Filippo Buonarroti was one of the radicals who sought to turn the French Revolution into a profound transformation of society. A theorist of the secret revolutionary conspiracy, his example inspired the rising labor movement of the 19th century.

1908 illustration of Filippo Buonarroti. (Wikimedia Commons)

On the island of Corsica in June 1791, the angry inhabitants of the town of Bastia violently expelled an apostle of revolution from their shores. The revolutionary had tried to take refuge from their wrath by hiding in the cellar of an old building. This man, Filippo Buonarroti, was a Florentine nobleman descended from the artist Michelangelo; he became a fervent Jacobin early in the French Revolution, and came to Corsica to advocate the new principles of revolution. Threatened with violence, he had to go into hiding. But he was soon dragged from his hiding place with a rope around his neck and taken to the dock without his hat or even his shoes, where his attackers forced him to board a ship for Livorno on the coast of Tuscany. There, he was imprisoned by the Duke of Tuscany, who took a dim view of his politics. Buonarroti eventually returned to Corsica and then to France, where he applied for French citizenship. Yet he bore no ill will toward the inhabitants of Bastia, instead blaming a conspiracy for his fate.

According to Buonarroti and his fellow Jacobins, conspirators and counterrevolutionaries working in the shadows were to blame for any hindrances or delays in the liberation of the people. Yet later in his own career Buonarroti would become a famous conspirator — and willingly used secrecy to his advantage. Buonarroti, after all, is most famous for his involvement in the conspiracy with the French revolutionary, Gracchus Babeuf, to overthrow the Directory, the government that followed the fall of Maximilien Robespierre in 1794. The Babeuf Conspiracy, or Conspiracy of the Equals, was an attempt to establish a protocommunist, democratic state.

Filippo Buonarroti was a Florentine nobleman descended from the artist Michelangelo; he became a fervent Jacobin early in the French Revolution.

Their efforts ended in defeat and repression — and Babeuf was guillotined in 1797. But Buonarroti lived well into the nineteenth century, when left-wing activists facing inhospitable governments increasingly resorted to secretive methods. Buonarroti’s life story is thus an illustration of the Left’s shifting and complicated attitude toward secrecy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Remaining a diehard Jacobin deep into the new century, Buonarroti also became the bridge to the new labor movement. Living into the 1830s, he inspired the Carbonari, the secret networks of revolutionaries in Italy, and radical socialists like Auguste Blanqui in France.

A Transparent Democracy

Babeuf and Buonarroti, like other Jacobins, believed that the state should be transparent to the citizen. They believed that the revolution was the time to break with secretive elite power and create a democratic system where the government was fully accountable and visible. They also viewed the Directory, established 1795, as corrupt, repressive, and hypocritical, limiting free speech and policing Jacobins’ political activity. For Buonarroti, secrecy had become a necessity in a decadent world; the conditions were not yet ripe for total transparency. The Directory, meanwhile, made full use of the new, positive attitudes toward transparency all while conducting secret surveillance on the conspirators.

Buonarroti did not meet Babeuf until after the fall of Robespierre, but he had been active in politics throughout the revolution. He applied to the French government for citizenship and was granted it in 1793. His friends in Paris were certainly sympathetic when they heard of his troubles earlier in Bastia, from where he had been sent to suffer “Tuscan tyranny.” (In his personal notes, Buonarroti jotted down curt, disdainful assessments of the rest of Italy and Spain: “Venice: aristocracy. Piedmont: insolent nobility. Tuscany . . . religious, irritating nobles, espionage, taxes, police. Spain: inquisition.”)

Babeuf and Buonarroti, like other Jacobins, believed that the Revolution was the time to break with secretive elite power and create a democratic system.

When he was granted French citizenship, he renounced his aristocratic identity and any titles or wealth he might inherit, and laid himself bare to his fellow Jacobins, stating, “It is necessary that my fellow patriots know me completely. I declare to all the Republic that I was born a noble of Florence in Tuscany, where, by the misfortune of that beautiful country, nobility still exists. . . . As for my patriotic sentiments, I believe that I have already made myself known.” He became a close friend Robespierre’s younger brother and remained a fervent Jacobin through the 1790s.

After the fall of Robespierre, both Buonarroti and Babeuf were imprisoned by the Directory, the former for his clear Jacobin sympathies, and the latter for becoming too vocal in his newspaper in his criticisms of the new government. They were soon released and joined separate and isolated pockets of discontented radicals, which were spread all over Paris and even France, but initially did not communicate with one another. Eventually, though, those with democratic leanings — or any on the Left who were disappointed with the Directory — began to meet regularly in what they called the Pantheon Club. Records show that their ranks swelled to 1,500, or even two thousand members before they were shut down by the government in 1796. Later, they called themselves the Insurrection Committee and the Equals, began to build a clandestine network, and even kept their identities secret from their own agents.

The Conspiracy of the Equals was fed up with a state that was not expanding the electorate, but rather shrinking it, and seemed more interested in protecting the comfort of property holders than laborers like the Parisian sansculottes.

