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Revolution against Reform. Jules Guesde. L’anti-Jaurès? Jean-Numa Ducange. Review.

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Revolution against Reform. Jules Guesde. L’anti-Jaurès? Jean-Numa Ducange. Armand Colin. 2017.

“17th of January 1911. Dinner with Guesde. The way we will make the Revolution. Dictatorship for 4 days. During these four days we will post an appeal to the peasants and the workers across France: a reduced working day and double pay. During these four days a movement will spread throughout France such that nothing will be able to abolish the new regime. During these four days the papers will be suppressed.

Marcel Cachin. (1)

Jules Guesde (1845 – 1922) was one of the founders of a current that became the first French Marxist Party, the Parti ouvrier, PO, (1879). If people on the left outside of France have heard of the leader of a body, which marked the entry of socialism into the country’s local government and Parliament and represented an ‘orthodox’ strain of thought in the Second International, they probably know three things about him.

The first is that Guesde was the ‘Marxist’ referred to when Marx said, “I am not a Marxist”.

The second is that he was accused of sectarianism to the point that he was nicknamed, a ‘Torquemada in Lorgnettes” (‘Torquemada à lorgnon’)

The third, and the most important, is that there was famous debate in 1900 between Guesde and the French socialist leader, Jean Jaurès, known as the “two Methods”. The public expression of a deep dispute, held in Lille 1900, before an audience of 8,000, centred on the entry of independent socialist Alexandre Millerand into the 1899 government of “ Défense républicaine” led by Waldeck-Rousseau.Jaurès defended Millerand’s act, in the name of the need to stand by republican liberty in the face of the reactionary groundswell around the Dreyfus Affair. Guesde denounced it as a betrayal of the class based socialism.

Jean-Numa Ducange’s biography of Guesde is a, successful, attempt to understand the socialist leader “in his time”. The author, a specialist in the history of French and German speaking lefts, goes deeply into the context of Guesde’s political career. Amongst its many virtues is its account of the much wider range of issues at stake in the clash between Jaurès and Guesde. Ducange covers the socialist leader’s life, from pro-Commune republican, member of the “collectivist” current that differentiated socialists from both legalist and radical republicans, intransigent Marxist, to his participation as Minister without portfolio in the 1914 government of Défense National in 1914, against “Prussian imperialism”, and opposition to the adherence of the Socialist Party (SFIO) to the Third International in 1920.

From the Commune to the Parti Ouvrier.

Jules Bazile, who took his mother’s name to become Guesde, entered politics as a supporter of the Paris Commune, authentic patriots fighting the Republican traitors whose repression of the insurgents carried out the work of the Prussian invaders. His support led to exile, contact with anarchism. A return to France, under police surveillance, was marked by the evolution of the most radical republicans towards the workers’ movement and the creation in 1877 of the journal L’Égalité – taking the most socialist of the words of the Revolutionary device. This left voice was important enough for the state to react. Shortly before the Parti Ouvrier’s creation, in 1878, his “subversive” writings earned him a stay in the prison of Saint-Péalgie.

Ducange covers his development from that date. Guesde was a journalist and an activist. But it was as a skilled and inspiring orator that Guesde made his mark – an outstanding trait which the British socialist, Belfort Bax would note, decades later. (3) L’anti-Jaurès? not only captures the socialist leader’s ability to hold different audiences spellbound, but that Guesde never produced anything paralleling the works of the German socialist movement, the SPD, his model of organisation. Instead he wrote popularising propaganda pamphlets, a Marxism of a simplicity that often annoyed Marxists of the rank of Frederick Engels (Page 52).

Guesde was a factionalist, convinced of “one” truth against other socialists, frequently accused of sectarianism, and opposed to a variety of other left-wing currents, from the ‘possibilists’ of Paul Brousse and Benoît Malon, the left-wing Allemanists, of Jean Allemane, to the independent socialists, best known through the figure of Jean Jaurès. That did not prevent the Guesdist Parti ouvrier français (POF as the PO became in 1893) from developing roots in the North of France, and his own election as a deputy for Roubaix-Wattrelos in 1893.

Which brings us to the debate with Jaurès over the role of elections, Parliament, and the Millerand controversy. Ducange begins with the events of 1889 when the socialist deputy accepted a post in a government of National Defence, led by Waldeck Rousseau, which also contained the notorious murderer of the Communards, General Gaston de Galliffet. Jaurès was in favour, as a move to protect the Republic against the anti-Semitic and anti-democratic right defended this decision.

