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Lecture 19

The French Revolution and the Socialist Tradition:
Early French Communists (1)

The history of the French Revolution illuminates a number of ideological trends which were developing toward the end of the 18th century. To investigate the 19th century socialist tradition without taking into account the varieties of political expression the French Revolution helped to unleash would be to miss a vital part of the history of that tradition. There are two groups of individuals we need to discuss. On the one hand, it is necessary to take a look at the early French communist movement. In particular, we need to focus on their special form of criticism which was affected by the Revolution and also went beyond the Revolution. On the other hand, we also need to show that the liberal tradition in England, a tradition begun perhaps with the political theory of John Locke, had become, by the 1790s, a new form of liberalism called democratic radicalism (see Lecture 20). Both ideologies existed side by side and in the 19th century were galvanized into the socialist tradition itself.

Whether the Revolution truly realized the aims of the revolutionaries is a subject of debate. And whether or not the Revolution was bourgeois, pseudo-bourgeois, liberal, radical, correct or downright wrong are also matters which depend on the individual point of view. At the very least the Revolution meant change. But whether France needed a revolution to make that a reality is again a matter of personal judgement. When all is said and done, one thing which amazes us about the French Revolution -- its noble principles and violent excesses taken together -- is that it occurred in the most powerful European country in the 18th century.

Napoleon both preserved and perverted the aims of the revolution (see Lecture 15). He did this because he knew how to make compromises with those social groups with political and civil power. The bourgeoisie were the clear winners of the Revolution, and Napoleon made sure that their gains were maintained. The aristocracy and clergy returned home, somewhat shell-shocked, no doubt. Although their powers had diminished, they still held important social and political positions. When we turn to the artisans and the peasantry of France, a different story emerges. The artisans experienced little immediate gain from the French Revolution. After aiding the Jacobins in their quest for a republican democracy, they were told to go home following the death of Robespierre on the Ninth of Thermidor. Although broken in spirit, the artisans would again emerge throughout the course of the very revolutionary 19th century. And then there were the peasants. Knowing only hardship to begin with, their lives perhaps changed the least. They simply returned to their farms and life went on as usual.

text1-17a.gif (7627 bytes)To say all of this is not the same thing as saying that the revolution died or that the revolutionary faith, for it is a faith, had simply run its course. The French Revolution did not directly produce the 19th century ideologies known as socialism or communism. But the Revolution did provide an intellectual and social environment in which these ideologies, and their spokesmen, could flourish. In other words, the history of the socialist tradition is something more than the words of Marx and Engels (the subject of Lecture 24). We must remember that Marx and Engels, major prophets of this tradition that they were, were educated in the peculiar circumstances of late 18th and early 19th century revolutionary activity. What, after all, would Marx and Engels have been had it not been for the French Revolution?

To place the responsibility for the ills of society on the institution of private property, without actually calling for its abolition, was fairly common in the 18th century. Numerous ancient thinkers -- Greek, Roman, Medieval -- had agreed that private property was somehow responsible for man's plight. The idea that law was nothing more than a device to protect the accumulation of the rich and to rationalize the exploitation of the poor had ancient roots. The philosophes of the Enlightenment were familiar with all of these arguments, trained as they were in the classics. Furthermore, the conviction that simplicity in possessions and life-style was conducive to virtue was held by almost all enlightened thinkers. Great wealth was an obstacle to virtue. The Classical and Christian roots of this belief should be obvious for how could a true Christian remain true to God, for instance, if he was mired in the materialism of increased accumulation?

This cluster of ideas became particularly identified with one of the most celebrated of all the philosophes, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Of all the great thinkers of the cosmopolitan 18th century, Rousseau was perhaps the most quotable. Both the moderate and extreme Jacobins adored Rousseau. In his conception of a Republic of Virtue, Robespierre idolized the genius of Rousseau (see Lecture 13). This much said, it must also be added that Rousseau was one of the most misunderstood of Enlightenment thinkers. It bears repeating that two people can read the same passage of Rousseau and walk away with two fundamentally different interpretations.

