François-Noël Babeuf: everyone must be equal

Class versus people’s revolution

The proletariat has a spontaneously collectivist class-consciousness, argues Marc Mulholland. But what implications does that have for the winning of working class power?

Let me start by looking at how the left has broadly conceived of the forces which would make a revolution since about the 1790s.

Neil Davidson has defined bourgeois revolution as establishing the conditions that allow capitalism to flourish.1 That definition does have something to say for it, but does not really capture what bourgeois revolution, or analogues of that term, meant in the 19th century. It does not in my view capture what Marx and Engels or the Second International would have meant by it. They would have seen it much more straightforwardly as what liberals wanted to achieve in the 19th century: ie, political, personal and civic freedom. Political freedom based on some form of representative constitutionalism; civic freedom - being able to associate freely; personal freedom - being able to marry freely, practise your own religion and so on. Marx argued that these freedoms are both produced by capitalism and necessary for the perpetuation, or at least the smooth running, of capitalism.

But ‘bourgeois revolution’ (insofar as he used the term, which was not very much at all) was envisaged by Marx as broadly constitutionalist - basically analogous to ‘political revolution’. Which is not really how Neil Davidson sees it, and that is a fundamental problem with what is otherwise a very impressive book.2 The point was, who is to make this revolution?

‘Reason’ and ‘the people’

In the 18th century various enlightenment thinkers would ponder on this and in fact evade the problem by saying that ‘reason’ would make the revolution.

So, as Jonathan Israel points out, there was a rightwing enlightenment and a leftwing enlightenment.3 In the rightwing enlightenment, as Voltaire says, you convince the absolutist monarch that it is in their interest to have a regime that extends freedom, because that will bring prosperity to the kingdom and consulting more widely will make for better decision-making. The radical or democratic enlightenment basically reckons that convincing one monarch about what is reasonable is not adequate: you need to spread reason. In other words, an enlightened public opinion.

There is not really such a hard and fast division between the left and right enlightenment - it is more about how many people should be enlightened. The most radical enlightened thinkers say that everybody is perfectible. ‘Perfectible’ not really meaning that we become like gods, but rather that everyone is in an unlimited way open to reason, given the right circumstances, and so you can be educated into citizenship with an orderly, constitutional regime. In some respects reason mattered more than people or class for enlightenment thinkers in the 18th century.

In the early 19th century ‘reason’ does not disappear altogether, but liberal discourse about ‘the people’ begins to play a much greater role. And ‘the people’ was very deliberately defined in non-class terms. Thinkers - particularly in France, such as François Guizot - said that the bourgeoisie makes up the most vital element of ‘the people’. It is not crushed by the burden of poverty, and is therefore able to propose rational politics; nor is it so desperately dependent on the rich that it has no sense of independence - unlike aristocrats, who want to hang about the royal court all day in a parasitic fashion. So people like Guizot and liberal thinkers such as Thomas Babington Macaulay in England saw the bourgeoisie as the vital component of ‘the people’. It consists of creative individuals who build up civil society, develop a relationship with the state whereby it is limited to its main function: the maintenance of order.

Clearly these thinkers were not talking in proto-Marxist terms about the bourgeois revolution. Rather, they are talking about ‘the people’ and its most active and important part that draws in behind them the great mass. A term used in England was ‘the masses against the classes’. ‘The classes’ here refers to the landed elite in particular, while the ‘the masses’ is everybody else. And this is the dominant conception of what the radical revolution, what the popular revolution would mean in the early 19th century.


Now, the proletariat is always seen as a big problem for ‘liberty’ - in the 19th century everybody knew their classical history and they all understood what happened to the Roman republic. Ambitious politicians would go to the proles and say, ‘Here’s some wine, here’s some bread. Now go out and riot on my behalf.’ Many are given jobs, but often they are sucked into the imperial army - which ceases to be an army of independent smallholders who are proud Roman citizens, and instead is made up of soldiers who are there for the highest bidder. The highest bidder, of course, ends up being Caesar, who destroys the Roman republic.

