The Historical Memory and Legacy of Louis-Auguste Blanqui

Doug Enaa

The left is plagued by a lack of strategy or vision. We seem to be stuck within a treadmill of activism and hyperactivity while nothing changes around us. And when election time rolls around in the United States, we are told to “shut up” and vote for some “lesser-evil” Democrat. Yet electing a Democrat never creates space for radical movements; rather it only pulls radicals to the right and to accept the politics of the possible. None of this is revolutionary; it is the politics of NGOs and liberals.

Those of us who object to these dead ends and demand a revolutionary politics are derided as “ultra-leftist” or “Blanquist.” “Ultra-leftism” and “Blanquism” are just slurs that conservative “leftists” throw at revolutionaries who dare to question their “rules of the game.” Yet the methods of reformers have mitigated to only a very slight degree the exploitation of workers in the first world, they have not altered the underlying class system in the centers of imperialism, and they have joined forces with imperialism to enforce the horrors of capitalist exploitation across the world.1

In that light, we should not run from Blanquism, but look at it anew: Louis-Auguste Blanqui was the committed enemy of reformist and utopian solutions to the contradictions of capitalism, and recognized that the only way to overcome them was by communist revolution. To that end, he took seriously questions of strategy. And when reformers and revisionists attacked Blanqui and later communist revolutionaries, it was not just for his real weaknesses, but for his strengths. Despite his deficiencies as a theorist, Blanqui understood there will never be a revolution, if communists don’t prepare forces in non-revolutionary times by creating a revolutionary organization. Furthermore, he possessed a keen grasp of insurrectionary tactics and daring needed for communists to take power.

I. Louis-Auguste Blanqui

Yet who was Louis-Auguste Blanqui? What gave this man such moral stature that Adolphe Thiers, in 1871 the leader of the counterrevolution in Versailles, refused the offer of the Paris Commune to trade all their prisoners for just Blanqui because "He was worth an army corps."

Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805–1881) was one of the most revered, dedicated, and uncompromising communist revolutionaries of the nineteenth century. He had participated in five abortive revolutions from 1830 to 1870. Every French government, monarchist or republican, since 1830 had seen fit to lock Blanqui up, hoping to silence his uncompromising voice of class war. As Karl Marx observed, Blanqui was a symbol of terror to the capitalist class and the beacon of hope for the working class: “the proletariat rallies more and more around revolutionary socialism, around communism, for which the bourgeoisie has itself invented the name of Blanqui.”2 Each coup failed. Blanqui emerged from jail each time, and despite his failures, his sights were set on the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a communist republic.3 Yet, while Blanqui’s comrades fought and died heroically for the Paris Commune, Blanqui himself was not there. He had been arrested on March 17, 1871—the day before the Commune was proclaimed—for his participation in a coup attempt against the French Republic the previous October. Blanqui had spent his entire life preparing for a revolution but wound up missing his chance.

Blanqui’s revolutionary strategy to achieve this end was decidedly simple: a secret conspiracy, highly organized in a hierarchical cell structure and trained in the use of arms and the clandestine arts, would rise up on an appointed day and seize political power. Once the revolutionaries had power, they would establish a transitional dictatorship that would do two things: serve as a police force “of the poor against the rich” and educate the people in the values of a new society. Once these twin tasks were completed, the dictatorship would give way to a communist society.

In discussing the thought of Blanqui, one would look in vain throughout his work for a well-developed revolutionary theory. He was a widely read man, but an eclectic thinker. He had no conception of dialectics or modes of production and a rather superficial understanding of economics. His method to seize power by an elite conspiracy failed spectacularly time and time again. He was not a theorist, but above all a man of action. Even in the darkest prison cell at the most hopeless moments, when everything appeared lost, he was always plotting escape and ready to resume the struggle.

Blanqui recognized that the rule of capital appeared all-powerful and the people apathetic, but he questioned this appearance: “Judging by the people’s current state of mind, as things stand communism is not exactly knocking at the door. But nothing is so deceptive as a situation, because nothing is so changeable.”4 While the reforming socialists of Blanqui's day recognized that class division, they shrank from the implications of that acknowledgment. By contrast, he stated the facts plainly: “We should not conceal from ourselves the fact that there is a war to the death between the classes that compose the nation.”5 For Blanqui, it was clear that only one of the two fundamental classes in French society – the bourgeoisie or the proletariat – could rule. He laughed off cries for reconciling classes by stating: “There is no third flag, no middle term. The juste milieu is a nonsense, a bastard government whose efforts to give itself an air of legitimacy elicit nothing but laughter.”6 Since he believed these contradictions just needed a spark to ignite them, Blanqui was willing to throw himself into battle at the earliest opportunity.

Blanqui’s view, as expressed in his Eternity by the Stars and other writings, was that even when the objective conditions are overwhelmingly stacked against revolutionaries, there is room for a revolutionary act – by pushing events in the direction of communism. The revolutionary will to fight and win against insurmountable odds can unveil previously unseen roads to communism. And these roads are not given in advance but are revealed in the course of struggle. Walter Benjamin’s remark is on point: “The firm resolve to snatch humanity at the last moment from the catastrophe looming at every turn is characteristic of Blanqui – more so than of any other revolutionary politician of the time. He always refused to develop plans for what comes ‘later.’”7/p>

Blanqui believed that progress was the advance of enlightenment over ignorance, atheism over religion, science over superstition, and association and cooperation over individualism. He disavowed theories of progress that justified the existing order and the reign of the bourgeoisie. He said: “All the atrocities of the victors, their long series of attacks are coldly transformed into a regular and ineluctable evolution, like that of nature.”8 If the rule of the bourgeoisie was in line with progress, then the fate of the poor was something natural that should be accepted. This, Blanqui could not and would not accept. The only way to realize progress was through revolution.

