Corps de l’article

As with many other pillars of liberal thought, the establishment of a worldwide free press is frequently told as a linear narrative. Increasing press freedom began in England, or so the familiar story goes, with the repeal of the licensing act in 1694, before it became enshrined first in the American and then French Constitutions.[1] Once the French Declaration of Rights became part of the United Nations charter, the principle that the free communication of ideas and opinions was a human right came to be exported around the world.[2] Within this narrative, propaganda is frequently cast in the role of freedom’s other. Situated on the opposite end of freedom’s spectrum, propaganda is viewed as an impediment to the liberal belief that, when people are given the freedom to argue, the best argument will prevail. When not defined as an outright manipulation of reality, propaganda is commonly understood to be, at the very least, a form of mediation, an attempt to influence a cause or outcome that stands in contrast to the presumed neutrality of a truly free public sphere.

This narrative, however, overlooks the important role played by the French Revolution in the development of the free press. Although France, like America, followed English common law when it abolished the repressive censorship apparatus of the ancien régime, its history cannot be easily folded into a story of increasing liberalization.[3] This is especially the case regarding the radical press. Radical writers in all three countries called for government by consent and popular sovereignty and used the press as a means of mobilizing popular support. And in all three countries the radical press was eventually suppressed. However in France this suppression led to a call for an unmediated or ‘direct’ relation to democracy and ultimately insurrection against the state whereas in Britain and America it did not.

Traditionally this difference has been attributed to the different political histories of the countries involved. In Britain the demands for sovereignty and universal suffrage remained bounded by a constitution that was already in place whereas in revolutionary France a consensus on constitutional language (indeed the constitution itself) was missing.[4] Without minimizing the importance of political history, this article argues that one important difference lies in the French attitude towards print culture, and in particular journalism, that developed in the mid to late 1790’s. What distinguished France from both Britain and America was the fact that, during the Revolution, the newly acquired right to free expression was interpreted as leading both to the ‘liberal’ ideal of a transparent enlightened public sphere and to the radical ideal of using the press to mobilize popular support for universal suffrage. Both interpretations claimed to embody the true meaning of an ‘independent’ and ‘transparent’ press and both claimed to represent the democratizing potential of greater press freedom. Where they differed was over the status and meaning of what we might call today ‘propaganda’, which was conceived as a tool of mediation thwarting transparency by the one side and hailed as the only means of ensuring an unmediated or ‘direct’ relation to sovereignty by the other.

Rather than assume, therefore, the all too frequent opposition between a liberal press and its propagandistic ‘other’, this paper considers how freedom of the press came to be associated with both tolerance and repression in the years immediately following the French Revolution. I begin by revisiting the Directory period in which the enlightened ideal of a transparent public sphere openly clashed, for the first time, with a combative revolutionary press dedicated to promoting government by consent and popular sovereignty. This is an important period in the history of the press because it is here that a new definition of censorship emerged, which was at once more tolerant of free speech and more repressive of political difference. I then turn to consider how activist writers who were otherwise forbidden from expressing political dissent negotiated a ‘tolerant’ regime in which freedom of expression was granted even as political opposition was banned. I show how censorship operated as a two-way street in which the presumed neutrality of the liberal press was forged by repressing other competing understandings of the right to free speech that in turn provoked new methods of journalistic intervention.[5] If in France the repression of the radical press led to insurrection against the state and the invention of militant propaganda, it is in part because the liberal press contributed in constitutive ways to forming what it subsequently defined itself against.

Paper Revolutions

Instituted after the fall of Robespierre, the Directory period was punctuated by a series of violent episodes that threatened to overturn the government. In order to maintain its hold on power, the government sought new means to keep public opinion on its side while purging any remnant of a radical opposition both inside and outside the assembly. This involved establishing greater control over the press by encouraging those publications that were favorable to the new regime and actively discouraging others.[6] However, given its self-image as an ideological heir of the enlightenment, the Directory could not simply rely on censorship tactics inherited from the ancien régime. These old methods had assumed an authoritative state structure in which individual works could be judged and either deemed worthy of a king’s privilège or partially or wholly banned. Within such an authoritative structure, censorship, as Robert Darnton has shown, also had a positive aspect. It meant that one's work had been looked at (censured) carefully; that is had been worthy of attention even if parts were eventually rejected. A new ‘democratic’ state, however, could not assume such an authoritative stance to public opinion. Once people had the right to speak, write and print freely, the state had to find new ways of justifying the suppression of certain kinds of political opinion while guaranteeing the freedom of others.

