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.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

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


October of 1789 marked yet another turning point in French history when the “Insurrection of Women” forced Louis XVI and his family to return from Versailles to Paris. The king, who had blatantly disrespected the tri-color liberty hat, a symbol of French republicanism, angered an already frustrated mass of people suffering from lack of adequate bread rations. Marat, for three weeks prior to the event, had been chronicling the shortage of bread and calling for the monarch to be put under watch in Paris; it was his words that helped, at least to some extent, galvanize the march on the palace. This infuriated authorities who wasted little time in advancing further their interest in arresting him. They issued a court order, so Marat left Paris to hide in Versailles where he was subsequently found by sympathetic National Guardsmen who let him go and he finally ended up in a basement dwelling of Montmarte where he could write safely. Spies, however, finally found him and forced him to show up to court in December, where he was finally acquitted; at court he demanded his presses, seized by Lafayette, be returned and within fourteen days they were. All the time his popularity increased, as more readers avidly sought out the next issue of L’Ami du Peuple.

He established an office closed to the Cordelier’s Club but, in January of 1790, he was once again wanted by the authorities. Lafayette ordered three full battalions, around three-thousand men of whom he knew were reactionary in their political composition, to take control of the street where Marat lived and surround his dwelling. Marat had been forewarned, however, and managed to escape. Frustrated, the men destroyed everything he owned, including his presses, and seized many of his letters and papers. A Royalist observer at the time, Montjoie, noted, “This was so extraordinary that, had I not been a witness of it myself, I should never have believed it. Conceive indeed this ‘hero of two worlds’ deploying forces so formidable against a crank whose only arm was his pen.” For days he eluded the guards capture, making plans to exit France in order to find safety in London. Danton and the Cordelier’s Club, however, took up Marat’s legal defense and, although ultimately unsuccessful for Danton, the case thrust him from his vocation as local orator into national spotlight. From London Marat gave up L’Ami du Peuple for the time and focused his attacks directly on the economic aspect of the debate, writing another scathing piece against Necker whom, having made a reappearance in political life, he blamed for France’s current financial ruin.

After four months he returned to Paris when, soon after, new anti-journalist legislation was passed and he was forced into hiding. From this point on, he would spend nearly two years moving from cellar to cellar, escaping the persecution of authorities:
Working, often day and night, in these damp, subterranean retreats, by the miserable light of a small oil lamp, constantly burning, the fumes of which poisoned the low, ill-ventilated apartment, his eyelids would become badly inflamed, and he contracted a continual insomnia, which combined with the malady from which he was suffering and his originally highly-strung and delicate constitution to make his life one long torture.

Marat, however, began to employ not only his paper, but also placards as a means of agitation. If the issue was of dire importance, he would have posters placed all around Paris. One such poster contained a phrase, which historians have almost universally condemned as the ranting of a bloodthirsty madman, urged the removal of counter-revolutionaries: “Five or six hundred heads lopped off would have assured you repose and happiness; a false humanity has restrained your arm and suspended your blows; it will cost the lives of millions of your brothers.” Marat remained committed to various political struggles and gave his opinion almost daily on important occurrences. Marat, at this point, had the most widely read and circulated paper in all of Paris; but, while he enjoyed this reputation, Lafayette also was at the zenith of his authority. Harnessing such power, Lafayette once again, in September of 1790, targeted Marat by smashing up printing presses who published his work and intimidating his primary distributor. Marat’s wit and fortitude had forced him to long ago consider a back-up plan, and he continued printing despite such major disturbances.

Not long after this the famous French economist, Mirabeau, died and Marat called him out as the Royalist that he was claiming he supported despotism after the fall of the Bastille, was responsible for martial law, the suspensive veto power of the king, the hated silver mark reducing the electorate, the devaluation of currency, and the permission of émigré conspirators to leave France, among other things. He also suspected the betrayal of Dumouriez prior to it occurring. By 1971 his words invoked much respect from the people of Paris. He regarded the vast majority of work written by the Constituent Assembly, with the exception of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, an utter debacle poisoned by the reactionary energy with which it was authored. Marat, at one point, even lost all confidence in the people, betraying his sometimes elitist tendency, and suffered from bouts of depression during which he contemplated leaving permanently for London. Marat’s intense frustration can be seen when, on the second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, a mass demonstration at the Champ de Mars organized by Danton and the Cordelier’s Club to force the Assembly to consult the people prior to making any judgment on the king. Lafayette’s troops opened fire and killed around fifty demonstrators. Marat, in utter contempt, wrote “I would have…stabbed Lafayette to death, burned the despot in his palace and impaled our odious representatives on their benches.” At this point, concerning the debate of what to do with the king, Mark Steel notes that Marat “sounded like a Marxist” when he took the side of the Montagnards, arguing that the abolition of divisions in status was essential to lessen economic inequality; he reinforced this by proclaiming “Without the workers, society could not exist for a single day…These publicans drink he workers’ blood in cups of gold.”

