the conspiracy of equals and the birth of communism

13 10 2010

Jean Léger examines the history of Gracchus Babeuf and his ‘Conspiracy of Equals’, a communist organisation which emerged during the French Revolution. First appeared as ‘Babeuf et la naissance du communisme ouvrier’ in issue 2 of critical Marxist journal Socialisme ou Barbarie (May-June 1949).

Babeuf was the first example of a militant formulating a coherent socialist doctrine, struggling for a “plebeian” socialist revolution, in his view indispensible for the reorganisation of the economy and society as a whole. These attempts at the first communist party and doctrine are of great importance to us: they allow us to understand how revolutionary thought has developed. They moreover offer the opportunity for a concrete analysis of the link between the revolutionary militant and the working class in a given historical period [1].

Before looking into historical questions it is necessary to explain our basic method. It is clear enough that we cannot consider the ideology of a class as a simple reflection of its material living conditions. Nor can we consider the relation between material conditions and ideology as a series of actions and reactions between these two poles. We believe that the class struggle is a unity: that there is a deep identity between classes’ ideologies and their material conditions. Ideology expresses  –  at a distinct level and in its own terms – the class’s position in economic relations. That is why we have decided to outline the characteristic traits of the working class at the end of the 18th century. The need to examine the doctrine of the Equals in detail has led us to separate this analysis from its ideology: but the fact that the first chapter is so developed, and the constant allusions made to it in the second, help us attain a fuller understanding of the state of the exploited classes at the dawn of capitalism.

I. The exploited classes from 1789 to 1796

The coming-to-power of the bourgeoisie aggravated still further the suffering and the exploitation of the poor peasants and artisans, without substantially changing the position of the workers in the first modern factories.

The reason that we mention such disparate elements of society is that all of them mobilised forces for the army of the revolutionary proletariat, and their varying conceptions played a significant role in the elaboration of the early communist doctrines.

The poor peasants were by some margin the most important of these groups. There were in the villages a large number of day-labourers and “domestics”. They lived in humble cottages, with a garden and perhaps a small field. They could rent some small parcels of land but they could not subsist except by exploiting the commons, receiving charity or joining communal associations for solidarity and mutual aid. They were vigorously opposed to the lords but also to the bourgeoisie. If it is difficult to understand their situation exactly, we can get some insight from the rules set by the intendants in the previous period, and their struggle against “ploughmen” (the best-off peasants who owned their own plough) who made them pay too much for use of their horses and monopolised the farms. Indeed, in the parish records we find protests against urban bourgeois joining the rural community (capitalists trying to buy the commons, speculate on grain and merge the farms). These protests were largely expressed by the country priests, who Maurice Dommanget [2] calls the “red priests”. One of them expressed very directly the solutions proposed by the poor peasants: “Goods should be commonly owned, and there should be no granary or cellar from which anyone takes more than they need” [3].

But the aspirations of these poor peasants had to be joined with the aspirations of the exploited in the towns if they were to take a more developed form. The only doctrines that played a political role, that of the Enragés and later that of the Equals, were developed in an urban milieu: so we must examine in more detail the situation of workers and journeymen.

In 1789 the social groups linked to industrial production were thrown into chaos by the introduction of new techniques. Both among artisans – more or less organised into craft guilds – and in the manufacturing industry – little but a group of artisans under a single management – two new types of establishment developed: the workshop and the modern factory. The workshops which had long existed in the wool and silk industries developed thanks to the introduction of basic spinning machines. Numerous trades staff migrated to the countryside [4]. Quite separately, the modern factory developed in the cotton, metalworks and mining industries. In the cotton industry, the most powerful companies looked into printing on cloth. Among these manufacturers (around a hundred) some far surpassed a thousand employees: one of them in Alsace had 2,300 workers [4]. The mills saw less concentration: around forty medium-sized enterprises with between 20 and 800 workers. Metalworks were organised as a series of small forges around a few modern factories, the model example being the Creusot factory with 1,400 staff. Finally, the mines presented a few isolated but powerful examples of classic capitalist enterprises: for example, the Anzin company had 4,000 workers and twelve steam-powered engines [5].

