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At the crossroads of Blanquism and Leninism

 

 

Doug Greene, author of the forthcoming "Specters of Communism: Blanqui and Marx", takes up the accusation that Leninism is "Blanquist".

 

By Douglas Enaa Greene[1]

 

June 1, 2016 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Rosa Luxemburg once said that Bolshevism is nothing more than the “mechanical transposition of the organizational principles of Blanquism into the mass movement of the socialist working class.”[2] Many leftists, both now and a century ago, share Luxemburg's position that Leninism is elitist and/or Blanquism. Yet all of these judgments are far off the mark. For Lenin, Blanquism was something that the communist movement needed to overcome if they wanted to win a successful socialist revolution. Leninism is not simply Blanquism or Jacobinism adapted to Russian conditions, but the development of a Marxist mode of politics that draws clear revolutionary lessons from the defeat of the Paris Commune. The central operator of the Leninist mode of politics is a revolutionary vanguard party devoted to the emancipation of the oppressed workers and peasants. However, there remains a grain of truth in the accusation that Leninism is Blanquist, since “Blanquism” is a label used by social democrats and revisionists to condemn the revolutionary essence of Marxism

 

I. Blanquism

 

To begin, what exactly is Blanquism? The central figure of the movement was Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881) - the consummate professional revolutionary and man of action. He was one of the loudest and most uncompromising voices in nineteenth century France preaching class war and the violent overthrow of capitalism. And he meant it. From 1830 to 1870, he organized innumerable secret societies and participated in at least five revolutions to bring about the advent of communism. Yet the only method of action open to Blanqui was an elite and tight-knit conspiracy that would strike capital at the appointed hour to bring about communism. Each time he failed. And he paid the price for those failures by spending more than three decades in prison. Blanqui's eagerness to rush into revolutionary battle caused him to act before the time was right. In 1848 and 1870, premature action had led him to be locked up right before the June Days and the Paris Commune (arguably two events where he could have provided the leadership necessary for victory).

 

Blanqui did not see the need for theory to grasp the inner dynamics of capitalism nor did he appreciate the possibilities open to mass independent political action by the working class to bring about revolutionary social change (most clearly manifested in the Paris Commune). It would be Marxism that would develop the necessary theory of capitalist dynamics and grasp the centrality of mass politics. Ultimately, Marxism would supplant Blanquism in the aftermath of the Paris Commune in new mass socialist parties.

 

II. The Paris Commune

 

Although Blanqui terrified the French ruling class, the proletarian uprisings of the 19th century, especially the Paris Commune, were the fore-bringers of a new mode of politics. The working class was developing new mass organizations such as trade unions and independent political parties to coordinate their struggle on both a national and international level. The Paris Commune was a proletarian revolution that demonstrated a new mode of political organization whereby the working class created a new state that smashed the old repressive one and allowed the working masses to be truly in control of their destiny by instituting sweeping measures to supplant old bourgeois property relations. According to Karl Marx, the Paris Commune “was essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor.”[3]

 

Yet the Commune suffered from a number of faults which caused it to be defeated. For one, it neglected to launch a decisive military offensive against the counterrevolution when they had the chance. Secondly, the Commune was isolated from the peasantry and other major cities of France. Thirdly, the Commune lacked a centralized leadership united behind a single organization, goal and program. In learning from the failure of the Commune, revolutionaries needed to learn what to do different in order to prevail. It would be Lenin and the Bolsheviks who would provide the most definitive answers.

 

III. Second International

 

However, Bolshevism was not just responding to the failure of Blanquism and the Paris Commune, but also to Second International Marxism. Within a generation of Blanqui’s death in 1881, massive and nominally revolutionary socialist parties would gain millions of members and bring substantial reforms to the working class. To the Second International, Marxism was a crude deterministic theory of social evolution focused narrowly on the working class, and largely neglecting other oppressed social classes. According to “orthodox Marxism,” capitalism would steadily develop and expand the productive forces, inevitability being replaced by socialism. All the socialist parties had to do was wait patiently for the promised future.

 

In this gradualist and reformist conception of Marxism, revolutionary praxis and politics were relegated to the background. Indeed, even the “orthodox Marxist” Karl Kautsky defined a socialist party as “a revolutionary party, but it is not a party that makes revolutions.”[4] This conception left Marxism at an impasse, doomed to passivity with only a vision of incremental reformist “progress” and avoiding revolutionary breaks. Some socialists such as Eduard Bernstein sought to “update” Marxism to match this trend by turning socialism into a reform movement.

