Day of the people: Gracchus Babeuf and the communist idea

This essay originally appeared here.

Dedicated to the Babouvists of today.

“We Communists, united in the Third International, consider ourselves the direct continuators of the heroic endeavors and martyrdom of a long line of revolutionary generations from Babeuf – to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.”[1]

February 20, 2013 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The above words were spoken by Leon Trotsky during the opening session of the Third International in Moscow in March 1919. While Trotsky was speaking, the young Soviet Republic was fighting desperately for its life against counter-revolutionary White Armies and foreign intervention. The Soviet Republic was also struggling to maintain itself in the midst of economic breakdown and famine.

Despite this, the workers and peasants of Russia were showing great heroism in their defense of the Revolution, a matter of great importance beyond the Soviets themselves. The Russian Revolution had provided a light of hope to the oppressed masses of Europe and the world of a future that was free of capitalism.

Yet Trotsky acknowledged in his opening remarks to the Third International, that the Russian Revolution was building upon the efforts of many others, including those who had been killed without ever glimpsing the accomplishment of actual revolution. One of those who Trotsky named was Francois-Noel “Gracchus” Babeuf, a pioneer who opened the horizon to the possibility of communist revolution. For Babeuf, a communist operating in the midst of France’s bourgeois revolution of 1789, saw a future beyond capitalism. For Babeuf, there were many roads that had been opened by the French Revolution, some of which led to a society dominated by competition, or social democracy while Babeuf wanted to push the revolution to its ultimate limit in order to realize ‘the common happiness.’

Babeuf was a revolutionary thinker and actor who was communist without having had a concept of capitalism as such. Babeuf was someone who was opposed to class domination, private property, social inequality but in a different and underdeveloped way than we think of through the lens of Marxism. Now it could be argued that Babeuf’s attempt to achieve his revolution in the context of late 18th century France was premature or insane since objectively capitalism and the proletariat were underdeveloped while subjectively the masses were exhausted from years of upheaval while Babeuf was overly optimistic about the chances of success. Furthermore, Babeuf’s Conspiracy had no real program for the peasantry, the Conspiracy missed key moments to stage their revolution and was easily penetrated by a police agent that broke up the whole organization leading to the arrest of Babeuf and key leaders.

Yet Babeuf’s efforts, however futile in their own limited moment, blazed a path for future attempts that would succeed. As Slavoj Zizek has written, “there is always space to be created for an act – precisely because, to paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of reformism, it is not enough to wait patiently for the ‘right moment’ of the revolution. If one merely waits for it, it will never come, for one has to start with ‘premature’ attempts which – herein resides the ‘pedagogy of the revolution’ – in their very failure to achieve their professed goal create the (subjective) conditions for the ‘right’ moment.”[2]

There lies the significance of Babeuf;his effort to usher in communism, however premature and foolhardy helped set the stage for the future. In retrospect, we can say that Babeuf was not concerned with what was ‘historically possible,’ rather he sought to realize the utopian excess that was contained in the revolutionary event of 1789 and make its promises real.[3] When Babeuf made communism his goal, as Jodi Dean has written on communism as horizon, “the field of possibilities for revolutionary theory and practice starts to change shape. Barriers to action fall away. New potentials and challenges come to the fore. Anything is possible.”[4] It is to Babeuf that we can trace the origins of modern communism as a political movement against against private property and class society in general. Babeuf’s importance lies in the fact that he took communism out of the realm of utopian speculation and made it a practical ideal worth struggling for. Babeuf accomplished this by uniting theory and practice in the shape of a revolutionary political organization that was linked to the masses, secretive only by necessity, and aiming at the seizure of state power to usher in the common happiness. Even if Babeuf’s efforts were premature and doomed to failure, his efforts did create the subjective conditions for future victories.

I. Early years

Francois-Noel “Gracchus” Babeuf was born on November 23, 1760 in Saint-Quentin, in the province of Picardy in northeastern France. Babeuf was born during the twilight years of the Bourbon monarchy. As the “old regime was crumbling; new social and economic relations were growing up within it.”[5] These new relations were those of the rising bourgeoisie which, according to Isaac Deutscher, “had achieved a relatively high level of maturity; the revolution merely broke the broke the shell and thereby broke the shell and speeded up the organic growth and the development of those elements.”[6] The bourgeoisie was motivated by the ideas of the Enlightenment which led to the development of what Michel Beaud calls “an ideological arsenal … weapons for contesting the monarchy (social contract, general will, and democracy), for questioning the privileges of the nobility (freedom, equality), for rallying the peasants and urban artisans (freedom, equality and property), and for responding to the aspirations of the manufacturers and traders (freedom, once more, but to produce and to trade).”[7] A section of the bourgeoisie, inspired by Enlightenment ideals and allied to the popular classes (sans culottes and peasantry), would unite in 1789 to overthrow the old regime.[8]

Yet the rise of capitalism also coexisted in Picardy with the traditional peasant economy “which had their own collective rights and community customs, and which were struggling obstinately against the concentration of farming units in the hands of the big capitalist farmers.”[9] As Birchall pointed out, “while agriculture was still the basis of the economy of Picardy, a growing number of peasants were unable to survive by cultivation alone … three quarters of the peasants in Picardy were obliged to supplement their income as day-laborers or artisans, especially in weaving.”[10] This pre-proletariat lived in miserable conditions, living in barracks similar to slave sand engaged in strikes and other forms of resistance.[11]

Francois-Noel was born to a Claude Babeuf, a former soldier and an excise officer who belonged to the lowest level of the tax administration. His father had a meager income and, according to Rose “there can be little doubt that Francois-Noel knew the bite of poverty as a child, as his parents struggled to rear thirteen children on a meager income.”[12] Of the thirteen children of the Babeuf family, only four managed to live to adulthood. Babeuf later “blamed the deep poverty of his family for the fact that his mother could not supply the basic needs of her children.”[13]

Claude Babeuf was responsible for collecting a number of indirect taxes in Picardy (one of the most heavily taxed regions in France in per head terms) such as “the gabelles (or taxes on salt), the traites (or customs duties), the aides (excises on drink but also on some foods and manufactured articles) and the tabac (the state tobacco monopoly).”[14] Many of these taxes would later be bitterly resisted by the peasantry and shopkeepers in Picardy after 1789 with Babeuf playing a vital role in the agitation; here he cut his teeth as a revolutionary activist.

Francois-Noel had no formal education, rather his father took charge of his education.[15] There are differing accounts of how educated Babeuf senior actually was. On the one hand, Ernest Belfort Bax says that Babeuf’s father “taught his son the elements of Latin, mathematics, and of the German language.”[16] Yet Babeuf himself describes his father as someone “who knew how to read and write very badly, he got it into his head to that he would be his children’s only teacher.”[17] While Babeuf was remarkably intelligent and curious, he managed to receive the rudiments of a basic education (including some knowledge of Latin) from his father, but by the age of twelve Babeuf rebelled against his father’s strict punishments and instead “he earned his living by laboring.”[18]

For the next four to five years, Babeuf worked on building the Picardy canal. The canal had originally been completed in 1732, which had allowed for grain to be sent directly to Paris from Picardy. An extension on which Babeuf labored, was begun in 1769. Building the canal was done without machines and thus “required a huge amount of labour – some skilled artisans, but mostly unskilled labour provided by beggars, members of peasant families seeking to supplement their incomes and such like.”[19] As Birchall points out, building the canal “provided one of the biggest concentrations of wage labor in eighteenth century France.”[20] This could not have failed to make an impact on Babeuf, who was naturally curious and had suffered poverty as child. Now he was experiencing firsthand the effects of labor discipline and worker exploitation.

In 1778, Babeuf left he would later call “the excessive harshness of manual labor [which] gave me cause to think; my conclusion in short was to find some way of earning my keep with less difficulty.”[21] Babeuf’s education allowed for him to be apprenticed and learn the trade of a feudist. As a feudist, as Rose summarizes it, it was Babeuf’s job to work in

notary specialization of the legal aspects of the administration of feudal estates. In the second half of the eighteenth century pressures of rising costs and increasing expectations compelled the owners of feudal signeuries to rationalize the administration of their holdings and, wherever possible, to increase their incomes from feudal dues and incidents. The investigation of feudal archives and the revising of the terriers, as the formal surveys of obligation for each estate were called, provided work for an expanding army of experts. Such men worked chiefly for aristocratic landowners … [22]

This was a job that needed some education and allowed Babeuf to be relatively successful.

However, Babeuf’s job posed a contradiction. On the one hand, it was a source of income for him and soon his family as well (in 1782 Babeuf married Marie-Anne-Victoire Langlet, a maid in a chateaux with little formal education). Yet Babeuf came from poverty and had worked as a laborer, experiencing the harshness of exploitation, now he was working for the ruling nobility in order to help them reintroduce feudal rights over the peasantry in order to extract more payments from the peasantry. Although Babeuf hated the exploitation of the ruling class, his livelihood depended upon making that same system work. While working in the archives of the manorial lords, Babeuf “discovered the horrible secrets of the usurpations of the nobility.”[23] Babeuf could see that the land, titles and wealth that the nobility claimed for itself was hardly natural. Rather, he saw that the origins of feudal property was based on theft. In 1786, Babeuf remarked that “in my capacity as a feudist, I could not fail to know how the majority of large estates were formed and came into the hands of those who possess them. The most ancient titles are almost all nothing but the ratification of enormous iniquities and vicious robberies. It was law enforced with sword and torch in hand on peasants, those who tilled the fields, and who, to save their skins, abandoned to their robbers, along with the soil they had brought into cultivation, their own persons, which they no longer knew what to do with.”[24]

It wasn’t just in the manorial archives and through his own reading (we will elaborate more on this later) that Babeuf learned about the nature of the feudal lords. Babeuf also learned through his everyday relations with various noble employers. For instance, Babeuf worked with the Marquis de Soyecourt who expressed dissatisfaction with Babeuf’s feudist work and then didn’t pay him for it. For Babeuf, working with Soyecourt was one of his most important commissions. The Belleforieres de Soyecourt was one of the most important families in Roye, owning a great deal of land. However, the Soyecourt family had done no survey on their lands since 1732 and the collection of dues from the peasantry was disorganized, meaning revenues had sharply fallen. Babeuf approached the Marquis to do a survey of his lands in order to discover the dues. In October of 1787, the Marquis and Babeuf signed an agreement. Babeuf’s workload was increased extensively and he had to hire assistants and call in his brother, a surveyor from Paris to help. After a few months, Soyecourt began to doubt Babeuf’s abilities as a feudist and refused to pay for his services. Babeuf claimed he was owed more than 19,000 livres for his work which drained his savings, but the Marquis would only pay for 2370 livres.[25] Babeuf took the marquis to court for a breach of contract in January 1789 but the President of the court was a member of the Soyecourt family and decided for the marquis. The result of this court case was “that other clients now also refused to pay.”[26] Babeuf thus made many enemies among the noble elite in Roye and after 1789, he would be one of the foremost challengers to the nobility. At the time of the revolution, Babeuf’s career as a feudist was in ruins.

Rose points out Babeuf’s ambitions during his time as a feudist, writing that he “was ambitious and eager to make his way in the world, driven by the curious mixture of confidence and insecurity which belongs to the self-made and the self-taught. The way ahead lay clearly through success and renown in his profession.”[27] Yet it was clear that Babeuf’s aspirations were already being frustrated by 1789. He also didn’t have only his own welfare to think of but that of his wife and children.

Babeuf and Marie-Anne had five children together during their marriage, of whom three lived to adulthood. Babeuf enjoyed few years of comfort during the 1780s and almost none during the Revolution facing a “constant battle against poverty and even starvation.”[28] It was thanks to his wife’s dedication and loyalty that the family was able to stay intact.

Babeuf was perhaps unique among the major male figures of the French Revolution in his condemnation of colonialism, slavery and support for women’s equality. Babeuf attacked the French colonial slave system in Haiti by saying “it is we alone who have transmitted into another hemisphere the terrible vices which degraded our own, and it seems that we are not inclined to abjure any of them and banish them from our own society except on the condition that we go and tarnish with them a land which hitherto had preserved, in its extreme simplicity, all the innocence and purity of the first ages.”[29] When slavery was abolished by the Convention throughout all the territories ruled by France in 1794, including Haiti, Babeuf hailed the “benevolent decree which had broken the odious chains of our brothers the blacks.”[30]

Babeuf’s views on women come out in can be seen in an 1786 letter to Dubois de Fosseux, where he says that “we sacrifice and transform women, enervate her in order to make her our slave … In the two sexes faculties are equal in number, and if, taken one by one, they don’t always correspond completely, overall they balance out.”[31] Babeuf also linked the domination of man over women to similar origins as that of the nobility over the poor. As he says in the letter, “the claimed superiority of man over woman and the despotic authority he asserts over her have the same origin as the domination of nobility, in both cases there is a usurpation of rights and consecration of a prejudice which led our fathers to make physical strength a cult. – Lets abolish this profane cult, the most profane of all when it is exercised to the detriment of justice, lets eradicate the last traces, and reestablish woman in her rights and in the freedom which belongs to her as it does to us.”[32]

Now Rose claims that Babeuf’s advanced attitudes on women were not extended to his wife and that “he was clearly unconvinced of the intellectual equality of the one woman closest to him.”[33] Yet as Birchall pointed out, “Babeuf knew well-enough that his wife could read and write for he corresponded regularly with her whenever they were separated … [his] correspondence shows that he communicated his developing political ideas to his wife whenever they were separated; we can only presume they discussed them when they were together.”[34] Marie-Anne also played an active role in his later revolutionary activity, helping with the distribution of newspapers and even spending time in jail as a result. She also supported her husband during his many imprisonments, sending him food and letters.[35] Babeuf also took great care to be involved in his children’s education (particularly his eldest son Emile). Although he had rebelled against his own father’s strict upbringing, Babeuf appears to have himself been a strict (albeit a loving) parent, one inspired by the precepts of Rousseau.[36]

That Babeuf was influenced by Rousseau should not be a surprise. Even though Babeuf had received little formal education, he had a great drive to develop himself intellectually. A self-taught thinker who devoured books throughout his life,[37]he was very much the heir to the radical philosophy of the Enlightenment. Central to the Enlightenment worldview was that “philosopiz[ing] is to give reason all its dignity and to restore it to its rightful position, to take everything back to its basic principles and shake off the yoke of public opinion and authority.”[38] Such Enlightenment ideas were put to use by the rising bourgeoisie in order to attack the divine rights, backwardness and privileges of the Crown, Church and the nobility. However, the bourgeoisie by in large, as Albert Soboul writes, “were far from being democratic. In particular they were bent on conserving a social hierarchy in order to maintain the distinction between themselves and the classes beneath them.”[39]

Rousseau was much more egalitarian than other Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, who was comfortable with monarchies and despite his attacks on religion, believed that it was essential for the poor to believe in order to maintain the existing social order.[40] In the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau rejected inequality based on class and status:

I conceive that there are two kinds of inequality among the human species; one, which I call natural or physical, because it is established by nature, and consists in a difference of age, health, bodily strength, and the qualities of the mind or of the soul: and another, which may be called moral or political inequality, because it depends on a kind of convention, and is established, or at least authorised by the consent of men. This latter consists of the different privileges, which some men enjoy to the prejudice of others; such as that of being more rich, more honoured, more powerful or even in a position to exact obedience.

It is useless to ask what is the source of natural inequality, because that question is answered by the simple definition of the word. Again, it is still more useless to inquire whether there is any essential connection between the two inequalities; for this would be only asking, in other words, whether those who command are necessarily better than those who obey, and if strength of body or of mind, wisdom or virtue are always found in particular individuals, in proportion to their power or wealth: a question fit perhaps to be discussed by slaves in the hearing of their masters, but highly unbecoming to reasonable and free men in search of the truth.[41]

Rousseau also recognized that social inequality made democracy impossible. For instance, Rousseau was aghast at the existence of

people who abound in wealth on the one hand, and the most abject and low on the other. Is it in these extremes, where the one doth his utmost to by, and the other to sell himself, that we are to expect the love of justice and the laws? They are the causes of the state’s degeneracy. The rich have the law in their pockets, and the poor choose bread rather than liberty.[42]

Rousseau looked upon the existing institutions of society as enslaving people when by right “The legislative power belongs to the people, and can belong to it alone.”[43] It was in an original state of nature that people were actually free.

While other enlightenment thinkers were attacking the feudal property of the nobility as in conflict with reason, Rousseau was going further:

it is impossible to conceive how property can come from anything but manual labour: for what else can a man add to things which he does not originally create, so as to make them his own property? It is the husbandman’s labour alone that, giving him a title to the produce of the ground he has tilled, gives him a claim also to the land itself, at least till harvest, and so, from year to year, a constant possession which is easily transformed into property. [44]

Thus Rousseau called into question all property that was not based upon labor, opening the door wide to a general assault on private property. And Babeuf would eagerly go through that door.

But whereas Rousseau provided a foundation with which to question feudal (and bourgeois) property as not in line with reason, he provided no serious political thinking on how to challenge these illegitimate property relations in practice. Rousseau’s solution was in fact based on a moralistic appeal to establish a just society by enacting the proper laws. For example, Rousseau says in the Social Contract, that “the whole social system should rest: i.e., that, instead of destroying natural inequality, the fundamental compact substitutes, for such physical inequality as nature may have set up between men, an equality that is moral and legitimate, and that men, who may be unequal in strength or intelligence, become every one equal by convention and legal right.”[45] Since Rousseau is not suggesting is the proper social agent that could establish an equal society, he can only rely upon moral appeal and his thinking lurches into utopianism.[46]

Babeuf was also likely influenced by other radical Enlightenment thinkers such as Mably and Morelly. Mably “vigorously deplored the inequalities that characterized modern France, and showed their roots in the forms of property that existed.”[47] Morelly also attacked private property vigorously by stating

Now, would this universal plague, this slow fever, private interest, ever have been able to take hold if it had found no sustenance, nor even the slightest dangerous ferment?

I believe that no one will contest the justness of this proposition: that where no property exists, none of its pernicious consequences could exist … .

The true medium of all political or moral demonstration, and the primary cause of all disorder.[48]

Babeuf also seems to have been impressed by what he heard of Nicholas Collingan (although he did not read the work). At one point, he ranked Collingan higher than Rousseau by saying that “It seems to me that our Reformer does better than the citizen of Geneva [Rousseau], whom I have sometimes heard called a dreamer. In truth, he dreamed well, but our man dreams better. Like the citizen of Geneva, he maintains that, since men are absolutely equal, they must not have any private possessions, but must enjoy everything in common, so that no one can, by the mere fact of birth, be either more or less rich, or be considered less worthy, than any of those around him.”[49]

Babeuf was critical of Malby and Rousseau’s attack on luxury, however, for their very crude vision of an equal society. Although Babeuf would later be stigmatized for advocating an ascetic communism that declared “perish the arts need be so long as we have equality,” he profoundly disagreed with such statements.[50] As Babeuf said in praise of Collingnon’s work which did not advocate people retreating from the modern world for the sake of equality, “he has us eat four good meals a day, dresses us most elegantly, and also provides those of us who are fathers of families with charming houses worth a thousand louis each. he has succeeded in reconciling the pleasures of social life with those of natural and primitive life.”[51] Babeuf did not want people to live in a Rousseauist state of nature where everyone received only the basic necessities and luxuries were eschewed for the sake of equality. Rather, he envisioned an equal society as one that would lessen the burden of labor while providing subsistence to the people. His vision would be one where arts and industry would flourish and people could develop themselves to their fullest potential. We will discuss more Babeuf’s egalitarian vision in a later section.

In 1787, Babeuf asked how realistic communism was with these words: “from the general knowledge now available, what would be the condition of a people whose social institutions were such that there existed the most perfect equality among all the individuals, that the land was owned by no one but belonged to all and that everything was owned in common, even the products of all industry? Would such institutions be in harmony with natural law? Could this society exist and would the methods of equal distribution work?”[52]

Babeuf answered his own question with an emphatic yes: “Well, so be it, as far as I am concerned; I have decided to be one of the first emigrants to this new republic. I would not have any difficulty in adjusting myself to the new way of life, just so long as I can be happy and satisfied, without any fears concerning the well-being of my children or of myself.”[53] However, one criticism Babeuf had of utopian thinkers like Rousseau was that they did not show how to achieve the desired end of an equal society. For example, what Babeuf said as a critique of Collignon, could easily be applied to Rousseau as well, “it’s a great pity that he has not explained what means will achieve this end.”[54]

By 1789, Babeuf was showing himself to be concerned with developing the political and social agencies that could bring about a society of equals. Still this was all at the level of speculation; he had as of yet no practical experience with which to test his ideas. Babeuf’s main concern was providing for his family and finding work (becoming more difficult to do by the time the revolution broke out). It was only with the outbreak of the French Revolution that Babeuf would be thrown into the rapids, where he would quickly learn to swim, and to fashion the ideas of the world’s first modern communist practice.

II. The rapids of revolution
The French Revolution of 1789 was, in the words of Eric Hobsbawm, “ecumenical. Its armies set out to revolutionize the world. Its ideas actually did so.”[55] By 1787, the regime of Louis XVI was in dire economic straits, burdened with an inefficient tax system, misery for the masses and obsolete noble privileges. The King called a meeting of the Estates General in order to shift the burden onto the Third Estate (which constituted everyone who was not an aristocrat or member of the clergy). The Third Estate “contained the popular classes in the countryside, and in the towns. It also included … the lower and middling bourgeoisie, essentially artisans and traders. To these were added the members of the liberal professions: those magistrates who had not been ennobled, lawyers, notaries, teachers, doctors, and surgeons.”[56] Despite this great social chasm, the third estate was united “in its opposition to the privileged orders and its claims for civil equality.”[57] Once civil equality was granted though, in 1789, the unity of the third estate broke apart and class struggle erupted that propelled the revolutionary process forward.

However, that was in the future. In June 1789, when the Estates General refused disperse, Louis XVI prepared to move soldiers into Paris in order to disperse the delegates. When the King had summoned of the Estates General, his act had “aroused among the ordinary people of Paris a tremendous feeling of hope, hope that the evils of the old social order were about to be swept away and that a new era was about to begin. And now it seemed that this hope was about to be dashed by the aristocracy … the people naturally decided to take action against the enemies of the nation.”[58] And on July 14, a crowd of people in Paris stormed the Bastille, a hated symbol of absolutist despotism, in search of arms. Very quickly, Louis XVI decided to withdraw his soldiers from the city. The Estates General (now the National Assembly) was saved. Within a month, France would produce the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and proclaim the end of feudalism. A new era of human history was dawning.

Babeuf was in Paris several days after the Bastille was stormed. He was there to publish a book of his called, Cadastre Perpetuel, which was “demanding the introduction of popular education, [in addition] he guardedly contented for the need of reform if society were to be spared a rising of the poor against the rich.”[59] Babeuf applauded the storming of the Bastille by writing to his wife: “Oh, how this joy pained me. I was at once pleased and displeased. I said so much the better and so much the worse. I know the people are doing themselves justice and I approve of this justice when it is being gratified by the annihilation of the guilty. But may it not be cruel today?”[60] While Babeuf did not deny the necessity of revolutionary violence by the people, he did not uncritically celebrate violence since he believed that the people were brutalized by the monarchy.

Babeuf’s book ended up being read by very few and he stayed in Paris until August 1790. His motives for staying were not political, but according to Bax “was for the purpose of getting further work in connection with land-agency.”[61] Despite his financial problems, Babeuf could see the people of Paris and France coming to political life and was determined to play a part. He “recognized the significance of Marat who provided him with a model.”[62] Theory was now moving to action. Babeuf was briefly employed for the London-based journal, Courrier de l’Europe. Although none of Babeuf’s articles were published, some drafts do survive, which clearly locate Babeuf on the revolution’s left wing. Babeuf took clear positions on“the proposal to make the the right to vote dependent on paying a certain level of tax and recorded Robespierre’s speech in favor of universal suffrage. He was conscious of the problem of food supplies … [and] argued for price controls. He was impressed by the large number of women taking part in demonstrations … and he advocated tolerance for Jews … another theme was important to him was that of press freedom.”[63] Always central to Babeuf’s political orientation was equality and the desire to push the revolution as far as it would go. However, this journalistic venture was an abject failure and the end of feudalism threatened his very livelihood,[64] but Babeuf did not defend the old order. Rather, he celebrated the destruction of the old regime and his profession by saying: “I am myself disposed, all the same, to put my shoulder to the wheel, to bring about that which would destroy my livelihood. Egoists would call me mad, but no matter!”[65] For Babeuf, there was to be no turning back. He had crossed over from armchair theorist to revolutionary activist. Babeuf returned to Roye in October 1789, where he took part in a mass movement of resistance resistance against the injustices of feudal taxes. Babeuf’s agitation was enough to make the nobility and the wealthy of Roye send him to the Conciergerie prison in Paris in May 1790. After two months, thanks to the support of Marat, Babeuf was released from prison and returned home amidst great enthusiasm among the population.[66]

Babeuf’s revolutionary activities in Roye (which we will continue below) show that the revolution was not made solely by the bourgeoisie. While sections of the bourgeoisie in 1789 put the emphasis on equality of rights, the revolution’s “unfolding is shot through with the tensions and conflicts arising from different perceptions of what this equality might mean.”[67] As mentioned earlier, when the bourgeoisie attacked feudal property, they opened the door to the general assault on private property.

