When you travel through France, there’s one name that appears most in public space ― on streets, schools and metro stations.
Not Jeanne d’Arc, Napoleon, or even World War II resistance leader and later president Charles de Gaulle. No, the name you can pretty safely bet you’ll find on some sign in the next sleepy village is that of Jean Jaures.
Jaures was France’s most famous socialist leader and deputy, a tenacious and passionate fighter for workers’ rights and against war, anti-Semitism, clericalism and colonialism.
Trying to explain his huge impact, the young Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky said in 1909: “As an orator he is incomparable and has met no comparison … it is not his rich technique nor his enormous, miraculous sounding voice nor the generous profusion of his gestures but the genius's naivete of his enthusiasm which brings Jaures close to the masses and makes him what he is.”
One hundred years ago, on the evening of July 31, an extreme right-wing nationalist called Villain shot Jaures dead in Montmartre’s Cafe du Croissant. Jaures, accompanied by the editorial staff of l’Humanite, the socialist daily he had founded in 1904, was having dinner before finishing the next day’s edition.
The edition was to focus on the latest diplomatic manoeuvres preceding World War I and the desperate last-minute bid by the Socialist International to stop it. When the paper came out, Jaures’ murder was the main news.
Novelist Romain Rolland later wrote: “The death of a single human being can mean a great battle lost for all humanity: the murder of Jaures was one such disaster.”
Ever since 1909, Jaures had followed the European powers drift to war with rising concern. At the November 1912 special anti-war congress of the Socialist International in Basel, he had drafted the manifesto with other European socialist leaders, including German counterpart August Bebel.
The manifesto declared: “If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, supported by the coordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau, to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective.”
In May 1913, as part of this campaign, Jaures addressed one of the largest crowds ever gathered in Paris at a 150,000 strong meeting against the introduction of three-year military service.
What were to prove to be his last days were spent in a desperate bid to stop the French government from fulfilling its treaty obligations to Tsarist Russia, which would drag France into war with Germany.
On the night of his murder, he was planning an editorial for l’Humanite committing the Socialist Party to active opposition to the war. Other party leaders, like Jules Guesde, were to vote for French war credits and participate in the French war cabinet on the grounds of “national defence”.
There is no doubt that had Jaures not been murdered, he would have been, along with the “lefts” of the now-collapsed Socialist International ―such as Trotsky, V.I. Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht ― an active opponent of the slaughter of World War I.
However, within the French and international socialist movements, Jaures was certainly not viewed as “left”, or even a Marxist. He saw socialism emerging on the basis of the democratic gains of the French Revolution, and as the completion of those gains.
As the working class became better organised and more aware of its own goals, Juares saw it winning a majority within the institutions that had sprung from the Revolution, transforming the bourgeois republic into a “social republic”.
The party he headed, the French Socialist Party, embodied this approach. At the 1904 Amsterdam congress of the Socialist International, Jaures was one of three delegates who voted against the resolution condemning the revisionism of revolutionary Marxism being pushed by German socialist Eduard Bernstein.
Yet Jaures’s life was the journey of a remarkable champion of the socialist cause, a journey first to discover himself as a socialist, and then to help build the socialist movement on the basis of the real struggles of workers and poor peasants.
Although his approach produced clashes with the Marxist wing in French socialism (led by Guesde) andthe International, his record as a fighter for working-class and democratic advances was unparalleled.
Son of an impoverished family eking out an existence on a small plot of land near Castres in the southern department of Tarn, Jaures was such a brilliant student that by the age of 26, he had already topped the class in the elite Ecole Normale Superieur, become a university lecturer and been elected as France’s youngest MP.
Not bad for someone who called himself a “cultured peasant” (and often spoke Occitan, not French, when back home in Castres).
Yet he began political life with only vaguely progressive ideas (a “liberal republican”), who later said: “When I got into politics in 1885 I only knew two things: the republic on one side, monarchist and clerical reaction on the other. I didn’t even know the names of the various socialist organisations that were fighting against the bourgeois republic.”
Over the next seven years, the motor force of his personality ― his searing hatred of injustice ― helped Jaures develop his politics. After a few months in the national congress, he was writing of his fellow “supporters” of liberty, equality and fraternity: “We sit side by side but already a gulf separates us.”
Jaures's transforming experience was his involvement in the 1892 miners’ strike in Tarn department. This was provoked by the refusal of the aristocratic mine-owner to grant a miner who had been elected mayor some unpaid time off work to do his new job.
Always a prolific writer on the life and struggles of the workers and poor peasantry, Jaures’s coverage of the strike helped the miners win. The miners asked Jaures to stand as “their MP”, which he did with success. He held the seat, with the exception of the 1898-1902 term, until his death.
Then, glassworkers in Carmaux were locked out by a boss who preferred not to produce rather than deal with “difficult” union delegates.
The response of the workers was to build their own cooperative glassworks in nearby Albi. Jaures acted as overall strategist for the project and organised the “crowdfunding” through the Toulouse Despatch and other pro-labour papers.
Overcoming huge difficulties, the glassworks lasted as a workers' cooperative until 1931 (and even today produces as a specialist high-quality unit within the Saint-Gobain group).
Jaures laid great stress on the value of such experiences for developing workers’ self-confidence and pride, and for laying the beginnings of an alternative production network.
In argument with Guesde ― to be repeated later with Lenin and others at the 1910 Copenhagen congress of the International ― he stressed that “the workers have to make out the possibility of a different society”.
Yet, contrary to claims by Guesde that he idealised cooperatives, Jaures warned cooperative members: “Don’t delude yourselves. It’s not enough for you to have made one cell: if the whole beehive isn’t built according to the same plan, the robber hornets will soon come to steal your honey.
“One must act across the whole of France; political power must be conquered, which the proletariat will use so that things like … the Albi glassworks can become the norm everywhere.”
Jaures’ next clash with Guesde was over the 1898 Dreyfus case, which began when Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of leaking military secrets to the German embassy in Paris.
Initially hesitant about getting involved in defence of a member of the armed forces, Jaures came to see winning complete exoneration for Dreyfus as a crucial blow against monarchism, militarism and anti-Semitism.
For Guesde, the fight between dreyfusards and anti-dreyfusards consuming all France was a squabble between different sections of the ruling class, with no relevance to working class struggle.
Jaures’ political reading was that a huge military-monarchist-threat was hanging over the republic. Having lost his seat in 1898, he came to support the participation of the socialist Millerand in a (capitalist) republican government, on the grounds that it was needed to keep monarchist reaction out of power.
This mistaken stance, and the other differences, occupied a large part of the debate at the 1904 Amsterdam congress of the Socialist International. It rejected outright any participation in capitalist governments.
Jaures accepted this position, opening the way to the 1905 unification of the two trends as the French Section of the Workers International (SFIO).
Jaures made other lasting contributions, including helping drive the separation of the French state and Catholic church in 1907, opposition to French colonial rule in Morocco, a plan for a strictly defensive people’s army (later studied by Ho Chi Minh), an invaluable “socialist history” of the French revolution, and insightful reflections on nation-building in Latin America.
Would he have joined the Communist Third International had he not been murdered? It’s impossible to say, but such is his stature ― reinforced on the centenary of his death as new generations discover him ― that all left political trends in France, from the neoliberal Socialist Party government to the Left Front, claim Jaures as guide.
Addressing the fourth congress of the Communist International in 1922, Trotsky said that “we will combat the survivals and prejudices of what is called the Jaures position in the French workers’ movement”, even as “we can say today that every revolutionary party, every oppressed people, every oppressed working class … can claim Jaures, his memory, his example, and his person, for our own.”
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]