Herbert Marcuse 1969

The Defense of Gracchus Babeuf Before the High Court of Vendôme
Thoughts on the defense of Gracchus Babeuf

Transcribed: by Harrison Fluss 2012.


Babeuf’s Defense before the High Court at Vendôme tries to achieve the impossible: recognition, by the established authority, of extreme civil disobedience as a legitimate protest against established authority. Insoluble contradiction: the representatives and protectors of law and order are supposed to give official, governmental approval to attempted subversion either by acquitting the defendants or by punishing them lightly. The facts were incontestable: Babeuf had engaged in subversion by word and deed; he had openly advocated the overthrow of the established system; he had conspired to organize armed insurrection. His actions could hardly be justified by his argument that the Constitution of 1795 which was to be the legal, democratic basis of the government had been adopted only by about 900,000 votes[1] and under “dubious circumstances,” whereas the Montagnard Constitution of 1793 had received about 4,800,000 votes “cast freely."[2] For within the parliamentary framework, even rigged elections, if not successfully contested, are elections-expressions of popular sovereignty and thus constitutional. Babeuf knew all this, and he drew the conclusion: he had to admit the fact of the conspiracy while insisting that it was not a real conspiracy. And he did so by appealing from the rules of representative (parliamentary) democracy to the power of direct (popular) democracy, from the (apparent) sovereignty of the people to the true interest of the people.

This strategy, which, in one form or another, has become an essential part of all theories of revolutionary dictatorship, is, in Babeuf’s Defense, based on the notion that the people who vote for their constitution and their representatives are not necessarily the sovereign people, that their expressed will is not necessarily their autonomous will, that their free choice is not necessarily freedom. In Babeuf’s words: the people might be misled; they might, “with apparent freedom, have adopted a radically vicious Constitution” (p. 14).[3] And: “lack of proper information might have prevented them from recognizing this” (ibid.). In this case, the people would have acted against their “own true interests"-against themselves. The weakness and ignorance of the people would cause them to be subject to the powers that be and popular sovereignty would thus be susceptible to administration. Under such circumstances, even a free vote could be a vote for servitude, and democracy could become a system of domination and exploitation by consent. To Babeuf, consent obtained in this manner is annulled, is no consent, and government by the people must be achieved in the struggle against the people who consented to servitude. Moreover, the establishment of democracy would mean subversion of the established democracy-just as it meant subversion of the established Ancien Regime.

Here, of course, the question immediately arises: according to what criteria or standards can the expression of the popular will be determined as misled, deceived, false?

The problem is already distorted and obscured if it is formulated in personal terms; if one asks: who determines the distinction between true and false interests? For the problem is not one of persons (or groups of persons) but of objective and demonstrable criteria; once they are defined, the respective historical situation will determine which social groups could adopt these criteria and act accordingly. The argument that such criteria, if they exist at all, are already invalidated because they would be those of an “elite,” a minority, begs the question since it assumes that the majority is eo ipso right. In any case, for Babeuf and his friends, the true interests of the people had been defined on two levels: in-theory by the philosophy of the Enlightenment which had prepared the intellectual ground for the democratization of society; and in practice by the situation of the poor people after the Thermidor. In theory, the criteria for the harmony of an established social order with the true interests of the people were the realization of the inalienable rights of man as stated in the “ageless book of nature.” And the most basic of these rights is every man’s striving to improve his lot, to satisfy his needs, to have an equal share in the social wealth. Human society was founded for this goal; the welfare of all its members is the sole reason for the social contract. If a state of affairs has come into existence where the masses are forced “into a life of toil and hunger, and obliged, in blood and tears, to maintain a handful of privileged beings in idleness and profligacy,” then the social contract is abrogated, and the people can demand its restoration (p. 26). Legitimacy then lies only in the attempt to restore the broken contract against those who broke it: where there is no society, there can be no subversion of society. Babeuf’s insurrection was supposed to bring about order, not disorder, and if his conspiracy aimed at the restoration of order, it was not a crime but “the height of virtue” (p. 13).

