Letter to Maillard (Belle-Île, 6 June 1852)

I did not hurry to reply to you, my dear citizen, for fear of offending your opinions, which are not always my own, at least on the face of it.1 But you insist; you even seem to attribute my silence to personal dissatisfaction. I do not want to let your imagination run wild, so, since you insist, I will tell you what I think. We agree on the central point, by which I mean the practical methods that amount, when all is said and done, to the whole of the revolution. But practical methods derive from principles and thus depend on an appreciation of men and things. Here we differ. For the failure of February [1848], you blame the intellectual leaders of the different tendencies [chefs d’école],2 the fearful, the philosophers, the lawyers, partisan divisions.

Of all these causes I accept only one, the lawyers, not in their capacity as lawyers, but as a fairly notable fraction of that mass of schemers who devoured the Republic and, unable to digest it, wasted no time in vomiting it up. The renegades, let us be clear, sought to change nothing, to destroy nothing. Quite the contrary – they had only one aim, one desire: to preserve, to preserve their positions and posts. You think they are more foolish than they really are. This is a common mistake. We blame their intelligence rather than their intentions. In so doing, we pave the way for another sleight of hand. How can anyone believe that men who are familiar with all the sly tricks of politics might prove so mistaken about the ABCs of their profession? If they did not make revolution it is because they did not want to do so. It is just that their betrayal then turned out to be inept. They had finally got their hands on the reins of power, and wanted to take their turn at cracking the whip. Their stupidity was to imagine that they would be able to stay in the saddle for a long time. This is the incurable failing of men invested with state power: they think themselves immortal.

Cross the fearful from your list of the guilty parties – no-one was afraid in February, apart from fears of losing their share of the spoils! As for the philosophers, they are completely innocent of causing our disasters and, moreover, today more than ever must we be philosophical. The accusations levelled against the intellectual leaders of the different tendencies are one of the perfidies of the schemers’ faction. After all, who are these intellectual leaders? They are the authors, or at the least the principal supporters, of the diverse social theories that seek to reconstitute the world on the basis of justice and equality. Socialism means the belief in the new order that must emerge from the crucible of these doctrines. The doctrines no doubt disagree on many points, but they work towards the same goal, they have the same aspirations; they agree on the essential questions and, through their combined efforts, they produced a result which, although yet to be properly determined, has nonetheless taken hold of the spirit of the masses, it has become their faith, their hope, their standard. Socialism is the electric current that runs through and rouses the people. They only act, they are only set alight by the scorching spirit of these doctrines that today are the schemers’ greatest fear and that will soon, I hope, prove the tomb of selfishness. The intellectual leaders who are so often cursed are in fact first among revolutionaries, since they propagate these powerful ideas that have the privilege of exciting the people and launching them into the storm. Make no mistake, socialism means revolution, and revolution exists nowhere else. Do away with socialism and the popular flame will die out, silence and darkness will engulf the whole of Europe.

You deplore the divisions within democracy. If by that you mean personal hatred, envy and the rivalries caused by ambition, I join you in condemning them; they are one of the scourges of our cause. But note that this scourge is not unique to our party – our adversaries of all stripes suffer from this as we do. Divisions within our ranks only break out more noticeably because the democratic world is more expansive and more open. These individual struggles, moreover, derive from human weakness; we must accept them and take men as they are. To lose one’s temper at a natural defect is childish, if not foolish. Resolute minds know how to negotiate these obstacles that no-one can do away with but that everyone can get round or traverse. Let us therefore learn how to adapt to necessity and, while deploring the evil, not allow it to slow our forward march. I repeat, the truly political man takes no notice of these hindrances and advances straight ahead without worrying about the stones that are scattered along the path.

