IDEAS & DEBATES
Blanqui and the Communist Enlightenment
Louis-Auguste Blanqui understood that bourgeois society is incapable of realizing the universalist principles of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” and that their fulfillment requires the establishment of communism.
December 28, 2017
Dedicated to my cousin, Finley William
Currently, the principles of the Enlightenment are under attack on several fronts. On the one hand, there are fascists and religious fundamentalists who are opposed to secularism, democracy, and equality. On the other hand, large segments of the left have rejected Enlightenment-inspired “grand narratives” as inherently oppressive and totalitarian. Now that Enlightenment ideas are under attack, the left stands on the same philosophical ground as the right, making it ill-equipped to defend universalist principles. Other so-called defenders of the Enlightenment, whether liberals or social democrats, offer no positive alternative to reactionaries. They remain stalwart defenders of the status quo of capitalism, wars, and racism.
There is another option represented by the revolutionary Louis-Auguste Blanqui, who believed that the legacy of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution was worth defending. However, Blanqui recognized that a mere passive defense of both was not enough. He understood that bourgeois society is incapable of realizing the universalist principles of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” and that their fulfillment requires the establishment of communism.
The Enlightenment and the French Revolution
At the heart of the Enlightenment worldview are three claims. The first is that both the natural and social worlds can be understood and acted upon through reason without resorting to religion or God. If the conditions we live under are not the result of God’s will, but man-made, then they can potentially be unmade. The second claim is that human history moves in a particular direction characterized by progress as opposed to regression, stagnation, or recurrence. The final claim, detailed by Neil Davidson, is that human beings possess universal rights, irrespective of their class, religion, or estate. They possess these rights simply because they are human. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, these new ideas were utilized by the rising bourgeoisie in order to attack “divine rights,” backwardness and privileges associated with monarchies, the Catholic Church, and the nobility.
Even though the implications of the Enlightenment placed it on a collision course with the feudal order, this was not desired by the majority of its adherents. Most philosophers were reformers of one sort or another, who wrote for other members of their class or the nobility. According to Voltaire, “It is not the labourers one should educate, but the good bourgeois, the tradesmen” (Harman 243). They viewed the vast mass of the people with contempt and beyond the reach of reason because they were under the control of superstition and the Church. While the questioning of religion by men of property was perfectly acceptable, it was beyond the pale for common people to do so. The “enlightened” bourgeoisie saw great value in religion’s protection of private property through the instruction of the poor to accept their fate, be submissive, obey their masters, and remain in blessed ignorance.
Both conservative Enlightenment thinkers and the nobility shared a common fear that if ordinary people took up reason and criticized religion, it could open a Pandora’s box leading to anarchy. After all, freethinking challenges not only the existence of God, but the doctrines of the Bible and Church. If divine authority and supposedly “unalterable” truths are open to attack, then it is a small step to “dangerous questions” such as, “Why should we have kings?” or, “Why should we accept the exploitation that religion upholds?” There was no telling how far the Enlightenment would go if it got out of hand.
Despite their fears, the Enlightenment philosophers could not help challenging the existing pillars of an unreformable feudal society. During the French Revolution, the Enlightenment exchanged the weapon of criticism for criticism by weapons. Theory moved to practice. In a few scant years, France overthrew the monarchy and proclaimed the Rights of Man and Citizen. None of this would have been possible without the intervention of ordinary people who had taken up Enlightenment ideas as their own.
This popular movement combined with the radical bourgeoisie faction known as the Jacobins to create a radical republic in 1793-1794 that included sweeping social and democratic rights. The Jacobins were openly guided by Enlightenment ideas and had the determination to achieve them using terror against internal and external enemies. In “Justification of the Use of Terror,” Robespierre states, "If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.”
The experience of Jacobinism and the French Revolution revealed a split between the Enlightenment’s moderate and radical wings. Most of the bourgeoisie favored a moderate Enlightenment with a constitutional monarchy that would protect private property. The Radical Enlightenment, however, was represented by the sans-culottes, peasants, and workers who had fought the great battles of the French Revolution. For them, the revolution gave them the opportunity to articulate their own radical demands. They were not simply fighting to establish bourgeois rule; according to Daniel Guérin, “They were making their own revolution and their enemy was privilege and oppression, whether clerical, noble or bourgeois in form” (Haynes 58).
