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Ian Birchall

The Babouvists


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 4, 2004, pp.299–302.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Jean Marc Schiappa
Les babouvistes
Les Amis de Gracchus Babeuf, Saint-Quentin 2003, pp. 606, Є55

OVER 200 years on from the French Revolution it would seem impossible to say anything new on the subject. The currently fashionable revisionist historians largely content themselves with recycling what was said much better by de Tocqueville. But Jean Marc Schiappa’s new book undoubtedly breaks new ground in the study of one of the most significant episodes of the Revolution, the so-called ‘conspiracy’ of Babeuf in 1796. The distinguished historian Michel Vovelle has hailed it as marking ‘a turning-point in the understanding of Babouvism’.

The book is based on Schiappa’s doctoral thesis, presented in 1992, and is published, fittingly, by the ‘Friends of Gracchus Babeuf’, a group of historians independent of any academic institution based in Saint-Quentin, Babeuf’s home-town, who in 1997 organised a splendid conference to celebrate Babeuf’s bicentenary.

Schiappa’s study is based, among other sources, on the study of 20,000 police files in the National Archives. By the remorseless accumulation of detail, he aims to show the true extent of the Babouvist organisation, and to make clear, in the words of Vovelle’s preface, that the conspiracy was not an ‘accident’ or an ‘insignificant epiphenomenon’. Moreover, Schiappa is not just a conscientious researcher; he is also an active socialist, and the whole work is infused with a sense that we are here recovering an important part of the authentic socialist tradition.

Schiappa shows that, contrary to the impression often given, the conspiracy was not a purely Parisian affair. He concludes that the conspiracy was ‘an attempt, very often a successful one, to build a communist organisation on the whole national territory’. Schiappa backs up the assertion with close analysis of different areas of France. He is scrupulous not to claim a more substantial implantation for the conspiracy than can be demonstrated, and admits that the picture across France was extremely uneven. (It is a pity that the publishers were not able to include maps which would have made the argument much easier to grasp.)

Thus the departments of Nord and the Pas-de Calais in North-Eastern France could legitimately be described as ‘bastions of Babouvist activity’; these were the areas most threatened with foreign invasion, there was a substantial and impoverished proletariat, and it was Babeuf’s own native region, where he had been active in the early years of the Revolution. But there was also substantial Babouvist influence in the South-East, organised around two main axes, one running along the Rhône from Lyon to Marseille through Avignon and other towns, the other running along the Mediterranean coast from Béziers and Montpellier to Toulon and Nice. In Marseille, he argues, ‘Babeuf’s friends, numerous and well-organised, formed a real political tendency with its own newspaper’. Other areas were much less affected. From the Pyrenees to the Massif Central, the conspiracy made little impact in South-Western France; there were no Babouvists in Toulouse, and very little influence in Bordeaux. To the North, Normandy was uneven, and Brittany untouched except in coastal areas.

Certainly the geography of Babouvism shows great weaknesses as well as strengths, but the overall picture is impressive. After all, in 1848 and in 1871, the militancy of Paris was largely isolated (there were Communes is several provincial cities, but none lasted more than two or three days).

Secondly, and even more interestingly, Schiappa draws out the links between the Babouvists and the emergent working class in revolutionary France. Drawing on the approach developed by Edward Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class, Schiappa shows that during the revolutionary decade there was the significant development of a wage-earning class which began to act in its own class interests, and using its own characteristic means of struggle. There were significant concentrations of workers in both Paris and the provinces. Thus there were 2,400 workers in the Toulon arsenals; 800 workers from these arsenals and elsewhere in the area were reported to have gathered to hear reading from Babeuf’s journal.

Schiappa cites industrial disputes around particular problems posed by the revolutionary decade. In Dunkirk, workers demanded to be paid in bread rather than in the highly unstable currency of the time. At Sèvres workers voted for a day off every seven days rather than just once in the 10-day week imposed by the new revolutionary calendar. The strike weapon was widely deployed, often with a high level of consciousness. Schiappa cites a letter sent by printers to two scabs; it informs them that their names can be made public, so that they will find it difficult to get work in future, but since they are young and inexperienced they are being given a warning before the threat is implemented.

Schiappa shows from Babouvist literature that Babeuf and his followers were well aware of the particular situation and problems of wage workers. What is much more dubious is whether the Babouvists played any significant rôle in instigating or organising strike action. But even if they were unable to do so, it is still clear that Babouvism was clearly linked to the ideas and interests of an emergent class. Writing of strikes after Babeuf’s arrests, Schiappa goes so far as to claim: ‘It is probably the first time in history that there is a correlation between workers’ strikes and the communist endeavour.’

