Critical assessments

Walter Benjamin


The Arcades Project

ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

‘Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century Expose <of 1939>’

[…] As for the phantasmagoria of civilization itself, it found its champion in Haussmann and its manifest expression in his transformations of Paris. – Nevertheless, the pomp and the splendor with which commodity-producing society surrounds itself, as well as its illusory sense of security, are not immune to dangers; the collapse of the Second Empire and the Commune of Paris remind it of that. In the same period, the most dreaded adversary of this society, Blanqui, revealed to it, in his last piece of writing, the terrifying features of this phantasmagoria. Humanity figures there as damned. Everything new it could hope for turns out to be a reality that has always been present; and this newness will be as little capable of furnishing it with a liberating solution as a new fashion is capable of rejuvenating society. Blanqui’s cosmic speculation conveys this lesson: that humanity will be prey to a mythic anguish so long as phantasmagoria occupies a place in it. […]

In the person of the flâneur, the intelligentsia becomes acquainted with the marketplace. It surrenders itself to the market, thinking merely to look around; but in fact it is already seeking a buyer. In this intermediate stage, in which it still has patrons but is starting to bend to the demands of the market (in the guise of the feuilleton), it constitutes the bohème. The uncertainty of its economic position corresponds to the ambiguity of its political function. The latter is manifest especially clearly in the figures of the professional conspirators, who are recruited from the bohème. Blanqui is the most remarkable representative of this group. No one else in the nineteenth century had a revolutionary authority comparable to his. The image of Blanqui passes like a flash of lightning through Baudelaire’s “Litanies de Satan.” Nevertheless, Baudelaire’s rebellion is always that of the asocial man: it is at an impasse. The only sexual communion of his life was with a prostitute. […]


Men of the nineteenth century, the hour of our apparitions is fixed forever, and always brings us back the very same ones.

– Auguste Blanqui, L’Eternité par les astres (Paris, 1872), pp. 74-75

During the Commune, Blanqui was held prisoner in the fortress of Taureau. It was there that he wrote his L’Eternité par les astres [Eternity via the Stars]. This book completes the century’s constellation of phantasmagorias with one last, cosmic phantasmagoria which implicitly comprehends the severest crititique of all the others. The ingenuous reflections of an autodidact, which form the principal portion of this work, open the way to merciless speculations that give the lie to the author’s revolutionary élan. The conception of the universe which Blanqui develops in this book, taking his basic premises from the mechanistic natural sciences, proves to be a vision of hell. It is, moreover, the complement of that society which Blanqui, near the end of his life, was forced to admit had defeated him. The irony of this scheme – an irony which doubtless escaped the author himself – is that the terrible indictment he pronounces against society takes the form of an unqualified submission to its results. Blanqui’s book presents the idea of eternrnal return ten years before Zarathustra — in a manner scarcely less moving than that of Nietzsche, and with an extreme hallucinatory power.

This power is anything but triumphant; it leaves, on the contrary, a feeling of oppression. Blanqui here strives to trace an image of progress that (immemorial antiquity parading as up-to-date novelty) turns out to be the phantasmagoria of history itself. Here is the essential passage:

The entire universe is composed of astral systems. To create them, nature has only a hundred simple bodies at its disposal. Despite the great advantage it derives from these resources, and the innumerable combinations that these resources afford its fecundity, the result is necessarily a finite number, like that of the elements themselves; and in order to fill its expanse, nature must repeat to infinity each of its original combinations or types. So each heavenly body, whatever it might be, exists in infinite number in time and space, not only in one of its aspects but as it is at each second of its existence, from birth to death. … The earth is one of these heavenly bodies. Every human being is thus eternal at every second of his or her existence. What I write at this moment in a cell of the Fort du Taureau I have written and shall write throughout all eternity – at a table, with a pen, clothed as I am now, in circumstances like these. And thus it is for everyone. … The number of our doubles is infinite in time and space. One cannot in good conscience demand anything more. These doubles exist in flesh and bone – indeed, in trousers and jacket, in crinoline and chignon. They are by no means phantoms; they are the present eternalized. Here, nonetheless, lies a great drawback: there is no progress. … What we call “progress” is confined to each particular world, and vanishes with it. Always and everywhere in the terrestrial arena, the same drama, the same setting, on the same narrow stage – a noisy humanity infatuated with its own grandeur, believing itself to be the universe and living in its prison as though in some immense realm, only to founder at an early date along with its globe, which has borne with deepest disdain the burden of human arrogance. The same monotony, the same immobility, on other heavenly bodies. The universe repeats itself endlessly and paws the ground in place. In infinity, eternity performs – imperturbably – the same routines.

