Letter to Blanqui’s Supporters in Paris (18 April 1866)

To all [à tous],1

[…] Always try to keep your cool – I worry about those drunken banquets that might get your blood boiling. That is a poor method. If you would allow me to give you some advice, the most serious that I can offer you, it would be never to say and never to do anything after drinking; just go to bed. Good political work must always be undertaken when sober. […]

Let me return to the question of cooperatives. They are the danger of the day. I do not understand how Bierné,2 who is their enemy, can conceive of ‘taking control of them so as to advance our ideas.’ For my part, I do not even think it possible to fight against them. To do so would be to grab a very dangerous bull by the horns. Transforming them, taking hold of them without attacking them, seems to me impossible. For in the end what is at issue in this idea of the cooperative is as clear as day. It is a means of preparing the daily bourgeois stew [pot-au-feu bourgeois] at all costs, divorced from any political thought, from any revolutionary struggle. It is the political and social abdication of the proletariat under the pretext of socialism; indeed it is not even that! Everyone is careful to insist and to prove that socialism has nothing to do with it, which is the truth.

I do not know what Gambais3 can achieve in this area. I am, however, convinced that he is involved not as a revolutionary, but as a consulting lawyer who offers advice, who helps to keep things ticking along smoothly. Ah! Certainly, in his capacity as a jurist, devoted to his work, he can, he must wield influence, but is it to the benefit of the Revolutionary Idea? I believe not. I have no doubt that that circle dislikes the Empire, that it decries it even, and that it shares our political convictions. But theirs is a platonic conviction that will contribute nothing to the Revolution. The Cooperative and the Revolutionary are incompatible. […].

Bierné seems to me to have unrealistic expectations. He thinks it possible to divide the faubourgs into two parts, ‘one more philosophical than social; the other more social than philosophical.’ This, I believe, is to take a very small part as representative of the whole. Our action, in its current form, can only affect an imperceptible number of workers. They all may be quite advanced, quite well educated, but their wider influence is extremely limited. Nothing today has any great influence over the people. Everything is fragmented and fractured to an infinite degree. No-one is in a position to act in a serious and general way on the masses. Your agitation only affects a very small group, and I do not think it would be easy to expand it by a short-lived newspaper. If Candide had endured and grown it might have been a different matter. But this was impossible. The government will not allow a revolution to develop or take form in this way.

What, then, is to be done? I see only two things. Expand your circle in the Latin Quarter, recruit the greatest possible number of students, for each of them is an influential source of activity, not to mention of group action, as they are at the Odeon, at Labbé’s and elsewhere. Therein lies a dual force, that of the individual, centre of influence, and that of the masses assembled in one neighbourhood, like a kind of permanent army at war. This is the first point. The second would be publicity, through biographies and a newspaper. I have already given you my opinion regarding the Parisian newspaper. I think it has virtually no reach, almost no clear goal. As for the biographies, I do not think you will find a printer in Paris. In looking for one, you will divulge and expose the work. But this will not be a problem if it is immediately published afterwards abroad.

As for a newspaper in Brussels, I admit it will have little effect. It will help establish the revolutionary party in the émigré world as well as in the active republican world in Paris, in the world of politicians, nothing more. Its impact among the masses will be next to nothing. However, we should not altogether scorn what is gained by being able to take a position in the world of politicians. In my mind this would be worth something. There the group could gain a certain notoriety, both as a collective and as individuals. Finally, however little the newspaper might circulate among the people, since it will speak of politics in plain language, it could win a small corner of renown that would, I think, have more impact than any number of banquets or prohibited meetings, where the danger is so great.

I will add the following: your cover is blown [vous êtes brûlés], you are exposed, widely known. Once released [from prison] [à la sortie], you will become surrounded by police, spied on, in constant danger. You will only be able to extend your influence and act through intermediaries who remain unknown and intact. You will need the greatest prudence, an unbearable prudence. It would be better to fall back on the means of the press, on the newspaper and the biographies. Others will distribute them, not you. A great drawback will soon arise, however: the law that punishes crimes committed abroad. Rouher4 has spoken of it; it has been submitted. A commission has been appointed. It will no doubt soon be voted in. Well, once that has happened, [authorial] signatures become impossible. […]

To return to the idea of a Paris-based newspaper priced at ten centimes, I shall summarise my objections. 1) The absence of the group’s signature, hence the failure to acquire notoriety – this is the major drawback. 2) The inevitable insipidity and no doubt also, by extension, the mediocrity of the articles, hence a lack of impact. 3) The swift demise of the poor paper and the imprisonment of three of four friends, locked up for nothing. They might stand firm. But one can never foresee the effects of captivity, not to mention those of disillusionment. We would do better to hold on to these friends for the most important work. In short, the endeavour would be more or less worthless, and yet would involve great risks.

