Ernest Belfort Bax

Gracchus Babeuf

III. Vicissitudes of Fortune and Ripening of Ideas

As already stated, shortly after the fall of Robespierre, Babeuf reappeared in Paris and founded the Journal de la liberté de la presse, in which he played the part of political free lance, attacking in turn the Robespierrists and the Thermidoreans. At first, however, the whole of his energies seem to have been directed against the party of Robespierre and the old revolutionary government. He was indeed at this time on terms of intimacy with several of the Thermidorean leaders, notably Tallien and Fouché, who subsequently became his bitter enemies. Before long, however, his general journalistic attitude caused the absurd suspicion to fall upon him of being a royalist agent in disguise. This was enhanced by his public speaking, at which he now became very assiduous, more particularly in the club of his quarter, where he nightly attacked the authority of the Convention, and especially the leading Thermidoreans. In this way Babeuf made himself the enemy alike of the Jacobins and of the parties now dominant in the Convention. The former were incensed by a pamphlet issued by him at this time, Du système de depopulation ou la vie et Les crimes de Carrier, in which the methods of Carrier, his noyades, republican marriages, etc., were denounced in the most violent language.

The journal itself was consecrated to the cause implied by its name, and, as already stated, although first directed mainly against the “tail of Robespierre”, as the partisans of the fallen dictator were now termed, soon took to criticising with equal severity the successful faction in the recent struggle. The tenth number merits notice, inasmuch as Babeuf reproduced therein the address of the popular society of Arras to the National Convention, containing a kind of manifesto on the liberty of the press, coupled with a denunciation of Barère, the notorious ex-member of the Committee of Public Safety. As is well known, it was drawn up by Babeuf himself. It concluded with the words: “Men of the 9th of Thermidor, we declare before you, on behalf of our fellow-citizens, that they, deadened by a long lethargy, demand their freedom, claiming that the fall of tyrants shall render to us our eternal rights, that liberty shall step forth in the full glory of its power from the tomb of the dictator. Representatives, the men of the north, who have muzzled that devouring ogre, whose furies have desolated our country during five months, will prove themselves raised to your level, in denouncing to you the revolutionary phantom behind which Joseph Lebon has sheltered himself, in order to battle victoriously against the victims who struggle to escape his fury. We denounce to you Barère, that vile slave of Robespierre.” The document proceeds to stigmatise, in a few phrases, the horrors of “the Terror” as exercised at Arras.

The above, in the oratorical manner of the time, is a good specimen of Babeuf’s writing, in what we may term the “grand” style of manifesto. The journal from the first excited the adverse attention of the authorities, and it had been published little more than two months before the violence of its language caused action to be taken by the “Committee of General Security”, and on the 13th of October 1794 an attempt was made to stop the paper and seize the person of Babeuf. Warned in time, however, he succeeded in hiding himself, and what is more, from a secret retreat, in publishing his paper under a new title. It now appeared as the Tribun du Peuple. Otherwise it remained unchanged, either in shape or character, being avowedly the continuation of the original enterprise.

It is to be remarked that a notable change began about this time to take place in the opinions of Babeuf in regard to the old revolutionary leaders and their policy. He no longer attacked them indiscriminately. We give Babeuf’s opinion of Robespierre at this turning-point of his career. “This Robespierre,” he says, “whose memory to-day is unjustly abhorred, this Robespierre is one in whom we must distinguish two persons – Robespierre the sincere patriot, a friend of just principles down to 1793, and Robespierre the ambitious tyrant, and the worst of criminals since that epoch. This Robespierre, I say, so long as he was a citizen, is perhaps the best source in which to seek great truths and powerful arguments for the rights of the press.” He goes on to point out that the declaration of the Rights of Man the nation really owes to Robespierre. “We cannot fail to esteem the work,” he continues, “though we forget the workman,” or rather, as he had already said, “let us distinguish between Robespierre the apostle of liberty, and Robespierre the most infamous of tyrants!”

