[Book] Capitalism and democracy 1756-1848

Book review: Capitalism and democracy 1756-1848. How this deception began, by Josep Fontana.
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| 07/11/2019 | Last update:


The historian Josep Fontana left written before his death, in August 2018, his latest book “Capitalism and Democracy 1756-1848. How this deception began.” An overwhelming historical work, full of bibliographic references and fully accessible to an audience interested in knowing the historical facts but not necessarily experienced in reading specialized essays in history.

Professor Josep Fontana, born in Barcelona half a year after the proclamation of the Second Republic, in 1931, became a very respected historian in our country and abroad, especially in South America. His initial interests were focused on the analysis of the economic environment of the Spanish monarchy in the change between the end of absolutism in the Eighteenth century towards the Liberal State of the Nineteenth century. In this sense, Fontana was one of the top experts in the history of Spain in the 19th century. His importance within the historiography scene led him to co-direct a monumental work of Spanish history made by the best historians in the country.

As a historian deeply committed to anti-Francoism, he militated for a long period in the PSUC, the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia, although over the years he moved away. His Marxist convictions never abandoned him.

Fontana’s professional evolution led him, towards the end of his career, to be interested in more international issues. In 2011, this made to publish a monumental work dedicated to the Cold War, with the title “For the sake of the empire. A history of the world since 1945 (Editorial Pasado y Presente). Without a doubt, the 2011 book is a benchmark for any reader interested in going into a few years that, despite being still recent in memory, often have not finished yet to be interpreted in the most correct way. And it is a lesson for anyone interested in knowing how to study history correctly, since Fontana conducted an intense historical investigation based on documentary sources and an extensive bibliography.

Book cover
Book cover

The last work of Professor Josep Fontana, “Capitalism and Democracy 1756-1848. As this deception began” published in 2019, it means in some way for Fontana to return to the historical period to which he dedicated his first historical investigations, but now with a look beyond Spain, reaching a worldwide scope. It is a way to close a professional career that had just begun with research of that historical period, at the turn in between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A determining period for our present, because it is precisely there when the foundations of the capitalist system that today dominates the world were laid without prospects of being able to be replaced by a better alternative.

This is not a work that follows the classic canons of historiography, on the contrary, the reader will find a book that breaks many myths built over these two centuries. It is a work that goes against the triumphalism in which we are accustomed to living according to which the victory of capitalism against the previous political system, which has come to call the Old Regime, meant the almost automatic implementation of democratic systems throughout the world and overcoming past miseries.

It was not so, quite the opposite. For example, Professor Fontana explains that in France since the Revolution, and generally in Europe during the 18th century, the progress made by a large part of the peasant population (which was the majority) allowed for the improvement of the living conditions of many of them. Social and political advances scared the powerful classes, who quickly mobilized in France and across Europe to stop the feet of revolutionaries who all they wanted was to improve their living conditions.

Quickly, the aristocratic classes that controlled the political and economic system, the conservative forces that had always ensured that everything remained in a favourable situation for their interests, mobilized to prevent any opening of the system that was beneficial to the most marginalized and subaltern classes.

This is how is explained the counter-revolutionary wave, experienced throughout Europe after the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. The Congress of Vienna certified the turn, one more time, towards Absolutism and a life insurance for all the reactionary monarchies of the fact of that no revolutionary attempt would be allowed anywhere. And so it had been for at least a few years.

The revolutionary cycle opened in some parts of Europe in 1820, as is the case of Spain or Portugal, was quickly stifled by the forces of the Holy Alliance, created during the Congress of Vienna to prevent the triumph of any revolutionary movement. The revolutions of 1830 and 1848 did not mean the victory of the people over the ruling classes. Quite the opposite. When the bourgeoisie understood that it needed to dominate the levers of power to prevent any triumph of the popular classes, the bourgeoisie allied itself with the aristocracy to establish liberal parliamentary regimes that were not democratic, which served to underpin their class interests. And that is what happened after 1848.

