Kassabova on Blanqui, ed. and trans. Le Goff et al. (2018)


Blanqui, Auguste. The Blanqui Reader: Political Writings, 1830–1880. Translated by Philippe Le Goff, Peter Hallward, Mitchell Abidor, and edited by Philippe Le Goff and Peter Hallward. Verso, 2018, pp. 384, ISBN 978-1786635011

Biliana Kassabova, Gimnasio Femenino

In his 1850 analysis of the political situation in Second Republic France, Karl Marx argued that with the events of June 1848 the working class had finally reached revolutionary consciousness. In underscoring what he saw as the workers’ rejection of utopian socialism, Marx noted that “the proletariat rallies more and more around revolutionary socialism, around communism, for which the bourgeoisie has itself invented the name of Blanqui.” The very name of Blanqui, in other words, was a symbol of the workers’ struggle and contained in itself the threat of revolution. Nonetheless, Louis-Auguste Blanqui is barely known today and even most scholars of nineteenth-century France rarely sketch more than a schematic portrait of him as “L’Enfermé,” a master-conspirator who spent most of his life in prison. This is largely due to the preponderance of research on Marxist revolutionary thought and the paucity of printed primary sources detailing Blanqui’s thought. 

The Blanqui Reader, edited by Philippe Le Goff and Peter Hallward, remedies this situation. It is the first English-language edition of selections from Blanqui’s writings: speeches, letters, propaganda, notes, as well as complete works, such as the better-known Eternity by the Stars and Instructions for an Armed Uprising. Relying on meticulous research into the Blanqui archives at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, it presents texts not available even in French print, though the editors acknowledge their debt to Dominique Le Nuz’s anthologies. The Blanqui Reader appeared in 2018 in tandem with a website, The Blanqui Archive, containing, most impressively, high-resolution scans of the entirety of the BnF’s Blanqui holdings. This is, in itself, an important contribution to nineteenth-century French studies. As the bibliographies of both the book and the website show, much of the scholarship on Blanqui dates from more than thirty years ago, suggesting that the appearance of this collection is also long overdue. 

Philippe Le Goff recently defended a dissertation on Blanqui’s political thought, while Peter Hallward’s Blanqui and Political Will is forthcoming with Verso. Both historians possess deep knowledge of the revolutionary’s thought, which has allowed them to compile and annotate their selections expertly. As a result, the Blanqui presented here is complex and goes well beyond the idées reçues about L’Enfermé. The introductions highlight important and heretofore largely unstudied aspects of Blanqui’s thought. They help situate it in the French nineteenth century and in the global revolutionary tradition, and point to its relevance to our own time. We see a thinker of revolution who underscores the primacy of action and political will, who uses his erudition in ancient and modern history to formulate insurrectionary ideas, who ponders cosmological determinism versus human voluntarism, and who consistently calls for mass education. 

The volume spans Blanqui’s impressively long insurrectionary trajectory and contains selections of his writings from 1830 until his death in 1881. It is divided into sections defined both chronologically (punctuated by key moments of Blanqui’s biography and French political history), and thematically (determined by the key issues occupying Blanqui’s thought at specific historical moments). The editors have prefaced each section with a concise and informative overview situating Blanqui’s life and ideas within the political struggles of the period in question. This makes the book useful and accessible to dix-neuviémistes and a general audience. It is to the editors’ credit that they recognize gaps in Blanqui studies by noting hesitancies in current research. They identify, for example, a certain Maillard (first name unknown) with whom Blanqui exchanged important letters on the goals and methods of revolution (107) or point to ambiguous interpretations of some allusions (e.g. 18, 49). In addition to showing intellectual humility in their willingness to identify gaps in existing scholarship, they thus also implicitly invite further research.

The English text is crisp and preserves the vigor of the original French, but as with any translation, some choices are open to debate. For example, the editors explain that they have chosen to render patrie as “country,” rather than “fatherland,” to avoid Germanic echoes (xv). However, this translation loses on the one hand the classical republican allusion and, on the other, the nationalistic connotation of the original. The selection—or rather, the omission of some texts—also invites discussion about how choices were prioritized. While the introductions present Blanqui largely as a neo-Jacobin (xxii, xxvi), little attention is paid to the Hébertist turn in his thought post-1851. There are some elements of that shift present here—Blanqui’s notes excoriating Robespierre as a “premature Napoleon” (159) are provocative and intriguing—but one wonders why only excerpts from Blanqui’s preface to Gustave Tridon’s Les Hébertistes, a much more developed denunciation of the Jacobins of 1793, are included. 

These are minor quibbles, however, that rather than detracting from the accomplishments of this volume, should point us to future research on Blanqui and French revolutionary thought in general. The Blanqui Reader and the Blanqui Archive website do the double service of opening a conversation on the ideas of one of the foremost revolutionaries of the nineteenth century and providing access to resources that make this conversation possible. This intellectual portrait of Blanqui painted by his own words will thus serve historians and literary scholars alike. It will help nuance their understanding of a key figure and point of reference for many of his contemporaries, including Marx, George Sand, Daniel Stern, Jules Vallès, and Alexis de Tocqueville. More importantly yet, it will help bring to his rightful place a towering figure of the French revolutionary tradition.