• 1996: Neither Jacobin nor Utopian: Marx, Engels and Babeuf

    Written 1996: never published

    The years 1996-97 will see the bicentenary of Babeuf’s ‘Conspiracy of the Equals’ and of Babeuf’s trial and execution at Vendôme. We can hardly expect Babeuf to get the sort of treatment that Thatcher and Mitterrand gave the anniversary of the bourgeois revolution in 1789. But hopefully socialists will not ignore a man who stands at the very origin of modern socialism and was a major precursor of Marx and Engels.

    There are about thirty references to Babeuf and Babouvism in the works of Marx and Engels, all of them brief allusions in the course of a discussion of some other matter; there is no extended analysis or critique of Babeuf and his ideas. But it would be wrong to read too much into this. Babeuf was a major presence in the context in which Marx and Engels elaborated their ideas.

    Babeuf’s death was followed by the rise of Napoleon and a long period of reaction in which the ideas of Babouvism were eclipsed. But they resurfaced with the publication in 1828 of Buonarroti’s History of Babeuf’s Conspiracy[i], which presented both the personal testimony of one of Babeuf’s closest associates and a collection of documents from the conspiracy. For the next half century (until the publication of Advielle’s History of Gracchus Babeuf in 1884[ii]) Buonarroti’s text was the main source of information for any discussion of Babeuf. Buchez and Roux’s Histoire parlementaire(one of the sources used by Marx and Engels on the French Revolution) drew almost exclusively on Buonarroti in dealing with Babeuf.[iii]

    The other source of information on Babeuf was Moses Hess. Hess had converted Engels to communism in 1842. In 1845 Marx drew up a plan for a Library of the Best Foreign Socialist Writers to be translated into German. This included Buonarroti, who was to be translated by Hess. [4/667][iv] The project was never put into practice. Hess published an essay on Babeuf in 1844, making a rather bizarre parallel with the German philosopher Fichte.[v] Here he established the idea, frequently repeated by Marx and Engels, that Babeuf’s communism was essentially ascetic:

    The equality which Babeuf had in mind was therefore a sans-culotte equality, an equality of poverty. Wealth, luxury, arts and sciences were to be abolished, the cities to be destroyed; Rousseau’s state of nature was the ghost that then haunted their minds.[vi]

    By the 1830s Babeuf had become part of the heritage of the emergent socialist movement in France, England and Germany. As Engels pointed out in an article in The New Moral World in 1843, the radicalised workers under Louis-Philippe ‘eagerly seized upon Babeuf’s Communism’. [3/396] Their friend Heinrich Heine described a visit in 1840 to the workrooms of the faubourg Saint-Marceau in Paris where the Babouvist organiser JusteMoroy had been active in 1796; Heine

    … there discovered what works were read among the workmen who are the most vigorous portion of the lower class. There I found, for instance, several new editions of the speeches of old Robespierre, also Marat’s pamphlets in two-sous form, the ‘History of the Revolution’ by Cabet, the venomous libels of Cormenin, Baboeuf’s Teachings, and Conspiracy of Buonarroti – writings which smell of blood…[vii]

    Significantly Heine does not distinguish Babeuf from the various Jacobin authors mentioned; probably the average French worker of the period would have made no sharp distinction.

    The situation in England was somewhat similar. As Engels notes, Buonarroti had been translated into English [3/393] by the Chartist Bronterre O’Brien in 1836. (The translation sold fifty thousand copies.) But O’Brien’s true hero was Robespierre, not Babeuf; his translation added footnotes in which he claimed that ‘under Robespierre the workpeople had power’ and preferred Robespierre’s defence of the right of private property to Babeuf’s call for its total abolition.[viii]

    In an article on the ‘Festival of Nations’ held in London in 1845, Engels quoted a speech by another Chartist leader, George Julian Harney, which similarly blurred the differences between Jacobinism and Babeuf:

    … the best proof of the real character of Robespierre is to be found in the universal regret felt for his loss by the honest democrats who survived him… Babeuf was one of these, the originator of the famous conspiracy known by his name. That conspiracy had for its object the establishment of a veritable republic, in which the selfishness of individualism should be known no more – (cheers); in which private property and money, the foundation and root of all wrong and evil, should cease to be (cheers); and in which the happiness of all should be based upon the common labour and equal enjoyments of all. (Great cheering.) [6/11]

    One of the first German writers to discuss Babeuf was the conservative Lorenz von Stein. Reactionaries are sometimes more clear-sighted than radicals, and Stein took care to know his enemy, making a clear distinction between Babeuf’s egalitarianism and Jacobinism.[ix] Wilhelm Weitling, a pioneer of German socialism, was influenced by Buonarroti. And as Engels pointed out in his article ‘On the History of the Communist League’, the League of the Just (which became the Communist League) was ‘originally… a German offshoot of the French worker-communism reminiscent of Babouvism that was taking shape in Paris at about the same time.’ [26/313]

    Babouvism was thus part of the political context in which the young Marx and Engels formed their ideas. They clearly regarded it as a component of their heritage (as is shown by the library proposal referred to above). Already in The Holy Family they placedBabeuf at the very beginning of the communist tradition:

    … the French Revolution gave rise to ideas which led beyond the ideas of the entire old world order. The revolutionary movement which began in 1789 in the Cercle social, which in the middle of its course had as its chiefrepresentatives Leclerc and Roux, and which finally with Babeuf’s conspiracy was temporarily defeated, gave rise to the communist idea which Babeuf’’s friend Buonarroti re-introduced in France after the Revolution of 1830. [4/119]

    The striking thing about this passage is that the roots of communism are seen in the enragésand the Babouvists, and not, as so many socialist (and anti-socialist) historians have claimed over the last hundred and fifty years, in Jacobinism.

    In The German Ideology Marx and Engels were scathing in their criticism of Sancho (Max Stirner) for knowing Babeuf only at third-hand (via Bluntschli and Stein), [5/210] while Grün was ironically denounced for his misunderstanding of Buonarroti. [5/508] Obviously any serious socialist was expected to be familiar with Babouvism.

    Marx and Engels made a signifiant contribution to the theoretical understanding of the French Revolution. Of necessity, the French Revolution was seen by those participating in it (and by their would-be heirs in the 1830s and 1840s) as the revolution, a continuing process (though many wanted to halt it half-way) which would lead to equality and universal well-being. For Marx and Engels the revolution was to be seen as a ‘bourgeois revolution’,[x] opening up capitalism and paving the way for a subsequent proletarian revolution. (In this they were taking up a position first glimpsed by Babeuf’s associate Sylvain Maréchal in his Manifesto of the Equals: ‘The French Revolution is only the forerunner of another revolution which will be greater and more impressive, and which will be the last.’[xi])

    However, having separated bourgeois and proletarian revolutions, Marx and Engels did not put them in watertight compartments, turning history into a series of predetermined stages. In his 1847 article ‘Moralising Criticism and Critical Morality’ Marx argued that a communist, proletarian position first emerged within the dynamic of the bourgeois revolution:

    The first manifestation of a truly active communist party is contained within the bourgeois revolution, at the moment when the constitutional monarchy is eliminated. The most consistent republicans, in England the Levellers, in FranceBabeuf, Buonarroti, etc, were the first to proclaim these ‘social questions’. The Babeuf Conspiracy, by Babeuf’s friend and party-comrade Buonarroti, shows how these republicans derived from the ‘movement’ of history the realisation that the disposal of the social question of rule by princes and republic did not mean that even a single ‘social question’ has been solved in the interests of the proletariat.[6/321-2]

    It is against this background that we can understand the best-known reference to Babeuf in the writings of Marx and Engels, to be found in the section on ‘Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism’ in Part Three of the Communist Manifesto:

    We do not here refer to that literature which, in every great modern revolution, has always given voice to the demands of the proletariat, such as the writings of Babeuf and others.

