Marx on the Limits of Insurrectionism

The whole way of life of these professional conspirators has a most decidedly bohemian character. Recruiting sergeants for the conspiracy, they go from marchand de vin [wine merchant] to marchand de vin, feeling the pulse of the workers, seeking out their men, cajoling them into the conspiracy and getting either the society’s treasury or their new friends to foot the bill for the litres inevitably consumed in the process. Indeed it is really the marchand de vin who provides a roof over their heads. It is with him that the conspirator spends most of his time; it is here he has his rendezvous with his colleagues, with the members of his section and with prospective recruits; it is here, finally, that the secret meetings of sections (groups) and section leaders take place. The conspirator, highly sanguine in character anyway like all Parisian proletarians, soon develops into an absolute bambocheur in this continual tavern atmosphere. The sinister conspirator, who in secret session exhibits a Spartan self-discipline, suddenly thaws and is transformed into a tavern regular whom everybody knows and who really understands how to enjoy his wine and women. This conviviality is further intensified by the constant dangers the conspirator is exposed to; at any moment he may be called to the barricades, where he may be killed; at every turn the police set snares for him which may deliver him to prison or even to the galleys. Such dangers constitute the real spice of the trade; the greater the insecurity, the more the conspirator hastens to seize the pleasures of the moment. At the same time familiarity with danger makes him utterly indifferent to life and liberty. He is as at home in prison as in the wine-shop. He is ready for the call to action any day. The desperate recklessness which is exhibited in every insurrection in Paris is introduced precisely by these veteran professional conspirators, the hommes de coups de main [men of helping hands]. They are the ones who throw up and command the first barricades, who organise resistance, lead the looting of arms-shops and the seizure of arms and ammunition from houses, and in the midst of the uprising carry out those daring raids which so often throw the government party into confusion. In a word, they are the officers of the insurrection.

And now the good stuff:

It need scarcely be added that these conspirators do not confine themselves to the general organising of the revolutionary proletariat. It is precisely their business to anticipate the process of revolutionary development, to bring it artificially to crisis-point, to launch a revolution on the spur of the moment, without the conditions for a revolution. For them the only condition for revolution is the adequate preparation of their conspiracy. They are the alchemists of the revolution and are characterised by exactly the same chaotic thinking and blinkered obsessions as the alchemists of old. They leap at inventions which are supposed to work revolutionary miracles: incendiary bombs, destructive devices of magic effect, revolts which are expected to be all the more miraculous and astonishing in effect as their basis is less rational. Occupied with such scheming, they have no other purpose than the most immediate one of overthrowing the existing government and have the profoundest contempt for the more theoretical enlightenment of the proletariat about their class interests.

 

The chief characteristic of the conspirators’ way of life is their battle with the police, to whom they have precisely the same relationship as thieves and prostitutes. The police tolerate the conspiracies, and not just as a necessary evil: they tolerate them as centres which they can keep under easy observation and where the most violent revolutionary elements in society meet, as the forges of revolt, which in France has become a tool of government quite as necessary as the police themselves, and finally as a recruiting place for their own political mouchards [snitches].

Marx in the New German Times, 1850  

I came across this passage, specifically the second paragraph, via Walter Benjamin (who quotes it to describe Baudelaire’s politics) being quoted in Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” She quotes it to describe the politics of Foucault and Deleuze.

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