According to Harrison Fluss and Landon Frim, the Radical Enlightenment “implies an intelligible universe. It requires uniform natural laws and predictable cause-and-effect relations; it precludes divine intervention, the spontaneity of wills, or radical evil....The great conflicts of history, the drivers of class conflict, are all material.” Using the tools of this philosophy, we can understand that capitalism separates society into two fundamentally opposed classes: workers and capitalists. Furthermore, the exploitation of workers is not the result of fate, but can be understood through the tools of dialectical reason. The discovery of common universal interests requires a corresponding concept of a universal human nature that recognizes the existence of material needs for safety, security, and free development. Lacking this conception of human nature, neither international solidarity nor a classless society can be created. Realizing these human needs can only come from a system based on cooperation and association. In other words, capitalism is incapable of fulfilling those needs, but communism can and will.
Here was the choice between two roads for the Enlightenment. If the Enlightenment took a moderate course favored by the bourgeoisie, then it would stop short of fulfilling its ultimate goals. If the radical road was taken and the Enlightenment took its principles to their logical conclusion, then it had to move beyond the limits of capitalism in order to realize the promises of “liberté, égalité, fraternité.”
Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805–1881) was arguably one of the most revered, dedicated, and uncompromising communist revolutionaries of the 19th century. He had participated in five abortive revolutions between 1830 to 1870. Every French government since 1830 had seen fit to lock him up, hoping to silence his uncompromising voice of class war. Blanqui never broke or surrendered, but emerged from the dungeons each time to fight again for the communist revolution. Blanqui was primarily a man of action who refused to develop elaborate theories, believing that only organizing an insurrection, not utopian speculation and daydreams, could lead to an egalitarian society.
While Blanqui did not produce much in the way of a distinctive theory or philosophy, this did not mean he lacked either of the two. In fact, in “Fragments philosophiques et politiques,” Blanqui clearly stated that any revolutionary effort must be based on the principles of the Enlightenment: "The philosophy inaugurated in the 18th century by Diderot and Holbach, proclaimed and promulgated in the 19th century as the unanimous verdicts of science, is the only possible basis of the future. The experiment is over. All the abortions of the Revolution since 89 are due to the abandonment of this philosophy. One must choose between it or the Middle Ages. It will be our flag." For Blanqui, it was absolutely clear that revolutionary politics requires a revolutionary philosophy. This philosophy was provided by the Enlightenment taken to its radical conclusions.
Blanqui historian Alan Spitzer describes him as “the political manifestation of the French Revolution in the nineteenth century." This was no exaggeration. Blanqui proudly defended the principles of the French Revolution throughout his life. For him, the Jacobins stood for the Enlightenment, secularism, republicanism, and egalitarianism. In “Equality is Our Flag,” Blanqui noted that to take a Jacobin position was to choose sides in the class struggle: “We are always and everywhere with the oppressed against the oppressors, and we say with Saint-Just: ‘The wretched are the powerful of the earth.’” As a good Jacobin, Blanqui’s allegiance lay with the forces of progress and the Enlightenment which represented the interests of the people.
For Blanqui, the struggles between progress and reaction of 1789 and 1793 still defined contemporary politics. As he said in “Work, Suffer, and Die” in 1851: “Whoever now reads the history of our first Revolution also reads about our own current affairs. The events may differ, but the fundamentals remain identical. Interests, passions, language, episodes, everything looks the same. The people of that time have come back to life today.” After the experience of the 1848 revolution, in which the modern Jacobins had not defended the interests of the people, Blanqui concluded that they were now in the camp of the enemy: “Our own self-styled Montagnards are a caricature, indeed a very poor copy, of the Girondins.” In other words, the heirs of Jacobinism could not live up to the Enlightenment and revolutionary principles of their namesake. “They have adopted, it is true, the motto and the banner of the former Mountain; they swear only by Robespierre and the Jacobins. But in this they have no choice. How would deception be possible without it? It is the common ruse of the schemers to wave the flag of the people.”
