Liberty, Equality, Fraternity—the ambiguous trilogy

July 28, 2011

by Plinio Correa de Oliveira

The reader might notice…an apparent contradiction among the pronouncements of the different popes who dealt with the trilogy Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

A Sans-culotte, painted by Louis-Léopold Boilly.

This impression fades the more the reader bears in mind that, properly considered in themselves—and therefore in the light of Catholic principles—each of these words designates concepts worthy of approval. This is what some popes sought to stress.

As a rule, however, the thinkers and writers who laid the groundwork for the French Revolution, the men of action who contrived the tremendous sociopolitical commotion that shook France after 1789, and also the pamphleteers and demagogues who carried it to the streets, prompting so many injustices and such terrible crimes, did not understand these words in this light. Rather, they hurled themselves as one to the demolition of Religion, to the hatred of all legitimate authority, and to the furious denial of all inequalities, even when just and necessary.

Olympe de Gouges was the author of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, which advocated such things as divorce.

To praise the trilogy Liberty, Equality, Fraternity in itself does not imply approval of the radical and absurd errors that the revolutionaries, as a group, inferred therein. The full meaning of these errors was revealed in the final and extreme thrust of the French Revolution: the communist insurrection of Babeuf.* This insurrection showed the extent to which the 1789 Revolution bore the seeds of communism—synthesis of religious, philosophical, political, social, and economic errors—that caused the unspeakable moral and material misfortunes confronting Eastern European people today.

One of the most successful ruses of the French Revolution consisted in sowing confusion among many simple and unsuspecting people by labeling a monstrous mass of doctrinal errors and criminal events with honest and even commendable words. Many such people were led to think that at root the doctrines of the French Revolution were good even though most of its events were severely reprehensible. Others understood that the principles which produced such events could not be less censurable than the results, and therefore deduced that the trilogy preached as the synthesis of these perverse principles deserved the same rejection.

Although it is slowly being dispelled, this harmful confusion persists.

Some popes, addressing a public that included many such-minded people, strove to correct unilateral and overly severe opinions regarding this astutely manipulated trilogy. Other popes endeavored to prevent the intrinsic innocuousness of the trilogy’s terms from leading people to overlook the French Revolution’s essential perversity, which traversed the last century and most of our own using the labels of socialism and communism, and which, in its most genuine content, is now agonizing in Eastern Europe. Or, to put it better, it is undergoing a metamorphosis, searching for new words, new formulas, new wiles to attain its goals, which are radically atheistic when not pantheistic and, at any rate, absolutely and universally egalitarian.


The apostate priest and communist leader François-Noël Babeuf (1760–1797)

* François Noël Babeuf (1760-1797). This French revolutionary led the “Conspiracy of the Equals,” which was active in the winter of 1795-1796 and constituted “the first attempt to realize communism.” His “Plebeian Manifesto” advocated community of goods and duties. It was “the first form of the revolutionary ideology of the new society born of the Revolution itself. Communism, until then a utopian dream, became with Babeufism an ideological system; through the Conspiracy of the Equals it entered political history” (Albert Aoboul, La Revolution Française [Paris: Gallimard, 1962], Vol. 2, pp.216, 219).

Regarding the role played by Babeuf in the continuity of the revolutionary spirit, Marx wrote in a work he blasphemously titled The Holy Family: “The revolutionary movement that began in 1789 in the social circle—which during its evolution had as its principal representatives Leclerc and Roux and which temporarily collapsed with Babeuf’s conspiracy—was already spreading the communist idea that Babeuf’s friend Buonarroti would reintroduce into France after the revolution of 1830. This idea, developed in all its consequences, marks the beginning of the modern world” (quoted in François Furet, Dictionnaire Critique de la Revolution Française [Paris: Flammarion, 1988], p. 199).

The Directory opposed Babeuf’s movement. He was imprisoned and executed in 1797.



Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII: A Theme Illuminating American Social History (York, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 1993), Appendix III, pp. 388-389.

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