Jean-Paul Marat: The French Revolution's Own Pre-Marx Socialist Blogger

Derek Ide I Social Movement Studies I History I May 18th, 2013

Jean-Paul Marat is often portrayed by contemporary historians as a madman. Thomas Carlyle, a famous French historian, wrote that Marat was "one squalidest horse-leech, redolent of soot." Stanley Cloomis describes him as a man with "arms flailing about in all directions…with the reckless rage of a lunatic." Cloomis continues by commenting on his disbelief that a woman could fall in love with him, citing the fact that he was so "repulsive" even the "wildest extremists of the left and their minions" kept away. He then explains that "He lived like a bat or an owl, always hidden from the light of day," finally concluding that by his "compulsive, brusque and jerky walk" he must be an assassin. Often they expand upon his perceived bloodlust and thirst for unnecessary violence. All of this, however, fails to explain why Marat was celebrated as "one of the most prominent and popular leaders of the revolution" who held thousands of readers captive and whose death was met with "almost Diana-style grief."[1] This virulent approach to such a vital historical figure also fails to seriously and critically analyze the extremely complex, principled, and revolutionary political, economic, and social ideas articulated by Marat. His ideas, as E. Belfort Bax argues in Jean-Paul Marat: The People's Friend, are more closely aligned with the justice and equality embodied in modern conceptions of socialist thought than vacuous bloodlust and violence.

Jean-Paul Mara (the "t" added later to appear more "French") was born in 1743 in a small village on the Neuchâtel lake. According to his baptism record his father, of the same name, was an Italian who converted to Calvinism in Geneva where his mother, Louise Cabrol, was a citizen. His father worked manufacturing goods but, after having made the family some enemies in the village of Boundry, moved Jean-Paul, his older sister Marie, and his younger brother Henri back to Geneva. The source of the tension arising in Boundry is not conclusive but, as this anonymous letter, dated the 19th of March 1768, to Jean-Paul's mother exemplifies, there obviously existed some hostility:

MADAM - As you have the most diabolical tongue that we have ever had in our town, and as you are a notorious liar and slanderer…I shall take care to make you known at Geneva. I have already written to different persons, and have painted you in your true colours, as also your children, who resemble you…I say once more that you are a notorious liar, a most evil tongue, a slanderess, a woman of no character, whom every one despises, and who is only too despicable. Your husband is no better. He is a downright hypocrite and canting humbug ( caffard ). [2]

These vicious attacks on Marat's mother, in particular, probably alarmed him given the immense reverence he held for her. "[It] is to my mother that I owe the development of my character," he writes, "This good woman, whose loss I still deplore, trained my early years; she alone caused benevolence to expand in my heart." [3] It is with this maternal care that Marat developed his own sense of importance in the world and began to cultivate ideas of justice and equality.

In his "Journal de la Republique française (No. 98)," he remarks that even at age eight his moral sense was developed and the "ill-treatment practised upon another" filled him with indignation and made his "blood boil with a feeling as of a personal outrage." Reflecting upon his childhood, he proclaims that he was "devoured by the love of fame" even from a young age. "At five years of age," he recalls, "I wanted to be a schoolmaster; at fifteen a professor; at eighteen an author; and at twenty a creative genius." His outrage of the sense of injustice was perhaps foreshadowed when, sent to his room for something he deemed inappropriate, he jumped out of the window onto the ground, explaining that it he "did not fail to hurt myself seriously in the fall" and bears the mark on his forehead into adulthood. [4]

Marat left home relatively early, at sixteen years old, and although little is known about this period of his life, it is assumed he went to study medicine which he would later practice in England for a time. He visited Toulouse shortly, and then went to Bordeaux where he studied medicine, literature, philosophy, and politics. After toying for awhile with writing literature, he found himself in Paris studied medicine further. Shortly afterward he reached London around 1765 where he lived, on and off, for most of his time prior to the breakout of the French Revolution. Details are scattered concerning his life at this juncture, but one account claims that under a fake name he stole something of importance from a museum, fled to Dublin, and was brought back and bailed out by an old friend. Another story claims he fell in to poverty, was released by a society created to help those in debt, taught embroidery under yet another false name, fell in to debt one more, was imprisoned and finally released after some time. Another detractor also accused of only being able to practice surgery on horses and dogs, not humans.[5] These, however, as Bax notes, are largely personal attacks, both contemporary and posthumous, meant to discredit him as a political thinker with little validity; such was the disdain on the part of the propertied classes towards Marat.

