Ernest Belfort Bax

Jean-Paul Marat
The People’s Friend

Chapter XI

Marat's tomb

THE immediate effect of Marat’s assassination was to seal the fate of the Girondins alike in Paris and the departments. “We are all dead men,” were the words uttered by every Jacobin on hearing the news of the murder of the great leader of the Mountain. Marat had always seen the necessity, in the crisis through which France was passing, of something like a dictatorship, and had voted for strong powers being given to the Committee of Public Safety when that body was formed as an organ of Government on the 10th of March. He was, however, very dissatisfied with its personnel up to the date of his death, we have seen in Chapter VIII. As a matter fact, up to his death the Paris Commune had continued to take the lead in initiating popular movements outside the Convention, and even forcing measures on the Convention itself. Belloc, it is true, tries to prove that the movement from the 31st of May till the 2nd of June was really wire-pulled by the Committee, using the Commune rather as its tool than itself taking its cue from the latter body. The evidence he adduces, however, for this view seems to the present writer utterly inadequate, even were the view itself not rendered intrinsically improbable by the weak character of the bulk of the members at this time composing the Committee. Certainly, until a better case is made out for reversing it, the traditional view, that this great movement had its active principle in the Paris Municipality, and more especially in Marat, will assuredly hold the field. But while the death of Marat gave a powerful impetus to the Jacobin movement all round, it paved the way for the future dictatorship of the Committees in the person of Robespierre. The accounts as to when Robespierre was elected upon the Committee of Public Safety vary, but the most accredited statement puts it on the 10th of August, while the Moniteur makes it the 26th of July. In any case, the influence of Robespierre could not have grown as it did with the criticism of Marat behind it as a counterpoise. Marat was timely removed out of Robespierre’s way. As we know, although perhaps the greatest individual force with the Revolutionary Paris sections, Marat was elected to no other office after he became a member of the Convention, nor had he any party in the ordinary sense, i.e. a definite body of men within the Convention or outside of it, who uniformly or even generally acted under his leadership – such, for example, as Robespierre, Danton, and Hébert had. this reason, the death of Marat meant the extinction of the influence which Marat had exercised. On one side, therefore, the path lay open for Robespierre and his partisans. It only remained for Robespierre to rid himself of his two rivals on the road to dictatorial power – the Dantonists and the Hébertists – and indeed it was no very long time before friction between these two mutually antipathetic parties began spontaneously to show itself. The Committee meanwhile acquired new functions, but the Commune, with its “Revolutionary army,” organised to enforce the maximum, etc., practically dominated the situation in Paris for some time afterwards. The power of the Committee nevertheless grew continuously, and with it steadily grew the influence of its now most prominent member – Robespierre.

The only strong centralised force in France had hitherto been that of the Municipality, with the Revolutionary Committees of the Sections acting in concert with it. A new dictatorial: power, that of the two Committees of Government, the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Security, the first being the initiative body, was now steadily working towards the assertion of its independence alike of the Convention, where the strength of the Dantonists lay, and of the Commune and the Sections, where the strength of the Hébertists lay. It was necessary, in order that the Committee might become the dictatorial element in France, that both these rival powers alike, with those who at the moment exercised the leading influence in them, should be destroyed or made subservient to the two Committees of Government; and the ascendency of the two Committees of Government meant at this juncture the domination of the man who had already acquired the dangerous reputation of incorruptibility – in other words, of Robespierre and his party. All this, in fact, happened. The first overt signs of friction between the Robespierrists on the Committee and the Hébertists on the Municipality may be noticed on the occasion of the initiation of the new atheistic cultus of Reason by the latter. Robespierre frowned and ostentatiously held aloof from the proceedings when Mademoiselle Candeille, surrounded by the acolytes of the new worship and followed by the municipals, defiled into the Convention Chamber. More at this juncture he durst not do. The power of the Commune had not yet been shaken, and in the concluding weeks of 1793 the innovating worship spread over all France and into the newly-acquired territories of the French Republic. The new year came and went. Then arose the demand of the Dantonists for the cessation of the Terror.

Robespierre was apparently at first on their side, against the Hébertists, his now declared opponents – the enragés, as he termed them. But the treacherous faithlessness of his character soon showed in its true light. The Hébertist leaders perished indeed by the guillotine, to the joy of the Dantonists, but a fortnight later Danton and his friends also fell under the same ruthless axe, the instrument of Robespierre’s ambition. Then came the undivided rule off the Committees, which meant the domination of the “Incorruptible” himself. The so-called “Great Terror” followed, enlivened by the feast of the Supreme Being, the Robespierrean counterblast to the worship of Reason. This, the culminating moment of Robespierre’s personal ascendency, was followed by the beginning of his decline, as indicated by the dissensions in the Committees. The final struggle for the supremacy; this time with his own colleagues of the Committees, now alone remained and this struggle, as we all know, ended in Thermidor and the destruction of Robespierre and the Robespierrists. But the fall of the dictator, – the tyrant, as he was at that moment universally called, – proved the beginning of the end of the Revolution as a distinct event, till the restless but steady sweep of the tide of reaction carried all before it, save those bases of the nineteenth-century world – Individualism, Competition, and the Reign of Capital – to establish which was the historical function of that great episode of universal history we call the French Revolution.