A new definition of censorship emerged in this context, which allowed publications aimed at individuals and banned those aimed at a group. This meant that literary texts and those publications and societies that expressed ‘private’ opinions to ‘private’ individuals were encouraged while print media, such as revolutionary newspapers, that aimed to mobilize a social group for political ends were proscribed.[7] The Directory justified such selective tolerance on the grounds that literary texts and the government sponsored press relied on a one to one relation between reader and text which, by lessening emotional impact, enabled a ‘cool’ engagement with enlightened opinion. Revolutionary journalism, on the other hand, was seditious because it claimed to offer unmediated access to the ‘voice’ or ‘presence’ of the people in a manner that enflamed public opinion. At stake in this new distinction between ‘cool’ and ‘hot’ print media was nothing less than a battle over the meaning of popular sovereignty: who gets to represent whom? Whose voice is included or excluded from political deliberation? The Directory is such a fascinating period for the history of the press because here we see historical actors theorizing about the meaning and function of print media not just in technological terms (as a medium of communication), but also as part of the broader space of political action. It is precisely because political representation in the widest sense of the term was at stake that freedom of speech cannot solely be reduced to a question of rights.

Pierre Rosanvallon has identified three important moments during which censorship was redefined. Brissot, in a speech in 1791, was the first to associate freedom of the press with the right to collective political assembly when he argued that “the clubs and the newspapers are freedom’s two stoutest columns” (Rosanvallon 46). After Thermidor, this association came under increasing scrutiny as the government purged the assembly of both Jacobins and royalists. This culminated in the Law of 19 Fructidor Year V (September 5, 1797), which formally banned the political clubs and the various publications associated with them. Jean-Baptiste Mailhe summarized the government’s standpoint in the report of 8 Germinal Year IV, the first comprehensive exposition of the governmnent’s new attitude to censorship, which led to a new law calling for the death or deportation of anyone who tried to overturn the Constitution “through words or writings.”[8] Mailhe argued that although the press certainly had a role to play in the formation of public opinion, it did so on the condition that it did not aspire to be an alternative model of political representation. Unlike monarchical Britain, which still needed corresponding societies as a check against power, France was now a Republic. This meant that the people required an unmediated access to political deliberation, possible only if the public sphere consisted of rational individuals who communicated to each other unimpeded by media that lobbied on behalf of a group.

As Rosanvallon has noted, these new laws banning political association and the radical press justified themselves on the basis of a functional distinction between oral speech and the written word (47). This preference for written over oral communication stands in sharp contrast to earlier phases of the Revolution where the press functioned as a conduit for a direct or ‘unmediated’ conception of political representation. We need only consider how Mailhe’s description of a press that “only reaches one reader at a time, or at most, a small number of listeners present at a reading” (Conseil des cinq-cents 13)[9] differed from such revolutionary publications as René Hebert’s Père Duchêne. Whereas Mailhe privileged reasoned communication between two individuals, the latter presented itself as nothing less than a spontaneous incarnation of the people’s ‘voice’.[10] Using popular idioms and swearing profusely, Père Duchêne, himself a stock character drawn from popular theatre, spoke the blustery language of the people. He indicated their will directly rather than in any ‘mediated’ manner. In so doing he incarnated what, for the sans-culottes, was “an almost physical understanding of national sovereignty and popular government”, one that depended on the “bodily presence of the sovereign” and was antagonistic to any concept of a mediating representation (Lottes 93). By transmitting, directly and bluntly, the popular language of the people, Père Duchêne communicated an understanding of popular sovereignty as the presence of the people in the process of deliberation.

