The French revolutionary Louis Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881) was an unrelenting enemy of every French regime of the 19th century. The most heroic figure in the French socialist movement, he spent most of his life in prison.
Louis Blanqui was born in Puget-Théniers, near Nice, on Feb. 1, 1805. While studying and working as a journalist in Paris, in 1824 he became involved with the secret society of the Carbonari. This was the first step in a lifetime attachment to the use of conspiratorial methods to achieve political and social change. In 1827 he escaped arrest after his first battle with the police. Blanqui took part in the street fighting of July 1830 and was decorated by the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe for his part in its birth.
Blanqui soon parted company with Louis Philippe's bourgeois monarchy and joined the extreme republican opposition. He was arrested in both 1831 and 1832 for plotting against the regime, but he invariably resumed his activities. Involved in two of the more elaborate conspiracies of the 1830s—the Society of the Seasons and the Society of the Families—he was arrested in 1836 for manufacturing arms. He received his first death sentence in January 1840 for his part in the May 1839 uprising. The sentence was commuted, and he was sent to the prison of Mont-Saint-Michel, where the harsh conditions permanently undermined his health. As a result of his illness, in 1844 he was transferred to a prison in Tours and was released in April 1847.
Upon learning of the February Revolution of 1848, Blanqui hurried to Paris, where he organized cooperation among the political clubs of the left. He pressured the provisional government for social reforms and advocated postponing elections until the country could be educated in republicanism. Apparently tolerant of the provisional republic, Blanqui at first opposed the leftist demonstration of May 15. But then he felt compelled to take part in order to keep the faith of his followers, and he led in the invasion of the new assembly. For this he was arrested and condemned to 10 years' imprisonment. He was deported by the government of the Second Empire to Africa in 1859 but was set free in August of that year.
Resuming his work in the republican secret societies, Blanqui was arrested again in 1861 and sent to the Sainte-Pélagie prison, where he had a large measure of freedom to study, reflect, and discuss his ideas. In 1865 he was even able to edit a journal from prison. To avoid deportation, he escaped in August 1865, going to Geneva and then Brussels, from which he was able to visit Paris secretly.
Taking advantage of early reverses in the Franco-Prussian War, Blanqui launched an uprising in August 1870; he was rescued from its failure by the fall of the Second Empire on September 4. Imprisoned at Cahors by the new government for another ill-timed insurrection in October, he was unable to play a part in the Commune. Condemnations to death and, later, deportation were not carried out because of his ill health, and in 1877 he was transferred to the island prison of Château d'If in the Mediterranean.
By this time the aging and ill Blanqui had become a symbol of resistance to oppressive government, and a campaign was undertaken to secure a pardon for him. In April 1879 he was elected to the Chamber from Bordeaux but was rejected by the Chamber. After receiving a pardon in June, he was defeated for reelection. He died on Jan. 1, 1881.
By the end of Blanqui's life his conspiratorial approach to revolution seemed outmoded to most socialists, but his lifelong willingness to suffer for his cause and his refusal to accept defeat assured his reputation as a hero of the left. Believing in the fundamental importance of the class struggle, he emphasized the necessity for the seizure of political power by a proletarian elite, which would then establish the collective ownership of the means of production. An extreme rationalist, he was violently anticlerical, seeing in the church—indeed, in all religion—the principal cause of human misery and the principal obstacle to progress.
Alan B. Spitzer, The Revolutionary Theories of Louis Auguste Blanqui (1957), shows that Blanqui must be taken seriously as a thinker, not merely as an insurrectionist. See also Neil Stewart, Blanqui (1939). The most famous work on Blanqui, a fictionalized biography, is in French: Gustave Geffroy, L'Enfermé (1897; rev. ed., 2 vols., 1926). The leading authority on all aspects of Blanqui's career, Maurice Dommanget, also writes in French.