Marat's Science





H-France Review Vol. 13 (January 2013), No. 13

Clifford Conner, Jean Paul Marat: Tribune of the People. London: Pluto Press, 2012. xiii + 178. Notes and index. $85.00 U.S. (hb). ISBN 978-0-7453-3194-2; $21.00 U.S. (pb). ISBN 978-0-7453-3193-5

Review by Stephen Miller, University of Alabama at Birmingham

In this well-written and gripping biography, Clifford Conner argues that “without Marat, the French Revolution may well not have resulted in the social transformation of France, Europe, and the world” (p. x). Under the influence of revisionism in the 1980s, historians ceased to see great value in the radicalism of the Revolution and in consequence stopped paying much attention to Marat’s influence on events. In contrast, Conner argues that Marat’s writings did not simply reflect prevailing moods but actually went in advance of them and won over his readership at crucial stages of the Revolution.

Marat wrote a few books and essays in the 1770s, one of which, De l’homme, came out with Marc Michel Rey, a major publisher in the Netherlands, and placed him among the cultural elite. In the 1780s, Marat became well-known and respected as an experimental physicist among several notable personages in Paris, though the intellectual elite of the Academy of Sciences considered him a charlatan. Conner notes that his scientific career petered out in the latter part of the 1780s, when physical ailments probably would have caused him to fade from public view if not for the social ferment preceding the Revolution, which revivified him and enabled him to change his career from scientist to radical journalist and politician.

In September 1789, Marat began to publish the daily newspaper which made him famous, L’Ami du peuple. The publication distinguished itself from others of the time in its attacks on the National Assembly and Paris Commune. While everyone else saw these institutions as embodiments of the Revolution, Marat saw them as beholden to the wealthy classes and enemies of the people. Conner writes that Marat persistently but vainly urged his fellow citizens to overthrow the current system in a second revolution devoted to social justice.

Marat was much more successful a month later in his agitation against the supposed famine plot. Indeed, one of the assets of Conner’s biography is how crucial it shows Marat to have been to the events of October 1789. L’Ami du peuple affirmed that the Subsistence Committee of the Paris municipality, rather than bring down the price of bread, would actually make it more expensive by concerting with the profiteers of the millers’ guild. Marat also accused the Committee of conspiring with Jacques Necker, the royal finance minister, to hoard grain and drive up prices, and in so doing to discredit and destroy the Revolution. Based on information obtained from his sources, Marat asserted, in an article published on October 5, 1789, that a number of officers of the royal army, together with the leaders of the National Guard, participated in a reactionary orgy in Versailles where they insulted and threatened the Revolution. The Parisian population, perceiving a constant threat of being massacred by royalist troops, became greatly alarmed. Marat called on the people to rise up, march on Versailles, extricate the king from that nest of intrigue, and make him permanently reside in Paris. People responded in force the same day.

Conner also shows the perceptive, albeit unpopular, political positions staked out by Marat over the following three years. In May and June 1791, Marat denounced the Chapelier laws. He stated that the prohibition on associations, coalitions, or organizations of wage workers would serve the purpose of driving down the earnings of the population. Marat stood alone on this issue against the rest of the prominent opinion-makers. The population refused to mobilize against these laws, and Marat remained completely isolated.

A year later, Marat opposed the drive to war. He wrote that the generals in control of the war effort were not interested in victory. They preferred defeat, the reestablishment of the Old Regime, and the massacre of Parisian revolutionaries. Marat saw a plot in the king’s decision to appoint the saber-rattling Brissot. He used L’Ami du peuple to argue that Brissot’s ultra-left demagoguery endangered the Revolution by leading the people down the path of reactionary nationalism and diverting their attention from the traitors at home. These arguments did not win Marat much sympathy among the mass of Parisians eager for war.

Another quality of Conner’s biography is its sketch of the political context of Marat’s political activism and journalism. The police sought to take Marat into custody on October 8, 1789 after L’Ami du Peuple had appeared openly on the streets of Paris for a month. But Marat had been tipped off and went underground, where he remained clandestinely, and at times semi-clandestinely, until August 1792. He gained mystique by repeatedly frustrating the attempts to arrest him. He succeeded in evading the police, Conner argues, thanks to his multitude of active and passive supporters, the intelligence-gathering networks he cultivated, and his many contacts who kept him one step ahead of the authorities. Many patriotic citizens eagerly provided Marat shelter. Thousands of sans-culottes willingly took to the streets to defend him. Printers tended to become bolder about putting out his banned material. Marat carefully planned and organized his operations so that intermediaries always worked with the printers, and distributors could claim truthfully never to have come into contact with him. Through it all, L’Ami du peuple attained a maximum daily run of 6,000 copies, which, the author notes, required three to five printing presses working constantly for an entire week.