The background, the Dreyfus Affair, was omnipresent. Guesde had eventually supported the Dreyfus cause, although only against “militarism”. His own organisation, Ducange observes, had published in its regional press articles of an anti-Semitic tone (“relents antisémites”) while not being systematically filled with hatred of the Jews. This was within a context in which the national party denounced this hatred. (Page 97) He adds that the notorious Jew baiter Édouard Drumond believed that Guesde was sympathetic to his cause, but that no agreement between them ever occurred. Other historians, notably Zeev Sternhell, have gone further and state that some sections of the POF were “overtly anti-Semitic” (3)

The Second International was opposed to Millerand’s decision although left  vague “certain conditions” (which later became even more open) in which being part of such coalitions might be possible. As it grew the controversy became connected to the wider dispute about “revisionism”, begun in Germany with the publication in Germany by Eduard Bernstein of attacks on the Marxist “breakdown” theory (the inevitable ruin of capitalism), dialectics, and the axiom that class struggle is the motor of socialist politics

In these terms, the support Jaurès (at the time temporarily outside Parliament) gave to working with a bourgeois-republican government was a harbinger of a strategy based on piecemeal reform. Whether Jaurès, or any French socialist, ever thought in terms of how capitalism might “adapt” rather than collapse is far from clear, since they largely avoided economics. But it might be argued that reformists, very possibly Jaurès but certainly Brousse, saw socialism in very diluted way. That is, less in terms of a new mode of production, forged out of forces growing within it – the proletariat – over its ruins, but as a kind of gradual increase in the strength of the workers’ movement reflected in government legislation. Rosa Luxemburg talked of his “confusion.” For her it was not a partial conquest of the bourgeois state by the socialists, but the conquest of the socialists by the bourgeois state. To extend her point one could see “legal-reformism at work amongst the defenders of Millerand. (4)

Ducange recounts the way in which this dispute became part of the general ‘revisionism’ debate. But the 1900 Lille stage was not inhabited by actors in the same drama. A great deal of opposition (reflected in the cries from the audience) to Millerand came from those who loathed Gallifet – for good reason as the memories of one the leaders of the non-Marxist radical left, Jean Allemane, who suffered greatly after the Commune, and was exiled to New Caledonia testify (Mémoires d’un communard: des barricades au bagne.1906).

For  Jaurès defending Millerand was a matter of being against Nationalism and Reaction (“contre le nationalisme, contre la réaction”).  Guesde defended the orthodox view, represented in the German SPD, that elections and Parliamentary work were part of a general preparation for socialism, which rested on class struggle. Support for republican democracy, not The Republic, was the means, not an end in itself. Another feature is that Guesde did not only pour scorn on collaboration with the bourgeoisie and the Republic. In defence of intransigent class independence he drew on an analogy with the revolutionary bourgeoisie on the eve of the French revolution. Should the grand bourgeoisie have defended the ancien régime, hoping to reform it but by bit, he asked? No. The socialists, class against class, should take the Bourgeois Bastille as their bourgeois forerunners took the feudal Bastille. (Les deux methods conférence / par Jean Jaurès et Jules Guesde, à l’Hippodrome lillois. 1900)

Guesde, like his British counterparts in the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) was sceptical about trade unionism, a largely defensive form of struggle.  Neither did his class struggle correspond to the creation of a kind of popular ‘will’ against capitalism, that Rosa Luxemburg detected in mass strikes. The time had to be ‘right’ for revolution, which was not imminent. The reference to a united bourgeoisie, which overthrew the French feudal system in 1789, as a model for socialist tactics, would find only a limited audience today.

 The SFIO.

Guesde himself came to compromise, at least in accepting unity with the new socialist party in 1905, inside a party, Parti socialiste, section française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO), This brought him together with Jaurès and the majority of other socialists, but in a ‘citizens’ party’ with no organic links with the trade unions.

How is that Guesde could be so hostile to reformism, and the republic, and yet turn into an ardent defender of France in 1914? One of the strengths of L’anti-Jaurès is that it helps explain this. Some germs of this could be seen in such turns as his backing for French colonialism in the 1900s – a project for a ‘socialist’ colony in Morocco. The socialist leader’s earlier criticism of interventions overseas began to seem on a par with the arguments of late 19th century British radicals against imperial wars, on the grounds of cost and damage to French domestic interests.

