"Everywhere and at all times men were lulled with beautiful words; at no time and in no place was the thing itself ever obtained along with the word. From time immemorial they hypocritically repeat to us: all men are equal; and from time immemorial the most degrading and monstrous inequality insolently weighs upon the human race. As long as there have been human societies the most beautiful of humanity’s privileges has been recognized without contradiction, but was only once put in practice: equality was nothing but a beautiful and sterile legal fiction."
Sylvain Marechal, Manifesto of the Equals, 1796
The French Revolution was one of the defining moments in history. It is considered by most to be the beginning of the modern era. The causes and events of the revolutionary period have been poured over by historians, sociologists, political scientists, economists, and those from many other disciplines. From Marxists to free-market Capitalists, everyone has their takeaway of the meaning and consequences of the Revolution. The period has undergone revision, post-revision, and post-post revision until all that remains of the various historical threads is that there was no order to the Revolution. It was a pattern of chaos. It was a struggle of competing political philosophies, each taking a turn at creating a system of governance, each failing to gain traction, and each sowing the seeds of their downfall. Yet from this chaos would emerge some of the most important intellectual currents that dominated the 19th and 20th centuries.
Out of the blood bath that was the Reign of Terror, the National Convention drafted a new constitution in 1794. This constitution was ratified in 1795 to establish the First French Republic. It created a bicameral legislative system consisting of the Council of Five Hundred (lower house) and the Council of Ancients (upper house). The executive power was vested in five directors, elected by the legislative bodies and responsible for governing the country. The Directory had broad executive powers, including control of the military, the administration of justice, and the negotiation of treaties. It sought to maintain a centrist position against the threats from the radical Jacobins on the left and the reactionary royalists on the right. During its time in power, the Directory faced numerous challenges, including economic instability, political unrest, and foreign threats. Despite initial successes, the Directory became increasingly corrupt and ineffective, and its leadership could not address the country’s pressing issues.
When the Directory took over, they faced several financial issues. The national treasury was depleted, the value of money instruments plummeted, and inflation spiraled upward. Of most significant concern was the food supply, especially for Paris. Bread prices and grain distribution had been thorny problems throughout the 18th century. The combination of failed attempts at reform through free markets and bad harvests contributed to several uprisings throughout France. These played an important role in moving the country towards the Revolution in 1789.
Even afterward, the issue remained unresolved. Food riots in Paris and attacks on the National Convention were widespread. The government sought to regulate grain distribution and fix prices for bread and other essential commodities. But with the drop in the currency’s value, prices were inadequate to cover costs. Supplies dropped, and the government abandoned the price control policy at the end of 1794. Despite this, they still bought large quantities of food and distributed it at discount prices to the citizens of Paris. At the beginning of 1796, grain supplies were supplemented by imports from Italy and North Africa. But more was needed to feed Paris. By March 1796, it was reported that only enough grain was available for five days of bread, along with other shortages such as firewood and meat. Subsidized food distribution resumed for the elderly, the sick, and the extremely poor. This atmosphere of food shortages, inflation, and growing discontent produced the focal point around which a new group of left-wing radicals gathered.
At the center of this group was Gracchus Babeuf, a French political agitator and a leading figure in Paris’s radical movement. Born Francois-Noel Babeuf in 1760, he grew up in the rural town of St. Nicaise near Saint-Quentin. His father had been a French Army deserter who was pardoned in 1755. The father was a casual laborer, one of the groups most affected by royal policies before the Revolution, and the family lived continually on the verge of poverty. Babeuf’s childhood would influence his political opinions later in life. Educated by his father, Babeuf worked as an apprentice to the feudiste, overseeing the management of feudal records regarding titles, estate management, and dues. In this capacity, he began seeing the social and economic inequality inherent in the Ancien Regime. He claimed, “It was in the dust of the seigneurial archives that I discovered the frightful secrets of the usurpations by the noble class."
In 1786, he entered an essay for a contest hosted by the Academy of Arras. In the article, he argued that the individualistic nature of the economy had failed to provide for the common good in France. Society needed to be restructured to promote economic sharing. This was an early foray into political journalism. He came to Paris in May 1789 just as the Revolution was gaining momentum, and by August, after the fall of the Bastille, the new National Assembly issued the August Decrees. These abolished feudal dues and essentially made Babeuf’s job obsolete. Despite this, he cheered the decision and decided to go entirely into political journalism. In the fall, he published a pamphlet, the Permanent Survey, which he had been writing off and on since 1786. In this pamphlet, he advocated for what amounts to be a welfare state. Society was a large family, and each member must contribute what they could according to their ability. In this way, each was assured all that they required. He also favored equal access to education, and he began to call for a redistribution of land.
Babeuf’s heroes were the Gracchi Brothers. The Gracchis were tribunes of the Roman Republic in the 2nd century BCE. The Gracchis were known for their failed attempts at redistributing the ager publicus, the public lands of Rome, which aristocrats mostly controlled. They wanted to give the land to rural plebs and military veterans. The Gracchis inspired Babeuf’s idea of land distribution. Therefore he began to identify himself with the brothers. He would later name his newspaper, Le Tribun du Peuple, “The Tribune of the People,” and he stylized himself as Gracchus Babeuf.
