1805-1881 • France
Revolutionary • Insurrectionist • Prisoner
It’s quite difficult to avoid Auguste Blanqui while walking around Paris. He spent much time in many of its (now disappeared) prisons, and rarely stopped plotting insurrections. He played key roles in several riots, demonstrations and uprisings and fought on many barricades.
Aged ten, a journey across France with his family to Paris at the height of the White Terror of the 1815 Restoration marked him. At 17, when he was still a student at the Collège Royal de Charlemagne he witnessed the guillotining in front of the Town Hall of the four sergeants of La Rochelle on 22 September 1822. They were executed for being members of the Carbonari, part of a military plot to overthrow Louis XVIII.
The Charbonnerie française included Bonapartists, liberals and anti-Bourbon republicans. Blanqui joined it in 1823 when it had thousands of members, 40% in the army and others, like him, urban young men from wealthy backgrounds railing against repression.
Blanqui taught part-time at a girls’ school in the Hotel Sully, next to the Place Royale (now Place de Vosges) in 1825, where he first met the 13-year-old Amélie-Suzanne Serre who, eight years later, became his wife.
In 1827 he was wounded twice by a sabre cut – at the rue Saint-Honoré in April and on the Saint-Michel bridge in May, and once in the neck by a pistol shot on 19 November on the corner of the rue aux Ours and the rue Quincampoix. These wounds occurred at different demonstrations for freedom of the press, against the increasing role of the Jesuits and the last in celebrating the victory of the opposition to Charles X at Paris local elections.
In July 1830 using a rifle Blanqui had hidden in the mid-1820s he fought in the rue Saint-Honoré outside the Palais Royal, along the rue de Hanovre and Palais de Justice, but especially in the Latin Quarter, where he then lived at 85, rue de la Harpe (in the still existing street whose southern end was demolished to create the Boulevard Saint-Michel).
Blanqui joined and became very active in the Société des amis du peuple club that appeared between July and October and which included others who are also now Parisian street names: Arago, Raspail and Cavaignac.
Already influenced by the socialism of Saint-Simone in 1831 Blanqui was arrested in January 1831 for membership of a forbidden student society that called for the abolition of the University as a vestige of the Empire and the Restoration.
He spent three weeks in the Prison de la Force (a private aristocratic town house used as a prison from 1780 to 1845) at 2-4 rue du Roi de Sicile.
In July 1831 he was jailed for a month as co-editor of the Au peuple paper that had breached the law prohibiting criticism of the government.
A year later, while living with his mother at 96 rue de Montreuil, Blanqui was arrested again along with 14 other leaders of the Société des amis du peuple, and tried at the Palais de Justice (4 boulevard du Palais). He was the only one jailed (for a year) after making an incendiary defence speech.
Hazan (IOP) writes: ‘asked to give his profession he replied “proletarian”. The procurator objected that this was not a profession. Blanqui responded: “It is the profession of the majority of our people, who are deprived of political rights”. During that year’s imprisonment he was in and out of hospital, being ill with the cholera that had just killed his father. He was in jail during the brief 1832 uprising against Louis-Philippe.
In April 1834, after the second revolt of Lyon’s silk workers (canuts) he fought in the two days of rioting in Paris, and narrowly escaped with his life in the Rue Transnonain (now incorporated into Rue Beaubourg). Living then at 13 Rue des Fossés-Saint-Jacques, he helped organise the legal defence of the arrested republicans.
On March 11 1836 Blanqui was arrested again. This time with Armand Barbès, another leader of the Société des Familles founded after the 1834 repression. The two men were charged with secretly manufacturing bullets at 24 Rue Dauphine and gunpowder at 113 rue Broca. Blanqui was released after six months but forbidden to return to Paris, so he moved 30km north-west of Paris to the Oise river.
After several secret visits to Paris from the Oise, Blanqui and Barbès founded a new secret society, the Société des Saisons to replace the Familles, dismantled by the police. The new conspiratorial club was built on a cellular structure with just six men in each ‘week’, and four weeks in each ‘month’, and three months in each ‘season’ and four ‘seasons’ in each year. In early 1839 Blanqui decided the time was ripe for another attempted insurrection.
