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The First Words of Common Sense
A close look at Blanquism: Part One
“But when a sincere man, leaving aside the fantastic mirage of the programs and the mists of the Kingdom of Utopia...to enter reality; when he speaks seriously and practically -- "Disarm the bourgeoisie, arm the people: these are the first necessities, the only signs of the health of the revolution" -- oh! then indifference vanishes and a long howl of fury resounds...the furies are unleashed upon that man; he is condemned to the infernal gods for having modestly spelled out the first words of common sense.”1Louis-Auguste Blanqui
In contrast to Blanqui, who declared 'seriously and practically' what was necessary in order to win, most of the contemporary left has lowered its horizons of common sense or what it is possible. The contemporary left remains mired in treadmill activism, attending protest upon protest with no long term vision or strategy of how to bring their ideas to life. Their dreams of 'revolution' are really reforms which amount to little more than the slightly modified capitalism of a Swedish-style welfare state. It is high time to break thinking within these sterile formulas and to ask the question “what is needed in order to win?” This means thinking ahead to an armed confrontation with the forces of the bourgeois state and developing an appropriate military doctrine. Those who neglect such questions because the moment is 'premature' are in reality renouncing the conquest of power. For if you wait until the revolutionary moment is upon you to earnestly plan for it, then it is already too late and you are only digging your own grave. Yet to the partisans of gradualism and reform those who earnestly consider the means necessary to win (such as Lenin) are always stigmatized with the name of “Blanqui.” Yet the name of Blanqui is not something we should run from. While keeping in mind his weaknesses, we should embrace his approach of honestly, soberly and seriously thinking about what is needed in order to develop the organization, strategy, and military doctrine required for victory.
I. Who has iron, has bread
Although Blanqui did not possess any well-developed theory of political economy or class struggle, he did grasp a very clear truth that “there is a war to the death between the classes that compose the nation.”2 This chasm was unbridgeable and it could only be overcome via communist revolution. Blanqui scoffed at the ideas of reformists who believed that they could capture the state via elections or appeal to the better nature of the ruling class. Rightfully, Blanqui recognized the nature of the state as "the gendarmerie of the rich against the poor.”3 The ruling class, as shown throughout history, would never willingly surrender its power and privileges without a struggle.
Blanqui spoke of the inadequacy of even the most well-meaning reforms to fix underlying social ills: “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.”4
While the reforming socialists of Blanqui's day recognized that class division, they shrunk from the implications of that acknowledgment. As opposed to seriously thinking of the means of putting an end to the rule of capital, and developing the means to win, the reformers carried on the same failed methods which have not gotten a step closer to socialism in the last 200 years (in Blanqui's day reformers such as Louis Blanc, in the early 20th century the German SPD and later the social democrats across the world). While the methods of reformers have mitigated to a slight degree the exploitation of workers in the first world, they have not altered the underlying class system in the centers of imperialism, furthermore, they have joined forces with imperialism to enforce the horrors of capitalist exploitation across the world. That is the most charitable view that can be given to them. Furthermore, reformers (and utopians) assumed that history was 'on their side,' that they were the representatives of progress and believed that their victory was preordained. This denied the essential role of revolutionary action in bringing about communism. For Blanqui "I am not of those who claim that progress is self-evident, that humanity cannot go back...No, there was no inevitable, otherwise the history of humanity, which is written by the hour, is all written in advance."5
And it wasn't that the reformers advocated a different (i.e. reformist) road as opposed to a revolutionary one to the same end. Rather, the reformers of Blanqui's day, just like their social democratic descendents, ultimately acted as a brake on revolutionary struggle and the handmaidens of capital in the murder of revolutionary workers and communists (from Louis Blanc to Gustav Noske to Guy Mollet). 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.”6
For Blanqui, reformers who protected the interests of capitalism under a socialist guise were not another section of the working class movement, they were its implacable enemies and its executioners.