We thus see very varied groups of workers: the “masters” hostile to regulation and in some cases close to the bourgeoisie; journeymen organised in secret societies (29 trades had such craft guilds, which emerged from the mutual-aid associations and sought to share out work [6]; manufacturing workers who were more or less economically privileged but who were closely watched by the police; and rural workers who represented a very important link between poor peasants and factory workers, who were by far the worst-exploited and poorest (in 1790 [the industrialist Christophe-Philippe] Oberkampf handed out 218,792 pounds in wages but pocketed 673,657 pounds of profit [4]).

These various social groups were very much separate from each other on the eve of the Revolution. The lack of education, political and geographical isolation, superstition, tradition etc., meant that working-class consciousness was very closely dependent on the conditions of production. It is largely accurate to say that factory workers were crushed by their situation, working 16 to 18 hours a day. Harshly exploited, they had hardly any ideas of their own. They were regarded as if they were machines at society’s disposal [7].

The journeymen, on the contrary, were well organised, their high level of skills giving them a much better-developed level of consciousness. They were able to taken on the bourgeoisie directly: for example, a petition signed by 150,000 workers concluded “our MPs are not our own” [5]; in Rheims, from 1788 workers in the wool industry met independently in the “Fourth Estates” and discussed political questions [8].

But in the economic sphere workers and journeymen were united in the same basic reactions: exasperated by poverty and merciless unemployment they protested against the introduction of machines, opposing their use and often breaking them: at Falaise in 1788, on three occasions in Rouen in summer 1789, then in Roanne, Saint-Étienne and Lille in 1790 and in Troyes and in Paris in 1791 [4].

This elementary resistance would become sharper in subsequent years, at the same time as a more developed form of class struggle was propagated: the strike. Indeed, the revolution did establish equality amongst the working class: equality of poverty. Captains of industry emigrated and luxury industries ceased, but most important were the consequences of the war. Indeed, it led to inflation, complemented by shortages and a high cost of living; it encouraged the mixing of the working class with the formation of volunteer corps; it transferred the workforce from luxury industries and mid-priced consumer goods to war production and the food industry. The great success of the Committee of Public Safety was to develop the metalworks industry: the number of rolling machines increased, new steelworks were created and factories were established to make tools and weapons (in total more than fifty such factories outside the capital, a number of workshops in Paris as well as three steam drills). Moreover, large steam-powered flour mills were set up, as well as a modern chemicals industry; the cotton industry continued while artisanal production declined. As well as measures intended to free up industry (laws in 1791 abolishing the guilds, factory regulations, patents’ privileges and the journeymen’s organisations), the Committee of Public Safety worked to promote the introduction of mechanisation and encourage industry (free premises, making use of  experienced English prisoners, the formation of a crafts and manufacturing commission and the creation of innovation projects). This policy was led to the benefit of the large industrial bourgeoisie, accelerating the concentration of industry. The workers also developed sharper consciousness of their opposition to the state power and of their own solidarity: numerous strikes broke out in late 1793 and spring 1794 [9].

But this labour force – still unstable, little-conditioned to its life in the factory and  absolutely broken by the shortage of food products – above all organised within the limits of local areas, and the struggle was much more one between the famished and those who had hoarded food rather than between workers and bosses. The organisation leading this struggle was the local assembly: every evening the citizens of the district met and discussed the general situation.

When these assemblies lost their right to meet on weekdays, the most active citizens formed local people’s associations, co-ordinated by a central committee of people’s associations. But this form was still a confused one: workers, journeymen, artisans were mixed in together and the interests of these different social groups not distinguished. This explains how the master-craftsmen were able to abort the spring 1795 struggle.

But already the ideologies which had emerged among the poor peasants were being clarified. The Enragés in particular found their greatest support here. Even if the everyday struggle for regulation and the production of consumers meant that swindlers and complicit politicians were the most-targeted, that does not mean no light was shed in the writings of Jacques Roux, most notably the Enragés’ manifesto [2]. He demonstrated the emptiness of the official policy of the time; the struggle between classes (referring to “the hardest-working class in society”; he wrote that “laws have been cruel to the poor because they were only written by the rich, for the rich”; “for four years only the rich have benefited from the gains of the revolution”). He made noises about the need for a second revolution, but then could only challenge Robespierre by citing the 1793 Constitution, and challenge the bourgeoisie by arguing for the creation of national stores where all products would be sold with fixed prices protected from competition, and moreover the confiscation of profits made by bankers and profiteers since the revolution, to be used to the benefit of volunteers and widows.

