Notes on Positivism (1869)

8 April 18691

The source of progress resides in the communication of thought. Evil is thus all that prevents such communication, good all that encourages and increases it. In this sense, the invention of the printing press has been the greatest benefit to humanity, Christianity its cruellest scourge. Chaining the human mind to an immutable doctrine, establishing systematic extermination in principle and practicing it in action in order to maintain this so-called absolute truth and the eternal immobilisation of thought – is this not a violation of humanity in its entirety? The crime par excellence, then, is everything that aims to prolong the existence of this religion of death, and the principal duty is to destroy at all costs so horrible a plague.

15 March 1869

Pompéry, Revendication du Prolétariat, page 2, loose sheet.2

Communism is not, as Pompéry claims, a formless chaos, the confused syncretism of the first ages of Humanity; it is the last word of social science, the ideal of the future.

It is incorrect to suggest that communism has ever characterised the initial stages of any form of society, and that it marks the lowest degree of sociability. These assertions are diametrically opposed to the truth, and all of history offers a permanent refutation of them.

Neither the Essenes nor the Moravian Church constituted a nation,3 no more than the Greek and Latin convents. They were groups of individuals living outside of the real world, under the domination of a religious belief – that is to say, infected by the worst of all plagues.

Throughout history and across every country, individualism has been the first form of society. Its reign is that of ignorance, savagery and brutishness. It slowly mends its ways over the course of time, and this improvement is never anything less than an attack on its principle. All social progress, every amelioration is a communist innovation.

Communism is nothing but the (final) stage of association, and today no-one disputes that association is the true instrument and barometer of progress. Why should association be considered excellent as long as it remains incomplete, and detestable once it has been brought to its point of perfection?

Association grows, advances and spreads by enlightenment alone. Every step made along this path is the result of progress in popular education. Every victory of ignorance, on the other hand, is an attack on association. There is an intimate connection between these two realms of ideas – all facts attest to this. Communism will only be achieved through the absolute triumph of enlightenment. It will be its ineluctable consequence, its social and political expression.

Individualism is hell for individuals; it takes no account of them and is founded on their systematic destruction. One need only look at our current times and at previous centuries. The violent sacrifice of individuals always occurs in direct proportion to the preponderance of individualism. For an individual, individualism signifies extermination, while communism means the respect, safety and security of every person.

In every era there have been communist theories. One can understand why. Great intellects can discern in communism the ideal of social organisation. Application of the ideal, however, has always failed in the face of ignorance. Enlightenment is the sine qua non of communism. Communism only becomes possible through enlightenment; it is its necessary end point.

The first Christians made an attempt at it. The failure was total. This premature attempt at perfection turned into a disaster. It gave birth to convents, one of the most pernicious aberrations of the human mind. The untimely remedy was turned into poison.

…In the trial of the past by the future, contemporary memoirs are the witnesses, history is the judge, and the verdict is almost always an iniquity, either because of false or missing evidence, or because of the ignorance of the court. Fortunately, the appeal remains forever open, and the light of future centuries, cast into the distance, onto past centuries, denounces the sentences passed by the darkness…

1 April 1869

(Revue Positive, March-April 1869). Article by Stupuy, ‘Une Remarque sur Condorcet’, pages 201 onwards.4

A heap of absurdities and foolishness concerning Christianity and the Middle Ages, which have been wrongly attacked by the Revolutionaries, according to the author. Supposed benefits of Catholicism and feudalism. Execrable doctrine of historical fatalism, of fatalism in humanity. Everything that happens is good simply because it happens.

So long as Catholicism is the strongest force it remains irreproachable. Only when it starts to become weak does it begin to commit wrongs. Feudalism is equally good so long as it crushes [any opposition]. It only becomes a scourge with its decline.

A travesty of facts, as audacious as it is inept, to justify this sinister theory of unconditional progress, of progress regardless of what happens [du progrès quand même], of continual health. Grotesque aplomb of these systematisers in their pedantry. Their so-called Sociology is elevated to the status of a near mathematical science. The most foolish, the most manifestly ridiculous observations are calmly presented as scientifically proven truths.

