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Ian Birchall

The Babeuf Bicentenary:
Conspiracy or Revolutionary Party?

(September 1996)

From International Socialism 2:72, September 1996.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The year 1996 sees the 200th anniversary of Babeuf’s short lived ‘conspiracy for equality’, an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the moderate Directory, which governed France, and establish a society based on common ownership of property. Babeuf has long been recognised as an important precursor of the revolutionary socialist tradition; in the founding manifesto of the Communist International, Trotsky declared that the new organisation was ‘carrying on in direct succession the heroic endeavours and martyrdom of a long line of revolutionary generations from Babeuf to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg’. [1]

Yet to English readers Babeuf remains a shadowy figure. Babeuf gets a name check in most histories of the French Revolution, but very little more. Only three book length studies have appeared in the course of the 20th century. [2] Partly this is a result of British parochialism, partly it is a result of Stalinism, which found it hard to reconcile the study of ‘precursors’ of Marxism with its attempt to transform Marxism into a quasi-religious doctrine. The most important work on Babeuf in the 20th century has been done by anti-Stalinist Marxists: Maurice Dommanget, a syndicalist who helped to arrange Trotsky’s accommodation during his exile in France [3], and Victor Dalin, a supporter of the Left Opposition in the 1920s who spent many years in labour camps. [4]

Babeuf’s ‘conspiracy’ is often dismissed as futile or premature, and Babeuf himself seen as a utopian, a hangover from Jacobinism or a forerunner of Blanqui. The reality, however, is considerably more complex and more interesting. There is now a huge amount of information available on Babeuf which reveals him to be an original thinker and an organiser of considerable significance. The following account will concentrate on the episode of the ‘conspiracy’ and its political and organisational practice. [5]

Babeuf was born in 1760, in Picardy in north east France. He had no formal education [6], but acquired a considerable amount of knowledge from his father, who was an army deserter turned taxman. Babeuf may even have learnt some Latin; certainly he always retained a deep enthusiasm for ancient Rome. Later on he was to adopt the forename ‘Gracchus’, after the Roman advocate of the ‘agrarian law’ (the redistribution of the land). As a teenager he spent a couple of years performing hard manual labour, working on the Picardy canal. Before the development of machinery, canal building required an army of thousands of labourers, and Babeuf was thus introduced to the wage earning working class which was beginning to emerge in France at this time. Then he became a feudiste, employed by landowners to search through documents in order to re-establish feudal rights. He claimed later that it was in the course of this work that he had discovered that the origins of private property, and hence of human inequality, lay in the violence and deception of the landowners.

Babeuf was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, from the storming of the Bastille through to the establishment of the Republic and the execution of the king. He was invariably on the side of the popular masses who wanted to take the revolution forward towards greater economic and political equality, and against those moderate elements who wanted to call a halt before their own privileges were destroyed. Until 1793 he spent most of his time in Picardy. His old profession had been made obsolete by the revolution, and instead he made several rather unsuccessful attempts to launch newspapers. He was also involved in a number of campaigns against unfair taxation.

In February 1793 he went to Paris, and found employment in the organisation that administered food supplies. Later that year he was jailed on a rather dubious charge of forgery dating back to his days in Picardy. He was released from prison in July 1794, just ten days after the fall of Robespierre and the Jacobins. The most radical phase of the revolution had been brought to an end by the moderate bourgeoisie, who wished to ensure that their own wealth and status were not threatened. But at the same time Robespierre had eroded his own support among the poorest sections of the Paris population; in particular the imposition of wage controls had alienated the emergent working class.

Initially Babeuf welcomed the fall of Jacobin rule. He had not been particularly sympathetic to Robespierre’s most vigorous left wing critics, the so-called enragés, but as one who had a deep commitment to enriching democratic forms, he distrusted Robespierre’s authoritarianism. In particular he was hostile to the repressive measures used during the civil war that had raged in the Vendée in western France.

Soon the realities of the new regime began to manifest themselves; the rich sought to line their own pockets while the poor faced increasing hardship. The well off flaunted their prosperity in luxury restaurants while the streets were full of starving people. The government was now in the hands of a five man Directory, and in Paris gangs of muscadins or ‘gilded youth’ emerged, bunches of thugs who launched physical attacks on the remaining groups of pro-Jacobins.

