The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Jean-Paul Marat: The French Revolution’s Own Pre-Marx Socialist Blogger (Part I)

*Note: There is no doubt that Jean-Paul Marat would belong, given the historical conditions under which he developed his thought, to what Hal Draper called the tradition of "socialism-from-above" as opposed to our "socialism-from-below." Still, I believe he deserves a different appraisal than the ferocious assault most historians give him. Part II will be made available soon.

Jean-Paul Marat is often portrayed by contemporary historians as a madman. Thomas Carlyle, a famous French historian, wrote that Marat was “one squalidest horse-leech, redolent of soot.” Stanley Cloomis describes him as a man with “arms flailing about in all directions…with the reckless rage of a lunatic.” Cloomis continues by commenting on his disbelief that a woman could fall in love with him, citing the fact that he was so “repulsive” even the “wildest extremists of the left and their minions” kept away. He then explains that “He lived like a bat or an owl, always hidden from the light of day,” finally concluding that by his “compulsive, brusque and jerky walk” he must be an assassin. Often they expand upon his perceived bloodlust and thirst for unnecessary violence. All of this, however, fails to explain why Marat was celebrated as “one of the most prominent and popular leaders of the revolution” who held thousands of readers captive and whose death was met with “almost Diana-style grief.” This virulent approach to such a vital historical figure also fails to seriously and critically analyze the extremely complex, principled, and revolutionary political, economic, and social ideas articulated by Marat. His ideas, as E. Belfort Bax argues in Jean-Paul Marat: The People’s Friend, are more closely aligned with the justice and equality embodied in modern conceptions of socialist thought than vacuous bloodlust and violence.

Jean-Paul Mara (the “t” added later to appear more “French”) was born in 1743 in a small village on the Neuchâtel lake. According to his baptism record his father, of the same name, was an Italian who converted to Calvinism in Geneva where his mother, Louise Cabrol, was a citizen. His father worked manufacturing goods but, after having made the family some enemies in the village of Boundry, moved Jean-Paul, his older sister Marie, and his younger brother Henri back to Geneva. The source of the tension arising in Boundry is not conclusive but, as this anonymous letter, dated the 19th of March 1768, to Jean-Paul’s mother exemplifies, there obviously existed some hostility:
MADAM – As you have the most diabolical tongue that we have ever had in our town, and as you are a notorious liar and slanderer…I shall take care to make you known at Geneva. I have already written to different persons, and have painted you in your true colours, as also your children, who resemble you…I say once more that you are a notorious liar, a most evil tongue, a slanderess, a woman of no character, whom every one despises, and who is only too despicable. Your husband is no better. He is a downright hypocrite and canting humbug (caffard).
These vicious attacks on Marat’s mother, in particular, probably alarmed him given the immense reverence he held for her. “[It] is to my mother that I owe the development of my character,” he writes, “This good woman, whose loss I still deplore, trained my early years; she alone caused benevolence to expand in my heart.” It is with this maternal care that Marat developed his own sense of importance in the world and began to cultivate ideas of justice and equality.

In his “Journal de la Republique française (No. 98),” he remarks that even at age eight his moral sense was developed and the “ill-treatment practised upon another” filled him with indignation and made his “blood boil with a feeling as of a personal outrage.” Reflecting upon his childhood, he proclaims that he was “devoured by the love of fame” even from a young age. “At five years of age,” he recalls, “I wanted to be a schoolmaster; at fifteen a professor; at eighteen an author; and at twenty a creative genius.” His outrage of the sense of injustice was perhaps foreshadowed when, sent to his room for something he deemed inappropriate, he jumped out of the window onto the ground, explaining that it he “did not fail to hurt myself seriously in the fall” and bears the mark on his forehead into adulthood.

Marat left home relatively early, at sixteen years old, and although little is known about this period of his life, it is assumed he went to study medicine which he would later practice in England for a time. He visited Toulouse shortly, and then went to Bordeaux where he studied medicine, literature, philosophy, and politics. After toying for awhile with writing literature, he found himself in Paris studied medicine further. Shortly afterward he reached London around 1765 where he lived, on and off, for most of his time prior to the breakout of the French Revolution. Details are scattered concerning his life at this juncture, but one account claims that under a fake name he stole something of importance from a museum, fled to Dublin, and was brought back and bailed out by an old friend. Another story claims he fell in to poverty, was released by a society created to help those in debt, taught embroidery under yet another false name, fell in to debt one more, was imprisoned and finally released after some time. Another detractor also accused of only being able to practice surgery on horses and dogs, not humans. These, however, as Bax notes, are largely personal attacks, both contemporary and posthumous, meant to discredit him as a political thinker with little validity; such was the disdain on the part of the propertied classes towards Marat.

While making a living practicing medicine in England, he began to experiment in the realm of science and wrote papers concerning electricity, heat, and light. His three major works on these were published from 1780 to 1782 and his exploits earned him welcome in various artistic, scientific, and literary circles. Even “a number of socially prominent personages admired Marat’s scientific work and helped advanced his career as a physicist.” Some of his other hypotheses were less valuable, however, and at one point he wrote an absurd piece concerning how the body and soul interact with bodily fluids acting as the intermediary between them which, upon completion, he sent to the philosopher Voltaire who attempted to disabuse Marat of the idea that this particular hypothesis was a very serious one. His most serious political work did not surface until 1774.