While making a living practicing medicine in England, he began to experiment in the realm of science and wrote papers concerning electricity, heat, and light. His three major works on these were published from 1780 to 1782 [6] and his exploits earned him welcome in various artistic, scientific, and literary circles. [7] Even "a number of socially prominent personages admired Marat's scientific work and helped advanced his career as a physicist."[8] Some of his other hypotheses were less valuable, however, and at one point he wrote an absurd piece concerning how the body and soul interact with bodily fluids acting as the intermediary between them which, upon completion, he sent to the philosopher Voltaire who attempted to disabuse Marat of the idea that this particular hypothesis was a very serious one. [9] His most serious political work did not surface until 1774.

The full title of his first political work, giving the reader an idea of both his style, consistent flair, and incessantly dire tone, was The Chains of Slavery: a work wherein the clandestine and villainous attempts of princes to ruin liberty are pointed out, and the dreadful scenes of despotism disclosed, to which is prefixed an address to the electors of Great Britain, in order to draw their timely attention to the choice of proper representatives in the next Parliament. As evidenced from the title, Marat often made use of incendiary invectives, marking him as one of history's most potent political agitators. Chains of Slavery gave what Marat considered to be crucial advice to the people of England; he warned them to "Reject boldly all who attempt to buy your votes…all who have any place at Court… [and] men of pompous titles." He reassures them of their power to change the Parliament, exemplifying a real commitment to democratic principles. It is here that he first articulates a primitive precursor to the twentieth-century, Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci's concept of cultural hegemony:

At first, and so long as the despotism is established and maintained by sheer force of arms, the people make many attempts to rid themselves of it...Hence, princes have found out a more subtle, but at the same time a more effective, way of placing and holding their subjects in slavery. They send them to sleep; they corrupt them; they cause them to lose the love for, and remembrance of, liberty, and even the bare idea of it… Fetes, pageants, national monuments, new roads, markets, and churches all tend to distract the attention of peoples from that enslavement…Writers, actors, artists, musicians, and many others are bought over by the monarch to effect his purpose.[10]

He also provides the framework for an eighteenth-century critique of capitalism by condemning merchants who manufacture wants, claim loyalty according to where they can create the most profit, and monopolize whole industries to the detriment of working people and smaller enterprises. [11]

His other major political work, from which he stays more or less true throughout his entire political career in France, was the "Plan de Législation criminelle." It was Marat's primary theoretical piece. While borrowing and expanding upon Rousseau quite heavily, "Législation criminelle" is also a pragmatic attempt to apply these theoretical principles. He begins, foreshadowing Marx by nearly a century, by noting that, laws written by the dominant class will necessarily reflect the interests of that dominant class. He then lays out the responsibilities of the state. "If, in order to maintain itself, society compels them to respect the established order, above all, it ought to protect them against the temptations of want," he continues, "It owes them an assured subsistence, suitable clothing, complete protection, succour in illness, and care in their old age." Upon this basis, Marat transcends bourgeoisie limitations and, further on, interrogates the legitimacy of property and the basis upon which the idea of theft is based, concluding that "only after an equal division between all" would theft no longer become a necessity for those in need. The only "legitimate foundation of all property," he reiterates, is built when "all that is indispensable to our existence is ours, and nothing that is superfluous can legitimately belong to us, whilst others want necessaries." He argues that taxation of the rich can provide national workshops to employ those willing to work, which remains quite a radical idea even today. He proposes to establish an "advocate of the poor" in every town who can provide for their defense and furthers the argument that "permanent tribunals" should be replaced with juries of peers. These ideas, especially in the context of the time they were written, were extraordinarily radical and revolutionary; they bore the seeds of socialism which, because of the material conditions of the society, the state of the means of production, and the social relations which existed, could not have been fully developed yet. [12]

