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Populist Religion and Left-Wing Politics in France, 1830-1852

Populist Religion and Left-Wing Politics in France, 1830-1852

by Edward Berenson

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Examining the democratic-socialist politics of the Second Republic, Edward Berenson delves into the largely unexplored content of the Montagnards' ideology and traces its diffusion and reception in the populist religious culture of rural France. This book shows how the urbanbased Montagnards were able to appeal to rural Frenchmen by advocating doctrines grounded in


Examining the democratic-socialist politics of the Second Republic, Edward Berenson delves into the largely unexplored content of the Montagnards' ideology and traces its diffusion and reception in the populist religious culture of rural France. This book shows how the urbanbased Montagnards were able to appeal to rural Frenchmen by advocating doctrines grounded in the ideals and morality of early Christianity.

Originally published in 1984.

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Populist Religion and Left-Wing Politics in France, 1830-1852

By Edward Berenson


Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05396-7



The evolution of France's economy and social structure over the first half of the nineteenth century created an environment favorable to a broad political coalition of artisans and market-oriented peasants in 1848. By no means were economic circumstances directly responsible for the political allegiances of the Second Republic, but analysis of the period's economic conditions does help to explain the nature and meaning of mid-century democratic-socialist ideology. Moreover, a view of how the material conditions of peasants and artisans changed provides a sense of what made both groups receptive to the religious-based ideas of the republican left.

Beneath the seemingly placid surface of French farming, a number of important changes took place during the first half of the nineteenth century. Though French agriculture was neither more consolidated nor more mechanized in 1848 than it was in 1815, a quiet agricultural revolution produced a 50 percent growth in farm productivity during those years. As a result in large part of these advances in productivity, the number of peasant proprietors increased faster than did the size of the rural population, and the amount of peasant land grew at the expense of large-scale property owners. Increased output made it possible for peasants to remain on the land despite population growth, and they took advantage of improved grain yields to devote less land to growing their own food and more to cash crops. Thus, between 1815 and 1848 peasants increasingly shifted away from subsistence farming toward market involvement. By no means, however, did this commercialization of peasant farming make small cultivators prosperous, for with growing market involvement came both skyrocketing debt and growing vulnerability to economic fluctuations. Peasants went into debt to extend their holdings and to introduce new intensive methods of cultivation. Consequently, they perpetually owed money to land speculators, to insurers, and to the middlemen who marketed their products. Subsistence was not an issue in 1848; rather, by mid-century, peasant economic problems grew increasingly out of their commercial and financial difficulties. Thus, small cultivators, like their working-class compatriots, were open to an ideological appeal that promised a plausible means of severing their dependence upon those who possessed liquid capital. To this end, the democ-socs offered the peasantry an alternative society built on Christian moral values, unlimited credit, and democratized land ownership.

France's industrial situation resembled in many ways the agricultural one. During the first half of the nineteenth century the industrial sphere's façade of apparent stability hid major changes. Though this period registered few advances in technology, little growth in industrial concentration, and only a slight increase in the size of the labor force, industrial output expanded by 75 percent. This surprising development resulted almost entirely from the heightened exploitation of labor. Growing demand at home and intensifying competition caused by the extension of markets forced employers and master artisans to deepen the division of labor and resort to subcontracting in an effort to reduce costs of production. Such cost-cutting measures threatened artisans' skills and magnified alienation on the job. In some industries market expansion produced a situation in which commercial intermediaries known as merchant capitalists became the real employers of labor. It was they who assigned work, they who marketed finished products, and they who reaped the bulk of the profits. These merchant capitalists did not directly oversee production; they owed their economic position solely to the reserves of liquid capital that they possessed. As a result of these developments, master artisans who owned small workshops shared to an increasing degree the dependent status of wage laborers.

These threats to workers' skills and to the independence of master artisans made both groups receptive to a moral critique of capitalism that endeavored to bolster workers' dignity by fostering identification with a populist Jesus Christ. Skilled workers and master artisans refused to view labor as a commodity. And they ultimately turned to a democratic-socialist ideology that condemned the market system as immoral for its tendency to deny workers their individuality and to reduce their labor to just another salable good. As an alternative to wage labor, the democ-socs proposed to establish a system of producers' cooperatives, which would be founded with the aid of government credit and owned by groups of associated workers. In a process that might be labeled "collectivization from below" (see Chapter IV), cooperatist production would ultimately replace capitalist enterprise. This transformation, the democ-socs believed, would occur peacefully and result from the presumed ability of the cooperatives to outcompete their capitalist rivals. Ultimately, the exploitative system of wage labor would be replaced by a new economic edifice founded on the Christian tenets of fraternity and equality.