At the same time as the Enragés, certain residents of Lyon proposed much fuller plans for reorganising society. Notably Lange recommended the creation of a type of co-operatives, both for consumption and for production; in spite of his opposition to the movement of the masses, it appears he had some influence on the Lyon sans-culottes [members of the lower classes, the rank-and-file troops of the French Revolution].

However, these various reformers were never anything better than isolated agitators, who were unaware of each other, or else jealous of their doctrines. No real organisation co-ordinated their activity nor allowed for deeper theoretical elaboration. Revolutionary ideology went no further than the idea of common ownership of goods. The reactionary wave of 1793 and the politics of Thermidor [the end of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror in 1794] drove the retreat, or at least the stagnation, of communist thinking. Only after the failure of the riots of spring 1795 and the widespread intermingling of the revolutionary leaders in the prisons would a coherent communist doctrine raise its head: the doctrine of the Equals.

II. The doctrine and revolutionary organisation of the Equals

The doctrine seems to have taken definitive form in the prisons where, among others, Babeuf, Germain, Buonarotti, Bodson, Fiquet, Massart and Debon met. Babeuf also already knew Darthé and Sylvain Maréchal [10]. It was within this group, thanks to active correspondence and numerous debates, that communist ideas were developed. But what was the role of each of its members? It is difficult to be certain because there is a lack of in-detail studies of most of these revolutionaries. We know, however, that Debon had already written a book about property and frequently discussed the subject with Babeuf; but the three most important theorists were Sylvain Maréchal, Buonarotti and Babeuf. Sylvain Maréchal, an anti-clerical poet, had become a journalist, and, notably, from 1791 was one of the main editors of Révolutions de Paris. He was in direct contact with Babeuf by March 1793 at the latest. Always having lived humbly, in close proximity to the Paris workers, he developed a fairly clear theory of class struggle, the general strike, the need for another revolution and true equality [11]. Buonarotti, who had come from a noble family in Tuscany, had enjoyed a solid education. An enthusiastic adherent of the revolutionary movement, he had experienced the republican administration in Corsica as well as occupied Italy. Maurice Dommanget suggests that he “was, alongside Babeuf, the great theorist and true leader of the Equals” [10], but I am unable to discern his real contribution.

As for Babeuf, he had been affected by the most diverse influences throughout his life, but all of these came from the various exploited groups  or theorists who hoped to reform society in the name of equality. From early in his life, it was his father’s influence which inspired him to follow Gaius Gracchus and Rousseau, whose words he quoted, “The first man who enclosed a piece of land and saw fit to say – this is mine – and found people stupid enough to believe him, was the true founder of civilised society. But beware of believing this imposter. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to everyone and the earth belongs to no man”. But most of all his personal experience was of essential importance to him. It is impossible to address this more clearly than Maurice Dommanget, who wrote: “it was in striding along the furrows and observing the conditions of the peasants of Picardy; digging through arcane texts to find the origins of the lords’ property in his country; and moaning about the miserable fate of the workers of Roye amongst whom he lived, that Babeuf forged himself a state of class consciousness, and thus an aspiration to the ideal of a communist society” [10]. From this point until January 1793 Babeuf became a remarkable peasant agitator. He published numerous pamphlets (including the Cadastre perpétuel [Eternal Register]), which is in part an explanation of transitional demands for the re-division of land); he masterfully orchestrated petition campaigns, edited a class struggle journal and established an advice bureau to inform the poor and produce dossiers on the measures taken to their detriment. He even participated in acts of sedition, and when he became a member of the revolutionary administration, he used his post to ardently denounce the exploiters, demand profound reforms (he was first prosecuted in 1791, after having demanded the partition of lands whose property deeds were insecure). He did not hesitate to engage in forgery out of hatred for the rich and in services of the interests of the sans-culottes. From March 1793 to October 1795 Babeuf further developed his experience by participating in the Parisian revolutionary struggles, and holding discussions in prison with the boldest propagandists and the most devoted militants of Paris’s bras nus [proletarians]. He inspired petitions from the residents of his district (the Museum area); he wrote to the Paris council administration (notably, sending letters to Chaumette) to pressure it to act according to the interests of the people. But soon, he understood that only those who shared his ideas could transform society. He thus founded the Conspiracy of Equals.