The expanding popular movement in France no doubt terrified the bourgeoisie who did all that was possible to hold it back. For instance, the Great Fear that began at the end of July 1789 was a series of peasant revolts. These revolts were fueled by the misery, destitution, and insecurity of the peasantry which had grown more acute by the economic crisis coupled with fears of an aristocratic plot and brigandage. The growing peasant revolt was “aimed principally at the aristocracy for the peasantry had every intention of achieving the abolition of feudal dues and they believed that the surest way of obtaining this end was by burning the seigneurial castles and with them the archives which they contained.”[68] The peasantry were taking charge of their own affairs and ensuring their right to life and the means of preserving it for everyone. The landlords bitterly resisted the peasantry, but the peasantry was able to gain support from the National Assembly which on August 4, 1789 abolished the feudal regime, but deprived that declaration of teeth by “retaining the redemption of feudal rights. To free themselves of rents weighing on the dues-payers, the peasants had to compensate the landlord.”[69] As Soboul points out, “among the mass of the peasantry disillusion was widespread.”[70] It would take six more peasant risings between 1789 and 1792 and the rise of the Jacobins to power for the old regime in the countryside to be irrevocably destroyed.

Yet the risings in the countryside had shown beyond any shadow of a doubt that the peasantry were taking their destiny into their own hands, even against the liberal bourgeoisie. This was also being repeated in the cities, particularly Paris, where the sans culottes were pushing the revolution forward. The sans culottes were not a single class though, but according to historian Albert Soboul was composed of “artisans, shopkeepers and merchants, journeymen and day-laborers -along with a bourgeois minority – formed a coalition against the aristocracy which represented an irresistible force. However, within this coalition there was a friction between those who, artisans and merchants enjoyed incomes from private property or industry, and those who, journeymen and day-laborers, had no other source of income save their wages.”[71] Despite these contradictions, the popular movement of the sans culottes would find itself allied to the radical bourgeois Jacobins, who were prepared to take up the demands of the sans culottes and to push the revolution to its very limits (clashing with other sections of the bourgeoisie at times) in order to secure France from external invasion and internal counterrevolution.

The sans culotte movement and the Jacobins were vocal in their condemnation of the Constitution of 1789 which “proclaimed that all citizens had the right to contribute toward making the law; but … restricted voting rights to those who owned property.”[72] Thus French society was divided between active citizens, who had full rights and passive citizens who were excluded from the political life. Citizenship and rights were secured for the wealthy. In effect, an aristocracy of money replaced that of birth.

Jacobins such as Robespierre denounced this division of French society into active and passive citizens by declaring:

are men equal in their rights, when some enjoy exclusively the right to stand for election as members of the legislative body or other public institutions, others simply the right to appoint them, and the rest are deprived of all these rights? No. Such, however, are the monstrous differences established between them by decrees that render a citizen active or passive; or half active or half passive, depending on the various degrees of fortune enabling an individual to pay three working days, or ten days of direct taxation, or a silver mark. All these provisions are therefore essentially anticonstitutional and antisocial.[73]

The sans culottes were fired by an “equality that fed their revolutionary ardor and arrayed it against the aristocracy and then against the bourgeoisie.”[74] The sans culottes had stormed the Bastille in 1789 against absolutist oppression and for a better life, not to be denied political rights. While the National Assembly denied them rights, the sans culottes created “popular societies which increased in numbers, opening a public space for information, discussion of of contemporary problems and proposals in the form of petitions.”[75] The foremost champions of the sans culottes for political rights were the Jacobins in general, and Robespierre in particular, who supported the popular societies and the expansion of the franchise.

The sans culottes were also suffering from a rise in the prices of essential goods such as bread. As bread prices rose, wages did not keep up thus making hunger an acute problem for the sans culottes. For the sans culottes, not only were they suffering from poverty and oppression by the old regime but the cost of “food absorbed most of their wages and pensions.”[76] This central role of food for the sans culottes forced them, according to Soboul “to make certain demands; they wanted to have enough bread, reasonably priced and of good quality. Hence demands for the ‘maximum’ (a price ceiling), the demand for control and continuous complaint of fraudulent practices.”[77] The Assembly did little to alleviate the high price of bread, rather they were motivated by economic liberalism to establish unlimited free trade in grain. The result was that “public markets were depleted, so the people went to the producers to get grain or stopped corn convoys traveling by road or canal in order to establish popular granaries.”[78] In response to the outbreak of popular resistance, the Assembly did not dare intervene in the workings of the market, but on July 26, 1791 they passed a marital law that “criminalized as seditious assembly all the forms the popular movement had adopted since the start of the revolution: refusal to pay feudal rents, tithes or taxes, disturbances about food opposed to the so-called freedom of trade of grain, and strikes by rural or urban wage-earners.”[79]

The popular societies and the rural and urban masses continued to hold their meetings and push for their right to live and participation in French society. By 1792, the widening democratic movement was taking “control of policy with regard to supplies, the fixing of prices of essential goods, supplies to markets and assistance to paupers … [this] programme of popular political economy was defended by the Mountain [The Jacobins].”[80] The lower classes were thus pushing the revolution farther than the leadership of the National Assembly was willing to go. This popular movement found its champions among the radical bourgeois Jacobins, who were determined to defend the gains of the revolution by destroying the monarchy and ensuring that old privileged classes should lose their power. By 1793, the Revolution was facing war with all of Europe, civil war in the Vendee and divisions in the Assembly. The situation grew so desperate that the popular movement thrust the Jacobins to power to defend the besieged republic with the extreme measures of economic centralization, terror and price controls that saved France and ensured the survival of the sans culottes.

Ultimately the Jacobins were defenders of private property, albeit with limits. As Robespierre said in 1793 when proposing property limits in a new Constitution, “property does not rest on any principle of morality. It excludes all notions of justice and injustice … .you added more and more articles to ensure the greatest liberty for the exercise of property, but said not a single word to determine its legitimate character … I suggest that you reform these faults by including the following truths. Article I. Property is the right every citizen has to enjoy and dispose of the portion of the portion of goods guaranteed to him by law … III. It cannot prejudice either the security, or the liberty, or the life, or the property of our fellows.”[81] Many of the sans culottes were small property owners, and they never questioned private property as such, but sought the ideal of a society of small property owners which “saw nothing contradictory in maintaining the private property they owned, or hoped to own, and its restrictions within the narrow limits familiar to their social position.”[82] Yet the Jacobin ideal of a society of small property owners guaranteed the right to live was incompatible with the demands of unfettered capitalism.[83]

The Jacobins and other radical bourgeoisie were not centrally involved in exploitation and the production process, and according to Neil Davidson, they did not have full class consciousness and thus “could potentially adopt more extreme revolutionary positions than the majority of actual capitalist members of their class.”[84] The Jacobins and their supporters were victims of a heroic illusion, which revealed itself once their was complete and bourgeois property relations could fully develop. Marx sums up the illusions of the Jacobins and their aftermath by saying, “but unheroic though bourgeois society is, it nevertheless needed heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war, and national wars to bring it into being. And in the austere classical traditions of the Roman Republic the bourgeois gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions, that they needed to conceal from themselves the bourgeois-limited content of their struggles and to keep their passion on the high plane of great historic tragedy.”[85] Furthermore, since the bourgeoisie, according to Davidson,

could not be the only or even necessarily the major social force involved in the revolutionary process, since it remained a minority class, if a larger one than that of the existing rulers. Its leaders, consciously or unconsciously, had to mobilize the masses under ultimately deceptive slogans of universal right, necessary for a minority class to lead the coalitions that overthrew the old regimes, but disguising or simply avoiding the fact that exploitation would continue, albeit in new forms.[86]

However, the masses of people “who threw themselves into the Revolution were not simply fighting the bourgeoisie’s battles unawares. They did not, as Daniel Guerin puts it, ‘take the offensive with the intention of making a ‘bourgeois revolution.’ They were making their own revolution and their enemy was privilege and oppression, whether clerical, noble or bourgeois in form.”[87]

Yet the end result, as Marx put it, was that while

the bourgeoisie was victorious in these revolutions, but the victory of the bourgeoisie was at that time the victory of a new social order, the victory of bourgeois ownership over feudal ownership, of nationality over provincialism, of competition over the guild, of partitioning (of the land] over primogeniture, of the rule of the landowner over the domination of the owner by the land, of enlightenment over superstition, of the family over the family name, of industry over heroic idleness, of bourgeois law over medieval privileges.[88]

In the end, the way was opened in France to the expansion of capitalist property relations, despite the intentions of the popular masses who were deeply engaged in this struggle. Still if the ultimate results of the French Revolution was the unimpeded rule of capital and if the Jacobin ideal was unrealizable, what were the oppressed classes supposed to do with 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.”[89] Babeuf would step in here and attempt to overcome the contradictions opened by the French Revolution between the right to live and the needs of capitalist development by realizing that it would take the abolition of private property (the root cause of inequality) and developing the practice to achieve the common happiness. Babeuf was not a utopian, rather he saw communism as a practical ideal and developed the necessary political instruments to bring it forth. And it is here that we now need to show Babeuf navigating his way through the shifting currents of the French Revolution as he reached this conclusion.

III. Picardy

Babeuf stayed in Picardy until early 1793, becoming deeply involved in the growing tax rebellion against the old feudal privileges that was spilling over to open revolt. According to Ian Birchall, Babeuf “played a leading role in a campaign in support of local inn-keepers against the tax – aides – on drinks; these complex, multiple taxes were particular unpopular with producers, retailers and customers.”[90] Babeuf was also allied with the peasantry and campaigned against the “champart, a tax in kind whereby local lords took a certain proportion of the peasants’ crops -say one sheaf in twelve, or more. The peasants claimed with some justification that this right had expired with the Revolution.”[91] He was also pushing for the “division of commons among those who looked to him for leadership.”[92] The resentment against indirect taxation was so acute in Picardy that it “found expression in the cahiers of the nobility and the Third Estate of Peronne, even though many among the clergy, nobility, and bourgeois who were responsible for the their drafting were privileged and personally more or less exempt from the full weight of the aides and other taxes.”[93] Thus Babeuf found fertile ground to engage in concrete revolutionary struggle and further refine his ideas.

One of Babeuf’s major efforts was to develop a new style of radical journalism that would “not merely instruct from above, but also to act as a a vehicle for pressures from below.”[94] This attempt was expressed in developing the journal known as le Correspondant Picard, which, although a financial failure, laid the foundation for Babeuf’s later journalistic efforts.[95] Babeuf had a portion of le Correspondant Picard set aside for “local correspondence, intended as a free forum for the discussion of ideas.”[96] Babeuf also learned the value of democratic petitions. For example, in the municipality of Mery the peasants refused to pay their feudal dues. In setting out the petition, Babeuf justified the peasantry’s refusal to pay their dues “by way of a general attack on seignueral property … [by way of] a more empirical and historical perspective of the origins of feudalism … [where] all feudal rights had, thus, been established by fraud and usurpation.”[97] Although the push against feudal property was in line with the growing peasant revolts across France, Babeuf argued for going much further. He believed “that the National Assembly must nationalize all fiefs and seigneuries.”[98] Thus Babeuf was going past what even the radical wing of the revolution was advocating at this point. It would not be until the National Assembly passed the law of July 17, 1793 that feudal property was compensated without any compensation.

In the anti-tax campaign, Babeuf’s strength as an agitator is coming to the fore. According to Rose, Babeuf “revealed an almost instinctive genius for linking the theoretical and the practical … His invariable technique in tackling any specific local issue was to shift the discussion immediately to the plane of general principles, and in drafting a petition to a specific body … to appeal to the the public at large through propaganda and publicity to secure immediate practical support but also (and more importantly) to educate and to proselytize.”[99] Although Babeuf hadn’t developed the appropriate political organization or to base himself on a concrete social agent for change, his use of a newspaper/journal as an agitator would be a present in his future revolutionary efforts. In fact, Babeuf’s use of a newspaper prefigures that of Lenin who would say that “the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”[100] Through Babeuf’s efforts in Picardy, we thus see the foundations of how future socialists and communists would use the popular press in a revolutionary manner.

Two other questions also came to preoccupy him in Picardy, that of democracy and property. For Babeuf, democracy was not just about electing representatives, but is a part of a continual process of supervision and accountability of representatives to ensure they remained faithful to the demands of the people. For instance, he was deeply critical of the deputy from Roye, named Prevost, who “was one of the of the most conservative among the representatives of the Third Estate. Babeuf tried to get up a petition to demand the recall of Prevost.”[101] Babeuf’s “practical advocacy of the mechanisms of direct democracy (the popular initiative, mandate, referendum, and recall) indicates the region in which … the solution might be found.”[102] He also wanted debates on proposed laws to be held publicly and for those laws subject to the people’s scrutiny. Needless to say, Babeuf’s belief in direct democracy made him extremely critical of the division of French society into active and passive citizens. Babeuf said of the passive citizens, that they are “excluded from public employment, deprived of the right to participate in the election of our leaders and of any part in deliberations on matters of common concern, in a word victims of more contempt than the insolence of the rich ever dared to pour on unhappy virtue.”103 Babeuf also believed that until passive citizens, “ have regained possession of them [our natural rights], we declare ourselves to be exempted from the slightest duty towards the fatherland that rejects us, exempted from all military service, exempted from any taxation, direct or indirect, and if that does not suffice, we shall also exempt ourselves from using the labor of our hands for anyone who does not belong to the order of the patards [the extreme poor].”[103] Babeuf was advocating the right of the people to insurrection in order to gain the natural rights which the government denied them.

Babeuf’s attack on feudal property left him open to the charge supporting the agrarian law. The agrarian law was “a general redistribution of the property of the rich among the poor.”[104] Such a law was deeply frowned upon by the nobility and the bourgeoisie, who did not want their property touched. However, Babeuf did not support the agrarian law rather, he favored the common ownership of land, however he was inconsistent with this position, supporting the agrarian law as a tactical measure in the direction of equality. For instance, in correspondence with Coupe, a fellow radical and a legislator, Babeuf offered tactical support for the agrarian law and “painted a picture of an idyllic future society of independent householders, each firmly anchored in security to a basic inalienable patrimony of land large enough to ensure a minimum subsistence, and for the satisfaction of the rest of their needs exchanging the fruits of their labors on the basis of the equal valuation of all work.”[105] Now on the one hand, this advocacy of small peasant proprietorship may appear a step backwards, but it could be interpreted differently since, according to Birchall, “he welcomed any popular demand that moved in the direction of equality.”[106] While Babeuf had the ultimate end goal of the common happiness in mind, according to Rose, “he was still prepared to accept the temporary necessity of something nearer to the minimum program as a transitional measure. The two aspects of Babeuf’s thought, the speculative and the practical, were now closer and more directly linked; but they still remained separate and distinct.”[107] Later in 1795 and 1796, agitation in support of the 1793 Jacobin Constitution would provide the bridge between the minimum and maximum programmes. What we see here is a young man learning to experiment and develop the ideas and educate the popular movement in a communist direction. Babeuf was showing a keen sense of organization and strategy. If Babeuf was at times inconsistent in his positions, notably the agrarian law, we can only ask what other revolutionaries have not changed their positions in the midst of a revolution as dictated by concrete circumstances?

In 1792, as the situation in France was worsening with galloping inflation, riots over food and war with Austria and Prussia, Babeuf was elected to local office. His platform was one of support “for a republic and for ‘pure democracy’ with referendum and recall.”[108] He also supported the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen with three amendments: universal suffrage, free state education and and the right to subsistence for every citizen.[109] This was not an avowedly revolutionary program, but fell within the larger Jacobin orbit and Babeuf, according to Rose, “ still believed that that the way to the achievement of the ultimate goal lay through a limited political reform.”[110] While in office, Babeuf zealously preformed his duties such as “persecuting the emigres and preventing them from evading the sequestration of their property. At the news of the execution of Louis XVI, he inspired a political autodafe of twelve royal portraits and of other royal paraphernalia. He discovered a conspiracy to surrender Peronne to the enemy and checked a famine organized by the counter-revolutionists.”[111] Despite the diligence with which Babeuf took his duties, “it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Babeuf’s dedication to his new role was anything less than entirely genuine- and that caught up in the exciting day-to-day challenge of holding revolutionary power, he had for the moment, relegated the ultimate dream of social revolution to the distant future.”[112] Still, Babeuf was clearly on the revolutionary left and his clear advocacy of the popular interest had already earned him enemies among the propertied classes and they waited for the opportunity to discredit and remove this agitator from office.

That chance came during a dispute about the ownership of public farmland, Babeuf changed the name of of a purchaser on an official document and replaced it with another name. Babeuf had engaged in forgery and regardless of his (undoubtedly sincere) desire to serve the people, this was a serious charge and his enemies had every intention of prosecuting him. However, Babeuf planned to correct this error, and according to Bax, he immediately “repaired to Amiens to justify himself for what was undoubtedly due to an accidental negligence, but there he was at once arrested on the charge of forgery in connection with the affair. Probably aware that he was not likely to have a fair trial, Babeuf profited by an opportunity which offered itself for escape from his gaolers.”[113] Babeuf left Roye for Paris in early 1793 to escape the unpleasant fate of prison. Babeuf’s experience of the vibrant popular movement in Paris that would crown itself in the Republic of Virtue would leave definite traces upon him.

IV. The Republic of Virtue

In early 1793, the newly formed French Republic had just executed Louis XVI and was now fighting for its life against Europe and internal counter-revolution. The call for war had initially been supported by the conservative sections of the bourgeoisie in the Assembly, notably the Girondin faction. They had hoped that a foreign war would distract France from solving its pressing internal problems. Robespierre was almost alone in arguing against the declaration of war which, according to Bernstein, “would pervert the aims of the revolution … divert the people from immediate objectives, fulfill the purpose of ambitious men and invite the return of reaction.”[114] However, when war was declared in April 1792, Robespierre and the Jacobins moved to support the government and “called for a people’s war. The internal enemy had to be fought as much as the foreign one. The internal enemy had secretly prepared the war and looked upon the Revolution as the great occasion for acquiring power.”[115] Although the Girondin wanted a war to prevent radical changes in France, the war would go badly for France, producing deeply radical changes in the country. When France declared war, they were not only facing the combined armies of Europe, but treason in their own ranks. For example, General Dumouriez, the commander of French forces in Belgium, went over to the Austrians in April, leading to a stunning military reversal. Very soon, the forces of the enemy were “taking the war on to the soil of France, and at the very moment when the recruitment of three hundred thousand was unleashing internal revolt in the Vendee.”[116] The end result would be not be the forestalling of radical changes in France itself, but in fact the triumph, tragedy and glory of the Jacobin Republic of Virtue.

Although the Girondin had pushed for war, they were not willing to do what it took to win,which was popular mobilization to defend revolutionary gains at home and repel the enemy abroad. The invasion of France, the economic crisis, free trade in grain and the continued existence of feudal property was not challenged by the Girondin. According to Albert Soboul, the Jacobins believed that “the declaration of war would necessitate the arming of passive citizens and the regeneration of public mindedness among the people.”[117] The treason of Dumouriez and the disastrous foreign invasion had revealed ineptitude of the Girondin to the masses and the Jacobins. A massive sans culottes revolt,at the end of May of 1793 replaced the Girondins by the firm resolve of the Jacobin club. The Republic of Virtue, the most radical phase of the French Revolution, had arrived.

For unlike the leadership of later Marxist revolutions, which were composed of the proletariat and/or the peasant in opposition to the bourgeoisie and the nobility, the Jacobins were a section of “the liberal middle class [which] was prepared to remain revolutionary up to and beyond the brink of anti-bourgeois revolution.”[118] The Jacobins established a new Constitution that made France a democratic and social republic with full manhood suffrage, although it was suspended and was not going to be put into effect until peace was declared.[119] The laws of 1791 which had punished the popular movement for interfering with the grain trade, curtailed political clubs, and punished those who refused to pay feudal taxes were abolished. On July 17, 1793, the Jacobins passed a law that abolished feudal property titles without any compensation to their previous owners.[120] No French government, even during the Restoration would alter this law. In February 1794, in response to a massive slave revolt in Haiti, the Jacobins abolished slavery throughout all the territories governed by the Republic.

The Jacobins also had two other major problems to overcome if they were to safeguard the revolution: provisioning the army and feeding the people. To tackle the food problem, in September 1793 the Jacobins passed the law of the maximum where a “list of essential foodstuffs was drawn up, prices of commercial profits were fixed in relation to urban and rural wages which were increased, and markets were controlled by the creation of public granaries in each commune.”[121] The law of the maximum and the imposition of a controlled economy went against the free trade, which many Jacobins believed in. However, due to the necessities of war and to maintain their alliance with the sans culottes, the Jacobins were willing to compromise their professed beliefs in the free market to secure the revolution. And as long as the maximum was in place, the people of Paris were assured a supply of bread. As one carpenter remarked during the Directory, when the Jacobins were overthrown and the maximum was abolished by free trade, “under Robespierre, blood ran and we had bread; today blood does not run and we don’t have any bread.”[122] For the lower classes, according to Bernstein, the Republic “would bring comfort to the poor, plenty to the hungry, property to the propertyless and peace and security to all. In some minds republicanism was synonymous with a vague socialism and communism … There will be neither rich nor poor in the land of freedom.”[123] Although Babeuf would push past the radical Jacobinism of 1793-4 in many respects, there is no denying the impact of “this rich experience of economic, social and political democracy … [which] inspired the project which Babeuf and the Equals put forward in 1795-6.”[124] Yet a great deal of the impetus for a controlled economy was done out of sheer necessity to provide for national defense since “to arm and feed huge numbers of men who would fulfill the conscription lists … it was absolutely necessary to impose a controlled economy.”[125] The Jacobins accomplished their herculean task by the Summer of 1794. By this time, the armies of the Republic was one of the greatest fighting forces in the world that had crushed counterrevolutionary revolts in the provinces and was on the offensive, advancing into Belgium against the monarchs of Europe.

However, one aspect of Jacobin rule seems to overshadow that of all others: the decision to use Terror against enemies of the revolution.[126] For revisionist historians of our day, notably Francois Furet and Simon Schama, the Jacobin Terror is nothing more than the precursor to 1917 and the gulag. It should be stated forthwith that the Terror was absolutely necessary to purge France of counterrevolutionaries and aristocrats, attack speculation, and was necessary to channel the rage of the people.

The origins of the Terror can be traced to the murder of the popular revolutionary journalist Jean-Paul Marat. Marat’s death on July 13, 1793 by a counterrevolutionary royalist had meant to destroy one of the symbols of the revolution, but the assassination according to Soboul, “provided the Montagne with new found strength and gave new life to the revolutionary movement. For Marat was very popular among the sans culottes for whose welfare he had shown a deep-seated concern and sympathy. His murder caused great anger and bitterness, and to the desire for vengeance was added the demand for measures of public safety.”[127] The impetus for the Terror also came from the sans culottes and the workers who had suffered under the old regime, who had friends and family fighting on various battle fronts and were fearful of plotting by the counter-revolution. The popular classes demanded immediate punishment of the enemies of the revolution, while the Jacobins were slow in taking up the call for terror.[128]

When the Jacobins began the Terror, it was not to institute a bloodbath, but rather to contain the popular rage exploding from below (as evidenced by the September Massacres). According to Sophie Wahnich, the Jacobins sought to channel feelings of rage into the “establishment of a specific mechanism that aimed on the contrary to pacify it.”[129] The Terror was “thus a desperate and despairing attempt to constrain both political crime and the legitimate popular violence that could result from it.”[130] The Jacobins thus quickly set up the laws and mechanisms by which to carry out the Terror,from above and to prevent an uncontrollable popular explosion from below. According to Georges Danton, “let us be terrible, to save the people from being so”

The feelings of fear which inspired the Terror, such as counterrevolutionary plots did not exist in the minds of deluded fanatics. They were all too real. In 1793, a royalist and Catholic army had turned the Vendee was engaged in fighting the armies of the Republic and had turned the province to flames.[131] In Lyons, Marseilles, and Toulin royalists who had seized control promptly massacred republicans.[132] In fact, the worst of the Terror did not occur in Paris, which was firmly in revolutionary control, but in regions that were held by the counter-revolution or where fighting with the enemy was at its most intense.[133] The Terror was the expression of an emergency government fighting for its life in a war against an enemy who had proven that they would show no mercy if victorious.

The Terror also had a very clear economic motives, since it “sanctioned the application of the maximum, which had guaranteed the people their daily bread.”[134] Considering that the people of Paris and the armies needed food if they were going to live and defend the Republic, it only made natural sense to go after speculators and hoarders (who cared more for profit than the right of the people to live). The Jacobins did this in order not to break their alliance with the sans culottes and imperil the Republic. This policy was a success, for example, in Paris, the Commune “controlled the distribution of goods, especially through the introduction of ration cards for bread; it also authorized the sectional commissioners for investigating hoarding to proceed to make visits to people’s homes; and it attempted to see that the fixed prices were adhered to by restoring to acts of repression.”[135] Although the current patrons of the free market would have us frown on price controls and central planning, we should do well to remember that the Terror and the maximum allowed for the French Republic to feed its people and defeat its adversaries on the battlefield.

And those who have only words of condemnation for the Jacobin Terror almost always forget the violence of the counter-revolution and the old regime which preceded it and was a thousand times more severe. History seems to remember a single privileged noble who suffered the legitimate vengeance of the people, as opposed to the millions of French people lived under terror, misery and degradation the old regime. When judging the Terror of the French Revolution, we would do well to keep in mind these words of Mark Twain:

There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror — that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.[136]

Babeuf would find himself shaped by the experience and legacy of the Republic of Virtue. There would be certain aspects of it that he would uphold ( Babeuf defended, with qualifications, the rule of Robespierre) and others that he would reject (the defense of private property found in the Constitution of 1793). Babeuf’s agitation showed continuities with the practice with Jacobins, but there discontinuity as he developed in a new direction of communist practice.

