Δευτέρα, 20 Αυγούστου 2012

What would Jaurès do?

Julian Wright

Christophe Prochasson 
280pp. Flammarion. €19.30.
978 2 0812 4600 3 

Jean Jaurès 
Le passage au socialisme, 1889–1893 
Edited by Madeleine Rebérioux and Gilles Candar 
748pp. Fayard. €35.50.
978 2 2136 1623 0

460pp. Pagala/l’Harmattan. €42.
978 2 3590 3007 5 

N° 200, 2011/2: “Pourquoi Jaurès?”
200pp. Société d’études jaurésiennes

 The Times Literary Supplement: 2 May 2012
Jean JauresJean Jaures
What would Jaurès do?” The message printed on the mugs at the French Socialist Party’s summer university in 2010 echoed the slogan of Evangelical Christians, “What would Jesus do?”. In the chaotic and controversial recent history of the French Centre Left, the question resonates as an ironic prompt to politicians. Are political leaders on the Left up to the moral stature of the great socialist leader of the early twentieth century? Do they remember his broader humanist mission? Jean Jaurès (1859–1914) remains a totem – though a poorly appreciated one – precisely because his physical personality remains such a strong part of his political presence. What would he do; not what would he think, or say: the formulation is apposite for Jaurès. Even in his most subtle political statements, Jaurès was a man of action. His was the socialism of a brilliant philosopher; but one who sweated profusely at the tribune of the Chamber of Deputies, caught up in the emotion of his own political activity.

Why do French socialists, in this spring of elections and uncertainty, remain fascinated by Jaurès?
After brilliant studies at the École Normale Supérieure, Jean Jaurès pursued a career as a schoolmaster and passed his doctorate in philosophy; but he was rapidly successful in politics, winning a seat in the 1885 election in his mid-twenties. He lost his seat, but re-entered parliament in 1893 with the label of republican socialist, the representative of the Tarn, a department in south-west France with important mining and glass-working concerns that would help to define his political engagement. He was rapidly seen as the outstanding political leader of the far Left; his powerful oratory and dogged persistence in attacking injustice gave him national and international status – most importantly, during the Dreyfus Affair. He again lost his seat in 1898, and devoted some of the next few years to writing a monumental history of the French Revolution for a popular, left-wing audience. But he continued to dominate the socialist movement and returned to parliament in 1902, supporting the government of the radical and anticlerical leader Émile Combes, and becoming vice-president (Deputy Speaker) of the Chamber of Deputies. From 1905, he was the keystone of the long-awaited project of socialist unity. Because his humanitarian mission for social justice involved him not just in reaching out across a divided Left in French politics, but also in campaigning for international peace, he acquired notoriety and a place in the French national memory unrivalled among other left-wing heroes. In the evening of July 31, 1914, after a day spent in close debate with ministers about the possibilities for international negotiation to avoid a European war, he was dining at the Café du Croissant in the rue Montmartre with fellow journalists on the paper he had founded a decade earlier, L’Humanité, when a deranged fantasist, Raoul Villain, shot and killed him.

