Critical assessments

Karl Marx

Review, ‘Les Conspirateurs, par A. Chenu’,

Neue Rheinische Zeitung Politisch-ökonomische Revue No. 4 (April, 1850), in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 10. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978. 311-325.

‘The propensity of the Latin peoples to conspiracy and the part which conspiracies have played in modern Spanish, Italian and French history are well known. After the defeat of the Spanish and Italian conspirators at the beginning of the twenties, Lyons and especially Paris became the centres of revolutionary clubs. It is a well-known fact that the liberal bourgeoisie headed the conspiracies against the Restoration up to 1830. After the July Revolution the republican bourgeoisie took their place; the proletariat, trained in conspiracy even under the Restoration, began to dominate to the extent that the republican bourgeoisie were deterred from conspiring by the unsuccessful street battles. The Société des saisons, through which Barbès and Blanqui organised the [May] 1839 revolt, was already exclusively proletarian, and so were the Nouvelles saisons, formed after the defeat, whose leader was Albert and in which Chenu, de la Hodde, Caussidière, etc., participated. Through its leaders the conspiracy was constantly in contact with the petty-bourgeois elements represented by La Réforme, but always kept itself strictly independent. These conspiracies never of course embraced the broad mass of the Paris proletariat. They were restricted to a comparatively small, continually fluctuating number of members which consisted partly of unchanging, veteran conspirators, regularly bequeathed by each secret society to its successor, and partly of newly recruited workers.

Of these veteran conspirators, Chenu describes virtually none but the class to which he himself belongs: the professional conspirators. With the development of proletarian conspiracies the need arose for a division of labour; the members were divided into occasional conspirators, conspirateurs d’occcasion, i.e. workers who engaged in conspiracy alongside their other employment, merely attending meetings and holding themselves in readiness to appear at the place of assembly at the leaders’ command, and professional conspirators who devoted their whole energy to the conspiracy and had their living from it. They formed the intermediate stratum between the workers and the leaders, and frequently even infiltrated the latter.

The social situation of this class determines its whole character from the very outset. Proletarian conspiracy naturally affords them only very limited and uncertain means of subsistence. They are therefore constantly obliged to dip into the cash-boxes of the conspiracy. A number of them also come into direct conflict with civil society as such and appear before the police courts with a greater or lesser degree of dignity. Their precarious livelihood, dependent in individual cases more on chance than on their activity, their irregular lives whose only fixed ports-of-call are the taverns of the marchands de vin–the places of rendezvous of the conspirators-their inevitable acquaintance with all kinds of dubious people, place them in that social category which in Paris is known as la boheme. These democratic bohemians of proletarian origin–there are also democratic bohemians of bourgeois origin, democratic loafers and piliers d’estaminet–are therefore either workers who have given up their work and have as a consequence become dissolute, or characters who have emerged from the lumpenproletariat and bring all the dissolute habits of that class with them into their new way of life. One can understand how in these circumstances a few repris de justice are to be found implicated in practically every conspiracy trial.

The whole way of life of these professional conspirators has a most decidedly bohemian character. Recruiting sergeants for the conspiracy, they go from marchand de vin to marchand de vin, feeling the pulse of the workers, seeking out their men, cajoling them into the conspiracy and getting either the society’s treasury or their new friends to foot the bill for the litres inevitably consumed in the process. Indeed it is really the marchand de vin who provides a roof over their heads. It is with him that the conspirator spends most of his time; it is here he has his rendezvous with his colleagues, with the members of his section and with prospective recruits; it is here, finally, that the secret meetings of sections (groups) and section leaders take place. The conspirator, highly sanguine in character anyway like all Parisian proletarians, soon develops into an absolute bambocheur in this continual tavern atmosphere. The sinister conspirator, who in secret session exhibits a Spartan self-discipline, suddenly thaws and is transformed into a tavern regular whom everybody knows and who really understands how to enjoy his wine and women. This conviviality is further intensified by the constant dangers the conspirator is exposed to; at any moment he may be called to the barricades, where he may be killed; at every turn the police set snares for him which may deliver him to prison or even to the galleys. Such dangers constitute the real spice of the trade; the greater the insecurity, the more the conspirator hastens to seize the pleasures of the moment. At the same time familiarity with danger makes him utterly indifferent to life and liberty. He is as at home in prison as in the wine-shop. He is ready for the call to action any day. The desperate recklessness which is exhibited in every insurrection in Paris is introduced precisely by these veteran professional conspirators, the hommes de coups de main. They are the ones who throw up and command the first barricades, who organise resistance, lead the looting of arms-shops and the seizure of arms and ammunition from houses, and in the midst of the uprising carry out those daring raids which so often throw the government party into confusion. In a word, they are the officers of the insurrection.

