Walter Benjamin, Louis-Auguste Blanqui and the apocalypse

Paris Commune
By Doug Enaa Greene September 27, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Red Wedge with the author's permission — In the Spring of 1940, as the Nazis conquered France and were the dominant power on the European continent, the exiled German Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote his final work, Theses on the Philosophy of History. In a moment of political defeat, with fascism triumphant, the parties of the far left lying prostrate and subjugated, Benjamin penned the following words:
The subject of historical cognition is the battling, oppressed class itself. In Marx it steps forwards as the final enslaved and avenging class, which carries out the work of emancipation in the name of generations of downtrodden to its conclusion. This consciousness, which for a short time made itself felt in the “Spartacus” [Spartacist splinter group, the forerunner to the German Communist Party], was objectionable to social democracy from the very beginning. In the course of three decades it succeeded in almost completely erasing the name of Blanqui, whose distant thunder [Erzklang] had made the preceding century tremble. [1]
Why would Benjamin invoke Louis-Auguste Blanqui, who's very name is the embodiment of “ultra-leftism,” violence, illegality and a failed revolutionary path? Benjamin recognized that Blanqui, despite his very real faults, was an antidote to leftist ideas of progress, fatalism, passivity, and opportunism that always guarantee defeat. Both Benjamin and Blanqui recognize that there will be no single breakdown or catastrophe that will deliver humanity from injustice, but rather that the catastrophe is the very existence of capitalism and class society. For Blanqui, deliverance from catastrophe would never passively occur due to “progress” or come down from on high, rather it was necessary to go to war against an exploitative and oppressive world by proclaiming and organizing around a new politics of truth. Thus, Blanqui represents the primacy of politics, strategy and the willingness to act, no matter how dire the situation or impossible the odds. I. The impasse of the Left The imagery of the revolutionary apocalypse has always stirred our imaginations with images of heroic fighters on the barricades storming the bastions of power in order to bring crashing them down. The nineteenth century not only saw the rise of modern industrial society, but was the epic age of barricade fighting as sturdy workers and idealistic students during the revolutions of 1848. No image better captures the romanticism of revolution than Eugène Delacroix's 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People (La Liberté guidant le peuple) which commemorated the July Revolution in France which toppled the Bourbon King Charles X. “Liberty” is portrayed as a young and vigorous woman wearing a Phrygian cap which was worn by the sans-culottes during the 1789 Revolution as a symbol of freedom. Following “Liberty” are three figures: a well-dressed member of the bourgeoisie, a student, and an urban worker carrying two pistols. The “Three Glorious Days of July” are idealized here as a common struggle undertaken by members of different social classes mounted the barricades of Paris in pursuit of “liberty” and the realization of the enlightened liberty ideals of the First French Revolution. This same revolutionary romanticism can be found in Sergei Eisenstein's October, a cinematic dramatization of the Bolshevik Revolution. The climatic scenes show masses of workers and soldiers firing volley upon volley of cannon upon the Winter Palace, tossing down the gates and asserting their power while Lenin and Trotsky proclaim the installation of a new socialist order. Then there is Alberto Korda's iconic portrait of Che Guevara – symbolizing his readiness to fight for revolution at any point throughout the world. The revolutionary apocalypse can be found in the stirring marching songs, the clenched fist and the militant slogans found at any protest. While the revolutionary apocalypse motivated those early barricade fighters, by the late nineteenth century, things began to change with the formation of the Second International. While the Second International claimed to be committed to the revolutionary transformation of society and socialism, their practice was decidedly reformist. Social democracy believed that their victory would inevitably result from the numerical growth of the working class and the steady increase of their political representatives in parliament. Although the Second International had popularized socialism for millions of workers, it was in reality a very vulgarized Marxism that viewed the triumph of socialism to be the inevitable result from the breakdown of capitalism and not a deliverance of humanity from oppression. A central theme of Benjamin's Theses on the Philosophy of History is its critique of leftist ideologies of progress manifested by Second International and its flagship party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany. Second International Marxism took it for granted that the contradictions of capitalism would cause the system to break down. Although capitalism brought with it the accumulation, centralization and concentration of capital, the growth of the working class, and the sharper division between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat – but, ultimately - the relations of production would cease to foster the development of productive forces, and this would cause the system to fall into crisis. According to Marxist economist Paul Sweezy, the Second International believed that “this is not a process which may happen; it must happen with all the inevitable force of a natural law.” [2] In the end, the capitalist parties would be unable to rescue the system from its internal contradictions, and it would fall upon the working class and social democracy (duly elected with a majority plus one in parliament) who would use the state to bring about the transition to socialism. For social democracy, the triumph of socialism was the final result of “scientific” laws, so its leaders believed there to be little need to develop a specifically socialist politics, strategy or analyzes of the conjuncture. Even the standard-bearer of Second International orthodox Marxism, Karl Kautsky could say that the socialist party was “a revolutionary party, but it is not a party that makes revolutions.” [3] Social democracy's lack of a revolutionary strategy to reach the goal gave way to a belief that the steady accumulation of forces would solve this problem. This amounted to a reformist practice, an increasing accommodation to the system and opportunism from the party machines, parliamentary representatives and the trade unions. The gulf between Second International theory and practice was starkly revealed in 1914, when socialists across Europe voted in support of the war aims of their respective countries. In the end, ten million soldiers were slaughtered to determine which colonies would be enslaved by a particular group of capitalist vampires. For Benjamin, social democracy's belief in progress was “a fundamental cause of the later collapse.” [4] The elements of social democratic progress that Benjamin identified as the most corrupting was that “they were swimming with the tide.” [5] Swimming with the tide for social democracy, meant that the stable growth of the productive forces, factories and proletarianization of the population, promised their inevitable victory. A narrow focus on the industrial working class also caused the SPD to ignore other oppressed and exploited sectors of society, meaning that they were unable to develop the necessary political alliances to build a counter-hegemonic alternative and make a bid for power. A belief in progress encouraged fatalism and passivity in social democracy and the working class as opposed to an activist approach of taking advantage of revolutionary opportunities when they appeared. For instance, when the German Revolution occurred in 1918, the SPD could not envision going beyond the limits of bourgeois democracy, since they argued that socialism was on the historical agenda. Therefore, the SPD condemned communists such as the Spartacists who said the contrary as anarchistic, ultra-leftist, and Blanquist. Furthermore, the SPD organized right-wing death squads to crush any hopes of a socialist revolution. Indeed, passivity would become the hallmark of the SPD, who throughout the Wiemar era were a stalwart party of government that refused to break with legality in order to mobilize the masses to fight the growing Nazi threat. When the capitalist “breakdown” occurred in 1929 with a state unable to function, unemployment rising and the fault lines of capitalism laid bare – this opened the door to the possibility of revolution – but the SPD did not take advantage of it. The SPD was paralyzed due to decades of opportunistic practice, defense of the law and the state, and a fatalistic belief in progress, all of which guaranteed their defeat. Economic collapse can provide an opening for revolutionary politics, but only if there is a party on hand able and willing to take advantage of the opportunity, otherwise victory for the far right is the likely outcome. As Benjamin recognized, the breakdown does not herald the end of capitalism, “the experience of our generation: that capitalism will not die a natural death." [6] Ultimately, without the development of politics and strategy to guide revolutionary practice, there could be no victory. For Benjamin, progress was not determined by the growth of capitalist enterprises, but a conscious act of will and “progress” was when “the first revolutionary measure [is] taken.”[7] In contrast to this, the Russian Revolution, Leninism and the emerging communist parties broke with Second International economism and fatalism, putting forth the primacy of politics, strategy and the active role of a revolutionary party. Lenin himself pioneered Marxist approaches on conjunctural analysis, exploiting weak links and the development of strategy. His creative thinking was a profound break with social democracy and re-invigoration of Marxism. Yet as time passed, it became clear that the communist parties suffered from their own forms of fatalism and economism. As the American Marxist Paul Costello observes,
beginning in the 1920s the Comintern enshrined a theory of the “general crisis of capitalism” in its place. This theory held that since World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution international capitalism was experiencing a permanent “general crisis,” for which socialism alone was the solution. In some ways this was only a more sophisticated version of the “breakdown theory” of the Second International...The Comintern framework, like that of its predecessor, defined this crisis in economist fashion as a manifestation of capitalism’s alleged inability to further develop the productive forces of society. Needless to say, time and time again throughout this century, capitalism has proven itself more than capable of enormously advancing the productive forces and of overcoming crises, “general” or otherwise, the Comintern notwithstanding. [8]
In Germany, the Communist Party (KPD) believed that the Great Depression brought the final crisis of capitalism onto the historical agenda, and they did organize unemployed workers and fought Nazis in the streets, they ultimately possessed no political strategy of their own. For the KPD, the catastrophe itself was proof that “history was on their side” and they needed to just wait for the situation to mature so they could take advantage of it. This led the KPD to minimize the dangers of the Nazi threat, believing that it was only a matter of time before it was swept away and the communist party came to power. While the KPD had a solid revolutionary core amongst the working class, they were unable to make inroads amongst other sectors of the population and build the necessary alliances. The sectarianism of their identification of the SPD as “social fascist” helped to further compound their isolation. In the end, the SPD and KPD were both thrown into prison by the Nazis, who emerged victorious in Germany. Exiled and underground members of the KPD and other anti-fascists such as Walter Benjamin tirelessly agitated and organized against fascism. They also looked to the USSR, with all its faults, as the last bulwark against the Nazi dictatorship, while the western “democracies” colluded with it. However, the USSR was itself succumbing to its own version of the ideology of progress as they developed a centralized planned economy with its nearly singular focus on building the productive forces (as part of the march of history). The USSR also grew more conservative as previous gains in culture, education, and women's liberation were rolled back. Soviet socialism became less and less focused on emancipation from age old oppressions, but more and more concentrated on the increase in the number of factories and steel output. Furthermore, the leadership of the party and state became divorced from the masses and bureaucratized. As the communist horizon receded, the USSR and the Comintern yielded to realpolitik, replacing the revolutionary apocalyptic vision of the third period with the Popular Front in 1935 – which caused the communist parties to abandon revolutionary goals while the USSR sought alliances with Britain and France to contain fascism. However, as the possibilities for an anti-fascist alliance faded, since Britain and France were more concerned with the threat of the Soviet Union, Stalin sought to prevent war in the east, signing a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1939. Suddenly, representatives of the great historical rivals - USSR and Germany were shaking hands and seemingly burying the ideological hatchet. For millions of communists and anti-fascists such as Benjamin, the pact was a horrible blow. Benjamin condemned the pact as Soviet betrayal of the struggle against fascism that paralyzed the actions of the various communist parties who upheld it. He also decries the illusory promises of Soviet-line CPs - with their blind faith and submission to the party apparatus (divorced from the masses), the ideology of progress – all of which bred passivity in the masses:
It has the intention, at a moment wherein the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes have been knocked supine, and have sealed their downfall by the betrayal of their own cause, of freeing the political child of the world from the nets in which they have ensnared it. The consideration starts from the assumption that the stubborn faith in progress of these politicians, their trust in their “mass basis” and finally their servile subordination into an uncontrollable apparatus have been three sides of the same thing. [9]
