Jean Jaurès was a deserving child of the French republican meritocracy. An outstanding pupil from the town of Castres, near Toulouse, he came top in the entrance exam for the École Normale Supérieure, where he specialised in philosophy. In 1885, at the age of 25, he was elected as a Republican deputy for his home town. During his first term in the National Assembly, Jaurès worked on two theses for his doctorate at the Sorbonne, one in French and the other in Latin. The Latin one was entitled ‘On the Origins of German Socialism’, and as he worked on it his political views moved to the left. He stood again in 1889, not yet as a socialist, but lost his seat to a retainer of Baron Reille, deputy for the other Castres seat and a member of the most powerful family in the Tarn, who owned the mines around the nearby town of Carmaux. Reille was determined to defeat Republican candidates who posed a challenge to his family’s near feudal power in the region, and threatened that a vote for Jaurès would risk jobs. Reille’s son-in-law, the Marquis de Solages, was elected as the deputy for Carmaux itself.
The main square in Carmaux is now named after Jaurès. At its centre is an imposing statue showing him delivering a speech, surrounded by attentive miners. It was here that Jaurès first saw class struggle at close quarters, in the miners’ strike of 1892. Jean-Baptiste Calvignac, the leader of the miners’ union, was sacked from his job after being elected town mayor, on the pretext that his duties meant he was missing too much work. The miners went on strike in his support, arguing that the mine owners were compromising the public’s right to vote for any candidate of their choosing by making it impossible for a working man to hold the position of mayor. Writing in a Toulouse newspaper, Jaurès suggested that the owners were seeking ‘to destroy the effectiveness of the popular vote’, and that for Reille ‘the workers of Carmaux are merely so many coins … accumulating in his cash drawer.’ Eventually, after government arbitration, Solages resigned as a deputy, Calvignac was allowed to go on leave for his term in office and the striking miners returned to their jobs. Jaurès won the by-election for Solages’s seat in January 1893, standing as a candidate for the Parti Ouvrier Français. Carmaux had a socialist mayor for the next 128 years, until in 2020 an ‘apolitical’ coalition took over. In the first round of the 2022 presidential election, Marine Le Pen of the far-right Rassemblement National won the local vote. The mines in the region closed long ago, the young are unemployed or have moved away, and the Parti Socialiste has collapsed into irrelevance in the aftermath of François Hollande’s botched presidency.
As well as being remembered in France as the great orator of the left, Jaurès is still seen across the political spectrum as a champion of ‘republican values’. In 2014, on the centenary of his assassination on the eve of the First World War, he was honoured by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the left populist leader of La France Insoumise, as well as the former president Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen. Louis Aliot, Le Pen’s second-in-command, controversially argued that Jaurès would now vote RN. To call him a ‘great republican’ doesn’t mean much nowadays and downplays his radicalism. Nonetheless, like de Gaulle, he is an undisputed national figure whose legend is apparently sacrosanct, if easily instrumentalised. Sooner or later, in times of political tension, the question is asked: ‘What would Jaurès have done?’
It’s strange that someone who was vilified, demonised and smeared by his opponents should be seen as almost above politics. Before the First World War, while some of his socialist comrades were resigned to joining a patriotic ‘union sacrée’ and mobilising for war, he tried to organise a general strike in France and Germany to force the two governments to back down from the brink. As the mood of chauvinism in France grew, his calls for peace made him an object of hatred. He was branded in the press as an ‘enemy of the nation’, and on 31 July 1914 he was shot by a nationalist enragé in the Café du Croissant on the rue Montmartre in Paris while lunching with a group of comrades. He was 54.
There is more than one Jaurès in the collective memory: the young socialist and outspoken Dreyfusard (which probably caused the temporary loss of his seat in Carmaux in 1898); the founder and editor of L’Humanité in 1904; the man who unified the French socialist movement by establishing the Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO) in 1905; an architect of the law of separation between Church and State, enacted the same year; among the most eloquent politicians France has ever had; an internationalist who sought to avoid war at all costs. But while politicians are fond of speculating about what Jaurès would have said or thought, they don’t pay much attention to what he wrote.
Jaurès is often said to have produced the first Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution. Crucially, his account doesn’t attribute the revolution solely to economic factors. His chapter on its causes insists that Enlightenment philosophers such as Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu paved the way for revolution and ensured that the bourgeoisie would be its main beneficiaries. At the outset of A Socialist History of the French Revolution, Jaurès acknowledged a double heritage: ‘Our interpretation of history will be both materialist with Marx and mystical with Michelet.’ Jules Michelet wrote one of the first major accounts of the revolution, which appeared between 1847 and 1853. Marxist historians would later dismiss it as ‘lyrical’, ‘petty bourgeois’, light on the state action that brought about social reform and too attentive to the role of small-scale artisanal manufacturing. After the consolidation of the Third Republic in 1875 the bourgeois Radical Socialists defended Michelet’s work, while Marxists continued to pour scorn on it.
