François-Noël Babeuf

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François-Noël Gracchus Babeuf

François-Noël Babeuf (French: [babœf]; 23 November 1760 – 27 May 1797), known as Gracchus Babeuf, was a French political agitator and journalist of the French Revolutionary period. His newspaper Le tribun du people ("the tribune of the people") was best known for his advocacy for the poor and calling for a popular revolt against the Directory, the government of France. He was a leading advocate for democracy, the abolition of private property and abolition of inheritance, national ownership of all large business enterprises. He believed food and clothing should be exactly the same, and that children were to be taken from parents and raised by the state to indoctrinate them in the new society. He angered the authorities who were clamping down hard on their radical enemies. In spite of the efforts of his Jacobin friends to save him, Babeuf was executed for his role in the Conspiracy of the Equals.

The "Gracchus" nickname likened him to the ancient Roman tribunes of the people. Although the words "anarchist" and "communist" did not exist in Babeuf's lifetime, they have both been used to describe his ideas, by later scholars. The word "communism" was coined by Goodwyn Barmby in a conversation with those he described as the "disciples of Babeuf". Rose calls him, "The First Revolutionary Communist."[1]

Early life[edit]

Babeuf was born at St. Nicaise near the town of Saint-Quentin. His father, Claude Babeuf, had deserted the French Royal Army in 1738 for that of Maria Theresa of Austria, reportedly rising to the rank of major. Amnestied in 1755, he returned to France, but soon sank into poverty, and had to work as a casual labourer to support his wife and family. The hardships endured by Babeuf during his early years contributed to the development of his political opinions. His father gave him a basic education, but until the outbreak of the Revolution, he was a domestic servant, and from 1785 occupied the office of commissaire à terrier, assisting the nobles and priests in the assertion of their feudal rights over the peasants. Accused of abandoning the feudal aristocracy, he would later say that "the sun of the French Revolution" had brought him to view his "mother, the feudal system" as a "hydra with a hundred heads."[2]

Revolutionary activities[edit]

Babeuf was working for a land surveyor at Roye when the Revolution began. His father had died in 1780, and he now had to provide for his wife and two children, as well as for his mother, brothers and sisters.

He was a prolific writer, and the signs of his future socialism are contained in a letter of 21 March 1787, one of a series mainly on literature and addressed to the secretary of the Academy of Arras. In 1789 he drew up the first article of the cahier of the electors of the bailliage of Roye, demanding the abolition of feudal rights. From July to October 1789, he lived in Paris, superintending the publication of his first work: Cadastre perpetuel, dedié a l'assemblée nationale, l'an 1789 et le premier de la liberté française ("National Cadastre, Dedicated to the National Assembly, Year 1789 and the First One of French Liberty"), which was written in 1789 and issued in 1790. The same year he published a pamphlet against feudal aids and the gabelle, for which he was denounced and arrested, but provisionally released.

Propaganda work[edit]

In October, on his return to Roye, he founded the Correspondant Picard, a political journal of which forty issues would appear. Babeuf used his journal to agitate in favor of a progressive taxation system, and he condemned the "census suffrage" planned for the 1791 elections to the Legislative Assembly in which the votes of citizens would be weighted according to their social standing. His political activities led to his arrest on 19 May 1790, but he was released in July before the Fête de la Fédération, thanks to pressure exerted nationally by Jean-Paul Marat.[3] In November he was elected a member of the municipality of Roye, but was expelled.

In March 1791, Babeuf was appointed commissioner to report on the national property (biens nationaux) in the town, and in September 1792 was elected a member of the council-general of the département of the Somme. A rivalry with the principal administrator and later deputy to the Convention, André Dumont, forced Babeuf to transfer to the post of administrator of the district of Montdidier. There he was accused of fraud for having altered a name in a deed of transfer of national lands. The error was probably due to negligence; but, distrusting the impartiality of the judges of the Somme, he fled to Paris, and on 23 August 1793 was sentenced in contumaciam to twenty years' imprisonment. Meanwhile he had been appointed secretary to the relief committee (comité des subsistances) of the Paris Commune.

