Blanqui and the communist enlightenment


Dedicated to my cousin, Finley William

Currently, the principles of the Enlightenment are under attack on several fronts. On the one hand, there are fascists and religious fundamentalists who are opposed to secularism, democracy, and equality. On the other hand, large segments of the left have rejected Enlightenment-inspired “grand narratives” as inherently oppressive and totalitarian. Now that Enlightenment ideas are under attack, the left stands on the same philosophical ground as the right, making it ill-equipped to defend universalist principles. Other so-called defenders of the Enlightenment, whether liberals or social democrats, offer no positive alternative to reactionaries. They remain stalwart defenders of the status quo of capitalism, wars, and racism.

There is another option represented by the revolutionary Louis-Auguste Blanqui, who believed that the legacy of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution was worth defending. However, Blanqui recognized that a mere passive defense of both was not enough. He understood that bourgeois society is incapable of realizing the universalist principles of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” and that their fulfillment requires the establishment of communism.

The Enlightenment and the French Revolution

At the heart of the Enlightenment worldview are three claims. The first is that both the natural and social worlds can be understood and acted upon through reason without resorting to religion or God. If the conditions we live under are not the result of God’s will, but man-made, then they can potentially be unmade. The second claim is that human history moves in a particular direction characterized by progress as opposed to regression, stagnation, or recurrence. The final claim, detailed by Neil Davidson, is that human beings possess universal rights, irrespective of their class, religion, or estate. They possess these rights simply because they are human. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, these new ideas were utilized by the rising bourgeoisie in order to attack “divine rights,” backwardness and privileges associated with monarchies, the Catholic Church, and the nobility.

Even though the implications of the Enlightenment placed it on a collision course with the feudal order, this was not desired by the majority of its adherents. Most philosophers were reformers of one sort or another, who wrote for other members of their class or the nobility. According to Voltaire, “It is not the labourers one should educate, but the good bourgeois, the tradesmen” (Harman 243). They viewed the vast mass of the people with contempt and beyond the reach of reason because they were under the control of superstition and the Church. While the questioning of religion by men of property was perfectly acceptable, it was beyond the pale for common people to do so. The “enlightened” bourgeoisie saw great value in religion’s protection of private property through the instruction of the poor to accept their fate, be submissive, obey their masters, and remain in blessed ignorance.

Both conservative Enlightenment thinkers and the nobility shared a common fear that if ordinary people took up reason and criticized religion, it could open a Pandora’s box leading to anarchy. After all, freethinking challenges not only the existence of God, but the doctrines of the Bible and Church. If divine authority and supposedly “unalterable” truths are open to attack, then it is a small step to “dangerous questions” such as, “Why should we have kings?” or, “Why should we accept the exploitation that religion upholds?” There was no telling how far the Enlightenment would go if it got out of hand.

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