Monday, December 19, 2016

Ian Birchall - The Spectre of Babeuf

The story of the French Revolution has been the subject of countless books and articles, but the story of Gracchus Babeuf has rarely been told in the English language, so this reprint of Ian Birchall's 1997 book looking at the French revolutionary is enormously welcome.

Babeuf was, in his own words, "born in the mud" and was approaching his thirties when the Revolution broke out. In the political and economic instability of the era, Babeuf began to develop his own radical ideas. A voracious reader, Birchall explains that a key influence for Babeuf, and many other radicals at the time, was the French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But Babeuf began to go much further, and his ideas develop in ways that few others would take for many years. For instance Babeuf's views on women's equality which were rooted in his deep commitment to "human equality" where far ahead of other thinkers at the time:
Babeuf's belief in the equality of women, and his insistence that the differences between the sexes were rooted in education, not nature, set him apart from almost all the other thinkers of the revolutionary period... who stuck much more closely to Rousseau's belief in the subordination of women. It is not simply chance that Babeuf's considerations on women and collective farms should come in the same letter. By proposing collective production he was breaking with the model of the family as a unit of production... It was this... that enabled him to envisage the true equality of women.
Another example is Babeuf's firm and principled position on anti-Semitism, setting himself apart of many others at the time.
Time "to shake off the fanatical prejudices which for so long have made this peaceful people the unfortunate victim of persecutions by all sects".
Through his writings and his (mostly short-lived) newspapers, Babeuf began to build up a network of other radicals who were, to a greater or lesser extent, linked to his own ideas. Some of these would help to form the basis for the famous "conspiracy of the equals", a still-born attempt to take the Revolution to a new level in the aftermath of the Terror. Babeuf's vision was a world of freedom and equality, an era of "common happiness".

I was struck by the parallels with another great, and often forgotten revolutionary - Gerrard Winstanley. Both of them were revolutionaries who were developing their own independent ideas in the midst of periods of great social and political upheaval. Both were self-taught and both felt that their revolutions had stalled, or failed to go far enough. As a result, both attempted to take things further - Winstanley through a piece of direct action designed to usher in a new order; Babeuf through a conspiracy designed to transform the top of the revolution and pull the rest of the population in behind. Missing for both Winstanley and Babeuf was the "agency" that could radically change society.

Birchall points out that Babeuf was "clearly groping towards a concept of class struggle, although often he saw it merely in terms of rich and poor". Unlike Winstanley though, Babeuf did live when there was a growing section of society, the working class, who would become the force that could create a new world. But though the workers collectively weren't yet strong enough they did play a significant role in events during Babeuf's lifetime. It's noticeable, for instance, that Babeuf's writings were popular among some of the larger factories.

Because the workers were not yet a class for themselves, Babeuf did not yet have the language of class struggle that later thinkers like Marx and Engels would develop. But he clearly was groping his way towards it. There is a lovely quote from Babeuf that Birchall uses which gives us an indication of where Babeuf was heading. Among supporters of the French Republic there were two groups:
One wants the republic of a million, which was always the enemy, the dominator, the extortionist, the oppressor, the leech of the twenty-four million others; the million which has revelled for centuries in idleness, at the expense of our sweat and labour; the other party wants the republic for these twenty-four million, who have laid the foundations and cemented them with their blood, who nourish and support the fatherland, supply all its needs, and defend it and die for its safety and glory.
Elsewhere Birchall points out Babeuf was coming to view a future society that was moving away from the "Communism of Distribution" that characterised the Utopia of visionaries like Winstanley, towards a "Communism of Production" that would be closer to that of 19th and 20th century revolutionaries. As one of Babeuf's contemporaries summarised,
What do we mean by community of labour? Do we want all citizens to be tried to the same occupations? No; but we want the various tasks to be divided so as to leave not a single able-bodied person idle; we want the increase in the number of workers to guarantee public abundance, while diminishing individual effort; in return we want everyone to receive from the nation enough to satisfy their natural needs and the small number of artificial needs that all can satisfy.
Babeuf's conspiracy of the equals was stopped before it went anywhere. Birchall argues that it was much better planned and organised, and supported than many historians have given credit for. Certainly Babeuf and his co-conspirators, came close to winning the case that ultimately led to the execution of some of the revolutionaries. Sadly Babeuf is probably remembered too often for this conspiracy, in which he displayed some niavety and was the culmination act or a group of radicals who did not yet understand the ability of the working class to change the world, and themselves, but operating in a world were the working class had not developed enough.

But Babeuf deserves to be remembered for so much more. In fact, as the author points out, the tragedy is that Babeuf was executed in 1797 at only 36. Where his thinking and political activism had gone had he not been found guilty of conspiracy we can only speculate, but reading this biography one feels that it might have been quite profound. Nonetheless, as Ian Birchall's excellent book shows us, we still have much to learn from the revolutionary life of Gracchus Babeuf.

Related Reviews

Birchall - Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin
McGarr & Callinicos - Marxism and the Great French Revolution
Jaures - A Socialist History of the French Revolution

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