Babeuf had by this time launched a new paper, the Tribun du Peuple (People’s Tribune). While the early issues were critical of the Jacobins, he did not hesitate long before recognising where the battle lines lay. His response to the strongarm tactics being used against the remaining Jacobins was quite unambiguous:

If you want civil war, you can have it ... You’ve cried ‘To arms’. We’ve said the same to our people. [7]

Not surprisingly he soon found himself in jail again, and he spent most of 1795 locked up.

Babeuf was now vigorously opposed to the Directory, but he did not simply wish to revert to the period of Jacobin rule. He had developed a quite distinctive position which it is entirely legitimate to describe as ‘socialist’. Of course the word ‘socialist’ was not yet in currency. Babeuf usually described his position as the advocacy of ‘true equality’ or ‘common happiness’. But his aim of a society based on economic equality and common ownership of property is clearly recognisable as what later became known as socialism. Before 1789 Babeuf had been deeply influenced by the ideas of some of the 18th century utopian communists; during the revolution he had always combined activism with intensive reading and theoretical speculation.

Of course Babeuf did not think in terms of the distinction subsequently made by Marxists between ‘bourgeois’ and ‘socialist’ revolutions. His concern was always that the revolution should be continued to its logical conclusion, to fight against those who wished to stop it half way or roll back the gains already made. But his goal was quite clearly a society which would be based on economic as well as juridical equality, and which would therefore have no place for private property.

While in prison he had an extensive correspondence with Charles Germain, later to be one of the leaders of the ‘conspiracy’. In one of his letters Babeuf set out a devastating critique of the market economy which has lost none of its power two centuries later:

Competition, far from aiming at perfection, submerges conscientiously made products under a mass of deceptive goods contrived to dazzle the public, competition which achieves low prices only by obliging the worker to waste his skill in botched work, by starving him, by destroying his moral standards through lack of scruples; competition gives the victory only to whoever has most money; competition, after the struggle, ends up simply with a monopoly in the hands of the winner and the withdrawal of low prices; competition which manufactures any way it likes, at random, and runs the risk of not finding any buyers and destroying a large amount of raw material which could have been used usefully but which will no longer be good for anything. [8]

Some historians concede that Babeuf personally had developed a socialist position, but claim that his following came only from those nostalgic for the good old days of Robespierre when they were better fed. Obviously any political movement will be perceived in different ways by different sections of its audience, according to their degree of political sophistication. But the Analysis of Babeuf’s Doctrine, which was widely distributed as a leaflet and flyposted all over Paris, contains a pretty clear statement of Babeuf’s fundamental position:

On leaving jail on 12 October 1795, Babeuf faced the fundamental problem of how to pursue his socialist goal and at the same time relate to the immediate situation of crisis he saw around him. For Babeuf the policies of the Directory were not only reactionary in themselves, but opened the door to a much more sinister danger. Royalist plotting was intensifying, while among the common people many were beginning to wonder whether the whole revolutionary experience had been worthwhile. The danger of a monarchist coup which would overthrow the Republic and destroy all the gains of the revolution was a very real threat. If the Directory was not overthrown from the left then there was a good chance it would be overthrown from the right. The Directory was performing a perilous balancing act between Royalists and Republicans, but at any moment it might lose its balance.

To respond to such a situation, organisation was necessary. Over the previous couple of years, especially when he was in prison, Babeuf had gathered together a tiny nucleus of like minded revolutionaries (paradoxically the prisons provided a means of bringing opponents of the regime together). Notable among them were Buonarroti, an Italian disciple of Rousseau who had served the revolutionary government in Corsica and had become a French citizen; Sylvain Maréchal, a poet and militant atheist who had devised an early version of the revolutionary calendar; and Charles Germain, a professional soldier since the age of 17, deeply influenced by both 18th century materialism and the Anabaptists. [9]

In the autumn of 1795 various critics of the regime had attempted to revive the Jacobin tradition of revolutionary clubs by setting up the Panthéon Club. This met in a former religious building close to the Panthéon in what is now the Latin Quarter (just down the road from the area where the first barricades went up in the rebellion of 1968). Often the members met sitting on the floor in a basement by torchlight. Babeuf, Buonarroti and others participated in these meetings. By February 1796 the Directory decided that the club must be closed down. A young general who was rapidly making a name for himself, Bonaparte, took personal responsibility for the operation.

Babeuf now faced a difficult choice between different ways forward. He himself was clearly a socialist. But he did not have enough co-thinkers to engage in anything other than the most abstract propaganda. He had been writing a book to be entitled Equality; if he had completed it, he would have been listed among the utopian communists of the late 18th century, known only to specialists of the esoteric. Alternatively he could have trailed along with the ex-Jacobins, anxious to turn the clock back to the golden days of Robespierre. In that event his distinctive contribution would have been totally submerged.

The significance of Babeuf is that he accepted neither of these alternatives, but strove for a solution which overcame the dilemma. He made no secret of his socialist ideas, and put them forward in his mass propaganda; but he also accepted the necessity of working with, and attempting to mobilise, those whose ideas did not go beyond Robespierre’s. In particular, Babeuf and his supporters used as one of their agitational demands the restoration of the Jacobin Constitution of 1793. This had included the defence of the right to property. Babeuf and his associates did not conceal their criticism of this point, but at the same time saw the appeal to the 1793 Constitution as one which could rally the masses of common people in Paris. Here we see Babeuf grappling with two problems that have returned, in different forms, for revolutionaries of later generations: how to make alliances that will be effective in practice without compromising the basic goals of the movement; and how to relate short term demands that win popular support to the long term perspective of social transformation.

Thus was born the ‘conspiracy for equality’. Before going any further it is necessary to clarify the use of the term conspiracy. When Babeuf and his associates were put on trial in 1797, the main charge used against them was that of conspiracy, a charge to be used repeatedly against socialists and trade unionists for the following two centuries. And when, in 1828, Buonarroti published his influential history of the events, he gave it the title Babeuf’s Conspiracy For Equality. So we seem to be stuck with the term (even though it is a notoriously slippery one that meant quite different things to state prosecutors and to revolutionary activists).

But it is important not to jump from the word to a notion of conspiracy that involves a tiny group operating secretly and manipulatively behind the backs of the masses. Nothing could be further from the reality of the activity of Babeuf. Indeed, when the state prosecutor at Babeuf’s trial in Vendôme began his case against the alleged ‘conspirators’, he described their methods as follows:

Their means were the publication and distribution of anarchistic newspapers, writings and pamphlets … the formation of a multitude of little clubs run by their agents; it was the establishment of organisers and flyposters; it was the corrupting of workshops; it was the infernal art of sowing false rumours and spreading false news, of stirring up the people by blaming the government for all the ills resulting from current circumstances. [10]

Such activity scarcely conforms to the common notion of ‘conspiracy’; indeed much of it will seem remarkably familiar to most readers of this journal.

Certainly the organisation adopted a semi-clandestine structure; this was necessitated by the degree of political repression prevailing under the Directory. For example, the advocacy of the 1793 Constitution was punishable by death and indeed it was for this advocacy that Babeuf and Darthé were executed after the jury had thrown out the conspiracy charges.

At the centre of the organisation was a committee of seven men, including Babeuf, Buonarroti and Maréchal. ‘Agents’ (full time organisers) were appointed for each of the 12 arrondissements of Paris. However, the agents were not to know each other’s identities, and neither were they to know who was on the secret central committee (though of course Babeuf himself, who was living in hiding, was publicly identified with the organisation). Instead an ‘intermediate agent’ was to have responsibility for all communication between the agents and the centre. In theory the ‘intermediate agent’ was not supposed to know the content or significance of the communications he was carrying; in fact he was an experienced political activist and almost certainly knew what he was doing.

Many historians have tried to see the centralisation of the Babeuf organisation as a sinister forerunner of Leninism – and hence of Stalinism. There is little substance to this claim. The basic principle was that no member of the organisation should know more than was necessary for the exercise of their particular functions. It is a principle that is no more than common sense in any situation where an organisation is likely to be subject to infiltration, and where individuals risk interrogation. If it is a principle that has been applied by Leninist parties in certain conditions, it is also one that has been used by a wide range of political organisations under conditions of repression – for example resistance movements in the Second World War.

A vigorous correspondence was maintained between the centre and the agents; circulars were sent out almost daily, and regular reports were received back from the agents. Of course everything had to be copied by hand, and Babeuf himself did copying work amid his many other tasks.

The ‘conspirators’ were guilty of one serious lapse of security. Copies of all outgoing and incoming correspondence were carefully stored – and seized by the authorities at the time of Babeuf’s arrest. They were subsequently published in two large volumes and used as the basis of the prosecution case against Babeuf at the Vendôme trial to show just how dangerous the conspiracy had been. [11] Babeuf’s heirs would be well advised to learn the lesson and invest in a paper-shredder – but historians can scarcely regret the mistake since the documents provide us with an incomparable source that enables us to get a real sense of just how the conspiracy worked.

The role of the agents was central to the whole organisation. They received a small payment – the equivalent of a worker’s wage. In return the centre’s expectations were high. If the agents did not carry out their duties adequately they received stinging rebukes and, in at least one case, threats. A dilatory agent received a letter with the ominous conclusion: ‘Remember that what you were told in your first instruction is still valid: “our only loss would be you, and even if you were ill intentioned, you could not harm us”.’ [12]

But generally the agents seem to have worked well. Their relation with the centre was a two way process. They were given instructions, but also asked to report regularly on the circumstances in their districts. Some of the information required was of direct practical relevance – for example the location of arms stores. But the crucial task of the agents was to report on the ‘thermometer of opinion’ – that is, the state of consciousness among the common people in their areas. There are reports of disputes in shops and snatches of conversation overheard in the streets – all designed to give an impression of the popular mood. Far from going behind the backs of the people, the conspirators knew that they could only have any success by relating to the feelings and attitudes of the common people.

Moreover, the job of the agents was not to substitute themselves for the masses, but rather to facilitate popular organisation. They were told to ‘multiply small meetings as much as you can’. To avoid the dangers of infiltration these were to be held in private homes rather than cafes. Most importantly, a large number of small meetings was to be preferred to bringing too many people together at the same time. [13]

The whole operation was run on a shoestring; if agents were given expenses, it was grudgingly and with the reminder: ‘Be aware that this revolution is not undertaken by aristocrats, and if it were, you wouldn’t want to serve it ... the only funds come from the contributions of sans-culottes.’ [14]

Of course, a newspaper was central to the organisation of the conspiracy. Babeuf’s Tribun du Peuple had existed well before the conspiracy came into existence, but the last issues were put at the service of the organisation. Indeed, Babeuf always saw his paper as an organiser rather than simply a journalistic enterprise.

The circulation of the Tribun du Peuple was probably around 2,000. Undoubtedly it played a key role in diffusing Babeuf’s ideas and giving an analysis of the contemporary situation. Some historians have used the subscription list of the journal to give an account of the nature of Babeuf’s popular support. [15] This is, however, an unreliable source. The Tribun du Peuple was a theoretical journal, often difficult to understand for those unversed in political debate. Moreover, it was expensive. Naturally enough it was the better off, more educated supporters of the conspiracy who subscribed to the journal. The poor artisans and wage workers, who constituted Babeuf’s natural target audience, were often too poor to subscribe and were sometimes illiterate. Among soldiers, who were another key section of the audience, the situation was even worse: one estimate is that among the troops, largely of peasant origin, who were stationed in Paris, only 10 percent could read and write. Moreover, not all subscriptions were individual; it was a common practice for political newspapers to be read aloud in inns and lemonade shops, so the ideas had a wider currency than crude subscription data would suggest.

However, because of the limitations on the Tribun du Peuple, Babeuf recognised the necessity for other forms of propaganda. Alongside the Tribun du Peuple another paper was launched in the spring of 1796, namely L’Eclaireur (The Scout). This was written in a much more popular style, and rather than pursuing theoretical analysis it aimed at radical exposure journalism. Thus the luxurious lifestyle of the members of the Directory was exposed – for example, when each member of the Directory was having eight dozen specially embroidered handkerchiefs made. And the paper took an interest in a high official called Merlin who was reported to have several ‘nymphs’ from the Opéra as his mistresses.

An even wider audience was reached with flyposting. The use of posters had been widespread during the revolution, but Babeuf’s supporters used them to particular effect. The authorities recognised the danger and constantly had them removed, but the reports from the agents show how successful the activity was. Thus in the second arrondissement a policeman tore down a poster, but was immediately confronted by an ‘energetic patriot’ who said: ‘Rogue, you have come to rob the people of the truth which we want them to know; you are an agent of those who are starving us.’ At this, the readers of the poster applauded and the policeman had to run for his life. [16] In the seventh arrondissement some 2,000 people were said to have queued up to read a poster addressed to soldiers. [17]

Another method of propagating ideas even among the illiterate was the use of songs. A focal point for that activity was a café known as the Chinese Baths, where Sophie Lapierre won an audience for the ideas of the conspiracy. Lapierre had been a school teacher and an embroiderer; she was tried at Vendôme and behaved with the utmost courage, refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the court and leading the prisoners in song in defiance of the judges. While the songs did not have a high degree of political sophistication, they made the basic point about human equality in vivid fashion. For example:

