Blanc, (Jean Joseph) Louis (1811–1882), political thinker and exile
by Georgios Varouxakis

Blanc, (Jean Joseph) Louis (1811–1882), political thinker and exile, was born on 29 October 1811 in Madrid, where his father, Jean Charles Blanc, was a financial official in the Bonapartist government of Spain. His mother, Estella Pozzo di Borgo, was Corsican. Owing to his father's financial and psychological difficulties he was mostly brought up by his maternal grandmother in Corsica. Along with his younger brother Charles (later to become a successful art critic) he attended the royal Collège de Rodez from 1821 until 1830, where the teachers, who were clergymen, inculcated in students Catholic and legitimist values. The two inseparable brothers finished school and headed for Paris on the eve of the July revolution of 1830, and arrived in its immediate aftermath.

During the July monarchy Louis Blanc became a journalist, a historian, and a major spokesman for French socialism. His Organisation du travail (1840) contributed a powerful critique of the poverty and degradation that he saw as the results of individualism and economic competition. The book's proposed remedy was the creation of ‘social workshops’ sponsored by the state to replace capitalist competition and extinguish poverty. His Histoire de dix ans, 1830–40 (1841–4) was a scathing polemic attacking every aspect of the bourgeoisie-oriented Orleanist regime. After that regime had been overthrown by the revolution of February 1848, Blanc became a member of the provisional government of the second republic, between February and May 1848. Because of his socialist ideas and his insistence that the ‘right to work’ be proclaimed by the provisional government, Blanc came to be held responsible for the ‘national workshops’ created by the provisional government and which were dissolved when they had proved to be an open-ended drain on public finances. Blanc was (clearly unfairly) indicted by the moderates in the assembly who accused him of having instigated the invasion of the city hall by a mob on 15 May 1848. When, in August 1848, his parliamentary immunity was lifted, and he faced imprisonment, he escaped via Belgium to England.

Blanc remained an exile in England from August 1848 until September 1870, living until 1866 in London (mainly in St John's Wood). In England he found—and appreciated—a country that offered him a safe refuge and freedom of speech. However, he had to defend his record against articles in the British press (not least in The Times) which misrepresented his role in 1848. At the same time, he was extremely popular with British labour circles, not least the Chartists. Like other exiles, he had to support himself by writing and he had to turn to public speaking on politically innocuous subjects under the sponsorship of the likes of the Marylebone Literary and Scientific Institute as a source of livelihood. It was in Britain that Blanc wrote the bulk of his major historical work, the twelve-volume Histoire de la révolution française, for which he gathered material in the library of the British Museum.

Blanc belonged to the wider community of French and other continental political exiles in Britain. As well as the French intellectuals and political activists such as Ledru-Rollin, Victor Hugo, and Blanc himself, London attracted the leading figures of revolutionary Europe, Joseph Mazzini, Karl Marx, Alexander Herzen, and Louis Kossuth among them. Blanc had contacts and dealings with most of them (except the ‘difficult’ Marx) in various phases. Within the French émigré community he found himself in opposition to Ledru-Rollin in a confrontation between socialist and radical positions represented by each of them respectively. He was on hostile terms with Mazzini but had a warm friendship with the Russian exile Alexander Herzen, his favourite chess rival for many years, despite political disagreements (Herzen, 453–5, 475, n. 10). Held in high personal regard by several British thinkers and men of letters who did not necessarily share his views, Blanc was admitted to the social world of the Victorian intelligentsia and of London society. Even Carlyle had great affection for him, while John Stuart Mill always liked and supported Blanc, despite his reservations about some of Blanc's practical views (Mill, 13.740).

Blanc developed a fruitful relationship with the country that hosted him. His articles as London correspondent for Le Temps from 1861 represent an interesting record of his views on his adopted home. Before his exile, in the 1840s, he had displayed a strong Anglophobia. Characteristically, one of the chapters of his Organisation du travail (1840) was entitled ‘Competition leads necessarily to a war to the death between France and England’. No less characteristically, once in England he omitted this chapter from the 1850 edition of the book. Many of his articles on British foreign policy retained a critical tone, written from a French patriot's perspective, and he continued to distrust commercial, philistine, and perfidious Albion. But he would now preface any criticism in articles sent for publication in France with statements like: ‘I have already had occasion to tell you how keen are my sympathies for England, where the reign of freedom of thought wears such an imposing aspect’ (Blanc, Letters on England, 1.53). The combination of his unpleasant experiences at the hands of the majority of the assembly in the summer of 1848 and the experience of living in England deeply affected his outlook. He demonstrated a profound appreciation of the importance of freedom of speech. Formerly a supporter of absolute sovereignty, he became a vociferous champion of the rights of minorities. When Mill introduced him to the merits of proportional representation and Thomas Hare's plan for implementing proportional representation in practice, Blanc became one of the staunchest supporters of both (see, for example, Letters on England, 2.217–23).

