Filippo Michele Buonarroti (1761–1837) was an Italian Jacobin and Babouvist leader who survived to help perpetuate as well as reshape the revolutionary tradition in the Metternich era. The materials for his biography are still being quarried from archives pertaining to the conspiratorial underground of early nineteenth-century Europe. He was born in Pisa of patrician stock and, as heir to a long line of Tuscan magistrates and councillors of state, trained for a legal career. But his conversion to the doctrines of Rousseau, Mably, and Morelly as a law student at the University of Pisa and his subsequent role as an anticlerical radical journalist led to trouble with the Hapsburg authorities, which culminated in his abandonment of family and fortune to serve the Jacobin cause after the revolution broke out in France.
As an agent of the First Republic in Corsica, he was made a French citizen by the National Convention in May of 1793 and won a post as national commissioner in Oneglia (a region in the Maritime Alps occupied by French troops). He was arrested by the Thermidorian government in March of 1795 and was sentenced to a six-month term in the prison of Plessis, where he encountered and began to collaborate with “Gracchus” Babeuf.
Buonarroti’s opposition to the ancien régime differed from that of the more plebeian self-educated Babeuf. His views were not grounded, as were Babeuf’s, in personal and practical grievances against French provincial feudal customs but derived from academic studies of Enlightenment ideas and a philanthropic impulse akin to noblesse oblige. The two men also adopted different attitudes toward the revolutionary factions. Babeuf, who was an atheist, was alienated by the Cult of the Supreme Being and welcomed the fall of Robespierre. Only later did he exploit, for tactical reasons, the image of Robespierre as a popular republican, martyred by a small counterrevolutionary faction, whereas Buonarroti, a deist, adhered to this image. Both agreed, however, that the political institutions and economic legislation of 1793–1794 should be viewed not as transient emergency measures but as guidelines for the future permanent establishment in the most powerful nation on the Continent of an ideal egalitarian community.
Upon their release from prison, Babeuf and Buonarroti worked together closely in the so-called Conspiracy of Equals, a plot to overthrow the Directory. After the events of Prairial, they discarded as futile any effort to inspire another popular insurrection. Instead, they resorted to a coup d’état by a resolute minority which acted in the name of the helpless populace to install a provisional dictatorship. The Conspiracy of Equals failed no less than the Prairial uprising, but the Babouvist justification of avant-garde action in the popular interest became part of the revolutionary tradition, largely because Buonarroti, unlike Babeuf, escaped execution and survived his incarceration in a fortress.
During the Empire, Buonarroti participated in anti-Bonapartist plots, even while under police surveillance as a political prisoner. After Waterloo he moved from various residences in Switzerland to Brussels and then to Paris, recruiting agents for his own cosmopolitan secret society and infiltrating most of the others that honeycombed Europe at the time. Although he had long been deeply involved in Italian affairs (his clash with Mazzini led to a rift in the risorgimento) and had won disciples elsewhere in western Europe, his persistent efforts to revise the verdict of Thermidor bore fruit primarily in France. There, the July Revolution made it possible for him to return to Paris and created a political climate that favored the dissemisnation of his views. By collaborating closely with those who directed the activities of the radical wing of the republican opposition to the Orleanist monarchy and by exploiting the personal veneration he inspired among young Parisians like Louis Blanc and Etiénne Cabet, Buonarroti contributed much to both the Robespierrist revival and the Neo-Babouvist agitation of the 1830s.
Upon his death, his personal reputation declined and his conspiratorial network collapsed. His written work Conspiration pour I’égalité dite de Babeuf (1828) nevertheless continued to serve many of the future men of 1848 (and later some of the Communards of 1870) as a “textbook and almost a breviary.” This two-volume chronicle, interwoven with documents, traces the history of the Babeuf plot and expounds its ideology. It was inspired by debates with surviving officials of the First Republic whom the author encountered in Brussels, where it was written and first published in 1828. A Paris edition in 1830 was followed by Bronterre O’Brien’s English translation in 1836, by several French abridgments, and in the twentieth century by German, Italian, and Russian versions issued under communist auspices. Suggesting that the same grand design to ensure the permanent redistribution of wealth guided both the Robespierrist policy and Babouvist conspiracy and that all social conflicts could be resolved by measures improvised during war and civil strife, this book explicitly associated avant-garde dictatorship and state communism with nineteenth-century aspirations toward social democracy. It also founded a long-lived school of revolutionary historiography which was perpetuated by Jean Jaurès and Albert Mathiez. Since the 1930s, Buonarroti has emerged from obscurity to become a focal figure for various scholarly controversies involving pre-Marxian socialism, the role of French Jacobinism in the risorgimento, the real or mythical nature of cosmopolitan conspiracy in Metternich’s Europe, French revolutionary historiography, and the origins of a “totalitarian left”
Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
Buonarroti, Filippo 1828 Conspiration pour Iéégalité dite de Babeuf. 2 vols. Brussels: Librairie Romantique.
Buonarroti, Filippo 1836 Buonarroti’s History of Babeuf’s Conspiracy for Equality. Translated by and illustrated with original notes by James Bronterre O’Brien. London: Hetherington. → First published as Buonarroti 1828. The English translation was reprinted in 1963 by Kelley.
Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. 1959 The First Professional Revolutionist: Filippo Michele Buonarroti (1761–1837). Harvard Historical Monographs, No. 38. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → Contains an extensive bibliography.
Galante Garrone, Alessandro 1948 Buonarroti e Babeuf. Turin (Italy): De Silva.
Galante Garrone, Alessandro 1951 Filippo Buonarroti e i revoluzionari dell’ ottocento, 1828–1837. Turin (Italy): Einaudi.
Lehning, Arthur 1956 Buonarroti and His International Secret Societies. International Review of Social History 1:112–140.
Lehning, Arthur 1957 Buonarroti’s Ideas on Communism and Dictatorship. International Review of Social History 2:266–287.
Saitta, Armando 1950–1951 Filippo Buonarroti: Contributi alia storia della sua vita e del suo pensiera. 2 vols. Rome: Edizioni di “Storia e Letteratura.”