Charlie Mowbray – The Emergence of the Conception of Communism

Posted on 2013/12/18


The Emergence of the Conception of Communism

8 11 2013

Excerpts from

The Idea: Anarchist Communism, Past Present and Future


Charlie Mowbray looks at the origin of the idea of Communism.


Sylvain Maréchal

“The first appearance of a really active communist party is found within the framework of the bourgeois revolution, at the moment where the constitutional monarchy is suppressed. The most consistent republicans, in England the Levellers, in France Babeuf, Buonarroti are the first to have proclaimed these “social questions”. The “Conspiracy of Babeuf” written by his friend and comrade Buonarotti, shows how these republicans derived their social insight from the movement of history. It also demonstrates that when the social question of princedom versus republic is removed, not a single social question of the kind that interests the proletariat has been solved.

Karl Marx 1847 Moralising criticism and critical morality in Marx/Engels Sur la Revolution française, Paris, Messidor/Editions sociales, 1985 p. 91


Gracchus Babeuf developed the ideas of his group in the aftermath of the crushing of the Enrages in 1793. In many ways, his communism is a step back from that of the Enragés. Not only was it to turn away from the mass action of the Enragés, rooted as they were in the popular quartiers of Paris, towards conspiratorial action by small and secret enlightened elites, but it could also be argued that Babeuf represented the extreme wing of bourgeois republicanism. He attempted to amalgamate the revolutionary idea of the emerging bourgeoisie- democracy- with the revolutionary idea of the embryonic working class-communism. Babeuf wanted to introduce democracy and then to build communism, in small stages. The people, through a democratic Constitution, would veto all laws until the maintenance of all citizens should be assured by law, as Kropotkin notes. In fact, Babeuf thinks that an individual, if he has enough of a strong will, can introduce communism single-handedly. Thus was built the way to the Caesarism of Napoleon, (even though it was the young Corsican officer who was to break up the Babouvists’ Club de Pantheon and have its doors padlocked) and Babeuf uncannily anticipates Lenin here. It should be remembered that the principal subscribers to the Babouvists’ paper were bankers, manufacturers, financiers, high officials, functionaries and professionals. They supported the Babouvist grouping because they had been closely linked with the Jacobin dictatorship and were fearful of the growing threat of White reaction. They supported Babeuf in spite of his avowed communism. It is possible that a triumph of Babouvism would not have led to the establishment of a communist society, but would have speeded up the advancement of capitalist society, in the process by-passing the Bonapartist phrase, a costly and destructive phrase for emerging capitalist society. This is not to deny the courage and conviction of Babeuf, but to recognise that he could have quickly become a prisoner of these bourgeois forces. The Babouvists used every means possible at their disposal, means which became those of every succeeding revolutionary grouping- newspapers, posters, songs, public meetings. (These methods were copied by the group around Thomas Spence in Britain).

In many ways the ideas of the Enragés were an advance on the land communism of the Diggers, moving on to include communism of the means of subsistence, but it was still a partial communism. This admitted individual possession side by side with common property and while proclaiming the right of all to the entire sum of the fruits of production, it still recognised an individual right to the “superfluous” by the side of the right of all to the products ‘of first and second necessity’. Whilst people like Babeuf were to develop communist ideas they linked this to a special elite carrying out a revolutionary dictatorship.

The Enragés, on the other hand, were to develop libertarian ideas of communism. They hated the State.

As Kropotkin notes:

“It is obvious that communism in 1793 did not appear with that completeness of doctrine which is found with the French followers of Fourier and Saint-Simon….In 1793 communist ideas were not worked out in the quiet of a private study; they were born from the needs of the moment. This is why the social problem showed itself during the Great Revolution superior to the socialism of 1848 and of its later forms. It went straight to the root in attacking the distribution of produce.
This communism certainly appears fragmentary to us, especially as stress was laid by its exponents upon its different separate aspects; and there always remained in it what we might call partial communism. It admitted individual possession side by side with common property, and while proclaiming the right of all to the entire sum of the fruits of production, it yet recognised an individual right to the “superfluous”, by the side of all to the products of “ first and second necessity”. Nevertheless the three principal aspects of communism are already to be found in the teachings of 1793: Land communism, industrial communism, and communism in commerce and credit.”
The Great French Revolution. p.508 Elephant Editions.

