Max Beer 1922

An Inquiry into Dictatorship II

Source: Labour Monthly, July 1922, pp. 43-52;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The Beginning of Communist Agitation

§ 1. – Social Criticism in France

In the second half of the eighteenth century France witnessed an outburst of social criticism which, taking the natural rights philosophy for its guide, probed into the economic arrangements of society and found them wanting. Many were the critics, but only one or two went beyond criticism and arrived at positive communist or social reform conclusions. To mention only the most important of them, we may say that Morelly was a communist, Mably a social reformer, while Rousseau, Linguet, and Necker stopped short of any serious proposals for a social transformation.

Morelly published in 1753 the Naufrage des îles flottantes, a poem in fourteen cantos, in which he depicted a society firmly based on Communism, in contrast to the various States which, resting on private property, were like unstable islands soon to be wrecked. In 1755 he published the Code de la Nature, in which, analysing the dispositions and capacities of man, he argued that it was only by neglecting and perverting the work of Nature that moral philosophers and politicians created private property and brought discord, opposing interests, strife, and misery into the world. The only remedy was to live according to the laws and precepts of Nature and to make everything common.

Gabriel B. Mably (1709-1785), a high official at the French Foreign Office, a theologian and historian, pleaded in his Doutes proposés aux philosophes economistes (1768) in favour of Communist natural rights, eulogised Plato’s Republic, contrasting it with the societies based on private property and inequality, showing the blessings of the former and the evils of the latter. In his treatise De la legislation (1776) he exclaimed, “I have great difficulty in explaining how people came to establish private property. I have my conjectures on the subject, but they fail to satisfy me. Did I not fear to be wanting in respect for my forefathers, what reproaches would I not level at them for having committed a mistake which was nearly impossible to commit. For Nature intended to establish equality of goods and conditions, while they established private property.... Inequality is the source of all vices to which man succumbs.” (Book I, chapters 2 and 3.) Still, Mably did not advocate Communism; since man had been so corrupted by private property that it would take a long time to eradicate selfishness and avarice, he proposed dictatorial government, limitation of the law of inheritance, progressive taxation of the rich, and equalisation of the payment of officials.

In the year of the publication of Morelly’s Naufrage, J.J. Rousseau brought out his Discours sur l’inégalité, in which he stigmatised the first man who enclosed a piece of land and said that it was his own as the real founder of civil society and the creator of all those crimes, wars, murders, and miseries which have perverted man.

Simon N.H. Linguet (1736-1794), a conservative jurist, characterised the laws of civil society as dictated by the rich in favour of the rich; the laws were merely fortresses to protect the rich against the poor. The whole essence of civil society was to free the rich from labour. (Théorie des lois civiles, 1767, Vol. I, pp. 171-200.) Yet Linguet proposed no remedy; if one desired to live in society, one must bear up with its flagrant inequalities and evils.

Jacques Necker, the popular Finance Minister of Louis XVI, concluded his treatise Sur le commerce des grains (1775) with the following remarkable utterances, “One is horrified, in opening the codes of laws, to find on all their pages the proofs of the truth that all institutions have been created for the benefit of the property owners. One might say that a small number of people have shared out the earth among themselves and then created laws in order to keep together and to protect themselves against the masses, just as one encloses the forests in order to get protection against wild beasts.”

§ 2. – The Constitutions of the French Revolution

In the midst of these questionings and controversies came 1789 and ushered in the revolution. The Third Estate, or the middle class, entered the political arena, pushed its superiors rudely aside, converted the Estates General into a Constituent Assembly, and finally brought in the Constitution of September 3, 1791, the famous Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen. By virtue of it, the estates, corporations, guilds, and associations were declared dissolved into individuals, all free and equal, aggregated into a sovereign nation, wherein only talents and virtues might claim and would gain distinction. But, as a matter of fact, property was sacred, imprescriptible, and inviolate; moreover, only the possession of it would give the right of voting. The free and equal individuals were divided into active and passive citizens. And monarchy, manorial rights, and the army, with its royalist officers, remained. Suspicion and conflict rent the middle class in twain, into Gironde and Mountain, the line of cleavage being middle class and lower middle class. Meanwhile the proletariat armed itself and, made increasingly familiar with republican ideals and vague communist and social reform schemes, rose on August 10, 1792, swept away the National Assembly with its Constitution, put the king and his family into custody, and demanded an equalitarian constitution. By the adult manhood suffrage of the whole nation the Convention was elected and opened on September 2 I, 1792. Republican principles gradually gained the upper hand; the king was sentenced to death; the armies were victorious; but famine, the collapse of the assignats, high prices, and usurious speculations of the war profiteers harassed and starved the people and made them feel the imperious necessity for social reform measures, for some effective and systematic interference with property. The first twelve months of the Convention witnessed a remarkable ferment of social ideas,[1] to which the revolution on March 18, 1793, gave the following characteristic reply: –