Therefore we get some idea of the various stages in Babeuf’s thinking. In terms of philosophy, he gradually abandoned his belief in God, becoming avowedly atheist by 1793. Similarly, elements of materialism began to come through, little by little: in 1787 he had written “only practice can perfect theory”[10] and at the same time, “this so-called discovery, like many others as regards politics, could not but have arisen given the course of events”, but he did not manage to explain clearly the role of ideology, for example noting “these are the prejudices, born of ignorance, which in all eras have resulted in the ill fate of the human race. Without them, all people would realise their dignity”. Thus equality in the dignity of individuals appears to be the essential motivation behind the struggle for equality in the ownership of goods. Subsequently, in particular with the Plebeians’ manifesto written in winter 1795, his association could only be based on the study of history, even if he still said that where inequality was introduced, it could only be the result of “absurd conventions”.

Thus even if we do not see a coherent philosophy in Babeuf’s writings, that does not diminish the fact that there are remarkable elements therein and that his approach to analysis – even if still hesitant – represented a significant advance as compared to the revolutionaries of his time. Most importantly, it led him to stress the division of society into classes. In 1789 he explained in the Cadastre perpétuel that  certain professions could dominate society, concluding,  “Those who exercise such roles have had no little success in taking ownership of everything: while those whose indispensible work makes them genuinely necessary have seen their wages reduced to almost nothing”. It would take him a few years to decide whether someone’s level of wealth or their role in production was the criterion determining their class. We see for example the “very humble address by members of the order of pennies to the respectable citizens of the order of pounds”, counterposing the poor to the better-off. Clearly this was of its time, reflecting the problem posed by the property qualification for voting in elections, but in general the counterposition between the poor and the rich was still insufficiently insightful. But all this only makes it all the more remarkable that Babeuf could gradually break from the usual assumptions of the plebeians and reach a sharper understanding, as seen in his letter to Germain: “When I now observe the small minority who want for nothing, just their land deeds, among its ranks I see all those who are happy… to revive and renew the conspiracy by which many hands are put to work, yet those doing the work do not reap the profits”. The link between this division in society and the objective to be accomplished now appeared more clearly, even if Babeuf was never able to finish his planned major theoretical work on questions of equality. The editorial of his Cadastre perpétuel explained his ideas “Thus everyone would work together, according to their respective natural strengths, to bring about different advances for society: thus, it seems, everyone would enjoy equal pleasure in this society”. The goal was no different in the Plebeians’ manifesto, which put it in clearer terms, but not without additions: “guaranteeing to each man and his family, however numerous, what they need, and no more than what they need”.

The means necessary to arrive at this objective was revolution. Babeuf had no illusions in partial solutions. He had foreseen revolution ever since 1787 and after the experience of Thermidor, he understood the need for a second revolution to establish a plebeian republic: “I have distinguished two diametrically opposed parties: I understand well enough that both want a republic, but one party wants it to be bourgeois and aristocratic, the other party for it to be a popular and democratic republic”, he wrote in one issue of the Tribun du Peuple.

This “popular and democratic” republic would establish equality of education and equality of living standards. In his eyes these two reforms were of equal importance, both expressing clearly the most urgent needs of the people and allowing for the conditions which were a necessary basis for a step towards socialism. In order to secure equal living standards, Babeuf understood that it would be necessary to act in the arena of production as well as that of distribution, given his well-developed understanding of economic interdependencies. These very modern concerns, these questions which are still posed to revolutionary militants, obviously could not be expressed as sharply as we could do today, but they appear in his writings constantly, forming the basis of his thinking: we see how in 1787, as he recommended an increase in agricultural production, he called for common ownership of goods, the establishment of a system to keep a register of wealth, and after repeated interactions with the people of Paris, he advanced the uniquely modern and audacious idea of the organisation of production. The Tribun du Peuple of 30th November 1794 included the paragraph: “the only way is to establish common administration, abolish private property, put each man to work according to his talents and the industry he knows, oblige him to hand over the fruits of his labour to the common stock, and establish a simple administration of distribution”. Even if the means are not defined, or even if we might deduce the Committee of Public Safety’s influence on Babeuf’s experience, it is no less remarkable to see how he surpassed these first efforts at bourgeois organisation and the clarity with which he traced the broad themes of a socialist organisation of production.

