Gracchus Babeuf and the Calls for a Welfare State in 18th Century France

Gracchus Babeuf was a French revolutionary, who tried to overthrow the Directory and establish a communist state during the French Revolution as the leader of the ‘Conspiracy of Equals’. He’s one of the founders of the European socialist and communist traditions. I’ve been reading Ian Birchall’s book on him and his legacy, The Spectre of Babeuf (Haymarket Books 2016), and it’s fascinating. Birchall discusses the influences on Babeuf, which included Morelly, the author of the Code de la Nature, which also advocated a communist system with a centrally planned economy, Nicolas Collignon, who wrote an 8 page pamphlet demanding the same, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In Collignon’s ideal state, the citizens were to be provided with free food and clothing, high quality housing, schools and healthcare. Like the Tories, he also believed in competition, so doctors would be graded according to their performance. Those that cured the most would be consequently paid more and get promotion, while those who cured the least would be struck off. Even before he devised his own communist plans, he was already discussing the need for collective farms. What he meant by this is not collective farms in the soviet sense, but farms run cooperatively by their workers rather than a single farmer with employees. And he was also in favour of creating a welfare state. In a book he authored on correct taxation, he wrote

‘That a national fund for the subsistence of the poor should be established. That doctors, apothecaries and surgeons should be psif wages out of public funds so that they can administer assistance free of charge. That a system of national education be established out of which all citizens may take advantage. That magistrates be also paid wages out of public revenue, so that justice can be done free of charge.’ (p. 29).

Birchall also attacks the view promoted by Talmon in his The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy that Babeuf was an authoritarian who prefigured soviet tyranny. Talmon was an Israeli Conservative writing at the beginning of the Cold War. But Babeuf himself, although a revolutionary, was also keen to preserve and expand democracy. One of his suggestions was that there should be a set of elected officials charged with making sure that delegates to the national assembly were representing their constituents properly. If they weren’t, the people had the right to recall them.

Regarding industrial organisation, he believed that the citizens in each commune should be divided into classes, each class representing a different trade. The members of these classes would appoint governors, who would set the work and carry out the instructions of the municipal government. It’s very much a command economy, and utopian in that money would be abolished.

I can’t say I find Babeuf’s full-blown communist ideas attractive, for the reason I believe in a mixed a economy and the right of people to do what they wish outside of interference from either the authorities or other people. And I really don’t see how such a state could last long without a money economy. Some Russians looked forward to the establishment of such an economy at the beginning of the Russian Revolution when the economy began to break down and trading went back to barter in some areas until the Bolsheviks restored the economy. And there is clearly conflict between violent revolution and democracy. But I respect his calls for a welfare state. He was also an advocate of equality for women and an opponent of imperialism, which he felt corrupted extra-European peoples with European vices. This view is clearly based on the 17th century ideas of the Noble Savage, in which primitive peoples are seen as better and more morally advanced than civilised westerners.

Demands for a welfare state are as old as socialism itself. We cannot allow the British welfare state and NHS to be destroyed by the Tories and Blairite Labour under Starmer.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

6 Responses to “Gracchus Babeuf and the Calls for a Welfare State in 18th Century France”

  1. Brian Burden Says:

    If I remember rightly, Ian was one of the Socialist Worker old stagers. If so, he’d have been pretty long in the tooth when he produced this book, so it’s an impressive achievement. Is he related to Julie Birchall, the man-eating feminist who wrote for the Guardian decades ago? I think she spelt her surname differently. I was always fascinated by those British proto-socialists like the Levellers and the Diggers at the time of the civil war and the commonwealth, who Christopher Hill wrote about in The World Turned Upside Down.

    • beastrabban Says:

      I don’t think he’s related to Julie Burchill, whose name is spelt differently. She comes from Brislington, one of the suburbs of Bristol, but now lives in Brighton and Hove. One of the teachers at my old school had the same surname, and I do wonder if they were related.

      I’m also fascinated by the Levellers and the Diggers. I read that the Levellers also wanted state education, medical care and almshouses, but so far I haven’t found any texts from them making these demands.

      • Brian Burden Says:

        Your best bet for info on the Diggers and Levellers is Hill’s book – but I can’t at the moment put my hand on it. No socialist shd be without a copy. It used to be published by Pelican.

      • beastrabban Says:

        I’ve got a copy of Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down. A friend of mine was a fan of the punk group The Levellers. He told me that at their concerts they used to sell on the merchandise stalls copies of the Bible and Hill’s book. They took the idea of Godly revolution quite seriously.

  2. trev Says:

    Sounds like quite the Utopia, perhaps not unlike Campanella’s ‘City of the Sun’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: