Saturday, 24 October 2009

Archive: 'To awaken Robespierre is to awaken democracy'

From LSHG Newsletter, Summer 2009

Following the very successful LSHG conference on the execution of Charles I, I was interested to receive the following document from Amis de Gracchus Babeuf ( ). It is the text of a speech delivered by the
President of the Association, Michel Aurigny, on 31 May 2008, on the 211th anniversary of the execution of Babeuf, lamenting current attitudes in France to the Revolution of 1789. There are points on which some might disagree with Aurigny; there is a legitimate left critique of Robespierre,
as for example developed in Daniel Guérin’s Class Struggle in the First French Republic, and Babeuf himself was on occasion sharply critical of Robespierre. But there can be no doubt that socialist historians have a responsibility to defend all that was best and progressive in the great bourgeois revolutions.
Translation and notes by IH Birchall

2008 is not the first but the 15th time since it was founded in 1993 that the Association of the Friends of Gracchus Babeuf has delivered a speech in this square1 to honour his memory. For us this is not a ritual.
2008 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robespierre. But it is with consternation that we observe:
1. the significant absence of statements or commemorations on the occasion of this anniversary
2. and this is even more serious – the fact that the only work today that is devoted to the French revolution and which is publicised through the media is The Black Book of the Revolution,2 which is inspired, in content and in method, by the counter-revolutionary attack of the unfortunately famous Black Book of Communism3 by Stéphane Courtois. A work in which, we may recall, the only figure from the French Revolution who is mentioned is Gracchus Babeuf; and where the Conspiracy of the Equals is presented as the origin, not only of the October Revolution, but also of all the crimes committed in its name.
To come back to the Black Book of the Revolution, can we say that is part of the historical debate? Not in any sense, for the historical method is not respected: there is no contextualisation, no comparison of positions, no critical examination.
And what distresses us greatly, the voice of those who should be defending the French Revolution is not being heard. May there be victory (or defeat, according to your point of view) for lack of people prepared to fight? We don’t think so. The last word has not been spoken.
But as we note this fact, we must note another one. At present there is an official exhibition, held in the name of the Republic, taking place at the Grand Palais,4 it is devoted (in every sense of the term) to Marie-Antoinette. That the Coppola family should celebrate another dynasty via its own,5 that is its concern.

But that the Republic should think of celebrating someone who organised everything, did everything, planned everything possible to crush the French nation, including treason and espionage, leaves us, to say the least, perplexed. Is Rome no longer in Rome?6 Is the Republic no longer republican? Our protest – however modest it may be – is raised against this state of affairs. Tomorrow shall we have to celebrate Boulanger, Doriot and Laval?7
In wartime, it is the practice of all armies and all states – whatever one may think of wars and armies – to shoot spies and traitors, not to celebrate them. A republic celebrating one who sought its death is on the same level as the victim of murder glorifying his killer. Let the current authorities do so, we shall have no part of it. The exaltation of Marie-Antoinette and the erasing of Robespierre are part of the same attempt to bury the French Revolution 1758-2008: so who was Robespierre?
For us, the friends of Gracchus Babeuf, he was the founder of the one indivisible Republic. Even before the Revolution, Babeuf had recognised Robespierre as “the advocate of the poor”. At the time of the Conspiracy of the Equals, Babeuf, in his role as leader of the Conspiracy, said “to awaken Robespierre is to awaken democracy”. This statement is not simply the manifestation of our attachment to the Revolution, to Robespierre, and to Gracchus Babeuf. Nor is it simply the expression of our hatred of a world where the “great” of the CAC 408 live in luxury while the poor are condemned to live out of dustbins.
It is based on the conviction - and this is what we are appealing for - that 2009 shall not be a silent, sullen, stifled 220th anniversary of the French revolution.
National sovereignty was proclaimed in 1789. From this moment, as the Association of the Friends of Gracchus Babeuf, we declare that we shall take part in any initiative which aims not only to commemorate  and celebrate it, but to act for its complete fulfilment.

1The Place Gracchus Babeuf at Saint-Quentin, Babeuf’s birthplace.
2P Chaunu et al, Le livre noir de la Révolution Française, Editions du Cerf, Paris, 2008.
3S Courtois et al, The Black Book of Communism, London/Cambridge Mass., 1999. See the devastating
review by Paul Flewers in Revolutionary History 7/4 (2000), p. 221
4 A major exhibition centre in Paris, just off the Champs-Elysées.
5The reference is to the 2006 movie Marie-Antoinette, directed by Sofia Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford
Coppola, who was one of the film’s producers.
6 Reference to a line from the tragedian Corneille.
7Boulanger: a right-wing general who briefly threatened to overthrow the Republic in 1889; Doriot: Communist who ended up as a pro-Nazi in World War II; Laval: Prime Minister of the Vichy government.
8 A French stock market index.

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