A short self-published polemic, inspired by my recent participation in a conference about Blanqui.
Walter Benjamin is admired, indeed revered, by many on the left. The fragmentary, often cryptic, nature of much of his output and the appalling circumstances of his tragic death have combined to make him an almost sacrosanct figure. It would be foolish to deny that there is a great deal of value in Benjamin’s work. But it is not above criticism. I recently wrote a conference paper on Auguste Blanqui, and was reminded of what seems to me to be a serious flaw in Benjamin’s work, which, as far as I know, has been little mentioned by the various commentators on his work.
Benjamin’s last major project was a study of nineteenth-century Paris – what is known as the Arcades Project. The advent of World War II and Benjamin’s subsequent death prevented him from completing this work, but his manuscripts have been published in a very substantial volume. Of course we cannot know what further changes and developments Benjamin would have made if he been able to complete his work, so it would wrong to criticise him too harshly for what was only a provisional draft; perhaps more culpable are those who have taken the draft we have as representing Benjamin’s definitive judgement.
Benjamin was undoubtedly right to take Auguste Blanqui as a major figure of the period. Blanqui embodied a tradition of radical republicanism emanating from Jacobinism; he reflected the aspirations of many thousands of working people and all the evidence is that he was a figure who attracted great admiration and popularity in his lifetime. As Benjamin himself notes: “No one else in the nineteenth century had a revolutionary authority comparable to his.” Marx described Blanqui and his comrades in 1848 as “the real leaders of the proletarian party” and the historian Maurice Dommanget, who wrote no less than eight books on Blanqui, argued that “Blanqui, by his principles and by his methods, played a considerable role in taking Marx forward on the path leading to the elaboration of the revolutionary ideas to which the latter’s name would become attached.” If Blanqui is little discussed nowadays it is perhaps because, in part, of the Stalinist approach which refused to see that Marx had any predecessors or precursors.
But though Benjamin recognised the importance of Blanqui, he seemed to be relatively little interested in his political ideas or practice. There are just over sixty references to Blanqui in the Arcades Project, of which less than a third deal with either Blanqui’s critique of the existing social order, or his various efforts at revolutionary organisation, although these two themes preoccupied him for the vast majority of his life.
In particular, the repeated attempts to see similarities between Blanqui and the poet Baudelaire are positively misguided: “To bring together Baudelaire and Blanqui means removing the bushel that is covering the light.” The resemblances, such as they are, are secondary if not trivial; in essential matters there is a sharp contrast between the two men.
Blanqui was a lifelong revolutionary, who believed that the world could be radically transformed for the better, and devoted his efforts to trying to devise means whereby social change could be brought about. Baudelaire was not so much a conservative as radically apolitical; he was contemptuous of any attempt to transform the world. His posthumous notes confirm this:
- In any change there is something simultaneously foul and pleasant, something akin to infidelity and upheaval. That suffices to explain the French Revolution.
- POLITICS: I have no convictions as they are understood by the people of my century, for I have no ambition. In me there is no basis for a conviction.
- There is no reasonable and assured government but the aristocratic one. Monarchy or republic based on democracy are equally absurd and feeble.
It is hard to understand what Benjamin means when he states: “Baudelaire is quite as isolated in the literary world of his day as Blanqui is in the world of conspiracies.” One does not develop revolutionary organisations of the sort Blanqui built in isolation.
Blanqui could on occasion be a French nationalist; in 1870 he launched a paper called La Patrie en danger (The homeland in danger). But in so doing he was looking back to the days of the French Revolution, when France seemed to be the native country of a revolutionary solution which could be exported to the rest of the world. It is very arguable that the world had changed by 1870 and that Blanqui’s patriotism was anachronistic but it was certainly conceived as a noble ideal. What a contrast with Baudelaire, who put great effort into preparing a volume, published posthumously, entitled Pauvre Belgique (Poor Belgium) in which he assembled insults and slanders, often of the cheapest kind, against Belgium and the Belgian people:
- All Belgians, without exception, have empty skulls.
- It is as difficult to define the Belgian character as to situate the Belgian in the hierarchy of beings. He is a monkey, but he is a mollusc.
- I don’t know much about Belgian Catholics. I consider them to be as stupid, evil and above all idle as Belgian atheists.
Blanqui was formed within the Jacobin tradition, which had a negative attitude to women (the Jacobins closed down the women’s clubs in 1793). And his attempts to organise street fighters were certainly aimed at a male audience. But there was an evolution in his last years; he shared a platform with anarchist feminist Louise Michel and urged a meeting of women to continue their fight for women’s emancipation. Baudelaire, in his unpublished note books, made a number of comments about women that were aggressively misogynistic:
- Loving intelligent women is a pederast’s pleasure.