Benevolent Mother Nature
You created us to be equal!
So why the murderous inequality
Of property and of work?
Awake to the sound of our voice
Come forth out of the dark night
People! Take back your rights
The sun shines for everyone. [18]

Another of the tasks of the agents was to compile contact lists – lists of all the ‘patriots’ in their area who might be sympathetic to the aims of the conspiracy and who could be called on for action. The lists that survived are often of a remarkable frankness, showing no illusions in the political sophistication of those referred to. Thus one list names ‘the Fleurie brothers, horse dealers, living near the market, excellent in a fight and that’s all’. [19] In another case a certain Himbert was described as an ‘ardent and courageous patriot’, fit for a position of command, but the agent warned that due to his excitable temperament he should not be informed of his role till the last moment. [20]

But while it was necessary to be honest about the potential of contacts, the aim was always to draw them in rather than to create barriers; a letter to the agent of the sixth arrondissement in Babeuf’s own hand states: ‘If people are still susceptible to conversion, it is better to win them over than to reject them from our ranks, because in that way we increase our party and diminish that of our opponents.’ [21]

More prosperous supporters were, of course, not neglected; a circular to agents tells them: ‘You will encourage … well-off patriots to contribute towards the enormous printing costs that revolutionaries are obliged to bear.’ [22] A variety of talented people were attracted by the movement; among Babeuf’s sympathisers was Valentin Haüy, a pioneer of education for the blind and the original inventor of the system of printing now known as braille.

The whole purpose of the work of the agents was to ensure that the conspiracy was rooted in the various localities. Certainly there is some evidence that Babeuf was popular among the common people in some districts. A letter from Babeuf’s elder son, Emile, aged only ten but active in organising the conspiracy, tells how he went into a shop to buy some medicine and when he told the shopkeeper he was Babeuf’s son, she cut one third off the price. [23]

Daniel Guérin, following Dommanget, has argued that Babeuf should have concentrated more exclusively on working class struggles. [24] To have done so would have condemned Babeuf to mere propagandism; the working class alone was still too small to challenge the Directory. Only an alliance of wage workers and other sans-culottes could have any hope of making an impact.

But it is also important to recognise that there was a substantial working class in Paris in the 1790s, and that Babeuf and his supporters did make every effort to relate to it. As well as large numbers of market porters (who had on one occasion saved Babeuf from arrest by hurling mud and rubbish at a policeman who was pursuing him) and dockers (Paris was at this time a major port), there were a number of quite substantial factories and workshops, a few employing hundreds of workers, many employing more than 20 or 30.

The agents were particularly instructed to examine conditions and attitudes in the workshops in their areas. The results are somewhat mixed. In the 12th arrondissement the agent reported that there was little potential at the Gobelins tapestry factory, which employed around 100 workers. As was often the case with the luxury industries, workers were afraid that any attack on the privileged classes who bought their products would mean a fall in sales. But the agent also found a dye works with some 30 workers, and about 20 tanneries with between 15 and 50 workers each, where the prospects were rather more hopeful. [25] The same agent reported that there was growing unemployment, which was making more workers think of the Robespierre period as one of greater prosperity. The agent of the eighth arrondissement reported on a wage dispute where an employer had given his workers a rise to cover the falling value of paper money, but had in fact not compensated them adequately. [26] Thus, while it would be quite wrong to claim that the Babeuf conspiracy was a specifically proletarian movement, it would also be wrong to ignore how relevant wage workers were to it.

Mention should also be made of the role of women in the conspiracy. Babeuf had long been sensitive to the fact of women’s oppression; as early as 1786 he had written a long letter analysing the roots of this oppression. [27] In a reply to the agent of the eighth arrondissement the central committee wrote: ‘We know the influence that can be exercised by this interesting sex, who do not bear the yoke of tyranny any more indifferently than we do, and who are no less courageous when it comes to taking action to break it’. [28]

A number of women played a key role in the conspiracy, including Sophie Lapierre and Babeuf’s wife, Marie-Anne-Victoire Longlet, who had responsibility for distribution of the Tribun du Peuple. Several women were put on trial at Vendôme; all were acquitted, though one contemporary report tells how after the verdict Charles Germain gloated that the jury had been duped, for it had been the women who encouraged the men. [29]

The conspiracy centred on Paris, but considerable work was done to ensure support on a national level. Recent research by Jean-Marc Schiappa has shown that the conspiracy had an extensive network of supporters in various regions of the country, notably in Babeuf’s home territory of Picardy, and in the Mediterranean south. [30]

