Critical assessments

Friedrich Engels

With Karl Marx. ‘Introduction to the Leaflet of L.A. Blanqui’s Toast Sent to the Refugee Committee’ [1851]

Marx and Engels Collected Works: Vol. 10. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978, 537.

Some wretched deceivers of the people, the so-called Central Committee of European Social-Democats, in truth a committee of the European central mob, presided over by Messrs. Willich, Schapper, etc., celebrated in London the anniversary of the February Revolution. Louis Blanc, representative of sentimental phase-socialism, joined this clique of second-rate pretenders in an intrigue against another traitor of the people, Ledru-Rollin. At their banquet they read out various addresses supposedly received by them. All their efforts notwithstanding, they had not succeeded in wheedling a single address from Germany. A propitious sign of the development of the German proletariat!

They wrote also to Blanqui, the noble martyr of revolutionary communism, requesting an address. He replied with the following toast: […]

‘To the Editor of The Times’ [1851] 

Marx and Engels Collected Works: Vol. 10. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978, 540-541.

Sir,

In your paper of to-day, I find a letter from M. Louis Blanc, referring to the Banquet des Egaux, held in London on the 24th of February, and to a certain toast sent thither by M. Blanqui, the prisoner in Belle-Île-en-mer. Allow me to make a few observations upon this letter.

At the banquet the name of Blanqui was inscribed in large characters on the wall, amongst the names of other heroes and martyrs of democracy. At the same meeting, a toast was brought forward to ‘the martyrs of calumy’: to Marat, Robespierre … and – Blanqui! All the toasts and speeches brought forward on this occasion, had to be submitted to the committee of the organisers of that beautiful and imposing manifestation as early as the 15th of February. M. Blanc was a member of that committee, he must, therefore, have approved beforehand of this toast to M. Blanqui. How can M. Blanc now make M. Blanqui again ‘a martyr to calumny’ by calling him

one of those unhappy beings, who in their rage attempt violence against renown, and who would lose the best of causes if it were possible to lose them?

Blanc states the toast not to be sent by the prisoners of Belle Île, but to be the exclusive work of M. Blanqui. Of course, M. Blanqui is to be presumed the author of toasts and documents put forward under his name. But the toast in question, as is well known in France, was adopted and published by the Société des amis de l’Egalité which society comprises those prisoners of Belle Île, who hold with M. Blanqui; for this gentleman has his friends amongst the prisoners quite as well as M. Barbès, the protector of M. Louis Blanc. […]

Blanc seems to reproach M. Blanqui with having given publicity to his toast in ‘counter-revolutionary journals’. M. Blanc knows well enough that since May 1850 a ‘revolutionary’ press exists no longer in France. And prey, M. Louis Blanc, you who address yourself with all your ‘civilities’ to the Editor of The Times, since when is The Times, in your eyes, a democratic, socialist and revolutionary paper?

In order, however, to enable the public to judge of that extraordinary document which so excites the indignation of M. Blanc, and which even now forms the general theme of the French press, I submit to you a translation in full and hope that it will be not without interest to the English public. […]

Written on March 5, 1851.

The Program of the Blanquist Fugitives from the Paris Commune’ [1874]

 International Socialist Review Vol. IX, No. 2 (August 1908).

After the failure of every revolution or counter-revolution, a feverish activity develops among the fugitives, who have escaped to foreign countries. The parties of different shades form groups, accuse each other of having driven the cart into the mud, charge one another with treason and every conceivable sin.

At the same time they remain in close touch with the home country, organise, conspire, print leaflets and newspapers, swear that the trouble will start afresh within twenty-four hours, that victory is certain, and distribute the various government offices beforehand on the strength of this anticipation.

Of course, disappointment follows disappointment, and since this is not attributed to the inevitable historical conditions, which they refuse to understand, but rather to accidental mistakes of individuals, the mutual accusations multiply, and the whole business winds up with a grand row. This is the history of all groups of fugitives from the royalist emigrants of 1792 until the present day. Those fugitives, who have any sense and understanding, retire from the fruitless squabble as soon as they can do so with propriety and devote themselves to better things.

The French emigrants after the Commune did not escape this disagreeable fate.