The utopians fell into a similar error. While they recognized the injustices of class society and the division between classes, they believed classes could be reconciled via an appeal to the better nature of the rulers. Utopians of Blanqui's day were willing to appeal not only to the bourgeoisie to bring about a better society, but also to aristocrats and kings. As Blanqui rightfully pointed out: "Yes, Messrs, this is the war between the rich and the poor: the rich wanted it thus, because they are the aggressors. Only they find it evil that the poor fight back ."7
Furthermore, the utopian projects for an ideal society, however admirable, were blueprints divorced from the existing class struggle. This led them to focus on schemes such as cooperatives or mutual aid programs not as complement to the class struggle, but in place of it. Blanqui had nothing but contempt for Proudhonists who scorned the class struggle and the need for political action. And he went so far as to say of the utopians that “Those who pretend to have in their pocket a complete map of this unknown land - they truly are the madmen."8 For him, the utopians were not grounded in the actual material conditions and were denying the role of human action in bringing about communism, replacing revolutionary praxis by idle speculation and appeals to gradualism and false teleology.
For Blanqui, it was clear that the revolution could only come via force of arms - “Arms and organization, these are the decisive elements of progress, the serious method for putting an end to misery.”9 That meant it was imperative for workers and revolutionaries to be trained in the use of arms and military tactics. And this is certainly a lesson that has been learned throughout history that only revolutions which have been able to defend themselves have prevailed (Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc). On the other hand, revolutions which, in advance, reject or deny the use of arms have been defeated (Chile).
As Blanqui recognized, to deny the use of arms is not to pursue a peaceful or bloodless road to socialism. To preach disarmament is ultimately to dig the grave of revolutionaries since they will be powerless to resist the capitalist system which will not hesitate to crush any challengers. As Blanqui argued and has been proved by subsequent history, the use of arms is the only way to power.
These observations are not meant to deny Blanqui's weaknesses in regard to revolutionary struggle (for him, revolution was an act of will). He effectively denied any use of the avenues opened up by legal struggle or elections (which revolutionaries from Marx, Lenin, Mao recognized). And as we shall develop through this essay, his conception of armed struggle, revolutionary organization and conspiracy had serious drawbacks. All that said, Blanqui was absolutely correct to recognize the bankruptcy of reformist and utopian solutions to the contradictions of capitalism, and that the only way to overcome them was by communist revolution. And in that sense, we should all, without hesitation, proudly proclaim ourselves to be Blanquists.
II. Knowing the Terrain
For Blanqui, it was taken for granted that the decisive revolutionary engagement would occur in a major urban center such as Paris. That victory would come by way of striking at the centers of political and repressive power of the ruling regime, the distribution of arms to insurgent populace. For a planned insurrection to succeed though required not just arms, training and organization, but also investigating where the planned engagements were to take place.
Blanqui spent his life studying how to succeed in an insurrection. Although he failed, there is still much to learn from his method of investigation. For Blanqui, an insurrectionist needed not only to know the centers of political and repressive power in a city, but from the strategy and tactics which would expedite success. The development of appropriate tactics and strategies depended upon knowing
-where to attack (where was the enemy undefended and where insurgents could take advantage). An attack should be delivered where the stakes are highest with the greatest possible resources at the command of the insurgent forces.
-the best defensive positions (what buildings are the most defensible, where could barricades be constructed which would best neutralize the enemy's superiority in numbers and firepower).10
-Knowing the forces at the command of the enemy. Investigate how they are deployed, where, in what strength and in number. Learn how the enemy would act in battle so that you can anticipate their contingency plans. While an insurrection is likely to catch the enemy unprepared, you should know how to take advantage of this and to follow it up with blow upon blow. However, an enemy force likely has an idea of how they would operate in case of an insurrection. If possible, learn what that plan is, or learn to anticipate their movement.
-Know the forces at your command. How many can you count on? What are their strengths and weaknesses in terms of training, organization, and morale? You should know who is at your command and what they can do. The advantage of insurgent forces lies not only in arms, and organization, but in their political consciousness. The soldiers of a revolutionary force should be willing to fight and win with the certainty of the justice of their cause.
-Where can you hide? Where can you set up obstacles? Make use of the terrain to facilitate the movement of insurgent forces (such as by use of flying columns).
-Knowing the terrain means that also that you also know where to block off the line of sight for the enemy and are able to develop positions for ambush (such as on rooftops, sewers or on crowded streets where enemy troops have restricted movement). However, if you don't use the advantages that come from ambushes and surprises, you will lose it to the enemy.