Marat's critique of society is limited, however, given the historical and material conditions under which he formulated his political thought. First, he articulates a rather repressive idea that seems to synthesize conservative Christian values with modern Communist China's population control methods, stating that the government has the right to control the chastity of citizens to promote the integrity of family values and "favouring propagation, which has always constituted the strength of empires." In dealing with religious freedom he proclaims all should be free to worship as they please except for atheists who disclaim religious and attempt to push their ideas into the social sphere; at that point "he makes a dangerous use of his liberty, and he ought to lose it." The most apparent criticism of all, however, comes from the fact that Marat operated without the benefit of having seen the advent of industrialism and modern capitalism; he therefore lacks a serious class analysis, relying instead upon a rather crude model where an understanding of economic, political, and intellectual evolution of society is sorely lacking. As Bax points out, regarding Marat's thought, "At all times and in all ages, where political communities have existed, there was the cruel deceiving tyrant, and the good, deceived, enslaved people… All is so delightfully simple-black and white, bad and good, ruler and subject, prince and people!" Marat, being unable to articulate a more thorough analysis of society, is confined to simply exclaiming superficial, although not without importance, changes to society. Fundamental relations between employer and employed, owner and owned, while finding a kernel of investigation of the legitimacy into these relations, are left alone. Instead, the government exists to tax the rich and employ the poor, not to change society so that rich and poor do not exist at all. [13]

These principles, laid out in London, would guide Marat through the rest of his life. Upon being offered a job as personal physician by a Frenchman, he left for Paris in 1777; this decision would prove of vital importance as Marat would find the developing political situation in France of prodigious magnitude. Over the previous one-hundred fifty years France had begun to evolve into the modern conception of a nation-state, urged on by the changing social relations, with all the bureaucracy and centralization associated with the fusion of local regions into a singular polity. Political life was separated into three categories, the First Estate consisting of the clergy, the Second Estate consisting of the nobles, and the third estate consisting of everyone else from traders to bankers and from laborers to peasants. These rather arbitrary caste divisions found their basis not upon actual social relations but instead feudal ideology and political holdovers. The growth of industrialism and mercantilism had galvanized the influence of the Third Estate while the laws confined it to a nominal political power. Along with this evolution of the social relations, new ideas began to surface, namely those associated with Rousseau and Voltaire; of equality and secularism, respectively. [14] Marat, thus, found in the tumultuous political landscape of France the most promising to develop and practice his political ideals.

It was during this time that he became the victim of an unidentified skin disease, at that time incurable, which would seriously affect his temperament and writing and cause him untold misery until his death in 1793. It was also at this period that, although the exact date is unknown, Marat made the acquaintance of his future wife, Simmone Evrard. She would play a vital role in maintaining Marat's health and financing his publishing exploits after he ran into legal and financial trouble, thus enabling him to continue his political work. [15] Marat's active in involvement in politics in France was not established until 1788 when he wrote a sixty-eight page pamphlet in anticipation of the 1788 Estates-General elections. Split into five parts, he outlined first the miseries incurred by the French people under the monarch, articulated a call for unison of action and long-term strategically planning in the second part, reiterating in the third section his warnings concerning the selection of representatives originally stated in Chains of Slavery, filled the fourth section with a detailed attack on the finance ministers, especially Necker, for the financial ruin of France, and finally concluded with a base proposal for a constitution. Holding true to his principles that no petty reforms will provide the needed change, he calls for a national assembly which holds sovereignty and replaced the unaccountable court of the king along with a free, just constitution based upon the outline laid out in his previous documents. These political writings began Marat's nascent political career and surely had an impact upon those in the Third Estate who made the famous Tennis Court Oath, proclaiming the Third Estate the National Assembly and legitimate representatives of France. [16]

The day Parisians stormed the Bastille, July 14, 1789, Marat was working in one of the election committees meant to oversee the election of the electors. After unsuccessfully attempting to persuade them to let him use the printing press, he sought out his own with his own funds, hoping to use his writing as a guide for the masses. Originally publishing the Publiciste parisien, by the thirteenth issue it had become a popular force and from the sixteenth issue it went under the new name of L'Ami du Peuple, or The People's Friend. As Bax explains, Marat meant by the people "the whole of society outside the governing class…[such as] monarchs, ministers, higher nobles and ecclesiastics, together with all those whose function it was to carry out the main work of government." The monarch was the antithesis of the People whom were subject to his tyranny. He sums up his own attitude at this point:

I have not hesitated to set the Government against me, the princes, the clergy, the nobility, the parlement, the badly-disposed districts, the état-majors of the mercenary guard, the councillors of the courts of judicature, the advocates, the procurators, the financiers, the speculators, the depreciators, the blood-suckers of the State, and the innumerable army of public enemies. [17]

