Tribune of the People

Against the Current, No. 171, July/August 2014

K. Mann

Jean Paul Marat:
Tribune of the French Revolution
By Clifford D. Conner
Revolutionary Lives Series. Pluto Press, 2012, 178 pages, $21 paper.

THE HAUNTING IMAGE of Jean Louis David’s painting of revolutionary tribune Jean-Paul Marat dead in his bathtub, victim of a political assassination, is one of the most enduring of the French revolution.

David, the painter, himself a member of the revolutionary National Convention before succumbing to the allure of Napoleon, portrayed Marat in a timeless manner capturing his enduring image as a revolutionary martyr. At the same time, the painting’s dreamlike feel also reflects the murky legacy of Marat’s role in the revolution and its relevancy to revolutionary theory and practice.

Marat is one of the revolution’s most misunderstood and ignored figures. During the revolution he was constantly hounded by political enemies to his right, forced underground and threatened with imprisonment and worse, while his personality and political ideas were grossly distorted.

History has been most unfair as well; the reputation produced by the propaganda machine that painted him during his life as a self-promoting, bloodthirsty maniac seems to have influenced historians of all political sensibilities, precluding the type of serious analyses of his politics that Robespierre, St. Just, Danton, and Babeuf’s ideas and political engagement have received.

Recent work on Marat by French scholars has been sparse (Jean Massin, 1970, Olivier Coquard, 1993). The last English language biography of Marat was published in 1927 (Gottschalk). While Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky were all familiar with Robespierre and Babeuf and referred to them in their writings, Marat was for the most part under their radar screen.

Only in the 1880s upon reading a sympathetic biography of Marat published in France by Alfred Bougeart in 1865 (which earned Bougeart a prison sentence) did Engels come to appreciate both the degree to which Marat’s ideas had been distorted, and his role as revolutionary strategist.

Cliff Conner’s biography of Marat does much to rescue from obscurity the Tribune of the People, as he came to be known, and restore him to his place as a leading light of the advance guard of the revolution.

More importantly, Conner’s focus on Marat’s brilliance as a revolutionary political strategist lays the groundwork for a wider assessment of Marat’s notions of political strategy and tactics that can potentially enrich revolutionary theory and practice.

Conner, a longtime socialist activist and Marxist historian with a special interest in science, published an intellectual biography of Marat in 1997, focusing on Marat’s career as an 18th century scientist. The present book is the fourth in a series by Pluto Press titled Revolutionary Lives, edited by Brian Doherty, Sarah Irving and Paul LeBlanc.

The French Revolution is one of history’s most researched subjects. Professional academic historians, journalists, political theorists of all sensibilities, novelists and playwrights have produced a staggering amount of printed material. Enormous quantities of primary source documentation produced during the revolution itself — some published, most unpublished — are available in archives, a portion of which is online.

Scholarly treatments of aspects of the Revolution by academic historians usually draw heavily on primary sources and are set in the context of specific scholarly debates. Conner relies heavily on primary sources but leaves broader scholarly debates aside.

The distortions of Marat’s life and ideas being so great, Conner begins his book with posing and answering a series of questions related to these distortions. He asks and provides evidence to answer in the negative whether Marat was a “common criminal” as had been alleged, whether he was “clinically insane” or a “charlatan.”

Conner carefully reviews each of these claims against the evidence and persuasively rejects them all. Conner draws on his research on Marat’s life as a scientist in the years before finding his avocation as revolutionary agitator, as well as his broad knowledge of 18th century intellectual life in France and Europe, to refute some of the calumnious claims against Marat.

Marat and Violence

 Conner also critically examines one of the most oft-repeated charges against the Tribune, that he promoted the most violent revolutionary measures. Opponents of Marat both during the revolution and posthumously cited his writings and speeches supposedly calling for mass executions as proof of his pathological fascination with violence. Although he had already been himself assassinated, Marat’s opponents credited him with inspiring the paroxysm of violence running from September 1793 to July 1794 known as the “Reign of terror.”

