Jean Jaurès: A Portrait

Geoffrey Kurtz

As he ate with friends at a Paris café on the evening of July 31, 1914, Jean Jaurès was shot and killed. One day later, Germany declared war on Russia and the French government ordered a massive military mobilization. Three days later, Germany declared war on France. On the fourth day, the day that Germany invaded neutral Belgium and Great Britain declared war on Germany, the head of France’s trade union confederation rose at Jaurès’s funeral to say:

Friend Jaurès! You, the apostle of peace, of international harmony, depart at the hour when the most terrible epic of war that has ever bloodied Europe commences before a dismayed world. You were a victim of your ardent love for humanity. Your eyes will not see the red glow of the flames, the hideous jumble of corpses that the bullets have laid to rest on the ground.

Jaurès had worked tirelessly against the impending war, and his assassination marked the last moment at which hope for peace seemed possible. The First World War may have obliterated the nineteenth century’s hopes of endless and inevitable progress, but this is not the only kind of hope. If we reexamine the ideas Jaurès sought to realize through his scholarship and political involvement, we can retrace the structure of his hope, and we might find that his kind of hope is appropriate to our times.

Auguste-Marie-Joseph-Jean Jaurès was born to a modest bourgeois family on September 3, 1859, in the city of Castres. Jaurès’s hometown was a small provincial center of trade and manufacturing set in a rural agricultural region where heavy industry had only recently arrived. As a youth, Jaurès was a bright and determined student. He entered the Ecole Normale in 1879, graduating third in his class in 1881.

After four years of teaching philosophy at a lycée in Albi and then at the University of Toulouse, Jaurès plunged into politics. He was the youngest member of Parliament when he took his seat after the 1885 elections as a delegate for the region around Castres, Albi, and Toulouse. French parliamentary politics in the 1880s was fundamentally a conflict between republican advocates of rationalism and constitutional democracy and reactionaries nostalgic for monarchy and protective of Church prerogatives. Schooled in philosophy but ignorant of the inordinate complexity of French factional politics, unsure of anything but his commitment to the Republic and to the Rights of Man, Jaurès took a seat with the delegates of the largest republican faction, voted loyally with them, and attracted little attention to himself.

Seventy years after Jaurès entered Parliament, Ignazio Silone wrote about the “choice of comrades” that precedes political ideology, a choice that is “emotional, beyond logic” and that is only later subjected to rational examination. Jaurès made his choice of comrades during his first term in office. He quickly became impatient with the political caution and moral hollowness of the centrist republican politicians. There were a half-dozen socialists on the left fringe of Parliament, but Jaurès found them doctrinaire and simplistic. Exploring the district he represented, however, he met and talked with members of the miners’ and glass-makers’ unions. He traveled, asked questions, read, observed, and soon found himself drawn toward the labor movement. In 1886, he spoke at the congress of the miners’ federation. In 1887, he led a parliamentary fight for safety protections in the mines, and worked—without much success—to introduce pensions, accident and sickness insurance, and other social welfare measures that would benefit his working-class constituents.

When Jaurès lost his Parliamentary seat in 1889, he returned to Toulouse as a confirmed ally of labor. Alongside his involvement with local unions, he returned to teaching philosophy; he also served on the Toulouse city council, composed frequent articles for a journal of republican thought, and wrote the two theses—one in French and one in Latin—that would qualify him for a doctorate from the Sorbonne. His decision to take the side of the labor movement had consequences, and he now began to think them through. The philosophers of the Enlightenment and the authors of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen had convinced him that politics must be founded on the dignity and freedom of the individual person, of every individual person. He was a universalist, a humanist, a republican. He had taught his students at Albi that Immanuel Kant was “right to make disinterestedness the precondition of morality and to not subordinate man to a material and egoistic end like interest, one’s own happiness, or even a certain particular ideal of perfection.” Organized workers, however, spoke the language of conflict, disruption, and solidarity based on common experiences, and they increasingly looked beyond their immediate fights over wages and working conditions toward a vision of total social transformation, a vision of a cooperative and collective society they variously called “communism” or “socialism”. This was Jaurès’s puzzle: How could he reconcile universal norms and self-interested struggles, humanism and conflict, the Republic and class solidarity? How could he be both a liberal and a socialist?

All of Jaurès’s work from this point on was an effort to comprehend this tangle of commitments. His first doctoral thesis sought to reconcile the conceptual underpinnings of Kantian idealist liberalism and Marxist materialist socialism. He argued that the universe was constituted as an ongoing struggle to realize the unity of consciousness and matter. Thus, he wrote, the “battle” to enact the moral ideal of harmony and equality “is never won, and is never lost.” In his second thesis, he traced the roots of German socialism back through Hegel to Fichte, Kant, and Luther, arguing that the French Revolution’s notion of absolute individual liberty needed to be synthesized with the dialectical German idea that “collectivism” could be a means to individual freedom.

Jaurès was elected to Parliament again in 1893 in the wake of a massive ten-week miners’ strike in Carmaux, just north of Albi, which galvanized the local labor movement. Jaurès had given public support and behind-the-scenes advice to the strikers, and this time he ran for office as a labor tribune and as a socialist. Jaurès had confidence and fervor now. His oratorical fire and patient pursuit of socialist unity made him a natural leader among the fractious socialists swept into office that year.

Jaurès’s raw mixture of liberal and socialist ideas received its first major test five years later. In the fall of 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jew on the French Army’s General Staff, was arrested for espionage. He was quickly convicted and sentenced to exile in a military trial involving forged evidence, secret evidence, and other irregularities. Few people paid much attention, but after the novelist Emile Zola assailed the weak evidence against Dreyfus in his thunderous 1898 pamphlet J’accuse, the Dreyfus Affair became the dominant issue of the day. Persuaded of Dreyfus’s innocence, Jaurès soon became one of the most ardent and hard-working Dreyfusards, speaking in parliament and writing constantly about the case.

For most French socialists, this controversy over a bourgeois army officer seemed to be only an internal dispute within the ruling class. For Jaurès, who insisted that socialism was “the supreme affirmation of individual right,” an economistic understanding of class had to give way to something else, however. Since Dreyfus had been wrongly convicted, Jaurès wrote,

he is no longer either an officer or a bourgeois: by his excess of misfortune, he is stripped of all class character. He is no more than humanity itself, in the most extreme state of misery and despair that can be imagined...What a mockery to still count him among the privileged!

Workers organized not just because they knew their own material interests, Jaurès argued, but because they had gained consciousness of their rights. If socialism were to be a movement for rights, for justice, it could not ignore any instance of injustice—even if the victim were a bourgeois army officer. This idea of individual rights may have originated with bourgeois liberalism, Jaurès wrote in his monumental Histoire Socialiste (1789-1900), but it was a living idea, subject to new interpretations. The “molten rush of socialism that flows from the furnace of the [French] Revolution,” he insisted, must remain fluid:

We do not claim to freeze human society in the economic and social formulas that prevailed from 1789 to 1795…Too often bourgeois democratic parties limit themselves to collecting some fragments of cooled lava at the foot of the volcano, to gathering a few extinguished cinders around the furnace.

For liberalism to remain a living ideal, it must change form as conditions change, Jaurès wrote. If the labor movement understood itself in terms of the liberal idea of individual rights, it could pick up the standard the bourgeoisie had let fall, and it could infuse its own activities with moral purpose.

Jaurès convinced all but France’s most sectarian socialists to come together in defense of Dreyfus. This newfound left unity, however, crumbled quickly. In response to rumors of an impending right-wing coup, a group of centrist and center-left politicians—including the moderate socialist Alexandre Millerand—formed a broad coalition government united by little besides its members’ desire to preserve democratic institutions. Socialists who held an orthodox Marxist vision of uncompromising class struggle were furious. However important the existence of the republic might be, they complained, Millerand betrayed the working class when he sat in the cabinet with the same moderate republicans who had, a generation before, slaughtered the Paris Communards.

Across Europe, socialists fell into bitter debates about the strategic value of electoral politics and parliamentary reform. On the left, orthodox Marxists like Karl Kautsky in Germany and Jules Guesde in France insisted that socialism meant a revolutionary class struggle leading to a total transformation of society sometime in the near future, and that parliamentary politics could only be a tool for bringing that revolution closer. On the right, Eduard Bernstein wrote that “what is usually termed the final goal of socialism is nothing to me, the movement is everything,” and argued that socialists should look to the immediate interests of the labor movement as their guide.

Jaurès stepped beyond this dichotomy. The day-to-day struggle for electoral and parliamentary victories was crucial, he insisted, and the new willingness of socialist parties to pursue incremental reforms was a sign of growing strength, not of lost courage. Getting serious about reform, however, need not mean giving up the labor movement’s radical spirit. A reformist strategy did not require that socialists “counsel the proletariat to settle on the capitalist earth” and reduce “the collectivist or communist order [to] a remote paradise of which one dreams,” Jaurès proclaimed. Rather, the socialist paradise “could be present in [socialists’] very existence, if they had the feeling that each of their acts, each of their thoughts, each of their words correspond to it, echo it, and shape future events.” Socialists should not concern themselves with an apocalyptic transformation in the future, but should “live always in a socialist state of grace… working in each minute, in each hour” to bring the socialist ideal more fully into reality. Words like “communism” came to seem, in Jaurès’s speeches and writings, more like regulative principles than like institutional expectations. Socialism, for Jaurès, had come to be a politics of radical reform. Voting rights, unions, safeguards on civil liberties, social welfare measures, public and secular education, international law, worker-owned and state-owned firms could all be cobbled together in an ongoing struggle to bring the world closer to the ideal of universal human dignity and solidarity, and that ideal could guide and orient disparate reformist activities.  “Class” could be the rubric for organization, “humanity” the ethical commitment.

