Before Marx, there was Blanqui; born 212 years ago today. Below, historian Doug Enaa Greene — author of the forthcoming Specters of Communism: Blanqui and Marx — surveys the life and thought of the French radical. In Spring 2018, Verso will publish a collection of Blanqui's writings.
Karl Marx claimed that Louis-Auguste Blanqui was the “man whom I have always regarded as the brains and inspiration of the proletarian party in France.” Although largely forgotten today, there was a time when revolutionaries throughout the world viewed this nineteenth century French political prisoner as a central figure and hero of revolutionary socialism. In this time of so much political backsliding and compromise, it is worth looking at the life of Blanqui.
Blanqui is slowly making a resurgence, and was the subject of a recent academic conference at Kingston University. For 50 years of Blanqui's life, he organized multiple conspiracies and launched a half-dozen insurrections to topple the rule of capitalism and inaugurate a socialist republic. He paid the price by spending half of his life in prison.
Auguste Blanqui was born into a middle class family on February 1, 1805 in Puget-Theniers. His father Jean Dominique was a former Girondist who had suffered during the Reign of Terror, but was now a Napoleonic prefect. His mother Sophie was loving and devoted to her son. The Blanqui family's stability and status abruptly ended in 1815 as the First French Empire was overthrown. Ten-year-old Auguste's fiery French nationalism was first stirred at the sight of foreign soldiers in his home.
Despite the change in fortunes, the family still had enough money to send Auguste and his elder brother Jérôme-Adolphe (later a famed economist) to the finest schools in Paris in 1822. While immersed in his studies of law and medicine, Auguste encountered the revolutionary movement for the first time. In September 1822, he witnessed the public execution of four members of the underground anti-Bourbon movement known as the Carbonari. Watching them on the scaffold, Blanqui learned to hate a society that would murder four good men to protect the powerful and the privileged. Then and there, he vowed his fidelity to the revolutionary cause — an oath he would never break.
While Auguste gained an apprenticeship in the Carbonari, he also continued his studies. Growing tired of the Carbonari, he became a student organizer. The underground did not pay, so Auguste supplemented his income by working as a tutor. In 1825, he fell passionately in love with Amelie-Suzanne Serre, a talented painter. Her conservative middle class family disapproved of the young radical, but the couple married anyway in 1834. The two were absolutely devoted to each other and Amelie-Suzanne always supported her husband.
Blanqui became a journalist, but found many of his colleagues were unable to translate their republican words into action. Blanqui knew that it would take force to oust the monarchy. When students demonstrations with the army erupted in Paris in 1827, Blanqui was in the thick of street-fighting and was gravely wounded. Thanks to his mother's care, Blanqui managed to make a full recovery. Yet the events of 1827 left a lasting impression on him: he had witnessed not only the valor and heroic spirit of the people, but the cowardice of the liberals.
This lesson was reinforced in 1830 during the July Revolution that finally toppled the Bourbons. Blanqui was in the thick of the “Three Glorious Days” of barricade fighting and the rattle of gunfire. Blanqui hoped that the workers and ordinary people would now see their triumph rewarded with a republic and social justice. Yet the liberal bourgeoisie, who had not even taken part in the fighting, robbed the people of their victory. They did not want a repeat of the Jacobins. The crown was passed to Louis-Philippe from the House of Orleans. The July Revolution had only exchanged one monarch for another while the lot of the workers remained just as wretched.
Blanqui would not let this betrayal stand. It was not enough to change the man who sits on the throne; everything that supported aristocratic privilege needed to be undone. Blanqui knew this required a second, more thoroughgoing, revolution: "The Republic means the emancipation of workers, it’s the end of the reign of exploitation, it’s the coming of a new order that will free labor from the tyranny of capital."
Blanqui organized with radicals and the republican opposition, but it was not long before he was arrested. When placed on trial in 1832, Blanqui spoke for the rights of the working class:
I am accused of having told thirty million French people, proletarians like me, that they had the right to live... As for our role, it is written in advance; the role of accuser is the only one appropriate for the oppressed.
