Critical assessments

Paul Lafargue

Leslie Derfler, Paul Lafargue and the Founding of French Marxism, 1842-1882. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

‘At separate gatherings following the conclusion of the congress [the international student congress in Liège, October 1865], Blanquist students, before returning to France, paid homage to their chief, and Belgian members of the recently formed International Workingmen’s Association, Desiré Brismée and César de Paepe, spoke of a coalition of workers and intellectuals as a pre- requisite for the establishment of the good society. It may well be here that Lafargue learned of the IWMA for the first time in some detail.

It was also here that Lafargue met Blanqui. The old revolutionary had followed the French delegation’s activities at Liège, and wanted to meet some of them. In his account of the meeting, Lafargue recalled that when Blanqui was young secret societies had recruited chiefly in the Latin Quarter, and that Blanqui had continued to seek recruits from among students. (He had been expelled from the Sorbonne in 1831 for inciting student unrest.) From his prison cells Blanqui had instructed a generation of youth in opposing established governments and had shaped the Jaclards, Protots, Regnards, and Tridons. Now the young student anxiously awaited the veteran, haloed by martyrdom and hated by the bourgeoisie, “seeing face to face the man of whom the bourgeoisie had made a monster, as it had of Marat” [Lafargue, ‘Auguste Blanqui, Souvenirs personnels’, La Révolution française, 20 April 1879].

The “bourgeois image” of Blanqui, of which Lafargue was well aware, had been best expressed by Tocqueville, for whom Blanqui’s appearance before the Constituent Assembly in 1848 had aroused “disgust and horror.” Tocqueville said “he had sunken, withered cheeks, white lips, and a sickly malign, dirty look like a pallid, mouldy corpse; he was wearing no visible linen; an old black frock coat tightly clad his lean and emaciated limbs. He looked as if he had lived in a sewer and had only just emerged.” [De Tocqueville, The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville, ed. J. P. Mayer (New York, 1959), 130].

Now Lafargue was “astonished” to see a small man quietly enter the room. He was “simply dressed, with white beard and hair, finely textured skin, a long tapering nose (all revolutionaries had such a nose, Blanqui later said, laughing), two small eyes, deeply sunken and bubbling with life, a gentle and sympathetic voice, nervous and well- shaped hands.” Lafargue had heard that he always wore black gloves to hide nailless fingers tinged with blood. Twenty students gathered around him, and Blanqui seemed to take pleasure in their presence. He spoke of their role as revolutionaries and of their need to work according to their capacities. He sounded as if the Empire would crumble the following day, and he clearly sought to inspire ardour for the struggle within his listeners. Blanqui told them he hoped they would never experience what he went through. He also told them not to listen to the old, even himself, when they spoke of things contrary to the students’ aspirations. Blanqui was then sixty-two, and in spite of years spent in prison seemed young and alert. He was able to climb stairs effortlessly and had kept up with scientific discoveries; the impression given was that of a vital and virile man.

Recounting the meeting, Lafargue credited Blanqui with having turned him to revolution. “Blanqui transformed us, corrupted us all.” He was overcome and never tired of appreciating the lessons and advice “given without pretention” by le vieux. It was difficult for an ebullient young man not to be overwhelmed. “To Blanqui falls the honour of having made the revolutionary education of a part of the youth of our generation.”’ (Leslie Derfler, Paul Lafargue and the Founding of French Marxism, 1842-1882 (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 28-9, citing articles by Paul Lafargue in La Rive gauche, 22 April and 1 July, 1866, and Lafargue, ‘Auguste Blanqui, Souvenirs personnels’, La Révolution française, 20 April 1879).


‘Between February and June of 1869, Blanqui resided illegally in Paris with various associates at different locations. While taking care to avoid arrest, the old revolutionary witnessed the demonstrations to which his followers attached so much importance: commemorations of the French revolutionary past, of 1792, of 1848 (and later, of 1871), complete with the symbolic rites and festivals that permitted their organizers to view themselves as guardians of revolutionary tradition. The erection of monuments, the holding of pilgrimages, and the publication of newspaper reminiscences also numbered among Blanquist strategies. When Lafargue pointed to the danger he exposed himself to, Blanqui replied with a smile, “I always carry my safe conduct with me,” and took from his pocket copies of Pays and Constitutionnel. “If taken and searched, I will soon be freed when these Bonapartist and reactionary journals are found on me.” [cf. Patrick Hutton, The Cult of the Revolutionary Tradition: The Blanquists in French Politics, 1864-1893 (Berkeley, 1981), 2, 10-11].

Blanqui was more of a propagandist than a theoretician. (What theory he had was based on the mechanistic materialism of the Enlightenment.) He placed his revolutionary hopes in young people and wanted them to serve as the general staff of a secret society organized to upset the Empire and seize power. Detailed plans were formulated, for example that calling for the occupation of the Ministry of War and the Prefecture of Police to frustrate repression. Groups of ten, knowing only their leader and hence limiting the risk of police infiltration, were established. When Blanqui wished to inspect his cohorts, he arranged with leaders to assemble their groups on a certain corner at a certain time, and le vieux, unperceived, reviewed them. A lieutenant of Blanqui maintained that these followers numbered about three hundred in 1868, strongest in working-class districts in and around Paris. Lafargue met with others every week at the house then frequented by Blanqui, that of a man named Casavan, “who lived on the isle of Saint-Louis, on a street with the macabre medieval name of la Femme sans Tête.”