For detractors such as Mailhe this pretence of a direct unmediated communication with ‘the people’ amounted to an unacceptable monopoly on representation. Accusing the Jacobins of exercising the same censorship of public opinion as was practiced under the ancien régime, Mailhe drew a strict parallel between what had been a feudal monopoly on representation, exercised through the repressive mechanism of censorship, and the monopoly of popular societies.[11] The problem with revolutionary journalism, Mailhe argued, was that it introduced mediation where there ought to be an unmediated public sphere thereby imposing the self-interests of a group in place of the common good. This contrasted with the more enlightened aspects of print culture which, precisely because they adopted a ‘mediated’ relation between reader and text, contributed to greater freedom of expression. As Mailhe explained, literary societies differed from the popular press insofar as they emphasized the written word over oral speech, succession over simultaneity, intimacy over a public display of emotion or zeal. Above all, texts aimed at individuals were slow whereas the popular press moved fast. In contrast to an easily agitated and emotionally inflamed public assembly, the time it took to communicate an opinion to one reader at a time encouraged the rational exercise of judgment. As Maihle argued, even the most seditious writer would never attain the moral and political impact of the fractious orator: “Truth be told, the seditious writer can act on all members of the social body if they all become his readers, but his deed will be dispersed and its impact isolated” (Conseil des cinq-cents 24).

Mailhe’s report is significant for showing how a law censoring the revolutionary press first came to be formulated as an anti-censorship law: revolutionary journalism, and the political clubs whose voice they claimed to represent, had to be repressed for true freedom of the press to flourish. In order to exclude journalism from the law governing the right to free expression, Mailhe separated oral from written communication, two aspects that, for Brissot, still belonged together. It was only by repressing collective public debate – and the various print media associated with it – that the press was free to assume its most important task, namely the defense of individual rights against the state. In other words, group rights to self-expression had to be sacrificed in order for the press to truly function as “as a fundamental right, the surest guarantee of all the other rights of citizens against the attacks or recklessness of the government” (Conseil des Cinq-cents 25).

Of course it goes without saying that for proponents of the radical press, the opposite held true. Rights were only guaranteed if people deliberated on the making of laws at every stage and this presupposed the right to political assembly. One of the most powerful speeches in support of this view came from Jean-Baptiste Drouet, the only member of the Council of Five Hundred who joined in the subsequent insurrection, led by the Conspiracy of Equals, against the government. Drouet had first achieved fame as the postmaster who had recognized Louis XVI in his flight to Varennes in June 1791 and later as a heroic prisoner of the Austrians, who captured him shortly after his election to the Convention. In this report, a toned-down version of a speech drafted by Gracchus Babeuf,[12] Drouet argued forcibly against Mailhe’s attempts to separate freedom of the press from the right to political assembly. Drouet insisted that for democracy to function it also had to extend to those that did not read. Unlike the press, which was restricted to the literate public, political organizations, precisely because they enabled oral debate, included all the people. In his defense of the right to political assembly, Drouet turned the issue of censorship on its head, arguing that it was precisely the mediated nature of print culture that enabled a minority opinion to substitute for the majority. Countering Mailhe, who had pitted freedom of the press against revolutionary journalism, Drouet recalled an older Roman understanding of censorship as self-censorship or self-correction:

When citizens isolate themselves, when they no longer concern themselves with the public good, this is when political intrigue and ill will converge most easily to plot against liberty. The people’s right to censure is thus as essential as its right to political existence.

Drouet 206

It is around these two opposing understandings of censorship that the call to insurrection formed. For Drouet and the other conspirators, freedom of the press meant nothing in the absence of the public right to censure the government – and this required unmediated access to political debate. Thus whereas for the government censorship of the popular press was something that happened before publication, in order to keep public opinion unmediated, for the radical press, censorship was something that happened after something was said or done. The public right to censure happened when a given thought or action made by the government was publicized and submitted to moral judgment and examination, whether orally, in the form of assemblies, or in print, through the popular press.