His approach to revolution is therefore voluntaristic. At times he puts almost superhuman faith in the ability of arms and organization to achieve revolution, regardless of the objective circumstances. He wrote after the 1848 revolution, “Arms and organisation, these are the decisive elements of progress, the serious means of putting an end to destitution!”9 And elsewhere he claims that revolutionary insurgents motivated by an idea are superior to a better-armed adversary:

In the popular ranks, the situation is very different. There, they fight for an idea. There, they are all volunteers who are motivated by enthusiasm, not fear. They are superior to their adversary not only through devotion, but even more so through intelligence. They have the moral and even the physical upper hand as a result of their conviction, vigour, and resourcefulness, their vitality of mind and body; they combine stout hearts with clear heads. No troops in the world are equal to these elite men. 10

There is certainly a truth to all this as revealed in revolutions throughout history. As he said,

Revolutions desire men who have faith in them. To doubt their triumphs is to already betray them. It is through logic and audacity that one launches them and saves them. If you lack these qualities, your enemies will have it over you; they will only see one thing in your weaknesses -- the measure of their own forces. And their courage will grow in direct proportion with your timidity.11

Blanqui's ethic is - if you lack the will to win – developing the needed strategy to take power and putting it into action - or hesitate in carrying out what the revolution demands of you, not only will you lose to the enemy, but you are a traitor to the cause you claim to serve.

Blanqui had no theory to analyze a revolutionary situation and plan accordingly. And his organization did not rely on the masses but was divorced from them. None of this mattered to him because “the duty of a revolutionary is always to struggle, to struggle no matter what, to struggle to extinction.”12 He was willing to fight a seemingly hopeless battle when the conditions were not ripe. A well-developed theory guided by revolutionary practice is needed in order to win. Lacking this theory, Blanqui relied on the same failed methods of struggle, which in the end could produce only a tragic hero and not a successful revolution.

Despite all this, Blanqui did understand the qualities that were essential for revolutionary militants to achieve victory. The Commune was wracked by infighting and petty jealousies, which Blanqui deplored. In an 1852 letter he wrote, “If by that you mean personal hatred, envy and the rivalries caused by ambition, I join you in condemning them; they are one of the scourges of our cause....the truly political man takes no notice of these hindrances and advances straight ahead without worrying about the stones that are scattered along the path.”13 Rather, the collective as opposed to the individual must take precedence in revolutionary struggle.

Blanqui had seen many battles on Parisian barricades end in defeat and rivers of blood. In 1868, in preparation for another revolutionary effort, he wrote his mature views on street fighting, Instructions for an Armed Uprising. Blanqui had a thorough knowledge of the methods of street fighting, but he neglected the role of the masses in their own liberation and thus the whole political side of an insurrection. On the other hand, he understood the importance of organization: “Enough of these tumultuous uprisings, with ten thousand isolated individuals, acting haphazardly, in disarray, without any thought for the collective, with everyone in their own corner and following their own whim!”14 Organization, coordination, and concern for the larger picture would replace disorder, randomness, and individualism. This was the lesson that was not taken up by the Paris Commune.

Blanqui believed that revolutionaries should not play the game of parliamentary politics. As he said in 1848, “the Republic would be a lie if it were to be nothing more than the substitution of one form of government for another. Changing words is not enough, we must change things. ”15 And that change could only be accomplished with a violent revolutionary rupture: “But a France bristling with workers in arms means the advent of socialism.”16 Those revolutionaries who refused to consider the necessity of force shrank from the logic of what the revolution demanded and were cursed by Blanqui as digging the graves of the working class. For Blanqui, he who wants the end must desire the means.

What if Blanqui had been present at the Commune? Could the outcome have been different? He had a number of followers, who had formed under his leadership during the Second Empire of Louis-Napoleon. The Blanquists were trained in the art of conspiracy, committed to establishing a radical republic, and the armed overthrow of the old order. Yet it would have been difficult for Blanqui to bring together his supporters, who were disoriented two failed coup attempts and by his “critical” support for the French Republic in September and October of 1870.

Blanqui had been writing for the journal, La Patrie en Danger, which argued for a more vigorous prosecution of the war against the invading Prussians—such as by way of a mass conscription and establishing a revolutionary regime in the manner of the Jacobins. Eventually Blanqui turned against the government (which was more interested in putting down the workers of Paris than fighting the Prussians) and participated in a failed coup attempt in October 1870.17 Yet his initial support for the Third Republic had a detrimental effect on his party. As the Blanquist Gaston Da Costa argues, “We cannot say this often enough: since the besieging of Paris by the Prussians, the Blanquist party had sent its men into the battalions of the National Guard, and in doing so lost all cohesion…. Blanqui’s cry of ‘the fatherland in danger,’ as meritorious as it was, was also a disintegrating factor for the revolutionary forces it disposed of until then.”18

Although Blanquists held several leadership positions within the army of the Commune, they did not act as a cohesive organization. Without Blanqui at the helm, they were incapable of acting effectively and decisively during the Commune. There was no one in their ranks who was able or willing to push for a first strike against Versailles, when there was a slim chance of success. Thus, the Blanquists lost their chance to take military leadership of the Commune in the opening days of the revolution.

Yet if Blanqui had been present, would he have been unable to overcome the factional divisions, take leadership, and organize a successful military strike against Versailles in the opening days? The French historian, Maurice Dommanget, author of innumerable works on Blanqui, speculates how he could have proved decisive if present at the Commune:

With his organizational and military abilities, with his lucidity, the prestige that was attached to his name, Blanqui would rapidly have become the leader and the spirit of the insurrection. Jaclard believes that he would have the necessary resolution and sufficient authority to command the march on Versailles on March 19, this would obviously change the face of things.19

We can only guess on what effect the presence of Blanqui would have had on the Commune. It is true that Blanqui had little military experience beyond conspiratorial organization and street fighting, but then again, how much training did Leon Trotsky have when he organized the October Revolution and the Red Army? Or Mao Zedong when he launched the Autumn Harvest Uprising? Still history shows that daring and courage are not always enough to compensate for a lack of experience. That may well have been the case with Blanqui. Most histories of the Commune, whether Marxist or not, do not believe that the Commune could have succeeded considering its own manifold disorganization and the forces arrayed against it. It is likely that Blanqui's role would have promoted “more energetic combat and inspiring moral courage.” But as the historian Patrick Hutton reminds us, “there is a point at which the call to courage becomes a temptation to fantasy. In clinging to a myth of the Commune's enduring viability in the face of its obvious failings, the Blanquists passed the frontier into that imaginary land wherein they could fulfill the aspirations of their aesthetic reverie free from the intrusion of harsh realities.”20