This resignation without hope is the last word of the great revolutionary. The century was incapable of responding to the new technological possibilities with a new social order. That is why the last word was left to the errant negotiators between old and new who are at the heart of these phantasmagorias. The world dominated by its phantasmagorias — this, to make use of Baudelaire’s term, is “modernity.” Blanqui’s vision has the entire universe entering the modernity of which Baudelaire’s seven old men are the heralds. In the end, Blanqui views novelty as an attribute of all that is under sentence of damnation. Likewise in Ciel et enfer [Heaven and Hell], a vaudeville piece that slightly predates the book: in this piece the torments of hell figure as the latest novelty of all time, as “pains eternal and always new.” The people of the nineteenth century, whom Blanqui addresses as if they were apparitions, are natives of this region.


“This intelligence of Blanqui’s, … this tactic of silence, this politics of the catacombs, must have made Barbès hesitate occasionally, as though confronted with … an unexpected stairway that suddenly gapes and plunges to the cellar in an unfamiliar house.” Gustave Geffroy, LEnfermé (Paris, 1926), vol. 1, p. 72. [C8,6]

Counterpart to Blanqui’s view of the world: the universe is a site of lingering catastrtrophes. [D5,7]

On L’Eternité par les astres: Blanqui, who, on the threshold of the grave, recognizes the Fort du Taureau as his last place of captivity, writes this book in order to open new doors in his dungeon. [D5a, 1]

On L’Eternité par les astres: Blanqui yields to bourgeois society. But he’s brought to his knees with such force that the throne begins to totter. [D5a,2]

On L’Eternité par les astres: The people of the nineteenth century see the stars against a sky which is spread out in this text. [D5a,3]

Blanqui’s last work, written during his last imprisonment, has remained entirely unnoticed up to now, so far as I can see. It is a cosmological speculation. Granted it appears, in its opening pages, tasteless and banal. But the awkward deliberations of the autodidact are merely the prelude to a speculation that only this revolutionary could develop. We may call it theological, insofar as hell is a subject of theology. In fact, the cosmic vision of the world which Blanqui lays out, taking his data from the mechanistic natural science of bourgeois society, is an infernal vision. At the same time, it is a complement of the society to which B1aanqui, in his old age, was forced to concede victory. What is so unsettling is that the presentation is entirely lacking in irony. It is an unconditional surrender, but it is simultaneously the most terrible indictment of a society that projects this image of the cosmos — understood as an image of itself — across the heavens. With its trenchant style, this work displays the most remarkable similarities both to Baudelaire and to Nietzsche. (Letter of January 6, 1938, to Horkheimer). [D5a,6]

Blanqui’s misanthropy: “The variations begin with those living creatures that have a will of their own, or something like caprices. As soon as human beings enter the scene, imagination enters with them. It is not as though they have much effect on the planet. … Their turbulent activity never seriously disturbs the natural progression of physical phenomena, though it disrupts humanity. It is therefore advisable to anticipate this subversive influence, which … tears apart nations and brings down empires. Certainly these brutalities run their course without even scratching the terrestrial surfaces. The disappearance of the disruptors would leave no trace of their self-styled sovereign presence, and would suffice to return nature to its virtually unmolested virginity.: Blanqui, L’Eternité par les astres (Paris, 1872)>, pp. 63-64. [D6a,3]

Analogy between Engels and Blanqui: each turned to the natural sciences late in life. [D8,8]

Blanqui’s theory as a répétition du mythee a fundamental example of the primal history of the nineteenth century. In every century, humanity has to be held back a grade in school. See the basic formulation of the problem of primal history, of Urgeschichte, in N3a,2; also N4,1. [D10,2]

In Blanqui’s view of the world, petrified unrest becomes the status of the cosmos itself. The course of the world appears, accordingly, as one great allegory. [J55a,4]

In Blanqui’s cosmology, everything hinges on the stars, which Baudelaire banishes from his world. [J56a,1l]

Let us emphasize the solitude of Baudelaire as a counterpart to that of Blanqui. The latter, too, had a “destiny eternally solitary” (“Mon Coeur mis à nu;” no. 12). [J57,7]

In L’Eternité par les astres, Blanqui displayed no antipathy to the belief in progress; between the lines, however, he heaped scorn on the idea. One should not necessarily conclude from this that he was untrue to his political credo. The activity of a professional revolutionary such as Blanqui does not presuppose any faith in progress; it presupposes only the determination to do away with present injustice. The irreplaceable political value of class hatred consists precisely in its affording the revolutionary class a healthy indifference toward speculations concerning progress. Indeed, it is just as worthy of humane ends to rise up out of indignation at prevailing injustice as to seek through revolution to better the existence of future generations. It is just as worthy of the human being; it is also more like the human being. Hand in hand with such indignation goes the firm resolve to snatch humanity at the last moment from the catastrophe looming at every turn. That was the case with Blanqui. He always refused to develop plans for what comes “later.” [J61a,3]