By March of 1792, however, Marat regained his previous enthusiasm as events had drastically changed the landscape of France: Lafayette was no longer command of the guard, émigrés were now being accused of conspiracy against the Republic, France was surrounded by a foreign coalition of hostile nations, and Royalist rebels were taking up arms. Marat denounced the call to war as simply a “way of distracting the nation from internal matters by occupying it with foreign affairs” which would “drown home troubles in the news of the gazettes, [waste] the national wealth in military preparations, [crush] the State under the burden of taxes, [kill] the patriots of the army of the line and of the citizen army…under the pretext of defending the frontiers of the empire.” Marat’s position, however, isolated him from the majority of political representatives at the time.

He continued his agitation until, in the spring of 1793, the Jacobins took power and established radical principles outlined in a new constitution. At one point during the debates of what should be included, he argued that the right of man “to deal with their oppressors by devouring their palpitating hearts” be asserted in it ; It cannot be denied that at certain points, Marat’s incendiary style was too much. Danton became the Minister of Justice and Marat was offered a position of advisor to the new Assembly and to seize the old printing presses of the court. Marat served on a Committee of Surveillance during the September massacre of political prisoners. He maintained, despite claims of historians that he led the charge to kill the prisoners, that it was, more or less, a spontaneous act committed by furious Parisians when moderate and reactionary judges failed to persecute known Royalist counter-revolutionaries. Evidence seems to suggest he is correct; two days prior, a known Royalist plotter, Montmarin, was acquitted on all charges by a judge with Royalist sympathies. Paris erupted at the decision and, as Marat explains, rather than leading the call for massacres, he only helped to direct the aggression towards known Royalists and away from those involved in petty crimes. Eventually Marat was elected to the Legislature, where he quickly called to put the king on trial. Oftentimes his radicalism isolated him from both Girondin and Jacobin representatives. Other, more reactionary ideas also isolated him from the rest; such as his call for a temporary dictatorship as a means of removing conspirators against the Republic. This position, perhaps more than all else, has condemned Marat to the dustbin along with other despots of history; it was rightfully criticized and stands starkly opposed to any conception of democratic theory and the majority of Marat’s other positions. This call for dictatorship cannot be ignored, but it also cannot be the only merit upon which Marat is judged.

Hated and despised by the Girondins especially, it did not take long for them to find in him some flaw which they could order his arrest. When bread-riots broke out, they blamed him for instigating them. At one point they attempted to arrest him inside the legislature, where he escaped, surrounded by a rather large crowd. Eventually he gave himself up for arrest on the 23rd of April and was tried before the nascent Revolutionary Tribunal the next day. They concluded that “[We] declare that we have observed nothing in these writings of Marat calculated to substantiate the crimes which are imputed to him.” Immediately people rushed forward and a massive celebration erupted. Marat was paraded through the streets of Paris upon the shoulders of supporters. His immense popularity was lucidly displayed as thousands of hats waved, shouts of joy were heard, bouquets of flowers were thrown to him, and various important figures gave speeches on his behalf. “Marat had become the personification of the French Revolution,” Bax explains, “the embodiment, in his own short, thick-set, rough, and unkempt figure, of the current ideal of liberty, of the sovereignty of the people…[his] triumph sounded the death-knell of the Girondins.” However, it was not long after this Marat’s health became increasingly dire. For months at a time he was confined to his bed, his only solace the comfort and care provided him by Simmone.

Denounced and hated by the wealthy classes, Marat’s success considerably angered one young noble woman in particular. Marianne Charlotte de Corday d’Armont, born to a family of small nobility, fostered intense dislike for the Jacobins. Having received Girodin exiles after the Jacobin rise to power, she began to plot the assassination of whom she, and thousands others undoubtedly, believed to be the very embodiment of French radicalism. She left her home in Caen for Paris on July 9th and, pretending to be a letter-carrier for a prominent Girondin politician, hoped to gain access to the Legislature floor where she would, in all its dramatic infamy, carry out Marat’s murder. Finding he had been confined to his room for months, she then changed plans and attempted to reach him there. Four days later, after stopping at the butcher to purchase a strong knife for her purpose, she reached Marat’s residence and was turned back at first by Simmone. Undeterred, she came back, and under the pretense of having vital information concerning Royalist conspirators for him, she attempted to gain access once again. When a dispute arose between her and Simmone, Marat, hearing it from his bathtub upstairs, where he spent much of his time due to the skin disease, told Simmone to allow her entrance. Stephan Miller notes that “the only consistent position he held was the need for vigilance” and while he “did not have a deathbed project…his reason for admitting Corday can be called one: unmasking counter-revolutionaries.” He quickly scrawled down false names as she pretended to give him genuine information to publish in the next issue of his paper when she drew the knife from her corset and thrust it into his side, puncturing his lung. Within minutes Marat, the People’s Friend, was dead, murdered by Charlotte Corday.