Equally, the recriminations you speak of between the different schools and tendencies, even if you do not accord them much importance, seem to me as wretched as they are ludicrous. The Proudhonists and the communists are equally ridiculous in their reciprocal diatribes, and they do not understand the immense benefits of doctrinal diversity. Every shade of opinion, every tendency has its mission to fulfil, its part to play in the great revolutionary drama, and if this multiplicity of systems seems baneful to you, you overlook the most irrefutable of truths: ‘Enlightenment only springs from discussion.’ These theoretical debates, this antagonism between schools are the republican party’s greatest strength; they are what constitutes its superiority over the other parties, struck with paralysis and petrified in their old unchangeable form. We are a living party; we have movement, spirit, life. The others are nothing but cadavers. You are taking pity on yourself, then, for being alive in flesh and blood, rather than being a statue of stone lying across an old tomb!

Let us turn to professions of faith: you claim to be a revolutionary republican. Be wary of empty words and of being duped. It is precisely this title of revolutionary republican that men who are neither revolutionaries, nor even perhaps republicans, pretend to adopt – the men who betrayed, who lost, both the revolution and the republic. They adopt this title in opposition to that of socialist. They excommunicate socialism, but they did not hesitate to dress themselves in its garb when the popular winds were blowing from that direction, and when socialism appeared on the brink of victory. They have since renounced it, renounced and jeered it, when our defeats brought down its flag. I recall the period when Ledru-Rollin claimed to be more socialist than Proudhon or Cabet and passed himself off as the Don Quixote of socialism. That was a long time ago. We have since lost a series of battles that have pushed the most advanced doctrines from the front of the stage. Today, Ledru-Rollin and his friends cast anathemas against socialism and attribute to it all our ills. This is a lie and an act of cowardice.

You say to me: ‘I am neither bourgeois, nor proletarian, I am a democrat.’ Beware words that lack definition; they are the favourite instrument of schemers. I know very well what you are; I can see it clearly from a few passages of your letter. But you label your opinions falsely; your label is taken from the deceivers’ jargon, which does not prevent me from perfectly recognising that you and I have the same ideas, the same views, which are very different from those of the schemers. It was they who invented the fine aphorism: neither proletarian, nor bourgeois, but democrat!

So what is a democrat, I ask you? It is a vague and banal word without any precise meaning, an elastic word, made of rubber. Is there any shade of opinion that could not somehow manage to find its place beneath this banner? Everyone claims to be a democrat, aristocrats above all others. Are you not aware that Monsieur Guizot is a democrat? Sly politicians take great pleasure in this vagueness that suits them very well; they are terrified of calling a spade a spade. This is why they prohibit the use of the terms proletarians and bourgeois. Those words have a clear and distinct meaning; they state things categorically – and this is what they dislike. They reject these terms as provoking civil war. Is this reason alone not enough to open your eyes? What have we been compelled to do for so long now, if not to make civil war? And against whom? Ah! This is precisely the question that they seek to muddle by using obscure words: their aim is to prevent the two opposing flags from confronting each other directly, so as to cheat the victorious flag of the fruits of victory, and to allow the vanquished to join the victors gradually and smoothly once the fighting has ended. They do not want the two opposing camps to call themselves by their true names: proletariat, bourgeois. However, they have no others.

Is it not true that within the nation there is a certain class, less well defined perhaps than the nobility and the clergy, but nevertheless very distinct and perfectly well known to everyone under the name: the bourgeois class? It includes most of the individuals who possess a certain amount of affluence and education: financiers, merchants, property-owners, lawyers, doctors, legal professionals, civil servants, rentiers – all those living from their revenues or from the exploitation of workers. Add to this quite a large number of country-dwellers who have some wealth but no education and you reach a maximum of perhaps four million people. There remain thirty-two million proletarians, who own no property, or at least no significant property, and who live only from the meagre product of their hands. The fierce war whose fortunes have tossed you to Spain and me to Belle-Île is being waged between these two classes. Beneath what flag have we fought, I ask you, if not the flag of the proletariat?