Why do French socialists, in this spring of elections and uncertainty, remain fascinated by Jaurès? His hold over the left-wing imagination is not easy to fathom. In the first place, left-wing memories of Jaurès are surprisingly partial; the Left almost seems more concerned with protecting the Jaurès trademark than studying him in detail. Nicolas Sarkozy cheerfully played on this during the 2007 presidential campaign, invoking Jaurès and a later socialist leader, Léon Blum, frequently in speeches. Today, left-wing leaders are trying to make sure their hero is more firmly anchored within their own political rhetoric. There is something of a Jaurès publishing industry developing around this. Short pamphlets containing extracts of Jaurès’s better-known articles and speeches appear regularly, and one has even been specifically addressed to the 2012 presidential candidates (their responses can be read at www.jaurescandidat2012.com). François Hollande, the Socialist candidate for the presidency, has himself felt moved to write a detailed letter covering a number of the big “Jaurès themes”: peace and Europe; tolerance and anti-racism; a justice system that moves away from violence; the ever controversial French theme of laïcité (secularism); social reform and education. The engagement with Jaurès is seen now as an essential reference if the Left is to avoid the humiliating situation of having its weightiest intellectual references deployed against it. Hollande, along with other left-wing leaders, including his former partner Ségolène Royal, has leapt at the opportunity to bask in the reflected light of Jaurès; though statements such as “The current President-candidate [Sarkozy] will wind up by saying that Jaurès was responsible for the 2011 crisis” simply perpetuate the impression that much of the Jaurès worship of the Left is too presentist. The great historian Madeleine Rebérioux, who combined left-wing activism with outstanding historical scholarship, insisted that to read Jaurès one must first of all place him in his context. There is now a powerful academic re- examination of Jaurès under way, frequently developed by historians with clear left-wing leanings. The Jaurès of the politicians remains, however, a more shadowy, abstract figure.
One of the features that makes Jaurès so interesting to the French Left is that he never took ministerial office. This makes him something of a comforter to activists whose enthusiasm for the world-changing capacities of the Left is constantly frustrated by the experience of government. Yet Jaurès was a politician of huge experience, adept in local administration, and heavily involved in developing the law of Separation of Church and State in 1905, a process which had less to do with anticlerical posturing than with practical political negotiation. That this political titan, so dominant in parliament, party congresses and international politics, should be seen as an apolitical saint, says something about the sense of lassitude engendered by the managerialism of modern left-wing politics that has prevailed since François Mitterrand.
The engagement with Jaurès is essential if the Left is to avoid the humiliating situation of having its weightiest intellectual references deployed against it.
This lassitude, and its accompanying moral pessimism, is the subject of Christophe Prochasson’s timely essay. From the colossal sulk of Lionel Jospin after 2002, when he left the Socialist Party leaderless following his humiliation in the first round of the presidential elections, to the family feud of Ségolène Royal and François Hollande (they kept the break-up of their relationship secret during her run for President in 2007, though cameras trained on the party headquarters caught them in a furious face-to-face meeting after the ballot), to the recent humiliation of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, left-wing historians and commentators are tormented by episodes that must, indeed, make them ask: “can you see Jaurès doing this?”. But the lassitude has deeper roots. The left-wing electorate hates hypocrisy. As one young intern put it, during an interview about Royal’s tilt at the presidency in 2007, “she’s a bourgeoise”. Prochasson is right: the fact that nobody would say this of a right-wing candidate should make left-wing politicians think harder about the importance of political sincerity to left-wing political culture. There is a clear contrast with Jaurès: in the 1890s, Jaurès’s middle-class roots were of greater concern to his right-wing opponents than to his electors, who knew him best as the man who fronted up in strikes and lock-outs, speaking in dangerous situations, jostled by the gendarmerie.
Prochasson argues that the Second World War cast the historical reflections of the Left in a quasi-theological framework, seeking the spiritual and moral causes of evil in contemporary society. This moralizing atmosphere left no room for a positive reflection on socialist experience. The Left remains strangely puzzled by 1968, Prochasson argues, and entirely uncertain what to make of the Mitterrand years. Ultimately, the problem stems from a refusal to take the question of morality seriously. Instead of morality, we have an empty moralism, which fills political discourse with vague-sounding echoes of Third Republic rhetoric:
“Now that they have stopped believing in the great cataclysm, left-wing men and women must, here and now, take up a socialism that is inscribed in the immediate context of their behaviour and their moral actions . . . Jaurès said no less . . . : “I myself ask socialists not to give me the date of socialism’s triumph – it’s impossible to determine; I tell them to live each day in a socialist state of grace, that is working constantly, each minute, each hour, for the coming of socialism, by devoting to it all the effort, the action, the strength of their thought and their life.” . . . Jaurès knew that morality without politics and without rights will always tip into the category of hollow discourse.”
