Socialism and Communism in the French Revolution


The first in a new series of Chartist columns on international socialist theoreticians, following on from the Our History series of 100 columns on British radicals and socialists 

1. Babeuf, the first revolutionary communist 

The Girondins and Jacobins were neither socialist or communist. The Girondins supported a constitutional monarchy, while the Jacobins believed in a highly centralised and authoritarian republican government. Members of the two competing groups were from an aristocratic or professional background and included lawyers such as Robespierre and radical priests such as the Abbé Thiers and aristocrats such as Mirabeau. They defended the rights of property owners. The sans-culottes were more plebeian, and there were leftist groupings within clubs such as the Cordeliers, with Enragés such as Jean-Francois Varlet and Jacques Roux, and in the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, the latter led by Pauline Leon and Claire Lacombe. Olympe de Gouges, author of De la Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne, was actually a monarchist.

Some radicals argued for a more equal distribution of wealth and envisaged Rousseau’s social contract as advocating a collectivist organisation of society, but without adopting the more communistic utopian ideas of earlier French writers. The insurrectionists of 1794, led by Jacques Hebert, who were of the professional class rather than of plebeian origin, also lacked any explicit socialist or communistic programme.

The one group of revolutionaries who are seen as communistic were the followers of the journalist and pamphleteer François-Noël Babeuf (commonly known as Gracchus), who led the insurrectionist attempt in 1796 known as ‘The Conspiracy of Equals’, which sought to replace the Directory with a communistic revolutionary dictatorship.  The difference from early insurrectionary attempts was that the Babeufians published a political manifesto, which not only argued for a different form of democracy but also advocated the abolition of private property. The insurrection failed, and after a trial, Babeuf and his comrades, like the Hebertistes and numerous Girondins and Jacobins before them, were sent to the guillotine. 

“EQUALITY! The first wish of nature, the first need of man, the first bond of all legitimate association! People of France! You were not more blessed than the other nations that vegetate on this unfortunate globe! Everywhere and at all times the poor human race, delivered over to more or less deft cannibals, served as a plaything for all ambitions, as prey for all tyrannies. Everywhere and at all times men were lulled with beautiful words; at no time and in no place was the thing itself ever obtained along with the word. From time immemorial they hypocritically repeat to us: all men are equal; and from time immemorial the most degrading and monstrous inequality insolently weighs upon the human race. 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. And now that it is called for with an even stronger voice the answer us: be quiet, you wretches! Real equality is nothing but a chimera; be satisfied with conditional equality; you’re all equal before the law. What more do you want, filthy rabble? Legislators, rulers, rich landowners, it is now your turn to listen. 

“Are we not all equal? This principle remains uncontested, because unless touched by insanity, one can’t seriously say it is night when it is day. 

“Well then! We aspire to live and die equal, the way we were born: we want real equality or death; this is what we need. 

“And we’ll have this real equality, at whatever the cost. Woe on those who stand between it and us! Woe on those who resist a wish so firmly expressed. 

“The French Revolution is nothing but the precursor of another revolution, one that will be greater, more solemn, and which will be the last. 

“What do we need besides equality of rights? 

“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. We consent to everything for it, to make a clean slate so that we hold to it alone. Let all the arts perish, if need be, as long as real equality remains!”

Further reading
Buonarotti, Filippo, Babeuf’s Conspiracy for Equality (1975 reprint of 1836 edition) 
Belfort Bax, Ernest, The Last Episode of the French Revolution (1911) 
Rose, R B, The Enragés. Socialists of the French Revolution? (Melbourne University Press 1965) 
Rose, R B, Gracchus Babeuf, The First Revolutionary Communist (Edward Arnold 1978) 
Birchall, Ian, The Spectre of Babeuf (Haymarket 1997) 
The Our History series of 100 columns on British socialist history is available in two volumes on our Publications page.

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