To his great credit Louis Auguste Blanqui was jailed by every regime that ruled France between 1815 and 1880. John Westmoreland assesses his legacy
Blanqui was born on the 1st of February 1805 at Puget-Théniers, where his father was a civil servant. After studying law and medicine, Blanqui turned to politics and became convinced of the need for revolution.
Once Napoleon Bonaparte’s threats to the crowned heads of Europe ended, French political rule veered between Monarchism and Republicanism. The Catholic Church, the aristocracy and many peasants favoured the monarchy. Capitalists, artisans and workers favoured the Republic, but the capitalists, or bourgeoisie, proved to be unreliable in seeing off the relics of feudal government.
Blanqui was an unswerving Republican, but not for the same reasons as the bourgeoisie. He wanted a republic where the working class ran the show, and became more convinced of the worthlessness of the bourgeoisie at every turn.
The French working class wanted a social republic. The ‘social question’ dominated the politics of the left, and the working class wanted an economy that enriched society, ending the social devastation of the industrial, profit-driven economy.
As France industrialised, the working class gained weight and muscle. Like Marx and Engels, Blanqui came to see the revolutionary potential of the working class. He opposed class collaboration, and when asked his profession he replied, “Proletarian”.
Despite being in prison during the Paris Commune (1871) the Parisian workers nevertheless elected Blanqui twice to its ranks. Such was his standing among the Paris proletariat.
However, the Commune was to decisively end ‘Blanquism’ as a political force.
Action speaks louder than words!
Blanqui had little time for endless theorising and speculation. He believed in action.
Modern socialism comes largely from the French Revolution that began in 1789. Socialism was promoted by early thinkers as the highest form of reason. These ‘utopian socialists’ imagined a better world, but thought that the way to get there was through persuasion. The more beautiful pictures they painted of a socialist society, the more attractive they thought it would be.
They never saw the working class as important in bringing about socialism. In fact they preferred to appeal to the capitalists. Once the wealthy saw the beauty of socialism they would want to lead the way there. The workers would live in ideal communities designed by their betters.
Utopian thinkers dominated political criticism on the left. Blanqui encountered two schools of thought – the Communist idealism of Étienne Cabet, and the anarchism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. He rejected both of them thus:
“Communism and Proudhonism stand by a river bank arguing whether the field on the other side is maize or wheat; let’s cross and see.”
Blanqui was interested in propaganda only, “to expose in simple, clear, and precise terms why the people are unhappy and how they can cease to be so.” He founded a newspaper Le Liberateur to this end.
In place of revolutionary theory, which in fairness he did not reject, Blanqui insisted on courage and commitment.
Revolution by deed
The July Revolution of 1830 that overthrew the Bourbon king, Charles X, saw Blanqui issue a call to arms. It only takes a minute to read, and yet it gives us the essence of the man. He saw revolution in purely military terms. He assumed that all fellow republicans would have his commitment, and theoretical considerations were a sign of cowardice.
Blanqui was involved in two insurrections in the 1830s and was a constant critic of the regime of Louis Phillippe that had dashed the hopes of a republic. Blanqui was sentenced to repeated terms of imprisonment, and in 1840 was condemned to death, a sentence later commuted to life imprisonment.
Yet throughout it all Blanqui held the state in contempt, and never for one minute sought a compromise. He was released from prison briefly during the revolution of 1848 that demanded a republican constitution, but his radicalism soon got him sent back to jail.
The 1848 revolutions that shook Europe were led by the bourgeoisie but were fought for on the streets of all the urban centres of revolution by the arms of the working class. In the ‘June Days’ the workers of Paris fought to make the social republic happen, but it ended in slaughter.
The analysis of Engels sums up the rage he shared with Marx and Blanqui:
“As soon as the bourgeois republicans in control felt something like firm ground under their feet, their first aim was to disarm the workers … The government had taken care to have an overwhelming superiority of force. After five days of heroic struggle, the workers were defeated. And then followed a blood-bath of the defenceless prisoners.”
From his prison cell Blanqui condemned the reaction, signing his proclamations: “Auguste Blanqui, Dungeon of Vincennes”.
Marx and Blanqui wrote about many similar things but in different ways. Recent attempts have been made to show that some of Marx’s most important theoretical contributions were anticipated by Blanqui, albeit in a less nuanced and more simplistic form. For example, Blanqui declaimed about the despoiling of workers by capital, pointing towards Marx’s more developed analysis on alienation.
Other topics such as the need to smash the bourgeois state, the evils of wage slavery and the role of revolution in wiping away the ideological ‘muck of ages’ all suggest that there was much Blanquism in Marxism. However, looking at which of the two can claim primacy for their ideas is rather elitist. Marx’s analysis of alienation, for example, owes much to the workers in the British Chartist movement. And it is in the class struggle that theory is tested.