The Blanquist Raoul Rigault placed almost miraculous power in Blanqui to overcome all the odds, stating: “Without Blanqui nothing could be done. With him, everything.”21 While this statement could be dismissed as just wish fulfillment by Rigault, there were those beyond the true believers, such as the Communard Minister of War Gustave-Paul Cluseret who believed that he could have provided the necessary political leadership to overcome the divisions which plagued the Commune, which in turn would have facilitated a more effective military response: "If Blanqui was in Paris he might save the Commune. He would have taken the political conduct of affairs into his own hands, and have left me free to devote myself to the military defence of Paris. Accustomed to discipline, he would have disciplined his people, and would have allowed me to discipline mine."22 Interestingly, the Trotskyist Ernest Mandel also suggests that Blanqui could have had a decisive impact on the Commune:

Thiers refused [to release Blanqui], demonstrating the extent to which the French bourgeoisie feared the organisational and leadership capacities of the great revolutionary, and the impact his political gifts could have had on the outcome of the civil war.23

If Blanqui had managed to avoid arrest on March 17, what would he have done at the Paris Commune? What follows can only be pure speculation. Based on what we know, Blanqui would have argued for a first strike against the routed and demoralized forces of Versailles. The brief window of two weeks before Versailles reorganized their army in early April was the one time when the Commune had a clear military advantage.

Assuming that Blanqui was able to lead the Commune to victory over Versailles, this would have only been the beginning of their struggles. Here we continue the speculation informed by Blanqui’s prior advocacy. A triumphant Commune would have to win over the rest of France. There were other communes in France in 1871, but they were revolutionary islands surrounded by a hostile countryside and peasantry opposed to the “Reds” and continued war. If the Commune held onto power, they faced a prospect of renewed war with Prussia, which could be even bloodier. They would need win over enough of the general staff and although many of the officers may oppose the Red Revolutionaries, they may support a new government committed to doing everything possible to achieve victory. Perhaps, Blanqui's Commune would become a “French Yenan” - a liberated zone which rallies the people in arms against a foreign invader. Yet the needs of fighting a war would mean that those alternative voices for social change such as radical workers, Proudhonists and Internationalists would likely be drowned out (or silenced by a new Committee of Public Safety?). It seems unlikely that the Commune's advanced social ideas would survive the grim trial of war, assuming France prevailed at all.

Any victory for a Blanquist-led Commune would not have been a triumph for the socialist aspects of the Commune. Blanqui and his followers saw the Commune as a repetition of the Paris Commune of 1793, and not as the beginning of modern socialist politics. As the Blanquist Da Costa argues in retrospect, what they aimed to do if they had power in the Commune was establish “a military dictatorship with the aim of defeating the Versaillais, to have a national convention named, and to continue the war.... We didn’t want to concern ourselves with parliamentary organization, administration or socialism.”24 Had the Commune triumphed militarily under the leadership of the Blanquists, its victory would have harkened back to the Jacobin dictatorship of 1793 and likely snuffed out its socialist elements. A victory for the Commune perhaps, but a Pyrrhic one.

II. The Legacy of Blanqui

Blanqui’s followers, largely radical students, workers and communist Jacobins, embraced a myth rather than looking at the real limitations of his conception of revolution: his elitism, his conspiratorial organizations divorced from the masses, his lack of a theory to analyze social contradictions, identify allies, plan strategy and decide the right moment to strike. There was an eerie fatalism to Blanqui's worldview that the time was always ready to strike, regardless of the underlying conditions. To that end, Blanqui threw himself into hopeless battles. Ultimately, the movement did not survive Blanqui's passing as a revolutionary force, as it became devoted to commemorating a cult of revolution. Blanquism was unable to survive as a viable revolutionary force in an era where the working-class practiced mass politics, something successfully taken up by the newly-emerging Marxist parties of the Second International. Within a generation, Blanquism had shattered into proto-fascists on the one hand and reformist-leaning Marxists on the other.25

By the turn of the twentieth century, Blanqui and Blanquism had been largely forgotten in the socialist movement. The Second International, while claiming to be committed to a revolutionary transformation of society, in actuality followed a reformist practice. They replaced revolutionary praxis with a fatalistic view of the “inevitability” of socialism that was more akin to dogma and religion. The reformist elements of the Second International believed that through the slow and steady accumulation of reforms and parliamentary seats, socialism could be obtained without insurrection. Blanqui and Blanquism, with their revolutionary ethos, were anathema to this gradualisic conception of socialism. As Walter Benjamin observed:

The subject of historical cognition is the battling, oppressed class itself. In Marx it steps forwards as the final enslaved and avenging class, which carries out the work of emancipation in the name of generations of downtrodden to its conclusion. This consciousness, which for a short time made itself felt in the “Spartacus”, was objectionable to social democracy from the very beginning. In the course of three decades it succeeded in almost completely erasing the name of Blanqui, whose distant thunder had made the preceding century tremble. It contented itself with assigning the working class the role of the savior of future generations. It thereby severed the sinews of its greatest power. Through this schooling the class forgot its hate as much as its spirit of sacrifice. For both nourish themselves on the picture of enslaved forebears, not on the ideal of the emancipated heirs.26

That would seem to be the end of our story with the replacement of Blanqui by more “sensible” politics. Yet that was not the case. Blanqui remained a phantom who haunted the revisionists and reformists. They sought to exorcise all elements of “Blanquism” from within Marxism in order to justify their abandonment of revolution and communism and their acceptance of the capitalist order. The end result of Second International reformism was not an easier road to socialism, but support for “their” ruling classes and the slaughter of World War I. The revisionist Eduard Bernstein went so far as to claim that Marxian dialectics was a symptom of Blanquism: "In Germany, Marx and Engels, working on the basis of the radical Hegelian dialectic, arrived at a doctrine very similar to Blanquism."27

