An important contribution to modern political rhetoric, Jean-Paul Marat’s The Chains of Slavery (1774) is easy to dismiss as a simplistic and formative work in Europe’s climb to the French Revolution. Even “like a fairy tale”, as historian Ernest Belfort Bax called it, this book is a valuable work of political rhetoric and a glimpse into the history of dissent.
Marat’s mission was opposition to deception by any ruling regime. Although primarily opposed to the monarchs of his time, he would be no less saddened by the nature of the regimes existing today. Endless deception has become the only consistent behavior of our “democracies” now. Afraid of transparency, the free flow of information, and their own people’s liberties, our “democracies” are now a parody of what was intended. All that we have kept from the American and French revolutions are empty slogans and flags, the hollow prizes of our liberation.
If the noble goal the republican forces of the Eighteenth Century were really striving to accomplish was left unfinished, it must be revisited. Not just the overthrow of the “absolute” authority of monarchs was intended. The ousting of anyone corrupt or disloyal to the common people, who could be deemed a traitor to public welfare, had been intended. The destruction of all remnants of false, vain and pompous authority had been intended. For this reason, we can only judge that we have failed. We need to revisit the works of incorruptible martyrs like Marat, to understand the tasks the people have failed to complete.
The “fatal privileges” of authority
As it was in the 1770s, the politics of our world today is not a laughing matter. As Marat wrote in his time, it is no longer suitable for the people to “laugh at their own misfortunes” by indulging in comedy and satire, which “avail not but to promote servitude”. Instead, we must learn to refine the rage people feel at their corrupt governments. Blood has flowed. Incumbent politicians are sacrificing people on the altar of their own greed and vanity, and slamming their doors on anyone who questions them. At such times, Marat writes, laughter only strengthens the hand of the oppressor, and our correct response is hatred.
Marat’s writing was pure. He wielded his writing skill competently until his death in 1793, rejecting vast fortunes with which his enemies tried to buy him. His incorruptibility was beyond anything imitated today. At no point did he become one of the “prostituted scribblers… ever ready to vindicate tyranny” who represent the bulk of political journalists in both his time and our time. Their mark, Marat tells us, has been their eagerness to justify the suppression of their very own colleagues who attempt to expose the truth of a state’s treason against its people.
All unwarranted authority granted by one’s office is at fault. As Marat writes, “Kings, magistrates, commanders of armies, and all those who, adorned with the marks of power, hold the reins of the empire or direct public affairs, are objects of public admiration – like ancient idols, stupidly admired and adored”. Rather than being questioned more thoroughly than the average person, rulers are still often believed based on their word alone, despite their offices creating infinitely more abundant reasons for them to lie.
While kings are no longer a significant burden on the lives of the people, the people should reject the authority of anyone from a family line, alma mater or geographic region who enjoys disproportionate wealth and power as a result. We must recall, “the fatal privileges which they claim and arrogate to themselves, are but the inheritance of the plunders, usurpations, and violences of their ancestors”. We should be wary of any ruler whose bloated mandate of power is related to an exaggerated image brought about by their name and origin.
When rulers are found “washing their bloody hands in blood”
Twenty-First Century Britain, failing to witness any evolution from the archaic model of “officialism” decried by Marat, still idolizes the monarch and “men of pompous titles”. Displays of royal prestige and distraction in the public mind are a continued chain of slavery on the hearts of the people.
By urging officials to pledge themselves to defend the Queen and celebrate the vestiges of royal authority, the British regime keeps the monarch alive as an idol against the people, making a virtue of submission and giving prestige to sycophants. As such, the centuries-old appeal to the British electorate in The Chains of Slavery has still not need been heeded, and still cries out to wipe clean the state. Marat explained the “defects in our constitution” better than any British person of our own time, yet he was ignored, so the state “mocks the sword of justice”, with rulers going unpunished no matter how grave their abuses are.
Today, our democracies in Britain, America and the west in general only serve to vote into office and coronate all the corruption that was meant to be purged by the creation of modern republics. We have erred where Marat gave us a list to reject “all who attempt to buy your voices”, “all who earnestly mendicate your voice”, “men of pompous titles”, “the insolent opulent”, and “young men”. While it may seem innocuous, Marat even warns us “beauty” in any political figure is also among the “frivolous endowments” to trick the people into loving unjust or incapable rulers.