During the period of rightwing violence known as the Thermidorian reaction following the fall and execution of Robespierre and other Jacobin leaders in the summer of 1794, Marat began to be posthumously blamed for the infamous “September massacres” of 1792. But Conner effectively defends Marat from charges that he was a bloodthirsty proponent of violence. He points out that Marat predicted rather than called for violence in his writings.

More generally, Conner maintains that Marat “did not relish violence for its own sake; he saw it first of all as a natural response of oppressed people to the ‘violence of the status quo,’ and secondly as the only possible means of defense against the violence of the counterrevolution.” (148)

One of the most impressive features of this book is Conner’s skillful placing of Marat within the complicated, shifting landscapes of the revolution itself.

Conner’s account will effectively guide both those with familiarity as well those with little or none with the course of the Revolution through the years 1789-1794. This is essential to his effort to analyze Marat’s brilliance as a political strategist, capable of quickly grasping the dynamics of rapidly shifting situations and proposing appropriate strategies in relation to them.

This close analysis is possible because Marat’s principal role in the revolution was as editor and publisher of what was often a daily newspaper, the entire contents of which were usually written by Marat himself. Conner draws on these to construct a precise record of Marat’s political strategy and ideas, and their evolution over time.

Marat founded the Ami du Peuple, one of dozens of political newspapers published during the early period of the revolution. He gradually distinguished himself as an uncompromising revolutionary with an uncanny sense of predicting future political developments within the revolution.

Politically, the newspaper “very quickly began to differentiate itself from competing revolutionary journals. The spectrum of opinion among them ranged from those believing that the July 14, 1789 insurrection had completed the revolution and those believing that the revolution had only taken a first step. Ami du peuple was at the latter end of the spectrum while most others fell between the two poles.” (48)

Some of Marat’s ideas would be easily rejected by today’s revolutionaries. He actually favored a “supreme dictator” who would safeguard the public interest for a short time until the masses were ready to rule. Conner quotes Marat as explaining that this figure would “be ‘armed with full public power and charged with punishing those who were to blame’ for the nation’s suffering.” (62)

Although Conner defends Marat from charges that he favored a totalitarian regime and points out that the Tribune later clarified his meaning to be “leader” rather than “dictator,” tragic subsequent historical developments would certainly make this aspect of Marat’s thought unappealing.

In addition Marat had little to say to future revolutionaries regarding political organization. As editor of a daily paper which was often forced underground to boot, Marat certainly had collaborators whom he had to organize. But he demonstrated no real sense of the need for a revolutionary party.

Although systematic theory and practice of revolutionary organizations would have to wait for Lenin, some of Marat’s contemporaries like Robespierre and Brissot built solid political organizations on which they could rely to advance their political agenda.

Marat as Political Strategist

Conner makes a strong case however, that as “a political strategist and tactician, Marat showed himself to be the equal of any of history’s most effective revolutionary leaders.” (152) He displayed an acute understanding that if the revolution didn’t move ahead, it would be undermined.

Conner shows how Marat saw how the moderate leaders of a given stage of the revolution, like Lafayette, actually played a counterrevolutionary role by blocking the consolidation of the revolution. This was the quality that also impressed Engels so much upon reading Bougeart’s biography of Marat.

As Engels put, it “Marat mercilessly removed the veil from the idols of the moment, Lafayette, Bailly and others, and exposed them as ready-made traitors to the revolution; and that he, like us, did not want the revolution declared complete, but lasting.”(1)

It was Marat’s genius in reading the complex political situation of the revolution that often limited his immediate political influence; he was often so far ahead of the masses and other revolutionary leaders that he frequently found himself isolated until events vindicated his positions. The ferocity of the repression against the moderate forces whom he denounced as tomorrow’s counterrevolutionaries also limited his influence.