Implicit in these conflicting understandings of censorship was a deeper point regarding print culture and the mediated exercise of sovereignty. Maurice Dommanget notes that although Babeuf and Buonarroti, future leaders of the Conspiracy of Equals, both supported the principle of popular sovereignty, they rejected the idea of a completely unmediated system of representation.[13] For both the task was to find a system of representation that allowed for the least mediated kind of sovereignty, in which people did not wholly delegate their rights to their representatives but participated in the making of laws. Less representation and a more immediate presence of the people in government – these had been the watchwords of the radical press before it was completely banned. Of course it goes without saying that such an active participation in the political process arrogated immense power to the press. By mobilizing public opinion to support or censure those aspects of government policy that journalists and other intellectual leaders had put up for debate, the press would exert a veritable ‘extra-parliamentary’ control over government itself.

The Conspiracy of Equals

These changing definitions of censorship and tolerance provide the vital historical background behind the trial of Babeuf and his fellow conspirators, who were accused of organizing the first insurrection against the revolutionary government. The so-called Conspiracy of Equals aimed to recalibrate the Revolution upon what it considered to be the true principles of equality, based on full suffrage and economic equality, which included the redistribution of property. Its leader was the well-known journalist Gracchus Babeuf who had made his name by agitating on behalf of rights for the poor. On October 5, 1794 (14 Vendémiaire Year III), Babeuf founded the publication Le Tribun du peuple whose motto, printed on every page, was that ‘the good of society was the common happiness’. Its object, Babeuf claimed, was not news but the ‘making manifest’ of the people’s true interests and rights, which was the fulfillment of equality. Babeuf was rearrested in March 1795 only to emerge from prison six months later to assume leadership of the Club du Panthéon, a secret society of former Jacobins who met in the crypt of the Convent of Saint-Geneviève. The club was raided and closed down by Napoleon in February 1796 but not before Babeuf published his Plebian Manifesto. Brought before the high court of Vendôme on charges of advocating the constitution of 1793 through writings and publications (which carried the death penalty), Babeuf, along with Darthé, was guillotined on May 27, 1797.

As R.B. Rose has persuasively shown, the conspiracy began with the persecution of the Tribun du Peuple and the closing down of all communication channels enabling a legal anti-government opposition. It ended with the application of the draconian press law of 27 Germinal Year IV, the final transformation of what had initially began as an open and legal agitation for political reform into a crime against the state. At the center of the trial was not so much a debate about the group’s alleged communism but the status of free expression - whether one had the right to publicize and assemble to debate opinions contrary to the rule of state and whether ‘authorship’ could be attributed to the alleged incriminating documentation.[14] Was Babeuf an insurgent, or was he, as he claimed during his defense, merely the “archivist and publicist” of a “democratic circle” (Rose 320)? Did Buonarroti really conspire against the state or was he merely expressing a private opinion? Were the writings of this circle a real call to arms or merely the personal expressions of a “sentimental longing”?[15]

Although, with the exception of Babeuf, most of the conspirators denied the charge of conspiracy, they made no bones about the true motivation behind their radicalism. Buonarroti told the jury that, by banning the right of assembly guaranteed by the Constitution of 1789 and the right to free expression enshrined in Article 11 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the government violated the two fundamental principles of any democracy. It further usurped democracy by restricting the number of people eligible to vote for the Constitution of 1795. By making literacy and property ownership prerequisites for suffrage, the government effectively excluded most of France’s population from voting. In such a way, opposition about the censorship of the radical press came to be voiced as opposition to the constitution itself. That the group distributed pamphlets such as the Adresse aux soldats, urging the military to turn against the present government, was not (in their eyes) a ‘conspiracy’ but a last ditch attempt to save the Revolution from turning into a massive land-grab, in which a new regime of the (newly) wealthy ruled over the many. As Babeuf put it, it was not the rebels but the government that was in a “permanent rebellion against the people” (69). What is interesting about the trial of Babeuf and his fellow conspirators is that despite the verbal threats none of their insurrectionary publications posed any real danger to the government. In what is often described as a paper revolution, the conspirators had neither weapons nor ammunition nor any concrete means of carrying out their alleged intents.[16] Indeed, as R.B. Rose has remarked, the “party of the plebians had no formal existence outside the pages of the Tribun” (179). Rather what was at stake in the trial was precisely the power – presumed or imagined – of the printed word. Alongside this power was the contested role of the “intellectual-journalist” in the political process. Babeuf and his fellow conspirators were charged as guilty for their use of the popular press to commit a ‘thought crime’, that is, for using their power as intellectuals and journalists to influence the outcome of the Revolution.