Rousseau, it has been said, was an enigma. His life was one of contradictions. Born in Geneva of Protestant and Catholic parents, he was raised primarily by women. His relationships with his fellow philosophes like Hume, Diderot, d’Alembert and Voltaire was strained at the very least. He suffered intestinal problems his entire life, thus making him the object of numerous asides by his associates. Rousseau was not a member of that school of thought which glorified man’s progress. Just the opposite. Rousseau believed that man was in a worse position than ever before. Man was not progressing. In fact, his progress stood on par with that of the apes! Rousseau, however, is a central figure in that he had one foot firmly within the soil of the 18th century Enlightenment, while the other was planted in the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Difficult to categorize, Rousseau eventually became a social outcast among the better known philosophes of mid-to-late 18th century France, and thus contributed to his own feelings of persecution. Although his reputation in France has always been secure, it is odd to note that his significance in the history of philosophical thought was greater in England and in Germany. It was that damn Voltaire -- his shadow obscured just about everyone else.

Rousseau's position in the history of European socialism is as ambiguous as his relations with the philosophes. While Rousseau is frequently cited with approval by numerous leaders of the sans-culottes, or by Robespierre or Gracchus Babeuf, Rousseau was more a prophet of radical individualism than he was of cooperation. Nevertheless, several of Rousseau's ideas, taken out of context, do appear to have revolutionary and socialist implications. Consider, for instance, the following statement that Rousseau made in his DISCOURSE ON THE ORIGIN OF INEQUALITY AMONG MEN (1755):

The first man who, after enclosing a plot of land, saw fit to say: "this is mine," and who found people who were simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders, sufferings, and horrors mankind would have been spared if someone had torn up the stakes and filled up the moat and cried to his fellows: "Don't listen to this imposter; you are lost if you forget that the earth belongs to no one, and that its fruits are for all."

If read out of context it may appear that Rousseau advocated the abolition of private property. He did not advocate such a thing. But any number of other similarly deceptive passages could be implicated from Rousseau's work. To provide a particularly notorious example, in The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau worked out the notion of the General Will, which, simply stated, referred to the will of the people, reflected through the rational needs of the body politic. The General Will is not specifically the mere representation of a majority opinion. If people should unwisely oppose themselves to the General Will, it might become necessary to force them to be free. Here are Rousseau's own words:

whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the whole body; which means nothing else than that he shall be forced to be free; for such is the condition which, uniting every Citizen to his Homeland, guarantees him from all personal dependence, a condition that ensures the control and working of the political machine, and alone renders legitimate civil engagements, which, without it, would be absurd and tyrannical, and subject to the most enormous abuse.

The concept of the General Will, as worked out by Rousseau in The Social Contract, is borrowed from the ancient Athenian city-state, a dynamic political community in which the citizenry were accorded duties as opposed to rights. It was the duty of every citizen to take part in the political affairs of the city-state: to neglect those duties meant public humiliation and ultimately exile. It might be appropriate to mention that the Athenian citizenry numbered about 15,000 individuals out of a possible 200,000 inhabitants of the polis. What this demonstrates is that the Athenians had created a democracy for the minority of citizens and not for the majority of the people. In other words, the Athenians would have had some difficulty understanding the argument which begins, "We the People." This would have had to be modified to read, "We the Citizens."

It has become a commonplace today to describe Rousseau as one of the intellectual founders of modern totalitarian dictatorships. There is no denying the fact that the French revolutionaries read Rousseau and walked away with a theory and justification for a democratic-authoritarian form of government. This is most readily identified by the figure of Robespierre, who made something of an idol of Rousseau.

The French communist philosophers of the late eighteenth century went beyond Rousseau in many important respects. These thinkers did not refer to themselves as communists, since the word itself did not gain currency until the 19th century. These thinkers had a more consuming interest than Rousseau in the problem of avarice or greed, and were willing to go to greater lengths to combat it. They began with a criticism of private property that sounded similar to Rousseau, but they took the step of actually calling for its abolition and the establishment of a society based on the egalitarian and communal ownership of property.