Blanquism was not just attacked by people like Bernstein, but by the seemingly revolutionary communists of the Soviet Union. For Stalin, Blanqui was one example of “proletarian leaders who were leaders in times of storm, practical leaders, self-sacrificing and courageous, but who were weak in theory. The names of such leaders are not soon forgotten by the masses.” Yet this generous appraisal of Blanqui then dismisses him as someone without relevance for the current phase of revolution and class struggle. “But the movement as a whole cannot live on reminiscences alone: it must have a clear goal (a programme), and a firm line (tactics).”28 In other words, honor the dead, but the time for revolutionary storms has passed and we need to get down to “business as usual.” Later, an important Soviet textbook, Scientific Communism, described Blanqui as a “utopian communist” in order to more easily dismiss him.29 Yet Blanqui was the opposite of a utopian, declaring: “Let us concern ourselves with the present day, for tomorrow does not belong to us...our only obligation is to ready good materials for the building of that tomorrow, the rest does not lie within our capabilities.... Communism must abstain from straying into utopian byways and must never diverge from politics.”30

But there was a time when the Soviet Union took revolution seriously and did not fear the stigma of “Blanquism.” The Comintern's 1928 manual Armed Insurrection, answered Bernstein and the Second International's accusation of “Blanquism” as follows: "Bernstein, in his time, accused Marx of Blanquism. Today it is the entire Second International which accuses the Communist International of Blanquism, and equates Blanquism with communism. In slandering the communists in this way, the social democrats represent Blanqui, the committed revolutionary of the past, as a petty-bourgeois fanatic."31 However, this was followed in the USSR by the exhaustion of its revolutionary energy and the growth of conservative tendencies. As the Soviet leadership sought accommodation and peaceful coexistence with the bourgeois west, talk of insurrection became a nuisance and an embarrassment. The pro-Soviet Communist Parties, once considered bastions of world revolution, began to see the wisdom of the “peaceful transition to socialism” – a “socialism” free of storm and struggle, a “socialism” without the messy intrusion of the masses onto the stage of history, a “socialism” that came with the smiling stamp of approval from a bourgeois parliament. Any militants who dared to break with the “politics of the possible” soon found themselves denounced as “Blanquist” or “ultra-leftist” by the guardians of “Marxist-Leninist” orthodoxy.

We can find a few voices in the ossified Communist movement aligned to Moscow who refused to dismiss Blanqui. Generally, they were militants who remained revolutionaries such as André Marty, leader of the Black Fleet Mutiny of 1919, head of the International Brigades in Spain, and who, in 1944, believed that the French Communists could have made a bid for power as opposed to settling for seats in a bourgeois cabinet. No doubt, leaders of the French Communist Party remained uneasy at those such as Marty in their ranks. And Marty's embrace of Blanqui should not be seen just as upholding a great fighter for the working class, but perhaps as a (not-so) veiled critique of the conservative leadership of the PCF. “But what the bourgeois socialists never forgave Blanqui for was his denunciation of their class collaboration and class betrayal.”32 For Marty, Blanqui was to be praised for his dedication to communism, and for his clarity in recognizing the class struggle and the necessity for a revolutionary dictatorship. At the time Marty was uttering these words in 1951, the PCF had already abandoned these virtues of Blanqui. Perhaps it is no accident that the PCF attacked Marty's position on Blanqui and then expelled him within a few years. For the French Communist Party, there was no room for revolutionaries in its ranks who would object to their embrace of elections, parliaments, and backroom deals and their support of colonialism.

By contrast, socialists and communists in the Third and Fourth Internationals, down to our own time, have always been slightly “Blanquist” when thinking about how to make a revolution. Oscar Perez Solis, one of the founders of Communist Party of Spain, asked his comrades: “Will it not be necessary... on top of all the rhetorical discussions and academic theses now inundating our [Party], that the socialist movement fill itself with the spirit of Blanquism, and that we all be, practically speaking, a little bit Blanquist?”33 The weaknesses of Blanqui and Blanquism were never denied and minimized, rather he was to be taken seriously: for his rejection of fatalism and recognition of the radical openness of history; his willingness to struggle against the odds; his unapologetic and uncompromising revolutionary communism; thinking seriously and without illusion about what it would take to win. Whatever faults Blanqui possessed, for revolutionaries, those were not among them. Yet when revisionists condemned revolutionaries for “Blanquism,” it was not to attack its vices, but its virtues. As Trotsky declared: "The revisionists label the revolutionary content of Marxism with the word Blanquism, the more easily to enable them to fight against Marxism."34

For the socialists of the Second International, the “march of history” was a slow development of the productive forces that would inevitably lead to socialism without breaks, leaps or ruptures. Rather than being an unmitigated good, capitalist progress was a storm (to use Walter Benjamin's metaphor) that not only brought with it great advances in technology, production, medicine, etc, but also the horrors of colonialism, fascism, religious fundamentalism, and environmental devastation which ultimately threaten the human species. “There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism. And just as it is itself not free from barbarism, neither is it free from the process of transmission, in which it falls from one set of hands into another.”35 Instead of waiting for the “march of progress” to take its course, which could bring humanity to ruin, Blanqui organized a collective will to overthrow the old order. Daniel Bensaïd and Michael Löwy, two Trotskyist admirers of Blanqui put it:

He certainly did not have the answer. Nonetheless, he put his finger on the essential fact that a new legal order is not conceived in the continuity of the old legal order. There is no authentic revolution without rupture, without passing through a state of emergency, without suspending the old laws, without the sovereign exercise of the constituent power.36

Indeed, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was condemned in many “orthodox” Marxist circles as “premature.” Yet the revolution occurred in the midst of the destruction of World War I that had created an opening to leap beyond the old decrepit order of capitalism. Lenin and the Bolsheviks took advantage of this opening, mobilizing the masses to make a revolutionary leap and establish socialism. The revolutionary situation that came was unexpected and broke with the “laws of history.” Yet revolutions, while having their roots in history and societal contradictions, appear as unexpected and unpleasant events to even the most dedicated revolutionaries. A revolutionary party needs to prepare itself to take advantage of them. As Trotsky observed:

History does not work in such a way that, first, the foundation is laid, then the productive forces grow, the necessary relations between classes develop, the proletariat becomes revolutionary, then all of this is kept in an icebox and preserved while the training of a Communist party proceeds so that it can get itself ready while 'conditions' wait and wait; then when it's ready, it can roll up its sleeves and start fighting. No, history doesn't work that way.37

Blanqui himself would have recognized that the revolutionary path is not given in advance, but is shown in the actions of those ready and willing to fight:

No! No one has access to the secret of the future. Scarcely possible for even the most clairvoyant are certain presentiments, rapid glimpses, a vague and fugitive coup d'oeil. The Revolution alone will reveal the horizon, will gradually remove the veils up the roads, or rather the multiple paths, that lead to the new order. Those who pretend to have in their pocket a complete map of this unknown land - they truly are the madmen.38

III. Contemporary Relevance

We live in a similar moment to those of past revolutionaries, where the left has lowered its horizons as to what is possible and remains in a treadmill of activism, attending protest upon protest with no long-term vision or strategy of how to bring their ideas to life. Their dreams of 'revolution' are really reforms which amount to little more than the slightly modified capitalism. To think beyond this to what it would mean to envision a revolutionary challenge and “how we would win?” is to be dismissed as a lunatic at worst or a utopian at best. Yet Blanqui, like the revolutionaries who came after him, recognized that thinking sincerely and without illusion about strategy and toppling the capitalist order is to risk fierce condemnation by the practitioners of politics as usual:

But suppose that a man who is sincere, who puts aside this fantastic mirage of programmes, these fogs of the kingdom of Utopia, who leaves the domain of fiction so as to return to reality – suppose such a man makes a serious and practical statement: ‘Disarm the bourgeoisie, arm the people, this is the primary requirement, the sole guarantee of the salvation of the revolution.’ Oh! Then indifference vanishes; a long howl of fury echoes from one end of France to the other. There are cries of sacrilege, of parricide, of hydrophobia. Anger is stirred up, unleashed against this man; he is damned to the infernal gods for having modestly spelled out the most basic words of common sense.39

However, once we utter the “first words of common sense” and break with reformist illusions, this opens us to really thinking about strategy and tactics. The contemporary Marxist philosopher Peter Hallward has highlighted the strategic side of Blanqui as important in developing a political will. The concept of “political will” or dialectical voluntarism as developed by Hallward is not synonymous with unthinking action. By dialectical voluntarism, Hallward means “the will of the people,” which is a “deliberate, emancipatory and inclusive process of collective self-determination. Like any kind of will, its exercise is voluntary and autonomous, a matter of practical freedom; like any form of collective action, it involves assembly and organization.”40 And this means we need to think about politics in terms of strategy, winning and losing. We must think seriously and strategically about the forces we are up against. And if we want to win, we need to develop the forms of organization that can mobilize a collective will, maintain themselves, and challenge the forces of the ruling class. Blanqui correctly realized this when it came to the necessity of armed struggle, even if the specific means he advocated were found wanting in his practice.

While armed struggle is not the only form of revolutionary struggle, it is an indispensable one. Blanqui understood that the objective of any revolution had to be the seizure of state power. And he was under no illusions as to the means. As he recognized, to deny the use of arms is not to pursue a peaceful or bloodless road to socialism. To preach disarmament is ultimately to dig the grave of revolutionaries since they will be powerless to resist the capitalist system, which will not hesitate to crush any challengers. As Blanqui argued, and as subsequent history from Russia, China, Cuba, Yugoslavia, and Vietnam and elsewhere proved, the use of arms is the only way to power.

These words of “common sense” preached by Blanqui – that communists had to focus on the seizure of state power and to develop the revolutionary means to do it – have always been condemned by revisionists as “Blanquist.” Revisionists such as Bernstein could never conceive of “taking power” other than by a “democratic” vote of 50% plus one, with no disruptions or convulsions and perfectly in line with the laws of history. They abhorred the violent seizure of power as something “premature” and breaking all the established rules of the game. Rosa Luxemburg recognized this in her polemic with Bernstein:

Here we have the essential difference between coups d’etat along Blanqui’s conception which are accomplished by an "active minority" and burst out like pistol shot, always inopportunely, and the conquest of political power by a great conscious popular mass which can only be the product of the decomposition of bourgeois society and therefore bears in itself the economic and political legitimisation of its opportune appearance. If, therefore, considered from the angle of political effect the conquest of political power by the working class cannot materialise itself "too early" then from the angle of conservation of power, the premature revolution, the thought of which keeps Bernstein awake, menaces us like a sword of Damocles.41

Lenin concurred with Luxemburg, noting that “The basic question of every revolution is that of state power.”42 And as a revolutionary Marxist, not a Blanquist, he accepted the required means: “The supersession of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution.”43 While accepting that violence was ultimately the only way to deprive the bourgeoisie of power, Lenin understood that this meant utilizing a variety of tactics, but he also understood that there were sudden eruptions of leaps and events that can blast through history. As he recognized, the party could not be in control of all events, and it would be some unknown subterranean fire or spark that could provoke the revolution:

We have spoken continuously of systematic, planned preparation, yet it is by no means our intention to imply that the autocracy can be overthrown only by a regular siege or by organised assault. Such a view would be absurd and doctrinaire. On the contrary, it is quite possible, and historically much more probable, that the autocracy will collapse under the impact of one of the spontaneous outbursts or unforeseen political complications which constantly threaten it from all sides.44

Lenin knew that while it is true that no plan of battle survives contact with a revolutionary event, at the same time, the party which has the ability to systemically plan will be able to lead a revolution to victory. For Lenin, a revolutionary party which is able to plan well, using the dialectical tools of Marxism, will be better able to respond to the unexpected events that can erupt.

