The Marxist Pioneer

Jules Guesde: The Birth of Socialism and Marxism in France Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2020. 213 pp., $74.99 When the French left looks at its founders, the socialist Jean…

Jules Guesde: The Birth of Socialism and Marxism in France

Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2020. 213 pp., $74.99

When the French left looks at its founders, the socialist Jean Jaurès is often fondly remembered as a great orator, historian, and a champion of peace who was murdered for that belief in 1914. By contrast, his Marxist contemporary, Jules Guesde is dismissed as sectarian and dogmatic. Yet Guesde deserves better than this. Thankfully, French historian Jean-Numa Ducange has written an accessible, well-researched, and largely sympathetic biography of Guesde. Ducange’s biography not only rescues Guesde from neglect but shows how indispensable he was to introducing Marxism into France and making it a political force to be reckoned with.

In discussing Guesde’s life, Ducange locates him in the larger historical context of French capitalism and revolutionary politics. When Guesde was born in 1845, France was already undergoing rapid industrialization that not only produced both great wealth, but also poverty and misery for the working class. The new proletariat refused to accept their situation passively but was compelled to fight back. In this struggle, they had a rich tradition of Jacobinism, socialism, and anarchism to draw upon.

In his teens, Guesde himself would be inspired by the revolutionary traditions of France. He threw himself into political journalism and was an opponent of the Second French Empire. The fall of the Empire and the creation of the Third Republic brought Guesde no respite from political persecution though. As a sympathizer of the Paris Commune, he was forced into exile by the ruling class, who wanted to wipe out all trace of radicalism from France. During his time in exile, Guesde’s growing family were often living in dire poverty, something that would be a constant for most of his life. Briefly an anarchist and opponent of Karl Marx, Guesde adopted the tenets of scientific socialism by the time he returned to France in 1876.

Unlike many other European countries, France had a very crowded political left ranging from anarchism, Blanquism, Jacobinism, and syndicalism that seemingly left little space for Marxism. Yet Guesde was undaunted. While his understanding of Marxist theory was not as sophisticated as his contemporaries such as Karl Kautsky, Georgii Plekhanov, or Antonio Labriola, he possessed a genuine talent for popularization. Guesde took the sophisticated theories of Marxism and transformed them into a simple revolutionary catechism, which Ducange summarizes as follows:

“Short and sharp phrases denounced capitalism and the exploitation of workers and called for the overthrow of the system in order to make way for an egalitarian world. Here, he forcefully asserted the promise of future happiness; a form of messianic utopia imbued his whole line of argument.” (12)

Supposedly, Marx recoiled when he heard about Guesde’s vulgarizations of his ideas, allegedly stating: “Ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste.” (trans: “what is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist”) This sharp rebuke did not stop Marx from supporting Guesde’s efforts.

For socialism to be realized, Guesde believed that the working class needed political consciousness, particularly in the form of a proletarian political party. To that end, Guesde was instrumental in creating the Parti Ouvrier in 1881 based upon an avowedly revolutionary program written by Karl Marx himself.

The 1880s were some of the most difficult years for Guesde. Not only was the Parti Ouvrier marginal to French political life, but Guesde sacrificed his health to the socialist cause. Still, Guesde was utterly committed by his belief in the historic role of the working class and boundless faith in the socialist future. As Ducange explains, this unyielding vision inspired the militants of the Parti Ouvrier: “Guesde was himself the guarantee of an undeviating line that bore an intangible truth. One of his contributions to the history of socialism was that he helped invent loyalty to the party, in the face of all comers.” (33) After a decade of privation and isolation, Guesde’s efforts seemingly paid off when the Parti Ouvrier achieved national prominence, symbolized by the election of Guesde himself to the Chamber of Deputies in 1893.

However, Guesde’s success could not hide the fact that he was not an effective revolutionary leader or strategist. When major crises occurred in French political life, he could offer nothing more than passivity wrapped up in revolutionary platitudes. As Ducange notes, Guesde and the Parti Ouvrier remained aloof from the great crises shaking French society with the rise of the proto-fascist Boulanger or the Dreyfus Affair. Guesde’s abstention during the Dreyfus Affair not only hurt his standing on the French and international left but provided a political opening for the opportunist socialism represented by Jean Jaurès. Furthermore, Guesde’s simplistic Marxism could offer nothing tangible to impoverished peasants or the colonial subjects of the French empire.

