THE FRENCH Revolution between 1789 and 1794 was the first time in history that revolutionary newspapers played a decisive role in shaping the course of events. The revolution was the key battle in the birth of the modern capitalist world. It swept away the old feudal order of aristocrats and kings. In its place it forged a national state dominated by the middle class of merchants, doctors, lawyers.
The old order fought ferociously to hang on to power. Time and again the revolution only went forward when a section of the new capitalist class allied itself with the mass of ordinary people to defeat counter-revolution. Jean-Paul Marat was one of the most radical and influential of the revolutionary leaders. His influence was entirely due to the revolutionary paper he produced, L’Ami du Peuple (The People’s Friend). Its circulation was around 2,000 copies a day. It was widely read among the key activists who led the revolution on the ground.
Marat’s paper was read aloud in the new political clubs and local area ‘section’ meetings which drove the revolution forward. It was mostly written by Marat himself. Letters from readers played a big part too. The paper constantly railed against complacency and demanded firmer action against the old order.
Marat warned his readers, ‘I am indignant against our foolish regard for our cruel enemies-fools we are, we fear to cause them a scratch. Let them be masters for one day and you will see them overrun the provinces, fire and sword in hand, striking down all who offer resistance, massacring the friends of the country, slaughtering women and children, and reducing our cities to ashes.’
Marat knew that the middle class could only defeat the old order by mobilising the mass of ordinary people. That is why he insisted his audience were ‘the unfortunates, the oppressed, the persecuted who each day ask for my support against their oppressors’.
He was scornful against those who attacked him for writing in plain popular language and not the literary style of the middle class: ‘It is for the people and not for the learned or gentlemen of the world that I write. My first aim is to be well understood.’ Throughout 1790 and 1791 Marat warned that the revolution was in danger: ‘The royal family is planning again to flee. The monarch plans to put himself at the head of the enemies of the revolution to attempt a counter-revolution.’ He was proved right in June 1791 when the royal family fled from Paris heading to the border to join counter-revolutionary armies. Had they succeeded the revolution may have been crushed.
The ‘moderate’ leaders then in power did nothing. But Marat’s warnings, and those of fellow revolutionary journalist Camille Desmoulins, had found an audience. One history describes how, ‘Their message was so well spread that when the royal coach was fleeing it found everywhere on the route people on the lookout.’
At Varennes, a few hours short of the border, the king was halted and arrested by the local postmaster, Jean-Baptiste Drouet. Marat’s was only the most important of the papers of the French Revolution. There were others that sought to influence the mass of people. After the summer of 1794 the revolution had crushed the old order. A more right wing section of the middle class came to power. The poverty and injustice which ordinary people still suffered led some people to radicalise and argue for a new revolution.
Gracchus Babeuf looked beyond just getting rid of the old feudal and aristocratic order to a fight for a new more equal society. Babeuf organised a network of supporters around his paper The Tribune of the People. One history gives a flavour of how: ‘A letter from Babeuf’s son Emile, aged at the time ten and a half, gives a graphic picture of the distribution of number 41 of the Tribune of the People.
‘He visited the local cobbler and various male and female citizens. In each case they took six or a dozen papers, paid for their own and one for a friend and promised to pass on the rest.’
The increasingly reactionary government smashed Babeuf’s group, and he was executed in 1797. But his legacy, and that of the French Revolution, inspired the next generation of revolutionaries-this time those fighting the capitalist society the revolution had helped give birth to.
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