II. Fascism Both social democrats and communists viewed fascism as a phenomenon that was contrary to progress. In the case of the SPD, they believed that fascism could not take root in a modern industrial society such as Germany and was an aberration. Similarly, the KPD and Comintern saw fascism as a passing phase that was only tied to the most reactionary sectors of finance capital. However, Benjamin viewed fascism not as something outside of modern civilization, but embedded within it. Unlike notions of history that saw progress as a good thing without contradictions, Benjamin believed that progress was riven with contradictions and was a deadly “storm.” As Benjamin noted, even in so-called civilized society, “There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism. And just as it is itself not free from barbarism, neither is it free from the process of transmission, in which it falls from one set of hands into another.” [10] The great works of art, architecture, culture, etc. found within imperial countries such as France, the USA, Britain, and Germany were products not only of the ruthless exploitation of workers, but of the worst forms of colonial violence and domination in the periphery. The wealth that imperialism leeched from workers and colonial peoples allowed for modern civilization to develop in all its glory. Marx himself noted that the great advances of “progress” were conditioned by barbarism since the very beginning of capitalism:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, etc.[11]
Therefore, fascism itself, despite its seemingly pre-modern reactionary ideals of returning to blood and soil, was also marked by great technical advances particularly in the military field. Benjamin understood that fascism was not a break with progress, but an organic part of it. The revolutionary left's notions of progress had to be discarded in order to recognize “that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve.” [12] For Benjamin, the struggle against fascism and the monstrosity of capitalism had to be waged not as something in line with progress or the upward march of history, but rather that the revolution needed to break with a conception of history that had produced fascism in the first place. Revolution would not be in line with progress, but would end it once and for all, by settling accounts with the past and carrying “out the work of emancipation in the name of generations of downtrodden to its conclusion” to usher in a new age that finally abolishes class society. [13] III. The apocalypse For Walter Benjamin, the triumph of fascism was not an interruption of the onward progress of humanity, rather as the Marxist theorist Michael Lowy says, “it is the most recent brutal expression of the 'permanent state of emergency' that is the history of class oppression.” [14] Indeed, the social democratic ideologists of progress saw bourgeois democracy as normal and in line with history and that fascism was just a “temporary state of emergency.” On the contrary, Benjamin argued, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule.” [15] Since the dawn of class society at the beginnings of recorded history, the lower classes have been living under the yoke of the most ruthless exploitation. Most people have lived and died in abject poverty, misery and obscurity. The great achievements of the ruling classes are built on mountains of corpses. The struggles of the oppressed for a better world (ranging from Spartacus to Blanqui) have all gone down in defeat. Yet these struggles of the nameless are forgotten in the annals of history written by the rulers, since as Benjamin reminds us, “even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.” [16] Therefore, the mere existence of the reigning system is the real state of emergency. And in our own time, the “state of emergency” remains. Capitalism ravages the planet, threatening the environment with climate change and ecological collapse. Billions live in dire poverty. Twenty thousand children die daily from preventable diseases. Workers go to alienating and exploitative jobs with no purpose, save to get by, and their labor enriches the ruling class, whose sole interest is profit and endless accumulation. The state exists to protect this system and as Blanqui says, it is “the gendarmerie of the rich against the poor” as graphically shown by recent events in Ferguson and Baltimore. Wars launched by imperialist powers such as the United States kill millions in order to secure access to vital resources and maintain their hegemony. Patriarchal systems continue to oppress women throughout the world. And economic crises seek to roll back the few genuine gains of workers to restore capital's profitability. As Marx said of crises, "capital not only lives upon labour. Like a master, at once distinguished and barbarous, it drags with it into its grave the corpses of its slaves, whole hecatombs of workers, who perish in the crises.” [17] The catastrophe is already upon us. “The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things are "status quo" is the catastrophe.” [18] For Benjamin, who was influenced by Jewish theology and mysticism along with Marxism, all of the suffering and exploitation that humanity has endured in class society showed that people needed to be rescued from this condition via a revolutionary apocalypse. For deliverance, Benjamin looked to the apocalypse as “a messianic zero-hour [Stillstellung] of events, or put differently, a revolutionary chance in the struggle for the suppressed past. He perceives it, in order to explode a specific epoch out of the homogenous course of history; thus exploding a specific life out of the epoch, or a specific work out of the life-work.” [19] At the moment of zero-hour, the “march of history” would be halted and a day of reckoning would be at hand. History would be broken in two – before and after. In the apocalypse, the oppressed would finally take revenge for the wrongs inflicted upon them throughout history. “Indeed, the past would fully befall only a resurrected humanity. Said another way: only for a resurrected humanity would its past, in each of its moments, be citable. Each of its lived moments becomes a citation a l'ordre du jour [order of the day] – whose day is precisely that of the Last Judgment.” [20] Judgment Day would be the redemption of the hopes of the past and reverse the verdicts of history on past struggles and rebellions. Benjamin's conception of the revolution as an apocalyptic event that convicted the ruling class and redeemed all past struggles was far removed from “revolutions” based on the ideology of progress. Benjamin argued that the proletariat was the “final enslaved and avenging class, which carries out the work of emancipation in the name of generations of downtrodden to its conclusion.” The ideology of progress cut off the working class from the “It contented itself with assigning the working-class the role of the savior of future generations. It thereby severed the sinews of its greatest power. Through this schooling the class forgot its hate as much as its spirit of sacrifice. For both nourish themselves on the picture of enslaved forebears, not on the ideal of the emancipated heirs. ” [21] Benjamin's vision of class struggle is not one of higher wages and the steady march of the productive forces, but of a working class fostered by its rage for past suffering and its revolution was motivated by the “fine and spiritual...They are present as confidence, as courage, as humor, as cunning, as steadfastness in this struggle, and they reach far back into the mists of time. They will, ever and anon, call every victory which has ever been won by the rulers into question.” [22] This remembrance of the victims of the past was not just in line with the principles of solidarity, but with the Jewish imperative to remember their enslaved and martyred ancestors. [23] The struggle of the present needs to be tied to those that have come before. It is no accident that US socialists/communists have linked their struggles to those of slaves, labor unions, the civil rights movement, and to other struggles internationally whether in Russia or Vietnam. Yet the revolutionary apocalypse is not just about linking the present movements to their predecessors, but involves a different conception of time from that of “progress.” As Lowy argues, the apocalypse means “the return of all things to their original state – in the Gospels, the re-establishment of Paradise by the Messiah...[in] the Jewish messianic tradition: it is animated both by the desire for the restoration of the original state of things and by a utopian vision of the future, in a kind of mutual illumination.” [24] Just as the Russian Revolution continued the struggle begun by previous generations of anti-Tsarist rebels, they also envisioned the creation of a modern industrial socialist society that would establish a world free of exploitation. Benjamin defines the revolutionary event as, “the consciousness of exploding the continuum of history is peculiar to the revolutionary classes in the moment of their action.” [25] The revolution is thus a forceful interruption with what has come before and consciously breaks history in two to wipe out all traces of an unjust world. For example, the French Revolution not only defended their new society on the battlefield against the combined royalist armies of Europe, but they broke with the past by creating a new calendar which marked the beginning of a new historical epoch with the foundation of the republic, renaming buildings and streets, destroying monarchist symbols and settling accounts with counterrevolutionaries and aristocrats with the guillotine. In pursuit of the aim of creating a new just world, the First French Republic was guided by the highest ideals and the determination to achieve them with the most ruthless means. Robespierre put this contradiction as follows: "If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.” [26] And however limited the French Revolution and the First Republic's break with the past may have been, there is no denying that it opened a new era of history. For Benjamin, the instrument of deliverance from an unjust world and the interruption of the progress of history is the arrival of the Messiah. Yet Benjamin sees the Messiah, “not merely as the Redeemer; he also arrives as the vanquisher of the Anti-Christ.” [27] While the Messiah in Jewish and Christian tradition was a divine and supernatural figure, Benjamin saw the proletariat as a secular Messianic figure and the ruling class as the anti-Christ.[28] Benjamin did not see the proletariat as gods or knights in shining armor, free from all blemishes (as some self-styled revolutionaries do), but as an avenging angel filled with the accumulated rage and hate of all past exploitation and struggles, including their own, determined to finally end the history of oppression. As Marx says, the proletariat, which is central to the reproduction of capitalist society and due to the conditions of its existence, is compelled to take up the struggle not only against their own exploitation, but all the wrongs of society:
In the formulation of a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong, but wrong generally, is perpetuated against it; which can invoke no historical, but only human, title...finally, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society, which, in a word, is the complete loss of man and hence can win itself only through the complete re-winning of man. This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat. [29]
Since in the fully-formed proletariat the abstraction of all humanity, even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete; since the conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, yet at the same time has not only gained theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer removable, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need – the practical expression of necessity – is driven directly to revolt against this inhumanity, it follows that the proletariat can and must emancipate itself. But it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life. It cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation. Not in vain does it go through the stern but steeling school of labour. It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is visibly and irrevocably foreshadowed in its own life situation as well as in the whole organization of bourgeois society today. [30]
A revolutionary apocalypse is the only thing which can interrupt the never-ending victories of the ruling classes. Just as the Messiah settles accounts with the wicked and the unrighteous, the proletariat will pass judgment on class society. For Benjamin, “without some sort of assay of the classless society, there is only a historical accumulation of the past. To this extent, every concept of the present participates in the concept of Judgment Day.” [31] All the revolts and struggles throughout the course of history are thus events or moments which “while effecting a fleeting interruption of historical continuity, a break in the heart of the present. As fragmentary, partial redemptions, they prefigure and herald the possibility of universal history.” [32] Ultimately, it falls to the universal class, the proletariat, to bring full realization of these messianic moments of revolt, reverse past verdicts on failed struggles and rebellions by establishing the final goal of a classless society and communism. For Benjamin, history was not a steady and onward march of progress. Progress was marked by contradiction and contained within it unspeakable monstrosities. Rather, history is not the inevitable result of the advance of the productive forces, but was radically open. The future is not known in advance and not given according to the dictates of “progress” that act as natural laws. History, while shaped by economic and social conditions can exceed its limits since human action can create something new. For orthodox Marxists, the Russian Revolution was a premature event and deserved only condemnation since it did not conform to the “laws of history.” Yet as the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci said of the Bolshevik Revolution:
Events overcame ideology. Events have blown out of the water all critical notions which stated Russia would have to develop according to the laws of historical materialism. The Bolsheviks renounce Karl Marx and they assert, through their clear statement of action, through what they have achieved, that the laws of historical materialism are not as set in stone, as one may think, or one may have thought previously.
