Babeuf’s Revolutionary Communism

Elizabeth Anderson

François-Noël Babeuf was a radical political agitator during the French Revolution. He called himself “Gracchus” after the Gracchi brothers, 2nd century BCE Roman tribunes who advocated breaking up the large estates into small farms to be distributed to landless, unemployed plebians. His moniker misled some followers. In 1796, M. V. (probably Marc Vadier, one of the leaders of the Reign of Terror) wrote a letter to Babeuf questioning the feasibility and permanence of a program to redistribute land. Babeuf replied that he aimed not to redistribute private property, but to abolish it altogether. He would have the French Republic confiscate all wealth, which would henceforth be held in common. As he would explain in his self-defense before the High Court of Vendôme, where he was put on trial for conspiring to overthrow the French government, everyone would work at a job assigned to them and deposit their production in a common store. Money and commerce would be abolished. The state would distribute equal shares of the national product to all, taking care to ensure that the stores of less productive communes would be equalized by contributions from the more productive communes. This is what his co-conspirator Sylvain Maréchal meant when he declared that “The earth belongs to no one... the fruits belong to all” in the Manifesto of Equals. Fifty years before The Communist Manifesto, Babeuf had devised the first program of revolutionary state communism.

Babeuf’s program thus went far beyond mere property redistribution. Confiscation and redistribution of certain large estates had been a staple of Northern European public policy since the Reformation, when Protestant states confiscated the holdings of the Roman Catholic Church. Revolutionary France had followed suit in 1789. Had Babeuf merely planned to redistribute confiscated land equally to smallholders, this would not have been inimical to private property or capitalism: such a policy became the cornerstone of U.S. agricultural policy under the Homestead Acts, a mere 66 years after Babeuf’s conspiracy, setting the stage for America’s capitalist development, as land redistribution would later serve for Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan after WWII.

What made Babeuf’s program shocking was the comprehensiveness of confiscation, and the refusal to redistribute – his insistence on holding property in common under permanent, centralized state direction. Although the Conspiracy of Equals sometimes cast their ideal as a realization of “the great social family,” their real model of society was the army. They took the success of France’s vast Revolutionary army to prove the feasibility of comprehensive state administration of an equal provision for all. The state would “establish a simple administration of needs, which, keeping a record of all individuals and all the things that are available to them, will distribute these available goods with the most scrupulous equality.” It would also direct production, determining what was made where and who would perform what jobs. All the able-bodied would be required to work. The unemployed crowding the cities would be sent back to the countryside to work.

So far the plan amounted to a system of complete distributive equality: all would perform an equal share of equally burdensome work, and receive an equal share of the product. Sometimes, the Conspiracy of Equals claimed that the abolition of private property and imposition of communism would be sufficient to end the greed and ambition that motivate the quest for unequal riches and dominion over others. Other times they recognized that the state would have to control people’s thoughts and expression to extirpate the desire for superiority. They endorsed the Committee of Public Safety’s suspension of the democratic Constitution of 1793 and the Terror, for virtue had to be inculcated in the people before the Constitution could be implemented. The Equals would similarly not institute a democratic assembly immediately, but first rule autocratically to create a republic of virtue. They were confident that the people would consent “to become as pliable wax” to have the character of equality “engraven” upon them. The state would end paternal authority over the family by sending children to live in common and be educated in sex-segregated state boarding schools. Great cities would be broken up into villages to restore the face-to-face community under which people could no longer hide vice under anonymity, but be subject to public censure for straying from communal norms. All writing opposed to equality would be censored; the people allowed to wear only simple clothing; refinement of the arts and sciences, blamed for promoting vanity, would be banned. “Nothing would escape the searching mind of the legislator... nothing should run counter to the principle of equality.”