Marat's newspaper, as it is often referred to, would serve less as a newspaper in the common sense, which had not been differentiated from the pamphlet yet, and more of a journal containing both his theoretical postulations and agitational articles. It was, more or less, simply a practical application and commentary on the principles he had laid out in his previous works. He was more reminiscent of a modern blogger than a journalist. The only non-original pieces were those letters sent in by readers, which he often provided alongside his own opinion. These served as popular outlets for common people to make their voices heard. One such letter documents the personal story of a nun who, upon elucidating her support for those who stormed the Bastille, was beaten by a nun higher in the ecclesiastical order. Another, in the similar vein of popular independent media organs today, explicated upon a man's story as a victim of police brutality; Marat calls for the violator to be arrested. [18]

Marat even made a distinct advancement of his Rousseauite principles; where Rousseau argued the right of the majority the supreme authority in civil society, Marat took the principled stand that without constitutional rights for minorities, majority democracy was simply mob rule. He understood the essentiality of separation between the executive, legislative branches, and judicial branches. He promulgated the idea, a vital tenet to modern conceptions of democratic socialism, that the people retain the right to immediately recall representatives who fail to represent them. When, on the night of August 4th, liberal nobles showed a desire to compromise with the Third Estate by giving up a host of feudal privileges they were met with a rapturous applause by the people of Paris. Marat warned the people not to be deceived by their seemingly sincere self-sacrifices. He saw that the aristocracy would use this as leverage in shaping the constitution and commented that it was not very impressive for nobles to have "the magnanimity to renounce the privilege of holding in chains men who have recovered their liberty with arms in their hands…Let us admit that they have done that from virtue which might so easily have been attributed to fear." Not long after this Marat became the target of consistent abuse and harassment by authorities under the auspices of Lafayette. Within two months of publishing the paper, he had two separate court orders and new ordinances allowed Lafayette's thugs to brutalize and intimidate publishers and booksellers who would distribute Marat's materials. Other means by Royalists were employed, such as forging issues of L'Ami du Peuple with false information and propagating a harmful political stance for the author, to damage Marat in hopes of him losing popularity and influence with the people. [19]

October of 1789 marked yet another turning point in French history when the "Insurrection of Women" forced Louis XVI and his family to return from Versailles to Paris. The king, who had blatantly disrespected the tri-color liberty hat, a symbol of French republicanism, angered an already frustrated mass of people suffering from lack of adequate bread rations. Marat, for three weeks prior to the event, had been chronicling the shortage of bread and calling for the monarch to be put under watch in Paris; it was his words that helped, at least to some extent, galvanize the march on the palace. This infuriated authorities who wasted little time in advancing further their interest in arresting him. They issued a court order, so Marat left Paris to hide in Versailles where he was subsequently found by sympathetic National Guardsmen who let him go and he finally ended up in a basement dwelling of Montmarte where he could write safely. Spies, however, finally found him and forced him to show up to court in December, where he was finally acquitted; at court he demanded his presses, seized by Lafayette, be returned and within fourteen days they were. All the time his popularity increased, as more readers avidly sought out the next issue of L'Ami du Peuple.

He established an office closed to the Cordelier's Club but, in January of 1790, he was once again wanted by the authorities. Lafayette ordered three full battalions, around three-thousand men of whom he knew were reactionary in their political composition, to take control of the street where Marat lived and surround his dwelling. Marat had been forewarned, however, and managed to escape. Frustrated, the men destroyed everything he owned, including his presses, and seized many of his letters and papers. A Royalist observer at the time, Montjoie, noted, "This was so extraordinary that, had I not been a witness of it myself, I should never have believed it. Conceive indeed this 'hero of two worlds' deploying forces so formidable against a crank whose only arm was his pen." For days he eluded the guards capture, making plans to exit France in order to find safety in London. Danton and the Cordelier's Club, however, took up Marat's legal defense and, although ultimately unsuccessful for Danton, the case thrust him from his vocation as local orator into national spotlight. From London Marat gave up L'Ami du Peuple for the time and focused his attacks directly on the economic aspect of the debate, writing another scathing piece against Necker whom, having made a reappearance in political life, he blamed for France's current financial ruin.