Owing to the European campaign of slander, which attacked everybody without distinction, and being compelled particularly in London, where they had a common center in the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association, for the time being, to suppress their internal troubles before the world, they had not been able, during the last two years, to conceal the signs of advancing disintegration. The open fight broke out everywhere. In Switzerland a part of them joined the Bakounists, mainly under the influence of Malon, who was himself one of the founders of the secret alliance. Then the so-called Blanquists in London withdrew from the International and formed a group of their own under the title of “The Revolutionary Commune”. Outside of them numerous other groups arose later, which continue in a state of ceaseless transformation and modulation and have not put out anything essential in the way of manifestos. But the Blanquists are just making their program known to the world by a proclamation to the “Communeux”.

These Blanquists are not called by this name, because they are a group founded by Blanqui. Only a few of the thirty-three signers of this program have ever spoken personally to Blanqui. They rather wish to express the fact that they intend to be active in his spirit and according to his traditions.

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 organized 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. Of course, he could organize such a group under Louis Phillippe’s reign only as a secret society. Then the thing, which generally happens in the case of conspiracies, naturally took place. His men, tired of beings held off all the time by the empty promises that the outbreak should soon begin, finally lost all patience, became rebellious, and only the alternative remained of either letting the conspiracy fall to pieces or of breaking loose without any apparent provocation. They made a revolution on May 12th, 1839, and were promptly squelched. By the way, this Blanquist conspiracy was the only one, in which the police could never get a foothold. The blow fell out of a clear sky.

From Blanqui’s assumption, that any revolution may be made by the outbreak of a small revolutionary minority, follows of itself the necessity of a dictatorship after the success of the venture. 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.

We see, then, that Blanqui is a revolutionary of the preceding generation.

These conceptions of the march of revolutionary events have long become obsolete, at least for the German worker’s party, and will not find much sympathy in France, except among the less mature or the more impatient laborers. We shall also note, that they are placed under certain restrictions in the present program. Nevertheless our London Blanquists agree with the principle, that revolutions do not make themselves, but are made; that they are made by a relatively small minority and after a previously conceived plan; and finally, that they may be made at ally time, and that “soon”.

It is a matter of course that such principles will deliver a man hopelessly into the hands of all the self-deceptions of a fugitive’s life and drive him from one folly into another. He wants above all to play the role of Blanqui, “the man of action”. But little can be accomplished by mere good will. Not every one has the revolutionary instinct and quick decision of Blanqui. Hamlet may talk ever so much of energy, he will still remain Hamlet. And if our thirty-three men of action cannot find anything at all to do upon what they call the field of action, then these thirty-three Brutuses come into a more comical than tragic conflict with themselves. The tragic of their situation is by no means increased by the dark men which they assume, as though they were so many slayers of tyrants with stilettos in their bosoms, which they are not. […]

Introduction’ [1895]

in Karl Marx, ‘The Class Struggles In France’, Selected Works: Volume 1. Moscow: Progress, 1969.

[…] When the February Revolution broke out, we all of us, as far as our conception of the conditions and the course of revolutionary movements was concerned, were under the spell of previous historical experience, namely, that of France. It was, indeed, the latter which had dominated the whole of European history since 1789, and from which now once again the signal had gone forth for general revolutionary change. It was therefore natural and unavoidable that our conceptions of the nature and the path of the “social” revolution proclaimed in Paris in February 1848, of the revolution of the proletariat, were strongly colored by memories of the models of 1789-1830. Moreover, when the Paris upheaval found its echo in the victorious insurrections in Vienna, Milan and Berlin; when the whole of Europe right up to the Russian frontier was swept into the movement; when in Paris the first great battle for power between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie was joined; when the very victory of their class so shook the bourgeoisie of all countries that they fled back into the arms of the monarchist-feudal reaction which had just been overthrown—for us under the circumstances of the time, there could be no doubt that the great decisive struggle had broken out, that it would have to be fought out in a single, long and changeful period of revolution, but that it could only end with the final victory of the proletariat.

After the defeats of 1849 we in no way shared the illusions of the vulgar democracy grouped around the would-be provisional governments in partibus. This vulgar democracy reckoned on a speedy and finally decisive victory of the “people” over the “usurpers”; we looked to a long struggle, after the removal of the “usurpers,” between the antagonistic elements concealed within this “people” itself. Vulgar democracy expected a renewed outbreak from day to day; we declared as early as autumn 1850 that at least the first chapter of the revolutionary period was closed and that nothing further was to be expected until the outbreak of a new world crisis. For this reason we were excommunicated; as traitors to the revolution, by the very people who later, almost without exception, have made their peace with Bismarck—so far as Bismarck found them worth the trouble.