While Lenin knew that spontaneous outbreaks of struggle occurred and that the party often lagged behind the masses, he knew (contrary to anarchists) that spontaneous struggle would not be enough to bring about socialism. A centralized force which is linked to and leading the seemingly disconnected struggles of the masses, organized and disciplined, able to treat insurrection as an art, guided by revolutionary theory and able to plan was necessary. And for this understanding of the role of the party in making an actual revolution, Lenin was accused of Blanquism, as Lukács pointed out:

Is [Lenin's] concept of the party not just a practical result of that Blanquism which ‘intelligent’ Revisionists claim to have discovered even in Marx? This is not the place to examine how far this criticism misses its mark even in relation to Blanqui himself. It misses the core of Lenin’s concept of party organization simply because, as Lenin said, the group of professional revolutionaries does not for one moment have the task of either ‘making’ the revolution, or – by their own independent, bold actions – of sweeping the inactive masses along to confront them with a revolutionary fait accompli. Lenin’s concept of party organization presupposes the fact – the actuality – of the revolution.45

Lenin disparaged those supposed “Marxists” who condemned building powerful vanguard parties, revolutionary means, or violence as forms of “ultra-leftism” or “Blanquism.” When during the 1905 revolution, he saw social democrats reject guerrilla warfare, Lenin said:

Do these people realise what they are saying? Armed clashes and conflicts between the Black-Hundred government and the population are taking place all over the country. This is an absolutely inevitable phenomenon at the present stage of development of the revolution. The population is spontaneously and in an unorganised way—and for that very reason often in unfortunate and undesirable forms—reacting to this phenomenon also by armed conflicts and attacks. I can understand us refraining from Party leadership of this spontaneous struggle in a particular place or at a particular time because of the weakness and unpreparedness of our organisation. I realise that this question must be settled by the local practical workers, and that the remoulding of weak and unprepared organisations is no easy matter. But when I see a Social-Democratic theoretician or publicist not displaying regret over this unpreparedness, but rather a proud smugness and a self-exalted tendency to repeat phrases learned by rote in early youth about anarchism, Blanquism and terrorism, I am hurt by this degradation of the most revolutionary doctrine in the world.46

And in contrast to those such as Georg Plekhanov, who argued in the aftermath of the failed Moscow Uprising of 1905 that “they should not have taken up arms,” Lenin believed this was a sign of opportunism and said to the contrary that “we should have taken to arms more resolutely, energetically and aggressively; we should have explained to the masses that it was impossible to confine things to a peaceful strike and that a fearless and relentless armed fight was necessary."47 While Lenin did not argue for taking up arms at every moment, he did believe that in a revolutionary situation that it was the task of communists to do everything possible to make revolution. This is precisely what Plekhanov and the Mensheviks failed to do. In revolutionary situations such as 1905 and many more such as Spain in 1936 or France in 1968, whenever the masses turn to revolutionary struggle or utilize violence, opportunists and revisionists condemn them as ultra-leftists or Blanquists, which is just a mask for their own practical defeatism.

One of the most propagated myths is that the October Revolution was a coup d'état of a small minority along Blanquist lines.48 In fact, even those sympathetic to both Blanquism and Bolshevism such as Maurice Dommanget make that claim: "The liaison between Babouvism and Bolshevism by way of revolutionary Marxism is realized, so to speak, through Blanquism..."49 Thereby, Blanquism is linked not just to Bolshevism, but all the way back to the first modern communists who emerged with the emancipatory impulses of the French Revolution. Contrary to Dommanget, the practice of Bolshevism throughout 1917 was not one of vulgar “Blanquism,” but of “patient explanation,” in which the party conducted open agitation among the workers, peasants, and soldiers. When the Bolsheviks took power, it was not done on behalf of a single party but based upon the soviets—organs of working-class democracy—with whom they had won a majority.

There is a grain of truth to the accusation that the October Revolution was “Blanquist.” The reality of revolution meant struggle between opposing classes which could not be reconciled, save in the dreams of the deluded and the damned. It was either rule or ruin. And every revolutionary, whether Blanqui, Lenin or Trotsky, if they were serious about socialism, needed to think earnestly about the conquest of political power and many questions.50 What is a revolutionary situation? What are the strategies and tactics that lead to the conquest of power? How can insurrection be treated as an art? Blanqui had spent decades of his life treating insurrection as an art. Lenin and Trotsky took seriously questions of insurrection, military strategy, and the nature of power. Naturally, Blanqui was not condemned by them for doing the same. Trotsky recognized his positive contribution in that regard:

Insurrection is an art, and like all arts it has its laws. The rules of Blanqui were the demands of a military revolutionary realism… Conspiracy does not take the place of insurrection. An active minority of the proletariat, no matter how well organized, cannot seize the power regardless of the general conditions of the country. In this point history has condemned Blanquism. But only in this. His affirmative theorem retains all its force. In order to conquer the power, the proletariat needs more than a spontaneous insurrection. It needs a suitable organization, it needs a plan: it needs a conspiracy. Such is the Leninist view of this question.51

Lenin and Trotsky both knew that an insurrection meant knowing the terrain of engagement and took careful planning. “One of the most vicious and probably most widespread distortions of Marxism resorted to by the dominant ‘socialist’ parties is the opportunist lie that preparation for insurrection, and generally the treatment of insurrection as an art, is ‘Blanquism’."52 Similarly, Trotsky argued "there is no need to refer to the past: one need only read on this subject the contemporary and inordinately ignorant and mawkish discourses...who are of the opinion that the very question of armed insurrection is ‘Blanquism.’"53 The need for planning and conspiracy did not mean that the Bolsheviks were acting like Blanquists (seizing power on behalf of a small group), but recognized Blanqui's lesson that revolutionaries need to develop their plans, which requires a general staff, adaptability to changing conditions, and the will to win.

The difference between Marxism and Blanquism on this score was superficial as Lenin and Trotsky acknowledged. While both agreed with Blanqui that it was necessary to carefully plan, learn the terrain, and be ready to strike, the similarities ended there. Blanqui was willing to go into action once his conspiracy was perfected, not based on the development of a favorable moment when societal contradictions had sharpened, whereas, the Bolsheviks based their revolution on the masses of Russia, guided by Marxism and with a flexible strategy.

The revisionist objection to insurrections such as the October Revolution as “Blanquist” is not because they hate elitism, conspiracy, illegality or violence. The same revisionists and reformists who condemned the “Blanquist” violence of Bolshevism had no problem with voting for an imperialist war in 1914 or using death squads to murder communists in the streets to defend the bourgeois state. Rather, they deny the right of the proletariat to take state power from the bourgeoisie who have it “legally.” In other words, they are on the other side of the barricades. Ultimately, those such as social democratic revisionists who condemn Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks for their “Blanquism” don't want a Marxist politics which is revolutionary and desires to win. If that is “Blanquism,” then so much the better.

