George Sorel. The Dreyfus Affair. 1908

The Dreyfusian Revolution

Source: Georges Sorel, La Revolution Dreyfusienne, Paris, M. Rivière, 1908;
Translated for by Mitch Abidor.

Revolutions closely resemble romantic dramas: the ridiculous and the sublime are mixed so inextricably together that we are often unsure how to judge men who seem to be at one and the same time buffoons and heroes. When the emotions appropriate to troubled times have calmed, the country is ashamed to have put up with so many things whose absurdity it hadn’t suspected. It sees with fright that it isn’t possible to separate out that which only deserves laughter and that which should continue to provoke admiration. The greatest number come to believe that the revolutionary who had filled the nation with enthusiasm constitutes a Don Quixote’s dream who deserves pity. The insanity of the men of 1848 made a large contribution to the consolidation of the Second Empire, since we were afraid that too strong an opposition would bring back the time of ineptitude. At the beginning if his “Eighteenth Brumaire” Marx says: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidiere for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre....precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” The men of the revolution asked of Greco-Roman memories the means needed to raise their hearts to the level necessary to support titanic struggles. But in 1848 there was a comedy with nothing of the serious about it. They had given themselves the air of reproducing something of the Revolution in order to have the right to pass the time in parades and, in doing so, avoiding the difficulties presented by current problems.

These observations are not precisely exact. The Revolution is protected by the glory that France acquired in the wars of Liberty, but it was just as ridiculous as its imitation in 1848. As soon as the new society acquired its definitive constitution the revolutionaries’ Greco-Roman disguises were looked upon as perfectly grotesque, and the great men of Liberty were judged without the least indulgence.

What is more, it shouldn’t be believed that the reminiscences of 1789 and 1793 only produced farce in 1848. The men of that time only knew their great ancestors via historical novels. They wanted to realize all that their models wanted to do and would have done, according to the legend, if they would have been able to see more clearly in the midst of the intrigues that hindered their activity. Educated by the experience of the past the imitators knew how to conduct their lives in such a way that they could pass directly into the national epic without having to be arranged by chroniclers. This concept engendered among them a pride analogous to that which the cult of antiquity had given birth to among the great ancestors. The result of all is this is both the excellent and the absurd. The men of 1848 committed many errors, but in general their conduct was quite worthy. Today we appreciate in them that which was noble: at the beginning of the Second Empire we only saw in them that which was laughable.

In his book Joseph Reinach often seeks to diminish the grandeur of the work in which he cooperated. Nevertheless, he has preserved the memory of many amusing events.

Here is an amusing dialogue that occurred at the time when negotiations were going on for Dreyfus’ pardon. “Picquart said to me that we should never believe in the success of that which was conceived in beauty. I answered him that, in fact, some of us had been living for the past two years in a Wagnerian world and that we had lost there some of our sense of reality.” It would be difficult to invent a more successfully comic scene aimed at demonstrating the intellectual debility of the man who was the great hero of the Affair.

At the time there was a prodigious consumption of sensibility. The fairer sex gave itself over to a mass of extravagances. After the publication of the letter “J’Accuse” Zola received a large quantity of missives “from women and young girls who cried over Dreyfus and who thought of nothing but this marvelous novel.” When Picquart was in prison “women sent him flowers; from all over the world he received admiring letters.” At the beginning of 1898 Joseph Reinach thought it useful to have the letters Dreyfus had written to his wife published. Boisdeffre, Gonse, Lebon, Picquart (during the period he thought Dreyfus guilty) read them dry-eyed. Our author esteems that they acted prudently in surrounding this publication with silence: “There weren’t only brutes among the readers. Even if they were enraged against the Jews women wouldn’t have been able to hold back their tears.” [1] The success was not great among the lettered. Many “remained silent,” we are told, “because of cowardice: the great and small masters of literary criticism. They kneeled before the human suffering of heroines of novels, but they turned their eyes away from this sublime, this living suffering.” [2]

This absence of enthusiasm on the part of men viewed as competent deserves our attention. Elsewhere Joseph Reinach speaks of “an ambient materialism that had slowly penetrated, polluted, and hardened souls.” It is this materialism that according to him explains the indifference with which Dreyfusard literature was received. “A few old republicans were moved, the young ones had unlearned pity and the Catholics couldn’t any longer bear the Gospels.” I think it would be more appropriate to say that this literature too often wounded French taste. It was very rapidly to be completely forgotten.