Yet, there is still a certain amount of inevitability to these events, and if the Bolsheviks reject some of that which is affirmed in Capital, they do not reject its inherent, invigorating idea. They are not “Marxists.” that’s what it comes down to: they have not used the Master’s works to draw up a superficial interpretation, dictatorial statements which cannot be disputed. They live out Marxist thought... In this kind of thinking the main determinant of history is not lifeless economics, but man; societies made up of men, men who have something in common, who get along together, and because of this (civility) they develop a collective social will. [33]
For the objective circumstances are eternally fixed against us, rather our own efforts can shift them in our favor. And while we live in an age of catastrophe, where the very existence of capitalism is a disaster, the nature of history leaves open the possibility of emancipation. Thus, the triumph of fascism and the destruction of the world by capitalism is not unavoidable, but through human effort and will, we can change interrupt the course of history. And past moments of struggle show us that the rule of the dominant classes can be challenged and these moments contain within them glimpses of an emancipated society. The struggle of the proletariat will be a messianic event that will finally stop the continuity of history and end the catastrophe of capitalism. However, Benjamin's conception of history only allows for the possibility of averting disaster. It does not guarantee it. Benjamin recognized that while history contained cracks that could be forcibly opened, emancipation would take more than a single spontaneous event. And here lies the importance of Louis-Auguste Blanqui. It is to him that we now turn. IV. Louis-Auguste Blanqui [34] a. Eternity by the Stars In Benjamin's 1939 work, Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century, he said of Blanqui that “no one else in the nineteenth century had a revolutionary authority comparable to his.”[35] This was a bold claim to make by Benjamin, whom as we noted in the opening quotation, remarked that Blanqui's name was erased from the annals of revolutionary history by social democracy. Indeed, the term “Blanquism” was mainly used by both social democrats and Soviet-line communists (particularly after the early 1930s) to stigmatize those revolutionaries who thought seriously about the means and strategies necessary to win and opposed gradualism and reformism. Yet Benjamin, writing in the 1930s, as midnight descended upon Europe, turned to the maligned figure of Blanqui. Benjamin discovered in Blanqui's life and thought (particularly the 1872 work, Eternity by the Stars) an antidote to the ideology of progress and a desire to fight no matter the odds. By building upon Benjamin's insights, we can say that Blanqui understood the need for the primacy of politics that was guided by truth, and the need for organization and strategy. Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881) was the consummate professional revolutionary and man of action. He was one of the loudest and uncompromising voices in nineteenth century France calling for class war and the violent overthrow of capitalism. And Benjamin was correct: 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. The only method of action open to Blanqui was an elite and tight-knit conspiracy which would strike capital at the appointed time to bring about communism. Each time he failed. And he paid the price for that failure by spending more than three decades in prison. His eagerness to rush into revolutionary battle caused him to act before the time was right. In 1848 and 1870, premature action resulted in him caused him being imprisoned 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 (his own views on economics and general social theory were quite eclectic and superficial) nor did he appreciate the possibilities of 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 provide the necessary theory to understand capitalist dynamics and proletariat struggle that would supplant Blanquism in the aftermath of the Commune and the emergence of mass socialist parties across Europe. Throughout his life, Blanqui had shown himself to be more of a man of action than a social thinker. While he could write ably on military tactics and methods of armed struggle, Blanqui saw the decisive lever of action as lying in a conspiracy and practically excluded the role of the working class in their own liberation. In 1872, Blanqui’s imprisonment gave him time to reflect on a lifetime of failures. By this time, he was an old man. Many of his comrades had just been massacred with the defeat of the Paris Commune. The French Third Republic had him locked safely away in the fortress of Chateau du Taureau in Brittany. His cell was constantly cold. He was forbidden to speak with anyone. The authorities, who knew of Blanqui’s many previous escape attempts, were prepared to shoot him if he so much as looked out of a window. During this, his final imprisonment, Blanqui penned Eternity By the Stars, an extended treatise on astronomy and the possibilities for revolutionary action. Benjamin discovered Blanqui's work in 1938, while conducting his own research on 19th century Paris. In a letter to Max Horkheimer, he said that
Blanqui's last work, written during his last imprisonment, has remained entirely unnoticed up to now, so far as I can see. It is a cosmological speculation. Granted it appears, in its opening pages, tasteless and banal. But the awkward deliberations of the autodidact are merely the prelude to a speculation that only this revolutionary could develop. We may call it theological, insofar as hell is a subject of theology. In fact, the cosmic vision of the world which Blanqui lays out, taking his data from the mechanistic natural science of bourgeois society, is an infernal vision. At the same time, it is a complement of the society to which Blanqui, in his old age, was forced to concede victory. What is so unsettling is that the presentation is entirely lacking in irony. It is an unconditional surrender, but it is simultaneously the most terrible indictment of a society that projects this image of the cosmos-understood as an image of itself-across the heavens. With its trenchant style, this work displays the most remarkable similarities both to Baudelaire and to Nietzsche. [36]
The vision laid out in Blanqui's work, based on dubious science, begins by describing the nature of the universe as “infinite in time and space: eternal, boundless, and undivided.” [37] According to Blanqui, space is material and infinite, with matter also infinite. At the same time, all matter is also the result of a limited number of elements. [38] All matter can only be organized into solar systems. Thus worlds are constantly being born, grow, decay and die. However, due to the limited set of elements, and because the combination of these elements was finite, “resorting to repetition becomes necessary.” [39] According to Blanqui, every person and, creature, and event is repeated on a different world. “We are, somewhere else, everything that we could have been down here. In addition to our whole life, to our birth and death, which we experience on a number of earths, we also live ten thousand different versions of it on other earths.”