In the light of this theory, Babeuf re-examines the concepts of popular sovereignty and of conspiracy, delving beneath their ideological obfuscation. This is the central part of his Defense, and its historical significance far transcends the specific circumstances under which his trial took place. He distinguishes three definitions of conspiracy: ( 1) intent to overthrow established governments, (2) intent to overthrow a Constitution freely adopted by the\people, (3) intent to overthrow legitimate authority. The first is quickly shown to be erroneous: it would mean that the people would always have to remain under the prevailing form of government, “no matter how base and vile” it would be-a flagrant violation of the principle of popular sovereignty and of the inalienable rights of man. Babeuf has also already refuted the second definition of conspiracy by his argument that in oppressive conditions the people might freely adopt a Constitution which is against their own interests. There remains the third definition, the only one which Babeuf accepts: only a government which recognizes man’s inalienable rights and governs in accordance with the principles of popular sovereignty can claim to be legitimate authority. A conspiracy against such a government “would indeed constitute a truly subversive act” (p. 15). And Babeuf now can easily argue that the government against which he conspired is no such legitimate authority. For the Constitution of 1795 did away with universal suffrage and popular sovereignty in legislation, restored the distinction between active and passive citizens, abolished civil rights sanctioned by the democratic Constitution of 1793, and vested the executive with powers removed from popular control (p. 17). Under these circumstances, legitimacy was not with the defenders of this government, but with the conspirators against it.

This reasoning and the conception of inalienable rights based on natural law have been challenged many times, mainly on the grounds that the existence of such natural law is not demonstrable, that it is therefore ambiguous and subject to arbitrary definitions, so that it can serve as a justification for any power, reactionary as well as revolutionary. But this argument does not seem to have bothered Babeuf. There is a point where demonstration other than “seeing” becomes impossible, not because the things to be seen are too distant, too obscure, too nebulous, doubtful, but on the contrary: because they are wholly clear, direct, close-indeed self-evident. The right to satisfy vital needs, to improve one’s lot are in this sense self-evident-the rest is academic semantics. The real difficulty, the doubts begin when the realm of the necessities of life, the satisfaction of vital needs is transcended. Can one legislate, legitimately and in the name of the common welfare, in the realm of “luxuries” and of intellectual culture? For Babeuf, this question did not arise: it was simply a matter of the necessities, their equal distribution, and the establishment of a government willing and capable of undertaking such distribution, that is, for Babeuf, building a communist society.

Communism looms large in Babeuf’s Defense; he presents it as the only “natural” society organized for the common good. He cites as witnesses spokesmen of the revolutionary government of 1793-1794; he cites Morelly (attributing the Code de la Nature to Diderot), Mably, Rousseau. Babeuf’s communism is a primitive, even repressive form of egalitarianism-there is no need to discuss its merits or its chances of finding popular support. In the manifesto of the Equals calling for the insurrection there is no mention of communism. Mathiez has drawn attention to this fact,[4] and to the even more surprising one that the subscribers to Babeuf’s revolutionary journal (which did advocate communism) came in large part from the class of bankers, financiers, manufacturers, high officials, functionaries, professionals.~ Associated in various degrees with the Jacobin dictatorship, these sympathizers supported the leftist opposition against the Directoire because of the threat of new waves of White Terror against the Jacobins. One wonders what would have become of Babeuf’s communism if his conspiracy had had at least initial success: would these forces on the Right (who had followed the Tribune of the People not because but in spite of his communism) have taken over and perhaps accelerated the development of bourgeois society in France, “skipping” the costly Napoleonic stage?