In 1790, he left Paris and settled in Roye. Here he wrote defenses of the poor and attacked the aristocrats who sat in the National Assembly. These actions resulted in two short prison sentences. Then in 1792, Babeuf was appointed as an administrator for the revolutionary government in the Somme Department. He was accused of fraud. Not trusting the impartiality of the judges, he fled back to Paris. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison, but a new trial was ordered, and he was acquitted of the charges in the summer of 1794. He stayed in Paris to start his newspaper, Le Tribun du Peuple.
As the Reign of Terror ended with the fall of Robespierre at the end of 1794, Babeuf celebrated the conservatives who helped bring it about. Yet this good feeling toward the conservative wing of the government did not last long. Once more, he was attacking the bourgeois in his newspaper and criticizing them for their conservative attitudes. He was arrested in February 1795 and sent to prison in Arras. In prison, he met other radicals, most notably Filippo Buonarroti, an Italian who had recently become a French citizen. Influenced by Bounarroti, Babeuf moved from thinking about property redistribution to abolishing private property. Only then could true equality be achieved. This would be Babeuf’s core ideal.
Babeuf and his new associates were released in October 1795. The Directory feared a growing royalist threat and decided to release the leftwing agitators to counterbalance this threat. Babeuf was released amid the Directory’s economic crisis, and the winter of 1795/96 was particularly harsh. It impressed further upon Babeuf the societal inequalities that continued under the Directory. He resumed publication of Le Tribun du Peuple. His agitation grew more extreme and more radical. "What is the French Revolution?" he wrote, "An open war between patricians and peasants, between rich and poor." He urged that the Revolution should be continued until its final stage, and that was one of a class war. France was heading in that direction under Robespierre and then derailed by the bourgeois when they seized back control.
Babeuf attracted a small circle of followers, calling themselves the Societé des égaux. They merged with former Jacobin Club members and met at the Pantheon. After denouncing the Directory, the Pantheon Club was closed on February 27, 1796, under the supervision of General Napoleon Bonaparte. This did not deter Babeuf and his followers. They created a secret organization they named the Secret Directory of Public Safety. The group included Babeuf and Buonarroti, as well as notable and experienced Jacobins. One member, Sylvain Marechal, drafted the Manifesto of Equals. The group adopted its mission statement from this manifesto: “We intend from now on to live and die as equals, just as we were born. We want true equality or death: that is what we must have."
Babeuf drew further attention as he advocated for a new September Massacre. Amid paranoia about foreign and royalist armies attacking Paris, the September Massacres of 1792 were provoked by Georges Danton’s speech stating anyone who did not personally defend the city should be punished by death. Babeuf called for a more complete September Massacre, one that would destroy the government, a government filled with "starvers, bloodsuckers, tyrants, hangmen, rogues and mountebanks.” Further rumors of national bankruptcy drew thousands of workers toward Babeuf’s ideas. Emboldened, Babeuf and his followers began plotting the overthrow of the Directory. They felt the Directory was leading France back into despotism. Their central tenet was abolishing private property; all land should be held in common. But this required a strong central government. It was the state’s responsibility to ensure the equal distribution of goods that are meted out based on individual needs.
The conspirators included Babeuf, Bounarotti, Marechal, and four former Jacobins. They made plans in the early spring of 1796. They planted agents throughout Paris to find support and worked to subvert the police. May 19th was set as the date, the Day of the People. The conspiracy, though, quickly began to unravel. The Directory learned of the plot through Georges Grisel, who sold out his fellow co-conspirators. Support from the police failed to materialize. On May 10th, Babeuf and Bounarotti were arrested, and in the days that followed, over a hundred supporters, including Linder and Vadier. Subscriber lists were seized, and any government official on the list was forced out of office. In February 1797, trials began for those connected to the conspiracy. Of those arrested, 65 stood trial. Of these, 56 were acquitted. Babeuf received much blame for his role and was sentenced to death on May 26, 1797. When the verdict was read, he attempted suicide by stabbing himself several times. The wounds were not fatal, and Babeuf was executed by guillotine the following day. Buonarroti and six others were deported. Within a few years, the Directory would be overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte, thus ending the First French Republic, considered the end of the French Revolution.
Babeuf’s conspiracy would have remained a minor, forgotten incident among the chaos of the Revolution except for Buonarotti. In 1828, he wrote his History of Babeuf’s Conspiracy for Equality. Buonarotti lays out Babeuf’s ideas which are seen as a bridge between the liberal Jacobism of the French Revolution and the socialist theories of the 19th century. Despite his short-lived political career and ultimate failure, Babeuf was one of the first people to articulate a vision of socialism. His ideas and writings, particularly his emphasis on the need for Revolution to achieve social equality, had a lasting impact on future political thinkers. Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx regarded the conspiracy as the "first appearance of a truly active communist party."
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The Spectre of Babeuf: Ian Birchall