Marx’s writings on the Commune and elsewhere pay tribute to Blanqui’s contribution to the struggle, acknowledging that he was thought of by the Parisian workers as a true representative of their class. But the approaches of Marx and Blanqui to the centrality of the role of the working class as the agency of revolutionary change were completely different.
The key difference between Marx and Blanqui was that Marx saw the working class as a revolutionary force in and of itself. For Blanqui, revolution was about a revolutionary minority, organised in a military and inevitably conspiratorial fashion, taking over the power of the state and wielding it on behalf of the workers.
Paris 1871: the working class takes power
Between March and May 1871 the workers of Paris ran their city as a collective, democratic government of the workers known as the Paris Commune.
France had been effectively defeated by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian war. What kind of state would rule France after the peace was made? The republican dreams of 1848 had been thwarted and in its place the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte had declared himself Emperor Napoleon III.
Napoleon’s Second Empire was, as Marx said, rotten and corrupt. It had attempted to maintain itself on the illusion of national grandeur, but Bismarck had torn the veil from that. The fight for a social republic took on a new urgency to stop France reverting to another monarchy or an equally rotten bourgeois republic.
For Blanqui, as for all serious revolutionaries, great historical events require great deeds. Once the war against Prussia was all but lost Blanqui acted in line with his lifelong ideals.
On 2 September 1870, the French Emperor Napoleon III was defeated at Sedan by the Prussians. Two days later Parisian workers led by Blanqui invaded the National Assembly and demanded an end to the Empire. In the evening the Third Republic was proclaimed.
Blanqui immediately established the club and journal La Patrie en Danger. His instinct, and his experience in 1848, told him that the bourgeoisie would betray France again.
In late October the bourgeois Government of National Defence started negotiations with the Prussians. Revolutionary Paris was to be the target of French and Prussian reaction, besieged and starved until a ‘respectable’ regime could be installed. The bourgeois government was headed by General Trochu who governed for ‘God, the family and property’ only.
On October 31, Blanqui led a band of workers and seized the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) where they proceeded to set up their own revolutionary government. The Committee of Public Safety was headed by Blanqui but was dispersed by Trochu’s army. Blanqui had to flee to Bordeaux.
On March 17 1871, Blanqui was captured and thrown into jail. He was then sentenced to death again, but his life was saved by the declaration of the Commune in Paris just days later. Blanqui was unable to influence events in Paris but his followers elected him twice to the Commune in his absence as a mark of their respect.
Blanquism ended with the working class taking power in France.
The workers did not seek out a band of trusted leaders to tell them how to run Paris. They rejected the machinery of state that had existed to oppress them. They set up a system of democracy that was active and inclusive. They “lopped off”, in Marx’s phrase, the state institutions that had existed to disempower them, like the police and standing army.
As Engels put it:
“From the outset the Commune was compelled to recognize that the working class, once come to power, could not manage with the old state machine; that in order not to lose again its only just conquered supremacy, this working class must, on the one hand, do away with all the old repressive machinery previously used against it itself, and, on the other, safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment.”
The working class in Paris confirmed Marx’s theory of revolution. The Paris Commune was remembered when the workers took power in Petrograd in 1905 through their soviets. It was remembered by Lenin when he penned State and Revolution in 1917, on the eve of the Russian Revolution. The working class is at the centre of Marxism, and Marxism is the theory for the emancipation of the working class.
It is sad that the inspiration of the Commune was missed by Blanqui.
Blanqui was undoubtedly one of the heroes of the Commune era. He would have been put to death or transported at its suppression but for his health, broken by years of imprisonment. But after being released from prison he showed little sign that he had learned from the working class in revolution.
Blanqui continued with his agitation, and sought to establish that one true unit of really dedicated revolutionaries prepared to fight to the death. But after 1871 this was simply elitist. The revolutionary party that the working class required had to be built from the working class itself. Blanqui’s disregard for theory meant he carried on plotting insurrection in much the same way that he had throughout his life.
Fittingly Blanqui met his end speaking to a group of his followers in Paris, where he collapsed with apoplexy. He died in 1881.
Paris Commune 150
This year is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Paris Commune. Blanqui’s role should be recognised and celebrated as a class fighter and a hero. But in remembering the events of 1871, we should learn from the workers themselves.
This is incredibly important for us when politics is dominated by a snobby Oxbridge elite that despises us, and a Labour Party that is waving the Union Jack at us instead of fighting the Tories.
As the workers of Paris discovered, we don’t need them and we will never know what we can achieve until we get rid of them.
John Westmoreland will be speaking at Counterfire's event commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune on 21 March. Register here: tinyurl.com/ParisCommune150
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John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.
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