Babeuf indeed had no effective support from the Left. In his Defense, he recurrently speaks of the lack of mass support (p. 11); the “paralysis of popular initiative” (p. 19); and he sums up: “As a matter of fact, I was very far from enjoying any measure of popular support” (p. 27). The catastrophic deterioration of the economy, the growing inequality, and the conspicuous corruption had turned popular sentiment against the Republic. The royalist reaction had gained momentum, and it was in fact under royalist leadership that the last great popular uprising had occurred (13 vendemiaire 1795). The people seemed “resigned and ready to go once more under the despot’s yoke,” they were “weary of a Revolution whose twists and turns had brought them only sorrow,” they had “turned back to royalism” (pp. 19, 20). Familiar historical situation: the tribune of the people must teach the people that the Republic which they have and detest is “not the real Republic,” that the “Revolution is not over,” and that, if it is “brought to an end in mid-passage, it will be judged by history as little more than a catalogue of bloody crimes” (p. 21 ). Thus the “bloody crimes” must be redeemed by continuing the revolution to the end.

For Babeuf, the beginning of the end is the enactment of the democratic Constitution of 1793; the end is the communist society; the means, under the given circumstances: the armed insurrection. And because the people for whom the revolution is to be made are deceived, hostile, or apathetic, it will be a revolution by a minority, that means, it will involve the Terror-against the enemies of the revolution, who would presumably include the deceived and misled people in whose interest the revolution is to be carried through.

Here is Article 12 of the Acte d'insurrection:

Toute opposition sera vaincue sur-le-champs par la force. Les opposants seront exterminés.
Seront egalement mis a mort:
Ceux qui battront ou feront battre Ia generale;
Les etrangers de quelque nation qu'ils soient, qui seront trouvt!s dans les rues;
Tous les presidents, secretaires et commandants de Ia conspiration royale de vendemiaire qui oseraient aussi se mettre en evidence.[6]

But Babeuf makes a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate Terror. The former is characterized by the fact that it is not indiscriminate, that it respects the rights granted to the defendants by a revolutionary legislation, and that it is exercised only to protect the revolution and the welfare of the people. This distinction may explain Babeuf’s apparently contradictory attitude towards Terror. In his pre-conspiratorial days, he had joined the Thermidorians in denouncing Robespierre to whom he attributed a sinister system of depopulation of France in order to meet the threat of mass starvation. He had also attacked, in the most uncompromising terms, the horrible terroristic activities of Carrier at Nantes. And yet, in the same pamphlet, he wrote that he would not hesitate"to strike with capital punishment” all enemies of the people

soit qu'ils le ruinent dans sa fortune, qu'ils l'affament par de sordides speculations, qu'ils l'ussassinent par Ia trahison ou par le fer, et surtout s'ils meconnaissent sa souverainete, s'ils attentent a so liberte.[7]

And he approved of the acquittal of the terrorist co-defendants of Carrier, saying:

je n'ai vu en eux, excepte le regulateur supreme de leurs actes et de leurs volontes, que des amans passiones de la liberte, deplorant leurs fureurs.[8]

Legitimate Terror must be practiced without revenge and cruelty, solely in protection of the people against their enemies. Again, the elusive notion “welfare of the people” seems to be the sole criterion for the legitimacy of Terror. However, we can now define this notion more clearly. For Babeuf, “the people” are not the people at large, the “population” of the Republic, not even all its citizens, but only the poor, the downtrodden, the hungry. And their welfare can be defined clearly: it is the alleviation of their poverty, the abolition of their exploitation, the satisfaction of their hunger. And under the conditions prevailing at the time, this goal could only be attained by suppressing the powers and institutions which opposed a radical redistribution of power and wealth. “The man who wills an end also wills the means to gain that end” (p. 25). Moreover, this legitimate Terror is democracy in action because the poor people on whose behalf it is exercised are the majority of the people. If they do not spontaneously act as majority because they are “misled” or kept in ignorance or deprived of the means to act effectively, the revolution -their revolution-must needs become the concern of the leadership: it must become a dictatorship for though not by the majority.

