Critical assessments

New Left Review

‘Presentation of Blanqui’. New Left Review 65 (January-February 1971), 27-29.

[This short text served as an introduction to a translation of the first section of Instructions pour une prise d’Armes. It was written by Perry Anderson, though was unattributed on publication (see Gregory Elliott. Perry Anderson: The Merciless Laboratory of History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998, 303).]

[…] Fundamentally, Blanqui’s outlook was that of an 18th century materialist. As Piatnitsky notes in his initial chapter of Armed Insurrection, what separates Blanquist Communism from Marxism is its absence of a dialectic. This absence of dialectic was crucial in shaping Blanqui’s attitude towards the proletariat and hence towards the tactics of an uprising. Blanqui conceived the bourgeois state as ‘a gendarmerie of the rich against the poor’; its power rested upon the twin pillars of the military and the ‘black army’ (priests). While the former could suppress revolt by virtue of its superior mode of organization, the latter sustained reaction and passivity by the systematic inculcation of superstition and unreason. Thus while Blanqui took over from the Babouvistes the conception of history as class struggle, it was evident that from this pre-dialectical rationalist standpoint, insurrectionary initiative could not in the first instance come from the masses themselves. In Blanqui’s view, the working class was deprived of education, over-worked by the employing class and finally perverted and blinded by the domination of superstition. Insurrection, therefore, was perforce an art only effectively practised by the revolutionary minority of the enlightened. […]

Instructions for an Uprising, printed below, reveals many of the peculiar strengths and weaknesses of Blanqui’s position. On the one hand, he shows detailed knowledge of the weapons of struggle, the tactical use of balconies, the crucial importance of morale; on the other hand, he dismisses all but the military potential of barricades, and obsessively emphasizes discipline and co-ordination to the point of excluding the masses from any positive involvement in their own emancipation. These contradictions and limitations must be seen historically. The Blanquist strategy was born in a period when the modern labour movement did not exist, when militants were haunted by the reverberations of 1793, and when the capture of the Paris Hotel de Ville might plausibly be taken for the overthrow of the state. It could not survive in a period when socialism meant the creative revolutionary practice of the masses. But one positive heritage of Blanqui lives on. Insurrection is an art: the conquest of power cannot be left wholly to spontaneity.

If for this reason alone, revolutionary Marxism has reason to pay homage to Blanqui.