These ideas, along with those of Sylvain Maréchal, formed the firm basis for the ideology of the Equals. Perhaps the members of the Conspiracy in Lyon enriched it with their experience of the canuts [silk workers who staged some among the first major strikes] and their arguments. In any case, examining the Equals’ manifesto and their statements concerning the organisation of society after their victory [12], it is clear that the ideas of Babeuf and his comrades had become sharper. If equality was “the first wish of nature”, a new revolution was heralded with an ardour up to that point unequalled: “The French Revolution was just the harbinger of another much greater revolution, a far more important one: the last”. The prior texts of Sylvain Maréchal – who wrote the manifesto – allow us to determine that by ‘greatness’ he meant extension on a global scale, and by ‘importance’ its depth in the economic and social arenas. Later indeed he said that this revolution would abolish property, and even the state: “no more individual land ownership! The earth belongs to no-one. We demand, we desire common enjoyment of the fruits of the earth: these fruits belong to everyone”; “At last, away with you, foul divisions between rich and poor, great and humble, masters and servants, rulers and ruled!”. This was not only “dreaming” but a programme of action which rigorously defined itself apart from the programmes and achievements of the bourgeoisie: “The aristocratic charters of 1791 and 1795 fastened your chains, rather than breaking them. That of 1793 was a significant step towards real equality: we have never been so close before or since, but it still did not fulfil our objectives or achieve common well-being”.

The Equals’ decrees were even more striking:

“1. Those who do not serve the country can exercise no political rights.

“2. Those who are not performing useful work are not serving the country

“Economic decree:

“1. There shall be established a great national common wealth.

“2. It will take ownership of the nation’s unsold goods, the assets of enemies of the revolution, public buildings, commonly-owned goods, almshouses, and assets abandoned by their owners or usurped by those who have used their posts to enrich themselves.

“3. The right of inheritance is abolished. All goods will return to the common wealth.

“On work for the common wealth:

“1. Every member must work…

“8. The administration will promote the use of machines and the procedures necessary to reduce the burden of work…

“10. Workers will be deployed by the administration according to their understanding of necessary tasks”.

Therefore we see how the Equals foresaw the creation of a true socialist organisation of the economy, administering and developing production, systematically using the most advanced techniques and inventions, even outlining a form of planning. This society would be established following a great revolution of the exploited and the application of rapidly-surpassed transitional reforms. The doctrine far surpasses that of even the most advanced revolutionaries of 1793. “Babouvism” also went much further than the utopian socialists, and would not itself be surpassed until the advent of Marxism. The foreseen measures would not be applied until the time of the Bolsheviks. It is striking to see how, 122 years before the October revolution, a still-embryonic proletariat could nevertheless develop a vanguard with a level of understanding relevant even today. Only the main points were formulated directly, but they have changed so little that we can employ the terms of modern debates to analyse them: evidently these terms explain ideas which often fall short because of a clumsy turn of phrase, but sometimes they cut like a knife to the heart of human aspiration. What is particularly stirring is that this doctrine was at one with the struggle of the exploited: at each moment they stopped to clarify their perspectives, then constantly went back to put them into action.

The organisation of the Equals was closely linked to this doctrine and the realisation of the goals it set out. This had the same modern characteristics as their ideology, although its highest form could only survive for a few weeks. Following their participation in the people’s associations and the development of clandestine groups in the prisons, Babeuf tried to reach an agreement with the left-wing democrats but soon differences became clear: “The plebeians must be divided no longer. But the simple republicans are not part of the family: they are a bastard race” (Tribun du Peuple, issue 35). The Equals therefore formed a separate revolutionary party (in March 1796). An insurrection committee was created, including Babeuf, Maréchal, Lepelletier and Antonelle; soon afterwards, Darthé, Buonarroti and Debon joined too. This committee had agents in every arrondissement [district] of Paris; they had to distribute its propaganda (the Tribun du Peuple and a new newspaper created especially to appeal to the mass of the population, much cheaper than the former, titled l’Éclaireur du Peuple), promote its pamphlets, create “familial clubs” in which a few citizens would meet at one of their houses, collect funds, keep records of their hiding-places, draw up lists of sympathisers, and organise citizens to produce placards and leaflets. They were not only the link between the committee and the people, but also the eyes and ears of the committee: indeed, they were required to inform it as to the mood of the bras nus, the situation in the workshops, and subsequently detailed statistics on arms depots, which citizens were ready to fight, on the police detachments… to summarise, all the military information necessary for an insurrection. The link between the agents and the committee was via Didier, who would meet alone with Darthé. A member of the leadership committee had specific responsibility for links with those outside the capital; emissaries were sent to the various regions with pamphlets, in order to spread ideas and regroup partisans, although since the lists of names were destroyed we are only aware of activity in Armonville in the east, and in the northern Parisian basin [8].

