Critical assessments

Samuel Bernstein

Blanqui and the Art of Insurrection. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971.


The deep-set eyes focused straight at one like a camera. He looked pallid, austere, on the ascetic side. Since Puget-Théniers, he had been inuring himself to cold and growing accustomed to a singular diet. He was an incorrigible vegetarian and teetotaller. The painfully wholesome fare of flat-tasting boiled vegetables was washed down with milk. Not a pinch of spice, not even a drop of wine to flavour the unsavoury breuvage. There was nothing of the sybarite in him. So much for his physical characteristics. His most noticeable intellectual traits were reticence, relieved by tersely cogent phrases when speaking was in order. He was a good listener. He never suffered from logodiarrhoea and therefore did not develop into the genus commonly known as a platform orator. When he wrote down his thoughts he did so in muscular prose. No persiflage or platitudes, only measured sentences dipped in acid or sounding the beat of the tom-tom. (27).


It has become almost a cliché to consider Blanqui a theoretical descendant of Babeuf. All that can be said in its support is their likeness of goals and similarity of method and organization. On the basis of these resemblances it may be just as valid to make him the immediate heir of the Carbonari and socialist system builders of the Orléanist Monarchy. But to ignore the Babouvist imprint would amount to ruling out the little data that exist on the personal relations of Blanqui and Buonarroti who returned to France after the Revolution of 1830.The likelihood is that the young republican read the Babouvist’s famous Conspiracy of the Equals, of which a second edition had been issued in Paris. And it has been established that the veteran conspirator was instrumental in shaping policy in the Society of the Friends of the People. His two friends and disciples, Charles Teste and Voyer d’Argenson, were acquainted with Blanqui, although the nature of their connections escapes us. But there is no basis for saying that he visited the old revolutionary. They might have met in the committees of which both were members. Nor can it be argued dogmatically, as have a few historians, that Blanqui was the direct heir of Buonarroti. Nowhere in his manuscripts does Blanqui speak either of Babouvism or of Buonarroti’s teachings or of his debt to them. In fact, in talking with the Paris correspondent of the London Times, on April 28, 1879, he dismissed the notion that he was a disciple of Babeuf. (45).


[On the Société des Saisons and the insurrection of 12 May 1839]. Left to itself, the conspiracy could at best toy with revolution. Then, it was grounded on the belief that the masses were impelled by instinct rather than by knowledge, that the assault, once launched, would spread contagion among them and pull them into line. Until that time they were strangers to the Society and its aims. Furthermore, the economic recession was comparatively moderate in France, lacking the boosting power to impel the distressed into motion. Finally, what appeared like a wide opening in the ruling caste was but loud and unseemly dissension among predatory politicians. At the first sign of peril they solemnly proclaimed an union sacrée.

The Seasons’ strategists, therefore, not only misinterpreted the role of a revolutionary party. They also misread events and circumstances. The same primitive capitalist test by which Blanqui separated the mass of the nation from the bourgeoisie precluded his going to the sources of business depressions. The Seasons Were consequently unable to relate effects to causes. And were they to break out from isolation into action, their emblems and orders would be understood by the initiated alone. Actually the Seasons’ leaders had still to learn the alphabet of revolution.

The available evidence points to Blanqui as the master planner. He searched out the points to storm before ordering his men to go ahead full tilt. Before Barbès returned from the south he had noted the narrow streets, the positions to protect, the places to capture. Bernard, the third member of the triumvirate, might have taken part in the final rounding out of the plan, but he was not the man to apprehend the total unity of things. That was Blanqui’s forte. He saw the whole layout, with the details fitting into their proper places. He marked out, for quick seizure, bridges, military posts and ministerial buildings, armourers’ shops and pawnshops. He even provided for first-aid stations. His instructions on erecting barricades were minute, bearing on their locations, dimensions and connections. Defence in depth was his purpose. […]

April seems to have been a trying month for Blanqui. […] There was restlessness in the rank and file, an impulse to expedite matters and to end it all in a final clash with the enemy. The capital showed signs of tension: armouries guarded by regular troops, crowds forming, rumours spreading and occasional cries of liberty, equality, republic. Something was seething, at the bottom, and was about to burst forth as from a volcano.

