Jean Jaurès: a giant of the workers' movement

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Hardly a town in the country is without a square or an avenue, or at the very least a street, that bears his name. The ruling class has all but transformed him into a national monument, and yet today Jean Jaurès is almost unknown outside France. It was not always so. At the height of his powers, Jaurès was, together with August Bebel, one of the “twin peaks of the Second International” to use Trotsky’s expression. A giant of a man, physically, mentally, and morally, Jaurès was, along with Rosa Luxemburg, one of the outstanding orators of the International; still more remarkable, he was one of very few French socialists able to address German workers in their own language. For the French ruling class, who all now claim him as one of their own, an exemplary democrat, Jaurès was the object of violent hatred. His assassination, on 31st July 1914, can be said to have cleared the way definitively for France’s entry into war, yet the circumstances surrounding his assassination remain a mystery which has never been completely cleared up.

Who then, was Jean Jaurès? What did he represent – as he still does today – for the international working class? What role did he play in the International and its struggle for the emancipation of the workers and against war? Why, finally, was he murdered?

Jaurès can, it is true, be a very useful person for a ruling class which has transformed his life into a sort of propagandist’s Swiss army knife. Depending on the occasion, they can always find a blade to suit: there is the national hero who lies in the Pantheon alongside the heroes of imperialist war like Jean Moulin for example, or then there is the moderate socialist who disapproved of the violent methods of the revolution, or again the partisan of the parliamentary and national road to socialism; there is a blade in favour of the French Communist Party, and another for the pacifist who broke the ties between the struggle against war and the struggle for proletarian revolution. All these clichés are lies and Lenin’s adage that the best way to deal with a man who is a danger to the established order is to make an inoffensive icon of him has been validated once again.

But who was Jean Jaurès really? Quite simply he was a product of the workers’ movement, the collective and historic product of a particular class of society, one of its most remarkable products given the epoch wherein Jaurès used his talents. Born in 1859 into the provincial petty bourgeoisie of Castres, a small town in the department of the Tarn (south-west France), he proved a brilliant student at school winning a scholarship which allowed him to study for the entrance exam to the prestigious Ecole normale supérieure. Returning to the South he taught high school in Toulouse, and became involved in the political activity of the day to the point where he was elected to parliament on a republican unity list in 1885, at the age of only 25; he lost the seat at the next election in 1889, and returned to teaching and journalism.

His transformation from radical republican to socialist came with the 1892 miners’ strike in Carmaux. The strike was sparked off by the sacking of Jean-Baptiste Calvignac, a miner who had been elected mayor of the town; the miners’ considered, quite rightly, that this was an attempt by the local big bourgeoisie to silence the workers’ efforts to express and defend themselves politically. Jaurès, now aged 34, was greatly impressed by the miners’ struggle and took an active part in it, defending the miners’ cause in the pages of La Dépêche and participating in their meetings. He was also scandalised by the bloody repression of a demonstration at Fourmies in the north where the workers were fighting for the 8-hour day. As a result of the Carmaux struggle, Jaurès threw himself whole-heartedly into the socialist cause, and was elected to parliament as socialist deputy for Carmaux in 1893. Like Marx and many other militant workers, it was the proletariat itself that won Jaurès over to the cause of revolutionary socialism. It was as a martyr to this cause that he was assassinated on the eve of the First World War, after throwing all his strength into the fight against militarism in the hope that the international action of the proletariat would stop the mobilisation for war. Certainly Jaurès belonged to the reformist wing of socialism and as such had several times contributed to a considerable weakening of the working class struggle, but his unconditional devotion to the proletarian cause allowed him to correct his mistakes, unlike his fellow socialist deputies such as Pierre Renaudel, Aristride Briand, René Viviani or Marcel Sembat who were very quickly carried away by the most crass opportunism. The members of the left in the 2nd International fought his ideas vigorously but the majority of them admired his personality, the eminence of his thought and his moral strength. Trotsky wrote in his autobiography: “Politically I had been far removed from him. But one could not help feeling the pull of his powerful personality () With a mighty force as elemental as a waterfall, he combined great gentleness, which shone in his face like a reflection of a higher spiritual culture. He would send rocks tumbling down, he would thunder and bring the earthquake, but himself he never deafened. He stood always on guard, watched intently for every objection, quick to pick it up and parry it. Sometimes he swept all resistance before him as relentlessly as a hurricane, sometimes as generously and gently as a tutor or elder brother1. Rosa Luxemburg, this other great figure of the left, expressed similar sentiments. As Jaurès read German, she offered him a dedicated copy of her doctoral thesis on The industrial development of Poland. Jaurès had the same athletic physique as the sculptor August Rodin, and on the latter’s death, Rosa Luxemburg wrote to Sonia Liebknecht: “His must have been a marvellous personality: frank, natural, overflowing with warmth and human intelligence; he decidedly reminded me of Jaurès2.

So rich and complex a personality can only be understood in the context of his epoch: the final phase of the ascendency of capitalism which unfolded into the First World War. Nor should one ever forget how much he was capable of learning at the school of proletarian struggle and the International. Although he never adopted completely Marx and Engels’ theories, at a conference in Paris on 10th February 1900, he felt the need to express his agreement with all the essential ideas of scientific socialism3.

The constitution of the proletariat as a class

The Paris Commune of 1871 demonstrated that the proletariat was capable of taking power and exercising it through the means of mass assemblies and elected and revocable delegates. It brought a decisive clarification: the working class could not simply take hold of the machinery of the state and use it for its own ends; it must first of all destroy the old bourgeois state edifice then set up a new state specific to the period of transition from capitalism to communism. In his magnificent work State and Revolution, Lenin was to remind those who had forgotten them of these fundamental lessons. But the Paris Commune also demonstrated that the proletariat had not yet the strength to keep power and to engender a revolutionary process at the international level. The proletariat appeared as a distinct class with its own programme at the time of the June 1848 insurrection, but the process through which it could constitute itself as an international force provided with a class consciousness and a political experience was far from complete. This immaturity was matched by a massive development of capitalism which was, precisely, the precondition and the context for the constitution of the proletariat into a class. This was a period of gigantic economic and colonial conquests during which the last “uncivilised” areas of the globe were opened up to the imperialist giants and which witnessed an enormous technical: electricity, the telephone, the automobile to mention but a few.

