A Defence
by Gracchus Babeuf

From the Trial at Vendome, February-May 1797

After the 13th of Vendemiaire, I observed that the majority of the people, tired of a Revolution whose every fluctuation and movement had only brought death, had been - one can only say - royalized. I saw that in Paris the simple and uninstructed multitude had actually been led by the enemies of the people into a cordial contempt for the Republic. This multitude, who are capable of judging things only by their sensations, had been easily persuaded to make a comparison that goes something like this: What were we under royal domination, what are we under the Republic? The answer was entirely to the detriment of the latter. It was then quite simple to conclude that the Republic was something detestable and that monarchy was better. And I was unable to see anything in the new constitutional structure or in the attitudes of the men whose task it was to run the machinery of government that would bring people to like this Republic any more than they did. I said to myself: the Republic is lost, barring some stroke of genius that could save it; surely monarchism will not hesitate to regain its hold upon us. I looked around me and saw many people who were defeated, even among those patriots, once so fervent and courageous, who had made so many successful efforts to strengthen Liberty. The sight of universal discouragement, of - if I can go so far as to say this - absolute muzzling all around; then the sight of disarmament , the complete stripping away of all the guarantees that the people had once been given against any unwarranted undertakings on the part of those who govern them; the recent imprint of irons that almost all energetic men bore on their flesh; and what seemed to me the almost complete conviction of many people who were not able to offer very good reasons for their attitude, that the Republic might really, after all, be something other than a blessing; these various causes had very nearly brought all spirits to a state of total resignation, and everyone seemed ready to bend under the yoke. I saw no one who might be disposed to revive the courageous mood of earlier days. And yet, I told myself, the same ferment of zeal and of love for all men still exists. There are perhaps still ways of keeping this Republic from being lost. Let every man make an effort to summon back his strength; let every man do what he can. For my own part, I am going to do whatever I believe to be within my power.

I gave words to these feelings in my Tribune of the People. I said to everyone: Listen: Those among you who have apparently come around to feeling, as a result of a long series of public calamities, that the Republic is worthless and that the Monarchy might be preferable - you people are right, I swear it. I spelled it out in capital letters: WE WERE BETTER OFF UNDER THE KINGS THAN WE ARE UNDER THE REPUBLIC. But you must understand which Republic I mean by that. A Republic such as the one we see is totally worthless, without a doubt. But this, my friends, is not the true Republic. The true Republic is something that you do not yet even know about.

All right then, if you wish, I will try to tell you something about it, and I am almost certain that you will idolize it.

The Republic is not a word - not even several words - empty of meaning. The words Liberty and Equality, which have continuously resounded in your ears, cast a spell over you in the early days of the Revolution because you thought that they would signify something good for the People. Now they mean nothing to you at all, because you see that they are only vain articulations and ornaments of deceitful formulas. You must be made to learn that in spite of all this, they can and must signify a good that is precious for the greatest number.

The Revolution, I went on in my discourse to the people, need not be an act totally without results. So many torrents of blood were not spilled merely to make the lot of the people worse than it had been before. When a people makes a revolution, it is because the play of vicious institutions has pushed the best energies of a society to such an extreme that the majority of its useful members can no longer go on as before. It feels ill at ease in the situation that prevails, senses the need to change it, and strives to do so. And the society is right to do so, because the only reason it was instituted in the first place was to make all its members as happy as possible: The purpose of society is the common welfare.

It is this formula, comprised within the first article of the covenant of the Year 1 of the Republic, that I have always held to as my own, and I will continue to do so.

The aim of the revolution also is the well-being of the greatest number; therefore, if this goal has not been achieved, if the people have not found the better life that they were seeking, then the revolution is not over, even though those who want only to substitute their own rule for somebody else's say that it is over, as you would expect them to. If the revolution is really over, then it has been nothing but a great crime.

So I strove to make people understand what the nature of the common welfare, which is the aim of society, or of the welfare of the greatest number, which is the aim of the Revolution, might be.

I inquired into the reasons why at certain given periods the greatest number were not more fortunate. This inquiry led me to the following conclusion, which I dared to print in one of my first issues after the 13th of Vendemiaire:

There are periods in which the ultimate effect of the cruel social order is that the whole of the society's wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. Peace, the natural state of things when all men are happy, is necessarily threatened at a time like this. The masses can no longer exist; they are completely dispossessed, and encounter only pitiless hearts among the caste that is hoarding everything. Effects such as these determine what will be the eras of those great revolutions predicted in books, in which a general upheaval of the system of property is inevitable, and in which the revolt of the poor against the rich is driven by such necessity that nothing can vanquish it.

I had observed that the principal enactors of the revolution before me also concluded that their goal had to be that of rectifying the evils of our old vicious institutions, and of bringing about the well-being of society.

I had even, in this matter, painstakingly collected the observations of one of our legislator-philosophers, who died in his prime. Pains have also been taken to turn this simple collection into a piece of evidence against me, even though it was obvious that it had been faithfully copied from well-known texts... . Since it is being used against me in its entirety, I will surely be permitted to extract a part of it in order to justify myself:

The welfare of men is a new idea in Europe... . You cannot endure the existence of an unfortunate or of a poor man in the State... . Let Europe come to realize that you no longer wish to have either unfortunates or oppressors in the territory of France... . The unfortunate are the powers of the earth; they have the right to speak as masters to the governments that neglect them... . Need makes the people who labor dependent upon their enemies. Can you conceive of the existence of an empire whose social relationships are contrary in their tendencies to the form of government? ...

I reproduced these insights in the issues of my newspaper. I wanted to make the people realize what the result of the revolution had to be, what the republic had to be. I felt that I could perceive the people's response quite distinctly; they were ready to love such a republic. I even dared to flatter myself with the thought that it was my writings that had given rise to the hope of bringing about the new republic, and that had done so much to deroyalize the present one.

In whose eyes is this, thus far, not a good work?

You pressed your maxims too far, someone might tell me

This is what we must decide.

End of A Defence by Gracchus Babeuf