Blanqui believed that history had now passed by the Jacobins and the bourgeoisie. He said that, at this point, “science has forged more certain weapons for the people; it has cleared for us a wider and more direct way.” The “more certain weapons” were now provided by socialism. As Blanqui stated, “Citizens, the Mountain is dead! Long live socialism, its sole heir!” In an 1852 letter to a republican exile, George Maillard, Blanqui’s identification of revolution and socialism in place of Jacobinism was explicit and unmistakeable: “You are a revolutionary socialist; one cannot be a revolutionary without being a socialist, and vice versa.”
His allegiance to socialism did not change Blanqui’s belief that the promises and slogans of 1789 must be fulfilled. He stated that socialism could only be realized by building on the foundations laid by the French Revolution: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and that admirable symbol, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which, broadly interpreted, contains the seeds of all the developments of future society.” To actualize the Jacobins’ Enlightenment ideals meant bourgeois society itself had to be overthrown. It is important to note that when Blanqui uttered the sacred word “republic,” he did not mean Robespierre’s “Republic of Virtue” composed of small property-owners, but a revolutionary rupture with the whole edifice of capitalism: "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." In other words, socialism not only defended Enlightenment ideals more consistently than Jacobinism, but in the end, it was the only way to realize them.
In taking the Enlightenment rationalism to its logical conclusion, Blanqui was a stalwart materialist and atheist. Bernstein points out that for Blanqui, materialism (or naturalism), “restores [man’s] dignity, activity and independence” (273). While religion served the wealthy classes, materialism “served the masses in their struggle against the bourgeoisie.” By this logic, materialism had given birth to science and human initiative, while religion and spirituality had brought forth superstition, ignorance, and fatalism. This meant that religion was the natural ally and bulwark of the state and the ruling class since it kept the people ignorant. At one point, Blanqui said, “God is the means of government, a protector of the privileged against the multitude. The proletariat . . . should distrust any emblem which does not bear in bold letters the motto: Atheism and materialism.” To Blanqui, every assault on religion, whether from materialism, atheism, or secular education, was to be celebrated since they challenged ignorance and furthered the revolutionary cause.
In 1848, Blanqui’s skepticism of the revolutionary qualities of Jacobinism was reinforced after reading Alphonse de Lamartine’s Histoire des Girondins (1847). Now he condemned Robespierre as a traitor to Enlightenment ideals and for being “a herald of counterrevolution.” For the staunch atheist Blanqui, Robespierre’s most unforgivable act was the creation of the Cult of the Supreme Being, which he believed restored religion. Blanqui condemned his former idol: “Robespierre killed the Revolution in three blows: the scaffold of Hebert, that of Danton, the altar of the Supreme Being. Struck to death, she stumbled, staggered for a few moments and fell and would not rise again. The victory of Robespierre, far from rescuing [the revolution], would have been for her only a deeper and more irreparable collapse.”
Based on this new understanding of Jacobinism, when Blanqui reviewed the history of 1789, he concluded that the Hébertists were true revolutionaries because they consistently defended science, atheism, and equality. Even though the Hébertists had been defeated and martyred for the cause, now the Blanquists would take up their struggle and carry it forward to victory. According to Blanqui: “Let [the Hébertists’] tragic destiny be a teaching. They have failed and perished by the excess of passion. Devotion must not be delirium. But if it is good to avoid their defects, their qualities must serve as an example.” For Blanqui, even Jacobinism didn’t go far enough in its defense of the Enlightenment and revolution.
In accordance with his rationalist philosophy, Blanqui believed in progress. He thought that history was moving in the direction of communism, the progress of which could be measured by the advance of association and cooperation over individualism. Blanqui viewed individualism as antithetical to the interests of society, since the main motivation for social development came at the expense of others. In a society founded on individualism, others with individualistic drives would frustrate social advance and reduce people to the state of animals. By contrast, association would protect the weak, encourage solidarity, and prevent the mutual self-destruction inherent in individualism. The final triumph of association was communism, which Blanqui considered synonymous with the Enlightenment: “Communism will only be achieved through the absolute triumph of enlightenment. It will be its ineluctable consequence, its social and political expression.”
