Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialismby Joshua Muravchik
Socialism was man's most ambitious attempt to supplant religion with a doctrine claiming to be grounded in "science." Each failure to create societies of abundance or give birth to "the New Man" inspired more searching for the path to the promised land: revolution, communes, social democracy, communism, fascism, Third World socialism. None worked, and some exacted a staggering human toll. Then, after two centuries of wishful thinking and fitful governance, socialism suddenly imploded in a fin du siecle drama of falling walls and collapsing regimes. Joshua Muravchik traces the fiery trajectory through sketches of the thinkers and leaders who developed the theory, led it to power, and presided over its collapse. Heaven on Earth is a story filled with character and event while at the same time giving us epic chronicle of a movement that tried to turn the world upside down -- and for a time succeeded.
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HEAVEN ON EARTH
THE RISE AND FALL OF SOCIALISM
By Joshua Muravchik
ENCOUNTER BOOKS Conspiracy of Equals
Copyright © 2002 Joshua Muravchik.
All rights reserved.
BABEUF PLOTS A REVOLUTION
Easter Sunday, 1911, was a glorious spring day in the region of Picardy, with a "superb azure sky" beckoning locals to their gardens and fishing holes, so the newspaper reported. But four to five thousand residents of Saint Quentin had more serious things in mind. Led by marching bands and illustrious delegates from all across France, they paraded past city hall and gathered around a flag-draped red platform erected in front of the central labor headquarters. There, they commemorated an anniversarynot of Christ's resurrection, but of the birth in that town, 151 years earlier, of "the first fighter and martyr for the socialist idea," according to the keynote speaker, Jean Jaurès, the leader of the main party of French socialists.
Although images of socialism had been sketched by philosophers as far back as Plato, these had never been more than intellectual exercises. Like Oz or Lilliput, Plato's Republic and Thomas More's Utopia (which means "Nowhere") were conjured up in order to make a point about life and existing society. The French Revolution, however, made things that had once been taken as fanciful suddenly seem possible. "Nowhere ... first became somewhere in the Palais-Royale," remarks James Billington.
The mostconsequential of these new possibilities was socialism, although this was not in view when the Revolution began. The stormers of the Bastille had not aimed at a socialist objective, nor did the actors in any of the other increasingly radical momentsjournées, they were calledof the next five years. On the contrary, from Mirabeau to Robespierre, the revolutionists, it has often been noted, were mostly of the bourgeoisie, and their key pronunciamentos affirmed the right of property.
The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen tracked the U.S. Declaration of Independence in proclaiming that the reason for government was to secure men's rights. And its designation of those rights"liberty, property, security"resembled the American triad of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." (The French included a right of "resistance to oppression," but this was little more than a rhetorical flourish.) However, as the Revolution unfolded and new constitutions were written, the French added a fourth substantive right: equality. To be sure, the Americans had proclaimed that men were "created equal," but this was not a statement of policy; it was a postulate about the nature of man and his relation to God. The French innovation was to include "equality" among the essential purposes of government.
The impetus behind this was not hard to understand. Whereas the core issue for the Americans in 1776 was political legitimacy, for the French in 1789 it was social status. The rebellion in France was aimed against an onerous and pervasive structure of invidious distinction. Its first act was to demand that representatives meet in one body as a "national assembly" rather than as separate "estates." The promise of equality, thus, expressed the very soul of the Revolution, but there was no explanation of how this might be achieved or even what, exactly, it meant.
As the break with the old regime accelerated into an avalanche, the right of property remained sacrosanct. The constitution of 1793, the formal expression of the most extreme phase of the Revolution, reaffirmed it in the strongest terms: "No one may be deprived of the least portion of his property without his consent, unless a legally established public necessity requires it, and upon condition of a just and previous indemnity."
It was only in the dying days of the Revolution that someone came forward to argue that there was a contradiction within the revolutionary agendathat fulfilling the promise of equality would require not merely the abolition of feudal titles and privileges, but the institution of a new way of economic life, in which individual ownership would be abolished and each citizen would be furnished with an identical portion of nature's bounty.
The man who put this forth was named François-Noël Babeuf, and he called himself Gracchus. He was the native son whom the diverging factions of French socialists united to honor that day in Saint Quentin, as he had been lauded in the writings of Marx and Engels, and as he would be extolled again at the founding of the "Comintern."