La Convention Nationale decrète la peine de mort contre quiconque proposera une loi agraire ou toute autre, subversive des propriétés territoriales, commerciales et industrielles."[2]

Capital punishment for agrarian reformers and socialists. That means that the elemental forces which produce a revolution cannot be over-ridden; if they are generated by middle-class interests, they will only result in a political, governmental transformation; the utmost that can be done under such circumstances is to press forward to the utmost limit of their sphere of operation. And this the Jacobins did. On June 24, 1793, they presented to the Convention a Constitution which offered complete political democracy (universal suffrage, & c.), but with the sacredness of property for its heart. The Jacobins had produced a Radical Constitution, but not a Socialist one. It bore the impress of the lower middle class, virtuous and well-meaning, desirous of equality, but only with the classes above it.[3] Robespierre, more susceptible than the other Jacobins to the Socialist or Communist ferment among the working classes, drafted a Constitution the most noteworthy articles of which are the following:-

ART. 6. – Property is a right which each citizen has to the free enjoyment and disposition of that portion of goods which are secured to him by law.

ART. 10. – It is the duty of society to care for the subsistence of all its members, be it by procuring them work, or by supplying the means of existence to those who are unable to work.

ART. 12. – Society should do all it can to promote the progress of the public intellect, and put instruction within the reach of all.

ART. 35. – All men of all countries are brothers, and the various peoples ought to assist one another according to their ability, like citizens of the same State.

ART. 36. – He who oppresses one single nation declares himself an enemy of all.

This draft was acceptable to the advanced social reformers, but Robespierre never made any serious attempt of having it adopted by the Convention. He was the real representative of the lower middle classes; with generous social views in speech, middle class in action; he could not advance any further, since, as Hegel said, no one can jump over his own shadow.

The democratic Constitution of 1793 was suspended until peace would allow its application. The Mountain turned into a revolutionary Government or dictatorship, but no amount of dictatorial energy, positive achievements in home and foreign affairs, in education, law, and national defence, could relieve the failure in the domain of social economics.

The Ninth Thermidor followed: Jacobinism was guillotined; the Gironde returned; the Directory took the reins of the Convention, passed the Constitution of August 22, 1795, which restored the property qualification suffrage. The masses who were fighting for France on all the battlefields of Europe were disenfranchised.

This act of the Directory had a double effect: on the one hand, it roused the social reformers to activity; on the other hand, it caused some of the remnants of Jacobinism to approach the democratic social reformers for the purpose of joint action against the counter-revolution and for the restoration of the Constitution of 1793 plus social reform. The result was a social-reform-democratic coalition; the men who led it were Babeuf and Darthé, but the mind who inspired it was Buonarotti.

The Conspiracy of the Equalitarians and Dictatorship

§ 1. – Causes and Doctrines of the Conspiracy

The insurrectionary organisation which became known to history as the Conspiracy of the Equalitarians (1795-97) comprised several members of great talent and republican virtues, whose main object was to restore the Constitution of 1793 and to supplement it by economic reforms. They be no means ignored the faults of that Constitution, they found them “particularly in the provision which declared property sacred,” but they believed political democracy to be the best way towards social equality.[4] Their ideal of government was complete democracy, which would take all possible measures to spread education and to prevent extremes of riches and poverty arising in society. Their authorities were Rousseau, Morelly, and Mably, whose teachings they summarised as follows: –

