Jean Jaurès 1901-1907

Introduction to “Socialist History of the French Revolution”

Source: Histoire Socialiste de la Révolution Française. Paris, Éditions Sociales, 1968;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 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 fertile fact. But in our eyes it is not a definitive fact about which history has nothing to left to do but endlessly lay out its consequences. The French Revolution indirectly prepared the advent of the proletariat. It realized the two essential conditions for socialism: democracy and capitalism. But at its heart it meant the political advent of the bourgeois class.

Gradually, the economic and political movement, large-scale industry, the growth of the working class in both number and ambition, the uneasiness of the farmers crushed by competition and besieged by industrial and merchant feudalism, and the moral fears of the intellectual bourgeoisie ,whose delicate sensibilities were offended by a brutal mercantile society, all of this set the scene for a new social crisis, a new and more profound revolution, one through which the proletariat would 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 finely shaded progress of life. Nevertheless, with a certain amount of precision we can 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. It used the force of the proletariat against royal absolutism and the nobility, but the former, despite their formidable 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 bourgeoisie, but not having a radically different vision of society they essentially worked for them. The communism of Babeuf and his few disciples was only a sublime convulsion, the final spasm of the revolutionary crisis prior to the tranquility 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 and the desire for or 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 the marvelous sap of life of socialism, the creator of wealth, beauty and joy. On the most terrible 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, bourgeois society had hardly begun establish itself in tranquility when the socialist idea began to appear. After Babeuf, from 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 had hardly emerged victorious when the workers asked: “Where does our suffering come from and what new revolution must be made?” They saw the reflection of their worn-out faces in the waters of the bourgeois revolution, which were at first foaming and wild, then calmer and clearer, and they were seized with horror. But despite the number of socialist systems and working class revolts, bourgeois domination remained intact before 1848.

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 as well as 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 Guizot, that it was the end point of history; that it had historical and philosophical title to irrevocable power; that it synthesized the centuries-long efforts of France; and that it was the social expression of reason. For their part the proletariat, despite the spasms of poverty and hunger, were not conscious revolutionaries. They barely glimpsed the possibility of a new order. It was primarily among the “intellectual” class that the socialist “utopias” recruited their followers. In any event, the socialist systems were strongly impregnated either with capitalist ideas, like those of Saint-Simon, or petite-bourgeois ideas, like those of Proudhon. The working class needed the revolutionary crisis of 1848 in order to achieve consciousness of itself, for it to accomplish, as Proudhon said, the final break with other social elements.

And 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 was already asserting itself as a force and an idea and that the proletariat was asserting itself as a class. The workers’ revolutions against the bourgeois order rose up so threateningly that the leading classes gathered against it all those 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 mold of the ideas that 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. It’s impossible to say just 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 the radical democracy as much as, if not more, than by working class socialism, and during the June days bourgeois democracy laid out the proletariat on the burning paving stones of Paris. In 1871 as well, the Commune grew out of an uprising of the commercial bourgeoisie angered by the law on terms due and the harshness of the 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, in his powerful and systematic study of the Commune, was right to say that for the first time the working class took possession of power. This was a new fact, one of incalculable scope. But the proletariat profited from surprise. In the isolated and overexcited capital it was the best organized and most perceptive force. But it was not yet in a state where it could carry along and integrate France to itself. 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 1848 the proletariat’s participation in power was all but fictitious: Louis Blanc and the worker Albert were stymied in the Provisional Government, and a perfidious bourgeoisie organized the swindle of the national workshops against them. The socialists platonically conversed 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 it was able to attain power for a single moment. In 1871 the sons of the fighters of June held on to power and 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, the one where socialism asserted itself as a force of great importance, though still confused and convulsive. And yet it was the Commune that made the new period possible, the one we are all involved in and where socialism is methodically proceeding to the total organization of the working class, to the moral conquest of a reassured peasantry, to the rallying of 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 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 between 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 field of ideas will be required, and there will be disagreements in the midst of all this complexity. But despite it all, it is a common spirit that today moves the socialists and the proletariat. Socialism is no longer dispersed among hostile and powerless sects. It is an ever greater living unity that is multiplying its hold on life. It is from socialism that all the great human forces, labor, thought, science, art, even religion – understood as humanity’s taking control of the universe – now 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 foundation of history. Just as for most human individuals their profession is the essential element of life; just as, for mankind it is the profession, which is the economic form of individual activity, that in most cases determines their habits, ideas, sorrows, joys, and even their dreams, in the same way, 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 attempt to reveal 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 portrait – we will bring out the influence of the economic state on governments, literature, and systems.

But we don’t forget that Marx – too often reduced by narrow interpreters – never forgot that it is upon men that economic forces act. And men have a prodigious variety 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 a 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 more vast environment, which is the universe itself.

In the poet’s imagination the light of the stars most distant from and foreign to the human system doubtless only awaken dreams that are in conformity with the general sensibility of his time and the deepest secrets 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 them. Goethe, upon entering a factory one day, 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 explode.

But whatever the relationship of the human soul – in even its boldest and most subtle dreams – with the economic and social system, it travels beyond the human environment into the immense cosmic environment. And the contact with the universe makes mysterious and profound forces vibrate within it, forces of the eternally mobile 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 the precise forms of production, it would be just as puerile and crude to summarily explain the movement of human thought strictly by 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 mind 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 for the free science of Kepler and Galileo, but once in possession of the truth human intelligence 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 intelligence. And even though Kepler and Galileo rested their astronomical 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, which had been their support and their starting point, blossomed and their ideas knew no other laws than those of sidereal immensity.

We would be happy, through the half-mechanical evolution of economic and social forms, to always permit the great 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, admirably wrote 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 in the human brain of unconscious social life. 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 he will contemplate the universe with a free and unmediated gaze. 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 this unconscious period, great spirits have raised themselves to freedom. Through them humanity is being prepared and announces its advent. 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 servitude, will appropriate the universe through science, action, and dreams. It is like the first trembling in the forest, which moves only a few leaves, but which announces the upcoming great gusts and vast quakes.

And so our interpretation of history will be both materialist with Marx and mystical with Michelet. It was economic life that was the basis for 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, eager for unity and the mysterious universe. The great mystic of Alexandria said: “The high waves of the sea raised my boat, and I was able to 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 above us.

Nor will we disdain, despite our economic interpretation of great human phenomena, the moral value of history. To be sure, we know that for the past century the beautiful words of liberty and humanity have too often served as a cover for a regime of exploitation and oppression. The French Revolution proclaimed the Rights of Man; but the wealthy classes included in these words the rights of the bourgeoisie and capital.

The wealthy have proclaimed that men were free when the wealthy had no other means of domination over the poor 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 that insulted proletariat that over the last century so often gave its life for a still vague 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 consciousness 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 a passion for the idea and a sublime contempt for death is doing revolutionary work. We will not mock the men of the Revolution who read Plutarch’s “Lives.” It’s certain that the great élan of internal energy Plutarch gave birth to in them did little to change the march of events. But at least they remained upright in the storm; their faces were twisted in fear under the lightning bolts of the great storms. And if the passion for glory animated their passion for liberty and their courage in combat, no one can hold this against them.

And so, in this socialist history, which goes from the bourgeois Revolution to the preparatory period of the proletarian revolution, we will strive to leave out nothing that is part of human life. We will strive 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 as far as it can go that the proletariat will free itself and become humanity. It must thus become fully conscious of the role of economic activity and human grandeur 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 write this modest history, where each of the militants who collaborates in it will add his nuance of thought; where all will be garbed in the same essential doctrine and faith.