On 23 October 1865 Blanc married at Brighton register office his landlady's niece, Christina Groh (1824/5–1876), daughter of Simon Groh. His German wife reportedly ‘could not speak French well enough to satisfy Louis's academic purism, and he did not speak German. So at home they conversed in English’ (Harrison, 2.44–5). John Morley adds that Louis spoke English ‘with as much ease as myself’ (Morley, 1.82–3). In 1866 his wife's health problems forced them to move to Brighton, where they lived until 1870.

When, in the summer of 1870, the Franco-Prussian War broke out, Blanc's patriotism reached a peak of intensity. On hearing of the emperor's defeat at Sedan on 4 September 1870 he immediately embarked for France, and arrived in Paris late next day. He enlisted in the national guard and, despite his age, participated in military drills. He became a deputy on the extreme left in the national assembly between 1871 and 1876. He died in Cannes on 6 December 1882, and was buried on the 10th in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

GEORGIOS VAROUXAKIS

Sources  

L. Blanc, Letters on England, trans. J. Hutton, 2 vols. (1866) · L. Blanc, Lettres d'Angleterre (1861–1865), ed. G. Bonifas and M. Faraut (Paris, 2001) · L. A. Loubère, Louis Blanc: his life and his contribution to the rise of French Jacobin-Socialism (1961) · M. C. Finn, After Chartism: class and nation in English radical politics (1993) · M. Taylor, The decline of British radicalism, 1847–1860 (1995), 112–13 · The earlier letters of John Stuart Mill, 1812–1848, ed. F. E. Mineka, 2 vols. (1963), vols. 12–13 of The collected works of John Stuart Mill, ed. J. M. Robson and others (1963–91) · F. Harrison, Autobiographic memoirs, 2 (1911) · J. Morley, Recollections, 2 vols. (1917) · My past and thoughts: the memoirs of Alexander Herzen, trans. C. Garnett, rev. H. Higgens, abridged edn (1973); repr. (1982) · The Times (30 Aug 1848), 4; (7 Dec 1882), 6 · m. cert.

Archives  

University of Iowa Libraries, corresp. and papers |  BL, letters to Karl Blind and his wife, Add. MSS 40124–40126 · Co-operative Union, Holyoake House, Manchester, letters to G. J. Holyoake


Likenesses  

E. S. Rebel, line engraving, c.1825×50 (after A. Lacauchie), NPG · A. Bry, lithograph, 1848, NPG · E. Desmaisons, lithograph, 1848, NPG · lithograph, 1848 (after M. A. Alophe), NPG · J. Rebel, line engraving, 1851, NPG · H. Watkins, albumen print, 1856×9, NPG · F. Nadar, photograph, c.1858, repro. in N. Gosling, Nadar (1976), 268 · photograph, 1860, AKG Images, London · E. Carjat, photograph, c.1874×8, priv. coll. · P. Dupuis, oils, 1880, repro. in Das neunzehnte Jahrhundert in Bildnissen, 3 (1899), no. 260 · ‘T’ [T. Chartran], lithograph, repro. in VF (20 Dec 1879), pl. 319 · R. J. Lane, lithograph (after drawing by Count D'Orsay, 1848), NPG · A. Lemoine, lithograph, repro. in V. Frond, Panthéon des illustrations françaises, 366, 442 · J. M. Lopez, albumen carte-de-visite, NPG · Mayall, albumen carte-de-visite, NPG · F. Ponscarme, bronze medallion, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris · Thiébault, albumen carte-de-visite, NPG · albumen print, NPG [see illus.] · coloured lithograph (after photograph by Messrs Roma et Cie), NPG · coloured lithograph (after photograph by F. Mulnier), repro. in Modern portrait gallery (c.1882), vol. 6, p. 81 · prints, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris · wood engraving, repro. in ILN (18 March 1848), 182 · wood engraving (after photograph by F. Mulnier), repro. in ILN (16 Dec 1882), 629


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(Jean Joseph) Louis Blanc (1811–1882): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/92465