Jean Jaurès 1901-1907
Source: Histoire Socialiste de la Révolution Française. Paris, Éditions Sociales, 1968;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2010.
We want to recount to the people, to the workers, to the farmers, the events that occurred between 1789 and the end of the nineteenth century from the socialist point of view. We consider the French Revolution an immense and admirably fecund fact. But in our eyes it is not a definitive fact about which there is nothing left to history but to lay out its consequences. The French Revolution indirectly prepared the arrival of the proletariat. It realized the two essential conditions for socialism: democracy and capitalism. But essentially it meant the political arrival of the bourgeois class.
The economic and political movement, large-scale industry, the growth of the working class which grew in number and ambition, the uneasiness of the farmers crushed by competition and besieged by industrial and merchant feudalism, and the moral disquiet of the intellectual bourgeoisie whose delicate sensibilities a mercantile and brutal society offended, all of this has gradually prepared a new social crisis, a new and more profound revolution; a revolution through which the proletariat will seize power in order to transform property and morality. And so it is the march and the interplay of social classes since 1789 that we want to recount. It is always somewhat arbitrary to lay out clear borders and divisions in the uninterrupted and nuanced progress of life. Nevertheless we can with sufficient precision distinguish three periods in the last century in the history of the bourgeois and proletarian classes.
First, from 1789-1848 the revolutionary bourgeoisie triumphed and established itself. Against royal absolutism and the nobility it used the force of the proletariat, but the latter, despite their prodigious activity, despite the decisive role they played in certain events, were only a subordinate power, a kind of historic supporting force. They at times inspired real horror in the bourgeois owners, but basically they worked for them; they didn’t have a radically different concept of society. The communism of Babeuf and his rare disciples were only a sublime convulsion, the final spasm of the revolutionary crisis before the pacification of the Consulate and the First Empire. Even in 1793 and 1794 the proletariat was intermingled with the Third Estate: they lacked a clear class consciousness or the notion of any other form of property. They hardly went beyond Robespierre’s impoverished ideas: a democracy politically sovereign but economically stationary made up of small peasant owners and an artisanal petite bourgeoisie. They had none of socialism’s marvelous sap of life, the creator of wealth, beauty and joy. On the worst days they burned with a dry flame, a flame of wrath and envy. They were unaware of the seductiveness, the powerful sweetness of a new ideal.
And yet, barely had bourgeois society begun to calm and establish itself than the socialist idea began to appear. After Babeuf, between 1800-1848, there were Fourier, Saint-Simon, Proudhon, and Louis Blanc, and then under Louis-Philippe the workers’ uprisings of Lyon and Paris. The bourgeois revolution was hardly definitively victorious when the workers asked: “Where does our suffering come from and what new revolution must be carried out?” They saw in the waters of the bourgeois revolution, at first foaming and wild, then calmer and clearer, their worn out faces, and they were seized with horror. But despite the multiplicity of socialist systems and working class revolts, before 1848 bourgeois domination was intact.
The bourgeoisie didn’t believe it possible that power was escaping it and that property was being transformed. Under Louis-Philippe it had the strength to fight against the nobility and the priesthood and against the workers. It crushed the legitimist uprisings in the west as well as the proletarian revolts of the starving cities. It naively believed, with the pride of a Guizot, that it is the end point of history; that it has historical and philosophical titles to definitive power, that it sums up the centuries-long efforts of France, and that it is the social expression of reason. For their part the proletariat, despite the jolts of poverty and hunger, were not conscious revolutionaries. They barely glimpsed the possibility of a new order. It is primarily among the “intellectual” class that the socialist “utopias” recruited their followers. In any event, the socialist systems were strongly impregnated with either capitalist ideas, like that of Saint-Simon, or petite-bourgeois ideas, like those of Proudhon. The revolutionary crisis of 1848 was necessary for the working class to achieve consciousness of itself, for it to carry out, as Proudhon said, the definitive break with other social elements.
And even the second period, which ran from February 1848 – May 1871, from the provisional government to the bloody repression of the Commune, was troubled and uncertain. It is true that socialism already affirmed itself as a force and an idea and that the proletariat affirmed itself as a class. The workers’ revolutions rose up so threateningly against the bourgeois order that the leading classes leagued against it all the forces of the bourgeoisie and the landowning farmers frightened by the red specter. But socialist doctrines remained indecisive and confused. In 1848 the communism of Cabet, the mutualism of Proudhon, and the statism of Louis Blanc hopelessly collided, and the thought mold which should have given the working class form was inconsistent and incomplete. The theoreticians argued over the metal in fusion that came out of the furnaces and while they argued reaction, led by the man of December, smashed all of the unformed molds and cooled the metal. Even under the Commune Blanquists, Marxists, and Proudhonians imprinted divergent directions on working class thought. No one can say which socialist ideal a victorious Commune would have applied.
What is more, there was confusion and blending in the movement itself, just as there was in ideas. In 1848 the revolution was prepared by radical democracy as much, if not more than, by working class socialism, and during the June days bourgeois democracy laid the proletariat onto the burning paving stones of Paris. And in 1871 the Commune issued from an uprising of the commercial bourgeoisie irritated by the law on terms due and the harshness of the royal nobles of Versailles as well as from the patriotic frustration and republican defiance of Paris.