So this is a very strongly held view: people who are not independent, who do not own their own land, who are not able to stand on their own two feet as a master craftsman or whatever, are a danger to political liberty. This traditional image of the proletariat does not disappear altogether, not even in Marxism. But In Marx’s thinking, of course, it is the lumpenproletariat that fulfils this role, that acts as the hired hands of reaction.

So the proletariat was always seen as a problem. No-one really sees it as the foundation of liberty. Populist revolutionaries would tend to identify with the small landholders, maybe the craftsmen with an independent workshop. Not the man who sells his labour - and certainly not the woman who sells her labour. These people are seen as dangerous, unstable - tools of reaction if they are anything.

The French Revolution does not turn this upside-down, because to many people it looks like a rerun of the fall of the Roman republic. You have a new Caesar in Bonaparte, and ‘Caesarism’ and ‘Bonapartism’ are terms which come to be used pretty much interchangeably in the 19th century.

There was, of course, François-Noël Babeuf and his ‘conspiracy of equals’ in the 1790s: basically an attempt to organise a coup to establish a radically egalitarian regime in France. It does not work out - he gets guillotined, as you might imagine. But Babeuf and the people around him are interested in the proletariat. They say that people who do not have the means to make a living are becoming more numerous all the time. The proletarians are a sort of dissolute human dust - either they are organised for the revolution or they will be organised for the reaction.

Because these people have no investment in property, which is in dissolution under the wartime conditions of the mid-1790s, they can be won to a radically egalitarian, anti-property platform. Because Babeuf is dubious about the consciousness of the propertyless proletarians, he is very much in favour of the ‘revolutionary educative dictatorship’: that is, a dictatorship to educate people into egalitarianism. So you take power, you set up a dictatorship, you run things in an egalitarian way. At first nobody will like it, but they will grow to like it. At least Babeuf was saying that the proletarians are not just people to be used, but people who have a rough-and-ready idea of egalitarianism.

Babeuf in some respects is often seen as the first communist. Certainly the most egalitarian socialist or communist that there had ever been: he would say that if I happen to be too weak or enfeebled to be any good at working in the fields, whereas you are big and strong, you would have to be loaded with weights so that you are no better than me. But he makes a lot of good arguments too. For example, there can be no moral reason why anyone should receive more than anyone else. If someone has been blessed with strength and intelligence, then why should they receive extra material rewards on top of that? However, I suspect that when the early Marx talks about ‘crude communism’ it is Babeuf he has in mind.

As we go into the 19th century, those without any property who are unable to work directly for their own subsistence are mushrooming in number and becoming centrally important to capitalist production. These are the people who are going into the factories such that exist, and also going into the much smaller trades. On the one hand, factories were emerging, and, on the other, craft work was being proletarianised. So, whereas under the old tradition an apprentice would work for his master and hope eventually to become a master with his own apprentices in turn, now there were day-labourers who could never become a master.

So by the early 19th century the proletarians, who were seen as the riff-raff on the edge of society, are becoming a central part of the economy - very quickly in places like Britain and Belgium, but the same process is also discernibly taking place elsewhere.

By the late 1820s people are acknowledging that Babeuf is a figure who has to be taken seriously.

Utopian socialists

Let me turn now to the utopian socialists (I do not really like Marx’s derogatory term, but there is not really a better one). People like Robert Owen, William Thompson - who is the best utopian socialist, because, as Hal Draper points out, he is by far the most democratically minded - Louis Blanc and Charles Fourier. All these people look at the proletariat as something of an object of pity. They still want a popular revolution, which would be pan-class.

Robert Owen, particularly in the early years, is always making appeals to the great and the good of society to get rid of the market and introduce cooperatives. He addresses meetings of aristocrats - who are actually turning up to listen - and until the 1820s he is a big hit with the very rich in Britain and Ireland, who think it is all very fascinating, even if he is a bit strange.