This period was not without danger for the proletariat, but it had no choice. Only capitalism could create the conditions for the international communist revolution, it alone could produce its own gravediggers. Basing itself on obtaining real reforms in its favour, the working class developed great economic struggles and, with this aim, organised itself into powerful trade unions and social-democratic parties. As the Communist Manifesto says: “It compels legislative recognition of particular interests of the workers, by taking advantage of the divisions among the bourgeoisie itself. Thus, the ten-hours’ bill in England was carried4.

The struggles for workers’ legislation, for universal suffrage, including the defence of the bourgeois Republic faced with the forces of reaction, were understood as preparing the conditions for proletarian revolution which would overthrow bourgeois domination. The minimum and maximum programme formed a unity on condition that in the daily struggles, with their inevitable alliances with certain bourgeois and petty bourgeois factions, the proletariat defended its class independence and kept in mind the final revolutionary objective. It was the period par excellence of workers’ parliamentarism and Jean Jaurès, an orator of great talent, gave to it all his energy. Jaurès was part of the massive entry of socialists into parliament following the legislative elections of 1893. According to the clearest political tendencies of the time, workers’ parliamentarism was not an objective in itself but only a support to the general struggle of the proletariat. And indeed, when the socialists spoke in the Chamber of Deputies, they declared themselves to be speaking to those “outside the windows” to make it clear that their aim was not to convince bourgeois deputies but to clarify things for the working class, to encourage it to throw itself into great political struggles which would give it the necessary experience to exercise its future power. In the Considerations of the programme of the French workers’ party, drawn up in 1880 by Jules Guesde, Paul Lafargue, Engels and Marx, we find the following significant formulation:


That this collective appropriation [of the means of production] can only come out of revolutionary action of the productive class – or proletariat – organised in a distinct political party;

That a similar organisation (of society) must be pursued by all the means of which the proletariat disposes, including universal suffrage, transformed thus from an instrument of deception that it has been up to now into an instrument of emancipation (...)5.

Parliamentarism is absolutely not seen here as the means for workers’ emancipation in place of revolution but, if one reads the preceding paragraph attentively, as one of the means for progress towards the great objective of the collective appropriation of the means of production. The unity of means and end is thus clearly asserted. The development of a gigantic international workers’ movement at the end of the 19th century in part fulfilled its promise by building a bridge between the Paris Commune and the revolutionary wave that culminated in Russia 1917 and Germany 1918. This development provoked a nameless dread in the ruling class: their desperate efforts to distort Jean Jaurès are not simply useful to them, they also serve to exorcise their fears.

In the end, opportunism, parliamentary cretinism and reformism gained the upper hand within the Second International; the failure of the workers’ organisations in 1914 and their unity with their bourgeoisie was a catastrophe which had profound repercussions on the workers’ movement. But it is necessary to be clear that this victory of opportunism was not a foregone conclusion and its origins are not to be found principally in the parliamentary fractions, the permanent political and union structures or in the general bureaucracy of these organisations. Even if these were vectors of the rot that ate away at the International, the latter’s fundamental origins are to be found in the lack of vigilance of the workers’ organisations faced with the surrounding atmosphere of the capitalist world. Capitalism’s headlong development during a time of relative peace (at least in the central countries of Europe) finished up by inducing the idea that the transition to communism could be effected in a gradual and peaceful manner. We should remember that the growth of the workers’ movement is not linear and that it is only possible at the price of constant struggle against the penetration of the ideology of the ruling class within the proletariat.

The testimony of Trotsky on this epoch and on the man who embodied it is invaluable, because it covers the transition between the ascendance and decadence of capitalism. This period of some 25 years is at the highest contradictory point where it “drew the spirit by the perfection of its civilisation, the uninterrupted development of technology, of science, of workers’ organisation and seemed at the same time paltry in the conservatism of its political life, in the reformist methods of its class struggle6. In My Life, he underlined the high moral standing of such militants of the workers’ movement as Jean Jaurès and Auguste Bebel, of whom he wrote that “Jaurès’ mind, which was a composite of national traditions, of the metaphysics of moral principles, of love for the oppressed, and of poetic imagination, showed the mark of the aristocrat as clearly as Bebel’s revealed the great simplicity of the plebeian”.7 At the same time he showed their limits: “Jaurès and Bebel were at opposite poles, and yet at the same time they were the twin peaks of the Second International. Both were intensely national, Jaurès with his fiery Latin rhetoric, and Bebel with his touch of Protestant dryness. I loved them both, but with a difference. Bebel exhausted himself physically, whereas Jaurès fell in his prime. But both of them died in time. Their deaths marked the line where the progressive historical mission of the Second International ended8.

Marxism and the heritage of the French revolution of 1789

Ever since the great bourgeois revolution of 1789, France had dominated European history. Whether in 1830 or in 1848, it was France that gave the signal for general upheaval. These circumstances gave to the proletariat in France a great political education and a capacity for action which continues to this day. But these qualities also have their other side. The working class in France has a tendency to underestimate the daily economic struggle which explains why the unions were less developed than in other countries. On the other hand, political struggle was seen in a restrictive sense, limited to the insurrection. On the opposing side, the bourgeoisie and most particularly, the industrial bourgeoisie, quite quickly achieved complete political sovereignty under the regime of the democratic Republic. And it was very proud of this. Thus this great bourgeois revolution led to bombastic, hollow speeches typical of French orations: the country of the Rights of Man granted itself the messianic task of the liberation of peoples from tyranny, understanding by that economic competition between nations and wars of rapine which led to the imperialist war of 1914. For many leaders of the workers’ movement in France this phraseology hid a deep-rooted nationalism.