The socialist proletariat didn’t delay in putting its revolutionary mark on this confusion, and Marx was right to say in his powerful and systematic study of the Commune that through it for the first time the working class took possession of power. This was a new fact, one of incalculable scope. But the proletariat profited by a kind of surprise. In the isolated and overexcited capital it was the best organized and most perceptive force. But it was not yet in a condition to carry along and assimilate France to it. France belonged to the priests, the big landowners, and the bourgeoisie, of which M. Thiers was the leader. The Commune was like a knife tip reddened in the flames but which shatters against a large refractory block. But from 1848 – 1871 proletarian progress was enormous. In 1847 the proletariat’s participation in power was virtually fictitious: Louis Blanc and the worker Albert were paralyzed in the Provisional Government, and a perfidious bourgeoisie organized against them the swindle of the national workshops. The socialists platonically discussed at the Luxembourg Palace, they abdicated and resigned themselves to being but a powerless academy. Lacking the strength to act, they speechified. And then, when the deceived working class rose up in June it was crushed before having been able to touch power for a single moment. In 1871 the sons of the fighters of June held on to power, exercised it. They weren’t a rioting mob: they were the revolution.
The proletarians thus raised to power were brought down from it. But they nevertheless gave new working class generations a sign of hope, one which was understood. The Commune closed the second period, one where socialism affirmed itself as a force of the first order, though still confused and convulsive. But it was still the Commune that rendered the new period possible, the one we are all involved in and where socialism methodically proceeds to the total organization of the working class, to the moral conquest of a reassured peasantry, to the rallying of the bourgeois intellectuals disenchanted with bourgeois power, and to the total seizure of power for new forms of property and new ideals.
Confusion is now no longer to be feared. There is unity of thought in the working class and the socialist party. Despite the conflicts between groups and the superficial rivalries, all the proletarian forces are united by one doctrine and for the same action. If the proletariat were to seize power tomorrow it would immediately use it in a defined and decisive way. There would certainly be conflicts of tendencies: some would want to strengthen and push forward the centralized actions of the community, while others would want to ensure local groups of workers the greatest possible autonomy. In order to regulate the new relations of the nation, of professional federations, of communes, of local groups, of individuals, in order to establish both perfect individual freedom and social solidarity an immense effort in the fields of ideas will be needed, and amidst all this complexity there will be disagreements. But despite it all, today there is a common spirit that moves the socialists and the proletariat. Socialism is no longer dispersed among hostile and powerless sects. It is increasingly a great living unity that is multiplying its hold on life. It is now from socialism that all the great human forces, labor, thought, science, art, even religion – understood as humanity’s taking control of the universe – expect their renewal and growth.
How, through what crises, through what human effort and evolution of things has the proletariat grown into the decisive role it will play tomorrow? This is what we socialist militants propose to recount. We know that the economic conditions, the forms of production and property are the very basis of history. Just as for most human individuals their profession is the essential thing in life, it is the profession, which is the economic form of individual activity, that in most cases determines the habits, ideas, sorrows, joys, and even the dreams of men. In every period of history it is the economic structure of society that determines the political forms, the social mores, and even the general direction of ideas. And so in every period of this tale we will set out to uncover the economic bases of human life. We will attempt to follow the movement of property and the evolution of industrial and agricultural techniques. In broad strokes – as is appropriate in a necessarily rough tableau – we will note the influence of the economic state on governments, literature, and systems.
But we don’t forget that Marx – too often diminished by narrow interpreters – never forgot that it is upon men that economic forces act. And men have a prodigious diversity of passions and ideas, and the nearly infinite complexity of human life doesn’t allow itself to be brutally and mechanically reduced to an economic formula. Even more, even though man is above all as part of humanity, even though he is affected by his surrounding influences and is a continuation of the social milieu, he also lives, through his senses and intelligence, in a vaster environment, which is the universe itself.
The light of the stars most distant from and foreign to the human system doubtless only awaken dreams in the poet’s consciousness that are in conformity with the general sensibility of his time and the profound secret of social life, just as the light fog that floats over the prairie is formed by the moon from the earth’s hidden humidity. In this sense even stellar vibrations, however distant and indifferent they might appear, are harmonized and appropriated by the social system and the economic forces that determine it. Goethe, one day upon entering a factory, was seized with disgust for his clothing, which demanded so formidable a productive apparatus. And yet, without this industrial growth of the German bourgeoisie the old Germanic world never have felt or understood the magnificent impatience that made Faust’s soul burst forth.