Subsequently a military apparatus was established, with several agitators focussing on the Paris region detachments. Their work was co-ordinated by a military insurrection committee largely composed of former Hébertists [i.e. followers of Jacques Hébert, editor of radical newspaper Le Père Duchesne, executed in 1794]. The liaisons between this committee and the political organisation were entrusted to Germain.

Here we see the precautions and calculations of militants tracked by the police: this safeguarding, tightness and division of labour was in stark contrast to the disorganised political groups of the time, bearing witness to their exceptional maturity. The documentation of the tasks of agitators in each district shows that the Equals understood the importance of a complete understanding of society, recognised the central role of the working class and knew how to promote among the masses the ideology which they developed from the starting-point of the exploited classes’ own experience.

The ardour of their ideas could fully satisfy any revolutionary militant; the breadth of the tasks undertaken could stir them to action; and they could draw inspiration from seeing the early origins of the local branch in these “familial clubs”. Such a strong doctrinal and organisational initiative, born at the same time as the proletariat, also demonstrates the deep identity between the exploited and their revolutionary task. It irrefutably bears witness to the proletariat’s capacity to realise a socialist society.

But we must take note of the fact that this organisation was just an attempt, which did not last more than two months, and whose creators saw it simply as a temporary instrument for seizing power: ultimately its members did not have the ideological cohesion necessary for this attempt to survive, perfect itself and develop. Beside Babeuf and Maréchal, who were authentic communists, sad Lepelletier and Antonelle, two very rich former nobles, who were very much philanthropists rather than revolutionary militants. It is therefore no surprise that the programme envisaged two clearly demarcated stages (the Constitution of 1793, followed by egalitarian reforms), rather than measures which would be achieved very quickly and soon lead to a common wealth. As a result of this, they abandoned their denunciations of the shortcomings of the Constitution of 1793, and Babeuf, who for some time had stopped short of praising Robespierre, moved to defend him. His letter to Bodson of 28th February 1793 contained these concerning lines ,“I will not pass judgement on whether Hébert and Chaumette are innocent. Even if they are, I will still stand up for Robespierre. He has every right to be proud to be the only man capable of driving the wheel of revolution towards its true goals”. “A revolutionary must see the big picture. He must cut down everything that troubles him, everything that gets in his way, everything that could prevent the prompt achievement of the task he has set out”.

It seems clear that the influence of the democrats succeed in forcing the retreat of his experimental doctrine. Moreover, the group’s propaganda advanced ideas less developed than those of the Equals’ Manifesto, which was incomplete and unknown to the public. Their ideas were mostly diffused in leaflet form: the best-known, written by Buonarroti, was titled ‘Analysis of Babeuf’s doctrines’. It appealed to equality of well-being and education, and proclaimed the duty to work, but then contented itself with demanding the implementation of the Constitution of 1793 and the return of excess wealth siphoned off by the rich. This programme did not go nearly as far as the effort elaborated by the committee, its critique much more focused on disproportionate wealth than inequality as such.

The ground was thus prepared for a compromise with the last of the Montagnards: this took place, at the demand of the group’s military wing, in April 1796. Was this intended to prepare an immediate action with more chance of success? This is possible, as the Babouvists were engaged in significant agitation among the masses. But they hesitated, judging that the situation was not yet ripe [13]. The insurrection by the police legion, who they had strongly influenced, stirred them to action. A joint meeting of the military committee and a secret Directory of Public Safety [not to be confused with the ruling Executive Directory] took place in late April; on 8th May the members of the Directory met with a clandestine committee of former Jacobins at Drouet’s house; on the 9th the military committee completed its final preparations, but on the 10th 47 of the conspirators, notably including most of their leaders, were arrested. A few days later, a police operation led to the capture of 52 others. There was no movement to defend them.