Jean Jaurès is a classical representative of this republicanism which has weighed heavily on the workers’ movement in an epoch where the bourgeoisie was still progressive and where the form that proletarian power would take was still far from clear. Even for the elements of the left within the 2nd International, the Republic was the only form possible of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Jaurès expressed himself thus in an article in La Dépêche of 22nd October, 1890: “Neither England nor Germany have in their past a democratic Republic such as that proclaimed in France in 1792. Hence the hopes of English and German workers do not take a republican form and this is why the party of popular reforms there more particularly calls itself the socialist party. In France on the contrary, the single word Republic, full of the great dreams of the first republican generations, contains within it alone all the promises of fraternal equality9.

Karl Kautsky was to defend the marxist position on this question. In an article published in Die Neue Zeit in January 1903, he recalls that, despite the historic continuity between bourgeois and proletarian revolutions there is a still more important political break simply because it is a matter of different classes with different political programmes each with specific aims and means: “It is really because of the great strength of the revolutionary tradition within the French proletariat that it is nowhere more important than here to lead it to think in an autonomous fashion by showing it that the social problems, the objects, the methods and the means of struggle are quite another thing today than they were in the epoch of Revolution, that the socialist revolution must be something quite other than a parody or a pursuit of the bourgeois revolution; the proletariat can borrow from it its enthusiasm, its faith in victory and its temperament but certainly not its way of thinking10.

This classic position of revolutionary socialism was based on the work of Marx and Engels who, after the setback of the 1848 Revolutions, had called into question their idea of a permanent revolution based upon an organic unity between bourgeois and proletarian revolution and the growth of one into the other11.

Moreover, against Lassalle, the partisan of state socialism, and against Bakunin, who preached class equality, Marx and Engels always defended the final aim of communism of the abolition of classes, which means the end of the political domination engendered precisely by the existence of antagonistic classes, which implies the withering away of the state. But the end of the state is also an end to democracy which is only a particular form of the state. The ambition of communism, which appears huge but which is in fact the only realistic one faced with the laws of history and the dangerous contradictions of capitalism, consists of a mastering of the productive forces and the social forces at the world level, the only ground on which the contradiction between the general and particular interests, between the collectivity and the individual can be overcome. For the first time it has become possible to make the human community a concrete reality. That does not mean the end of problems and contradictions, but that the abolition of classes and of the political sphere could allow the liberation of all human potential whereas the promise contained in the slogan ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’, has never been honoured by the democratic bourgeoisie. Communism does not mean the end of history, but the end of prehistory and the beginning of real history. This idea of a passage from the reign of necessity to the reign of freedom, in other words the perspective of a society free from commodity production and the state, was not an unknown position during this epoch of workers’ parliamentarism and the struggle for reforms. The clearest political minorities tried hard to defend this, including William Morris in England12 and August Bebel in Germany13.

Like so many others, Jaurès never managed to free himself from this republican tradition, which prevented him from defending working class autonomy against the enemy class.

The Dreyfus Affair

Captain Richard Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army high command, was judged by court martial in December 1894, falsely accused of passing secrets to Germany. This affair of espionage, in a context profoundly marked by anti-Semitism and chauvinism after the German annexation of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871, inflamed the Third Republic right up to 1906, when the Court of Appeal declared Dreyfus innocent and definitively rehabilitated him. It was not merely a matter of judicial error but of the defence of particular reactionary and nationalist factions of the bourgeoisie coming from and supported by military, clerical and monarchist elements. The crisis of the Radical party in power opened the way for them.

After some hesitation, Jean Jaurès threw himself into the battle for to defend Dreyfus and overturn the judgment against him. “And Jaurès was right” wrote Rosa Luxemburg “The Dreyfus Affair had awakened all the latent forces of reaction in France. The old enemy of the working class, militarism, stood completely exposed, and it was necessary to direct all spears against its body. The working class was called upon for the first time to fight out a great political battle. Jaurès and his friends led the workers into the struggle and thereby opened up a new epoch in the history of French socialism14.

The marxist party of Guesde and Lafargue, as well as the party of the ex-Blanquistes of Vallant continued to preach neutrality, in other words political abstention when in fact the working class had to undertake a fight against the reactionary factions of the bourgeoisie including the defence of the bourgeois Republic. It had to seize this opportunity and combine its forces, mature politically while safeguarding its class autonomy. It is on the question of class autonomy that the political weaknesses defended by Jaurès are revealed. The working class supporters of Dreyfus had to keep their independence vis-a-vis his bourgeois supporters such as Emile Zola and Georges Clemenceau. Because he defended a fundamentally republican position, Jaurès engaged in the support of a radical government up to the point of going against the specific positions of the working class. He supported the government on the amnesty law adopted by the Chamber on 19th December 1900, despite the fact that its aim was amnesty for all, including and even especially those officers implicated in the plot against Dreyfus. He refused to launch a direct and systematic attack against militarism through the demand for a popular militia because there was a risk of a split among the various factions supporting Dreyfus. And these capitulations multiplied in the name of a so-called “combined republican work” which carried “the certainty of future victories”. Here is what Luxemburg said about it:

The present attitude of the Jaurès group towards the policies of the government is, in one sense, in direct contradiction to its position during the Dreyfus Affair. But, in another sense, it is nothing but a direct continuation of the previous policy. The same principle – unity with the bourgeois democrats – served as the basis of socialist policy in both cases. It served during two years of unyielding struggle for a solution of the Dreyfus Affair, and, today, because the bourgeois democrats have deserted the fight, it leads the socialists to also liquidate the Dreyfus Affair and to give up all attempts at a fundamental reformation of the army and a change in the relations between Republic and Church.

Instead of making the independent political struggle of the Socialist party the permanent. fundamental element and unity with bourgeois radicals the varying and incidental element, this principle caused Jaurès to adopt the opposite tactic: the alliance with the bourgeois democrats became the constant, and the independent political struggles the incidental element.

Already in the Dreyfus campaign, the Jaurès socialists failed to understand the line of demarcation between the bourgeois and the proletarian camps: If the question presented itself to the friends of Dreyfus as an attack upon the by-products of militarism – as the cleansing of the army and the suppression of corruption – a socialist had to view it as a struggle against the root of the evil – against the standing army itself. And if the bourgeois radicals considered justice for Dreyfus and punishment for the guilty ones as the single central point of the campaign, a socialist had to view the Dreyfus Affair as the basis for an agitation in favor of the militia system. Only thus would the Dreyfus Affair and the admirable efforts of Jaurès and his friends have been a great agitational service to socialism15.

Not only did Jaurès refuse to break with the government at the right moment, but he continued to support unreservedly the Waldeck-Rousseau cabinet and the participation of a socialist in government; thus opened the darkest chapter of Jean Jaurès’ political life.

The Millerand Affair

In June 1899, the socialist Alexandre Millerand, alongside General Gaston de Galliffet, the assassin of the Paris Commune, entered the Radical government of Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau. For Millerand, who belonged to the movement of independent socialists, this was a purely personal decision: he had no mandate from a socialist party. We should take into account that this was at the time of the full-blown Dreyfus Affair where the degraded officer was still suffering the torments of the penal colony in Guyana. Jaurès did his utmost to support socialist participation in government. He saluted the courage of the French socialists who had sent one of their own “into the fortress of bourgeois government”. The whole affair strongly encouraged all the right wing of the International which impatiently waited for the this experience to be repeated in other countries, particularly Germany. The right warmly approved of the arguments of Jaurès according to which the evolution of capitalist society towards socialism engendered an intermediate stage during the course of which political power was exercised in common by both the bourgeoisie and proletariat. In Germany, Eduard Bernstein had just published his revisionist work where he called into question the marxist theory of the crises of capitalism and where he proclaimed: “The final aim, whatever it is, is nothing, the movement is everything”.

Rosa Luxemburg hurled herself into the battle with passion. She replied to Bernstein in a series of articles which later appeared in the celebrated pamphlet Reform or Revolution. At the same time she attacked the arguments of Jaurès. To begin with she recalled the basic principles of scientific socialism: “In bourgeois society, social-democracy, from the fact of its very essence, is destined to play the role of a party of opposition; it can only come to government on the ruins of the bourgeois state16. She particularly emphasised the fundamental difference between the participation of socialists in the parliament of the bourgeois state or in local councils, which had been accepted for a long time, and the participation in the executive of the state. This was for two very simple reasons. Firstly, it was a question of making their claims effective but always on the basis of a critique of the government which persecuted the workers ceaselessly while trying to render null and void any social reforms that it was forced to adopt. This was the principle which motivated the systematic refusal of the socialists to vote for a parliamentary budget. Secondly, whatever party the members of the government belong to, they are required to share joint responsibility for government policy for which they are necessarily considered to be accountable.

The international socialist congress held in Paris from 23rd to 27th September 1900, condemned Millerand’s “governmental socialism”, which demonstrated that the conditions for an offensive of opportunism within the International did not yet exist. The resolution was titled: “The conquest of state power and alliance with bourgeois parties”. It was adopted on the basis of a motion presented by Kautsky and the majority of the members of the permanent commission. The problem was that the resolution’s author tried hard to give it a general theoretical character without confronting the specific case of Millerand. All the most far-fetched interpretations were allowed. That is why this resolution of Kautsky was called the “Rubber Resolution”. Jaurès, Vollmar, Bernstein, all the right including the most avowed revisionists charged into the breach. They presented the outcome of the Congress as favourable to Millerand.

They based themselves specifically on an idea presented in the resolution according to which in certain exceptional cases the participation of socialists in bourgeois governments could appear necessary. And indeed, all the socialist programmes of the day contained the position, which was valid at the time, that in the case of a defensive war (and therefore absolutely not in case of imperialist war) the socialists could participate in government.17 Alternatively, this might be the case should a political crisis threaten to bring down the Republic and its democratic victories. Rosa Luxemburg responded that in these exceptional cases it was not just a question of taking complete responsibility with the whole of government policy. But it was essential to define if the situation really corresponded to one of these exceptional cases. Jaurès declared that it did.

Since about 1885, France had been hit by constant political crises: the Boulanger crisis,18 the Panama scandal,19 the Dreyfus Affair. These revealed the existence of a rowdy nationalism, anti-Semitic outbursts, gross and hateful press campaigns, fighting in the street. The last hour of the Republic seemed to be imminent. But Rosa Luxemburg brilliantly showed that this was not in fact the case. The militarist and clerical reaction and the radical bourgeoisie were fighting for the control of this Republic in the framework of a profound crisis of the Radical Party in power. It was necessary to take part in these political struggles but certainly not by participating in government and pandering to the petty bourgeoisie, the traditional clientele of the Radical Party.

Jaurès invoked certain passages of the Communist Manifesto concerning the alliance of the workers with the bourgeoisie. First of all it is a question of an entirely different historic period where, as in Germany for example, the power of the bourgeoisie was not at all assured in the face of the political forces of feudalism. And above all, he forgot to quote the essential passages on the preservation of the independence of the working class in any circumstances. In particular this on the position of communists: “But they never cease, for a single instant, to instil in the working class the clearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat, in order that the German workers may straightaway use, as so many weapons against the bourgeoisie, the social and political condition that the bourgeoisie must necessarily introduce along with its supremacy, and in order that, after the fall of the reactionary classes in Germany, the fight against the bourgeoisie may immediately begin20.

Finally, the last argument of Jaurès consisted of underlining the importance of the reforms gained by Millerand for the workers. These were for him, “germs of socialism sown in the capitalist soil which would bear marvellous fruit”. it is enough to examine the reality of these reforms more closely in order to contradict the inordinate enthusiasm which held Jaurès inits grasp. For example, the original intention to shorten the working day ended up with it being lengthened for children and the mere hope of something better in the future. Or again, the guarantee of the right to strike ended up being greatly restricted within narrow legal limits. We have already seen the hypocrisy of the government’s policy over the Dreyfus Affair. To this we should add the hypocrisy of the state’s struggle for secularism, which ended up with charitable donations to the Catholic Church and which served above all as a real war machine against the socialist parties’ growing influence among the workers. Not forgetting that during the whole Millerand experience, troops continued to fire on strikers as they did at Chalons and in Martinique. The era of reforms culminated in the massacre of striking workers.

Rosa Luxemburg saw far and clear when she criticised “ministerialism”. What began in France as a sad farce ended up in Germany in tragedy in 1919 with a social democratic government consciously assuming a counter-revolutionary role. For the moment we can see that Jaurès was capable of learning from experience. Ten years after the beginning of the Millerand affair, he bitterly denounced both Millerand and two other socialist ministers, Briand and Viviani, whom he reproached for being “traitors who allowed themselves to be used by capitalism”.

The foundation of a unified socialist party

We have seen that Jaurès closely followed Bernstein. However it is not possible to place him in the camp of revisionism. Similarly there is no trace in him of the philistinism of Kautsky who succumbed to the sirens of centrism around 1906. We’ve seen the intimate links with the members of the right wing of the workers’ international. His opportunism was one that the workers’ movement of the time had to confront and which is characterised both by an impatience regarding the results of the struggle (preferring to sacrifice the final aim to the profit of, largely illusory, immediate reform) and an adaption to the surrounding capitalist world (being content with the progressive dynamic and the period of peace which increased, relatively and with illusions, the security of the workers, and so sacrificing the interests of the general movement). But his strong personality placed him above other opportunists. After joining the socialist cause, he continued to serve the law, liberty and humanity. But, as Trotsky noted; “That which for the ordinary French disclaimers is only an empty phrase, [Jaurès] fills with a sincere and active idealism”. Trotsky correctly presents him as an ideologue in the positive sense of the term, someone who gripped the idea as a terrible weapon in the practical daily struggle, as opposed to the doctrinaire and the practising opportunist: “The doctrinaire congeals theory and so kills its spirit. The practical-opportunist learns the procedures of the political trade; but should a sudden upheaval occur, he finds himself in a situation of a worker made redundant by the adoption of a new machine. The great ideologue is only impotent at the moment where history disarms him ideologically, but even then he is sometimes capable of rapidly rearming himself, of taking on the idea of a new epoch and continues to play a role at the first level. Jaurès was an ideologue. He drew out of the political situation the idea that it held and, in his service of this idea, never stopped mid-way21.

We have already noted Jaurès’ reticence towards marxism. He saw here in it cold, economic determinism leaving no place for the individual and for human freedom in general. His outlook was turned towards the past and the great days of the bourgeois revolution: “It is to the honour of the French revolution to have proclaimed that in every individual human being, humanity had the same native intelligence, the same dignity and the same rights”, he said22. As a result of his education and the general situation in France at the time, he did not see that the materialism of Marx, often misinterpreted as a form of absolute economic determinism, contained a coherent explanation of human history which, far from smothering them, on the contrary gave both a place – and a foundation – to the action of classes, to the force and the will of the individual which under capitalism had been wiped out in the name of the collective anonymity of the nation. The glorification of the individual under capitalism was in reality the mask of its absolute negation. In his pitiless critique of bourgeois society, Marx revealed its commodity fetishism and its reification. Nor was Jaurès able to recognise the presence in Marx of an authentic proletarian ethic23.

However the devotion of Jaurès to the cause of proletarian emancipation meant that he never turned away from the perspective of a classless, property-less society, where the means of production would be managed in common. He read Marx, admired his work and adhered to the theory of value exposed by Capital. Whereas in France the tendency was towards the underestimation of theoretical discussions, Jaurès participated, with Jules Guesde and Paul Lafargue, in public discussions on subjects treated in depth. On 12th December 1894, Jaurès responded to an invitation of the Groupe des Etudiants collectivistes who organised a debate on “idealism and materialism in the concept of history”. In his response one feels that he is confronting his own contradictions: “I do not mean that there is a part of history which is governed by economic necessity and another part guided by a pure idea, by a concept, by the idea for example, of humanity, justice and right; I do not want to put the materialist conception on one side and the idealist conception on the other. I maintain that they must penetrate one another, as in the organic life of man the mechanics of the brain and conscious spontaneity inter-penetrate one another”24. Paul Lafargue responded to him on 10th January, 1895. He began thus: “You will understand that it is with hesitation that I have taken on the task of responding to Jaurès whose spirited eloquence knows how to impassion the most abstract of metaphysical theses. While he was talking I said to myself, and you must have felt it, it is fortunate that this devil of a man is with us25. The experience was repeated in 1900, when Jaurès and Guesde confronted one another at the Hippodrome in Lille, where a polemic “The two methods”, the revolutionary and reformist method were confronted.

The decisive moment in Jaurès’ evolution was the congress of the International in Amsterdam in 1904. With all the conviction of which he was capable, he defended his thesis on ministerialism and the defence of the Republic in several speeches. The confrontation with Auguste Bebel was relentless, but he led his arguments with such brio that he aroused the applause of the congress. Jaurès was an adversary who commanded respect. Rosa Luxemburg even translated one of his speeches because of a lack of translators. The congress finally condemned his positions and in a much clearer fashion than at the previous International Congress in Paris. Jaurès submitted to the discipline of the International because he was profoundly attached to the international movement of the proletariat, because he was aware of the traps involved in government participation, and also because he wanted to avoid at all costs a new setback to the unification of the socialists in France. A special motion of the congress, voted on unanimously, demanded that the French Socialists should at last unite. One of the considerations of this motion said: “There can only be one socialist party as there is one proletariat26.