The full title of his first political work, giving the reader an idea of both his style, consistent flair, and incessantly dire tone, was The Chains of Slavery: a work wherein the clandestine and villainous attempts of princes to ruin liberty are pointed out, and the dreadful scenes of despotism disclosed, to which is prefixed an address to the electors of Great Britain, in order to draw their timely attention to the choice of proper representatives in the next Parliament. As evidenced from the title, Marat often made use of incendiary invectives, marking him as one of history’s most potent political agitators. Chains of Slavery gave what Marat considered to be crucial advice to the people of England; he warned them to “Reject boldly all who attempt to buy your votes…all who have any place at Court… [and] men of pompous titles.” He reassures them of their power to change the Parliament, exemplifying a real commitment to democratic principles. It is here that he first articulates a primitive precursor to the twentieth-century, Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony:
At first, and so long as the despotism is established and maintained by sheer force of arms, the people make many attempts to rid themselves of it...Hence, princes have found out a more subtle, but at the same time a more effective, way of placing and holding their subjects in slavery. They send them to sleep; they corrupt them; they cause them to lose the love for, and remembrance of, liberty, and even the bare idea of it… Fetes, pageants, national monuments, new roads, markets, and churches all tend to distract the attention of peoples from that enslavement…Writers, actors, artists, musicians, and many others are bought over by the monarch to effect his purpose.
He also provides the framework for an eighteenth-century critique of capitalism by condemning merchants who manufacture wants, claim loyalty according to where they can create the most profit, and monopolize whole industries to the detriment of working people and smaller enterprises.

His other major political work, from which he stays more or less true throughout his entire political career in France, was the “Plan de Législation criminelle.” It was Marat’s primary theoretical piece. While borrowing and expanding upon Rousseau quite heavily, “Législation criminelle” is also a pragmatic attempt to apply these theoretical principles. He begins, foreshadowing Marx by nearly a century, by noting that, laws written by the dominant class will necessarily reflect the interests of that dominant class. He then lays out the responsibilities of the state. “If, in order to maintain itself, society compels them to respect the established order, above all, it ought to protect them against the temptations of want,” he continues, “It owes them an assured subsistence, suitable clothing, complete protection, succour in illness, and care in their old age.” Upon this basis, Marat transcends bourgeoisie limitations and, further on, interrogates the legitimacy of property and the basis upon which the idea of theft is based, concluding that “only after an equal division between all” would theft no longer become a necessity for those in need. The only “legitimate foundation of all property,” he reiterates, is built when “all that is indispensable to our existence is ours, and nothing that is superfluous can legitimately belong to us, whilst others want necessaries.” He argues that taxation of the rich can provide national workshops to employ those willing to work, which remains quite a radical idea even today. He proposes to establish an “advocate of the poor” in every town who can provide for their defense and furthers the argument that “permanent tribunals” should be replaced with juries of peers. These ideas, especially in the context of the time they were written, were extraordinarily radical and revolutionary; they bore the seeds of socialism which, because of the material conditions of the society, the state of the means of production, and the social relations which existed, could not have been fully developed yet.

Marat’s critique of society is limited, however, given the historical and material conditions under which he formulated his political thought. First, he articulates a rather repressive idea that seems to synthesize conservative Christian values with modern Communist China’s population control methods, stating that the government has the right to control the chastity of citizens to promote the integrity of family values and “favouring propagation, which has always constituted the strength of empires.” In dealing with religious freedom he proclaims all should be free to worship as they please except for atheists who disclaim religious and attempt to push their ideas into the social sphere; at that point “he makes a dangerous use of his liberty, and he ought to lose it.” The most apparent criticism of all, however, comes from the fact that Marat operated without the benefit of having seen the advent of industrialism and modern capitalism; he therefore lacks a serious class analysis, relying instead upon a rather crude model where an understanding of economic, political, and intellectual evolution of society is sorely lacking. As Bax points out, regarding Marat’s thought, “At all times and in all ages, where political communities have existed, there was the cruel deceiving tyrant, and the good, deceived, enslaved people… All is so delightfully simple-black and white, bad and good, ruler and subject, prince and people!” Marat, being unable to articulate a more thorough analysis of society, is confined to simply exclaiming superficial, although not without importance, changes to society. Fundamental relations between employer and employed, owner and owned, while finding a kernel of investigation of the legitimacy into these relations, are left alone. Instead, the government exists to tax the rich and employ the poor, not to change society so that rich and poor do not exist at all.