In Interpreting the French Revolution (1978), the Annales historian François Furet challenged Jaurès’s view that the revolution was led and won by a new capitalist bourgeoisie. Furet argued that Jaurès and the Marxist scholars who followed him were guilty of making too much of socioeconomic factors and taking an ideological approach. Furet didn’t agree that 1789 constituted a decisive ‘revolutionary break’ with the Ancien Régime, and didn’t accept the Marxist teleology in which feudalism had given way to capitalism, with the bourgeoisie replacing the nobility as France’s ruling class. Instead, he saw a continuity between the monarchy and the post-revolutionary state: the Constituent Assembly, the Convention and the Napoleonic empire were the culmination of a long process of administrative centralisation begun at the end of the 12th century. In his view, the Jaurès camp were not ‘true Marxists’: Marx, after all, thought that the real achievement of the revolution was to bring about the birth of civil society, while Jaurès and his followers read 1789 through a Jacobin lens as a decisive victory for patriotic republicanism.
Furet’s account was highly controversial. Despite their real differences, Marx and Jaurès addressed many of the same issues. Both regarded the revolution as the triumph of the bourgeoisie over feudalism; both believed it founded a new social order and established the lineaments of civil society in the mutual interests of the bourgeoisie and the peasantry. The revolution required the dismantling of all feudal institutions and the three unequal ‘estates’ on which they were founded (the clergy, the aristocracy and the vast majority known as the Third Estate); it also introduced the concept of individual property as peasants were released from their feudal obligations. In 1789, France was still essentially an agrarian economy based on a feudal model, which the emergence of a capitalist model among the bourgeoisie had begun to undermine. Energetic new forces, struggling for the right to self-development, were on a collision course with the feudal system. For Marx and Jaurès, the bourgeoisie led the revolution and brought about the destruction of the Ancien Régime’s institutions. Furet regarded this as a ‘Marxist oversimplification’, arguing that capitalism was already in its infancy during the closing stages of the Ancien Régime and that the revolution merely helped to release its potential.
In order to understand the revolution, according to François Victor Aulard, a historian of the Third Republic, ‘it is necessary to love it.’ Jaurès never concealed his sympathy for it, though he took the revolutionaries to task for their mistakes and condemned the Terror. In the end he absolved them of their crimes: ‘What must never be forgotten when judging these men is that the problems fate imposed on them were formidable and probably beyond human strength.’ The word ‘socialist’, Jaurès said of his book’s title, was an invitation to his own generation, including the peasants and the working class, to discover the country’s future in its dramatic past. It also pointed up his belief that 1789 was quintessentially a liberal revolution and that the First Republic, founded in 1792, had paved the way for democracy and capitalism, and thus for socialism. For Jaurès, 1789 was the first step on the road to a ‘social republic’, which would respect the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and extend economic rights and social justice to workers.
Jaurès took issue with the radical left historians who argued that the institutions of the Terror were an attempt to put a brake on legitimate popular violence. He was critical of Robespierre’s decision to escalate the Terror at a time when foreign invasion no longer threatened the new regime: ‘The excesses of the Terror were to have led to the abolition of the Terror. Robespierre dreamed of intensifying terrorism, of concentrating it into a few terrifying and unforgettable weeks in order … to put an end to it … This was a mad dream.’ Jaurès was careful to distinguish between different parts of the bourgeoisie: the nascent capitalists were enemies of the revolution, while the political bourgeoisie were allies and activists. He also insisted that character, ideas and ethical positions were the revolution’s most important factors. His distaste for dogma and ‘revolutionary romanticism’ – a lingering tendency on the French left – sets him apart from his many successors, including the generation of 1968 and Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise.
Mitchell Abidor’s abridged translation of Jaurès’s book reads like a historical novel: the storming of the Bastille; the revolutionary days when the women of Paris marched on Versailles; the king’s flight to Varennes; his arrest and trial; the radicalisation of 1792, which led to the Terror, and the rise and fall of Robespierre. Jaurès, an optimist and an insatiable pedagogue, argues that the democratic conquests of the bourgeois revolution and the class politics at the heart of socialism ‘are the two non-contradictory terms the proletarian force moves between, and which history one day will merge in the unity of social democracy … Socialism is attached to the revolution without being chained to it.’ Casting off the chains, for Jaurès, meant pursuing radical reform: his goal was a liberal universalism, based partly on the Rights of Man and the Citizen, partly on a Marxist view of capitalism’s inexorable tendency to work against these things. While Jaurès’s humanist approach comes close to Furet’s liberal take on 1789, his teleological faith in the advent of socialism aligns him with generations of Marxist scholars.
