Upon hearing the word ‘communism’ or the phrase ‘socialist revolution’, in our popular approaches we tend to be drawn to the twentieth century as a point of departure; to the oppressive communist dictatorships of leaders such as Lenin, Stalin or Mao. This is not without good reason as there can be no doubt that the Russian and Chinese Revolutions mark some of the most fascinating and brutal implementations of communism throughout history. However, a much earlier demonstration of the basic conditions required of a socialist revolution and communist dictatorship are important to be incorporated into the shaping of these perceptions.
Before untangling this possibility, it is important to grasp a basic understanding of the term and application of communism itself. Communism is a branch of socialism and both share a common goal of achieving equality throughout society. In practical terms, this requires the abolition of class structures and private ownership within society; of structures that inevitably lead to the separation of people in terms of their wealth. Communism aims at replacing these structures with communal ownership and control, making it a theory that centres around the working class – the proletariat – who would most benefit from these changes.
Naturally, as the revolution in which the middle class – the bourgeoisie – were triumphant, the French Revolution may seem a most unlikely candidate. How could we possibly envisage the very revolution that formulated the rise of the bourgeoisie as an advocate of communism which was committed to their destruction? One man, François‐Noël Babeuf, more usually known as Gracchus Babeuf, may hold some of the answers.
Babeuf was the leader of the Conspiracy of Equals in 1796, an attempted coup to abolish the bourgeois Directory of the time and establish a lawful egalitarian society in its place. The principles employed by Babeuf and his associates are convincing expressions of what can only be classified as early communist ideas. Opposing class hierarchy, private ownership of land and inequality throughout society were all important. As highlighted within ‘The Manifesto of Equals’, these were all necessary reforms of what would be the ‘real revolution’.
Naturally, Babeuf’s efforts were hindered by the underdeveloped social and intellectual climate within which neither communism nor the proletariat had yet formularised. This was something that came in the wake of Marxist thinking. Nevertheless, it bears thinking about what may have happened, had Babeuf lived around a century later and succeeded in his Conspiracy of Equals. Despite all of his promises of hope and equality, would Babeuf have been capable of dictating an oppressive socialist revolution?
Perhaps, it is possible to look forward to the events of modern socialist revolutions for an insight. There are certainly a significant number of similarities to be drawn between the two periods. Broken promises of equality, abolition or reform of private property and such were a consistent feature of twentieth-century communist regimes. Very often, leaders who had first appeared sympathetic to the peasant classes went on to manipulate and mobilise them into an oppressed force employed to push their own revolutionary agendas.
Lenin for example, having appealed to the peasantry via a string of promises – including a decree which required all privately-owned land to ‘become the property of the whole people and into the use of all those who cultivate it’ – went on to neglect the idea of the peasantry ‘having, or even sharing, political power’. Mao employed the same approach in China. Stating that ‘they [the peasantry] should be promised – and even granted – such economic advantages’ as a way of attracting them to the Communist Party, during the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, the peasants fighting in Mao’s armies ‘never determined their policies’. Considering the similar promises made within the Manifesto of Equals, perhaps we can speculate a similar outcome in France had Babeuf ever gained power.
It doubtlessly takes someone ruthless and ultimately barbaric to impose such brutal dictatorships as was done by Lenin, Stalin and Mao and violence was certainly a fundamental feature of the revolutions of the twentieth-century. Stalin’s Great Purge of the 1930s for example, or Mao’s launch of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, saw the violent extermination of any potential threats to communist rule. Whilst it is impossible to make any definitive judgement, if we are to consider the numerous accounts which attest to Babeuf’s reputation as a violent throat-cutter, and of his bloodthirstiness which deterred even the most extreme workers away, it seems plausible that Babeuf may also have been capable of such violent acts.
Compiled on what is really only a minority of the available evidence, this analysis of the twentieth century context and also of some of Gracchus Babeuf’s main principles, aims and violent reputation, we are still faced with a convincing possibility that here was a figure with the definite makings of a Lenin, a Stalin or a Mao; a would-be communist dictator of France.
Engels, Frederick., ‘Introduction’, in Karl Marx, The Class Struggles in France (1895), trans. Louis Proyect, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1850/class-struggles-france/intro.htm
Lehning, Arthur., ‘Buonarroti’s Ideas on Communism and Dictatorship’, International Review of Social History 2.2 (1957).
Marechal, Sylvain., Manifesto of the Equals (1796), trans. Mitchell Abidor, https://www.marxists.org/history/france/revolution/conspiracy-equals/1796/manifesto.htm.
Seton-Watson, Hugh., ‘The Russian and Chinese Revolutions’, The China Quarterly, vol.2 (1960).
Zhang, Mo., ‘From Public to Private: The Newly Enacted Chinese Property Law and the Protection of Property Rights in China’, Berkeley Business Law Journal 5.2 (2008).
François Noël Bonneville – Gallica Digital Library (digital ID btv1b84127115). Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/François-Noël_Babeuf#/media/File:François-Noël_Babeuf.jpg.