Jean Jaurès: The Anniversary of his Assassination, July 31st 1914. A Tribute.
Jaurès was killed blindly, yet with reason:
‘let us have drums to beat down his great voice’.
The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy. Geoffrey Hill.
A hundred years ago today, Jean Jaurès the leader of French socialism (SFIO, Section française de l’Internationale ouvrière), and Editor/Founder of l’Humanité were preparing an article against the coming war. Jaurès had supported the call of the Socialist International, launched by Keir Hardie and the Frenchman, Édouard Vaillant, to launch a general strike if armed fighting broke out.
By 1914 Europe was on the brink of war. At the end of July an emergency meeting of the Socialist International was held in Brussels, which endorsed a call for peace. On the 29th of July Jaurès spoke with Rosa Luxemburg, at a rally of seven thousand people against militarism and the coming confrontation at the Cirque Royal. He had already warned that fighting would lead to a catastrophe, “Quel massacre quelles ruines, quelle barbarie!” (Discours de Vaise. 25th July 1914) Now he talked of his “hatred of our chauvinists” and that we would not “give up the idea of a Franco-German rapprochement”. This looked less and less probable. Jaurès’ newspaper column (published after his death) would describe of the climate of “fear” and “anxiety” spreading across the continent.
Jaurès paused from his journalism and went to the near-by Café du Croissant to eat. At 20.45, the nationalist student Raoul Villain approached him and fired two bullets. One stuck his neck and was fatal. Villain claimed to have acted to “eliminate an enemy of the nation.”
The assassin was associated with Alsatian nationalists close to the far-right Action française. But hatred of Jaurès had been whipped up across the political spectrum. The Catholic libertarian socialist, poet, critic and Dreyfusard, Charles Péguy had been baying for his blood. Péguy described the Socialist leader as the representative of “German imperialism” in France, a “traitor” to the motherland in the service of “bourgeois parties”. (1)
Geoffrey Hill asked if Péguy had effectively incited the killer. (2) But there were many, many, others – not least amongst the ranks of the Action française and the ‘terre et ses morts’ nationalists like Maurice Barrès – who loathed the inspirational clarity of Jaurès internationalism.
Today, as commemorations of the murder take place in France, Jaurès remains a moving figure for many people, in his home country, and in the socialist movement across the world.
The ‘Jaurésian synthesis’ has in many respects outlived the historical record of Jaurès the founder of the first united French socialist party. That is, his ability to capture and bring together ideas from Marxism, above all the ‘class struggle’, the understanding of capitalism and its historical development, with “social republicanism”, support for democracy and human rights.
One of his most celebrated campaigns was to back Dreyfus, a combat that led him into conflict with anti-Semitism, and religious intolerance. Jaurès advocated strongly secular public institutions, above all in education, a position which has still to make headway in countries like Britain where religious authority still holds sway over a large part of the left – with pretensions today to “multi-culturalism”. Secularism, he argued, does not mean imposing atheism, it is to free our common institutional life from the hold of any particular faith. Absolute freedom of personal belief was his watchword. These views, backing the 1905 law on the separation of Church and State, reflected the importance of the issue in France during the first decade of the 20th century. They were opposed, with venom, by nationalists and the majority of practicing Catholics.
Above all Jaurès, while perhaps inclined to a romantic vision of the universalism of the French Revolution and its enduring influence inside French institutions, was equally prepared to fight with all his might against chauvinism, nationalist hatred….and war.
This, all of this, should be remembered.
On France-Inter this morning it was noted that the French Prime Minister, Michael Valls, claimed this year that Jaurès would have supported his deal with the employers, the ‘pacte de responsibilité”. Former President Sarkozy claimed him for his educational ‘reforms. Even Marine Le Pen’s party organiser, Louis Alio, has hailed his patriotism, suggesting during one European Election that the SFIO (the French section of the Workers’ International) would have backed the Front National. (3)
It is fitting that Jaurès should have made his last major public speech in the company of another martyr, the beloved Rosa Luxemburg. One doubts if any of the figures cited above would have felt comfortable in her company.
Reformist, compromiser, agent of German imperialism, able to bring people together, or to divide them, there are as many judgements of Jaurès as there are books and articles.
The war that broke out in earnest in the first week of August 1914 redrew the political map, as socialist parties across Europe rushed to support ‘their’ governments in the battle. It is worth recalling that some of his most virulent critics on the left, such as Gustave Hervé and Jules Guesde became rabid nationalists during the Great War, the latter joining the Union Sacrée as a Government Minister.
Villain was put in gaol and stayed there during the war. He was brought to trial in 1919. The murderer was acquitted in a jury trial on March 29. Jaurès’s wife, plaintiff, was convicted in costs. Villain later fled to Spain where he was killed by Republican soldiers during the Spanish Civil War.
Jaurès, above all the controversies, continues to loom large, and for many of us, flaws included, remains greatly honoured.
(1) Notre Partie. Vol. ll. Oeuvres en prose de Charles Péguy. La Pléaide. 1959
(2) “Did Péguy kill Jaurès? Did he incite the assassin? Must men stand by what they write as by their camp-beds or their weaponry or shell-shocked comrades while they sag and cry?” The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy. Geoffrey Hill. Collected Poems. 1985.
(3) This use of Jaurès, which extends right through the French political spectrum, was recently analysed in L’art de tuer Jaurès. Jérôme Pellisier, Benoît Bréville. Le Monde Diplomatique. July 2014. See also Le Monde. Mélenchon, Valls, Aliot, Sarkozy… tous jaurésiens !, Jaurès, un héritage très disputé. L’Humanité « Jaurès, un être engagé, complexe, comme chacun d’entre nous »
This is the FN’s claim,
France: 100 years after Jean Jaures’ murder, his name still inspires. Dick Nicolas. Links.
Written by Andrew Coates
July 31, 2014 at 10:46 am
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