Zola was the perfect representative of the buffoonery of those times. Everyone is in agreement in recognizing that this cumbersome personage was a small spirit. He loved to hear himself called poet, psychologist and savant without possessing any of the qualities that could in any way justify any of these titles. He presented himself as the chief of a realist school but in fact he never had any idea of what constituted reality. All he ever saw of things was their gross contours, and this is why his admirers say that he was especially successful in the description of crowds [3]: his so-called violence was entirely verbal [4]. He excelled in the art of attracting public attention by means of a vulgar sales pitch. We can compare him to a clown parading around the fairgrounds.

The letter “J’Accuse” is a veritable prospectus, and our author isn’t far from recognizing this. “The Affair had never all been brought together before the public, only in bits and pieces or disfigured by lies,” he says. “It was necessary to codify these fragments of truth, to give the faithful their ‘Credo.’ Zola was obsessed with this great page in which the entire drama burst forth. This was his part in the common labor.” Despite his admiration for this celebrated piece Joseph Reinach is forced to recognize that one can find there the whole romantic bric-a-brac employed without taste or measure. Zola accused the court martial of having acquitted Esterhazy under orders, but that accusation was nothing but an “excessive metaphor.”

The government pursued Zola for this metaphor before the Court of Assizes. The novelist had wanted this trial, but his disappointment was great when he saw that tribunals are organized to judge criminals and not to hear historical or literary dissertations. He thought that the officers would be made to come and explain their conductto him, and that the revision of the trial of 1894 would be held under his guidance.

At the beginning of the Affair the president said to him that he had to conform to the prescriptions of Article 52 of the law on the press. Zola answered him: “I don’t know the law and don’t want to know it.”

At the fifth session Zola felt the need to make a jury- which he held in contempt because it was made up of people who were too insignificant – understand what a distance there was between him and his adversaries. “There are different ways,” he shouted, “to serve France...Through my works the French language has been carried around the world. I have my victories. I leave to posterity the names of General Pellieux and Emile Zola: it will choose.” It is much to be feared for Zola’s memory that their two glories will not be found to be equivalent.

Before Labori’s plea Zola read to the members of the jury a lampoon that Joseph Reinach compares to one of those absurd and sonorous speeches pronounced by Victor Hugo’s characters: “You are the heart and the reason of Paris, of my great Paris, where I was born, that I have song of for almost forty years...Dreyfus is innocent, I swear it!...By my forty years of labor I swear that Dreyfus is innocent...may my works perish if Dreyfus is not innocent! He is innocent!” It can truly be said that in this case caution was not bourgeois.

On the advice of Clemenceau and Labori Zola took refuge a little later in England in order to let the storm pass and to await a more favorable time, during which the debates could be taken up again under better conditions. He was much reproached for this flight, and in order to justify it he used the most singular arguments: “Much later Zola told me,” said Joseph Reinach, “that he thought he heard Dreyfus on his rock asking of him this supreme sacrifice. He resigned himself to this for it seemed to him that there where he suffered most was where his duty lay.” All this because he was bored to death during his exile; the man could do nothing simply.

So many inanities could not please men who had preserved a taste for the measured. Among the reasons that determined Berthelot not to be a Dreyfusard we must surely count the instinctive aversion that this great savant felt for all that seemed to be contrary to the sense of common life [5]. It is very likely that Renan would have followed the same path as his old friend [6]. Dreyfusard buffoonery was put up with with some difficulty by the majority of the country, and in such a way that the passing to calmer times was made easy.


1. When the nationalists wanted to make use of sensibility, inspire women’s sympathy for the misfortunes of Mme Henry, whose husband was – in my opinion – falsely accused of treason by Joseph Reinach, the Dreyfusards complained of the skill deployed by their adversaries. They all but accused them of using loaded dice.

2. On the other hand, these letters had great success among Russian peasants and Turkish peddlers. Men of nature are greatly appreciated by our author: while Vogue, Vandal, and d’Haussonville remained silent at the beginning of 1899, a Moldavian boatman, “half anthropoid, half buffalo, said to Doctor Robin upon learning that he was French: So you come from the country where they don’t want there to be any injustice.” This child of nature repeated what he had heard from the Jewish café owner of the village. As for the café owner, he had no choice but to take an interest in justice since, like all the Jews of the east, had had to pay a subscription to the cause of justice.

3. In order to paint crowds it suffices to grasp fantastic silhouettes.

4. Among those who are sincerely violent there seems to always exist a modest tenderness, which was totally lacking in Zola.

5. It is this aversion that can be found at the heart of Berthelot’s anti-Catholicism, which could not admit the supernatural.

6. Joseph Reinach affirms the contrary, but without any proof. We can even draw from Renan’s oeuvre quite a strong anti-Dreyfusard homily.