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French Revolution

A barricade erected in Paris during the French Revolution.

The Bloody Eighties was the name given to various uprisings and civil disorders that occurred throughout Europe and North America in the early 1880s.

Causes of the Crisis[]

In his chapter on the period, Sobel writes that most of the crises involved had roots extending into the 18th century and beyond. In Sobel's view, western industrial society had been the creation of capitalism, and was held together by businessmen, bankers, managers, and the like, fueled by engineers and scientists, explained by philosophers and professors, and glorified by believers in a new cult of progress who took some of their ideas from the biological discoveries of Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin.

However, this society was constructed on a feudal foundation, and side-by-side with the men and institutions of the 19th century were individuals whose lives and values were those of an earlier period. These people distrusted the complexities of capitalism, and would destroy the machines, laboratories, and chanceries of Europe and America if given the chance.

Erich Neiderhoffer

German economist Erich Neiderhoffer.

Meanwhile, alongside the progressives and reactionaries, there were reformers who sought to change the feudalistic foundations of society in order to better equate social forms with economic reality. These included Erich Neiderhoffer, who called for gradual purchase by workers of their plants, so that "no one would be an exploiter, everyone would be an exploiter," Leon Martell, who thought that a political union of producers could exert sufficient strength to force governments to be responsive to the needs of workers and marginal farmers, and Karl Marx, who believed that workers would need to develop a greater class consciousness and then unite to destroy private ownership and form a government of their own in which "the materials of life belong to all who live." Other responses to the crisis included the nationalism of Otto von Kelsing and the religious fundamentalism of Waldo Turner.

Sobel contrasts three different varieties of industrialized societies. First, the aristocratic monarchies of Europe, where nobles allied themselves with businessmen, and an increasingly smaller number of people were receiving an increasingly larger reward from the economy, while most of the workers received only a bare subsistence. Second, the Confederation of North America, where a genuine reformism could be found in the union movement, in politics, and in local and national governments, and where a chonic labor shortage led to high wages, giving workers a genuine stake in the system. Finally, the United States of Mexico had at once "the most imposing superstructure and the most rotten foundation in the western world." Sobel cites both the Moralistas and the growing power of Kramer Associates and Petroleum of Mexico as symptoms of the U.S.M.'s problems.

The French Revolution[]

Louis XX

King Louis XX of France.

Sobel gives the proximate cause for the crisis in the Franco-German War of 1878 - 1880. A series of German victories led to the loss of France's overseas possessions and the occupation of France by two German armies. This resulted in a loss of legitimacy by the French monarchy, and in November 1879 Paris experienced a series of spontaneous riots. King Louis XX abdicated in favor of his son, Louis XXI, but this failed to quell the disturbances, and on 25 December a mob seized and executed the royal family, setting off the French Revolution.

German troops entered Paris on 27 December and attempted to restore order, but within days two regiments of the occcupying army had joined the rioters, and by mid-January 1880 the invading army had become demoralized and radicalized. The French Revolution spread to the Germanic Confederation, then to the Austrian Empire, and then to the Italian kingdoms. By February every capital in Europe except London and St. Petersburg was reduced to anarchy. In Germany and Great Britain the conventional political system was able to absorb the revolutionary protest, while in Russia the backwardness of the population and the loyalty of the army kept the unrest in check until 1888. But in France a socialist government was established in Paris that was able to gain control of the rest of the country, while a royalist faction under the exiled pretender Charles X led to a civil war, a pattern that was repeated among the other continental nations.

The disorders finally reached Russia in 1888, when uprisings occurred in St. Petersburg and Moscow, which the Tsar's government believed to be the work of French radicals. Nicholas II ordered his secret police to put down the insurrection, and over the next five years over two million Russians were put to death by the police or the army, while another 80,000 were sent to Siberian prison camps in the Kamchatka Peninsula.


Senator Carlos Concepción.

The U.S.M. had been suffering from growing social upheaval since the divisive 1875 Mexican elections and the Moralista guerrilla movement of Senator Carlos Concepción. By the time the wave of anarchy struck Europe in 1880, President George Vining had already established the Constabulary and begun suppressing the Moralista uprising. In the C.N.A., Governor-General John McDowell had reacted similarly, transforming the Confederation Bureau of Investigation into a national police force aimed at combatting subversive activity. At the same time, the recently-established People's Coalition continued to gain support as the country's people became more radicalized, displacing the Conservative Party as the official opposition in the 1883 Grand Council elections.


The insurrections created economic chaos, so that standards of living declined sharply everywhere, with Austria and the Italian kingdoms suffering the worst deprivations, while Britain and Germany had the fewest problems. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people fled persecution from revolutionaries or reactionaries, some entering Spain, Switzerland, and Scandinavia until those countries closed their borders.

50,000 middle-class Frenchmen were allowed to settle in Ireland, along with 65,000 Germans, Austrians, and Italians. Hundreds of thousands of poor Russian peasants, many of them Jews, crossed into the Ottoman Empire, and some eventually found their way to North Africa. Some Germans migrated to Iceland, and a few to Greenland. There was large-scale migration of Italians to South America, especially to Brazil and Argentina. 47,000 Dutch fled to the Cape Colony in South Africa, reinforcing an already thriving settlement. Some migrants from the Netherlands, France, and Italy went to Australia and New Zealand, while others settled in Kenya and Uganda, and some 10,000 Londoners settled in Bermuda, the Bahamas, and other British possessions in the Caribbean.

The largest emigration from Europe was to the C.N.A., which received 1.5 million European immigrants between 1880 and 1882. Most attempted to settle in Manitoba, but many settled in the eastern confederations, and a few in the Fowler region of Northern Vandalia. Immigration into the C.N.A. was temporarily halted in 1882 by McDowell. 100,000 Europeans also settled in the U.S.M. until Chief of State Benito Hermión closed its borders.

Sobel's sources for the Bloody Eighties are Erich Neiderhoffer's My People, My Life (London, 1890), Waldo Turner's Utopia Across the River (New Jerusalem, 1903), Julius Carter's The People Want Bread!: A History of the People's Coalition (New York, 1937), Ferdinand Rainy's Nicholas II and the White Terror (New York, 1955), Malcolm Hershkovitz' Socialists and Society (New York, 1960), George Schultz's The Great Migration: The Dispersion of the 1880s (London, 1963), Robert Grady's The Age of Neiderhoffer (New York, 1965), Thomas Irwin and Donald McLean's Manitoba: Athens of the North (New York, 1966), Zelda Carmichael's The Flames of February: Europe in the Winter of 1880 (London, 1967) and In the Wake of the Red Witch: Reform in Europe in the 1880's (London, 1970), and Frank Wilkerson's Reaping the Whirlwind: The Crisis Philosophers of the Late Nineteenth Century (London, 1970).

This was the Featured Article for the week of 6 January 2013.

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