August Bebel, Jean Jaures, Edouard Vaillant

Leon Trotsky

Political Profiles

An Epoch Passes

Bebel, Jaurès and Vaillant

(December 1915)

TODAY THE body of Edouard Vaillant was cremated.

An entire epoch in European socialism is passing. It is passing away not only ideologically but physically too, in the form of its most outstanding representatives. Bebel died during the period of the Bucharest Peace Conference between the Balkan War and the present one. I recall how at the station of Ploeti I learnt of this news from Gherea, the well-known Russian-born Rumanian writer. It seemed impossible as had the news of Tolstoy’s death previously; in the eyes of anyone connected with German political life Bebel was an indissoluble part of it. In that already remote era the word death, in general, still possessed quite a different content in the human tongue from what it does these days. “Bebel has died. What about German Social-Democracy?” The answer that Ledebour gave some five years ago about the internal life of his party came to mind: 20 per cent firm radicals, 30 per cent opportunists, the rest follow Bebel.

Wilhelm Liebknecht’s death was already the first warning to the older generation, in the sense that it might well leave the scene without accomplishing what it considered its historical mission. But as long as Bebel lived there, remained a living link with the movement’s heroic period, and so the unheroic features of the leading men of the second intake did not stand out so clearly to light.

When the war commenced and it had become known that the socialists were voting for the war credits, the question involuntarily arose: how would Bebel have acted in this instance? “I cannot submit”, said Axelrod in Zurich, “that Bebel would have allowed the parliamentary faction to fall so low: he had behind him the experience of the 1870 war and the traditions of the First International – no, impossible.” But Bebel was not among the living, and history had cleared him out of the way to let those feelings and moods which had almost without notice, but all the more irrepressibly piled up inside German Social-Democracy in the course of the decades of its slow organic growth, display themselves with complete freedom.

During this period neither was Jaurès alive any longer. The news that he had been killed found me still in Vienna which I had to leave hastily and produced a no lesser type of impression on me than the first thunderclaps of the world storm at that time. The colossal events are tinged with fatalism: personalities are effaced just when out of the intersection of the remote and the immediate, the underlying and the superficial causes, collisions occur between nations in arms. But the death of Jaurès which forewarned this collision of the impersonal masses left an imprint of gripping individual tragedy on imminent events. This was the grandest variation on the old but not obsolete theme of the hero’s struggle with fate. Fate emerged this time the victor. Jaurès lay with a bullet through his head. French socialism found itself beheaded and the urgent question arose: what place should it occupy in the present events?

It might appear that in preparing the collapse of the Second International in the form grown over the 25 years of its existence, history lightened its work by removing the two men who symbolized the movement of this whole epoch: Bebel and Jaurès.

In Bebel’s personality there was embodied the stubborn and unswerving movement of the new class on the way up. This frail and withered old man seemed to be made wholly of will, trained towards a single goal. In his thinking, his eloquence and his literary work he would never at all permit those expenditures of intellectual energy which did not lead directly towards that goal; he was not only an enemy of rhetoric but was also completely alien to conceited aesthetic niceities. Herein lay, incidentally, the higher beauty of his political spirit. In himself he reflected that class which learns in its few spare hours, cherishes every minute and avidly swallows what is strictly essential.

Jaurès was on the other hand completely off the ground; his spiritual world consisted of ideological traditions, philosophical fantasies and a poetic imagination and possessed clearly expressed aristocratic features just as Bebel’s spiritual profile expressed those of the plebeian democrat. Apart from this psychological difference between the two types – the former turner and the former professor of philosophy – there was between Bebel and Jaures also a deep logical and political divergence in outlook: Bebel was a materialist, Jaurès an eclectic idealist, Bebel an irreconcilable supporter of the principles of Marxism, Jaurès a reformist, a ministerialist etc. But in spite of all these differences in politics they reflected through the prism of German and French culture one and the same historical epoch. This was the epoch of the armed peace – in international relations as also in domestic ones.

The organization of the German proletariat grew uninterruptedly, the funds swelled, the number of newspapers, deputies and municipal councillors multiplied unceasingly. At the same time reaction held on firmly to all its positions. From here flowed the inevitability of the collision between the two polar forces of German social life. But this collision did not set in for a long time while the forces and the resources of the organization grew so automatically that a whole generation had time to get used to such a state of affairs and although everyone wrote, spoke or read about the inevitability of the decisive conflict, like the inevitability of the collision between two trains going towards each other along the same track – they finally ceased to sense this inevitability within themselves. Old Bebel stood out from many others in that to the end of his days he lived in the certainty that events would lead fatally to their denouement and on his seventieth birthday he spoke in words of concentrated “passion of the hour to come.”

In France there was not such a systematic growth of the workers’ organization nor such an open reign of reaction, On the contrary the state machine based on democratic parliamentarism seemed wholly accessible. When Jaurès beat back the attacks of clericalism and covert or overt royalism as in the period of the Dreyfus Case, he considered that immediately after this there would commence a period of reformist “gains”. His antagonist, Jules Guesde gave a sectarian character to Marxist tendencies and perspectives under French conditions; the latter, a deep and convinced fanatic, for decades awaited the liberating blow, burned himself up intellectually in the flames of his belief and his strained impatience. Jaurès arose from the soil of democracy and evolution. He considered it his job to clear the road of obstacles set up by reaction and to make the mechanism of parliament a weapon to win deep-going social reforms which would reconstruct, rationalize and cure the whole social order. But the economic development of France proceeded extremely slowly; social relations preserved a stagnant character, elections followed elections and shook up the political groupings in the parliamentary kaleidoscope but without upsetting the relationship of its basic forces. As in Germany an entire generation grew used to the self-sufficient growth of the organization, so in France figures of lesser stature and scale immersed themselves in parliamentary routine, recalling the final “achievements” only in solemn speeches.

