François-Noël Babeuf (November 23, 1760 - May 27, 1797), known as Gracchus Babeuf (in tribute to the Roman reformers, the Gracchi, and used alongside his self-designation as Tribune), was a French political agitator and journalist of the Revolutionary period. In spite of the efforts of his Jacobin friends to save him, Babeuf was arrested, tried, and convicted for his role in the Conspiracy of the Equals. He stabbed himself before being summoned to the guillotine. Although the words "anarchist", "socialist" and "communist" did not exist in Babeuf's lifetime, they have both been used to describe his ideas, by later scholars. The word "communism" was coined by Goodwyn Barmby in a conversation with those he described as the "disciples of Babeuf".
He was a prolific writer, and the signs of his future socialism are contained in a letter of March 21 1787, one of a series - mainly on literature - addressed to the secretary of the Academy of Arras. In 1789 he drew up the first article of the cahier of the electors of the bailliage of Roye, demanding the abolition of feudal rights. From July to October 1789, he lived in Paris, superintending the publication of his first work: Cadastre perpetuel, dedié a l'assemblée nationale, l'an 1789 et le premier de la liberté française ("National Cadastre, Dedicated to the National Assembly, Year 1789 and the First One of French Liberty"), which was written in 1787 and issued in 1790. The same year he published a pamphlet against feudal aids and the gabelle, for which he was denounced and arrested, but provisionally released.
In March 1791, Babeuf was appointed commissioner to report on the national property (biens nationaux) in the town, and in September 1792 was elected a member of the council-general of the département of the Somme. Here, as everywhere, the violence of his attitude made his position intolerable, and he was soon transferred to the post of administrator of the district of Montdidier. There he was accused of fraud for having altered a name in a deed of transfer of national lands. The error was probably due to negligence; but, distrusting the impartiality of the judges of the Somme, he fled to Paris, and on the 23 August 1793 was sentenced in contumaciam to twenty years' imprisonment. Meanwhile he had been appointed secretary to the relief committee (comité des subsistances) of the Paris Commune.
The judges of Amiens pursued him with a warrant for his arrest, which took place in Brumaire of the year II (1794). The Court of Cassation quashed the sentence, through defect of form, but sent Babeuf for a new trial before the Aisne tribunal, which acquitted him on July 18, 1794.
Babeuf returned to Paris, and on September 3, 1794 published the first number of his Journal de la Liberté de la Presse, the title of which was altered on October 5, 1794 to Le Tribun du Peuple. The execution of Maximilien Robespierre on July 28, 1794 had ended the Reign of Terror, and Babeuf - now self-styled Gracchus Babeuf - defended the fallen Terror politicians, and attacked the leaders of the Thermidorian Reaction with his usual violence. He also attacked, from a socialist point of view, the economic outcome of the Revolution.
This was an attitude which had few supporters, even in the Jacobin Club, and in October Babeuf was arrested and imprisoned at Arras. Here he was influenced by terrorist prisoners, notably Lebois, editor of the Journal de l'Égalité, and afterwards of the L'Ami du peuple papers of Leclerc which carried on the traditions of Jean-Paul Marat. Babeuf emerged from prison a confirmed advocate of revolutionary terror and convinced that his project, fully proclaimed to the world in Issue 33 of his Tribun, could only come about through the restoration of the Constitution of 1793. He was in open conflict with the trend of public opinion.
In February 1795 he was again arrested, and the Tribun du peuple was solemnly burnt in the Théatre des Bergeres by the jeunesse dorée, young men whose mission it was to root out Jacobinism. But for the appalling economic conditions produced by the fall in the value of assignats, Babeuf might have shared the fate of other agitators who were whipped into obscurity.
The universal misery gave point to virulent attacks by Babeuf on the existing order, and gained him a hearing. He gathered around him a small circle of followers known as the Societé des égaux, soon merged with the rump of the Jacobin Club, who met at the Panthéon; and in November 1795 he was reported by the police to be openly preaching "insurrection, revolt and the constitution of 1793". They were influenced by Sylvain Maréchal, the author of Le Manifeste des Egaux and a sympathiser of Babeuf.