Blanqui’s defense of progress differed from positivists such as August Comte, who divorced science from the Enlightenment, materialism, and revolution. According to him, the positivists used progress to legitimize both the ruling class and their crimes: “What a terrible strength this is for the fatalists of history, worshippers of the fait accompli! All the atrocities of the victors, their long series of attacks are coldly transformed into a regular and ineluctable evolution, like that of nature. ...All of this is legitimate, essential. It must be seen as mankind’s natural, necessary course.” If the rule of the bourgeoisie was in line with progress, then the wretched of the earth should accept their fate. This was something we could not and would not do. Blanqui rejected any fatalistic conceptions of progress that condemned workers to slavery and ignorance.
For Blanqui, progress was not assured because humanity could either advance forward to communism or regress back to barbarism. Michael Löwy quotes him: “I am not amongst those who claim that progress can be taken for granted, that humanity cannot go backwards. . . . No, there is no fatality, otherwise the history of humanity, which is written hour by hour, would be entirely written in advance.” Ultimately, the success of progress depended upon revolution. The revolution would not come from the people liberating themselves since the state and the church kept them ignorant. Rather, the triumph of the revolution hinged upon an enlightened elite, who took up arms to overthrow the old order that blocked the route of progress: “Arms and organization, these are the decisive elements of progress, the serious method for putting an end to misery. Who has iron, has bread.” After the revolution, the conspirators would govern on behalf of the people’s until they were enlightened enough to rule on their own.
Eternity by the Stars
However, Blanqui’s advocacy of Enlightenment progress runs up against a common reading of his astronomical work Eternity by the Stars (1872) encouraged by the radical critic Walter Benjamin. He believed that, in this work, Blanqui had rejected both the idea of progress and the Enlightenment. Furthermore, Benjamin argued there were affinities between Blanqui’s work and those of both the apolitical poet Charles Baudelaire and the anti-Enlightenment philosopher Frederich Nietzsche. If Benjamin is correct, than we would have to remove Blanqui from the Enlightenment tradition and place him among the romantics.
The basic argument of Eternity by the Stars is that the universe is infinite in both time and space. He claims that there are only a limited set of elements, and because the combination of these elements was finite, “resorting to repetition becomes necessary” (142). Based on these assumptions, Blanqui speculated on the existence of multiple worlds where every person and event is repeated. This leads Blanqui to declare in despair that: “So many identical populations come to pass without having suspected each other’s existence!... Moreover, so far the past represented barbarity, and the future meant progress, science, happiness and illusion! This past has witnessed the disappearance of the most brilliant civilizations on every one of our globe doubles, they disappeared without leaving a trace, and they will do so again, without leaving more of a trace....What we call progress is locked up on each earth and disappears with it” (148-49).
Benjamin noted the similarity between Blanqui’s multi-verse theory and Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return in rejecting progress. According to Benjamin, Blanqui “heaps scorn on the idea [of progress]. One should not necessarily conclude from this that he was untrue to his political credo. The activities of a professional conspirator like Blanqui certainly do not presuppose any belief in progress - they merely presuppose a determination to do away with present injustice” (Selected Writings 188). Benjamin goes farther and states that Blanqui’s worldview is “a vision of hell” and an admission of failure for his revolutionary project: “The complement of that society which Blanqui, near the end of his life, was forced to admit had defeated him. …. This resignation without hope is the last word of the great revolutionary” (Arcades Project 25-26).
Benjamin’s contention that Eternity by the Stars rejects the idea of progress is open to dispute. For one, despite everything, Blanqui’s work hastened to hold the door open for hope and action. As he says, “For tomorrow, the events and the people will follow their course. For now on, only the unknown is before us. Like the earth’s past, its future will change direction a million times...the future shall come to an end only when the globe dies. Until then, every second will bring its new bifurcation, the road taken and the road that could have been taken” (125). In other words, our own choices mean progress and action are still possible for the future. “They are luckier than us. All of the beautiful things that our world will see, our future descendants have already seen them, are seeing them right now, and will see them always, of course, in the form of doubles that preceded them and will follow them. As sons of a better humanity, they have already properly humiliated and defamed us on the dead earths, in passing there after us. They continue to denigrate us on the living earths from which we have disappeared, and they will forever continue to hunt us with their scorn on earths yet to be born” (147).