First, they needed weapons and ammunition, so they raided the Lepage Brothers armoury round the corner, at 22 rue du Bourg l’Abbé (now 64-66 Boulevard de Sébastopol), taking 310 rifles and 200,000 rounds.
Then they tried to capture the police station and partly succeeded in taking the Town Hall. A handful of barricades were built but there was no mass uprising.
Barbès, wounded, was captured the same day and imprisoned in the Conciergerie. 77 insurgents were killed, as were 28 soldiers. Subsequently nearly 700 arrests were made, including Blanqui in October. Both were given death sentences, subsequently commuted to deportation and then prison on Mont Saint-Michel.
Placed in solitary confinement Blanqui refused to read letters from his wife that had been opened. He advised her against visiting because of the degrading treatment by the guards she would have been subjected to. Amélie-Suzanne died in 1841 without ever seeing him again.
Blanqui returned to Paris on 25 February 1848 and immediately founded the largest club, the Société républicaine centrale. In April the provisional government release a document to discredit Blanqui, claiming he had betrayed the 1839 insurrection.
In May 1848 Blanqui advised against holding the demonstration in favour of Poland that ended in occupying the Constituent Assembly in the Hotel de Ville that had only been elected in April. Nonetheless he was soon arrested and in April 1849 was sentenced to ten years in prison.
It was from his cell in the Vincennes Castle Prison, just outside central Paris, that he could hear the suppression of the workers’ revolt in June 1848, when at least 10,000 were killed.
Released in 1859, Blanqui is jailed again for a further four years in 1861, for attempting to create another secret society. He arrived back in Paris incarcerated again at the prison Sainte-Pélagie in the Rue de la Clef. It had its own ‘political prisoner’ section and courtyard.
Blanqui had first been held there in 1832 with other members of the Society of the Rights of Man. In the early 1860s he met young imprisoned republicans there, and was visited in his cell by Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), the future socialist and then French prime minister.
Escaping in 1865 he lived in Brussels for the next five years before finally returning to Paris on August 12 1870. This was just two days before another Blanquist insurrectionary attack on barracks at La Villette failed both to get enough weapons or to trigger a mass uprising. Blanqui and two others received a death sentence.
Capture and Commune
After mounting anger follows Louis-Napoléon’s capture and surrender at Sedan on September 1 1870, a new insurrection forced his abdication on September 4. On 21 October as Paris is besieged a mass uprising takes place.
Blanqui briefly becomes a leader of a new provisional government, but when the National Guard commanders refuse to support it, the movement failed. Blanqui then gets just 50,000 votes in the 3 November election in Paris, and with his health failing, leaves for Bordeaux in February 1871 to try and recuperate.
On March 17 1871, the day before the Paris Commune uprising, Blanqui is captured by the soldiers of the Thiers Versailles regime, and tried for his participation in the October 31 insurrection. Once again he is jailed and moved to another old abbey used as a prison in the 19th century: Clairvaux. south-east of Troyes (the high security prison, one of France’s oldest, is finally only to close in 2022). Blanqui was kept there from 1872 to 1879 – and Peter Kropotkin followed him to the same prison in central France between 1883 and 1886.
Trying to get him amnestied, socialists nominated him for election several times, including in the 6th arrondissement of Paris in July 1878. When he was eventually elected for Bordeaux, the result was invalidated. Ill, he was finally pardoned on June 10 1879.
He spent the next two years speaking in towns across France. On 27 December 1881 he returned late to his room on the Boulevard d’Italie (now the Boulevard August-Blanqui), where he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and died on January 1 1881.
Between 100,000 and 200,000 socialists and republicans followed his cortege to the Père Lachaise cemetery. The revolutionary who had spent 43 years and two months in total under police arrest and who believed that real liberty for workers could only come with a revolution in society.
In 1906, after Louise Michel’s death, the anarchist sympathiser and sculptor Émile Derré revised his 1898 Cornice of Kisses (Le Chapiteau des Baisers) into a ‘Dream for a House of the People‘ that included Louise Michel, Élisée Reclus and August Blanqui.
Hazan (HOB) ends his history of the Paris barricades in which Blanqui invested so much of his life, arguing that ‘thanks to Baudelaire, Blanqui, Hugo and Lissagaray, this is a history that is still living, a source of inspiration for those unresigned to the perpetuation of the existing order’.