The failure of the Paris Commune, drowned in blood by the bourgeois democratic Republic of Adolphe Thiers, provoked a period of depression in the workers’ movement in France. When it began to recover at the end of the 1870’s, it appeared as an incoherent assemblage of disparate elements. There were the Proudhonian mutualists, the Utopians of the old school like Benoit Malon, anarchists, narrow-minded syndicalists patronised by the Radical Party, some Blanquists, Collectivists and finally old Communards still addicted to the verbiage of insurrection. In these circumstances, the unification of the workers’ movement took different forms in comparison to other countries. Before regrouping, it was necessary first of all to take the first step through a process of differentiation and progressive elimination of heterogeneous elements. In 1879 the first strictly marxist party was set up, the French Workers’ Party of Jules Guesde, and two years later, the Blanquists regrouped behind Edouard Vaillant in the Central Revolutionary Committee. A real clarification was appearing on the basis of the present tasks of the socialists which underlined the importance of political action and workers’ parliamentarianism. Despite a rapprochement, those that were called the “Parties of the old school” regarded each other with distrust and were incapable, from the fact of their history and the fact of their accumulated political errors, of fighting for the unification of the movement. Only new and independent forces could fulfil this role.

This offered a whole field of action to such personalities as Jean Jaurès. The crisis in the Radical Party brought new blood and new militants. But they were marked by their petty bourgeois origins and presented themselves as independent socialists who were above parties. There was thus a risk of the movement losing its class character and only the old socialist parties could avoid this trap. Rosa Luxemburg described the situation in this way: “While the old parties have shown themselves incapable of translating the final socialist objective into practical slogans applicable to the politics of the moment, the ‘independents’ could not, in the present political circumstances, preserve the stamp of the final socialist goal. The failings of the independents make it obvious that the mass movement of the proletariat needs a force that is organised and educated on solid principles to lead it; on the other hand, the attitude of the old organisations show that none amongst them is capable of undertaking this task alone27.

The evolution of the situation with the growth of militarism, imperialist tensions and with the crisis of successive radical governments, gave a final impulse. After the setback of 1899, arising from disagreements over ministerialism, the unification of the socialists was realised at the Congress held in the Salle du Globe in Paris, 1905. The Socialist Party was formed as “French Section of the Workers’ International”28 on the basis of the Resolutions of the Amsterdam Congress. It presented itself as “a class party, which aims at socialising the means of production and exchange, that is to say transforming capitalist society into a collective and communist society”. It “is not a party of reform but a party of class struggle and revolution”. The Party’s parliamentary deputies were to form “a single group against bourgeois political factions” and “refuse the government all the means which assure the domination of the bourgeoisie” in other words refusing appropriations for the military, for colonial conquest, for secret funds and indeed the budget as a whole29. With all his intellectual power Jaurès dominated the new party. April 18th 1904, saw the publication of the first issue of L’Humanité, the great socialist daily founded by Jean Jaurès. It would soon replace the official organ of the finally united party, Le Socialiste.

The revolution in 1905 in Russia and Poland overturned the situation. The glimmers of light from the east carried not only precious weapons for the revolutionary struggle, the mass strike and workers’ councils, they also revealed that bourgeois society was about to pass to the other side of its historic evolution, the downward trend of the decadence of the capitalist mode of production. The entire epoch marked by the creation of the Second International in 1889, where: “the centre of gravity of the workers’ movement was placed entirely on the national terrain in the framework of national states, on the basis of national industry, in the domain of national parliamentarism30, was entering its death throes.

The deadly shock of war

Jaurès’ profound ambiguity was once again revealed in his work L’Armée nouvelle (The new army). Published as a book in 1911, this text first saw the light as an introduction to a proposed law turned down by the Chamber of Deputies. Far from trying to understand and analyse the growth of militarism and imperialism which concerned and mobilised the clearest socialists, Jaurès proposed a “really popular organisation for national defence” based on the “nation in arms”. His idea was some distance away from the demand for an “army of militias” defended in the previous period by the French and German socialists. It was based on the idea of a “defensive war”, an idea that had really lost its meaning with the evolution of events. It was enough that through a series of provocations an imperialist power pushed an enemy to react, for it to appear immediately as the aggressor nation.

The two Moroccan crises, in 1905 and 1911, the two Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, the constitution of two imperialist blocs, the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austro-Hungary, Italy and the Triple Entente of Britain, France, Russia, all this meant that the era of national wars was finished and war of a new type was appearing on the horizon: an imperialist war for the carving up of the world market. Totally in the grip of his Republican positions, Jaurès did not see the centrality of the internationalist positions of the proletariat and the danger of the least concession to the national interest, trying again to reconcile the two: “It is in the International that the independence of nations has its highest guarantee; it is in the independent nations that the International has its most powerful and noble organs. One could say; a little internationalism distances us from the fatherland; a lot of internationalism brings us back to it.”31

Whereas he was perfectly conscious of the mortal danger that lay in wait for the world proletariat, Jaurès strode the corridors of the Chamber of Deputies calling on this or that minister under the illusion that he could block the fatal gearing up to war and demanding the government to condemn the imperialist appetites of Russia. He multiplied his appeals for international arbitration between nations and supported the International Court of the Hague created by Russian Tsarism and subject to the mockery of the entire world. Basically, in the end he shared the position of Kautsky according to whom the trusts and the cartels would be interested in making peace. This so-called “super-imperialism” obscured the danger of world war, totally disarming the proletariat and rallied centrism to opportunism. The old friends, Kautsky and Bernstein were finally reconciled.

