State Repression 19 Century

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Did the state capacity for repression grow as rule became more consensual in the period 1815-1914?

It is possible to define political repression in broad terms. Robert Justin Goldstein refers to the denial of all sorts of liberties, for example, the removal of freedom of speech, press and assembly, as well the right to vote. Repression has usually been carried out against a group that has opposing, negative or dangerous views in the eyes of those in power. It is important to note that this repression could take both violent and non-violent forms, an example of the latter being the restriction of suffrage on the basis of class or wealth. Pierre-Jules Baroche, a prominent French minister, demonstrated this in the middle of the nineteenth century, when he stated that “universal suffrage, left without guidance to contend with local passions, might become a real danger”. Thus, repression did not always involve dramatic or bloody use of physical force. As a topic, state repression and its relationship with the rise of general consensual rule spans many wider issues of the period. These themes include the interplay of rival political ideologies, industrialisation, the rise of mass politics, social change and reform, class conflict and revolution. There is perhaps a distinction to be aware of between ‘the state’ and its position in the wider ‘government’ of nations. It is helpful to apply Weber’s definition of the term, which perceives a centralised organisation, with a legitimate “monopoly of violence”. As more governments derived their power from the people, this potential for repression can paradoxically be seen to have increased. But in actuality, it appears to have been little used and overshadowed by the greater freedoms that were gained in the period.

It is possible to divide the period up chronologically, to draw out the rate and extent of changes over time. The years 1815 to 1850 went largely in favour of the status quo, with repression being used in a more or less traditional way, to ensure politics remained the preserve of a certain elite. From 1850 to 1870, this was beginning to change, with the upper middle classes more involved in government and repression focus on the lower echelons of society. In the final years from 1870 to 1914, the rise of mass politics, parties and the ability of the lower classes to bring about change, suggests that repression had become much more limited. In the first instance, this brief chronology reinforces the fact that repression interacted with the nature of government and other political forces, for example mass political movements. It remains questionable whether repression, or more precisely the struggle against it, actively influenced the gradual increase in the size of the politically active population, or whether other factors were more important and the decline of repression was more of a symptom that locomotive of change. Indeed, the key turning points of the period coincided with the revolutions of 1848 and the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war. Such events were clearly influential on the development of government and the use of repression. For much of the period though, it was the case that repression was strong, gradually declining over time whilst consensual government built, but only in the latter phase from 1870. Nevertheless, already the boundary between potential and actual repression has been breached. Whilst there was a decline in actual repression, the capacity of the state to repress was rising continually. The first phase from 1815 to 1850 began with a restoration of the status quo after the upheaval of the 18th Century, with plenty of examples of repression. It ended with the success of repression being much more questionable, and building demands and hopes for reform. Successful repression can be seen from 1819 to 1921, when various tensions throughout Europe boiled over into open revolt. In France, the cause was the aftermath of the Revolution, and attempts by...
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