Ernest Belfort Bax

Gracchus Babeuf

X. Conclusion

THE movement of Babeuf for resuscitating the Revolutionary Government on an economic basis of a Socialist character was a failure, and, like all failures, like all movements that are suppressed with real success, or that, to speak in expressive slang, “peter out”, leaving but slight direct traces behind them, has tended with the lapse of years to pass into historical oblivion. Comparatively few men of average education in the present day have ever heard of Babeuf. For the great world, as above said, he left nothing behind him, scarcely even a memory, except for the few interested in the byways and cul-de-sacs of history, and who honour single-minded devotion to the popular cause, even when it has been without result.

Of the absolute sincerity, earnestness, and courage of the protagonist of the Equals there can be no sort of doubt with anyone who has studied history of Babeuf and his ill-starred movement. Of his grasp of the situation, and of his intellectual capacity as the leader of a party of wide-reaching revolutionary aims, as much cannot be said. With all our admiration of Babeuf’s energy and heroism as a revolutionary figure, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that he was intellectually unstable. The correspondence with Dubois de Fosseux and others in his early days already indicated that. We fail to find, moreover, much trace (though we do some) of real originality in the doctrines, into the attempted realisation of which Babeuf threw such unsurpassed energy and self-devotion. They are mainly discoverable in other writers of eighteenth-century France, notably in Morelly, in Mably, and even in Rousseau. Babeuf himself admitted this, protesting that his trial was an attack on the liberty of the press, and that he was being prosecuted for professing doctrines that had had the support of Rousseau, of Mably, and – true eighteenth-century touch – of Lycurgus!

His instability of mind is crucially exhibited in the complete volte face he made as regards the question of Robespierre and Thermidor. In his Journal de la liberté de la presse, notably in the earlier numbers, we are confronted with measureless denunciations of Robespierre and the Terror, for which he was held responsible. In a short time, as we have seen in an earlier chapter of the present work, this uncompromising attitude became modified in the sense of recognising two Robespierres, – Robespierre, the tyrant of the latter days of the Terror; and Robespierre of earlier days, the sincere apostle of Equality and the Revolution. But the matter did not rest here. Before the end of his political career, Babeuf had come to idolise the late dictator as something like a heaven-sent Messiah of the new era of revolutionary social construction. So far did he go in this, that in a copy of a letter addressed to Joseph Bodson (? Dobson), who appears to have been a Hébertist, found among the papers seized in Babeuf’s house, we find the declaration that the Babouvists were but the “second Gracchi” of the French Revolution, the first being Robespierre and his followers. Defending Robespierre against the attacks of his correspondent, “Let us give him back,” says he, “his first legitimate glory, and all his disciples would arise anew and soon would triumph. Robespierrism overthrows anew all the factions; Robespierrism does not resemble any of them, it is neither artificial nor limited. Hébertism exists only in Paris and among a small section of men, and can only sustain itself with difficult. Robespierrism exists throughout the Republic in the whole class of the judicial and clear-sighted and, of course, among all the people. The reason is simple: it is that Robespierrism is Democracy and that the two words are identical. Hence in resuscitating Robespierrism you are sure to resuscitate democracy.”

One cannot but regret to find a man like Babeuf singing the praises of the author of the law of Prairial, and the judicial murderer of Anacharsis Clootz and of Chaumette, not to speak of his former friends and colleagues the Dantonists. Babeuf’s correspondent replied, warning him of the danger of his hero worship as likely to prejudice his own movement, in view of the name Robespierre had left behind in connection with the Terror, while at the same time repudiating any blind partisanship with the party of Hébert. It is indeed by no means improbable that the injudicious utterances of Babeuf and his exaltation of Robespierre and the Terror did alienate from his movement many of the rank and file of the Paris populace, who, although strong in their revolutionary principles and zealous for the Constitution of ’98, had no wish for a return to the pre-Thermidorean revolutionary government, with its Terror “the order of the day”. Certainly, before and after the trial the Directorial government used the bogey of a return of the Terror to prejudice the movement of the Babouvists, and not without success among all classes of the population.

