19th Century

The History of Socialism (Part I) | Louis Blanc

Louis Blanc delivered a series of lectures to working-class Frenchmen in London in December 1849. The text of these speeches was then printed in George Julian Harney’s Democratic Review in January 1850, and then quickly forgotten. Stephen Basdeo has transcribed the text of Blanc’s speeches, which is the first time they’ve been published in an accessible format since 1850. Part Two will follow later this week.

Louis Blanc in 1848

CITIZENS,—Of all the questions which we are going to study together, there is not one but is of a vital importance, not one but has, so to speak, a tragical character.

Is it forbidden to civilisation, which has conquered slavery, to combat and conquer misery?

Are servitude, inequality, hatred, preferable to liberty, equality, fraternity? and if only to ask it, is the height of insolence; by what means shall we realise that formula which was the glory of our sires, and which the most valiant among them have bequeathed to us as an immortal heritage, from the top of that scaffold upon which they carried their heads in testimony of the sincerity of their hearts? These, citizens, are questions which forcibly claim an answer. The nineteenth century requires and expects it: inquietude creeps around more and more, Proletariat gets impatient, time is pressing, the least hesitation is a danger, each delay conceals a storm.

And let no one come and say: Behold abuses, behold injustice: let us make a revolution and then we shall see! What! we should engage ourselves in this career, so fraught with perils, and leading to new things, without having previously asked of ourselves what we want, and determined the point which we must attain. When we have to astonish so many misled consciences, to agitate so many minds, to alarm so many interests, we should neglect satisfying our own mind as to the final result, and we should play that great game without ascertaining whether the gain is worth the chance: No, no: a Social change is not so small a matter that it should be pursued as an adventure. We have had commotions enough, if they are to be characterised in history only by the ruins they heap, and the tyranny they only displace. To him who dares to cry to the people, Follow me! the people have a right to reply, Where are we going: and woe to him if he fail!

Revolutions besides are not improvised with impunity. They need a long gestation not to be miscarried, especially not to become bloody. Every idea which yesterday was accepted after a discussion, will to-morrow spare a blow from the axe. Why was the Revolution of ’93 so terrible, and what is the secret of its wild grandeur? Why were they not more fruitful, those superhuman efforts, those delirious abnegations, those prodigies of audacity, that fury of genius, all annulled and swept away by the catastrophe of Thermidor? Why, citizens? because the democratic revolution of ’93 had not been like the Revolution bourgeoise of ’89 prepared and ripened long beforehand; because there had not been a sufficient elaboration of those ideas of which Robespierre and St. Just, those disciples of Rousseau, were less the representatives than the soldiers, because those dissensions which, in times of tranquillity, are spent in discussions, come, in times of crisis, to burst into violence; because we agree more easily about the designation of the end to be attained when we seek it through a clear atmosphere, than when we have to distinguish it through the smoke and dust of a combat. Let us march onwards, but with our eyes open.

Again we are told: Beware! Beware! By speaking to the people about their sufferings, by claiming for them, before them, the suppression of misery, you make an appeal to gross appetites, you replace elevated aspirations by anxieties of an inferior order. What is at the bottom of your studies is nothing but a thick materialism.

Indeed, had this language been held to us by some ascetic philosophers, by austere contemners of the pleasures and riches of this world, there would be no cause to get angry at the objection, to refute it would be sufficient. But consider a little this strange anomaly! It is at the exit of their merry banquets, it is by the sound of the music of their fetes, it is from the bosom of sumptuous palaces, in which their meditations are sheltered, it is with the golden pen of Seneca in their hands that the happy ones of the world are pressing us not to rescue from the joys of an exalted spiritualism, homeless and breadless people! Ah! I own it, my heart is indignant at so much hypocrisy. They know not then, those profound doctors, that misery closes against men from their very cradle all the avenues of moral life; that by denying them education, misery stifles their minds and weighs down their souls, that by condemning them to an excessive and brutalising manual labour, it tends to assimilate them to those machines, which, after all, are opposed as rivals to their labour! They have never heard a criminalist exclaim, What fills prisons with inmates, it is hunger! They have never read in the heart-rending work of Parent Duchatelet why young girls prostitute themselves! The map of society under their glance, have they not seen that excess in misery, ignorance, crime are there laid down in the same direction; that the hospital is on the way to the galley! In truth, they astound me. As if it were not from the absolute intimacy of the body and soul that human beings result!

“The soul and the body are united by ties which it is folly, as well as cruelty, to overlook. The mind gets unnerved in a withered body; and if the body is accustomed to sink, sooner or later the soul will sink also. No doubt there are some who remain free in a dungeon, and are kings though clad in rags; some have been seen who died whilst standing erect. But very small is the number of those strong-hearted men, and heroism is so much the less necessary as societies are less imperfect.”

Another reproach is arrayed against Socialism, and it is the more important to examine its value, that this examination will exactly lead me to develop the plan which I purpose following in this course of lectures.

Socialism, it is objected, is as ancient as the world, and you bring us nothing new. You want equality. Lycurgus, before you, wanted it, and moreover applied it. You extol the advantages of a life in community. Plato has been so far as to advocate community of wives. The doctrine of fraternity is yours: who propounded it better than Christ? and who practised it better than the first Christians? You fancy a social order in which the happiness of all should be the certain result of the application of your principles; that golden dream has already been traced by Thomas More in his Utopia. Before you had thought of rendering society responsible for the bad direction of individual passions, the Anabaptists had proclaimed the dogma of impeccability. The idea of attractive labour belongs to Morelly. You pass titles of property through the sieve of an audacious critic: read Jean -Jacques and Brissot. You pretend to organise labour through association: read Babeuf.

