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Marxism, art and utopia: Critical theory and political aesthetics-Cat Moir

Posted by admin On February - 5 - 2017 Comments Off on Marxism, art and utopia: Critical theory and political aesthetics-Cat Moir

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“After one has enjoyed the first taste of Marxist criticism, one will never again be able to stand ideological hogwash.” – Ernst Bloch, Spirit of Utopia, 1918

January 30, 2017 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Red Wedge with the author’s permission — The relationship between art and society has always been a central question for artists, thinkers and activists on the Left. In the twentieth century, it was commonplace to believe that art has the power to change the world. It was this conviction that motivated Georg Lukács to defend the literary realism of writers like Thomas Mann over the stylistic innovations of a James Joyce. For Lukács (1977: 33), literature was “a particular form by means of which objective reality is reflected,” and as such it was “of crucial importance for it to grasp that reality as it truly is.” By displaying social reality in all its contradictory complexity, Lukács believed, art could serve the interests of class struggle and social emancipation.

With the hindsight of history, Lukács’ comments seem rather naïve. In the Soviet Union, realism functioned not to highlight oppression and injustice, but to enforce it. Only “socialist realist” works had the censors’ seal of approval; stylistic experimentation was perceived as a direct challenge to ideological orthodoxy. If art today often escapes that kind of direct political control, it is nonetheless subject to the ruthless censorship of the market. Does not mass culture serve only to inculcate the values required to reproduce capital? Are not museums little more than theme parks celebrating the history of colonial violence? Is so-called “high art” anything other than an elitist pursuit for the wealthy and well educated? In short, given capital’s near-total colonization of the lifeworld, one might well ask what space and power for critique art really has today.

When considering the critical potential of art today, one can do worse than to revisit the theories of the Institute for Social Research (a.k.a. the Frankfurt School) and related figures. Writing in a twentieth century in which art became a major political battleground, their ideas still offer enormous resources for Marxist approaches to culture. While thinkers like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer emphasized the corruption of culture under conditions of technologized capitalism, others like Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin were more hopeful about the utopian potential of art in the age of its “technological reproducibility” (cf. Benjamin, 2008). What was ultimately at stake for all these thinkers was the question of culture’s ambivalent relationship to social freedom, which is why engaging with their ideas remains essential for anyone interested in the cultural contradictions of capital today. This article offers an historical introduction to the ideas of Bloch, Adorno and Horkheimer, Benjamin, and Siegfried Kracauer concerning the relationship between culture, technology, and politics.

Irreconcilable political and theoretical differences with leading members of the Frankfurt School like Horkheimer and Adorno meant that Bloch was never officially involved with the Frankfurt School. Yet he nevertheless made a bold and original contribution to critical theories of culture in the twentieth century. No other thinker went so far in insisting on the ability of art and literature to reveal the utopian potentials inherent in society, even as it simultaneously expresses oppressive ideologies.

Written in the aftermath of both the First World War and the Russian Revolution, Bloch’s Spirit of Utopia (2000 [1918]) developed a theory of culture as the concretization of desires that exist within the material world itself – at least insofar as they exist within us as material beings. Like Freud, Bloch believed that human culture is the result of a process through which our unconscious desires are diverted and captured (cf. Freud, 1961 [1930]). However, Bloch resisted the privileged place memory and repression enjoy in Freudian theory. He argued that another “edge” of our unconscious becomes visible in art, which he called the not-yet-conscious in opposition to the “no-longer-conscious” of psychoanalysis.

The not-yet-conscious is “the hope that lives in us as the ‘quietest’, ‘deepest’ longing, that accompanies us as the ‘waking dream’ of some uniquely right fulfilment” (2000: 191). Since human consciousness and its products are part of the material world, Bloch claimed that the not-yet-conscious desires of human beings correspond to not-yet-realised utopian contents of the world process itself.

The “Not-Yet-Conscious in man,” as Bloch would later write in The Principle of Hope (1986 [1954]: 13) “belongs completely to the Not-Yet-Become, Not-Yet-Brought-Out, Manifested-Out in the world. Not-Yet-Conscious interacts and reciprocates with Not-Yet-Become, more specifically with what is approaching in history and in the world.” As such it is primarily through the creation and interpretation of art and culture that, according to Bloch, human beings can become conscious of that which Marx once said the world has long dreamed of possessing, even if something more than art is needed to realize that dream.