Investigation also entails the development of a plan of battle (or strategy) for a particular campaign. A strategy should have a clear objective (the overthrow of the enemy regime and the establishment of revolutionary power) and tactics should be in pursuit of this end.11 Knowledge of the terrain means not only knowing where to initially strike in an insurrection, but also how to follow up your offensive, maintain the initiative and control where the next engagement will take place. And if you control where the engagement is fought, then you can determine on what terms the enemy will meet you in battle. However, it is important to be able to keep the initiative throughout the course of a campaign; if you lose it and if the enemy is still sufficiently strong and intact, they will be able to keep it.
Knowledge of the terrain of engagement allows the insurgent force to know not only where to strike, defend and in what capacity, but enables revolutionaries to coordinate their forces and to possess freedom of action during a campaign. If you possess freedom of movement and action, you not only control the terms of engagement, but choose the right moment to strike (where the advantage is most in your favor and your enemy is at their greatest disadvantage) and keep the adversary guessing.
Blanqui grasped the central truth of Sun Tzu that “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”12
III. The Plan of Battle
As discussed above, for Blanqui an insurgent force needed to take the offensive and a plan of battle in order to win. Blanqui's plans depended on organization (disciplined by reliable revolutionaries with a clear chain of command), arms with a clear strategy (insurrection and the seizure of key points in a city) and objective (the establishment of a revolutionary regime). It is true that the offensive and surprise allows the attacker to have control of the field of engagement, but this is not a permanent feature of battle. Eventually, the enemy will be on their guard and launch their own counter-strikes which will likely be able to throw off the best-planned offensives.
Blanqui made the error of codifying his ideas on insurrection which fell into the error of fixed rules for insurrection. Blanqui only really possessed a single codified means of insurrection, which just needed to be put into effect. He could not account for chance or accidents in war. He could not grasp what Moltke understood so well, “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main strength.”13
Blanqui's lack of this knowledge handicapped his insurrectionary efforts. He 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.”14
No plan of battle survives contact with the adversary because of unforeseen contingencies did not mean that planning was to be discarded. Rather, planning needed a critical method of analysis and flexibility which Blanqui lacked. A commander needed the ability to rapidly respond and adapt to a changing situation on the ground. Blanqui did not possess a view of strategic planning with the required level of critical thinking and flexibility.
IV. Organization and the Will to Win
In order to bring about a successful communist revolution, Blanqui believed that an organization was needed which would serve as the general staff of the insurgent masses to guide them to victory. Blanqui's assertion was based on decades of practical experience and reflection on failed insurrections in Paris which was due to their lack of organization.
In his 1866 work, Manual for Armed Insurrection, Blanqui presented his mature views on the subject of organization and insurrection. When Blanqui reflected on previous Parisian insurrections such as the June Days of 1848 (when the workers of Paris revolted against the Second Republic), he observed that while the workers were sure of success and the government possessed only demoralized troops, the government still won. Blanqui said that the reason for the failure of the workers was that the workers lacked organization.
The lack of organization prevented the revolutionary insurgents from coordinating their defense, strategy, clear chain of command, communication, and allocation of resources. As he said, “The essential thing is to organize. No more of these tumultuous risings, with ten thousand isolated heads, acting at random, in disorder, without any overall design, each in their local area and acting according to their own whim! No more of these ill-conceived and badly made barricades, which waste time, encumber the streets, and block circulation, as necessary to one party as the other. As much as the troops, the Republican must have freedom of his movements.”15
One advantage that insurgents possessed against the enemy is that they were motivated by a revolutionary ideal. And this meant that the revolutionaries knew not only what they were fighting against (capitalism and reaction), but what they were fighting for (“a new order that will free labor from the tyranny of capital”).16 This means that a revolutionary force will fight differently than its enemy (lack of torture, avoid indiscriminate killing, treating prisoners humanely, etc.). While an insurrection may fight differently than its enemy, it needed the will to win and that means a unified organization, command, program, and overall strategy. Also, the clear recognition that insurgents are fighting for a just cause would also draw the oppressed masses to their side.
Let us discuss a single point here: the will to win. As Blanqui realized, a revolution motivated by a new idea could work wonders in the insurgent masses. A revolutionaries motivated to win would seize the initiative and take the offensive during an insurrection. They would press their advantage against the enemy to the fullest. Ironically, Blanqui the firm and unshakeable atheist believed that to carry out a revolution, you needed an act of faith. And he 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."17 Blanqui's ethic is clear, if you lack the will to win or hesitate in carrying out what the revolution demands of you, not only will you lose to the enemy, but you are a traitor to the cause you claim to serve.
