Prehistory of the Idea: Part One

Gabriel Charavay

A revised chapter on a projected book ,The Idea: Anarchist Communism Past, Present and Future

Part 2

“The first appearance of a really active communist party is found within the framework of the bourgeois revolution, at the moment where the constitutional monarchy is suppressed. The most consistent republicans, in England the Levellers, in France Babeuf, Buonarroti are the first to have proclaimed these “social questions”. The “Conspiracy of Babeuf” written by his friend and comrade Buonarotti, shows how these republicans derived their social insight from the movement of history. It also demonstrates that when the social question of princedom versus republic is removed, not a single social question of the kind that interests the proletariat has been solved.”
Karl Marx 1847 Moralising criticism and critical morality in Marx/Engels Sur la Revolution française, Paris, Messidor/Editions Sociales, 1985 p. 91

“ True religion and undefiled is this, to make restitution of the Earth which hath been taken and held from the common people by the power of Conquests formerly and so set the oppressed free” ( A New Yeers Gift for the Parliament of the Armie, 1650)
Gerard Winstanley.

Anarchism is not the product of the minds of a few intellectuals divorced from the great mass of the people. It springs directly from the struggle of workers and the oppressed against capitalism, from their needs and necessities, and their unrealised desires for freedom, equality, happiness and self-fulfilment. Whenever revolutions challenged the old order, anarchist ideas and forms of organisation emerged, if only briefly, and often without calling themselves such.

In the English revolution, groups on the radical fringe of Puritanism, the Levellers and Diggers, developed libertarian ideas and during the French bourgeois revolution, those workers and artisans who were developing their own class consciousness began to evolve anarchist ideas.

The Levellers, in some ways ancestors of the Chartists, represented the ‘left’ of Puritan republicanism. They did not believe in universal suffrage, excluding servants, paupers, farm labourers, Catholics, Episcopalians, ‘heretics’ and women. However some on their left, like Walwyn, did advance ideas of community of property. One of them, William Everard, who had been a soldier in the New Model Army, had been dismissed from it for spreading Leveller ideas. It was he and Gerard Winstanley who helped found the movement known as the Diggers. This group made up mainly of landless farm workers and out of work labourers, assembled at St. George’s Hill near Walton-on-Thames in 1649 and began to dig up the common land to sow vegetables. Unremitting prosecution, including beatings and trampling of Digger crops, led to the abandonment of the Digger experiment by March 1650. This minor event in the English Revolution would have become a mere footnote if not for the writings of Gerard Winstanley, who attempted to continue on from the ideas of the early Digger example of propaganda by the deed by a sustained propaganda by the word. During the land experiment Winstanley issued a flurry of pamphlets, which as “his ideas rapidly evolved, came to constitute the first systematic exposition of libertarian communism in English”. (Rexroth, Communalism).

Winstanley was the son of a Wigan mercer and continued in this trade until bankrupted in the depression which began in 1643.

Like previous writings of a socio-religious nature, Winstanley’s writings have a large dose of chiliasm. But this chiliasm does not involve the saving of an Elect few, but the divinisation of ‘Man’, rejecting a patriarchal God as the “doctrine of a sickly and weak spirit who hath lost his understanding in the knowledge of the Creation and of the temper of his own Heart and Nature and so runs into fancies” (The Law of Freedom in a Platform or True Magistracy Restored, 1652). Rejection of heaven and hell was set alongside the conception of a communism of the land.

“The earth with all her fruits of Corn, Cattle and such like was made to be a common Store-house of livelihood, to all mankinde, friend and foe, without exception”. (A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England, 1649).

Equally alongside this development of communism of the land is a clear understanding of class and State oppression: “The power of the murdering and thieving sword formerly as well as now of late years hath set up a government and maintains that government; for what are prisons and putting others to death, but the power of the sword to enforce people to that Government which was got by Conquest and sword and cannot stand of itself but by the same murdering power”. (ibid.)

Winstanley believed that land communism if carried out would eventually lead to the communalisation of all the resulting wealth, including crafts and manufacture.

However, Winstanley’s pacifism meant that no resistance was put up to the violent attacks on the Diggers, their houses and their crops and livestock. Like later rationalists, he believed that the pure example of the Diggers would lead even the rich and powerful to join them. A generous nature, but a poor understanding of the hold that riches and power have.

The Enragés

“Liberty is nothing but a vain phantom when one class of men can starve another with impunity. Equality is nothing but a vain phantom when the rich, through monopoly, exercise the right of life or death over their like. The republic is nothing but a vain phantom when the counter-revolution can operate every day through the price of commodities, which three quarters of all citizens cannot afford without shedding tears.” Roux, Address to the Convention, 1793.

The French Revolution was the second large scale attempt by the newly emerging bourgeoisie to overthrow the monarchy and aristocracy, and to establish itself as a new ruling class. In doing so, it needed new mechanisms of control, and as many historians have noted, the French Revolution was the cradle of parliamentary democracy. Like a previous experiment of the bourgeoisie, the English revolution, the French revolution offered the chance for other ideas to emerge. Just as radical, communistic ideas were espoused by John Clipsham and his friends during the Jack Cade uprising, an attempt by the merchant class to limit the power of the monarchy, and just as the Diggers and others were to advance radical ideas during the English Revolution, ideas that represented the interests of the rural and urban poor and dispossessed- so the French revolution offered the chance for an embryo of proletarian revolution to gestate.