Spirit of Utopia was heavily influenced by the aesthetics of German Expressionism, which valorized craft and ornament over minimalism and mass production. In the first part of the book, Bloch reflects at length on an “old pitcher” (2000: 7), a handmade drinking vessel with a human face, in which art’s capacity to stage the human “self-encounter” becomes supremely visible. Grasping the pitcher as the product of a single individual’s unalienated labor, Bloch lamented the mass manufacture of fancy imitations. He preferred the “clumsy, brown implement” to the “deliberately sculpted and elaborately fluted” imitations, for the former “preserve the old things,” telling a story of Germanic peasant heritage (7-8). They speak, according to Bloch, “from a time when they say the long-eared hare could still be seen dancing with the fiery man on the Hessian fields before nightfall” (8). Thus although Bloch was politically opposed to the conservative nationalism of the völkisch movement that flourished in early twentieth-century Germany, he nevertheless believed in the emancipatory power of folk culture and handicraft to confront us with our innermost dreams and desires.

Bloch wrote Spirit of Utopia on the cusp of the Weimar era in Germany, in which the explosion of technologized culture went hand in hand with the continued and increasingly politically problematic valorization of völkisch traditions and images. Siegfried Kracauer, another figure on the margins of the Frankfurt School, was among the first to identify the ambivalence of technologized culture in the form of what he called the “mass ornament” (1995 [1927]). Anticipating the later critique of Adorno and Horkheimer, Kracauer argued that the proliferation of modern technology did not necessarily favour the advance of reason, but was also implicated in producing and reproducing the kinds of mythologies commonly associated with pre-industrial societies. Kracauer saw the homogenized dance moves of the Tiller Girls as a reflection of the automation of production processes, and claimed that modern culture provided an abstract template through which any and all forms of ideology could be projected, including dangerous nationalisms.

The political manipulation of the image in National Socialist propaganda would prove Kracauer right. Both Bloch and Walter Benjamin were among the contemporaries who identified the Nazis’ uncanny ability to fuse the values and symbols of a traditional, pre-capitalist way of life with those of a modern, technologized industrial society as a defining factor in their appeal. In his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,” Benjamin developed the idea of the “aestheticization of politics” to describe how the fascists rejected argument and persuasion as political tools, and instead used art to exploit the irrational forces of hate, suspicion and jealousy within society.

He argued that critical artists and thinkers should counter this tendency with the “politicization of aesthetics”; in other words, by making art that seeks to expose and oppose reactionary tendencies. By way of example, one might think of how, after 1945, the Italian spatialist painter Lucio Fontana began stabbing and slashing canvases in order to comment on the erasure of the boundary between physical and virtual space in the age of art’s technological reproducibility. Fontana’s monochrome canvasses, neatly gashed or hacked at with blunt instruments, scream at the viewer: “this is not real, it’s only a canvas, look, there’s a wall behind it, don’t be tricked, beware the image!”

Although Benjamin believed in art as a vehicle for an emancipatory politics, he nevertheless recognized the dark side of “cultural heritage.” As the battle over the British Museum’s Indigenous Australian art show in 2015 made clear once again, what is often displayed in museums and galleries as the cultural heritage of global society is in fact what Benjamin in “On the Concept of History” (2006 [1940]: 406) called the “spoils” of a triumphal procession in which the “victors” of history “tread over those who are sprawled underfoot.” Benjamin’s (392) insight that “There is no document of culture that is not at the same time a document of barbarism” was most brutally and starkly demonstrated in the Nazi death camps, where officers played, or ordered prisoners to play, Beethoven and Wagner for their own edification while human beings were being gassed and burned on an industrial scale.