In one speech he says that, obviously, he would never take advice from a worker - he is not mad, after all - only from the educated. Owen sees the workers as an object of pity who can, however, be made into fully functioning citizens. He is very much a ‘blank state’ man: there is no set human nature, so if you change the environment you can change the person, and you can have sober, sensible, industrious workers, even if they are not like that now.

Owen never really abandons this dual conception, which is odd, as by the 1830s he really has linked quite closely to the British labour movement - think of the Working People’s Bank, the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union and so on. Owen never really changes his mind about anything, but he becomes someone who is taken on board by the workers’ movement.

William Thompson is actually much more open than Owen to the idea that not only do the poor need saving from themselves, but they can be agents in their own emancipation - even if he remains doubtful that they can spontaneously come up with a notion of their self-liberation. Thompson believes that the proletariat, although not spontaneously collectivist, is naturally drawn towards democracy, through which it will be educated into collectivism.

Everyone in the 1830s expects revolution. Indeed there is a series of revolutions in Europe, notably France and Belgium. And everyone knows that it is going to come again. So the 1848 revolutions, which detonate in virtually every European country, from Britain to Russia, is also expected. But the question is, ‘What kind of revolution is it going to be?’

And the proletarian question is becoming ever more important, particularly in view of the Lyon workers’ risings in 1831 and 1834. In 1831 weavers briefly take over the city of Lyon and are crushed, with much blood spilt. What becomes very famous is their slogan, ‘Live working or die fighting’, which is taken up by quite a lot of people - an interesting phenomenon, as it suggests an innate social consciousness on the part of this new proletariat; this new class of people who do not own their own means of subsistence, yet have their own social-imaginary demand: the right to work. That is, that the ability to work should not be dependent on the market, and therefore that a future social state must guarantee the right to work.

And this is seen by quite a lot of people as important. It may seem obvious to us, but it is a new demand at the time, as opposed to the traditional, populist call for a fair market, or the right to a farm or a workshop. In the end the essential populist demand has always been the right to your own farm. But now there is the right to labour for wages, and this is seen to be a radically and fundamentally new kind of demand arising from this new class, which people have to accommodate one way or another.

The utopian socialists spend a lot of time debating the good old question of how equal is equality. Saint Simon and his successors come up with the slogan, ‘From each according to his ability; to each according to his contribution’: So not egalitarian. Fourier is clearly Marx’s and Engels’ favourite utopian socialist - which is interesting, because he is the most wacky of them all. He talked about big collective enterprises, whose income would be divided into portions of five, four and three. Five goes to labour, four to capital and three to talent. So he is not an egalitarian either.

It is actually Louis Blanc who popularises the slogan, ‘From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs’. Blanc is quite radically egalitarian, at least in the final outcome. He is also pretty democratic - more so than the other socialist utopians, in that he sees universal suffrage as the way ahead. But he does not get treated very seriously by future generations - probably because he ends up being quite a curmudgeonly conservative in old age. He condemns the Paris Commune, for example. Which is not a way to make yourself an immortal of the socialist movement.

These people tend to be called utopian socialists to differentiate them from the communists. The point about them is that they believe in a popular movement, but often they are not very political, and often they want to save the proletariat, not mobilise them.

That is why it is difficult to classify Louis Blanc as a utopian socialist: he was always very political and was actually for the democratic mobilisation of the workers.

Communist consciousness

Communism is identified at the time with people like Louis Auguste Blanqui. Which is interesting, because Blanqui is not even straightforwardly a socialist. Blanqui is a perennial French revolutionary who veers between hating the rich as betrayers of the nation and including the rich in the nation, which he regards as the main unit of emancipation. He is certainly a nationalist. And he equivocates about the rich. Sometimes he says, ‘Guillotine them!’ At other times he says, well, they’re part of the nation.