By 1905, Jaurès had become the acknowledged leader of French socialism, even though his radical reformism was a minority view within the new unified Socialist Party. He was a familiar and warmly admired figure throughout the movement: his solid peasant build, his square-cut beard, the disheveled clothing that suggested his devotion to the work of the movement and his disregard for personal glory, were as well known as his soaring and elaborate oratory. At no time did that oratory reach greater heights than in October 1912, as the Balkans erupted into war and the prospect of a Europe-wide Great War loomed large, when Jaurès took the rostrum at an international conference of socialists in Basel, Switzerland. “In the sound of the church bells that welcomed us, I heard a call to reconciliation,” he proclaimed.

It reminded me of the epigraph which Schiller placed at the beginning of his beautiful Song of the Bell: “Vivos voco, mortuos plango, fulgura frango…Vivos voco… I call the living to defend life against the monster that appears on the horizon! Mortuos plango...I mourn the innumerable dead laid low in the east, from whom a stench arrives to torment us. Fulgura frango…I will smash the thunderbolts of war even as they roil the stormclouds!

Since the French Socialist Party’s unification, Jaurès had been concerned above all with preventing war. If workers’ class interests could found a politics of universal human rights, he reasoned, perhaps citizens’ patriotic feelings could be harnessed to the principle of international solidarity. Jaurès rejected the argument that socialists’ commitment to international solidarity meant they had to be anti-patriotic. Patriotism, he argued, need not mean blind nationalism; it could mean a commitment to universalistic liberal and socialist principles, coupled with a realization that these principles could be enacted only within particular states. “The nation, and the nation alone,” he wrote, “can enfranchise all the citizens. Only the nation can furnish the means of free development to all.” Love for one’s own country, then, could mean love for that country’s potential to realize the human dream of freedom and equality. Patriotic attachments could serve as an “apprenticeship in collective life and in a broad humanistic sensibility.”

Jaurès held great hopes for the educative potential of this cosmopolitan patriotism, but he insisted that in order for those hopes to be realized, republics would need to become more egalitarian, more inclusive, and more deeply democratic. In 1911, he published L’Armée Nouvelle, a detailed proposal for a “new army” in which decentralized militias would replace standing armies and in which the officer corps would be opened to working-class candidates. Shorn of its elitist leadership structure and re-shaped to fit a purely defensive military strategy, conscious of itself as an extension of the citizenry rather than as a distinct caste with its own interests, the new army would institutionalize Jaurès’s cosmopolitan patriotism.

At the same time that he called on socialists to reconsider the value of patriotism, Jaurès took a bolder anti-war stand than did orthodox Marxists like Guesde. For Guesde and his allies, war was inevitable as long as capitalism remained, and active opposition to war was futile. Jaurès rejected this determinism. Capitalism and imperialism might tend to foster war, he argued, but specific wars could be averted through diplomacy or, if need be, through direct action by the labor movement. Thus, Jaurès argued forcefully that in the event of an aggressive war, socialists should call for a general strike. His stand was seen as traitorous radicalism by the Right and as naïve reformism by the Marxists. In the last weeks of his life Jaurès worked feverishly, attending peace conferences, addressing public rallies, and using his significant sway within the center-left governing coalition to push for more strenuous diplomatic efforts. War came anyway.

Failure marked Jaurès’s last years. The French Socialist Party achieved unity by marginalizing his conception of radical reform; his cosmopolitan patriotism proved no match for nationalism and militarism; his pacifism inspired his assassination. Many of his contemporaries rejected his liberal socialism because they found it insufficiently optimistic, out of tune with their certainty that history was on the side of human hopes. After the traumas of the twentieth century, however, we cannot share their teleological confidence. History no longer appears to be on the side of humanity, but human dignity can still be an ethical norm—something we pursue because it is right, whether or not it is written into history. When he refused to relegate socialism to the status of a future paradise, when he insisted that the ideal of justice be brought into tension with the practical necessities of political mobilization in the present, Jaurès spoke to our situation. Jaurès proposed that hope for human dignity in the modern world depends on whether the liberal idea of individual rights can be linked with the Marxist appreciation for social movements and political conflict, whether the liberal ideal can be extended to encompass a critique of the injustices we experience in day-to-day life, whether “class” can be understood as a mode of solidarity bringing together all people who experience injustice, and whether immediate attachments—whether to fellow workers or to fellow citizens—can become an “apprenticeship” in “a broad humanistic sensibility.” Socialism, as Jaurès understood it, finds a comrade in every person who seeks a world where no human being is treated merely as a means to an end. The battle to realize that world has certainly not been won; Jaurès reminds us that it has not been lost, either.