    The first direct attempts of the proletariat to attain its own ends, made in times of universal excitement, when feudal society was being overthrown, these attempts necessarily failed, owing to the then undeveloped state of the proletariat, as well as to the absence of the economic conditions for its emancipation, conditions that had yet to be produced, and could be produced by the impending bourgeois epoch alone. The revolutionary literature that accompanied these first movements of the proletariat had necessarily a reactionary character. It inculcated universal asceticism and social levelling in its crudest form. (SielehrteinenallgemeinenAsketismus und eineroheGleichmacherei.) [6/514]

    The importance of the analysis contained in these brief paragraphs can scarcely be overstated. Marx and Engels were making a clean break with the view represented by Harney and O’Brien, which saw Babeuf as merely a disciple of Robespierre, and Babouvism as no more than a development of Jacobinism. They clearly established that Babeuf belonged to the communist tradition, and that he was a political representative of the proletariat. Any proper understanding of the importance and originality of Babeuf must start from this account.

    Having said that, it is also the case that Marx and Engels perpetuated certain misunderstandings about the nature of Babeuf’s communism. While they clearly distinguished Babeuf from later Utopians such as Owen, Fourier and Saint‑Simon,[xii]Marx’s notes for the Manifesto show that he put Babeuf in the same general category as the Utopians. [6/576] As the above extract makes clear, they regarded Babeuf’s communism as being essentially reactionary (in the sense of looking to the past, rather than counter-revolutionary) and ascetic.

    In fact there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that Babeuf was neither Utopian nor ascetic. Some can be gleaned from a careful reading of Buonarroti; the rest from other Babouvist writings. (Two[xiii] volumes of documents seized at the time of Babeuf’s arrest were published by the government as part of the preparation for the Vendôme trial. There is no evidence that Marx or Engels ever consulted these, or the collection of Babeuf’s paper, Le Tribun du peuple.)

    For Marx the basic definition of a Utopian hinges on the question of agency. Marx saw the proletariat as a class capable of establishing socialism through its own self-activity; the Utopians did not grasp this potential agency, and had to look for other, implausible agents of social transformation. Fourier’s advertisement for benevolent businessmen is a symbolic example. In these terms Babeuf was no Utopian. As a student of the French materialists he grasped the key notion of interest; a circular issued by the conspiracy stated:

    It is a truth recognised long ago that men act vigorously only in their own interests; the general interest is made up of the sum of individual interests.[xiv]

    From the notion of interest Babeuf was able to develop a primitive notion of class struggle. In a speech at Roye in August 1792 he stated:

    It is a truth based on the experience of all ages that people of great wealth have always been the born enemies of the lower classes.[xv]

    As a result he recognised that the emancipation of the oppressed must be the task of the oppressed themselves:

    Away with that pusillanimity which would make us believe that we cannot do anything by ourselves, and that we always need rulers with us. Rulers only make revolutions in order to go on ruling.[xvi]

    To implement his programme Babeuf recognised the need for revolutionary organisation. While a degree of clandestinity was necessary because of the repressive measures exercised by the Directory (which eventually put Babeuf to death), the main emphasis was on mass work. Papers and pamphlets were sold, flyposting was used to reach those who could not afford papers, and revolutionary songs were circulated to reach those who could not read. The agents (full-time organisers) were instructed to compile lists of potential supporters and to organise small meetings of contacts wherever possible. They carefully observed the ‘thermometer of opinion’ among the common people, notably among wage-workers in the docks, food-markets and factories, while special attention was given to subverting the army. It its practice the ‘conspiracy’ resembled not so much a Blanquist organisation as one of the sections of the early Communist International.[xvii]

    The claim that Babeuf was an ascetic can be traced back, as we have seen, to Moses Hess. But the argument is a false one. Certainly the Babouvists denounced the wasteful luxury of the Directory; their papers were in the best tradition of left-wing exposure journalism when they denounced the life-style of France’s new rulers. But in the draft economic decree drawn up by the Babouvist Secret Directory, it was decided that the new order would offer every citizen a guarantee of the following:

    Healthy, comfortable and decently furnished accommodation.;

    Clothing for work and leisure, in wool or cotton, in accordance with the national costume;

    Laundry, lighting and heating;

    A sufficient quantity of food – bread, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, butter or oil; wine and other drinks used in the different regions; vegetables, fruit, seasonings, and other objects, the combination of which constitutes a moderate and frugal sufficiency;

    Medical assistance.[xviii]

    Scarcely ‘universal asceticism’ or crude ‘social levelling’. Two hundred years later there are many people, even in the richest countries, who would welcome such ‘asceticism’.

