THE FRENCH Revolution was one of the key historical events that ushered in the system of modern capitalism. In mobilizing the French masses, the revolution opened up society for the development of democratic ideas and institutions that are still with us today, limited though they are. The fact remains that capitalism traces its roots back to revolutionary movements in several countries. But today’s ruling classes have no interest in showcasing capitalism’s revolutionary origins, preferring to see the modern world as the natural product of gradual social evolution rather than change achieved through violent uprisings. Toward this end, they often ridicule and demonize the advocates of revolutionary violence and radical democratic ideas in past revolutions where they cannot conceal them.
Jean-Paul Marat is one such figure— a physician, scientist, and revolutionary who has often been subjected to a litany of abuse and dismissed as either a charlatan or a fanatic. Clifford Conner’s newly published Jean-Paul Marat: Tribune of the French Revolution is a biographical sketch that aims to rescue Marat from these critics.
Conner quickly refutes the slanders against Marat, who was born in 1743 in Boudry, in what is now Switzerland. Conner shows that critiques of Marat’s science are based on political bias rather than reasoned analysis. Marat’s scientific ideas were not groundbreaking, he notes, but his views were far from outside the accepted bounds of the science of his time. Only in the context of subsequent discoveries in medicine and physics can he be seen as a charlatan. Marat’s opposition to the Académie des Sciences pointed to his egalitarianism. Marat was not anti-science, but opposed the monarchy that controlled the Académie. He was criticized by the elites for his insistence on seeing patients in person rather than diagnosing and treating patients on paper. Marat was actually ahead of his time in thinking patients should play a role in their own care. His physics lectures were attended by figures like Benjamin Franklin.
Most of the book, however, is devoted to showing Marat as a committed revolutionary propagandist and agitator, through his daily newspaper Ami du Peuple (Friend of the People). This gave him enormous influence and popularity, particularly amongst the sans-culottes (literally, without breaches), or the urban laboring classes.
From the beginning, Marat was clear about the audience for Ami du Peuple: “The Revolution has been made and sustained only by the lower classes of society—the workers, the artisans, the retailers, the farmers—by the plebeians, by those unfortunates whom the rich impudently call the rabble.” In the early stages of the revolution, most supporters saw the monarchy as the enemy and the new institutions of the revolution, the National Assembly and the Paris Commune, as their allies. Marat, on the other hand, saw them as part of the problem. He saw the early stages of the revolution as being incomplete because although the monarchy had been pushed back, the new institutions were dominated by the rich. Without a second, more radical stage, the rich would compromise with the monarchy and end the revolution violently. For the revolution to continue and win, these institutions would have to be replaced with ones that prioritized the interests of the poor.
Marat was concerned that the poor and oppressed might become satisfied with political reforms and not take the revolution into this second stage. He consciously decided to become more provocative. Anticipating his future critics, he said, “No matter how bizarre this will make me look in the eyes of scholars, I won’t hesitate to do it—your old friend cares only for your safety. I have to keep you from falling into the abyss.” In a famous (or infamous) instance of this approach that has fueled contemporary attempts to paint him as a bloodthirsty fanatic, he wrote,
Five or six hundred heads chopped off would assure you peace, liberty and happiness. A false humanitarianism has restrained your arms and has prevented you from striking such blows. That will cost the lives of millions of your brothers. Let your enemies triumph for an instant and torrents of blood will flow. They’ll cut your throats without mercy, they’ll slit the bellies of your wives, and in order to forever extinguish your love of liberty, their bloody hands will reach into your children’s entrails and rip their hearts out.
The language shocked his readers—but his correct warning cemented his reputation as a prophet.
Marat was often ahead of others in predicting events. He repeatedly argued that despite King Louis XVI’s lip service to the revolution, the king would flee Paris at the first opportunity and join the Austrians for a march on Paris to drown the revolution in blood. On June 20, 1791, Ami du Peuple declared that “the royal family is only waiting for Paris to go to bed before taking flight.” The very next day a Varennes local recognized the King traveling in disguise and the royal family was arrested and sent back to Paris. Just to prove there was no misunderstanding, Louis, thinking his escape was guaranteed, left a manifesto behind that laid out his plans to defeat the revolution by force. This sealed his fate. Marat also predicted General LaFayette’s attempt to defect to the Austrians and crush the revolution militarily.
Despite the legends, there was nothing supernatural about Marat’s predictive power. He had a vast network of sources available to him, some within the palace walls. More importantly, he had the ability to see class interests more clearly than most of his contemporaries. Figures such as the king, LaFayette, and others were interested in stopping the revolution after the achievement of formal political equality. But they feared social equality. Marat also knew that if the counterrevolution was successful, even the political equality they had won was at risk.
One other example shows Marat’s talent for strategy and tactics. As the revolution moved forward and election by delegates was replaced by direct democracy, the character of the legislative bodies changed. The Left, the Jacobin Club, and even Marat himself gained seats and were able to fight for policy. At this time a group called the Enragés, the far Left of the revolution, came to Paris and started quoting Marat about the overthrow of the old National Assembly to argue for the current body’s overthrow and for the sans-culottes to rise up. They were surprised to find Marat’s fire turned on them. While Marat agreed that “it is undeniable that the capitalists, the speculators, the monopolists, the luxury merchants . . . are all . . . supporters of the old regime who miss their old profitable scams,” he attacked them for not recognizing that the character of the government had changed. The majority could now be won to the interests of the working people. Also, he feared, rightly, that if the Enragés were able to get the sans-culottes to rise up, Paris would be isolated from the rest of France. This was no sellout by Marat. When the time was right, he no longer held the people of Paris back, but encouraged the more radical phase of the revolution that brought the Jacobin republic into being.
Despite his strengths, Marat had one major weakness: he never organized his followers into a distinct political force as Robespierre did. When Marat was assassinated on July 13, 1793, it did not mean the end of the revolution. In fact, it gave resolve to the vacillating Jacobins. They unleashed the Terror on their political opponents, thereby solidifying the gains of the revolution. But when Robespierre and other Jacobin leaders were executed, it did mean the end of the revolution. Also, without the support of the Jacobins, Marat would have been arrested in the early days and certainly never would have gained formal positions in the government.
Two notes on what this book is not: first, it is not a comprehensive biography of Marat. It mainly covers his life from the beginning of the revolution in 1789 to his death in 1793. Second, it is not a complete history of the French Revolution. Conner gives some background, but a general familiarity with the history would be helpful. Taking those limits into consideration, though, this is an excellent political biography of a principled revolutionary in the middle of one of the greatest upheavals in human history.