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The Socialist History of the French Revolution (Jean Jaurès)

The last two volumes of The Socialist History of the French Revolution, of Jean Jaurès, appear in September 2015, in Éditions sociales. A real historiographical event, and the opportunity to come back to this major work in more than one way, while the recovery of the French Revolution by a part of the political class is very topical.

“Men make their own history but they do not make it arbitrarily, under conditions chosen by them, but under conditions directly given and inherited from the past. Karl Marx.

An expected reissue

Trying to read the Socialist History of Jean Jaurès in its original edition is really not an easy task. The author having probably not considered it necessary to cut his work into chapters, the subject can be qualified as ... dense. Obviously we can also wonder about the will of Jules Rouff, the publisher, not to have cut the numbering of the pages from volume to volume. We end up with four quarto volumes whose pages are numbered from 1 to 2000. Thus, despite the claimed desire to offer this study to as many people as possible, its original edition was quite disconcerting, including for the informed reader. To verify this somewhat definitive sanction, I invite the reader to delve into the digital version of the work on the site of the National Library of France. Here, it is the version of Albert Soboul from 1968 that we can reread. Version which has been divided into a chapter and which until now was the subject of very impressive speculation on bibliophile sites. In addition, this edition is rich in original illustrations, re-digitized for the occasion.

Between Marx and Plutarch

Jaurès did not choose the word "socialist history" in vain, and the first page of the first volume leaves little room for ambiguity. We see a palm unfolding composed of portraits of Babeuf, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Marx, Blanc, Proudhon and Blanqui. But this was not in everyone's opinion at the time and, according to a rather curious historical reading, politicians like Guesde showed all their disdain for this "bourgeois revolution" which had not seen the emergence. of the proletariat. (We will come back to this vision). Contrary to the miserable (and somewhat naive) reading of the event made by Michelet evoking the people: “this poor Job lying on the ground” and for whom “the revolution is the daughter of misery”, Jaurès describes the French Revolution in the light of the emergence of a social class: the bourgeoisie. Because this is the meaning of the socialist's work, to decipher the economic and social cogs of the period and to give them a materialist reading. As he himself writes, he is motivated by “concern for economic development, for deep and emerging social life. A new distribution of wealth prefigures a new distribution of power ”.

In 1789, the bourgeoisie held all the economic power but it was excluded from the political power which was a political power of more or less feudal type in the hands of the nobility which supported its wealth on an old basis: land ownership. However, the economic engine at this time is no longer property, it resides rather in large-scale trade, in trade that we are already seeing spreading across the seas, in emerging industry and manufacturing. And these economic engines were not in the hands of the nobility but in the hands of commoners who, for some, had become very rich. Moreover, they began to acquire large estates themselves so that in 1789, as Jaurès asserts, the nobility and the clergy together held a third of the soil of France, that is to say as much as the bourgeoisie, the rest belonging to the peasantry. In a very long introduction describing the causes of the Revolution, Jaurès dwells a lot on the power of this bourgeoisie united in port cities such as Nantes, Bordeaux, Marseille, paradise for shipowners and merchants; or again on industrial towns like Lyon or the emergence of rural industry. He also insists a lot on the philosophical forces, the thought of the Enlightenment which carried within it this economic and social revolution.

So, faced with this power, why a revolution? As Jaurès says, the political power residing in the 18th century monarchy was "historically incapable" of having a force for renewal. The monarchy could not endorse the disappearance of the nobility, it "could well bring down the heads of rebellious feudatories" but it was the top of a feudal pyramid which guaranteed the nobility to be "a sumptuous decoration, like a radiance of the royal power ”. And in the same way, the monarchs, who did not allow themselves to be domesticated by the Church, persisted in maintaining this “supernatural majesty” and this title of divine king “whose word the Church perpetuated”. The new forces were therefore half liberated in this Ancien Régime "an ambiguous compromise between feudalism and modernity where the spirit of the Church and the spirit of Voltaire, [...] capitalist activity and corporate routine collided in a chaos of helplessness ”.

But Jaurès is not just an economist. He proclaims himself an observer of the engine that constitutes the "human brain" and claims to be the heritage of Plutarch, the author of the famous Parallel Lives of Illustrious Men. Thus the author lingers on the description of the individual destinies which constitute the Revolution. We can see the passion with which he describes the life of Mirabeau, Babeuf, Robespierre ... This also gives rise to curious paradoxes. Thus, one feels all the admiration mixed with indulgence of Jaurès for the character of Mirabeau; and yet it was not on this personality that the socialist was expected. On the other hand, and although he affirms: "I am with Robespierre and it is next to him that I am going to sit at the Jacobins", he is sometimes unexpectedly severe towards him, reproaching him in particular for the smallness of his his political views.