It was, moreover, not true that the distinctive feature in the doctrine of Babeuf, its communistic character, was to be found in any of the writings and speeches of Robespierre and his partisans. Robespierre, St Just, and the rest were jealous upholders of the rights of private property. Their ideal was a Republic of the small middle-class with the citizens possessed each of moderate means, sober, frugal, laborious, misery and want unknown, and an accumulation of wealth beyond a certain limit discouraged. This was the Rousseauite ideal of the period. Thus, though not possessed of a high originality, Babeuf certainly does himself injustice in professing to regard himself as a mere follower of Robespierre or any other of the earlier leaders. Probably the Hébertists approached, at least in spirit, as nearly the standpoint of Babeuf as any of his predecessors, but even they did not distincly formulate any communistic proposals; while Hébert himself, when on one occasion taunted by Robespierre, at the Jacobin Club, as to heresies on subject of private property, the inviolability which formed one of the points in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, expressly such repudiated any such.

The common Rousseauite atmosphere of thought and phraseology, with denunciations of a society admitting the extremes of excessive wealth and indigence, are to be found in all the men of that time, in Babeuf no less than in the rest. But as already said, the remedy proposed by Babeuf – the notion that only the abolition of the institution of private property itself could cure the evils of society and prevent their return – was certainly as a practical proposal entering the main of current politics, peculiar to Babeuf. That the communistic idea itself was not original with Babeuf we have already shown in an earlier chapter of the present work. He undoubtedly derived it from the writings of Mably and Morelly. What was original in Babeuf was his attempt to place it as the immediate goal of the society of his time, to be directly realised by political methods. Babeuf was the first to conceive of Communism in any shape as a politically realisable ideal in the immediate or near future.

Before Babeuf there were not wanting indications of what might be termed a Socialist tendency in individual revolutionists, notwithstanding the Convention, as a whole, on the first day of its assembly, had passed a resolution repudiating such tendencies, and decreeing the sacredness of private property. These tendencies were always sporadic in character, but are interesting for what they are worth. Curiously enough, it was the Girondin, Rabaut St Etienne, with whom some of the strongest expressions of opinion in this sense are to be found. Thus, in the Chronique de Paris of January 19th, 1793, he demands what he terms a supplement to the political revolution. “With the establishment political equality,” he observes, “the poor soon became sensible that the inequality of fortune vitiates equality; and inasmuch as equality means independence, they wax bitter and indignant against those on whom they have to depend for their needs. They demand equality of fortune, but it is seldom that the rich are readily disposed to recognise the justice of this claim. Hence it must be obtained either by force or by law.” After expressing the fear that force might tend to produce a new inequality, he proceeds to insist on the necessity of laws to effect the more equal division of property; and not only so, but to maintain this greater equality of wealth when once effected, and to prevent the old inequality from reasserting itself He goes on to talk, in the Rousseauite fashion the time, of education in sobriety, modesty, and temperance by means of “moral institution” among which “institutions” he instances civic feasts in which all Frenchmen should mingle together irrespective of wealth or status. He advocates the enactment of laws limiting the amount of fortune a man may possess; and ordaining that once this maximum is exceeded, society shall step in and take possession of all that is above it.

The article in question, as might be expected, did not pass without adverse criticism, but Rabaut stuff to his guns, and a few days later replied, reaffirming his position. Society, he insists, in according its protection to the individual, has a right, in the last resort, of disposing of the goods of the individual.. We need scarcely say that these views of Rabaut St Etienne did not meet with any sympathy on part of his colleagues of the Girondin party.

While Rabaut St Etienne was promulgating the above views, an obscure journalist and popular orator named Varlet was also demanding, while admitting the sacredness of private property so long as not abused to the detriment of society, the confiscation by the State of all wealth acquired by monopoly, the rigging of markets, or dishonest speculation. Marat, as we all know, wrote in a similar sense regarding the facts of destitution, as absolving the destitute from all obligations to the society which admitted of it. His celebrated articles against the forestallers were an application of this line of thought. In Marat’s writings, in fact, there are distinct indications of attempts at constructive legislative schemes implying far-reaching economic changes, but they remain merely hints. Hébert, again, is strong on the right of the people to make the “wealthy swine, who wax fat on the blood the poor, to disgorge;” on the duty of the State to confiscate, presumably for redistribution among indigent, of excessive wealth, which, as he maintains, cannot be acquired by honest means – wealth that only conduced to “needless luxury, worthless display, riding in carriages”, etc. But, while urging this, he none the less insists that the notion of perfect equality of fortune is a chimera. In Hébert no more than in the rest do we find communism in the literal sense of the word. The nationalisation, with a view to subsequent division, of the property of the clergy and emigrant nobles, had familiarised the people’s minds generally with the idea of confiscation, and had correspondingly weakened the sentiment of the absoluteness of the rights of property as such.

