Conspiracy of the Equals
It was the attempts of the Directory to deal with the economic crisis that gave Babeuf his historical importance. The new government was pledged to abolish the system by which Paris was fed at the expense of all France, and the cessation of the distribution of bread and meat at nominal prices was fixed for 20 February 1796. The announcement caused the most widespread consternation. Not only were the workmen and the large class of proletarians attracted to Paris by the system, but rentiers and government officials, whose incomes were paid in assignats on a scale arbitrarily fixed by the government, saw themselves threatened with starvation. The government yielded to the outcry; but the expedients by which it sought to mitigate the evil, notably the division of those entitled to relief into classes, only increased the alarm and discontent.
The universal misery gave point to virulent attacks by Babeuf on the existing order, and gained him a hearing. He gathered around him a small circle of followers known as the Societé des égaux, soon merged with the rump of the Jacobin Club, who met at the Panthéon; and in November 1795 he was reported by the police to be openly preaching "insurrection, revolt and the constitution of 1793". They were influenced by Sylvain Maréchal, the author of Le Manifeste des Egaux and a sympathiser of Babeuf.
For a time the government, while keeping itself informed of his activities, left him alone. It suited the Directory to let the socialist agitation continue, in order to deter the people from joining in any royalist movement for the overthrow of the existing régime. Moreover the mass of the ouvriers, even of extreme views, were repelled by Babeuf's bloodthirstiness; and the police agents reported that his agitation was making many converts - for the government. The Jacobin Club refused to admit Babeuf and Lebois, on the ground that they were "égorgeurs" ("throat-cutters").
With the development of the economic crisis, however, Babeuf's influence increased. After the club of the Panthéon was closed by Napoleon Bonaparte on 27 February 1796, his aggressive activity redoubled. In Ventôse and Germinal (roughly late winter and early spring) he published, under the nom de plume of Lalande, soldat de la patrie, a new paper, the Eclaireur du Peuple, ou le Défenseur de Vingt-Cinq Millions d'Opprimés, which was hawked clandestinely from group to group in the streets of Paris.
At the same time Issue 40 of the Tribun excited an immense sensation. In this Babeuf praised the authors of the September Massacres as "deserving well of their country", and declared that a more complete "2 September" was needed to annihilate the actual government, which consisted of "starvers, bloodsuckers, tyrants, hangmen, rogues and mountebanks".
The distress among all classes continued; and in March the attempt of the Directory to replace the assignats by a new issue of mandats created fresh dissatisfaction after the breakdown of the hopes first raised. A cry went up that national bankruptcy had been declared, and thousands of the lower class of ouvriers began to rally to Babeuf's flag. On 4 April 1796, the government received a report that 500,000 people in Paris were in need of relief. From 11 April, Paris was placarded with posters headed Analyse de la Doctrine de Baboeuf sic, Tribun du Peuple, of which the opening sentence ran: "Nature has given to every man the right to the enjoyment of an equal share in all property", and which ended with a call to restore the Constitution of 1793.
Babeuf's song Mourant de faim, mourant de froid ("Dying of Hunger, Dying of Cold"), set to a popular tune, began to be sung in the cafés, with immense applause; and reports circulated that the disaffected troops of the French Revolutionary Army in the camp of Grenelle were ready to join an insurrection against the government.
The Directory thought it time to react; the bureau central had accumulated through its agents, notably the ex-captain Georges Grisel, who had been initiated into Babeuf’s society, complete evidence of a conspiracy for an armed rising fixed for Floréal 22, year IV (11 May 1796), in which Jacobins and socialists were combined. On 10 May Babeuf, who had taken the pseudonym Tissot, was arrested; many of his associates were gathered by the police on order from Lazare Carnot: among them were Augustin Alexandre Darthé and Philippe Buonarroti, the ex-members of the National Convention, Robert Lindet, Jean-Pierre-André Amar, Marc-Guillaume Alexis Vadier and Jean-Baptiste Drouet, famous as the postmaster of Saint-Menehould who had arrested Louis XVI during the latter's Flight to Varennes, and now a member of the Directory's Council of Five Hundred.
The government crackdown was extremely successful. The last number of the Tribun appeared on 24 April, although Lebois in the Ami du peuple tried to incite the soldiers to revolt, and for a while there were rumours of a military rising.
The trial of Babeuf and his accomplices was fixed to take place before the newly constituted high court of justice at Vendôme. On Fructidor 10 and 11 (27 August and 28 August 1796), when the prisoners were removed from Paris, there were tentative efforts at a riot with a view to rescue, but these were easily suppressed. The attempt of five or six hundred Jacobins (7 September 1796) to rouse the soldiers at Grenelle met with no better success.
The trial of Babeuf and the others, begun at Vendôme on 20 February 1797, lasted two months. The government for reasons of their own depicted the socialist Babeuf as the leader of the conspiracy, even though people more important than himself were implicated; and his own vanity played admirably into their hands. On Prairial 7 (26 May 1797) Babeuf and Darthé were condemned to death; some of the prisoners, including Buonarroti, were deported; the rest, including Vadier and his fellow-conventionals, were acquitted. Drouet had succeeded in making his escape, according to Paul Barras, with the connivance of the Directory. Babeuf and Darthé were guillotined the next day at Vendôme, Prairial 8 (27 May 1797), without appeal.
Although the words "anarchist"and "communist" did not exist at the time of the conspiracy, they have all been used to describe its ideas by later scholars. The English word "communism" was coined by Goodwyn Barmby in a conversation with those he described as the "disciples of Babeuf".