Conner shows that Marat differed from the political leaders of his time in his commitment to economic equality. In a book-length essay, Plan of Criminal Legislation, written over a decade prior to the Revolution, Marat expressed his conviction that anything beyond what was indispensable for our existence could not be considered ours so long as others were in need. This maxim, Marat wrote, represented the sole legitimate basis of property both in society and in nature. Toward the end of August 1789, Marat published a pamphlet entitled The Constitution, or Proposal for a Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. He took the politically moderate line that monarchy remained the sole government suitable to France. Yet, he also developed the argument that freedom meant nothing to a starving person. Marat did not challenge private property in this pamphlet but argued that inequality should be reduced by limiting the accumulation of wealth or by guaranteeing subsistence to citizens bereft of assets.

Connor writes that in the early summer of 1790, Marat had a disagreement with Camille Desmoulins when the latter did not publish an article he submitted. The reason for the disagreement was Marat’s advocacy of social revolution, namely the political effort to lift the majority of the people out of abject poverty. The Revolution meant little to Marat if it did not meet this goal. While Desmoulins and other revolutionary journalists sought to put an end to aristocratic privilege and royal power, they showed little concern about the plight of the urban poor.

In the Convention, Conner argues, Marat differed from Robespierre and his allies in the Mountain, who like all Jacobins promoted radical democracy and sympathized with the urban poor, but did not represent the Parisian masses. Marat, by contrast, had won the admiration of the sans-culottes through three years of writing and fighting on their behalf. The first and only time he sought to restrain the egalitarian charge of the urban lower classes was when the Enragés confronted the Convention in February 1793. Marat thought that the Enragés would confuse the sans-culottes and prevent him from forging an alliance between them and the Mountain to consolidate the gains of the Revolution. Both Marat and Robespierre planned on summoning the sans-culottes to impose themselves on the Girondins since they believed that the growing military difficulties would eventually lead the people of the provinces to see that the general Dumouriez and the Girondins were working with France’s enemies and should be eliminated. At the beginning of March 1793, however, Marat thought that the actions against the Girondins urged by the Enragés were ill-timed, because they would unite the provinces against Paris and permit the victory of counterrevolution.

Marat’s influence on the course of events peaked on May 31 – June 2, 1793 with the expulsion of the Girondins. Afterwards, according to Conner, leaders of the Mountain such as Danton no longer saw any need for Marat’s influence over the Paris population and resented having had to rely on him. On June 17-18, 1793 Marat roused himself from a debilitating sickness, which had led him to retire to his apartment after the purge of the Girondins, but his effort to make his voice heard at the Convention was too much for him, and he returned to his apartment never to leave.

Conner argues that Marat’s polemics often seem harsh and unduly violent to the current generation of historians, because they take his writings out of the historical context of Paris in the throes of rebellion from 1789 to 1793. Marat did not celebrate violence for its own sake. According to Conner, he saw it as the only possible means of defense against counterrevolution and a natural response to hunger, poverty and social discrimination.

If there is one problem with Conner’s book it is that he does not always allow his readers to make up their own minds. For a biography of Marat, whose life revolved around L’Ami du peuple, the book contains remarkably few direct quotes from the newspaper. This reviewer suspects that if Conner had included numerous quotes, even sympathetic readers might be turned off. Radicals in this period acted within a political culture, stretching across the Atlantic world, very different from subsequent revolutionary eras. The culture of Marat’s time made revolutionaries particularly inclined to believe in nefarious conspiracies. In France, the admixture into this cultural context of the spiraling cost of living, the real threat of reaction, and revolutionaries’ unprecedented emphasis on remaking their society made for especially intense suspicions of parties, factions, and interest groups and generated a violent language of politics.[1]

Conner has written a fine book for the general reader and one useful for undergraduate courses on the Revolution. He also demonstrates, for specialists, that bringing figures such as Jacques Roux, Hébert, and Marat into histories of the Revolution helps us understand the nuances of the urban popular movement. Indeed, Conner’s book shares some of the virtues of R. R. Palmer’s The Twelve Who Ruled in its captivating depiction of the context.[2] Conner sets out the nuances of the social revolution in which Marat operated, the logic of the political problems he faced, and the pressures of the fateful partisan conflicts surrounding his life after 1789.


[1] Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 39-43. Bronislaw Baczko captures the unsettling language of the revolutionary period in Ending the Terror: The French Revolution after Robespierre, trans. Michel Petheram (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[2] R. R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1941).

