Most people outside of French institutions of higher learning know nothing about Louis Blanc. But during the 1848 Revolution, there was no more popular Frenchman in Paris. His books had educated a generation of rebels on the Republican-Socialist alternative to monarchy. As a result, organizers of that monarchy’s opposition and workers in the streets saw him as their leader. The politicized populace was fully willing to place him as leader without parliamentary due process. Indeed, on more than one occasion during those tumultuous days, they carried him on their shoulders (as he struggled to get down), with the intention of violently installing him as autocrat of the government. There was certainly precedent for this means of choosing leadership. Only 50 years earlier, Robespierre had attained supremacy using the power of the mob. But Blanc was not a demagogue. He resisted violent efforts to attain his goals. He thought that the combination of education and representational government would lead to the realization of democratic and socialist ideas he propounded in his writing.
Leo Loubere follows Blanc’s career from journalism and history-writing, through his involvement in the 1848 Revolution, to his later career and death. Permeating the entire chronology are the revolutionary’s ideas on state, republicanism, socialism and social conditions. Be prepared for some detailed political philosophy; this is not just a portrait of a life. It is also quite critical of Blanc’s thoughts and actions. Saliently, his thoughts on violence are self-contradicting. While Blanc clearly states that “a cause…which must dip its hands in blood…can only retard the forward thrust of progress” (Loubere, p. 48), he supports war against Britain, rationalizing that for economic reasons “either France must perish, or England be erased from the map” (Loubere, p. 52). Politically progressive readers may be disappointed that Blanc repudiates the Paris Commune for its establishment through violent rebellion; but when the troops kill 20,000 communards, Blanc is silent (Loubere, p. 197).
Loubere has inimical tendency to perseverate upon sectarian political divisions within 19th Century France. This grinding proclivity dominates chapters 17 and 18, which lead-up to a final whimper on Blanc’s death and legacy. The only consolation to this weak ending is that these chapters comprise 32 short pages, so are quickly dispatched (or skimmed based upon the reader’s preference).
By the author’s admission, “Blanc was not a particularly effective leader” (Loubere, p. 162). He possessed neither the personal opportunism nor the strategic skill to create a lasting legacy. His gifts were those of a teacher, propagandist and thinker. As the biographies of Socrates and Marx show, such people are not remembered unless there is an intrepid student or following to carry-forth their projects. So outside of French academia, Louis Blanc is a forgotten footnote in history.
Loubere, Leo A. Louis Blanc. His Life and His Contribution to the Rise of French Jacobin-Socialism. Westport: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1980.