To what extent was Lafargue’s involvement with the Blanquists sanctioned by Marx, and to what extent was Marx’s interest in Blanqui used by Lafargue to justify that involvement? If, as Lafargue told Blanqui, Marx still considered Blanqui “the head and heart of the proletarian party in France” and still wanted to win his support, then Marx could not help but approve of Lafargue’s efforts both to keep Blanqui informed of developments within the international socialist movement, particularly with regard to the German parties, and to try to recruit Blanquists to the Marxist cause” Admittedly the differences between Blanqui and Marx had widened as any sympathy Marx may have held for the concept of a revolutionary elite gave way to a conviction of the need for a broadly based class movement. Blanqui had given orders to boycott the International’s first congresses, although in 1868 a Blanquist group headed by Edouard Vaillant had disobeyed, creating a schism between insurrectionists rejecting a mass base and those seeking wider support for a revolutionary movement.

In May 1869, Lafargue wrote Marx that Blanqui lacked faith in the German social democratic movement, and accounted for this view in terms of the old revolutionary’s patriotism and anti-German hostility. Although holding no illusions about converting Blanqui and his disciples to Marx’s teachings, Lafargue hoped to turn them away from Proudhonism, and took pleasure in telling his father-in-law that Blanqui not only had read the copy of Marx’s attack on Proudhon’s thought, The Poverty of Philosophy, which Lafargue had given him, but was circulating it among his friends. He added that “Blanqui has the greatest esteem for you.” Similarly Laura informed her father that Jaclard, an important Blanquist disciple, was seeking authorization from the International’s General Council to form a new Paris section. Envisioning himself as an intermediary, Lafargue helped to keep Blanqui and Blanquists, on the one hand, and Marx and the International, on the other, on speaking terms.

In the spring of 1869, pressed by his admirers, Blanqui thought of launching a newspaper, intended to mark a renovation of Blanquist thought and practice. It was to be called La Renaissance, and Blanqui planned to keep costs down by taking advantage of new printing technology and by relying on advertising, especially from the new department stores. The subscription list showed that Lafargue, in spite of his financial problems, contributed two hundred francs, twice the average donation.

Blanqui wanted to have enough copy on hand for several issues, and Lafargue gave him a lengthy piece entitled “Mutualism, Collectivism, and Communism.” He was astonished to see Blanqui put it in a drawer unread, commenting only that “all these discussions on the possible forms of future society is revolutionary scholasticism. It is more urgent to criticize primary education.” Noting the younger man’s discomfiture, Blanqui added, “we must not formulate doctrine but fight the Empire. Like you, like Marx, I am a communist, but I don’t say so. I only want to seize the state through revolution to ameliorate the proletarian’s working conditions and existence, [not] for the sake of confrontation. Violent and interminable quarrels among the socialist sects before 1 848 over the nature of future society prevented us from taking action.” [Lafargue, “Auguste Blanqui, souvenirs personnels,” La Révolution française, 20 April 1879; Lafargue, “Souvenirs,” Le Socialiste, January 1-8, 1911.]

The newspaper never materialized. The 30,000-franc deposit required by the Empire could not easily be raised because the name of Blanqui frightened away potential backers, and when the sum was finally raised, war intervened. Apparently Moilin, who had promised a sizable contribution, backed out at the last minute, but by the end of May money, in the form of a legacy left to Tridon, had been found. It was then that Paul asked whether he could list Marx’s name among the contributors. Although there was no shortage of copy, both Lafargue and Blanqui wanted to publish an article from Marx. Wanting to oblige, the latter nevertheless pleaded pressure of work. We have already seen that his real reason, as confided to his daughter Jenny, was his fear that “old Lafargue should suspect [me] of pushing his son to premature political action and make him neglect his professional duties.” Lafargue often saw Blanqui, but it was with the young Blanquists that he was especially friendly: with the Levrauld brothers, Léonce and Edmond, one in business, the other a medical student; with Jaclard, yet another medical student who had found medicine tame; with Tridon, Blanqui’s devoted disciple, wealthy, consumptive, a Proudhonist before being converted by Blanqui, and who wrote a pamphlet on the Hébertists, whom Blanquists saw as forerunners of their own movement; with the rising left-wing lawyer, Protot; and with Regnard, still another physician who had turned to Blanquist militancy.

Even so, Lafargue’s London exposure and conversion to Marxism had cooled his admiration for le vieux. Years later Lafargue recalled that when Blanquists left the International in September 1866 (at the time of the Geneva Congress), he had not joined them: he had been won over to Marx. Blanqui was the conspirator of 1830, the man of the secret societies who had not adjusted to the economic and social events that made conspiratorial strategies less and less useful; such groups might overthrow a government and even set up a republic, but could not prepare a class for social revolution. The eighteenth-century Encyclopedists and bourgeoisie had laid the foundations for the 1789 Revolution not by plots but by public propaganda that had sapped the social bases of the Ancien Régime. This was why Marx had dissolved the secret Communist societies and had organized the International.

Also recollected by Lafargue were Blanqui’s “sentimental idealism” and “Italian superstition,” the cult of la patrie that shut out internationalism, however much Blanqui remained “a scientific spirit nourished by modem knowledge and eighteenth-century materialism.” The likelihood of war had lessened considerably thanks to the emergence of a revolutionary German party that “would make every effort to oppose any war with republican France.” Blanqui, however, doubted that the party wielded much influence (and in retrospect was of course correct). Lafargue believed that Blanqui’s ignorance of domestic developments in Germany accounted for his conviction that if revolution broke out in France, the king of Prussia would invade the country. Engels reinforced Lafargue’s views: while Blanqui was a political revolutionary, he was a socialist only by sentiment; while aware of proletarian misery, he was lacking in theory.’ (Derfler, Paul Lafargue and the Founding of French Marxism 66-9).


Paul Lafargue, ‘Auguste Blanqui, souvenirs personnel,’ La Revolution Française, 20 April 1879. [*text to be added*]