In histories of French socialism, Jules Guesde often appears as a whipping boy. Though he founded the country’s first socialist party (the Parti ouvrier, in 1882) and was perhaps France’s first bona fide Marxist, he is frequently blamed for many of the French left’s congenital shortcomings: that it is too Manichean, too theoretically unsophisticated (at least as far as its leaders are concerned), too reticent to govern, too ouvriériste. Guesde, one might say, was the original vulgar Marxist. The appeal of Jean-Numa Ducange’s new study is that it manages, without radically challenging the prevailing view, to situate Guesde’s activism in its broader context in a way that brings into focus the political actor lurking behind the historical caricature. The rigid, narrow and simplistic socialism with which Guesde is frequently associated appear, in Ducange’s first-rate political biography, less as flaws than as a considered and plausible strategy that helps us to understand the goals and constraints shaping political socialism in its golden age. Though Ducange is not the kind of historian to subordinate his book to an all-encompassing thesis, he does leave the reader with a clear sense of the type of politics Guesde helped to pioneer. For Guesde, the programme of socialism was to emphasize and participate in la lutte des classes—a choice that owed much to his revulsion at the république bourgeois’s repression of the Paris Commune. The stubbornness with which he clung to this goal is, in Ducange’s account, what gives Guesde’s career its rough-hewn consistency. It explains Guesde’s notoriously simplistic conception of Marx’s theory and his terse and formulaic writings: it was not dialectics or subtle analyses of capital’s transfigurations that drew Guesde to Marxism, so much as its straightforward emphasis on society’s division into two hostile camps, one of which was ruthlessly exploited by the other. Guesde’s ‘génie de la simplification’ was, for Ducange an asset, not an intellectual liability. The ‘class struggle’ line also explains, Ducange maintains, Guesde’s notorious refusal to rally to the anti-Dreyfusard cause. ‘What a respite for current society’, he wrote in 1892, if the struggle between ‘dépossédés et possédants’ could be confined to that between ‘sans prépuce et avec prépuce’. Guesde’s decision was, for Ducange, primarily political: his goal was to emphasize socialism over all other issues, his Communard sympathies made him viscerally hostile to military officers, and he was also concerned with ‘demarcating’ himself from other socialists, notably his most adaptable alter ego, Jean Jaurès. The same political position also clarifies Guesde’s decision—having joined, in 1905, the SFIO—to participate in the Union Sacrée government as minister without portfolio. Guesde believed that class conflict had to be put on hold as the nation defended itself against the reactionary—and anti-socialist—German Reich. He was not governing so much as fighting: the nation had to be defended before the workers’ struggle could be resumed. Guesde (who turned 70 in 1915) may have been out of touch with his times. He was a rare Frenchmen whose belief in history’s forward march was, in 1918, unscathed, describing the war as ‘progress’ since ‘German militarism’ had been defeated. Once again, the class struggle remained his political compass. One of the most impressive qualities of Ducange’s book is the sheer amount of research he has done, particularly the way he seems to have tracked down every article and letter Guesde ever wrote and every reference to Guesde in the writings of his contemporaries. We learn a bit about Guesde’s personal life—his recurrent poverty, his penchant for composing verse and his constant health problems (which plagued him until he died at the relatively advanced age of 76). But Ducange’s research tells us most about politics, to which Guesde devoted most of his efforts. Particularly intriguing are Guesde’s contacts during the First World War. He received, for instance, a letter from Leon Trotsky, after he had helped arrange the latter’s deportation from France in 1916. Declaring Guesde mistaken in believing that the proletariat would support the war, Trotsky declared: ‘Expelled by you, I leave France with deep faith in our triumph’. Around the same time, Guesde supported the pro-war efforts of Italian socialists, including one Benito Mussolini. The latter praised Guesde in a 1917 article entitled ‘National Socialism’. A recurring theme in Ducange’s book is Guesde’s relationship with Jean Jaurès, his frequent opponent and occasional ally within the SFIO. Ducange does not try to curtail the Jaurès mystique: he represented a more open, warmer and more humanistic variety of socialism than his rival. But what Ducange achieves with considerable aplomb is to show that, in the early days of political socialism, when its fate was still an open question, a dogged insistence on class conflict in a growing capitalist society remained a powerful idea. Through his meticulous and compelling study, Ducange demonstrates how it was the key to understanding Guesde’s career and his ongoing, if often subterranean influence on the French left. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of French History. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
French History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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