The Conspiracy of Equals offered three arguments for their program: the social contract, desert, and a pure principle of outcome equality. The social contract argument began in orthodox fashion. In the state of nature, before humans agree to live under common laws and conventions, the earth is held in common by all. Everyone is equally entitled to take what they need from the natural bounty of the earth. People join a state under common laws to advance their happiness. This regime can be justified only by unanimous consent, which will be granted only if everyone is better off under it than in the state of nature. Since no one suffered poverty in the state of nature, no one would consent to a legal regime that produces poverty. The institution of private property does produce poverty, however. Once people can alienate their right of access to the earth, and others pass this exclusive right on to their heirs, accidents and misfortunes will force some to sell to others, property in land will be concentrated, and society will be divided into one class of land owners, and another that owns only their labor. The first, enjoying a monopoly on land, will impose draconian terms of access on the laborers, and establish a system in which they live idly off the toil of others, while the workers are impoverished, although they produce everything. Since private property is the cause of their misery, it is unjustified. The communist revolution would commit no crime in confiscating all land, since it was stolen from humanity in the first place and is now only being returned to the common use to which all have an inalienable right.

The argument from desert denied a battery of desert-based justifications for inequality. No one inherently deserves more than anyone else, because all human beings have the same basic needs and capacities. This justifies a “natural equal right to enjoyment of all the goods of life.” While in rare cases people become poor due to their own vices, vice itself is due to corrupt social institutions. In any event, individual vice could never explain the institutionalized, systematic poverty in societies with private property, since this dooms innocent people who own only their labor to a lifetime of desperate toil and subservience to the idle rich. Nor do the poor deserve the fact that they own only their own labor, since this is due to an accident of birth – of having parents who have no property to bequest to them. No one can claim ownership of the land or other natural resources by desert, because no one made these things.

Couldn’t a worker claim higher pay because of his superior talents and industry? If the claim is based on the burdens of exercising more intelligence and mental strain at work, it is ridiculous: intellectual work does not make one any hungrier than physical work; need alone justifies compensation. Unequal intellectual talent itself is mainly a product of an unjust distribution of educational opportunities; there is no intrinsic inequality in intelligence between rich and poor. Furthermore, desert-based claims to higher compensation based on the superiority of mental labor rest on arbitrary opinion. If you asked the manual laborers, they would say physical labor is more valuable. Finally, valuable intellectual goods always build upon the accumulated knowledge of society, which is part of the commons. Since inventions in the arts and sciences draw from the intellectual commons built by society, they should be returned to the commons for everyone’s use.

Suppose one grants all these claims. Nevertheless, if one person, through sheer hard work, produces as much as four others performing identical labor, would he not deserve four times the pay? At this point, where a claim to unequal desert is virtually impossible to deny, Babeuf resorted to a pure egalitarian claim. Such people disturb the social equilibrium in claiming more than others. “Even a man who shows that he can do the work of four, and who consequently demands the wages of four, will still be an enemy of society... we should curb a man of this type and drive him out as if he had the plague.” Alternatively, society should “reduce him to a state whereby he can do the work of only one man, so that he will be able to demand the recompense of only one man.”

This is the only case I know in the history of egalitarianism in which an egalitarian embraced the nightmare Harrison Bergeron scenario, in which equality is enforced by handicapping those with higher motivation or natural endowments. Such a policy makes no sense from a social contract perspective. No rational person would consent to a regime that barred them from exercising their superior talents. Nor would the less talented consent to such a regime, given the superior possibility of arranging social institutions so that people’s exercise of productive talents and efforts redound to everyone’s advantage.

Babeuf drew his monstrous conclusion from a commitment to luck egalitarianism, the view that no one should be worse off than anyone else due to bad luck. “It is necessary to bind together everyone’s lot; to render the lot of each member of the association independent of chance, and of happy or unfavorable circumstance.” To my knowledge, this is the first assertion of luck egalitarianism in the history of politics. For Babeuf, the only way to ensure that risks of bad luck were equally shared was to share all goods and labor under a central administration, and to endure a radical leveling down of talents and motivations.

Paine was appalled by Babeuf’s conspiracy. Babeuf claimed to be vindicating the voice of the people of Paris who cried “Bread and the Constitution of 1793!” in opposing the post-Thermidorian abolition of price controls on bread, and the 1795 Constitution’s imposition of a property qualification on voting. Yet Babeuf’s plan was not to restore the universal manhood suffrage of 1793, but to install himself and his co-conspirators as a totalitarian dictatorship. Paine argued that what was needed was not equality alone but a form of equality consistent with liberty.

[Excerpted from Thomas Paine’s “Agrarian Justice” and the Origins of Social Insurance; endnotes omitted]