For a time the government, while keeping itself informed of his activities, left him alone. It suited the Directory to let the socialist agitation continue, in order to deter the people from joining in any royalist movement for the overthrow of the existing régime. Moreover the mass of the ouvriers, even of extreme views, were repelled by Babeuf's bloodthirstiness; and the police agents reported that his agitation was making many converts - for the government. The Jacobin Club refused to admit Babeuf and Lebois, on the ground that they were "égorgeurs" ("throat-cutters").
With the development of the economic crisis, however, Babeuf's influence increased. After the club of the Panthéon was closed by Napoleon Bonaparte on February 27, 1796, his aggressive activity redoubled. In Ventôse and Germinal (roughly late winter and early spring) he published, under the nom de plume of Lalande, soldat de la patrie, a new paper, the Eclaireur du Peuple, ou le Défenseur de Vingt-Cinq Millions d'Opprimés, which was hawked clandestinely from group to group in the streets of Paris.
At the same time Issue 40 of the Tribun excited an immense sensation. In this Babeuf praised the authors of the September Massacres as "deserving well of their country", and declared that a more complete "September 2nd" was needed to annihilate the actual government, which consisted of "starvers, bloodsuckers, tyrants, hangmen, rogues and mountebanks".
The distress among all classes continued; and in March the attempt of the Directory to replace the assignats by a new issue of mandats created fresh dissatisfaction after the breakdown of the hopes first raised. A cry went up that national bankruptcy had been declared, and thousands of the lower class of ouvriers began to rally to Babeuf's flag. On April 4, 1796, the government received a report that 500,000 people in Paris were in need of relief. From April 11, Paris was placarded with posters headed Analyse de la Doctrine de Baboeuf [sic], Tribun du Peuple, of which the opening sentence ran: "Nature has given to every man the right to the enjoyment of an equal share in all property", and which ended with a call to restore the Constitution of 1793.
The Directory thought it time to react; the bureau central had accumulated through its agents, notably the ex-captain Georges Grisel, who had been initiated into Babeuf’s society, complete evidence of a conspiracy (later known as the "Conspiracy of Equals") for an armed rising fixed for Floréal 22, year IV (May 11, 1796), in which Jacobins and socialists were combined. On May 10 Babeuf, who had taken the alias Tissot, was arrested; many of his associates were gathered by the police on order from Lazare Carnot: among them were Augustin Alexandre Darthé and Philippe Buonarroti, the ex-members of the National Convention, Robert Lindet, Jean-Pierre-André Amar, Marc-Guillaume Alexis Vadier and Jean-Baptiste Drouet, famous as the postmaster of Saint-Menehould who had arrested Louis XVI during the latter's Flight to Varennes, and now a member of the Directory's Council of Five Hundred.
The government crackdown was extremely successful. The last number of the Tribun appeared on April 24, although Lebois in the Ami du peuple tried to incite the soldiers to revolt, and for a while there were rumours of a military rising.
The trial of Babeuf and his accomplices was fixed to take place before the newly constituted high court of justice at Vendôme. On Fructidor 10 and 11 (August 27 and August 28, 1796), when the prisoners were removed from Paris, there were tentative efforts at a riot with a view to rescue, but these were easily suppressed. The attempt of five or six hundred Jacobins (September 7, 1796) to rouse the soldiers at Grenelle met with no better success.
The trial of Babeuf and the others, begun at Vendôme on February 20, 1797, lasted two months. The government for reasons of their own depicted the socialist Babeuf as the leader of the conspiracy, though more important people than he were implicated; and his own vanity played admirably into their hands. On Prairial 7 (May 26, 1797) Babeuf and Darthé were condemned to death; some of the prisoners, including Buonarroti, were deported; the rest, including Vadier and his fellow-conventionals, were acquitted. Drouet had succeeded in making his escape, according to Paul Barras, with the connivance of the Directory. Babeuf and Darthé were guillotined at Vendôme on Prairial 8.
- “The French Revolution was nothing but a precursor of another revolution, one that will be bigger, more solemn, and which will be the last.” —Manifesto of the Equals, 1796