After four months he returned to Paris when, soon after, new anti-journalist legislation was passed and he was forced into hiding. From this point on, he would spend nearly two years moving from cellar to cellar, escaping the persecution of authorities:

Working, often day and night, in these damp, subterranean retreats, by the miserable light of a small oil lamp, constantly burning, the fumes of which poisoned the low, ill-ventilated apartment, his eyelids would become badly inflamed, and he contracted a continual insomnia, which combined with the malady from which he was suffering and his originally highly-strung and delicate constitution to make his life one long torture. [20]

Marat, however, began to employ not only his paper, but also placards as a means of agitation. If the issue was of dire importance, he would have posters placed all around Paris. One such poster contained a phrase, which historians have almost universally condemned as the ranting of a bloodthirsty madman, urged the removal of counter-revolutionaries: "Five or six hundred heads lopped off would have assured you repose and happiness; a false humanity has restrained your arm and suspended your blows; it will cost the lives of millions of your brothers." Marat remained committed to various political struggles and gave his opinion almost daily on important occurrences. Marat, at this point, had the most widely read and circulated paper in all of Paris; but, while he enjoyed this reputation, Lafayette also was at the zenith of his authority. Harnessing such power, Lafayette once again, in September of 1790, targeted Marat by smashing up printing presses who published his work and intimidating his primary distributor. Marat's wit and fortitude had forced him to long ago consider a back-up plan, and he continued printing despite such major disturbances. [21]

Not long after this the famous French economist, Mirabeau, died and Marat called him out as the Royalist that he was claiming he supported despotism after the fall of the Bastille, was responsible for martial law, the suspensive veto power of the king, the hated silver mark reducing the electorate, the devaluation of currency, and the permission of émigré conspirators to leave France, among other things. He also suspected the betrayal of Dumouriez prior to it occurring. By 1971 his words invoked much respect from the people of Paris. He regarded the vast majority of work written by the Constituent Assembly, with the exception of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, an utter debacle poisoned by the reactionary energy with which it was authored. Marat, at one point, even lost all confidence in the people, betraying his sometimes elitist tendency, and suffered from bouts of depression during which he contemplated leaving permanently for London. Marat's intense frustration can be seen when, on the second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, a mass demonstration at the Champ de Mars organized by Danton and the Cordelier's Club to force the Assembly to consult the people prior to making any judgment on the king. Lafayette's troops opened fire and killed around fifty demonstrators. Marat, in utter contempt, wrote "I would have…stabbed Lafayette to death, burned the despot in his palace and impaled our odious representatives on their benches."[22] At this point, concerning the debate of what to do with the king, Mark Steel notes that Marat "sounded like a Marxist" when he took the side of the Montagnards, arguing that the abolition of divisions in status was essential to lessen economic inequality; he reinforced this by proclaiming "Without the workers, society could not exist for a single day…These publicans drink he workers' blood in cups of gold."[23]

By March of 1792, however, Marat regained his previous enthusiasm as events had drastically changed the landscape of France: Lafayette was no longer command of the guard, émigrés were now being accused of conspiracy against the Republic, France was surrounded by a foreign coalition of hostile nations, and Royalist rebels were taking up arms. Marat denounced the call to war as simply a "way of distracting the nation from internal matters by occupying it with foreign affairs" which would "drown home troubles in the news of the gazettes, [waste] the national wealth in military preparations, [crush] the State under the burden of taxes, [kill] the patriots of the army of the line and of the citizen army…under the pretext of defending the frontiers of the empire." Marat's position, however, isolated him from the majority of political representatives at the time. [24]

He continued his agitation until, in the spring of 1793, the Jacobins took power and established radical principles outlined in a new constitution. At one point during the debates of what should be included, he argued that the right of man "to deal with their oppressors by devouring their palpitating hearts" be asserted in it [25]; It cannot be denied that at certain points, Marat's incendiary style was too much. Danton became the Minister of Justice and Marat was offered a position of advisor to the new Assembly and to seize the old printing presses of the court. Marat served on a Committee of Surveillance during the September massacre of political prisoners. He maintained, despite claims of historians that he led the charge to kill the prisoners, that it was, more or less, a spontaneous act committed by furious Parisians when moderate and reactionary judges failed to persecute known Royalist counter-revolutionaries. Evidence seems to suggest he is correct; two days prior, a known Royalist plotter, Montmarin, was acquitted on all charges by a judge with Royalist sympathies. Paris erupted at the decision and, as Marat explains, rather than leading the call for massacres, he only helped to direct the aggression towards known Royalists and away from those involved in petty crimes. Eventually Marat was elected to the Legislature, where he quickly called to put the king on trial. Oftentimes his radicalism isolated him from both Girondin and Jacobin representatives. Other, more reactionary ideas also isolated him from the rest; such as his call for a temporary dictatorship as a means of removing conspirators against the Republic. This position, perhaps more than all else, has condemned Marat to the dustbin along with other despots of history; it was rightfully criticized and stands starkly opposed to any conception of democratic theory and the majority of Marat's other positions. This call for dictatorship cannot be ignored, but it also cannot be the only merit upon which Marat is judged. [26]