 

Interestingly, Bernstein's revisionism targeted the supposed “Blanquism” inherent within the Marxist dialectic - “in Germany, Marx and Engels, working on the basis of the radical Hegelian dialectic, arrived at a doctrine very similar to Blanquism."[5] Blanqui remained a revolutionary phantom who haunted the revisionists and reformists. They sought to exorcise all elements of “Blanquism” from Marxism in order to justify their abandonment of revolution, communism and their acceptance of the capitalist order. The end result of Second International reformism was not an easier reformist road to socialism, but support for “their” ruling classes in the slaughter of World War I.

 

IV. Leninism

 

Lenin saw the need to surmount the reformism and passivity of the Marxism of the Second International who had failed the test of 1914. However, Blanquism was not a revolutionary answer either. For Lenin, these two political trends needed to be replaced with the primacy of revolutionary politics. In developing a new Marxist mode of politics, Alain Badiou identifies the four lessons which Lenin drew from the defeat of the Commune:

 

1. It is necessary to practice Marxist politics, and not some local romantic revolt, whether workerist or populist. The profound meaning of What Is To Be Done? is entirely contained in this difficult and original call: let us be absolutely and irrevocably political activists (meaning professionals, that goes without saying: who has ever seen amateur political leaders?). 2. It is necessary to have an overall view of things, in the national framework at least, and not be fragmented into the federalism of struggles. 3. It is necessary to forge an alliance with the rural masses. 4. It is necessary to break the counter-revolution through an uninterrupted, militarily offensive, centralized process.[6]

 

In addition to these four points, Badiou states a fifth one - the vanguard party, which was “the operator of the concentration of these four requirements, the mandatory focal point for a politics.”[7] Let us now turn to each of these five requirements in order to distinguish Leninist politics from those of Blanquism and the Second International.

 

a. Tribunes

 

The tribune: although the political conditions of nineteenth century France and Tsarist Russia necessitated underground organization by revolutionaries, both Blanqui and Lenin took far different approaches to organizing.

 

Whereas Blanqui envisioned that each member of his conspiracy would operate underground, trained in the use of the conspiratorial methods, and ready to strike on the day of the coup, this was not the case with Lenin. Lenin stressed that party members did need a certain sense of “professionalism”, knowing how to organize in the underground, but the party was not to be cut off from the masses. Rather, the ideal party member envisioned was a tribune of the people who not only inspires the masses of workers and attacks every manifestation of capitalist cruelty no matter who it effects but also portrays the bigger picture of national and international struggle. Thus a revolutionary party was not a simple workers party, but linked up with all exploited and oppressed in society to bring about a communist revolution.[8]

 

b. Praxis

 

Lenin believed that a tribune of the people needed a political and revolutionary theory that would provide an understanding of the contradictions of society and the role of different classes. This theory was to be found in Marxism - devoted to the class struggle and to changing the world. If a professional revolutionary was to act as a tribune of the people and link each particular struggle to a wider one against the whole capitalist system, they needed a method of analysis to comprehend those struggles in their totality.[9] Lenin judged theory to be so important, that he said, “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.”[10]

 

For Lenin, there was no division between theory and practice. As the revolutionary Victor Serge observed, Lenin’s thought is action. “His articles were dictated by the daily necessity for action, are identical with it, precede, stimulate and justify it. This is what we will discover straightaway to be one of the essential features of this formidable personality: there is no divorce in Lenin between action and thought. He suffers from none of the professional defects of the intellectual. There is never any abstract speculation. There is complete harmony between intelligence and will.”[11] All of Lenin’s thought has a single aim - to bring about the socialist revolution. Lukacs, in his study of Lenin's politics said:

 

The actuality of the revolution: this is the core of Lenin’s thought and his decisive link with Marx. For historical materialism as the conceptual expression of the proletariat’s struggle for liberation could only be conceived and formulated theoretically when revolution was already on the historical agenda as a practical reality; when, in the misery of the proletariat, in Marx’s words, was to be seen not only the misery itself but also the revolutionary element ‘which will bring down the old order’.[12]

 

As opposed to Kautsky and the Second International, Lenin saw Marxism as a philosophy of action. For Lenin, the dialectics of revolutionary Marxism - the ability to analyze and adapt to the rapids of reality - allows him to see the line of march and prepare for it. He can see the contradictions emerging and bubbling over. Through his studies, he can see the possibilities that present themselves while others remained blind to them. For example, after the overthrow of the Tsar in 1917, many revolutionaries lined up to support the Provisional Government. Yet Lenin saw that the February Revolution could not successfully wage war and satisfy the demands of the masses. Lenin believed that the development of imperialism and World War I had placed socialism on the historical agenda.