The conspiracy also devoted great attention to agitation within the army, recognising that unless the soldiers could be drawn over to the side of the revolutionary forces, any rising would be crushed. Prospects for support looked encouraging. Since the heroic days of the defence of the Republic a couple of years earlier, the morale of the army had fallen catastrophically, a situation which was most clearly expressed in a massive level of desertions. One of Babeuf’s supporters reported that most soldiers stationed in Paris would ‘gladly swap the Republic for a cake from their home village’. [31]

Another report gave a vivid account of the miseries of military life and the grievances of soldiers:

The soldier ... is today not only dying of hunger, but he has no shoes and no clothes; he can’t have his shirt laundered, because that costs 30 francs, and where would he get them? … he is also annoyed, vexed and crushed under a heap of tortures graced with the name of military discipline, and at bottom it is a tyranny which is much more highly perfected than under the noble ministers of Louis XVI. [32]

The conspirators made great efforts to win support in the army. Much of the propaganda material aimed at soldiers was carefully written in colloquial, earthy language, full of obscenities, designed to appeal to the military: ‘We’re fucked, my poor friend ..., yes, we’re fucked and flat broke if we swallow the pill they’ve shoved in our gobs’. [33] A poster called ‘Soldier Stop And Read’ urged, ‘No! Citizen soldiers! You will not shoot at your brothers ...’ [34]

At the end of April the Police Legion mutinied. This was a body organised by Bonaparte to ensure security in the capital. Its members were recruited from the Parisian popular classes and many of its soldiers were profoundly hostile to the Directory. But Babeuf’s supporters were not strong enough to generalise the movement. The rising was crushed and 17 militant soldiers were shot.

Detailed plans continued to be made for the insurrection. Banners and pennants were planned; snipers were organised and arrangements were made to seize food stores and the National Treasury; it was planned that all property in pawnshops would be handed back to its owners, a measure designed to win great support among the poor. Buonarroti claimed there were 17,000 men ready for the insurrection. [35] But it was not to be. A government informer, Grisel, had made his way into the organisation, and the conspirators, quite correctly anxious to welcome and make use of a man who seemed well informed and influential in the army, were too open in the way they received him and allowed him to gain information.

On 10 May 1796 the police arrested Babeuf and Buonarroti, seizing documents and arms. The following year the main conspirators were put on trial at Vendôme. The trial lasted 14 weeks, and Babeuf and his friends fought like cats every single day, exploiting every legal technicality and being deliberately disruptive into the bargain. Only with the greatest difficulty did the prosecution persuade the jury to convict, and even then a number of leading activists were acquitted. Only two death sentences were passed, on Babeuf and Darthé. Several others were imprisoned, among them Buonarroti, who survived into the 1830s and wrote a history of the conspiracy which inspired a whole generation of new militants in the period before 1848.

Thus it can be seen that Babeuf’s ‘conspiracy’ was far from what might be imagined as a conspiratorial organisation. In no way was it the predecessor of Che Guevara’s peasant armies or the Baader-Meinhof gang. On the contrary, Babeuf firmly rejected acts of terrorism. In his evidence at Vendôme, the traitor Grisel was obliged to admit that, when as a provocation, he had proposed setting fire to castles outside Paris as a diversion during the planned insurrection, Babeuf had firmly rejected the suggestion. Babeuf had likewise refused an offer by an army officer to assassinate the five members of the Directory. [36]

Likewise, the conspirators were well aware of the dangers of excessive clandestinity; in a letter to the agent of the 12th arrondissement, they wrote:

As far as possible, you should distribute publications in a direct manner. You have to show a bit of daring if you want to encourage it in others; clandestine methods inspire distrust in the uneducated masses. They think that if you seem to be smuggling your ideas in, then there must be something reprehensible about them. [37]

Any serious revolutionary organisation has to strike a balance between secrecy and openness, after making a careful analysis of the objective conditions it has to work under. The basic principle must be as much security as necessary, as much openness as possible. Of course Babeuf and friends, like most organisations since, did not always get it right. Certainly they made mistakes about security, and in the case of Grisel they made a fatal one. But the mistakes were made because they were anxious to open up the organisation to potential recruits. An organisation that does not take risks may survive, but it is unlikely to grow. Some historians have sneered at the conspiracy, saying it was widely infiltrated with police agents. But if that was true, then why did the prosecution at Vendôme find it necessary to stake so much on the testimony of a single witness, the informer Grisel?