The Directory was made up mostly of moderates trying to uphold a republic that maintained law and order and brought peace of mind to the landholding, propertied classes. More and more, the Equals were fed up with a state that was not expanding the electorate, but rather shrinking it, and seemed more interested in protecting the comfort of property holders than laborers like the Parisian sansculottes. The latter group increasingly felt that their newfound political power had lost some momentum — but their frustration remained. The Equals also struggled with how much transparency they should allow themselves, and their methods were not entirely clandestine. They plastered their manifesto all over Paris, and Babeuf had his agents hand out pamphlets to workers in the early morning hours or at dusk when laborers were headed to and from work. The actions of Babeuf’s wife, Marie-Anne, and another one of their members, a seamstress named Sophie Lapierre, were especially conspicuous to police, perhaps because they were women. The police spotted Lapierre more than once singing babeuviste songs in a cabaret. In another instance, she or another woman climbed onto a chair in the Tuileries gardens and read the Equals’ manifesto aloud to a crowd, but then ran away. On one occasion, police reported “anarchists armed with sticks” rampaging through the Tuileries with Marie-Anne Babeuf as one of their leaders.

In a pamphlet entitled “A Word to Patriots,” Babeuf wrote, “It would be folly to hide . . . our hostile dispositions under the pretext of keeping them from being on their guard. . . . They have recourse to ruses . . . [and] factionary fools will say that it would be perhaps better to cover ourselves in shadow. But I say . . . it is not by surprise that we wish to vanquish them; it is in a manner more worthy of the people: open force.” Buonarroti agreed, but seemed to think that circumstances temporarily made secrecy necessary, saying, “We do not wish to dissimulate or hide ourselves except in a nation rotten with vice . . . and in a nation where the right to property has grown almost inextricable roots in the very hearts and minds of citizens as well as in institutions and laws.”

In this passage, Buonarroti was justifying secrecy as a means of combatting a degenerate regime and society. In a fascinating development of their ideology, the Equals also equated dissimulation with property. They associated property with knowledge; in an egalitarian world, everyone had access to education, and knowledge was shared openly. Dissimulation for them meant an illegitimate and unjust concealment or hoarding of what ought to belong to everyone. They believed that sharing both land and knowledge equally ensured a just society. As communists or protocommunists depending on where one places them in the Marxist lineage, (and Marx and Engels did call Babeuf the “first modern communist”), the Equals continued to value transparency but saw it as only fully possible in the utopian world they imagined of communal property, direct democracy, and a state accountable to the citizenry.

On Trial

The restrictive laws of the new government after the Terror practically pushed Babeuf and his comrades into a corner. With the Directory’s new regulations in 1795 decreeing that popular societies had to supply a list of their members, and stipulating that they could not correspond as collective entities, Babeuf and the others in the Pantheon Club began to feel more and more driven underground. He began to publish clandestine pamphlets more frequently, and even began to speak of “faction,” that vile word so often vilified by revolutionaries, in a positive sense. He declared, “Our party is strong. I do not conceal the fact that we have one.”

Remaining a diehard Jacobin deep into the nineteenth century, Buonarroti also became the bridge to the new labor movement.

Babeuf and Buonarroti began to organize a secret but well-organized and well-structured network while also embarking on a proselytizing campaign, visiting other popular societies (or what was left of them), and often going from door to door in Paris. Soon, the government purged any remaining radical democrats in office, many of whom flocked to Babeuf. The purge also persuaded Babeuf that secrecy was one of the few remaining options since open criticism of the government so often led to arrest or loss of one’s position. And so, the Equals organized themselves with alacrity and embraced a conspiratorial modus operandi. But despite the strict secrecy the Equals had employed, and Babeuf’s and Buonarroti’s frequent changing of hiding places, the police were finally able to discover their lair.

The Equals’ trial was a highly publicized event. The trial is well-known not only for being Babeuf’s last platform to advocate his ideas, but also for being the first trial in history with a complete, verbatim transcript. The Directory endeavored to render every aspect of the procedure as transparent and legitimate as possible while portraying the Equals as dangerous anarchists attempting to destroy law and order. The trial was held in public, the transcripts were made public, and daily reports appeared in the government-run newspaper.

The defendants maintained that the Directory was illegitimate and that they had done nothing wrong in conspiring against it. As many historians have discussed, the fact of the French Revolution’s having taken place made the delineations between justified rebellion and illegal conspiracy murky territory. During the trial, they argued that “there can be no conspiracy under an illegal and tyrannical government.” They believed that “conspiring” against a despotic regime was the people’s duty and right, just as the French Revolution itself was an uprising against tyranny. After all, they argued, “the greatest error in all politics is doubtless the idea that the essence of conspiracy consists in the intent to overthrow established governments, no matter how base and vile. . . . From this viewpoint the Revolution of July 14, 1789, which overthrew the established government, was a criminal conspiracy.”

Despite the show of transparency, the state had poor witnesses, but still convicted the Equals. The state brought forward three witnesses, two of whom were very unreliable; one claimed that he had been paid for his testimony, and another believed that he was possessed by demons. Babeuf went to the guillotine, and Buonarroti spent the next several years in various prisons. When Napoleon came to power, he released Buonarroti, but Buonarroti still despised him for his authoritarianism. During the years of the Bourbon Restoration, Buonarroti lived in exile, only returning to France after the July Revolution of 1830. In his years abroad and in France, Buonarroti published several works, including one on the Babeuf Conspiracy and one on secret societies, and continued to advocate for clandestine mobilization for revolution.

After his return to France, Buonarroti had to prove to various officials his French citizenship, brandishing the old naturalization document delivered by the Convention in 1793. Many still remembered that he had been tried alongside Babeuf, though Buonarroti had pled not guilty. He had argued that conspiring against the state could be legitimate and was in fact his patriotic duty. Though a man who embraced secrecy in the service of the radical left, he was sent off in very public fashion when he passed away with the cortege and pomp of a state funeral. Though the new government was wary of radical like Buonarroti, he was so well-remembered and popular among the new generation of activists that hundreds attended his funeral in Paris in 1837.

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