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Babouvism (Babeuvism)

In 1828, Filippo Michele Buonarroti (1761-1837), was descendant of a brother of Michelangelo, ex-Jacobin bureaucrat, one of three major figures in the 1796 "Conspiracy of Equals" led by François-Noel ("Gracchus") Babeuf, and subsequently described as "the greatest conspirator of the [nineteenth] century" by no less an authority than Mikhail Bakunin in Conspiration pour l'Egalité dite de Babeuf. Two years later, the first of several French editions of the book appeared in Paris and in 1836 an English translation, by the Chartist leader Bronterre O'Brien, entitled Buonarroti's History of Babeuf's Conspir acy for Equality with the Author's Reflections on the Causes and Character of the French Revolution and his Estimation of the Leading Men and Events.

Buonarroti's account of what he saw as the destruction by the "criminals of Thermidor" of Robespierre's "republic of virtue" and of its logical extension in the "conspiracy of equals," proved to be one of the most influential books of the nineteenth century. It was the opening shot in what was to become a formidable campaign by French histor ians and political writers on the eve of the revolution of 1848 to rehabilitate Robespierre, the Jacobins, and the Republic of '93. Conspiration pour l'Egalité preceded Etienne Cabet's Histoire populaire de la Révolution Française, for example, by a full decade. Louis Blanc's massive Histoire de la Révolution Française only began appearing in 1847. But, equally important, the book almost singlehandedly resurrected for the 184 8 generation dimension of the Great Revolution that had been largely ignored since the years of the Napoleonic Empire: the "communist" tradition of the Revolution incarnated by Babeuf and the revolutionary elite of the "conspiracy of equals," who had plotted to overthrow the Directory and replace it with a materialist utopia in which all property would be held collectively under a regime of literal equality. The upshot of this, observed David Thomson, was that "revolutionaries of the July Monarchy, wo rking in conditions that were new, strove to link their own efforts to the epic story of the Babouvists, and so emphasize the direct continuity of the revolutionary tradition."

Buonarroti's biographer, Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, wrote that the Conspiration pour l'Egalité "injected a spirit of revolutionary messianism into continental [European] socialism, . . . and created a martyrology that inspired many of the future men of 1848." But who exactly among the "future men of 18 48" was "inspired" by the "martyrology" of Babouvism?

Some historians have seen the ideological content of Babouvism--"communism"--as the most important element in its legacy and have identified the artisans and workers of the Parisian faubourgs as its most receptive audience. As a result of Buonarroti's labors, said Georges Duveau, "a kind of perfunctory communism was born and grew up which for that very reason was just the thing to spread through the workshops of the Temple, the faubourg Saint -Antoine, and the fauborg Saint-Marcel." Georges Weil, while conceding that Babouvism was anathema to most republicans and unknown to most proletarians, nonetheless found that "it counted a number of dedicated followers among Parisian workers."

Other historians have examined the impact of Babouvism upon the leaders of the revolutionary sects which crowded the scene in the 1840s. The most obvious candidate would be Etienne Cabet, the era's preeminent prophet of "communism." However, although C abet knew Buonarroti in the Carbonari in the 1820s and was familiar with Babouvist ideas, the main sources of inspiration for his celebrated utopian tract, Voyage en Icarie, were Thomas More and Robert Owen, encountered spiritually or in the flesh during his long exile in England.

A line of descent has also been traced from Babeuf and the Jacobins via Buonarroti to Louis Blanc and the state socialists of 1848. Blanc knew Buonarroti well and comments favorably on him and his Babouvis t antecedents in his Histoire de dix ans. And there are resemblances between the collectivism of Babeuf and the state ownership schemes of Blanc. But there is much else that does not jibe. Blanc the social democrat was uncomfortable with the Babouvist penchant for plots and coup d'état and notions of post-revolutionary dictatorship, however temporary, by a conspiratorial elite. Blanc was also very much a man of the nineteenth century, of industrial society, and thus closely attu ned to the revolutionary possibilities inherent in the emergence of the new industrial working class. Buonarroti, a disciple of Rousseau, a man of the Enlightenment adrift in a new age, proved more or less indifferent, as Babeuf had been, to the situation of urban workers. (this did not mean, interestingly, that urban workers were indifferent to him.)

Other historians, while accepting the importance of "communist" ideology in the revival of Babouvism, contended that its most enduring legacy in the 1848 generation was the movement led by that other inveterate conspirator, Louis-Auguste Blanqui. James Billington: "[T]he revived Babeuvist idea of equality was linked with the proletarian class struggle by some of Buonarroti's followers--and by his successor as chief organizer ,and symbol of revolutionary conspiracy--Auguste Blanqui."

Independent evidence of the Blanquist connection emerged in the trajectories of prominent self-styled Babouvists of the 1848 generation. The names of Buonar roti's most dedicated disciples, Albert Laponneraye and Marc René Voyer d'Argenson, figured on the list of member of the revolutionary government that was to have been installed following the 1839 coup led by Barbès and Blanqui. Theodore Dezamy, the one time secretary to Cabet (he broke with the master over his Icarian utopianism) who later became a "materialist communist" propagandist and one of the main organizers of the "Communist Banquet" in Belleville in 1840, marched with Blanqui 's Société républicaine during the 1848 revolution. Another organizer of the "Communist Banquet" was Jean-Jacques Pillot, a defrocked priest and author of the influential Babouvist tract Ni châteaux ni chaumières (1840). Pillot ended his days in prison for his role as a Blanquist militant under the Paris Commune.

The contention that Blanquism was the revolutionary movement most susceptible to the Babouvist ethos was further reinforced by David Thomson's conclusion that "uprooted intellectuals and the declassé bourgeois . . . in the mid-nineteenth century, were the true followers of the Babouvist tradition." This was precisely the clientele of Blanquism, both in the heyday of "Le Vieux" and later in the century.

Elizabeth Eisenstein summed up the appeal of Babouvism to the generation of 1848: "The contrast between the values represented by the spartan utopia which had been, according to Buonarroti, on the point of rea lization in 1794 and those represented by the ruling groups of the Bourbon and Orleanist regimes were particularly striking. . . Many young men who were unable or unwilling to devote their lives to the goal made famous by Guizot's advice enrichissez-vous were to find in Buonarroti's tribute to the martyred conspirators an irresistible summons to an heroic life."

Bruce Vanderort


Advielle, Victor. Histoire de Gracchus Babeuf et du babouvisme d'après de nombreux documents inédits, 2 vols. Paris, 1884.

Billington, James H. Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith. N.Y., 1980.

Dalin, Viktor M. Gracchus Babeuf á la veille et pendant la Grande Révolution français, 1785-1794. Moscow, 1978.

Dommanget, Maurice. Sur Babeuf et le babouvisme. Paris, 1970.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Fi rst Professional Revolutionist: Filippo Michele Buonarotti (1761-1837). Cambridge, Mass., 1959.

Eisenstein, "Buonarroti, Filippo Michele," in Historical Dictionary of France from the 1815 Restoration to the Second Empire, E. Newman, ed. Westport, CT, 1987.

Rose, R.B. Gracchus Babeuf: The First Revolutionary Communist. Stanford, 1978.

Thomson, David. The Babeuf Plot: The Making of a Republican Legend. London, 1947.

Weil, Georges. Histoire du parti républicain en France (1814-1870). Paris, 1928.

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