The judges of Amiens pursued him with a warrant for his arrest, which took place in Brumaire of the year II (1794). The Court of Cassation quashed the sentence, through defect of form, and sent Babeuf for a new trial before the Aisne tribunal, which acquitted him on 18 July 1794, only days before the Thermidorian Reaction.

Babeuf returned to Paris, and on 3 September 1794 published the first number of his Journal de la Liberté de la Presse, the title of which was altered on 5 October 1794 to Le Tribun du Peuple. The execution of Maximilien Robespierre on 28 July 1794 had ended the Reign of Terror and begun the White Terror, and Babeuf – now self-styled Gracchus Babeuf – defended the fallen Terror politicians with the stated goal of achieving equality "in fact" and not only "by proclamation," though of the Terror he declared, "I object to this particular aspect of their system." Babeuf attacked the leaders of the Thermidorian Reaction and, from a socialist point of view, the economic outcome of the Revolution. He also argued for the inclusion of women into the political clubs.

This was an attitude which had few supporters, even in the Jacobin Club, and in October Babeuf was arrested and imprisoned at Arras. Here he was influenced by political prisoners, notably Philippe Buonarroti, Simon Duplay, and Lebois, editor of the Journal de l'Égalité and afterwards of the L'Ami du peuple papers of Leclerc which carried on the traditions of Jean-Paul Marat. Babeuf emerged from prison a confirmed advocate of revolution and convinced that his project, fully proclaimed to the world in Issue 33 of his Tribun, could only come about through the restoration of the Constitution of 1793. That constitution had been ratified by a national referendum by universal male suffrage but never implemented.

In February 1795 he was again arrested, and the Tribun du peuple was solemnly burnt in the Théatre des Bergeres by the jeunesse dorée, young men whose mission it was to root out Jacobinism. But for the appalling economic conditions produced by the fall in the value of assignats, Babeuf might have shared the fate of other agitators who were whipped into obscurity.

Societé des égaux[edit]

It was the attempts of the Directory to deal with the economic crisis that gave Babeuf his historical importance. The new government was pledged to abolish the system by which Paris was fed at the expense of all France, and the cessation of the distribution of bread and meat at nominal prices was fixed for 20 February 1796. The announcement caused the most widespread consternation. Not only the workmen and the large class of proletarians attracted to Paris by the system, but rentiers and government officials, whose incomes were paid in assignats on a scale arbitrarily fixed by the government, saw themselves threatened with starvation. The government yielded to the outcry; but the expedients by which it sought to mitigate the evil, notably the division of those entitled to relief into classes, only increased the alarm and discontent.

The universal misery gave point to virulent attacks by Babeuf on the existing order, and gained him a hearing. He gathered around him a small circle of followers known as the Societé des égaux, soon merged with the rump of the Jacobin Club, who met at the Panthéon; and in November 1795 he was reported by the police to be openly preaching "insurrection, revolt and the Constitution of 1793". They were influenced by Sylvain Maréchal, the author of Le Manifeste des Egaux and a sympathiser of Babeuf.

For a time the government, while keeping itself informed of his activities, left him alone. It suited the Directory to let the socialist agitation continue, in order to deter the people from joining in any royalist movement for the overthrow of the existing régime. Moreover the mass of the ouvriers, even of extreme views, were repelled by Babeuf's bloodthirstiness; and the police agents reported that his agitation was actually increasing support for the government. The Jacobin Club refused to admit Babeuf and Lebois, on the ground that they were "égorgeurs" ("throat-cutters").

With the development of the economic crisis, however, Babeuf's influence increased. After the club of the Panthéon was closed by Napoleon Bonaparte on 27 February 1796, his aggressive activity redoubled. In Ventôse and Germinal (roughly late winter and early spring) he published, under the nom de plume of Lalande, soldat de la patrie, a new paper, the Eclaireur du Peuple, ou le Défenseur de Vingt-Cinq Millions d'Opprimés, which was hawked clandestinely from group to group in the streets of Paris.

At the same time Issue 40 of the Tribun caused an immense sensation when Babeuf praised the authors of the September Massacres as "deserving well of their country", and declared that a more complete "2 September" was needed to annihilate the actual government, which consisted of "starvers, bloodsuckers, tyrants, hangmen, rogues and mountebanks".

