Louis Blanc

The French journalist, historian, and socialist politician Louis Blanc (1811-1882) greatly influenced the evolution of French socialism and modern social democracy.

Louis Blanc was born on Oct. 29, 1811, in Madrid, where his father was comptroller of finance for King Joseph, Napoleon's brother. Financially ruined by the fall of the French Empire, the Blanc family returned to Paris, and Louis managed to earn enough from his writings to study law.

In 1839 Blanc published his most famous essay, L'Organisation du travail ("The Organization of Labor"). He outlined his social thought, which was based on the principle, "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." His theories were based on solid research and expressed in vivid language. He argued that unequal distribution of wealth, unjust wages, and unemployment, all stemmed from competition. Unlike his predecessors, Blanc looked to the state to redress social injustice, but he believed that only a democratic republic could achieve an egalitarian commonwealth. Since every man has a "right to work," the state must provide employment and aid the aged and sick. It would accomplish these aims through establishing "social workshops"—producers' cooperatives, organized on a craft basis. The workers would manage these workshops, share in the profits, and repay the government loan. Eventually, the worker-owned factories, farms, and shops would replace those that were privately owned. Thus the whole process of production would become cooperative.

Though Marx criticized Blanc's ideas as utopian, French workers of the 1840s were intrigued by them. In 1846 there was a widespread demand for national workshops, and by 1848 "the organization of labor" had become a popular slogan. Articles in La Réforme, a radical newspaper, popularized Blanc's proposals among the workers, who adopted them as a practical reform program.

Blanc supported the cause of liberals throughout Europe. In 1841 in Histoire de dix ans, 1830-1840 (History of Ten Years, 1830-1840), he denounced King Louis Philippe's foreign policy as pusillanimous. France, he thought, had missed a golden opportunity in 1830 to give Europe liberal institutions.

A member of the provisional government formed on Feb. 24, 1848 (after the fall of the July Monarchy), Blanc persuaded his colleagues to guarantee the right to work, to create national workshops, and to establish the Luxembourg Commission to study and propose social experiments. But the national workshops became a makeshift relief program, a mockery of Blanc's ideas, and the government rejected his proposal for a ministry of labor.

By the middle of May, the coalition of right-and leftwing republicans, which had overthrown the Orleanist regime, collapsed. Though Blanc had been elected to the conservative National Assembly, that body expelled him from the government in May. It also abolished the Luxembourg Commission and on June 21 closed the workshops. These actions provoked a workers' revolt, which Gen. Cavaignac suppressed during the bloody June Days, and the ensuing reaction forced Blanc to seek asylum in England. While in exile he wrote a 12-volume history of the French Revolution to 1795 and a history of the Revolution of 1848. Blanc returned to France in 1871 and entered the Chamber of Deputies. There he led a futile fight for a radical constitution, opposing the one that was eventually adopted in 1875. In January 1879 he climaxed his long career by persuading the Assembly to grant amnesty to the Communards of 1871. Blanc died at Cannes on Dec. 6, 1882.


Further Reading on Louis Blanc

Most of Blanc's historical works and correspondence are available in English editions. The best critical study of the man and his work, in any language, is Leo A. Loubére, Louis Blanc: His Life and His Contribution to the Rise of French Jacobin-Socialism (1961). For an evaluation of the 1848 workshops see Donald Cope McKay, The National Workshops: A Study in the French Revolution of 1848 (1933). J. P. Plamenatz, The Revolutionary Movement in France, 1815-1871 (1952), traces the rise and fall of the alliance of moderate and radical republicans which established the short-lived Second Republic.

Additional Biography Sources

Loubáere, Leo A., Louis Blanc, his life and his contribution to the rise of French Jacobin-socialism, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980, 1961.