[40] Following Blanqui’s logic, right now on different worlds the pyramids are being built, Louis XVI is being beheaded by the Republic, and the Bolsheviks are storming the Winter Palace. Yet due to the finite combination of matter, Blanqui says that “mankind does not have the same personnel on all similar globes, and each of the globes have, as it were, its own particular Mankind, each of them comes from the same source, and began at the same point, but branches out into a thousand paths, finally leading into different lives and different histories.” [41] Blanqui imagines alternative realities where the English lost at Waterloo and the French defeat the Prussians in 1870. What accounts for this great variation of worlds with their own alternate histories? Blanqui believes that while “nature has inflexible and immutable laws” [42], human with their particular wills can introduce variation into an equation. While humanity “never affect the natural working of physical phenomena a great deal…they do turn their own kind upside down.”[43] Despite the repetition of history which exists on countless other worlds, there still a space to be created for a radical act. Yet there is a tension in Blanqui’s work. While he wants to leave the room open for choice, he also believes that due to a finite number of worlds existing that “no one escapes fatality.” [44] And that “every man possesses an endless number of doubles across space, and they live his life exactly like he lives it himself.” [45] Everything we have done has already been done and will be done. For Blanqui, this means that we have is “ever-old newness and ever-new oldness.” [46] If everything in the universe is a ever-repeating circle, this leads Blanqui to declare in despair that:
So many identical populations come to pass without having suspected each other’s existence!…Moreover, so far the past represented barbarity, and the future meant progress, science, happiness and illusion! This past has witnessed the disappearance of the most brilliant civilizations on every one of our globe doubles, they disappeared without leaving a trace, and they will do so again, without leaving more of a trace….What we call progress is locked up on each earth and disappears with it. [47]
And it is here that Blanqui offers his critique of the ideology of progress. Blanqui could not conceive of progress in a universe when his civilization had already vanished. How could he envision progress when everything had already been repeated billions of time before? In fact, in this haunting vision, humanity was condemned to the same labor of Sisyphus. Yet Blanqui hastened to hold the door open for hope and action, despite it all. As he says:
For tomorrow, the events and the people will follow their course. For now on, only the unknown is before us. Like the earth's past, its future will change direction a million times...the future shall come to an end only when the globe dies. Until then, every second will bring its new bifurcation, the road taken and the road that could have been taken. [48]
The view of history Blanqui outlines in Eternity by the Stars means the following in regards to political action: that while the objective conditions are overwhelmingly stacked against revolutionaries, this does not mean that there is no space to be created for an act. Rather, revolutionary effort, the will to fight and to win against insurmountable odds can unveil unseen roads to communism. And these roads are not given to anyone in advance but are revealed in the course of struggle. Benjamin found much to relate in Blanqui's critique of progress, stating:
In L'Eternite par les astres, Blanqui displayed no antipathy to the belief in progress; between the lines, however, he heaped scorn on the idea. One should not necessarily conclude from this that he was untrue to his political credo. The activity of a professional revolutionary such as Blanqui does not presuppose any faith in progress; it presupposes only the determination to do away with present injustice. The irreplaceable political value of class hatred consists precisely in its affording the revolutionary class a healthy indifference toward speculations concerning progress. Indeed, it is just as worthy of humane ends to rise up out of indignation at prevailing injustice as to seek through revolution to better the existence of future generations. It is just as worthy of the human being; it is also more like the human being. Hand in hand with such indignation goes the firm resolve to snatch humanity at the last moment from the catastrophe looming at every turn. That was the case with Blanqui. He always refused to develop plans for what comes "later.' [49]
b. Communist truth As Blanqui and Benjamin recognized, passivity and a belief in progress is not the proper view of a revolutionary. Nothing guarantees the success of revolution. Rather the odds are always against victory. So what is the approach which should be taken? It is a leap of faith and to act, despite everything. As Blanqui says, “"Revolutions desire men who have faith in them. To doubt their triumphs is to already betray them. It is through logic and audacity that one launches them and saves them. If you lack these qualities, your enemies will have it over you; they will only see one thing in your weaknesses -- the measure of their own forces. And their courage will grow in direct proportion with your timidity." [50] If you lack faith in the revolution, if you are unwilling to do what is necessary to win, then you will not only lose, but you are a traitor to the cause that you claim to serve. Blanqui's desire to fight against the odds, to conduct revolutionary work in the darkest moments and his unapologetic and fierce advocacy for communism that tolerates no compromises with the old order is an example of what Alain Badiou would call a communist invariant, or a “pure Idea of equality,” that has been represented in mass revolts, whether by slaves, peasants and workers, throughout history. [51] A communist invariant is also an example of a political truth “in which the radical will that aims at an emancipation of humanity as a whole is affirmed.” [52] The name of Blanqui, like the names of other revolutionaries represents “the anonymous action of millions of militants, rebels, fighters, unrepresentable as such, is combined and counted as one in the simple, powerful symbol of the proper name. Thus, proper names are involved in the operation of the…. Idea of communism at its various different stages." [53] In other words, the name of “Blanqui” stood not just for him, but as a symbol of the suffering of the proletariat and their dream of revolution and communism. To the bourgeoisie, the name “Blanqui” was the name of they gave to their fear of the “dangerous classes.” And Badiou would certainly identify Blanqui as a faithful subject to the communist Truth who could never be conquered. Blanqui did not doubt the justice of communism. Whereas, the bourgeoisie proclaims that there is no alternative and condemns communism as the denial of freedom, Blanqui turns the tables on them. He recognizes that the reigning order is not freedom for workers at all, but only for the masters. "We know that the freedom that argues against communism is the freedom to enslave and the freedom to exploit. That freedom, the people call oppression and crime.”[54] For Blanqui, the bourgeois “freedom” to invade countries, force children to work in fields and sweatshops, and for the profit of a few at the expense of the toil of the many. And Blanqui states unapologetically and proudly that bourgeois “freedom” is to be denied, and to be replaced by the armedpower of the risen masses. He could broker no compromise with defenders of the old order. Blanqui believed that once the masses arise, the possibilities are endless: "Certainly after a revolution, there is no sudden transformation. Men and things are the same as before. But hope and fear have changed sides, the chains have fallen, and the horizon opens ... " [55] Benjamin would surely have agreed. c. Organization is Victory Yet Blanqui recognized that it was not enough to be inspired by an idea, however righteous. As a veteran of the many street battles in revolutionary Paris, he was not in doubt of the valor and courage of barricade compared to the soldiers of a regular army. In fact, he went out of his way to praise them, stating:
