictions of the revolution of 1830, which had brought “the bourgeois king” to power on the back of a popular revolt in the streets, had tensed to the breaking point, as it became increasingly clear that the advent of a constitutional government did not put food in the stomach or bring fulfillment to the soul. Like all states, the July Monarchy was heavy handed with its order, and close-fingered with its progress, and this arrangement was no longer acceptable to France’s working classes. So, as political crisis rocked the monarchy in 1848, the workers took to the streets of Paris, the red flag waving above their barricades as a symbol of social revolution.

The workers, however, were not alone in their opposition to the monarchy. In the salons, cafes, and universities of Paris, voices of dissent grew ever louder. The middle classes, frustrated by the slow pace of democratic reform, began to view a return to the republic as the only solution to their ills. The most radical amongst these middle-class republicans called for universal suffrage (though this, naturally, would not be extended to women or the indigenous peoples of Frances growing colonial empire), and some social reforms to alleviate the plight of the workers. Ultimately though, even the most radical republicans primarily conceived of the fundamental problems in society as political, rather than social, to be solved through enlightened reform and stable governance, not a complete social transformation. This reticence towards social revolution was made explicit when, in the aftermath of the triumph of the February Revolution, workers confronted the republican leader Alphonse de Lamartine with the red flag, who promptly rejected it. For, to the republicans’ eyes, the red flag could only signify the triumph of faction, violence, and chaos over democratic principles.

As the response of liberal politicians to the recent uprising in response to the horrific murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department has shown, the political heirs of Lamartine have changed little over the last two centuries. Liberal politics are fundamentally incapable of grappling with social problems at their root, as integral to liberalism is the basic assumption that the institutions that define contemporary capitalist society – the police, the courts, and all the other components of the State apparatus – are ultimately good or at the very least necessary, along with all the hierarchies of race, class, and gender that they maintain. All that is necessary is a little tinkering around the edges, a few new progressive policies, and the adoption (or, better put, cooptation) of a few demands from the streets. An actual transformation of society and the elimination of the inequalities which run through it is out of the question, as that would eliminate the economic and social basis upon which the power of the State to make reform rests in the first place. Still, as the spectacle of leading Democrats kneeling in kente cloth stoles and vociferously declaring their support for “the movement,” demonstrates, the proponents of orderly progress have learned something since 1848. They will accept the symbol enthusiastically, while furiously denying the principle behind it.

Lamartine’s refusal of the red flag would signal the first steps in the formation of the Party of Order. The overwhelming presence of the workers on the barricades, and their clear unwillingness to settle for a merely political revolution, frightened even the most ardently radical among the republican left. Increasingly concerned that a worker’s revolution might overturn the social order and establish a “red republic,” many of the moderate republicans began to draw closer to the monarchist right, looking to forge a pact against the threat of social revolution. Thus, out of the alignment of the conservative right and the liberal center, “The Party of Order” was born. The radical republicans, on the other hand, while reluctant to collaborate with the monarchists, acted in their own way as the partisans of order. While the right and the center plotted a military solution, the radicals searched for a political solution to placate the workers. The socialists Louis Blanc and Alexandre Martin were invited into the provisional government, universal suffrage was instituted, and the right to work was accepted as a foundational guarantee of the republic, leading to the establishment of the National Workshops to provide work for the unemployed. With a few strokes of the pen the radicals seemed to have adopted most of the socialist program, and the realization of the dream for a social republic seemed at last to be at hand.

Yet, beneath the radical appearance of these reforms lurked a more complicated reality. As was previously noted in regard to “universal suffrage,” this right was not extended to women or to the indigenous peoples of France’s colonial empire. The power to designate a universal right carried with it the State’s authority to delineate the exceptions to the rule, to exclude some people from the community on the basis of race, gender, and nationality, and to thereby label them as acceptable targets for state violence. The supposedly universal right was, therefore, predicated upon the exclusion of those deemed unworthy or too dangerous by the dominant class, revealing the fundamental hollowness at the very center of the notion of universality in a hierarchical and profoundly unequal society. As to the “right to work” and the National Workshops, in must be noted that the acceptance by the provisional government of these working class demands did not actually constitute an acceptance of the rights of workers to have any input on how these demands were implemented. Consequently, when the National Workshops were opened, instead of providing an opportunity for new experiments in worker self-management or the establishment of new and more fulfilling modes of social life, they mimicked the alienated and repressive atmosphere of private enterprises, giving workers no greater control over their daily lives, and essentially functioning as a large-scale charity program. As radical as the republican left’s reforms may have seemed, they did nothing to fundamentally alter the nature of French society.

Reform then, rather than being a challenge to order, constituted an extension of it. The radical republicans’ adoption of working-class demands, instead of transforming society, integrated those demands as reforms into the State structure in a manner that did not challenge the social order. Indeed, the reforms brought about by the February Revolution, rather than expanding the power of the revolutionary masses at the expense of the State, extended the power of the State over even more aspects of its subjects’ daily lives, granting it greater power to discipline those who challenged it and exclude those who threatened it. Reform was neither the culmination nor the precursor of revolution, it was the deactivation of revolution and its transformation into a new law, better fit and more correctly shaped to counteract any movement for true social transformation.

