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Despite It All

Blanqui’s Eternity By the Stars

by DOUG ENAA GREENE

Eternity By the Stars: An Astronomical Analysis
Louis-Auguste Blanqui, translated and introduced by Frank Chouraqui
New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2013.
pp. 189. $17.95

When the name of Louis-Auguste Blanqui is remembered now, it is either as in passing as one of the many French socialist and communist thinkers of the nineteenth century, or as an insult hurled at ultra-leftists. This is a disservice to a great and under-appreciated revolutionary. Hopefully, the release of the first English critical edition of Blanqui’s 1872 astronomical work, Eternity By the Stars (masterfully introduced and translated by Frank Chouraqui), can help rescue him from obscurity. Blanqui’s work is a heartfelt contemplation on the nature of universe and humanity’s place in it.

Our discussion here will not focus on Chouraqui’s introduction and its discussion of Blanqui’s work in relation to Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin and Jorge-Luis Borges (which is wonderfully done). Nor will we touch on the scientific validity of Blanqui’s astronomical theories (which all commentators on the work agree is dis proven and useless). The focus here will be on the core of Blanqui’s argument: the nature of the universe with his assertion that there is no progress for humanity, but rather that we are repeat events eternally. Despite this seemingly pessimistic vision, Blanqui holds out the hope of a radically open history where defeat is never total and where there is always room for a revolutionary act.9780983697299_p0_v1_s260x420

Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881) was the consummate professional revolutionary and man of action. He was one of the loudest and uncompromising voices in nineteenth century France calling for class war and the violent overthrow of capitalism. And he meant it. From 1830 to 1870, he organized innumerable secret societies and participated in at least five revolutions to bring about the advent of communism. The only method of action open to Blanqui was an elite and tight-knit conspiracy which would strike capital at the appointed time to bring about communism. Each time he failed. And he paid the price by spending more than three decades in prison. His eagerness to rush into revolutionary battle caused him to act before the time was right. In 1848 and 1870, premature action had caused him to be locked up right before the June Days and the Paris Commune (arguably two events where he could have provided the leadership necessary for victory).

The only method of action open to Blanqui was an elite and tight-knit conspiracy which would strike capital at the appointed time to bring about communism. He did not see the need for theory to grasp the inner dynamics of capitalism (his own views on economics and general social theory were quite eclectic and superficial) nor did Blanqui appreciate the possibilities of mass independent political action by the working class to bring about revolutionary social change (most clearly manifested in the Paris Commune). It would be Marxism, which would provide the necessary theory of capitalist dynamics and appreciate proletariat struggle which would supplant Blanquism in the aftermath of the Paris Commune with the emergence of mass socialist parties across Europe.

Throughout his life, Blanqui had shown himself to be more of a man of action than a social thinker. His own understanding of the inner dynamics of capitalism was weak and eclectic, possessing none of the power and breadth of Marx’s Capital. While he could write ably on military tactics and methods of armed struggle, Blanqui saw the decisive lever of action as lying in a conspiracy and practically excluded the role of the working class in their own liberation.

In 1872, Blanqui’s imprisonment gave him time to reflect on a lifetime of failures. By this time, he was an old man. Many of his comrades had just been massacred with the defeat of the Paris Commune. The French Third Republic had him locked safely away in the fortress of Chateau du Taureau in Brittanny. His cell was constantly cold. He was forbidden to speak with anyone. The authorities, who knew of Blanqui’s many previous escape attempts were prepared to shoot him if so much as looked out of a window.

The result of this confinement (his last) would be the Eternity By the Stars, an extended treatise on astronomy and ultimately on the possibilities for revolutionary action. Blanqui begins by describing the nature of the universe as “infinite in time and space: eternal, boundless, and undivided.” (p. 66) According to Blanqui, space is material and infinite, with matter also infinite. At the same time, all matter is also the result of a limited number of elements. (p. 72-3, 113, 119) All matter can only be organized into solar systems. Thus worlds are constantly being born, grow, decay and die. However, due to the limited set of elements, and because the combination of these elements was finite, “resorting to repetition becomes necessary.” (p. 113)

According to Blanqui, every person and, creature, and event is repeated on a different world. “We are, somewhere else, everything that we could have been down here. In addition to our whole life, to our birth and death, which we experience on a number of earths, we also live ten thousand different versions of it on other earths.” (p.125-6) Following Blanqui’s logic, right now on different worlds the pyramids are being built, Louis XVI is being beheaded by the Republic, and the Bolsheviks are storming the Winter Palace.

Yet due to the finite combination of matter, Blanqui says that “mankind does not have the same personnel on all similar globes, and each of the globes have, as it were, its own particular Mankind, each of them comes from the same source, and began at the same point, but branches out into a thousand paths, finally leading into different lives and different histories.” (p. 136) Blanqui imagines alternative realities where the English lost at Waterloo and the French defeat the Prussians in 1870. What accounts for this great variation of worlds with alternate histories?

Blanqui believes that while “nature has inflexible and immutable laws” (p. 133), human with their particular wills can introduce variation into an equation. That is, while humanity “never affect the natural working of physical phenomena a great deal…they do turn their own kind upside down.” (p. 134) Thus, despite the repetition of history which exists on countless other worlds, their still a space to be created for a radical act.

Yet there is a tension in Blanqui’s work. While he wants to leave the room open for choice, he also believes that due to a finite number of worlds which exist that “no one escapes fatality.” (p. 125) And that “every man possesses an endless number of doubles across space, and they live his life exactly like he lives it himself.” (p. 142) Everything we have done has already been done and will be done. For Blanqui, this means that we have is “ever-old newness and ever-new oldness.” (p. 146)

If everything in the universe is a ever-repeating circle, this leads Blanqui to declare in despair that:

So many identical populations come to pass without having suspected each other’s existence!…Moreover, so far the past represented barbarity, and the future meant progress, science, happiness and illusion! This past has witnessed the disappearance of the most brilliant civilizations on every one of our globe doubles, they disappeared without leaving a trace, and they will do so again, without leaving more of a trace….What we call progress is locked up on each earth and disappears with it. (p. 148-9)

And it is here that Blanqui offers his critique of the ideology of progress. Blanqui could not conceive of progress in a universe when his civilization had already vanished. How could he envision progress when everything had already been repeated billions of time before? In fact, in this haunting vision, humanity was condemned to the same labor of Sisyphus.

This critique of progress was in decided contrast to that of the emerging social democratic parties of Europe. Within a generation of Blanqui’s death in 1881, massive and erstwhile revolutionary socialist parties would gain millions of members and bring substantial reforms to the working class. These social democratic parties were guided by the very idea of progress which Blanqui condemned. To the Second International, Marxism was reduced to a crude deterministic theory of social evolution. Although capitalism was stable and rapidly expanding, but according to official Marxism, it would inevitability be succeeded by socialism. All the socialist parties had to do was wait patiently for the revolutionary judgment day to unavoidably come.

Yet this fatalistic expectation of the Second International ultimately crippled it. Although speaking revolutionary phrases, it was guided by reformist practices. And in 1914, when world war appeared, the Second International betrayed their revolutionary mission and supported a capitalist war that cost millions of lives in order to determine which colonies would be enslaved by either the Allies or the Central Powers.

So how would Blanqui answer the desperate need for revolutionary action in the face of capitalist catastrophe of world war? Blanqui holds the door open for hope and action, despite it everything. As he says, “the future shall come to an end only when the globe dies. Until then, every second will bring its new bifurcation, the road taken and the road that could have been taken.” (p. 125) And even though that road “must bring the existence of our very planet to completion has already been traveled billions of time” it is still true that “the chapter of bifurcations remains open to hope. Let us not forget that everything we could have been on this earth, we are it somewhere else.” (p. 125, 147)

For Blanqui, passivity and a belief inevitable progress are never the appropriate attitude of a revolutionary. Elsewhere in life, in response to the utopian socialists who mapped out a perfect society, he says “No! No one has access to the secret of the future”1 For Blanqui, the irreconcilable atheist and materialist, the appropriate approach of a revolutionary is to take a leap of faith and act, despite it all. “Revolutions desire men who have faith in them. To doubt their triumphs is to already betray them. It is through logic and audacity that one launches them and saves them. If you lack these qualities, your enemies will have it over you; they will only see one thing in your weaknesses — the measure of their own forces. And their courage will grow in direct proportion with your timidity.”2 For Blanqui, even though he recognizes that the odds are against us, they are not eternally fixed against us, but that our own efforts can help push them in our favor.

Even though Blanqui’s conclusions in Eternity By the Stars seem to preclude the possibility of hope and human action, he still leaves a thin door open for it regardless. It is reflection of the dark moments in which he was going through. When Blanqui wrote Eternity By the Stars, tens of thousands of French workers, who had stormed the heavens to create the Paris Commune, were massacred by the counterrevolution in a bloody act of vengeance. And Blanqui had missed the decisive encounter and was locked up in prison with its ever sameness and monotony with death as the only way out. Yet he lived and endured deep within that jail, with a vision of something better. And despite everything, that meant there was room for hope. As Blanqui himself would have said: “To judge from the current disposition of people’s minds, communism isn’t exactly knocking on the door. But nothing is as deceptive as the situation, because nothing is so changeable.”3

Doug Enaa Greene is the editor of the Boston Occupier.

Notes

[1] Quoted in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 736.

[2] “’The Imaginary Party’ Introduces Blanqui.” Not Bored http://www.notbored.org/blanqui.html. [Accessed September 10, 2013].

[3] Ibid.