During this time the paper seems to have appeared mostly without the printer’s name, though the deputy Guffroy was undoubtedly the printer of several numbers. Number 33 never appeared, the manuscript having been seized by the authorities. It contained a violent attack of the most convincing character on the Thermidorean reaction. All this time the police were unable to lay hands upon Babeuf himself, but, in revenge, they were zealous in arresting the distributors of the journal. Amongst these was one Anne Treillard, who played a leading part in the distribution. This woman was subjected to a close interrogation as to the whereabouts of Babeuf. She denied all knowledge of his domicile, and stated that he himself brought her the packages containing the numbers to a place in the Jardin de l’Égalité. Asked if she would know Babeuf if she saw him, she replied that she had never observed him closely, but that he was of medium stature, with a long, thin, serious-looking face. Asked, still further, where the first numbers were sold, she replied that they were fetched from somewhere near the Place des Piques, and that it was from thence that the Journal de la liberté de la presse had been sent out.

By an irony of fate, it was his recent friend Tallien who had now become the sworn enemy of the late revolutionary government and of Jacobin principles generally, and whom Babeuf had also attacked in his journal, who was the instrument of obtaining Babeuf’s arrest. In a speech in the Convention on this occasion, Tallien denounced Babeuf as the tool of Fouché, whose enemy Tallien had now become. It was the 10th of Pluviose, year III (29th January 1795), that Tallien brought forward his motion for Babeuf’s arrest, on the ground of his having outraged the national representation in his articles. The Convention giving its consent, the arrest was effected by the executive authorities a few days later.

Owing to the hints obtained from the woman Anne Treillard, the committee, acting presumably on the motion carried by Tallien before the Convention a fortnight before, succeeded by means of its police in discovering and seizing Babeuf on the 12th of February 1795. While in prison, their victim, however, was successful in smuggling out and getting distributed a manifesto entitled Babeuf, the Tribune of the People, to his Fellow Citizens. It consisted in a vigorous defence of his public and private conduct, not forgetting the affair at Montdidier. But it was without effect, for, together with other members of his staff, a few days later he was conveyed from Paris to Arras, where the imprisonment was continued. It should be noted, as regards this, that Babeuf and his colleagues were imprisoned in a purely arbitrary manner, as no definite charge had been formulated against them, and no idea of a trial at any definite time seems to have been even entertained, as it certainly never took place.

Babeuf’s companions in the prison at Arras were Lebois, the editor of Le Journal de l’égalité; Taffoureau, a friend of Babeuf’s, probably from the days of the Correspondant Picard, who had been arrested as a partisan of the Terror in his native town of St Omer; and Cochet, also a native of St Omer, who was doubtless in gaol for the same reason. There were other partisans of the fallen party of the Mountain, who subsequently joined Babeuf’s movement, and who were detained in another prison at Arras. Already, in 1787, in a letter to his old correspondent Dubois de Fosseux, Babeuf indicates that his mind was occupied with the question of the communisation of the land and the products of industry, but at that time it was in the form of a problem only. It was in the prison of Arras, singularly enough, the town where his old correspondent resided, that the root ideas of the communism subsequently embodied in the programme of the Equals of the year V were first definitely formulated. The first impulse, or at all events the first definite notion of communism as the economic ideal of human society, seems to have been derived by Babeuf from a study of Morelly’s work, Le Code de la nature et le véritable esprit de ses lois de tout temps négligé ou inconnu.

This work of Morelly, an obscure author of whom little is known, was written about 1755, and seems to have had a certain vogue for a time, probably in part owing to the fact that it was for long attributed to Diderot. The work of Morelly was undoubtedly, both intrinsically and in effect, the most important of the precursors, not only of Babouvism, but of the Utopian Socialism of the early nineteenth century; its influence, either direct or indirect, on Fourier and Cabet being specially noticeable. In accordance with eighteenth-century anthropology, Morelly starts with the classical notion of the “golden age”, which he deduces from the theory that the primitive instincts of all men are good. The present state of inequality and its accompanying human misery is due, not to any intrinsic defect in human nature, but to the institution of private property. It was the inroads of the latter upon the communism originally reigning among the children of men that was the source and fountain of all evil. So soon as individuals began to use more than their share of the common goods, then began all the miseries that had afflicted mankind.

