By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
REVIEW: “Jean Paul Marat: Tribune of the French Revolution,” by Clifford D. Conner. (Pluto Press, London 2012.)
Historians have not been kind to Jean Paul Marat. Published scholars of the French Revolution, at least in the English language, almost invariably disparage Marat and his work, portraying him as a wild man, a demagogue, even a criminal. Some historians belittle Marat’s significance to the revolutionary struggle as being of small consequence, while others, in complete contradiction, credit his calls for the guillotine as a major inspiration for the Terror that began after his death.
Similarly, a glance at popular biographies of Marat on the internet will find little sympathy for the French leader. The on-line Encyclopedia Britannica states in its summary for young readers: “… Jean-Paul Marat was murdered at the peak of his power and influence. His own violent death came as a result of his fanatic support of violence and terror.” Another essay (NNDB, “tracking the entire world”) concludes: “He stands in history as a bloodthirsty monster, yet in judging him one must remember the persecutions he endured and the terrible disease from which he suffered.”
Peter Weiss’s musical play “Marat/Sade,” from 1963, is certainly sympathetic to Marat. But especially in its English-language rendition, the revolutionary leader (portrayed by an insane asylum inmate) is made to appear rather pathetic. Throughout the production, Marat declaims from his bathtub, as the loyal Simone Evrard sponges his disease-pocked body. When the “common people” of the asylum demand, “We want a revolution now,” Marat can offer them no effective leadership, and they end up in nihilistic riot.
The playwright, a Marxist, added an epilogue to the script in which Marat was brought back to life, and an attempt was made to present the political dialogue in more reasoned outline. But the epilogue is missing from English-language versions and from the popular Peter Brooke movie based on the play.
In truth, Marat was neither a bloodthirsty monster nor ineffectual in his political activities. The recurring nature of these slanders, in fact, might well raise suspicion that they were manufactured precisely in order to blot out Marat’s ideals and tactical successes as an example for social revolutionaries of later generations.
Although Marat’s ashes were removed from the Pantheon in Paris a year and a half after his death, he should be restored to our “pantheon” of revolutionary heroes. To that end, a biography of Marat was published in 2012 that aims to clear the record of the myths and half-truths concerning his political views and activity. And the book, “Jean Paul Marat, Tribune of the French Revolution,” goes even further in providing insight into Marat’s efforts as a political organizer, with the observation that such knowledge might be of use to social struggles today.
The author, Clifford D. Conner, a teacher at the City University of New York Graduate Center, has written several books in the fields of scientific and political history. In August 2020, Haymarket Books published his “The Tragedy of American Science—from Truman to Trump.” Earlier works include “A People’s History of Science” (Nation Books 2005).
Conner begins with a summary of Marat’s years as a physician and scientist. He debunks the notion, which originated in Marat’s own lifetime, that Marat was a charlatan or a crank. This topic was developed further in Conner’s book, “Jean Paul Marat: Scientist and Revolutionary” (Humanities Press 1997). In the 2012 volume, Conner rapidly leads us through the later phases of Marat’s life, in which Marat devoted himself almost exclusively to political journalism. The author shows that Marat was awakened—and even rejuvenated from the effects of his debilitating disease—by the political ferment that led to the French Revolution.
Conner notes that a broad range of social forces participated in the upsurge: “The process of the Revolution has been described as a succession of four overlapping revolutionary waves crashing against the monarchy. In the wake of the aristocratic rebellion, the bourgeoisie (the incipient capitalist class) joined the fray, and then the peasants, and finally the urban poor for whom Marat became the tribune.”
Other chroniclers of the French Revolution, such as Albert Soboul, have pointed out that protests by the poorer classes often took place in the years preceding the revolution, as living conditions steadily worsened. But these protests had been local and generally sporadic in character. Moreover, the majority of the population was itself divided. Some 80 percent of the French population was comprised of small peasants as well as rural laborers who thirsted for land. And the working populace of the towns and cities was stratified. Its “higher” ranks included master craftsman and small merchants, many of whom identified with the bourgeoisie more than with the journeymen, apprentices, and laborers who worked in their shops. However, the mass movement against royal privileges, and later against the aristocracy, was able to unite the disparate classes into a united revolutionary movement—at least for a time.
Conner shows that Marat’s views at the beginning of the revolution were not yet very radical. At the time of the fall of the Bastille, on July 14, 1789, Marat was still a political unknown, and still harbored illusions that the king could help bring democracy to the nation. But the mobilizations of the common people so inspired Marat that he quickly adapted his views. He began to publish a journal, L’ami du peuple (The People’s Friend), which championed the demands of the masses for social equality and economic justice.