V. Paris

By the time Babeuf arrived in Paris in February of 1793, Girondin rule was approaching its end. The Girondin faction had shown their sheer ineptitude at conducting the war and providing basic necessities for the people. When Babeuf arrived in Paris in February 1793 , he entered a new world of vibrant revolutionary politics with powerful section clubs that was propelling the Jacobins forward with ever more radical measures, against the Girondins who had shown their ineptitude in waging the war and indifference to the people’s need for bread. As mentioned earlier, one of the chief demands of the sans culottes, with all their differing class interests, was for “reasonably stable food prices [which] were essential for survival.”[137] The sans culottes were also fired by a revolutionary zeal to fight for the Republic and reshape society which Babeuf found infectious. He later wrote to his wife, “this is exciting to me to the point of madness. The sans culottes want to be happy, and I don’t think it is impossible that within a year, if we carry out our measures aright and act with all necessary prudence, we shall succeed in ensuring general happiness on earth.”[138] Babeuf quickly found himself in the larger Jacobin movement, albeit on its left-wing.

Babeuf endeavored to make contacts with the revolution’s left. His first political connection in Paris was with a man (of dubious reputation) named Claude Fournier l’Heritier.[139] Fournier was one of the moving forces behind the Legion of People’s Volunteers, who were “an elite corps of revolutionary superpatriots who were to be raised among the volunteers of Paris.”[140] Babeuf worked with Fournier as a secretary where “he drafted several petitions and pamphlets for him.”[141] The legion was closely aligned with another group known as the Defenders of the Republic who “acted as revolutionary ‘stormtroopers,’ stopping ‘unpatriotic’ theater performances and forcibly evicting ;suspect elements’ from the cafes of the Palais Royal. Politically the Defenders threw their weight behind the developing Enrage campaign for action to check inflation and punish speculators.”[142] Considering Babeuf’s own role in attacking speculation and in support of price controls in Picardy, he naturally supported the same measures in Paris. One of the chief movements in Paris in pursuit of price controls were The Enrages. The Enrages were a radical section of the Parisian sans culottes, who were behind several riots in support of the enforcement of the maximum for bread at a price the people could afford. During the uprising of May 30 that brought the Jacobins to power, the Enrages had a maximum program that “included a general massacre of [Girondin] deputies and a merciless war on the rich.”[143]The Jacobins were able to take up the popular demands for price controls and come to power in May. However, the Jacobins were not willing to support the Enrages’ extremist calls and eventually had them arrested in August 1793.

After Babeuf left his job with Fournier in April, he did not join up with the Enrages,[144] rather he aligned himself to the Jacobins. According to Rose, Babeuf was also “impressed by Robespierre’s emergence as a fierce critic of the unlimited right of property during the the contemporary Convention debate on the new French constitution ”[145] To Babeuf, the Jacobins were the best defenders of the popular interest and for the enforcement of the maximum. However, Babeuf did share the Enrages’ criticism of the maximum since both believed the price of bread should be lowered “to a price all can afford.”[146]
In May, thanks to his support of the Jacobins, Babeuf managed to secure a position in the Commission des subsistences, which administered the Parisian food supplies. As Birchall points out, this was a crucial experience for Babeuf who “saw food supplies, not from the point of view of the rural food producers, but from that of urban consumers. He became aware of the poverty of the urban masses, and his awareness changed his conception of social change.”[147] Indeed, the central control of the Jacobin economy would figure prominently in Babeuf’s later thinking and shape his criticism of the evils of the unregulated free market or as he called it, competition .

Although the Commission was involved in the monumental task of feeding the population; it was caught in a vice between “the population- with its pathological distrust of … anyone who had anything to do with the bread supply … and, on the other hand, the granary areas, resentful of the maximum and politically hostile to the pretensions of the capital.”[148] One such attack by the popular was directed against Babeuf’s superior in the commission, a man named Etienne-Francois Garin. Babeuf ably took up the defense of Garin by writing a number of pamphlets, since his superior was a firm defender of the maximum. Garin was criticized Marat for corruption in his enforcement of the maximum.[149] Garin was also coming under attack from Jacques Roux (for not going far enough to attack speculators), a central figure of the Enrages and Roux’s attacks “ undoubtedly helped to widen the political gulf between Babeuf and the Enrages.”[150]

Although Babeuf performed his job in the commission well, the forgery charge from Picardy caught up with him. Since Babeuf had already been convicted in abstentia by a Picardy court, the government removed him from his position and on November 14 he was sent to serve prison term of twenty years. Babeuf suffered in horrible prison conditions, nearly dying of fever but he managed to survive. Despite the serious of the charge, Babeuf’s family and friends stood by him. Babeuf was successfully able to appeal his conviction and “On the 28th Floreal (18th of July 1794), however, the judges of the supreme tribunal of the Aisne, at Laon, on examination of the evidence, unanimously declared that there was no case on which to proceed against the accused. Thus Babeuf’s honour was finally rehabilitated.”[151] A mere ten days after his release from jail, Robespierre and leading Jacobins were overthrown and guillotined in a coup known as the Thermidor (the name of the month of the revolutionary calendar in which the coup it occurred). It would be under the post-Jacobin regime that Babeuf’s communist practice would finally coalesce.

VI. Thermidor

In the aftermath of the Thermidorian coup Babeuf would fully develop his program, build the alliances and develop the political organization and identify the social agents needed to achieve communism. However, in order to fully understand Babeuf’s political practice during the Thermidor, we need to ask ourselves two questions: (1) why did the Jacobins fall? (2) what was the nature of the regime that Babeuf challenged?

In regards to question one, we have already discussed that the Jacobins, in order to defend and consolidate the revolution had to transgress its bourgeois limitations. The Jacobins violated the free market in favor of price controls, enlarged the franchise, used terror against the counter-revolution and secured an alliance with the sans culottes by supporting their radical demands. Ultimately, according to Antonio Gramsci, the Jacobins,

despite everything, always remained on bourgeois grounds is demonstrated by the events which marked their end, as a party cast in too specific and inflexible a mould, and by the death of Robespierre. Maintaining the Le Chapelier law, they were not willing to concede to the workers the right to combination; as a consequence they had to pass the law of the maximum. They thus broke the Paris urban bloc: their assault forces, assembled in the Commune, dispersed in disappointment, and Thermidor gained the upper hand. The Revolution had found its widest class limits.[152]

Although Jacobins such as Robespierre believed that their efforts were motivated by the belief in virtue, which “was none other than love of the homeland and its laws”[153] that would establish a new society of small property owners. These property owners would then be guided by the virtues of serving the nation and not their own class interests. According to Georges Lefebvre, among the Jacobins “there was no awareness that, in contradiction to freedom of competition within the economy which made the future safe for capitalist enterprise, this ideal could not be realized.”[154] The Jacobins would go no farther than restricting the rights of property and not its abolition. Robespierre dismissed a communism or a system of common ownership by saying that an “equality of possessions is a chimera.”[155] In the end, the very success of the Jacobins in saving the revolution would find that the bourgeoisie, now free to develop capitalism had no need of a small property owning republic guided by virtue.

While the Jacobins enforced a price maximum on bread, they also extended the maximum to wages which in the words of Ian Birchall meant “an effective wage cut for many workers who had pushed up wage levels in the context of war economy. By attacking the emergent working class, the Jacobin government was cutting away the branch that it was seated upon.”[156] Even as the Jacobins adopted many of the measures of the sans culottes, at the same time, “Robespierre began a crackdown on sans culottes organizations – in mid-September [1793] Jacques was arrested; in October Claire Lacombe’s Society of Revolutionary Republican Women was dissolved; and finally, in March, Hebert and several others were guillotined.”[157] Robespierre also feared those among the Jacobins who could destroy the revolution by putting their own narrow needs above the greater good. This characterization applied to Georges Danton, who was “a man capable of enormous revolutionary courage and enthusiasm, but also attracted by the rewards available from mixing with dubious wealthy figures.”[158] When Danton formed a faction around himself in January/February of 1794, Robespierre feared for the safety of the revolution and had him arrested and executed.[159] Thus Robespierre and the Jacobins were growing isolated not merely from the sans culottes and those farther left, but also from members in their own faction.

By the Summer of 1794, the armies of the French Republic were victorious on nearly all fronts. The emergency situation which threatened the revolution had now seemingly passed. According to Soboul, victory for the Republic created meant that “business interests among the bourgeoisie were unwilling to tolerate government control of the economy; they wanted as quickly as possible to return to total liberty of production and exchange which they had gained from the revolution of 1789. They also feared possible attacks on their property rights.”[160]The attitude of the bourgeoisie showed that the Jacobins were isolated not only from the sans culottes, now reduced to impotence, but members of their own class. It was now the turn of the Jacobins to be swept aside. The climax came on the 9th Thermidor, Year II (27th of July 1794), when Robespierre was overthrown as the masses watched passively and a new regime took over.

In regards to the social significance of the coup, Leon Trotsky says that the “overturn of the Ninth Thermidor did not liquidate the basic conquests of the bourgeois revolution, but it did transfer the power into the hands of the more moderate and conservative Jacobins, the better-to-do elements of bourgeois society.”[161] The rule of capital was enshrined and protected by the Thermidorians, who saw themselves as a regime of law, order, property and stability.[162] The Thermidorians, feared the popular masses, Jacobin economic controls, now wanted to ensure that they could at last enjoy their wealth without worrying about popular upheaval or the demands of virtue. The Thermidorians, over the next two years, undid the popular conquests of the revolution as “democratic institutions were dismantled, the Commune of Paris was abolished and democratic representatives were purged. The policy of the maximum was rescinded, the unlimited freedom of trade was reestablished and the food weapon became lethal.”[163] Without the maximum, the population of Paris suffered horribly from rampant inflation of basic necessities. According to Bernstein, as

from 1790 to 1795, a bushel of flour rose from two francs to 225 francs, of beans and peas from four francs to 120 and 130 francs each. In September, 1795, bread was selling at twenty francs a pound. Two months later it shot up to forty and sixty francs. A load of wood cost eight hundred francs and a pair of boots twelve hundred francs. Wages could never keep pace with such a rise in prices.[164]

The rise in food prices was accompanied by “the substitution of one worthless paper franc for another [which] only prolonged the suffering of the poor.”[165] The result for the French sans culottes was that “by 1795, the economic situation of the poor had become more critical. Paris was threatened with famine. The abolition of the maximum and the execution of Robespierre were not followed by the prosperity which the politicians had promised. On the contrary, abuses became more numerous, food arrived in Paris with less regularity and the lines in front of bakeries and butcher shops grew more turbulent. The women particularly became clamorous. It was they who had to wait long hours on line to procure the ration of a half- pound of bread. Their protests grew louder as food became scarcer.”[166] For the sans culottes, the situation in Paris (and elsewhere in France) was growing ever volatile with the spectre of famine and unemployment. The poor were looking back on the Republic of Virtue (which they had created) as a golden age where the virtue was upheld, when they had been able to live in security and afford to eat and enemies of the revolution had been swiftly punished.[167]

To further prove how far the Thermidor was from the Ideals of the Republic of Virtue, in October 1795, a new Constitution was put in place. The new Constitution that vested power in a five-man Directory and limited the right to vote to those who were wealthy enough to pay taxes.[168] The class interests defended by the Constitution were made clear by its drafter Boissy d’Anglas, who said, “we must be governed by the best, the best are the most educated, and you will only find such men among those who own property, are attached to the country which contains it and to the laws which protect it.”[169] Babouvist conspirator Philippe Buonarroti said bitterly that the Constitution of 1795 “preserve[s] opulence and misery – such is the spirit which pervades every sentence of it.”[170] In The Constitution, according to Lefebvre showed its break with the earlier egalitarian documents of the Revolution by “omitt[ing] the famous article, ‘men are born and remain free and equal in rights,’ because of the dangerous implications. Care was taken to specify that ‘equality means that the law is the same for all men.’ Also lacking were the articles of the Declaration of 1793 that justified social democracy. It goes without saying that economic liberty was expressly confirmed.”[171] This Constitution would remain a target of the Babouvists in exposing the class nature and anti-democratic nature of Thermidoran France. The Babouvists would (critically) uphold the Jacobin Constitution of 1793 as a document that ensured social justice and democratic rights.

The Thermidorian regime was one of open assault on the sans culottes, working class, and their democratic conquests while rights and rights were reserved for the wealthy few. Babeuf would challenge the Thermidor by uniting the pressing immediate needs of the suffering masses with a vision of a n equal society that would see farther than the glories of Year II. While Babeuf was animated by the great democratic and popular upheavals of 1789 and 1793, he believed that the ideals of the French Revolution (liberty, equality, and fraternity) could not be realized by the Directory or under any regime that protected inequality. Rather, the realization of those ideals would require the overthrow of the bourgeois order and all class society.[172] Babeuf’s confrontation with the Directory would unite the scattered radical and republican opposition in a new body of truth. Even if the goal of this truth was unrealizable, due to immature objective and subjective conditions, Babeuf’s failed struggle would create the conditions for future revolutionary struggles and victories.

VII. ‘If you want a civil war, you can have it’

Following the overthrow of Robespierre, Babeuf initially maintained a vacillating attitude toward the Thermidor. In fact, he welcomed the fall of the Jacobins wholeheartedly. In September 1794, when he returned to Paris, Babeuf founded a new paper de la liberte de la presse, which according to Bax, “seem[s] to have been directed against the party of Robespierre and the old revolutionary government. He was indeed at this time on terms of intimacy with several of the Thermidorian leaders, notably Tallien and Fouché, who subsequently became his bitter enemies. ”[173] Babeuf took up analyzing the Jacobins in his paper. He said in criticizing the Jacobins that “we did indeed make a revolution five years ago; but we must have the good faith to recognize that since then we have allowed a counterrevolution to take place; and this later event dates precisely from the time when we permitted the first encroachments on the freedom of opinion, whether spoken or written. Thermidor makes the date since when we have been working for the rebirth of freedom.”[174] Babeuf’s position was one of attacking the Jacobins from the left, since they had stifled freedom of the press and believing that the new regime would bring about the freedom that Robespierre had betrayed. Naturally, Babeuf’s position angered those Jacobins still at liberty.

While Babeuf was a leftist critic Jacobins from the left, his critique should be taken more seriously that his contemporaries. For instance, Babeuf’s collaborators on de la liberte de la presse were former Jacobins who were cynical sellouts to the new regime in power. Babeuf’s criticisms of the Jacobins was different, he was not seeking a place in the new Thermidorian order by renouncing the revolutionary dream and succumbing to the temptations of power, rather his critique of the Jacobins (and ultimately of the Directory) was part of the development of a new communist political practice.

Babeuf was harshly critical of the Jacobins for “the espirit dominateur in men, the tendency of those who govern to seek to impose their arbitrary will on the governed.”[175] This spirit of domination was exemplified in Babeuf’s eyes by Robespierre. However, in assessment of Robespierre Babeuf would “distinguish two persons, that is, Robespierre the sincere patriot and lover of principle up to the beginning of 1793 and the ambitious Robespierre, a tyrant and the worst of scoundrels after that date: this Robespierre, I say, when he was a citizen, is perhaps the best source for great truths and forceful arguments for the rights of the press.”[176] For Babeuf, a major failing of Robespierre and the Jacobins was that they did not uphold the values of democracy and freedom of the press. By contrast, he sincerely believed that the Directory would help the people “reclaim their lost liberties.”[177]

Babeuf says that the masses supported the Jacobin dictatorship and did not resist the infringements on their liberties because “ they did not lack the most necessary goods, there was plenty of work available and the remuneration of all workers was advantageous. By this means it was possible to stabilize the tyranny.”[178] Although Babeuf’s criticisms of the Jacobins were sincere, according to Birchall he went too far and “there is no doubt that he seriously underestimated both the social achievements of Jacobin rule and the severity of the threat to the Revolution that had made it necessary.”[179] As Babeuf witnessed the profound suffering of the masses under the Thermidor and as he moved into opposition, he would maintain continuity with key aspects of the Jacobin traditions, while his discontinuity would be in the development a unique communist practice.

It did not take Babeuf long to see the true nature of the Thermidor. After return to Paris, Babeuf joined the Electoral Club which was composed Enrages and Hebertists. Babeuf used his paper as part of a broader campaign to demand the revival of “a democratic sans culotte and sectionnaire movement.”[180] In early September, the Club sent a petition to the Convention “demanding the complete freedom of the press and the popular election of all public officials. The petition was not heeded, but the Club did not surrender. It sent another delegation to the Convention to urge not only repeal of the laws on food speculation and on requisitions – a demand to which Babeuf did not subscribe – but also the restoration of the communal government with its democratic assemblies and the practical application of the principles of the Rights of Man.”[181] It quickly dawned upon Babeuf that “the 9th Thermidor … was not a revolution; it was only a change of rulers.”[182] Babeuf reproached the Directory for a host of crimes against the people and the revolution such as “price rises, laws to benefit emigrees, sacking of patriots, revival of prostitution and superstition.”[183]

The democratic revival was supported by many section clubs in Paris and also fueled by the economic crisis and a mass movement against the empty promises of the Directory. Although the democratic campaign would prove to be a failure, it did represent a breakthrough in the development of Babeuf’s political strategy. As Rose explains, “throughout the early years of the Revolution, democratic political thought … had been dominated by naïve Rousseauist conceptions of popular sovereignty and the general will. According to these ideas, the undifferentiated mass of the people, in its natural goodness, could be relied upon to impose its will through the machinery of section and commune assemblies, and, in the last resort, through ‘holy insurrection.’”[184] What was Babeuf’s specific breakthrough? Well, he moved to support for a faction which would “come to to represent for Babeuf a concrete organization with the essential attributes of a democratic political party … it was to the popular societies that Babeuf looked as the as fundamental cells of the democratic organization.”[185] It is here that Babeuf finally began to reach for the answer to the questions that had dogged him in his criticisms of Malby, Rousseau, and Collignan, how to connect means and ends. Although he is still feeling his way towards the solution, Babeuf stumbled upon the need for a revolutionary political organization to seize power. This idea would develop and deepen further in the course of Babeuf’s practical struggle.

Since Babeuf was proposing transforming the political clubs in Paris into a political party, it remains to be asked: what was this just an elitist party or something else? Far from being an elitist (as many historians often portray him), Babeuf was arguing for a wide-range democracy in the operation of a party. He believed that “all formalities of entry, membership and organization must be abandoned.”[186] As a firm believer in equality, Babeuf wanted the marginalized to participate and develop their talents and since “it is from his mouth that the best truths, the best accounts of the general interest will emerge.”[187] He also broke with the largely masculine Jacobin tradition and argued for the involvement of women by saying, “Let your womenfolk participate in the interests of the fatherland; they can do more than you think for posterity.”[188] While the political clubs would not implement these ideas (since they were crushed by the Directory), Babeuf proposed practice of a political party prefigures the best of the later revolutionary Marxist tradition.[189]

Babeuf also believed that newspapers had an important role to play in a revolutionary political organization. In Picardy, he had developed a revolutionary press that linked immediate concerns of the people to the larger social questions about how power and wealth was distributed . Further, Babeuf had seen the role of a newspaper as an educator and proselytizer among the people. When Babeuf founded a new paper on October 5, Tribun du Peuple, he expanded on the previous model. Just by looking at the name of this paper, we can see the role that Babeuf envisioned for the press in the revolutionary struggle. In calling his paper, Tribun du Peuple, Babeuf was harkening back to an institution of ancient Rome that preserved and protected the interests of the poor plebeians from the rich patricians: The Tribune of the People. The role of the Tribune was discussed by Rousseau in the Social Contract (Babeuf was no doubt familiar with the basic argument), “although [the tribune] is unable to do anything, it can prevent everything. It is more sacred and more revered as a defender of the laws than the prince who executes them and the sovereign who gives them. This was clearly apparent in Rome when the proud patricians, who always scorned the entire populace, were forced to bow before a humble official of the people, who had neither auspices nor jurisdiction.”[190] Babeuf’s paper would help play the role of Tribune amongst the poor plebeians and make the politicians and patricians of the Thermidor bow to the interests bow before their interests.

However, the Thermidorians were showed no signs of listening. In October, the Directory moved against the democratic movement by launching an “n offensive against the popular societies. New regulations were decreed requiring popular societies to declare a list of their members, and forbidding them to form federations or carry on correspondence as collective entities.”[191] The space for legal opposition in the clubs and the press was quickly evaporating. At the same time, the achievements of Year II were being rolled back such as the maximum, while unemployment, inflation and famine gripped Paris.

The reactionaries were also on the march and they “hoped to wreak vengeance on the Jacobins and the sans culottes by turning the Terror against them.”[192] This White Terror didn’t just involve restricting democratic rights but also the organization of armed bands known as the “jeunesse doree [gilded youth], cynical young profiteers of the revolution determined to consolidate their administrative and military careers and defend their new ‘bourgeois’ comforts by a demonstrative anti-Jacobinism and a violent contempt for the sans culottes.”[193] The jeunesse doree “were the law in their sections. They took over the streets and attacked the patriots with cudgels under the complacent eyes of the police. The Jacobins succumbed.”[194] For Babeuf, there was no questioning where he stood when the Jacobins and sans culottes were under attacked. He declared war on the Directory in the Tribun, “if you want a civil war, you can have it … You’ve told your people to be ready. You’ve cried ‘to arms.’ We’ve said the same to our people. Our workers, our districts are already lined up; they’re asking if it will be soon.”[195] In the face of reactionary assaults, Babeuf had no problem in advocating revolutionary violence as completely legitimate and just.

Babeuf’s agitation resulted in a brief arrest in October (he spent four days in jail). Rose believes that his lenient treatment by the government was because Babeuf “ may have agreed to abandon his attacks as a quid pro quo for his release.”[196] Babeuf quickly broke any promises and resumed his attacks on the Directory. Not only was he advocating revolutionary violence against the jenesse doree, he was supporting it against the Directory by saying in the Tribune that “when the government violates the people’s rights insurrection becomes the most sacred right.”[197] The Directory placed a warrant for Babeuf’s arrest shortly after, but he went into hiding and would remain at liberty until February 7, 1795.

Although the democratic movement had energized the sections, Babeuf noted that popular involvement was small in the Electoral Club, in which “400 members of the club only thirty or forty could be counted on attend sessions and only a dozen were ready to sign their names to declarations or protests.”[198] Despite the confrontation between the Thermidorians and the popular societies, the masses were largely indifferent. Babeuf wanted to change the indifference of the masses to one of active support for revolutionary struggle. To this end, he saw the role of a paper as not only exposing and agitating against the abuses of the Directory, but going further to “prepare for the conquest of power by a propaganda campaign to ‘direct’ public opinion.”[199] However, writing and publishing a paper was not easy going for a declared enemy of the state and fugitive. As Birchall explains, “[for the Tribun] there were just ten issues up to 1 February 1795 … there was a two month gap from mid-October to mid-December when no issues at all appeared … Some copies did not reach subscribers because of difficulties with postal services, and there were threats to ban sellers from meetings of societes populaires … By January 1795 he was operating semi-clandestinely.”[200] Babeuf’s arrest in February put an end to his paper, but his efforts were far from fruitless.

Before Babeuf’s capture, he saw the struggle with the Thermidorians as a reflection of a much deeper division in society. Babeuf later in the Manifesto of the Plebeians, identified between

two parties diametrically opposed by their system and their plan for the public administration … I am ready to believe that both desire the republic, but each wants a republic after its own fashion. One wants it to be bourgeois and aristocratic; the other believes that they have achieved it, and that it should remain wholly popular and democratic. One wants the republic of a million which was always the enemy, the dominator, the exactor, the oppressor, the bloodsucker of the twenty-four other millions, of the million which has disported itself in idleness for centuries at the expense of our sweat and labor; the other party wants a republic of those other twenty four millions, who laid down its foundations and cemented them with their blood, who are defending it and dying for its safety and glory.[201]

These are undeveloped, non-dialectical and rather primitive observations on the nature and functioning of class society. Class struggle is viewed seen as an eternal and unchanging struggle between the rich and poor. There is no mention of modes of production or of the division of the classes that were coming into emergence due to the French Revolution. Babeuf does not identify the specificity of capitalism here (although he would move in that direction while imprisoned). True, Babeuf had earlier analyzed the origins of feudal property as due to usurpation, but that is not integrated in this piece. This was not a Marxist, critique., but it was a communist one. Babeuf was agitating against private property, inequality and for popular power regardless of the system of control.

Following Babeuf’s imprisonment, the popular movement in Paris spilled over into open revolt. Babeuf’s agitation clearly played a major role, but it was abolition of the maximum coupled with a cold winter and scare food, and unemployment caused the people to rise. On April 1, 1795 (Germinal ) women and the workers of Paris demonstrated against the government, with slogans demanding bread and the Constitution of 1793. The government did not accede to the demands of the people, but ordered arrests of ringleaders. Although food was brought in and the number of troops near Paris was reinforced to protect the government. [202] The situation was still volatile and on May 20, 1795 (I. Prairial Year III), the workers and artisans of Paris staged another uprising. They circulated a manifesto declaring that the government had starved the people and demanded “Bread and the Constitution of 1793.” The rebels also wanted the release of political prisoners and urged soldiers to fraternize with the people. An armed mob made its way to the Convention and killed a deputy before it was dispersed by the army.[203]

Several objective factors helped account for the failure of Prairial revolt. One was that the sans culottes were not a coherent class, according to Soboul, “the sans culottes did not form a class. Artisans and shopkeepers, compagnons and day-laborers joined with a minority of bourgeois to form a coalition which unleashed an irresistible force against the aristocracy.”[204] The heterogeneous nature of the sans culottes meant that while “they were united in their general hostility towards nascent capitalism, the motives behind their attitudes often diverged.”[205] Among the sans culottes were , workers who had not quite achieved knowledge of themselves as a distinct social class and artisans and shopkeepers, ruined by the economic policies of the Directory, who feared falling into the ranks of the working class; Lastly, bourgeois members of the sans culottes, however much they may’ve supported Jacobin virtue and the people ultimately had more in common with the Thermidorian rulers who protected private property. These divergent interests among the sans culottes were breaking this mass apart as capitalism developed. Lastly, the Germinal and Prairial revolts were the last of the popular uprisings that characterized the French Revolution. By 1796, France had gone through nearly six years of continuous revolution, famine, and repression which had driven them = close to the point of demoralization and exhaustion.
Yet there was another lesson to be drawn from the failure of the Prairial revolt: the lack of revolutionary leadership and organization. During the Prairial revolt, the Jacobins had refused to assume leadership of the masses. According to Soboul, “the Paris sans culottes were always lacking an effective weapon of combat: a disciplined party, based on recruitment along class lines and on drastic purges. Though a great many militants endeavored to bring discipline into the popular movement, an equally great number had no sense whatever of the need for social and political discipline.”[206] Babeuf understood the need for a revolutionary combat organization that would rely upon the force of the people to achieve political. When he emerged from prison, he would be fired by a new communist truth that would seek to animate the people, despite their exhaustion and differing interests, to overthrow the Directory.