How can we explain such a failure? The treachery of one of the soldiers and the Executive Directory’s defence mechanisms were only partly to blame. The decisive factor was insufficient roots among the masses. To understand this we have three types of information at hand:

- the social background from which Babouvist militants were recruited;

- the spread of their doctrine amongst the bras nus;

- the Babouvists’ attitude to the autonomous movements of the Parisian working class.

The Babouvist militants were recruited from very diverse milieux: intellectuals who had long shared in the suffering and the struggles of the exploited classes, such as Babeuf and Sylvain Maréchal; rich but altruistic and sincerely democratic men like Lepelletier, Antonelle and the wealthy Lyon manufacturer Bertrand; ex-functionaries from the heyday of the French Revolution, such as Darthé, Buonarroti, Javogues, etc… Workers were only to be found in the lower ranks of the organisation, such as Didier, the link-man, a former dyer and since Thermidor a locksmith; Armonville, the agitator from Rheims, a wool carder who during his Convention role had to survive on his wife’s income; the former gardener Ménessier, Moroy and Guillem, all three active agents in the arrondissements of Paris. Even among the lower ranks workers were only a minority. The elaboration of its doctrines was above all the work of middle-class members. They certainly understood the aspirations of the exploited; moreover they had a solid understanding and valuable experience which allowed them to see beyond its most short-term concerns; they were also in contact with the leaders of previous plebeian movements and the most active, class-conscious working-class militants. Moroy, in his letters to Babeuf, declared “the working class is society’s most valuable”[13]. But the group did not have sufficient roots, and in the last analysis the links between the revolutionary leadership and the exploited classes were still not developed enough. At that time, when these social groups were still little-demarcated, the simple fact of strong roots was of essential importance: it would have meant the fulfilment of the working class’s aspirations, towards its total liberation.

But this aspect of the relationship between the Babouvists and the bras nus is only part of the story. Enthusiastic letters from around the country (Mont-Blanc, Manche, Pas-de-Calais, etc…), money from various regions [14], and the police reports of April 1796, suggest how many people gathered around Babouvist slogans, and show that the Equals’ influence had spread beyond Paris, since they also knew how to express the aspirations of the peasantry and the small-town artisans. Even if we therefore see that the relationship had more threads than one might have imagined, more precise information on the Babouvists’ attitudes in Paris itself again brings out its insufficiency. The police reports suggest, “the people is interested in nothing more than its means of survival” [14]. As Daniel Guérin concluded, “the popular ferment was entirely apolitical: it took the form of a purely economic struggle” [9]. Indeed, strikes were numerous, but this was at the very moment when the Babouvists were playing down their most advanced social demands in order to prioritise their agitation for the Constitution of 1793. Maurice Dommanget hit the nail on the head when he wrote [13]: “The Babouvists did not understand the meaning of the spontaneous activity of the proletariat. They neglected the incidents and conflicts where  workers and bosses came to blows. They did not see their immense theoretical and practical importance, and sat on the sidelines without drawing any benefit from them”. This inaction, this desire to hand down slogans to the masses rather than systematise their own and give the struggle wider perspectives, shows better than anything else the failings of the Babouvist method faced with a practical problem of capital importance. It is true that this is one of the most delicate problems to be resolved, and that the Equals did pick up on one element of the workers’ demands – the taxation of assets, in 1793 – they only failed to understand its true importance [9]. That is why they were unable to make anything of their united front with the left-wing democrats: not only did they end up abandoning their own minimum programme in favour of the Constitution of 1793, but they did not demonstrate the difference between this constitution (a demagogic promise, never fulfilled) and the government which actually existed in 1793. These critiques, strongly expressed by Daniel Guérin, cannot however be held to be of the same importance as they would be in relation to a modern party.

The left-wing democrats’ group was very difficult to define, and even today we cannot do it justice; this group was infinitely more progressive than many of the modern left-wing parties; finally, the united front tactic is one of the most difficult to apply correctly. Thus there is nothing surprising in the fact that the first time it was tried, while their organisation was weak and poorly defined, the Equals misfired.