Babeuf and his comrades were grappling with real problems, with very little historical experience to help them. If subsequent revolutionaries have been able to learn from their mistakes, it is because they were the real mistakes of a real movement. And, as well as planning the details of their organisation, the conspirators also spent much time drawing up the details of a future society based on the principles of true equality. Buonarroti gives an extensive account of these in his history.

What is striking here is just how far Babeuf’s vision of a future society diverged from that of Rousseau and most 18th century utopians. Contrary to the claims of many critics, Babeuf was not an ‘economic pessimist’ who believed the only hope for equality was to share misery equally among all. Babeuf was no ascetic, and the word ‘abundance’ recurs frequently in his writings. Buonarroti records that the conspiracy aimed ‘… to provide in superabundance things which are necessary to all, and to provide them with objects of pleasure which are not condemned by public morality’. [38]

The draft economic decree produced by the secret Directory promised that the new society would provide everyone with healthy, comfortable and decently furnished accommodation, clothing, laundry, heat and light, adequate food – bread, meat, poultry, fish, eggs – and wine, as well as a free health service. [39]

Likewise Babeuf and his associates anticipated Marx in advocating the transcendence of the distinction between town and country. They envisaged a network of villages, linked by roads and canals so that communication became easier. In their draft ‘economic decree’ the conspirators gave special attention to the development of telegraphic communication. (This was not, of course, electric telegraphy but a form of semaphore signalling, perfected by Chappe in 1794. [40])

Far from opposing technological progress, as Rousseau did, the conspirators recognised that a socialist society would use technology to full advantage:

It is only within a system based on community that the use of machines would be of true benefit to humanity, by reducing toil while increasing the abundance of necessary and agreeable objects. Today, by suppressing a great quantity of manual labour, they take bread out of the mouths of a large number of men, in the interest of a few insatiable speculators whose profits they increase. [41]

Of course, with the massive benefit of 200 years hindsight to help us, we can see that Babeuf’s conspiracy was doomed to failure. Engels was correct, if somewhat uncharitable, to describe the conspiracy as ‘insane … Babeuf’s attempt to jump from the Directorate immediately into communism’. [42] Even in the unlikely event of the insurrection having succeeded, it would at best have ushered in a second period of Jacobin rule, which would probably have been even more short lived than that of 1793–1794. The objective conditions for any kind of socialism quite simply did not exist, and would not exist for several decades to come.

Yet it is one thing to make a historical analysis of the reasons for Babeuf’s failure; it is quite a different one to adopt the complacent and patronising attitude that dismisses the whole episode as futile, that says that, if Babeuf had known what we know now, he would not have done what he did but would have stayed in bed. We know what we know precisely because Babeuf and others like him did what they did.

After the defeat of the conspiracy there was a prolonged downturn in resistance. A few of Babeuf’s followers reappear in later brief opposition movements, but with the rise of Napoleon the left was crushed for a generation. Yet in the longer term Babeuf provided a vital source of ideas and inspiration for the rising socialist movement. Without the heritage of Babeuf, Marx and Engels would have had greater difficulty in achieving what they did.

François Furet has revived a well worn argument in seeing a continuity from Babeuf through Blanqui to Lenin. He tells us that Babeuf’s alleged voluntarism,

… is the highest peak of the revolutionary belief that political will can do everything. The last wave of Jacobin extremism – and doubtless the only intellectual synthesis of the egalitarian passion of those times – elaborates here the theory of the revolutionary putsch, essential for the understanding of the 19th and 20th centuries. The history of secret societies in Europe after the Treaty of Vienna has its origin here, as well as the Russian revolutionary tradition from populism to Bolshevism. [43]

The reality is rather more complex. As far as Blanqui, the greatest of the French leaders of secret societies, is concerned, it appears that he knew relatively little of Babeuf. Blanqui conforms far more than Babeuf to the typical stereotype of the ‘conspirator’; he had far less sense of the practicalities of mass propaganda and agitation. Blanqui was a revolutionary of enormous courage and total integrity, but in organisational terms he marks a regression from Babeuf’s achievement.

Bolshevism is a different matter again. Contrary to right wing mythology, there is no single ‘Leninist’ theory of the party; Lenin’s organisational philosophy made massive shifts between 1902, 1905, 1908, 1912 and 1917, according to his evaluation of objective conditions. In fact there seems to be little evidence that Lenin knew anything of Babeuf; there is a total of two cursory references to Babeuf in his entire writings. But if there is a link between Babeuf and Lenin, then I hope to have shown in this article that Babeuf is the forerunner of the Lenin who urged the opening up of the party in 1905 [44], not the imaginary conspiratorial Lenin of right wing fantasy.