However, I repeat, I am not there, and you can judge the situation better than me. If you have new students who do not fear prison, who want to write, then take a chance on your paper. Be more careful about the workers. The issue is more delicate and more difficult. The government might become frightened of this association of students and workers, raising its flag in a newspaper. It will see mountains where there would not even be molehills. A new threat would be imprudently created without sufficient benefits. Until now you have not taken sufficient account of the danger. We need courage, but not temerity. […]

It is regrettable that the philosophical idea does not penetrate the masses. They will only become seriously revolutionary through atheism. Until then there will be nothing but hot air. One cannot expect the people to reason about atheism like a thinker. They are not sufficiently educated. But if they were to accept it instinctively, on the basis of brief and general facts, they would be armed for war and would then get to the bottom of things. Without this basis they cannot understand a project of social renewal, a total restructuring of society. They do not suspect that the idea of God is the essential foundation of those [ideas] that weigh down on them. The aristocracy’s hatred of atheism, its clinging to religious ideas, should set them on the right path. But they do not pay any attention. And what is more, there are so few of us to advance this thesis! It is totally lacking in spokesmen and encounters nothing but enemies.

And so a newspaper that is well put together, vigorous, clear, totally distinct from the rest of the press, capable of making an impression on the public in spite of itself, so to speak – this is what is needed, and not some mediocre, pseudonymous, and obscure publications that would be very damaging if they were known to be ours, but that would be useless if the contrary were the case.

Serious politics can be done through the pen and through action.5 If it is through the pen, then let it be mighty, dominating, galvanising. If it is through action, let us organise the people so as to lead them into battle. In both cases there is a visible goal, a positive result.

But politics remains ridiculous if undertaken on the basis of vulgar writings in the realm of publicity, and of inconsequential manoeuvres and intrigues in the realm of action. I understand that we seek to penetrate the masses in order to understand their sentiments, to infuse them with some energy and activity. But we must remain within the limits of great prudence, not adventuring into vague and ineffectual attempts at action that are both powerless and without any prospect of success.

Can we, today, organise the masses for battle? I neither think so nor advise it. Let us therefore hold still, and act amidst the people only with reserve, and always mindful of the idea that we cannot both gamble recklessly and arrive at a final goal.6 We must never act aimlessly, without a set goal; this would lead to ruin. Such vague and indeterminate action seems to me today to be [our] group’s main defect. It has no fixed plan. I am not speaking of Bierné, who does have well-defined plans, but only from the point of view of his personality and not at all as a man of the party [homme de parti]. There is nothing more inflexible than his personal views, but nothing as vacillating and unclear as his political aims.

Here lies the danger. For it is he who governs. He is sure to mislead the group. I have warned you previously and I shall warn you again. Stop fumbling around; choose a side. Do you want to do this Parisian paper? Do it. If you adopt the idea of a newspaper published abroad, less popular but more durable, more free and vigorous, then push it, be persistent in your determination to make it prevail. To this end employ persuasion, activity and prudence all at once. Avoid conflicts, avoid divisions and splits, and treat people with consideration. Do not quarrel openly with Bierné. Change the course he seeks to impose, but through reasoning, without calling him into question, without pointing out his past indiscretions. Use your intelligence to bring over to your ideas those who pay you visit. Bring Bierné himself over to your opinion if possible, though I admit that this would be unlikely.

Today the group can only gain influence through the pen. This is the key question. Personal relations with the people7 take second place. So see what you can do. For a Belgian paper, four of us will be available. You will be very important in this, I forewarn you. Recruit people for this publication. Above all, do not reduce it to a mere rivalry with the Rive Gauche; that would be pathetic. Such petty quarrels must be put to the side; everything must be considered from a higher perspective.

  1.  Source: MSS 9590(2), ff. 354-7. Blanqui’s archivists filed this letter in a section they titled ‘Letters to Friends’ (f. 349); in the manuscript volume it immediately follows several letters from Blanqui to Tridon, written in 1864. The recipients of this April 1866 letter are not identified, but appear to be a small group of veteran supporters in Paris. It was presumably written in Valencia, where Blanqui stayed between December 1865 and May 1866, before returning to Belgium via Switzerland. A fragment of this letter is reproduced (again addressed as simply ‘à tous’) in NDNM, 47.
  2.  Bierné is a pseudonym for Emile Villeneuve (1837-90), a doctor and Blanquist militant. Villeneuve met Blanqui while imprisoned at Sainte-Pélagie in the early 1860s and became an important figure in the Parisian Blanquist circle. He organised a banquet in Paris on 21 January 1866, after which a group of Blanquist students and workers gathered in the rue des Amandiers and the surrounding streets. They chanted republican slogans, hoping to mobilise the working class population, but this improvised attempt at an uprising failed. Villeneuve and the other principal participants were arrested for sedition and unrest. They were sentenced on 16 February and received prison sentences that varied from two to six months. As is seen in this letter, Blanqui was highly critical of this impromptu mobilisation, and of all reckless forms of direct action. (Cf. Dommanget, Blanqui et l’opposition révolutionnaire à la fin du Second Empire, 115; Paz, Lettres familières d’Auguste Blanqui et du Docteur Watteau, 237n.14).
  3.  Pseudonym for Eugène Protot (1839-1921), a lawyer and a supporter of Blanqui.
  4.  Eugène Rouher (1814-84) was Napoleon III’s minister of state from 1863 to 1869.
  5.  ‘On peut faire de la politique sérieuse par la plume et par l’action’.
  6.  ‘… avec cette idée toujours présente qu’on ne peut pas jouer la partie et aboutir à une fin finale.’
  7.  ‘Les relations populaires personnelles’.