Did Babeuf ever believe that he could convince his judges of the strength of his argument that legitimacy was on the side of his conspiracy rather than of the authorities who prosecuted him? The tenor of his speech, and particularly his concluding remarks, suggest a negative answer. His last words, and the horrible scenes following the pronouncement of the death sentence are the most telling indictment of a revolution betrayed and a people forced into apathy and compliance. In the light of this hell of helplessness and futility, Babeuf’s long invocation of the radical ideology of the time assumes heightened significance. The ideas of Reason and Freedom, the analysis of the origin of inequality and exploitation, the insistence on the inalienable rights of man -these were ideas praised throughout the country and beyond its frontiers, enshrined in the great mausoleum of culture and progress. But at the same time, the attempt to connect the words with deeds, to define the meaning of these ideas in terms of action which would translate ideology into reality was, in various degrees, subjected to discrimination, persecution, suppression. Thus only the ideology remained intact: it could be transmitted to future generations and serve as guide in the preparation for future struggles.

The message of Babeuf’s strategy was not lost. The theoretical underpinning of his conspiracy was the identification of “the people” with the poor people, and the identification of the poor people with the majority of the people-the majority which, precisely because of the condition in which it was kept, was not capable of acting by itself and for itself-as majority. In various forms, this conception has been operative in all continental revolutionary movements from the Jacobins to the Bolsheviks. But with the increasing democratization of industrial society, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain this identification. The number of the “poor” in Babeuf’s sense tends to decline until it becomes, in the most advanced societies, a minority of the population. And “the people” comes to mean “all the people,” equal “before the law” regardless of social status and occupation. Then, the “welfare” or “interest” of the people can no longer be defined without internal contradictions, because the interest of one class is not that of another, and each class has an equal right to be counted. Moreover, the concept of a general welfare and “true” interest ceases to be a goal to be attained only through revolutionary changes; the common welfare and the true interest of the people are supposed to assert themselves in the normal functioning of the democratic process. But while this development may make the traditional concept of revolution obsolete, it only throws into sharper relief Babeuf’s argument that any invocation of democracy, the will of the people, popular sovereignty, becomes questionable, nay invalid, if the people, the majority of the people are “misled,” or indoctrinated, or not acquainted with the essential facts. Where such conditions prevail, the democracy is still spurious-in Babeuf’s words: the Republic is not yet the “real Republic,” and its establishment would involve acting (and writing) against the people, against the majority. For the democratization of society, even where it has reached the stage of universal suffrage and equality before the law, and free choices in the sphere of consumption, does not preclude domination, indoctrination, and manipulation-and the less so where the technological and economic concentration of power leads to a factual monopoly or oligopoly in the means of mass communication. Then the condition which Babeuf faced : the “falsification” of popular sovereignty in the name of popular sovereignty would still prevail-but obfuscated and enlarged beyond the reaches of any conspiracy “from the Left.” And a theory and strategy which was quite unrealistic but not utopian in 1796 appears as utterly utopian today.


1. The figure given by Albert Mathiez, La Reaction Thermidorienne (Paris, Colin, 1929), p. 300, is 1,057·390 votes.

2. Mathiez’ figure: t,8ot,918.

3. Page numbers in parenthesis refer to the text of the Defense.

4. Le Directoire (Paris, Colin, 1934), p. 207.

5. Ibid., pp. 192 f.

6. “All opposition will be crushed at once by force; hostile elements will be executed. Those who sound the call to arms, or cause it to be sounded, will also be put to death; likewise foreigners, regardless of nationality, who are found in the streets, and any of the leadership of the royal conspiracy of Vendemiaire who show themselves in public.” Buonarotti, Conspiration pour l'Égaliét! dite de Babeuf (Paris, Editions Sociales, 1957), II, t68.

7. “ ... who pillage its wealth, drive it into destitution by speculative operations, destroy it by treason or the sword; and, above all, who spit upon its sovereignty and seek to undermine its freedom.” Babeuf, Du Système de dépopulation ... (Paris, .795), p. 187.

8. “I deplored their fury; but, leaving aside the central determinant of their behavior, I saw in them only men passionately dedicated to the cause of freedom.” I bid., pp. 193 f.