Before looking at the Enragés, we should bear in mind a considerable anarchist mythology around this loose coalition which had its origins in late 19th century anarchist attempts to establish a lineage dating back to the French Revolution. Kropotkin and others looked towards the sans-culottes, the Sections (the committees that governed sub-divisions of Paris from 1790 onwards), and the Enragés themselves. They tried to make out that they were closely akin to their predecessors. Jean Grave was to admit that little was known of Enragé programmes, but that they were closest to the people and advanced essentially anarchist ideas. This rather open armed welcome into the ranks of anarchism was repeated in later works like Woodcock’s Anarchism.
The Enragés were a loosely knit group centred in the Gravilliers district of Paris, based upon the shoemakers and carpenters of that quartier. One of the foremost of them was Jacques Roux, a country priest who, it was alleged by a State official, had told his congregation in 1790 that “the land belongs to all equally”. However as R. B. Rose has noted, Roux’s opinions on property appeared far more moderate and conformist in two tracts published in the same year( Roland B. Rose, Socialism and the French revolution: The Cercle Social and the Enragés. Bulletin of the John Rylands Library. 1958;41(1):139-166.). In one of them he wrote that: “Properties being an inviolable and sacred right, of which nobody can be deprived, except because of public necessity…. and with just …indemnity”, hardly different in any way from The Rights of Man declaration of 1789. He was to affirm the natural right of all to subsistence, referring to the “products of the earth, which like the elements, belong to all men” (in Publiciste, 28th July 1793, cited in Rose p.20)

Alongside Roux worked the orator Jean Varlet (though in an earlier time Roux had denounced Varlet as a “disorganiser” with the attempted insurrection of 10th March 1793). Roux had taken part in the agitation of the Gravilliers against price rises, Varlet had led attacks on the Girondins, the conservative group within the Convention. Now they collaborated in June 1973 in further agitation over price rises. To their numbers were added the activist Jean-Théophile Leclerc and the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, among whom were Claire Lacombe and Pauline Léon.

Varlet talked about limiting the power of the rich in favour of the poor, and fulminated against “priests, the great, the financiers” (Plan for A New Organisation of Society, 1792). In a series of pamphlets he stressed the need for direct democracy and for eternal vigilance. He was highly suspicious of representative assemblies, and was regarded with distaste by Robespierre and the rest of the Jacobin Montagne.

Leclerc in his paper L’Ami Du people paired Roux’s insistence on the natural right to subsistence with Varlet’s views on limiting the power of the rich. He stated that “All men have an equal right to subsistence and to all products of the earth which are theirs from an indispensable need to assure their existence”. In No 2 of L’Ami Du Peuple he wrote: “To the aristocracy of nobles has succeeded the bourgeois and mercantile class; this class which formed in several ways an intermediate caste between the first and the people, had acquired thanks to its riches, as much of the needs, and by consequence, as much of the vices as the superior class”. He warned that these men would become the cruellest enemies of the people. Roux was to say in his Address To The Convention (1793) that: “It’s the rich, who, for four years have profited from the Revolution. It’s the merchant aristocracy, more terrible than the noble aristocracy which oppresses us”.

The Enragés were closest to the masses and understood best their concerns. This realisation that the bourgeois class was superseding the monarchy and aristocracy was one of their greatest insights, as was their distrust of representative democracy and their reliance on the popular revolutionary bodies. But the masses they were relating too were not the working class, which barely existed but the sans-culottes, made up of small masters, their journeymen employees and their apprentices. This class and their political spokespeople, the Enragés, agitated against the agioteurs, the money speculators, and against the accapareurs, the “cornerers” of supplies of food and raw materials. The outlook of Roux is revealed when he says that when he lets himself go against these people he was “very far from including in this infamous class a large number of grocers and merchants who have rendered themselves recommendable by their civicism and their humanity” (Address To The Convention, 1793).Thus the political outlook of the Enragés is not without problems, and in all truth the assertion that they were fully fledged anarchists or indeed communists has to be taken with caution.

One other important feature of the Enragés was the inclusion in the alliance of The Society of Revolutionary Women. This organisation insisted in the immediate involvement of women in political and social action. On the 12th May 1793 the Society had demanded the right for women to carry arms so that they could fight the reaction in the Vendée. From its beginnings one of the themes of the developing radical movement amongst the masses was that of women’s liberation and this was to be seen repeatedly over the coming decades.

Jacobin repression fell heavily on the Enragés. The Society of Revolutionary Republican Women was banned, Roux and Varlet arrested. Roux cheated the guillotine blade by taking his own life. Varlet, a survivor of the Terror, witnessed the end of Robespierre, the Thermidor and the imposition of the Directory. Under the Thermidorean Convention in 1794, he was arrested with Babeuf for attempting to create an opposition movement, resulting in a year’s imprisonment. After that, he was three times exiled from Paris. He re-emerged during the 1830 Revolution at Nantes, bringing out some small pamphlets. He was already 72 years old at the time and all trace of him is lost in 1832, until his death by drowning in 1837.

Varlet produced a pamphlet of 15 pages, Gare L’Explosion (Beware the Explosion) which appeared on 1st October 1794. A second edition with a slight change of words appeared on the 6th October. Varlet was already in prison. Mourning the end of revolutionary hopes and denouncing the Thermidorean Convention, he cried out: “For any reasoning being, Government and Revolution are incompatible, at least unless the people wishes to constitute the organs of power in permanent insurrection against themselves, which is too absurd to believe”. Varlet had drawn the lessons of revolutionary defeat and developed an anarchist conclusion.