Hated and despised by the Girondins especially, it did not take long for them to find in him some flaw which they could order his arrest. When bread-riots broke out, they blamed him for instigating them. At one point they attempted to arrest him inside the legislature, where he escaped, surrounded by a rather large crowd. Eventually he gave himself up for arrest on the 23rd of April and was tried before the nascent Revolutionary Tribunal the next day. They concluded that "[We] declare that we have observed nothing in these writings of Marat calculated to substantiate the crimes which are imputed to him." Immediately people rushed forward and a massive celebration erupted. Marat was paraded through the streets of Paris upon the shoulders of supporters. His immense popularity was lucidly displayed as thousands of hats waved, shouts of joy were heard, bouquets of flowers were thrown to him, and various important figures gave speeches on his behalf. "Marat had become the personification of the French Revolution," Bax explains, "the embodiment, in his own short, thick-set, rough, and unkempt figure, of the current ideal of liberty, of the sovereignty of the people…[his] triumph sounded the death-knell of the Girondins." However, it was not long after this Marat's health became increasingly dire. For months at a time he was confined to his bed, his only solace the comfort and care provided him by Simmone. [27]

Denounced and hated by the wealthy classes, Marat's success considerably angered one young noble woman in particular. Marianne Charlotte de Corday d'Armont, born to a family of small nobility, fostered intense dislike for the Jacobins. Having received Girodin exiles after the Jacobin rise to power, she began to plot the assassination of whom she, and thousands others undoubtedly, believed to be the very embodiment of French radicalism. She left her home in Caen for Paris on July 9th and, pretending to be a letter-carrier for a prominent Girondin politician, hoped to gain access to the Legislature floor where she would, in all its dramatic infamy, carry out Marat's murder. Finding he had been confined to his room for months, she then changed plans and attempted to reach him there. Four days later, after stopping at the butcher to purchase a strong knife for her purpose, she reached Marat's residence and was turned back at first by Simmone. Undeterred, she came back, and under the pretense of having vital information concerning Royalist conspirators for him, she attempted to gain access once again. When a dispute arose between her and Simmone, Marat, hearing it from his bathtub upstairs, where he spent much of his time due to the skin disease, told Simmone to allow her entrance. Stephan Miller notes that "the only consistent position he held was the need for vigilance" and while he "did not have a deathbed project…his reason for admitting Corday can be called one: unmasking counter-revolutionaries."[28] He quickly scrawled down false names as she pretended to give him genuine information to publish in the next issue of his paper when she drew the knife from her corset and thrust it into his side, puncturing his lung. Within minutes Marat, the People's Friend, was dead, murdered by Charlotte Corday. [29]

The details of his murder spread quickly through Paris. For days it was the topic of conversation in the city and people compared Marat to Jesus. One sans-culotte orator shot back, however, that "Marat was not made to be compared to Jesus: the latter had given birth to superstition and had defended kings, while Marat had the courage to crush them." Charlotte Corday received the guillotine for her actions, and had to be escorted by guards to avoid street justice by angry Parisians. Marat the Martyr became a symbol for the revolution:

Rings, scarf-pins, medallions were manufactured by the hundred thousand and sold as fast as they were made. His bust was prominent at every public meeting-place, his portrait hung in every citizen's room, however poor…Sections, streets, and public places were named after Marat...Women christened their children Marat... the tragedy now on everybody's lips became a favourite theme of theatrical representation. For weeks the death of Marat was exhibited on the stage of all the principal theatres of Paris…Hymns to the memory of the "People's Martyr" were composed by hundreds and hawked about the streets… The urn containing the remains was then carried into the [Panthéon] by the great entrance door, the same time that the "impure" corpse of Mirabeau, which had been formerly accorded the same honour, was ignominiously thrust out at a side door. [30]