VIII. ‘There will be neither upper nor lower, neither first nor last’

Babeuf was in prison from February 7 to October 12, 1795, ultimately being released as the result of a general amnesty. He was initially imprisoned in Plessis before being moved to Arras. It was while in prison that Babeuf a communist pole formed around him that would be instrumental in forming his later conspiracy. While imprisoned, Babeuf began a long correspondence with a fellow inmate who was interested in radical ideas, Charles Germain.[207] The relationship between Babeuf and Germain, according to Rose, “quickly developed into that of master and disciple, as the correspondents debated the details of a new revolutionary program for the final achievement of equality.”[208] It was through long discussions with Germain that Babeuf was able to clarify and refine his ideas.

When Germain wrote a long letter that offered a critique of commerce and in favor of a planned economy, Babeuf wrote a long reply. In his reply, Babeuf offered his own critique of the emerging market economy, which he called competition, which he condemned in no uncertain terms:

Competition, far from aiming at perfection, submerges conscientiously made products under a mass of deceptive goods contrived to dazzle the public, competition achieves low prices by obliging the worker to waste his skill in botched work, by exhausting him, by starving him, by destroying his moral standards, by setting an example of unscrupulousness; competition gives the victory only to whoever has most money; competition, after the struggle, ends up simply with a monopoly in the hands of the winner and the withdrawal of low prices; competition manufactures anyway it likes, at random, and runs the risk of not finding any buyers and destroying a large amount of raw material which could have been used usefully but which will no longer be good for anything.[209]

Babeuf’s critique is remarkably similar to the later Marxist critique of capitalism with its unplanned economy, exploitation and alienation of workers, and its monumental waste in order of resources to enrich a small few. Granted Babeuf’s condemnation of competition is embryonic and underdeveloped, but this makes sense since capitalism was just emerging in France. Capitalism or ‘competition’ was the system that was given free reign to develop since Thermidor and Babeuf planned to destroy it before it could grow.

Babeuf planned to replace competition “with a planned society where all would be at once producers and consumers. “There will be neither upper nor lower, neither first nor last.” The work of all “will constantly converge toward the great social aim, the common prosperity.” There would be neither exploiters nor exploited.”[210] As opposed to the crude leveling communism, that would sacrifice arts and luxury for the sake of equality, which Babeuf has often been seen a proponent of, he told Germain that in his vision “neither arts, nor sciences, nor industry would be endangered, far from it. They would receive an impulse in the direction of general utility, and would be transformed in their application in such a way as to increase the sum of the enjoyment of all.”[211]

Furthermore, Babeuf also believed in utilizing the use of labor-saving machinery which under the common happiness “would be a true advantage for humanity, whose labors they would lessen, while increasing the abundance of of necessary and agreeable things. Today, by suppressing a great quantity of manual labor, they take the bread out of the mouths of a mass of men, in the interests of a few greedy speculators whose profits they increase.”[212] Babeuf was clearly thinking in terms of an equal society that with a planned economy that would develop human potential the fullest. Babeuf’s vision can easily be seen in the later view of communism put forth by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”[213] This was a Truth that Babeuf and Germain believed had universal appeal,worth fighting for, and has inspired countless revolutionaries in the past two hundred years.

Yet Babeuf’s society of common happiness was not just a utopia drawn up in his mind. Babeuf was not like the later utopians who often appealed to the ruling class for support for their projects, rather he openly declared war on them.[214] To bring the common happiness to fruition, Babeuf saw the necessity of political organization and popular support. Germain was in favor of a sudden general uprising to bring about communism while Babeuf argued for the use of popular education (which he’d been doing via journalism for years). As Babeuf later said, “everything can be done by public opinion, and when you succeed in directing it towards a particular system, you are making sure this system prevail, for the opinion of people, as has been well said, is its strength, and the strength of the people is everything.”[215] For Babeuf to win over order the people, he would need to propagate his views openly, something that the Directory would not allow. This contradiction Babeuf would resolve by developing a tightly centralized political organization in face of repression while propagating revolutionary views openly wherever possible.

One interesting path that Babeuf considered to implement communism was to retreat to the countryside and “form a sort of plebeian Vendee, for the purpose of obtaining by force, what it appeared to him no longer possible to obtain by any other means.”[216] However, Babeuf later changed his mind and decided to focus on seizing power in Paris. This made perfect sense: Paris the central administrative hub of France and experience had shown that since.1789, that that whenever revolutionaries took the capital, they were likely to gain control of the country as whole (although focused on seizing power in Paris, Babeuf did not ignore building links with organizations in the provinces).

For Babeuf, communism was not just a utopian ideal to be speculate about, it was a practical ideal worth struggling for. His vision built upon the accomplishments of the Jacobins, but pushed past them both theoretically and practically. Babeuf, fired with this truth was able to make many converts when he was transferred to Arras prison. French prisons under the Directory were being filled with Jacobins, Hebertists, sans culottes, workers from the abortive revolts of Germinal and Prairial and former terrorists. As Buonarroti observes, “the prisons of Paris … were at that time the foci of a great revolutionary fermentation.”[217] In transferring Babeuf to Arras, the Directory was throwing a match into a pool of gasoline and spreading the fires of revolutionary opposition.

Although the French left had been disoriented since Thermidor, this was not so at Arras, where the prisoners “whom the aristocracy had plunged into them, lived frugally in the most intimate fraternity, honored one another for their chains and their poverty, devoted themselves to work and study, and conversed only on the calamities of their common country, and on the means of bringing them to an end.”[218] Babeuf was able to make many converts to the cause of equality in Arras. Among the many converts whom Babeuf was able to make to the cause of equality, arguably the most important was Philippe Buonarroti, a central leader of the Conspiracy and its historian (Buonarroti was born in 1761, he was an Italian aristocrat and was the former Jacobin administrator of Corsica).[219] In October 1795, there was a general amnesty of Republican prisoners in response to a royalist uprising in Paris on 13 Vendemaire.[220] The uprising had nearly captured the city before being put down by troops loyal to the Directory under General Napoleon Bonaparte.

The uprising of the royalists came after the new Constitution (which greatly restricted the franchise) had been approved in September. At the same time, the economic crisis continued to worsen with growing unemployment and rising prices. Worst of all was hunger, according to Lefebvre which by 1796, saw “more than 10,000 deaths [of starvation] … recoded in the department of the Seine.”[221] The Thermidorians in protecting their own privileges had hounded and persecuted the Jacobins and other radicals; yet they had also opened the door to the return of royalists and reactionaries who were organizing openly and offered the alternative of a return to the old regime in place of the discredited Directory. The Directory was growing more isolated and to regain legitimacy, they amnestied imprisoned republicans and moderates in order to rally them to the defense the Republic. Yet once the moment of crisis passed, Babeuf and his comrades got to work organizing for the revolution.

Although conditions in France were growing desperate, the left was far from united. As Buonarroti says “the democratic party was not numerous, and the mass of patriots feeble, and scarcely recovered from their fright, were disposed to suffer themselves to be again intimidated at the least appearance of a new persecution.”[222] Among the surviving Jacobins and Republicans, there were some predisposed to work with the Directory (despite the restrictions the Constitution placed on their activity) out of fear of provoking a royalist reaction and others such as Babeuf who remained utterly irreconcilable.[223] Since the Electoral Club had collapsed, Babeuf and his co thinkers began working within the Pantheon Club (founded in October 1795), which was becoming the focal point of opposition to the Directory.

The Pantheon Club was a broad alliance of “2,000 members [which] included critical supporters of the government as well as outright opponents.”[224] Yet the Pantheon Club was not well a organized political organization since its members “feared any resemblance to the old societies [Jacobins – P. B.], their prudence went beyond even the shackles forged by the new Constitution against the right of assembling. To have a body of rules – a President, secretaries, minutes, a form of admission- this, they taught was to copy too closely the Jacobin model, and to expose their flanks to a new persecution.”[225] The Pantheon conducted activities such as raising funds for poor patriots, reading journals, correspondence, and discussing current events. Since there were no other options open for the left, the Pantheon grew,while Babeuf and his co thinkers gained a predominant influence.

In the Pantheon, Buonarroti identified two trends, one being the “patriots of 1789 [who] might be recognized by their eagerness to exercise on the Government an influence favorable to their own repose and interests.”[226] These patriots were seeking to put pressure on the government and have their interests protected, but this position was was scarcely going to win much support in the streets of Paris. The second trend in the Pantheon was composted of Babeuf and the Equals, who according to Buonarroti, “made themselves remarkable for their zeal to enlighten the people and to revive a respect for the doctrines of equality.”[227] Part of the reason that Babeuf and the Equals were able to assume leadership that “he had a social philosophy. He was a tireless worker, full of revolutionary passion and guided by a fixed aim. Moreover, he was a journalist with a fiery and caustic pen.”[228] Key to this influence was the resurrected Tribun du peuple which was now “less concerned with purveying news or even comment on immediate events than with the exposition of ‘first truths.’”[229]

In the dire economic situation, Babeuf was dismayed that many people were listening to royalists who were saying “we were much better off under a king.”[230] In order to rally the people to fight the Directory, Babeuf believed that the old slogans of the revolution were not enough, instead he declared in the words of Alain Badiou, a new “truth of politics … in which the radical will that aims at the emancipation of humanity is affirmed.”[231] And that truth, proclaimed in the Manifesto of the Plebeians was the “common happiness, the aim of society.”[232] In the Manifesto of the Plebeians, Babeuf threw down the communist gauntlet in his declaration of war upon the Directory. He proclaimed that “the alleged right to dispose of property is an infamous genocidal outrage.”[233] Society was set up in such a way “that you can only succeed in having too much by arranging for others not to have enough.”[234] According to Babeuf the objections to the communist Truth were “questioned by bad faith, prejudice and thoughtfulness … [and] that there is no truth more important than that which we have already cited.” For Babeuf, talking about the best form of government (or Constitution) was useless since “you will have achieved nothing as long as you have failed to destroy the seeds of greed and ambition.”[235] To achieve a society of equals, it was necessary to “suppress private property … to deposit the products in kind in the common store; and to establish a simple administration of distribution.”[236]

With that Truth proclaimed, Babeuf knew that he needed popular support and “to let everyone know how things are, and what it is necessary to do, to speak to all the evils and remedies and to get everyone interested in cooperating in putting things right.”[237] Babeuf knew that nothing was worse than “to isolate oneself, to reduce oneself to a handful of activist patriots, to separate oneself from the people, to abandon their opinion and their force.”[238] Yet he realized that a great deal of the people had been corrupted by the Directory and did not understand their own interests or the need for insurrection. Yet he believed it was essential to organized and that “someone has to begin.”[239] And to maintain the fidelity to the Truth he’d proclaimed and bring about the common happiness, Babeuf was willing to make the tough choices to be as ruthless as the situation demanded. The need for harsh measures meant that now he justified Robespierre’s policies in a way that he would not have done two years ago by saying “a regenerator must mow down everything that gets in his way, everything that obstructs his route, everything that can prevent him arriving promptly at the end he has set for himself.”[240] Certainly, these words of Robespierre no doubt reflected Babeuf’s new found commitment, they served another purpose.

Babeuf wanted to form a common front with Hebertists, Jacobins and other republicans. His defense of Robespierre and the terror was bound to strike a receptive cord in a society that had turned its back on the radical phase of the revolution and coalesce the opposition around him. The Equals believed they could make common ground with the Jacobins and the popular movement in Paris by rallying around the Constitution of 1793. According to Buonarroti, the Equals, “saw in the Constitution of 1793 this preparatory step towards a greater good, and that circumstance, joined to the motives which made members justly respect it as the sovereign will of the French people, freely and solemnly set forth, determined them to adopt that Constitution as the rallying point of the patriots and the people.”[241] Adoption of the Constitution as a rallying point made sense, the Republic of Virtue was being looked upon as a golden age by the sans culottes in contrast to the misery spawned by the Directory and competition. The two major revolts by the Parisian poor in 1795 had raised the slogan of bread and the Constitution of 1793. To call for the implementation of the 1793 Constitution, with all its social and democratic measures was to indict the unequal and undemocratic social order of the Directory as illegitimate. Yet many of the Equals (such as Babeuf) believed that the Constitution had its faults such as “defining the right of property, consecrate it in all its appalling latitude. Nevertheless, they acknowledged that never before had a work of this kind approached so near to perfection; and they applauded its provisions as opening a vast field for future ameliorations.”[242] In other words, the Equals saw advocacy of the 1793 Constitution as a transitional demand that could bring together a united front of Jacobins, Republicans, and sans culottes around a slogan that was more than a minimum demand (but was not the maximum demand calling for the common happiness) that questioned the whole ruling order and had the potential to go further in the direction of equality.

On February 27, 1796, despite all their precautions, the Directory sent in Napoleon to shut down the Pantheon Club. Babeuf and his comrades did not despair or lose focus. On March 30, they formed a new organization which brought together a wide coalition of political and social forces with the clear goal of bringing down the Directory and ushering in the common happiness.

IX. The Day of the People

Now that all the legal avenues for organizing closed were closed to Babeuf, he formed the Secret Directory of Public Safety (also known to history as the Conspiracy of Equals and Babouvists) to organize underground a military coup and popular revolt against the Directory.[243] In forming the Secret Directory, the Conspirators sought “to avenge the people, whenever, as now, its rights are usurped, its liberty ravished, and even its existence is compromised.”[244] The Equals did not cut themselves off from the masses, rather they planned to “assume the initiative of all movements intended to lead the people to the recovery of its sovereignty.”[245] To this end, the Conspiracy was preparing for a military strike and organizing the people against the Directory. While such preparations required secrecy as a matter of course, the conspirators knew it was necessary to involve the people. Whenever possible, Babeuf believed that the Equals had to ”conspire aloud, [since ]we give the greatest publicity to our conspiracy.”[246] For the next forty-one days until Babeuf’s arrest on May 10, all the elements of his thinking and action finally came together: the use of a newspaper as a popular agitator; the linkage of immediate, transitional, and maximum demands; revolutionary organization and trust in the people; all animated by a communist Truth.[247]
There was a single pressing question for the Conspirators: how would they consolidate their hold on power after the coup? The Equals decided that following their victory, power in France would be held by a dictatorship “composed of a small number of tried democrats.” As Buonarroti says, the Equals imagined the dictatorship as “an extraordinary authority … to be charged with the double plan of proposing to the people a plan of legislation simple, and suited to ensure to it equality, and the real exercise of its sovereignty; and to dictate provisionally the preparatory measures necessary to dispose the national to receive it … it being impossible to achieve so bold and important task unless by the aid of a perfect unity of thought and action.”[248] A dictatorship was considered necessary by the Equals since the “people, so elongated from the natural order of things, was but poorly qualified to make a useful choice, and had need of an extraordinary means to replace it in a condition in which it would be possible for it to exercise effectually, and not in mere fiction, the plenitude of its sovereignty.”[249] Although, the Equals saw the need for exceptional measures against the Directory and the old ruling power to secure their position following an uprising, they did not expect or want the people to be passive observers.

Babeuf, believed that a transitional dictatorship was necessary to prepare and educate the people to live in a fully democratic society. was to follow According to Birchall, Babeuf’s idea was that after the insurrection the dictatorship “would act as the government of the republic for three months during ‘opinion’ would be raised to a higher level and then elections based on the 1793 Constitution would be held.”[250] The short time frame of the transition and the raising of popular consciousness shows how overly optimistic and unrealistic Babeuf was in achieving change. The experience of later communist revolutions in Russia, China and Cuba shows that the power of the ruling class and habits of class dominated society could not be completely destroyed and replaced in a manner of months. Buonarroti was undoubtedly right when he said of Babeuf that “no one has taken less account of the time necessary to operate such changes in the feelings and habits of men.”[251] It is entirely possible that the men of virtue who’d govern in a Babouvist republic would be corrupted by power or that the coup would degenerate into a prolonged civil war in which power would have to be held by the Equals for a considerable amount of time. Then there is the real danger of foreign intervention from the monarchs of Europe, who would certainly not let a communist republic develop in peace (as evidenced in the twentieth century foreign powers who military intervened to overthrow communist revolutions). Regardless, the question of the nature of a Babouvist dictatorship can only be one of speculation since it never came to pass.

Although the Equals never had state power to effect a change in popular attitudes, they made full use of the revolutionary press to “undeceive the people. It was expedient to show the latter that its sovereignty had had been usurped by the existing authority – that the Constitution of 1793 was the only legitimate one – that the happiness of the whole could result only from the real equality of all.”[252] Babeuf’s Tribun “developed the spirit of the insurrectionary institution..”[253] The efforts of the Tribun, or the insurrectionary institution reached far beyond the press and had an appreciable impact on the workers and sans culottes of Paris. On the surface the Tribun had only only 590 subscribers, we would do well to follow Soboul here in arguing that those figures are deceptive because “we cannot mechanically deduce the influence of a newspaper from its circulation.”[254] For one, there were public readings of the Tribun, where a single reading could start a fire in the minds of the oppressed. Furthermore, revolutionary papers not only “circulated by the thousands, but their influence reached tens of thousands. Cafés and homes often became the shelters of clubs where one read aloud and the unlettered many listened.”[255] Thus, Babeuf’s revolutionary message was able to reach the dissatisfied masses across Paris.

The press was one way of spreading the revolution message. Also essential to agitation were “posters, pamphlets and songs [which] played a considerable part in the tactics of the Babouvists.”[256] Songs were an effective way to reach the French lower classes, who were still largely illiterate. The revolution had popularized the use of songs with such revolutionary hymns as La Marseillaise, Le Chant Du Depart, and La Carmagnole. The Babouvists developed their own songs such as “A New Song for the Use of the Fabourgs” with verses that spoke of an ancient equality usurped by aristocrats:

In ancient times, when yet our race was young

Nor gold nor war the soul to madness stung,

Each in the land possessed an equal share,

No kingly luxury known, no gaunt despair;

Then peace and competence went hand in hand,

Unfear’d the assassin’s knife, the foeman’s brand-

These days are our’s again if we’ll but bravely stand![257]

Another song written by Germain entitled the Song of the Equals, ,called upon the sans culottes to rise to revolt for equality with these words:

Awaken to our voice
And leave the darkest night behind,
People! Take hold of your rights,
The sun shines for all.[258]

Another way for the Babouvists to reach the population of Paris was with the use of posters. For example, one of the most popular revolutionary posters was the Analysis of the Doctrine of Babeuf which opened with the words “Proscribed by the Directory for having told the truth” and called for the restoration of the Constitution of 1793 with article seven declaring that “In a real society there should be neither rich nor poor.”[259] Although Babeuf appealed to the hallowed days of the Republic of Virtue, he was explicitly calling for the revolution to go farther. Posters such as the Analysis had the desired effect on the masses when “large crowds assembled in front of the posters, discussions and quarrels ensued, and then the police appeared on the scene.”[260]

The Conspirators organized not only to poster the city, but were fighting for public space with supporters of the government in a “poster war [that] developed between posters up and tearers down.”[261] One section of the Babouvists made it a point for their members to be up by 4 or 5 in the morning and poster the city “so that people could have a chance to read the placards on their way to work at 6 am. ‘before the royalists got up.’”[262] The Babouvists would go in waves when postering, meeting the workers not only in the early morning, but at the end of their shifts with even more posters. Although the government and its supporters tore down revolutionary posters,the people did not accept this passively, for instance there was “one case of someone tearing the posters [who] received a smack in the face and a kick in the arse.”[263] The poor people of Paris who gathered to hear Babouvist songs and read their posters sometimes went much further than merely smacking someone in the face. For example, Rose says that on April 26, “the cavalry proved powerless to disperse a crowd of 2,000 who had gathered in the rue Saint-Antoine around a placard copy of Soldat, arrete et lis.”[264]

The Babouvists developed a well-organized political machine to distribute their leaflets, posters, and songs. The main movers of the Conspirator’s organization in Paris were were “twelve principal revolutionary agents – one for each arrondisement of the commune of Paris.”[265] These agents were charged with creating “one or more unions of patriots; to foster and direct the public mind in those unions by the reading of popular journals, and by discussions on the rights of the people, and respecting its present situation.”[266] They were charged with collecting funds in order to produce revolutionary propaganda and pay their organizers. The agents also had to report back to the central leadership through an intermediary agent and to “take note of the daily thermometer of public opinion.”[267] The intermediary agents were the liaisons between the Insurrectionary Committee (heading the Secret Directory) and the twelve arrondisement agents. Considering that the Babouvists were planning a military coup, secrecy was essential and they “adopted the grand system of isolating everything – of preventing all intercommunication, it will render its entire organization subservient to this plan, in such manner, that no individual it employs, mediately or immediately, will be able to betray anyone; and that his ruin will entail no other loss on the revolutionists.”[268] Despite all their precautions, the Babouvists were not able to prevent a single infiltrator from ultimately breaking their whole organization.

The political organization of the Equals was a break with the Jacobin style of political organization and more like a Leninist vanguard party, but they still showed continuity with the earlier tradition. For example, Soboul says in regards to the subscribers of Babouvist journals that “social continuity is clearly expressed between the sectional personnel of year II and the Parisian subscribers to the Tribun du peuple in year IV: both were recruited from he ranks of artisans and shopkeepers who constituted the framework of the Parisian sans culottes.”[269] While this element of continuity was important (since Babeuf was making a conscious effort to build an alliance with Jacobin supporters), the Babouvists were also reaching out to the working class. Buonarroti believed that workers were the bedrock of the future society and said that “the proletariats [were], the only true supporters of equality.”[270] However, the working class of France in 1795 was still a class in its undeveloped and in its infancy.

Workers were part of the larger current of sans culottes which also contained within them artisans despairing of falling into the working class and those who were closer in their class alignment to the bourgeoisie. Workers did not have a distinct class identity, even though “half the population of Paris in the 1790s consisted of wage-workers … .they did not constitute a homogenous group.”[271] In the capital, the “average number of number of workers per employers for the whole [city] … .was 16.6”[272] Even though the predominance of small workplaces “made organization more difficult, [it was] not impossible.”[273] In some sections of the city, the concentration of workers was as high as 32 per employer, yet in other segments that figure is lower, being 9 workers for each employer. Paris contained another hotbed of discontent which was “a starving mass of unemployed marginal workers, who exerted considerable influence over the whole population during periods of shortage.”[274] Many of these marginal (and often unskilled) workers were women who had played vital roles in the earlier revolutionary upheavals in the capital (and later during the Conspiracy of Equals).[275] However, the French Revolution had only just opened up the door to capitalist expansion. The working class was still in the making. It would only be during the 1830s and 40s, the working class would play an independent and revolutionary role in French politics.

When Babeuf, Buonarroti and others in the Conspiracy spoke of the proletariat, exploitation of laborers, and the corrupting effects of commerce, their ideas were those of the future. However advanced those ideas, they can’t in themselves produce a new future when neither the objective nor subjective conditions exist for their victory. The social agent needed for the success of Babeuf’s revolution did not yet exist, even if the ideas of the Equals were pointing to a dream who’s time had not come “Ideas can never lead beyond an old world order but only beyond the ideas of the old world order. Ideas cannot carry out anything at all. In order to carry out ideas men are needed who can exert practical force. ”[276] That practical force to implement Babouvist communism didn’t exist in France. The masses were exhausted by six years of revolution, poverty and capitalism was dawning. Does this mean we condemn Babeuf for launching a venture that was bound to fail? Hardly. While the revolution did not succeed, according to Marx, the Equals did “give rise to the communist idea which Babeuf’s friend Buonarroti re-introduced in France after the Revolution of 1830. This idea, consistently developed, is the idea of the new world order.”[277] Babeuf’ was a pioneer and could only the sketch the revolutionary road, but others would come after. They would walk the road which he had seen. And they would fulfill his dreams.

Babouvist ideas, however premature,were proselytized with zeal by organizers amongst the nascent proletariat. According to Bernstein, “when social classes were noted by the agents, it was the workers, “the most valuable to society,” who were singled out as particularly friendly to the movement.”[278] For example, the Babouvist agent of the twelfth arrondisement Juste Moroy said while some workers were not open to revolutionary propaganda, since their employment would be jeopardized, on the other hand “there were about twenty tanneries (each with 15 to 20 workers) and as many leather-dressers, where the usual strictures applied: the employers were royalists, the workers sans culottes.”[279] Moroy reached out to the workers with a strategy of forming agitator cells among the workers. Theses cells “would start with cells of five or six members and allow them to grow until twelve, when a second group would hive off.”[280] In adopting this strategy, Moroy was expanding the circles of revolutionary action amongst the workers and making the basic idea of equality an inspiring force throughout the world.