Morelly accepted the principle of Helvetius, that the root of all conduct was self-love, but argued that, since no man can be happy by himself alone without the aid of his fellow-men, recognition of the claims of others – in other words, moral rectitude – is the only certain means of promoting one’s own happiness. As a direct consequence of this principle, Morelly insisted upon the common ownership of all wealth, and the equal enjoyment of the good things of life by all alike. It is curious that this old eighteenth-century writer seems to have been the first to put forward the subsequently well-known maxim “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”. He undoubtedly made this the basis of his social construction. For his scheme is plainly built throughout upon this principle. The only advantage accruing to talent is, according to Morelly’s system, to be the honour of directing the industry and the affairs of the community in general. The natural products of different districts are the paths from one to the other, by a natural system of exchange, founded upon mutual accommodation.

Notwithstanding Morelly’s conviction of the intrinsic goodness of human nature, coercion is assumed as necessary, to prevent the backsliding of individual members of the new society. Strong fortresses are spoken of in deserted places where criminal or recalcitrant persons are to be confined for a time, or, in extreme cases, for life. As regards marriage, Morelly insists that every citizen who has attained to man’s estate shall be compelled to marry. Celibacy is only to be allowed after the fortieth year has been attained. At the beginning of every year the festival of marriage is to be celebrated for all those who have attained the requisite age. “The young persons of both sexes will be gathered together, and, in presence of the senate of the city, every youth will choose the maiden that pleases him, and as soon as he has received her consent, will take her to wife.” The first marriage is to be indissoluble during ten years. Afterwards divorce is to be allowed, by consent of both, or even on the demand of one only, of the parties concerned. The divorced persons are not to be allowed to marry again before the expiration of one year, and they will not be permitted to be reunited to each other under any circumstances. They cannot marry younger persons than themselves, or than the divorced partner of the original marriage. Only widows and widowers are to have this liberty.

As might be expected, there are traces of the influence of the first, and, for a long time, sole exponent of Utopianism – Thomas More. As already stated, many of Fourier’s specific doctrines are anticipated by Morelly, e.g. that the moral world is governed by civil laws, as the physical is by natural laws. In the physical world, argues Morelly, power of attraction, i.e. gravitation, is dominant; in the moral world, the place of gravitation is supplied by that of self-love. There is also a strong analogy between the “city” of Morelly and the phalanstère of Fourier. The division of the various elements of society on a fixed mechanical and arithmetical scheme, founded on a decimal basis, so characteristic of Fourier, is also note-worthy in Morelly. Even Fourier’s description of the arrangement of his ideal phalanstère bears unmistakable traces of Morelly’s work. According to the latter, in the centre of the city is to be a great open space, surrounded by storehouses and public buildings; surrounding these, again, are to be the dwellings of the citizens; farther away, the buildings in which industrial operations are carried on; still further away are the dwelling-places of the peasantry, together with the farm buildings. But these details, interesting as they are in view of the later developments of Utopian Socialism, have no special significance or importance for the movement inaugurated by Babeuf. The chief thing in this connection is the importance of the influence of Morelly’s book in furnishing the groundwork for the definite communistic principles of the Society of the Equals. These ideas ripened in Babeuf’s mind undoubtedly, and, through him, in those of his associates, during their imprisonment at Arras, early in the year 1795. Outside, the party of the Mountain and the Jacobins were throughout France at this time a defeated and a persecuted faction.

Communistic ideas, properly so called, though undoubtedly present in a loose and vague way in the minds of individual members of the old revolutionary party, were never formally recognised by the party as such, which always, in the main, was a party of the small middle-class, and the small independent master-workman, who economically at this time formed part of that class. Hence it represented, as such, economically, the interests of the small property-holder as against the feudal landlord, and all that appertained to him, in the first place; and in the second place, as against the new wealthy manufacturer, contractor, and man of finance. But the proletariat, as we understand it to-day, was too young and immature to have, strictly speaking, a definite class-consciousness of its own, still less determinate principles of political action. Nevertheless, so far as it was possible, Babeuf’s new movement constituted for the moment the rallying point, as for a last effort, of all the revolutionary sections of the French people.