Today many leftists dismiss the communist experiments of the last century as just a totalitarian disaster. They shrink from communism or revolutionary action, claiming that the time is not ripe, believing that we need to appeal to the average person where they are at, but always hiding our communism behind an innocent-sounding welfare-state “socialism” and calling for us to wait until some far-off horizon, which never comes, when things suddenly become ripe for communism. Yet for Blanqui, the time was always ripe for revolutionary work. And while we should not adapt his means, we should ask what it means to conduct revolutionary work even when the time was seemingly premature.

If you aren't doing revolutionary work of organizing a party to prepare the masses for power during non-revolutionary times, then you aren't really preparing for the revolution. While it is true that a revolution comes about when both the objective and subjective factors have matured, that does not mean we cannot prepare for it now. To answer how to go about this, we should look beyond Blanqui to Lenin, Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci. They argued that revolutionary work by a party involves fighting for reforms, but also carefully explaining the truth to workers that those reforms will not solve the underlying contradictions of capitalism. By agitating in a revolutionary way for even the most basic demands, it is possible to mobilize workers to struggle and pushing the limits and of the “possible” and to prepare both the party and the working class to fight for revolution,

When a revolutionary offensive (or a war of maneuver) is unfavorable, communists need to undertake a more patient strategy of the “war of position” by creating a counter-hegemonic bloc (as Gramsci might say) and united front which draws more people into the movement by expanding the circles of action to not only attack every manifestation of capitalist exploitation, but by creating an inspiring ideal of a new order. The war of position is how communists strengthen their forces step by step, and as Rosa Luxemburg says, “hasten the development of things and endeavor to accelerate events."54 This perspective is rooted in the strategic orientation of attracting and training the most advanced in society by rallying them to a red banner, while awaiting the emergence of a favorable opening, and to seize the initiative once it arrives.

The most important part of revolutionary work is building a vanguard party that can lead not only the working class, but a hegemonic alliance of all the exploited and the oppressed. As Lenin conceived a revolutionary party, it should be able to accumulate experiences from the masses, articulate those experiences into politics and strategy. Then at the appropriate time, the party can plan and organize the proletariat's struggle for power at the appropriate time.

If we aren't doing revolutionary work when the time isn't revolutionary, then we are not preparing our cadre or the oppressed for the challenges ahead. If our politics aren't revolutionary because the time isn't 'ripe' or the people aren't ready or because they aren't 'practical,' then this can easily lead into channels of politics that are 'practical' and 'safe' - in other words into the abandonment of the long term goal and an embrace of bourgeois politics. And activists who are practicing non-revolutionary work will be disoriented by an actual revolution and not be able to take leadership of a radical movement. Yet if revolutionary work is being done, we not only set our sights high, we keep the end goal in mind, we show our faith in the capacity of the people to make revolution and take power, and we refuse to accept bourgeois 'practicality' and push our limits and that of the possible. The revolution may be the result of nothing we do and its advent may be completely out of our control, yet we patiently await the eruption with full knowledge that our own revolutionary efforts can push events in our favor.

Blanqui's desire to fight against the odds, to conduct revolutionary work in the darkest moments and his unapologetic and fierce advocacy for communism that tolerates no compromises with the old order make him an example of what Alain Badiou would call a communist invariant, which is a “pure Idea of equality,” that has been represented in mass revolts, whether by slaves, peasants or workers, throughout history.55 That idea of “absolute equality” to Blanqui represented a society free of classes, estates, and aristocrats of any kind materialized in a socialist republic of equal citizens. A communist invariant is also an example of a political truth “in which the radical will that aims at an emancipation of humanity as a whole is affirmed.”56 The name of Blanqui, like the names of other revolutionaries, matters because: “The anonymous action of millions of militants, rebels, fighters, unrepresentable as such, is combined and counted as one in the simple, powerful symbol of the proper name. Thus, proper names are involved in the operation of the Idea, and the ones I just mentioned are elements of the Idea of communism at its various different stages."57 To the masses of workers in 1848 or 1871, the figure of “Blanqui” embodied their deliverance from capitalist slavery and the promises of a just society. In other words, the name of “Blanqui” stood not just for him, but for the suffering of the proletariat and their dream of a revolution. To the bourgeoisie, the name “Blanqui” expressed their terror of the “dangerous classes.” The specter of revolution from the “dangerous classes” remains an ever-present threat so long as class society exists, regardless of whether or not Blanqui himself was remembered.

And Badiou would certainly identify Blanqui as a faithful subject to the communist Truth who could never be conquered. Blanqui did not doubt the justice of communism. Whereas the bourgeoisie proclaims that there is no alternative and condemns communism as the denial of freedom, Blanqui takes issue with their view of freedom. He recognizes that it is not freedom for workers at all, only their masters. "We all know what it really amounts to, this freedom that pleads against communism – it is the freedom to enslave, the freedom to exploit at will... This form of freedom is something that the people call oppression and crime.”58 For Blanqui, bourgeois “freedom” is license to invade countries, force children to work in fields and sweatshops, and for the few to profit from the toil of the many. Blanqui states unapologetically and proudly that such bourgeois “freedom” is to be denied, to be replaced with the armed power of the risen masses. The communist freedom Blanqui envisioned was not based on capitalist individualism (or “dog eat dog”), but upon association, solidarity and cooperation that would realize the values of the Enlightenment (reason, secularism, republicanism and egalitarianism) and the French Revolution of 1789,

He would broker no compromise with defenders of the old order. And once the masses arise, the possibilities are endless: "But the day after a revolution, a coup de théâtre occurs. It is not that a sudden transformation takes place all at once. Men and things remain the same as before. It is just that hope and fear have changed sides. The chains fall, the nation is free, and an immense horizon opens up before it.59 It is a spirit sadly lacking among us.

