Louis-Auguste Blanqui Essay

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Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805–1881) was a French republican activist and legendary revolutionary conspirator. Intellectually precocious as a youth, he studied law and medicine at the University of Paris, though he never earned a degree. Coming of age during the repressive Bourbon restoration, he abandoned his studies in favor of the secret societies of the republican underground, sealing his commitment to abet popular insurrections against all conservative governmental regimes. Despite repeated arrests, trials, and lengthening prison sentences for his subversive activities, Blanqui managed to participate in all of the major Parisian popular uprisings of the early nineteenth century—those of 1830, 1832, 1839, and 1848. By mid-century he had become widely known as an insurgent leader willing to sacrifice himself for the republican cause.

Blanqui’s subversive political activism was a quasi-religious vocation. As a professional revolutionary, he promoted not only an egalitarian republic, but also a society free of religious obscurantism that perpetuated social injustice. His politics drew on the moral implications of his radical atheism: the value of righteous struggle against oppression now, whatever the odds. Sympathetic to a vaguely conceived notion of a social republic, he had little interest in the theory of collectivism then gaining ground in Europe, and he kept his distance from the First Workingmen’s International Association, whose practical projects to advance the labor movement threatened to displace the activist style of confrontation and revolt on which the revolutionary tradition had relied.

Blanqui’s reputation among left-wing militants was compromised toward mid-century, when a former comrade in arms publicly accused him of having betrayed his coconspirators to the police in the abortive uprising of 1839. Blanqui recovered his stature during the Second Empire among radical republican youth, who looked to him as a mentor. In this guise, the aging Blanqui initiated his young followers into the rites and rituals of the revolutionary tradition. Many of them would come to play leading roles in the Paris Commune of 1871. By then, Blanqui had been imprisoned once more. The refusal of the French provisional government to trade him for all the priests of Paris held hostage by the commune suggests the proportions his legend had by then assumed. Ironically, he was freed upon his election to the Chamber of Deputies in 1879 as the emblem of the campaign for the amnesty of the Communards in the name of national reconciliation. Revered across a broad spectrum of the political left, Blanqui returned to Paris to live in tranquility until his death on New Year’s Day 1881.

In the twentieth century, Blanqui assumed a place in the pantheon of heroes of the French Communist Party as a founding father of its cause. His remarkable life elicited the interest of sympathetic historians and literary critics, who idealized his role in the revolutionary tradition. That portrait was challenged by a more critical biographer, Maurice Paz, who pointed to Blanqui’s rigid authoritarianism and his psychological need for the adulation of his disciples.

Bibliography:

  1. Bernstein, Samuel. Blanqui. Paris: Maspero, 1970. Decaux, Alain. Blanqui, l’insurgé. Paris: Perrin, 1976.
  2. Dommanget, Maurice. Auguste Blanqui: Des origines à la révolution de 1848. Paris: Mouton, 1969.
  3. Hutton, Patrick. The Cult of the Revolutionary Tradition:The Blanquists in French Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
  4. Paz, Maurice. Un Révolutionnaire professionnel, Auguste Blanqui. Paris: Fayard, 1984.

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