Sunday, February 22, 2015

Filippo Buonarroti and Radicalism

"This memory [of the Bastille] is full of hope. It shows us what the people can do when they are well directed; it teaches us to believe that the people will still understand liberty, that they are not as debased as their oppressors would wish, and that in an instant they can rise as one to break their chains and reclaim their rights."

Filippo Buonarroti (1761 – 1837) was Europe’s first professio...
nal revolutionary, and a political philosopher who advocated an extreme form of liberalism called Radicalism (or Jacobinism). He was born into the nobility, and distantly related to Michelangelo Buonarroti. However, he gave up his titles and privileges as a young man in order to devote himself to spreading the ideals of the Enlightenment. When Robespierre came to power, he became a French citizen and accepted a post in the government. When it was overthrown, he went into hiding, and swore to continue the struggle. Along with Gracchus Babeuf, he founded the Conspiracy of Equals – the first communist secret society in Europe. Babeuf was executed in 1796; Buonarotti, also arrested, languished in prison until 1802, when Napoleon freed him. In 1806 he moved to Geneva, where he founded a secret society. It was wiped out in 1823, so he moved to Brussels and founded another. When the July Revolution swept the Bourbons from power (1830), he returned to Paris. For the first time in thirty five years he was no longer an outlaw in his adopted country. Although he was an old man, he continued to work for “the great day” - when the people would rise as one, overthrow their oppressors, and establish a Republic of Virtue. Then the promise of the Enlightenment would be fulfilled at last, and all men would live in a true spirit of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

In his History of Babeuf’s Conspiracy for Equality (1828), Buonarroti argued that the Jacobins in general, and Robespierre in particular, had been the true friends of the people. In order to establish a Republic of Reason and Virtue, it was necessary for individuals to consider the needs of the community above their own private interest. Robespierre had done this – and so, naturally, they had been opposed by the cynical and corrupt, who only thought of their own advantage. In order to protect the Republic from their pernicious influence, these enemies of the people had to be put to death. The Terror was no crime – indeed, it had not gone far enough. Robespierre was betrayed by men too cowardly and selfish to embrace the future, but one day a new champion would carry on his noble work. 

 When the Republic is restored every private interest will be subordinated to the General Will. The arts and sciences will be discouraged, as tending toward the corruption of morals and the suppression of liberty. Commerce will be severely restricted, so that enervating luxuries can be kept out, and merchants, that “race of vampires,” cannot drag the rest of the community into their dirty little wars. Unnatural, corrupting cities will shrink with the decline of commerce, and return to their proper place as centers of government and civil society. Inequalities of wealth will be abolished, and the people would return to the land. There they will live the simple, virtuous lives of their ancestors. Eventually the selfish, futile nightmare of civilization will be forgotten, and the people will live once again as brothers and sisters.

The radical tradition in modern politics begins with Rousseau, extends through Robespierre, Babeuf, and Buonarotti to Fourier and Blanqui, to Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Marx, and from them to Kautsky, Malatesta, and Lenin. 

Sergei Nechayev: The Revolutionary Catechism
Babeuf's Conspiracy of Equals

Part of a series on the Enlightenment (XV of XVII)

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