After a year in prison, Blanqui returned to his revolutionary work, and organized two secret societies with hundreds of working class members, one of which was broken up by the police. Blanqui was too extreme for most republicans since his organizations wanted communism and were willing to resort to arms to seize political power in Paris. Once the insurgents had power, they would establish a revolutionary dictatorship that would accomplish two things: defend the poor against the rich and educate people in the virtues of a new society. After these twin tasks were completed, the dictatorship would give way to communism.
On May 12, 1839, after several false starts, Blanqui’s Society of Seasons launched their insurrection in Paris by seizing several key buildings. For a brief moment, it seemed that a new republic was about to be born. But, there was one fatal flaw in Blanqui's conception of revolution: the masses played no role in their own seizure of power. The revolt was crushed and Blanqui went into hiding, to be captured a month later.
Blanqui was sentenced to a lifetime of imprisonment in the fortress of Mont-Saint-Michel. His conditions were deplorable: prisoners could not properly sit nor stand in their cells; vermin was everywhere, and it was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. The real tragedy came in February, 1841, when he learned that his wife passed away. He remained motionless for days and contemplated suicide. For the rest of his life, he wore black gloves as a sign of mourning Amelie-Suzanne.
The legend of Blanqui began to grow. Knowledge of the conditions at Mont-Saint-Michel were made public. In 1844, prison took its toll on Blanqui's health, and he lay dying in his cell. To avoid creating a martyr, Louis-Philippe pardoned him, but Blanqui responded defiantly to stay in prison and not abandon his comrades.
He was granted clemency anyway and miraculously survived his illness. In some ways, Blanqui remained a prisoner, since he was under constant police surveillance. He was finally freed in 1848 when the Orleanist monarchy fell as the working class of Paris took to the barricades.
Overjoyed, Blanqui hastened to Paris. He was determined that the workers should not be cheated of their victory by the bourgeoisie. Events were to prove Blanqui correct: the liberals did not want a social revolution. He knew that it would only be a matter of time before the reactionaries regrouped.
Blanqui spoke at public rallies in Paris on the need for socialism. Karl Marx knew that Blanqui was the inflexible symbol of communism in France, declaring: “the proletariat rallies more and more around revolutionary socialism, around communism, for which the bourgeoisie has itself invented the name of Blanqui.” Members of the ruling class who saw him speak, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, believed he was the incarnation of unbridled radicalism that needed to be kept in check. De Tocqueville said Blanqui's appearance “filled me with disgust and horror. His cheeks were pale and faded, his lips white; he looked ill, evil, foul, with a dirty pallor and the appearance of a mouldering corpse... he might have lived in a sewer and just emerged from it.”
As conservative opposition to the Republic mounted, many of Blanqui's followers clamored for action. On May 15, despite Blanqui's objections, a demonstration at the Chamber of Deputies turned into a coup d'etat to create a new radical government. But the coup was disorganized and its organizers were arrested. The real tragedy was that in the June Days tens of thousands of Parisian workers rose up, but there they had no leadership or organization. The workers fought heroically against all odds as the army was brought in and massacred them.
After this defeat, Blanqui wrote a “Warning to the People.” He counseled workers not to trust those who were unwilling to fight the ruling class: “What shoals threaten the revolution of tomorrow? The shoals that shattered yesterday’s: the deplorable popularity of bourgeois disguised as tribunes.”
The bourgeoisie did not put up a fight, but welcomed the rule of Louis-Napoleon. In 1851, Louis-Napoleon crowned himself Emperor Napoleon III, ending the brief reign of the Second Republic. Although Blanqui was sentenced to another prison term of 10 years, he remained determined to fight on. In 1859, Blanqui was released from jail following another royal amnesty. This was bittersweet since his mother had died the year before and he remained under close watch by the police. A year later, the Emperor manufactured trumped up charges against Blanqui and had him arrested. When Blanqui confronted the prosecutor again, he did not ask for mercy, but proclaimed that he was still at war:
Prosecutor: “This proves that despite twenty-five years in prison you have held the same ideas?"