However, by my background, by my education, I am bourgeois, and perhaps you are too. For there are, thank heavens, many bourgeois who have joined the proletarian camp. They are even what constitute its principal – or at least its most persistent – force. They bring to it an enlightened contingent that the people are unfortunately not yet able to provide themselves. It was members of the bourgeois class who first raised the flag of the proletariat, who formulated egalitarian doctrines, and who now spread them, and sustain them, and restore them after they fall. Everywhere it is the bourgeois who lead the people in their battles against the bourgeoisie. This is precisely what enabled the wily schemers to lend some credibility to their ingenious axiom: neither bourgeois nor proletarian but democrat! What! Just because many suits appear amidst the ranks of those wearing labourers’ smocks, while many more smocks fight on behalf of the suits, does it follow that the struggle is not between the bourgeois mass on the one hand and the proletarian mass on the other – that is to say, between Revenues and Wages, between Capital and Labour?

Again, many nobles and priests fought for the cause of the first Revolution: should we therefore conclude that the Revolution was not aimed against the clergy and the nobility? Who would dare suggest such an absurdity? The calamity afflicting our party is that the allegiance of most of the bourgeois who are allied with the workers is not sincere. Ambition and cupidity push them into the camp of those proletarians who have risen up against oppression. They establish themselves at their head, they lead their attack on the government, seize control of it, install and entrench themselves within it. It is then that they change into conservatives and turn against this poor people who are left disoriented upon seeing their generals of yesterday denounce them the day after.

This mystification, which is regularly renewed with the same success, dates back to 1789. The middle class unleashed the people against the nobility and the clergy, overthrew them and took their place. In its bid to take over the heritage of the deposed castes it considered all means legitimate; all means were again legitimate when it came to preserving and maintaining its new yoke on the shoulders of the proletariat, once it starts to rebel. Hardly had the ancien régime been overthrown by the common effort before struggle began between the victorious allies, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

Today this struggle has returned exactly to where it was in 1789. To read the history of the first Revolution is to read the history of today. The similarity between the two is complete. The same words, the same terrain, the same epithets, the same events – it is an exact copy. Except that the bourgeoisie has learned more from experience than has the proletariat. Today you see the same men as before, these supposed friends of the people who simply seek to take the place of the deposed exploiters. Our so-called Montagnards, with Ledru-Rollin at their head, are Girondins, and faithful copies of their predecessors. They have adopted, it is true, the motto and the banner of the former Mountain; they swear only by Robespierre and the Jacobins. But in this they have no choice. How would deception be possible without it? It is the common ruse of the schemers to wave the flag of the people. The masses are trusting and credulous; they allow themselves to be taken in by sonorous words and grand gestures. Today their enemies seek both to impress and to mislead them at the same time, with bombastic banalities such as ‘republicans!, revolutionaries!’, ‘democrats!’ By contrast, precise terms that sharply divide and properly explain the situation – ‘bourgeois!’ ‘proletarian!’ – are angrily rejected.

Do not allow yourself to be taken in. Choose your camp and fasten your cockade. You are a proletarian because you seek real equality between citizens and the overthrow of all castes and all tyrannies. What should the revolution involve? The destruction of the existing order, founded on inequality and exploitation, the ruin of the oppressors, and deliverance of the people from the yoke of the rich. Well now! The self-styled revolutionary-republicans or democrats do not want anything to do with that. They proved this in February. Do not let yourself believe, then, that they were not able to overthrow the existing order; rather, they did not want to overthrow it, and they no more want to do so today. They have nothing but contempt for us; they are greedy and selfish, ready to pounce upon any new spoils and to shout once again: get out of my away! The imbeciles! They will forfeit the revolution once and for all. For, you see, every failed attempt leads to an even more terrible reaction. Moreover, you have seen all these people at work for four years; judge the future by the past. A wise man should not do otherwise.