But whatever the relationship of the human soul, even in its most daring or subtle dreams, with the economic and social system, it moves beyond the human environment into the immense cosmic environment. And the contact with the universe makes mysterious and profound forces vibrate in it, forces of the eternally moving life that preceded human societies and which will survive them. Thus, as vain and false as it would be to deny the dependence of ideas and even dreams on the economic system and precise forms of production, it would be just as puerile and crude to summarily explain the movement of human thought strictly through the evolution of economic forces. It is often the case that the human spirit rests upon the social system in order to surpass and resist it. Between the individual spirit and social power there is thus at one and the same time solidarity and conflict. It was the system of modern nations and monarchies half emancipated from the Church that allowed the free science of Kepler and Galileo, but once in possession of the truth spirit is no longer the province of the prince, society, or humanity: it is the truth itself, with its regulations and its chain of ideas, that becomes in a way the immediate environment of the spirit. And even though Kepler and Galileo established their ideas on the foundations of the modern state, after their observations and calculations they were the province strictly of themselves and the universe. The social world, where they had found their support and their starting point opened out, and their ideas knew no other laws than those of sidereal immensity.
It would please us, through the half-mechanical evolution of economic and social forms, to always allow the high dignity of the free intelligence to be felt, liberated from humanity itself by the eternal universe. The most intransigent of Marxist theoreticians could not reproach us for this. Marx, on an admirable page, declared that until now human societies were only governed by fate, by the blind movement of economic forms. Institutions and ideas were not the conscious work of free men, but the reflection of unconscious social life in the human brain. According to Marx we are still in prehistoric times. Human history will only truly begin when man, finally escaping the tyranny of unconscious forces, governs production through his reason and his will. His intelligence will no longer live under the despotism of economic forms created and guided by him, and it will be with a free and unmediated gaze that he will contemplate the universe. Marx thus glimpses a period of full intellectual liberty where human thought, no longer deformed by economic servitude, will not deform the world. But to be sure, Marx doesn’t contest the fact that already, in the darkness of the unconscious period, great spirits have raised themselves to freedom. Through them humanity prepares itself and announces its coming. It is up to us to grasp these first manifestations of the life of the spirit. It allows us to have a foretaste of the great ardent and free life of communist humanity which, freed from slavery, will appropriate the universe through science, action, and dreams. It is like the first trembling which, in the forest, only moves a few leaves, but which announces the upcoming great gusts and vast shakings.
And so our interpretation of history will be both materialist with Marx and mystical with Michelet. It was economic life that was the basis and the mechanism of human history, but across the succession of social forms man, a thinking force, aspired to the full life of thought, the ardent community of the unquiet intelligence, avid for unity and the mysterious universe. The great mystic of Alexandra said: “The high waves of the sea raised my boat to where I could see the sun at the very moment it rose from the waters.” In the same way the vast rising waters of the economic revolution will raise the human boat so that man, that poor fisherman worn out by a long night’s work, can salute from the highest point the first glimmer of the growing spirit that will rise over us.
Nor will we disdain, despite our economic interpretation of great human phenomena, the moral value of history. To be sure, we know that the beautiful words of liberty and humanity for the past century have too often covered a regime of exploitation and oppression. The French Revolution proclaimed the Rights of Man; but the owning classes included in these words the rights of the bourgeoisie and of capital.
The owners have proclaimed that men were free when the owners have no other means of domination over non-owners than property itself, but property is the sovereign force that disposes of all others. The basis of bourgeois society is thus a monstrous class egoism compounded by hypocrisy. But there were moments when the nascent Revolution combined the interests of the revolutionary bourgeoisie with the interests of humanity and a truly admirable human enthusiasm more than once filled peoples’ hearts. In the same way, in the midst of the countless conflicts unleashed by bourgeois anarchy, in the struggles of parties and classes, there were many examples of pride, valor, and courage. We will salute with equal respect the heroes of the will by raising ourselves above the bloody melees; we will glorify the bourgeois republicans outlawed in 1851 and the admirable proletarian combatants fallen in June 1848.
But who could reproach us for being especially attentive to the militant virtues of the insulted proletariat who over the last century so often gave its life for a still obscure ideal? It is not only through the force of circumstances that the social revolution will be carried out; it is by the force of men, by the energy of consciousnesses and wills. History will never exempt men from the need for individual valor and nobility. And the moral value of the communist society of tomorrow will be marked by the moral elevation of the individual consciousness of the militant class of today. To propose as an example all those heroic fighters who over the past century had passion for the idea and sublime contempt for death thus means doing revolutionary work. We will not smile at the men of the Revolution who read Plutarch’s “Lives.” It’s certain that the great impulses of internal energy they gave birth to them changed little in the march of events. But at least they remained upright in the storm: under the lightning of the great storms they didn’t display faces distorted by fear. And if the passion for glory animated their passion for liberty and courage in combat, no one will hold it against them.
And so, in this socialist history, which goes from the bourgeois Revolution to the preparatory period of the proletarian revolution, we will attempt to leave nothing out that is part of human life. We will attempt to understand and translate the fundamental economic evolution that governs societies, the spirit’s ardent aspiration towards total truth, and the noble exaltation of human consciousness defying suffering, tyranny, and death. It is by pushing the economic movement to its very end that the proletariat will free itself and become humanity. It must thus become fully conscious of the role of economic movement and human greatness in history. At the risk of momentarily surprising our readers by the disparate nature of these great names, it is under the triple inspiration of Marx, Michelet, and Plutarch that we would like to write this modest history, where each of the militants who collaborated in it will add his nuance of thought; where all will be garbed in the same essential doctrine and faith.