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Emanuel Garrett

Men and Women of Labor

Out of the Past

Gracchus Babeuf
(Nov. 23, 1760–Guillotined, April 27, 1797)

(18 April 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 25, 18 April 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

That great day in 1789 came. The aroused masses stormed the gates of the Bastille, and French feudalism, the hereditary right to expoit, was delivered the first of a series of deadly blows. The oppressed took heart; freedom was ahead. The French Revolution had begun.

François Noel Babeuf (he later changed his name to Gracchus after the ancient Roman rebel) turned to the revolution with all his energy. He had been employed up to then by nobles in asserting their feudal rights against the peasants from whom it had become increasingly difficult to exact feudal payments and obligations. And “in the dust of the manorial archives I discovered the horrible secrets of the usurpations of the nobility.”

The Revolution spoiled him, he wrote, and made him “unfit for any kind of employment” except politics. Holding various posts, he worked feverishly among the poor, championing their interests, and developing his own program for social emancipation.

For “Equality without Illusions”

The large property owners found him meddlesome; they tried to discredit him. Because throwing off “all hypocritical tactics,” he demanded “equality without illusions,” and not satisfied with the limited gains of the Revolution he hoped for “the socialisation of all the resources which can be infinitely multiplied and increased by means of a planned organization and by the wisely directed labor of all.”

Arrested in 1790 for his communist agitation, he was released through the intervention of Marat. Out of jail he continued to be “meddlesome, “and more so as the idea of the class struggle matured in his mind: There were two classes, he said: first, the “bloodsuckers of the twenty-four million ... who for centuries have been enjoying their laziness at the expense of our sweat and toil;” and second the worker who must “toil much and eat little or you won’t have any work and you won’t eat at all. That is the barbarous law of capital.” So great was his hatred of oppression that he was momentarily blinded to the great accomplishments of the Revolution, and of Robespierre, its leader, because the oppressors had not all been vanquished. That is why when on the ninth of Thermidor, revolutionary calendar month, the reaction sent Robespierre to the guillotine so that it might put an end to social upheaval and sit back and enjoy its bourgeois victories, Babeuf approved. But not for long. He saw his mistake in the black reaction that Thermidor brought.

The “good folk” wined and dined, and drank in the luxuries of economic conquest. The poor lived on bread rations, starved, and drank in the full misery of poverty under the new despotism. Babeuf’s daughter, aged seven, died of starvation. His two sons were so pinched with hunger that he could scarcely recognize them when he returned from work in the provinces.

In 1795, Babeuf merged his group of comrades, organized around a journal he had founded, The Tribune of the People, with a group of advanced Republicans to form tile Pantheon Club. The Club read newspapers (which were expensive in those days), handled members correspondence, and collected funds for poverty stricken radicals and to free political prisoners. Men like Darthe and Buonnarroti (to whose great book on the Society of the Equals we are indebted for much of this information) were far to the left; others were merely bourgeois humanitarians. As workers joined the Club, the bourgeois elements were submerged, the Club became more militant.

With laws and lies the Directory (which ruled France until Napoleon was crowned Emperor) sought to suppress the Babouvists.

Like every group of despots before and since they accused the revolutionary opposition with being in the pay of the enemy – in this case, the monarchists.

Insurrection by Force

Meanwhile Babeuf perfected his program.

Believing at first that power could be won peacefully, he gradually discarded that illusion, realized that the oppressed must effect their insurrection by force.

In the streets, the masses were restive. Sporadic outbreaks occurred here and there. In the cafes, they sang Babeuf’s song Dying of Hunger. They listened to his tirades against the bloodsuckers. “Conquer or Die,” he told them, in an open war between patrician and plebeian. His bourgeois friends quaked at his frenzy; they chided him with being indiscreet. Napoleon sent out a warrant for his arrest. Babeuf went into hiding. Those close to Babeuf banded together and published a new paper. The Society of Equals was organized. “The destitute,” he told them, “are the power on earth. They have the right to speak as masters to the governments that neglect them.” The rebels armed. The Secret Directory of the Society met. Finally, Babeuf read the Act of insurrection; the day for the rising was set in May 1796. They were to seize power and institute a “revolutionary and transitional power, constituted in such a way as to free the people from the natural enemies of equality and to endow it with the unity of will necessary for the adoption of republican institutions.”

“Last Episode” of the Revolution

Through secret agents the government learned of the plan. All the leading members of the Society of Equals were arrested. Riots occurred in demonstrations of solidarity with the arrested. Months later they were brought to trial. The prosecutor spun a vivid picture of atrocities committed by the defendants. The verdict had been decided on in advance. Babeuf and Darthe were sentenced to be executed; the others to exile. When the sentence was read, Darthe and Babeuf stabbed themselves. The knives were blunt; they lived through the night. The next day they were guillotined.

The “last episode” in the French Revolution had come to an end in the figure of the man who combined the aims of the French Revolution with the yet to be fulfilled aspirations of the modern proletariat. In his day, the proletariat was too young to put his ideas into victorious execution. But as it grew the proletariat absorbed his ideas; those of the first practical communist. Blanqui after him drew upon them, the Communards experimented with them, the Russian workers put them into actual operation.

“The French Revolution,” Babeuf had written, “is only the precursor of another, far greater revolution, which will be the last.”

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Last updated: 17 January 2016