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Backwaters of History No.2 - The Babeuf Conspiracy

The prisoners were working feverishly at their tasks on the walls of their prison. The escape had to be made that night or it would be too late. The plans for escape had been well made. The guards had been won over, tools had been smuggled to the prisoners, and their friends outside would be waiting this night with horses to carry them away to some place of safe hiding. There were only a few hours left.

If they could not escape that night they were doomed. Their trial, which had lasted for weeks, would end the next day and none of them were in doubt of the verdict. It would be death for some and, at least, transportation and imprisonment in some penal colony for the remainder. During their trial they had made little effort to defend themselves. Instead, they had used the courtroom as a forum to expound their political views and publicise their activities. Now, it was at an end and this planned escape was their only hope.

They were accused of an attempt to overthrow the government by armed force. To make their present troubles worse, their attempt had almost succeeded and the government was now taking no chances. In fact, a number of the government's political opponents had been arrested and thrown into prison with the insurrectionaries even though they knew nothing of the attempted insurrection, merely because it was a convenient opportunity to get rid of them.

The year was 1796. The revolutionary fervour that had swept France during the past few years was petering out. The wealthier section of the new French capitalist class was in the saddle and was tightening its grip on the reins. In all revolutions where the wealthy capitalists struggle against the feudal aristocracy they rely for support upon their less wealthy capitalist friends and the peasants and workers. They hide their own political objectives and pay lip service to the political and economic aspirations of their supporters. In the early stages of the struggle all these elements are united, but as soon as the feudal opponents are subdued each element strives to achieve its own separate ambitions. The capitalists join hands and use their newly won political power to wipe out any organisations that the peasants or the workers may have created. Thus they stabilise the revolution by checking any tendency to carry it to limits dangerous to themselves.

That was the position in France in 1795. A number of active revolutionaries who voiced the ideas of some of the workers had formed an organisation known as the "Equals." Francois Noel Babeuf, who later called himself Gracchus Babeuf, was the prime motivator in this organisation. During the revolutionary period he had thrown away his comfortable livelihood and reduced his family to poverty in his enthusiasm for his cause. He had published a paper called "The Tribune of the People" mainly at his own expense, and, through its columns, had not hesitated to violently attack most of the leading men of the revolution. Danton, Robespierre and Hebert had experienced the venom of his pen.

Babeuf, Germain, Darthe, Antonelle, Buonarroti, Didier, Massart and others met at the "Pantheon" on the working class quarter of Paris and became known as the Society of Pantheon. The society grew in numbers until the government became alarmed and closed the meeting place and dissolved the society.

Babeuf and his friends then set about building a secret organisation to prepare an insurrection. Their object was mainly communistic. They claimed that political freedom was useless without economic freedom and that could only be achieved by the wealth of the community, in particular the land, being held in common by all the people. They published much literature, most of it written by Babeuf. In the "Manifesto of the Equals," "Analysis of the Doctrines of Babeuf," "An Opinion on our Two Constitutions,: "Triumph of the French People against its Oppressors," "Address of the Tribune to the Army," and other broadsheets, they set out in detail their insurrectionary objectives and their plans for the future society.

In those days the idea of social evolution was little known. Social organisation was conceived to be the result of a contract between the members of society. If the existing contract was unsatisfactory it became necessary to devise a new one.

The plans for insurrection went ahead at full steam. Darthe and Germain were Babeuf's right hand men. They introduced to the secret society a certain George Grisel who was an army captain stationed at the camp at Grenelle near Paris. Grisel was given the task of winning over the troops at his camp. Germain secured the allegiance of the legion of police and other military sections became attached to the insurrectionary movement.

Seventeen thousand men, all experienced fighting men, were eventually enrolled and Grisel ensured the support of the troops at Grenelle. In addition the workers of Paris were expected to rise as soon as the insurrection was under way. Men from the provinces joined and a few members of the government flirted with the movement. Supporters were attracted by the claim that the constitution instituted by the Robespierre government in 1793 and since discarded, was to be re-introduced.

All was ready. The organisation was well prepared. Officers and generals were appointed and detailed plans were prepared. Everyone waited. The leaders hesitated. Then came catastrophe. George Grisel proved to be a government agent who was passing on all the detailed information to his employers. The troops at Grenelle were not recruited to the movement and the government struck at the eleventh hour by arresting all the leaders.

A feeble attempt to get the insurrection going without the leaders was soon suppressed and afforded the government the excuse for hunting down all those suspected of revolutionary sympathies in Paris and its environs, and many executions took place.

The leaders were imprisoned at the Abbaye and Temple prisons and later taken in cages like wild beasts to the town of Vendôme where they were to be tried.

Then, with their trial almost over, came the plan for escape. The digging and scraping was finished; a breach was made in the prison walls and they were ready to make their get-away. Someone had been careless in hiding the evidence of their work on the prison walls. The authorities became suspicious and the attempt to escape was thwarted.

So, the prisoners entered the court room to face the tribunal for the last time. The court was crowded with sad sympathisers of the prisoners. Even the foreman of the jury was sentimentally affected. Fifty-six of the accused were acquitted, five were condemned to the island fortress of Pelée, and Babeuf and Darthe were condemned to death. As soon as the verdict was announced Babeuf and Darthe attempted to commit suicide by stabbing themselves with improvised daggers made in prison. They were seized and only succeeded in wounding themselves. The next day they went manfully to the guillotine and their beheaded bodies were thrown by the executioner into the sewer.

Thus ended one of the first attempts by the workers to give expression to their class interests. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, referring to Babeuf and his movement had this to say:

    "The first direct attempts of the proletariat to attain its own ends, made in times of universal excitement, when feudal society was being overthrown, these attempts necessarily failed owing to the then undeveloped state of the proletariat, as well to the absence of the economic conditions for its emancipation, conditions that had yet to be produced, and could be produced by the impending bourgeois epoch alone. The revolutionary literature that accompanied these first movements of the proletariat had necessarily a reactionary character. It inculcated universal asceticism and social levelling in its crudest form."

    (Communist Manifesto, S.P.G.B. Edition, page 88.)

W.Waters

 

Books for students: -

"The Last Episode of the French Revolution," by Ernest Belfort Bax.

"The Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels," by D. Ryazanoff.

"Ten Essays on the French Revolution," edited by T. A. Jackson.

"Blanqui," by Neil Stewart