But with all this, we look in vain for any definite socialist or communist formulation of policy. The. utmost we find in these revolutionary writers is the notion of the dividing up of the land (an agrarian law), and possibly of the products of consumption, and this most of them rejected as impracticable and utopian. The prevailing state of industry and the economic conditions generally of the eighteenth century were not yet sufficiently advanced for the idea of the common ownership and co-operative working, in the common interest, of the means of production, to take definite shape.

Hence the average mind of the eighteenth century could never get beyond the notion, as regards social reconstruction, of the repartition of the land and of the products of industry, as being: the starting-point and the central principle of all such reconstruction.

Babeuf himself did not see so much beyond his contemporaries in this matter, but, at events, he proclaimed communism as the essential of social regeneration, and he had some idea the organisation of productive labour in common. As with the rest, he regarded the means towards the regeneration of human nature to consist, in the main, in a system of education. This system of educational direction was to continue throughout life. To quote the words of a manifesto by Babeuf’s Insurrectionary Committee: “In the social order conceived by the committee, the country (i.e. the State) shall seize upon the new-born individual, never to leave him till his death. It shall watch over his first moments, shall assure the milk and the care of her who gave him birth, shall guard him from all that might injure his health and enervate his body, shall shield him from a false tenderness, and shall take him, by the hand of his mother, to the national home (maison nationale), where he shall acquire virtue and the illumination necessary to a true citizen.”

The ideal life of the individual appears to Babeuf, as to others of his contemporaries, to involve to a large extent severity and frugality of living – always the ideal of the peasant and the small independent craftsman. All is to be excluded that is not necessary to republican virtue; “a rustic simplicity” should take the place of elegance of furniture and of garments. In short, Babeuf’s scheme bears upon it the unmistakable impress of his day and generation. As before said, what distinguishes Babeuf from his revolutionary predecessors is his placing communism, involving the definite abolition of the institution of private property, in the fore-front of his doctrine, in the more definite character of the latter, and in his bold idea of its prompt realisation by political means, through a committee of select persons placed in power by the people’s will as the issue of a popular insurrection. In illustration of this may be quoted a passage from the manifesto of the Equals relative to the agrarian law, by which was understood partition of the soil among the peasant cultivators, and which was regarded as the extreme limit of economic revolution. “We aim at,” says the manifesto, “something more sublime and more just than this – the common good or the community of goods; no more individual property in land; the land belongs to: no one. We claim, we demand the common enjoyment of the fruits of the earth. These fruits belong to the whole world.”

The delusion that Robespierre was essentially a man of the people rather than of the middle bourgeoisie is sufficiently disposed of when we consider the measures of Robespierre’s government in the second Committee of Public Safety, which lasted a year. It is true that, in view of the famine in Paris, it got passed the Decree of September 1793, by which forty sous a day were granted to those attending the assemblies of sections. By these means it put an end, for time being, to the rioting which had been going on for a long time almost continuously in Paris. But this was little more than a sop thrown to Cerberus. It was necessary to ward off the danger of another organised insurrection. On the other hand, the Committee of Public Safety enacted severe regulations against workmen’s combinations or assemblies with a view of raising wages or otherwise affecting trade interests. Those, indeed, who should complain, in the State factories now established for the manufacture of arms and munitions of war, were threatened with ferocious penalties. All parties, including Robespierre and his friends, were eloquent in generalities respecting the desirability of a greater equality in incomes, condemning the existence side by side in the same society of abject indigence on the one side and overweening luxury on the other. But these, for the most part, were, as we have seen, mere repetitions of phrases common at the time. Those who, like the Hébertists, really desired to bring about greater economic equality, soon found themselves denounced by Robespierre and his friends as enragés, and ultimately sent to the guillotine for their pains.