This same process that played out over the days of February and March 1848 has once again occurred in Minneapolis over the past few months. A little over two months since the City Council made its commitment in Powderhorn Park to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department and replace it with a “transformative system of public safety,” their promises have proved profoundly empty. In Powderhorn Park itself, the police were recently used to violently break up an encampment of houseless persons, demonstrating that the extent of the proposed transformation did not reach far beyond the confines of those considered to be “respectable citizens.” Furthermore, the now irrelevant amendment to the City Charter that formed the basis of the Council’s proposed “abolition” did not even actually abolish the police. It simply replaced the Minneapolis Police Department with a “Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention,” which contained within it a “Division of Protective Law Enforcement Services,” made up of standard police officers. The translation of police and prison abolition from radical project to liberal reform robbed them of any revolutionary potential, as they became mere means to simultaneously obscure and expand the omnipotence of order over the lives of the oppressed and the excluded.

Reform, whether in 1848 or 2020, is a postponement, not a solution, of the social question. However much the State increases its power, and no matter how many false olive branches it offers, resistance always remains. In the end, postponement would only be able to stave off the threat of a second revolution for only a few more months in 1848. As electoral results favored the right-wing, and social reform proved unable to placate the workers, the Party of Order increasingly repudiated the radical republicans and their reforms, culminating in the revocation of the right to work and the closure of the National Workshops on June 21st. This last move precipitated a working-class revolt known as the June Days, a final, desperate attempt to realize a social revolution and reclaim the right not to starve. Against this workers’ revolution, Monarchists and Republicans, the radicals and the moderates alike, aligned to sate the workers’ hunger with bayonets and bullets, declaring a State of Siege and using the army to crush the uprising. These events find an obvious modern parallel in the brutal response of all levels of Minnesota’s government, dominated by liberal and progressive Democrats, to the uprising in Minneapolis, similarly declaring a State of Emergency and attempting to smash every call for justice with volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets. Forced to choose between order and progress, the reformers will always choose order.

So, the deed was done. The bourgeois in Delacroix’s painting turned his musket on Gavroche, and la Marianne died of shame soon after. The defeat of the workers, rather than cementing the foundation of the Republic, gave the more conservative elements of the Party of Order the breathing space they needed to eject their more liberal colleagues from the coalition and begin plotting the restoration of the monarchy. The Party of Order was itself, in turn, outmaneuvered by the soon to be elected President Louis Napoléon Bonaparte and his supporters, who gradually concentrated more and more power into the offices of the presidency, before he ultimately seized total power in a coup in 1851. In response to the coup, several radical republican parliamentary deputies attempted to convince Paris’s workers to join them at the barricades to defend the republic against Bonaparte’s imperial ambitions. The fate of this insurrection is succinctly summarized by a (likely apocryphal) event recorded in Victor Hugo’s Journal. Asked by a deputy to join the insurrection, a Parisian responded, “Do you believe that we are going to risk our lives to defend your twenty-five Francs?”[1] In reply, the Deputy Baudin cried out “You are going to see how a man dies for twenty-five Francs!”, before jumping up on the barricade and being promptly shot dead by approaching government troops.[2] A tragic, but fitting allegory for the ultimate fate of all attempts at reform before the full force of the State.

Both 1848 and 2020 have one resounding lesson for all those who are interested in social transformation: reform from above is a dead end, which only exacerbates the very oppression it seeks to defend. But, perhaps the greatest fault with reform lies in its effect upon our imaginations. The nationwide revolt against police brutality that occurred only a few months ago fundamentally altered the political stage, it brought the ideas of abolition and revolution into the minds of millions of people across the world. For a brief moment, everything seemed possible. But the channeling of this newfound conscience into reform efforts began the process of unraveling this change in the collective imagination. Abolition was no longer conceived of as the end of policing as an institution, but as a series of policy fixes intended to restore the police to their “true function” in society, never mind that that function is inherently racist, patriarchal, and deeply violent. Revolution became something that could be won at the ballot box, and the uprising was reimagined as a spontaneous referendum on the need for police reform, rather than the challenge to white supremacy and capitalism that it truly was. With the help of riot cops and charter amendments both, the Party of Order is triumphant once again.

If the Party of Order is ever to be defeated, and social revolution victorious, reform and electoralism must be definitively abandoned. Power cannot be confronted, and much less overthrown, within its own halls, and as long as we attempt to realize the future we want through its means, we will end by conforming ourselves to its dictates rather than shaping it to our needs. To the extent to which a liberatory future remains possible it is due not to the machinations of politicians or some bygone enlightenment notion of the inexorable force of progress, but to the struggle of millions of youth, people of color, and workers, which over the past few months have made states across the world tremble in fear. The Party of Order, the party of strength and power, must be confronted by the party of vulnerability, the wretched of the earth hurling their pain against the system which produced their suffering in the first place. Then, and only then, can humanity meet in a space beyond power, beyond hierarchy, and beyond law, to begin to construct a future in which we all fit. The palace of Order will come crashing down, its swords bent into plowshares, and from its ruins will grow the garden of humanity, its seeds sprouting upwards to warmth of a new sun.



[1] 25 Francs was, at the time, the stipend received by French deputies.

[2] English fails to capture the full expressiveness of the exchange, so I include the original French here:

L’ouvrier: “Croyez-vous que nous allons exposer notre vie pour défendre vos vingt-cinq francs?”

Baudin: “Vous allez voir comment on meurt pour vingt-cinq francs!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s