Ideas & Debates
Blanqui’s Politics of Revolution: An Interview with Doug Greene
In this interview, historian Doug Greene talks about Blanqui, his life and politics, and more. His new book, ‘Communist Insurgent: Blanqui's Politics of Revolution,’ will be out next month.
October 07, 2017
1. What attracted you the most about Louis August Blanqui? Why did you decide to write a book about him?
Even though I have two degrees in history, my interest in Blanqui did not develop from academic pursuits. In fact, I barely studied Blanqui when I was in school. I knew his name and a rough biography, but that was all. Rather, my interest in Blanqui occurred after active political involvement during the Occupy Movement in 2011-2012. Even though I considered myself a communist, I never had been really involved politically. Suddenly, I was in the middle of Occupy Boston as an active participant as a filmmaker, journalist, speaker, marcher, etc. Since this was my first real taste of political action, I had hopes that Occupy would go much further politically and bring on the revolution. I realize in retrospect that that was naïve, but I don’t regret those feelings or acting revolutionary in that moment, better to do that than to accept the confines of what the bourgeoisie consider “possible.”
Naturally, Occupy fizzled out and the big moment didn’t come. This left me with a number of questions: had this movement been in vain? How do you act and live as a revolutionary in a non-revolutionary moment? To answer these questions, I turned to the field I knew best: history. After some searching, I discovered the French revolutionary tradition, particularly Gracchus Babeuf. Babeuf was the first modern communist, active during the 1790s after the overthrow of Robespierre and the high-tide of revolution and reaction was setting in. However, Babeuf took communism out of the realm of speculation and made it into a political movement that struggled for power. As we now know, there was no way for Babeuf’s movement to win. What impressed me about Babeuf is that he pushed an event as far as it would go and pushed the boundaries of the impossible. Despite his failure, he accomplished a great deal and left a great legacy for future socialists and communists to carry on.
After writing a long essay on Babeuf, I realized that I had only touched on the beginning of the French revolutionary tradition and the next logical step was Louis-Auguste Blanqui. Blanqui was the most famous and prominent communist in France during the nineteenth century. [Blanqui] spent decades in prison for organizing revolutionary conspiracies to create a socialist republic. After several months of research, I began writing. I originally planned to write just an essay on Blanqui, since I reasoned that there couldn’t be much of a story on someone who spent half their life in prison. In the process of writing this essay, two things happened. One: I realized that I had a lot more material than an essay, but was writing a book. The second thing that happened is that I fell in love with Blanqui. Originally, I dismissed him as just an elitist conspirator.
Blanqui had his faults and limitations, but he got more than a few things right. He recognized that you don’t appeal to the ruling class, you fight them. For him, there was no reconciling the interests of the oppressed and the oppressors. Although his chosen road to power by a coup d’etat was wrong, he gave serious thought of the strategies and tactics needed for an insurrection to conquer power – something both Lenin and Trotsky acknowledged of Blanqui. And there is something else about Blanqui, despite every defeat and imprisonment, — he never gave up but remained courageous in his commitment, dedication, and fidelity to the communist ideal. To me, that made Blanqui’s story one that was worth telling.
2. Whatever criticisms we raise about Blanqui, one cannot deny his perseverance and revolutionary zeal. Can you tell us a bit about his encounters with the law and his many times in prison?
One of Blanqui’s nicknames is “L’Enfermé,” which means “the imprisoned one.” So his existence was practically synonymous with prison. From 1830 to almost the end of his life in 1881, Blanqui organized underground organizations with the stated intention of overthrowing the existing French state. This naturally placed him in direct conflict with the powers that be, who considered him an enemy. For Blanqui, the feeling was mutual. When Blanqui’s coups failed, as they always did, he was caught and thrown in jail for armed insurrection and treason.
There was a long tradition on the French republican and revolutionary left of turning the tables on the accusers that Blanqui excelled at. When Blanqui was placed on trial in 1832, he used the courtroom as a tribune to declare war on the ruling class on behalf of the proletariat. As he said: “I am accused of having told thirty million French people, proletarians like me, that they had the right to live. If that is a crime, then it seems to me at least that I should only respond to those who are not parties to the very question they are judging.”
His time in prison is pretty much what you would expect. French prisons in the nineteenth century possessed terrible conditions and his health nearly shattered several times. He organized with the prisoners and had family on the outside who helped smuggle him information or tools to escape.
Perhaps the most touching story for me occurred in 1844, after Blanqui spent several years in the notorious prison of Mont-Saint-Michel and near his death. The Orleanist Monarchy feared that the death of one of their most vocal opponents would create a martyr, so to prevent that, Blanqui was pardoned. However, Blanqui refused the pardon and said he preferred the solidarity of his inmates. He was granted a pardon and recovered, but remained under police surveillance until 1848. I think the remarkable thing about this story is that it shows you the type of man he was. He refused to compromise his revolutionary principles to the very end. It’s no accident that Marx said Blanqui was “the brains and inspiration of the proletarian party in France."
3. The term "Blanquism" is frequently used as an epithet meaning ’extremist’ or ’putchist’, which means the overthrow of a regime by a small minority of people. How fair are these judgements of Blanqui?
They’re largely true. Without getting into specifics, Blanqui did see the ideal of revolutionary organization as represented by a hierarchical organization composed of trained and dedicated cadre ready to strike on the appointed day. Blanqui inherited this conception from other underground anti-Bourbon and republican groups such as the Carbonari. Blanqui perfected this mode of organization throughout his long career.
However, I think it’s important to ask another question: what was the alternative for him? It’s true that Blanqui did not organize mass or democratic proletarian parties like those of the later French Marxists. The simple reason is that the working class was still in embryo in France and those type of organizations were forming at the end of his life.