The formation of a new class of wealthy bourgeois to step into the place economically and politically of the displaced feudal aristocracy had already begun. It was already evident that the aim of the Thermidorean leaders, i.e. of those who had been instrumental in the overthrow of Robespierre and of the old revolutionary regime, was to place themselves at the head of such a new aristocracy of wealth. The process of the formation and consolidation of this new monied class was, as we all know, completed under the regime of the first Empire, but, as already said, it began unmistakably immediately after the overthrow of the system of the Terror. It dates, indeed, really from long before, in fact from the end of 1789, when the first sale of the nationalised ecclesiastical lands took place.

Syndicates were formed to compete with private individuals in the scramble for the landed property of the Church. As only a small percentage of the purchase-money had to be paid at once, the way of the astute speculator was smoothed for him. In the not unfounded hopes of evading the payment of the second instalment, many of these adventurers favoured the Revolution, and were specially eager in urging on the Austrian war. After the overthrow of the monarchy on the 10th of August 1792 it was decided that the lands of the emigrant nobles should be sold only in small lots, and not in huge sections, as had been the case with the ecclesiastical lands.

Here we see the effects of the new revolutionary regime, in which the influence of the small middle and working class was dominant. The speculators and financiers were for the moment cowed. But this did not prevent these same speculators and jobbers, during the ensuing winter, from evading the law and making money, by means of sham sales and other arts of trickery, out of the costly furniture and movable effects of the fugitive nobles. But although arranged for on paper, the actual partition of the lands remain unaffected long as the “moderate” party of the Girondins continued to be the official repositories of political power. After their fall, the sale of the lands was definitely ordered on the conditions already described. But the decree of the Convention was again hampered in its execution owing to the intervention of the second great campaign against the coalition of Europe of the autumn of 1793. France became for the nonce a “gigantic armed camp”, and the one thought was the national defence. But though few transfers, in the sense intended, were made, this did not prevent individual agents of the government from improving the situation to their own advantage by sales which evaded the conditions imposed. Two-thirds of the houses in Paris had now become national property.

Finally, the Committee of Public Safety, early in 1794, while ordering the sale of the confiscated lands to be continued with greater despatch than heretofore, and while advising the principle of partition on a small scale should be adhered to as far as possible, did not make the latter an absolute sine qua non, the result being that the victuallers of the army and the contractors for war material generally, who had become suddenly rich by the malpractices usual with their tribe, had succeeded in annexing considerable tracts of French territory for nominal sums in cash. Other means were now adopted for enabling the new privileged classes to raise themselves economically at the expense of the bas people, foremost among which was the hocussing of the currency by the issuing of a limitless mass of a practically worthless paper.

These and other forms of robbery on the part of the new financial middle-class flourished still more exceedingly during the heyday of this class – the period of the Consulate and Empire. It was, then, this new middle-class which from the Revolution of Thermidor onwards gave intellectual, moral, and political tone to French life. The active opposition to their sway was constituted by the remains of the old revolutionary party, which were momentarily gathered together in the movement of which our François Noel, or Gracchus, Babeuf, as he now called himself, was the life and soul.

Babeuf himself alludes in his famous 43rd number of the Tribun to the object-lesson as to the turn things were taking, such as “he that runs could read”, to be found in the comparison between the present and former fortunes of many of the old revolutionary leaders, now termed “Thermidoreans”.

Barras had acquired five estates. Merlin de Thionville possessed two chateaux and immense landed property, and could afford to give 300,000 francs a month to his mistress. Tallien had made an alliance with a Spanish woman of wealth and title. Legendre, the ci-devant butcher, the former friend of Danton, had come into possession of a large estate, which he kept up at vast expense. During the five revolutionary years before the 9th of Thermidor the issue of paper money (assignats), although disastrous enough in its economic effects, was nevertheless kept within bounds, and, it has been computed, amounted to not more than seven milliards. A certain relative proportion between the guarantee security and the paper money was never quite lost sight of during all the issues dating from before the fall of Robespierre. It was only under the reaction which set in shortly after the last event that all idea of proportion was cast to the winds in favour of absolutely reckless swindling. While, as above said, during the first five years of the Revolution, it has been estimated that at most seven milliards of paper was issued within two years following July 1794, the amount of paper poured into circulation has been reckoned to have been not less than thirty-eight milliards; of which thirty milliards belong to the first six months of the Constitution of the year III, that is, to the Government of the Directory.

