Jaurès Today: Socialism and Democracy from the Bastille to Barcelona

To accompany his important new translation and abridgment of Jean Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution, we asked Mitch Abidor to reflect on the relevance of Jaurés’ writing to contemporary political struggle.

‘During a recent visit to New York Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, the left-wing party that Jaures ASHOTFRgrew out of the Indignados, and which has become a rising force in Spain, was asked – or rather harangued – about the revolutionary era we’re now living in. Iglesias refused to accept this characterisation. Similarly, he later refused to condemn Keynesian measure out of hand for saving capitalism, pointing out that in his country people were hungry, jobless, and homeless and couldn’t wait for socialism to have their problems solved. Iglesias’ refusal to play the game of “I’m more left than you could ever be” was impressive in its willingness to accept the reality of a period where achieving any positive reform is an uphill battle, and I felt that perhaps the time was coming for the return of Jean Jaurès.

Jaurès’ masterpiece, A Socialist History of the French Revolution, is the rarest of books: a serious work of history that was also intended to be an inspiration and guide to action. Jaurès is clear about this right from the start – his book is, after all, entitled A Socialist History of the French Revolution; his parti pris is proudly brandished on the cover. And once the book is opened, the first paragraph contains a political program: “We want to recount the events that occurred between 1789 and the end of the nineteenth century from the socialist point of view for the benefit of the common people, workers, and peasants. We view the French Revolution as an immense and admirably fertile event, but we don’t see it as something eternally fixed that leaves the historian with nothing else to do but explain its consequences. The French Revolution indirectly prepared the advent of the proletariat. It realised the two essential conditions for socialism: democracy and capitalism.” This is a book to read, reflect upon, and be guided by.

Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution serves a similar purpose, but though both books present a vision of historical events as a model for action, Jaurès’ book, which went untranslated for over 110 years, is more nearly one from which those living in democracies can learn. Trotsky’s political and historical vision, born of an autocratic society and the fight against it, tempered in a clandestine struggle under the Tsar and by the bloody civil war that followed the taking of power, served to inspire its readers to treat insurrection as the method for bringing on the advent of socialism. A large part of the tragedy of the left has been its attraction to such a vision in societies where it no longer applies – if, indeed, it ever did. On the other hand, Jaurès saw the French Revolution as a fight to install democracy in its widest form, which would then bring about a socialist world. There is less romance attached to such a formula, but it has far more potential effectiveness. And it is precisely this that serves as the lodestar for the activities of Podemos and Syriza, which have accepted that in today’s Europe change will come at the ballot box and not the barricades.

However important democracy is in his eyes, Jaurès didn’t discount violence and harshness as means, and defended many instances of them during the great events of 1789-1795, but his opinion was nuanced. He first issued a warning to the ruling class of his day:  “O leaders of today: think on these words and make sure your laws and morality are as humane as possible, so that you will benefit from this on the inevitable day of revolution!” But he also spoke to the workers, warning them that if they were driven to resort to violence that it was nothing either admirable or, by its nature, liberating: “[P]roletarians, remember that cruelty is a holdover from servitude, for it attests to the fact that the barbarism of the oppressive regime is still present in you. Remember that in 1789, when the working-class crowd momentarily surrendered itself to a cruel and murderous intoxication that it was the first communist, the first of the proletariat’s great emancipators, [Babeuf] who had a heavy heart.”

(Jaurés refused the simplistic dichotomy of violent and non-violent struggle.)

Jaurès’s Marxism was eclectic and selective, and in reality he was far more a Jacobin than he was a Marxist. But his way of seeing Jacobinism as an inspiration is one that should be taken to heart. The French socialists were the heirs of the Revolution, but heirs who didn’t tie themselves to out of date formulas: “In an important sense…we are the party of democracy and the Revolution. But we haven’t shackled and frozen it. We don’t claim to have fixed human society in the economic and social formulae that prevailed between 1789 and 1795 and which responded to living and economic conditions that are no more.” Democracy and the Revolution were one, not Terror and the Revolution; terror there was, and circumstances drove the revolutionaries to it, but this is not what makes for revolution, rather democracy and the opportunity for the workers to turn it to their use.

This again is what we see in the actions of Podemos and Syriza today. However deeply they feel their desire for a socialist Spain or Greece, they have learned that the old formulas no longer apply. They haven’t “fixed human society in the economic formulae that prevailed” in the past, they have learned from the failures of their radical predecessors and are living in the here and now, taking from the past what can be used while striving to make life better for their citizens, using democracy to accomplish their ends. As Jaurès poetically termed it, “the burning metal must be poured into new molds.” The new molds have turned out to be a recasting, not of what the young anarchist Victor Serge, writing as Le Rétif, called “the revolutionary illusion,” that of Trotsky, but a bringing up to date of the radical meliorism of Jean Jaurès.