Gracchus Babeuf developed the ideas of his group in the aftermath of the crushing of the Enragés in 1793. But the ideas that he developed were to turn away from the mass action of the Enragés, rooted as they were in the popular quartiers of Paris, towards conspiratorial action by small and secret enlightened elites, but it could also be argued that Babeuf represented the extreme wing of bourgeois republicanism. He attempted to amalgamate the revolutionary idea of the emerging bourgeoisie- democracy- with the revolutionary idea of the embryonic working class-communism. Babeuf wanted to introduce democracy and then to build communism, in small stages. The people, through a democratic Constitution, would veto all laws until the maintenance of all citizens should be assured by law, as Kropotkin notes. In fact, Babeuf thinks that an individual, if he has enough of a strong will, can introduce communism single-handedly.

It should be remembered that the principal subscribers to the Babouvists’ paper were bankers, manufacturers, financiers, high officials, functionaries and professionals. They supported the Babouvist grouping because they had been closely linked with the Jacobin dictatorship and were fearful of the growing threat of White reaction. They supported Babeuf in spite of his avowed communism. It is possible that a triumph of Babouvism would not have led to the establishment of a communist society, but would have speeded up the advancement of capitalist society, in the process by-passing the Bonapartist phrase, a costly and destructive phrase for emerging capitalist society. This is not to deny the courage and conviction of Babeuf, but to recognise that he could have quickly become a prisoner of these bourgeois forces. The Babouvists used every means possible at their disposal, means which became those of every succeeding revolutionary grouping- newspapers, posters, songs, public meetings.

Whilst people like Babeuf were to develop communist ideas they linked this to a special elite carrying out a revolutionary dictatorship.

As Kropotkin notes:
“It is obvious that communism in 1793 did not appear with that completeness of doctrine which is found with the French followers of Fourier and Saint-Simon….In 1793 communist ideas were not worked out in the quiet of a private study; they were born from the needs of the moment. This is why the social problem showed itself during the Great Revolution superior to the socialism of 1848 and of its later forms. It went straight to the root in attacking the distribution of produce.

“This communism certainly appears fragmentary to us, especially as stress was laid by its exponents upon its different separate aspects; and there always remained in it what we might call partial communism. It admitted individual possession side by side with common property, and while proclaiming the right of all to the entire sum of the fruits of production, it yet recognised an individual right to the “superfluous”, by the side of all to the products of “ first and second necessity”. Nevertheless the three principal aspects of communism are already to be found in the teachings of 1793: Land communism, industrial communism, and communism in commerce and credit” The Great French Revolution. p.508 Elephant Editions.

Communist and anarchist ideas emerged from among the sans-culottes masses during the Revolution. They were to be formalised in writing and speeches in various ways by Babeuf, Maréchal and Buonarotti and to a lesser extent by the Enragés . The revolutionary tradition of the clubs managed to survive under the rule of Louis Philippe, with the secret Communistes Materialistes groupings of the indefatigable Blanqui and Barbès. However, the outlook of these groupings was greatly affected by the radical Jacobinism of the Babouvists, not to mention the repressive conditions under which these groupings were forced to operate.

Sylvain Maréchal

Maréchal, whilst linked to Babouvism, deserves an individual mention. Sylvain Maréchal was born in 1750, the son of a wine merchant in the Les Halles district of Paris. He trained as a lawyer, but could not practice because of an acute stutter. He then obtained work in a library. His reading quickly led him to an atheist position. He began to write and publish on the subject. This lost him his job, and he was driven into poverty. He managed to get other library work and eventually pulled himself out of his straitened circumstances.

He wrote and published an almanac containing a revolutionary calendar, with a drastic revision and renaming of the months. This caused it to be burnt on the orders of the Parlement of Paris, and Maréchal to be condemned to three months imprisonment in 1788.

This confirmed his evolving republicanism, and he began to write on the subject. His The First Lessons of the Oldest Son of the King, which appeared later in the year, stated that there was no need for kings, even the best intentioned. “Misfortune to the people whose king is generous! The king can only give what he has taken from his people. The more the king gives, the more he takes from his people”. Maréchal called for a general strike of producers and called for the earth to be taken in common by all who lived on it.

Maréchal continued his atheistic and anti-clerical agitation with the coming of the Revolution, through newspapers and pamphlets. He made the acquaintance of Babeuf in March 1793, supporting him financially and helping him to get out of prison on provisional liberty. He disapproved of the Terror, and used his standing as a revolutionary to help people avoid execution. He felt that the Terror had been an instrument to replace the rule of the monarchy and aristocracy with that of businessmen and landowners.

He kept in contact with Babeuf during the latter’s protracted stays in prison and he eventually was involved in the Babouvist leadership. He wrote the Manifeste des Egaux (Manifesto of the Equals) for the grouping, although the majority of Babouvists had not approved it.

In this Manifesto he argues for a stateless communism. “The French revolution is only the front runner of another revolution much grander, of much greater occasion, and which will be the last”. He advances the notion of the common good, of a common wealth, where there will be “no more individual ownership of the land”, because “the earth belongs to no one”. He called for an end to a system where the vast majority “toils and sweats at the service of and for the pleasure of an extreme minority”, and for the disappearance of “revolting distinctions between rich and poor…between governors and governed”.

Maréchal avoided imprisonment with the repression of the Babouvist movement. He remained outspoken, using his book History of Russia to hide a veiled attack on Napoleon in 1802. He died the following year.
Whilst being at the forefront of those who were developing the idea of communism, it should be noted that he still could not shed all the prejudices of his age. Thus one of his last works was Projet de loi portant défense d'apprendre à lire aux femmes (Law Project Prohibiting Women from Learning to Read), written in 1801. Nevertheless Kropotkin was right in detecting in him a “vague aspiration to that which we call anarchist communism today” (The Great French Revolution, Elephant editions, p.509).

The emergence of the conception of Communism

It should be remembered that neither Babeuf nor Maréchal had invented the term “communism”. The idea of a free and equal society brought about through the sharing of the fruits of the earth goes back to a multitude of religious and philosophical writings.