Auguste Comte has discovered nothing at all. He has classified, labelled, peddled in pedantries. His systems have varied with the whims of events and circumstances. This supposed founder of positive science suddenly threw himself into the extravagances of mysticism. This destroyer of dogmas invented the religion of humanity with its sacraments and priesthood. Why? Because the coup d’état [of December 1851] terrified him. He saw in it the sudden and unexpected triumph of the past. In order to sway and seduce it, he offered it an ultra-aristocratic religion, the caste system, the enslavement of the masses, the absolute domination of the rich, and all the accumulated follies of Brahmanism and Christianity.

Why do his orthodox disciples refuse to follow him along this path? What right do they have to challenge the competence of the great revealer on this score, while also proclaiming him to be the supreme prophet who has uttered the last word on humanity?

They at once speak in his name and renounce him! But if his most recent oracular declarations are nonsense, his first ones were not infallible.

Positivism, which issues accusations willy-nilly, which calls everything that is outside of it – Protestantism, Deism, Atheism – a negation, is itself the very exemplar of negation, of doubt systematically pushed to the absurd, elevated to a religion. It is not Positivism but Negativism, or rather, Nihilism. It is an expedient, a ruse, a trick.

To demonstrate its sociological science, Positivism distorts and misrepresents history with an audacity that would make even Father Loriquet5 jealous. And this audacity impresses. It need only call itself a science, to adopt this universally respected name, for it to become immediately sacrosanct. No-one dares look it in the eye. We humbly bow and doff our hat before it.

We should add that it is also protected by cowards, which a very powerful form of protection. It is used as a shelter by the shameful atheists and materialists who are determined to live in peace with the ruling force and to avoid falling out with the powers that be. Were it not for this support, the dubious doctrine of prevarication and equivocation would have soon foundered. But, whatever one says, the craven are an excellent rampart.

‘Spiritual authority, so respectable and respected in the Middle Ages’, Stupuy states on page 203, ‘increasingly discredited itself in the sixteenth century though the public spectacle of its misconduct and through the never-ending conflicts which dominated the papal elections… …’

As if the misconduct of the popes and the scandals of the conclave in the sixteenth century compare, in any way, to the infamies6 and the atrocities of the papal rivalries of the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries, the period when spiritual authority was depicted as so respectable!

It was only respectable because it was then unchallenged and omnipotent, thanks to its ferocity.7 Christianity would certainly not have got very far without violence.8 Right from the beginning, violence was its sole method. Already in the first century, while still working in the shadows, it proceeded through constraint, oppression, espionage and calumnies. It used its organisation as its citadel, and all forms of violence as its weapons. This formidable organisation resists everything, triumphs over everything. The Roman Empire was its first victim. Once victorious, Christianity maintained its power, just as it conquered it, through destruction.

Without this system it would have died in its cradle; and once it had gained control, if it had loosened its grip it would not have lasted two hundred years. Its armies, its merciless wars, the sword, the pyre, torture, deception, trickery, the enslavement of thought, the besieging of every individual, the immediate annihilation of any objection – all consolidated it across centuries and in the face of obstacles. Fire, carnage and destruction mark its path.

What might have happened if Christianity had succumbed in any of the struggles that ended with its triumph? [According to the positivists,] no-one can say, or even speculate. Even the slightest bit of conjecture on this matter would be simply foolish. Since things have taken place this way, it seems that they could not have taken place any other way. The fait accompli has an irresistible power. It is destiny itself. The mind is overwhelmed by it and dares not rise in revolt: it lacks a solid foundation, and can support itself only on nothing.

What a terrible strength this is for the fatalists of history, worshippers of the fait accompli! All the atrocities of the victors, their long series of attacks are coldly transformed into a regular and ineluctable evolution, like that of nature. Nothing stops these imperturbable Systematisers. [Pope] John XII, Marozia, Theodora, Mathilde, etc. constitute a respectable and respected ‘spiritual authority’! All of this is legitimate, essential. It must be seen as mankind’s natural, necessary course. The rationale behind it is irrefutable: all these things follow one another, there is a steady filiation from one event to the next, and every era is the product of the previous era.

