Blanqui’s Notes for his Defence at the ‘Gunpowder Trial’ (October 1836)

[If blood was spilled by our revolutionary ancestors, it was] spilled regretfully, as a terrible necessity, by upright men, ardent friends of their country, who were fanatically devoted to the saintly and sacred cause of equality, and who also gave their own lives for their beliefs.1 It is because of this blood shed that the blood flowing through our veins is still French. The oldest among us were not yet born when this painful sacrifice was made. All those who played a role in it, victims or instigators, are equally distant from us, but we would be unable to accuse the austere and powerfully brilliant figures who saved the people at large from disaster. We measure our gratitude to them against the bitterness that gripped our hearts when the tricolour flag disappeared from French soil, carried off by the storm of nations.2

As for us, children of a younger France, it is true that we have shed blood, but it is our own, and one might note that we have not been sparing with it, since it has not ceased to drip from our pores for twenty years. It has reddened both our scaffolds and our public squares.

For my part, I have not spared mine. Wealth, repose, happiness – I have sacrificed everything for the flag I serve. This is why I despise the hypocritical declarations of those persecutors who have never risked a hair on their heads or a day of their freedom. How strange, that those who cause suffering accuse those who suffer of barbarism! Or rather it is considered a ridiculous weakness to complain of it! Vae victis! [Woe to the vanquished!] Slander is the bread with which the vanquished are fed. We must learn stoically to eat this bread that is so bitter to the taste. All things considered, it is sweeter to the heart than those refined words that are savoured to the sound of fanfares and flatterers, baleful words filled with the blood and tears of oppressed and just men, and that disturb the sleep of the oppressor with sinister dreams.

[…] [Today what is said] of devotion [dévouement] and equality? Equality is a chimera, and devotion foolishness. Let each man be devoted to himself and he will not need the devotion of others. Our only duty in this world is to enrich ourselves. The strongest and most cunning have free rein. Those who dream of universal happiness are either madmen or fanatics.

You have said that we are fanatics, and this appellation suits us well enough. The most magnificent compliment that this century of selfishness and cowardice could offer us is to hurl this insult at us, the most cutting of all insults. Yes, my friends, we are madmen [des fous]. We have a faith, we have austere, passionate beliefs. We are not, thank God, fleeting fair-weather republicans, enthusiasts one day, apostates the next.

If we were to be told: ‘You are free to leave on condition that you forget your mad utopias. Leave behind thoughts of the restoration of Poland, of the liberation of Europe, of the emancipation of the proletarians. Cease dreaming of the reign of equality; put aside your chimeras of devotion. Return to being good citizens, earn money, think of yourself and not of others. Go on now, wealth and fortune, and the power they accord, are yours.’

How would you respond? I can do so on your behalf: ‘As long as Polish blood flows unpunished; as long as the hideous contrast between idleness attired in richly decorated embroideries and labour covered in rags appears before our eyes; as long as the groans of the starving children of the people reach our ears; as long as the golden calf remains God, as long as equality is outlawed, probity scorned, vice triumphant, virtue crushed, we shall remain as we are. We would like to change, but there is here… something stronger than our will; we could not do it, no, we could not be rich or powerful, we would be far too miserable!’

Was it not you, my friends, you who followed me into our prisons, you who left children as orphans, who said as one: ‘Do not open these doors. If this is the price for our release then let them remain closed. Rather peace of mind in a dungeon than freedom with infamy and remorse.’

As for me, I spent four whole months […] in the infirmary. Alone with my thoughts I began to think that if I was miserable, others were even more so. This, I assure you, is the most powerful remedy for all ills, and it is the one recommended by Socrates: do not think of ourselves, rather think of those who suffer more than us, and this thought will silence our pain. […]

None of the laws that are in force today rest on those eternal moral principles that have been deposited in the hearts of men, for the benefit and protection of societies. Some of these laws are the offspring of ephemeral passions. […] By seeking to impose respect for laws that do not command it themselves you remove it from laws that did enjoy it; this is how governments can come to perish through the very efforts one makes in order to save them. The human conscience cannot be changed according to the fleeting whims of short-lived legislators. […]

Over the centuries, the cross, instrument of the cruellest and most ignoble torture, the object and symbol of opprobrium and infamy, nonetheless came to dominate the world, since on the cross there perished, some eighteen hundred years ago, another man whose judges also condemned as seditious.

There is talk of restoring the cross in this courtroom, doubtless in order to teach both judges and the accused how enemies of the social order should be punished. The great image of the dying Christ thus reappears in court, on the one hand to incite the emulation of political justice, on the other to frighten the new dissidents who seek to revive the doctrines and sedition of the crucified with the spectacle of his bloody death.

But the people no longer sanction ‘decrees’ that persecute and torture as rulings of justice. They no longer believe that it is good men who punish and bad men who are punished. And if they ever see a convoy of prisoners surrounded by guns and soldiers, accused of violence and ignominy, they stop to contemplate them, their hearts filled with fear and pain, and they say to themselves: it is again just men [les justes] who are being persecuted!

Posterity has honoured the ashes of martyrs who died for having openly professed a proscribed faith by exclaiming to their judges: ‘I am a Christian!’ Sympathy and admiration will also be felt for the good men who are incapable of renouncing their fervent convictions, and who come knocking on the dungeon doors, saying ‘Let me in; I am a Republican!’

All of these things must come about, because they serve humanity’s ends; for the public conscience is moved when it sees just men suffer, and it asks questions about the stones with which they are struck. The punishments that went unnoticed in the past, when they fell only on culprits who were genuinely guilty, now seem to be odious tortures, and it is in this way that the barbarism of human laws, slowly but surely, comes to be reformed. And so for us it is a consolation to suffer like Christ, amongst thieves, and to think that our sufferings redeem those of the poor and unfortunate people who will be born after us.

This is why we shall leave with our heads held high. Whatever punishments are imposed on us, by striking us they will be ennobled.

  1. Source: OI, 352-354, 357-358, extracts. Blanqui had been arrested in March 1836 along with other members of the Société des Familles for illegally stockpiling arms and manufacturing gunpowder in a workshop in Paris. At the trial in August (confirmed by the court of appeal in October) he was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison; he was released after eight months following an amnesty in May 1837.
  2.  Later in his defence, Blanqui returns to this point: ‘Who are our victims? Which dungeons have we filled? What scaffolds have we erected? It is the fearsome memory of our first revolution that is here evoked like a ghost in the eyes of the credulous and the timid, and that is punished in their minds by creating a threatening image of the future we hope to create. Oh! Gentlemen, in France’s sublime effort to save its independence and freedom, who counted the most victims? Compared to the torrents of republican blood shed by our soldiers on the frontiers, the blood of the criminals, of their enemies in the interior, flowed only in drops’ (OI, 359-360).