(1) Nature has given to every man the equal right to the enjoyment of all goods. (2) The object of society is to protect this equality, which in the state of nature was so often violated by the strong and cunning, and to increase all social enjoyments through co-operative work. (3) Nature has imposed upon everyone the duty of working; no one can neglect this duty without committing a crime. (4) Labour and enjoyments must be common. (5) There is oppression wherever the one spends himself in labour and is deprived of all enjoyment, while the other is wallowing in superfluities without labouring at all. (6) No one could have appropriated the products of the soil and of industry without criminal deeds. (7) In true society there must be neither rich nor poor. (8) The rich who do not forgo their superfluities in favour of the needy are enemies of the people. (9) No one is allowed, by the accumulation of all means, to deprive others of the necessary instruction; education must be common. (10) The object of the revolution is to abolish inequality and to establish common happiness. (11) The revolution is not at an end, for the rich are appropriating all the goods and have all the power, while the poor are worked like real slaves, are pining away in misery, and have no voice in the affairs of the State. (12) The Constitution of 1793 is the true organic law of the French, because the people have solemnly adopted it; because the Convention (under the Directory) had no right to alter it; because, in order to do so, it ordered the people to be shot down; because the deputies who dutifully defended it were driven out and murdered; because of the distrust of the people and the influence of the emigrant nobles who presided at the drafting of the Constitution of 1795.... (13) Every citizen is bound to defend and restore, restore and defend, the Constitution of 1793 as the will and happiness of the people. (14.) All authority founded on the Constitution of 1795 is illegal and counter-revolutionary. (15) All who violated the Constitution of 1793 are guilty of lese-majesty of the people.

The publicist of the organisation, but by no means its greatest leader, was Francois Noel Babeuf (1762-1797), who, from his agrarian agitation, called himself Gracchus. Other known members were Augustin Alexandre Darthé a jurist and revolutionist who had taken part in the storming of the Bastille, and Buonarotti, who, as the originator of the idea of socialist dictatorship, deserves a separate chapter.

§ 2. – Filippo Michele Buonarotti

In the annals of pre-Marxian revolutionary Communism the foremost place must be assigned to Filippo Michele Buonarotti (also spelled Buonarroti). A man whom young Buonaparte loved, Robespierre and Marat venerated, the National Convention made a citizen of France, Gracchus Babeuf chose as his collaborator, and the advanced minds of the July Revolution (1830), like Godefroy Cavaignac and Louis Auguste Blanqui, revered as their master – a man who, despite his long revolutionary career, had no enemy or detractor – must have been of unique greatness of character. His book, Conspiration pour l’égalité, the Bible of the revolutionary elements from 1828 to 1848, is of singular charm, which, far from decreasing through reiterated reading, grows upon us and enchants our mind the more often we study it, the more carefully we analyse its thoughts and sentences. It is like reading Tacitus and Plutarch.

Buonarotti, in body and mind, was of the noblest Italian stamp, combining heroism with complete self-abnegation. This is the unanimous impression which he left upon his contemporaries. Louis Blanc, the historian of the Dix ans (1830-1840), who had seen him in the last years of his life, describes him as “grave of demeanour, of great authority of speech, of a countenance ennobled by meditation and austere living, with a large forehead, pensive eyes, proudly arched lips used to discretion. No amount of disappointment and suffering disturbed the serenity of his mind, which was grounded on a pure conscience and spotless character; death had no terror for him; the energy of his soul raised him above the anxieties and miseries of a life spent on the stormy death-dealing seas of revolution."[5] He loved the people and was ever ready to die for its welfare and happiness; and yet he never surrendered to its prejudices and vacillations, he never flattered it; on the contrary, well knowing its weaknesses and vices, he desired to see a dictatorship of the virtuous and wise as the preliminary and preparatory stage to full democracy.

He was born at Pisa on November 11, 1761, of the family of the Buonarottis who had given to the world the great Michel Angelo. From an early age he distinguished himself by great literary talents, audacity, and energy of character, and was appointed to a high office by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold I. Immediately on the outbreak of the French Revolution (1789) he embraced its cause, in consequence of which he was persecuted and had to leave his country. He settled at first in Corsica, where he published l’Amico della libertà italiana. Napoleon Buonaparte, who at that time (1791-1792) served as an officer on the island and was an ardent revolutionist, supported him and became his close friend. On the proclamation of the French Republic (September, 1792) Buonarotti hastened to Paris, entered into relations with the most advanced leaders of the revolution, undertook political missions on their behalf, for which the National Convention conferred upon him the citizenship of France. While Buonaparte, following his martial instincts and imperatorial ambitions, turned into the most formidable enemy of the revolutionary forces, Buonarotti became one of the most trusted friends of Robespierre and, outstripping him in questions of social doctrine and practice, embraced social democracy. After the fall of Robespierre and the rise of the Directory, Buonarotti organised secret societies for the purpose of overthrowing the usurpers and re-establishing the Constitution of 1793 as one of the means to the political and communist education and organisation of the masses.

