Revolution Without Compromise
Before Marx, there was Auguste Blanqui.
Karl Marx credited Louis-Auguste Blanqui as “the brains and inspiration of the proletarian party in France.” Though largely forgotten today, revolutionaries across the globe once viewed this nineteenth-century French political prisoner as a hero of revolutionary socialism. In this time of so much political backsliding and compromise, it is worth looking at the life of Blanqui.
Over fifty years, Blanqui inspired French radicals with his speeches and writing. When not in prison, he launched a half-dozen insurrections and stood on the front lines of pitched battles between the state and the revolutionaries. He devoted his life to toppling capitalism and inaugurating a socialist republic. Today, as we face an increasingly brutal neoliberal regime, the Left should take inspiration from Blanqui’s unwavering commitment to social transformation.
Early Political Upheaval
Auguste Blanqui’s family had already lived through its share of political turmoil before he was born on February 1, 1805. His father Jean Dominique, a former Girondist, had suffered during the Reign of Terror, but had become a Napoleonic prefect. His loving mother Sophie was devoted to her son.
The family’s stability abruptly ended in 1815 with the overthrow of the First French Empire. Seeing foreign soldiers in his home kindled Auguste’s fiery nationalism.
Despite their change in fortunes, the Blanquis still had enough money to send Auguste and his older brother Jérôme-Adolphe — later a famed economist — to the finest schools in Paris. While studying law and medicine, Auguste witnessed the public execution of four members of the Carbonari, the underground anti-Bourbon movement. Watching them on the scaffold, Blanqui learned to hate a society that would murder four good men to protect the privileged. He vowed his fidelity to the revolutionary cause then and there — an oath he would never break.
Auguste joined the Carbonari while continuing his studies, but he grew tired of the group and became a student organizer. The underground did not pay, so he supplemented his income by working as a tutor.
In 1825, he fell passionately in love with Amélie-Suzanne Serre, a talented painter. Her conservative middle-class family disapproved of the young radical, but, in 1834, the couple married anyway. The two remained absolutely devoted to each other until Amélie-Suzanne’s death in 1841.
Between 1827 and 1830, Blanqui became a committed revolutionary. Working primarily as a journalist, he was dismayed to discover that many of his colleagues could not translate their republican words into action. Blanqui began to see that it would take force to oust the monarchy.
In 1827, student demonstrations with the army erupted in Paris, and Blanqui was gravely wounded in the fighting. These events left a lasting impression on him: he had witnessed not only the people’s heroic spirit but also the liberals’ cowardice.
The 1830 July Revolution, which finally toppled the Bourbons, reinforced this lesson. Once again, Blanqui stayed on the front lines of the Three Glorious Days of barricade fighting, hoping that ordinary people would see their triumph rewarded with a socially just republic. Once again, he was disappointed: The liberal bourgeoisie, who had not even participated in the battles, robbed the people of their victory.
Fearing a Jacobin repeat, they passed the crown to Louis-Philippe. The July Revolution only managed to exchange one monarch for another, and the workers’ lives remained as wretched as ever.
Blanqui would not let this betrayal stand. He realized that it was not enough to change the man who sits on the throne; everything that supported aristocratic privilege needed to be dismantled. He called for a true republic, one that would bring about “the emancipation of workers . . . the end of the reign of exploitation . . . a new order that will free labor from the tyranny of capital.”
To the Barricades
Blanqui continued to organize with the republican opposition, and it didn’t take long to run afoul of the law. On trial in 1832, Blanqui spoke for the working class:
I am accused of having told thirty million French people, proletarians like me, that they had the right to live . . . As for our role, it is written in advance; the role of accuser is the only one appropriate for the oppressed.
After a year in prison, Blanqui returned to his revolutionary work, organizing two secret societies with hundreds of working-class members. Most republicans found Blanqui too extreme since his organizations were willing to resort to arms to seize political power. Once they had power, Blanqui believed, the revolutionaries would establish a dictatorship with two goals: to defend the poor against the rich and to educate people about the virtues of a new society. Soon after, this dictatorship would give way to communism.
On May 12, 1839, after several false starts, Blanqui’s Society of Seasons seized several buildings in Paris, launching their insurrection. For a brief moment, a new republic appeared on the horizon. But Blanqui’s plan had a fatal flaw: the masses played no role in taking power. The revolt was crushed, and Blanqui went into hiding. He was captured a month later and sentenced to life in prison.
Blanqui was held in the fortress of Mont-Saint-Michel, where prisoners could not properly sit nor stand, vermin filled their cells, and temperatures soared in the summer and plummeted in the winter. In February 1841, he learned of Amélie-Suzanne’s death. This was worse than the prison’s physical deprivations: he remained motionless for days and contemplated suicide. For the rest of his life, he wore black gloves as a sign of mourning.
Blanqui’s legend began to grow, and more people learned of Mont-Saint-Michel’s unforgivable treatment of its prisoners. By 1844, it had taken its toll on Blanqui’s health, and he lay dying in his cell. To avoid creating a martyr, Louis-Philippe pardoned him, but Blanqui defiantly stayed in prison with his comrades.
The throne granted him clemency anyway, and Blanqui miraculously survived his illness. He was finally freed in 1848 when the monarchy fell and Paris’s working class once again took to the barricades.
Overjoyed, Blanqui hurried to Paris. He was determined that the workers would not be cheated of their victory this time.