Stephen Miller

University of Alabama at Birmingham

Copyright © 2013 by the Society for French Historical Studies, all rights reserved.

Jean Paul Marat

by Clifford D Conner (Pluto Press, £11.50)

Tuesday 12 June 2012

by Michal Boncza

Revolutionary journalist and doctor Jean Paul Marat has had a particularly bad press since his murder on July 13 1793.

Even Marx and Engels omit any mention of him in The 18th Brumaire Of Louis Napoleon and Eric Hobsbawm calls him "gross."

The killing was immortalised by his close friend and fellow Convention member Jacques-Louis David in the well-known painting Death Of Marat. David - who had visited him the previous day - was put in charge of the funeral arrangements.

The measure of popular regard for Marat was in the thousands who turned up for the torch-lit funeral procession that lasted over six hours.

The last edition of the daily newspaper he edited - Ami Du Peuple (Friend Of The People) - came out the day after his assassination and by then had totalled 700 issues between 1789 and 1793.

Clifford D Conner's scholarship is impressive but non-intrusive which makes the narrative pacey and engaging.

He exposes lazy and tendentious historic investigation, innuendoes and ideological hostility as principal contributing factors to Marat's prevailing distorted image.

Marat was an implacable and politically astute agitator for the cause of the urban labourers and poor and had an enviably loyal following.

He did not mince words and remained a thorn in the flesh of centrist and right-wing tendencies within the revolution, working incessantly on the radicalisation of its programme to benefit directly those whose tribune he had become.

In this he was unique among all the others leaders of the French revolution, including Robespierre and Danton.

His tactical acumen is perhaps best illustrated by the forging of the politically ground-breaking alliance between the reasonably well-to-do Jacobins and the sans-culottes, the urban poor.

Although Marat understood the need for a cadre party and promoted the establishment of fraternal societies among the poor he never set one up to promote his political line - perhaps his only telling political mistake, Conner ventures.

No understanding of the complexity of the political background and conflicting interests inherent in the French revolution is possible without an unbiased look at Marat and the cause he so single-mindedly embraced.

Conner provides exactly that.


December 2012

“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, it is important news that a biography of Marat has been published this year 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, including “A People’s History of Science” (Nation Books 2005). Socialist Action Books has published a number of his pamphlets.

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 is developed further in Conner’s book, “Jean Paul Marat: Scientist and Revolutionary” (Humanities Press 1997).

In the present volume, Conner rapidly leads us into and 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, and rural laborers who thirsted for land. And the working populace of the towns and cities was stratified. Its “higher” ranks included master craftsmen 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!


No. 171 July/August 2014

Tribune of the People

Keith Mann

Jean Paul Marat:

Tribune of the French Revolution

By Clifford D. Conner

Revolutionary Lives Series. Pluto Press, 2012, 178 pages, $21 paper.

THE HAUNTING IMAGE of Jean Louis David’s painting of revolutionary tribune Jean-Paul Marat dead in his bathtub, victim of a political assassination, is one of the most enduring of the French revolution.

David, the painter, himself a member of the revolutionary National Convention before succumbing to the allure of Napoleon, portrayed Marat in a timeless manner capturing his enduring image as a revolutionary martyr. At the same time, the painting’s dreamlike feel also reflects the murky legacy of Marat’s role in the revolution and its relevancy to revolutionary theory and practice.

Marat is one of the revolution’s most misunderstood and ignored figures. During the revolution he was constantly hounded by political enemies to his right, forced underground and threatened with imprisonment and worse, while his personality and political ideas were grossly distorted.

History has been most unfair as well; the reputation produced by the propaganda machine that painted him during his life as a self-promoting, bloodthirsty maniac seems to have influenced historians of all political sensibilities, precluding the type of serious analyses of his politics that Robespierre, St. Just, Danton, and Babeuf’s ideas and political engagement have received.

Recent work on Marat by French scholars has been sparse (Jean Massin, 1970, Olivier Coquard, 1993). The last English language biography of Marat was published in 1927 (Gottschalk). While Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky were all familiar with Robespierre and Babeuf and referred to them in their writings, Marat was for the most part under their radar screen.

Only in the 1880s upon reading a sympathetic biography of Marat published in France by Alfred Bougeart in 1865 (which earned Bougeart a prison sentence) did Engels come to appreciate both the degree to which Marat’s ideas had been distorted, and his role as revolutionary strategist.

Cliff Conner’s biography of Marat does much to rescue from obscurity the Tribune of the People, as he came to be known, and restore him to his place as a leading light of the advance guard of the revolution.

