Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Blanqui - rescued from the enormous condescension of posterity

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #64 (Summer 2018)]

Frontcover-f_medium

Communist Insurgent: Blanqui's Politics of Revolution 
by Doug Enaa Greene 
Paperback, 292 pages 
ISBN: 9781608464722 
Haymarket 2017 

If you are of a certain age on the left your reaction to the name Blanqui is probably ‘WRONG’ and that is pretty much it. If you are younger the more likely thought is ‘WHO?’ since the name of the nineteenth century French revolutionary has perhaps not featured a great deal in recent discussions on the left.

Doug Enaa Greene and Haymarket Books have therefore done a valuable service in rescuing Blanqui from the enormous condescension of posterity. Indeed Greene makes a good case for why Blanqui deserves to be rescued.

He had a remarkably long life (1805-1881) given various attempts at revolution, spells of imprisonment often in poor conditions, and ill health. He also had a magnificent beard. Over such a long life there is inevitably a lot of detail and for that a read of the book is required. Here I will flag up a few points of perhaps key interest.

Blanqui’s view was that revolution was needed, always, but this would not come from the masses. Rather it required a dedicated band of organised revolutionaries, usually operating secretly and conspiratorially to avoid interruption by the forces of the existing order.

The conspiratorial model of revolution was the dominant one where the question arose around the world certainly up to 1848. It was used for example by the Chartists in the summer of that year with the usual unfortunate results. The problem with conspiracy as a political method is of course that it invites spies and Blanqui was plagued by accusations that he knew of such people or indeed was one.

That said, after the French Revolution on 25 February 1848, Blanqui did organise openly and tried to push the revolution further, albeit unsuccessfully.

Marx and Engels did not agree with Blanqui’s politics and often said so. They were for an open mass workers organisation. Where they did reach general agreement with Blanqui was on the principle of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

Greene argues that Marx and Engels invariably stood by Blanqui as a shining and obvious example of someone who believed in revolutionary ends even if they did not agree about the means. Greene also notes that Blanqui was thought to be a useful bulwark against Bakunin’s supporters on the First International.

Blanqui supported the Paris Commune and his supporters had a key role in it while not seeing it as a prototype model for workers’ control as Marx and Engels did. His influence continued to an extent after his death.

Some of his supporters turned to interventions in electoral politics supporting the campaign of General Georges Boulanger hoping it would lead to a coup against the Government. It did not and Greene notes that in a subsequent split the majority of Blanqui’s remaining followers aligned themselves with a nationalistic and antiSemitic political trend and disappeared into obscurity.

Blanqui had always been against all religion but his views to modern eyes would be seen as antiSemitic according to Greene. A minority of his followers did not follow that path and by 1905 found themselves part of the French Socialist Party.

It had been quite a political journey.

Greene’s biography deserves to be read not just as history, but also as an important exploration of political paths and methods which are not in the main taken by the modern left, but without question still find attraction for some.

Keith Flett 

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