It need scarcely be added that these conspirators do not confine themselves to the general organising of the revolutionary proletariat. It is precisely their business to anticipate the process of revolutionary development, to bring it artificially to crisis-point, to launch a revolution on the spur of the moment, without the conditions for a revolution. For them the only condition for revolution is the adequate preparation of their conspiracy. They are the alchemists of the revolution and are characterised by exactly the same chaotic thinking and blinkered obsessions as the alchemists of old. They leap at inventions which are supposed to work revolutionary miracles: incendiary bombs, destructive devices of magic effect, revolts which are expected to be all the more miraculous and astonishing in effect as their basis is less rational. Occupied with such scheming, they have no other purpose than the most immediate one of overthrowing the existing government and have the profoundest contempt for the more theoretical enlightenment of the proletariat about their class interests. Hence their plebeian rather than proletarian irritation at the habits noirs, people of a greater or lesser degree of education who represent that aspect of the movement, from whom, however, they can never make themselves quite independent, since they are the official representatives of the party. The habits noirs also serve at times as their source of money. It goes without saying that the conspirators are obliged to follow willy-nilly the development of the revolutionary party.

The chief characteristic of the conspirators’ way of life is their battle with the police, to whom they have precisely the same relationship as thieves and prostitutes. The police tolerate the conspiracies, and not just as a necessary evil: they tolerate them as centres which they can keep under easy observation and where the most violent revolutionary elements in society meet, as the forges of revolt, which in France has become a tool of government quite as necessary as the police themselves, and finally as a recruiting place for their own political mouchards. Just as the most serviceable rogue-catchers, the Vidocqs and their cronies, are taken from the class of greater and lesser rascals, thieves, escrocs and fraudulent bankrupts, and often revert to their old trade, in precisely the same way the humbler political policemen are recruited from among the professional conspirators. The conspirators are constantly in touch with the police, they come into conflict with them all the time; they hunt the mouchards, just as the mouchards hunt them. Spying is one of their main occupations. It is no wonder therefore that the short step from being a conspirator by trade to being a paid police spy is so frequently made, facilitated as it is by poverty and prison, by threats and promises. Hence the web of limitless suspicion within the conspiracies, which completely blinds their members and makes them see mouchards in their best people and their most trustworthy people in the real mouchards. That these spies recruited from among the conspirators mostly allow themselves to become involved with the police in the honest belief that they will be able to outwit them, that they succeed in playing a double role for a while, until they succumb more and more to the consequences of their first step, and that the police are often really outwitted by them, is self-evident. Whether, incidentally, such a conspirator succumbs to the snares of the police depends entirely on the coincidence of circumstances and rather on a quantitative than a qualitative difference in strength of character. […]

To the extent that the Paris proletariat came to the fore itself as a party, these conspirators lost some of their dominant influence, they were dispersed and they encountered dangerous competition in proletarian secret societies, whose purpose was not immediate insurrection but the organisation and development of the proletariat. Even the 1839 revolt was decidedly proletarian and communist. But afterwards the divisions occurred which the veteran conspirators bemoan so much; divisions which had their origin in the workers’ need to clarify their class interests and which found expression partly in the earlier conspiracies themselves and partly in new propagandist associations. The communist agitation which Cabet began so forcefully soon after 1839 and the controversies which arose within the Communist Party soon had the conspirators out of their depth.’