The reason why the likes of Blanqui are called communist by Marx and Engels is that they are seen as drawing upon the consciousness of the proletariat, as it is in the here and now, and then building upon that. It is not about saving the proletariat: it is about the proletariat driving towards political power to transform society one way or another.

How adequate that actually is as a description of the Blanquists is one thing, but the fact is that this is how Marx and Engels see them. Engels somewhere refers to “instinctive communism”,4 by which he means what proletarians in their day-to-day life instinctively drive towards. Firstly, political power and therefore also democracy, as that is the only way that proletarians can consolidate political power; and, secondly, some kind of egalitarian reordering of society, the end of the rule of the market and guaranteed work for everyone. This for Marx and Engels is what drives the proletariat towards an instinctive communism.

This question is important because of the debates about the extent to which socialist ideology is brought in from the outside - by the Leninist party or whatever - to the class which is otherwise without it. Whether that view of Leninism is accurate is one thing, but it is not the view of Marx and Engels.

Let me also mention Flora Tristan, who is now mostly seen as a French pioneer feminist, but she - I think very concisely and coherently - explains why the day-to-day life of the proletariat instinctively leads them towards a collectivist consciousness. But she is almost completely ignored in the literature, partly because she is female. George Lichtheim’s Short history of socialism is utterly dismissive of her, commenting that her speeches are typical of the ‘emotionalism’ of women. You should read them: they are not ‘emotional’ at all.

Marx and Engels, as I have indicated, do believe that there is a spontaneous proletarian consciousness which drives in the direction of the seizure of political power by a class, which in turn drives towards the superseding of the market, which in turn drives towards socialism, which in turn drives towards communism. The role of the leadership, the communists, is not to create this consciousness, but to map out the line of march. What that actually means, I think for Marx in particular, is that the role of leadership is to restrain proletarian class egoism in the struggle more than it is to unleash it.

A lot is written by Marx about how the proletariat has to learn to make alliances with other classes at times. It has to learn to hold back from seizing power in a localist way, from taking over a single city and so on. A lot of the communist role is actually about holding the movement back. You see this in Marx’s address to the Communist League in 1848 about the need to maintain the alliance with the petty bourgeoisie. Marx is initially sceptical about the June days uprising in Paris because he thinks it is premature. You can also see this line in the Critique of the Gotha programme, where Marx attacks the notion that all the other classes are simply ‘one reactionary mass’.

Other thinkers, notably Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, actually do not like the proletariat that much. Proudhon is of the tradition that believes, ideally, to be an independent citizen you should own your own farm or workshop - and it will help if you are a bloke, and French and not Jewish. Certainly he thinks that proletarians are not going away and that they will probably be on the right side come the revolution and you can organise them into collective factories. But he does not like them as a category. Proudhonists, even by the 1860s, have moved away from Proudhon’s position, and now increasingly see the working class as a permanent feature of life and indeed as preferable to the peasantry (many of whom voted for Napoleon III).

What is to be done?

Let us now jump forward a bit. Lars T Lih has reopened the debate about Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet, What is to be done?5 First, Lih says that WITBD, which came to be seen as the bible of Bolshevik party-building, is in fact much less original than that, and that Lenin is much more in the mainstream of the Second International.

And the Second International straightforwardly sees social democracy as a merger between the workers’ movement and the socialist intelligentsia, as Lih correctly points out. Kautsky argues that the working class is the only class which is “instinctively socialist”. Another phrase he uses in his response to Bernstein is the “spontaneous emergence of socialist aspirations”.

So Kautsky is very clear-cut: the working class spontaneously develops in a socialist direction and all that the socialist intelligentsia need to do is help form this. And Kautsky, more than Marx and Engels, takes an interest in how you stop the movement from going too far, too quickly. As he famously says of the Social Democracy in Germany, the SPD, it is a revolutionary party, but not a party which makes revolutions. The idea being that, if anything, you hold things back without provoking counter-violence from the state until you are ready. And he takes that from Engels, who says the same thing: we will not ‘grow into power’, which no-one but Bernstein and the revisionists believe, but if we can avoid provoking the Bismarckian regime, we will get to a position where there will most likely be a fight for power, and in preparation for that the emphasis is on building the movement. And that means holding back the bold and audacious youth - indeed the Jungen were thrown out of the SPD in 1892.