Blanqui lived under several different monarchies or dictatorships who did not tolerate any form of dissent and protected the interests of aristocrats. While he did engage in open agitation, it was only briefly and brought arrest. When Blanqui said “The state is the gendarmerie of the rich against the poor” he was not exaggerating. Open agitation for reform, let alone a socialist republic, would lead to long terms in prison if not execution. If Blanqui wanted to be a political activist, he had to operate underground if only to ensure organizational survival. Blanqui did not establish links with the people because doing so could have fatally compromised the movement by allowing the police to identify and round up revolutionaries. It was better in his conception for revolutionaries to stay hidden until the day came to strike.
Blanqui did not live in an era with limited democratic freedoms. He did not see a republic in France until he was 43 years old. In 1848, Blanqui did use the freedom offered under the Second and Third Republics to form democratic organizations, holding open meetings, printing newspapers, running candidates, etc. Still, Blanqui did not forget that even a republic, unless it was controlled by the workers, served only the bourgeoisie and all freedoms gained remained under threat. In 1848, he warned the people of the threat of counterrevolution. He turned out to be right about that considering that the workers of Paris were massacred during the infamous June Days and the subsequent rise of Louis-Napoleon and the Second Empire.
4. Sometimes, Blanqui is referred to as a master of tactics, but not ’strategy’. Would you agree on this?
In the First Words of Common Sense: A Closer Look At Blanquism, I discussed a great a deal of the merits of Blanquist military strategy and tactics. I will say that Blanqui was an expert at street fighting: he knew the importance of learning the terrain of battle; how and where to place barricades; and how to organize the people. He gave detailed instructions on barricade construction and knew the importance of taking key strategic installations and even set up a new provisional revolutionary government. All of Blanqui’s tactics were studied closely by revolutionaries, such as Connolly, Lenin, and Trotsky.
However, Blanqui was not very adept at strategy and theory. Blanqui believed that the success of the revolutionaries depended solely on the perfect development of a conspiratorial organization. So it was largely a technical question for Blanqui. He had no theory, such as Marxism, to provide detailed study of the objective factors needed for revolutionary success or to identify allies, plan strategy, and decide when conditions had grown ripe for revolution. His conspiracy was cut off from the working class by design, so they had no role to play in their own liberation.
Basically, everything that Blanqui got wrong; Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks got right. They had a revolutionary party that championed the demands of the workers and peasants to win a majority for socialism. The Bolsheviks used Marxist theory to understand the objective conditions and when the best moment came to take power. I won’t say much more on the supposed connection between Blanquism and Leninism, except to say that I have written on it elsewhere (here) — and that if the Bolshevik Revolution was actually Blanquist, it would have failed.
5. What are the key differences between Marxism and Blanquism?
Before answering, I want to briefly state a few of the similarities between the two. Both Blanquism and Marxism are products of the Enlightenment and strive to fulfill the promises of the French Revolution. Although, Blanqui was more an eighteenth century rationalist influenced by Holbach and Diderot, whereas Marxism’s philosophy derived its roots from Hegel and his dialectic. Both Marxism and Blanquism committed to the liberation of the working class, the revolutionary seizure of power and the creation of a communist society.
Without repeating points made above on the differences between Marxism and Blanquism, I will just tell you the single most important difference between the two. For Blanquism, liberation comes from a small elite conspiracy who act in place of the working class. By contrast, Marxist politics are centered on the self-emancipation of the working class. Marxists believe that the liberation of the workers does not come from saviors, whether benevolent reformers or virtuous conspirators. Whereas Blanqui considered a revolutionary dictatorship to be ruled by a conspiracy because the people were too ignorant to rule on their own behalf, for Marxists the dictatorship of the proletariat is the rule of the workers as a class or democracy for the vast majority. In Blanquism, there was no room for the working class self-emancipation, whereas Marxist politics is inconceivable without it.
6. Who would you say today inherit Blanqui’s political legacy?
This is an interesting question because there is no organized Blanquist movement anywhere in the world today. Blanquism in France lasted barely ten years after Blanqui’s death. By 1900, Second International Marxism was on the ascent and Blanquism as an organized force died out.
However, “Blanquism” as an insult for extremist “ultra-leftist” revolutionaries remains. The person largely responsible for this was the German revisionist socialist, Eduard Bernstein. In his “Evolutionary Socialism” (1899), Bernstein wanted to “update” and “revise” Marxism to purge it of all revolutionary elements in order to make it a reformist theory. Bernstein believed that the young Marx and Engels, particularly in the “Communist Manifesto,” had been infected by “Blanquism.” As Bernstein said: "In Germany, Marx and Engels, working on the basis of the radical Hegelian dialectic, arrived at a doctrine very similar to Blanquism." That was no accident since Hegelian dialectics, as Marx recognized, were revolutionary (although not Blanquist). Bernstein was using “Blanquism” as a stand-in to condemn any and all advocacy for socialist revolution. Later, Communist Parties followed Bernstein by using the pejorative of “Blanquist” to attack critics to their left, who dared to be revolutionaries.
Trotsky put it best when he said: “The revisionists label the revolutionary content of Marxism with the word Blanquism, the more easily to enable them to fight against Marxism.” What the left critics of Blanqui hate about it is not its vice, but his virtues – revolutionary courage, uncompromising fidelity to communism, and thinking seriously about how to win. The true inheritors of Blanqui’s political legacy are the many different currents of communists and revolutionaries across the world – whether the Bolsheviks, Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartactist League, James Connolly’s Citizen Army, Che Guevara, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party, or today’s fierce militants - who stay true to his spirit.