One of the salutary effects of recent work in French economic history is that we no longer measure French economic development by the traditional British yardstick. Maurice Levy-Leboyer, T. J. Markovitch, J. Toutain and others have shown that, despite inadequate coal reserves, slow mechanization in the textile industry, and lack of substantial industrial and agricultural concentration, the French economy grew considerably during the first half of the nineteenth century. Though no "take-off" period can be pinpointed, both industrial and agricultural production advanced more than twice as rapidly as population between 1800 and 1850. The important advances registered in commerce during the first half of the century testify to the growth in agriculture and industry. The tonnage of goods transported by road increased 34 percent between 1835 and 1851. Rail transport, just beginning in 1841, increased more than 1,000 percent by 1851. Personal travel advanced dramatically, as did postal communication.

In the industrial sector, small artisan workshops made the overwhelming contribution to the steady growth in the output of French manufactured goods. During the Second Empire artisans still made up more than three-quarters of the industrial work force, and the revenue from Artisan production was four times that of Industry. In the agricultural sphere, the regions of central and southern France, where small farms predominated, displayed the most spectacular increases in yields.

Given the slow pace of mechanization and the lack of agricultural and industrial consolidation, how did the French economy manage to grow so rapidly? The primary source of agricultural growth during the first half of the nineteenth century was a dramatic increase in the productivity of the land. Cereal yields grew by 40 percent between 1815 and 1850, and in some departments of central France grain yields doubled. Moreover, the joint effect of the vastly improved yields plus the creation of new arable land by drainage, conversion of pasture, and forest clearance resulted in a 70 percent growth in the amount of agricultural produce during the period. This agricultural progress occurred before more than a tiny section of the railroad network was in place, before the introduction of harvesting machines, before the use of chemical fertilizers, before modern ploughs had replaced the old araires, and before the scythe had overtaken the sickle as the main harvesting tool. French cultivators produced a kind of quiet agricultural revolution by skillfully using the resources available to them: abundant labor and intensive cultivation of their small plots.

The fundamental cause of the marked increase in agricultural productivity was the introduction of mixed farming after 1830. Stimulated by growing demand for agricultural products, especially in urban areas, and by the stepped-up efforts of agronomers, French cultivators began to plant such fodder crops as alfalfa, clover, and sainfoin on lands kept fallow under the traditional system of crop rotation. This substitution of planted meadows for fallow land both improved the prospects for successive crops by adding nitrogen to the soil and fed more livestock on a smaller space. Not only was the bigger and better livestock a benefit in itself, but the additional manure in turn enriched the soil. The improved soil produced better crops and better grazing, with the result that productivity spiraled upward. The introduction of mixed farming required little new capital investment and no new technology. It needed slightly more intensive labor, but the densely populated countryside was able to provide additional manpower without difficulty. Even the most modest peasants, therefore, could afford to switch to this new system of crop rotation during the two decades before 1850. Perpetually short of capital but endowed with ample manpower, French cultivators turned to mixed farming as the way to bolster productivity.

The impressive decline of fallow lands during the first half of the nineteenth century testifies to the extent to which farmers applied new agricultural methods. Between 1815 and 1850, some 2 million hectares — nearly 30 percent — of fallow lands were eliminated. At the same time, planted meadows advanced by 1.5 million hectares, registering a 100 percent increase. During the decade 1815-1824,35 percent of the land in the crop rotation system was left fallow. Two decades later the proportion of fallow had declined to 28 percent; by the 1850s it was down to 21 percent. Far from resisting innovation during the first part of the nineteenth century, French cultivators eliminated more hectares of fallow between 1815 and 1850 than they did in the second half of the century.

Do the aggregate figures cited above mask substantial regional differences? Recent French thèses on the social and economic history of particular regions, as well as the Agricultural and Industrial Survey of 1848 and the observations of mid-nineteenth-century commentators, permit a more precise analysis of agricultural growth in selected provinces. Since this study is fundamentally an inquiry into the "republicanization" of France in the immediate wake of 1848, it will focus on those regions that voted republican from 1849 to 1851. Illustrations of agricultural developments, therefore, will be drawn for the most part from the departments of the Center and the South.