A first written mention of the word “communist” itself was found in the book of condolences of the parish of Guillestre (Hautes Alpes) in France in 1789. Babeuf, of course, never used the word himself, calling himself a communalist, believing that a community of goods would result from a community of work.
With the fall of Robespierre there is a mention of the word communism when Restif de la Bretonne talks about a general assembly of the Club du Pantheon, which was one of the most democratic in Paris. “A citizen demands the rejection of the Constitution and the establishment of communism. This eye-witness report was published in Paris in 1797”. (Marius Berou in an article in Le Peuple no 1537 20th November 2002 p 8-9)


Buonarroti produced a history of the Babeuf conspiracy in 1830 (followed by an English translation by the Chartist leader Bronterre O’Brien).This book was extremely influential in reviving the communist tradition as represented by Babouvism. As David Thomson notes in his The Babeuf Plot : “ Revolutionaries of the July Monarchy, working in conditions that were new, strove to link their own efforts to the epic story of the Babouvists, and so emphasize the direct continuity of the revolutionary tradition.” Buonarroti’s book came at an appropriate time. The revolutionary events of 1830 from July 27th to August 20th were a result of an alliance between the radical bourgeoisie and the artisans and workers. Once the task of asserting their own interests was accomplished, the working class was abandoned by its erstwhile allies. Attempting to assert their own interests, several insurrections broke out with the demands for the establishment of a republic and the end of political monopoly. But the newly confident bourgeoisie had not only the Army on its side but had organised itself militarily in the National Guard. The risings were all crushed. A dawning realisation of the opposing interests of the working people and the “middle class” led some republican workers and artisans to develop the need for their own political and organisational autonomy, and a link to the ideas of Babouvism was established with the fortuitous publication of Buonarroti’s book. The 1830, 1832 and 1834 risings, the mass actions in Lyons by the workers there, the workers strikes in Paris, the circulation of the ideas of Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen all had their effect.

Buonarroti was still very much a prisoner of the radical Jacobinism of the most advanced bourgeois elements in his praise of Robespierre’s Republic of Virtue. It was difficult for him to relate to the newly emerging urban working class, although elements in that class were able to recognise and make use of the ideas of any worth in his thinking and that of Babeuf and Maréchal et compagnie. Georges Duveau notes that “a kind of perfunctory communism was born and grew up which for that very reason was just the thing to spread through the workshops of the Temple, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine and the Faubourg Saint-Marcel”. Thus came about a fusion of these advanced radical Jacobinist ideas with the aspirations of this new class, and the successor of Babeuf and Buonarroti- Auguste Blanqui- was to recognise and utilise this fusion, even though he too was a prisoner of the revolutionary conspiracy, the “temporary” revolutionary dictatorship, and the elite revolutionary group. At the same time, outside the self-educated urban workers and artisans, the main social groupings attracted to Blanquism were the declassed intellectuals and rootless bourgeois youth who were either unable or unwilling to subscribe to the project of the newly confident bourgeoisie of enriching themselves.

The Society of the Rights of Man and the Citizen which existed between 1832 and 1834 regrouped many of those Parisian workers who had been disillusioned by the events of the July Days. Operating in its radical wing was the law student Napoléon-Aimé Lebon. He has left few traces, but it appears that it was he who was to have an important role in developing both the idea of communism and the practice of its adherents in his two Aphorisms of 1834 written in the Sainte Pelagie prison( La propriété instrument de notre exploitation and Le capital social : nature, industrie, intelligence) (Pour Une Généalogie du Communisme Français in Communisme and Cahiers d'Histoire N°77, Mouvements communistes dans la France des années 1830-1840.Table ronde : Louis Hincker, Alain Maillard, Claude Mazauric, Michèle Rio-Sarcey).

In the first of his Aphorisms he remarks: “you first and principally object, that our projects of community are inadmissible, in that they outweigh the abolition of individual property [...] but where do you see that property is always the fruit of work? And if any man has to work to live, how did you understand that so many capitalists, entrepreneurs of industry can live off the work of others? Property! What else is it in their hands than the instrument of our exploitation?”

Born in Dieppe, Lebon was first a student of medicine and then a student of law (he still regarded himself as a law student at the age of 40!) A proponent of direct action within the Society, he however had opposed combinations (unions) of artisans and workers in 1833, returning to the same theme in 1848 when he stated: “A rise in wages, reduction in work, all that is a cause of ruin for manufacturers (entrepreneurs), and only gains insignificant relief. Furthermore these actions have the harmful quality of perpetuating differences between classes”(Iorwerth Prothero, Radical Artisans in England and France, 1830-1870, p.111). Lebon epitomises a communism of sentiment which fails to connect with the situation of artisans and workers of the period.
It should be remembered that the term “communism” itself did not appear in print till the end of the 18th century in a book review by Restif de la Bretonne (the book has never been traced).It is an eyewitness account published in Paris in 1797 of a meeting of the Club du Pantheon where “A citizen demands the rejection of the Constitution and the establishment of communism”. Babeuf never used the word in print or in any of his recorded speeches and it cannot be traced in the writings of any other radical before this mention. But now the term began to be used by this new generation of revolutionaries. During the trial on 22nd and 24th July 1835 of several militants involved in the attempted insurrection of April 1834 and accused of a plot and attentats against “internal State security”, Victor Poinsot, the public prosecutor for the Department of the Seine, accused them of constituting ‘a sect of Communists and radicals’,. He defined this description by proposing that they aimed for: “by means of propaganda and of armed insurrection, the establishment of the most absolute social equality, on the ruins of all properties, without distinction or object” (cited in Mazauric).
There appears to have been a mass awakening by Parisian workers in the years 1839-40. The agent provocateur De La Hodde gives much information about the new groups created by Parisian workers in his Histoire des Societés Secretes (1850). He described the general strike that took place in 1840 in Paris as “inspired by communist ideas” and the creation of the Society of Egalitarian Workers, made up exclusively of workers founded in the same year with a clearly communist programme (Marius Darmès, a floor cleaner who attempted to assassinate Louis Philippe, appears to have belonged to this Society).