- Woman … is on heat and she wants to be fucked …. Woman is natural, that is abominable.
- I’ve always been surprised that they let women into churches. What conversation can they have with God?
In one of his poems he compared Lesbians to “pensive cattle” (bétail pensif).
That Baudelaire was a great poet is not in question. In attempting to deal with someone who is both a great artist and profoundly reactionary, there are two possible and symmetrical solutions, both of which are equally flawed. One, which very much belongs to the Stalinist tradition, is to say that if Baudelaire was politically reactionary, he must have been a bad poet. The other is to argue that because he was a great poet, he must have been politically progressive. Benjamin tends toward the latter alternative in his rather implausible claim that Baudelaire’s “deepest intention” was “to interrupt the course of the world”.
But while the comments on Baudelaire are at least subject for debate, there is a much more serious misrepresentation in Benjamin’s account. In 1938 he wrote to Max Horkheimer saying he had discovered a little-known work by Blanqui, L’éternité par les astres. This small book was not, as Benjamin claims, “entirely unnoticed up to now, so far as I can see”; it had been published in 1872 and had been discussed in one of Benjamin’s main sources, Geffroy’s biography of Blanqui; Benjamin notes this in the letter to Horkheimer, though claiming that Geffroy had failed to recognise what the book was really about.
Blanqui had been arrested on the eve of the Paris Commune, and was in jail when he heard the terrible news of the savage repression of the Commune, in which several thousands died. Despite the harsh conditions of his imprisonment, he engaged in intellectual exploration, and wrote the small book L’Éternité par les astres (Eternity through the stars). The basic assumption of his work was that the universe was infinite in both time and space. If so, then it followed logically that any possible world must have already existed an infinite number of times and would recur infinitely.
Benjamin was fascinated by this idea, which he saw as basically pessimistic, “a vision of hell”. It was the negation of all Blanqui had fought for:
Humanity figures there as damned. Everything new it could hope for turns out to be a reality that has always been present; and this newness will be as little capable of furnishing it with a liberating solution as a new fashion is capable of rejuvenating society.
Even more dubiously Benjamin claimed that Blanqui’s view of the cosmos was an admission of failure, “the complement of that society which Blanqui, near the end of his life, was forced to admit had defeated him. …. This resignation without hope is the last word of the great revolutionary.” And repeatedly Benjamin claims, falsely, that L’Éternité par les astres, was Blanqui’s final word, in effect his testament, written “on the threshold of the grave”. In fact Blanqui had almost a full decade still ahead of him - during which he does not seem to have returned to his cosmological speculations.
Benjamin compared Blanqui’s book to what he saw as a similar view in Baudelaire and in Nietzsche’s idea of the “eternal return”. (Whether Nietzsche’s idea was wholly pessimistic is a question I shall leave to those who find it easier to read Nietzsche than I do.)
In fact L’Éternité par les astres does not invite a pessimistic reading. In some ways Blanqui seems to be anticipating multiverse theory. In particular he notes that whereas in our lives on this planet we are forced to choose between alternatives, on a cosmic scale both alternatives exist:
What man does not sometimes find himself faced with two possibilities? The one he rejects would make life very different for him, while leaving him the same individuality. One leads to poverty, shame and servitude, the other led to fame and freedom …. But there is no place for fatality in the infinite, which does not allow for alternatives and has room for everything. A world exists where the man follows the road rejected by his counterpart in the other world.
And he applies this explicitly to historical events like the battle of Waterloo.
The great events on our globe have their counterpart, especially when misfortune has played a role. Perhaps the English have many times lost the battle of Waterloo on globes where their opponent did not commit Grouchy’s blunder. It was a close thing. On the other hand, elsewhere Bonaparte does not always win the victory of Marengo which here was a piece of luck.
Certainly he accepts that the “eternal” return” applies to his own life:
What I’m writing at this moment, in a dungeon in the fort du Taureau, I wrote it and shall write it for all eternity, on a table, with a pen, in the same clothes and the same circumstances.
But contrary to Benjamin’s claims, this does not preclude the possibility of progress in human history:
Progress in this world is only for our descendants. They are luckier than we are. All the fine things that our globe shall see, our future descendants have already seen them, are seeing them at this moment and will see them forever, in the form, of course, of doubles who preceded them and will follow them.
As Peter Hallward has effectively argued, there is no contradiction between Blanqui’s view of the cosmos and his political voluntarism:
Since nature largely leaves us alone to get on with our lives as we choose, so then we are free to make and remake the course of our own history, which is the only history that matters. …. The immutable cosmic order of things, in short, is simply irrelevant to both the individual choices we make and the collective arrangements in which we participate.