Prochasson wants to ask deeper questions about the problem of morality in politics. Here, again, the French Left needs to reconsider its history: the Dreyfus Affair is not simply about the defence of republican institutions; it is – now as in 1898 – a lesson in the importance of courage in politics; and a lesson in how to make political tactics and strategies subservient to high moral imperatives.
Rediscovering a Jaurès who sits at the heart of this sort of re-moralization of left-wing history involves two processes. The first of these is nobly led by scholars such as Gilles Candar, like Prochasson a former student of Madeleine Rebérioux and, like Prochasson and Rebérioux, heavily involved in the Société d’études jaurésiennes. This first process involves reassessing the daily development of Jaurès’s ideas and activity, which the Oeuvres complètes will allow us to appreciate much more fully than ever before. The second process, however, is harder, and further from our reach. It involves re-engaging with a more flesh-and-blood Jaurès, a man who did not just write inspiring articles and give barnstorming performances in the Chamber of Deputies, but a real politician, who had an appetite for politics to match his appetite for good food.
Jaurès’s complete works, published by Fayard under the auspices of the Société d’études jaurésiennes, are appearing slowly. Volume II (the sixth out of eighteen planned) covers the period of the “passage to socialism, 1889–1893”. It introduces a man who is heavily involved in practical political administration in Toulouse, while pursuing his career as a teacher and completing his doctoral thesis. During this period, Jaurès steadily outlined a definition of socialism that rose above the “little chapels” of the French Left (as they remain known), a fully republican socialism that could take a global view of its historic mission. Indeed, the volume, neatly and succinctly introduced by Gilles Candar, could be seen as an epitome of that Jaurésian definition of socialist militancy: it is by flowing to the sea that the stream is faithful to its source. So the leading articles – many from the great journal La Dépêche de Toulouse, to which Jaurès contributed for many years – outline his developing socialism and focus on ideological questions; but they are married with others that address real working-class issues, rooted in a knowledge base that, with his academic background, Jaurès made it his constant business to develop empirically and rigorously. Already the passion of his encounter with mining communities in the south-west is made clear, as is his interest in primary education, professional education and provincial culture. All these activities are so many strands of a life filled with purpose, that of social justice. Always, the mastery of a local detail drew Jaurès back to his theme, but it was that understanding of specific social concerns that drove his theme forward.
This volume contains a particularly important text, one which continues to startle some of Jaurès’s readiest admirers. In this major unpublished article on socialism and the divine force in human society, he addressed a theme of great complexity. Jaurès conceded fully that, in its militant phase, socialism must fight against organized religion, wherever this is ranged on the side of oppression and injustice. He would take up the cudgels himself, during his support for the Combes ministry between 1902 and 1905; but we can now see just how subtle his approach to these issues actually was. As Candar emphasizes, Jaurès was ever concerned to engage with other minds, from other parts of the political spectrum, that sought to open their doctrines more broadly. Perhaps inspired by an initial encounter with the work of the social Catholic Albert de Mun, Jaurès believed, in 1891, that it was possible to contextualize the necessary anticlerical campaign of the far Left, opening it to larger discussions of the nature of humanity.
Other texts being brought to wider attention complement the work of the editors of the Oeuvres. Of particular importance is the full account of the trial of Jaurès’s assassin, Raoul Villain, held in early 1919. The document cast light on how the myth was constructed after the First World War. The tension and emotion of the trial were such that the very shape of the Left and its future historical reflections were in part laid down there, as the civil party, prosecuting Villain, developed its argument around a moral defence of Jaurès. Joseph Paul-Boncour, a high-class lawyer, reformist socialist and future Président du Conseil, developed his case with the assumption that the trial would hardly go in Jaurès’s favour, in the atmosphere of nationalist resurgence, unless they could explain how Jaurès had sought to defend his own country through his peace campaign. One after another, left-wing luminaries attested to the great man’s belief in national defence through a popular militia, inspired by the revolutionary armies of 1793. Indeed, the answer to the question “what would Jaurès do?” was much on the court’s mind, as some witnesses claimed he would, following the German invasion, have thrown in his lot with the Union Sacrée, supporting a government of different political colours by taking a ministerial portfolio. This same question was hotly disputed after the war, as the Communist Party sought to reclaim an anti-ministerialist Jaurès. The partisan acquittal of Villain was like a blow to the heart of Jaurès’s old colleagues, a shock only reinforced by the splitting of the party in 1920, into Communist and Socialist factions.