 

While Blanqui did emphasize the need for organization, there was no corresponding theory to analyze social contradictions, identify allies, plan strategy or to decide the right moment to strike. And his organization did not rely on the masses, but was divorced from them. None of this mattered to Blanqui because “the duty of a revolutionary is always to struggle, to struggle no matter what the odds, to struggle to extinction”.[13] In the end, Blanqui struck when the conditions were not ripe, relying on failed methods of struggle, which produced only a tragic hero and not a successful revolution.

 

c. The peasantry

 

For Blanqui, revolution was only to be organized in major urban centers, like Paris, and cadre were principally drawn from middle class intellectuals, artisans and workers. For him, the vast masses of the peasantry of the French countryside were not a revolutionary force, but a single “reactionary mass” under the influence of priests and royalists. Blanqui’s disdain for the peasantry as a conservative class was shared by many, although not all, parties of the Second International. However, Lenin saw the peasantry as a major ally of the proletariat in the revolutionary process for a number of reasons.

 

When Lenin concluded that the forthcoming Russian Revolution was bourgeois-democratic, with demands such as a republic, an eight-hour day, land distribution, etc, this did not mean he believed that the bourgeoisie would lead the revolution. The bourgeoisie was too cowardly, tied to Tsarism and they feared upheaval from below. Lenin argued that the bourgeoisie would resort to reform, leaving the basic structures of Tsarism in place. Lenin argued for a sweeping and thoroughgoing revolution which “is one of rapid amputation, which is the least painful to the proletariat, the path of the immediate removal of what is putrescent, the path of least compliance with and consideration for the monarchy and the abominable, vile, rotten, and noxious institutions that go with it.”[14]

 

According to Lenin, only the proletariat was a consistently democratic force, who would tear down the edifice of Tsarism and feudalism. For the proletariat to play this leading role, they needed to support the demands of the peasantry for land. Together, the two classes would accomplish the bourgeois-democratic revolution. This was the perspective which Lenin developed during the period of the 1905 Revolution, when he distinguished between the two phases of the coming revolution (bourgeois and socialist). Lenin believed that during the bourgeois revolution, the proletariat would march together with the whole peasantry against Tsarism.

 

Yet the peasantry was characterized by small proprietors and many operated small enterprises. The peasants were stratified, disunited with an attachment to private property. Many of the wealthier peasants would resist any march to socialism. Still, Lenin was willing to struggle with the whole peasantry against Tsarism during the bourgeois phase, but during the socialist revolution, the proletariat would be allied “with the poor, the proletarian and semiproletarian section of the peasants, [advancing] forward to the socialist revolution! That has been the policy of the Bolsheviks, and it is the only Marxist policy.”[15] This was something that came to fruition in 1917, when it was the Bolsheviks who championed the demands of the peasantry.

 

While other socialists, such as the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries, cooperated with the bourgeoisie because Russia was supposedly not ripe for a socialist revolution, only Lenin saw the possibilities that the situation presented if the workers allied with the peasants. Ultimately, Lenin was able to build a counter-hegemonic force of the workers and peasants - with communist politics in command - that carried out a socialist revolution. Lenin, quoting Marx, said “The whole thing in Germany will depend on the possibility of backing the proletarian revolution by some second edition of the Peasant War. Then the affair will be splendid.”[16] The development of a counter-hegemonic bloc of the exploited and the oppressed under communist and revolutionary leadership subsequently would be a key component in other twentieth century revolutions.