As Lars Lih says, there is a similar view in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. But I think there is a difference actually, in that Plekhanov, for example, who founds the socialist movement in Russia, comes from a populist tradition used to seeing the peasants as the people who would transform society, because they are natural collectivists. Plekhanov decides that this is not so convincing any more and abandons it. But he does keep alive the populist tradition of maintaining quite a sharp divide between the socialists, the socialist intelligentsia and the people.

You could say that it is a difference of degree between the Russian movement and the German movement, but historically one can argue that, in retrospect, it is quite a significant difference.

What is to be done? is the pamphlet that famously becomes the foundation stone for the Leninist myth: which is that Lenin thought socialist consciousness could not be generated by the proletariat and had to be brought in from the outside. This is the standard view of WITBD, but I think Lars T Lih shows that is not the case. WITBD was misunderstood partly because a lot of the pamphlet is not amazingly well written, and partly because the context of the debate going on at the time is not taken into account.

What Lenin is actually saying it is that social democratic consciousness - that is, a fully developed party consciousness - has to be brought in from the outside. But what does he mean by a fully developed party consciousness? What he meant is workers need to learn that they have to hold back their own class demands in order to cooperate with other classes in the struggle for political liberty. That is really what that pamphlet is about.

Lenin is engaging in debate with the ‘economists’, a socialist tendency insisting that the proletariat are natural socialists, not natural liberals. Therefore the role of social democrats is to nurture the movement, which will spontaneously develop in a socialist direction, different from that of the liberals. The liberals will strive for the bourgeois constitutionalist state on the basis of a bourgeois class movement. Socialists should support the bourgeois liberal movement from the outside, but the proletariat are not part of that struggle. Proletarian consciousness emerges and evolves spontaneously in a socialist direction. Workers are not natural liberals - that is fundamentally what the economists were arguing.

Therefore what Lenin is really trying to say in WITBD is that, ‘No, a revolutionary party will organise the proletariat and teach the proletariat that it must be involved with the struggle for the liberal constitutional state.’ That is, it must be part of a movement for bourgeois demands.

That is controversial at the time - it is argued that it is going against proletarian class-consciousness. But Lenin is saying, ‘No, a proper political, party class-consciousness involves the proletariat cooperating with other classes and holding back their own demands when they need to. That is not spontaneous, that is why you need a party.’ He writes: “Working class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny.”

This is where bad composition complicates things though:

The consciousness of the working masses cannot be genuine class-consciousness, unless the workers learn, from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical and political life; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist analysis and the materialist estimate of all aspects of the life and activity of all classes, strata and groups of the population.6

What he is saying is that the proletariat will only have a full political consciousness when they learn to pay attention to all other classes. That is not spontaneous, and that is why they need a party.

Trotsky is much more of a straightforward economist actually. He is much more inclined to think that the proletariat cannot think outside of its own class box, which is why Trotsky argues that if the workers ever take power politically they will just advance straight towards socialism. It cannot look through the spectacles of other classes. The proletariat will operate in its own interest and through its own consciousness if it ever takes power, which is what Trotsky means with his theory of permanent revolution.

So Lenin, in a rather confusing way, is saying that the workers need to learn that they are part of a much wider popular movement and they are not trying to achieve their own revolution. They are trying to achieve a bourgeois revolution. But Trotsky says workers are not going to operate like that. If they take power they are not going to carry out the demands of another class: they are going to carry out their own. Which means you are left with a problem: a state trying to introduce socialism in a country which is not ready for it, which must lead either to disaster or to international revolution. And, as we all know, it leads to disaster.