The writings of Gabriel Bonnet de Mably (1709-1785) have pretty much passed into obscurity in the 20th century.  This decline in interest is rather odd, because de Mably was one of the 18th century’s most popular writers. He was also the brother of Étienne Condillac (1715-1780), friend of Rousseau and an important French philosophe who helped popularize John Locke’s theory of knowledge in France. Mably’s writings contain an explicit and near slavish admiration of Plato combined with an enlightened Stoic belief in natural human equality. As an elitist, Plato never would have argued the existence of natural human equality. So, Mably, presents us with a paradox.

Mably developed a notion of equality that went beyond the Stoic concept that all men possess a divine spark, and beyond the liberal belief in equality before the law. He even rejected the idea that important differences in people could arise through such influences as climate and geography, an idea which had gained amazing popularity in France since the early part of the 18th century. He granted that unhappy experiences in society might brutalize some, but their fundamental equality remained untouched. What he meant by this is not exactly clear but most often he seemed to be insisting on the equality of needs.

It is possible that Mably's uncompromising position toward human equality is what made him popular among his contemporaries. His arguments against the unproductive and lazy found sympathy with those individuals who resented the wealth and privilege of the parasitical nobility. Mably was not a modernizer. He did not believe in expanding material production -- an idea which we will encounter full-blown with Utopian Socialists like Charles Fourier (see Lecture 21) or Robert Owen and Saint-Simon (see Lecture 22). He believed that virtue was far more important than material abundance. And far from praising trade and commerce as sources of new wealth, he expressed deep contempt for the merchant class whom he condemned in quite traditional terms as motivated by antisocial greed and readiness to exploit their fellow men.

Mably struggled with the old problem of how it was that people's antisocial or egotistical instincts tended to overcome their inclinations to sympathy and altruism. His unusual solution was the abolition of private property. Such a drastic act would dissolve the destructive potential of greed that arises from the unequal possession of private property and material wealth. At the same time, he tried to use egotism in a positive way, rather than destroying it outright. He believed that society could be so arranged as to encourage the play of what he called public esteem. Man's desire for esteem could both gratify his natural egotism and induce him to perform socially useful tasks. This too, is a common characteristic of 18th century social thought.

When all is said and done, Mably's theories are directed more toward the past than they are toward the future. What this implies is that Mably falls into better company with the pre-modern spokesmen of social progress, Sir Thomas More. In other words, a man like More wanted to go back to some better, more pristine, state of man's existence, rather than accept the modern period for what it is, and to move forward. Let's look at a few illustrations of this: First, Marx, though critical of industrial capitalism, also maintained a belief that machines would eventually liberate man from the toilsome qualities of human labor. While cognizant of the fact that the control of machinery was not in the laborer's hands, and thus alienates man, he was also willing to grant that machinery, when it is owned and controlled by the laboring classes at some point in the not too distant future, would liberate and free man. For Marx, the problem was not machinery, but the ownership and control of machinery. That was in 1850. Go back in time about 300 years, and here we encounter Thomas More. Like Marx, an intellectual. Unlike Marx, he was a devout Christian. In his classic work of social protest and wishful thinking, Utopia, More writes:

The rich men not only by private fraud, but also by common laws, do every day pluck and snatch away from the poor some part of their daily living. So whereas it seemed before unjust to recompense with unkindness their pains that have been beneficial to the public weal, now they have to this their wrong and unjust dealing given the name of justice, yea, and that by force of law. Therefore when I consider and weigh in my mind all these commonwealths, which nowadays anywhere do flourish, so God help me, I can perceive nothing but a certain conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of the commonwealth.

Although More has always been cited with favor by almost all 19th century socialists, the real thrust of his condemnation of things as they are, was not to move forward to some Utopia, but to somehow regain the past, the original Utopia. And for More, this meant an apostolic life and the Catholic Church.