The details of his murder spread quickly through Paris. For days it was the topic of conversation in the city and people compared Marat to Jesus. One sans-culotte orator shot back, however, that “Marat was not made to be compared to Jesus: the latter had given birth to superstition and had defended kings, while Marat had the courage to crush them.” Charlotte Corday received the guillotine for her actions, and had to be escorted by guards to avoid street justice by angry Parisians. Marat the Martyr became a symbol for the revolution:
Rings, scarf-pins, medallions were manufactured by the hundred thousand and sold as fast as they were made. His bust was prominent at every public meeting-place, his portrait hung in every citizen’s room, however poor…Sections, streets, and public places were named after Marat...Women christened their children Marat... the tragedy now on everybody’s lips became a favourite theme of theatrical representation. For weeks the death of Marat was exhibited on the stage of all the principal theatres of Paris…Hymns to the memory of the “People’s Martyr” were composed by hundreds and hawked about the streets… The urn containing the remains was then carried into the [Panthéon] by the great entrance door, the same time that the “impure” corpse of Mirabeau, which had been formerly accorded the same honour, was ignominiously thrust out at a side door.
Ian Germani labels this phenomenon the “Cult of Marat.” Six months later, however, with the ascension of the Thermidorian Reaction came the destruction of Marat as hero. Statues were removed, pictures torn down, and his name ran through the mud. “By turning against the popular movement and the popular Cult of Marat, the revolutionary government began the process of reaction which would lead, ultimately, to its own destruction…” This ideological shift would promote Marat the murderer, the monster, the villain; the idea of Marat as the People’s Friend, as the principled advocate of the poor and the workers was to be erased from history forever. His wife, Simmone, was left “twenty-five sous, barely enough for two bags of sugar at the knockdown sans-culotte price.” She died in poverty thirty years later, alone and forgotten.

Thus, the man whose very vocation was advocate of the people became, in the minds of the generations afterwards and due to the distortions of bourgeois historians, nothing more than a radical, bloodthirsty enemy of freedom and decency. Marat as popular revolutionary, captivating writer, social reformer, and early criticizer of capitalism are forgotten. Undoubtedly his positions and views were of an extremely radical nature for French society in the late eighteenth century; some remain radical today. He provided France with a tireless defiance of feudalism, aristocracy, rule by the rich, and bureaucratic centralization. He showed considerable foresight for his early critique of capitalist society and the stranglehold it allowed the rich to take upon the majority. Until his death he fought desperately for the poor, the underfed, the working people, and the unemployed; characteristics any serious, democratic, grassroots socialist organization could admire. This is not to say the limitations of the time did not impinge upon his analysis. Marat was not fully able to articulate the intricacies of the social relations at the time, nor was he able to develop a truly democratic method of organization that relied upon working-class to change society, as evidenced by his calls for temporary dictatorship and fluctuating lack of confidence in the people. Likewise, his eccentric style often failed to help his cause, but his sometimes violent rhetoric should be understood within the context of a violent society and a tumultuous, revolutionary upsurge. Indeed, as he explains, “No one more than I abhors the spilling of blood; but to prevent floods of it from flowing, I urge you to pour out a few drops.” Despite these flaws, he remained an extraordinarily popular figure throughout his political life. His influence on the French revolution is only tenuously documented by many prominent historians. Perhaps this is because his radical views, even today, would provide a challenge to the established socioeconomic order. Whatever the reason, Marat deserves to be rescued from the invectives of conservative historians.

Works Cited

Bax, Ernest Belfort. Jean-Paul Marat: The People’s Friend. Accessed 30 July, 2009, available from; Internet.

Conner, Clifford D. Jean Paul Marat: Scientist and Revolutionary. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1998.

Germani, Ian. Jean-Paul Marat: Hero and Anti-Hero of the French Revolution. Lempeter, Wales: The Edwin Mellon Press, 1992.

Miller, Stephan. “The Death of Marat,” Three Deaths and Enlightenment Thought. London: Bucknell University Press, 2001.

Steel, Mark. Vive La Revolution: A Stand-Up History of the French Revolution. Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2006.


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