It should be noted that although the conspirators contested this nascent ‘liberal’ interpretation of the French Revolution as the emancipation of individual rights, they benefitted substantially from the liberalization of press laws. Indeed it is precisely the government’s mixture of severity and laxity towards print culture that enabled Babeuf and his fellow conspirators to maintain such a vocal presence on the Parisian political scene. Babeuf’s Le journal de la liberté (initially published with the support of the government) ran to over 1200 copies per issue while the illegal Tribun du peuple had a print run of over 2, 000 copies per issue (Rose 157). Five hundred individuals and ten cafés had subscriptions and the police reports cite numerous readings in popular cafés, often to the accompaniment of much singing and even dancing (Rose 180, 219). In addition to the clandestine papers, poster-wars were launched in the faubourgs where placards criticizing the Directory were no sooner torn down than new ones put it, up to two to three times a day (Rose 251).

Rather than presuppose, therefore, that militant propaganda emerged as a kind of inevitable consequence of radical political beliefs, it is necessary to reconsider how the medium and the message coevolved as a direct response to censorship laws. This is evident if we compare Babeuf’s journalistic output with the career of his fellow conspirator Sylvain Maréchal, the radical revolutionary who is most likely to have written the Manifesto of Equals, the first explicitly anarchist-communist text to emerge out of the revolutionary period. Maréchal had long been a prominent member of the radical press. It was Maréchal who had first directed Babeuf to Bonneville’s journal Le Cercle Social and to his own Les Révolutions de Paris in December 1793, the Revolution’s most radical newspaper (Billington 83-85). In addition to being the author of Le jugement dernier des rois, one of the Revolution’s most popular plays, and a choreographer of the revolutionary festivals under Robespiere, he was prominent in almost all phases of the Revolution. Indeed the years under the Directory were the most prolific of his career in which he published a number of sanctioned and unsanctioned works, some of which bore titles that would have been unthinkable under the ancien régime.[17] Maréchal’s collaboration with Babeuf is a good example of how the new distinction between literary or ‘high’ print culture and journalism presented a problem for those writers for whom literary and journalistic writings had been a seamless part of one battle for political change. For the remainder of this paper I want to consider how a new kind of revolutionary journalism – one that assumed the form of the ‘revolutionary manifesto’ – emerged as a response to the government’s attempt to separate the message from the medium of Revolution.

The Manifesto of Equals

For those revolutionary writers who had matured under the censorship laws of the ancien régime, the new censorship laws posed a double bind. Forbidden, on the one hand, from publishing any material that communicated the political aspirations of an organized group, revolutionary journalists were free, on the other hand, to publish and express any variety of ‘private’ opinion. But how does one register political opposition to an otherwise tolerant regime? Under the ancien regime, censorship laws had played a vital role in catalyzing the radical writer. A writer only had to have his or her work banned, for their opposition against power and the status quo to be broadcast.

This was especially the case with a writer such as Sylvain Maréchal, for whom the ‘enlightened tolerance’ of the new government posed a further obstacle in the goal of transforming radical thought into action. As Maréchal’s early writings demonstrate, one only had to transgress the clearly defined laws of censorship for words to become acts against the State. Radical discourse was thus constituted not just as a message but also as an important medium of transgression. Even better, it served as a way of staging what was undoubtedly one of the primal scenes of the enlightenment – the battle of the virtuous, because oppressed, writer against the immoral, because oppressive, State.

How, then, does one voice opposition in the absence of a clearly defined repressive apparatus? The Manifesto of Equals represents one very important attempt to bypass the blocked communication channels of the new regime. In its reorientation towards a future revolution, the manifesto was not only exemplary of a new kind of revolutionary journalism; it also transformed the age-old distinction between free speech and action. This is the dictum, best articulated by Kant, and upheld by the majority of the philosophes, that speech remained free as long as authority was obeyed. As Kant famously put it, “Argue as much as you want and about what you want, but obey!” In place of the tacit consent with authority that had governed publications under the ancien régime, the Manifesto adopted the contrarian position: since we are not allowed to argue as much as we want and about what we want, we shall not obey.