A parallel psychological process took place also in the sphere of questions of international politics. After the war of 1870 it was natural to expect its recurrence. Militarism grew continuously yet war receded more and more. In the struggle against national militarism waged on both sides of the Rhine, people would speak continually of the danger of war but the majority in the end had ceased to believe in it in a real sense. They had become accustomed to the growth of militarism just as they had become accustomed to the growth of the workers’ organizations. Forty-five years of armed peace both internal and external, gradually erased the traits of a catastrophic psychology from the consciousness of an entire generation. Yet precisely when this process had reached a happy conclusion history broke its greatest catastrophe over the head of humanity: one which portended and brought others in its train. Thus you are left powerless: for this too is the dialectic of development.

Bebel and Jaurès each in his own way reflected their era but as men of genius they were both a head above it; they had not become dissolved in it thus they could be caught offguard to a far less degree than their immediate associates were. But they left the scene opportunely so affording history the opportunity of conducting in a pure form an experiment on the reaction of a catastrophe upon an uncatastrophic consciousness.

Today the ashes of Edouard Vaillant were interred.

He was the only living representative of the traditions of Blanquism, that national French socialism which combined extreme methods of action and even insurrection with an extreme patriotism. Blanqui when writing in his paper Patrie en Danger (The Fatherland in Danger) in 1870 did not wish to know of any enemies other than the Prussian. Blanqui’s friend, Gustave Tridon came out in protest together with Malon on March 3, 1871 against the National Assembly which had dared to approve the Treaty of Frankfurt [1] and thus the surrender of Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans. “I will stand up irreconcilably against this criminal treaty,” Tridon wrote to his electors, “until the day that the revolution or your patriotism destroy it”. And there was no contradiction in all this: just as Vaillant grew out of Blanqui so Blanqui grew out of Babeuf and the French Revolution. For them the development of political thought was wholly embraced and contained by this lineage. For Vaillant, though himself belonging to that small number of Frenchmen who have a real knowledge of the German language and literature, France remained unalterably the messianic land and the chosen liberator nation whose very contact would arouse the other peoples to the spiritual life. His socialism was profoundly patriotic just as his patriotism was that of the messianic liberator nation. Present-day France with its retarded growth of population, its economic backwardness and its conservative forms of thought and life still seemed to him essentially the only country of movement and progress.

Having passed through the trials of 1870-1871 Vaillant became a fanatical opponent of war and proposed the most extreme means to fight against it; as did his comrade-in-arms at the last international congress, Keir Hardie, who left the scene only a few months before Vaillant. But when the war broke out, all of European history, past and future centred for Vaillant on the question of the fate of France. Since for him all the triumphs of thought and all the successes of justice flowed directly from the French Revolution which had been and remained French, so he could not help in the final count coupling his ideas to the blood of the race. For now it was a matter of the salvation of the God-bearing people and to this end Vaillant began to write articles in the style of Blanqui’s “the fatherland in danger”. He gave his blessing to the sword of militarism against which he had so bitterly fought in peace time – on the condition that this sword inherited from the French Revolution would shatter the German monarchy and German militarism. Vaillant was the most extreme supporter of war jusqu’ au bout (to the end). The leading articles which he wrote every day at the start of the war exuded such a strained national feeling that the more moderate nationalists after the style of the present leader of the party, Renaudel felt not without reason embarrassed. The old messianic revolutionary conceptions awoke in the 75-year head of the Blanquist. German militarism emerged from under his pen not as a product of German social conditions but as a monstrous external superstructure which could be smashed from outside with a blow of the republican sword. Vaillant had become finally disillusioned in the German race. And when the opposition to militarism and the official party line arose at Stuttgart he began to look for strains of Gallic blood in the south of Germany in order to explain the courage of the Wiirttemberg socialists.

Renaudel, Compère, Morel, Longuet and other more even-tempered parliamentarians looked with disquiet at the old Blanquist, the Don Quixote of the revolutionary messianism of France who had seemingly completely failed to notice the profound changes in historical conditions through his dark glasses. Within a few months Vaillant was removed entirely from the newspaper. Its management passed into the hands of Pierre Renaudel who constitutes a vulgarizer of Jaurès having inherited all the weak traits of his brilliant teacher ...

I met Vaillant several months ago at the Committee of Action (a “military” institution half composed of party delegates and half of trade union representatives). Vaillant fitted his shadow – the shadow of Blanquism with the traditions of the wars of the sans-culottes in the era of the world imperialist war. He lived until the moment when the sword of the republic destined for smashing the Hohenzollern monarchy found itself handed over to the catholic royalist Castelnau. And at this chapter of the history of France and of the whole war the old Blanquist has died in this way laying upon his death too the mark of his political style.

France and above all French socialism has become the less to the extent of one major figure. The mediocrities of the period of the interregnum will appear to themselves – and alas to others too – still more considerable. But not so for ever nor even for long. The old era will leave the stage with its men while the new era will find new men.

Paris, December 22, 1915
Kievskaya Mysl, January 1, 1916

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Last updated on: 10.4.2007