While Blanqui praised the morale, faith and energy of the revolutionaries, he noted that belief in the communist ideal was not enough to win against the superior organization and arms of the enemy. Due to the lack of organization, the Parisian workers did not see the big picture. For example, workers would only defend their own neighborhoods and would not concern themselves with what was going on elsewhere. This meant that while the government soldiers could focus their energies on a particular section of barricades since the workers didn't have an organization to coordinate, communicate, or plan overall strategy in a manner that would ensure victory. This allowed the government to pick apart the barricades one by one without worrying about a single unified defense. As Blanqui said, summing up the failure of the insurgents: “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.”18
Blanqui's remarks should not be read as a dismissal of dispersion and in favor of a completely centralized command and organization. He recognized that workers motivated by a revolutionary ideal would display greater initiative and daring compared with the forces of the enemy, so long as they were part of overall operations. While initiative is key to the tactics of insurrection, it makes sense only if one is able to keep it. An insurrection cannot succeed if it is based on passive defense of a position since the enemy will be on the offensive and deciding the terms of the engagement and, most likely, defeat for the revolution.
As Engels also observed:
Firstly, never play with insurrection unless you are fully prepared to face the consequences of your play. Insurrection is a calculus with very indefinite magnitudes, the value of which may change every day; the forces opposed to you have all the advantage of organisation, discipline and habitual authority; unless you bring strong odds against them, you are defeated and ruined. Secondly, the insurrectionary career once entered upon, act with the greatest determination, and on the offensive. The defensive is the death of every armed rising; it is lost before it measures itself with its enemies. Surprise your antagonists while their forces are scattering; prepare new successes, however small but daily; keep up the moral ascendant which the first successful rising has given to you; rally thus those vacillating elements to your side which always follow the strongest impulse, and which always look out for the safer side; force your enemies to a retreat before they can collect their strength against you; in the words of Danton, the greatest master of revolutionary policy yet known: de l’audace, de l’audace, encore de l’audace!19
While Blanqui's case for an insurrection organization with clear leadership, coordination, communication, strategy, program and fired by revolutionary faith is strong, his weakness comes in focusing wholly on the technical or military end and his neglect of political agitation (something we will expand on below). Blanqui did not really deal with the question of adequate preparatory work among the masses to build a base for revolutionary politics. And he simply assumed that on the day of the revolution that the masses would simply rally to the leadership of his organization. This was not only a false assumption, but proved to be a fatal one. Every insurrection that Blanqui launched, however adequately prepared in a military sense failed due to the lack of mass participation (and for misjudging the ripeness for a revolutionary situation).
(To be continued in part two, Because We Want to Win, We Want the Means)
2Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “Speech before the Society of the Friends of the People.” Marxist Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/blanqui/1832/speech.htm [Accessed February 1, 2013].
3Quoted in “Presentation of Blanqui,” New Left Review I/65 (January-February 1971): 27.
4Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “Democratic Propaganda.” Marxist Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/blanqui/1833/democratic-propaganda.htm [Accessed February 1, 2013].
5Quoted in Michael Lowy, Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin's 'On the Concept of History' (New York: Verso, 2005), 84.
6Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “Warning to the People.” Marxist Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/blanqui/1851/toast.htm [Accessed February 1, 2013].
7Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “Defence Speech of the Citizen Louis-Auguste Blanqui
before the Court Of Assizes.” Marxist Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/blanqui/1832/defence-speech.htm [Accessed February 1, 2013].
8Quoted in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 736.
9“'Warning to the People.” (note 6).
10We will discuss the use of barricades in a later section.
11Blanqui possessed clear weaknesses in this regard which we will discuss below.
12Sun Tzu, “On the Art of War.” Marxists Internet Archive http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sun-tzu/works/art-of-war/ch03.htm [Accessed February 10, 2014].
13Helmuth Graf von Moltke, Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings, ed. Daniel J. Hughes (Novato: Presido Press, 1995), 45.
15Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “Manual for Armed Insurrection,” Marxists Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/blanqui/1866/instructions1.htm [Accessed February 7, 2014].
19Frederick Engels, “Revolution and Counter-revolution in Germany: Chapter 17 'Insurrection.'” Marxists Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/germany/ch17.htm [Accessed February 19, 2014].