But once again it is very difficult to force Jaurès into a box. Like Engels some years earlier, he understood that a world war would mean a profound defeat for the proletariat which would call the future into question. He recalled his formula condemning capitalism: “Your violent and chaotic society always (...) bears within it war as a sleeping cloud bears the storm32. In 1913, at the Chamber of Deputies, one could hear him thunder against the return of three-year military service and he employed all his strength to have demonstrations organised in common between the revolutionary syndicalists of the CGT and the Socialist Party. Demonstrations were organised in many towns. In Paris enormous crowds flocked to the Butte-Rouge, at Pré-Saint-Gervais. His condemnation of war was not simply on moral grounds and that is why it carried all the hopes of the world and the international proletariat. He again used all his oratory power in a speech at Lyon-Vaise, July 25 1914: “In this moment when we are threatened with murder and savagery the only chance for the maintenance of peace and the salvation of civilisation is for the working class gather all the strength of its numerous brothers and that all the proletarians, French, English, German, Italian, Russian and we ourselves ask of these thousands of men to unite so that the unanimous beat of their hearts should thrust back this horrible nightmare33.

This is what made Jaurès the target for the hatred of the whole bourgeoisie. A veritable campaign of slanders and death threats was launched against him. Some demanded he be executed by a firing squad. The most excited voices came from the most reactionary political tendencies and the ultra-nationalists, the petty bourgeois milieu and the lumpenproletariat which played such a big role in the irrational mobs. They were sustained and encouraged by the democratic government. It was like a pogrom against the Jews. They had to find a scapegoat who could play the guilty role, someone to be designated the cause of all the problems, all the anguish for the future. Jaurès was that sort of symbol, a banner that had to be gotten rid off at all costs. Rosa Luxemburg’s and Karl Liebknecht’s deaths were demanded in November 1918 and obtained in January 1919. In the same way the bourgeois called for the death of Jaurès and got it on 31st July, 1914. Raoul Villain, the assassin of Jaurès, was recognised as a “patriot” and was acquitted on March 29 1919.

Jaurès went to the last pre-war meeting of the International Socialist Bureau in Brussels on 29th July 1914. After the meeting a public meeting was held with the leading speakers of the Socialist International. Jaurès took the floor and again talked of peace and arbitration between nations. He fulminated against a French government incapable of reasoning with Russia. He pointed his finger at the German, French, Russian and Italian leaders who would be swept away by the revolution that the war would provoke, as in 1871 and 1905. He addressed Rosa Luxemburg sitting alongside him on the tribune: “Allow me to salute the intrepid woman whose thought enflames the heart of the German proletariat34. Everyone in the room was overwhelmed by Jaurès’ speech and gave him a long standing ovation. But the talk about peace revealed the impotence of the International. What was lacking was the call to break with the bourgeoisie and with the opportunists who supported it. This was the meaning of Karl Liebknecht’s slogan: “The main enemy is in our country, it is our own bourgeoisie”. That was also the meaning of the calls to break with opportunism launched by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. War should be opposed not by peace but by revolution. Luxemburg, Lenin and Martov stipulated thus in their celebrated amendment at the International’s Stuttgart Congress of 1907: “In case war breaks out anyway, it is the duty [of the working class and its representatives in parliament] to intervene for its speedy termination and to strive with all their power to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule35.

It is not for us to speculate on what Jaurès would have done faced with the test of war had he survived. But it seems very likely that the French bourgeoisie or its secret services did not want to take the risk; they knew his weaknesses, but they also knew his strength, his moral uprightness, his hatred of war and his great reputation among the workers. Rosmer recalls that Jaurès began to distrust the pacifist and lying declarations of Poincaré36 and that some hours before his death, a rumour had it that Jaurès was ready to draft an editorial in L’Humanité which would be a new J’accuse!,37 denouncing the government and its warmongering, and calling on the workers to resist it. Before he could write the feared article, Jaurès was killed by Raoul Villain in circumstances which have nver really been clarified. The assassin, after passing the war in prison, was acquitted in proceedings for which the widow of Jaurès even had to pay the costs38.

With Jaurès dead, those who resisted the chauvinist turn of 1914 were at first a tiny minority. Most of the French leaders from the revolutionary syndicalists to the socialists took the bitter pill of betrayal. All proclaimed that the international working class should hold back the bloody arm of imperialism but added craftily: “On condition that the socialists of Germany do the same. In fact if we renounce the advance of the defence of the country it means that we will be encouraging the chauvinists of the enemy country”. With such reasoning, the workers’ International made no sense, nor did its resolutions against the war at the Stuttgart Congress of 1907, of Copenhagen, 1910 and Basel, 1912. It is true that the International was undermined from within and that it was to collapse like a house of cards when the order for mobilisation was pronounced. The Third International was soon raised on the ruins of the Second.

Jean Jaurès does not belong to our tradition, that of Marx and Engels, that of the Left in the Second and then the Third Internationals, the tradition of Left Communism. But with all his being Jaurès belonged to the workers’ movement, that is to say the only social force which still carries with it to this day the perspective of human emancipation. That is why we pay him homage and we can conclude with Trotsky: “Great men know how to disappear with time. Feeling his death approach, Tolstoy fled from the society that he renounced and went to die in a pilgrimage to an obscure village. Lafargue, epicurean and stoic, lived in an atmosphere of peace and meditation up to sixty-eight years of age, then decided that he had had enough and took poison. Jaurès, an athlete of ideas, fell in the arena while fighting against war, that most terrible scourge of humanity and of the human species. And he remains in the memory of posterity as the precursor, the prototype of superior man who must be born from sufferings, failures, hopes and struggle39.

Avrom E, August 18 2014

1 Leon Trotsky, My Life, Penguin Books, 1979, pp251-2.

2 Rosa Luxemburg, J’etais, je suis, je serai, Correspondence, 1914-19, Paris ed. Maspero, 1977, Letter to Sonia Liebknecht, 14.1.1918, p 325.