III. Conclusion

In the end, while we should not by any means ignore the weaknesses of Blanqui, both in terms of his theory and practice, our criticism of him should not be that of so many leftists, using their rejection of “Blanquism” or revolutionary action as an excuse to justify a conservative reformist practice. While always keeping in mind his weaknesses, we should criticize them from the angle of how to achieve the communist revolution in actuality. We should embrace Blanqui's open view of history, his willingness to take the offensive, and his revolutionary faith, as qualities that are sorely lacking on the far left. And in orienting ourselves, as Blanqui did, to thinking practically about what we are up against and what it really takes to achieve communism and reject false roads, we should wear “Blanquism” as a badge of honor.

1In fact, we can say that the major reforms following the First World come not from liberal reformers or NGOs, but the result of mass mobilization from below. For instance, the welfare state would have been impossible without the existence of the Soviet Union and mass socialist and communist movements that emerged out of World War II. The reforms of the New Deal owed far more to an insurgent labor movement and communist organizers than to the good graces of the Democratic administration of Franklin Roosevelt. The now lionized Civil Rights Movement in the United States came about not from moderates, but insurgent movements who scandalized the moderates of their time.


2Karl Marx, “Class Struggles in France.” Marxists Internet Archive.

3For more on the life and theories of Blanqui, see my Communist Insurgent: Blanqui's Politics of Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket, 2017).

4Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “Communism: The Future of Society,” The Blanqui Archive.

5"Report to the Society of the Friends of the People," The Blanqui Archive. 15.


7Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 339.

8Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “Notes on Positivism,” The Blanqui Archive.

9Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “Warning to the People,” The Blanqui Archive.

10Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “Instructions for an Armed Uprising,” The Blanqui Archive.

11The Imaginary Party Party Introduces Blanqui. “Not Bored.”

12Blanqui, “Instructions for an Armed Uprising.” (Note 10)

13Louis-Auguste Blanqui, "Letter to Maillard," The Blanqui Archive.

14Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “Instructions for an Armed Uprising.” (Note 10)

15Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “To the Democratic Clubs of Paris,” The Blanqui Archive.

16“Warning to the People,” (note 9), 103. Blanqui's address was directed against socialists and democrats who he claimed had disarmed and betrayed the proletariat during the crucial days of 1848.

17For Blanqui's writings on a more vigorous war effort see Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “La Patrie En Danger,” in Communards: The Story of The Paris Commune of 1871 As Told by Those Who Fought for It, ed. Mitchell Abidor (Pacifica CA: Marxists Internet Archive, 2010), 38–49. For the background of the October coup see Alistair Horne, The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870–71 (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 102–20.

18Da Costa, Communards, 173.

19Maurice Dommanget, Blanqui (Paris, Études et documentation internationales, 1970), 80. (my translation)

20Patrick Hutton, The Cult of Revolutionary Tradition: The Blanquists in French Politics, 1864–1893 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 169.

21Horne 1990, 38.

22Quoted in James Anthony Froude, ed., Fraser's Magazine: New Series. Volume VI (London: Longsmans, Green, and Co., 1872), 796.

23Ernest Mandel, “Place of Marxism in History,” Marxists Internet Archive.

24“Inquiry on the Commune,” Communards, 68.

25Hutton 1981, 143-162.

26Walter Benjamin, "On the Concept of History," Marxists Internet Archive.

27Eduard Bernstein, The Preconditions of Socialism (New York: University of Cambridge, 1993), 37.

28J. V. Stalin, Lenin as Organizer and Leader of the Russian Communist Party, Stalin Collected Works 6.326.

29P. N. Fedoseyev, ed., Scientific Communism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983), 46.

30Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Critique Sociale Volume 1 (Paris: Fexix Alcan, 1885), p. 201 and 196.

31A. Neuberg, Armed Insurrection (New York: St. Martin's, 1970), 42.

32André Marty, “Figuras do Movimento Operário: Alguns Aspectos da Atividade de Blanqui,” Marxists Internet Archive. (my translation)

33Gerald Meaker, Revolutionary Left in Spain, 1914-1923 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974), 349-350.

34Leon Trotsky, “"Problems of the Chinese Revolution: Second Speech on the Chinese Question," Marxists Internet Archive.

35Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History.” (note 27)

36Bensaïd and Löwy 2014, 34.

37Leon Trotsky, Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-5) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975), 185.

38Quoted in Benjamin 1999, 736.

39Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “Concerning the Clamour Against the ‘Warning to the People’,” The Blanqui Archive.

40Peter Hallward, “The Will of the People,” Radical Philosophy 155 (May/June 2009): 17.

41Rosa Luxemburg, “Reform or Revolution,” Marxists Internet Archive.

42V. I. Lenin, "The Dual Power," Marxists Internet Archive.

43V. I. Lenin, “The State and Revolution,” Marxists Internet Archive.

44V. I. Lenin, “Where to Begin,” Marxist Internet Archive.

45Georg Lukács, “Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought,” Marxists Internet Archive.ács/works/1924/lenin/ch03.htm See also Greene, Leninism and Blanquism (Note 3)

46V. I. Lenin, "Guerrilla Warfare," Marxists Internet Archive.

47V. I. Lenin, “Lessons of the Moscow Uprising,” Marxists Internet Archive.

48I have dealt at length with the relationship between Blanquism and Leninism elsewhere: “Leninism and Blanquism,” Cultural Logic 2012):; "At the Crossroads of Blanquism and Leninism," LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

49Maurice Dommanget, Blanqui a Belle-Ile (Paris: Librairie du Travail, 1935), 7-11.

50For more on Trotsky's views of insurrection, see my “Leon Trotsky and revolutionary insurrection,” LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

51Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution: Volume III Triumph of the Soviets (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967), 170.

52V. I. Lenin, “Marxism and Insurrection,” Marxists Internet Archive.

53Leon Trotsky, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1935-1936) (New York: Pathfinder Books, 1977), 137.

54 Rosa Luxemburg, “The Mass Strike,” Marxists Internet Archive.

55Alain Badiou, Meaning of Sarkozy (New York: Verso Books, 2008), p. 100.

56Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds: Being and Event 2 (New York: Continuum, 2009), 27.

57Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis (New York: Verso Books, 2010), 250-1.

58Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “Communism: The Future of Society.” (note 4)