The distress among all classes continued; and in March the attempt of the Directory to replace the assignats by a new issue of mandats created fresh dissatisfaction after the breakdown of the hopes first raised. A cry went up that national bankruptcy had been declared, and thousands of the lower class of ouvriers began to rally to Babeuf's flag. On 4 April 1796, the government received a report that 500,000 people in Paris were in need of relief. From 11 April, Paris was placarded with posters headed Analyse de la Doctrine de Baboeuf [sic], Tribun du Peuple, of which the opening sentence ran: "Nature has given to every man the right to the enjoyment of an equal share in all property", and which ended with a call to restore the Constitution of 1793.

Arrest and execution[edit]

Babeuf's song Mourant de faim, mourant de froid ("Dying of Hunger, Dying of Cold"), set to a popular tune, began to be sung in the cafés, with immense applause; and reports circulated that the disaffected troops of the French Revolutionary Army in the camp of Grenelle were ready to join an insurrection against the government.

The Directory thought it time to react; the bureau central had accumulated through its agents, notably the ex-captain Georges Grisel, who had been initiated into Babeuf’s society, complete evidence of a conspiracy (later known as the "Conspiracy of Equals") for an armed rising fixed for Floréal 22, year IV (11 May 1796), in which Jacobins and socialists were combined. On 10 May Babeuf, who had taken the pseudonym Tissot, was arrested. Many of his associates were gathered by the police on order from Lazare Carnot: among them were Augustin Alexandre Darthé and Philippe Buonarroti, the ex-members of the National Convention, Robert Lindet, Jean-Pierre-André Amar, Marc-Guillaume Alexis Vadier and Jean-Baptiste Drouet, famous as the postmaster of Saint-Menehould who had arrested Louis XVI during the latter's Flight to Varennes, and now a member of the Directory's Council of Five Hundred.

The government crackdown was extremely successful. The last issue of the Tribun appeared on 24 April, although Lebois in the Ami du peuple tried to incite the soldiers to revolt, and for a while there were rumours of a military uprising.

The trial of Babeuf and his accomplices was fixed to take place before the newly constituted high court of justice at Vendôme. On Fructidor 10 and 11 (27 August and 28 August 1796), when the prisoners were removed from Paris, there were tentative efforts at a riot with a view to rescue, but these were easily suppressed. The attempt of five or six hundred Jacobins (7 September 1796) to rouse the soldiers at Grenelle met with no better success.

The trial of Babeuf and the others began at Vendôme on 20 February 1797 and lasted two months. The government for reasons of their own depicted the socialist Babeuf as the leader of the conspiracy, though more important people than he were implicated; and his own vanity played admirably into their hands. On Prairial 7 (26 May 1797) Babeuf and Darthé were condemned to death; some of the prisoners, including Buonarroti, were deported; the rest, including Vadier and his fellow-conventionals, were acquitted. Drouet had succeeded in making his escape, according to Paul Barras, with the connivance of the Directory. Babeuf and Darthé were guillotined the next day at Vendôme, Prairial 8 (27 May 1797), without appeal.

Quotes[edit]

— "Society must be made to operate in such a way that it eradicates once and for all the desire of a man to become richer, or wiser, or more powerful than others."[4]

— "The French Revolution was nothing but a precursor of another revolution, one that will be bigger, more solemn, and which will be the last."[5]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ R. B. Rose, Gracchus Babeuf: The First Revolutionary Communist (1978)
  2. ^ Bax, E.B. "The last episode of the French Revolution: being a history of Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals." pp.66, Neil and Co, LTD, Edinburgh: 1911.
  3. ^ Bax, E.B. "The last episode of the French Revolution: being a history of Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals." pp.64-66, Neil and Co, LTD, Edinburgh: 1911.
  4. ^ The defense of Gracchus Babeuf before the High Court of Vendôme, University of Massachusetts Press, 1967, p. 57.
  5. ^ Manifesto of the Equals Full text of trans. by Mitchell Abidor.

References[edit]

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