Louis Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881) was a French socialist whose conspiratorial breed of revolutionary politics has a complex and controversial relationship with Marxism.
Born in Puget-Théniers in south-eastern France, Blanqui studied law and medicine, but gave it up for active politics. Joining the secret Carbonari society in 1824, Blanqui was involved in republican conspiracies during the reign of Charles X. He took part in the 1830 July Revolution which saw the fall of the Bourbon monarchy and the elevation of Louis Philippe of the House of Orléans to the French throne.
Blanqui became involved with the Amis de Peuple society, which provided an important link to Jacobin-communists of the generation involved in the French Revolution. Among its leading members was Philippe Buonarroti, a veteran of the Conspiracy of Equals of 1796.
The conspiracy was a planned proto-communist insurrection against the Directory regime. It failed, having been thoroughly infiltrated by the police, but represented the last gasp of the radical egalitarian wing of the French Revolution.
Buonarroti’s account of the conspiracy, published in 1828 (and translated by the Irish-born Chartist leader Bronterre O’Brien in 1836), had a profound impact on Blanqui’s conception of revolution. It was, as Hal Draper has argued, one of the first texts grappling with the problem of the “transitional revolutionary regime” — with the political arrangements immediately following a revolutionary overthrow of the existing system of government.
Blanqui’s answer to this problem was a sort of “educative dictatorship”, which he described as a “plan to replace the existing government by a revolutionary and provisional authority, constituted in such a way as to forever shield the people from the influence of the natural enemies of equality, and give it the necessary will for the adoption of republican institutions.”
This is a pure distillation of “socialism from above”. The people, living in a society corrupted by poverty and degradation, were not yet able to create for themselves an egalitarian social republic. They must therefore be guided and educated by a revolutionary elite of “wise and courageous citizens” who would seize and wield power over them.
In this perspective the mass of the people were relegated to the position of barricade-fodder.
In many ways, this was one of few choices available to those who wished to realise a form of communism in the face of the under-developed productive forces and social classes of eighteenth-century France.
However by the mid-nineteenth century this conception of revolution became outdated. The rapid growth of capitalism was creating an increasingly combative working-class. Already in the 1830s France saw widespread revolt by silk weavers (the “Canut revolts” of 1831 and 1834). In the decade after the 1838 “People’s Charter” a tremendously strong working-class movement for political reform would rose up.
In Germany in 1844, a revolt of weavers spread from Silesia to embrace large parts of the country. In the Chartists’ newspaper The Northern Star, Engels wrote: “It is from the very heart of our working people that revolutionary action in Germany will commence...The movement of the proletarians has developed itself with such astonishing rapidity, that in another year or two we shall be able to muster a glorious array of working Democrats and Communists...”
Learning from these events Marx and Engels imagined and argued for a different conception of revolution— as a crowning moment of class struggle, based on the growing organisation and consciousness of the working-class. Symbolic of the growing popularity of this new conception was the merger of the League of Just — alongside which Blanqui had organised an insurrection in 1839 — with Marx and Engels to form the Communist League. It took as its programme the Manifesto of the Communist Party, which identified the cause of the Communists with that of the working-class, to the extent that Communists “have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.”
For Blanqui, for the rest of his life, revolution remained synonymous with violent insurrection by a minority. Arrested in 1840, he was released after the revolution of 1848. Continuing his attacks on the new republican régime, he was arrested against in 1849, and once again in 1865 under the Empire of Napoleon III.
Though elected President of the Paris Commune in 1871, Blanqui was prevented from taking an active part in the world’s first workers’ government, having been arrested by the government of Adolphe Thiers shortly before it was established. He would die of a stroke on 1 January 1881.
Blanqui was a brave and uncompromising revolutionary, which put him at odds with many republicans and reform socialists of his day. His concern for the revolution itself over and above the form of society which would follow from it, distinguished him from the Utopian Socialists who had blueprints for a better future but thought the revolutionary overturning of existing society unnecessary or undesirable.
Yet his elitist conception of revolution was different from the emphasis on working-class self-emancipation central to the socialism of Marx and Engels. Engels summed up the difference, writing in 1874 that:
“Blanqui is essentially a political revolutionist. He is a socialist only through sentiment, through his sympathy with the sufferings of the people, but he has neither a socialist theory nor any definite practical suggestions for social remedies. In his political activity he was mainly a ‘man of action’, believing that a small and well organised minority, who would attempt a political stroke of force at the opportune moment, could carry the mass of the people with them by a few successes at the start and thus make a victorious revolution...”
“...From [this] follows of itself the necessity of a dictatorship after the success of the [revolution]. This is, of course, a dictatorship, not of the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of the small minority that has made the revolution, and who are themselves previously organized under the dictatorship of one or several individuals.”
When Marxists speak of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” it is not of an individual or of individuals, but of a class, organised through its democratic organisations, i.e. workers’ councils. In the same sense that capitalist democracy is the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”, a workers’ state under socialism, embodying the political rule of the working-class, would be the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
A “Blanquist” organisation, the CRC, continued after Blanqui’s death. It eventually merged with the Marxist POF in 1902 to form the PSF, which in turn merged into a broader unified Socialist Party, the SFIO, in 1905.
After the death of Marx and Engels a myth of the identification of Marxism and Blanquism thrived. Eduard Bernstein advocated a “revisionist” reformist doctrine which initially presented itself as a “new and improved” Marxism; to do this he sought to use the myth of Marx’s alleged Blanquism to explain away Marxism’s revolutionary content. Charges of Blanquism were leveled at the Bolsheviks by the Russian Mensheviks.
Part of the task renewing revolutionary and democratic Marxism is studying the real history and clearing away the half-truths and mystifications heaped upon it by generations of falsifiers.