A careful reading of the available documentation about Babeuf shows him to be an original thinker and a talented organiser, whose early death doubtless prevented the full flowering of his promise. There is much in the documentation of the conspiracy, from the general concern to unite theory and practice, down to details of such activities as flyposting, that will seem familiar to revolutionaries two centuries later. Babeuf is very much a part of our tradition.


1. J. Degras (ed.), The Communist International, I (London 1971), p. 47.

2. E. Belfort Bax, The Last Episode of the French Revolution (London 1911); D. Thomson, The Babeuf Plot (London 1947); R.B. Rose, Gracchus Babeuf (Stanford 1978). The first two are very dated; Rose’s book is sound and sympathetic, but limited in its political understanding.

3. P. Broué, Trotsky (Paris 1988), p. 794.

4. Dalin was a signatory of the pro-Trotskyist statement by members of the Communist Youth, published as Appendix IV in L. Trotsky, The New Course (Ann Arbor 1965), pp. 114–118.

5. For a full treatment of Babeuf’s life and thought see I.H. Birchall, The Spectre of Babeuf (Macmillan 1997).

6. Socialists defend state education, but we should not fetishise schooling; at least two great revolutionaries, Babeuf and Victor Serge, never went to school.

7. Tribun du Peuple, No. 30.

8. Babeuf, Ecrits, ed. C. Mazauric (Paris 1988), p. 258.

9. A religious movement of the early 16th century, inspired by Thomas Münzer, which advocated equality and common ownership of property.

10. Haute-Cour de Justice: Exposé Fait par les Accusateurs Nationaux (Paris 1797), p. 23.

11. Copie des Pièces Saisies (Paris 1797). The material was arranged in bundles and documents, and referred to by number – eg 7/27 would be the 27th item in the seventh bundle.

12. Ibid., 21/11.

13. Ibid., 7/89.

14. Ibid., 16/11. Sans-culotte – the word literally means those who did not wear (couldn’t afford) the knee-breeches worn by the upper and middle classes – was a term used to refer to the section of the urban population that worked and was poor, ie shopkeepers and artisans as well as wage workers.

15. For example A. Soboul, Sectional personnel and Babouvist personnel in Understanding the French Revolution (London 1988).

16. Copie des Pièces Saisies, 20/8.

17. Ibid., 22/17.

18. Ibid., 15/4.

19. Ibid., 10/17.

20. Ibid., 20/2.

21. Ibid., 16/9.

22. Ibid., 7/93.

23. Ibid., 8/4.

24. D. Guérin, La Lutte de Classes sous la Première Rèpublique, II (Paris 1968), p. 401; in general Guérin is a little harsh on Babeuf, and some of his tactical criticisms can be seen as sectarian; but this should not detract from the original and perceptive contribution Guérin made to the understanding of the revolution.

25. Copie des Pièces Saisies, 10/25.

26. Ibid., 10/24, 14/2.

27. Oeuvres de Babeuf, I (Paris 1977), pp. 91–102; the same was not true of all his associates. In 1801 Sylvain Maréchal was to argue that women should not be allowed to learn to read!

28. Copie des Pièces Saisies, 14/20.

29. Mémoires du Comte Dufort de Cheverny, II (Paris 1909), p. 267.

30. J.-M. Schiappa, Gracchus Babeuf avec les Egaux (Paris 1991), pp. 135–146.

31. Copie des Pièces Saisies, 3/3.

32. Ibid., 10/19.

33. Buonarroti, La Conspiration pour l’Egalité, II (Paris 1957), p. 108.

34. Ibid., II, p. 79.

35. Ibid., I, p. 145.

36. Débats du procès, II (Paris 1797), pp. 90–91, 102–103.

37. Copie des Pièces Saisies, 14/19.

38. Buonarroti, I, p. 158.

39. Ibid., II, p. 208.

40. Ibid., I, pp. 165–166, II, p. 210.

41. Ibid., I, p. 159.

42. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, XXV (London 1987), pp. 609–610.

43. F. Furet and M. Ozouf, Dictionnaire Critique de la Révolution Française (Paris 1988), pp. 204–205.

44. ‘… rally all the worker Social-Democrats round yourselves, incorporate them in the ranks of the party organisations by hundreds and thousands.’ V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. X (Moscow 1962), p. 32.

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