I am, you say, neither French, nor Spanish; I am cosmopolitan. Ah! Very good, me too, but again beware of mystification! In your cosmopolitan enthusiasm you have just declared your allegiance to the least cosmopolitan and most selfishly nationalist man in all Europe, Mazzini. Do you know Mazzini? No, certainly not! He is a charlatan, an arrogant man, a careerist and, perhaps worst of all, we can see him setting himself up as the dictator of European democracy, the champion of universal revolution. Well! He is a revolutionary of Thiers’ stature, more or less. Do you know what he wants? Only one thing: to restore Italian nationality; to make Italy a major power – with him as leader, of course; to establish the supremacy of this power, to create for it a permanent standing army, a navy, a budget, in a word all the elements of force or oppression deployed by existing governments; then to speak out in diplomatic circles, and above all to humiliate France, to pursue and hound it, to ostracise it from Europe and deprive it of its material and moral splendour. This man has two passions: a thirst for Italian unity and a hatred of France.

After the catastrophe of December [1851],3 the time had certainly come for union, for concord; it was time to forget the past, and to form a solid phalanx against the common enemy while calling a truce to former disagreements. But no! Mazzini detests France, he abhors socialism, he could not waste such a wonderful opportunity to insult the one and to crush the other, and thus assuage his own hatred. He could now clear the ground of the ideas that impeded him, and incite the contempt of the people against France – he did not fail in this task: he kicked our party when it was down.

How can one read this torrent of odious and ridiculous invectives against social ideas with anything but a mix of indignation and pity? Who could believe someone might blame socialism for the defeat in December without arousing universal jeers! What impudence on the part of the charlatan! What imbecility on the part of the public! What? It is Pierre Leroux, Louis Blanc and Cabet who lost or who are responsible for losing the battle of 1851! If, in the Nièvre, the Allier, the Saône-et-Loire, the Jura, the Drôme, the Ardèche, the Var, the Hérault, the Gard, the Gers, the Lot-et-Garonne, etc., thousands of armed men fled before the gendarmes’ tricorned hats or the pompoms of stooges in uniform, it is socialism’s fault! What mockery! And this is uttered with impunity before all of Europe! The crime here should be attributed to the accusers, and honour to the accused! It was socialism that had mobilised these populations; it was the political leaders [chefs politiques] who did not know how to deploy them. What were messieurs Ledru-Rollin and company doing in London, Switzerland and elsewhere during the twelve deadly days of fighting? Why did they not rush onto the battlefield to add the weight of their name and of their immense popularity? Their presence would have rallied these abandoned and directionless masses, strengthened their courage, demoralised the army, and led to victory. But no! These gentlemen, like true pretenders, waited majestically in London for the people, who were to be victorious without them, to come and place their triumph and their power before their noble selves. Socialism successfully carried out its task and fulfilled its role. Some men failed in theirs. If, by chance, socialism had found a vigorous leader or head to support these masses, to organise them and direct them against the enemy, would we have worried about the doctrinal shade of his opinions?

What nonsense these tirades of Mazzini are! The December movement failed for purely military reasons. When the time came to fight, it found neither generals nor soldiers, only nervous and startled herds. As you say, we saw weakness, hesitation, terror, incapacity and stupidity everywhere. Socialism’s intellectual leaders cannot be held responsible for this rout. Mazzini might perhaps argue that the pitiful figure of the insurgents during this campaign stems from the very essence of socialist preaching, and that one cannot derive devotion and courage from the religion of the stomach, from the doctrines of material well-being, from selfish appetites, etc. But without socialism no-one would have risen up at all, which would have greatly simplified matters. Mazzini forgets that today no force in the world other than social ideas can rouse the proletariat; that the time of religious fanaticism has passed; that populations can no longer be moved by hollow slogans, miracles and unintelligible dogmas. It is as if he longs for the era of superstition and idiocy, when the masses, reduced to the level of beasts [les masses abruties], could be roused by the call of a priest to slit the throat of their fellow man in honour of Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin.

I am truly amazed that you saw the slightest analogy between my ideas and those of Mazzini. First, Mazzini has absolutely no ideas, revolutionary or otherwise, other than those that concern the independence or primacy of Italy. Beyond that, nothing. I ask you, what does Italian independence matter to us, if it does not also establish the rule of equality and fraternity that is our sole religion?