As well as being linked to the strike, the Society appears to have had two sets of demands, minimum with the idea of wages fixed by law and mutual aid societies, and maximum with the establishment of a popular dictatorship and an egalitarian society. A breakaway from this was the Revolutionary Communist Society, also exclusively made up of workers, which rejected the blind discipline among the Egalitarian Workers and above all the lack of discussion within it. Karl Marx in one of his first political articles on 16th October 1842 ‘Communism and the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung’ was able to say that ‘communism’ had already become an international movement, appearing in Britain and Germany as well as France.

Socialism and Communism

The term ‘socialism’ first saw the light of day in England print in an Owenite publication of 1827, The Co-operative Magazine. It described the co-operative practices of the Owenites. In France it first appeared in Le Globe in 1832. This was a paper produced by the journalist Pierre Leroux, and was an official organ of the followers of Saint-Simon. Again it was used to describe Saint-Simon’s ideas for a collective plan of society. Leroux was later to rather inaccurately claim that he had first coined the term as a neologism to counter the other neologism individualism, which was increasingly being used because of the circulation of Jeremy Bentham’s thought. Thus it implied a quest for social solutions to the ills of society rather than Benthamite individualism. It was officially adopted as a term by the Owenites in 1841, and was often used to describe the followers of Saint-Simon and Fourier.As Corcoran notes (p3.) “…this innovation only incorporated the meanings already widely associated with le social, the complex of social concerns focused upon by several schools of ‘social science’ and an increasingly politically oriented literary and artistic romanticism”.
Communism, for its part, referred to a belief in absolute social equality which must develop into the Communauté- the community of liberty, equality and fraternity. This term preceded that of communism and was used by Babeuf to describe his social vision, just as it was later used by the likes of Dézamy etc ( note that Babeuf also used the terms “communautiste”.

The term communist became more and more widely used under the July Monarchy as more and more political activists began to associate themselves with the concept of communism. One one hand were the revolutionary communists, from a Babouvist background, on the other were the followers of Cabet. At the trial of Darmès one witness testified that there were “ two branches of the communists, one of which he did not think was in favour of violent means, the other, the communistes immédiats, who wished to overthrow the present government by any means.”

Cabet-Communism Gets Religion

"It is indeed time that hatreds were forgotten and that all people rallied under a single flag. Shall that flag be Communism? The Icarians will enthusiastically answer yes”. Cabet, Journey To Icaria.

Etienne Cabet was the son of a cooper from Dijon. His outspokenness and involvement in radical republicanism meant a long exile in England, and in the reading room of the British Museum, he discovered the ideas of Thomas More, as well as acquainting himself with the personage and the ideas of the cooperative thinker Robert Owen.

Cabet began to use Communism as an expression to describe a specific body of ideas and future society linked to those ideas. He broke with Buonarotti’s and thus Jacobin theories of organisation. At this time Louis Philippe’s regime was multiplying its provocations to legitimise its policies of repression. Cabet wished to avoid this. He contributed to the new interest in the most radical ideas of the French Revolution with his Histoire Populaire de la Revolution Française in 1840.The same year he produced his utopian novel Voyage en Icarie (Journey to Icaria) which depicted a future communist society. Unfortunately this communist society was enclosed within a very authoritarian framework. Cabet had emerged from a radical Jacobin background, but his radicalism owed less to Babouvism than has sometimes been alleged. He had known Buonarotti in the Carbonari in the 1820s and was familiar with Babouvist ideas, but seems to have owed more to Thomas More and Robert Owen. Cabet, in Journey To Icaria, describes Christ as the leading teacher of communism and claims that the Icarian community “has fraternity as its basis, the love preached by the gospels and by Christianity”. The society that Cabet describes is created by peaceful change after just two days of fighting which overthrew the tyrants. Cabet stated that he was “neither a Hébertist nor a Babouvist”.

Cabet saw in his novel a modern version of More’s Utopia as improved by the economic ideas of Owen. It is not particularly original, but it became the required reading of every French radical (and beyond). . There is no money and all goods and property are shared in common, but it is a grim vision of communism, one where diet, clothing, furniture,housing, is uniform, where people work seven hours a day, and where women, apart from their 7 hours in the workshops or fields, continue to carry out housework. There is no money and all goods and property are shared in common. Social life is closely supervised.Despite this the book caught the imagination of many.

In 1841 Cabet resurrected his paper Le Populaire. He called for the establishment of the community of goods “only by the power of public opinion, by the will of the nation, and by the rule of law”.

Le Populaire did indeed become very popular and became one of the most widely read papers in France. This was against a backdrop of rising labour unrest in the country, with strikes in Belleville, in Lyon and Rouen in 1840. Cabet increasingly equated Communism with Christianity. He advanced the need for the abolition of private property, whilst warning artisans and workers away from demonstrations and from the revolutionary secret societies. The best strategy to accomplish the aims of communism was “civil courage”, in other words passive resistance.