Communist and anarchist ideas emerged from among the sans-culotte masses during the Revolution. They were to be formalised in writing and speeches in various ways by Roux, Leclerc, Varlet, Babeuf, Maréchal and Buonarotti. The revolutionary tradition of the clubs managed to survive under the rule of Louis Philippe, with the secret Communistes Materialistes groupings of the indefatigable Blanqui and of Barbès. However, the outlook of these groupings was greatly affected by the radical Jacobinism of the Babouvists, not to mention the repressive conditions under which these groupings were forced to operate.

Sylvain Marechal

Maréchal, whilst linked to Babouvism, deserves an individual mention. Sylvain Maréchal was born in 1750, the son of a wine merchant in the Les Halles district of Paris. He trained as a lawyer, but could not practice because of an acute stutter. He then obtained work in a library. His reading quickly led him to an atheist position. He began to write and publish on the subject. This lost him his job, and he was driven into poverty. He managed to get other library work and eventually pulled himself out of his straitened circumstances.

He wrote and published an almanac containing a revolutionary calendar, with a drastic revision and renaming of the months. This caused it to be burnt on the orders of the Parlement of Paris, and Maréchal to be condemned to three months imprisonment in 1788.

This confirmed his evolving republicanism, and he began to write on the subject. His The First Lessons of the Oldest Son of the King, which appeared later in the year, stated that there was no need for kings, even the best intentioned. “Misfortune to the people whose king is generous! The king can only give what he has taken from his people. The more the king gives, the more he takes from his people”. Maréchal called for a general strike of producers and called for the earth to be taken in common by all who lived on it.

Maréchal continued his atheistic and anti-clerical agitation with the coming of the Revolution, through newspapers and pamphlets. He made the acquaintance of Babeuf in March 1793, supporting him financially and helping him to get out of prison on provisional liberty. He disapproved of the Terror, and used his standing as a revolutionary to help people avoid execution. He felt that the Terror had been an instrument to replace the rule of the monarchy and aristocracy with that of businessmen and landowners.

He kept in contact with Babeuf during the latter’s protracted stays in prison and he eventually was involved in the Babouvist leadership. He wrote the Manifeste des Egaux (Manifesto of the Equals) for the grouping, although the majority of Babouvists had not approved it.

In this Manifesto he argues for a stateless communism. “The French revolution is only the front runner of another revolution much grander, of much greater occasion, and which will be the last”. He advances the notion of the common good, of a common wealth, where there will be “no more individual ownership of the land”, because “the earth belongs to no one. He called for an end to a system where the vast majority “toils and sweats at the service of and for the pleasure of an extreme minority”, and for the disappearance of “revolting distinctions between rich and poor…between governors and governed”.

Maréchal avoided imprisonment with the repression of the Babouvist movement. He remained outspoken, using his book History of Russia to hide a veiled attack on Napoleon in 1802. He died the following year.
Whilst being at the forefront of those who were developing the idea of communism, it should be noted that he still could not shed all the prejudices of his age. Thus one of his last works was Projet de loi portant défense d’apprendre à lire aux femmes (Law Project Prohibiting Women from Learning to Read), written in 1801.

The emergence of the conception of Communism

It should be remembered that neither Babeuf nor Maréchal had invented the term “communism”. The idea of a free and equal society brought about through the sharing of the fruits of the earth goes back to a multitude of religious and philosophical writings.

A first written mention of the word “communist” itself was found in the book of condolences of the parish of Guillestre (Hautes Alpes) in France in 1789. Babeuf, of course, never used the word himself, calling himself a communalist, believing that a community of goods would result from a community of work.

With the fall of Robespierre there is a mention of the word communism when Restif de la Bretonne talks about a general assembly of the Club du Pantheon, which was one of the most democratic in Paris. “A citizen demands the rejection of the Constitution and the establishment of communism. This eye-witness report was published in Paris in 1797”. (Marius Berou in an article in Le Peuple no 1537 20th November 2002 p 8-9)


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