Buonarotti was the first social democrat who grasped the importance of capturing political power and of instituting a temporary dictatorship as the most effective means towards a socialist reorganisation of society.

One of the most fateful events of the French Revolution was the estrangement and enmity between the social reformers and communists and the political, democratic revolutionists. Men like Leclerc and Roux or Hébert and his followers, who were ardent social reformers and communists, misunderstood and deprecated political democracy and dictatorship, while the adherents of the latter, like Robespierre, Marat, Saint-Just, never arrived at a clear and sincere appreciation of social reform and communism. This estrangement between the most advanced elements of the revolution was one of the main causes of its downfall.

Buonarotti, with his comprehensive intellect, grasped the meaning and import of both movements. He appreciated Robespierre as well as Roux – the political revolutionist as well as the communist revolutionist. He, therefore, joined the Babeuf conspiracy, which had both political and social reform objects in view. And he lived long enough to transmit his experience and the results of his meditations to the generation which was to act in the years from 1830 to 1848. His Conspiration pour l’égalité is at once the best commentary on the most vital problems of the French Revolution in the years 1792-1794 and the best introduction to modern communist tactics.

From Buonarotti the line of democracy, dictatorship, and communism leads in the directest manner to Louis Auguste Blanqui, Karl Marx, and Vladimir N. Oulianoff. The dates are 1793-95, 1848, 1917.

The continuation of the life story of Buonarotti is interwoven with the history of socialism and communism till his death in 1837.

§ 3. – Development of the Conspiracy

The nucleus of the organisation was the Société du Panthéon, which took its name from its headquarters at the hill of Sainte-Geneviève near the Pantheon. Its chairman was Buonarotti. The organisation grew by leaps and bounds; in May, 1796, its membership numbered about 17,000 in Paris, besides its branches in the provinces. It had many friends in the Paris garrison.

Any attempt at restoring the Constitution of 1793 implied the forcible overthrow of the Directory, since the suffrage was restricted to the propertied classes, the staunch supporters of the Directory. Secret committees were therefore formed to prepare the insurrection. The question then arose, assuming the Directory was overthrown, what government was to take its place? The discussion of this question is the most relevant to our subject. Buonarotti relates: –

After having resolved that they must direct the action of the people against the Directory and towards the re-establishment of the Constitution of 1793, the secret committee had to solve a problem which bristled with difficulties. It was a matter of deciding upon the form of authority which should suddenly replace that which was going to be overthrown. The committee were convinced that it was impossible as well as dangerous to appeal at once to the people to elect a legislature and a government according to the Constitution of 1793. From all the events and circumstances of the last years the committee concluded that a people so strangely at variance with the natural order was hardly capable of making a useful choice, and therefore stood in need of some extraordinary means which could put it in a position of effectively, and not fictitiously, exercising the full powers of its sovereignty. From this mode of thinking arose the idea of replacing the existing Government by a revolutionary and provisional authority, which should be so constituted as to withdraw the people for ever from the influence of the natural enemies of equality and imbue it with the unity of will which was necessary to the adoption of republican institutions. As to the question of the prospective authority, three propositions were brought forward. One was to reinstate those members of the Convention who had remained true to the people; the second was to create a dictatorship of one man, after the ancient Roman example; the third was to establish a new body which should bring the revolution to its happy termination. The first proposition was soon abandoned, since the worthiest members of the Convention had been killed or deported or imprisoned, while the others, though they remained true to the republic, had acquiesced in the murder of the true democrats or in the return of the Girondists to the Convention. After this proposition had been negatived, the secret committee discussed the question of having the insurgents of Paris nominate a provisional authority which should be entrusted with the government of the nation. It was than a question of deciding upon the form of this provisional revolutionary authority. Some members of the secret committee argued in favour of a magistracy of a single person; others preferred a new body, composed of a small number of tried democrats. The views of the latter prevailed.

The result of this grave deliberation was the following provision: –

Revolutionary Government

The care for carrying on the revolution to its termination, and securing to the republic liberty, equality, and the Constitution of 1793, will be entrusted to a national assembly composed of one democrat for each department, nominated by the insurgent people on the recommendation of the insurrectionary committee.[6]

This form of revolutionary authority would have meant a soviet, elected by the revolutionary elements of Paris, with the secret committee at the head.

