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Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793), revolutionary. Forgotten ideas about how the 99% can get power

Joost van Steenis

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April 22, 2014

Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793), one of the leaders in the French Revolution, was murdered while taking a bath. He was in poor health because for two years he had been kept on the run by anti-revolutionary forces and had to live in very bad circumstances. “Revolution is a natural right of The People”, he said and in March 1789 he proclaimed the violent revolution. “Violence by The People is legitimate, it remains always far inferior to the sum of all injustices by the despots over the centuries”. 

He propagated that the “revolution will be a kind of guerrilla in which we can attack the enemy in all places where the army cannot be used. This means that we can deprive the enemy of all his advantages”. He edited the “L’ Ami du Peuple”, the “People’s Friend” a famous journal in the name of the sans-culottes, street-fighting revolutionaries. He trusted the masses because his basic idea was “to let the masses participate, the only people who really cheer freedom”.

 He stood behind the poor in the struggle against rich people. Later he was revered in leftist circles for his revolutionary attitude but his ideas were hardly used. In his time the artificial division of the 99% in leftists and rightists did not exist. Marat concentrated on the fight against the 1% by a unified 99%. He put people central, the 99% who attack and the 1% who should be pressured. Later revolutionaries emphasized a change in systems and not how common citizens could get power against any oppressor. Marat emphasized the importance of the struggle against powerful persons and introduced the forming of Patriotic Clubs to control representatives. I call them Autonomous Clubs. One of the clubs was the “Societé des Vengeurs de la Loi”, “the Club of Avengers of the Law”. The Clubs are an important element in a permanent revolution by continuously controlling representatives and the 1%. That did never happen in the past, “despite their defeats, the princes do not lose anything”.


His idea of independent clubs is direct democracy in which common citizens have the power to veto, control and punish faulty leaders when they want it. The Clubs should use new action methods directed against powerful persons and not against institutions. “Their goal is to pursue the punishment of all crimes that attack the security and the liberty be it public or individual”. 

His revolutionary “People’s Friend” was time and again disturbed by magazines with the same name that propagated different policies. But Marat wrote that “it was easy to distinguish the sham magazines from the true “People’s Friend” because their authors (humbugs) always preached peace, tolerance, patience, submission to laws, obedience etc”. “The ‘Friend of the People’ has never been directed against common citizens. It has only attacked people in the civil service, unreliable bookkeepers, magistrates who neglected their duties, representatives of the people who forgot their obligations and betrayed their principals. And its respect for justice was so high that the paper even found laudable exceptions in the most corrupt circles”. 

“Don’t be deceived when they tell you things are better now. Even if there’s no poverty to be seen because the poverty’s been hidden. Even if you ever got more wages and could afford to buy more of these new and useless goods which industries foist on you and even if it seems to you that you never had so much, that is only the slogan of those who still have much more than you. Don’t be taken in when they paternally pat you on the shoulder and say that there’s no inequality worth speaking of and no more reason to fight because if you believe them they will be completely in charge in their marble homes and granite banks from which they rob the people of the world under the pretence of bringing them culture. Watch out, for as soon as it pleases them they’ll send you out to protect their gold in wars whose weapons, rapidly developed by servile scientists, will become more and more deadly until they can with a flick of the finger tear a million of you to pieces.” 

Marat did not want to use only words against people at the top. His Patriotic Clubs should analyse and examine the deeds of leading people and then take action:

“Patriotic Clubs will only pay attention to people in the civil services and unite the forces of the people in order to make up for the grievances of citizens. They will punish the agents of the authorities who are guilty, stop the continuation of their bad deeds and safeguard the well-being of the people …… but we will never be a club that is involved in the process of making decisions. That should be a serious mistake: a free union of citizens is not allowed to meddle in public affairs, to govern or to administrate. That must be clear: a club has only the simple and pure right to make propositions, to give advice and to ask questions. But when the freedom and the safety of the people is attacked it is not only advisor but also agitator, censor, punisher and even killer ……” 

“The only goal is the punishment of the perpetrators of crimes against public and individual freedom and safety. Therefore the clubs are not open for people who are attached to the Royal Court, for Queens’ Commissioners, for members of leading academic clubs, for gentlemen of independent means, for captains of finance, for speculators on the bourse, for attorney-generals, for members of the Parisian military police and for members of the town council. And one should be very careful to admit noblemen, members of the judicature or high army officers…..” 

Marat did not want the misdeeds of members of the leading class to be judged and tried by other members of that class. He did not limit the height of the punishments: “When now some heads are spared then in the future much more blood will have to ran in the streets….”.

“Five or six hundred heads would have guaranteed your freedom and happiness but a false humanity has restrained your arms and stopped your blows. If you don’t strike now, millions of your brothers will die, your enemies will triumph and your blood will flood the streets. They’ll slit your throats without mercy and disembowel your wives. And their bloody hands will rip out your children’s entrails to erase your love of liberty forever”. 

Because of this, Marat has been portrayed as one of the most bloodthirsty characters of the French Revolution but the Napoleonic wars in which millions of 99% died and Napoleon was only imprisoned proved him right. His goal was simple, “to stop corruption and other crimes of the leading class that caused too much misery and also too many dead common citizens from the lower regions of society”. He was very close to an idea common in many revolutionary movements: “punish one in order to educate a hundred”. 

Marat proposed an attack on two fronts. “Between the clan of the privileged and The People, between the small number and the masses, reconciliation is not possible. But also is needed a fight against the apathetic people who are also called reasonable”. Marat claimed the right of the oppressed on violent actions.

In those turbulent times Marat wanted to protect the achievements of the French Revolution with his Patriotic Clubs by preventing that the old leading class should regain the power they lost to the 99%. The current situation in rich Western countries is not very turbulent. But the organisation of society does not differ principally from the organisation of society in the time of Marat. Our democracy has his roots in the French Revolution and the ideas of Montesquieu about the Trias Politica. There exists a deep separation between the 1% and the 99%. The Trias Politica regulates conflicts inside the 1%. The influence of the 99% was small and is two hundred years after the French Revolution still negligible.

Only powerless masspeople can belong to the Autonomous Clubs of Marat. A multitude of such Clubs forms the new controlling Fourth People’s Power next to the Trias Politica. The 1% may not have any influence on this new power. The three separated powers of Montesquieu increased the freedom of the leading class, the new autonomous Fourth People’s Power increases the freedom of common citizens.

Joost van Steenis