3 Cf. Rosa Luxemburg, Le Socialisme en France ,Marseilles/Toulouse, ed. Agone/Smolny, 2013, p. 163

4Manifesto of the Communist Party, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

5Considérants du Parti ouvrier français (1880) in Oeuvres I, Paris, ed. Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1963, p. 1538.

6Leon Trotsky, “Jean Jaurès” in Le Mouvement communiste en France, Paris, ed. de Minuet, 1967, p. 25.

7My Life, op.cit. P251.

8 Ibid., p252

9Jean Jaurès, “La socialisme de la Révolution française” (1890), in Jean Jaurès, Karl Kautsky, Socialism et Révolution française, Paris, ed. Demopolis, 2010, p.189.

10Karl Kautsky, “Jaurès et la politique francaise vis-a-vis de l’Eglise” (1903), idem, p.228.

11See the prefaces to the Communist Manifesto and the preface to Marx’s work, The class struggles in France, 1848-1850, where Engels explained why “history has shown us, and all those who thought in a similar way, to be wrong”. The clearest explanation that the historic tasks of one class cannot be assumed by another is given by Marx in The Cologne Communist Trial (Basel, 1853).

12For example in his book News From Nowhere, 1890.

13Woman in the past, present and future, 1891. See our series “Communism is not a good idea but a material necessity”, parts XII to XV in International Review nos. 84, 85, 86 and 88.

14The Radical Party or the Republican Party or Radical Socialist Party, was born in 1901 and held a central role in government in the 3rd Republic in particular in preparing for an alliance with the socialists (Emile Combes). It was also able to manage a provocation and hard repression against the working class under the auspices of Georges Clemenceau. The quote from Luxemburg comes from “Die sozialistische Krise in Frankreich”, published in Die Neue Zeit 1900/1901:

15Luxemburg, op.cit.

16“Eine taktische Frage”, Leipziger Volkszeitung, Nr.153, 6th July 1899

17On this issue see in particular our pamphlet Nation or Class.

18Georges Boulanger was a right-wing general and War Minister who gave his name to the “boulangiste” movement from 1889-91. Although the movement regrouped many from the proletarian left, these only served as a façade to Boulanger’s avowed anti-democratic intentions, which led the monarchists to give him their support. This finished by alarming the republican parties in power to the point where the movement was banned in 1889. Boulanger himself committed suicide in 1891.

19A colossal financial scandal around the collapse of the first attempt to build a canal through the Isthmus of Panama by a French company, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man who had been responsible for the construction of the Suez Canal. The company was shown to have paid substantial bribes to members of the government to win their support, while 85,000 small investors were ruined.

20 Manifesto of the Communist Party, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Chapter 4: Position of the communists in relation to the various existing opposition parties. Marx, Engels, Selected Works, Lawrence and Wishart, 1968.

21The two quotes are from Jean Jaurès, an article of 1915 in Leon Trotsky, Le Mouvement communiste en France (1919-1939). p. 32.

22Quoted in the review L’Histoire no. 397, March 2014, p.48.

23The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest essence for man – hence, with the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable (...)”: “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”

24 Quoted in the review L’Histoire no. 397, March 2014, p. 50.

25 This can be found in Paul Lafargue, Paresse et revolution, Ecrits, 1880-1911. Paris, ed. Tallandier. Coll. Texto, 2009, p. 212.

26 Alfred Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier pendant la premiere guerre mondiale, Paris, ed. d’Avron, 1993, tome I, p. 41.

27 L’unification Francaise, 1899 article in Rosa Luxemburg’s, Le Socialisme en France (1898-1912), Op. Cit., p. 81.

28It was generally known thereafter as the SFIO (Section française de l’Internationale ouvrière)

29 All the quotes from the unification congress come from Pierre Bezbakh, Histoire du socialisme francaise. Paris, ed. Larousse, 2005, p. 138.

30 Manifesto of the first Congress of the Communist International. Manifestes, theses et resolutions des quatre premiers congres de l’Internationale communiste, 1919-1923, Paris, ed. La Breche-Selio, 1984, p. 33.

31 Jean Jaurès, L’Armee nouvelle, quoted in Jean Jaurès, un prophete socialiste, Le Monde, hors-serie, March-April 2014, p. 51.

32 Speech of 1898 to the Chamber quoted in the review L’Hisotire, no 397, March 2014, p. 57.

33 Quoted in Alfred Rosmer, “Le Mouvement ouvrier pendant la premiere guerre mondial, Op. Cit. P. 487.

34Quoted by Paul Frolich, Rosa Luxemburg, Paris, ed. l’Hartmattan, 1991, p. 252.

35Quoted in Lenin’s struggle for a revolutionary International, Monad Press, p35.

36French President in 1914, leader of the French ruling class’ warmongering faction.

37From the title of Emile Zola’s devastating attack on the reactionary forces during the Dreyfus affair.

38Cf. our article 1914: how the bloodletting began. There is however another version of events given by Pierre Dupuy, Deputy and manager of the Petit Parisien founded by his father Jean Dupuy who sat in the government of Waldeck-Rousseau. According to Dupuy, Jaurès told him in confidence a few hours before his assassination: “He said that a little before he had learned from a reliable source that the German socialists of the workers’ international had unreservedly decided to obey the general mobilisation and that, in these conditions, it would be necessary that evening for him to redraft, for appearance the next day, an article in his paper, L’Humanité, titled “Forward!”. He considered in fact that in the face of this now definitive setback to all his efforts and those of his party to maintain peace it was now necessary to avoid giving the enemy of tomorrow the impression of a disunited and fearful France” (this witness is quoted in Le Monde, February 12 1958). But one can question what faith can be put in this witness who, as an ally of Poincaré, had every interest in making Jaurès out to be a posthumous patriot. For the details of the proceedings involving Raoul Villain see Domique Pagenelli, Il a tué Jaurès, La Table Ronde, 2014.

39 Leon Trotsky, Jean Jaurès in Le Mouvement communiste en France (1919-39), Op. Cit. P. 35.


Historic events: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: 



World War I