A point that Blanqui does not make explicitly (it would have made publication impossible) but was undoubtedly in his mind is that there must be an infinity of worlds in which the Commune was not defeated. (As Dommanget argues, if Blanqui had been at liberty he would have argued powerfully for an immediate offensive strategy with a march on Versailles; if this had forced Thiers to flee, it would have seriously weakened the forces of reaction.)
In short, rather than representing the “resignation” or acceptance of defeat which Benjamin refers to, its seems reasonable to suppose that Blanqui wrote this book to cheer himself up in very gloomy circumstances.
Benjamin was, of course, entitled to interpret Blanqui’s text as he saw fit, and to draw out intertextualities where he deemed them important. That is what critics are for. What he was not entitled to do was to make false statements about Blanqui’s life. Yet Benjamin asserts that this was Blanqui’s last statement, and that it represented a final admission of defeat.
The facts are very different. Blanqui was finally released from jail in June 1879. His last year and a half, although he was now in his mid-seventies, were a frenzy of activity. He travelled all over France, addressing rallies and banquets; he fought some six election campaigns, and went to Italy for a celebration of Garibaldi. He even launched a short-lived daily paper, to which he contributed regularly. His efforts were devoted towards an amnesty for the communards, which was achieved in July 1880. He spoke to four meetings in Paris in December 1880; on the morning of 28 December he returned home at 2.00 a.m., exhausted, collapsed, and died four days later. If ever a revolutionary fought till the last breath, it was Blanqui.
Benjamin’s main source for his discussion of Blanqui is a book called L’Enfermé by Gustave Geffroy, published in 1897. He cites both the first edition and the second revised edition of 1926, but his references to the latter are only to the first volume, which covers the period up to April 1859. (The sections on L’Éternité par les astres and the final years show only minor modifications in the revised edition.)
But it appears that Benjamin never read to the end of the Geffroy volume he cites, since the final section of the book deals in some detail with Blanqui’s last period of liberty. (There is a fuller account by Maurice Dommanget in a book published only after Benjamin’s death.) Benjamin also refers to the work of Maurice Dommanget, Blanqui’s most thorough historian, and the one with the closest affinity to his revolutionary spirit, but only to his book on Belle-Île, which covers only the period 1850 to 1857. Much of Dommanget’s work appeared after Benjamin’s death, but he could presumably have consulted Dommanget’s first short book from 1924 which gives a brief but clear account of the end of Blanqui’s life, but there is no indication that he did so. (There is a copy in the Bibliothèque Nationale, where Benjamin worked, which presumably has been there since publication.)
Why this misrepresentation? Did Benjamin deliberately intend to deceive? It seems unlikely – what would have been his motive? If he had had the leisure to pursue his researches he might well have had to revise his account quite radically. What seems more likely is that Benjamin wanted to believe this story of a Blanqui ending his life in despair. Benjamin’s circumstances were, of course, very miserable; European war seemed inevitable and, while he could not predict the conditions of his death, he may well have felt he was unlikely to survive the war. In this context it is quite possible that, without consciously wishing to deceive, he projected his own gloom onto Blanqui.
So perhaps those who have accepted Benjamin’s account at face value are even more to blame. There is an enormous body of literature about Benjamin, and I have obviously not consulted it all. But in the small sample I have looked at there seems to be a widespread willingness to believe Benjamin.
Thus Willi Bolle quotes without reservation the claim that “resignation without hope is the last word of the great revolutionary”. Max Pensky believes Blanqui shows “a far greater emphasis on stoic resignation” than Nietzsche. Esther Leslie cites as fact that Benjamin had “come across the final ‘infernal’ piece of writing by Louis-Auguste Blanqui” (my emphasis IHB), while Susan Buck-Morss quotes Adorno as saying that L’Éternité par les astres is written in “accents of absolute despair”. Time and again academic specialists seem to be confined within the narrow boundaries of their disciplines. Samuel Weber thinks L’Éternité par les astres was “the title of memoirs…. written in prison at the end of his life”. Karl Ivan Solibakke imagines Blanqui was a “revolutionary mystic” while Howard Eiland and Michael W Jennings think the Paris Commune happened in 1870!
Now of course nobody expects critics to study every author and political figure that their subjects refer to – that would be a Sisyphean task. But there does seem to have been excessive credulity here. One wonders if some of these critics were quite happy to believe Benjamin because they wanted him to be right.
Does it matter? All historians, even the best, make mistakes, get names and dates wrong, misquote from sources. But it does seem worth correcting Benjamin on this point because he is colluding in a very widespread and reactionary myth, that revolutionaries eventually become disillusioned. Young revolutionaries are frequently told “You’ll grow out of it”. Renegades like David Horowitz get a warm welcome. There was delight in many circles what it appeared that the author of Homage to Catalonia had become an informer for the British Foreign Office. Deathbed conversions have long been popular. As Voltaire was dying, priests unsuccessfully “kept up a daily bombardment of letters and visits”. More recently Christopher Hitchens (certainly no Voltaire) has been the subject of claims that he was becoming a Christian in his last days.
Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg all died as convinced revolutionaries. (Benjamin’s claim of an “analogy between Engels and Blanqui: each turned to the natural sciences late in life” seems to me both biographically false and trivial.) So the suggestion that a great revolutionary like Blanqui admitted defeat” would be a valuable weapon in the counterrevolutionary armoury. There is no evidence that Benjamin wished his work to be used in this way; it would be good if his admirers were to clearly repudiate him on this point.
 Volume 5 of Benjamin’s Gesammelte Schriften, published as the Arcades Project (translated by H Eiland and K McLaughlin, Cambridge Mass. & London, 1999 (hereafter Arcades Project)..
 Arcades Project, p. 21.
 K Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, chapter 1 https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm
 M Dommanget, Les Idées politiques et sociales d’Auguste Blanqui, Paris, 1957, p. 398.
 Hopefully the new website “The Blanqui Archive” http://www.fiveeightsix.co.uk/blanqui.kingston.ac.uk/ will help to make Blanqui’s life and work better known.
 See letter from Russian historian J Zilberfard cited in J-L Rouch, Prolétaire en veston, Treignac, 1984, pp.85‑6.
 See Arcades Project pp. 79, 142, 144, 199, 339, 357-8, 362-3, 616, 617, 734, 735-6, 738-9, 792, 793, 794, 814.
 Arcades Project, p. 364.
 C Baudelaire, Œuvres complètes, Paris, 1961, pp. 1273, 1275, 1278.
 Arcades Project, p. 368.
 See M Dommanget, Blanqui la guerre de 1870-71 et la Commune, Paris 1947, pp. 33-4, 49.
 Baudelaire, Œuvres complètes, pp. 1315-1457.
 Baudelaire, Œuvres complètes, pp. 1326, 1342, 1355.
 G Geffroy, L’Enfermé, Paris, 1897, p. 436.
 M Dommanget, Auguste Blanqui au début de la IIIe. République (1871-1880), Paris & The Hague, 1971, p. 114.
 Baudelaire, Œuvres complètes, pp. 1251, 1272, 1287.
 “Femmes damnées”, Les Fleurs du mal.
 Arcades Project, p. 318.
 W Benjamin, Gesammelte Briefe, Band VI, Frankfurt am Main 2000, pp. 9-10.
 Arcades Project, p. 112.
 The full French text is available at https://www.marxists.org/francais/general/blanqui/1872/astres.htm There is an extract in English at https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/blanqui/1872/astres.htm
 Arcades Project, p. 25.
 Arcades Project, p. 15.
 Arcades Project, pp. 25-6.
 Arcades Project, p. 111.
 Arcades Project, p. 352-3.
 Arcades Project, p. 557.
 There is an entertaining exploration of this theme in the 1998 movie Sliding Doors.
 P Hallward, “Blanqui’s Bifurcations”, Radical Philosophy 185 (May-June 2014).
 M Dommanget, Blanqui la guerre de 1870-71 et la Commune, Paris 1947, p. 128.
 G Geffroy, L’Enfermé, Paris, 1897; G Geffroy, L’Enfermé (édition revue et augmentée par l’auteur), two volumes, Paris, 1926.
 G Geffroy, L’Enfermé, 1897 edition, pp. 424-37.
 M Dommanget, Auguste Blanqui au début de la IIIe. République (1871-1880), Paris & The Hague, 1971.
 M Dommanget, Auguste Blanqui à Belle-Île, Paris, 1935.
 M Dommanget, Blanqui, Paris, 1924, pp. 41-45.
 The British Library catalogue lists 1384 books and articles by Benjamin or dealing with him in whole or part.
 W Bolle, “Paris on the Amazon?” in RJ Goebel (ed.), A Companion to the Works of Walter Benjamin, Rochester NY, 2009, p. 235.
 M Pensky, Melancholy Dialectics, Amherst, 1993, p. 174.
 E Leslie, Walter Benjamin, London, 2007, p. 182.
 S Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics, New York, 1979, p. 263, citing T Adorno, Prisms, London 1967, p. 238.
 S Weber, Benjamin’s –abilities, Cambridge Mass., 2008, pp. 250, 352.
 KI Solibakke, “The Passagen-Werk Revisited”, Goebel (ed.), A Companion to the Works of Walter Benjamin, p. 163.
 H Eiland & MW Jennings, Walter Benjamin: Acritical Life, Cambridge Mass., 2014, p. 578.
 T Besterman, Voltaire, London, 1969, p. 525.
 Arcades Project, p. 116.