This man seeks to use us against ourselves. He is not only the enemy of our country, he is also the enemy of our convictions, of our social faith. He intends to establish in his country a form of bourgeois exploitation similar to that which has stirred up our anger and our weapons for the past twenty-two years. You may think I am slandering him. But read his monitories, try to find anything therein other than vague and empty ranting, hollow phraseology, mindless talk devoid of ideas, the sorts of democratic platitudes that say nothing, that commit to nothing; grand words – faith, devotion, revolution – without the least bit of positive thought. Thiers, as a member of the opposition, could have signed these tirades. Is it with this sort of droning waffle that one might rouse the masses to action in France? They have moved on, thank God. They understand the revolution as it should be understood, and not as the great Mazzini wants it. Here the people will no longer rise up in the name of hollow phrases, even if the word ‘revolution’ is bellowed from one end of the country to the other. The countryside only began to mobilise after having attached a very positive and very categorical meaning to this word ‘revolution’. War on the chateaux! Down with the rich! Death to the exploiters! This is the rallying cry of the countryside, and their translation of the word ‘socialism’.

These cries terrify Mazzini and his ilk. Neither should you forget Kossuth’s4 anathemas in England against socialism, once he had learned where the various parties stood. All he demands is Hungarian independence while upholding the aristocratic and feudal regime that rules over it. You can imagine how much he might care for our doctrines. Over there they would hang us. France is far ahead of the rest of Europe; it has gone through the stages that our neighbours are yet to pass through. The words ‘revolution’ and ‘revolutionary’ therefore do not have the same meaning for us as they do for the majority of foreigners. Almost all of them are still at the stage of the war waged by the bourgeois against kings, the nobility and priests. Some of them, the Hungarians, the Polish, are nothing but aristocrats, fighting for national independence against foreign conquerors. Here in France, the clergy and the nobility are nearly dead and so have been forced to join with the bourgeoisie in order to support the common war against the proletariat. Kings, nobles, priests and bourgeois are all allied against working people [le peuple des travailleurs]. In the latest insurrection, all through France Bonaparte had the bourgeois as auxiliaries for his troops. Without them he would have failed. Numerous bourgeois undoubtedly joined the ranks of the people, but they are exceptions. They prove the rule. Finance, business, property and the bar opposed the popular movement everywhere and en masse. It is said that today the bourgeoisie is waging a war against the government; but this is not to please us – it is for the benefit of the Bourbons, young or old.

Mazzini furiously rants against the materialism of the socialist doctrines, against claims made on behalf of appetites, against the appeal to selfish interests; he thunders against the degrading and demoralising theory of material well-being. Can you not see that this is quite simply a counter-revolutionary tirade? What is the revolution if not the material amelioration of the condition of the masses? And what nonsense, these invectives against the doctrine of interests. Individual interests count for nothing, but the interests of an entire people raise themselves to the dignity of a principle; those of humanity as a whole become a religion.

Do peoples ever act in the name of anything other than interests? The appeal to freedom is also an appeal to selfishness, for freedom is a material good and servitude a cause of suffering. To fight for bread, that is to say for the life of one’s children, is something more saintly than fighting for freedom. In any case, the two interests merge and in reality make up but one. Hunger is slavery. The worker and the peasant that poverty delivers as beasts of burden to the manufacturer and the owner – are they free? Go and talk to these poor wretches about freedom. They will respond: ‘Freedom means having bread on the table.’ We say to them: ‘Freedom means well-being [le bien-être]!’ Are we wrong? We are not talking to Negroes, nor to comrades of Spartacus, but to serfs who have all the appearances of freedom amid all the pains of servitude. They must be led to see the true cause of their suffering; they must be shown the knot of the problem so they can sever it with their sword. Mazzini can berate us all he wants regarding the insurrection of appetites; this is the only kind of insurrection that there is. But, some might say, is not religious fanaticism a noble and selfless motive? The crusaders fought for eternal life, which is itself the most voracious of appetites. […]