More importantly, Conner’s focus on Marat’s brilliance as a revolutionary political strategist lays the groundwork for a wider assessment of Marat’s notions of political strategy and tactics that can potentially enrich revolutionary theory and practice.

Conner, a longtime socialist activist and Marxist historian with a special interest in science, published an intellectual biography of Marat in 1997, focusing on Marat’s career as an 18th century scientist. The present book is the fourth in a series by Pluto Press titled Revolutionary Lives, edited by Brian Doherty, Sarah Irving and Paul LeBlanc.

The French Revolution is one of history’s most researched subjects. Professional academic historians, journalists, political theorists of all sensibilities, novelists and playwrights have produced a staggering amount of printed material. Enormous quantities of primary source documentation produced during the revolution itself — some published, most unpublished — are available in archives, a portion of which is online.

Scholarly treatments of aspects of the Revolution by academic historians usually draw heavily on primary sources and are set in the context of specific scholarly debates. Conner relies heavily on primary sources but leaves broader scholarly debates aside.

The distortions of Marat’s life and ideas being so great, Conner begins his book with posing and answering a series of questions related to these distortions. He asks and provides evidence to answer in the negative whether Marat was a “common criminal” as had been alleged, whether he was “clinically insane” or a “charlatan.”

Conner carefully reviews each of these claims against the evidence and persuasively rejects them all. Conner draws on his research on Marat’s life as a scientist in the years before finding his avocation as revolutionary agitator, as well as his broad knowledge of 18th century intellectual life in France and Europe, to refute some of the calumnious claims against Marat.

Marat and Violence

Conner also critically examines one of the most oft-repeated charges against the Tribune, that he promoted the most violent revolutionary measures. Opponents of Marat both during the revolution and posthumously cited his writings and speeches supposedly calling for mass executions as proof of his pathological fascination with violence. Although he had already been himself assassinated, Marat’s opponents credited him with inspiring the paroxysm of violence running from September 1793 to July 1794 known as the “Reign of terror.”

During the period of rightwing violence known as the Thermidorian reaction following the fall and execution of Robespierre and other Jacobin leaders in the summer of 1794, Marat began to be posthumously blamed for the infamous “September massacres” of 1792. But Conner effectively defends Marat from charges that he was a bloodthirsty proponent of violence. He points out that Marat predicted rather than called for violence in his writings.

More generally, Conner maintains that Marat “did not relish violence for its own sake; he saw it first of all as a natural response of oppressed people to the ‘violence of the status quo,’ and secondly as the only possible means of defense against the violence of the counterrevolution.” (148)

One of the most impressive features of this book is Conner’s skillful placing of Marat within the complicated, shifting landscapes of the revolution itself.

Conner’s account will effectively guide both those with familiarity as well those with little or none with the course of the Revolution through the years 1789-1794. This is essential to his effort to analyze Marat’s brilliance as a political strategist, capable of quickly grasping the dynamics of rapidly shifting situations and proposing appropriate strategies in relation to them.

This close analysis is possible because Marat’s principal role in the revolution was as editor and publisher of what was often a daily newspaper, the entire contents of which were usually written by Marat himself. Conner draws on these to construct a precise record of Marat’s political strategy and ideas, and their evolution over time.

Marat founded the Ami du Peuple, one of dozens of political newspapers published during the early period of the revolution. He gradually distinguished himself as an uncompromising revolutionary with an uncanny sense of predicting future political developments within the revolution.

Politically, the newspaper “very quickly began to differentiate itself from competing revolutionary journals. The spectrum of opinion among them ranged from those believing that the July 14, 1789 insurrection had completed the revolution and those believing that the revolution had only taken a first step. Ami du peuple was at the latter end of the spectrum while most others fell between the two poles.” (48)

Some of Marat’s ideas would be easily rejected by today’s revolutionaries. He actually favored a “supreme dictator” who would safeguard the public interest for a short time until the masses were ready to rule. Conner quotes Marat as explaining that this figure would “be ‘armed with full public power and charged with punishing those who were to blame’ for the nation’s suffering.” (62)

Although Conner defends Marat from charges that he favored a totalitarian regime and points out that the Tribune later clarified his meaning to be “leader” rather than “dictator,” tragic subsequent historical developments would certainly make this aspect of Marat’s thought unappealing.

In addition Marat had little to say to future revolutionaries regarding political organization. As editor of a daily paper which was often forced underground to boot, Marat certainly had collaborators whom he had to organize. But he demonstrated no real sense of the need for a revolutionary party.

Although systematic theory and practice of revolutionary organizations would have to wait for Lenin, some of Marat’s contemporaries like Robespierre and Brissot built solid political organizations on which they could rely to advance their political agenda.