Nevertheless, Conner credits Marat with playing a key role in what Conner considers the pivotal moment of the revolution. This was the popular insurrection in Paris of May 31 to June 2, 1793. At this point the Girondin deputies and their supporters had clearly decided that the revolution had gone too far and had themselves been implicated in the treason of the former revolutionary General Dumouriez who turned over revolutionary emissaries from Paris to the counterrevolutionary Austrian army before defecting to the Austrian side in April 1793.

The insurrection led to the arrest of the Girondin deputies, a move which Conner considers to be the “watershed of the revolution” (emphasis in original, 139) because it “cleared the way for the birth of the Jacobin Republic” which “consolidated and made irreversible” the essential anti-feudal gains of the revolution. This had long term historical ramifications paving the way for the “transformation from feudalism to capitalism.”(2)

Conner not only celebrates Marat’s uncompromising revolutionary resolve and tactical acumen; he endorses his course as the most consistent revolutionary voice of the French revolution.

Conner supports Marat against Danton and Robespierre on his right. He also supports Marat’s hostility to the revolutionary current on the far left represented by a group of revolutionary agitators known as the enragés, whom Conner characterizes as “ultraleft” footnoting Lenin’s polemic Left Communism: An Infantile Disorder in support, although Lenin’s pamphlet did not mention Marat.

Revolutionary or Ultraleft?

Conner highlights two areas of disagreement between Marat and the enragés. The first is their sense of timing and balance of forces. The enragés agitated in favor of the most advanced social demands of the revolution at a time when moderate and counterrevolutionary sentiment in the French provinces was subject to manipulation by the then ascendant moderate Girondin faction, which felt the revolution had already gone too far.

Marat believed that the enragés’ agitation at this moment could play into the hands of moderate and even counterrevolutionary forces outside Paris who could march on Paris and overturn the revolution.

The second area of disagreement concerned the enragés’ demand itself, that the central social demand of the popular urban classes in Paris, a maximum price ceiling on bread and other basic consumer goods be vigorously enforced.

The popular demand for a maximum price for food and basic goods could not be accepted by either wing of the pro-capitalist leadership of the revolution. Both the moderate Girondins, always suspicious of the popular masses, and the more Radical Jacobins far more willing to draw on popular anger, understood the threat to private property that the maximum represented.

Conner offers a brief sketch of Marat’s social and economic vision. “The single minded objective of the People’s Friend was to advance the social (emphasis in original) revolution in the most profound sense of the word. A revolution that toppled the monarchy or curbed the power of the aristocracy would mean little to Marat if it did not also raise the majority of the people out of abject poverty. ” (67)

Marat “went beyond the call for political equality and raised the banner of social equality.” (81) However, “Marat did not challenge the right to private property, but he maintained that people who were faced with starving to death had an absolute natural right (emphasis in original) to confiscate the surplus property of the wealthy.” (44) Yet in practice this right did not apparently include, in Marat’s view, support for the central social demand of the urban poor — the maximum.

Given the wide circulation of liberal ideas on the dangers of government intervention into the economy among educated European circles at the time, and the fact that Marat spent time in Britain while David Ricardo and Adam Smith were publishing defenses of capitalism and unfettered markets, suggests that he would have encountered and perhaps absorbed these ideas.

The demand and the controversy surrounding the maximum reflected both France’s social structure at the time and the realities of everyday life, particularly in the cities. Spikes in bread prices could literally threaten the lower rungs of urban population with starvation. Enforcing a maximum for bread prices was enormously popular among these social strata. At the same time, agitation around and implementation of the maximum threatened the broad popular alliance running from artisans and small shopkeepers to the small class of wage earners, to unskilled laborers, and the amorphous mass of marginalized urban poor.

Those from these social strata who participated in street demonstrations and revolts like the taking of the Bastille and other uprisings (referred to in French as journées), and participated in political clubs and mass assemblies were collectively known as sans culottes, in reference to the fact that men from these strata wore pants, rather than breeches. (47)

Since some of them, like bakers sold goods to the public and would be expected to oppose the maximum, this demand could threaten sans culotte unity.