But we, too, have been shown to have been wrong by history, which has revealed our point of view of that time to have been an illusion. It has done even more: it has not merely destroyed our error of that time; it had also completely transformed the conditions under which the proletariat has to fight. The mode of struggle of 1848 is today obsolete from every point of view […].

[…] With this successful utilization of universal suffrage, an entirely new mode of proletarian struggle came into force, and this quickly developed further. It was found that the state institutions, in which the rule of the bourgeoisie is organized, offer still further opportunities for the working class to fight these very state institutions. They took part in elections to individual diets, to municipal councils and to industrial courts; they contested every post against the bourgeoisie in the occupation of which a sufficient part of the proletariat had its say. And so it happened that the bourgeoisie and the government came to be much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers’ party, of the results of elections than of those of rebellion.

For here, too, the conditions of the struggle had essentially changed. Rebellion in the old style, the street fight with barricades, which up to 1848 gave everywhere the final decision, was to a considerable extent obsolete.

Let us have no illusions about it: a real victory of an insurrection over the military in street fighting, a victory as between two armies, is one of the rarest exceptions. But the insurgents, also, counted on it just as rarely. For them it was solely a question of making the troops yield to moral influences, which, in a fight between the armies of two warring countries do not come into play at all, or do so to a much less degree. If they succeed in this, then the troops fail to act, or the commanding officers lose their heads, and the insurrection wins. If they do not succeed in this, then, even where the military are in the minority, the superiority of better equipment and training, of unified leadership, of the planned employment of the military forces and of discipline makes itself felt. The most that the insurrection can achieve in actual tactical practice is the correct construction and defense of a single barricade. Mutual support; the disposition and employment of reserves; in short, the cooperation and harmonious working of the individual detachments, indispensable even for the defense of one quarter of the town, not to speak of the whole of a large town, are at best defective, and mostly not attainable at all; concentration of the military forces at a decisive point is, of course impossible. Hence the passive defense is the prevailing form of fight: the attack will rise here and there, but only by way of exception, to occasional advances and flank assaults; as a rule, however, it will be limited to occupation of the positions abandoned by the retreating troops. In addition, the military have, on their side, the disposal of artillery and fully equipped corps of skilled engineers, resources of war which, in nearly every case, the insurgents entirely lack. No wonder, then, that even the barricade struggles conducted with the greatest heroism—Paris, June 1848; Vienna, October 1848; Dresden, May 1849—ended with the defeat of the insurrection, so soon as the leaders of the attack, unhampered by political considerations, acted from the purely military standpoint, and their soldiers remained reliable.

The numerous successes of the insurgents up to 1848 were due to a great variety of causes. In Paris in July 1830 and February 1848, as in most of the Spanish street fights, there stood between the insurgents and the military a civic militia, which either directly took the side of the insurrection, or else by its lukewarm, indecisive attitude caused the troops likewise to vacillate, and supplied the insurrection with arms into the bargain. Where this citizens’ guard opposed the insurrection from the outset, as in June 1848 in Paris, the insurrection was vanquished. In Berlin in 1848, the people were victorious partly through a considerable accession of new fighting forces during the night and the morning of the 19th, partly as a result of the exhaustion and bad victualing of the troops, and, finally, partly as a result of the paralyzed command. But in all cases the fight was won because the troops failed to obey, because the officers had lost their power of decision or because their hands were tied.

Even in the classic time of street fighting, therefore, the barricade produced more of a moral than a material effect. It was a means of shaking the steadfastness of the military. If it held out until this was attained, then victory was won; if not, there was defeat. [This is the main point, which must be kept in view, likewise when the chances of contingent future street fights are examined.]

The chances, however, were in 1849 already pretty poor. Everywhere the bourgeoisie had thrown in its lot with the governments, “culture and property” had hailed and feasted the military moving against the insurrections. The spell of the barricade was broken; the soldier no longer saw behind it “the people,” but rebels, agitators, plunderers, levelers, the scum of society; the officer had in the course of time become versed in the tactical forms of street fighting, he no longer marched straight ahead and without cover against the improvised breastwork, but went round it through gardens, yards and houses. And this was now successful, with a little skill, in nine cases out of ten.