This course of lectures will prove to you, I hope ,citizens, what there is puerile and false in such an objection. It will be easy to me to show you that the ancients had only a sometimes confused, sometimes gross idea of equality; that, in the Christian doctrine, truth was hid under symbols which permitted Catholic casuists to alter it; that in Thomas More, Campanella, Morelly, Rousseau, Babeuf, bold and noble truths are found mixed up with dangerous errors! that the nineteenth century has not only fecundated but considerably enlarged the heritage of preceding ages, and that its mission precisely consists in forming with a thousand ideas true, but hitherto scattered, incomplete, obscure, an imposing and glorious whole.

But let us take up the accusation as it is proffered. Well, it is true, Socialists have ancestors, they are connected with an immense tradition; they number among their ancestors the noblest minds, the most generous souls, the most undaunted thinkers of all times. Yes, it is true. Among the precursors of Socialism, you will find Lycurgus, the most famous legislator of antiquity; Plato, who was surnamed Divine; most of the Fathers of the Church; the first among heresiarchs, Nicholas Stork, whose speech possessed invincible seductions; Müner, the hero of the peasants’ war; Hutter and Gabriel, the saints of Anabaptism; the martyr Campanella; the High Chancellor Thomas More, so celebrated for his virtue; the ingenious and tender Fenelon; Mably, so versed, although an Utopist, in the science of affairs and the art of diplomacy; Jean -Jacques Rousseau, of whom distant nations demanded laws; Robespierre and St. Just, in whom the French Revolution became incarnate; . . . and should not this enumeration appear to you accusing enough, you may add a Socialist who was nailed on the cross, and who was called Jesus!

O obstinate blindness! O unequalled aberration! Behold our enemies arming themselves against Socialism with its historical importance—that is, what constitutes its glory and its strength.

But what is proved by the existence of that Socialist family, so ancient, so illustrious, is, that Socialism “is one of those primordial indestructible ideas, which the hand of God has engraved in human consciences, and which are perpetuated from age to age, and whose development forms an unbroken tradition through the world’s ages.”

If Socialism was of recent birth, then would it be defencelessly exposed, and we could conceive that any one should exclaim: “Where are your titles of nobility? How can you prove your legitimacy? You are new born.” But, to triumph against Socialism, because it has engrossed the thoughts of all ages, because instead of being the dream of such and such philosophers of our age, it has been the preoccupation of all humanity, represented by a long series of great men, is not that an insane attempt?

According to this, the philosophy of the eighteenth century would weigh very light in the scale of human destinies; for, Voltaire was not the first, in the history of thought, to batter intolerance. Superstition had been attacked before Frérat and Boullanger; before Diderot, altars had been raised to philosophical doubt.

When it is said that the property of false ideas is to remain stationary, this is not enough; the property of false ideas, as soon as they are hemmed by discussion, is to go always on the decline down to the hour when they are seen to disappear for ever. The fires of inquisition have been extinguished, is there now a hand capable of kindling anew their cold ashes? The torture of the rack has been abolished; show me a man who now dares to represent himself as the logician of torture! Quite on the contrary, the ideas with which Socialism is composed have not ceased to develop, strengthen, expand themselves, and conquer. If Socialism be one of those false ideas which time does not improve, if it be one of those seeds which do not germinate in the soil of civilisation, whence does it come that Socialism is at this moment the grand affair of France, Germany, and we shall soon be allowed to say, of all Europe? Whence does it come that Socialists are already numbered by millions, and every day sees their ranks increasing? Whence does it come that they form so powerful a party, that by itself alone it keeps in check all the other parties reduced to the necessity of coalescing themselves? Whence does it come that, acted upon the stage, attacked by ridicule mercilessly, persecuted by calumny, anathematised by Parliament, combatted on public thoroughfares with cannons, deprived of its journals and its leaders, it remains erect, unconquered, more formidable than ever? In what times was the like witnessed? It was not, I imagine, at the times when, upon a small patch of Greece, Lycurgus established his gross system of equality by grafting it upon slavery; nor in those times when the book of Thomas More produced the same effect which Gulliver’s Travels has since produced; nor in the times nearer to us, when Babeuf was obliged to make of his philosophy, a conspiracy.

There is only one epoch in the past when we see Socialism possessed of a considerable force: it is when, under the direction of Hutter and Gabriel, and under the name of Moravian Brethren, the Anabaptists formed in Germany a family of seventy thousand men, a family which astonished Europe by their fruitful activity, by their ever progressing prosperity, and who were upon the point of extending themselves over all Germany, owing to the contagion of example, when they were dispersed by the fanaticism of a Catholic tyrant. But it is remarkable, that the Moravian Brethren presented themselves only as the tenants of German lords, only as a sect craving to live by the side of ancient institutions: this was all the state of the world then permitted to do. To-day Socialists are justified in conceiving higher expectations. The world has not to tolerate them, it belongs to them.

Now, all are at liberty to deny Socialist writers their title to originality. Who will be persuaded that Fourier and Considerant have inventive powers, they who have so often been reproached with having carried originality up to strangeness? Is it not piquant to make of Cabet a plagiarist of Thomas More, because one has written a book devised on the same plan as the other? When in 1839, that is ten years ago, the author of the Organisation of Labour published his book, he little thought he had inspired himself with Babeuf, whose works he had never read! and I feel certain that Proudhon did not hear without astonishment that his name was Brissot. But let us pass on; it is lowering the debate too much to let it dwell any longer upon a miserable question of literary fame. Is what Socialist writers demand right? Is what they assert true? Such are the points at issue. Anything else is not worth stopping for. Perish names, provided principles triumph!

(To be continued)

Original citation: Louis Blanc, ‘The History of Socialism’, Democratic Review, January 1850, 296-301

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