Babeuf’s Trial

Long after sans–culotte influence on the government had waned, social conflicts continued to drive some revolutionary events. Throughout 1794 and 1795, urban and rural radicals alike demanded "bread and the constitution of 1793," meaning that the government should feed the people and grant universal male suffrage. One such radical, who took the name Gracchus Babeuf, supposedly organized the "Conspiracy of Equals," a secret group that he hoped to lead in a surprise insurrection to take power and use it to distribute land equally among all citizens. When the "conspiracy" was betrayed, Babeuf was arrested and tried. Before being sentenced and executed, Babeuf offered a statement of his principles and a defense of his action. His attack on private property scandalized many at the time, but others later called him the first socialist. In short, to those who would look back to the Revolution as the unsuccessful birth of socialist movements, Babeuf would remain an inspiration. To his contemporary critics, who were influenced in part by the Directory’s successful propaganda, Babeuf’s conspiracy demonstrated the instability of the Republic and the need for forceful government repression of popular political activity. In their view, such an approach would ensure stability and prevent a return to the chaos of the Terror.


I noticed that after the 13th of Vendemiaire (5 October 1795) the majority of the people were tired of a Revolution whose every fluctuation and movement had had fatal results. The fact that the Revolution had "royalized" them can not be ignored. In Paris I saw that the ordinary, uneducated masses had really been led by the enemies of the people into a deep contempt for the Republic. . . .

I told myself that, barring a salutary stroke of genius, the Republic was lost. I was certain that the monarchy would not hesitate to seize us once again. I looked around me and saw many demoralized people, even among those patriots who had once been so fervent, so brave, and who had had such success in their efforts to strengthen Liberty. It was a scene of universal discouragement with the people almost totally muzzled (if it can be put that way), and which was followed by witnessing the disbanding and the stripping away of all the guarantees that the people had once been given against any undertakings by their rulers. Together with the scars left by the chains recently worn by almost all these energetic men, the near conviction (of many people who seemed to me not to have thought through the reasons for their convictions) that the Republic might really be, after all, something other than a blessing, had very nearly brought the people’s spirit to a state of total resignation, and everyone seemed ready to bend under the yoke.

I saw now who was in a position to revive the courageous mood of earlier days. And yet, I told myself, the same zealous turbulence and love of mankind still exists. Perhaps there are still ways to keep the Republic from being lost. Let every man gather his strength and do what he can. As for myself, I am going to do all that is within my power.

I vented my words in my Tribune of the People. I said to everyone: "Listen: I have to admit that those of you who seem to believe, after this long series of public disaster, that the Republic is worthless and that the Monarchy might be preferable, are right." I made it a banner headline: WE WERE BETTER OFF UNDER THE KINGS THAN UNDER THE REPUBLIC. But you must understand of which Republic I was speaking. A Republic such as the one we see is, without a doubt, totally worthless. But this, my friends, is not a true Republic. A true Republic is something you are not yet familiar with.

Very well. If you wish I will try to tell you something about it, and am almost certain you will idolize it.

The Republic is not a word—or even several words—empty of meaning. The words Liberty and Equality, which have continuously echoed in your ears, cast a spell over you in the early days of the Revolution because you thought that they would mean something favorable for the People. Now they mean nothing to you at all because you see that they are nothing more than empty statements and the embellishments of deceitful expressions. You must learn once again, however, that these two words can and should stand for something that is very valuable for most people.

Continuing to address the people, I went on to say that the Revolution should not be an action that produces only useless results. It was not merely to worsen the lot of the people that so much blood was spilled. People revolt because the injustice of deceitful institutions has pushed the best impulses of a society to the limits such that the majority of its functioning constituents can no longer go on as before. The society then feels uncomfortable in this situation, and feeling the need to change, takes the required actions. And that society is right to do so because the only reason it was instituted in the first place was to make the bulk of its members as happy as possible. The purpose of society is the common well-being. . . .

The aim of the Revolution also is the well-being of the greatest number; therefore, if this goal has not been achieved, if the people have not found the better life that they were seeking, then the Revolution is not over. This is true despite what those who want only to substitute their own rule for somebody else's say, or hope it to be. Otherwise, if the Revolution is really over, then it has been nothing more than a great crime.

Source: Victor Advielle, Histoire de Gracchus Babeuf et du Babouvisme, vol. 1 (Geneva: Slatkine, 1978), 28–30.