    Far from wishing to abolish the ‘arts and sciences’, the Babouvists took a keen interest in technological progress[xix]; however they were aware that technology on its own brought no benefits; its effects depended on the economic framework within which it was developed:

    It is only within a system based on community that the use of machines would be of true benefit to humanity, by reducing toil while increasing the abundance of necessary and agreeable objects. Today, by suppressing a great quantity of manual labour, they take bread out of the mouths of a large number of men, in the interest of a few insatiable speculators, whose profits they increase.[xx]

    Again words which retain their relevance today.

    As for the destruction of towns, the Babouvists did not advocate a return to a Rousseauesque ‘state of nature’; on the contrary they advocated the establishment of a network of villages, with easy comunication made possible by roads and canals, as well as by ‘telegraph’[xxi]. In this way they very concretely anticipated the ‘gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country’ advocated by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto. [6/505]

    Between 1843 and 1848 the writings of Marx and Engels contain frequent references to Babouvism; after 1848 there is virtual silence. The reason is not difficult to find. The revolution of 1848 had thrown up new ideas and new organisations, and presented them with a new set of adversaries. Marx and Engels were not historians of socialism, but rather concerned to develop their own account of capitalism and the way to overthrow it. So there are only a few passing references (as when Engels asked Laura Lafargue to make sure that her husband returned his copy of Buonarroti as it was now out of print. [47/226])

    Only in Anti-Dühring did Engels return to Babeuf, noting that ‘in every great bourgeois movement there were independent outbursts of that class which was the forerunner, more or less developed, of the modern proletariat… in the great French Revolution, Babeuf.’ [25/19] And in Engels ‘Preparatory Writings’ there was a less charitable reference to Babeuf, where he described as ‘insane’ Babeuf’s ‘attempt to jump from the Directorate immediately into communism’. [25/609-10]

    This was not included in the final text, and perhaps Engels realised how unfair it was. He was quite right to insist that in retrospect we can see that Babeuf’s attempt was vain, since the proletariat was not developed enough to take power. But to call him ‘insane’ would be to collapse into that ‘condescension of posterity’ which Edward Thompson so rightly condemned.[xxii] We only know the objective constraints of history because those who have gone before had the audacity to take it to the limit. As early as 1843 Engels explained that Babeuf failed ‘because the then Communism itself was of a very rough and superficial nature; and because, on the other hand, the public mind was not yet far enough advanced.’ [3/394] But the knowledge that enabled Engels to write that sentence was purchased by Babeuf at the price of his life.

    For all too long Marxists have used the excuse of a few slighting remarks in the works of Marx and Engels to downplay the importance of Babeuf. In the Stalin period Communist historians were discouraged from studying the ‘precursors’ of Marxism (presumably because it might detract from the originality of the ‘great teachers’.)[xxiii] In the twentieth century it has been dissident communists who have done the most important work in revealing the full originality of Babeuf – Maurice Dommanget, a revolutionary syndicalist who was a member of the French Communist Party in the 1920s and Victor Dalin, a Russian scholar who suffered nearly twenty years of imprisonment and deportation before completing his major study of the formation of Babeuf’s thought.[xxiv] In Britain no Marxist has made a book-length study of Babeuf since Belfort Bax in 1911.[xxv]

    Marx and Engels were great revolutionary thinkers but their work is not Scripture. It is all to easy to imagine that they read everything, when common sense and simple observation tell us that everyone has gaps in their reading. Marx and Engels relied solely on Buonarroti, and even there did not read everything closely enough.