A Blanquist look at humanity (and, at the same time, one of the few verses by Baudelaire that unveils a cosmic aspect) : “tl,e Sky! black lid of that enormous pot I in which immmerable generations boil” (“Le Couvercle”). [J70a,3]

“‘As is known, May 15 [1848] had no other result save that of removing Blanqui and his comrades — that is, the real leaders of the proletarian party, the revolutionary communists — from the public stage for the entire duration of the cycle.” Marx, Der achtzehnte Brunaire, ed. Rjazanov, p. 28. [J73,3]

With gloomy irony, Blanqui demonstrates what a “better humanity” would be worth in a nature which can never be better. [J76,5]

In the historical action which the proletariat brings against the bourgeois class, Baudelaire is a witness; but Blanqui is an expert witness. [J76a,1]

Baudelaire is quite as isolated in the literary world of his day as Blanqui is in the world of conspiracies. [J79a,3]

Comparison between Blanqui and Baudelaire, in part deriving from Brecht’s formulations: the defeat of Blanqui was the victory of Baudelaire — of the petty bourgeoisie. Blanqui succumbed; Baudelaire succeeded. Blanqui appears as a tragic figure; his betrayal has tragic greatness; he was brought down by the enemy within. Baudelaire appears as a comic figure — as the cock whose triumphal crowing announces the hour of betrayal. [J84a,2]

In contrast to Cabet, to Fourier, and to the roving Saint-Simonian utopians, Blanqui can be imagined only in Paris. Moreover, he represents himself and his work as belonging only in Paris. At the opposite pole is Proudhon’s conception of great cities (Alla,2)!          [J87a,7]

Portrait of Blanqui by Cassou: ”Blanqui was formed to act — to act without ostentation or sentimentality; he could grasp whatever was strictly real and authentic in the situation at hand. But the poverty, obscurity, and feebleness of the situation restricted his action to a series of fruitless sorties and to an acceptance of long imprisonment. He knew himself condemned to a purely preparatory and symbolic existence, to an attitude of patience with the gloom and fetters. And his whole life was spent in this state of mind. He became, in time, a wan and emaciated old man. But he will never be conquered. He cannot be conquered.” Jean Cassou, Qurante-huit (Paris), p. 24. [J89,1]

“Revolution is a drama perhaps more than a history, and its pathos is a condition as imperious as its authenticity.” Blanqui, cited in Geffroy, L’Enfermé (Paris, 1926), vol. 1, p. 232. [N7,3]

The idea of eternal return in Zarathustra is, according to its true nature, a stylization of the worldview that in Blanqui still displays its infernal traits. It is a stylization of existence down to the tiniest fractions of its temporal process. Nevertheless: Zarathustra’s style disavows itself in the doctrine that is expounded through it. [S8,3]

Theses on the Philosophy of History

trans. Harry Zorn. London: Pimlico, 1999, 251-252.

Thesis XII

We need history, but not the way a spoiled loafer in the garden of knowledge needs it.

Nietzsche, Of the Use and Abuse of History.

Not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge. In Marx it appears as the last enslaved class, as the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden. This conviction, which had a brief resurgence in the Spartacist group, has always been objectionable to Social Democrats. Within three decades they managed virtually to erase the name of Blanqui, though it had been the rallying sound that had reverberated through the preceding century. Social Democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.

The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire

ed. Michael Jennings. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’

[…] In those days [during the 1871 Paris Commune] Blanqui, the most important of the Paris barricade chiefs, sat in his last prison, the Fort du Taureau. He and his associates, claimed Marx in his analysis of the June Insurrection, were ‘the true leaders of the proletarian party.’ It is hardly possible to overestimate the revolutionary prestige which Blanqui possessed at that time and preserved up to his death. Before Lenin, there was no one else who had a clearer profile among the proletariat. His features were engraved in Baudelaire’s mind. Baudelaire’s manuscripts include a page that bears a sketch of Blanqui’s head, in addition to other improvised drawings. – The concepts Marx uses in his depiction of the conspiratorial milieu in Paris clearly bring out Blanqui’s ambiguous position in it. There are good reviews for the traditional view of Blanqui as a putschist. In this view he constitutes the type of politician who, as Marx said, regards it as his task ‘to anticipate the revolutionary developmental process, bring it artificially to a head, and improvise a revolution without the conditions for one.’ If, by contrast, we look at existing descriptions of Blanqui, he seems to resemble one of the habits noirs who were the hated rivals of those professional conspirators. An eyewitness has given the following description of Blanqui’s Club des Halles:

If one wishes to get an accurate idea of the impression made at the outset by Blanqui’s revolutionary club, in comparison with the two clubs which the Party of Order then had, one should imagine an audience watching the Comédie Française present a play by Racine or Corneille and should contrast  this audience with the crowd that fills a circus in which acrobats are performing breakneck feats. A member of Blanqui’s club was, as it were, in a chapel devoted to the orthodox rites of conspiracy. The doors were open to all, but only the initiates came back. After a wearisome litany by the oppressed, …  the priest of this place arose. His pretext was that he was going to give a résumé of the complaints of his clients, of the people represented by the half-  dozen presumptuous and irritated blockheads who had just been heard from.   In reality, he gave an analysis of the situation. His outward appearance was distinguished; his clothes were immaculate. He had a finely formed head, and his facial expression was calm. Only the wild flashing of his eyes sometimes    portended trouble; his eyes were narrow, small, and penetrating, and usually   they looked kind rather than hard. His speech was measured, fatherly, and    distinct – next to the oratorical style of Thiers, the least declamatory I have heard.

In this account, Blanqui appears as a doctrinaire. The signalement [description] of the habit noir is accurate even in its smallest details. It was well known that ‘the old man’ was in the habit of wearing black gloves while lecturing. But the measured seriousness and the impenetrability which were part of Blanqui’s makeup appear different in the light of a statement by Marx. With reference to these professional conspirators, he writes: ‘They are the alchemists of the revolution and fully share the disintegration of ideas, the narrow-mindedness, and the obsessions of earlier alchemists.’ This almost automatically yields the image of Baudelaire: the enigmatic stuff of allegory in one, the mystery-mongering of the conspirator in the other. […]

A few years after Baudelaire’s death, Blanqui crowned his career as a conspirator with a memorable feat. It was after the murder of Victor Noir. Blanqui wishes to take an inventory of this troops. He knew only his lieutenants personally, and it is not certain how many of his other men know him. He communicated with Granger, his adjutant, who made arrangements for a review of the Blanquists. Geffroy has described it as follows:

Blanqui left his house armed, said goodbye to his sisters, and took up his post   on the Champs-Elysées. According to his agreement with Granger, the troops   serving under the mysterious General Blanqui were to pass in review. He knew his subcommanders, and now he was supposed to see, following each of  them, their people march past him in regular formation. It all took place as arranged. Blanqui held his review without anyone’s having an inkling of the strange spectacle. The old man stood leaning against a tree among a crowd of   people, who were watching just as he was, and paid close attention to his friend; they marched past in columns, approaching silently amid a murmuring that was continually interrupted by shouts.

Baudelaire’s poetry has preserved in words the strength that made such a thing possible.

On some occasions, Baudelaire tried to discern the image of the modern hero in the conspirator as well. ‘No more tragedies!’ he wrote in Le Salut public during the February days. ‘No more histories of ancient Rome! Aren’t we today greater than Brutus?’ ‘Greater than Brutus’ was, to be sure, less than great. For when Napoleon III came to power, Baudelaire did not recognize the Ceasar in him. In this, Blanqui was more perceptive than he was. But the differences between them are superficial compared to their profound similarities: their obstinacy and their impatience, the power of their indignation and their hatred, as well as the impotence which was their common lot. In a famous line, Baudelaire lightheartedly bids farewell to ‘a world in which action is not the sister of dreams.’ His dream was not as hopeless as it seemed to him. Blanqui’s action was the sister of Baudelaire’s dream. The two are conjoined. They are the joined hands of the stone under which Napoleon III buried the hopes of the June fighters. […]

‘Central Park’

[…] Show with maximum force how the idea of eternal recurrence emerged at about the same time in the worlds of Baudelaire, Blanqui, and Nietzsche. In Baudelaire, the accent is on the new, which is wrested with heroic effort from the ‘ever-selfsame’; in Nietzsche, it is on the ‘ever-selfsame’ which the human being faces with heroic composure. Blanqui is far closer to Nietzsche than to Baudelaire; but in his work, resignation predominates. In Nietzsche, this experience is projected onto a cosmological plane, in his thesis that nothing new will occur. […]

[…] In Baudelaire, it is very important that the ‘new’ in no way contributes to progress. At any rate, serious attempts to come to terms with the idea of progress are hardly ever found in his work. His hatred was directed above all at ‘faith in progress’, as at a heresy, a false teaching, not a commonplace error. Blanqui, on the other hand, displays no antipathy to the belief in progress; he quietly heaps scorn on the idea. One should not necessarily conclude from this that he was untrue to his political credo. The activities of a professional conspirator like Blanqui certainly do not presuppose any belief in progress – they merely presuppose a determination to do away with present injustice. This firm resolve to snatch humanity at the last moment from the catastrophe looming at every turn is characteristic of Blanqui – more so than any other revolutionary politician of the time. He always refused to develop plans for what comes ‘later’. One can easily see how Baudelaire’s conduct in 1848 accords with all this. […]