What a fine discovery and line of reasoning! Ah yes! No doubt everything is related and connected together. The second after follows the second before. But the inter-connection or succession of human things is not inevitable [fatal], like that of the universe. It can be changed at any moment. A couple is going to marry. I kill the man and take the woman. Her children will be mine. Could they not have been those of the man who was killed? The murder intervened and changed the father. There is always filiation, but is there a lineage?9

It is immoral, it is a crime to glorify the past despite everything, to justify it through supposedly immutable laws, to invoke the dignity of history, which commands respect or even indulgence for the horrors of times gone by. To speak of the services rendered by Catholicism could have been, at certain moments, a deception, an illusion of circumstance. Today, however, after the lessons of recent years, it is no longer possible to plead the cause of this harmful religion in the name of fatalism. From its first to its final hour, it has committed and will commit only evil. It has been no more useful to humanity than smallpox, plague or cholera are necessary for a man’s good health.

The doctrine of continual progress is a fantasy of transitional periods. It provided Catholicism with a few years of fashionable popularity during Louis-Philippe’s reign. It was one form of reaction against mercantilism, a reaction provoked among democrats by the excesses and cynical presumptuousness of material interests. [During the July monarchy] the middle classes shamelessly enthroned the golden calf and appeared to establish it as the universal religion. Thought was held in contempt, the idea of social justice was outlawed, and getting rich at all costs was proclaimed the sole virtue.

For a brief moment, in the initial revulsion at this stench, the Revolution forgot the crimes committed by Catholicism so as to recall only its spirituality, and almost had the illusion of seeing, in this deposed adversary, an auxiliary in the fight against the filthy enemy that had suddenly appeared before it. The Middle Ages had a few moments of universal popularity, as a result of misunderstanding and naivety in the popular camp, and of instinct and calculation amongst the conservatives. What short-lived unanimity! This misapprehension was soon dispelled, and instinct turned itself into doctrine. All things reassumed their true colours. Once again, the future recognised in Christianity its mortal enemy; the past saw in it its last hope.

Positivism, beholden to its great revealer, remains frozen in admiration of the Middle Ages. Auguste Comte, a contemporary of this momentary infatuation, made it into one of the pillars of his weighty sociological construction. The disciples inhabit their master’s edifice as best they can. They falsify, they mutilate history in order to make it fit with the ravings of the new holy books. The Bible was divinely inspired. Auguste Comte’s tomes are proven science. Which claim is the more presumptuous?

In its systematisation of the Middle Ages, Positivism pitilessly and unscrupulously sacrifices to it all the martyrs of thought and justice: Abelard, Arnold of Brescia, Cola di Rienzo, etc. No doubt it dares not condemn them outright, limiting itself to suppressing their names and roles, and simply to removing from history the great figures who might undermine its thesis of the legitimate papacy…… – legitimate, as one might expect, so long as its crimes preserve it as omnipotent, but then guilty as soon as these can no longer save it from decline.

The extent of Positivism’s insolence is truly remarkable. It is Positivism that discovered the sun, the moon and the stars. At every moment it invents a mass of things that are as wonderful as they are unknown, such as bread, wine, and the candle. Nothing existed before it. It created everything, and ordered everything. Its way of going about things is curious. It operates by bogging down, in a vast swamp of phrases, what everyone could already express in a few words of the clearest water. And so for instance, obfuscated across forty unreadable pages, Positivism presents to the world this simple truth: ‘We are always to some extent a product of our time’.

Another discovery using the same method: ‘All eras have reactionaries and progressives.’ Who could ever have unearthed this insight, and so many other things, before Auguste Comte? It was surely Comte who planted a positive nose in the middle of all our faces. Until this Messiah’s arrival, we had only false ones.