 

d. The people in arms

 

Lenin never rejected the need for revolutionaries to fight for reforms, but he did not believe that a revolution could come about peacefully by elections and parliamentary struggle. Contrary to many in the Second International, Lenin said the state is not a neutral apparatus standing above classes. Rather, even in the most democratic republic, “the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it is the creation of ‘order’, which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between classes.”[17]

 

What Lenin advocated, following Marx in his study of the Paris Commune, was for the proletariat to smash the bourgeois state and build a new one based on the people in arms. In 1917, Lenin argued that the Soviets produced by the Russian Revolution were equivalent to the Paris Commune. For Lenin, the Soviets “consists of the proletariat and the peasants (in soldiers’ uniforms). What is the political nature of this government? It is a revolutionary dictatorship, i.e., a power directly based on revolutionary seizure, on the direct initiative of the people from below, and not on a law enacted by a centralized state power ... This power is of the same type as the Paris Commune of 1871.”[18]

 

Lenin’s conception of an armed revolutionary seizure of power differs fundamentally from that of Blanquism. The whole theory and practice of Lenin ran against the Blanquist belief that power could be seized by a small conspiratorial group cut off from the masses. Lenin summarizes the differences between the Marxist and Blanquist conceptions of revolution as follows:

 

Marxists are accused of Blanquism for treating insurrection as an art! Can there be a more flagrant perversion of the truth, when not a single Marxist will deny that it was Marx who expressed himself on this score in the most definite, precise and categorical manner, referring to insurrection specifically as an art, saying that it must be treated as an art, that you must win the first success and then proceed from success to success, never ceasing the offensive against the enemy, taking advantage of his confusion, etc., etc.? To be successful, insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class. That is the first point. Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people. That is the second point. Insurrection must rely upon that turning-point in the history of the growing revolution when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height, and when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemy and in the ranks of the weak, half-hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution are strongest. That is the third point. And these three conditions for raising the question of insurrection distinguish Marxism from Blanquism. Once these conditions exist, however, to refuse to treat insurrection as an art is a betrayal of Marxism and a betrayal of the revolution.[19]

 

The need to treat “insurrection as an art” was shared by Blanqui, Lenin and Trotsky, who all thought seriously about the conquest of political power.[20] Lenin and Trotsky understood the importance of studying the terrain of engagement and careful planning in contrast to a fatalistic approach. However, the need for planning and conspiracy to take power did not mean that the Bolsheviks were acting like Blanquists (seizing power on behalf of a small group). As Trotsky argues, planning for insurrection cannot be done directly by the working class, some form of mediation was necessary:

 

Just as a blacksmith cannot seize the red hot iron in his naked hand, so the proletariat cannot directly seize the power; it has to have an organization accommodated to this task. The co-ordination of the mass insurrection with the conspiracy, the subordination of the conspiracy to the insurrection, the organization of the insurrection through the conspiracy, constitutes that complex and responsible department of revolutionary politics which Marx and Engels called “the art of insurrection.” It presupposes a correct general leadership of the masses, a flexible orientation in changing conditions, a thought-out plan of attack, cautiousness in technical preparation, and a daring blow.[21]

 

While Lenin and Trotsky agreed with Blanqui that it was necessary to carefully plan, learn the terrain, and be ready to strike, the similarities between their approaches ended there. Blanqui was willing to strike as soon as the conspiracy was perfected, not after the sharpening of societal contradictions and the emergence of a favorable moment. By contrast, the Bolsheviks, guided by Marxism and a flexible strategy, based their revolution on the masses of Russia.

 

While Lenin stressed the need for careful planning, he understood that a party had to be flexible. The party needed practice, initiative and daring, otherwise they would be paralyzed by immobility and passivity.[22] Lenin did not neglect the technical side of the insurrection, arguing that the masses needed to be more organized so that the enemy does not catch them off-guard. When the time came to strike, and to treat insurrection as an art, Lenin stressed the need for a centralized command, the seizure of strategic points in the capital, and movement against the leaders of the government and the army and important garrisons.

 

Blanqui lacked flexibility and codified his ideas on insurrection. He only possessed a single means of insurrection, a putsch, which just needed to be put into action. Blanqui could not account for chance or accidents in war. He could not grasp what the Prussian General Moltke understood so well, “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength.”[23]

 

Blanqui did not possess the flexibility in his conception of revolutionary war to perceive that strategy needed to be more fluid. Although insurgents needed an overall plan of battle, he did not grasp Moltke’s other dictum that “Strategy is a system of expedients. It is more than a discipline; it is the transfer of knowledge to practical life, the continued development of the original leading thought in accordance with the constantly changing circumstances.”[24]

 

While no plan of battle could account for unforeseen contingencies, this did not mean that planning was to be discarded. Rather, planning needed a critical method of analysis and adaptability which Blanqui lacked. While Blanqui understood a great deal of the military uses of barricades during a revolutionary insurrection, he understood the social utility of them only in a limited sense (which hampered his understanding of insurrection). While Blanqui had practical experience in urban insurrection, he did not take into account the technical adaptations and social control measures on the part of the bourgeois state that made the barricade ineffective as a military tactic.

