François-Noël Babeuf ( 23 November 1760 – 27 May 1797), known as Gracchus Babeuf, was a French political agitator and journalist of the French Revolutionary period.
His newspaper Le tribun du peuple (“the tribune of the people”) was best known for his advocacy for the poor and calling for a popular revolt against the Directory, the government of France.
He was a leading advocate for democracy, the abolition of private property and the equality of results.
He angered the authorities who were clamping down hard on their radical enemies. In spite of the efforts of his Jacobin friends to save him, Babeuf was executed for his role in the Conspiracy of the Equals.
The “Gracchus” nickname likened him to the ancient Roman tribunes of the people. Although the words “anarchist” 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 has been called “The First Revolutionary Communist.”
Babeuf was born at St. Nicaise near the town of Saint-Quentin. His father, Claude Babeuf, had deserted the French Royal Army in 1738 for that of Maria Theresa of Austria, reportedly rising to the rank of major.
Amnestied in 1755, he returned to France, but soon sank into poverty, and had to work as a casual labourer to support his wife and family.
The hardships endured by Babeuf during his early years contributed to the development of his political opinions. His father gave him a basic education, but until the outbreak of the Revolution, he was a domestic servant, and from 1785 occupied the office of commissaire à terrier, assisting the nobles and priests in the assertion of their feudal rights over the peasants.
Accused of abandoning the feudal aristocracy, he would later say that “the sun of the French Revolution” had brought him to view his “mother, the feudal system” as a “hydra with a hundred heads.”
Babeuf was working for a land surveyor at Roye when the Revolution began. His father had died in 1780, and he now had to provide for his wife and two children, as well as for his mother, brothers and sisters.
He was a prolific writer, and the signs of his future socialism are contained in a letter of 21 March 1787, one of a series mainly on literature and 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 1789 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 October, on his return to Roye, he founded the Correspondant Picard, a political journal that would have 40 issues. Babeuf used his journal to agitate for a progressive taxation system, and condemned the “census suffrage” planned for the 1791 elections to the Legislative Assembly in which citizen votes would be weighted by their social standing.
Due to his political activities, he was arrested on 19 May 1790, but released in July before the Fête de la Fédération, thanks to pressure exerted nationally by Jean-Paul Marat. In November Babeuf was elected a member of the municipality of Roye, but was expelled.
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.
A rivalry with the principal administrator and later deputy to the Convention, André Dumont, forced Babeuf to transfer 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 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, and sent Babeuf for a new trial before the Aisne tribunal, which acquitted him on 18 July 1794, only days before the Thermidorian Reaction.
Babeuf returned to Paris, and on 3 September 1794 published the first issue of his Journal de la Liberté de la Presse, whose title was changed on 5 October 1794 to Le Tribun du Peuple.
The execution of Maximilien Robespierre on 28 July 1794 had ended the Reign of Terror and begun the White Terror. Babeuf – now self-styled Gracchus Babeuf – defended the fallen Terror politicians with the stated goal of achieving equality “in fact” and not only “by proclamation”.
However about the Terror, he said “I object to this particular aspect of their system.” Babeuf attacked the leaders of the Thermidorian Reaction and, from a socialist point of view, the economic outcome of the Revolution. He also argued for the inclusion of women into the political clubs.
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 political prisoners, notably Philippe Buonarroti, Simon Duplay, and 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 revolution 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. That constitution had been ratified by a national referendum by universal male suffrage but never implemented.
In February 1795, Babeuf was arrested again, and the Tribun du peuple was solemnly burnt in the Théatre des Bergeres by the jeunesse dorée, young men whose mission was to root out Jacobinism. Babeuf might have faded into obscurity like other agitators, but for the appalling economic conditions caused by the fall in the value of assignats.
Babeuf’s song “Dying of Hunger, Dying of Cold” (Mourant de faim, mourant de froid), set to a popular tune, began to be sung in cafés, with immense applause. Reports circulated that the disaffected troops of the French Revolutionary Army in the camp of Grenelle were ready to join an insurrection against the government.
The bureau central had accumulated through its agents (notably ex-captain Georges Grisel, who was initiated into Babeuf’s society) evidence of a conspiracy (later called the “Conspiracy of Equals”) for an armed uprising fixed for Floréal 22, year IV (11 May 1796), in which involved Jacobins and socialists.
The Directory thought it time to react. On 10 May Babeuf, who had taken the pseudonym 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 Sainte-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 issue of the Tribun appeared on 24 April, although Lebois in the Ami du peuple tried to incite the soldiers to revolt, and for a while there were rumours of a military uprising.
Babeuf and his accomplices were to be tried at the newly created high court at Vendôme. When the prisoners were removed from Paris on Fructidor 10 and 11 (27 August and 28 August 1796), there were tentative efforts at a riot hoping to rescue the prisoners, but these were easily suppressed. On 7 September 1796, 500 or 600 Jacobins tried to rouse the soldiers at Grenelle but also failed.
The trial was at Vendôme from 20 February 1797 for two months. Although more important people were involved in the conspiracy, the government depicted Babeuf as the leader.
His own vanity played into their hands. On Prairial 7 (26 May 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 managed to escape, according to Paul Barras, with the connivance of the Directory.
Babeuf and Darthé were guillotined the next day at Vendôme, Prairial 8 (27 May 1797), without appeal.
Babeuf’s body was transported and buried in a mass grave in the Vendôme’s old cemetery of the Grand Faubourg, in Loir-et-Cher.