The Conspiracy was not just focused on staging a military insurrection (although it was the primary goal), they wanted to expand their circles and draw more people into the movement. For example, one of the orders of the Insurrectionary Committee to its agents was “signify the individuals they may observe most capable of seconding the progress of the movement designed to be brought about.”[281] In Paris alone, the Conspiracy could count on 16.,000 which included revolutionaries, Jacobins, members of the police legion and other units. One thousand supporters were said to come from the various provinces.[282]

While the Babouvists centered their agitation in Paris, their organization covered France. For instance, Albert Soboul says of 590 subscribers to the Tribun notes that “”238 (40.3%) come from the departments.”[283] The Conspirators maintained links with Calais, Picardy and Marseilles, but “the organization outside Paris was much looser … [and] their inability to develop a coherent organization on a national scale was undoubtedly a sign of their weakness. In particular, they had no programme for the peasantry.”[284] The Equals’ program promised to make all lands into common property. This goal would not appeal to the peasantry, who had just gained title to their lands after years of revolutionary struggle.

Although Babeuf worked to build a united front, he was aware that he needed to do much more to take power. In order to take power, it was necessary to split the army and the police. To this end, the Babouvists directed a great deal of agitation among the soldiers in the capital. For example, the agent in the eleventh arrondissement Bodson, “urged the use of women to win the soldiers for the revolution and to intensify propaganda in the communes around Paris in order to make them the reserve force of the insurrection.”[285] In the cafes which soldiers frequented, women such as Sophie Lapierre sung to the soldiers, who “found themselves there in the company of women who exercised their charms to undermine the discipline of their military companions.”[286] While we can condemn the backward ideas of the Babouvists in using ‘feminine charm’ to win over soldiers, this was not the only method used to reach out to troops.

The Babouvists had their own agents in the army “to take charge of agitation among the different corps.”[287] One key point of agitation was among the Police Legion stationed around Paris. The Legion had originally been formed after the Prairial revolt to provide security for the capital in case of another popular insurrection. However, the Legion had been reorganized by General Napoleon Bonaparte after the royalist revolt of Vendemiaire. Bonaparte had purged royalists and “replaced them with sans culottes recruits, some of them veterans of the Revolutionary Army of 1793.”[288] Ironically, the Legion, which had been formed to put down revolt was now a powder keg ready to blow. The Directory feared the dangerous elements in the Legion and was determined to move them out of the capital. The Babovusts devoted a special issue of the Tribun appealed to \the soldiers to turn their bayonets against the tyrannical Directory. The Tribun said to the soldiers that the Directory was illegitimate and that they should side with the people: “it is your hands they would arm to maintain – to perpetuate such oppression! It is the government of arms that is sought to be established, in order to force the people to a regime in which it is pretended they can live without nourishment, without clothes, without liberty! … No! You will not be the vile satellites, the cruel and blind instruments of the enemies of the people, and, consequently, of your own enemies!”[289] Although the conspiracy wanted to abolish private property, in order to reach soldiers, the Equals made a tactical demand “for land distribution and for pensions for the war wounded, and urging a strike by the soldiers until those demands were met.”[290]

The Equals’ intensive propaganda efforts made enough headway for the government to take notice. In April, the Directory made it a capital offense to advocate for the Constitution of 1793.[291] Among the starving masses, agents reported to the center that they “heard murmurs in every quarter from the laboring classes, whose indignant was bursting forth without reservation in the secret societies, and in the immense gatherings which took place every day in the open air.”[292] The anger of the sans culottes was infecting the army, particularly the Police Legion. To forestall mutiny among the troops, the government planned to move the Police Legion out of Paris by the end of the month. A

When the order came for the Legion to move on April 28, the soldiers mutinied. The Equals released a manifesto in support of the revolting troops which declared“you can take the initiative against the enemies of the people. You will take it.”[293] However, most of the Equals’ leadership of the Equals’ were indecisive, since they were already planning for their own revolt (more below), and did not take the opportunity to generalize the mutiny. As a result, the Directory seized the initiative the Babouvists forfeited and issued “a decree of disbandment [which] smothered the insurrection in its cradle.”[294] Seventeen militants from the Police Legion were executed by the government as examples. In retrospect, we can say that when Conspirators did not attempt to turn the mutiny into an uprising, they lost the best chance they would ever have to bring down the Directory.

Even though their chance for an uprising had passed, the Conspirators were working feverishly to form a united front with other currents and finalize their plans. Although Babeuf made effort to reach out to the Jacobins (veterans from the Convention and those persecuted after Thermidor), it was difficult to form a coalition. The Jacobins were hesitant about allying with the Babouvists since they “hoped to assume the leadership, by making its members appear in the midst of the insurrection, and exhibit themselves to the people as their only representatives.”[295] There was a fear among the Equals that an alliance with the Jacobins,would mean allying with opportunists and ultimately derail their push for equality since the Jacobins “formally rejected the confiscation of private property as a political principle.”[296] According to Buonarroti, the Equals believed“it was necessary to persevere in the first resolves, and elicit from circumstances the course most favorable to the popular cause.”[297] On May t, after long negotiations, an alliance was formed with the Jacobins in which the Equals secured a position of leadership. Buonarroti says that, “the Secret Directory adopted the proposed coalition, and resolved at the same time to take great precautions to restrain the ambition of the Mountainists, and to compel them to concur in the execution of its designs.”[298] The Equals ended up forming a communist pole that was part of a wider movement composed of Jacobins, sans culottes, revolutionary soldiers and workers. All the elements were coming together and the day was fast approaching for the Equals to strike.

When the Equals formed their alliance with the Jacobins, their plans for insurrection were far advanced. The Equals were making every effort to procure arms and planning the logistics of the uprising. For the militants, there must have been a sense of apocalyptic expectation that the day of judgment for the Directory was finally at hand. They could not only turn back the Thermidor and the rule of the rich, but in words of Conspirator Sylvian Marechal, bring about a new world in the “French Revolution is but the forerunner of another revolution far more grand, far more solemn, and which will be the last.”[299] The Equals planned to begin their insurrection, known as ‘The Day of the People'[300] with a tocsin and a “public announcement … around which all should rally, and whose impulsion all should obey.”[301] The revolutionary insurgents were to be to divided into three divisions with a strict chain of command who would commence operations. Once the peoples’ army had assembled., they would be supported by an insurrection, which according to Buonarroti “was expected would be general amongst the laboring classes.”[302] Then the people in arms would march against the Directory’s centers of power and to the army camps of Grenelle and Vincennes for arms. The insurgents planned to encourage the soldiers to desert and if their efforts failed, “preparations were made for barricading the streets.”[303] The Equals had every intention of punishing enemies of the people bu sentencing them to death. Yet the Conspirators planned on public tribunals and “agreed that the insurgent people should have read to it a full and detailed account of the treasons it had been the victim of.”[304] Once the guilty were executed, they were to be buried under the ruins of their palaces that according to Buonarroti were to be left in ashes “as a monument to the latest posterity of the just punishment inflicted on the enemies of equality.”[305]

Equals didn’t intend on putting to fire all the houses of the rich. Those homes of the wealthy left standing were to be seized along with their provisions so that “the poor should be clothed at the expense of the Republic.”[306] They were also ready to seize centers of financial power such as the National Treasury, something not even the Paris Commune contemplated when they left the Bank of France unmolested.[307] Although the Equals were willing to employ force against the Directory, they did not plan on indiscriminate violence but in targeting the principal enemies of the people. As Buonarroti said, “it is impossible to determine exactly to what extent the display of physical force might have been necessary … .unless in the case of resistance, the severity to be employed would not have exceeded the punishment of the principal usurpers.”[308] After the Equals seized power, they would institute a new government, a provisional dictatorship (for three months) in order to reeducate the populace, restore the 1793 Constitution (with amendments to abolish the protect of property) and then relinquish power to a society that had established the common happiness..[309]

Even as the finishing touches were being put on their plans and setting the date for the revolution, it was already too late. The Equals had been infiltrated by Georges Grisel, a former army captain who had joined the movement in April. The Conspirators ignored their own security precautions in welcoming Grisel into their inner circles, since Babeuf regarded Grisel as an asset in their efforts to win over the army. Grisel informed the police of the Babouvist plans and the location of their headquarters. On May 10th, the police swooped in and arrested Babeuf and the other principal leaders. This effectively crushed the Equals since there was no back-up leadership ready to take over. A last-ditch effort was attempted by the remaining Equals still to stir up revolt among the workers in Paris and soldiers at the Grenelle barracks. However, these abortive revolts were put down and the Conspiracy was at an end.[310]

X. Conclusion: ‘Virtue does not die’

Although the Conspiracy of Equals was broken, Babeuf’s story was not over. The Directory placed Babeuf and the principal conspirators on trial. The trial offered an opportunity for the Director, according to Rose to “consolidate … [their] reputation … as a regime of property, order, law and liberty.”[311] Yet Babeuf put on an effective defense which lasted for 97 days. In his defense, Babeuf affirmed the principles of the conspiracy such as the right to rebel, upheld the Constitution of 1793 and the necessity of communism. This was a difficult feat to pull off since the defendants used a common defense strategy of denying their direct involvement in the conspiracy while upholding their principles in order to avoid harsh penalties. The defense strategy worked and the government’s charges were torn to shreds and their witnesses discredited. When the final verdict was read on May 26, 1797, 56 of the 65 conspirators were acquitted. Seven others were sentenced to exile (including Buonarroti, Germain and Moroy). Two of the Equals, Babeuf and Darthe, were sentenced to death. Two days later, both men met their fate on the guillotine. The last revolutionary voice of France had been eternally silenced and his dream seemingly died with him.[312]

Yet had Babeuf’s violence and his dream truly been crushed? During the trial he had spoken these words: “Virtue does not die … .Tyrants may wallow in atrocious persecution; they do but destroy the body; the soul of good men does but change its covering; on the dissolution of one, it animates at once other beings, with whom it continues to inspire generous movements which never more allow the crime of tyranny to rest in peace. After these last thoughts, and after all the innovations that I see introduced every day to hasten my holocaust, I leave to my oppressors all the facilities they desire; I neglect useless details in my defence; let them strike without reaching anything; I shall sleep in peace in the bosom of virtue.”[313] Did virtue die.

It was said of the martyr abolitionist John Brown, that his truth was marching on. The same can easily be said of Babeuf. For one, Buonarroti survived, and he kept the revolutionary flame burning as an underground conspirator with the Italian Carbonari during the dark days of the restoration. In 1828, he wrote the History of the Babeuf Conspiracy, which offered an honest account of what the ideas and practice of the Equals. Upon its release, the book was a best-seller in France and served as a revolutionary text book to a generation of underground communists, socialists, and radical republicans fighting the July Monarchy. The influence of the book extended further to exiled German communists in France such as the League of the Just (the ancestor to the Communist League of Marx and Engels).

Although Marx and Engels were familiar with Babeuf and Buonarroti, they were not explicitly influenced by him. The Marxist scholar Hal Draper says that Marx and Engels rejected the Blanquist tradition of militant conspiracies which was cut off from the masses. While Draper is correct to say that Marx and Engels were not influenced by these ‘alchemists of revolution,’ he wrongly lumps Babeuf together with Blanqui (when in fact Blanqui said he was not influenced by Babeuf).[314] Yet if Marx and Engels were not explicitly influenced by Babeuf, their style of organizing was: it was built on the necessity of working class self-emancipation and a revolutionary political party.[315] Babeuf certainly didn’t have the well-developed theories that came later with revolutionary Marxism. His theories and writing were crude, undialectical and undeveloped. All this is true. But in Babeuf’s critique of competition and class society, his political organizing, and in placing equality to the forefront, the shape of a post-revolutionary state,the necessity of communism, he was prefiguring many of the questions that Marx and Engels would grapple with. .

Babeuf was also a forerunner of Lenin. Not only did both Babeuf and Lenin believe that the development of a political organization was crucial for the success of the revolution, both used their respective organizations and newspapers in similar ways. Central to Lenin’s method of work was the need for party organizers to go among the masses of workers. He believed it was essential to learn their conditions of life. Lenin also saw the need to study with them to raise theory. Yet Lenin believed that through the struggle for day-to-day economic demands, the workers would see the connection to larger political issues and the injustices of the overall capitalist system. Key to how wider circles of workers would discover the connection between particular injustices and the connection to the overall system of capitalist exploitation was through a revolutionary newspaper that would agitate, spread the communist idea and set flame to their hopes. The revolutionary paper would also serve as a collective organizer for the revolutionary movement. In conducting his work, Lenin saw the necessity for activists to learn the art of conspiracy in order to elude the Tsarist police. Lenin’s party was far from the Cold War stereotype, rather it was an organization that could learn and teach, always keeping the communist goal in mind and remaining deeply connected to the working class.[316] When Lenin said that the social democratic ideal was the tribune of the people, it was true that he was following in Babeuf’s footsteps.

It may have been the case that Babeuf’s effort was futile and premature. It may be completely true that the sans culottes, workers, Jacobins, and communists who Babeuf sought to organize were not going to win. The subjective conditions did not exist for victory. France in 1796 had passed the most radical phase of the revolution and the people were largely exhausted. The working class was still in formation. Capitalism was on the ascendent. He was fighting to achieve communism in the midst of a bourgeois revolution. Thus the objective conditions did not exist either. It is true that Babeuf’s theories were undeveloped, non-dialectical and tied in many respects to the sans culotte culture that was breaking apart with the development of capitalism. Let us grant all of this in advance. And let say that it doesn’t really matter.

As Trotsky says, “Babeuf’s struggle for communism in a society that was not ready for it, was a struggle of a classic hero with his fate. Babeuf’s destiny had all the characteristics of true tragedy.”[317] The tragedy was that he came too soon. He was inventing new techniques for the revolutionary press that would only see fruition in the Russian Revolution of 1917. By making communism a practical ideal worth struggling for and challenging the ruling classes for power, he had already broken with the utopian socialists who were still to come. That his successors Marx and Lenin prevailed was because Babeuf had tested the limits of what was possible and pushed himself to the very limit of endurance, sacrificing everything in the process, and not caring how impossible or premature his efforts were in the absence of the objective and subjective conditions. Where Babeuf first saw a path to a communist future , it would others in Russia, China, Cuba who would carry his banner to victories that would redeem his premature dreams.

In his novel Birth of Our Power, Victor Serge commemorates a failed anarchist uprising in Spain. These words could just as easily speak of Babeuf:

That is how we all feel, immortal, right up to the moment when we feel nothing anymore. And life goes on after our little drop of water has flowed back into the ocean. In this sense my confidence is as one with yours. Tomorrow is great. We will not have prepared this conquest in vain. This city will be taken, if not by our hands, at least by others like ours, but stronger. Stronger perhaps by having been better hardened, thanks to our very weakness. If we are beaten, other men, infinitely different from us, infinitely like us, will walk, on a similar evening, in ten years, in twenty years (how long is really without importance) down this rambla, meditating on the same victory. Perhaps they will think about our blood. Even now I think I see them and I am thinking about their blood, which will flow too. But they will win the city.[318]

In the end Babeuf’s dream was premature. But his virtue did not die. Others infinitely different, infinite like him carried Babeuf’s Communist Truth in their hearts as they marched to victory.


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[1] Leon Trotsky, “Manifesto of the Communist International to the Workers of the World,” Marxist Internet Archive. [Accessed December 1, 2012].

[2] Slavoj Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes (New York: Verso Books, 2008), 361.

[3] Michael Lowy, On Changing the World: Essays in Political Philosophy, From Karl Marx to Walter Benjamin (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1993), 124-5.

[4] Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon (New York: Verso Books, 2012), 11.

[5] Ian Birchall, Spectre of Babeuf (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillian, 1997), 9. For crisis of the ancien regime which was based on anachronistic noble privileges, financial mismanagement and the general immiseration of the poor see Albert Soboul, The French Revolution 1787-1799: From the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), 33-96.

[6] Isaac Deutscher, Russia in Transition (New York: Grove Press, 1960), 167.

[7] Michel Beaud, A History of Capitalism 1500-1980 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), 61. For the influence of the Enlightenment on France’s rising bourgeoisie see Soboul 1975, 67-75 and Georges Lefebvre, The French Revolution: From Its Origins to 1793, (New York: Routledge, 1962), 52-69.

[8] Soboul 1975, 139-141 on the fall of the Bastille.

[9] Ibid. 488.

[10] Birchall 1997, 10.

[11] Ibid.

[12] R. B. Rose, Gracchus Babeuf: The First Revolutionary Communist (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1978), 9.

[13] Birchall 1997, 11. Babeuf called the loss of so many of his siblings ‘a slaughter of innocents.’ Rose 1978, 10.

[14] Rose 1978, 8-9 and 58.

[15] On the role of the army on expanding the elder Babeuf’s horizons see Birchall 1997, 11.

[16] Ernest Belfort Bax, The Last Episode of the French Revolution: Being a History of Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals (New York: Haskel House Publishers, 1971) 49.

[17] Birchall 1997, 11.

[18] Rose 1978, 10.

[19] Birchall 1997, 13.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Babeuf quoted in ibid. 12.

[22] Rose 1978, 11.

[23] Babeuf quoted in Samuel Bernstein, “Babeuf and Babouvism,” Science and Society 2.1 (Winter 1937), 43.

[24] Babeuf quoted in Birchall 1997, 15.

[25] Rose 1978, 25-7 on his relation for Soyecourt.

[26] Rose 1978, 27.

[27] Ibid. 23.

[28] Ibid. 13.

[29] Birchall 1997, 26-7

[30] Ibid. 136.

[31] Babeuf letter quotes on Birchall 1997, 161 and 164.

[32] Ibid. 163.

[33] Rose 1978, 14.

[34] Birchall 1997, 16.

[35] When Babeuf was in Paris in early 1793 to escape a prison sentence in Roye, Marie-Anne was fending off creditors and sewing shirts for the army to keep the children fed. She even managed to send some proceeds to her husband in Paris, Ibid. 138. When Babeuf was arrested in November 1793, Marie-Anne was nursing three children sick with small pox. Even though the family was on the verge of starvation, she sent her husband whatever food she could to help him survive. Ibid. 152.

[36] See Rose 1978, 14-5 and Birchall 1997, 16.

[37] In 1785 Babeuf began a lengthy correspondence with Ferdinand Dubois de Fosseux, an Enlightenment thinker who believed in equality but was also a defender of private property. DuBois and Babeuf discussed topics together and DuBois recommended books to him. See Birchall 1997, 19 and Rose 1978, 19-20, 31, 36, 44.

[38] Madame de Lambert quoted in Soboul, 1975 67.

[39] Ibid. 74.

[40] There is a question of how much Babeuf read of Rousseau. For more on this see Birchall 1997, 21.

[41] See Discourse on the Origin of Inequality in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Basic Political Writings (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1978), 37-8.

[42] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Letters Written from the Mountains,” in the Miscellaneous Works of Mr. J. J. Rousseau, Vol. 4 (New York: Burt Franklin, 1972), 330.

[43] See the Social Contract in Rousseau 1978, 173.

[44] See the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality in Rousseau 1978, 66-7.

[45] See the Social Contract in Rousseau 1978, 153.

[46] Birchall 1997, 21.

[47] Birchall 1997, 22.

[48] Étienne-Gabriel Morelly, “Code of Nature or the True Spirit of Laws,” Marxist Internet Archive. [Accessed December 1, 2012].
[49] Gracchus Babeuf, “Babeuf to Dubois de Fosseux,” Marxists Internet Archive. [Accessed December 1, 2012].

[50] Discussed in footnote 295.
[51] Gracchus Babeuf, “Babeuf to Dubois de Fosseux,” Marxists Internet Archive. [Accessed December 1, 2012].

[52] Bernstein, 1937, 43. On Rose 1978, 39-40 discusses how much Babeuf’s plans for changes in land ownership were a push for collective farms.
[53] Gracchus Babeuf, “Babeuf to Dubois de Fosseux,” Marxists Internet Archive. [Accessed December 1, 2012].

[54] Babeuf quoted in Birchall 1997, 25.

[55] Eric Hobabawm, The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 54. For Hobsbawm’s summary of the causes and effects of the French Revolution see 53-76.

[56] Soboul 1975, 43.

[57] Ibid. 44.

[58] Soboul 1975, 136.

[59] Bernstein, 1937, 43. The book was in fact a catastrophic financial failure for Babeuf and was not taken seriously by very in France at that time. See Rose 1978, 54.

[60] Bernstein, “Babeuf, 1937, 44 and Birchall 1997, 30-31.

[61] Bax 1971, 61.

[62] Birchall 1997, 32.

[63] Birchall 1997, 32.

[64] Although by the end of 1789, most of Babeuf’s aristocratic clients were still defaulting on their debts. See Rose 1978, 63.

[65] Bax 1971, 62.

[66] On the tax rebellion background in Roye and Babeuf’s role in it see Rose 1978, 55-71.

[67] Mike Haynes and Jim Wolfreys, ed., History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism (New York: Verso Books, 2007), 58.

[68] Soboul 1975, 145. For the Great Fear see ibid. 144-47 and Lefebvre 1962, 117-9.

[69] See Haynes and Wolfreys 2007, 76 and Soboul 1975, 148.

[70] Soboul 1975, 149.

[71] Albert Soboul, The Sans-Culottes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 256-7.

[72] Soboul 1975, 180.

[73] Maximilien Robespierre, Slavoj Zizek Presents Robespierre Virtue and Terror (New York: Verso Books, 2007), 6.

[74] Soboul 1978, 250.

[75] Haynes and Wolfreys 2007, 77. See also Soboul 1978, 193-4 and 212-4

[76] Soboul 1978, 240,

[77] Ibid. 240-41.

[78] Haynes and Wolfreys 2007, 77.

[79] Ibid. 78.

[80] Ibid. 83.

[81] Robespierre 2007, 67.

[82] Soboul 1978, 56.

[83] Soboul 1975, 17.

[84] Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 592

[85] Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 1998), 16 and Michael Lowy 1993, 117 who discusses more of the context surrounding this passage.

[86] Davidson 2012, 144-5.

[87] Haynes and Wolfreys 2007, 58.

[88] Karl Marx, “The Bourgeoisie and the Counterrevolution,” Marxists Internet Archive. [Accessed December 1, 2012]. In contrast to the revisionist school, Alexander Callinicos argues that we should judge a revolution to be bourgeois based upon its results, not necessarily on the social agents which carry it out. “Bourgeois revolutions must be understood, not as revolutions consciously made by capitalists, but as revolutions which promote capitalism. The emphasis should shift from the class which makes a bourgeois revolution to the effects of such a revolution – to the class which benefits from it. More specifically, a bourgeois revolution is a political transformation – a change in state power, which is the precondition for large scale capital accumulation and the establishment the bourgeoisie as the dominant class. This definition requires, then, a political change with certain effects. It says nothing about the social forces which carry through the transformation.” This quote is found in Alex Callinicos, “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism,” International Socialism no. 43 (June 1989), 124.

[89] Karl Marx, “Moralising Criticism and Critical Morality,” Marxists Internet Archive. [Accessed December 1, 2012].

[90] Birchall 1997, 33.

[91] Ibid.

[92] Bernstein, 1937, 44.

[93] Rose 1978, 61.

[94] Ibid. 81.

[95] Ibid. 80.

[96] Ibid. 81.

[97] Ibid. 84.

[98] Ibid. 84

[99] Ibid. 85.

[100] Vladimir I. Lenin, What is to be Done? (Peking: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1973), 99-100. It is no wonder that Lenin says that the Social Democrat’s ideal is a tribune of the people. Not only was Lenin referring to that of ancient Roman Tribunes, but also to Babeuf who named one of his papers, the Tribune of the People.

[101] Birchall 1997, 35. Although Babeuf failed in the recall petition.

[102] Rose 1978, 100-101.

[103] Babeuf quoted in ibid. 36. Babeuf also supported the arming of the population see Rose 1978, 106.

[104] Rose 1978, 85.

[105] Ibid. 102-103

[106] Birchall 1997, 37.

[107] Rose 1978, 103.

[108] Rose 1978, 112.

[109] Ibid.

[110] Ibid. 113.

[111] Bernstein, 1937, 46.

[112] Rose 1978, 121. He tried to practice what he preached as shown by this passage on ibid. 121: “He promised to remain always accessible to citizens and to treat their petitions with promptness, and he listed the major preoccupations of the new administration: collecting taxes for the war effort, lightening the burden of taxation and the promulgation of laws to consolidate the well-being of the people, above all the peasants.”

[113] Bax 1971, 67. The trial continued without Babeuf and he was convicted in August 1793 to serve 20 years of penal servitude.

[114] For more on Robespierre and the problem of war see Samuel Bernstein, Essays in Political and Intellectual History (New York: Paine-Whitman Publishers, 1955), 34.

[115] Ibid. 37. See also Soboul 1975, 246.

[116] Soboul 1975, 299.

[117] Soboul 1975, 239.

[118] Hobsbawm 1996, 62.

[119] The Constitution of 1793 can be found in Philippe Buonarroti, History of Babeuf’s Conspiracy for Equality (London: H. Hetherinton, 1836), 283-92. Article 122 specifically defended property rights.

[120] Haynes and Wolfreys 2007, 87. The Jacobins also instituted agrarian legislation that would facilitate the access to land and distribute plots of land in order to increase food production.

[121] Ibid. 87-8.

[122] Soboul 1978, 44-5.

[123] Bernstein, 1937, 32-3.

[124] Haynes and Wolfreys 2007, 88.

[125] Soboul 1975, 330.

[126] This was true for Babeuf as well. We will discuss his changing views on the terror below. One of the best books to discuss the French Terror in its historical context beyond the cursory overview provided here is Arno J. Mayer, The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

[127] Soboul 1975, 321. See also Sofie Wahnich, In Defense of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution (New York: Verso Books, 2012), 21: “Marat’s burial was accompanied by the declaration that ‘Marat is not dead.’ This proclaimed that the revolution had not been destroyed, and would not be so. It then became possible to demand vengeance and put terror on the agenda.” 21. On Marat and the cult of the martyrs of liberty see Soboul 1975, 344-50 and Albert Soboul, Understanding the French Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1988), 131-144.

[128] Soboul 1975, 336 and 341.

[129] Wahnich 2012, 28.

[130] Ibid. 65.