This inversion of an ‘enlightened’ understanding of the relation between critique and censorship is evident from a tract that Maréchal published in response to the government’s savage crackdown on Babeuf’s paper. As the title indicates, L’Opinion d’un homme devant l’étrange procès tenté au Tribun du Peuple et autres écrivains democrates expressed Maréchal’s outrage that the clubs, which claimed to represent the ‘voice’ of the people had been shut down by fiat, and that all presses that claimed to represent or encourage an immediate collective influence, had been banned. Maréchal accused the government of using censorship to cover up the true aim of the revolution, which was democratic equality. Immediately printed in Babeuf’s journal, this piece is remarkable for formulating many of the ideas that, word for word, were taken up in the Manifesto of Equals. Beyond the redistribution of property, this includes the call for a greater social revolution, a total Revolution in which equality would be established on the basis of an unmediated relation to popular sovereignty.

Maréchal’s tract is interesting for the way in which it extended the debate about censorship to include a debate over the meaning of the Revolution itself. By accusing the government of repressing free speech, Maréchal and Babeuf reopened the question of the status of the Revolution, of whether it had truly accomplished its goals or whether the Declaration of the Rights of Man remained “a legal fiction, to be imposed on the people.” (Maréchal 2). The struggle was no longer between revolution and counter-revolution but over what part of the Revolution was real and what remained merely rhetorical.

The manifesto became the privileged genre in which the legal and rhetorical claims of the revolutionary state came to be openly challenged. As the etymology indicates, the term ‘manifeste’ originates in the Latin manus or hand, indicating something that is palpable, that can be touched and apprehended by everyone.[18] In addition to its connotations of a list or inventory of demands, the manifeste refers to something that is made public, before witnesses and as such can no longer be concealed.[19] Traditionally kings or princes would publish a manifesto in order to make clear their reasons for action. The revolutionary manifesto reproduces this same understanding of public reasoning as a public manifestation, an assembling of the people before the truth – exactly the kind of gathering the Directory was most keen to avoid.

By reproducing – via print – the illusion of a collective assembly, the manifesto also had a further rhetorical function, that of serving as an ‘introduction’ or ‘preface’ to a future revolution. This is evident if we consider its ‘literary’ kinship with the preface, which was such a central aspect of eighteenth-century print culture. From the mid to late eighteenth century, increasingly long prefaces had accompanied many published works as a kind of instruction manual, clarifying the contents and correct understanding of the text that followed. The key tasks of such a preface was to reestablish an unmediated relation between author and reader, one that should have been apparent from the text itself but no longer was. If the need for a preface indicated a certain loss of functionality – that the literary text no longer transparently communicated how or why it ought to be read – it also accomplished the further function of appeasing the censor. As authors discovered that censors frequently only read prefaces, they adjusted their introductions accordingly, making the book ‘fit’ the censor’s expectations even if the contents indicated otherwise. But whereas the authoritative censorship structures of the ancien régime meant that the introduction would give the lie to the book, here the manifesto ‘introduces’ what should be evident (manifest) to all and can no longer be concealed – namely that true equality had not yet been accomplished. In such a way, the promise, and premise, of all introductions – namely an unmediated relation between the reader and text – is transferred into the future. As Maréchal lamented in his L’Opinion d’un homme, even Babeuf’s glorious Tribun was but a preface or a project for a future revolution.[20]

This reorientation towards the future is crucial to the development of radical discourse. Whereas revolutionary journals such as Marat’s L’Ami du Peuple or Le Père Duchêne mainly commented on events, reinterpreting them to fulfill the expectations of their readers, revolutionary journals such as Babeuf’s Le tribun du peuple criticized present events from the perspective of a future revolution (Gumbrecht 194-196). Accompanying this change in literary function was a new role for the revolutionary journalist. From someone who channeled a certain constituency or ‘voice’, the revolutionary journalist now became the intellectual leader of a future revolution, he who manifested the true meaning of history in the name of a universal reason (and total enlightenment) not yet in place. Maréchal even went so far as to imagine an ideal Revolution that was accomplished in three days because it was led by a dedicated team of intellectuals and journalists who understood the Revolution’s true goal. If only Babeuf, LeBlois and other journalists had led the Revolution from the beginning, Maréchal claimed, "we would never have had the Constitutions of 1791, 1793 and 1795, the Convention, the two Consuls, the Directory and other obscure inventions of that kind” (5). It is but a short step from an ideal Revolution led by intellectuals to a future Revolution orchestrated by a small coterie of self-elected intellectuals – the model for all future social revolutions in France and beyond.