In these regions, and, as Ted Margadant demonstrates so convincingly, in the South in particular, the structure of the economy would facilitate political links between artisans and peasants. Much of the industry of southern France was devoted to processing agricultural products. Thus any decline in demand for these goods affected both the peasants who grew the crops and the artisans who turned them into finished products. The situation was altogether different in the North. There economic crisis often triggered town/country antagonism, for the main agricultural crop was grain. After 1848 declining wheat prices harmed farmers and increased unemployment among agricultural laborers. But those reduced prices meant cheaper bread and thus benefited industrial workers, who enjoyed an increase in their purchasing power as a direct result of malaise on the farm. The mid-century crisis tended, therefore, to foster peasant-artisan solidarity in the South, whereas in the North it highlighted the conflicting interests of the agricultural and industrial sectors. For these and other reasons to be discussed below, the democ-socs were to find in the southern half of the country the more favorable terrain for their effort to build an alliance of peasants and artisans.

In the five departments of the Alpine region, agricultural output grew significantly between 1820 and 1851 owing primarily to the introduction of mixed farming. In the plains and foothills of the Drome, for example, planted meadows covered 5,000 hectares in 1833 and over 32,000 twenty years later. Grain output grew by 50 percent between 1800 and 1850, and the new fodder crops spawned a fivefold advance in the number of horses, mules, and cattle. Wheat replaced rye in many Alpine regions, and the potato crop increased spectacularly.

Both peasants and large landowners participated in this agricultural growth. In the flat regions of the Drôme and the Vaucluse, where agriculture showed the greatest progress, most communes comprised a handful of large owners (those who possessed more than thirty hectares) and a multitude of small proprietors (less than fifteen hectares). Domains larger than thirty hectares seldom represented more than 40 percent of any given commune in this region, and 75 percent of the plots were worked directly by their owner. Middle-sized properties (fifteen to thirty hectares) were rare. Large proprietors introduced new agricultural techniques and then quickly communicated them to the local peasantry, many of whom worked part-time for the large owners of their communes.

The improved grain yields registered during this period enabled peasants to devote less of their land to cereals designed for their own consumption and thus permitted them to reserve more acreage for cash crops. Contemporary observers noted that it was small peasants, rather than large landowners, who specialized in such cash crops as wine, silk, and, to a lesser extent, madder. The output of all three expanded rapidly during the first half of the century. Wine was just beginning its take-off in the mid-1840s. Madder output in the Vaucluse soared from 2 million kilograms in 1800 to an average of 20-25 million between 1848 and 1852. In the Drôme the value of raw silk advanced from under 3 million francs in 1811 to 15 million in 1848. Virtually all of the Drôme's 361 communes produced some raw silk by 1851, and silkworm production expanded in the Isère and the Basses-Alpes as well.

Accompanying this Alpine agricultural progress was an extensive subdivision of the land in which peasant property grew at the expense of large- and medium-sized domains. In the Isère, for example, large domains of fifty hectares or more lost 15.3 percent of their surface area between the date of the original cadastre (1820s and 1830s) and 1869. Medium-sized property (twenty to fifty hectares) declined by 18 percent, while small property (ten hectares or less) grew by some 23 percent.

Not only did subdivision of Alpine land ensure peasants a share of the era's agricultural progress, but it also contributed to that development. Most often, it was the least productive of the large and middling domains that were split up for sale to land-hungry peasants. The highly productive large farms, for the most part, remained intact during this period. The increasing cost of agricultural wage labor after 1830, the unpredictability of returns from sharecropping, the declining prices of most agricultural products, as well as the skyrocketing market price of arable land, were the primary economic factors that encouraged owners of relatively unproductive large domains to sell their land during the July Monarchy. Other factors included the attractions of city life and an unwillingness to commit time and energy to new agricultural techniques. Most often, these large owners sold their property to companies of land speculators who then made the terrain accessible to the peasantry by dividing the former domains into numerous small parcels and by allowing buyers to pay for their plots over a period of twenty to thirty years. The proud peasant owners of new lands immediately set out to turn previously uncultivated territory into productive farmland. By applying the new methods of mixed farming, they were able to improve vastly the output of lands cultivated by their former owners under the old system of crop rotation.


Excerpted from Populist Religion and Left-Wing Politics in France, 1830-1852 by Edward Berenson. Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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