Critical assessments

Alan Spitzer

Alan B. Spitzer, The Revolutionary Theories of Louis Auguste Blanqui (NY: Columbia University Press, 1957).

‘Blanqui faced every government as an implacable critic who was always ready to translate criticism into subversive political action. His star shone most brightly during those periods of social unrest and political violence which distinguished the history of nineteenth-century France, but on the day that “order” was restored Blanqui would take his stand among the partisans of révolution à outrance, an object of hatred and fear to the erstwhile revolutionaries who desired merely to consolidate what they had already won. Blanqui’s commitment to a permanent revolution against all feudal, religious, and capitalist institutions condemned him to a role of perpetual opposition and guaranteed his political martyrdom, or impotence, depending upon one’s point of view.’ (Spitzer, The Revolutionary Theories of Auguste Blanqui, 4)


‘The almost universal agreement that Blanqui’s career was a monument of indefatigable revolutionary purpose has not extended to his significance in the history of the socialist movement or to the substance of his social and political theory. The few lines assigned to Blanqui in histories of socialist thought usually characterize him as a naïve activist whose social theories are completely expressed in his career of abortive insurrections, candle-lit conspiracies, and perennial imprisonments. He is often described as an anarchist or terrorist who thought of social progress only in terms of barricade and bomb. There has always been a minority, however, which finds in Blanqui’s life something more than a series of revolutionary anecdotes and in his writings an important prevision of modern revolutionary socialism. The triumph of the Bolshevist brand of socialism has considerably increased the interest in Blanqui as a theorist. Both friendly and hostile critics of Bolshevism and Blanquism have called attention to the similarities between Blanqui’s faith in a compact, disciplined, insurrectionist organization and the Leninist concept of a Communist elite which will act as the “advance guard” of the proletariat, as well as their common proclamation of the necessity for a revolutionary dictatorship over the disarmed bourgeoisie.

The increasing interest in the possible relationship between Blanquism and contemporary ideologies has sharpened the controversy over the precise nature of Blanquism, especially in France where there is a very strong sense of the continuity between contemporary politics and its historical antecedents. Just as the heritage of the French Revolution or of the Commune of 1871 is claimed by the various publicists of the French left, each of whom finds his party the true heir of the French revolutionary tradition, so Blanqui, the personification of that tradition throughout the nineteenth century is retroactively enlisted in the ranks of the various factions. French political groupings, from the Radical Socialists to the Stalinists, have found something in Blanqui which is a reflection of their own ideologies, which they consider characteristic of all that is praiseworthy in Blanquism. They all distinguish between Blanquist errors and the true inheritance which has been passed to them alone.

Some of Blanqui’s greatest admirers have denied that he exhibited any theoretical capacity whatsoever. Georges Clemenceau, who was a Blanquist in his youth, described his old master as virtually a democratic saint, but so completely a man of action as to be a total stranger to systematic thought. […] Benoît Malon, on the other hand, placed Blanquism in an essential relationship to late nineteenth-century socialism: “Blanqui’s work gives us a sort of synthesis of Babouvist revolutionism. and scientific socialism.” [Malon, “Blanqui Socialiste,” Revue Socialiste, II ( July, 1885), 597.] This viewpoint has been expressed even more strongly by some modern French historians and socialists. For example, Maurice Dommanget, the outstanding contemporary biographer of Blanqui, not only credits him with a valid and clearly formulated social theory, but sees in his writings a brilliant theoretical edifice which in many ways is a precursor of Marxism and actually is congruent with it in all essentials.’ (Spitzer, The Revolutionary Theories of Auguste Blanqui 18-20).


‘Unfortunately, not everything that Blanqui wrote has been preserved. His published writings make up only a segment of his intellectual output and actually give an incomplete and distorted impression of his total viewpoint. The bulk of his salvaged unpublished manuscripts is bound in twenty volumes in the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale. From this disorganized mass of notes, letters, and drafts for speeches and pamphlets, from fragments which have been collected in his published works, and from the speeches he made at his various trials, one can piece together the outline of a social and political philosophy.

This material demonstrated, first of all, that Blanqui, “the activist,” was a self-conscious intellectual and omnivorous reader, interested in theoretical formulations of innumerable social, scientific, and philosophic problems. Among his notes are thousands of abstracts of books and periodical articles, often followed by his own comments. He read widely not only in contemporary political problems, but in the histories of every period, geographies, books on military science, collections of national population and economic statistics, philosophic treatises, and scientific articles of every description. His interests ranged from techniques for pressing grapes to the problem of the limits of the universe, and from the history of the early church fathers to the population statistics of Illinois.

This extensive intellectual preparation was to furnish the material for Blanqui’s discursive theorizing which usually took the form of trenchant but rather unsystematic polemics written to define and defend the role of revolutionary socialism in France. Some of these ideas are now commonplace and so directly related to action that they are not usually dignified with the label of “theory.” Nevertheless a theory of action has as much instructive content as a carefully constructed Utopia, and a somewhat greater relevance to contemporary social movements.