The man we call Morelly -- we don't exactly know who he was -- was an even better communist philosopher than was Mably. The reason why Morelly was so well known in the 19th century was because his theories were often confused with those of the celebrated philosophe, Denis Diderot. Like Mably, Morelly pointed an accusing finger at possessions and possessiveness:

The only vice that I perceive in the universe is Avarice, all the others, by whatever name they are known, are only variations . . . of this one.

He believed that society should be so organized that natural self-love could flower into general benevolence or love for all mankind. The existence of private property, even when divided equally, prevents this flowering: it corrupts natural self-love into a cancerous greed. "I dare to concede," he wrote, "that all division of goods, whether equal or unequal, and all that private property . . . is, in all societies, what Horace calls ‘material for the highest evil’."

These ideas were set down in a work Morelly called, CODE OF NATURE (1755). In this now, relatively unread work, Morelly attempted to establish "a model of legislation conforming to the intentions of nature." His effort went beyond the vague Enlightenment statements about the need to go back to nature and was greeted with some lively interest by his contemporaries. However, for the modern reader, Morelly’s Code of Nature is shot through and through with inconsistencies in nearly every chapter. A great deal of what Morelly had to say had already been said by Thomas More. More had clearly done a better job! A more serious criticism is that Morelly does not offer a basis in nature for his proposals. He simply presents communistic legislation as if its natural foundations were self-evident. Which brings up an interesting point: is the natural condition of man one of cooperation and brotherhood, in a word, communist?

On his own Morelly is a rather uninteresting thinker. However, understood in the context of the history of socialist thought in the 19th century, Morelly's influence is great. His ideas were picked up by a man who has been considered the first communist revolutionary thinker, a heroic martyr to the communist cause: this was Francois Noel Babeuf, better known as Graachus Babeuf (1760-1797).

Babeuf was even less original in thought than the communist philosophes who came before him. His ideas are a rather hodge-podge amalgam of the ideas of Rousseau, Mably and Morelly. We can even throw in a good measure of sans-culottist influence as well because Babeuf, unlike our other representatives of the early French communist movement, was mired in the French Revolution itself. He is of supreme importance in this movement not because of his originality or his coherence of ideas but because he stepped into the world of violent revolutionary action in the name of the socialization of wealth. His statements were not intended to be taken lightly -- he saw his ideas as hardened manifestos. He was also part Jacobin, in other words, he was attracted to the political devices of the Committee of Public Safety and the Reign of Terror. Of greatest significance, however, is the fact that Babeuf went beyond the confines of the Jacobin ideology. Politically, we could say that Babeuf stood to the left of left.

To understand how Babeuf became a communist revolutionary, we need to look at his early life. He had spent a number of years as keeper of manorial archives, a task which involved tracing the legal foundation of various claims to aristocratic privilege, especially in terms of taxation. Thus, he poured over old records for legal evidence to justify a collection of even more taxes from the already over-taxed French peasantry. After a number of years at this task, Babeuf tells us that he began to find it distasteful to be, as he put it, "a custodian of the repulsive secrets of the nobility."

The French Revolution made Babeuf’s job irrelevant on August 4, 1789 -- feudalism was abolished. In 1793, he threw himself into political activity by leaving his native Picardy for the center of revolutionary activity, Paris. He arrived just in time to witness the onset of the Reign of Terror. He promptly got himself arrested and spent the next year in jail. Babeuf was released in July 1794. Robespierre was dead and the Thermidorean Reaction had begun. The new government that emerged, the Directory, abolished the economic controls of the Terror, limited the franchise and stifled every effort at political protest. The Thermidoreans, it is clear, were trying to purge France of all revolutionary activity. By emphasizing the principles of 1789, they accepted the liberal-bourgeois gains of the Revolution, but certainly not the more radical aspirations of the sans-culottes. It was in this context that Babeuf began to organize the now famous Conspiracy of Equals, a political body which planned to overthrow the Directory and re-establish the Constitution of 1793. Babeuf saw this constitution as a temporary measure because what he desired was a new dictatorial committee of public safety and ultimately, a collectivist state. Other members of the Conspiracy were uneasy with this and desired instead a distinctly democratic-radical or sans-culottist ideal. However, in May 1796, the radical and more democratic elements within the Conspiracy smoothed over their differences and began to attack their common enemy. They wrote, published and distributed leaflets and broadsides, they established agitators in lower-class sections of Paris and began to send their agents into the French countryside.