In spite of the reactionary political garb which society took on at the opening of the nineteenth century, the forms of feudalism proved impotent to arrest economic progress or to effectively put back the hands of the clock. Feudalism, as we have pointed out in the Introduction to this volume, had really been dead long before the French Revolution. But on the ruins of the old feudalism the forms of bureaucratic centralisation, built up for the most part of the same old feudal material, had supervened. The French Revolution marks the period when social and political life began to undergo that further change connoted by the transformation of a dead feudal society into the living bourgeois society of the nineteenth century. But though the material changed, the main forms of bureaucratic centralisation still remained, and remain even to the present day in their essential features. Hence it is here that the chief practical and up-to-date lesson of Marat’s teaching comes in. The most prominent side of Marat’s political life was his distrust of all officialism. His ceaseless defiance was based on the view, on which he untiringly insisted, that no faith whatever should be placed in the bureaucrat or the official as such, – that he should be trusted no farther than he could be seen. Marat knew that the official person, the member of a bureaucracy, is by nature a liar. His position carries with it that he should be prepared to falsify fact in the interest of the bureaucracy of which he is a member. That Marat was right, Royal Commissions, Blue-books, and independent investigations galore afford us evidence. Not so many years ago, on some facts being brought out on the evidence of prisoners with regard to a question of prison administration, the Home Secretary of the day begged the House of Commons not to attach any weight to the statements of convicts, which he represented as necessarily unworthy of any credence whatever; but, on the other hand, to be always ready to a accept the explanations of persons in authority, at least until, they were traversed by the most conclusive evidence. Now this, we fear, is still the popular attitude towards the official class. It is the exact contrary of Marat’s attitude, as it is of the facts of history and of comparative psychology. The convict, it is true – i.e. the man presumably of more or less criminal tendencies ; – may not be the most reliable of witnesses, but he is not necessarily or invariably a liar. On the other hand, the bureaucrat, the functionary, the official, is necessarily by instinct a liar and a prevaricator in matters which concern his colleagues and his department, even though in private life he may be a man of the strictest integrity and the most scrupulous truthfulness. Furthermore, for Marat, crimes committed under the guise of performance of official duty, and commonly condoned on this ground, or at most mildly censured as indicating an excess of zeal, were the most heinous of all crimes, and therefore demanded the severest punishment. The foregoing may be unpopular doctrine, but so long as it is unpopular we venture to assert that pure and just administration will remain the exception in the body politic it has been up to the present time.

The foregoing pages should, we think, suffice to prove that Jean-Paul Marat, the “People’s Friend”, was neither a “demagogue” nor a “madman”, but a statesman, who differed, however, from most statesmen in that he possessed definite principles to which he remained steadfastly loyal, and which he logically sought to carry into practice. The slanderous portrait of Marat as a person of “shady life”, or still worse as an “inhuman monster”, has already fallen to pieces at the first touch of criticism and honest investigation. But there are still writers on the French Revolution who, while not attacking Marat’s moral character, but on the contrary giving him full credit for his good intentions, still affect to regard the “People’s Friend”, especially in the later portion of his political career, as “frenzied”, or at best “unhinged”, by the events of the time and the trouble he had passed through. The reader who has followed the history of his public life as presented in these pages will, we trust, have come to the conclusion that the evidence of mental disturbance is only less baseless than that of moral turpitude. Let any one study the two theoretical works which form the basis of Marat’s political practice, the Plan de Constitution and the Plan de Législation criminelle, and then follow the application of the principles therein laid down in the files of the Ami du Peuple, the Journal de la République and the Publiciste de la République, and if he be in way unbiased he cannot fail to become convinced that he has before him the work of a consistent Rousseauite indeed, and therefore bearing on its face up to a certain point, the obsoleteness of standpoint of the Contrat Social, but also the work of a clear political thinker, no less than of a noble-hearted man and a single-minded friend of the disinherited and the oppressed.

Marat, though not a Socialist, was a precursor of Socialism. The ideals of Marat’s life, Justice and Social Equality, clothed as they were by him in eighteenth-century Rousseauite garb, have not perished because that garb is outworn, but, will assuredly realise themselves sooner or later under the forms of that true economic freedom through collective ownership in the material bases of social life which is the primary aim of the international Socialist party of modern times.


Last updated on 29.2.2004