    Moreover, the central preoccupation of Marx and Engels was to establish their own school of socialism in opposition to their various rivals. Since Babouvism was still a living current in the working-class movement it is not surprising that they emphasised its weaknesses rather than its achievements.

    The present period is one in which it is vital to reassess the whole socialist tradition, starting with the man who in many ways stands at its very beginning, Babeuf. In doing so we should draw on the rich insights to be found in the works of Marx and Engels, while constantly measuring them against the actual thought and practice of their remarkable precursor.

    Ian H Birchall

    3591 words



    [i]           Buonarroti, La Conspiration pour l’égalité dite de Babeuf, reprinted Paris, 1957

    [ii]           V Advielle, Histoire de Gracchus Babeuf et du babouvisme, reprinted Paris, 1990; there is no indication that Marx and Engels knew anything of Advielle’s work

    [iii]          P-J-B Buchez & P-C Roux, Histoire parlementaire de la révolution française, Paris, 1834-8, volume XXXVII, pp 152-68

    [iv]          All references to Marx and Engels’ writings are to Marx & Engels, Collected Works, London 1975ff; references to volume and page in brackets in the text.

    [v]           The essay is referred to in The German Ideology [5/491]

    [vi]          M Hess, Philosophische und SozialistischeSchriften 1837-1850, Vaduz, 1980, p 205

    [vii]         The Works of Heinrich Heine, London, 1893, VIII 51

    [viii]         Buonarroti’s History of Babeuf’s Conspiracy for Equality, London, 1836, pp 69, 219

    [ix]          L Stein, Der Socialismus und Communismus des heutigen Frankreichs, Leipzig, 1842, pp 362, 368

    [x]           The argument that the bourgeois revolution is distinct from the workers’ revolution and is a precondition for it was put in ‘Moralising Criticism and Critical Morality’. [6/333]

    [xi]          Buonarroti, II 95

    [xii]         See on this point J-M Schiappa, ‘Sur le communisme de la conjuration pour l’égalité’, Cahiers Léon Trotsky, No 38 (1989), pp 61-2

    [xiii]         Copie des pièces saisies, Paris, 1797

    [xiv]         Buonarroti, II 116

    [xv]          V Daline, Gracchus Babeuf (French translation), Moscow, 1987, p 391

    [xvi]         Le Tribun du peuple, No 42, p 294

    [xvii]        In his generally excellent account of Marx’s thought, Hal Draper persistently overstated the distinctions between Marx and Babeuf, referring to a ‘Babouvist‑Blanquist tradition’ (although the links between Babeuf and Blanqui are much more tenuous than is generally claimed), and putting Babeuf under the heading of ‘Socialism from Above’. In his quite correct concern to show that Marx was not elitist or authoritarian, Draper gave a misleading account of Babeuf based on selective quotation. See H Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution III: The ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’, New York, 1986, pp 31‑3, 120-4

    [xviii]       Buonarroti, II 208

    [xix]         For a recent discussion of Babeuf’s alleged ‘economic pessimism’ between Claude Mazauric of the French Communist Party and Jean-Marc Schiappa see Maillard, Mazauric&Walter, Présence de Babeuf, Paris, 1994, pp 254-7

    [xx]          Buonarroti, I 159

    [xxi]             A semaphore signalling device, perfected by Claude Chappe in 1794, which could transmit a message from Lille to Paris in less than an hour.

    [xxii]        EP Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Harmondsworth, 1980, p 12

    [xxiii]       See the letter to Maurice Dommanget from the Russian scholar J Zilberfard, describing how studies of pre-Marxist socialism became ‘non grata’ and research in the field was ‘frozen for many years’, published in J-L Rouch, Prolétaire en veston, Treignac, 1984, pp 85-6

    [xxiv]        See the obituary by Claude Mazauric in Annaleshistoriques de la révolutionfrançaise, No 263 (1986), pp 87-90

    [xxv]        E Belfort Bax, The Last Episode of the French Revolution, London, 1911