Whether the incitement was fed from the Prefecture [of Police], or whether it stemmed from a fanatical faction known as ‘Phalanges démocratiques’, or from those who were impatient to live their millennial dreams, whatever the provocation, it tested Blanqui’s ability for facing facts. He concentrated his faculties, put at stake his prestige to stall the drive; but it continued, in fact came near overwhelming him. Experience ultimately taught him that this type of impetus was an incurable malady of conspiracies, which a leader had to take into account if he wished to remain at the head. At the point of greatest intensity he had either to stand his ground at the risk of being cast aside, or to go along, confident that, with the reins still in his hands, he might restrain, perhaps deflect the headlong motion. Blanqui took the second course in 1839, as he did later, in 1848 and in 1870. (88-9).


It is quite proper to ascribe Blanqui’s intellectual short-comings to his immured existence. Ye, there is another telling, though less perceptible reason. With all his extensive reading, he neither got at the inside of events and movements nor saw them in their grand totality. […] He did not reach beyond the outer layers, so that the big, propelling forces of history and society escaped him. (255-6).


Association with French Carbonarism introduced [Blanqui] into the underground mysteries of revolutionary conspiracy; and the socialist and communist writings of the 1830’s and 1840’s opened up for him vistas of a new way of life which he held to be far superior to the one he saw around him, although he rejected utopian blueprints. In place of utopianism he chose a socialist eclecticism which was calculated to serve as the banner of the proletariat as well as of the petite bourgeoisie, of skilled as well as of unskilled worker. The oddity of this type of socialism was its implied antagonism to theory, because further reasoning from general principles was likely to expose its unsystematic nature. In keeping with his eclecticism, Blanqui believed there was a surfeit of socialist theory. The time had come for action.

His forte was insurrection which he made into an art, and which depended on a conspiracy, hierarchically built and obedient to commands from an undisclosed summit. Workers, plain people, that is, those who were counted on to be infected with the insurrectionary contagion, this allegedly potential strength of the conspiracy was a stranger to it. He was careful in the timing of outbreaks, in fact resisted hasty undertakings. But he could not determine the true preconditions for action; and the forces he had set in motion willy-nilly carried him along.

He had a certain faith in the capacity of the workers to act as the motor of progress. He went to their meetings when he could and pressed disciples to spare no effort to win them. His long stays in prison, however, rendered him unversed in the workers’ needs and dreams. When he finally saw them from the vantage point of a free man, he miscalculated their mainsprings of action. He defended trade unions, but he could not fit them into his economic thought. He opposed co-operatives without grasping their implications. He stood aloof from the First International without stopping to scrutinize its underlying purpose. And all these handicaps were traceable to the petit-bourgeois ambiance in which his ideas had been shaped. His views on production and exchange went no further than the perspectives of the artisan and shopkeeper. He saw only the surface of capital formation and industrialism; hence he was unable to get at their insides and study their impact on people and their manner of thinking. For the same reason he missed the fundamental causes of class dichotomies. His proletariat was a conglomerate of social elements whose only tie was that they were alike plundered by the moneyed aristocracy. Thus he mistook the process of capitalist exploitation for theft.

His philosophy of history was linked to that of eighteenth-century perfectibilists. Man was steadily advancing towards the higher order of equality and justice, and there was no stopping him, because his movement was propelled by an inner drive which revealed itself in the doings and expiations of martyrs. They had gone down in the struggle to further the onward march of equality. Its triumph was the end of progress.

His rationalist and materialist philosophy never became for him an overriding factor in historical causation. The struggle for atheism took precedence over the workers’ movement in the belief that they had first to free themselves from the supernatural before they could attain social and economic freedom. This order of procedure seemed to workers to be the reverse of their course of action, for their absorbing care was freedom from want rather than freedom from the Deity. Consequently they were inattentive to Blanquist diatribes against spiritualism and otherworldliness. Besides, not the producing masses were pivotal in his plan of capturing political power, but the déclassés, the uprooted intelligentsia, the proletariat of the mind that worshipped the people in the abstract, and, in their behalf, was prepared to be the sacrificial victim. Clearly, his revolutionism was as romantic as it was quixotic.

Yet he was a model of the resolute revolutionary. He never doubted the cause which cost him nearly half of his life in prison. He acknowledged the unity of means and ends. The struggle for the ultimate goal, for socialism, was a political struggle, a bitter contest for power. And he had learned that any threat to the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie would be ruthlessly met. He held to the last that revolution by consent, such as was taught by Louis Blanc and other reformers, was pure reverie. The workers had first to win mastery of the State before they could begin building the good life. (354-5).