[131] Mayer 2000, 363-7. Mayer concludes this discussion of the war in the Vendee with these words: “The Jacobin fury was not turned against the Vendeans as a distinct people but against the real and suspected counterrevolutionaries among them at a time when many Vendeans were not ‘blameless in life and pure of crime.’”

[132] Georges Lefebvre, The French Revolution: Volume II From 1793 to 1799 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), 57.

[133] Soboul 1975, 342.

[134] Soboul 1978, 161.

[135] Soboul 1975, 343. In fact, the law of 26 July 1793 imposed the death penalty for hoarding. See ibid. 389.

[136] Mark Twain, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court Chapter 13 – Freemen,” [Accessed December 1, 2012].

[137] Rose 1978, 129.

[138] Birchall 1997, 39.

[139] See Rose 1978, 130-8 for more on Fournier.

[140] Ibid. 130.

[141] Ibid.

[142] 131. Here is a quotation from Soboul 1975, 320 where the Enrages newspaper calls for equality and the right to life. “Equality is no more than a vain shadow of itself when the rich, by dint of the monopoly position they enjoy, can exercise the right of life and death over their fellow men. And the republic is no more than a vain shadow of itself when the counterrevolution is active from one day to the next in the manipulation of food prices, prices which are beyond the reach of three-quarters of the population but for painful sacrifices on their part. So hand down a further judgment. The sans culottes are ready with their pikes to enforce your decrees.”

[143] Rose 1978, 143.

[144] Babeuf had planned to join a revolutionary legion that was going to liberate the Dutch. However his enthusiasm cooled for the project when he realized that the pay was not enough to provide for his family. Babeuf was also feeling the excitement of the upsurge of popular militancy that was sweeping Paris in April and May of 1793. See ibid. 138-9.

[145] Rose 1978, 141.

[146] Birchall 1997, 39.

[147] Birchall 1997, 46.

[148] Rose 1978, 145.

[149] There was some support to Marat’s charges since Garin was telling Parisian bakers to forage their own accounts. See Rose 1978, 146.

[150] Birchall 1997, 40.

[151] Bax 1971, 69.

[152] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 79.

[153] Robespierre 2007, 111.

[154] Lefebvre 1964, 111.

[155] Ibid. 66.

[156] Birchall 1997, 38.

[157] Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium (New York: Verso Books, 2008), 296.

[158] Ibid. 296.

[159] Soboul 1975, 376-8.

[160] Ibid. 406.

[161] Leon Trotsky, “The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism,” Marxists Internet Archive. [Accessed December 1, 2012].

[163] See Haynes and Wolfreys 2007, 90 and Lefebvre 1964, 156 and 211 and 213. Needless to say under Thermidor, the Jacobins were subjected to a white terror while former emigres and royalists raised their heads openly in French society.

[164] Bernstein, 1937, 30.

[165] Ibid. See also Lefebvre 1964, 174.

[166] Bernstein, 1937, 30-31.

[167] Ibid. 32-35.

[168] Relevant passages from the Constitution of 1795 can found in Charles H. George, 500 Years of Revolution: European Radicals from Hus to Lenin (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 1998), 176-7.

[169] Haynes and Wolfreys 2007, 90.

[170] Buonarroti 1836, 44.

[171] lefebvre 1964, 161-2.

[172] Lowy 1993, 124-5.

[173] Bax 1971, 71.

[174] Babeuf quoted in Birchall 1997, 42. The strategy of Babeuf’s co thinkers, who were a former section of the Jacobins was desert their former comrades and seek a reconciliation with the moderates and anti-Jacobins in France. They decided to dismantle the revolutionary government and restore the rights which it had curtailed, notably freedom of the press. See also Rose 1978, 156-7.

[175] Rose 1978, 158.

[176] Babeuf quoted in Birchall 1997, 44.

[177] Rose 1978, 164. Also see this quote from Bax 1971, 72-3: “Men of the 9th of Thermidor, we declare before you, on behalf of our fellow-citizens, that they, deadened by a long lethargy, demand their freedom, claiming that the fall of tyrants shall render to us our eternal rights, that liberty shall step forth in the full glory of its power from the tomb of the dictator. Representatives, the men of the north, who have muzzled that devouring ogre, whose furies have desolated our country during five months, will prove themselves raised to your level, in denouncing to you the revolutionary phantom behind which Joseph Lebon has sheltered himself, in order to battle victoriously against the victims who struggle to escape his fury. We denounce to you Barère, that vile slave of Robespierre.”

[178] Ibid. 44.

[179] Ibid. 43.

[180] Rose 1978, 162.

[181] Bernstein, 1937, 48. Also the remaining Jacobins were purged from by the Convention from the Committee of General Security. Now the Thermidorians accelerated their anti-Jacobin attacks and eventually moved against the clubs. See also Rose 1978, 164.

[182] Bernstein, 1937, 47.

[183] Birchall 1997, 47.

[184] Rose 1978, 166.

[185] Ibid. 167. See also Babeuf quoted in Birchall 1997, 140: “I call a true popular society one where all people can go, take their places and make their voices heard, without being subject to a thousand and one formalities of corporations imitating those of fanaticism and royalty … I call a true popular society the one where the people without money are not below those who have money.”

[186] Rose 1978, 169.

[187] Babeuf quoted in Birchall 1997, 141.

[188] Quoted in ibid. This is not to say that Babeuf was unaffected by the prejudices of his time since he also appealed to their role as mothers by saying “how do you expect them [women] to rear men as heroes, if you crush them?” Ibid. 141. However, later during the Conspiracy of Equals, Babeuf would argue for the inclusion of women in the national community by saying “every French citizen of either sex, who makes a voluntary surrender to his country of all his effects, and devotes to it his body, and whenever service he is capable of, is a member of the great national community.” Also see Buonarroti 1836, 419. This is not to say that other members of the Conspiracy of Equals held often backward views on women. They certainly did. But let us not lose sight of the fact that Babeuf was arguing for the inclusion of women in the French nation (who would not gain suffrage until 1945).

[189] We can do no more than touch on the fact that Marx, Engels and Lenin were not elitists who had boundless faith in the masses of workers to make a revolution on their own behalf. For some excellent discussions of this question see August Nimtz, Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000) and Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What is to Be Done? In Context (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008).

[190] Rousseau 1987, 215-6. It is also around this period that Babeuf took the name of Gracchus. The Gracchi brothers were ancient Roman tribunes who sought to divide the land of Rome between the poor. They ended up antagonizing the wealthy patricians and were assassinated for their efforts. See Michael Grant, History of Rome (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978), 169-76. For Babeuf adopting the name Gracchus, see Birchall 1997, 47.

[191] Rose 1978, 166.

[192] Lefebvre 1964, 139.

[193] Rose 1978, 157-8.

[194] Lefebvre 1964, 139.

[195] Babeuf quoted in Birchall 1997, 48.

[196] Rose 1978, 165.

[197] Bernstein, 1937, 48.

[198] Rose 1978, 167-8.

[199] Rose 1978, 170.

[200] Birchall 1997, 46.

[201] Rose 1978, 173.

[202] For the events surrounding Germinal see Bernstein, 1937, 35-6, And Lefebvre 1964, 144 and Soboul 1975, 440-442.

[203] For Prairal see Lefebvre 1964, 145, Soboul 1975, 442-9, and Bernstein, 1937, 36-7.

[204] Soboul 1975, 447.

[205] Ibid. 448.

[206] Ibid. 448.

[207] Germain, son of a minor royal official, was a former cavalry officer born in 1770. Germain had been imprisoned in 1795 after fighting with anti-Jacobins in the Convention. Germain was a great reader of philosophy, having read Rousseau, Malby, Diderot, and Helvetius. See Rose 1978, 188-9 and Bernstein, 1937, 50.

[208] Rose 1978, 189.

[209] Birchall 1997, 51-2. Also see Babeuf’s theory of exploitation which is discussed on 150.

[210] Bernstein, 1937, 50-1.

[211] Birchall 1997, 145.

[212] Ibid.

[213] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document, ed. Phil Gasper (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 71.

[214] For a discussion on later utopian socialists, notably Saint-Simon see Bernstein 1955, 100-112.

[215] Birchall 1997, 151.

[216] Buonarroti 1836, 56. In Bernstein, 1937, 51, he likens this plan to Fourierist phalanaxs. However, we are inclined to agree with Rose 1978, 196 who says the plan for a Plebeian Vendee is more of a foretaste of a Maoist or Guevarist people’s war strategy. It is tempting to imagine the course that French history would’ve taken if Babeuf had retreated to the countryside and launched a peasant insurrection.

[217] Buonarroti 1836, 40.

[218] Ibid. 43.

[219] It is to Philippe Buonarroti that we owe one of the first and most faithful histories of the Babouvist movement. Buonarroti remained true to the principles of equality throughout his life. Following his imprisonment, he was active in the Italian Carbonari and was looked to with reverence by the French Republican underground during the July monarchy. Trelet, “Philippe Buonarroti,” Marxists Internet Archive. [Accessed December 1, 2012]. Other prison veterans of the conspiracy listed on p. 40. Also Bronterre O’Brien offers a biographical account of Buonarroti in Buonarroti 1836, iii-xii.

[220] Babeuf and other Republican prisoners offered to defend the Republic from the royalists. See Rose 1978, 203-4. For the royalist reaction see Lefebvre 1964, 155-8 and Soboul 1975, 471.

[221] Lefebvre 1964, 175.

[222] Buonarroti 1836, 61.

[223] For the faction fighting of the Jacobins and the left during the Thermidor of this period see Rose 1978, 206-8.

[224] Birchall 1997, 53.

[225] Buonarroti 1836, 63.

[226] Ibid.

[227] Ibid.

[228] Bernstein, 1937, 52.

[229] Rose 1978, 209.

[230] Birchall 1997, 51.

[231] Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds: Being and Event 2 (New York: Continuum, 2009), 27.

[232] The Manifesto of the Plebeians can be found as an appendix in Birchall 1997, 170.

[233] Ibid.

[234] Ibid. 171.

[235] Ibid. 172.

[236] Ibid.

[237] Rose 1978, 217.

[238] Ibid.

[239] Birchall 1997, 156.

[240] Birchall 1997, 257-8.

[241] Buonarroti 1836, 72.

[242] Ibid.

[243] We will use terms Conspirators, Conspiracy of Equals, Equals, Babouvists and the Secret Directory interchangeably.

[244] The document detailing the creation and purpose of the Insurrectional Directory can be found in Buonarroti 1836, 302.

[245] Ibid.

[246] Birchall 1997, 54.

[247] All the elements of Babeuf’s communist project appear to fit the four determinations that Alain Badiou identifies as comprising a political truth. Badiou lists the four determinations as “will (against socio-economic necessity), equality (against the established hierarchies of power), confidence (against anti-popular suspicion or fear of the masses), authority or terror (against the ‘natural’ free play of competition). This is the general kernel of a political truth of this type.” Badiou 2009, 27.

[248] Buonarroti 1836, 105.

[249] Ibid. 101.

[250] Birchall 1997, 155.

[251] Ibid.

[252] Buonarroti 1836,97.

[253] Ibid.

[254] Soboul 1988, 118.

[255] Samuel Bernstein, “Babeuf and Babouvism II,” Science and Society 2.2 (Spring 1938), 171.

[256] Ibid.

[257] The whole song in English and French can be found on Buonarroti 1836, 374-8.

[258] Charles Germain, “Song of Equals,” Marxists Internet Archive. [Accessed December 1, 2012].

[259] The Analysis of the Doctrine of Babeuf can be found in Buonarroti 1836, 318-326.

[260] Bernstein, 1938, 170.

[261] Rose 1978, 251.

[262] Ibid.

[263] Birchall 1997, 62.

[264] Rose 1978, 252.

[265] Buonarroti 1836, 303.

[266] Ibid.

[267] Ibid.

[268] Ibid. 309.

[269] Soboul 1988, 122-3.

[270] Buonarroti 1836, 139.Even Babeuf mentioned the exploitation of the proletariat in the Manifesto of the Plebeians see Birchall 1997, 170.

[271] Ibid. 148.

[272] Soboul 1978, 27.

[273] Birchall 149

[274] Soboul 1978, 29.

[275] Birchall 1997, 149.

[276] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “The Holy Family,” Marxists Internet Archive. [Accessed December 1, 2012].

[277] Ibid.

[278] Bernstein, 1938, 169.

[279] Rose 1978, 249.

[280] Ibid. 249. Also see Birchall 1997, 67.

[281] Buonarroti 1836,303.

[282] These figures come from ibid. 139 where a more precise breakdown of Babouvist numbers is offered.

[283] Soboul 1988, 118.

[284] Birchall 1997, 69.

[285] Bernstein, 1938, 170.

[286] Ibid. 173.

[287] Rose 1978, 253.

[288] Ibid. 256.

[289] Buonarroti 1836, 352.

[290] Rose 1978, 255.

[291] Soboul 1975, 491.

[292] Buonarroti 1836, 139.

[293] Ibid. 390.

[294] Ibid. 120.

[295] Ibid. 124.

[296] Rose 1978, 262.

[297] Buonarroti 1836, 127.

[298] Ibid. 127. See also Rose 1978, 260-2 and Birchall 1997, 59-60.

[299] For the full Manifesto of the Equals see Buonarroti 1836, 314-7. The Manifesto of Equals was never published by the Babouvists considering that two passages written by Sylvain Marechal were objected to. One contained the phrase, Let all the arts perish, if need be, as long as real equality remains!” which Babeuf objected to since he believed he did not believe in an ascetic communism. The other phrase objected to was “Let it at last end, this great scandal that our descendants will never believe existed! Disappear at last, revolting distinctions between rich and poor, great and small, masters and servants, rulers and ruled.” It was the last three words which were objected to since the Babouvists planned on establishing a revolutionary dictatorship after they had taken power. This controversy is discussed in Birchall 1997, 64-5.

[300] Rose 1978, 242

[301] Buonarroti 1836,141.

[302] Ibid. 142.

[303] Ibid. 143.

[304] 144.

[305] Ibid. Babeuf was working on a draft of an address to a victorious people when he was arrested found on 412-3.

[306] Ibid. 143.

[307] Birchall 1997, 66.

[308] Buonarroti 1997, 148.

[309] Buonarroti has extensive discussions of the various measures that the Equals planned to introduce on 150-230.

[310] For the break-up of the Conspiracy and the abortive rising at Grenelle see Rose 1978, 265-85. Also see Birchall 1997, 69-71 and Buonarroti 231-2. Buonarroti says that the people of Paris stood by as motionless spectators (232), which is an injustice to those who strove to fight on.

[311] Rose 1978, 282.

[312] The trial of Babeuf has been adequately covered in many other places see Rose 1978, 282-328 and Birchall 1997, 71-80. Buonarroti, 1836, 235-77 has a number of documents related to the trial. For Babeuf’s closing statement to the court see Gracchus Babeuf, The Defense of Gracchus Babeuf, trans. John Anthony Scott (New York: Schocken Books, 1972).

[313] Bax 1971, 201-2.

[314] See Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Volume III: The ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ (New York: Monthly Review Press: 1986), 120-4. Blanqui also denied being a disciple of Babeuf. See Samuel Bernstein, Louis-Auguste Blanqui and the Art of Insurrection (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), 45.

[315] “Marxism, as the theory and practice of the proletariat revolution, also had to be the theory and practice of the self-emancipation of the proletariat.” Hal Draper, Socialism from Below, ed. E. Haberkern (Alameda: Center for Socialist History, 2005), 321-2.

[316] It is beyond the scope of this essay to go into Lenin’s theory and practice. But an interested reader should consult the following works to begin: Lars Lih 2008, Paul LeBlanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Amherst: Humanity Books, 1990), Neil Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought Volume 1: Theory and Practice in the Democratic Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket, 2009a) and Neil Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought Volume 2: Theory and Practice in the Socialist Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket, 2009b), Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (London: Merlin Press, 1975). Here are four excellent books that deal with Bolshevik practice during and after the 1917 Revolution: Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967), Alexander Rabinowitch, Bolsheviks Come to Power: Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (New York. W.W. Norton and Company 1978), Alexander Rabinowitch, Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007), and Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972).

[317] Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books: 2005), 198.

[318] Victor Serge, Birth of Our Power (London: Writers and Readers, 1970), 74.

Tribunes of the People

It has been more than a year since the beginning of Occupy Wall Street. This single moment spawned similar encampments across the country from Boston to Oakland. Anyone who was there during the opening days remembers the carnival atmosphere, the mutual flowering of ideas and the feeling that anything was possible. For myself and so many others, the Occupy Movement was a rupture with the limited horizon of possibilities that capitalism imposes upon us. It was in the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, “the explosion of freedom, the rupture of the established order and the invention of an efficacious and spontaneous order.”

But now the encampments have been dispersed, the momentum of Occupy has stalled and fatigue has overcome many activists. In times when the horizon is not easily pointing to victory, how are we to maintain our fidelity to the ideas of Occupy? It is here that we should ponder these words of Slavoj Zizek in a teach-in at OWS: “We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then? I don’t want you to remember these days, you know, like “Oh. we were young and it was beautiful.” Remember that our basic message is “We are allowed to think about alternatives.” If the taboo is broken, we do not live in the best possible world. But there is a long road ahead. There are truly difficult questions that confront us. We know what we do not want. But what do we want? What social organization can replace capitalism? What type of new leaders do we want?”

If what Zizek said is true, and I think it is, then what do we need to do now? What hard work should we take up? Well, the Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszaros said that the great challenge of our historical time is to develop a hegemonic alternative that is capable of overturning capitalism and that means developing mass communist consciousness. To those who say that such a strategy is premature, Meszaros answers as follows: “The hegemonic alternative to capital’s rule implies the need for an irreversible revolutionary transformation. Naturally, the “realists” always pontificate that such strategy is “premature” and should be postponed to the arrival of “more favorable conditions.” But what could be less premature than an uncompromising radical intervention in the historical process, given the conditions of the greatest possible danger that we must now face? Or, to put it in another way, when could such intervention be considered not premature, if not under the urgency of our own historical time?”1 That being said, I would offer this answer to Zizek’s question: we need a communist party or an organization playing a similar role with the guiding ideal of being a tribune of the people, in order to move forward.

Yet capitalism will not drive itself to destruction and be replaced, nor will opposition to its destructive tendencies lead to its replacement unless those who suffer its effects and who offer resistance to it are able and willing to subordinate their individual wills to that of a collective will (a communist party) that can bring real freedom or communism into being.2

A communist party, acts as a mediator which draws together different sections of the working class (who have differing and uneven levels of consciousness) and it forges a united opposition to its opponents, and draws them together and makes them conscious the history of their struggle and the party formulates the strategy and tactics that will serve the long-term interests of the working class.3 The party is not only a teacher, but must dialectically play the role of pupil by listening and learning from the people.

That being so, how does a communist party relate to Occupy? Well, Occupy was not just a place where you could have fun, celebrate and listen to music. Occupy was an event that said, “we won’t accept the status quo and we’ll do something about it.” It acknowledged the failures of capitalism (banks got bailed out) and the class struggle (99% and 1%), in uneven and differing ways. Occupy also cuts a hole in the ideological unity of capitalism that there is ‘shared sacrifice.’ This is a new political subject coming forward. At Occupy we saw people who were active, carrying out the day-to-day work of maintaining a camp, bringing in food, printing leaflets and linking up with other struggles.4

Occupy is doing the work of a party on a certain level: it seeks to maintain a continuity of oppositional struggle that enables broader numbers of people to join in a movement. In so many words: it builds collectivity.

As we know, building this new collectivity is not something guaranteed. There has been a great deal of division in Occupy (on issues such as race, gender, demands, etc.). There has also been the fragmentation of the movement that has resulted following the evictions of encampments which deprived the movement of the space where this new collectivity was being formed.

The movement has drifted apart in many other directions, some of which are clear dead ends. For one: many Occupiers have embraced a form of lifestyle politics which posits individualistic and moralistic solutions (buy organic foods, grow your own gardens, barter, go vegan and don’t shop at Walmart) that are elitist and can be easily reabsorbed into the dominant system. Two: others in Occupy have settled for working within the Democratic Party and accepting the crumbs of reform they offer even as the Democrats promise more war and protection for big business.

I would go as far as to say that these two choices are what Alain Badiou would define as evil. Badiou says “that evil is the moment I lack the strength to be true to the good that compels me.” So what does this mean? Well, Occupy was a politicization of new subjects. The rupture of Occupy (or any rupture) shows that it is not enough to have just new subjects, but that we need to develop the political consequences of that rupture.5 And that means building a party which not only assets the division of capitalist society by the class struggle, but politicizes a part of that division (the working class, 99% or the people) with theoretical clarity of the totality of the revolutionary struggle, and bring consciousness of the tasks at hand.6

Now a communist party is based on the ‘actuality of revolution’ in the words of Georg Lukacs. The actuality of revolution means that revolutions do happen (Tunisia, Egypt)7 and that politics is radically open.8 More than that, there is no single road map that we can follow to certain victory because a revolution is a shifting and chaotic event. Yet a party should know that the revolution will not be completely knowable in advance and thus be prepared to face the unknown. And that that means we can not defer decisions, actions and judgments that are necessary to the situation at hand because to do so would be fatal. We need discipline and preparation for the rapids of revolution which will help us to navigate, adapt and learn its ever changing currents.9

What structures does a party need to face the actuality of revolution? I think that we can learn a great deal, positively and negatively from Occupy in this regard. Not only did Occupy maintain a continuity of struggle that allowed many people to join, it also valued democracy (or horizontialism). Yet horizontalism was often carried to such a fault that any discussion of vertical structures was ruled out. And I would argue that we need some form of vertical structures in addition to horizontal ones in order to coordinate, organize and expand our struggles to the national and international levels. And in building the necessary vertical structures, developing leaders; we equally need to the develop the appropriate forms of accountability and recall.10

A party is not just about coming together, it is also about sticking together and making sacrifices for the sake of others and we need to do that in collectively built and tested organizations. And as I said in a previous talk, it is only via collective class struggle that we can hope to make a revolution that can overthrow capitalism and institute communism. Furthermore, it is only by passing through struggle, through revolution that the proletariat can develop its consciousness and the solidarity necessary to win. As Marx said to the workers, they need to go through a struggle “not only to bring about a change in society but also to change yourselves, and prepare yourselves for the exercise of political power.”11

When a capitalist crisis comes, that does not mean revolutionary consciousness will automatically be produced. What it does mean is that there has been an opening in which people are more receptive to our ideas. And we should take full advantage of that opening. I think that we should view the people as eager to hear and be inspired by our message of communist revolution. We want to learn from the people, who are often ahead of us in their willingness to fight and grasp ideas. And what we want to do is to draw more people into the movement and expand our circles of action to attack every manifestation of capitalist exploitation to hasten its overthrow. Revolutions are contagious. People can be inspired by heroic fighters, bold ideas, mass struggle and perform miracles. Ultimately, I believe that the communist message will be heeded because it is needed.

Now following the scholar Lars Lih (one of the foremost authorities on Lenin), I’d like to touch on five characteristics that Lih said Lenin identified as essential to a party leader or revolutionary organizer:

1. Comes forth from the people;

2. Earns love and respect from the workers, due to his or her complete devotion to the cause;

3. Always maintains links with the advanced workers;

4. Works hard to instill in him or herself the necessary practical knowledge and flair;

5. Sees their particular local and national struggles linked to the international revolution.12

Now before I conclude, I’d like to read three quotes from Lenin that hammer home many of the points of this talk. In the first, Lenin is addressing fellow revolutionaries whom he believes are behind the struggle of the people, who are ahead of the party’s agitation:“We must blame ourselves for falling behind the movement of the masses, for we have not been able to organise indictments of these despicable things in a broad, clear and timely fashion.”13

In this second quote, Lenin is admonishing revolutionaries to not be pessimistic about what a dedicated revolutionary can achieve in serve to the communist cause: “You boast that you are practical, but you fail to see what every Russian practical worker knows: namely, the miracles that the energy, not only of a circle, but even of an individual person is able to perform in the revolutionary cause.”14

And this final quote from Lenin is actually one of my favorite things that he ever said and it sums up my whole talk: “the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”15

So I believe that in order to maintain our fidelity to the ideas of Occupy, then we to need to give those ideas flesh by giving them an organized body so they can have a practical effect in the real world. So my answer to Zizek’s question of what happens the day after is this: we need to organize and politicize the consequences of the rupture by building a communist party who’s guiding ideal is a tribune of the people.


1. Istvan Meszaros, The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time: Socialism in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008), 435.

2. This paragraph is drawn largely from Stephen Perkins, Marxism and the Proletariat: A Lukacsian Perspective (London: Pluto Press, 1993), 170. For an elaboration on the Lukacsian perspective on the communist party, see 169-181.

3. Ibid. 170

4. Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon (London: Verso Books, 2012), 213.

5.  Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis (London: Verso Books, 2010), 227 which is quoted by Dean, 2012, 213.

6. This argument is drawn from Perkins, 1993, 179 and Dean, 2012, 245.

7. Dean, 2012, 240.

8. “This means that the actuality of the proletarian revolution is no longer only a world historical horizon arching above the self-liberating working class, but that revolution is already on its agenda.” Georg Lukacs, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought,” Marxist Internet Archive. [Accessed November 1, 2012].

9. Dean, 2012, 241.

10. Dean, 2012, 226 and 238.

11. Karl Marx , “Revelations Concerning the Communist Trial in Cologne,” Marxists Internet Archive, [Accessed November 10, 2012].

12. These five points are drawn from Lars Lih’s discussion the qualities that Lenin says a communist revolutionary leader should possess. See: Lars T. Lih, “We must dream! Echoes of ‘What is to Be Done?’ in Lenin’s later career,” International Journal of Socialist Renewal. [Accessed November 1, 2012].

