On July 14, 1789, the capture of the Bastille shook the world. This event represented the great French Revolution, a process of great historical magnitude that was a watershed from every point of view. It was a key to mortally wounding feudalism as a system and giving rise to the bourgeois states, which in the following centuries would spread, leading to the worldwide implementation of capitalism.
It was a bourgeois revolution because it established the republic as a new form of government. The ruling aristocracy had limited capitalism’s development, and the people were dealing with unbearable conditions. Both popular sectors and the bourgeoisie had their reasons for wanting to overthrow the old regime, but during the revolution the latter would assume leadership of the “third estate” (i.e., commoners, including peasants, artisans, merchants, and the bourgeoisie itself). Among this leadership there stood out a radical wing known as the Jacobins, a sector of small bourgeoisie who were susceptible to the pressure of the sansculottes (“without breeches,” urban poor sectors) and Hébertists who were grouped together in Paris and its districts.
“Freedom, equality and fraternity” had become the motto of the revolution, but in fact it meant a platform for the free development of the market and the defense of private property, which would lead to greater power and enrichment of the bourgeoisie. That class bloc that united for the revolution began to crack as the sanculottes and the people took up the struggle not only against reaction but against the bourgeoisie itself. Among the rebels who gave their lives to conquer and defend a more democratic regime, there was growing anger about a revolution that did not represent the leap in quality of life they longed for. There emerged prominent figures such as Roux and Hébert, and others less well known such as Babeuf, setting themselves higher ideals and a program to combat poverty.
Gracco Babeuf, Revolutionary Militant against Private Property
François Babeuf, the son of an impoverished family, was a journalist and militant during the revolution. He wrote and organized various publications in which he strongly criticized feudal rights and private land ownership, for which he was censored and many times imprisoned. His most recognized and widely read newspaper was Le Tribun du Peuple (the People’s Tribune). The popularity of his writing did not owe to a large print run; rather his publications were passed from reader to reader in villages, workplaces, and meetings, read aloud, usually to an illiterate audience, which in France was the majority of poor people. The newspaper had realized the ambition of its title, to be the voice of the workers and the people, a collective organizer. For Babeuf, the people could never achieve equality by limiting private property as proposed by radical democrats like Hébert and other sansculottes, but had to abolish it:
We lean towards something more sublime and more just: the common good or the community of property! No more individual property in land: the land belongs to no one. We demand, we want, the common enjoyment of the fruits of the land: the fruits belong to all.
After the fall of Robespierre (1794), the so-called Thermidorean reaction advanced, suppressing the democratic and social conquests achieved in the previous period. It ended in 1795, when the Directory was established as the governing body of the First Republic. Babeuf, who fervently opposed this new government and its policies of hunger, joined the Pantheon Club, which was quickly censured by General Napoleon Bonaparte himself. Although his attempts to promote a new rebellion failed and he ended up in prison again, his passion for “perfect equality” led him to organize a new group together with Darthé, Maréchal, and Buonarotti, among others, which he would call the Conspiracy of Equals and which strongly opposed right to private property.
In addition to conspiring against the Directory, they demanded that the never applied Constitution of 1793 (with more democratic features) be put into effect. The Equals’ plan to organize an insurrection was denounced by a spy who had infiltrated the group and then thwarted. Many ended up in prison or in exile, while Babeuf, along with Darthé, faced the death penalty.
The Manifesto of the Equals
On November 30, 1795, Babeuf published his cry against private property and for real equality in his “Manifesto of the Equals” in the pages of The People’s Tribune.
In it, Babeuf proclaimed: “As long as there have been human societies the most beautiful of humanity’s privileges has been recognized without contradiction, but was only once put in practice: equality was nothing but a beautiful and sterile legal fiction. We need not only that equality of rights written into the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen; we want it in our midst, under the roofs of our houses.”
And it continued: “We declare that we can no longer put up with the fact that the great majority work and sweat for the smallest of minorities. Long enough, and for too long, less than a million individuals have disposed of that which belongs to 20 million of their kind, their equals. 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.”
His Legacy and Communism
While in prison, Babeuf asked that all his writings be used by a new generation as a tool in the struggle for a more just society. One of the survivors of the Directory’s persecution published his entire legacy 30 years later. His political current, called babuvism, is considered a precursor of communism. Babeuf pioneered the use of the newspaper as a collective organizer, both for the militant cadre and for the social sector it sought to influence. A century later these ideas would be promoted by thousands under the leadership of Lenin with Pravda and the Bolshevik Party, which organized the Russian insurrection in October 1917.
In 1919, during the fifth session of the Third International’s First World Congress, Babeuf’s importance was recognized in the Manifesto of the Communist International: “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.” This is how we intend to value it in our rich history of threads of continuity in the struggle for a more just society free of all kinds of oppression.
In his defense, during the trial at Vendôme, which condemned him to death in 1797, Babeuf claimed,
The sole means of arriving at this is to establish a common administration; to suppress private property; to place every man of talent in the line of work he knows best; to oblige him to deposit the fruit of his work in the common store, to establish a simple administration of needs, which, keeping a record of all individuals and all the things that are available to them, will distribute these available goods with the most scrupulous equality, and will see to it that they make their way into the home of every citizen.
… This form of government will bring about the disappearance of all boundary lines, fences, walls, locks on doors, trials, thefts, and assassinations; of all crimes, tribunals, prisons, gibbets, and punishments; of the despair that causes all calamity; and of greed, jealousy, insatiability, pride, deception, and duplicity — in short, of all vices.