Gracchus Babeuf’s revolutionary politics and mindset were born during a childhood mired in poverty. As well as his appreciation of the struggles of the working class in France, his father made him swear on a sword to defend with his life the interest of the masses. Babeuf’s brief education allowed him a role as the keeper of memorial roles in pre-revolutionary France, a clerical task that allowed him access to important information on the royal government.
As well as being a public servant, Babeuf became acquainted to the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and drew from Rousseau’s view on liberty and freedom the idea that collective farming was the best option for the French working class. Babeuf combined Rousseau’s broader politics with Adam Smith’s views on economics to promote a minimal level of subsistence and income for peasants and went as far to encourage uprising when the agricultural system did not yield subsistence wages.
The Fall of the Bastille in July 1789 led Babeuf to outline a political program for a post-monarch France. Babeuf promoted a single tax system for everyone in France, which would allow peasants to take advantage of a greater tax base to rise themselves from poverty. In May 1793, Babeuf swore allegiance to the Paris Commune and argued against the Thermedorian constitution of 1795 because its guidelines were not liberal enough (including universal suffrage and a guarantee of basic rights). The sans-culotte revolution led by Babeuf and other revolutionaries was ended with mass arrests in 1795, leading Babeuf to write a diatribe against the current revolution and in favor of another type of revolution.
Babeuf’s “Manifesto of Plebeians,” written while imprisoned, advocated for the abolishment of private property, a society based on allocation of resources based on skills and talents, and the distribution of public goods and resources evenly. Babeuf’s manifesto preceded Marx’s by five decades but was probably more radical in its call for a society of economic and political equals. Babeuf helped turn Paris’ “Society of Equals.” a group of thousands of Parisian revolutionaries, into an underground Directory to challenge the leadership of Robespierre and the Montagnards. The underground Directory planned to elminate the current leading Directory and take political power for the masses but Babeuf’s plan for the French Revolution was not very clear beyond removing Robespierre from power.
The “Society of Equals” were soon arrested and in his May 1797 trial, Babeuf gave a beautiful appeal to reason in his defense to the point that most of his peers in the Society were released. Babeuf, however, was not spared his fate and attempted suicide before dying by guillotine in the summer of 1797. Babeuf, and not Marx, should be considered the innovator for communist thought, as questions about Karl Marx’s middle class lifestyle taint his image as a revolutionary. Babeuf, truly from the lowest of economic stations, rose to a position as a pseudo-intellectual leader in the French Revolution and the author of a revolutionary model used in the future by communists throughout the world.