Sunday, November 22, 2009

Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals

Modern European Intellectual History - 3

At the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, François-Noel (Gracchus [1]) Babeuf published the Cadastre perpétuel [2], which was ostensibly a guide to local authorities charged with the administration of taxes on land and personal revenues, but was actually Babeuf’s first attempt at a practical program to achieve “the common happiness of the peoples.” Among other things it proposed that money would be raised by imposing taxes upon those most able to bear them, and spent on those most in need. Since his proposed system involved confiscating the property of the rich and distributing it among the poor, Babeuf had to demonstrate that the right of property was conditional and subject to regulation. To do this he used four distinct arguments.

The first argument came from Rousseau’s exposition of the social contract. The second was based on the natural right of all to an equal share of the adequate but restricted bounty of nature. The third was an attack on the origins of feudal rights, claiming that feudal property derived originally from usurpation and fraud. The fourth was a pragmatic argument based on the number of Frenchmen without property (some 15 million in a population of 24 million). It was inconceivable to Babeuf that the majority would continue to respect the rights of the nine million property owners if that would mean their starvation. Little came of the Cadastre perpétuel, both as a commercial venture and as a political manifesto [3].

In 1794, Babeuf started publishing the Tribun du peuple, created from the Journal de la liberté de la presse and in 1796 he became a member of the “Insurrectional Directory.” It was Babeuf’s duty to give a lead to “the party which desires the reign of pure equality,” and to “outline to the people the plan, the mode of attack.”[4] It was at this point that Babeuf, along with Philippe-Michel Buonarroti, began to work seriously on the exposition of their common dream of a communist society without private property and with a collective administration of production and distribution.

On 10 May 1796, Babeuf was arrested and the Conspiracy of Equals was ended. He was indicted on 20 February 1797, and executed on 27 May. The trial at Vendôme lasted just over three months, but as the first trial in which a verbatim record was kept of the proceedings it made legal history. As his final address to the jury, The Defense of Gracchus Babeuf was both a political treatise and an attempt to justify his actions.

Babeuf felt that society was created in order to guarantee the natural rights of man, these rights being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If society fails to guarantee these rights, the social compact is dissolved and the people have the right, even the duty, to rise up against usurpation, oppression and tyranny [5]. He also believed that the three roots of public woe were heredity (inheritance of property), alienability (ability to lose property) and the differing values assigned to different types of social product. All of these stem from the institution of private property, which thus leads to all the evils of society. Private property isolates the people from each other and converts every family into a private commonwealth that is then pitted against society at large resulting in an ever growing emphasis on inequality. The only way to avoid this is to suppress private property, set each person to work on a skill or job that they understand, require each to deposit the fruits of their labor in kind into a common store, which then (via an agency) distributes the basic necessities to all. (Babeuf uses the army as an example of this kind of system. [6])

In 1828, Buonarotti published his account of the conspiracy, at which point the socialists, including Marx and Engels, began to recognize the significance of the communist objectives of the conspirators.

Scott, John Anthony, ed. & trans., “The Defense of Gracchus Babeuf before the High Court of Vendôme,” The University of Massachusetts Press, 1967.

Rose, R. B., “Gracchus Babeuf: The First Revolutionary Communist,” Stanford University Press, 1978.

[1] After the brothers Gracchi, Tiberius and Caius, members of the Roman nobility who placed themselves at the head of the peasant movement for land distribution. They were both assassinated by their political enemies.

[2] Literally a perpetual register of the land. Before the Revolution, Babeuf had been a feudiste (a notary specializing in the legal aspects of the administration of feudal estates).

[3] R. B. Rose, “Gracchus Babeuf: The First Revolutionary Communist,” pp. 49-54.

[4] Ibid., p. 229.

[5] Defense of Gracchus Babeuf, pp. 20-21.

[6] Ibid., pp. 54-57.

1 comment:

  1. I realise this post is like a year old, but I wanted to say that Babeuf is a really interesting proto-Communist. A wonderful book could be written about the parallels between the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions.