Zola, Dreyfus and Internationalism
Published in the Bulletin of the Emile Zola Society, No 17, March 1998.
Colin Burns’ article ‘Emile Zola and the Dreyfus Affair’ raises a number of useful issues for discussion. As a contribution to such a discussion, I should like to challenge his claim that Zola saw Dreyfus ‘primarily as a symbol of martyred innocence, rather than simply as a victim of anti-Semitism’ and that for Zola ‘the battle…was first and foremost a battle for Truth, Justice, Liberty and humanitarian values’.
It is certainly true that Zola was concerned to establish the truth, and that this aim was intimately linked to the notion of objective truth that lay at the heart of his naturalist aesthetic. We shall wait a long time before we see a ‘post‑modernist’ act with Zola’s determination and courage.
Burns is also right to stress that Zola’s defence of Dreyfus derived from the moral and social values he held, and to reject the insulting pseudo-Freudianism of such critics as late Angus Wilson who argued that ‘Emile… had failed his mother… This sense of guilt about his lost youth was not… resolved until his personal martyrdom on behalf of society’s outcast, Dreyfus.’ If those who strive to prevent the innocent being imprisoned can be neatly labelled as having problems with their mothers, then the world will be a calmer – though not a juster – place. A few hours on the psychiatrist’s couch and Dreyfus could have been left to rot.
Yet I want to argue that Burns underestimates the complexity of Zola’s political positions. There was more to it than such relatively anodyne liberal abstractions as Liberty and Justice, and there was an extensive interaction between Zola’s concerns in the Dreyfus case and the evolution of his writing.
Racism was central to the Dreyfus case and it was no accident that Zola should be drawn to a case where this was a crucial issue. Zola himself, with an Italian father and a Greek grandmother, must have been aware from childhood of the problems faced by those who were regarded as not wholly French. The ‘historian’ Jacques Bainville denounced him as ‘demi-Italien, quart de Grec, trois ou quatre fois métis’, and when he was named in the Senate in December 1897 there were cries of ‘Italien! Métèque!’
As Burns points out, Zola’s important article Pour les Juifs (1896) predated Zola’s involvement with Dreyfus, and was indeed the reason why he was first approached to intervene in the case. Pour les Juifs is not merely a passionate liberal rejection of racism (though it is certainly that) but an attempt to understand the roots of racial hatred. Anticipating Sartre’s Réflexions sur la question juive he argues that there is not a Jewish problem but an anti-Semitic problem.
In so doing he was echoing what he had already written in 1891 in L’Argent. In the middle of one of Saccard’s anti-Semitic diatribes, he inserts with obvious authorial approval the comment of Mme Caroline:
- Quelle singulière chose! murmura tranquillement Mme Caroline, avec son vaste savoir, sa tolérance universelle. Pour moi, les juifs, ce sont des hommes comme les autres. S’ils sont à part, c’est qu’on les y a mis.
And Zola regarded the question as drawing a fundamental line, separating him even from some of those to whom he had been very close, personally and intellectually. In an interview given shortly before his death he stated:
Ce fut même pour nous, quelque temps, un jeu de nous demander de quel bord auraient été quelques-uns des grands disparus. Hugo et Renan, par exemple, celui-ci avec douceur, mais de façon bien déterminée cependant, auraient été des nôtres; à n’en pas douter Flaubert, Goncourt, Taine, auraient pris rang parmi nos adversaires; Goncourt avait pour les Juifs une haine exaspérée; Flaubert, lui, se moquait de cela, mais il était pour les choses établies, pour l’autorité. Quant à Taine, l’évolution de la fin de sa vie, assez déconcertante, enlève toute illusion.
But it was not only the question of racism that was thrown into relief by the Dreyfus case. In the last few years of his life Zola began to think more internationally, and as a result to be more critical of militarism and of the nature of the state. Zola’s growing concern for internationalism can be seen in the development of the Quatre Évangiles, written during and in the aftermath of the Dreyfus events.