But what about that flesh-and-blood Jaurès, the man who, while being a great humanitarian, was also a politician to his fingertips? In the absence of serious archives that would allow us to examine the relationships between Jaurès and his closest advisers (his correspondence was hasty, sketchy and never subject to anything like the most basic secretarial control; most of his papers have vanished), we have much less understanding of how he behaved as a politician. Charles Péguy notoriously attacked the left-wing idolization of Jaurès: he contested the image of the philosopher-politician, the intellectual of uncontestable moral authority. And in a sense, Péguy was right, in that Jaurès’s political ambition remains poorly understood; but to document his political dealings even-handedly is extremely difficult. His closest supporters are barely remembered by history; along with the absence of archives, there is the neglect of his colleagues, minor politicians, reformist socialists who have been left behind by a historiographical trend that positioned itself much further to the Left. How Jaurès dovetailed the international concerns of a Socialist movement whose most powerful representatives were German, with a native French movement that remained divided and quarrelsome, cannot be explained without a systematic examination of his own use of a wide range of the political arts, supported by the iron-willed committee work of his political allies.
His naivety often prevented him from even noticing the calumnies of right-wing journalists.
Indeed, sources for a more personal Jaurès intime are not entirely lacking. The literary historian Georges Renard knew Jaurès well in the mid-1890s. Renard, a friend of Jaurès’s rival Alexandre Millerand, observed him closely during the summer of 1895 and drew a holiday sketch of the man and his family that rings true in many particulars. The account is unpublished; it forms part of the compendious Renard papers at the Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris. Renard describes visiting the Chamber of Deputies during a session in which Jaurès was present; while not speaking, he would sit listening intently, his mouth moving silently, chewing the words of the orator, as if memorizing them by physical repetition. The account contains wonderful descriptions that bring the naive, almost childlike qualities of Jaurès to the fore: how is it that so many historians have tried to describe the development of French socialism in this formative period – when, led by Millerand and Jaurès, the reformist strand of French socialism began to make an impact on national debate – without dealing with the story of a dinner at Bessoulet, the Jaurès family home in the Tarn, featuring both leaders – and an abundance of flies? Millerand, correct, prim, after remonstrating with his voluble friend several times, snatched the wine bottle from him, so that he could look after the cork himself and prevent the inflow of insects.
Renard’s narrative bears out the account given by the witnesses at Villain’s trial: Jaurès’s disinterestedness and lack of vanity were complete. One particular story emphasizes both his straightforwardness and his appetite: conservative papers dressed up the tale of a meeting between socialist journalists in late 1895 in Toulouse as a great banquet. “It says here we had partridges and asparagus”, said Jaurès, “but I love partridges! Why didn’t I get any?” His naivety often prevented him from even noticing the calumnies of right-wing journalists. Later, his colleagues at L’Humanité feared for his safety because he simply could not be brought to see the point of personal precautions. Pierre Renaudel, on to whom Jaurès collapsed after being shot in the head, recalled this with special bitterness at the trial in 1919.
The historian Marion Fontaine insisted recently that the Left should try, before deciding whether to think with, against or without Jaurès . . . to think! If Jaurès’s inspiration is good for anything, it must be that thinking, with or without the voluminous intellectual armoury he himself had to hand, is worthwhile in politics. But it was the physicality of this thinking that made him so important in French history. His political vision came alive because of his militant action. He knew politics like the back of his hand, better than he knew the library or the classroom. Above all, he had energy. He would do more than anyone else, more energetically, because this was what it meant to be a real politician. He was as politically active and energetic when a Toulouse councillor in 1890 as when he was vice-president of the Chamber in 1902; and he spoke as energetically during the Dreyfus Affair, when he had lost his seat, as he did during his support of the Combes ministry and his subsequent debates with Clemenceau. Jaurès set an example of political energy that never let up whatever his personal position and circumstances. The battering-ram head, the sweating orator, the physique of a prop forward – it was Jaurès’s physical politics that gave his vision its impact. This flesh-and-blood Jaurès will serve the French Left better today than the republican rhetorician of recent political campaigns.
  • Julian Wright is Senior Lecturer in History at Durham University and a co-editor of the journal French History. His books include The Regionalist Movement in France, 1890–1914: Jean-Charles Brun and French political thought, 2003.

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