The failure came even before the arrests. According to Walter, Babeuf did not attend the last meeting of the conspirators. He no longer agreed with them, believing that this “meeting of democrats lacked strength or means”: he wrote an appeal calling on the people not to rise up prematurely. Therefore it seems that the difficulties faced led to a rupture within the Equals’ group. Arrests only served to increase their disarray. We can only understand Babeuf’s letter to the Executive Directory two days after his imprisonment if we bear this setback in mind [10]. He offered the Executive Directory his support for the struggle against the royalists, but also tried to exert pressure on it: “You have seen, citizens, that when I am in your hands you are holding nothing… You should fear all the other parties (of the conspiracy)… in attacking me you will be attacking all of them too, and thus will stir them”. It was a sort of blackmail: release the Equals and govern “for the people” or else you will be chased out, whether by patriots or by royalists. Since the Executive Directory refused to listen to this appeal, it was necessary to try and save the maximum possible number of conspirators. The Babouvists therefore decided to conceal the communist end-goal of their programme (they could do so since Sylvain Maréchal was unknown to the police and was not arrested, and additionally, the most clearly communist texts had not been seized). They furthermore denied any idea of conspiracy or taking power. But the bourgeois judiciary knew it needed to crush its class enemies: Babeuf and Darthé were sentenced to death, whereas Buonarroti, Germain and three of the most active local agents were sentenced to deportation.

Babeuf’s tactic failed on two counts: he succumbed, yet without leaving behind an explicit message. The only 19th century history was Buonarroti’s book Conspiration pour l’égalité, dite de Babeuf (1808). But in the preceding period Buonarroti had shown himself  to be the least able to develop a communist perspective, and his “Analysis of Babeuf’s doctrine” in 1796 had already demonstrated that he was much closer to the left-wing democrats than to Babeuf and Maréchal. Thus the Equals’ highly original contribution to socialism was lost to the socialists who preceded Marx: but all its meaning holds for us. In this socialism, already tending towards a scientific socialism, we see the convergence of the interests of workers and the peasantry, and the proof that the proletariat and communism cannot be disassociated from each other.Ever since their emergence as a class, workers have foreseen their natural line of march. The death of Babeuf, the insufficiencies of his message, and the attempts to misrepresent his thinking, were unable to prevent communism from arising with even greater force in 1848. That is one of the most important lessons that we can take from this study: revolutionary thought does not follow an ever-increasing curve. On the contrary, the periods of retreat have been frequent and often very long. But on each occasion, communism was enriched by the experience of the previous era, and went on to reach an even higher level.

Translation by David Broder


[1] This piece owes much to the remarkable works of Daniel Guérin (The class struggle in the First French Republic) and Maurice Dommanget.

[2] Maurice Dommanget: Jacques Roux, le Curé rouge, Éditions Spartacus .

[3] Maxime Leroy: Le socialisme en Europe des origines à nos jours.

[4] Charles Ballot: L’introduction du machinisme en France.

[5] G. Lefranc: La Révolution et les Ouvriers dans la Révolution Française, Institut Supérieur Ouvrier, Paris, 1939.

[6] Jean Jacques: Vie et Mort des Corporations, Éditions Spartacus.

[7] Loriquet: Cahier de Doléances du Pas-de-Calais, Arras, 1889. Particularly worth reading are the Cahiers des Paroisses Minières de Fiennes et d’Hardinghem.

[8] G. Laurent, ‘Un Conventionnel ouvrier: J.B. Armonville, in Annales historiques de la Révolution Française.

[9] Daniel Guérin, The class struggle in the First French Republic, Volume 2.

[10] Maurice Dommanget: Pages choisies de Babeuf, Librairie A. Colin, Paris 1935. All subsequent Babeuf quotes are also from this book.

[11] Maurice Dommanget: ‘Sylvain Maréchal et Babeuf’ in La Revue Internationale issue 8.

[12] Paul Louis: Cent cinquante ans de pensée socialiste, from page 31 onwards.

[13] Maurice Dommanget: Babeuf et la Conjuration des Égaux, Librarie de L’Humanité, Paris, 1922.

[14] Walter: Babeuf et la Conspiration des Égaux, Paris, 1937.

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2 responses

15 10 2010

une bonne idée cette traduction !

31 10 2010

A useful translation. Sylvain Marechal was the most important thinker of the group, in my opinion, and deserves greater recognition


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