Ian Germani labels this phenomenon the "Cult of Marat."[31] Six months later, however, with the ascension of the Thermidorian Reaction came the destruction of Marat as hero. Statues were removed, pictures torn down, and his name ran through the mud. [32] "By turning against the popular movement and the popular Cult of Marat, the revolutionary government began the process of reaction which would lead, ultimately, to its own destruction…" [33] This ideological shift would promote Marat the murderer, the monster, the villain; the idea of Marat as the People's Friend, as the principled advocate of the poor and the workers was to be erased from history forever. His wife, Simmone, was left "twenty-five sous, barely enough for two bags of sugar at the knockdown sans-culotte price." [34] She died in poverty thirty years later, alone and forgotten. [35]

Thus, the man whose very vocation was advocate of the people became, in the minds of the generations afterwards and due to the distortions of bourgeois historians, nothing more than a radical, bloodthirsty enemy of freedom and decency. Marat as popular revolutionary, captivating writer, social reformer, and early criticizer of capitalism are forgotten. Undoubtedly his positions and views were of an extremely radical nature for French society in the late eighteenth century; some remain radical today. He provided France with a tireless defiance of feudalism, aristocracy, rule by the rich, and bureaucratic centralization. He showed considerable foresight for his early critique of capitalist society and the stranglehold it allowed the rich to take upon the majority. Until his death he fought desperately for the poor, the underfed, the working people, and the unemployed; characteristics any serious, democratic, grassroots socialist organization could admire. This is not to say the limitations of the time did not impinge upon his analysis. Marat was not fully able to articulate the intricacies of the social relations at the time, nor was he able to develop a truly democratic method of organization that relied upon working-class to change society, as evidenced by his calls for temporary dictatorship and fluctuating lack of confidence in the people. Likewise, his eccentric style often failed to help his cause, but his sometimes violent rhetoric should be understood within the context of a violent society and a tumultuous, revolutionary upsurge. Indeed, as he explains, "No one more than I abhors the spilling of blood; but to prevent floods of it from flowing, I urge you to pour out a few drops." [36] Despite these flaws, he remained an extraordinarily popular figure throughout his political life. His influence on the French revolution is only tenuously documented by many prominent historians. Perhaps this is because his radical views, even today, would provide a challenge to the established socioeconomic order. Whatever the reason, Marat deserves to be rescued from the invectives of conservative historians.


[1] Mark Steel, Vive La Revolution: A Stand-Up History of the French Revolution (Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2006). All historians quoted above denouncing Marat are quoted in Steel, pages 5-7. Steels own comments are quoted in the last line, page 5 and 7, respectively.

[2] Ernest Belfort Bax, "Marat's Early Years," Jean-Paul Marat: The People's Friend. Accessed 30 July, 2009, available from; Internet

[3] Bax, "Marat's Early Years," Jean-Paul Marat.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Clifford D. Conner, Jean Paul Marat: Scientist and Revolutionary (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1998), 45.

[7] Bax, "Marat's In England," Jean-Paul Marat.

[8] Conner, Jean Paul Marat, 48.

[9] Bax, "Marat as Philosopher, Man of Sciences, and Physician," Jean-Paul Marat.

[10] Bax, "Marat as Pre-Revolutionary Political Writer," Jean-Paul Marat.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Bax, "Introduction," Jean-Paul Marat.

[15] Bax, "Marat as Lover and Husband," Jean-Paul Marat.

[16] Bax, "Marat as Revolutionary Pamphleteer and Journalist," Jean-Paul Marat.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Bax, "Marat as Political Power," Jean-Paul Marat.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Steel, Vive La Revolution. Quoted on pages 121-2.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Bax, "Marat as Political Power," Jean-Paul Marat.

[25] Steel, Vive La Revolution, 89.

[26] Bax, "Marat as Advisor to the First Paris Communes and Deputy of the National Convention," Jean-Paul Marat.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Stephan Miller, "The Death of Marat," Three Deaths and Enlightenment Thought (London: Bucknell University Press, 2001), 123.

[29] Bax, "Marat's Assassination," Jean-Paul Marat.

[30] Bax, "Marat's Family," Jean-Paul Marat.

[31] Ian Germani, Jean-Paul Marat: Hero and Anti-Hero of the French Revolution (Lempeter, Wales: The Edwin Mellon Press, 1992), 65.

[32] Bax, "Marat as Advisor to the First Paris Communes and Deputy of the National Convention," Jean-Paul Marat.

[33] Ian Germani, Jean-Paul Marat, 185.

[34] Steel, Vive La Revolution, 197.

[35] Bax, "Marat's Family," Jean-Paul Marat.

[36] Steel, Vive La Revolution, 145-6.