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Emanuel Garrett

Men and Women of Labor

Out Of The Past

Jean Paul Marat
(May 24, 1743–July 13, 1793)

(18 July 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 51, 18 July 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The Bastille, prison-symbol of the old regime, fell on July 14, 1789 under the surge of the aroused Parisian masses. The Great French Revolution had begun. The struggle between the hereditary-privileged and the newly powerful masters of trade which had been brewing for the greater part of the century reached its climax, and the former had to give way. On August 4 feudal privileges were formally abolished.

There were those who were quite content to let things stand as now established. The wealthy merchants, satisfied that the reins of government were being transferred to them through that section of the nobility which had aligned itself with new class power as well as through their own direct representatives, sought merely to consolidate the gains achieved and to stop the revolution cold at that point.

These plans were spiked however by a small group of far-sighted individuals who stood at the head of the masses, notably Jean Paul Marat, champion “of the propertyless whom the rich call canaille (dogs).”

Seeing the Revolution as of benefit only to the rich, Marat jumped into the fray with the sharpness of his pen, the vigor of his ideas, publishing the most important journal of the day, L’Ami du Peuple (The Friend of the People). In it he attacked the proposed limitations on the people’s sovereignty, charged the commercial potentates with using the National Assembly (created by the Revolution) for their own advantage, predicted the treason of the liberal nobles.

Trained as a scientist, a well-established, respected physician with a large practice among the English and French aristocracy, the writer of several important treatises on optics and other scientific subjects, Marat had even before the actual outbreak of the Revolution given up science for revolutionary agitation.

From a writer of philosophical tracts, he gradually became a practical revolutionist, an advocate of class struggle.

Persecuted by Counter Revolution

Directing his blows in a series of great polemics against Necker, representative of the new regime, he articulated the “demands of those who have nothing on those who have everything.” ... For higher wages, for equal rights, for abolition of bread and consumers taxes, for a general supply of cheap bread. Ever vigilant he didn’t hesitate to speak out, call a traitor a traitor, warn the masses that today’s “friend” will be tomorrow’s enemy.

Those he attacked in L’Ami went after him viciously. Marat became the most persecuted man of the Revolution. For two years he lived “illegally’’ in dark cellars, sewers, constantly hunted, working alone with only loyal Simonne Evrard standing by him throughout. His writings were confiscated, his presses destroyed.

As the counter-revolution, grew stronger, Marat demanded the safeguarding of the Revolution by the general arming of the people, by the disarming of the counter-revolutionary leaders – even by dictatorial means if necessary. To crush the spirit of the masses, the National Assembly ordered bloody massacres. European powers, working with royalists in France, declared war against the French. Explaining the meaning of the war and the massacres, Marat called for the overthrow of the King and the completion of the Revolution.

Eventually, in October 1791, a Legislative Assembly elected by privileged suffrage replaced the National Assembly. But, wrote Marat, “The second legislature is not less rotten than the first.” Prices and hunger were mounting. Force, he told the workers, would be necessary for the creation of a Republic. “Do you really believe that you can change the inclinations and habits, the manners and passions of the ruling class by the preaching of moral principles?”

Louis was taken prisoner in 1792. A new Communal Council was elected in Paris. Marat was made a member of its Committee of Public Safety which disposed of the counter-revolutionary ringleaders. His influence in the Paris Commune was decisive.

A National Convention was called. The masses, who worshipped him, elected him a member. To indicate the change that had been effected, he changed the name of his journal to Journal of the French Republic by Marat, Friend of the People. The legend under the masthead of this journal read: “In order that misery may be diminished, the property of the wealthy must be abolished.”

Never silent, never willing to compromise, Marat continued his battle against the weak-willies, the vacillators in the Convention. The latter who held the whip hand in the Convention for a time finally had him brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal on April 24, 1793. But he was acquitted, and the masses carried him home triumphantly through the streets of Paris. A leading spirit of the Jacobin Club (the Bolsheviks of the French Revolution), he organized the defeat of the Girondists (the vacillators), and helped establish Jacobin rule.

The years of persecution had, however, their toll. Marat became too ill to attend the Convention. Daily from his home he sent the Convention a letter of advice and opinion. Afflicted with a serious skin ailment contracted in the dank sewers, he spent the greater part of his day sitting in a bath, the only relief he had. On July 13, Charlotte Corday, an agent of the royalists, asked to see him. She was admitted. Approaching, she pulled a knife and stabbed him through the heart.

Charlotte Corday became the heroine of the counter-revolution when it wrested power from the Jacobins. Marat’s name was besmirched, accused of the vilest crimes, his ideas distorted. By the same token, however, his name was revered by the masses, treasured with all those other martyrs who lived to the cause of emancipation.

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