The Class Struggles in France’ [1850]

Selected Works: Volume 1. Moscow: Progress, 1969.

Part II: From June 1848 to June 13, 1849

[…] On May 15 Blanqui, Barbès, Raspall, etc., had attempted to break up the Constituent Assembly by forcing an entrance into its hall at the head of the Paris proletariat. Barrot prepared a moral May 15 for the same Assembly when he wanted to dictate its self-dissolution and close the hall. The same Assembly had commissioned Barrot to make the inquiry against the May accused, and now, at the moment when he appeared before it like a royalist Blanqui, when it sought for allies against him in the clubs, among the revolutionary proletarians, in the party of Blanqui – at this moment the relentless Barrot tormented it with the proposal to withdraw the May prisoners from the Court of Assizes with its jury and hand them over to the High Court, the haute cour devised by the party of the National. Remarkable how wild fear for a ministerial portfolio could pound out of the head of a Barrot points worthy of a Beaumarchais! After much vacillation the National Assembly accepted his proposal. As against the makers of the May attempt, it reverted to its normal character. […]

Part III: Consequences of June 13, 1849

[…] While this utopian doctrinaire socialism, which subordinates the total movement to one of its stages, which puts in place of common social production the brainwork of individual pedants and, above all, in fantasy does away with the revolutionary struggle of the classes and its requirements by small conjurers’ tricks or great sentimentality, while this doctrinaire socialism, which at bottom only idealizes present society, takes a picture of it without shadows, and wants to achieve its ideal athwart the realities of present society; while the proletariat surrenders this socialism to the petty bourgeoisie; while the struggle of the different socialist leaders among themselves sets forth each of the so-called systems as a pretentious adherence to one of the transit points of the social revolution as against another – the proletariat rallies more and more around revolutionary socialism, around communism, for which the bourgeoisie has itself invented the name of Blanqui. This socialism is the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary transit point to the abolition of class distinctions generally, to the abolition of all the relations of production on which they rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production, to the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations. […]

With Frederick Engels. ‘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: [see Blanqui, ‘A Warning to People’ [*add link*]

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1851-52]

Moscow: Progress, 1937.

Chapter I

[…] The second period, from May 4, 1848, to the end of May, 1849, is the period of the constitution, the foundation, of the bourgeois republic. Immediately after the February days not only had the dynastic opposition been surprised by the republicans and the republicans by the socialists, but all France by Paris. The National Assembly, which met on May 4, 1848, had emerged from the national elections and represented the nation. It was a living protest against the pretensions of the February days and was to reduce the results of the revolution to the bourgeois scale. In vain the Paris proletariat, which immediately grasped the character of this National Assembly, attempted on May 15, a few days after it met, to negate its existence forcibly, to dissolve it, to disintegrate again into its constituent parts the organic form in which the proletariat was threatened by the reacting spirit of the nation. As is known, May 15 had no other result but that of removing Blanqui and his comrades – that is, the real leaders of the proletarian party – from the public stage for the entire duration of the cycle we are considering. […]

‘Speech on the Anniversary of the People’s Paper’ [1856]

in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, ed. David McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 368.

[…] The so-called Revolutions of 1848 were but poor incidents – small fractures and fissures in the dry crust of European society. However, they denounced the abyss. Beneath the apparently solid surface, they betrayed oceans of liquid matter, only needing expansion to rend into fragments continents of hard rock. Noisily and confusedly they proclaimed the emancipation of the Proletarian, i.e., the secret of the nineteenth century, and of the revolution of that century. That social revolution, it is true, was no novelty invented in 1848. Steam, electricity, and the self-acting mule were revolutionists of a rather more dangerous character than even citizens Barbès, Raspail, and Blanqui. […]

The Civil War in France. 1871.

The Third Address, May 1871

[…] The real murderer of Archbishop Darboy is Thiers. The Commune again and again had offered to exchange the archbishop, and ever so many priests in the bargain, against the single Blanqui, then in the hands of Thiers. Thiers obstinately refused. He knew that with Blanqui he would give the Commune a head; while the archbishop would serve his purpose best in the shape of a corpse. […]