Marat as Political Strategist

Conner makes a strong case however, that as “a political strategist and tactician, Marat showed himself to be the equal of any of history’s most effective revolutionary leaders.” (152) He displayed an acute understanding that if the revolution didn’t move ahead, it would be undermined.

Conner shows how Marat saw how the moderate leaders of a given stage of the revolution, like Lafayette, actually played a counterrevolutionary role by blocking the consolidation of the revolution. This was the quality that also impressed Engels so much upon reading Bougeart’s biography of Marat.

As Engels put, it “Marat mercilessly removed the veil from the idols of the moment, Lafayette, Bailly and others, and exposed them as ready-made traitors to the revolution; and that he, like us, did not want the revolution declared complete, but lasting.”(1)

It was Marat’s genius in reading the complex political situation of the revolution that often limited his immediate political influence; he was often so far ahead of the masses and other revolutionary leaders that he frequently found himself isolated until events vindicated his positions. The ferocity of the repression against the moderate forces whom he denounced as tomorrow’s counterrevolutionaries also limited his influence.

Nevertheless, Conner credits Marat with playing a key role in what Conner considers the pivotal moment of the revolution. This was the popular insurrection in Paris of May 31 to June 2, 1793. At this point the Girondin deputies and their supporters had clearly decided that the revolution had gone too far and had themselves been implicated in the treason of the former revolutionary General Dumouriez who turned over revolutionary emissaries from Paris to the counterrevolutionary Austrian army before defecting to the Austrian side in April 1793.

The insurrection led to the arrest of the Girondin deputies, a move which Conner considers to be the “watershed of the revolution” (emphasis in original, 139) because it “cleared the way for the birth of the Jacobin Republic” which “consolidated and made irreversible” the essential anti-feudal gains of the revolution. This had long term historical ramifications paving the way for the “transformation from feudalism to capitalism.”(2)

Conner not only celebrates Marat’s uncompromising revolutionary resolve and tactical acumen; he endorses his course as the most consistent revolutionary voice of the French revolution.

Conner supports Marat against Danton and Robespierre on his right. He also supports Marat’s hostility to the revolutionary current on the far left represented by a group of revolutionary agitators known as the enragés, whom Conner characterizes as “ultraleft” footnoting Lenin’s polemic Left Communism: An Infantile Disorder in support, although Lenin’s pamphlet did not mention Marat.

Revolutionary or Ultraleft?

Conner highlights two areas of disagreement between Marat and the enragés. The first is their sense of timing and balance of forces. The enragés agitated in favor of the most advanced social demands of the revolution at a time when moderate and counterrevolutionary sentiment in the French provinces was subject to manipulation by the then ascendant moderate Girondin faction, which felt the revolution had already gone too far.

Marat believed that the enragés’ agitation at this moment could play into the hands of moderate and even counterrevolutionary forces outside Paris who could march on Paris and overturn the revolution.

The second area of disagreement concerned the enragés’ demand itself, that the central social demand of the popular urban classes in Paris, a maximum price ceiling on bread and other basic consumer goods be vigorously enforced.

The popular demand for a maximum price for food and basic goods could not be accepted by either wing of the pro-capitalist leadership of the revolution. Both the moderate Girondins, always suspicious of the popular masses, and the more Radical Jacobins far more willing to draw on popular anger, understood the threat to private property that the maximum represented.

Conner offers a brief sketch of Marat’s social and economic vision. “The single minded objective of the People’s Friend was to advance the social (emphasis in original) revolution in the most profound sense of the word. A revolution that toppled the monarchy or curbed the power of the aristocracy would mean little to Marat if it did not also raise the majority of the people out of abject poverty. ” (67)

Marat “went beyond the call for political equality and raised the banner of social equality.” (81) However, “Marat did not challenge the right to private property, but he maintained that people who were faced with starving to death had an absolute natural right (emphasis in original) to confiscate the surplus property of the wealthy.” (44) Yet in practice this right did not apparently include, in Marat’s view, support for the central social demand of the urban poor — the maximum.

Given the wide circulation of liberal ideas on the dangers of government intervention into the economy among educated European circles at the time, and the fact that Marat spent time in Britain while David Ricardo and Adam Smith were publishing defenses of capitalism and unfettered markets, suggests that he would have encountered and perhaps absorbed these ideas.

The demand and the controversy surrounding the maximum reflected both France’s social structure at the time and the realities of everyday life, particularly in the cities. Spikes in bread prices could literally threaten the lower rungs of urban population with starvation. Enforcing a maximum for bread prices was enormously popular among these social strata. At the same time, agitation around and implementation of the maximum threatened the broad popular alliance running from artisans and small shopkeepers to the small class of wage earners, to unskilled laborers, and the amorphous mass of marginalized urban poor.