Cabetism became very popular, with Icarian chapters in many towns and cities, Lyon become a veritable stronghold of Icarian thought. It appealed above all to the artisan and not to the day labourer who was more likely to favour strikes and resistance to the authorities. For their part merchants, businessmen and shopkeepers were horrified by Icarianism and saw no difference between them and the revolutionary communists. Leading Icarians included a shoemaker, a shoemaker’s tools salesman, a factory foreman, a cabinet maker, a tailor, a maker of artificial flowers, a physician, and a Polish mystic (!) but there were exceptions to the rule. In Toulouse, another very strong chapter of Icarianism was organised, and participated in the census riots of July1841. During the riots building workers were actively recruited to Icarianism. In July of the following year, the Icarians organised a demonstration of 600 at La Daurade church to commemorate the death of one of the rioters on the barricades. The police believed rightly or wrongly that the Icarians were planning for an armed insurrection and arrested leading Icarians in Toulouse in 1843. In a sign of increasing feeling of the need for autonomy from bourgeois republicans, they rejected their offer of legal aid and for a liberal republican deputy to serve as their defence lawyer. The Icarians were acquitted. Later on the following year they organised an active boycott among artisans and workers of the funeral procession of a liberal republican leader (See Bullets and Barricades: Class Formation and Republican Politics in France,1830-1871 Ronald Aminzade (1993)).

It should be remembered that Cabet had been able to create a mass movement that was estimated as from being as strong as anywhere between 100,000 and 400,000 with influence elsewhere-Germany, Switzerland, England. He and his paper Le Populaire had been able to favourably introduce the concept of communism to a large number of artisans and workers. Cabetism should not be characterised as standing aside in a sectarian manner from the developing workers’ movement, as some Marxist historians like Michael Löwy have claimed (in The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx).The mass base of Cabetism meant that it was sometimes in contradiction with the views of its leader, involving itself in riots, in workers’ societies, in strikes etc. There was a dynamic to disengage with the pacifistic policies of Cabet and because of the mass nature of Icarianism it was pulled in different directions by the quite dramatic development of class struggle under the July Monarchy. Cabet was also a great educator and advocate of the masses. His Citizen’s Guide (1842) instructed on how to deal with the police and courts if arrested, house searches, temporary detentions, trials both secret and before an open court.

By 1844 Cabet began to emphasise his leadership more strongly. In 1846 he published another book Le Vrai Christianisme Suivant Jesus Christ (Real Christianity Following Jesus Christ). This was the beginning of the transformation of Cabetism from a political into one of a messianic religious movement. Cabet was elevated by some of his followers into the status of a Saviour, something which he increasingly appeared to believe himself. That year saw a severe depression in France as a result of a disastrous wheat harvest. Bread prices rose, as did unemployment. Bread riots became more frequent. The force of circumstances saw more Icarians abandoning their pacifism and taking part in the civil unrest. The artisan base of Icarian communism began to radicalise. Some, like Doctor Louis Desmoulins of the Tours chapter of Icarianism called on Cabet to abandon his doctrine of civil courage. Desmoulins told Cabet that rank and file Icarians were becoming increasingly frustrated by his failure to act and that he was seen as the “sole obstacle that prevents the Communist Party” from bringing about social change (letter to Cabet, November 26, 1846.See Introduction to Travels In Icaria by Robert Sutton(2003) and Étienne Cabet and the Icarian Communist Movement in France 1839-1848 by Christopher H. Johnson (1968). Desmoulins was known as “the doctor of the disinherited of fortune”, for his good works among the working class of Tours. He was arrested as a member of the workers’ unions after the grain riots in Tours of 21-23 November 1846. He was deported by Napoleon III’s regime to Lambessa in Algeria. He returned broken in health and died in poverty in 1858.)

In March 1847 repression began to fall upon the Icarians. Like so many others, Cabet soon succumbed to the call of setting up a utopian colony in America. Many Icarians refused to countenance this, seeing it as a cop-out. Subscriptions to Le Populaire fell by 30 per cent.

Before Cabet left for the States he was overtaken by events. Three weeks after the advance guard of colonists had left for Texas, revolution broke out in February 1848, overthrowing Louis Philippe. The second Republic was proclaimed.The Revolution was to dismantle Icarianism. A section of the Icarians called for the return of the advance guard, an end to the whole scheme of emigration, and a concentration on an effort to establish communism in France.Cabet attempted to do this, but by April a bourgeois admininistration led by Lamartine and Ledru-Rollin was in place and a backlash was whipped up against all socialists, radical republicans and communists. Cabet ‘s house was besieged by a howling mob and many Icarians were persecuted. The growth of reaction decided Cabet to cross the Atlantic himself.

The colonies established by Cabet, which took 5,000 Icarians out of France, soon foundered in futility and recrimination like so many others, and he became more eccentric and autocratic towards the close of his life. The development of the leadership cult may also have contributed to why so many Icarian communists began to move over to republican socialism during the last two years of Louis Phillippe’s July Monarchy. These years were also ones of severe economic crisis. Republican socialist leaders said that they could solve the social question through reform of suffrage, cannily promising that such reform would lead on to right to work laws and full employment. The failure of the Icarian movement led many of its members away from its essentially anti-electoralist stance towards the promise of action through a mass mobilisation for electoral reform. The Icarian movement disappeared. However, Cabet’s movement had helped bring about the idea of working class autonomy (against the views of Cabet himself who favoured class conciliation) and led to the establishment of several important and persistent radical workers circles in France, including Lyon, and as we will see, later contributed towards the development of a specific anarchist communism.