13. See Lars Lih’s discission of this quote at Lars Lih, “Scotching the myths about Lenin’s `What is to be done,'” International Journal of Socialist Renewal, [Accessed November 1, 2012]. The original quote can be found in Vladimir Lenin, `What is to Be Done: Burning Question of Our Movement,’ Marxist Internet Archive. [Accessed November 1, 2012].

14. See Lars Lih’s discission of this quote at Lars Lih, “Scotching the myths about Lenin’s `What is to be done,'” International Journal of Socialist Renewal, [Accessed November 1, 2012]. The original quote can be found in Vladimir Lenin, `What is to Be Done: Burning Question of Our Movement,’ Marxist Internet Archive. [Accessed November 1, 2012].

15. Vladimir Lenin, `What is to Be Done: Burning Question of Our Movement,’ Marxist Internet Archive. [Accessed November 1, 2012].

Maintaining Our Fidelity to Occupy: One Year Later

More than a year ago, Occupy encampments sprung up across the country from Boston to Oakland. Anyone who was there during the opening days remembers the carnival atmosphere, the mutual flowering of ideas and the feeling that anything was possible. But now the encampments have been dispersed, the momentum of Occupy has stalled and fatigue has overcome many activists. In times when the horizon is not easily pointing to victory, how are we to maintain our fidelity to the ideas of Occupy? What we need now is a renewal of the pledges we made a year ago and the organization of those truth into a vehicle capable of a struggling against all the manifestations of injustice that capitalism produces.

When Occupy began, it seemed to confirm what Lenin said about revolutions being “festivals of the oppressed.” There was the lively music, painting and games that were being played in the camps. It was almost like we were all free from exploitation, alienation and the other social bonds characteristic of capitalism. The great truth of Occupy was that we did not have accept the division of the world between the haves and have-notch, but that we could envision a future beyond capitalism. For those who were at Occupy during its opening days, it was a miraculous experience where we made life-long friends and where we made pledges to change the world.

“Carnivals come cheap – the true test of their worth is what happens in the day after, how our everyday life has changed or is to be changed.” The radical academic Slavoj Zizek said these words last year at Occupy Wall Street. These words ring true following the dispersal of the Occupy camps and as the festive atmosphere has worn off. Those of us who stayed committed discovered the often grueling life of activism with its meetings, demonstrations, and patient explanation of our principles to those not involved. That commitment has often been wrought by activists in the face of state power and violence, a media geared against us, our family and work obligations. For many, the strains of commitment have led to fatigue and burn out.

The engagement to change the world and build a new future is undertaken in the face of evil. In this context, we can give a fairly succinct definition of evil. “Evil is the moment when I lack the strength to be true to the Good that compels me,” says the philosopher Alain Badiou. Evil to the activist is what would take the energies of our struggle for a new world free from exploitation and would divert it back into the decayed and dying institutions of capitalism. This means accepting a reformed capitalism as our only horizon or participating in elections that only elect war mongers and the lapdogs of big business, who promise only crumbs of ‘reform.’ Evil is ultimately to believe that our present social order is permanent and to forget the truth we learned last year: we can imagine and bring to birth a new world where the needs of all come before the profits of a few.
And if that is the truth, then how do we efffectively organize to bring it into being? Occupy has been involved in struggles both during and after the loss of physical encampments whether for social justice, against austerity, or in support of striking workers. The organization of truth will require not just the free flowing democracy characteristic of Occupy, but disciplined cooperation in our struggles.

Our task should not be to succumb to the belief that capitalism is the only future. We need to renew the pledge that we made a year ago to build a new world free from the miseries and inequities of this one. To do that, we will need to expand the fight to challenge all the manifestations of cruelty, violence, exploitation, and oppression that are ingrained with capitalism. Our ideal should be to become tribunes of the people, able to bring forth the linkages between each particular struggle to the overall system and point a way forward to a new horizon.

Furthermore, in order to resist the evils of the system that seeks to divert us from the good, we can not struggle alone. Our fidelity to the struggle is also a commitment to one other to practice with comrades the values of democracy, egalitarianism and social justice that we want to see in a new world. To become tribunes of the people means that we need to be organized and disciplined beyond the often small and localized struggles that exist now, but to develop new organizations that can challenge and overthrow capitalism on a national and, hopefully, an international level.

Now that the carnivals have ended and the encampments have been dispersed, those truths and ideas have not gone away. It is up to us to organize those ideas and renew our pledges to a world beyond capitalism. A year ago, we broke the great taboo of the system says Zizek: “We do not live in the best possible world; we are allowed, obliged even, to think about the alternatives.” However, we need to do more than merely think of alternatives, but to develop the necessary organization capable of making our ideas and truths a reality.

Overcoming Alienation

Overcoming alienation is at the core of Marx’s thought. It is something that Istvan Meszaros pointed out in one of his earlier works, Marx’s Theory of Alienation is a red thread that stretches from the young Marx to the old one. Alienation like exploitation is a permanent feature of capitalism that deforms and degrades people. It can only be overcome in a society in which human beings were able to realize their full potential (the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all). Over the course of this talk, I would like to touch upon the following four questions: what is the Marxist theory of alienation? What does alienation do to the worker? What does alienation mean for the state? What does a communist project need to do in order to overcome alienation?

I hope you’ll understand that I can not give the perfect revolutionary program in this talk. I can only give a cursory outline of many of these concepts. I hope that many of the issues touched on here can be developed in a larger group discussion and of course most importantly via revolutionary struggle.

Question one: what is the Marxist theory of alienation?

Let me begin with Marx in the 1844 Manuscripts, where he gives a fairly succinct definition of alienation.

“What, then, constitutes the alienation of labor?
First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague. External labor, labor in which man alienates himself, is a labor of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Lastly, the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another. Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, of the human brain and the human heart, operates on the individual independently of him – that is, operates as an alien, divine or diabolical activity – so is the worker’s activity not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self.”1

Now contrary to Louis Althusser, this was not just the view of the young Karl Marx. Rather this concept of alienation is central to Marx’s analysis in Das Kapital.

Now alienation is about separation of the worker from the means of production which are owned by the capitalist class. The worker under capitalism is not merely exploited by capital, but is alienated from the products of their labor. According to Marx, labor is the way that human beings develop their creativity and individual talents as part of their communities. This is the essence of their humanity. This is not so under capitalism, in fact alienation cripples and deforms workers. Here labor is not an expression of the needs/humanity of the worker nor is labor life’s prime need. Instead, the humanity of labor is turned into something alien under capitalism. Labor under capitalism serves the needs of an alien class (capitalist). Thus what is human (labor) becomes a burden to the worker. Think of all that labor has produced such as great plays and architecture. It is our ability to creatively labor that makes us human. And what is animal (eating, drinking, procreation) becomes human. The worker under capitalism is thus not only exploited, but alienated and dehumanized.

Thus the proletariat is forced to sell its labor-power to the capitalist for a wage. The proletariat is exploited and dehumanized in the process. The capitalist uses the surplus extracted from the working class in order to accumulate profits. Thus the logic of capital is based on greater accumulation or profit, not on human needs. People are to be cast aside once they can no longer be squeezed for more profits.

Question two: what effect does alienation have on workers?

Lets start with work. When a worker gets a job in capitalist society, which seems to be getting ever harder to accomplish, what are we told? Well, that you can buy a home, car and all the good things in life. You know the whole fucking spiel for the American Dream. That’s the surface, but underneath what does it look like?

Work is a necessary evil under capitalism. We need work to provide for our needs, while at the same time our labor is used to enrich the master class. We work in conditions that resemble a cage. Produce. Tow the company line. Don’t slack. Come in early and stay late. Produce more and faster. Once you’re working, you learn to ingrain yourself into the whole matrix of written and unwritten rules. The downside of your “success” story soon becomes clear: you are not a free being for the majority of your waking hours.

When you a worker, you can’t get rich. You enrich someone else. You can bust your ass and sweat yourself dry, but in the end, the profits don’t belong to you. It is only by the labor of workers that anything gets made. You see none of the benefits whether you are building a car, running a cash register or picking the grapes. The profits go to the ones on top, the capitalists with the plush offices, seven cars and offshore accounts. Whatever you produce, in whatever manner, you’ll get enough (maybe!) to pay for your bare needs. Workers sow. Capitalists reap. Yet the immediate bosses, aren’t making much more than the average worker, they enforce the rules of the owner to keep profits flowing. The low level manger is often hated by the workers for making them labor and berated by the owner to increase productivity.

There’s more to the story though. Going to school as children, we see the many posters in classrooms that exalt us to “use our imagination” and “to fulfill our potential.” There is a certain truth to this. Humanity through brain and brawn throughout history has built great monuments, painted scenes to dazzle the eye, and written books that echo into eternity. Yet our imaginations and potential mean something else on the job. When you’re on the clock, you belong to the boss. Workers cynically go through the motions, without ever really using the talents or the passions that they have inside of them. Your powers of body and mind produce for someone else’s benefit, not your own. You are crippled and deformed.

Our ability to create, which makes us human, is not only denied us on the job, it is actually used against us to enrich the boss. And the collective fruit of our bodies and brains builds new and innovative machines that work us even more to the bone. And workers are bonded to those machines in some sort of unholy matrimony.

While our creative powers are drained by an alien class, we can’t enjoy them to create for our collective social benefit. We work for 8, 10, 12 hours or more. And when we punch out and head home (should we be lucky enough to have one), we end up being so exhausted that it is unlikely we can create much if we have the time to do so. Instead we indulge in our animal side by consuming food or drink to make us forget the drudgery of our lives for a few hours. While the animal comes out, the human side, our ability to creatively produce, is associated with the toil of work.

We live in a society where we have to compete for jobs. A few years ago, at least in the USA, it was relatively easier to find employment. Now the ‘new normal’ is one of long-term unemployment. Workers applying for a job may find themselves next to twenty competitors. Those competitors are foes who can take away our daily bread.

Everything in society from the production relations to ideology produces and reproduces competition, so we have to combat those who are in our way. If you’re on the job and can get ahead by screwing over your fellow worker, why not? After all, it’s a dog eat dog world.

Systems of domination and racism are thrown into this already acidic mix. A person with darker skin on the bottom can be seen as one who is not only less than human but threatens meager privileges. Or if you have that darker skin, you may hate and fear the other as someone who won’t let you have a living but would crush you beneath the iron heel.

“Illegal” workers may be seen as the cause of a multitude of  social ills from taking jobs to not paying taxes. So they need to be driven out. The remedy is often for the “true citizens” of all classes to band together and drive the intruders out.

This whole system is reinforced by politics and ideology. For instance, the ruling class produces the ruling ideas through the consent/control of various apparatuses in civil society such as churches, political parties, media, etc. However, the alienation of the worker in capitalism also has an ideological effect on perception. Since the worker is producing products for an alien class and not for him or herself, the products of proletariat’s labor in their totality are dominating the proletariat (with the control of said products in the hands of the capitalist class). The worker thus sees things as dominating him/her and his/her class. The domination of things thus means that the worker sees the social relations of capitalism not as between people, but as relations between things. This can in turn produce a distorted view of capital in its totality which Marx developed via his theory of commodity fetishism. Not only is the proletariat exploited and alienated by capital, but its perception of that domination is distorted and manipulated.

When you look at grapes on sale, the first thing you see is the price tag. It is not quite apparent on first look that those grapes are produced by exploited workers enriching a capitalist.

Now work may be a hated endeavor, but it is the only way for us to get the money that we must acquire in order to satisfy our basic needs. So we go through with it, but not without resistance. Vulgar Marxists often see class struggle as only unions, strikes and revolutionary insurrections. Certainly those forms of struggle are important to understanding class struggle, but there are other forms of struggle too.

I worked for seven years at a grocery store. We had no strikes. No unions. And we had only one class conscious worker, namely me. Yet we had plenty of class struggle, unconscious, but class struggle nonetheless. I ask you to think about your jobs, I suspect that some of these stories will sound similar.

Consider this struggle a bunch of guerrilla skirmishes. The fight starts early in the day. When the alarm bell rings first thing in the morning, you’d want to bash it in with a hammer. On the job, even the most studious worker will find a way to slack off once in a while. Sometimes a worker comes back a little late from lunch and hopes that no one notices. Maybe you goof off or horseplay with a friend in another department in order to bring joy into the day. Sometimes you steal from the company to get back a few scraps that were originally taken from you. Maybe you’d flaunt the rules of the job by sitting down at a cash register even though you were told to stand. Or buy a coke to drink at your station even though you weren’t supposed to have a drink.

I knew employees who sabotaged the power cords at the job, shutting the place down so we could have a few minutes of freedom. There were also those who spit in the bosses’ coffee as a form of protest.

These forms of struggle can be in protest to hours being cut, a promotion denied or a friend being laid off.

All of these unconscious forms of class struggle were in response to a system that steals our labor and makes it human. My fellow workers who resisted were not class conscious workers, but they certainly felt (rightfully so) that their labor was being stolen from by the boss. All these forms of resistance to alienation were a method of taking back our own humanity, even if only for a moment.

Now these forms of resistance are interesting to observe and study. Yet I would argue that they will not overcome alienation and capitalism. These forms of resistance I believe can be likened to what EP Thompson considered the moral economy of the working class. By this I would say, workers would protest their exploitation in order to affirm their traditional rights which have been violated. Workers protesting in such a way (for instance by food riot in response to a rise in the price of bread) may want their previous rights to be restored. Yet this is ultimately a protest about restoring a violated social contract in the interests of a ‘fairer’ rate of exploitation, but it is not against exploitation per se.

That struggle to overcome alienation will require conscious forms. For instance, that means viewing our individual condition as something that is not individual, but as the collective lot of a class who are alienated, crippled, deformed and exploited. Despite the proletariat’s alienation and exploitation, the nature of its being (exploited by capital) compels it to struggle against capital. Just as capital needs to exploit the proletariat to the utmost to gain the most profit, the proletariat wants more of the products of their labor in order to live. Thus despite what the proletariat may consciously believe, its class position will compel it to struggle against capital. This struggle takes on a variety of forms. For instance the proletariat struggles through resistance on the job, unions, strikes, culture, political parties, and maybe revolutionary insurrection to name a few means.

Through struggle, it is possible to develop understanding of the real social relations that dominate us. That means naming our enemy: capitalism and explaining how the system’s mechanisms seek to grind us down. And it means not viewing the worker of a different skin or gender as the enemy.  Resistance can become more than just singular acts that just make the work day easier to endure, but rather we can collectively challenge the nature of work and the ruling class which it enriches.

There is no guarantee of success though. History is not necessarily on our side, however much we want it to be. Freedom from alienation and capitalism is contingent. It depends on our conscious intervention. In fact, as Marx said, “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” We learn via struggle and develop ourselves by collectively participating in class struggle. We learn to fight by fighting. No one else can do it for us.

Question three: what does alienation mean in regards to the state?

Capitalist society has a state that seeks to maintain the dominant property relations and uses various organs to accomplish this goal (i.e. army, police, courts, CIA, media, newspapers). This state is an instrument of class rule and will not hesitate to use coercion to enforce its rule (although it does seek elicit consent). The state may have relative autonomy in maintaining the system. It doesn’t have to be involved in the day-to-day management of a factory. This relative autonomy can serve an ideological purpose, state ideologists can claim that the state stands above all class interests and thus serves the national interests. Let there be no mistake, the capitalist state ultimately serves the rulers and is our enemy.
In a class society, where there are haves and have-nots, the state is capital’s command structure which is required to maintain the overall reproduction of the system or its internal cohesion. This is because each particular capital acts in its own interest (profit) and not necessarily to maintain the over-all sustainability system. The state functions for the needs of the capitalist class as a whole, against any particular capitalist who may get out of line and threaten the system as a whole. For example, when Nixon engaged in Watergate, he was attacking other representatives of the capitalist class, something that needed to be kept in check by other capitalists (when Nixon’s tactics were used against the left, there was no outcry since these forces were fighting for the interests of the proletariat).
It is important to remember that the state is a creation of people to maintain social cohesion in a society divided into classes. That creation was turned against whole classes of people throughout history. Or to put it differently, the state apparatus is alienated from society. Marx in one of his earlier works describes this as follows:

“The state becomes something alien to the nature of civil society; it becomes this nature’s otherworldly realm of deputies which makes claims against civil society. The police, the judiciary, and the administration are not deputies of civil society itself, which manages its own general interest in and through them. Rather, they are office holders of the state whose purpose is to manage the state in opposition to civil society.”2

However, state power is a creation of people which in a sense was alienated from its makers. The state is thus used against society. The danger of a separation of the organs of state power from control by society can be seen “with its enormous bureaucratic and military organization, with its wide-ranging and ingenious state machinery, with a host of officials numbering half a million, besides an army of another half million-this terrifying parasitic body which enmeshes the body of…society.”3 This separation and the need for the state to maintain the dominant property relations results in the state “managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”4

It was this state (along with the capitalist social relations it upholds) that Marxists seek to overthrow. However, the question here becomes: what replaces the capitalist state? For Marx, the example of the Paris Commune was essential in this regard. For the Paris Commune was “essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor.”5 Not only was the working class in control of the state, but the functions of the state which had been alienated from society were done away with by the Commune: “The Commune made that catchword of bourgeois revolutions — cheap government — a reality by destroying the two greatest sources of expenditure: the standing army and state functionarism.”6 So instead of instruments of violence being exercised by an alienated state standing over the workers (and maintaining the dominant property relations), those functions were regained by society.

Henri Lefebvre describes this process as follows: “the dictatorship of the proletariat means concrete democracy, i.e. the coercive power of a majority over a minority. The working class must destroy the machinery of the existing state, but its own state is to last only for a transitional period during which the state functions of organization and management are taken over by new social forces. Existing state authorities replace rational organization with coercion, negate human freedom by their very nature. The justification and legitimacy of such coercion will disappear, and the state will begin to wither away when a truly rational organization of production becomes possible.”7

Although I look upon the emancipatory spirit of the Paris commune as essential to overcoming the alienated aspects of the state, I do not think that we can simply abolish the state on the first day of the revolution as some anarchists contend. I believe that history bears this out. Every revolution in the last century has had to deal with imperialist intervention and thus the need for some kind of military defense against internal and external counter-revolution that can only be coordinated by the state. The state is also needed to coordinate other activities such as economic, security, education, healthcare, communications, policy on a national scale such as trade, diplomacy and if necessary, military action on an external basis since any revolution for the foreseeable future will have to operate in a world dominated by imperialism which imposes certain conditions. This means that some features of alienation will remain, if only by necessity. And there is the danger (well-founded) that features of the alienated society will be reproduced in a post-revolutionary society (perhaps leading back to capitalism). I think this danger means we have to build upon what Michael Lebowitz calls the socialist triangle (more below). And I think that the problem of a post-revolutionary state is not something we can just walk around, it is something we have to go through.

Question four: what does communism need to do in order to overcome alienation?

Che Guevara said something essential to what the goal of communism is and I argue it should be our goal too: “I am not interested in dry economic socialism. We are fighting against misery, but we are also fighting against alienation. One of the fundamental objectives of Marxism is to remove interest, the factor of individual interest, and gain, from people’s psychological motivations. Marx was preoccupied both with economic factors and with their repercussions on the spirit. If communism isn’t interested in this too, it may be a method of distributing goods, but it will never be a revolutionary way of life.”

What Che was saying here and what I believe should be at the center of any communist project is the building not upon defects, but upon strengths such as cooperation, solidarity, and free development.

It is also something that Michael Lebowitz pointed out as well and I’d like to touch upon his arguments for a moment.8 Too often, past socialist/communist experiments interpreted passages of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme about wage differentials, inequality during a socialist transition, the need for the state to mean that those institutions were often reenforced along with their culture, separation of workers and means of production which ultimately helped to lead these societies back to capitalism.

Even though these aspects were often reenforced, they were defects. Here is what Marx says: “these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society.”9 These defects of the old society may exist as we start to build a new one, but we do not want to build upon them since they will lead us back to capitalism, which will not satisfy human needs. In fact, we want to build upon our strengths in order for humans to realize their full potential.

That means we need to develop a new communist system with its own relations and mode of production.  That requires revolutionary practice where, in order “to change a structure in which all relations coexist simultaneously and support one another, you have to do more than change a few elements in that structure; you must stress at all times the hub of these relations — human beings as subjects and products of their own activity.”10

And in order to do that we we need what Michael Lebowitz calls the socialist triangle which consists of three necessary parts: social ownership of the means of production, social production organized by workers, and the satisfaction of communal needs.

\Social ownership means that places of work are run democratically by the workers themselves. The second part of the triangle is social production organized by workers. Social production is organized by workers themselves to build relations of cooperation and solidarity in order to develop their own human capabilities.

 Under capitalism, production is organized by capital which exploits workers.  Workers are also degraded by capital and unable to develop their full human potential.  Social production organized by workers is necessary to build “relations of cooperation and solidarity.”11 When workers organize production, they develop their human capabilities, which is necessary for socialism. The third part of the triangle is the satisfaction of communal needs “where the associated producers engage in productive activity for the needs of the community, there is the continuous process of development of the capabilities of producers.”12  Lebowitz contrasts communal needs to individual needs.  Where self-interest or material incentives are the driving force, this reproduces the defects of capitalism.

All these parts of the triangle should be reenforcing each other to build a new organic system that does not seek to reproduce the defects of capitalist alienation. This is also what Che Guevara strove to create in Cuba. Che questioned any form of market socialism. He did not believe that plans could operate via markets; in fact he counter posed plans to markets. To Che, you can’t build communism with capitalist methods. To him, centralized planning was not just about developing the economy. Planning needed to create communist human beings, embodying new values and a new consciousness. What Che wanted was to raise consciousness and not rely upon the economic ‘laws’ of capitalism. He sought to encourage voluntary work and other forms of moral incentives. Che did not deny the need for material incentives, but believed they needed to be more collective in order to help raise workers’ consciousness. Che firmly believed that planning and communism were they to be meaningful, needed the participation of the masses in the process (making planning all inclusive).

And to conclude, overcoming alienation means that we need a form of communism where people are the primary actors who are building upon the strengths of solidarity and cooperation and not upon the defects of the past. In this way, communism can realize the full potential of human beings.

1 Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Estranged Labour,”

2 Karl Marx, “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,”

3 Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,”

4 Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,”

5 Karl Marx, “The Civil War in France,”

6 Ibid.

7 Henri Lefebrve, Sociology of Marx (New York: Vintage Books, 1969), 125-6.

8 My points about not building upon the defects of capitalism I owe to Michael Lebowitz who developed this argument in much greater depth and detail in Michael Lebowitz, “Building Upon Defects: Misinterpreting Marx’s Gotha Critique” Science and Society 71 (October 2007): 484-490.


10 Michael Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010.

11 Ibid. 86.

12 Ibid. 81.

Critiquing Capital from Capital’s Vantage Point

I plan to speak to you today on Istvan Meszaros’ critique of Jean-Paul Sartre which is found in his work Volume 2 of Social Structures and Forms of Consciousness and how this critique relates to ideologies found in the Occupy Movement. Jean-Paul Sartre was a major philosopher most closely associated with existentialism. Furthermore, Sartre was a politically engaged activist, who strove to practice what he preached. During Sartre’s political engagement he attempted to engage in a synthesis of existentialism and Marxism. This synthesis was ultimately a failure and Sartre ended up critiquing capital from within capital’s viewpoint. What ended up happening was Sartre was able to do little more than offer a moralistic critique of capital that was bound to be ineffective in bringing a new society, despite his best efforts. Furthermore, I believe that by looking at Meszaros’ critique of Sartre, that I can relate this to various ideological trends in Occupy which also critique capital from within capital’s vantage point.

I. Sartre’s Project

Let me start with Sartre’s project. Sartre spent his early philosophical years from the 1930s to the 1950s as an existentialist. Briefly, here is a simplistic overview of existentialism: Sartre starts with the isolated individual. He believed that people are condemned to be free. We are free to choose our fates and are responsible for them. Existentialism was in vogue during the early post-WWII period in France. And Sartre was one of its main proponents of existentialism.

At the same time, Sartre was becoming politically engaged with the onset of the Cold War, worker struggles in France, and support for the Algerian War of independence. Sartre eagerly fought for a world of freedom. In this atmosphere, Sartre felt the long shadow of the French Communist Party. The French Party dominated the left in France, where they presented their mechanical and dry Marxism as the sole bearer of truth. The French Party promised a radiant socialist future, but their politics were strictly reformist. By the late 1950s, there was a shake-up internationally and nationally that allowed for Sartre to strive for a new path beyond existentialism and stale marxism. There was the Hungarian revolt, Khrushchev’s denunciations of Stalin, the Algerian war and decolonization. With this opening, Sartre sought to fuse existentialism and Marxism with the results being his work The Critique of Dialectical Reason Volume.

Sartre wrote the Critique of Dialectical Reason in an attempt to make history intelligible by placing the dogmatic ossified Marxism he had encountered on existentialist ontological foundations. To Sartre, Marxism and existentialism were not exclusive, but actually complementary. Together, the two ideas should fuse and give us a view of the direction of human history that leads to freedom. To Sartre human beings were both free and determined, they were subjective and objective, etc. Sartre was trying to offer the proper categorical framework for real history in the Critique. Ultimately, Sartre’s analysis of real history didn’t materialize for good reasons.

I will touch on Meszaros’ Criticisms shortly, but let me touch on some terms from Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason First.

Sartre outlines in his work the condition of people in a world dominated by scarcity. The struggle of people gives rise to two categories: the series and the group. The series is based on competition. There is no common or collective purpose. At one point, Sartre says a series is a plurality of solitudes. To envision a series, think of the working class under capitalism, fighting each other for a piece of bread. Dog eat dog.

A group on the other hand is based on cooperation. They are based on some common or collective purpose. The group is conscious. Practices solidarity. An example would be individuals under socialism or working in that direction (i.e. a revolutionary party, a trade union, the Paris Commune).

A class may be a series or a group or exhibit feature of both. For instance, the proletariat can contain a minority of socialist activists, while a majority are fighting amongst themselves.

Having laid out what Sartre sought to achieve and defined some terms, let me to Istvan Meszaros’ Critique of Sartre. Meszaros says that Sartre made the existential ontological framework the foundation of the Critique which ultimately barred the road to making intelligable the process of historical totalization of real history (360). Or to make the point slightly clearer, Sartre didn’t have the proper historical mediations or the dynamically interrelated social structures to ground his work which ultimately derailed his project (ibid).

II. Meszaros Critique of Sartre

So what are the ontological foundations of existentialism that ultimately derailed Sartre’s project? One: Sartre turned scarcity into an ahistorical absolute. In volume one Sartre says, people are dominated by scarcity. Scarcity is what distinguishes people throughout history. The struggle against scarcity led to the division of labor, the struggle of classes, etc. Effectively, Sartre says that scarcity can never be overcome. This is an ahistorical argument par excellence that ultimately results from Sartre’s acceptance of capital’s framework. Sartre doesn’t recognize that scarcity is a historical category which can be superseded (365). Bourgeois economists also believe that scarcity is a permanent feature of human existence. Just turn to any college economic textbook.

Two: Sartre, again basing himself on an existentialist ontological framework, says that other men are the enemy (361). In fact, Sartre goes as far as to say that other men are inhuman, which as Meszaros says is to prejudge the issue rather than taking a historical view (364). In other words, Sartre agrees with the bourgeois who say that you can’t change human nature. The way people exist under capitalism is made a permanent feature of humanity. We’ll always be fighting each other and competing.

Since people are dominated by scarcity and see each other as the enemy, they can never overcome this situation. Sartre says that to overcome scarcity, the series (individuals) must become a fused group, or their antithesis (i.e. a revolutionary movement). Yet the fused group always risks falling back into scarcity. To maintain itself, the fused group must maintain itself through pledges and forms of violence. Yet since we live in a world of permanent scarcity, the fused group becomes institutionalized, losing its dynamism and becoming bureaucratized. The ultimate form of this institutionalization is the state. The state rules through its forms of violence and manipulation, breaking the fused group back to seriality. It is due to this process and Sartre’s view of class (composed of series and groups) that he believes that the working class can never establish its own rule. Bureaucratization and repression are inevitable under socialism according to Sartre since you can never overcome scarcity.

In Sartre’s framework, there is not room for an alternative. To elaborate, people are dominated by scarcity no matter what social system they live under. Furthermore, other people are seen as the enemy (or inhuman) who will always be struggling with one another for resources under scarcity. The competitive nature of people, a trait under capitalism becomes ascribed to the human species in general (366) which effectively lets capital off the hook. In fact Sartre says individuals are guilty of this situation, not society (369). Sartre seemingly becomes like any capitalist politician who blames the poor for being poor. Despite this, Sartre never denies the destructive nature of capital.

Sartre’s ontological framework of existentialism is ultimately done from within the sphere of capital, despite his stated intention (367). Sartre can in the end, only appeal to the isolated individual to remedy the immense social problems which exist since no fused group or communist revolution can succeed (367).

As Meszaros notes, this puts Sartre in quite a paradoxical position. He critiques the bourgeois system while remaining within it’s ideological framework (372). Sartre shows by his actions (against the Algerian and Vietnam Wars, 1968, and work with Maoists, etc.) that he sincerely desires a better world. He puts his own body on the line for it. Yet he can’t realize a new world.

In Sartre’s framework, scarcity can’t be overcome by a fused group (since scarcity is effectively eternal), thus his project founders. As Meszaros points out, Sartre only critiques the moral, ideological and political dimensions of capital, not capital’s material foundations (374). Sartre can’t critique the material structures of capital since he ultimately accepts the ontological framework of capital (i.e. individualism). To conclude this section, Meszaros says that Sartre’s project was incomplete since he could not negate capital from within capital’s viewpoint (379).

III. Occupy

All this being said, what does Meszaros Critique of Sartre have to do with the Occupy Movement? Well, Occupy is a movement that for is their first experience of political engagement of any sort. As a result, people are starting ideologically from different places. The range of views is great from libertarians, liberals, anarchists, lifestyle radicals, and various sorts of communists and socialists. And many of those active in Occupy are in form or another, critiquing capital from capital’s viewpoint.

The way I see a lot of this expressed is via the mechanism demands. After all, the politicians and the state say that we need demands to be taken seriously. in order to be “taken seriously” and to be “effective” at achieving gains, social movements like Occupy need to put forth a list of concrete demands addressed to the state. Although there are many in Occupy who refuse to put forth a list of demands, some are putting forth demands.

Yet many demands put forward, whether ending wars or repealing Citizens United are not unobjectionable. Many became involved in Occupy over these issues. Yet lists of demands often present as separate and distinct, issues that are in reality deeply related, even inseparable. It suggests that progress will come piecemeal; first we win this, then we win that, incremental gains adding up over time until eventually… we achieve a just society. Furthermore, such lists tend to stand in the place of clear explanations of what the fundamental driving force is behind each of these particular injustices that we oppose: namely the global, capitalist system, a system whose very nature, as an effective anarchic dictatorship of the 1%, is to perpetuate social inequalities, economic exploitation, imperialist wars, and environmental devastation, through its endless pursuit of profit at all costs. Such lists tend to keep us from seeing the whole picture, and thus from reckoning with the need for a more radical break with the current social structure.

Is there not a problem with expressing our politics in the form of demands: demands which are generally addressed to the rulers of the existing system. But if we understand capitalism and its government as being the target of our critique–indeed, our enemy– then how can we honestly appeal to these existing institutions to fix our problems?

Let me talk about those demands and the critique of capital from within capital by discussing the liberal camp who are associated with overturning Citizens United Supreme Court. Let me preface my critical remarks by saying that many of the issues raised by Citizens United are greatly important: money as speech, the huge influx of money in politics, corporate power, etc. The issues raised by Citizens United are a good place to begin a critique of capital. A first step as it were. Similar to Sartre, the focus on Citizens United lacks an understanding of the social structures that make up capitalism and ends up in a moralistic critique of capital in the form of making demands on the system through non-threatening channels.

To elaborate, in January of 2012, there was a rally put by those in Occupy on called The Summit to Unite Citizens For Democracy which discussed the history of corporate influence in politics and to develop various grassroots strategies to combat it and restore democracy. The guiding motif was given in the opening remarks by Lawrence Lessig who is a Law Professor at Harvard Law. He discussed the problems of money in politics, corruption in government, and the ramifications of the Citizens United Ruling. Of course the whole thing was framed in a very liberal/progressive way “the people/99% need to take back the government from the corporations.”

Proposed demands were (1) Public Funding of Elections, well not wholly. (2) A Constitutional Amendment to Overturn Citizens United. (3) Electing public officials to do both.

A great deal of focus went around number three. This meant putting pressure on current officials, lobbying them to overturn Citizens United. Along with electing more officials. At the summit, there was actually a training session about how to approach and speak to politicians about supporting legislation to overturn Citizens United and working within the existing system.

The whole thrust of the politics was very much about going to city councils and how to speak like a soundbite. The type of discussion here was something you would find at times among liberal groups profiled on CSPAN or by discussions on MSNBC. It was a let down from the discussions that we had during the opening days of Occupy Boston that questioned the legitimacy of the whole capitalist system.

The end message came across as trying to revive the American Dream and getting people to vote as part of a “Take Back America.” It ultimately seemed that there was a hope that somehow overturning Citizens United could lead to a litany of progressive reforms.

What was interesting about the event was how much it was a moralistic critique of capital. Whereby we appeal to the good sense of political representatives and craft our appeal in terms of “restoring the American Dream,” and to achieve this we can’t rock the boat.

Despite the often important issues Citizens United activists raise, the remedy is largely moralistic. Furthermore, what is also lacking is an understanding of the function of the state. Too often to liberals, the state is something that once belonged to the people but has been hijacked in someway and some point by corporations. The state, in the last instance, seeks to ensure the continued functioning of the capitalist system—to keep the profits flowing, and to subordinate the people to that end. Why should we appeal to a capitalist state as if it honestly could or would end inequality, when that state is necessarily complicit in maintaining this system through its executive, legislature, courts, police, and army? Not only will such an appeal ultimately fall on deaf ears, but by continuing to address this state as if it has the potential to be other than what it is, we risk lulling people into wishful thinking. Such a conception of the state is not normally found among liberals.

Other examples from Occupy of a critique of capital from within capital’s framework can be found as well. I will only briefly touch on them here: those who would have us love the police and make continual moralistic appeals to the police.

Shareholder’s activism: that if you convince those who hold the shares in a company can be appealed to act in some sort of socially responsible manner that no longer exploits workers or damages the environment.

Or support Elizabeth Warren, Obama, the Democrats for progressive reforms.

All of these positions often lack an understanding of the actual functions of institutions that they critique. Without that understanding you often end up making a moralistic appeal to the those in power to behave. Or you come up with some set of demands that is non-threatening and can be accommodated by the system in the hopes that of making things a little better. Yet that merely ends up accepting the continued existence of the system in advance by playing by its rules.

And by making a moralistic appeal, or demanding something from the powerful we risk exhausting our precious energies talking to the powers that be, who won’t listen, rather than talking to people far beyond the walls of government in order to develop new forms of genuine people’s power.

To conclude, what Meszaros gets at in his critique of Sartre and what we need to do in Occupy is to get past any purely moralistic critique of capital, or coming up with reasonable demands. We need to understand the social structures and the larger capitalist system as the target of our critique and mobilize people to struggle for a communist world.


Theory of the Offensive

In 2007 and 2008, it was brought home to us that history had not ended, despite what Francis Fukayama proclaimed. The economic crash showed that we were not living in the best of all possible worlds. Unemployment, bailouts for banks and austerity became the order of the day. The Obama Presidency has shown the hollowness of the mantra of ‘hope and change.’ The political system has been effectively deaf to the needs of the masses in this massive crisis, offering a few tepid reforms at best.

Now we have the emergence of the Occupy Movement in the United States, which has allowed for us talk about class again (albeit with the 99/1 dichotomy) and to see a different horizon beyond established political institutions. It is in the context of Occupy that I would like to discuss Meszaros’ theory of the Socialist Offensive with you. I believe that Meszaros’ concepts can help us in the Occupy and revolutionary movement to orient our future strategy. Istvan Meszaros can help us illuminate some key questions of our historical moment especially around the dead-end of parliamentary reform and the development of mass communist consciousness. To illustrate these points, I intend to refer to my experiences in the Occupy Movement and would be happy to elaborate on any of these activities in the question and answer period.

To begin, let us ask four questions: one, why did the socialist and labor parties move into parliament? These were originally movements of radicals seeking the overturn of the system, but became embedded in parliament, one of the most visible faces of that system. The second question is: why can not an orientation to parliament bring about socialism, even if it opens the room to major reforms. And a third question: why can socialist parties no longer secure major reforms from the system? Finally, if the parliamentary road is blocked, then what strategy should socialists follow?

On question one, according to Meszaros, at the end of the 19th Century, the labor and socialist movement changed from being an extra-parliamentary movement to a parliamentary one. This was related to capital still being in its ascending phase with imperialist expansion which was growing the pie and leaving room for capital to maneuver in the granting of concessions.1 An early example of this would be Bismarck’s reforms in Imperial Germany in the 1870s/80s which established a social safety net.

The labor movement placed its hopes in the established institutions of the capitalist state, namely parliament to deliver the goods. Among socialist leaders and the emerging mass parties oriented themselves to parliament with the belief that far-reaching structural reforms could be obtained from the state. Some fervently believed in evolutionary road or the “historical compromise” that would ultimately bring socialism. The rhetoric was often different for German Social Democrats in 1900 or the Italian Communist Party in the 1970s. The moment of transformation never came and the horizon of socialism continually receded.

Eventually, these parties of whatever name effectively became managers of capitalism, using labor as electoral fodder for the purpose of legitimizing the status quo that is supposed democratic (All parenthetical quotes from Historical Actuality of the Socialist Offensive, 93). In place of fundamental reform of the capital system, what we have now is maybe criticism in minor details with the envisioning of partial correctives at best (10). Labor’s representatives are effectively embedded in this system and any questioning of parliament or the liberal democratic horizon is thus taboo (10).

As to the second question: why can not a parliamentary strategy bring about socialism? Well, the parliamentary road is a labor of Sisyphus for socialists. The story of Sisyphus is from Greek mythology, where a man is condemned to the underworld to push a rock up a hill. He spends a great deal of energy and effort to push that rock. Just as Sisphyus reaches the top of the hill, the rock comes tumbling down and he has to start all over. Sisyphus is condemned to perform this labor again and again for all eternity, expecting to push the rock to the top of the hill. Yet the rock always comes tumbling down. Socialists in parliament do the same thing over and over again, expecting parliament to bring substantive changes. The changes never come and the system endures. Is there not a touch of insanity in all this?

Well, Meszaros argues for one: it is a contradiction in terms to expect a new society to emerge from within the capital system. Capital is based on the exploitation of labor, that is the very basis of the system. To expect a political decree to abolish this is to expect capital to willingly commit suicide. I will not deny that capital has some very nihilistic tendencies, but I do not believe that capital consciously desires its own death.

A further point here: in capital’s society, there is a great divide between political equality and economic inequality. To put it simply, or maybe overly simply: there are a few people, capitalists or the personifications of capital who have exclusive ownership over the means of production. Then there is the majority who don’t own and have to work for a living. This is not reflected when we vote nor is it reflected in parliament. Seemingly a worker’s vote is worth the same as a capitalist vote at the ballot box. Yet we ultimately have a disconnect between economic inequality which traverses society and a supposed political equality.

As Meszaros says many times, “ Capital, the extra-parliamentary force par excellence, could exercise political power as a matter of course through the capitalist state – i.e. its own political command structure of which Parliament is only a part, and by no means the decisive one..” (beyond Capital) Capital controls vast unelected areas outside of parliament from businesses, to the courts, and the military. All of these forces work to sustain the dominant system. In a sense, real power lies outside of parliament and thus that is where the primary blow needs to be struck against capital, not in a legislative chamber or in a voting booth.

A third point to make: Parliament was created by the rising capitalist class to serve their interests. Meszaros echoes many of the points of Rousseau’s Social Contract in his critique of parliament. In a parliamentary system, decision-making is effectively alienated and divorced from the masses. In parliament you don’t have representatives of the workers standing alongside representatives of the capitalists even if it seemingly appears that way. Capital controls inside and outside of parliament and uses parliament as a sphere for its political legitimization (24). If capital’s real power is outside of parliament, then when worker parties have their mode of functioning as playing by parliamentary rules which are stacked against them, they are denying the possibility of challenging capital’s real foundations of power, which as Meszaros argues are outside.

A characteristic trait of politics in the US (and elsewhere) is that decision-making is controlled by very similar self-legitimizing consensual institutional arrangements with little difference between them (i.e. Obama/Bush). In this situation, the interests of imperialism (expansion at any cost) must prevail.

A fourth point: the labor movement follows a defensive strategy of what Meszaros calls the line of least resistance (14). In this strategy, labor and socialist parties have been able to extract reforms from capital (i.e. the development of social democratic states in Western Europe in the post WWII era). Rosa Luxemburg diagnosed the results of this strategy as it was originally unfolding. She said that parliament would serve as a breeding ground for opportunism and dissolve the active class conscious sector of the proletariat into the mass of the electorate (14). Thus, passivity in the political arm of the labor movement (the political party tied to parliament) which is separated from the industrial arm, the trade unions, which is limited to bargaining over wages and conditions. In deciding to pursue a parliamentary option, labor subordinates itself to capital and serves as legitimizing force of capital.

In the end, reformist socialists and unions sought to gain a bigger piece of the capitalist pie through growth, which meant they ended up supporting the system and revitalizing (often through Keynesian strategies). Yet reformist accommodation did little to make a lasting impact on capital’s contradictions. Although this does not deny that some of the reforms granted were able to benefit life for workers.

Now, onto our third question: why, in the current period is reform blocked in parliament? This is because capital has entered what Meszaros calls a structural crisis. Capital is no longer in an ascending phase in which it is able to grant reforms. In a structural crisis, which Meszaros traces back to the early 1970s with the rise of neliberalism, he identifies the crisis as universal, global with its time scale extended and its mode of unfolding creeping. A structural crisis “affects the totality of a social complex, in all its relations with its constituent parts.”2 The structural crisis naturally effects politics as well.

The structural crisis is different from the Great Depression of 1929. During that period, capital did have room for maneuver and pursued different strategies to overcome the Depression such as the New Deal or Fascism. After World War II, capital entered what some would call its “A Golden Age” with a shift from the following:

*outright colonialism to neocolonialism

*the rise of the military-industrial complex (particularly in the United States)

*the appearance of full-employment during and after WWII

*The rise of the consumer economy (TVs, suburban lifestyle)

*The export of capital to the 3rd world with perpetuation of underdevelopment and dependency and corresponding superprofits linked to neocolonialism (ex. Latin America). (64-5)

The structural crisis which can be traced to the 1970s saw the rise of mass unemployment in Western Europe and the United States, the growth of internal contradictions among the imperialist powers, and uprisings in the neocolonial world. Capital entered a descending phase. Reformist strategy was blocked along with relative improvements for the working class, consensus was not working in parliament and capital went on the offensive. The social democratic reforms of the welfare state which brought tangible benefits to workers were rolled back. Neoliberalism, personified by Thatcher and Reagan was the order of the day.

The structural crisis of capital brought with it a “crisis of Marxism.” Just witness the rise of the New Philosophers in France. Yet Meszaros points out that the crisis of Marxism results from a defensive posture when an offensive posture should be pursued (37-9). In the words of Gramsci, the old was dying and the new could not be born. A new road is opening The objective potentiality of the socialist offensive results from the structural crisis of capital. If there is no way out of the structural crisis and no way to transform the system by following the line of resistance in parliament, then a new strategy is called for. Meszaros believes that this strategy must be an offensive one.

This brings us to the final question: the parliamentary road being blocked, what strategy should socialists follow? Let me elaborate on a few of Meszaros concepts here and relate them to the Occupy Movement. For one, the socialist movement must become an extra-parliamentary mass movement that is consciously active in all forms of social and political struggle and which is asserting itself as a hegemonic alternative to capital (30). As long as the capital system is not challenged, capital and its parliamentary parties continue to function as the only horizon. We need to move away from the logic of TINA “There is no alternative” and develop a hegemonic socialist alternative. This means a shift away from being just a political party that seeks to extract concessions, which can later be nullified by the extra-parliamentary force of capital (29).

This is not to say that partial demands should not be advocated by socialists if they have a direct or indirect bearing on overcoming the capital relation itself or developing mass consciousness(31). I will have more to say about this later in regards to Occupy and the struggle regarding mass transit.

What this means here is that socialists need to confront the organizational question by remaining faithful to our principles and developing common programs of action (74). These common action programs mean that socialists will need a conscious strategic articulation of socialist pluralism which recognizes existing differences among groups and tendencies(74). These differences are recognized not to be preserved but to be superseded by securing the active involvement of all concerned in common struggle.

Meszaros says that the socialist alternative must be articulated in the form of intermediate objectives whose realization can make strategic inroads, even if these inroads are partial ones, into the capital system (81). In fact, what will decide the fate of socialists, is the effect, to which they can make tangible inroads into everyday life.

To illustrate this point look at the threats to public transit here in Boston. The MBTA is planning a series of service cuts and fare hikes to cover their budget deficit of $161 million. Disproportionately affected will be seniors many who depend on public transit, workers who need to get to their jobs, and students who need to get to school, oppressed communities. The crisis stems from the state of Massachusetts not adequately funding the T, but in saddling the public transportation system with billions in debt from projects such as the Big Dig. Sales taxes were unable to meet the T’s needs so the T turned to complex financial deals with banks (many of whom were bailed out) which resulted in nearly 25% of the T’s debt going to serving interest on their debt.

The ruling class says that there isn’t enough money to fund public transit though. Yet those funds exist to bail out banks and to engage in wars. Furthermore, why not just tax the rich (or better, expropriate them) to cover the deficit? Why should workers who depend on the T to get to work have to suffer? As the Boston Occupier, our Occupy paper says, “a 1% tax on the richest 1% would yield funds sufficient not only to eliminate the current T deficit, but to completely fund free public transportation.”3

The T struggle goes to the what Meszaros says about taking the socialist offensive. For one, it involves the everyday life of people. For example, when you are passing out papers on the train explaining that your fares are going up and service cut, the problem is confronted directly by those concerned. Secondly, the T struggle offers common action for socialists and others who are active. This can be seen from the many meetings and demonstrations held thus far.

The T crisis is a common campaign that focuses on the structural crisis of capital and its resulting affects (the attack on public goods, bank bailouts, the cost of labor, and anti-racism). Socialist demands are partly embedded in the solution (free public transit). Finally, in explaining the T crisis to people at meetings and demonstrations, the message is largely for the conscious involvement of those concerned (whether through civil disobedience, passing out papers, or the planned People’s Assembly at the MA State House on April 4th), although there is some pressure for parliamentary lobbying.

In order for this campaign to take off, many factors are actually involved. Common action means that Occupy Boston’s various working groups need to be involved such as the Boston Occupier newspaper, Direct Action, etc. Furthermore, other Occupy groups in local towns are drawn into the struggle. The Occupy the T campaign, even while focusing on a single issue, opens the door to developing consciously involved subjects who can be brought into the wider struggle against capital.

I would like to conclude here by stating that we can see the objective potentiality of the socialist offensive which results from the structural crisis of capital manifesting in the Occupy Movement and this poses a potential Red Horizon that leads beyond liberal democracy and capital.

2Beyond Capital 680-2.

Istvan Meszaros’ Critique of Jean-Paul Sartre

 Istvan Meszaros’ Critique of Sartre is one of probably one of the highlights of Volume 2 of Social Structures and Forms of Consciousness in my opinion. It was after reading this portion of Volume 2, I stopped calling myself a Marxist Existentialist. Here I attempt to lay out Meszaros’ argument.


Jean-Paul Sartre attempted to offer the proper categorical framework for real history in his work, particularly in his Critique of Dialectical Reason. However, Sartre’s analysis of real history didn’t materialize for good reason and Sartre had to abandon his project, according to Meszaros (Social Structures and Forms of Consciousness Volume 2: The Dialectic of Structure and History. 356-7).

Yet Sartre was not a failure. In fact, Sartre’s bold undertaking of the Critique was motivated by the desire to serve human freedom and bring a renewal of Marxism via existentialism. Therein lies the trap which Sartre found himself.

As Meszaros says, Sartre made the existential ontological framework the foundation of the Critique which ultimately barred the road to making intelligable the process of historical totalization of real history (360). Or to make the point slightly clearer, Sartre didn’t have the proper historical mediations (dynamically interrelated social structures) which ultimately derailed his work (ibid).

That being said, what were the ontological foundations of existentialism that ultimately derailed Sartre’s project? One: Sartre turned the scarcity into an ahistorical absolute. In volume one Sartre says people are dominated by scarcity. Scarcity is what distinguishes man throughout history. The struggle against scarcity led to the division of labor, the struggle of classes, etc. Effectively, Sartre says that scarcity can never be overcome (an ahistorical argument par excellence that ultimately results from Sartre’s acceptance of capital’s framework). Sartre doesn’t recognize that scarcity is a historical category which can be superseded (365).

Two: Sartre, again basing himself on an existentialist ontological framework, says that other men are the enemy (361). In fact, Sartre goes as far as to say that other men are inhuman, which Meszaros says is to existentially prejudge the issue rather than taking a historical view (364). This means that the serial group is composed of individuals or a plurality of solitudes. The series is based on competition. There is no common or collective purpose to the series.

Since people are dominated by scarcity and see each other as the enemy, they can never overcame this situation. To overcome scarcity, the series must become a fused group, their antithesis (i.e. a revolutionary movement). Yet the fused group always risks falling back into scarcity. To maintain itself, the fused group must maintain itself through pledges and violence. In a world of scarcity, the fused group becomes institutionalized, losing its dynamism and becoming bureaucratized. The ultimate form of this institutionalization is the state. The state rules through its forms of violence and manipulation, breaking the fused group back to seriality. It is due to this process and Sartre’s view of class (composed of series and groups) that he believes that the working class can never establish its rule. Bureaucratization and repression are inevitable under socialism according to Sartre.

In Sartre’s framework, there is not room for an alternative. To elaborate, people are dominated by scarcity no matter what social system they live under. Furthermore, other people are seen as the enemy (or inhuman) who will always be struggling for resources under scarcity. The competitive nature of people, a trait under capitalism becomes ascribed to the human species in general (366) which effectively lets capital off the hook. In fact, Meszaros says that Sartre says individuals are guilty of this situation, not society (369). Sartre becomes like any capitalist politician who blames the poor for being poor. Despite this, Sartre does not deny the destructive nature of capital.

Sartre’s ontological framework of existentialism is ultimately (despite his stated intention) done from within the sphere of capital (367). Sartre can in the end, only appeal to the isolated individual to remedy the immense social problems which exist (367).

As Meszaros notes, this puts Sartre in quite a paradoxical position. He critiques the bourgeois system while remaining within it’s ideological framework (372). Sartre shows by his actions (against the Algerian War, 1968, and work with Maoists, etc.) that he sincerely desires a better world. He puts his own body on the line for it. Yet he can’t realize it.

Since in Sartre’s framework, scarcity can’t be overcome by a fused group (since scarcity is effectively eternal), his project founders. As Meszaros points out, Sartre only critiques the moral, ideological and political dimensions of capital, not capital’s material foundations (374). Sartre can’t critique the material structures of capital since he ultimately accepts the ontological framework of capital (i.e. individualism).

To conclude, Meszaros says that Sartre’s project was incomplete since he could not negate capital from within capital (379).