Babeuf, François Noël “Gracchus”

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Babeuf, François Noël “Gracchus” (1760-1797): French Revolutionary.

Although a relatively minor figure within the French Revolution, François “Gracchus” Babeuf is widely regarded as the first communist revolutionary in continental Europe. A sans-culotte who served a clerk in Picardy prior to the Revolution, Babeuf was influenced by the writings of Rousseau, Jean-Jacques and Abbé Mably. By the late 1780s, he advocated the redistribution of land as a means of fighting poverty. After the revolution he became a pamphleteer and later briefly served in the revolutionary administration. Starting in 1795, he denounced the rightward drift of French politics, as reflected in the Constitution of 1795, in his paper The Tribune of the People.

As the Revolution progressed, Babeuf came to reject private property in favor of a system of communal ownership of land and equal distribution of its product. In order to implement this new program, he formed and led the “Conspiracy of Equals.” The Conspiracy was a centralized revolutionary movement led by a secret committee at its center surrounded by ex-Jacobins and militants. In its centralized organization and conspiratorial character, it was a forerunner of later secret revolutionary parties, including those on the Leninist model. Babeuf and his fellow conspirators were arrested in 1796 before they could attempt their planned coup. While some thirty were simply shot, Babeuf was placed on trial along with many others in 1797 and was condemned to death. He was guillotined in May 1797 after a failed suicide attempt. He was rescued from total obscurity by his fellow conspirator Filippo Buonorotti who wrote a biography of his deceased leader in the nineteenth century.

Further Reading:

Ian H. Birchall, The Spectre of Babeuf, 1997.

Kevin E. Dodson

Lamar University