Those from these social strata who participated in street demonstrations and revolts like the taking of the Bastille and other uprisings (referred to in French as journées), and participated in political clubs and mass assemblies were collectively known as sans culottes, in reference to the fact that men from these strata wore pants, rather than breeches. (47)

Since some of them, like bakers sold goods to the public and would be expected to oppose the maximum, this demand could threaten sans culotte unity.

The blurred lines between the social strata that constituted the sans culottes and the absence of a well-defined wage-earning proletariat reflected France’s late 18th century social structure, which impeded capitalist development.

While merchant capitalism had co-existed uneasily with feudal property relations for centuries, industrial capitalism was all but stifled by government policies favoring the inefficient, parasitical agricultural nobility over the economic and social policies necessary for capitalist development. This in turn retarded the development of a class of wage earners.

Bourgeois Revolution, Stagism, and “Permanent Revolution”

Endorsing or not the enragés and the demands of the urban poor, and therefore assessing the role of Robespierre and Marat in opposing them, presents problems for revolutionary Marxist scholars of the revolution like Conner. On the one hand, taking the side of Robespierre and Marat on this issue puts one retrospectively in the company of those who led the suppression of the vanguard of the advanced party of the revolution, as well opposing the demands of the hungry urban masses in the name of theory and programmatic considerations.

The issue of assessing the forces on the left of the revolution is also complicated by the ways Marxist theory was used by Stalinist politicians and historians in a “stagist” sense to support the popular front policies of Communist parties in the 1930s.

The historical materialist view of history developed by Marx and Engels sees slave, feudal, capitalist, socialist and communist societies as general stages of human civilization, and recognizes the role of capitalism in developing productive forces far beyond levels attained under feudal and slave societies.

Feudal social relations were viewed as “fetters” on the development of productive forces. Given the presence of a frustrated and energetic bourgeoisie and the absence of a large, coherent working class, revolution in 18th century France could only be bourgeois. But given the overall balance of forces, this ascendant bourgeoisie needed the support of the peasantry and urban poor.

In many ways their demands were compatible (the end of privileges for the Church and Nobility, civic equality, etc). But radical social and economic proposals favored by the popular masses, like the maximum bread price, were opposed by both radical Jacobin and more moderate Girondist bourgeois factions in the name of the principles of bourgeois political economy.

When pro-Communist Party twentieth century historians like Albert Soboul argued that the French revolution was fundamentally bourgeois, they were defending the general Marxist view of the revolution from anti-Marxist historians like Alfred Cobban. But their dismissal of the demands and aspirations of the popular classes and their vanguard provided support for the rigid stagist view of history that Stalin used as theoretical justification for the popular front policies that choked off revolution at several key points during the 20th century.

The French Trotskyist Daniel Guerin, inspired by Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution and perhaps reacting to Stalinist stagist politics, wrote a remarkable book on the revolution (1946). While endorsing the overall characterization of the French Revolution as fundamentally bourgeois, Guerin argued that an incipient process of permanent revolution was also present.

He argued that an admittedly small, but discernible wage earning proletariat separated itself from the mass of petty bourgeois sans culottes and raised independent demands that prefigured more modern forms of proletarian struggle under capitalism. He saw the enragés as their legitimate leadership, and cited Marx’s opinion that they were the “principal representatives of the revolutionary movement.”

For Marxist scholars like Conner who analyze a pivotal figure like Marat, the problem is posed of separating what is authentically Marxist in classic Marxist accounts by Soboul and others of the revolution as fundamentally bourgeois, from stagist notions that justify repression of advanced revolutionary forces in the name of theory and immediate political interests.

As a pivotal figure to the left of Robespierre but to the right of the enragés, Marat challenges Marxist historians and activists to determine the proper placing of the “goal posts” marking authentic revolutionary politics from ultraleft adventurism.

While Stalinist politicians, theorists and historians have retrospectively opposed all forces to the left of Marat, it may be true that the enragés in their time were ultraleft, i.e. pursuing a course that was ill timed or utopian. But a sustained examination of Marat’s role in the Revolution begs further consideration of the issue.

The richness and complexity of these issues underscore both the importance of studying revolutionary history and the ways that this thoughtful book about a maligned 18th century revolutionary can enrich what we know about revolutionary processes.

Conner ends by asking “where is the People’s Friend now, when we need him?” Indeed, ours is a period where revolutionary leadership is sorely needed. One need only look to the stalled revolutions of our time for examples where the lack of consistent revolutionary leadership and strategy threatens to undermine not only the deepening of the revolutionary process, but the consolidation of initial victories.