 

e. The party

 

Lenin and Blanqui agreed that the working class cannot rely upon the bourgeoisie or other political forces to make a revolution on its behalf, but needs its own independent political organization. Lenin knew that one of the mistakes of the Paris Commune is that it lacked a single organization with a clear leadership and program to coordinate and lead the masses in the struggle against the counterrevolution. It is the vanguard party that puts into action a new mode of politics by linking the masses’ demands to an overall exposure of capitalism and for the goal of a revolutionary seizure of power which leads to socialism.

 

The party cannot achieve its goal if it acts in a disorganized and decentralized manner. According to Lenin, the party needs discipline. This discipline rests upon democracy under a centralized leadership. There is freedom of discussion and elections (with higher party bodies elected and subjected to control from the base), but once there is a democratic decision, that decision is binding (until the next party congress) and there is unity in action.[25]

 

Lenin recognized that a party could not foresee all events, and it would be some unknown subterranean fire or spark that could provoke the revolution. His own study of dialectics and Hegel during World War I emphasized the sudden eruption of leaps and events that can blast through history:

 

We have spoken continuously of systematic, planned preparation, yet it is by no means our intention to imply that the autocracy can be overthrown only by a regular siege or by organized assault. Such a view would be absurd and doctrinaire. On the contrary, it is quite possible, and historically much more probable, that the autocracy will collapse under the impact of one of the spontaneous outbursts or unforeseen political complications which constantly threaten it from all sides.[26]

 

Paradoxically, it is true that no plan of battle survives contact with a revolutionary event, the party which has the ability to systemically plan will be able to lead a revolution to victory. For Lenin, a revolutionary party that is able to plan well using the dialectical tools of Marxism, will be better able to respond to the unexpected and the unknown events that erupt. On the one hand, Lenin understood when spontaneous outbreaks of struggle occurred that the party lagged behind the masses; on the other hand, he recognized (contrary to anarchists) that spontaneous struggle would not be enough to bring about socialism. A centralized force that is linked to and leading these seemingly disconnected struggles of the masses was necessary.

 

No doubt, Lenin would have agreed with this observation of Slavoj Zizek about the limits of an event that lacks a party: “When people try to ‘organize themselves’ in movements, the most they can arrive at is the egalitarian space for debate where speakers are chosen by lot and everyone is given the same (short) time to speak. But such protest movements are inadequate the moment one has to act, to impose a new order – at this point, something like a party is needed.”[27] The whole of Lenin’s mode of politics from his studies of dialectics, to forging an alliance with the peasantry, to the development of a military policy, etc. would be simply academic without the instrument of the party. If Lenin had relied on Blanquist modes of organization in 1917 or spontaneous development of socialism, then there would have been no successful seizure of power and the creation of a Soviet Republic.

 

Lenin’s vision of a revolutionary party is the operator of Marxist politics, it is where theory and practice are united in a vehicle for changing the world and bringing about socialism. As Lukács says: “The Leninist party concept represents the most radical break with the mechanistic and fatalistic vulgarization of Marxism. It is, on the contrary, the practical realization both of its genuine essence and its deepest intent: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point, however, is to change it’.”[28]

 

V. The truth of Blanquism

 

It remains one of the most propagated myths that the October Revolution was a coup d'etat and that the Bolsheviks were Blanquists. Even those sympathetic to both Blanquism and Bolshevism such as Maurice Dommanget, repeat that claim: “The liaison between Babouvism and Bolshevism by way of revolutionary Marxism is realized, so to speak, through Blanquism...”[29] Thereby, Blanquism is linked not just to Bolshevism, but all the way back to the first modern communists who emerged with the emancipatory impulses of the French Revolution. Although the whole of this essay has argued that a chasm separates Leninism and Blanquism, there is a grain of truth to the accusation that the October Revolution was “Blanquist.”

 

In contrast to the dreams of the Second International, reality proved that the struggle between opposing classes could not be peacefully reconciled. It was either rule or ruin. And every revolutionary - whether Blanqui or Lenin - if they were serious about socialism, needed to think earnestly about the conquest of political power. For all his faults, Blanqui was ahead of all the revisionists and reformists by stressing the need for the conquest of political power. He knew that revolution required organization, planning, and sacrifice. There was no socialism through peaceful reforms or the ballot box. The socialism of Bernstein and the revisionists was not one of leaps, decisive action or breaks in the fabric of history. The socialism of the revisionists and the orthodox was one that was “inevitable” and could be passively awaited like a morning dawn. This socialism was foretold in the “science” of Marxist texts that were drained of their revolutionary content and turned into dogma. The socialism of the reformers and revisionists is one that has never come, nor will it. When Lenin heard social democrats in 1905 proclaim that they were opposed to guerrilla warfare and armed struggle, because they were against anarchism and Blanquism, he was taken aback and declared:

 

Do these people realize what they are saying? . . . I can understand us refraining from Party leadership of this spontaneous struggle in a particular place or at a particular time because of the weakness and unpreparedness of our organization. I realize that this question must be settled by the local practical workers, and that the remolding of weak and unprepared organizations is no easy matter. But when I see a Social-Democratic theoretician or publicist not displaying regret over this unpreparedness, but rather a proud smugness and a self-exalted tendency to repeat phrases learned by rote in early youth about anarchism, Blanquism and terrorism, I am hurt by this degradation of the most revolutionary doctrine in the world.[30]

 

Lenin’s criticism is not that workers are resorting to armed struggle, but that the workers were not prepared and organized enough to ensure victory.

 

Despite the foregoing discussion of Lenin’s politics and the vast gulf which separates him from Blanqui, there is still a grain of truth in the accusation that Lenin is a Blanquist. This truth amounts to the common sense which Lenin and Blanqui shared. Blanqui knew, as few of his contemporaries did, that socialism was not going to come about by dreaming up great utopias or appealing to the ruling class for reform of the overall system; it would take revolutionary action and the seizure of power.

 

VI. Legacy

 

The Second International’s condemnation of the October Revolution as “Blanquist” is not because they hate elitism, conspiracy, illegality or violence. They had no problem with voting for an imperialist war in 1914 or from using death squads to murder communists in the streets to defend the bourgeois state. Rather, they deny the right of the proletariat to deprive the bourgeoisie of power. In other words, they are on the other side of the barricades. Ultimately, social democratic revisionists who condemn Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks for their “Blanquism” under the banner of a de-radicalized “Marxism” do so because they do not want a Marxist politics which is revolutionary and desires to win. And if that is “Blanquism,” then so much the better.

 

Initially, the Soviet Union critically upheld Blanqui against his reformist detractors. The Comintern’s 1928 manual for armed insurrection spoke of Blanqui as follows: “Bernstein, in his time, accused Marx of Blanquism. Today it is the entire Second International which accuses the Communist International of Blanquism, and equates Blanquism with communism. In slandering the communists in this way, the social democrats represent Blanqui, the committed revolutionary of the past, as a petty-bourgeois fanatic.”[31] However, this was followed in the USSR by the exhaustion of its revolutionary energy and the growth of conservative tendencies. As the Soviet leadership sought accommodation and peaceful coexistence with the bourgeois west, talk of insurrection became a nuisance and an embarrassment. The pro-Soviet Communist parties, once considered bastions of world revolution, began to see the wisdom of the “peaceful transition to socialism” - a “socialism” free of storm and struggle, a “socialism” without the messy intrusion of the masses onto the stage of history, a “socialism” that came with the smiling stamp of approval from a bourgeois parliament. Indeed, for the Communist parties, every student demonstration, any cultural innovation, guerrilla movement, or any militants who dared to break with the “politics of the possible” soon found themselves denounced as “Blanquist” or “ultra-leftist” by the guardians of “Marxist-Leninist” orthodoxy.[32]

 