… Christianity died at the hands of Voltaire. By 1789 everything was well and truly over. Posterity will not have the slightest interest in these supposed great exegetical works of the nineteenth century that busy themselves counting the hairs and warts on the corpse, in order to certify its identity; the malaise that its putrid decomposition spreads over our era will not distract posterity for more than a minute. All that remains is a matter of narration,10 not controversy. What is of value in the nineteenth century will only be confirmed through Science; its literary and religious scribblings will end their days entombed in the dust of libraries, when they have not been torn up and used by greengrocers as wrapping for their wares…

Revue Positive (March-April 1869).

Article by Wyrouboff on Russian drunkenness11 – a masterpiece of pedantic foolishness and positivist cretinism. The basic assumption of this fine work is the powerlessness of governments to do anything, to change anything, to modify anything in the peoples they dominate. All of history proves this, does it not? Oh the triumph of sociology!

29 March 1869

The only people who can cope with violent situations that put life in permanent danger are either slaves crushed by terror or souls exalted by enthusiasm. The profession of a soldier, and still more that of a sailor, is only open to the two opposite extremes, the stupefied or the heroic…

La Morale indépendante, edition of 26 March 1869

Morality defined [here] as respect for one’s own person and one’s own dignity, and respect for the person and dignity of others. An entirely passive morality. ‘Do not allow yourself to be disrespected, do not disrespect others.’ This is individualism at its most narrow, arrogant, prickly, enclosed, selfish; it is isolation.

True morality is active. It is the mutualist idea, solidarity, association, collective action…

8 April 1869

Revue Positive (January-February 1869), article by Roberty on Marx’s work, Capital.12 He writes:

In our view, the social question is profoundly distorted when, rather than studying the necessary conditions for healthy production and a just distribution of wealth, one limits oneself to an analysis of its constitutive elements and to telling us, for example, that in returning back to the source of all income produced by capital one discovers a global appropriation of human labour. For the profit from capital may be whatever it wants – it is no less of a necessary component of modern industry.

These men care little for justice or morality. Dialogue: ‘I am going to kill you. People can say whatever they want about it, your death is no less necessary for me.’ – ‘Fine! But then your death is all the more indispensable for me, so I will kill you. People can also say whatever they want about it.’ Put in these terms, the question is straightforward. It is simply a matter of being the strongest…

… Whatever the heterodox positivists might say, the second phase of Comte’s work existed in embryo in the first.

He always expressed great admiration for Catholicism, limiting himself to telling it that: ‘In your time you were sublime, but that time has past. You are now stale and outdated. Lie with dignity in your coffin, like those old savages who can no longer scalp their victims and who voluntarily leave for the lands of the Great Spirit. So! Be on your way then to the other world, my good man, and make room for your natural successor, sacrosanct Positivism.’

This departure already anticipates the peroration [of this whole discourse]: ‘priesthood and patriciate’. A ‘Religion of Humanity’, with castes as its basis. A conclusion that is perfectly consistent with the premise.

Positivism excludes the idea of justice both from its supposed science of sociology, as well as from its philosophy of history. It accepts only the law of continual progress regardless of what happens, of fatalism. Any event is excellent in its appointed time since it takes place in the ongoing series of improvements. Everything that occurs is always for the best. There is no criterion to evaluate the good or the bad. Any such criterion would be a matter of preconception, of the a priori, of metaphysics.

Historical experience has shown that education is the sole agent of progress, that enlightenment springs (almost) only from the exchange (and clash) of human thoughts; consequently all that encourages and increases this exchange is good, all that suppresses or hinders it is evil. Christianity has as its fundamental principle the annihilation of the freedom to think and to communicate one’s thought. It follows that Christianity is darkness and evil.

‘Nonsense! That is nothing but metaphysics and twaddle!’, the positivist will respond. ‘The truth is that Christianity, since it fought and reigned for over 1,500 years (by whatever means), was necessarily a force of progress throughout this period of struggle and domination. It only started to become evil and an obstacle [to progress] with its decline, and only because it declined.’ – ‘However, whether in its beginning, at its height, or during its decline, its method has always been the same: ‘“exterminate thought”’. – ‘But what does that matter! Hosanna! Glory to its triumph! Hurrah! Down with it! Here’s to its defeat!’

Such is the positive philosophy, as generous as it is just, as noble as it is consoling.