Within a few months, the Conspiracy was uncovered and in August 1796 Babeuf and other leaders were arrested under a law which established the death penalty for anyone advocating a return to the Constitution of 1793. Babeuf was carried in an iron cage to the Vendome to stand trial. It was at this time that he made his famous DEFENSE, which, when later published, became the manifesto for the early French communist movement. To no one's surprise, Babeuf was found guilty. After one rather gory attempt at suicide, Babeuf was executed in May 1797. The cause of communism had acquired its first revolutionary martyr.

Babeuf’s beliefs were based on the Enlightenment idea that all men have a natural right to happiness. But he also argued that true happiness was not possible without "real equality," that is, social equality, which he also called a natural right. If a society failed to fulfill its obligations in these regards, then it was to be considered tyrannical and a person then had no obligation to obey its laws. On the contrary, one had the duty to struggle against it and to overthrow it.

Other revolutionaries of the period, like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, also urged a worldwide struggle against the ancien regime. What distinguished Babeuf from these reformers was his conviction that until private property was abolished, real equality and thus happiness, could not be assured. After the next revolution and after the abolition of all forms of private property, there would be a community of goods and property and the state would see to it that all goods were distributed equally. The state would have other duties as well. It would have to make sure that those who were naturally superior did not use their position for material gain. Men who did so Babeuf called "conspirators against society."

Babeuf justified going to these lengths to preserve equality because he believed that people would continue to be unhappy without it. A harmonious society demanded strict equality. And speaking of strictness, Babeuf’s ideal society was both ascetic and fundamentally static. Although he did make a few stray comments about the benefits of machinery, he was, in general, quite like Thomas More, in that he wanted to go back to some pre-modern, pre-industrial state of affairs. In this sense, his views were anti-liberal, backward-looking and more sans-culottist than anything. He missed the boat. He was not prepared to take notice of the improvements that modern machinery may make to the eventual liberation of man from useless and irksome toil. He saw the shopkeeper and the artisan as beneficiaries of a state-controlled community of goods. He was not an advocate of a centralized, state-directed economy.

Babeuf knew, like Rousseau, that people needed to be forced to be free. The common people were able, he thought, to find their own liberation, but too many could be deceived when it came to identifying their own true interests. So, Babeuf openly declared that the state might have to be organized along despotic-military lines at least until the ignorant masses had been brought up to a particular consciousness of their own aims and interests. This direction in Babeuf’s thought brings him directly into line with modern totalitarian thinking, especially along the lines of the Leninist-Stalinist model. What the majority of the people think at any given moment in time is unimportant to the revolutionary. The only thing that is important is what kind of men are in power. Are they willing to oppress the people or help them? Such men are even justified in resorting to terror against the people, for the people’s own good, in the name of the General Will (the Rousseau connection again). In this way, revolutionary violence to gain power, and so to keep the pace of revolutionary change advancing, can be defended as a kind of self-defense.

The thoughtful revolutionary recognizes that the moment for revolution must be chosen carefully. At the same time, the prospect of at least some bloodshed cannot dampen the resolution of the true revolutionary since the system in existence is already violent. In a society characterized by repression and exploitation, great numbers of people die daily, if not at the hands of the policeman’s bullet, then through over-work, malnutrition, poverty and a hundred other things related to an oppressive class system. In other words, violence is endemic and cannot be avoided. The revolutionary, then, must use violence in a rational way.

The preceding remarks are in no way attributed to Babeuf himself Instead, I am merely trying to point out some of the logical conclusions to his thought, especially in the hands of later socialists of the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, every communist and every revolutionary must take up these questions as they have been taken up by every generation of revolutionary thinkers since 1789.

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