By contrast, socialists and communists in both the Second and Third Internationals, down to revolutionaries in our own time, have always taken Blanqui seriously. The weaknesses of Blanqui and Blanquism were never denied and minimized, rather he was upheld for his rejection of determinism and recognition of the radical openness of history; his willingness to struggle against the odds, his unapologetic and uncompromising revolutionary communism; thinking without illusion about what it would take to win. Yet when revisionists condemned revolutionaries for “Blanquism,” it was not to attack its vices, but its virtues. As Trotsky declared: “The revisionists label the revolutionary content of Marxism with the word Blanquism, the more easily to enable them to fight against Marxism.”[33]

 

VII. Conclusion

 

Ultimately, those who condemn Leninism as “Blanquism” do so because they want to combat a Marxist politics that is revolutionary and desires to win. And Lenin was not afraid to win. As he said in 1905, in response to Social-Democrats who were afraid of revolutionary measures which made the bourgeois recoil: “Dare we win? Is it permissible for us to win? Would it not be dangerous for us to win? Ought we to win? This question, so strange at first sight, was however raised and had to be raised, because the opportunists were afraid of victory, were frightening the proletariat away from it, predicting that trouble would come of it and ridiculing slogans that straightforwardly called for it.”[34] Lenin can only be called a Blanquist in the sense that he was a dedicated revolutionary who seriously considered the question of political power. And Lenin was not afraid to make a revolutionary leap into the unknown and accept all the consequences of that leap. Unlike Blanqui, Lenin developed a theory and practice which was able to fight and win.

 

This talk was delivered at Kingston University on Friday May, 27, 2016 as part of the international conference Blanqui and His Legacy .

 

Notes

 