There is no denying that Jaurès showed himself to be a poor prophet when, in the first years of the twentieth century, he wrote in the Socialist History that “a common spirit now moves the socialists and the proletariat. Socialism is no longer divided into hostile and powerless sects.” When he wrote this the French socialists, after years of debate, had just merged into one party, the more radical wing headed of French socialism emerging victorious in the dispute over ministerialism – the entry of socialists into bourgeois government. Jaurès had accepted the verdict and supported the new line. His reasonableness, his willingness to accept a democratic vote that rejected his ideas should have served as a model for the left. Instead factionalism, sectarianism, ad hominem attacks, and finally physical suppression sullied the word “socialism”.

If it’s not too late, socialists must take into account the dual methodological stars that guided Jaurès’ path as a historian and militant. He wrote that “our interpretation of history will be both materialist with Marx and mystical with [Jules] Michelet.” Jaurès is not simply talking about historical method here.  Rather, he is talking about a way to view events and men in a more well-rounded way. No volume of history is exempt from judgments, but when Jaurès says he wrote this history under the influence of Marx and Michelet he is saying two things. He is saying that he will examine events and players from a class point of view, and that by leavening this with the work of Michelet something important is added. He applies Michelet’s almost novelistic method, its vastness and sweep, while avoiding Michelet’s grating moralistic point of view. At the same time, he refuses to reduce the revolutionaries to slaves of their economic interests. Rather he places his characters at the intersection of the personal and the economic and political, never judging the actors one dimensionally. The actors of the French Revolution are presented as flesh and blood human beings, and he judges their acts by the yardstick of human freedom and in accordance with the possibilities of the moment.

Jaurès’ depiction of the Revolutions’ dealings with the church provides a perfect example of his refusal of dogmatism. Perhaps no issue was as important to Jaurès as that of the separation of Church and State, of driving religion from daily life, from political life. Many of his controversial positions on Socialist participation in government were based on his desire to prevent the Church from dominating French political and social life, even if it meant sitting in a cabinet with the class enemy. And yet when he writes of the Revolution’s treatment of the issue he is willing to accept that if it did not all that should be done, it did all that could be done. He was willing to accept partial measures in preparation for the grand day.


A similar spirit can be seen in the program of Podemos, which rather than calling for the cancellation of Spain’s external debt is instead advocating a renegotiating of its terms. In the same way, but with far more dangerous immediate stakes, Syriza, too, is negotiating Greece’s debt. Some on the left would prefer that both parties simply take a harder stand, but both the Spaniards and the Greeks – in the spirit of Jaurès, though obviously not his disciples – see that it’s necessary to ensure that their acts don’t run too far ahead of the people or lead to immediate dire consequences. Sometimes a reformist act is a revolutionary one.

Too many people looking back on the revolution view it from an Olympian socialist point of view. Reading some left wing histories of the Revolution – (the most glaring case being Daniel Guerin’s Class Struggle in the First Republic) the men and women of 1789-1794 are condemned for not carrying out the Bolshevik Revolution. Jaurès, from within his essentially humanist perspective, views Robespierre, Danton, Marat from the standpoint of one who sees of the challenges they faced at that time and in that place and how their revolution was something entirely new in the world:

 “What must never be forgotten when judging these men is that the problems fate imposed on them were formidable and probably beyond human strength. Perhaps it wasn’t possible for one generation alone to bring down the ancien régime, create new laws and rights, raise an enlightened and proud people from the depths of ignorance, poverty, and misery, fight against an international league of tyrants and slaves, and to put all passions and forces to use in this combat while at the same time ensuring the evolution of the fevered, exhausted country towards normal order and well-ordered freedom. … The great workers of revolution and democracy who labored and fought more than a century ago are not accountable to us for a labor that required several generations to be accomplished. To judge them as if they should have brought the drama to a close, as if history was not going to continue after them, is both childish and unjust.”

It is this modesty, this willingness to accept that people act as they can, and that to be in error is not necessarily to be in bad faith, that must become a part of left wing activity and that can be learned from A Socialist History of the French Revolution. No one can say with certainty that they hold the answer to any question, and it was Jaurès’ genius to have applied that notion to an event too often reduced to crude pantomime. Enormous problems overwhelmed men as great as the French revolutionaries, far greater than those confronting us today. If, more than 100 years after the event, Jaurès is chary of casting anathema on the French revolutionaries, how much more so must we be in confronting our problems today.’


Mitchell Abidor’s books include anthologies of the anarchist writings of Victor Serge, on the propagandists of the deed, the Paris Commune, the left of the French Revolution, and French anarchist individualists, as well as the novella A Raskolnikov by Emmanuel Bove. He lives in Brooklyn.


A Socialist History of the French Revolution is available to buy from Pluto Books here.

One thought on “Jaurès Today: Socialism and Democracy from the Bastille to Barcelona

  1. I read Jaures’ work, but the book that taught me the most about this period is Pyotr Kropotkin’s “The Great French Revolution”, written around 1928 . This was the first time I read about this from a real class struggle point of view . And then I discovered the true avant-garde : the Insurrectional Paris Commune and its boiling heart, the Gravilliers district, and true idealists such as Leclerc, Varlet, Roux and my absolute hero François Boissel, the first Socialist thinker but also a member of the Gravilliers.

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