The lifetime of Auguste Blanqui (1805–81) coincides with the rise and fall of the secret society as an effective harbinger of socialism. Auguste Blanqui was the son of a low rank imperial official; his first recorded political involvement was in 1827 when he was wounded on the barricades; he subsequently spent more than 30 years of his life in various prisons. ‘Blanquism’ represented the point of merger between revolutionary Jacobinism and the rising working-class movement. Blanqui served his political apprenticeship under the Restoration and the Orleanist monarchy. His most formative political influence was that of Buonarotti, the veteran of Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals in 1795. Blanqui’s disciples were the closest allies of Marx in the First International after the Commune, and became instrumental in the introduction of Marxism in France.

Fundamentally, Blanqui’s outlook was that of an 18th century materialist. As Piatnitsky notes in his initial chapter of Armed Insurrection,footnote1 what separates Blanquist Communism from Marxism is its absence of a dialectic. This absence of dialectic was crucial in shaping Blanqui’s attitude towards the proletariat and hence towards the tactics of an uprising. Blanqui conceived the bourgeois state as ‘a gendarmerie of the rich against the poor’; its power rested upon the twin pillars of the military and the ‘black army’ (priests). While the former could suppress revolt by virtue of its superior mode of organization, the latter sustained reaction and passivity by the systematic inculcation of superstition and unreason. Thus while Blanqui took over from the Babouvistes the conception of history as class struggle, it was evident that from this pre-dialectical rationalist standpoint, insurrectionary initiative could not in the first instance come from the masses themselves. In Blanqui’s view, the working class was deprived of education, overworked by the employing class and finally perverted and blinded by the domination of superstition. Insurrection, therefore, was perforce an art only effectively practised by the revolutionary minority of the enlightened.

It must be remembered, of course, that the formative years of Blanquism—1830–48—were years in which the French working class barely existed, and the modern conception of a proletarian party (a product of Germany in the 1860’s) had not yet emerged. The mode of organization of the Blanquist secret society was deliberately intended to be as far as possible a mirror image of that of the forces of order at the disposal of the State. The secret society was hierarchic and finally autocratic. The duty of the revolutionary in it was absolute obedience. Democracy within the society was completely eliminated by the imperative of secrecy that suffused it. In the 2,500-strong Blanquist society at the end of the Second Empire, members were divided into groups of 10, and were to be wholly unaware of the existence of other members outside their own group. In the Société des Saisons of 1837–39, the structure of command was secret, each member relating only to his immediate superior. Blanqui’s reasoning was that the effectiveness and co-ordination of the armed revolutionary group would demoralize the enemy forces, caught by surprise, and provoke the desertion of crucial detachments.

This enforced insulation of the revolutionary corps from all contact with the masses was obviously the fatal flaw in Blanqui’s approach. While a suitable model for resistance struggles against foreign powers, it was self-defeating in the case of social revolution. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that Blanquism was simply putschism. Blanqui himself was well aware that no insurrection could succeed unless the objective conditions were favourable. Nevertheless his self-imposed isolation from the masses led to disastrous mistakes in timing. This can be seen again and again, in 1839, 1848 and 1870–71. On May 12th 1839, after two years in prison, Blanqui overestimated the revolutionary spirit of the masses, and the insurrection he planned was a fiasco. Seven months later Parisian workers were demanding to demonstrate with guns. On February 24th 1848, the Revolution again broke out in Paris. Blanqui was not there. On March 17th when the Parisian masses were in their most insurrectionary mood, Blanqui let the opportunity slip. Then two months later an attempted Blanquist invasion of the National Assembly on May 15th was a debacle. During the June uprising a few weeks later, Blanqui was once more in prison. The burial of Victor Noir in January 1870 could have been a signal for popular uprising, but the Blanquists failed to take advantage of the occasion. On August 9th 1870, when 100,000 demonstrated outside the Legislative Assembly, a seizure of power was again a possibility. But the attempted Blanquist insurrection in Belleville five days later attracted no support from the workers. This failure prevented the Blanquists from taking any advantage of the end of the Empire on September 4th. Finally, on March 18th 1871, the Commune came into being in Paris. But Blanqui had already left for the provinces: he was captured by Thiers, and spent the duration of the Commune in a strongly guarded prison in Cahors. Thus in each of his attempts to stage an uprising, it was not so much the government that was surprised as the masses themselves.

Instructions for an Uprising, printed below, reveals many of the peculiar strengths and weaknesses of Blanqui’s position. On the one hand, he shows detailed knowledge of the weapons of struggle, the tactical use of balconies, the crucial importance of morale; on the other hand, he dismisses all but the military potential of barricades, and obsessively emphasizes discipline and co-ordination to the point of excluding the masses from any positive involvement in their own emancipation. These contradictions and limitations must be seen historically. The Blanquist strategy was born in a period when the modern labour movement did not exist, when militants were haunted by the reverberations of 1793, and when the capture of the Paris Hotel de Ville might plausibly be taken for the overthrow of the state. It could not survive in a period when socialism meant the creative revolutionary practice of the masses. But one positive heritage of Blanqui lives on. Insurrection is an art: the conquest of power cannot be left wholly to spontaneity.

If for this reason alone, revolutionary Marxism has reason to pay homage to Blanqui.