Schiappa also confronts the widespread argument that the main impetus behind Babouvism came from former Jacobins who had been ousted from power after Thermidor. Certainly there were links between Babeuf’s organisation and the former Jacobins (he needed allies), but Schiappa makes it clear that the Babouvists always stood firmly for their own principles, and placed no excessive trust in their allies. As Darthé put it, the former Jacobins ‘don’t want democracy, they want aristocracy for themselves and nothing more’. The Babouvist demand for the abolition of private property was a fundamental point of division on which there was no compromise. The language of socialism had not been developed as yet, but terms such as ‘common happiness’ were widely used to indicate a society without private property. Babouvist literature bore the slogan ‘Liberty, Equality, Common Happiness’, with the final term in larger characters.

Finally, Schiappa provides a great deal of detail about how the Babouvists actually organised. The ‘conspiracy’ was caught between contradictory pressures; state repression enforced clandestinity, yet the politics of Babouvism required popular involvement. But despite persecution, the centre succeeded not only in distributing propaganda, but in receiving reports of its impact. For the Babouvists, the ‘party’ did not aim to act on behalf of the people, but rather to show the people ‘where and how’ it should go. Schiappa is quite honest about the weaknesses of the conspiracy, and shows how, to a considerable extent, these derived from objective circumstances; as he puts it, the Babouvists ‘wanted to be like fish in water, but, quite simply, there was no more water left’. Since the Babouvists were the first grouping to take a clear step beyond Utopianism and organise to achieve their ends, this is of enormous interest. Certainly this was not a ‘conspiracy’ (as its enemies labelled it), but a broadly based popular movement.

Long before Lenin, Babeuf recognised the importance of the newspaper as an organiser. Schiappa has studied in detail the list of subscribers to Babeuf’s paper, Le Tribun du peuple, both in Paris and in the provinces. While this gives us important indications of how the organisation functioned, it is inadequate. Some key figures were not subscribers; some subscribers were inactive. Moreover, Le Tribun du peuple was both expensive and difficult to read. Many subscriptions were on behalf of whole groups of supporters. Cafés provided an important location for meetings, speeches and readings from journals. They were also a place for singing; songs were an important part of the Babouvist propaganda machine, especially for reaching those who could not read.

Schiappa is thus able to correct the judgements of historians from all parts of the spectrum. He undermines the claims of R.M. Andrews that the conspiracy had little support and made no real impact. As he points out, Andrews has the advantage of hindsight, from which it is easy to sneer at the ‘amateurism’ of the Babouvists, but such an approach fails to appreciate the situation of real human beings confronting the real difficulties of their own time. Schiappa also challenges the views of Communist historian Albert Soboul who underestimated the originality of Babouvism in relation to the struggles of 1793–94. It is, however, slightly disappointing that Schiappa cites Daniel Guérin’s 1946 study of class struggle during the First Republic only in order to point to mistakes. Certainly Guérin’s theses require correction in the light of fuller research, but he deserves credit for first developing the study of independent working-class action in the Revolution. Schiappa’s notion of a ‘working class in gestation’ is only a variant of Guérin’s metaphor of an embryonic working class.

It may seem churlish to wish a 600-page book even longer, but there are important omissions in the study. The section on the part played by women in the organisation – less than a page – is disappointingly short, especially in view of the fact that the Babouvists were one of the few groupings in the Revolution to advocate full citizenship for women. Schiappa makes very little use of the material from the Vendôme trial of 1797; this lasted 96 days, and the full stenographic record remains a rich resource to be exploited by historians. And he is surely wrong to refer to the ‘absolute silence’ of Darthé and Lapierre at Vendôme; Darthé indeed refused to cooperate with the procedures of the court, but he was able to make a substantial speech in defence of his position, while Lapierre led the defendants in song at the end of sessions.

These minor quibbles in no way detract from a recognition of the importance of Schiappa’s work. No future historian, of the Revolution or of the origins of socialism, can neglect Schiappa’s work without being seen as culpably ignorant.

But its relevance is not only to specialists. Schiappa shows clearly that Babouvism was not marginal or accidental, not the work of a few eccentrics. The French Revolution laid the foundations of the modern world of capitalism and bourgeois democracy. Schiappa has shown beyond doubt that Babouvism was an integral and significant current within that Revolution. The system which we still face today was born within the presence of its gravediggers, and those gravediggers were not simply an oppressed mass, but already had a conscious doctrine of common ownership. To understand this fact about our past can only make us more confident of ultimate victory.

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Last updated: 21 May 2021