Eternity by the Stars’ view of progress is perfectly aligned with Blanqui’s general philosophy and voluntaristic conception of politics. He recognized that while the objective conditions are overwhelmingly stacked against revolutionaries, this does not mean that progress is impossible. Rather, the revolutionary effort, the will to fight and to win against insurmountable odds can unveil the roads leading to communism. These roads are not given to anyone in advance, but are revealed in the course of struggle.
Secondly, the historian Ian Birchall says that Eternity by the Stars was not Blanqui’s last word or a final surrender. Birchall argues that Blanqui wrote the book in 1872 to cheer himself up in the very hard times following the defeat of the Paris Commune when tens of thousands of workers and revolutionaries were massacred. After writing Eternity by the Stars, Blanqui lived for another decade. After his release from jail in 1879, Blanqui worked for amnesty for the Communards, traveled and spoke across France, and started a newspaper, Ni Dieu ni Maître. As Birchall notes, “If ever a revolutionary fought till the last breath, it was Blanqui.”
The connection between Blanqui, Baudelaire, and Nietzsche that Benjamin argues for does not hold up. Baudelaire was radically apolitical, while Blanqui was a committed communist. Any connection between Blanqui and Nietzsche is equally non-existent. There is no evidence that Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return was influenced by Blanqui’s work. In fact, Nietzsche was an aristocratic rebel who detested democracy and socialism. On the other hand, Blanqui’s last public speech was in defense of the red flag and the socialist revolution it represented. Based on this, we can say that Benjamin’s interpretation is fatally flawed and that Blanqui still belongs in the camp of the Radical Enlightenment.
After Blanqui’s death in 1881, his politics largely died out, but his revolutionary spirit haunted the Marxist-oriented socialist parties, particularly the members who desired respectability and reform. In Evolutionary Socialism (1898), German socialist Eduard Bernstein argued that Marxism needed to be “updated” and “revised” by removing its revolutionary elements to make it a movement of social reform. Bernstein believed Marx and Engels’ youthful works must be purged of the two-fold influence of Hegel and Blanqui. It was no accident that Bernstein linked these two names. Bernstein saw Hegel and Blanqui sharing a common rationalism, which he had decided leads to radical extremism. When Marx applied the Hegelian dialectic to the material world, it had revolutionary implications: “Every time we see the doctrine which proceeds from the economy as the basis of historical development capitulate before the theory which stretches the cult of force to its limits, we find a Hegelian principle.... It does not contradict itself because, on its own account, everything carries its contradictions within itself. Is it a contradiction to put force in the place so recently occupied by the economy?” (31, 46)
According to Bernstein, the Hegelian dialectic naturally resulted in Blanquism which was “the theory of the immeasurable creative power of revolutionary political force and its manifestation, revolutionary expropriation” and could be found in the Communist Manifesto (38-39). Bernstein concluded that ”the great things Marx and Engels achieved were achieved not because of Hegelian dialectic but in spite of it. When, on the the other hand, they heedlessly passed over the greatest errors of Blanquism, it is primarily the Hegelian element in their theory that is to blame” (46). In place of Hegel, Blanqui, and materialism, Bernstein substituted Kant with his emphasis on moral imperatives and their evolutionary implications (209). Bernstein did not reject the Enlightenment as a whole, merely its revolutionary conclusions.
Rosa Luxemburg argued that Bernstein could only accuse Marx and Engels of “Blanquism” by twisting the word beyond recognition so that it meant any form of revolutionary action: “Bernstein, thundering against the conquest of political power as a theory of Blanquist violence, has the misfortune of labeling as a Blanquist error that which has always been the pivot and the motive force of human history. From the first appearance of class societies having the class struggle as the essential content of their history, the conquest of political power has been the aim of all rising classes” (89).