Travail (1901) shows Zola’s commitment to the advocacy of socialism. Partly because of the influence of Fourier, partly because of the requirements of the narrative structure, Zola shows us a small-scale socialist experiment – ‘socialism in one town’. But at the very end, as Luc is dying, he is given reports of how the transition to socialism has taken place in other parts of the world. Despite horrific violence a world order has now been established which makes war henceforward impossible. Luc’s final words are:
- Oui, la guerre est morte, c’est l’étape suprême, le baiser entre frères, au terme du long voyage, si rude, si douloureux… Ma journée est finie, je puis dormir.
The third novel in the cycle, Vérité (1903), is a fictional version of the Dreyfus case. In it Zola attempts to connect racial oppression to class, pointing out that the majority of Jews are poor workers, and that it is absurd to blame Jews as a race because a few of their number are wealthy. If some of the novels that immediately preceded Vérité can be criticised for being overly didactic, in Vérité Zola regains all his old polemical vigour. As though rejuvenated by the Dreyfus case, Zola shows a savagery comparable to the best of his earlier works. While the Trois Villes sometimes lapsed into a slightly sickly religiosity, Vérité makes it quite clear that Zola had not made his peace with religion; for Marc the Catholic Church, bearer of ignorance, dirt and sterility, is the main enemy:
La saleté et la vermine se sont mises dans tous les pays ou le catholicisme a triomphé…car il est la négation même de la vie, il tue les nations modernes, ainsi qu’un poison lent et sûr.
But it was in the notes for Justice, the fourth volume never written, that Zola showed how Dreyfus had oriented him towards a thoroughly internationalist perspective:
Puis Justice me donne le troisième palier, le sommet, en créant l’Humanité par‑dessus les frontières. Plus que la grande patrie humaine. Les Etats-Unis d’Europe. L’alliance de toutes les nations. La question des races, race latine, race germanique, race saxonne. Et le grand baiser de paix. La question peut être ramenée d’abord au désarmement général. Ce qui donne au moins une actualité au sujet. Imaginer une croisade, pour cela un vieil apôtre, grande figure qui entraîne Jean par le monde. Et leur visite à chaque peuple, ce qu’ils disent à chaque peuple, à chaque roi. Cela varierait les cadres. C’est là le livre que j’ai rêvé…
Certainly there were ambiguities and unresolved contradiction in Zola’s position – he still claimed a special role for France in the internationalist task. But the concern to break down national boundaries and establish permanent peace was now a major preoccupation for Zola. Defending Dreyfus had brought him up against the crude, destructive racism spawned by extremist nationalism and against the militaristic brutalities of the French army. His developing internationalism was a means of challenging them both.
Although there were many shifts in his position, there had been a strong streak of anti-militarism in Zola’s work for many years, something which may help to explain why he was so willing to take up Dreyfus’s defence. Perhaps his sharpest attack on militarism comes in the story Le Capitaine Burle (1882). This probes the corruption and degeneration of the French army after the defeat of 1870, when a period without war led officers to cultivate debauchery and idleness. Burle, a widower, lives with his ultra-patriotic mother and his son. To pay for his pastimes he fiddles the books, and is only saved from disgrace by his friend Laguitte. Outwardly reformed, Burle has a squalid liaison with the maid – and carries on fiddling the books. This time the only way Laguitte can save his reputation is to challenge him to a duel – and to kill him. His son, whom the grandmother is determined to make into a soldier against his whole temperament, dies – apparently of typhoid – in fact, Zola tells us, ‘il était mort de peur’. Contempt for the officer class runs through every page of the story.
It is hence not surprising that Zola was adopted by French anti-militarists. In September 1902 the Tenth Congress of the Fédération des Bourses du Travail resolved to produce the Nouveau manuel du soldat, of which 50,000 copies were produced for distribution to soldiers, telling them that ‘la plus affreuse conséquence du Patriotisme c’est le Militarisme’ and urging them not to shoot on striking workers. In order to undermine any taste that soldiers might have for warfare, it included a passage from Zola’s La Débâcle describing corpses on a battle-field. The most radical anti‑militarists clearly perceived Zola as an ally; whether he would have welcomed this we can only speculate.