At the trial following the abortive insurrection he was to lead in 1796, Babeuf claimed that his socialist beliefs were not original. In his defense he quoted at length from Rousseau and Mably, and from writings that were ascribed to Diderot (although subsequent scholarship showed them to have been written by the less-known Abbé Morelly). His ideas were borrowed from them, said Babeuf: "In condemning me, gentlemen of the jury ... you place these great thinkers ... in the dock," for "the man who wills an end also wills the means to gain that end." But this is no more persuasive historically than it was found to be juridically. However closely Babeuf's goals may have resembled those of the philosophes or earlier utopians, none of them had ever organized to seize power as Babeuf had done through an underground organization calling itself the "Conspiracy of Equals." Babeuf may have taken his philosophy from others, but before he came along, socialism had been only a speculative fancy. He transformed it into a fighting creed.
* * *
Unlike most subsequent socialist leaders and most of the key French revolutionaries, Babeuf came from humble origins. How humble is hard to know, since a great deal of what was written about him was ideological, and because he and his family provided embroidered accounts that either elevated or depressed his class status as the occasion might require. It is unlikely that Babeuf, as he told it, was asked by Emperor Joseph II of Austria to tutor his children. On the other hand, the tale that the Babeuf clan was so poor that the priests would not baptize François-Noël is given the lie by the baptismal certificate that a researcher uncovered in an archive. As for Babeuf's claim that a breadbox had to serve him as an infant's cradle, stunting his growth, his adult height of five foot six was average for a Frenchman of his day.
What education Babeuf received came from his father, a professional soldier. He made enough of it to escape the rigors of canal-digging, his first occupation, for "white collar" work. He became a "feudist," performing archival research for nobles aimed at assuring that they were receiving all the fees and concessions to which they might conceivably be entitled. As was the norm for feudists, Babeuf's contracts afforded him one-third of the arrears collected as a result of his discoveries, which were likely to come out of the hide of the peasantry. Later he was to explain, perhaps in apologia: "I was a feudiste under the old regime, and that is the reason I was perhaps the most formidable scourge of feudalism in the new. In the dust of the seigneurial archives I uncovered the horrifying mysteries of the usurpations of the noble caste."
For a time, Babeuf's business prospered so well that he was able to employ a handful of clerks. But some of his noble clients failed to pay himwhether out of haughty disdain of obligations to a commoner or because of some inadequacy in his work is disputed. Ultimately, however, it was the Revolution that put him out of business by bringing an end to feudal entitlements.
Babeuf next tried exercising his talents as a writer. His masterpiece, Le Cadastre Perpetuel ("The Permanent Land-Register"), combined his expertise as a feudist with his burgeoning passions as a reformer. It set forth a method that he believed would both modernize land records and provide succor to the poor. Babeuf invested great hopes in it, declaring, "It will serve for ages." But months after its publication, his friend Jean-Pierre Audiffret, who had fronted the costs, complained that it had sold only four copies.
In the absence of earnings, Babeuf survived on loans from friends. When Audiffret had lent his limit, Babeuf cadged more advance from him by showing him a letter from a wealthy client offering Babeuf a fat contract. It was a forgery that Babeuf had directed his wife to send him.
The outbreak of the Revolution found Babeuf in Paris. His explanation of its origins was surprisingly irreverent:
The causes of the revolution are not, perhaps, such as many writers have wished to represent them.... Undoubtedly the kingdom of France was illgoverned but not worse than many others; the people were very miserable, but not more so than in other parts of Europe. There was light in the country, but the greater number of those persons who possessed it, did not possess virtue in due proportion, and the love of their fellow kind. That which, in my opinion, contributed most to the first popular commotion is thiswe had just seen the revolution in North America, and movements in Holland and Brabant: the spirit of novelty and of imitation, so natural among the French, made them wish to do in their turn what, as it appeared to them, had given celebrity to people whom they did not think better than themselves.
At first Babeuf was more a spectator than a participant. Watching the mob parade the head of a Bastille defender on a pike, he was repelled, although he exonerated the masses from their own coarseness. "Punishments of all kinds ... have demoralised us," he wrote to his wife about these displays. "Our masters, instead of policing us, have made us barbarians.... [A]ll this ... will have ... terrible consequences! We are as yet only at the beginning!" Over time his misgivings about violence were overcome by the logic of revolutionary necessitymuch as Robespierre began his political career as an opponent of capital punishment, but ended as its leading practitioner.
Babeuf's own part in the Revolution began as he returned from Paris to his native Picardy, which by 1790 had become one of the most active centers of agitation against the old regime's taxes on salt (the gabelle) and beverages (the aides). Long resented, these taxes became a prime target once the populace began to voice its grievances. Resistance to the aides was buttressed by the financial backing of brewers and saloonkeepers. In Picardy, Babeuf quickly established himself as a leader of this movement, resulting in the first of his many arrests.