It was the Nazis’ instrumentalization of the technologies of mass production in the service of the most aberrant politics that prompted Horkheimer to claim in the 1930s that whoever doesn’t want to talk about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism. In the essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” published in 1944 in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno argued that popular culture in modern capitalist societies could no longer be a force for good. The interests at stake in the mode of mass production were so overwhelming, they argued, that the popular culture churned out by large concerns in Hollywood and elsewhere could not but be saturated with the ideology of big money. Contemporary mass culture, they argued, “is infecting everything with sameness” (94). Recalling Kracauer’s analysis of the abstract homogenization of aesthetics in The Mass Ornament, Horkheimer and Adorno argued that films, radio and magazines today “form a system” which is “unanimous within itself and all are unanimous together. Even the aesthetic manifestations of political opposites,” they argued, “proclaim the same inflexible rhythm.”

Yet if in 1927 Kracauer was still able to celebrate the tastes and amusements of the masses, Adorno and Horkheimer saw little to no revolutionary potential in contemporary popular culture. The fact that their concept of the culture industry continues to prove useful today ironically goes some way towards undermining their pessimistic perspective. By helping to unmask the ideological forces at work in everything from Disney films to hip-hop, the concept of the culture industry proves if nothing else that popular culture is both the expression of oppressive social relations and the means by which those relations can be exposed and countered (cf. Zipes, 1997; Cashmore, 1997).

Bloch was more optimistic than Adorno and Horkheimer about the utopian potential in everyday culture. When it came to the relation between art and society, he broadly agreed with Marx’s basic insight in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy of 1859, that it is “not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but their social being that determines their consciousness” (Marx, 2010: 263).

Thus insofar as art is a product of social labour, which has always been divided according to interests, Bloch saw in it, too, the manifestation of ideology. Yet he resisted the reductionist reading of culture, prevalent among Soviet Marxists, according to which art and other “superstructural” elements simply reflect a specific form of social relations or mode of production. Instead, Bloch understood the “being that conditions consciousness, and the consciousness that processes being […] ultimately only out of that and in that from which and towards which it tends” (Bloch, 1986: 18). In other words, both social reality itself and the cultural products of that reality always contain more than simply oppression, violence, exploitation and their expression. The “blossoms of art, science, philosophy,” Bloch writes in The Principle of Hope “always denote something more than the false consciousness which each society, bound to its own position, had of itself and used for its own embellishment” (155). Bloch called this “more” culture’s “utopian surplus,” and he saw it as at bottom always the same: an expression of the still unfulfilled desire for utopia, and the anticipatory consciousness of its possibility.

Bloch was far from seeing “high art” as the exclusive province of the utopian trace. Anticipating the work of thinkers such as Henri Lefebvre (1991), he also took everyday life seriously as a space worthy of consideration and critique, though unlike Lefebvre, Bloch resisted the idea that the everyday has been entirely colonized by capitalism. Instead, by analysing everyday practices and objects, he sought to decode the utopian desire that can still be seen to reside there despite the dynamics of commodification.

The daydream was Bloch’s point of departure for his analysis of the utopian everyday (Bloch, 1986, 77-113). Here again, he conceives of his insight into the character of the daydream as a complement to Freud’s theory of the night dream. Whereas Freud focused on the libido as the primary drive behind the nocturnal dream, Bloch saw the daydream as driven by hunger and the arising expectant emotions, including hope. Contrary to Freud, for whom the “night-dream is basically nothing other than a daydream which has become serviceable through the nocturnal freedom of the impulses, and distorted by the form of mental activity,” according to Bloch, daydreams “always come from a feeling of something lacking and they want to stop it, they are all dreams of a better life” (87). To be sure, Bloch’s distinction between day and night dreams was heuristic rather than scientific: he sought to highlight the aspects of the unconscious overlooked in Freud’s theory of dreams as expressing repressed, mostly taboo, desires.

In The Principle of Hope, Bloch finds the daydream assume “symbolic form” in everything from fashion to fairy tales (333). If for Marx human beings “begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence,” so Bloch continually emphasised the significance of the creative dimension of human labor (Marx, 2010a: 31). “Clothes which can be chosen distinguish men from animals,” he writes, and jewellery is even older than these clothes, it sets them off even today by standing out” (341). Even the fetishized commodity was not without its utopian promise for Bloch, for it “always still needs a label which praises it,” and advertising not only makes products “shine in the shop window” (343), it also “transforms man into the most sacred thing next to private property, into the consumer” (344).

Despite his irony, Bloch’s insight reminds that even commercial products can hold out, and occasionally partly keep, a utopian promise. One might think of the way in which the mass availability of household appliances in 1950s America did in fact contribute to emancipating women from the domestic sphere, even if the tropes used to market them now appear hopelessly retrograde.

Meanwhile, Adorno’s critique of mass culture did not extend to the whole aesthetic realm. In his late work Aesthetic Theory (2013 [1970]), he argued that the truth content of an artwork resides in the extent to which it lays bare the unredeemed, antagonistic, damaged character of social reality. As such, Adorno claimed that art’s critical potential is greatest in works that are not explicitly political. However, it is not always clear that these dynamics must be mutually exclusive.

Art can hardly be more explicitly political than in the case of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk band jailed for their lyrics criticizing the repressive government of Vladimir Putin. Yet as the prison letters of band member Nadya Tolokonnikova reveal, Pussy Riot’s explicit politics does not mean that their aesthetic is naïve or simplistic. “There are architects of Apollonian equilibrium in this world,” writes Tolokonnikova (2014), “and there are (punk) singers of flux and transformation. One is not better than the other… We count ourselves among those rebels who court storms, who hold that the only truth lies in perpetual seeking.”

For Bloch (1998: 110) too, the political value of art lay in this perpetual seeking. Like Adorno, he believed that the “great cultural works of today display the collapse of structure, the inability to achieve closure and finality.” Contrary to Adorno, though, Bloch maintained that such greatness could be found also in more popular works, particularly in those that exploit the unfulfilled utopian promises contained in cultural history. Anticipating the sensibility of postmodern art, in a 1974 essay “The Art of Speaking Schiller,” Bloch claimed that a “decisively dialectical avant-garde” must rediscover “[o]bjects that were formerly poeticized through ideology,” and give them “a fresh significance, through montage” (ibid.). In this way, Bloch argued, the utopian content of “decaying older works” can become visible “not within the domicile of the dominant ideology’s canonical works, but through the windows of such works, constituting, as it were, the surplus value of the false consciousness that such works represent” (ibid.).

With Fredric Jameson’s critique of postmodern pastiche in mind, one might argue that Bloch overestimated the critical potential of techniques such as montage. Rather than reactivating the radical emancipatory spirit of modernist aesthetics, as Bloch might have predicted, Jameson argues that postmodern works merely integrate superficial stylistic references to modernism and other movements into a critically ineffectual “simulacrum,” which amounts to nothing more than the “cannabilization of all styles of the past, the random stylistic play of allusion” (Jameson, 1991: 17).

No matter how optimistic or otherwise one is today about the radical potential of art, what we can learn from the sensitivity of critical theorists to the political dimensions of culture is the importance of what the poet Friedrich Schiller once called the “aesthetic education” of humankind [1967 [1975]). To be sure, Schiller’s concept was one that celebrated bourgeois culture even as its author aspired to develop the critical faculties of all human beings. But its spirit is nevertheless inheritable by a Marxist tradition that views cultural analysis as a valuable method of political critique.

In this spirit, Ernst Bloch’s assessment of Schiller’s project can be seen simultaneously as a statement of his own political aesthetics. “Doubtless it is utopian to wish to overcome humanity’s social fragmentation, and to restore its wholeness, by no other means than aesthetic consciousness,” he claims. “Yet, nevertheless there is utopia, even if it is somewhat high-flown, in this idealism, and not just resignation, not just ethereal unworldliness” (Bloch, 1998: 89).

Cat Moir is an academic and writer living in Sydney, Australia. In life as in work she is committed to socialism, feminism, and the pursuit of utopia.

References

Adorno, Theodor (2013 [1970]) Aesthetic Theory. London/New Delhi/NewYork/Sydney: Bloomsbury.

Benjamin, Walter (2008 [1936]) “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” in Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media. Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard UP.

– (2006 [1940])“On the Concept of History” in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938-1940. Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard UP. 389-400.

Bloch, Ernst (1986 [1954, 1955, 1959]) The Principle of Hope. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

– (1998) Literary Essays. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP.