In civil disorders, with rare exceptions soldiers march only with loathing, by force and brandy. They would like to be elsewhere and more often look behind than ahead. But an iron hand retains them as slaves and victims of a pitiless discipline; without any affection for authority, they obey only fear and are lacking in any initiative... In the popular ranks, there is nothing like this. There one fights for an idea. There only volunteers are found, and what drives them is enthusiasm, not fear. Superior to the adversary in devotion, they are much more still in intelligence. They have the upper hand over him morally and even physically, by conviction, strength, fertility of resources, promptness of body and spirit, they have both the head and the heart. No troop in the world is the equal of these elite men. [56]
However, every popular insurrection in Paris succumbed to the enemy despite their heroism. Looking at their failures, Blanqui concluded, “So what do they lack in order to vanquish? They lack the unity and coherence which, by having them all contribute to the same goal, fosters all those qualities which isolation renders impotent. They lack organisation. Without it, they haven’t got a chance. Organisation is victory; dispersion is death.” [57] For faith in the revolution is not enough, it needs a unified organization, a clear chain of command and an overall strategy. Blanqui understood that revolutionary strategy needed to avoid the pitfalls of utopianism and reformism, which were dead ends. The advocates for these failed roads were not simply another section of the working class, seeking a different route to the same end, rather they were its enemies and executioners. Blanqui believed that victory would come by striking the centers of political and repressive power of the ruling class and distributing arms to the people. While we can rightfully criticize Blanqui's conspiratorial mode of operation for being cut off from the masses, there are certain truths of his strategy. History has proven, time and time again, that the ruling class will not abdicate peacefully to the working class, but that the force of arms is the only way to power: “Arms and organization, these are the decisive elements of progress, the serious method for putting an end to misery. Who has iron, has bread.” [58] d. The primacy of politics Blanqui's emphasis on the importance of organization, primacy of politics, and the will to act put him squarely at odds with not only the apostles of “progress,” but the utopians and reformists of his era. The utopians, who correctly recognized the division of society into classes, believed that this situation could be remedied by appealing to the better nature of the ruling class. Furthermore, the utopian blueprints for socialism were divorced from the existing class struggle. And their plans for cooperatives and mutual aid were not meant to aid the class struggle of the working class, but to take the place of it. Blanqui went so far to say of the utopians, “Those who pretend to have in their pocket a complete map of this unknown land - they truly are the madmen."[59] Blanqui insisted not on appealing to the rulers, but declaring war upon them. Communism would only come via revolutionary struggle, not by utopian plans divorced from the material conditions. Rather, independent political action by the working class was essential: “Communism must abstain from straying into utopian byways and must never diverge from politics.” [60] Although Blanqui did not possess a clear theory of political economy or class struggle (as Marx did), he did recognize the unbridgeable chasm between workers and capitalists that characterized society:
Undoubtedly, in the present constitution of things, it is quite clear that the workers can not endure 24 hours without the instruments of labor that are in the possession of the privileged, but to conclude why there is community of interest between these two classes is odd reasoning. We see this union only as an alliance of lion with a lamb, it exists only on condition that there is a boundless tyranny on the one hand and total submission on the other side. [61]
And while it was true that the reformist socialists of Blanqui's day (and their successors) have shrunk from the implications of that truth. Rather, they not only believed in appealing to the ruling class for crumbs, but to peacefully take over the state via elections. Blanqui, as we have seen, was under no illusions that the state served the dominant classes. And while he did not scoff at reforms, he recognized that they were ultimately inadequate to overcome capitalism:
The extension of political rights, electoral reform, and universal suffrage can be excellent things, but only as means, not as goals. What our goal is the equal sharing of the charges and benefits of society, is the total establishment of the reign of equality. Without this radical reorganization all formal modifications in government will be nothing but lies, all revolutions nothing but comedies performed for the benefit of the ambitious. [62]
Reformists from Louis Blanc to the German SPD to contemporary social democrats, when they have not given up on socialism as a goal. They have only pursued a failed strategy of reforms as opposed to developing the means necessary to win and to end the rule of capital. Their efforts have barely mitigated the exploitation of capitalism. However, it is not that social democrats were pursuing a different road, a reformist one, as opposed to a revolutionary one to the communist goal. Rather, the social democrats have shown time and time again, that they are the guardians of capital and the murderers of revolutionaries and communists. As Blanqui said in an 1851 work, “Warning to the People”
What reef menaces tomorrow’s revolution?
The reef that broke that of yesterday: the deplorable popularity of bourgeois disguised as tribunes of the people....The crime is that of the traitors the trusting people accepted as guides, but who instead gave them reaction.” [63]