Blanqui, the man of action par excellence, perfectly exemplified the fact that all political action, rational or irrational, is connected with certain ideas, unconscious or explicit, about reality, man, and society. Without an understanding of “Blanquist” theory, a full assessment of Blanqui’s historical role in the socialist movement cannot be made.’ (Spitzer, The Revolutionary Theories of Auguste Blanqui, 26-8).


‘The profundity or the priority of Blanqui’s ideas can be exaggerated, but their influence upon many generations of the French left, and their perpetuation in certain aspects of European socialism, is undeniable. Certain conceptions, which Blanqui expressed at a relatively early date in the history of modern socialism, are taken for granted as theoretical foundations of the “revolutionary” branch of that movement.

The most important of these are: the assertion of the inseparable nature of socialist reform and political revolution; the characterization of political struggle as, historically, a conflict of economic classes, distinguished by their relationship to the means of production; the rejection of any long-term collaboration between proletarian revolutionaries and bourgeois reformers; and the stress upon the revolutionary will as the basic agent of progress, and its immediate manifestation in the conquest of physical power.

Blanqui’s lifelong endeavour to apply the most extreme political consequences of eighteenth-century rationalism to nineteenth-century society made him, in a way, the personification of the intellectual development of revolutionary socialism in the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century.5 He came to economic reform through his early dedication to political revolution. He was a middle-class intellectual whose political disappointments led him to identify progress with the proletariat. He was an activist who never freed himself from the Utopianism he so explicitly rejected, mixing a sense of the glacier-like movement of historical forces with the belief that the perfection of Man could be advanced into the foreseeable future through the actions of a few enlightened men.

To recognize the significance of Blanquist theory is not to establish Blanqui as primarily a theorist. He was first of all a man of action, but he justified that action by what he felt to be a thoroughgoing rationalism based upon systematic thought and extensive reading. This justification is characteristically derived from “self-evident” principles which he did not always bother to define and is most often developed as an ad hoc polemic which sacrifices logical refinement to immediate political ends. His very commitment to direct action impels us, in some degree, to judge his theories according to the standard of practical accomplishment. Blanquism was not an academic analysis, but a diagnosis which was to indicate the cure for a society already assumed to be diseased. Failure in practice, as Blanqui would have been the first to admit, implied theoretical error, and the reasons for the practical failure illuminate the weaknesses of the theory.

The commonest criticism of Blanquism decries its voluntarist ignorance of the historical factors which delimit the boundaries of practicable social enterprise at any particular moment. There is ample evidence, however, that the conspirator himself never ceased to pay theoretical homage, at least, to the inexorable constraints which slowly maturing social and economic conditions place upon revolutionary endeavors.6 It is in his definition of the objective conditions of successful insurrection that we can discern one source of his sterile practice. As the historian Rudolf Schlesinger has acutely observed, “in the Blanquist concept the only objective condition regarded as necessary is a general state of society so desperate that a sufficiently strong elite finds it worthwhile to wager everything for the sake of its overthrow, and may expect mass-sympathies for its attempts at social reconstruction.”7

From this follows the emphasis upon the subjective conditions of a proletarian victory. No group of men can make a revolutionary situation, but when it exists, some men will distil power from it. Blanquism was the resolution to forestall the enemies, and the false friends of the proletariat by being the first and best organized group upon the day when the inevitable transfer of political power should occur.

The consequence of this viewpoint is that putschism for which Blanqui is so often condemned. He would have preferred to lead the great mass of the proletariat against its class enemies, but his conception of the Revolution as Will and Idea could only be carried out by that small group which embodied both. The enlightened elite had to cut itself off from the masses, in the name of whom it was to destroy the political superstructure of capitalist oppression, in order to be certain of the discipline, secrecy, and resolution required by insurrection.

We have remarked that this tactic is not necessarily justified by a reference to the political conditions which made legal dissent, especially when it was socialistic, hazardous, if not impossible. Under similar conditions more successful movements have maintained coherence and a minimum of secrecy while developing techniques such as the constant identification with popular economic aspirations, the infiltration of mass organizations, and the skilful use of available means of legal agitation and propaganda, which Blanqui hardly envisaged.

The relevance of such a comparison is limited by the fact that historical analogy is tenuous at best. The differences between the Bolshevist milieu and the world of Blanqui are more significant than their similarities. We might observe that one difference was the Bolshevist knowledge of the history of Blanquism.

It may be that any consideration of Blanquist methods tells us little about his practical failure that is not already implied by the anachronistic nature of his goals. Blanqui was an important link between the Jacobin tradition and modern revolutionary socialism, but he was both too early and too late for the fruition of his own hopes. […]

In Blanqui’s disastrous commitment to permanent rebellion is the germ of his influence upon socialist theory. He was probably the first to consider social revolution, not as an ad hoc problem, but as an art, a profession, and a social science; and seriously to pose those questions: What constitutes a revolutionary situation? Who shall reap its fruit? What are the tactics of successful insurrection? — which are today the preoccupation of gigantic contending forces.’ (Spitzer, The Revolutionary Theories of Auguste Blanqui, conclusion, 180-4).