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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.