To Blanqui, the utopians while well-meaning, diverted the working class from independent political action, while the reformers (despite their claims to the contrary) protected the capitalist order and were the merciless enemies and gravediggers of revolutionaries. Blanqui was under no illusions that what was needed was not only the use of organization and arms to achieve communism, but a frontal assault on the bastions of the old regime. Although Blanqui's particular method proved futile, he was correct on the main point– the ruling class has never, nor will it ever, surrender power peacefully but with the armed and organized working class can victory be assured. The working class not only needed to overthrow the power of capital, but set up their own state in its place (he used the term Committee of Public Safety) which would “dissolve the means of action of the enemy, and to organize and to ensure those of the Republic." [64] This new state would not only break up the police and army of the enemy, but arm the proletariat. Furthermore, the revolutionary state would seize, whole-scale and without compensation, the property of the capitalists, which would then be used for the benefit of the people. And the working class would defend the new regime because the revolution showed with deeds that it defended their interests. [65] e. Rupture The type of revolutionary measures advocated by Blanqui (and later by Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, etc.) were by their very nature “despotic.” They were not in line with the ideology of progress or the smooth upward curve of history, rather they necessitated a break with it. A revolution, as Benjamin saw it, was not done in accordance with the law, but by suspending it. Can a revolution be “legal” when bourgeois freedom protected by law? Blanqui saw through this facade, saying "that freedom, the people call oppression and crime"? [66] When the laws are unjust, every revolution will be illegal. No revolution will ever be legal, since it will not be done according to the dictates of progress or to perpetuate the old order. A revolution is a rupture with what is, a shattering of historical progress, legality, and the whole edifice of oppression and exploitation. Rather than depend on legality or progress, the revolution will have right and justice on its side. The revolution is the rising of the wretched of the earth, who will finally pass judgment on their oppressors and end class rule. [67] V. Conclusion For Blanqui and Benjamin, the revolution involves a rupture. This rupture is not only with the previous regime, but with the nature of history itself. All of recorded history has been the triumphant march of the dominant classes from the Pax Romana to the Pax Americana – their freedom and progress which is built on unbearable enslavement and exploitation. The revolution is not guaranteed by progress or the laws of history, but through faith in the idea of communism and the desire to rescue the dominated classes from the catastrophe that they have always been condemned to live in. The revolution would be a Day of Judgment when as the Bible verse says “the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:16) Even the dead would rise. The verdicts of history delivered and enforced by the dominant classes that have condemned rebels and martyrs from Spartacus to Blanqui would be reversed. The revolutionary apocalypse would stop the progression of history – it would take away the power and privileges of the ruling class, tear down their monuments, and erase its symbols. But more than that, it would be the beginning of a new age for humanity – an age free at last from exploitation and oppression. Doug Enaa Greene is an independent historian living in the greater Boston area. He is a volunteer at the Center for Marxist Education in Cambridge and is the author of a forthcoming book Specters of Communism on the French communist Louis-Auguste Blanqui. Endnotes [1] Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” Marxists Internet Archive. [2] Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development: Principles of Marxian Political Economy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1962), 190. [3] Massimo Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880-1938 (New York: Verso Books, 1979), 40. See Karl Kautsky, The Road to Power (Alameda: Center for Socialist History, 2007), 41. [4] “On the Concept of History,” (footnote 1). [5] Ibid. [6] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 667. [7] Ibid. 474. [8] Paul Costello, “Antonio Gramsci and the Recasting of Marxist Strategy,” Marxists Internet Archive. [9] “On the Concept of History,” (footnote 1). See also Michael Lowy, Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin's 'On the Concept of History' (New York: Verso, 2005), 68-71. [10] “On the Concept of History,” (footnote 1). [11] Karl Marx, “Das Kapital Volume One,” Marxists Internet Archive. [12] “On the Concept of History,” (footnote 1). [13] Ibid. Also Lowy 2005, 59-60. [14] Ibid. 58. [15] “On the Concept of History,” (footnote 1). [16] Ibid. [17] Karl Marx, “Wage Labor and Capital,” Marxists Internet Archive. [18] Benjamin 1999, 473. [19] “On the Concept of History,” (footnote 1). [20] Ibid. [21] Ibid. [22] Ibid. [23] Lowy 2005, 79. [24] Ibid. 35-6. [25] “On the Concept of History,” (footnote 1). [26] Maximilien Robespierre, “Justification of the Use of Terror,” Marxist Internet Archive. [27] “On the Concept of History,” (footnote 1). [28] Lowy 2005, 45. [29] Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” Marxists Internet Archive. Introduction [30] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “The Holy Family,” Marxists Internet Archive. [31] Quoted in Lowy 2005, 99. [32] Ibid. 101. [33] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Political Writings 1910-1920 (New York: International Publishers, 1977), 11. [34] For this section, I have freely borrowed (often with little alteration) 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. [35] Benjamin 1999, 21. [36] Benjamin 1999, 112. [37] Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Eternity By the Stars (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2013), 66. [38] Ibid. 72-3, 113, 119. [39] Ibid. 113. [40] Ibid. 125-6. [41] Ibid. 136. [42] Ibid. 133. [43] Ibid. 134. [44] Ibid. 125. [45] Ibid. 142. [46] Ibid. 146. [47] Ibid. 148-9. [48] Ibid. 125. [49] Benjamin 1999, 339. [50] The Imaginary Party Party Introduces Blanqui. “Not Bored.” [51] Alain Badiou, Meaning of Sarkozy (New York: Verso Books, 2008), p. 100. [52] Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds: Being and Event 2 (New York: Continuum, 2009), 27. [53] Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis (New York: Verso Books, 2010), 250-1. [54] Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “Le communisme, avenir de la société,” Marxists Internet Archive. (My translation). [55] Ibid. (My translation). [56] Blanqui, “Manual for Armed Insurrection,” Marxists Internet Archive, [57] Ibid. [58] Blanqui, “Warning to the People,” Marxists Internet Archive. [59] Benjamin 1999, 736. [60] Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Critique Sociale Volume 1 (Paris: Fexix Alcan, 1885), p. 196. [61] Quoted in Andre Marty, “Figuras do Movimento Operário: Alguns Aspectos da Atividade de Blanqui,” Marxists Internet Archive. (my translations). [62] Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “Democratic Propaganda.” Marxist Internet Archive. [Accessed February 1, 2013]. [63] Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “Warning to the People.” Marxist Internet Archive. [Accessed February 1, 2013]. [64] Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “Instructions pour une prise d'armes,” Marxist Internet Archive. (my translation) [65] Needless to say, Blanqui did not advocate a dictatorship of the proletariat (as a class). He did not use the term. Rather, he believed that the workers were too corrupted by the church and the aristocracy to govern themselves. What he did argue for was a dictatorship of a revolutionary elite who would rule in their place and proceed to educate the people in the values of a new order: Can the people immediately govern themselves immediately after the revolution? The social state being gangrened, heroic remedies are required to pass to a healthy state; the people will need, for a certain period of time, a revolutionary power. See Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “Reception Procedure of the Society of the Seasons,” Marxists Internet Archive. [66] “Le communisme, avenir de la société,” (footnote 54). [67] Daniel Bensaïd and Michael Lowy, “Auguste Blanqui, heretical communist,” Radical Philosophy 185 (May/Jun 2014): 34.