Second Republic to Second Empire
Blanqui called for socialism at rallies all over Paris. Marx recognized him as the symbol of communism in France, declaring: “The proletariat rallies more and more around revolutionary socialism, around communism, for which the bourgeoisie has itself invented the name of Blanqui.”
When members of the ruling class attended his speeches, they saw only unbridled radicalism that needed to be kept in check. Alexis de Tocqueville said Blanqui’s appearance “filled [him] with disgust and horror.” He described the revolutionary leader:
His cheeks were pale and faded, his lips white; he looked ill, evil, foul, with a dirty pallor and the appearance of a moldering corpse . . . He might have lived in a sewer and just emerged from it.
As conservative opposition to the Republic mounted, many of Blanqui’s followers clamored for action. On May 15, despite his objections, a demonstration at the Chamber of Deputies turned into a disorganized coup d’etat. Designed to establish a new radical government, the coup only managed to get its organizers arrested. The real tragedy came in June, when tens of thousands of Parisian workers rose up without leadership or organization. The workers fought heroically, but the army massacred them.
After this defeat, Blanqui wrote a “Warning to the People,” counseling workers not to trust those unwilling to fight the ruling class:
What shoals threaten the revolution of tomorrow? The shoals that shattered yesterday’s: the deplorable popularity of bourgeois disguised as tribunes.
As Blanqui expected, Paris’s shopkeepers and merchants did not fight, but capitulated. They welcomed Louis-Napoleon, who crowned himself Emperor Napoleon III in 1851. The Second Republic gave way to the Second Empire, and Blanqui was sent back to prison for another ten years.
Another royal amnesty came in 1859, but Blanqui’s freedom was bittersweet and short-lived: his mother had died the year before, the police watched him closely, and the emperor manufactured new charges against him.
A year later, he found himself back in court. When Blanqui confronted the prosecutor, he proclaimed that he was still at war:
Prosecutor: This proves that despite twenty-five years in prison you have held the same ideas?
Blanqui: Quite so.
Prosecutor: Not only the same ideas, but to see their triumph?
Blanqui: I shall desire it until death.
Another jail cell awaited Blanqui. Students in the Latin Quarter fomented radical opposition to Napoleon III and idolized Blanqui, the “Imprisoned One.” They eagerly listened to the old man’s lectures on revolution and atheism, but he could not lead a revolution from behind bars. So, in 1865, his young followers arranged a jailbreak and smuggled Blanqui across the border to Belgium.
Blanqui sensed that a day of reckoning was coming: workers were calling strikes, and the opposition was finding its voice. Napoleon also saw the writing on the wall, and, in a last-ditch effort to save his empire, he declared war against Prussia in the summer of 1870.
The moment had come to strike. On August 14, 1870, the Blanquists launched a coup in the suburbs of Paris, which collapsed after some brief skirmishes. Less than a month later, Prussia decisively defeated France at the Battle of Sedan. On September 4, the Second Empire came to a shameful end, and a Third Republic was proclaimed.
Arguing that only mass conscription and a revolutionary regime could defeat the Prussians, Blanqui rallied support for the war in his newspaper La Patrie en Danger. He knew that the republic’s bourgeois leaders feared the working class at home more than the invading armies.
On October 21, 1870, Blanqui participated in another unsuccessful coup, hoping to provide the leadership the republic sorely needed. Sentenced to death, he went into hiding.
Meanwhile, just as he had predicted, France signed a humiliating peace treaty with Prussia in early 1871 and prepared to confront the armed workers in Paris. On March 18, Parisian citizens established the Commune, and civil war began. In a cruel twist of fate, Blanqui had been captured the day before and missed the revolution he had spent a lifetime working for.
Despite the Commune’s great social advancements, it lacked effective leadership and the military force that could defeat the counterrevolution. Blanqui’s followers tried to free him again, hoping he could guide the revolutionaries. At one point, they offered all seventy-four of their hostages in exchange for him. Adolphe Thiers, president of the Third Republic, smartly refused. Marx remarked that Thiers “knew that . . . Blanqui . . . would give the Commune a head.”
Blanqui languished in solitary confinement as tens of thousands of Communards were slaughtered that May.
The conditions in prison had not improved, and he awaited death each day. Blanqui began to wonder if his whole lifetime had been a waste. In 1872, he wrote an extended treatise on astronomy, Eternity by the Stars, attempting in part to answer that question. There, he argued that despite the vastness of the universe and the crushing weight of objective conditions, space could still be made for revolutionary action.
Despite dark times, the French socialist and labor movements revived. Radicals called for amnesty for the thousands of Communards languishing in prison and exile. They centered this campaign on Blanqui, the symbol of imprisoned revolution. Supporters organized mass demonstrations across the country, and Blanqui even won an election as a deputy in 1879.
The republic invalidated the results, but could see which way the wind was blowing. They finally released Blanqui from jail: since moving to Paris almost fifty years prior, Blanqui had spent thirty-seven years incarcerated. It was as if no time had passed; he immediately resumed his work speaking at rallies, editing Ni Dieu Ni Maitre, and organizing for the revolutionary cause.
After delivering a speech in Paris on December 27, 1880, Blanqui suffered a stroke and passed away five days later. An estimated 200,000 mourners followed his coffin to Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Even those who disagreed with Blanqui could not deny his commitment to social transformation.