These blind systematisers’ mania for progress regardless of what happens even leads them to indict, as a reactionary movement and negative impulse, the renaissance of Greco-Latin letters, and according to them this victory over the loathsome works of the Middle Ages was a backwards step. It disrupted the regular evolution of things, which was Christian! It smuggled ancient paganism back into the new world. Antiquity is an intruder that led us astray, for it made the current of the river of the ages change direction.

It is true that, by re-emerging into the light, like the Rhone after its disappearance, antiquity firmly refuted the obsession with continuous development. Cutting things short, then driving the Middle Ages back into darkness, it re-established on the ruins of the Christiano-absolutist tradition the idea of freedom and the Republic that had been safely conserved in the entrails of the Greek and Latin languages.

So it is false, this theory of uninterrupted and inevitable progress. For Greco-Roman civilisation leapt over Christianity to remake modern civilisation, in spite of it and against it. There is no clearer proof that this religion, this terrible disease, pinned down humanity in a sick bed for nearly two thousand years.

If science was able to develop, it is because the printing press, drawing on Antiquity, delivered science from the tiger that watched over it when it was still in its infancy. The Positivists love Science and sing its praises. But science is the child of antiquity. Christianity nearly killed it. ‘Witch! To the stake!’, this scoundrel cried. Science did not escape without difficulty, as Roger Bacon, Ramon Llull and many others show. It is coming back to life today to punish the monster. By what right do the panegyrists of the assassin make themselves into the eulogists of the victim?

Positivism is nothing but one long series of tricks. The first and best is its very name, which claims for itself the right to all that is real and true! It first latches on to science to make it its own through this marriage. The notion of ‘positive science’ is taken up by common opinion. ‘Before Comte there was thus only negative science.’

But this coupling is nothing more than a pleonasm. ‘Shining light’ would be no more ridiculous, but what does the sin of pleonasm matter for positivist mumbo-jumbo, this oozing sore on our language?

Positivism denotes each of the various actual sciences as a particular science, and calls general science Positive Philosophy – that is to say, Comtean classification. What does it thereby modestly establish for humanity as the Science of Sciences? The fantasy of a pedant! Nomenclature with no practical value, with no contemporary application, a useless trinket to place under a bell jar.

The public are carried along and follows with their eyes closed, completely dazed by terrifying gibberish which seems to them to have come straight out from Trophonius’s cave.13

The only thing of value in Positivism is its materialism. Remove this quality and there remains nothing but errors and presumptuousness. Nothing better demonstrates the truth of materialism and yet, strangely, it rejects this conclusion and calls materialism metaphysics. What an amusing accusation! Ah! Gentlemen, you clumsily attribute your qualities to others, but we do not accept yours so easily.14

To affirm, in the name of experience, the non-immortality of the soul, the eternity of matter, but to reject the label of ‘materialist’ is a refinement of casuistry inaccessible to the intelligence of a mere mortal. What is materialism, if not the doctrine which declares the universe to be infinite in time and space, and the mind an inseparable property of the nervous or neural substance, in life as in death?

Positivism, through some detours and subtleties, says essentially the same thing. Frankness aside, what is the difference between these two doctrines? – Ah! Here is it: one is nothing but an incomprehensible particularism;15 the other stands for the universality of human knowledge. So did Positivism invent all these fields of knowledge? No, it simply threads them together into a rosary and spouts this rosary as if it were its own work.

Positivism is a demi-God that knows everything, that embraces everything, from the recent conflicts within higher mathematics to the slightest findings of Sociology past, present and future. From the height of its omniscient throne, it contemptuously looks down on the pygmy who dares claim to be its equal and says to it, as it would to a tiny insect: ‘What do we have in common?’

Revue Positive (November – December 1869). Article, Revolution by Littré.16

Dreadful pathos of Auguste Comte regarding the philosophies of Voltaire and Rousseau. Bad faith of this so-called revealer who claims to recognise only two schools in the eighteenth century, both of which are Deist, without uttering a single word about the materialist and atheist school represented by Diderot, d’Holbach, d’Alembert, La Mettrie, Helvétius, etc.

