Marat: Champion of the Urban Poor

Morris Slavin

Jean Paul Marat, Scientist and Revolutionary. by Clifford D. Conner. (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press International, 1997) 285 pages + xiii. cloth $55.

CLIFFORD CONNER’S MARAT has little in common with the irrational figure presented by Peter Weiss in his drama “Marat/Sade.”Nor is Marat the demagogue that some biographers, paint, often by selecting indefensible statements from his journal, l’Ami du peuple.

An opposite point of view can easily be gained from gazing at David’s well known portrait of Marat, dead in his bathtub—the “pieta”of the French Revolution. In either case, the real Marat is lost.

Marat, Conner makes clear, was a serious scientist long before the outbreak of the French Revolution. To begin with, the future revolutionary was a doctor of medicine with a degree earned from St. Andrew medical school in Scotland. His writings reflect a knowledge of medicine of the day, while the testimonials of patients make clear that his techniques and healing powers were in no way inferior to those of his contemporaries.

Paradoxically, Marat became doctor to the bodyguard of Louis XVI’s younger brother, the Count of Artois, destined to be the last Bourbon king as Charles X.

A decade before the revolution Marat was busy investigating the properties of heat, light and electricity. His essays describing the experiments conducted won a number of prizes and one of his books was translated into German.

Members of the Academy of Science, including Benjamin Franklin, expressed appreciation for his research—this, despite the disputes and differences that Marat developed with individual members of the Academy.

Conner informs us that Marat conducted 166 different experiments on the properties of heat, and that he used some sophisticated apparatus, including a solar microscope. A number of these devices are illustrated and reproduced in the book.

In April, 1779 the commission appointed by the Academy of Science concluded that Marat’s experiments “open a great field of new research in physics.”Franklin accompanied the commission to view Marat’s laboratory, and Lamarck also lauded Marat’s work. (77, 78-79)

When Marat published his investigation of light, hoping to revise Newton’s theories, the Academy rebuffed this attempt. But whatever the merits of Marat’s investigation, Goethe thought that Marat’s theories were a significant challenge to Newton in the field of optics. (109)

Marat also conducted more than 200 experiments on the new phenomenon of electricity hoping to arrive at a theoretical formulation from “the confusing pool of empirical facts.”(113)

The Leyden jar and the electrostatic generator had made their appearance and Marat experimented with both, concluding that electricity was a “fluid in motion.”Whatever the nature of this “fluid,”Marat gave credit to Benjamin Franklin as deserving the greatest honor for his famous experiment on lightning. (120)

A number of current scientists, although opposed to Marat’s politics, agree that Marat produced “creditable medical papers,”that his knowledge of scientific literature was profound, and that his experiments were no different from those of “early scientists who have explored the world.”(60)

It should be noted that almost half of Connor’s work is devoted to the future revolutionary’s scientific research. That Conner can judge the value of this research is clear, since he has taught the history of science for some years at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. Thus, Conner concludes that charges against Marat “that he was a pseudoscientist are untrue.”(140)

Remembered for the Revolution

Had there been no revolution in France, however, it is doubtful if Marat’s name would have survived, It is because Marat anticipated many political developments from 1789 to 1793 and wrote passionately about them that he became widely known.

As early as 1774 he had published a book under the title Chains of Slavery, in which he had denounced the despotism of kings and championed human rights and popular liberty. With the fall of the Bastille he now had the opportunity to put his ideals into practice.

As “the people’s friend,”Marat began to champion the democratic aspirations of the French. Like many other revolutionaries he praised Louis XVI as “a restorer of French liberties,”but shortly thereafter he warned against the growing treachery of the court. When the king, as defender of ancient privileges, showed his true colors Marat warned that privilege was “incompatible with the interests of the people.”(151)

In September of 1789 he began a general campaign against the National Assembly and the Paris Commune, both institutions still in the hands of conservatives. As a result, he was arrested and released, an experience he was to undergo several times, forcing him to go underground and even to seek refuge in England.

Although Marat supported the birth of popular societies it is an exaggeration to believe that he was their “father.”Both the Jacobins and the Cordeliers clubs preceded his endorsement of this important democratic development.

Unlike many deputies Marat was rightly suspicious of Mirabeau and doubly so of the king’s attempt to flee France. (187) Louis’ flight to Varennes in June 1791 brought a demand from Marat that a “chief,”a military tribune, be appointed with dictatorial powers to end the political crisis.

Luckily for the future of the republic the government weathered the emergency—but it did so by adopting a conservative constitution that excluded half the male citizens from the suffrage.

The Champ de Mars Massacre broadened the gulf between the radical-democratic forces and the constituted authorities. Marat warned against the threat of Lafayette but felt discouraged with the general political situation. This was aggravated when the Legislative Assembly committed France to war.

Like Robespierre, Marat opposed the drift to war and warned against this irresponsible policy. (206-207) Once the war had begun, however, Marat demanded the dismissal of aristocratic officers from the army. It was only with the arrival of troops from the departments, the federes, in the summer of 1792 that Marat’s fighting spirit was again revived. On 10 August the monarchy was overthrown and the next month a republic was finally established.

As a member of the Surveillance Committee of the capital, Marat was held responsible for the massacres of prisoners in the early weeks of September 1792. (217-19) Yet an investigation of this sad event demonstrates that after the publication of Brunswick’s threat to exterminate the Parisians no government committee had the power to stop the killings, as Robespierre admitted.

Conflict and Assassination

Despite the profound differences that separated Marat from Robespierre both were committed to preserving the republic against the attempted counterrevolution. In the elections that followed the overthrow of the king Marat was sent to the Convention partly as a result of Robespierre’s endorsement.

As a member of the government Marat became critical of the Enrages [the extreme left of the revolutionary forces—ed.] whom he now accused of being irresponsible, and even subversive. The latter criticized the Jacobin Constitution for not proscribing speculation and hoarding. In addition, Marat clashed with Jacques Roux, the result of a personal misunderstanding.

More important were Marat’s differences with the Girondins [a “moderate”revolutionary faction—ed.] whom he held responsible for the war and for encouraging the counterrevolution. They, in turn, placed him on trial from which he emerged more popular than ever.

To break their hold on the Convention Marat urged a purge of that body, but it is an exaggeration to believe that he was responsible for the insurrection that overthrew the Girondin leadership. This was done by a revolutionary committee elected by the more radical sections of Paris.

With the Jacobin deputies (the Mountain) now in power, Marat felt that his political work was done. His denunciation of the Girondins, however, had encouraged a young woman by name of Charlotte Corday to avenge her friends. Gaining access to Marat under the pretext that she had important information to share with him, and finding herself temporarily alone with him, she stabbed him to death as he was reading her alleged report.

For a time Marat became the chief martyr of the French Revolution and his heart was enshrined by the Cordeliers Club, but with the fall of Robespierre and the Thermidorian Reaction that followed, Marat’s remains found an unmarked grave and his name became anathema to the counterrevolution.

Two centuries after Marat’s death those who vilify the French Revolution defame Marat as one of its symbols. Connor helps restore the real Marat as scientist and revolutionary, and as one who championed the democratic aspirations of the urban poor known as sans-culottes.

ATC 76, September-October 1998

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