It was indeed evident that all these “nouveaux riches”, thieves on a great scale, constituted the real and sole effective power in the country. The five directors were their mandatories.

The Directory and all the prominent politicians of the time were hand in glove with a clique of speculative financiers, whose sole aim was to enrich themselves. Their nefarious influence may be seen in most of the laws passed, and is indeed traceable right up to the year 1814. The bulk of the governing classes – under Barras, Bonaparte, the Bourbons – were dominated by, or were in league with, this band of robbers, who systematically exploited the national wealth for their own benefit. These financial jackals seized upon everything they could lay their hands on, it mattered not what – church revenues, fiscal monies, feudal estates. The result naturally was the sudden and rapid growth of a propertyless proletariat. Such was the state of things which confronted Babeuf when his political career began, and such was the population to whom the gospel of Babeuf appeared as a godsend. Thousands of persons in Paris and in other towns of France were on the brink of starvation. The economic situation in Paris under the Directory and the subsequent years was as desperate as any that has been known in the world’s history.

Babeuf had and made many friends and sympathisers in Arras; amongst them was the family of the ex-proconsul there during the Terror, Joseph Lebon, who seem to have become enthusiastic adherents, which is significant, considering Lebon’s association with the party of Robespierre, and Babeuf’s severe attacks on the Robespierrists and even on Lebon personally, in the earlier numbers of the Tribun. This is more noteworthy, seeing that Lebon was undoubtedly one of the most ferocious agents of the Terror, and that Babeuf, however much he may have modified his view of the character of Robespierre in general, had never as yet withdrawn his strictures of the system of the Terror itself, which was entirely opposed to the humanitarian principles he had hitherto professed. However this may be, his acquaintance with the Lebons had an important result for the movement, for it was in their house Babeuf first met Darthé, his subsequent colleague and right hand in the Society of the Pantheon, and in the conspiracy of the Equals, which was its sequel.

Augustin Alexandre Darthé was a native of St Pol, in the department of the Pas-de-Calais. Darthé had played a certain public role during the Revolution, had taken part in the affair of the Bastille, and had been afterwards a member of the directing body of his department. In consequence of his services in this capacity he had been decreed to have “merited well of the country” He subsequently became public prosecutor to the revolutionary tribunals of Arras and Cambrai, where his incorruptibility and frugality were recognised by all. He was a supporter of Robespierre, and is described as of severe morals and of a compassionate heart!

During the time of Babeuf’s detention at Arras the town was rent by the feud between the Thermidoreans, including the old aristocratic party, now reconciled to the wealthier middle-class in their abhorrence of the Terror, and the Sansculottes. The younger and more ardent members of the reactionary coalition, under the name of the Jeunesse dorée, had adopted an extravagant costume and long tresses. The partisans of the revolutionary regime were now indiscriminately termed Jacobins. At the Theatre disturbances took place between the two sides. One such disturbance, in which the son of the guillotined émigré, the Comte de Bethune, with some of his associates, took part, led to the arrest of the latter, and their detention as prisoners, in company with Babeuf and his friends. Babeuf describes the young aristocrat as a smooth-faced young man, with an attractive but deceptive manner. He continued the centre of the reactionary movement in Arras, where he held a kind of court, distributing the current paper money (assignats) lavishly amongst his fellows.

On the 24th of Fructidor, ann. IV (16th September 1795), Babeuf, and his friend Charles Germain, with whom an intimacy had been established in the prison of Arras, and who was subsequently to become Babeuf’s ardent and strenuous colleague in the conspiracy of the Equals, were transferred by the authorities to Paris, where shortly after they were released by an amnesty proclaimed by the National Convention at its closing sitting. It is now that the great period of Gracchus Babeuf’s political activity, terminating only with his death, begins.

Last updated on 21.6.2003