Ernest Belfort Bax

Jean-Paul Marat


In the foregoing pages we have followed, in all its important details, the career of one of the chief actors in that great epoch-making event, or rather, series of events, in which we may, fairly see the commencement of the modern era, and the final close of the mediaeval. The main course of the French Revolution, subsequently to the death of Marat, will be familiar to every one. The Terror – Robespierre – Thermidor – the Reaction. It is idle to speculate on the course the Revolution might have taken had Marat lived. The assassination, in reality, only precipitated his death by a few weeks. As it was, the death of Marat proved the timely removal of an insuperable obstacle to the criminal designs of Robespierre, who was not long before showing himself in his true character.

Marat may be regarded as, the embodiment of the great practical side of the “Modern Revolution,” as well as one of the noblest of human feelings, sympathy with suffering and its correlative indignation at oppression. He was the personification of Equality. His sympathy was of a unique kind; he seemed to feel literally in his own person the sufferings of those with whom he sympathised. It was this feeling that goaded him on to that incessant and excessive activity, which must under any circumstances have prematurely caused his death. He looked at all things solely and wholly from one point of view. Seeing and feeling the suffering of the people, the one aim of all he did and wrote was the alleviation of this suffering. Every thing which did not directly lead up to this goal was indifferent to him. All things conducing to it were righteous and all things tending in an opposite direction, however lawful in the eyes of the world, were to him criminal. His vision was bounded by a horizon, where he saw the necessaries of life within the reach of all. He had no ideal Republic, before him, like Anarchis Clootz, or Chaumette. He would have tolerated or even supported the monarchy, so long as he thought the monarchy not incompatible with the freedom and happiness of the people. As soon as he saw in it an obstruction to the realisation of his great object, he became republican. At the same time it should be remembered that he had never from the first regarded the king in any other light than as the highest functionary of the people, as strictly answerable to the people as any functionary. The transition from such a conception as this to pure Republicanism, every one must admit to involve no material change of standpoint.

I hope that my sketch has succeeded in dispelling, in the reader’s mind, the mass of atrocious, though somewhat nebulous libels which, during nearly ninety years, have accumulated around the memory of the “People’s Friend.” His moral steadfastness and logical adhesion to principle, through good report and through evil report, must, I think, command at least respect from all, who are capable of appreciating nobleness and single-mindedness in a public career.

It is easy to pick holes in Marat’s character, still easier in his political programme. As regards the first, it may be said that he was ambitious, and that he loved fame. To this I would reply by challenging the first public-man (certainly political leader) who is without ambition of some sort, to cast the first stone at Marat. That he was not insensible to fame is conceded; but the outspoken and vehement temperament to which so many of his seemingly sanguinary utterances may be attributed, has probably also to answer for much of this apparent egotism. Nothing is a greater misfortune for a man’s reputation, than (to use a colloquial phrase) for him to wear his heart on his sleeve. Marat spoke and wrote, often injudiciously, what he thought and felt at the moment, and for this his memory has suffered, probably more than that of any other man.

That his political programme, his basis of action, was narrow, is also true. He failed to recognize the synthetic character of human life and interests. He failed to grasp the conception of progress as a whole, and, above all, to see that speculative reconstruction is one of its essential conditions. In the recognition of this fact (whatever we may think of their solution of it), the Hébertist party were far in advance of him. Marat was, in short, no idealist, but a practical man, though the virtue of logical consistency, usually so conspicuous by its absence in practical men was eminently present in him. He accepted the Social contract of Rousseau as his basis, and upon this he founded his Plan de Constitution and Plan de Legislation Criminelle. His journalistic writings were, for the most part simply applications of these two works to the exigencies of the situation and events as they presented themselves. Yet if his basis was narrow, and to some extent fallacious, no man ever laboured more untiringly or more consistently, up to his light, in the service of Humanity and Progress; and though, for the time being, his work was abortive and his name calumniated, there can be little, doubt but that when mankind is once united in a Human ideal and a social aim, the future will recognise one of its noblest precursors in the “People’s Friend,“ JEAN PAUL MARAT.


Last updated on 16.3.2005