Buonarotti himself comments on the question of dictatorship: –

“The experience of the French Revolution and particularly of the troubles and vicissitudes of the National Convention have, as it seems to me, sufficiently demonstrated that a people whose opinions have been formed under a system of inequality and despotism is hardly capable, at the beginning of a regenerative revolution, of choosing by its suffrage the men who should direct and consummate that revolution. Such a delicate task can only be entrusted to wise and courageous citizens .... who have freed themselves from the common prejudices and vices, who have left the lights of their contemporaries behind, and, despising riches and vulgar honours, have consecrated their lives to the immortal cause of securing the triumph of equality. At the beginning of a political revolution it is perhaps necessary, even from pure deference to the real sovereignty of the people, not to care so much about getting ballot papers counted, as for letting fall with the least possible arbitrariness the supreme authority into the hands of wise and strong revolutionaries."[7]

Buonarotti’s view had, as we shall see, a far-reaching effect on the communist movement, and indirectly on German communist theories.

§ 4. – Revolutionary Policy

Concerning this question Buonarotti reproduces the following fragment of a draft: –

§ 1 – The individuals who do nothing for the fatherland cannot exercise any political rights; they are aliens to whom the republic grants hospitality.

§ 2. – Doing nothing for the fatherland means not to perform any useful labour.

§ 3. – The law considers as useful labour: Agriculture, shepherd life, fishing, and navigation; mechanical and manual arts; retail shopkeeping; transport of passengers and goods; war; education and scientific pursuits.

§ 4. – Nevertheless, the work of instruction and science will not be regarded as useful unless those who pursue it will get a certificate of citizenship. .

§ 6. – Aliens are not admitted to the public assemblies.

§ 7. – The aliens are under the direct supervision of the supreme administration, who can arrest them.

§ 10. – All citizens are armed.

§ 11 – The aliens must, under the penalty of death, surrender their arms to the revolutionary committees.[8]

§ 5. – End of the Conspiracy

Let us now briefly relate the final act of the conspiracy. Among the members of the secret committees there was a certain Captain Grisel, who betrayed the movement by informing the Directory of the plans and the date of the prospective insurrection. Lazare Carnot, the War Minister, instructed General Buonaparte to dissolve the Société du Panthéon and to arrest the leaders of the secret committees. In May, 1796, the arrests took place, and in March, April, and May, 1797, the trials took place at Vendôme, a provincial town, for the Directory feared to have the court sitting in Paris where there were still enough revolutionists to rouse the people. On May 26, 1797, Babeuf and Darthé were sentenced to death, while Buonarotti and others were sentenced to deportation. On the pronouncement of the death sentence by the presiding judge, Babeuf and Darthé drew their daggers and attempted to commit suicide. The warders interfered, and the condemned men were dragged out bleeding from the court of justice. On the following morning they suffered supreme punishment under the guillotine. Several years after Captain Grisel was killed by Camille Babeuf, the eldest son of Gracchus.

Buonarotti was not deported, but imprisoned at Cherbourg; in 1801, Buonaparte, then First Consul, offered him a high position in the Government, which Buonarotti scornfully rejected. Liberated in 1807, he lived partly in the south of France, partly in Switzerland, always in close touch with the revolutionary movements. Banished from Switzerland, he found refuge in Belgium, where he published the history of the conspiracy of the equalitarians.

(To be continued)

1. A full account of the movement of social ideas of the time is given in Jean Jaurès’ Histoire Socialiste, Vol. IV, La Convention, Part II, pp. 999-1076, 1465-1575.

2. The National Convention decrees the penalty of death against anyone proposing an agrarian or other law subversive of landed, commercial, and industrial property.

3. “The Constitution of 1793, drafted by the Mountain, did not completely respond to the wishes of the friends of mankind. One regretted to find in it the old, exasperating ideas concerning property .... The revolutionists saw the main weakness of that Constitution in the provision which concerned property.” (Buonarotti, Conspiration pour l’égalité, Brussels, 1828, pp. 28-29, 91, 119.)

4. Buonarotti, Conspiration, p.91.

5. Cf. Louis Blanc, Histoire de dix ans, fourth edition, Brussels, 1846, Vol. IV, pp. 129-130.

6. Buonarotti, Conspiration, II, p.253.

7. Buonarotti, Conspiration, pp. 132-140.

8. Ibid. II, pp. 301-3.