Bernstein’s revisionist attacks on the “Blanquist” elements in Marxism was simply a shield for his true target: any and all advocacy for communist revolution.
Sorel and Mussolini
Other revisionists, such as the French syndicalist theorist, Georges Sorel went further than Bernstein by rejecting the entire Enlightenment. In the Decomposition of Marxism (1908), Sorel agreed with Bernstein that the Hegelian dialectic led to Marx’s Blanquism. In contrast to Bernstein, Sorel did not wish to formulate a philosophy of reformism, but wished to return Marxism to its original revolutionary mission. In Reflections on Violence (1908), Sorel elaborated his new conception of Marxism. He rejected rationalist philosophy as a tool of the bourgeoisie. The idea of progress was condemned for being fatalistic and deterministic. For Sorel, revolutionary action was no longer based on material necessity or revolutionary science, but originated in the emotions and intuition found in myths.
Myths were superior in mobilizing the masses because they could not be refuted by the tools of science and reason. For Sorel, myths were “at bottom, identical to the convictions of a group, being the expression of these convictions in the language of movement; and it is, in consequence, un-analyzable into parts which could be placed on the plane of historical descriptions” (25). These myths were “not a description of things, but expressions of will,” and “collections of images which, taken together and through intuition alone, before any considered analyses are made, are capable of evoking the mass of sentiments which correspond to the different manifestations of the war undertaken by socialism against modern society” (28). Bergson and the politics of the will had taken the place of Blanqui and the Enlightenment in Sorel’s “Marxism.”
Sorelian myths were so empty of content that they could easily be exploited by reactionaries. This was the case with the Italian socialist turned fascist Benito Mussolini. For supporting Italian involvement in World War I, Mussolini was expelled from the anti-war Socialist Party. Despite his pro-war stance, Mussolini still considered himself a socialist and championed Blanqui, whom he believed represented a genuine synthesis between socialism and nationalism. The masthead of Mussolini’s newspaper, Il popolo d’Italia, bore Blanqui’s slogan: “He who has iron, has bread.” Blanqui would be one of many symbols and myths such as heroism, vitalism, and national rebirth adopted by Mussolini and the fascists in their counter-revolutionary crusade.
In 1921, as the Black Shirts murdered socialists and communists across Italy, Mussolini gave a fiery speech in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, where he claimed to have “introduced into Italian socialism something of Bergson mixed with much of Blanqui” (Delzell 23). The Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci observed: “Mussolini took over only the superficial aspects of Blanquism. Or rather, he himself made it into something superficial, reducing it to the materiality of the dominant minority and the use of arms in a violent attack” (46). Only by severing Blanqui’s linkage to the Enlightenment and communism could Mussolini utilize him as an empty myth and man of action.
Opposed to Mussolini were Blanqui’s true philosophical and revolutionary heirs among the Communist deputies, who promised to fulfill the promises of the Enlightenment. Mussolini condemned the communists for championing the “dictatorship of the proletariat...of soviets and other absurdities...” (Delzell 23). Correctly, Mussolini understood that between the two worldviews of communism and fascism that compromise was impossible and “there can only be combat between us.” Communists stood for revolution and the Radical Enlightenment, while fascists were counter-revolutionaries who stood for the destruction of reason.
It is true that Blanqui’s Enlightenment worldview is neither consistent nor systematic. His defense of communist universalism is marred by a vitriolic French nationalism and voluntarism. It falls to us to consistently develop the universal elements of Blanqui’s philosophy and recognize that principles of reason, egalitarianism, and universalism are incompatible with a defense of capitalism and inequality. Many contemporary leftists have rejected the Enlightenment and chosen a right-wing epistemology coupled with left ethics, ultimately placing themselves in the same philosophical camp as Edmund Burke, the Vatican, the Islamic Republic of Iran and fascism. A choice of worldviews is before us: radical enlightenment or reaction. Or, as Rosa Luxemburg said, socialism or barbarism.
Doug Greene is a historian living in Boston. He recently published his first book Communist Insurgent: Blanqui’s Politics of Revolution
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