Carried back to Paris for incarceration, Babeuf began to contribute from behind bars to radical journals, especially Jean-Paul Marat's famous Ami du Peuple, for which he wrote polemics on prison conditions among other matters. After a couple of months, Marat's agitation succeeded in winning a kind of parole for Babeuf, who soon returned to Picardy and widened the ambit of his militancy. After the official abolition of feudalism left unsettled a welter of claims between lords and peasants, Babeuf made himself a spokesman for the latter, both as an advocate in legal proceedings and also before the court of public opinion through a newssheet and various petitions. He called himself "the Marat of the Somme."
For more than two years, this mini-Marat built his reputation within the region as a revolutionary personage. He won election to various local offices, and formal designation as a "notable." In this period, writes the biographer R. B. Rose, Babeuf "appears to have adopted a revolutionary presence appropriate to the majesty of a people's representative. He was wearing his hair long and cut low on the brow in the Jacobin style, and had a long grey cloak and a huge sabre." He also took to calling himself "Camille" after the Roman hero Camillus, known as the second founder of Rome and a reconciler of classes.
Babeuf's gifts, however, were not those of a reconciler. On the contrary, he was better suited to fulfill the order that came down to his municipality, following the abolition of the monarchy, to conduct a ritual purging of "the signs of ancient servitude." As Rose describes it:
Anything burnable was to be handed over for a public bonfire at the foot of the Tree of Liberty, in the market square, after proper provision had been made for "fuel for the poor." ... Babeufacting alone, and amidst the jeers and menaces of a hostile crowd ... carr[ied] out his auto-da-fé. To the fleur-de-lis tapestries from the tribunal and the town hall he added "twelve superb portraits of kings," garnered from the same places and from the district offices. The demonstration had been staged with the intention of celebrating the execution of Louis XVI on 21 January. But all it seemed to show was that the majority of the inhabitants of at least one Picard town were still royalists at heart.
Thus Babeuf made enemies, and when he let himself get caught indulging his weakness for forgery, they pounced. He fled to Paris to escape arrest. There he threw himself into the arena of national revolutionary activity. Now calling himself Gracchus to signify his identity with the Roman tribune Tiberius Gracchus, author of an agrarian reform that confiscated surplus land for distribution to the needy, he wrote home to his wife: "This is exciting me to the point of madness. The sans-culottes want to be happy, and I don't think it is impossible that within a year, if we carry out our measures aright and act with all necessary prudence, we shall succeed in ensuring general happiness on earth."
Robespierre's protégé Saint Just once explained that "happiness is a new idea in Europe." It came from the American Declaration of Independence. But while the Americans aimed to protect the pursuit if it, the French revolutionists wanted to guarantee the thing itself.
Babeuf rallied behind first one and then another of the leading lights of the Revolution, finally settling on Robespierre on the grounds of his solicitousness for the lower classes and his advocacy of limitations on property rights. Attuned for the moment to the prevailing political tide, Babeuf found employment within the revolutionary administration. However, the charge of forgery remained against him, and the law caught up with him in November 1793. Spending the next eight months in prison, he was isolated from the most frenzied phase of the Terror and the ensuing downfall of Robespierre and the Jacobins. They had accelerated the use of the guillotine to an unimagined tempo, but then it was their turn for the scaffold. Being under lock and key at this time may have been a stroke of luck for Babeuf since he had antagonized many people, and by falling afoul of one faction or another he might have paid with his head before he had the chance to make his mark on history.
Released on bond (supplied by anonymous friends or supporters), Babeuf found his way back to Paris in July 1794 and threw his lot in with the newly ascendant crowd of "Thermidorians," the moderates who had overthrown Robespierre. Although he had once supported Robespierre, Babeuf now lambasted him for his repressions. He went so far as to charge that Robespierre's hidden aim had been to create so much death and flight that the population would be reduced, thereby alleviating the food shortage. Within three months, however, Babeuf turned against the Thermidorians on the grounds of their repressiveness.
Soon the police were after him again, forcing him to publish his new journal, Le Tribun du Peuple, from hiding. In February 1795 they caught up with him, and he spent another eight months behind bars. During this incarceration he drew around him a few other political prisoners to form the Conspiracy of Equals. Throughout that year, the ruling Thermidorians alternately put down risings by the sans-culottes on their Left and by royalists on their Right. In October, to strengthen itself for a showdown with the Right, the regime released a number of radicals from custody, among them Babeuf.
Excerpted from HEAVEN ON EARTH by Joshua Muravchik. Copyright © 2002 by Joshua Muravchik. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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