Blanqui: "Quite so."
Prosecutor: "Not only the same ideas, but to see their triumph?"
Blanqui: "I shall desire it until death”.
Another jail cell awaited Blanqui. Radical opposition to Napoleon III was emerging among young students in the Latin Quarter. These students looked upon Blanqui — the “Imprisoned One” — as a legendary man of action and vision unlike the liberal opposition.
The students eagerly listened to the old man's lectures on revolution and atheism. Blanqui could not lead a revolution from behind cold bars, however. In 1865, his young followers arranged his escape and smuggled him across the border to Belgium. Blanqui sensed that a day of reckoning was coming for Napoleon III: workers were going on strike and the opposition was finding its voice. Napoleon could see the writing on the wall, and in a last ditch effort to save his empire, he declared war against Prussia in the summer of 1870.
The moment had come to strike. On August 14, 1870, the Blanquists launched a coup in the suburbs of Paris. After some brief skirmishes, the coup collapsed. Less than a month later, the war against Prussia saw France decisively defeated at the Battle of Sedan. On September 4, the Second Empire came to an ignominious end when a Third Republic was proclaimed in Paris.
Blanqui rallied support for war against Prussia in his newspaper La Patrie en Danger arguing that only a levée en masse and the creation of a revolutionary regime could defeat the enemy. Based on his experience, Blanqui knew that the bourgeois leaders of the Republic were more afraid of the working class at home than of the invading Prussians. On October 21, 1870 Blanqui took part in another coup to provide leadership that the Republic sorely lacked. The coup did not last and the Republic placed a death sentence on Blanqui, who was forced to go into hiding. Sure enough, the Republic signed a humiliating peace treaty with Prussia in early 1871 and prepared to confront the armed workers of Paris.
On March 18, the Paris Commune — the first workers' state — was proclaimed and civil war began. In a cruel twist of fate, Blanqui had been captured the day before and missed the revolution which he had spent a lifetime working for. Despite the great social advancements of the Commune, it lacked an effective leadership and military force required to fight the counterrevolution. Blanqui's followers believed that he could provide that leadership and attempted to free him. At one point, they offered all 74 hostages in their possession in exchange for Blanqui. Adolphe Thiers, leader of the Third Republic refused. Marx remarked that this was a wise choice for Thiers since “He knew that with Blanqui he would give the Commune a head.”
Blanqui remained in solitary confinement and suffered in silence as tens of thousands of Communards, including his devoted followers, were slaughtered in May 1871. The conditions of his latest imprisonment were as bad as ever. He awaited death each day. His health was failing. Blanqui even wondered if his whole lifetime had been a waste. In 1872, he wrote an extended treatise on astronomy, Eternity by the Stars, attempting in part to answer that question. In this work, he argued that despite the vastness and multiple worlds of the cosmos and the crushing weight of objective conditions, space could still be created for revolutionary action.
Despite dark times in France, the socialist and labor movements revived. Radicals wanted amnesty for the thousands of Communards languishing in prison and exile. They centered their amnesty campaign around Blanqui — the imprisoned symbol of revolution. Mass demonstrations were held across the country and Blanqui was nominated and elected as a deputy in Bordeaux in 1879. Blanqui's election was invalidated by the Republic.
The Republic could see which way the wind was blowing and finally released Blanqui from jail: thirty-seven years of imprisonment came to an end. Blanqui picked up where he left off: giving speeches, editing a newspaper Ni Dieu Ni Maitre and organizing for the revolutionary cause. On December 27, 1880 after delivering a speech in Paris, Blanqui suffered a stroke and passed away five days later. At his funeral, an estimated 200,000 mourners followed his coffin to Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Even those who disagreed with Blanqui could not deny his commitment to socialism. His life was devoted to overthrowing capitalism without compromise.
Doug Enaa Greene is an independent Marxist historian and writer living in the greater Boston area. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Specters of Communism on Louis-Auguste Blanqui, published by Haymarket Books."