Professor Josep Fontana
Professor Josep Fontana. Source: Wikipedia.org

From 1848 the bourgeoisie managed to stabilize the political and social climate everywhere. The triumph of the bourgeoisie was also the victory of Capitalism, which from the second half of the Nineteenth century could develop, expand throughout the world (through Imperialism) and ensure that the popular classes would never pose a threat to their interests.

As Professor Fontana recalls, the parliamentary liberal regimes that were established practically all around Europe, from England to the new reunited Germany and Italy or Spain, were not democracies, because although they had the appearance of open political systems, in the practice the vote was very restricted by various mechanisms (such as property titles or certain amounts of income, impossible for the working classes).

The expansion of Capitalism from 1850 was total. The bourgeois controlled governments and parliaments and could ensure the development of laws that benefited their interests in every aspect. Subaltern classes, the proletariat, did not benefit in any way. The living conditions of the working classes were, everywhere, of real misery, as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had shown in those years in their studies about the conditions of the English working class. And they did not improve, as has been repeatedly assured during this period. The Industrial Revolution did not bring happiness to the workers, all the contrary.

Was there an alternative to capitalism? Yes, as Professor Fontana shows us with historical sources. The alternative was found in those societies based on agrarian communitarianism prior to the advent of capitalism. In those communities, small farmers enjoyed the right to use public communal lands and certain services that were available to share for the common good of all the peasant community. The deception, for the countryside, began when the bourgeois appropriated these communal lands. The privatization of these spaces meant a significant reduction in the living conditions of the peasants, who no longer had the enjoyment of those lands that offered them small benefits. They were forced so to become proletarians, wage workers.

This is how in England, during the process known as the enclosures (a way of saying “expropriation”) communal lands, in the hands until that time of farmers, were privatized. England became in this way the first nation to industrialize: thanks to the benefits obtained by the privatization of the fields and having forced the proletarianization of the peasants obliged to emigrate to the cities to work in the new world of the fabric. In England the victory of capitalism was total.

In France, farmers’ resistance was greater and, only in part, the privatization process of the fields could be slowed down or limited. And that is why the implantation of capitalism in France was smoother.

Alternatives to capitalism, as Fontana shows us in this work, existed, but it frightened the powerful so much that they never hesitated at any time to resort to any kinds of violence to prevent the triumph of the popular classes in a supposed social revolution that never prospered. The French Revolution was an attempt, but the fear that aroused among powerful served to organize themselves to avoid new revolutions.

The organization of the working class was a reality at the time when capitalism triumphed, starting in 1848, thanks to the impulse of Marx and Engels, but also of other important figures of the labour movement. Organizational experience of the working class would lead to a new revolutionary attempt with the events of the Paris Commune of 1871, suffocated by blood and fire by the army.

Josep Fontana’s work, which is his testament for future generations, should serve us to approach a story that belongs to us and that has been explained inappropriately. Because the critical history that Professor Fontana has always practised and defended allows, in his own words: “to bring to light the hidden plot of policies aimed at favouring the development of capitalism, and that the academic narrative has obviated in its global story-telling of the events of a fundamental historical period.”

Reading and vindicating the figure of a great intellectual like Josep Fontana should serve to keep alive the fight for a more just, egalitarian world in which all people could enjoy decent living conditions. We will always have to be immensely grateful to Professor Fontana for his immense contribution to Catalan, Spanish and world historiography.

Work in Spanish: “Capitalismo y democracia 1756-1848. Cómo empezó este engaño” (Editorial Crítica, 2019).

The complete collection of this online course: Late modern History in Europe (19th and 20th Centuries)

Europe and the colonial world at the end of the 18th centuryThe Napoleonic era (1799-1815)The Congress of Vienna and the Restoration of the European orderSocial and economic changes on the 19th centuryLiberalism and nationalism in the 19th centuryThe Revolutions of 1820, 1830 and 1848The expansion of the great industrial capitalismBismarck’s Europe and the liberal nation-stateImperialism and colonial expansion in the 19th centuryWorld War I (1914-1918)Consequences of the First World WarThe new territorial map of interwar EuropeThe Revolutions of Russia (1917) and Germany (1918)The democracies of interwar Europe: Britain, France and GermanyFascism's rise to power in Italy[Book] Capitalism and democracy 1756-1848

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