The blurred lines between the social strata that constituted the sans culottes and the absence of a well-defined wage-earning proletariat reflected France’s late 18th century social structure, which impeded capitalist development.

While merchant capitalism had co-existed uneasily with feudal property relations for centuries, industrial capitalism was all but stifled by government policies favoring the inefficient, parasitical agricultural nobility over the economic and social policies necessary for capitalist development. This in turn retarded the development of a class of wage earners.

Bourgeois Revolution, Stagism, and “Permanent Revolution”

Endorsing or not the enragés and the demands of the urban poor, and therefore assessing the role of Robespierre and Marat in opposing them, presents problems for revolutionary Marxist scholars of the revolution like Conner. On the one hand, taking the side of Robespierre and Marat on this issue puts one retrospectively in the company of those who led the suppression of the vanguard of the advanced party of the revolution, as well opposing the demands of the hungry urban masses in the name of theory and programmatic considerations.

The issue of assessing the forces on the left of the revolution is also complicated by the ways Marxist theory was used by Stalinist politicians and historians in a “stagist” sense to support the popular front policies of Communist parties in the 1930s.

The historical materialist view of history developed by Marx and Engels sees slave, feudal, capitalist, socialist and communist societies as general stages of human civilization, and recognizes the role of capitalism in developing productive forces far beyond levels attained under feudal and slave societies.

Feudal social relations were viewed as “fetters” on the development of productive forces. Given the presence of a frustrated and energetic bourgeoisie and the absence of a large, coherent working class, revolution in 18th century France could only be bourgeois. But given the overall balance of forces, this ascendant bourgeoisie needed the support of the peasantry and urban poor.

In many ways their demands were compatible (the end of privileges for the Church and Nobility, civic equality, etc). But radical social and economic proposals favored by the popular masses, like the maximum bread price, were opposed by both radical Jacobin and more moderate Girondist bourgeois factions in the name of the principles of bourgeois political economy.

When pro-Communist Party twentieth century historians like Albert Soboul argued that the French revolution was fundamentally bourgeois, they were defending the general Marxist view of the revolution from anti-Marxist historians like Alfred Cobban. But their dismissal of the demands and aspirations of the popular classes and their vanguard provided support for the rigid stagist view of history that Stalin used as theoretical justification for the popular front policies that choked off revolution at several key points during the 20th century.

The French Trotskyist Daniel Guerin, inspired by Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution and perhaps reacting to Stalinist stagist politics, wrote a remarkable book on the revolution (1946). While endorsing the overall characterization of the French Revolution as fundamentally bourgeois, Guerin argued that an incipient process of permanent revolution was also present.

He argued that an admittedly small, but discernible wage earning proletariat separated itself from the mass of petty bourgeois sans culottes and raised independent demands that prefigured more modern forms of proletarian struggle under capitalism. He saw the enragés as their legitimate leadership, and cited Marx’s opinion that they were the “principal representatives of the revolutionary movement.”

For Marxist scholars like Conner who analyze a pivotal figure like Marat, the problem is posed of separating what is authentically Marxist in classic Marxist accounts by Soboul and others of the revolution as fundamentally bourgeois, from stagist notions that justify repression of advanced revolutionary forces in the name of theory and immediate political interests.

As a pivotal figure to the left of Robespierre but to the right of the enragés, Marat challenges Marxist historians and activists to determine the proper placing of the “goal posts” marking authentic revolutionary politics from ultraleft adventurism.

While Stalinist politicians, theorists and historians have retrospectively opposed all forces to the left of Marat, it may be true that the enragés in their time were ultraleft, i.e. pursuing a course that was ill timed or utopian. But a sustained examination of Marat’s role in the Revolution begs further consideration of the issue.

The richness and complexity of these issues underscore both the importance of studying revolutionary history and the ways that this thoughtful book about a maligned 18th century revolutionary can enrich what we know about revolutionary processes.