[1] For this essay, I have freely borrowed (often with little alteration) from my previous writings on Blanqui. Aside from my book, Specters of Communism: Blanqui and Marx (forthcoming from Haymarket), see “The will to act: The life and thought of Louis-Auguste Blanqui,” Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal; “Despite It All: Blanqui’s Eternity By the Stars,” Counterpunch; “The First Words of Common Sense,” Kasama Project; “Because We Want to Win, We Want the Means,” Kasama Project; “The Historical Memory and Legacy of Louis-Auguste Blanqui” (forthcoming); “Blanquism and Leninism,” Cultural Logic .
[2] See “Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy” found in Rosa Luxemburg, Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, edited by Mary-Alice Waters (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), 118
[3] “Civil War in France”, Marx and Engels Collected Works 22.334.
[4] Karl Kautsky, The Road to Power (Alameda: Center for Socialist History, 2007), 41.
[5] Eduard Bernstein, The Preconditions of Socialism (New York: University of Cambridge, 1993), 37.
[6] Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009), 46.
[7] Ibid.
[8] This perspective was summed up by Lenin in a famous passage from his work, What is to be Done?: “It cannot be too strongly maintained that this is still not Social-Democracy, that the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.” Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What is to Be Done? In Context (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008), 746 and “What is to Be Done: Burning Questions of Our Movement”, Lenin Collected Works 5.423. Henceforth LCW.
[9] Georg Lukács situates the concept of totality as the dividing line between Marxism and bourgeois science: “It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality. The category of totality, the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts is the essence of the method which Marx took over from Hegel and brilliantly transformed into the foundations of a wholly new science. The capitalist separation of the producer from the total process of production, the division of the process of labor into parts at the cost of the individual humanity of the worker, the atomization of society into individuals who simply go on producing without rhyme or reason, must all have a profound influence on the thought, the science and the philosophy of capitalism. Proletarian science is revolutionary not just by virtue of its revolutionary ideas which it opposes to bourgeois society, but above all because of its method. The primacy of the category of totality is the bearer of the principle of revolution in science.” Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971a), 27.
[10] “What is to Be Done: Burning Questions of Our Movement”, LCW 5.365.
[11] From Victor Serge’s “Lenin in 1917” found in Victor Serge: The Century of the Unexpected, Essays on Revolution and Counterrevolution, ed. Al Richardson (London: Socialist Platform, 1994), 6. Emphasis in the original.
[12] Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971b), 11. Emphasis in the original.
[13] Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “Manual for Armed Insurrection,” Marxists Internet Archive .
[14] “Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution”, LCW 9.51.
[15] “Proletariat Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky”, LCW 28.310.
[16] “Preface to The Tasks of Revolutionary Social-Democracy in the European War”, LCW 21.13.
[17] “The State and Revolution”, LCW 25.392.
[18] “The Dual Power”, LCW 24.38.
[19] “Marxism and Insurrection”, LCW 26. 22-23.
[20] For more on Trotsky's views of insurrection, see my “Leon Trotsky and revolutionary insurrection,” Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.
[21] Trotsky 1967c, 169. See also Trotsky and Revolutionary Insurrection (footnote 22). When the Comintern released its manual for Armed Insurrection in 1928, the German Communist Paul Frolich offered this ‘official’ assessment of Blanqui that while recognizing his limitations, also honored his contributions: “He was the most vivid expression, the classic representative of that epoch of revolutions which formed the transition between the bourgeois epoch and the proletariat epoch; for in that transitional epoch the conscious spokesman of the revolution was still the bourgeoisie, but was already also the proletariat. As a representative of that epoch by both origin and by intermediate activity, he constitutes an intermediate link between Jacobinism and modern communism.” Quoted in A. Neuberg, Armed Insurrection (New York: St. Martin's, 1970), 42.
[22] “To Combat Committee of St. Petersburg Committee”, LCW 9.346.
[23] Helmuth Graf von Moltke, Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings, ed. Daniel J. Hughes (Novato: Presido Press, 1995), 45.
[24] Ibid. 47.
[25] “We have more than once already enunciated our theoretical views on the importance of discipline and on how this concept is to be understood in the party of the working class. We defined it as: unity of action, freedom of discussion and criticism. Only such discipline is worthy of the democratic party of the advanced class. The strength of the working class lies in organization. Unless the masses are organized, the proletariat is nothing. Organized – it is everything. Organization means unity of action, unity in practical operations.” “Party Discipline and the Fight Against the Pro-Cadet Social-Democrats”, LCW 11.320.
[26] “Where to Begin”, LCW 5.24. A similar point is made in “‘Left-Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder”, LCW 31.99-100: “We do not and cannot know which spark – of the innumerable sparks that are flying about in all countries as a result of the world economic and political crisis – will kindle the conflagration, in the sense of raising up the masses; we must, therefore, with our new and communist principles, set to work to stir up all and sundry, even the oldest, mustiest and seemingly hopeless spheres, for otherwise we shall not be able to cope with our tasks, shall not be comprehensively prepared, shall not be in possession of all the weapons and shall not prepare ourselves either to gain victory over the bourgeoisie.” See also Lukacs: “if the proletariat wants to win this struggle, it must encourage and support every tendency which contributes to the break-up of bourgeois society, and do its utmost to enlist every upsurge no matter how instinctive or confused – into the revolutionary process as a whole.” Lukács 1971b, 29-30.
[27] See “Answers Without Questions” in Slavoj Zizek, ed. Idea of Communism 2: New York Conference (New York: Verso Books, 189), 189.
[28] Lukács 1971b, 38.
[29] Maurice Dommanget, Blanqui a Belle-Ile (Paris: Librairie du Travail, 1935), 7-11.
[30] “Guerrilla Warfare”, LCW 11.220-1.
[31] A. Neuberg, Armed Insurrection (New York: St. Martin's, 1970), 42.
[32] Later, an important Soviet textbook, Scientific Communism, described Blanqui as a “utopian communist” in order to more easily dismiss him as “unrealistic.” P. N. Fedoseyev, ed., Scientific Communism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983), 46. Yet Blanqui was the opposite of a utopian, declaring: “Let us concern ourselves with the present day, for tomorrow does not belong to us...our only obligation is to ready good materials for the building of that tomorrow, the rest does not lie within our capabilities....Communism must abstain from straying into utopian byways and must never diverge from politics.” Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Critique Sociale Volume 1 (Paris: Fexix Alcan, 1885), p. 201 and 196.
[33] Leon Trotsky, “Problems of the Chinese Revolution: Second Speech on the Chinese Question,” Marxists Internet Archive.
[34] “Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution”, LCW 9.108.

Comments

Truth (Lenin wasn't a Blanquist) surrounded by untruths

Rather than comment directly I'll just suggest reading links that correct the author's assertions.

On Luxemburg, Lenin and Blanquism, see: https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1906/06/blanquism.html (this was written AFTER Rosa's "Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy"

On Lenin, "Leninism" and Lenin's debt to Kautsky, see: http://newpol.org/content/what-thing-called-leninism

On Lukács as the philosopher of bureaucratic centralism, see: http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/987/lukacs-the-philosophy-trap/

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