It should be noted however that unlike Babeuf and his other conspirators, Maréchal was not an advocate of any of the revolutionary constitutions no matter how far they extended rights. Some historians have even doubted whether a committed anarchist would have aligned himself with an insurrectionary movement that aimed to overthrow the revolutionary government and put the ‘Secret Directory’ in its place. Although the Manifesto was unsigned, Buonarroti claimed Maréchal as the author. Not only the style of the Manifesto, but also the fact that it repeats almost verbatim the criticisms raised in the L’opinion d’un homme makes Maréchal’s authorship indisputable. As for how to reconcile Maréchal’s pacifism with this newfound militancy, the lines of the Manifesto give us a clue: “Always and everywhere men have been lulled to sleep with beautiful words: never and nowhere has the word accomplished the deed” (77).

It is precisely because the new regime was one of both tolerance and mystification that any intellectual action against the state now had to assume the form of criminal intent, a thought crime. Maréchal admits so much when he exclaims: “What a beautiful crime it is to conspire for the common good. How gentle and glorious it is to hear oneself labeled an anarchist and a disrupter” (5). Voluntarily assuming a criminal identity was a way for Maréchal, Babeuf and other militants to stand outside society and the state, maintain, as it were, the only viable moral position, which was that of a universal judgment.

To combat the ‘moral superiority’ of a state that had co-opted much of enlightenment ideology – and many of the enlightenment’s writers – Maréchal adopted a strategy that had much in common with another contemporary ‘anarchist’, the Marquis de Sade. Sade had already demonstrated how the moral hypocrisy of social and political institutions was best exposed from the vantage point of the criminal rather than the victim. Here we find Maréchal adopting with similar pride the epithet of outlaw and criminal. Like Sade’s criminal, the revolutionary who performed the “beautiful crime” positioned himself on the side of limitless nature against law and society. Furthermore, like Sade’s criminal, the revolutionary transgressed all boundaries only in order to affirm that transgression was no longer possible because there was no authority higher than the naked truth.[21]

This, then, was the true meaning of a manifesto: it was written against all constitutions and all laws. Because it stood naked before all forms of authority, it was and could only be an anarchist text. As Maréchal put it, apostrophizing the people, it was neither in the Constitution of 1793 nor in the Constitution of 1795 that “that you were able to find inspiration for the drafting of your beautiful Manifesto” (6). Nature and the heart, not the rights of man, were the only legitimate sources for a revolutionary compact. If this theme of a sentimental Republic was an eighteenth-century commonplace, it is evoked here in the name of a new opposition that pitted the laws of nature not just against society, but also against all ‘mediated’ forms of representation.

Practically, this meant dissociating the Revolution from any kind of legal mechanism. So long as society remained divided between rich and poor, every government, even a revolutionary one, merely legitimated a fundamental iniquity at its base. Maréchal extrapolates this critique from Rousseau’s Second Discourse, to call for the end of all representation. In some of the most famous passages of the Manifesto, Maréchal demanded a radically unmediated relation between the people and their leaders: “Let these revolting distinctions between rich and poor, great and the small, masters and servants, governors and the governed finally disappear!” (78).[22] Unlike the selective tabula rasa represented by the French Republic, the Manifesto called for a tabula rasa of all historical reference, all cultural memory including that of the arts: “We consent to do everything for equality, a tabula rasa of everything to stay true to equality alone. Perish, if they must, all the arts so long as real equality is achieved!” (78).