Trotsky is actually consistent in this up to the end of his career. In his last major work, the Transitional Programme (1938), the idea is that when workers get mobilised they develop in the course of their own struggle a socialist consciousness. It just happens - it is in their nature.

‘False consciousness’

The last point I would like to make on the 19th century debates about proletarian consciousness is that everyone on the left, the centre and the right thinks that workers are spontaneously inclined towards something like socialism. So the debate always is, how do you relate then to a wider movement for popular liberation when you do not have constitutional democracy, or if it is under threat? How do you get the working class not to behave in an egoistical class manner?

But we tend to look back now and think that they were debating something else. So we talk about ‘false consciousness’ and so on. But in the 19th and much of the 20th century people do not talk about false consciousness, because they do not think that there is a false consciousness problem. They know that workers tend towards an instinctive collectivism and that a great number vote for the left.

So where does the idea that workers have a false consciousness come from? In some countries, particularly Britain and the USA, which are obviously important, there are discussions around racism, anti-Irish sentiment and so on. But in the wider socialist movement these countries are seen as strange exceptions, and the lack of worker socialism there a temporary aberration. More important for socialist debates is the Bolshevik revolution, which forces some theorists, particularly Lukács, to redefine what class-consciousness means.

Lukács basically redefines class-consciousness to mean the willingness to form a local soviet or to go out and shoot the local bourgeoisie. To carry out a Leninist revolution, in other words. Later on he focuses more on the party, but in general class-consciousness for Lukács is now re-defined as ‘Leninism’.

Now this is a very specific form of class-consciousness. It is far from the general sense where the social imagination of the worker tends towards a collectivism transcending the market. Lukács cannot say that this is class-consciousness, because that is clearly what the great mass of social democratic workers think who join and vote for the ‘chauvinist’, ‘treacherous’ social democratic parties. Such voters clearly imagine something beyond capitalism. So he redefines class-consciousness as a subset of the socialist movement: Leninism.

And then if you are not a Leninist you are suffering from ‘false consciousness’ and to explain this Leninists need elaborate theories of reification and so on. These theories may be very good and interesting in and of themselves, but Lukács in general is just trying to theorise a pragmatic Leninism.

Lenin has a debate with the ‘renegade Kautsky’, as we all know. And in that debate Kautsky says that the workers are spontaneously socialist and Lenin does not disagree. He does not deal with the point, but he does not disagree either. Lenin does not say you need the party to generate a socialist consciousness. But this bothers a theoretician like Lukács, who says that, actually, capitalism generates a non-Leninist consciousness: therefore workers need the only true, Leninist class-consciousness; capitalism reifies people: therefore they need a party.

However, following World War II, the Anglo-American exception is starting to look frighteningly like the norm: which is that workers do not spontaneously imagine a future beyond capitalism. They do not think in collectivist ways.

Why does this change occur? People write books about Bernstein as if he is saying that workers are not spontaneously socialist. Bernstein does not say that, because it would have been a crazy thing to say in 1890s Germany, when at every election there were more and more proletarian votes for the party. The idea that workers are not spontaneously socialist is clearly not the problem. The problem is that there are not enough of these workers and that by talking about revolution you are alienating potential class allies. In other words, we tend to look back and reconfigure the arguments in ways that did not exist at the time.

But have we now got to the point where workers do not have a spontaneously collectivist consciousness? I think that is a misreading of where we are, although it is a much more understandable argument now. But it is an argument that has been projected back onto previous debates - including the debate on the nature of the Leninist party.


1. N Davidson How revolutionary were the bourgeois revolutions? London 2012.

2. See my review, ‘How liberal were the bourgeois revolutions?Weekly Worker October 10.

3. J Israel Radical enlightenment: philosophy and the making of modernity 1650-1750 Oxford 2002.

4. Preface to the English edition of the Communist manifesto (1888): www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/preface.htm.

5. LT Lih Lenin rediscovered: ‘What is to be done?’ in context London 2008.

6. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/iii.htm. My emphasis.