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  • Louis Blanc’s theory of the liberal democratic state
  • Stephen W. Sawyer (bio)

Financial and political centralization, territorial homogeneity, an elephantine bureaucracy, a vast corps of civil servants, equality over liberty: these supposed ideals of the French Jacobin state have been a seemingly inexhaustible spring of critique and celebration.1 And yet, beneath the endless arguments for or against this strong “Jacobin” state, a new state has been rearing its head in political history.2 Indeed, sociology and historiography of the state has slowly set aside the focus on centralization and coercion as well as bureaucratic and administrative elites as the foundations of proper state formation to discover a democratic state characterized by a more porous relationship to society.3 Among the outcomes of these studies, has also been a growing critique of the opposition between the strong Jacobin and Prussian states of the nineteenth century and the weak states of the United States or even Britain.4 At stake in these reformulations is the need for a more nuanced but also more accurate intellectual history of the state, especially in the nineteenth century period before Max Weber’s influential definition. For as much as we have uncovered new theories and histories of state power, our genealogies of the concept of the state have remained decidedly impoverished.

The following article provides a window into this history by examining a well-known, but perhaps misunderstood theorist of the liberal democratic state in mid nineteenth century France, Louis Blanc. Historians have traditionally placed Louis Blanc squarely within the “Jacobin” political tradition that promoted a strong, [End Page 141] centralized, unitary state power. In what follows, however, I highlight a very different aspect of Louis Blanc’s political theory, foregrounding what was, and to some extent remains, original in his conception of democratic state power. In particular, Blanc was less focused on coercion, civil servants, and centralized bureaucracy and more focused on theorizing the social power of the democratic state. In his writings of the 1830s and 40s, Blanc was engaged in defining state power on terms generally thought to have been reserved for liberals: challenging the legacy of classical republicanism, rethinking the state and civil society relationship, and exploring the impact of democratic participation on state legitimacy; after the 1848 Revolution and during his exile in London, he became increasingly interested in theorizing state intervention and the relationship between the state, society, and the individual in democracy, work which was profoundly influenced by his exchanges with John Stuart Mill. Together, these studies outlined a social theory of the liberal democratic state in the years leading up to the Third Republic and presaged some of the fundamental currents of thought on liberal democratic statecraft in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.5

From classical to modern republicanism

While early work on classical republicanism focused on the Anglo-American political context, recent historiography has belatedly broadened its geographical reach by tracing the role of classical republican themes into the French Revolution and the early nineteenth century, particularly its role in informing the dominant currents of political thought during this period.6 The Terror has loomed large in this work, generating a consensus that the period 1793–1794 made the classical republican paradigm problematic in France just as it slowly ceded to liberalism, which became the dominant political paradigm of post-Terror politics: thus, while classical republicanism remained a vital reference for some after the Terror, sooner or later, the classical paradigm of virtue and civic commitment was pushed aside because it ran counter to the essential foundations of a modern society based on commerce, consumption, and industrial production defended by liberalism.

And yet, as historians have noted, in spite of its triumph, early nineteenth-century liberals did recognize a potentially (deep) flaw in [End Page 142] their political ideology: its emphasis on the private over the public and ambivalence on the importance of public engagement and political participation left the door wide open to the dominant (and dominating) forms of the early nineteenth-century French liberal polity, liberal authoritarianism. Katznelson and Kalyvas as well as Lucien Jaume have argued that liberalism had the resources within itself to overcome these limitations, while, Jainchill claims...


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