In taking this stance, Marat soon encountered the wrath of major political leaders—not only functionaries left over from the old regime but also ostensibly “revolutionary” (though conservative) politicians. His courageous refusal to back down in the face of slanders and outright police repression only increased his political influence. Marat’s wide circle of supporters defended and hid him from the police.
Louis XVI’s failed attempt to escape Paris in June 1791, and the appearance of evidence that the king had conspired against the Revolution, began to strip away any confidence in schemes to retain a constitutional monarchy. Conner shows, however, that Marat was far from elated by the outcome: “In his view, the people had not yet fully awakened, but were sleepwalking, wandering in confusion, far, far from achieving the political clarity that would be necessary to consolidate the Revolution.”
The following year, the population was gripped by chauvinistic war fever, when France declared war on Austria. But Marat refused to join the celebrations, even going so far as to say that French defeats would be preferable to victories. “There’s a real danger,” he wrote, that one of our own generals might win a victory and, manipulating the drunken joy of his soldiers and the population, might lead his victorious army against Paris to reestablish the King’s power.”
Marat’s prediction was proven correct sometime later, when Charles François Dumouriez, the major French military commander in the field, threatened to march on Paris to expel the radical wing from the National Convention. Soon Dumouriez defected to the Austrian army—and later to the British.
The accuracy of this and other “prophecies” that Marat made in his newspaper reflected in part the access he had acquired to “inside” information—often supplied by his underground supporters within the army, government, and in the streets. But it also showed his acute ability to analyze such information within the context of strategic debate. In many circumstances, the clashes of political forces within the Revolution were an expression of the elemental conflicts between social classes. During this era, of course, the two major opposed classes of today, proletariat and capitalists, were only beginning to develop.
In the spring of 1793, the French Revolution was quickly rising to its apogee, and Marat was climbing to the height of his powers. The conservative Girondist wing of the National Convention attempted a counterattack against Marat, indicting him for “sedition.” Instead of simply denouncing his accusers, however, Marat demanded a trial, which he then used as a forum not only to demonstrate that the charges were absurd but to condemn the Girondins for their complicity with Dumouriez.
Within a month, it became apparent that popular sentiment had turned against the Gironde and toward the radical wing of the Convention, the Montagnards and Jacobins. Tens of thousands of people came into the streets and blockaded the Convention, demanding that the Girondist delegates resign. Marat had earlier cautioned against a premature uprising—which should put to rest the history-book image of him as a violence-prone “wild man.” But the situation had changed; seeing the masses in the streets, he gave the word that “now is the time” for decisive action. Marat was instrumental in persuading the Girondins to leave the Convention, thus avoiding the necessity of a pitched battle to force them out.
That triumph, writes Conner, marked the watershed of the Revolution, the complete defeat of aristocratic privileges. With that, Marat retired from politics and from public life; his disease was proving too debilitating to allow him to continue. And virtually immediately, the Jacobins began to ignore him, converting the “People’s Friend” into a harmless icon—which they embraced in order to fight more radical critics.
Conner remarks that Marat, to a certain extent, aided the Jacobins in that task. A week before he was murdered, on July 4, Marat published a denunciation of Jacques Roux and other “Enragés,” who advocated a classless society and were giving voice to the anger of the common people against skyrocketing food prices. Marat claimed that such propaganda undermined the support of the people for the revolutionary government and thus emboldened the counter-revolution.
Even today, the issue of whether the Enragés were “too left” might be debatable. In his “Marat/Sade” play, Peter Weiss uses the figure of Roux as the voice of modern class struggle, who sees farther and with more perception than Marat. But in the era of the French Revolution, of course, the working class lacked the cohesion and power to take the reins from the rising bourgeoisie. It took another half-century until Karl Marx could write that the “specter of Communism” had come to the fore.
In summarizing Marat’s political bequest, Conner gives special emphasis to his role as a tactician, one gifted with a sharp sense of what to do next at key political junctures. But Conner notes an important failing in Marat’s revolutionary leadership—the fact that he refused to organize his followers into a political party. Marat always insisted that the only “party” was the people. And so, unlike Robespierre and other Jacobins, Marat lacked any lever other than himself to act in crucial situations.
If an influential Maratist party had been on the scene, perhaps the French Revolution might have been spared some of the pitfalls, and the rapid degeneration, it encountered in the years following Marat’s death. But putting aside such speculation, we should note that the political legacy that Marat left for future generations is still very real, and needs only to be rediscovered. Marat’s uncompromising struggle for social revolution, Conner concludes, has lost none of its relevance and urgency. The People’s Friend—presente!