– (2000 [1918]) Spirit of Utopia. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP.

Cashmore, Ellis (1997) The Black Culture Industry. London/New York: Routledge.

Freud, Sigmund (1961 [1930]) “Civilisation and its Discontents” in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud – The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents, and Other Works, Vol. XXI. London: Hogarth Press. 79–80.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno (2002 [1944]) “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP. 94-136.

Jameson, Fredric (1991) Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke UP.

Kracauer, Siegfried (1995 [1927]) “The Mass Ornament” in Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard UP.

Lefebvre, Henri (1991) The Social Production of Space. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Lukács, Georg (1977 [1938]) “Realism in the Balance,” in Frederic Jameson (ed.) Aesthetics and Politics. London/New York: Verso. 28-59.

Marx, Karl (2010) The German Ideology in Marx & Engels Collected Works, Vol. 5. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Schiller, Friedrich (1967 [1795]) On the Aesthetic Education of Man: In a Series of Letters, edited and translated by Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L.A. Willoughby. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Zipes, Jack (1997) Happily Ever After. Fairy Tales, Children and the Culture Industry. New York/London: Routledge.

Žižek, Slavoj and Nadezdha Tolokonnikova (2014) Comradely Greetings. The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj. London/New York: Verso.
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Why Blanqui?-Doug Enaa Greene

Posted by admin On February - 5 - 2017 Comments Off on Why Blanqui?-Doug Enaa Greene
XIR170401 Portrait of Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-81) (oil on canvas transferred to board) by Wiertz, Antoine Joseph (1806-65) oil on canvas transferred to board 200x140 Musee de la Ville de Paris, Musee du Petit-Palais, France Belgian, out of copyright

XIR170401 Portrait of Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-81) (oil on canvas transferred to board) by Wiertz, Antoine Joseph (1806-65)
oil on canvas transferred to board
200×140
Musee de la Ville de Paris, Musee du Petit-Palais, France
Belgian, out of copyright

February 1, 2017 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Verso Books with the author’s permission — Karl Marx claimed that Louis-Auguste Blanqui was the “man whom I have always regarded as the brains and inspiration of the proletarian party in France.” Although largely forgotten today, there was a time when revolutionaries throughout the world viewed this nineteenth century French political prisoner as a central figure and hero of revolutionary socialism. In this time of so much political backsliding and compromise, it is worth looking at the life of Blanqui.

Blanqui is slowly making a resurgence, and was the subject of a recent academic conference at Kingston University. For 50 years of Blanqui’s life, he organized multiple conspiracies and launched a half-dozen insurrections to topple the rule of capitalism and inaugurate a socialist republic. He paid the price by spending half of his life in prison.

Auguste Blanqui was born into a middle class family on February 1, 1805 in Puget-Theniers. His father Jean Dominique was a former Girondist who had suffered during the Reign of Terror, but was now a Napoleonic prefect. His mother Sophie was loving and devoted to her son. The Blanqui family’s stability and status abruptly ended in 1815 as the First French Empire was overthrown. Ten-year-old Auguste’s fiery French nationalism was first stirred at the sight of foreign soldiers in his home.

Despite the change in fortunes, the family still had enough money to send Auguste and his elder brother Jérôme-Adolphe (later a famed economist) to the finest schools in Paris in 1822. While immersed in his studies of law and medicine, Auguste encountered the revolutionary movement for the first time. In September 1822, he witnessed the public execution of four members of the underground anti-Bourbon movement known as the Carbonari. Watching them on the scaffold, Blanqui learned to hate a society that would murder four good men to protect the powerful and the privileged. Then and there, he vowed his fidelity to the revolutionary cause — an oath he would never break.

While Auguste gained an apprenticeship in the Carbonari, he also continued his studies. Growing tired of the Carbonari, he became a student organizer. The underground did not pay, so Auguste supplemented his income by working as a tutor. In 1825, he fell passionately in love with Amelie-Suzanne Serre, a talented painter. Her conservative middle class family disapproved of the young radical, but the couple married anyway in 1834. The two were absolutely devoted to each other and Amelie-Suzanne always supported her husband.