Nowadays Cabet, who has never been translated into English, until very recently, is associated more with the communal colonies set up in the USA than with the mass movement he created in France. Marx praised Cabet for his “ practical attitude towards the proletariat” whilst later warning against the communal activities of the Icarians in this slightly inaccurate mention in the Communist Manifesto: “Therefore, although the originators of these systems were, in many respects, revolutionary, their disciples have, in every case, formed mere reactionary sects. They hold fast by the original views of their masters, in opposition to the progressive historical development of the proletariat. They, therefore, endeavour, and that consistently, to deaden the class struggle and to reconcile class antagonisms. They still dream of experimental realizations of their social Utopias,of founding isolated ‘phalanstères’, of establishing ‘Home Colonies’, of setting up a ‘Little Icaria’—duodecimo editions of the New Jerusalem—and to realize all these castles in the air, they are compelled to appeal to the feelings and purses of the bourgeois.”


It should be emphasised again that not all those who proclaimed themselves communists were Icarians, far from it. There were those who rejected the religiosity of Icarianism. The ‘communist party”, this disparate body of thought, which developed in the 1840s was also made up of those who had been involved in the Carbonari with Buonarotti, those who had fought on the barricades of 1830, 1832 and 1834, who had taken part with Barbès and Blanqui in the Societé des Familles and the Societé des Saisons or in the Societé des Travailleurs Egalitaires.

The “utopian “ socialism of the movements around Saint-Simon and Fourier had offered little to the urban artisans and newly developing working class, and as Max Nettlau, the Herodotus of anarchism, notes “ it was really an act of independence on their part when many of them drew away from these to join a communism which proposed direct and voluntary action”, in other words towards the ideas of Cabet and indeed to those more radical, like Théodore Dézamy, who had started as a Cabetian and had broken with him because of his authoritarianism and his turn towards the setting up of American colonies and away from action in France. Dézamy edited a paper Le Communitaire- in these early days communitarian was used as an alternative expression to communist just as later libertarian was used as an alternative to anarchist.

Dézamy had been Cabet’s secretary. As well as being an animator of the afore-mentioned Communistes Materialistes circles he was one of the main organisers of the Communist Banquet ( banquets and speeches at banquets were a particular form of spreading radical ideas at the time) organised on the slopes of the Parisian working class quarter of Belleville on 1st July 1840 (another organiser was Jean-Jacques Pillot from the Babouvist current, a defrocked priest, who ended his life in prison as a result of his activity in the 1871 Paris Commune as a Blanquist activist).This banquet was a reply to those of the republican banquets which called for the extension of the vote. Under the auspices of the Communist Republicans 1,000 people took part in this banquet, including many artisanal workers. The orators, craftsmen, small shopkeepers, men of letters with no steady salary, proposed toasts to “real and perfect social equality” “ the egalitarian community” “the abolition of free competition” “the abolition of the death penalty” “the emancipation of the worker” “egalitarian education” etc. The historian Jacques Grandjonc tells us that the German workers of the League of the Just that was animated by Wilhelm Weitling must have attended the banquet. (Interestingly, as a sign of a relationship between this emergent communism and the developing workers struggles, it appears that Weitling set up a soup kitchen a few days later to help the unemployed and strikers, as well as establishing a fund for striking tailors).

The day after this banquet, a liberal journalist, Léon Faucher, perceived this as a split within the republican party (also called democratic party or radical party) and used the expression “communist party”. The word then began to spread rapidly. Engels in his article “Progress of Social Reform on the Continent” written in 1843 notes that discussion of communism began between 1834-5. “This is all that can, with safety, be asserted concerning the origin of modern Communism in France; the subject was first discussed in the dark lanes and crowded allies of the Parisian suburb, Saint-Antoine, and soon after in the secret assemblies of conspirators. Those who know more about its origin are very careful to keep their knowledge to themselves, in order to avoid the “Strong arm of the law””.

Further banquets in Paris were sabotaged by the police though smaller ones took place in Rouen and Lyon. The banquet in Paris showed the popularity of communist ideas among artisans and workers. The Belleville banquet had certainly put communism on the map.

Dézamy’s Code de la Communaute of 1843 was a mite less authoritarian than the concepts of Cabet, using a slogan borrowed from Rabelais “Do what you will!” It called for the abolition of money, and of commercial exchange. It advocated an economy that geared itself towards the satisfaction of the needs of all. It believed in the end of the division of labour, including between town and country, capital and provinces. Attractive work for all should be brought in progressively. The State and government should also be abolished progressively and any decisions made by these institutions should no longer be separate from the functioning of society as a whole. To bring this about a revolutionary government would oversee the introduction of communism into social relations.

Dézamy broke with Cabet over the division of labour, which the latter defended as necessary in the name of economic efficiency. The Code took a step forward in that it advocated no transition period between capitalism and communism. There would be no period in which exchange, buying and selling would continue. The immediate abolition of money would ensure that the ruling class would be disarmed socially and economically. Dezamy’s Code called for the ‘community of goods’, opposing itself to the collectivist notion of the ‘socialisation of property’.


Cabet issued a refutation of these ideas in a series of pamphlets and he joined battle against another grouping in his Refutation of the Humanitaire. The Humanitaire group described themselves as egalitarian communists, and as a result of their refusing to register themselves as a legal body, suffered imprisonment. All the socialist and republican groups denounced them as immoral because they had advocated the abolition of marriage and the individual family and other interesting ideas in a group statement. One of these ideas was that travel would be a key feature of communist society; it would bring about the mixing of races, and a beneficial exchange between industrial and agricultural activities. Indeed their journal went further and advanced “anti-political and anarchist ideas” which they believed the Babouvist Sylvain Maréchal had advocated. Two issues of this journal, L’Humanitaire, organe de la science sociale, appeared in Paris in 1841.