Farewell, my dear citizen; you asked for my opinion, and I have given it to you clearly and frankly, albeit at some length. I have been all the more frank, the more I regretted your endorsement of Mazzini. I tell you, truly, that you are not on the same side as him, far from it. You have believed him to be that which he is not and you apply to yourself qualifications that are not your own. You are a revolutionary-socialist; one cannot be a revolutionary without being a socialist, and vice versa. There are, however, peaceable socialists, desk-bound men of a quiet and peaceful character, who are not at home in the midst of tumult and weapons, and who are revolutionary in ideas alone. In general, intellectual leaders are of this ilk, and nonetheless serve the revolution. But let us only take from them their ideas and leave them their character. As for practical socialism, it belongs to no special sect, to no church. It takes what suits it from each system, and has no particular infatuation for any one school of thought. It seeks to overthrow what currently exists, not aimlessly or for the benefit of intrigues, but by virtue of settled principles, with the firm resolution to build the future on the new foundations that will be provided by enlightened socialism, developed and determined by the events that occur.

We belong to this category, you and I, together with 99.9 per cent of all socialists, and together with the workers and peasants, but not with the Montagnards, who are cut from a completely different cloth and who call themselves, like Ledru-Rollin, revolutionary-republicans. For the past four years they have shown their true colours. I know what they want: to start February over again, nothing more; they are keen and ready to serve in the legislature at a rate of twenty-five francs per day, in the prefecture for forty francs, or to don an ermine robe, or a uniform with large epaulettes – but in any case and above all, to ensure that they continue to occupy a central political position. If the schemers manage to reissue their mystified version of February then this time we will be truly done for. This new failure would bring [Tsar] Nicolas to Paris.5 The only thing left for the survivors to do would be to leave for America. But in the next revolution I am counting on the peasants6 to conjure away the conjurers [escamoter les escamoteurs]. The latter suspect this; they are afraid. Fear – this is the key to their conduct over the past few years. Both the Mountain and the press are truly terrified of the rabble. The prospect of a revolution from the streets has always made their flesh crawl. On 31st May [1850]7 their conduct was defined by two words: cowardice and perfidy! They felt stuck between a rock and a hard place, drowned in victory, drowned in defeat. But at least they proved very capable of manoeuvring to evade the storm and to hold on to their twenty-five francs.

Right, I must finish. Farewell once again, and many fraternal greetings.

  1.  Source: MF, 172-186, based on the text held by the Institut français d’histoire sociale, Fonds Dommanget. There are several slightly different manuscript versions of this letter in Blanqui’s papers, notably MSS 9581, ff. 152-160, 269-274, 320-321; 9590(2), ff. 374-384. As Dommanget notes, Maillard sent Blanqui’s reply on to Dr. Louis Lacambre, the former vice-president of the Société Républicaine Centrale, who was in exile in Valencia. Lacambre set about distributing the letter, and soon copies of varying accuracy began to circulate widely among republican circles; the newspaper Le Cri du Peuple reproduced it in October 1885 (Dommanget, Blanqui à Belle-Île, 189).
  2. Throughout this letter, Blanqui distinguishes between socialism’s ‘chefs d’école’, i.e. the intellectual leaders associated with its variant schools or approaches (e.g. Etienne Cabet or Proudhon or himself, by implication), and the short-lived republic’s scheming ‘chefs politiques’, i.e. treacherous political leaders like Lamartine and Ledru-Rollin. In the version copied out in MSS 9590(2), f. 374, the list of culprits reads: ‘… the lawyers, the fearful, the philosophers, the chefs d’école, and internal divisions.’
  3. A reference to Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état of 2 December 1851.
  4.  Lajos Kossuth (1802-94), President of Hungary from 1848 to 1849.
  5.  Nicolas I (1796-1855), Tsar of Russia from 1825 to 1855.
  6.  Var.: ‘the people’, MSS 9590(2), ff. 379, 384.
  7.  The electoral law of 31 May 1850 disenfranchised anyone convicted of political crimes and all those who had not lived for at least three years in their constituency. Overall, the law reduced the electorate by around 30 per cent.