Blanqui became a journalist, but found many of his colleagues were unable to translate their republican words into action. Blanqui knew that it would take force to oust the monarchy. When students demonstrations with the army erupted in Paris in 1827, Blanqui was in the thick of street-fighting and was gravely wounded. Thanks to his mother’s care, Blanqui managed to make a full recovery. Yet the events of 1827 left a lasting impression on him: he had witnessed not only the valor and heroic spirit of the people, but the cowardice of the liberals.

This lesson was reinforced in 1830 during the July Revolution that finally toppled the Bourbons. Blanqui was in the thick of the “Three Glorious Days” of barricade fighting and the rattle of gunfire. Blanqui hoped that the workers and ordinary people would now see their triumph rewarded with a republic and social justice. Yet the liberal bourgeoisie, who had not even taken part in the fighting, robbed the people of their victory. They did not want a repeat of the Jacobins. The crown was passed to Louis-Philippe from the House of Orleans. The July Revolution had only exchanged one monarch for another while the lot of the workers remained just as wretched.

Blanqui would not let this betrayal stand. It was not enough to change the man who sits on the throne; everything that supported aristocratic privilege needed to be undone. Blanqui knew this required a second, more thoroughgoing, revolution: “The Republic means the emancipation of workers, it’s the end of the reign of exploitation, it’s the coming of a new order that will free labor from the tyranny of capital.”

Blanqui organized with radicals and the republican opposition, but it was not long before he was arrested. When placed on trial in 1832, Blanqui spoke for the rights of 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, and organized two secret societies with hundreds of working class members, one of which was broken up by the police. Blanqui was too extreme for most republicans since his organizations wanted communism and were willing to resort to arms to seize political power in Paris. Once the insurgents had power, they would establish a revolutionary dictatorship that would accomplish two things: defend the poor against the rich and educate people in the virtues of a new society. After these twin tasks were completed, the dictatorship would give way to communism.

On May 12, 1839, after several false starts, Blanqui’s Society of Seasons launched their insurrection in Paris by seizing several key buildings. For a brief moment, it seemed that a new republic was about to be born. But, there was one fatal flaw in Blanqui’s conception of revolution: the masses played no role in their own seizure of power. The revolt was crushed and Blanqui went into hiding, to be captured a month later.

Blanqui was sentenced to a lifetime of imprisonment in the fortress of Mont-Saint-Michel. His conditions were deplorable: prisoners could not properly sit nor stand in their cells; vermin was everywhere, and it was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. The real tragedy came in February, 1841, when he learned that his wife passed away. He remained motionless for days and contemplated suicide. For the rest of his life, he wore black gloves as a sign of mourning Amelie-Suzanne.

The legend of Blanqui began to grow. Knowledge of the conditions at Mont-Saint-Michel were made public. In 1844, prison took its toll on Blanqui’s health, and he lay dying in his cell. To avoid creating a martyr, Louis-Philippe pardoned him, but Blanqui responded defiantly to stay in prison and not abandon his comrades.

He was granted clemency anyway and miraculously survived his illness. In some ways, Blanqui remained a prisoner, since he was under constant police surveillance. He was finally freed in 1848 when the Orleanist monarchy fell as the working class of Paris took to the barricades.

Overjoyed, Blanqui hastened to Paris. He was determined that the workers should not be cheated of their victory by the bourgeoisie. Events were to prove Blanqui correct: the liberals did not want a social revolution. He knew that it would only be a matter of time before the reactionaries regrouped.

Blanqui spoke at public rallies in Paris on the need for socialism. Karl Marx knew that Blanqui was the inflexible 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.” Members of the ruling class who saw him speak, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, believed he was the incarnation of unbridled radicalism that needed to be kept in check. De Tocqueville said Blanqui’s appearance “filled me with disgust and horror. His cheeks were pale and faded, his lips white; he looked ill, evil, foul, with a dirty pallor and the appearance of a mouldering 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 Blanqui’s objections, a demonstration at the Chamber of Deputies turned into a coup d’etat to create a new radical government. But the coup was disorganized and its organizers were arrested. The real tragedy was that in the June Days tens of thousands of Parisian workers rose up, but there they had no leadership or organization. The workers fought heroically against all odds as the army was brought in and massacred them.