What is clear is that the Dreyfus case led Zola to reconsider the whole question of the nature of the state, so that he took up other cases of injustice and in particular became more sympathetic towards anarchism. As Victor Méric (a left-wing Socialist sympathetic to anarchism) relates:
En octobre 1899, le journal l’Homme Libre publia une lettre ouverte à Emile Zola (Dreyfus venait d’être gracié) lui demandant d’entreprendre une campagne pour la libération des anarchistes qui étaient au bagne… Zola convoqua l’auteur de cette lettre et lui promit son concours. Il lui expliqua, en outre, combien il regrettait de n’avoir pas signé la pétition en faveur de Jean Grave. Sa réponse recueillie parut dans le numéro de l’Homme Libre du 18 octobre 1899. Dans l’Aurore, Henri Leyret la commenta. Ajoutons qu’à la suite de Zola, une campagne vigoureuse fut menée en faveur des anarchistes qui aboutit à la libération de cinq d’entre eux. On peut voir par cet incident quelle évolution s’était accomplie dans l’esprit de Zola, et comment le bourgeois paisible, éclairé par les lueurs de ce grand drame que fut l’Affaire Dreyfus, en était arrivé a des conclusions révolutionnaires.
Méric’s conclusions seem to me basically correct. Zola was a socialist (albeit a rather eclectic and sometimes confused socialist), not a liberal, and had long been recognised as such by his most revolutionary contemporaries. Already in 1878 the ex‑communard Jules Vallès had published two articles in which he praised Zola highly: ‘M Zola est un rouge en litterature, un communard de la plume.’
Zola’s defence of Dreyfus was thus based, not simply on a desire for an abstract notion of justice, but on a complex and evolving critique of racism, nationalism, militarism and the state machine. To reduce Zola to the bland platitudes of liberalism and tolerance is to rob him of what makes him such a distinctive and powerful social critic.
The argument has some relevance to the present. In January of this year Ian Hargreaves, editor of the militantly ‘New Labour’ New Statesman announced that his new-born daughter was to be named ‘Zola’ – in honour of what he described simply as a ‘passionate campaigning writer’. Hargreaves is writing the socialism out of Emile Zola just as he wants to write it out of the Labour Party.
At the time of writing this article the Bridgewater Three have just been released – another legal injustice overturned. It is worth noting that Paul Foot, the campaigning journalist who did so much to get them freed (and a great admirer of Zola), is not a devotee of abstract justice, but a socialist critic of the class nature of justice and of the whole mechanism of the state. There are still lessons to be drawn from Dreyfus and Zola.
 Bulletin of the Emile Zola Society, No 15, March 1997, pp 3-10
 art cit, p 7
 A Wilson, Emile Zola, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1964), pp 17-18
 H Guillemin, Zola Légende et Vérité, (Paris: 10/18, 1960), pp 11, 39
 Zola identified strongly with Mme Caroline; in his preliminary notes he wrote ‘Me mettre tout entier là-dedans’. FWJ Hemmings, Emile Zola, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), p 251
 E Zola, L’Argent, (Paris, Livre de poche, 1962), p 483
 Reply to enquête by Revue blanche, June 1902; reproduced Cahiers naturalistes, No 21, 1962, p 217
 E Zola, Travail, (Paris: Fasquelle, 1957), p 665.
 E Zola, Vérité, (Paris: Fasquelle, 1926), I 229.
 M Leblond, ‘Les projets littéraires d’Emile Zola au moment de sa mort..’, Mercure de France, 1 October 1927, p 10
 (Paris, 1902)
 op cit, pp 19-20
 Grave was sentenced to two years jail in 1894 for his book la Société mourante et l’anarchie. A number of leading intellectuals, including Octave Mirbeau, had appeared in court in his defence.
 V Méric, Emile Zola, (Paris: H Fabre, 1909), p 28
 Le Voltaire, 22 and 26 December 1878
 I Hargreaves, ‘Diary’, New Statesman, 31 January 1997, p 6