• 2015: Jaurès on the French Revolution

    Jean Jaurès, A Socialist History of the French Revolution (abridged and translated by Mitchel Abidor), Pluto Press, London, 2015, xxvi + 259 pp, £22.50.

    Review written for Revolutionary History but not yet published.

    Jean Jaurès was a great orator and wrote in a vivid prose style. Trotsky, who had ambitions to be a similar figure, described him as “a man of great dimensions, with a mighty intellect, the temperament of a genius, an unequalled capacity for work and a voice with the ring of wonder”.[1] Lenin, who always put content before form, was not so easily impressed.  At a debate on cooperatives at the International Socialist Congress in Copenhagen  in 1910, Jaurès demanded that the resolution should include the sentence: “They help the workers to prepare the democratisation and socialisation of the means of production and distribution.” Lenin noted sourly: “This is one of those nebulous, indefinite phrases – entirely acceptable to the ideologists of the petty proprietor and the theoreticians of bourgeois reformism  – at which Jaurès is such an adept and to which he is so partial.”[2]

    Jaurès was perhaps not quite the moral paragon he is sometimes presented as.  His initial reaction to the sentencing of Dreyfus was to say that he should have been shot, since a private soldier guilty of treason would have suffered that fate.  (An example of the class reductionism that still sometimes surfaces on the left.) Only after Bernard Lazare  and Emile Zola had put their heads on the line did he climb onto the pro-Dreyfus bandwagon. Certainly he was tireless in campaigning against war in the summer of 1914; but his reputation was saved by the assassin’s bullet. Even Trotsky conceded that when war broke out Jaurès would undoubtedly have taken the “patriotic” position.

    Jaurès should be studied, but studied critically;  in many ways he is a symptom rather than a hero. So we should give a warm welcome to the first English translation of Jaurès’s Socialist History of the French Revolution. Mitchell Abidor (a prolific translator, whose work for the Marxists Internet Archive will be known to many) has produced a one-volume selection from Jaurès’s four-volume original from 1901-4. It can be read with profit as a narrative history of the Revolution up to 1794, but its significance is far greater. As Henry Heller argues in his Introduction, Jaurès laid the foundations on which the great Marxist histories of the Revolution – by Mathiez, Lefebvre, Soboul and others – were developed. Jaurès’s relation to Marxism was an ambiguous one;  he claimed the book was written under the “triple inspiration of Marx, Michelet and Plutarch”. [p. 9] But he took from Marx a belief that “it is the economic structure of society that determines the political forms, the social customs, and even the general direction of ideas.” [p. 5] While this might sound a little mechanical, in practice it made Jaurès sensitive to the different, and often contradictory, social forces that shaped the Revolution.

    Unlike Clemenceau, Jaurès did not believe the Revolution was a “bloc”. Rather he saw a continuing differentiation between, on the one hand, a relatively privileged layer who wanted to modernise French society and free it from the conservative shackles of the monarchy while hanging on to their own privileges, and, on the other hand, a dispossessed mass who, hearing talk of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”, wanted to share in them.

    Repeatedly Jaurès refers to what he calls the “newly formed proletariat”. [p. 68] Yet he is often somewhat vague as to what exactly constituted this proletariat.[3] Sometimes the term seems to simply mean the poor – thus he notes that among those who died storming the Bastille “there were men so poor, so obscure, so humble that for several weeks afterwards their names weren’t known”. [p. 29]  Sometimes the proletariat seems to include the peasantry, at other times he refers to specifically working-class interests, in particular wages. Yet he perceived a contradiction at the very heart of the bourgeois revolution: “How is it possible to fully commit to the Revolution, how can one attack the feudal Bastilles if one risks being overwhelmed by a mendicant and threatening proletariat?” [p. 40]

    Thus, Jaurès shows, political and social factors in the revolution interacted: “ it was precisely to the extent that political equality became a more solidly established fact that social inequality offended the people.” [p. 148] He notes that 1793 probably saw “the first official proposal for the nationalization of industry ever made”. [p. 219]

    Jaurès’s stress on class is the great strength of his history, yet it also lies at the heart of his greatest weakness. Jaurès saw modern socialism as emerging directly out of the French Revolution. In his conclusion he wrote of  “the passionate joy I felt when I saw the molten metal of socialism that flowed from the Revolution and democracy as if from a furnace.” [p. 250]

    Undoubtedly socialism had its historical roots in the French Revolution. But equally socialism requires a qualitative break with the values of the bourgeois revolution, and Jaurès seriously underestimated this. This was an error that had implications far beyond debates about the history of the French Revolution.  In 1914 one of the key arguments used by French labour leaders to persuade their followers to support the war was that France was the homeland of the Revolution, and that by defending the territory of the Revolution they were defending the republic which was inextricably tied up with the interests of socialism.[4] Jaurès’s courage and integrity in opposing the drift to war in 1914, at the cost of his life, cannot be questioned; yet the ideas embodied in his history of the Revolution may have contributed to winning the working class to support for the war.

    And today, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo  murders, there is again much talk of “republican values”. Yet all too often the French left is unable to develop a clear critique of those values. A critical study of Jaurès and his legacy will help with that task.

    Ian Birchall

    [2] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 16, p. 280: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1910/sep/25.htm .

    [3] A much more rigorous study of the emergent working class in the Revolution can be found in Jean Marc Schiappa, Les babouvistes, Saint-Quentin, 2003. See my review in Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 4,: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/birchall/2004/xx/schiappa.html

    [4] This is extensively documented in A Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier pendant la guerre, Volume I, Paris, 1936.