After this defeat, Blanqui wrote a “Warning to the People.” He counseled workers not to trust those who were 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.”

The bourgeoisie did not put up a fight, but welcomed the rule of Louis-Napoleon. In 1851, Louis-Napoleon crowned himself Emperor Napoleon III, ending the brief reign of the Second Republic. Although Blanqui was sentenced to another prison term of 10 years, he remained determined to fight on. In 1859, Blanqui was released from jail following another royal amnesty. This was bittersweet since his mother had died the year before and he remained under close watch by the police. A year later, the Emperor manufactured trumped up charges against Blanqui and had him arrested. When Blanqui confronted the prosecutor again, he did not ask for mercy, but 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. Radical opposition to Napoleon III was emerging among young students in the Latin Quarter. These students looked upon Blanqui — the “Imprisoned One” — as a legendary man of action and vision unlike the liberal opposition.

The students eagerly listened to the old man’s lectures on revolution and atheism. Blanqui could not lead a revolution from behind cold bars, however. In 1865, his young followers arranged his escape and smuggled him across the border to Belgium. Blanqui sensed that a day of reckoning was coming for Napoleon III: workers were going on strike and the opposition was finding its voice. Napoleon could see 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. After some brief skirmishes, the coup collapsed. Less than a month later, the war against Prussia saw France decisively defeated at the Battle of Sedan. On September 4, the Second Empire came to an ignominious end when a Third Republic was proclaimed in Paris.

Blanqui rallied support for war against Prussia in his newspaper La Patrie en Danger arguing that only a levée en masse and the creation of a revolutionary regime could defeat the enemy. Based on his experience, Blanqui knew that the bourgeois leaders of the Republic were more afraid of the working class at home than of the invading Prussians. On October 21, 1870 Blanqui took part in another coup to provide leadership that the Republic sorely lacked. The coup did not last and the Republic placed a death sentence on Blanqui, who was forced to go into hiding. Sure enough, the Republic signed a humiliating peace treaty with Prussia in early 1871 and prepared to confront the armed workers of Paris.

On March 18, the Paris Commune — the first workers’ state — was proclaimed and civil war began. In a cruel twist of fate, Blanqui had been captured the day before and missed the revolution which he had spent a lifetime working for. Despite the great social advancements of the Commune, it lacked an effective leadership and military force required to fight the counterrevolution. Blanqui’s followers believed that he could provide that leadership and attempted to free him. At one point, they offered all 74 hostages in their possession in exchange for Blanqui. Adolphe Thiers, leader of the Third Republic refused. Marx remarked that this was a wise choice for Thiers since “He knew that with Blanqui he would give the Commune a head.”

Blanqui remained in solitary confinement and suffered in silence as tens of thousands of Communards, including his devoted followers, were slaughtered in May 1871. The conditions of his latest imprisonment were as bad as ever. He awaited death each day. His health was failing. Blanqui even wondered 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. In this work, he argued that despite the vastness and multiple worlds of the cosmos and the crushing weight of objective conditions, space could still be created for revolutionary action.

Despite dark times in France, the socialist and labor movements revived. Radicals wanted amnesty for the thousands of Communards languishing in prison and exile. They centered their amnesty campaign around Blanqui — the imprisoned symbol of revolution. Mass demonstrations were held across the country and Blanqui was nominated and elected as a deputy in Bordeaux in 1879. Blanqui’s election was invalidated by the Republic.

The Republic could see which way the wind was blowing and finally released Blanqui from jail: thirty-seven years of imprisonment came to an end. Blanqui picked up where he left off: giving speeches, editing a newspaper Ni Dieu Ni Maitre and organizing for the revolutionary cause. On December 27, 1880 after delivering a speech in Paris, Blanqui suffered a stroke and passed away five days later. At his funeral, an estimated 200,000 mourners followed his coffin to Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Even those who disagreed with Blanqui could not deny his commitment to socialism. His life was devoted to overthrowing capitalism without compromise.

Doug Enaa Greene is an independent Marxist historian and writer living in the greater Boston area. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Specters of Communism on Louis-Auguste Blanqui, published by Haymarket Books.

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