As today’s revolutionaries pursue their dreams of social justice, they’ll do well to study the ways that the Tribune of the People fought for those same goals in his time.


1 Works of Frederick Engels 1884. Marx and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (1848-49) Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 26, 120; Written in mid-February and early March, 1884; First published: in Der Sozialdemokrat. March 13, 1884; Transcribed by Andy Blunden.

2 Conner develops this point, writing “An essential prerequisite to the development of a capitalist economy is the existence of a free labor force — a pool of propertyless people who in order to survive are forced to become wage workers. As long as the vast majority of the population is unable to leave the land, no such labor force is possible and capitalist development is sharply restricted. That was the accomplishment of the Jacobin Republic.” (141) This statement correctly explains the broad lines of capitalist development. However, it is somewhat inaccurate as applied to the French revolution and its subsequent effects on industrial capitalism in France. While the overthrow of the remnants of feudalism, the aristocracy and the monarchy, along with the rise of bourgeois power, created the general prerequisites for the development of capitalism, the actual course and settlement of the revolution in the short and medium term actually retarded the rapid rise of an urban proletariat. This was because the land of counterrevolutionary émigré nobles were often acquired by medium and even small peasants which helped to keep them on the land, making them small property owners rather than property less proletarians. This made the pace of urban growth and the formation of an industrial working class much more gradual than in other countries experiencing similar political and economic development. Conner’s statement fits the English case better. In England a series of “enclosures” of communal lands between the 16th and 18th centuries drove much of the English peasantry off the land and into cities, making them available for wage labor.


Conner, Clifford D. 1997. Jean Paul Marat: Scientist and Revolutionary. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Coquard, Olivier. 1993. Marat. Paris: Fayard.

Gottschalk, Louis. 1927. Jean Paul Marat: A study in Radicalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Guerin, Daniel. 1946. La lutte des classes sous la Première République, 1793-1797, Paris, Gallimard, 2 vol., 1946 (édition abrégée : Bourgeois et bras-nus, 1793-1795, 1968).

Massin, Jean. 1970, Marat. Paris: Club français du livre.

Soboul, Albert. 1967. A Short History of the French Revolution, 1789-1799. Berkeley: University of California Press.

International Socialist Review

Friend of the people
Review by Joe Cleffie

Issue #88: Reviews

Jean-Paul Marat:
Tribune of the French Revolution

By Clifford D. Conner

Pluto Press, 2012 · 176 pages · $21.00

THE FRENCH Revolution was one of the key historical events that ushered in the system of modern capitalism. In mobilizing the French masses, the revolution opened up society for the development of democratic ideas and institutions that are still with us today, limited though they are. The fact remains that capitalism traces its roots back to revolutionary movements in several countries. But today’s ruling classes have no interest in showcasing capitalism’s revolutionary origins, preferring to see the modern world as the natural product of gradual social evolution rather than change achieved through violent uprisings. Toward this end, they often ridicule and demonize the advocates of revolutionary violence and radical democratic ideas in past revolutions where they cannot conceal them.

Jean-Paul Marat is one such figure— a physician, scientist, and revolutionary who has often been subjected to a litany of abuse and dismissed as either a charlatan or a fanatic. Clifford Conner’s newly published Jean-Paul Marat: Tribune of the French Revolution is a biographical sketch that aims to rescue Marat from these critics.

Conner quickly refutes the slanders against Marat, who was born in 1743 in Boudry, in what is now Switzerland. Conner shows that critiques of Marat’s science are based on political bias rather than reasoned analysis.

Marat’s scientific ideas were not groundbreaking, he notes, but his views were far from outside the accepted bounds of the science of his time. Only in the context of subsequent discoveries in medicine and physics can he be seen as a charlatan. Marat’s opposition to the Académie des Sciences pointed to his egalitarianism. Marat was not anti-science, but opposed the monarchy that controlled the Académie. He was criticized by the elites for his insistence on seeing patients in person rather than diagnosing and treating patients on paper. Marat was actually ahead of his time in thinking patients should play a role in their own care. His physics lectures were attended by figures like Benjamin Franklin.

Most of the book, however, is devoted to showing Marat as a committed revolutionary propagandist and agitator, through his daily newspaper Ami du Peuple (Friend of the People). This gave him enormous influence and popularity, particularly amongst the sans-culottes (literally, without breaches), or the urban laboring classes.