The Selected Writings steers clear of any ambiguities or debatable turns in Jaurès’s thinking. In the preface to Les Preuves (1898), he comes across as a passionate Dreyfusard. For some time, however, he believed the affair was the result of an unscrupulous power struggle between finance, clericalism and militarism, in which no socialist should become involved; most of his comrades agreed. He later changed his mind and denounced the travesty of justice orchestrated by the government and the military against Dreyfus. He was instrumental in bringing sceptical parts of the labour movement into the Dreyfus camp by arguing that socialists could no longer ignore this egregious abuse of human rights. The editors of the Selected Writings tend to make his political trajectory appear more straightforward than it was.
France’s radical left sees Jaurès as a revolutionary who settled for reformism. In a famous debate with the orthodox Marxist Jules Guesde in 1900, he spoke in full-blooded Marxist language in an attempt to persuade his opponents that reform could pave the way for revolution. He and Guesde had disagreed about the extent to which socialists should take part in bourgeois conflicts and structures, whether over Dreyfus or over joining a government that also contained one of those responsible for the repression of the Paris Commune. When Jaurès and his followers formed the French Socialist Party in 1902, Guesde and his followers set up the Socialist Party of France. The two merged into the SFIO in 1905. The French Communist Party was founded when the SFIO split in 1920, six years after Jaurès’s assassination. What would he have done? Communists argued that he would have joined the new party, as a majority of SFIO members did. Socialists retorted that – in the words of Léon Blum – he would have ‘remained true to the old house’, as most party leaders and deputies (including Guesde) did. But the new Section Française de l’Internationale Communiste took control of L’Humanité, whose masthead still carries the legend: ‘The newspaper founded by Jean Jaurès’.
Jaurès believed that socialism was a liberal project, not a utopian rush to the barricades in the name of historical determinism: any social reform was a step forward. In this, he was closer to German revisionists like Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky than to Lenin or Rosa Luxemburg. But unlike Kautsky, Jaurès didn’t think that the revolutionary objective mattered above all; nor did he accept Bernstein’s view that socialism should see reform as an end in itself. So-called bourgeois institutions could be changed: revolutionaries didn’t have to stifle their reformist instincts, fold their arms and wait for the inevitable overthrow of capitalism. Like Gramsci, Jaurès understood that social formations – the superstructure, in Marxist terminology – were animated by their ‘own logic’ and ‘internal drive’, over and above the determining force of the mode of production (the ‘base’). His conception of class was premised on conflict: the working class and the bourgeoisie were radically distinct and antagonistic. At the same time, as leader of the SFIO, he argued vigorously for cross-class coalitions: like all committed republicans, socialists should defend the political heritage of 1789, even if it meant striking up improbable alliances. Jaurès the socialist was steeped in liberal tradition. He published a revealing piece, absent from this edition, in La Revue de Paris in 1898 under the title ‘Socialisme et liberté’, in which he argued that socialism was intrinsically an appeal to freedom, and thus to the individual. ‘In the new socialist order,’ he wrote, ‘liberty will be sovereign. Socialism is essentially about affirming the individual right. Nothing can be above the individual.’
Jaurès believed that the Rights of Man and the Citizen went further than the revolutionary bourgeoisie had intended. He saw the declaration as a set of demands that served as a precursor to full equality for all. Socialism was the means to ensure the enlargement of rights beyond those enshrined in the text – individual and public freedoms – to the economic domain. This was the core of his liberal socialism: anti-determinist; inflected by a belief in the noneconomic needs of individuals and classes; preoccupied, rather more than Marx, by the question of redistributive justice. As he put it in a response to Bernstein in 1900, ‘socialists should not concern themselves with an apocalyptic social transformation but should live always in a socialist state of grace working every minute, in every hour, to bring the socialist ideal into reality.’ Over the last hundred years, capitalism has been able to mutate and reinvent itself countless times, while socialism seems more remote than it was in Jaurès’s day, but his theory of justice should still be of interest to social democrats who think that too many compromises have been struck with neoliberalism in return for very modest social reforms. Others committed to a break with capitalism might reflect on the value of his radical reformism: the capitalist apocalypse may not be just around the corner.
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