Ultimately, Guesde represented a major contradiction that afflicted the parties of the Second International. On the one hand, Guesdist Marxism was avowedly revolutionary in theory, but in practice the party focused on achieving immediate reforms. Ducange explained the contradiction as follows:

“Rather, in Guesdism we can see the specific historical expression of a permanent tension in socialism. Indeed, socialism was divided between two sensibilities, inherited from history, which each surfaced in turn depending on the historical conjuncture. At some points it was the heritage of the revolutionary rebellions of 1789 and 1871 that prevailed, whereas at other points socialism distanced itself from this in favour of a more gradualist, reforming approach. This structural tension was never resolved.” (112)

So long as no major cataclysms occurred, the divorce between Guesdist theory and practice could be papered over without much difficulty. That’s what happened in 1905 when the various factions of French socialism united in a single party. The Section française de l’Internationale ouvrière (SFIO) included former Blanquists, reformists represented by Jaurès and Guesdist Marxists. It appeared that Guesde’s ideas triumphed since the SFIO was formally committed to class struggle and the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. While a revolutionary identity was important to the SFIO’s identity, more gradualist forces wanted to ditch an attachment to Marxism and formally become a party of social reform.

Guesde and the SFIO’s tension between reform and revolution finally came to a head in 1914 when the First World War began. Guesde and the party swiftly abandoned their professed internationalism and declarations to oppose the war. Instead, the bulk of the SFIO supported the French war effort. Guesde himself ended up in the French government as a minister without portfolio. Ducange does an admirable job of explaining the confusing rationale for how Guesde reconciled socialism with supporting the war. For one, beneath the thin veneer of Guesde’s internationalism was a fervent patriotism. He believed that France was heir to a great revolutionary tradition that all workers had an interest in defending against German despotism. Thus, class struggle needed to be placed on the backburner until the national danger was passed. Only after France was victorious could class struggle and the fight for socialism resume.

As Ducange explains, Guesde was a shadow of his former self during the war years. In France, he demanded victory until the bitter end despite the appalling loss of life. Leon Trotsky, who was living in France, was expelled for his opposition to the war 1916 with Guesde’s blessing. Trotsky wrote a letter to Guesde that summed up how many revolutionaries felt about his betrayal:

“I believe it my duty to tell you some thoughts that will probably be of no use to you but could at least be of use against you. … You thought, you hoped, that the French proletariat which, in this war without ideas and without a way out, is being bled white by the crime of the ruling classes, will bear silently and to the end this shameful pact drawn up between official socialism and its worst enemies. You were mistaken. An opposition has arisen. … Expelled by you, I leave France with a deep faith in our victory. I send, above your head, a fraternal greeting to the French proletariat, which is waking up to its great destinies. With you, against you, vive la France socialiste!” (155)

Trotsky’s threat was prophetic. As the bloodshed continued without end, an anti-war opposition developed inside the SFIO. The Russian Revolution of 1917 provided French radicals with an example to follow. Once the war ended, Guesde could only promise returning to the old orthodoxy. To the revolutionary left, Guesde’s homilies were outmoded as they looked to the east. At the SFIO’s 1920 Congress at Tours, the majority of the party affiliated to the Communist International and formed the Parti communiste français (PCF). Guesde himself remained outside of the PCF in the rump SFIO. Two years later, Guesde who had long been in failing health finally died.

Despite the bitterness of the split between the socialists and communists, Ducange reminds us that both wings of the French left proudly claimed Guesde as their own. For the SFIO, he was one of their historic leaders. For the PCF, Guesde’s treason to international revolution after 1914 did not negate his work in laying the foundations of revolutionary Marxism in France. It was only in recent years, as the French left moved away from even the rhetoric of socialist revolution, that Guesde has been viewed more negatively as either a incorrigible sectarian or a proto-Stalinist.

In the end, Guesdist Marxism was simplistic and functioned more as an article of faith than as a sophisticated guide for revolutionary action. Like other socialists of his era, Guesde’s apocalyptic rhetoric shielded a rather mundane political practice. At crucial moments when revolutionary leadership was needed, Guesde failed to provide it. Yet as Ducange reminds us, for all Jules Guesde’s weaknesses we should not dismiss him:

“Without Guesde, and in particular without the social and political dynamism of a current that he embodied over several decades, the French—and perhaps even international—left would probably have not travelled down the same paths. In this lies his grandeur—and his importance to history.” (198)

This post was originally published on Radio Free.

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