But since then there have been very many more changes, and all in favor of the military. If the big towns have become considerably bigger, the armies have become bigger still. Paris and Berlin have, since 1848, grown less than fourfold, but their garrisons have grown more than that. By means of the railways, the garrisons can, in twenty-four hours, be more than doubled, and in forty-eight hours they can be increased to huge armies. The arming of this enormously increased number of troops has become incomparably more effective. In 1848 the smooth-bore percussion muzzle-loader, today the small-caliber magazine breech-loading rifle, which shoots four times as far, ten times as accurately and ten times as fast as the former. At that time the relatively ineffective round-shot and grape-shot of the artillery; today the percussion shells, of which one is sufficient to demolish the best barricade. At that time the pick-ax of the sapper for breaking through walls; today the dynamite cartridge.

On the other hand, all the conditions on the insurgents’ side have grown worse. An insurrection with which all sections of the people sympathize, will hardly recur; in the class struggle all the middle sections will never group themselves round the proletariat so exclusively that the reactionary parties gathered round the bourgeoisie well-nigh disappear. The “people,” therefore, will always appear divided, and with this a powerful lever, so extraordinarily effective in 1848, is lacking. Even if more soldiers who have seen service were to come over to the insurrectionists, the arming of them becomes so much the more difficult. The hunting and luxury guns of the gunshops—even if not previously made unusable by removal of part of the lock by the police—are far from being a match for the magazine rifle of the soldier, even in close fighting. Up to 1848 it was possible to make the necessary ammunition oneself out of powder and lead; today the cartridges differ for each rifle, and are everywhere alike only in one point, that they are a special product of big industry, and therefore not to be prepared ex tempore, with the result that most rifles are useless as long as one does not possess the ammunition specially suited to them. And, finally, since 1848 the newly built quarters of the big towns have been laid out in long, straight, broad streets, as though made to give full effect to the new cannons and rifles. The revolutionary would have to be mad, who himself chose the working class districts in the North and East of Berlin for a barricade fight. [Does that mean that in the future the street fight will play no further role? Certainly not. It only means that the conditions since 1848 have become far more unfavorable for civil fights, far more favorable for the military. A future street fight can therefore only be victorious when this unfavorable situation is compensated by other factors. Accordingly, it will occur more seldom in the beginning of a great revolution than in its further progress, and will have to be undertaken with greater forces. These, however, may then well prefer, as in the whole Great French Revolution on September 4 and October 31, 1870, in Paris, the open attack to the passive barricade tactics.] […]

Engels to Zasulich

London 23 April 1885.

[…] What I know or believe about the situation in Russia impels me to the opinion that the Russians are approaching their 1789. The revolution must break out there in a given time; it may break out there any day. In these circumstances the country is like a charged mine which only needs a fuse to be laid to it. Especially since March 13. This is one of the exceptional cases where it is possible for a handful of people to make a revolution, i.e., with one small push to cause a whole system, which (to use a metaphor of Plekhanov’s) is in more than labile equilibrium, to come crashing down, and thus by one action, in itself insignificant, to release uncontrollable explosive forces. Well now, if ever Blanquism — the phantasy of overturning an entire society through the action of a small conspiracy–had a certain justification for its existence, that is certainly in Petersburg. Once the spark has been put to the powder, once the forces have been released and national energy has been transformed from potential into kinetic energy (another favourite image of Plekhanov’s and a very good one) — the people who laid the spark to the mine will be swept away by the explosion, which will be a thousand times as strong as themselves and which will seek its vent where it can, according as the economic forces and resistances determine.

Supposing these people imagine they can seize power, what does it matter? Provided they make, the hole which will shatter the dyke, the flood itself will soon rob them of their illusions. But if by chance these illusions resulted in giving them a superior force of will, why complain of that? People who boasted that they had made a revolution have always seen the next day that they had no idea what they were doing, that the revolution made did not in the least resemble the one they would have liked to make. That is what Hegel calls the irony of history, an irony which few historic personalities escape. Look at Bismarck, the revolutionary against his will, and Gladstone who has ended in quarrelling with his adored Tsar. […]