From the beginning, Marat was clear about the audience for Ami du Peuple: “The Revolution has been made and sustained only by the lower classes of society—the workers, the artisans, the retailers, the farmers—by the plebeians, by those unfortunates whom the rich impudently call the rabble.” In the early stages of the revolution, most supporters saw the monarchy as the enemy and the new institutions of the revolution, the National Assembly and the Paris Commune, as their allies. Marat, on the other hand, saw them as part of the problem. He saw the early stages of the revolution as being incomplete because although the monarchy had been pushed back, the new institutions were dominated by the rich. Without a second, more radical stage, the rich would compromise with the monarchy and end the revolution violently. For the revolution to continue and win, these institutions would have to be replaced with ones that prioritized the interests of the poor.

Marat was concerned that the poor and oppressed might become satisfied with political reforms and not take the revolution into this second stage. He consciously decided to become more provocative. Anticipating his future critics, he said, “No matter how bizarre this will make me look in the eyes of scholars, I won’t hesitate to do it—your old friend cares only for your safety. I have to keep you from falling into the abyss.” In a famous (or infamous) instance of this approach that has fueled contemporary attempts to paint him as a bloodthirsty fanatic, he wrote,

Five or six hundred heads chopped off would assure you peace, liberty and happiness. A false humanitarianism has restrained your arms and has prevented you from striking such blows. That will cost the lives of millions of your brothers. Let your enemies triumph for an instant and torrents of blood will flow. They’ll cut your throats without mercy, they’ll slit the bellies of your wives, and in order to forever extinguish your love of liberty, their bloody hands will reach into your children’s entrails and rip their hearts out.

The language shocked his readers—but his correct warning cemented his reputation as a prophet.

Marat was often ahead of others in predicting events. He repeatedly argued that despite King Louis XVI’s lip service to the revolution, the king would flee Paris at the first opportunity and join the Austrians for a march on Paris to drown the revolution in blood. On June 20, 1791, Ami du Peuple declared that “the royal family is only waiting for Paris to go to bed before taking flight.” The very next day a Varennes local recognized the King traveling in disguise and the royal family was arrested and sent back to Paris. Just to prove there was no misunderstanding, Louis, thinking his escape was guaranteed, left a manifesto behind that laid out his plans to defeat the revolution by force. This sealed his fate. Marat also predicted General LaFayette’s attempt to defect to the Austrians and crush the revolution militarily.

Despite the legends, there was nothing supernatural about Marat’s predictive power. He had a vast network of sources available to him, some within the palace walls. More importantly, he had the ability to see class interests more clearly than most of his contemporaries. Figures such as the king, LaFayette, and others were interested in stopping the revolution after the achievement of formal political equality. But they feared social equality. Marat also knew that if the counterrevolution was successful, even the political equality they had won was at risk.

One other example shows Marat’s talent for strategy and tactics. As the revolution moved forward and election by delegates was replaced by direct democracy, the character of the legislative bodies changed. The Left, the Jacobin Club, and even Marat himself gained seats and were able to fight for policy. At this time a group called the Enragés, the far Left of the revolution, came to Paris and started quoting Marat about the overthrow of the old National Assembly to argue for the current body’s overthrow and for the sans-culottes to rise up. They were surprised to find Marat’s fire turned on them. While Marat agreed that “it is undeniable that the capitalists, the speculators, the monopolists, the luxury merchants . . . are all . . . supporters of the old regime who miss their old profitable scams,” he attacked them for not recognizing that the character of the government had changed. The majority could now be won to the interests of the working people. Also, he feared, rightly, that if the Enragés were able to get the sans-culottes to rise up, Paris would be isolated from the rest of France. This was no sellout by Marat. When the time was right, he no longer held the people of Paris back, but encouraged the more radical phase of the revolution that brought the Jacobin republic into being.

Despite his strengths, Marat had one major weakness: he never organized his followers into a distinct political force as Robespierre did. When Marat was assassinated on July 13, 1793, it did not mean the end of the revolution. In fact, it gave resolve to the vacillating Jacobins. They unleashed the Terror on their political opponents, thereby solidifying the gains of the revolution. But when Robespierre and other Jacobin leaders were executed, it did mean the end of the revolution. Also, without the support of the Jacobins, Marat would have been arrested in the early days and certainly never would have gained formal positions in the government.

Two notes on what this book is not: first, it is not a comprehensive biography of Marat. It mainly covers his life from the beginning of the revolution in 1789 to his death in 1793. Second, it is not a complete history of the French Revolution. Conner gives some background, but a general familiarity with the history would be helpful. Taking those limits into consideration, though, this is an excellent political biography of a principled revolutionary in the middle of one of the greatest upheavals in human history.

For more information about Jean Paul Marat: Scientist and Revolutionary, click [HERE].