Conner ends by asking “where is the People’s Friend now, when we need him?” Indeed, ours is a period where revolutionary leadership is sorely needed. One need only look to the stalled revolutions of our time for examples where the lack of consistent revolutionary leadership and strategy threatens to undermine not only the deepening of the revolutionary process, but the consolidation of initial victories.

As today’s revolutionaries pursue their dreams of social justice, they’ll do well to study the ways that the Tribune of the People fought for those same goals in his time.


  1. Works of Frederick Engels 1884. Marx and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (1848-49) Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 26, 120; Written in mid-February and early March, 1884; First published: in Der Sozialdemokrat. March 13, 1884; Transcribed by Andy Blunden.
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  2. Conner develops this point, writing “An essential prerequisite to the development of a capitalist economy is the existence of a free labor force — a pool of propertyless people who in order to survive are forced to become wage workers. As long as the vast majority of the population is unable to leave the land, no such labor force is possible and capitalist development is sharply restricted. That was the accomplishment of the Jacobin Republic.” (141) This statement correctly explains the broad lines of capitalist development. However, it is somewhat inaccurate as applied to the French revolution and its subsequent effects on industrial capitalism in France. While the overthrow of the remnants of feudalism, the aristocracy and the monarchy, along with the rise of bourgeois power, created the general prerequisites for the development of capitalism, the actual course and settlement of the revolution in the short and medium term actually retarded the rapid rise of an urban proletariat. This was because the land of counterrevolutionary émigré nobles were often acquired by medium and even small peasants which helped to keep them on the land, making them small property owners rather than property less proletarians. This made the pace of urban growth and the formation of an industrial working class much more gradual than in other countries experiencing similar political and economic development. Conner’s statement fits the English case better. In England a series of “enclosures” of communal lands between the 16th and 18th centuries drove much of the English peasantry off the land and into cities, making them available for wage labor.
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Conner, Clifford D.  1997. Jean Paul Marat: Scientist and Revolutionary. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Coquard, Olivier. 1993. Marat. Paris: Fayard.

Gottschalk, Louis.  1927. Jean Paul Marat: A study in Radicalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Guerin, Daniel. 1946. La lutte des classes sous la Première République, 1793-1797, Paris, Gallimard, 2 vol., 1946 (édition abrégée : Bourgeois et bras-nus, 1793-1795, 1968).

Massin, Jean. 1970, Marat. Paris: Club français du livre.

Soboul, Albert. 1967. A Short History of the French Revolution, 1789-1799. Berkeley: University of California Press.

July/August 2014, ATC 171

1 comment

  1. Marat’s call for a dictator/tribune, which is cited in Peter Weiss’ play “Marat/Sade,” while sounding offensive to the “democratic” sensibilities of today’s Stalinophobic “left,” was not an uncommon opinion amongst revolutionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries, as my old friend, K. Mann, surely knows from his studies of that period.

    As Hal Draper and Roy Medvedev, amongst others, has pointed out, it was based on readings of Roman history, which many of the French revolutionaries looked to in the same way that the Russians later looked to the French revolution and, we, for better or worse, looked to the Russian revolution.

    The dictator/tribune was to be given unlimited powers for a limited time to accomplish a specific task and was then expected to step down and relinquish power. Both Babeuf and Blanqui, as advocates of revolutionary conspiracies carried out by minorities in the interest of the majority, called for such “dictatorships” until the revolution had accomplished its task of raising the consciousness of the majority to that of the minority, In 1848, Blanqui and his followers, quite correctly, called for the postponing of elections until the revolution had time to educate the masses, lest the most backward sections of the population, ie, the peasants, become voting fodder for the reactionaries.

    It was, of course, Marx and Engels, who in “discovering” the revolutionary role of the working class, resolved this contradiction, with their call for a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” that is, the rule of the working class majority over the minority of exploiters and oppressors. How this played itself out in 20th century revolutions is another story for another article.

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