But there are deeper reasons to think that the reaction of 1914 was far from foreign to his deeper beliefs. Guesde’s early refusal (1884) to prefer the French Republic to other forms of bourgeois rule was not rooted in a rejection of the Nation. (Page 50) Guesde, announcing in 1893, that to be socialist “’c’est également être patriote” was, during his backing for the Commune, against the Prussians. During the conflict he became as hostile to peace moves – though defended the rights of those who opposed the war – as he had earlier been to reformist socialism. French socialism, like socialisms elsewhere, then as now, has never completely separated itself from the problem of nationalism.

Jules Guesde is an achievement. It is written with easy clarity. Apart from the life itself it offers final illuminating chapters on the way its subject has been considered since his death in 1922. After a period in which Guesdism was a dominant set of ideas in the (non-Communist) SFIO, up to  Léon Blum‘s leadership,  he has been  largely revilled. The biography  opens up afresh a period of socialist history which, with the debates on fundamental issues, has assumed, with the collapse of the French left, great importance today.

If one comes away with a general picture of Guesde that falls well short of admiration there is this: his last “proposition de loi”, in 1919, as a deputy in Parliament, was to launch a law to establish full civil, political and economic equality between men and women. (Page 166) French women had to wait until April 1945 to get the right to vote…

*********

  1. Carnets, Marcel Cachin. Cites at Page 141. Jules Guesde. L’anti-Jaurès? Jean-Numa Ducange. Armand Colin. 2017. Whether or not Cahin, who as a leading figure in the 1920s French Communist Party (whose creation Guesde opposed had a special reason to remember this simplistic claim by Guesde this has strong echoes of earlier republican revolutionary belief in the rapid triumph of their cause. Compare: “l’armée, la magistrature, le christianisme, l’organisation politique, simples hais. L’ignorance, bastion formidable. Un jour pour la haie; pour le bastion, vingt ans. “The army, the legal system, Christianity, political structures, just hedges. Ignorance, a mighty bastion. One day for the hedge, twenty years for the bastion. Auguste Blanqui. Page 151. Auguste Blanqui. Textes Choisis. Les Classiques du peuple. 1971
  2. Page 132. Reminiscences and Reflections of a Mid and Late Victorian, Ernest Belfort Bax. 1918. Reprint: Augustus M. Kelly. 1967.
  3. Page 239. La Droite révolutionnaire. Zeev Sternhell Editions du Seuil. 1978. 
  4. Page 251. Jean Jaurès Gilles Candar, Vincent Duclert. Fayard. 2014. See also, Rosa Luxemburg on Socialist Tactics. Rosa Luxemburg. Translated by Rida Vaquas, Clarion Editor. And   Les Hommes Révoltés. Les origins intellectuelles du réformisme en France (1871 – 1917). Emmanuel Jousse.Fayard. 2017.

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Written by Andrew Coates

January 22, 2018 at 2:53 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Two random thoughts

    1 The analogy of Guesde to the British SDF is apposite in that Hyndman here ended his days as a defender of the First World War ad an arch imperialist.

    2 The Jaures / Guesde debate has striking parallels to the debate inside the SPD at this moment over the idea of a Grand Coalition. Now there’s a subject for a post !

    .

    David Walsh

    January 23, 2018 at 10:29 am

  2. The Bax book I cite (Reminiscences and Reflections of a Mid and Late Victorian) makes a similar point, defending Guesde’s entry into the French government during the war (Bax was in agreement with Hyndman on this).

    He asserts that, unlike joining, as Millerand did, a bourgeois coalition government with its own projects which could be carried out in times of peace, during the First World War supporting France and being a Cabinet Minister for a country, threatened by ‘Prussian imperialism’, was a matter of national defence for the right to exist, not class collaboration.

    Andrew Coates

    January 23, 2018 at 11:41 am

  3. I gather at the SPD Special Congress the same arguments were used, but this time about Putin’s expansionism. The voting there was close, and I’m not sure what the national ballot will produce. See Britain Elects for figures;

    SPD delegates: 645

    Support: 362
    Against: 279
    Abstain: 1

    David Walsh

    January 23, 2018 at 1:43 pm


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