Towards the end of his political career, indeed, when Robespierre was desirous of conciliating the European powers, and still more the wealthier bourgeoisie at home, he became more emphatic than ever in denouncing all attacks on the principle of private property. Babeuf’s later obsession in favour of Robespierre, which went so far, as we have seen, as to proclaim him the protagonist of his own ideas, can only be explained by his hatred of the Thermidoreans, who had supplanted Robespierre and the party he represented; although certain Robespierrists with whom he came into close contact, especially the Lebon family in Arras, and probably more than all, his colleague and fellow-martyr; Darthé, may well have had not inconsiderable influence on his change of view. The change between the Babeuf of the Journal de la liberté de la presse and of the Système de dépopulation and the Babeuf of the later numbers of the Tribun du People, is indeed remarkable. We may, indeed take it as indicating a certain weakness in Babeuf’s character; but if so, it was weakness that indicate an ingenuousness of disposition. The founder of the movement of the Equals, we can readily see, was possessed of an emotional temperament which carried him away, quite regardless of personal considerations. That he was prepared to shelter own reputation for originality, without cause or justification, behind that of Robespierre, certainly indicates an absence of personal vanity not a little unusual in the founders of popular movements.

Babeuf’s mind was undoubtedly more original than Robespierre’s, although the latter had what Babeuf lacked. Robespierre’s ideas, as ideas, were but a pale reflex of the teachings of Rousseau. The success of Robespierre was due to his consistent pertinacity in urging them, and to his capacity for imbuing his colleagues and the Paris populace with notion that he was the pure and disinterested personification of those ideas. Babeuf had little of Robespierre’s dexterity; but his boldness in applying, not only the revolutionary side of Rousseau’s teachings, but the Utopian theories of Mably and Morelly to the France of his day; his idea of seizing the political power by a coup de main, with a view the immediate reorganisation of society on a communist basis, was in itself original in its inception. More than this we do not claim for Babeuf on the score of originality.

In any case, Gracchus Babeuf and his movement cannot fail to be for the modern socialist of deepest possible historical interest. Gracchus Babeuf was, in a sense, a pioneer and a hero of modern international Socialist party.

The movement of Babeuf had a kind of aftermath in the nineteenth century in that of Auguste Blanqui. The Blanquist notion of the seizure of the political power by a coup de main on the part of a revolutionary minority, as the sole effective method preliminary to the reorganisation of society, is clearly traceable to the movement of the Equals, and the projected insurrection of the year V. Born on the 7th of February 1805, only eight years after the execution of Babeuf, son of a member of the Convention, Blanqui in his early youth came into direct contact with the old revolutionary tradition. and possibly had personal acquaintance with survivors of the Babouvists’ movement. He was certainly well read in the old revolutionary literature. His influence on all the revolutionary movements of France during the nineteenth century was immense, and his following considerable among the student class, especially in Paris, during the early and mid-nineteenth century, as well as with the working classes of the large towns. Auguste Blanqui is a monumental instance of single-minded devotion to an ideal absolutely regardless of self, not in a time of crisis merely, but throughout a long life, for this noble old man closed his career of unflinching devotion, which included thirty-seven years of imprisonment, in 1881, at the age of seventy-six. Two sayings of his may be quoted, as affording good instances of the influence of Babeuf and his doctrines on the nineteenth century revolutionary movements. In summing up his position on one occasion Blanqui wrote: “The social question cannot be earnestly and effectively discussed till after the next energetic and irrevocable solution of the political question.” And again, in a programme drawn up by him in 1865, we read: “The day after the Revolution, when the nation sees a new horizon before it, two parallel paths must be followed: the one leads to education, the other to the co-operation of the productive forces towards a common end.” We see here plainly enough how the traditions of the Movement of 1796 were carried down by a powerful personality far into the nineteenth century. And the influence of Blanqui still lives. Although the actual reconstructive proposals of Babeuf, and hence Babouvism as a Social doctrine, may be dead and superseded to-day, yet the Blanquists’ notion, derived from the Babouvists, of the seizure of the political power by the revolutionary act of a minority, and the superintendence of the work of reconstruction by that minority, has still a following in the modern socialist party.

Last updated on 21.6.2003