Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Commemorating Jean Jaurès.

with 4 comments

A YEAR has passed since the death of the greatest man of the Third Republic. Events the like of which history has not previously known have welled up almost as if to wash away Jaurès’ blood with new blood and to divert attention away from him and to swallow up even his memory. But even the very greatest events have only partially succeeded in this. In France’s political life a great void has been left behind. New leaders of the proletariat answering the revolutionary character of the new era have not yet arisen. The old leaders only make us remember the more clearly that there is now no Jaurès.

The war has thrown on one side not only individual figures but a whole era with them: the era during which the present leading generation in all spheres of life had been educated and brought up. Today this departed era on the one hand attracts our thoughts by the obstinacy of its cultural heritage, the uninterrupted growth of its technology, science and workers’ organizations; and on the other seems petty and characterless in the conservatism of its political life and in the reformist methods of its class struggle.

After the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune (1870-1871) a period of armed peace and political reaction set in. Europe, if one excluded Russia, knew neither war nor revolution. Capital developed on a mighty scale outgrowing the framework of nation-states and overflowing into the remaining countries and subjugating colonies. The working class built its trade unions and its socialist parties. However the whole of the proletarian struggle of this period was impregnated with the spirit of reformism, of adaptation to the existing order and to the nation’s industry and the nation’s state power. After the experience of the Paris Commune the European proletariat did not once pose the question of the conquest of political power in a practical, that is, a revolutionary way. This peaceful, “organic” character of the era reared a whole generation of proletarian leaders thoroughly steeped in distrust for the direct revolutionary mass struggle.

When the war broke out and the nation-state embarked on its campaign with all its forces armed to the teeth, this generation could without difficulty place the majority of the “socialist” leaders down on their knees. The epoch of the Second International has thus ended with the violent wrecking of the official socialist parties. True they are still standing as monuments to a past age and supported both indirectly and forcibly by the governments. But the spirit of proletarian socialism has fled them and they are doomed to collapse. The working masses who have in the past accepted the ideas of socialism are only now, amid the terrible experience of the war, receiving their revolutionary baptism of fire. We are entering upon a period of unprecedented revolutionary earthquakes. New organizations will be brought to the fore by the masses and new leaders will stand at their head.

The two most outstanding representatives of the Second International have left the scene before the onset of the era of storms and earthquakes: namely Bebel and Jaurès. Bebel died in ripe old age having said everything that he was able to say. Jaurès was killed at the age of 55 in the full flower of his creative energy. A pacifist and a sharp opponent of the policies of Russian diplomacy, Jaurès fought right till the last minute against French intervention in the war. It was considered in certain circles that the war of “liberation” could not commence its march other than by stepping over Jaurès’ dead body.

Jean Jaurès  Leon Trotsky. July 1915

Two important and recommended books on Jaurès

Gilles Candar – Vincent Duclert, Jean Jaurès, Fayard, 2014.

This  biography has set a new standard. Beautifully written, with a proper ‘critical apparatuses’ (not a noted feature of many French biographies or indeed works of political theory), it is the best study of the French socialist leader that I have come across.

Candar (of the Société d’études jaurésiennes  and Duclert (a specialist on the Dreyfus affair) point out that, while never  held office, Jaurès remains one of the most influential figures in the country’s history, revered on all sides. Amongst its many merits the book is illuminating on the general history of the 3rd Republic, from the Dreyfus Affair, in which the Socialist, initially reluctant, was drawn to take the side of those defending not just the unjustly accused by the universal values of human rights, to the separation of state and Church, the foundation of French Laïcité . The authors do not skirt around one issue, which has always irked me, the absence on the French left at the time (indeed up till say, the 1970s…) of any recognition of the importance of feminism. The socialist leader, active in the Second International where these issues were raised more frequently than in France, was they illustrate, was committed to women’s rights, if, as a homme du Midi of the age, he was marked by  patriarchal culture.

Jaurès’ struggle for peace on the eve of the Great War and the ferocious hatred that he inspired on the French nationalist right, today, on the anniversary of Passchendaele has passed, and xenophobia has returned throughout Europe, serve to underline the grandeur of  one of the greatest leaders of international socialism.

Jean-Paul ScotJaurès et le réformisme révolutionnaire, Seuil, 2014.

For many  Jaurès’ socialism is summed up in the phrase, “the republic must be made social“. Scot argues that it  rested on deeper foundations. Tracing his intellectual development the author of unravels a  dialectic between a belief in the reformist (though not ‘revisionist’) belief in  ‘evolution’ and the need for radical change. Taking from Marx the concept of  “évolution révolutionnaire” to bring the two sides together Scot, illustrates this through the socialist leader’s speeches, articles and political career.  Jaurès began as a republican, much as his British counterparts in the late 19th century, started as “radicals”. He became a ‘collectivist’ and republican socialist, but, with his reading and experience began, Scot argues, to offer a perspective  that went beyond the structures of capitalism.

Lucid and always readable this essay ploughs into the world of 19th century socialism. We are spared the details of the rifts between the Marxism of Jules Guesde  and the  Parti ouvrier français,, pure republican revolutionaries (Parti socialiste révolutionnaire),  mutualists, the allemanistes,  the electric ‘integral socialism’ of Benoît Malon, and the wider current of reformism,  (possibilistes)  as Scot underlines Jaurès’ ability, as an “Independent” to bring most of the left together for the creation of the Section française de l’Internationale ouvrière (SFIO, French Section of the Workers’ International), the first French Socialist Party in 1905.

This hopeful essay, which does not skate around  the difficulties Jaurès lyrical French republican side leaves us, but focuses on the profound  problems created by capitalism, is a  tonic against those who imagine that the division between Right and Left  can be wished away by the election of a new President.

 

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Written by Andrew Coates

July 31, 2017 at 12:00 pm

4 Responses

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  1. We need such an ecomium – bravo!

    David

    August 1, 2017 at 1:54 am

  2. Interesting how Trotsky was capable of being extremely fair to principled reformists like Jaurès. Any number of contemporary Trotskyists could never write something like this.

    jschulman

    August 1, 2017 at 1:59 am

  3. This was a wonderful little essay. I’ve found both these books in the Montréal Libraries database and will be ordering them at my local branch library.

    Would you happen to know if either has been translated into English, for your readers who don’t read French?

    I remember reading the sad account of one of the last international socialist meetings against the impending war, where Jean Jaurès and Rosa Luxemburg were announced as speakers. Rosa was too upset to speak. Both were murdered, Jaurès on the eve of the guns of August, Luxemburg in the wake of the Great War, which she has spent in prison for her antiwar views.

    lagatta à Montréal

    August 4, 2017 at 1:53 pm

  4. They are not, to my knowledge, translated.

    Modern books about Jaurès in English are rare (I have one from just after the 1st World War). Wikipedia seems to indicate that the last biography is Kurtz, Geoffrey. Jean Jaures: The Inner Life of Social Democracy. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014.

    I have not read it.

    Here is the English book I have:

    A small selection of texts by Jaurès in English, which includes his History of the French Revolution https://www.marxists.org/archive/jaures/.

    I often underline Jaurès’ importance to, well just everybody I know!

    Andrew Coates

    August 5, 2017 at 12:26 pm


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