The moral superiority of the criminalized writer is thus affirmed in what is arguably the most radical gesture of discontinuity – not just against the State but against all forms of representation. To be sure, Maréchal had long been an advocate of a return to the kind of small self-governing communities based on the extended family unit that he describes in the Manifesto. What is different is that here we find his dreams of a golden age of autarchy reoriented towards a future ‘great’ Revolution. A primitivism that had already been present in the works of Rousseau, Morelly, Bernardin de St. Pierre and other eighteenth century writers is thus generalized and applied to a future public who, because it is able to see and feel what is ‘manifestly true’ will no longer require the mediations of ‘representation’.

In affirming that the regeneration of society is something that will henceforth occur outside it, the Manifesto of Equals links up with the revolutionary movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of which assumed the form of self-governing ‘communes’ modeled on a ‘revolutionary family.’ Moreover, in adopting the ex-centric position of the author, Maréchal shares much in common with romantic writers, who also believed that society could be regenerated only by a radical discontinuity, a kind of ‘breaking through time.’ Although scholars have often queried the connection between Manifesto’s blueprint for an anarchist society and the type of ‘dirigiste’ insurrection advocated by Babeuf and Buonarroti, the connection seems less contradictory when viewed from the perspective of blocked communication channels. In both cases, the longing for a total revolution was expressed as the search for a radically unmediated form of representation in order to bypass the authoritative structure of the state. And in both cases, radical discourse became increasingly aestheticized as the outlets for public expression were reduced. The Manifesto of Equals may represent a turning point in such ‘aestheticization’ - emphasizing the Revolution as pure form or intention rather than as having any specific goals - but in so doing it also articulated a new method of historical agency. Together with Babeuf’s conspiracy, it introduced to Europe and the rest of the world the concept of a revolutionary commune, in which a small cadre of like-minded ‘revolutionary artists’ manufactured the future Revolution.


Jeremy Popkin has suggested that what made the French Revolution unique in the history of world journalism was the “combination of journalistic individualism with modern mass politics”, a combination captured most powerfully in David’s famous portrait of the assassinated journalist Marat (185). To this we might add that there was a second striking period in the development of the popular press. This happened when powerful journalistic personalities such as Babeuf and Maréchal, excluded from their role as ‘mediators’ of public opinion, turned their backs on the state and became insurrectionary revolutionaries. As I have tried to show, the transformation of the radical writer from journalist to criminal to revolutionary artist occurred in tandem with the changes and the rhetorical shifts suffered by revolutionary journalism under the new censorship laws of the Directory. Blocked from its self-appointed function of providing the public with an ‘unmediated’ access to political deliberation, the radical press adopted a new mode of political intervention which transferred the goal of full political participation to the future. Both rhetorically and politically, the Manifesto of Equals is exemplary in this regard for it shows how revolutionary journalism sought to take up – and in a sense simulate and reproduce – an unmediated understanding of democratic participation modeled on political assembly. It is precisely this understanding of print culture that ultimately failed and was bracketed from what became our contemporary understanding of the right to free speech. In a system predicated on mediation, those (mediated) elements of print culture that attempted to reproduce an unmediated access to representation were by definition branded as heretical and undemocratic.

To return, thus, to my initial point: the story of increasing press freedom around the world cannot be told as a linear narrative in which the French Revolution is merely one milestone on the path to overall emancipation. For what the French case demonstrates is that free speech is not simply about ‘rights’ because the question of what constitutes a ‘right’ – whether of the individual or group, the disenfranchised minority or the disenfranchised majority – presupposes political and ideological decisions governing who gets to speak and on whose behalf. But there is a further reason why press freedom cannot be reduced to a narrative of ‘rights’: just as ‘rights’ cannot simply be aligned with emancipation, so too censorship does not operate on a simple model of repression. Rather, as I have tried to show, censorship laws end up producing the very kind of communication that they define themselves against. As the Conspiracy of Equals makes clear, what we might today, in common parlance, call propaganda – publications produced by a journalistic or intellectual elite to promote a social cause in a top-down manner – did not originate as something foreign to the liberal principles of a neutral press. On the contrary, it was produced alongside it, as a byproduct of the liberal commitment to ‘transparency’. In other words, if the socialist and anarchist propaganda of the kind inspired by the Manifesto of Equals became, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, liberalism’s ‘other’, it did so as an enemy from within, a reminder of all the demands that had to be repressed and forgotten for the policy of ‘enlightened tolerance’ to succeed.