This advanced group, which rejected the authoritarian and centralising ideas of most radical groups, was a herald of the anarchist communism to come, and was an isolated beacon in a period which produced a large number of radical publications. We should remember the names of some of those involved: Gabriel and Jean Charavay, Jean-Joseph May and Antoine-Pierre Page. Gabriel Charavay was born at Lyon in 1818. As a youth he had frequented communist and Babouvist circles, and was influenced by Maréchal, Babeuf and Buonarotti. He had proposed a toast at the first Communist Banquet in Belleville. Before becoming an editor of L’Humanitaire he had been involved in the workers’ paper L’Atelier. He showed his appreciation for Maréchal by writing a biography of him in L’Humanitaire. Charavay was to receive a two year prison sentence not long after. May, like Charavay was a journalist. Page was a jewellery worker, whilst another editor, Julien Galliard, was a plumber. Others named during the police investigation included the feminist Louise Dauriat, and bonnet-makers, jewellery workers, shoe-makers, and print workers. Only one of these workers was born in Paris, the others originating from many different regions of France. Cabet’s denunciation of L’Humanitaire appears to have precipitated Dézamy’s break with him.

The polemic between Cabet and Dézamy was also exacerbated by Cabet’s denunciation of Dézamy’s advocacy of the abolition of marriage. Dézamy firmed up his critique of Cabet in his Calomnies et Politique de M. Cabet when he wrote: “ It is a capital error to believe that co-operation by the bourgeoisie is indispensable for the triumph of the community”. He also took Cabet to task for the non-attendance of himself and his followers at the banquet in Belleville. “You refused to attend this banquet. You seemed from the start very unhappy because the proletarians were allowing themselves to raise the communist flag on their own, without having at their head some bourgeois, some well-known name”. Dézamy emphasised the need for working class unity as well as the need for propaganda, affirming that “I will never stop crying: Propaganda, propaganda, propaganda”. He warned against the perils of personality cults within the workers movement in his prescient address: “Proletarians! It is to you that I address these reflections, to you who, a thousand times already, have been betrayed, sold, handed over, slandered, tortured and mocked by alleged saviours! If you again submit to the cult of individuals, expect to experience once more cruel and poignant illusions”. Perhaps Marx himself, who described Dézamy and Jules Gay as the “more scientific French communists” might have taken more notice of this warning.


John Goodwyn Barmby was a British Owenite socialist who visited France in 1840 at the age of twenty with a proposal to set up an International Association of Socialists. A provisional committee was set up which included the Humanitaire Jules Gay. Nothing came of the venture but the attempt prefigured the setting up of the First International, It was probably through Gay and others that Barmby first discovered communist ideas and he claimed to be the first to use the term “communist” in English. In fact he claimed to have invented the word “communism” and to have helped in the organisation of the Communist Banquet! He regarded “Communist” and “communitarian” as interchangeable. He reported regularly in the Owenite press on the phenomenon of French communism and the progress of the banquet. He must therefore be styled as the first person to introduce the terms “communism” and “communist” into the English language. Returning to England Barmby founded a Communist Propaganda Society. He set up a paper, The Promethean or Communitarian Apostle, later renamed the Communist Chronicle.

Barmby’s communism was even more soaked in the syrup of religiosity than that of Cabet. Indeed, Barmby’s saviour complex was even more pronounced and noticeable from an early period than Cabet’s. He proclaimed the Religion of Communism and called himself the Pontifarch of the Communist Church. His concept of such a communist society was extremely hierarchical, one ruled by a Communarch and a Communarchess (presumably himself and his wife Catherine). This society would be based on the establishment of communal settlements known as Communitariums.

He early on recruited the support of a radical Chartist and Owenite printer and journalist Thomas Frost. His schemes became even more bizarre and grandiose and he dreamt of establishing Heaven on Earth in the Channel Islands. Frost broke with him and established a rival paper, the Communist Journal whilst Barmby moved on to what he called National Communism, then became a Unitarian minister and ended up in liberal politics. Frost for his part went on to join the Fraternal Democrats in 1847. This had been set up in 1843 as an alliance of radical Chartists like George Julian Harney and Ernest Jones and members of the League of Just, formed of German workers, as well as radicals of Polish and other nationalities.

Barmby’s antics only succeeded, to a certain extent, in discrediting the idea of communism in Britain. Unlike Cabet, who had galvanised a mass movement in France, he had failed to popularise it among artisans and workers, turning it into a freak side-show.


Corcoran, Paul E. (ed). Before Marx: Socialism and Communism in France, 1830-1848
Grandjonc, Jacques. Communisme/Kommunismus/Communism
Guérin, Daniel. La lutte des classes sous la première république
Maillard, Alain Bref apercu historique du movement communiste en France in Cahiers d’Histoire No.77
Maillard, Alain La Communaute des Egaux. Le communisme neo-babouviste dans la France des annees 1840
Mazauric, Claude. Une terre d’implantation et d’essaimage: Les origines françaises du communisme historique. Nouvelles Fondations, no. 3-4
Rose, R.B. Gracchus Babeuf: The First Revolutionary Communist.

Vanderort, Bruce. Babouvism (Babeuvism)


Nom de plume
Aug 31 2015 10:35

Fascinating start. Will you be publishing the next chapter here? Looking forward to reading more.

Sep 4 2015 21:19

Great article! Looking forward to the book. Who's the character in the photo?

Sep 4 2015 23:11

Gabriel Charavy. Most photos you can see the captions by hovering over them or clicking on them.

Jan 11 2018 18:35

I see that there is a typo in the 4th paragraph in the section on The Enragés:

Now they collaborated in June 1973 in further agitation over price rises. To their numbers were added the activist Jean-Théophile Leclerc and the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, among whom were Claire Lacombe and Pauline Léon.