The French political revolutionist and writer François Noel Babeuf (1760-1797) was active during the French Revolution. He was among the first to advocate socialism as a political institution for solving the problems of society.
François Babeuf was born in Saint-Quentin on Nov. 25, 1760. Before the French Revolution he was employed as a commissaire à terrien at Roye, a position in which he was supposed to help the landed aristocracy assert their feudal rights over the peasants. His occupation made him unpopular among the lower classes, and he himself did not like the nobility. In 1789, on the eve of the Revolution, he wrote the section of the petition from the village of Roye which requested the king to abolish all feudal rights.
In the early years of the Revolution, Babeuf held minor government posts in Somme, in Montdidier, and finally in Paris, where he settled in 1794. He is credited with having applied the word "terrorists" to the Jacobins of 1793-1794. After the Jacobins fell on 9 Thermidor (July 27, 1794) Babeuf supported the men who had defeated them. In 1794 he began to publish the Journal de la liberté de la presse, later known as Le Tribun du peuple. In an article written shortly after the Thermidorian coup, Babeuf expressed radical democratic ideas. At this time he began to call himself Caius Gracchus Babeuf, after the Roman social reformer.
In October 1794 Babeuf was arrested for attacking the government's economic policies. After his release the following year, he became one of the Directory's most violent critics. In Le Tribun du peuple he put forth his socioeconomic ideas and called for the establishment of a republic of equals. His theories, which formed the basis for 19th-century socialism and communism, were offensive to the Thermidorians. But he soon attracted a following of former Jacobins, and they opened a club at the Panthéon. In February 1796 the government closed the club and planned to take actions against the group, which was becoming a political menace.
Meanwhile, Babeuf and his supporters were plotting an attack upon the government. They wanted to implement the Constitution of 1793, because they believed that it would place governmental power in the hands of the people. However, their plan was betrayed by the spy Georges Grisel, and on May 10 Babeuf and the other leaders of the movement were arrested. On April 26, 1797, Babeuf was condemned to death, and he was executed the next day.
The two best works on Babeuf in English are Ernest B. Bax, The Last Episode of the French Revolution: Being a History of Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of the Equals (1911), and Philippe M. Buonarroti, Babeuf's Conspiracy for Equality (1828; trans. 1836; repr. 1965). Both books are not only biographies, but histories of the "socialist" conspiracy. Also very good on the conspiracy is David Thomson, The Babeuf Plot: The Making of a Republican Legend (1947).