These principles, laid out in London, would guide Marat through the rest of his life. Upon being offered a job as personal physician by a Frenchman, he left for Paris in 1777; this decision would prove of vital importance as Marat would find the developing political situation in France of prodigious magnitude. Over the previous one-hundred fifty years France had begun to evolve into the modern conception of a nation-state, urged on by the changing social relations, with all the bureaucracy and centralization associated with the fusion of local regions into a singular polity. Political life was separated into three categories, the First Estate consisting of the clergy, the Second Estate consisting of the nobles, and the third estate consisting of everyone else from traders to bankers and from laborers to peasants. These rather arbitrary caste divisions found their basis not upon actual social relations but instead feudal ideology and political holdovers. The growth of industrialism and mercantilism had galvanized the influence of the Third Estate while the laws confined it to a nominal political power. Along with this evolution of the social relations, new ideas began to surface, namely those associated with Rousseau and Voltaire; of equality and secularism, respectively. Marat, thus, found in the tumultuous political landscape of France the most promising to develop and practice his political ideals.

It was during this time that he became the victim of an unidentified skin disease, at that time incurable, which would seriously affect his temperament and writing and cause him untold misery until his death in 1793. It was also at this period that, although the exact date is unknown, Marat made the acquaintance of his future wife, Simmone Evrard. She would play a vital role in maintaining Marat’s health and financing his publishing exploits after he ran into legal and financial trouble, thus enabling him to continue his political work. Marat’s active in involvement in politics in France was not established until 1788 when he wrote a sixty-eight page pamphlet in anticipation of the 1788 Estates-General elections. Split into five parts, he outlined first the miseries incurred by the French people under the monarch, articulated a call for unison of action and long-term strategically planning in the second part, reiterating in the third section his warnings concerning the selection of representatives originally stated in Chains of Slavery, filled the fourth section with a detailed attack on the finance ministers, especially Necker, for the financial ruin of France, and finally concluded with a base proposal for a constitution. Holding true to his principles that no petty reforms will provide the needed change, he calls for a national assembly which holds sovereignty and replaced the unaccountable court of the king along with a free, just constitution based upon the outline laid out in his previous documents. These political writings began Marat’s nascent political career and surely had an impact upon those in the Third Estate who made the famous Tennis Court Oath, proclaiming the Third Estate the National Assembly and legitimate representatives of France.

The day Parisians stormed the Bastille, July 14, 1789, Marat was working in one of the election committees meant to oversee the election of the electors. After unsuccessfully attempting to persuade them to let him use the printing press, he sought out his own with his own funds, hoping to use his writing as a guide for the masses. Originally publishing the Publiciste parisien, by the thirteenth issue it had become a popular force and from the sixteenth issue it went under the new name of L’Ami du Peuple, or The People’s Friend. As Bax explains, Marat meant by the people “the whole of society outside the governing class…[such as] monarchs, ministers, higher nobles and ecclesiastics, together with all those whose function it was to carry out the main work of government.” The monarch was the antithesis of the People whom were subject to his tyranny. He sums up his own attitude at this point:
I have not hesitated to set the Government against me, the princes, the clergy, the nobility, the parlement, the badly-disposed districts, the état-majors of the mercenary guard, the councillors of the courts of judicature, the advocates, the procurators, the financiers, the speculators, the depreciators, the blood-suckers of the State, and the innumerable army of public enemies.
Marat’s newspaper, as it is often referred to, would serve less as a newspaper in the common sense, which had not been differentiated from the pamphlet yet, and more of a journal containing both his theoretical postulations and agitational articles. It was, more or less, simply a practical application and commentary on the principles he had laid out in his previous works. He was more reminiscent of a modern blogger than a journalist. The only non-original pieces were those letters sent in by readers, which he often provided alongside his own opinion. These served as popular outlets for common people to make their voices heard. One such letter documents the personal story of a nun who, upon elucidating her support for those who stormed the Bastille, was beaten by a nun higher in the ecclesiastical order. Another, in the similar vein of popular independent media organs today, explicated upon a man’s story as a victim of police brutality; Marat calls for the violator to be arrested.

Marat even made a distinct advancement of his Rousseauite principles; where Rousseau argued the right of the majority the supreme authority in civil society, Marat took the principled stand that without constitutional rights for minorities, majority democracy was simply mob rule. He understood the essentiality of separation between the executive, legislative branches, and judicial branches. He promulgated the idea, a vital tenet to modern conceptions of democratic socialism, that the people retain the right to immediately recall representatives who fail to represent them. When, on the night of August 4th, liberal nobles showed a desire to compromise with the Third Estate by giving up a host of feudal privileges they were met with a rapturous applause by the people of Paris. Marat warned the people not to be deceived by their seemingly sincere self-sacrifices. He saw that the aristocracy would use this as leverage in shaping the constitution and commented that it was not very impressive for nobles to have “the magnanimity to renounce the privilege of holding in chains men who have recovered their liberty with arms in their hands…Let us admit that they have done that from virtue which might so easily have been attributed to fear.” Not long after this Marat became the target of consistent abuse and harassment by authorities under the auspices of Lafayette. Within two months of publishing the paper, he had two separate court orders and new ordinances allowed Lafayette’s thugs to brutalize and intimidate publishers and booksellers who would distribute Marat’s materials. Other means by Royalists were employed, such as forging issues of L’Ami du Peuple with false information and propagating a harmful political stance for the author, to damage Marat in hopes of him losing popularity and influence with the people.

END OF PART I (Sources attached to Part II)


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