The brave man had his reasons for overlooking this group. He just wanted to invent atheism under the name of Positivism. Following the example of their master, Comte’s disciples also pretend to see in atheism nothing but a metaphysics. But if you remove the atheist and materialist idea from their gibberish, what remains? A fanciful classification. With this word ‘Positivism’ they have almost succeeded in passing themselves off as the creators of all the social sciences.

What terrible gibberish, this style of Auguste Comte! Has such a writer ever been able to extract anything serious from his brain? Littré discovers in this patois an explanation for the reactionary consequences of Thermidor. ‘It is’, he says, ‘the inter-mixing of Reaction in the Thermidorian movement. Robespierre’s violence had made reaction imminent.’

This reason is the same as that of [Thomas] Diafoirus:17 ‘Why does opium cause sleep? Because it has a somniferous property.’ For whence comes ‘the inter-mixing of Reaction in the Thermidorian movement’? Who made it possible? Having been squashed up to that point, how was it able to rear its head and get the upper hand so suddenly?

[In reality], the composition of the deliberative assemblies – which were, without exception, all bad after 1789 – was to blame. The Constituent Assembly, the Legislative Assembly and the Convention were all collections of selfish and cowardly bourgeois, a heap of nonentities and mediocrities where people of talent were in small number and people of real character even rarer still.

Held in check on 31 May [1793]18 by the revolutionary minority, then summoned by the Montagnards to rescue them from the Robespierrist dictatorship, the retrograde majority in the Convention found itself free on 9 Thermidor [27 July 1794] and in control the following day.

  1.  Source: MSS 9590(1), ff. 58-67. This untitled compilation of notes, loosely arranged by date, was first published by Abensour and Pelousse as ‘Contre le positivisme’ in Instructions pour une prise d’armes, 195-225. Many of these fragments include Blanqui’s subsequent minor additions and revisions (written in pencil on the manuscript); we have included the most significant of these additions in parentheses in the main text, and the most significant revisions as variants in the footnotes, but have omitted most of his passing references to the contemporary press.
  2. Cf. Edouard de Pompéry, La Question sociale dans les réunions publiques. Revendication du prolétaire (Paris: Degorce-Cadot, 1869).
  3.  Var.: ‘société humaine’.
  4.  Hippolyte Stupuy, ‘Une Remarque sur Condorcet’, La Philosophie positive: revue 4: 5 (March-April 1869): 179-216.
  5.  A reference to the Jesuit Jean Nicolas Loriquet (1767-1845), author of Le Salut de la France (1816).
  6.  Var.: ‘turpitudes’.
  7.  Var.: ‘thanks to its recourse to extermination’ (MSS 9590(1), f. 61).
  8.  Var.: ‘Christianity lived through violence alone’ (ibid.).
  9.  ‘Il y a toujours filiation, mais la descendance?Var.: ‘… mais la descendance est tout autre.’
  10.  Var.: ‘sujet de récit’ (i.e. the story of Christianity’s decadence and eclipse).
  11.  Grégoire Wyrouboff, ‘De L’Ivrognerie en Russie’, La Philosophie positive 4:5 (March-April 1869): 264-83.
  12. Eugène de Roberty, untitled review of Karl Marx, Das Kapital. Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie, vol. 1 (Hamburg: Otto Meissner, 1867), in La Philosophie positive: revue 3:3 (November-December 1868), 508-9
  13.  Trophonius was the legendary builder of Apollo’s temple at Delphi; the cave into which he disappeared is a proverbial place of sacred horror.
  14.  ‘Vous donnez lourdement vos qualités aux autres/et nous n’acceptons pas si lestement les vôtres’ (f. 65 verso).
  15.  ‘un particularisme – style Allemand’.
  16. Emile Littré, ‘La Révolution, par M. Edgar Quinet’, La Philosophie positive 3:3 (November–December 1868), 374–96
  17.  The doctor Thomas Diafoirus is a character in Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid.
  18.  A reference to the popular insurrection of 31 May-2 June 1793 that led to the fall of the Gironde.