Through the practice of corporate lobbying, we have forgotten in our own states that freedom is “impossible to recover” after “electors set a price on their votes”. Allowing politics to be driven by special interests has hollowed out democracy, leaving only a shell of what it was meant to be. Yet still, we witness global wars by these democracies, presuming to teach others what they have never managed to learn for themselves.
The surveillance we are subjected to is nothing new. Marat writes of vain princes and corrupt authorities, “under pretense to secure public tranquility… they maintain legions of spies among their subjects, they erect secret tribunals”. These are the crimes our government officials today exhaustively seek to justify. By asking us to weather terrorist attacks without ever revising their own horrific policies inspiring them, “the blood of the subjects is continually sacrificed to the pretended peace of the state”, and “prescription, imprisonment, torture” become normal behaviors of western states towards their own subjects. By such actions, our regimes are similarly “washing their bloody hands in blood”, exactly as Marat accused in his book.
Against the “villainy of monopolizers”
We must “espouse the cause of any individual oppressed”, Marat writes. In one country, this should apply not only to ourselves, but other sections of society. In this period of globalization, it must include foreign populations and migrants, the millions drained and exploited by our parasitic corporations and states.
Even as our rulers command the state to war throughout the international system, they despise their own soldiers. In their minds, they are manipulating one group of enemies against another. In war, the common people are “forced to protect, at the expense of their blood, the inheritance, or secure the peace of the posterity of their usurpers, to defend the power of their tyrants”. If we know this, we find not only is war used as a way of distracting the poor within a state so they don’t see the corruption of their rulers, but it can be a way of killing and oppressing the poor entirely. So, when required to commemorate World War One, the common people are only celebrating their own mass slaughter by their rulers, who not once felt any risk to their own lives in that conflict.
Marat decries how “political relations are subverted; the Prince is all, the Nation nothing”. From this, we can see how the rhetoric of international relations is still unwittingly inspired by writers such as Marat. Looking beyond the archaic nationalist phraseology of Marat’s period, his excellent judgment is desperately needed in a balanced look at the relations between countries.
“Third World” is a modern term coined by Alfred Sauvy as a historic parallel to the “Third Estate”, the common people labeled as such by Abbé Sieyès in his pamphlet, What is the Third Estate? Sauvy described the “Third World” countries as “nothing” while they yearn to be “something”. In the rhetoric of Marat, tyrannical powers suppose they are “all” and the forgotten and conquered populations are “nothing”. This is a fact of the global village today. Although we depend on the poor countries for their plentiful natural resources and labor, rich countries aristocratically scorn them and consider them expendable.
Through wars and exploitation aimed primarily against the so-called Third World, at a global level we have deviated grotesquely from the ideas of democracy and justice advanced by Marat. People in rich countries are selfishly motivated to serve the “prosperity of their dogs”, whereas the rest of humanity, “lingering in misery from the villainy of monopolizers, cry to them for bread” exactly as Marat described of the masses of the poor he witnessed in his own time.
The way to “lay the ax to the root”
The purpose of Marat’s writing is to encourage people to attempt any means to destroy the chains of destitution and slavery imposed by their rulers. Unjust governments try to entangle their security with the security of the public. They can make it “impossible to lay the ax to the root of the former without destroying the latter”. Marat is quoted in a different text stating “we must bring the hatchet to their root”, his historic judgment of how to deal with the malefactors of the people when the opportunity arises. It is because of this clear judgment that we have the word “radical” now, referring to the “root”.
The words of Marat must advise us now, especially where he states that “unless the measures of an unruly and fluctuating multitude be planned by wise men, and carried to execution by spirited and audacious ones, the insurrection, instead of being a revolt, is but a sedition – ever easily suppressed, and ever unsuccessful”. The movements for a popular revolution we have seen in recent times, including the Occupy movement, form but the latest part of the history being reviewed by Marat when he wrote those words.
It is because of legacies like Marat’s that the Mont Order society, deriving its name from the French Revolution’s opposition bloc, La Montagne, is active. Unless guided and counseled by a small group determined to be exceptionally wise and capable, future movements will also similarly amount to little more than a nuisance to corrupt regimes.
Ultimately, as Marat wrote, “the only just aim of a political association is the happiness of the people”. Being strongly related to the Mont Order association’s own name and hopes, Marat is an ideal role model. It is in Marat’s tradition that good dissidents should write, attacking almost everything, blessing only those few blazing individuals who act bravely against the unproven government and international system.