The origins of Jaurès' analysis

Jean Jaurès (Nadar, 1904) "src =" / images / articles / books / Jean_Jaures_1904_by_Nadar.jpg "alt =" Jean Jaures 1904 by Nadar "width =" 220 "height =" 307 "/> So, what is this Who makes the study of Jaurès a "socialist" story? Well, for that I must warn you reader, we must address here a philosophical question. Before uttering the first swear words, let's start with a brief scientific observation. A tree is a living being which, in this capacity, must acquire what to maintain its organic matter. To do so, it synthesizes it by absorbing carbon dioxide. This is called photosynthesis. Man is also a living being subjected to the same biological constraint with however one big difference: to maintain its organic composition, it must work. And this contingency is fundamental. Karl Marx swept aside metaphysical speculations on the human condition by reducing it to a purely material observation. Man must work To live in order to live, mean by that that he must transform nature and it is his relation to nature and to its transformation of nature that will be the primordial equation and the prism through which humanity must be studied. From this exploitation of nature will be born a particular society in which social relations will emerge dictated by the coexistence of several social classes. These are the productive forces.

In the preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy Karl Marx establishes that "the mode of production of material life conditions the process of social, political and intellectual life in general". And Marx summed up: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being; conversely, it is their social being that determines their consciousness ”. The dominant social class will build on these social relationships a political edifice which is the result of the domination of this social class. This political structure is called by Marx a "superstructure". But the social relations and the economic models of a society are in perpetual movement and, this, because of technical progress, of natural contingencies ... From the evolution of the productive forces will emerge new social relations and the domination of a new social class. On the other hand, the political edifices, the “superstructures”, are said to be inert; they do not evolve in the same way as economic systems. At a given moment, these superstructures therefore become an obstacle to the growth of the productive forces. Then begins a period of social revolution during which the dominant social class of this new scheme overturns these superstructures to build their own. And this cycle repeats over and over again. This philosophical doctrine bears the name of dialectical materialism. Although it was Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who described it in these terms, this vision is really not new since Heraclitus already in the sixth century before our era established that: "the world is one, was not created by no god or by any man; was and will be an eternally living flame, which is kindled and extinguished according to determined laws ”.

Let us return to Jaurès and his socialist history. Jaurès, through the care he takes in describing the economic and social cogs of the Ancien Régime society fits perfectly into this dialectical materialist perspective. The French Revolution was born from the contradictions between the evolution of the productive forces (bourgeois) and the political structures inherited from the feudal nobility. In order for this new economic system to flourish fully, the bourgeoisie was the social class which had to overthrow the political structures which prevented it from doing so. A (too) rapid reading of the period could lead to a moral sanction imposed on this bourgeois revolution. According to this reading, it would be regrettable that the proletariat was excluded from the revolution and that it took place at its expense. But this reading is completely anachronistic. Because if the bourgeoisie embodied the new social aspirations of 1789, it is because it was the emerging class of this period. In 1789, the proletariat simply does not exist. What is called the proletariat is a social class which is the daughter of the new bourgeois order and will see its blooming during the 19th century, a period which sees the meteoric growth of large industries which had an enormous demand for labor. All this labor force in society, which henceforth called “capitalist”, thus constituted the proletariat which developed, in the same way as the bourgeoisie did in its time, a class consciousness. Consciousness which allowed it to advance as a new resolutely revolutionary class called to overthrow the bourgeois superstructures inherited from the French Revolution. As such, the reading of Jules Guesde mentioned above is also completely anachronistic.

An analysis applauded by all and at the origin of many emulators

However, we should not be mistaken. If the evocation of Marx and Engels can make more than one shudder, the Socialist History of the French Revolution by Jean Jaurès is not a politically oriented reading. On its release it was also greeted by the entire profession of historians. Ernest Labrousse even said of Jaurès' study that it had more of Barnave and Tocqueville than of Marx. And if they were non-Marxists, they applauded the emergence of this “economic interpretation of history”. From this interpretation were born the studies of Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, consecrated by the launch of their Annals of economic and social history. Obviously, it is useless to hide from you that the reading of this work is difficult and The reading of the disciples of Jaurès (like Albert Mathiez for example) is easier. Like all complex works, Socialist History requires time, concentration and a notepad under your elbow. But it is fascinating work and essential reading for the passionate lover of the French Revolution. We are moved by the study of this century-old work which affirms about the Great Fear of July-August 1789 that "in our countryside in the South we still speak of" the annado de la paou "". And now the story is very close ...

Socialist history of the French Revolution, Tome 1, Tome 2, Tome 3, tome 4, presented by Michel Biard Social Editions 2014-2015 ..

If you are interested in the Marxist analysis of history, read a few accessible to all:
- The preface to The Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, by Karl Marx, which is a true historiographical manifesto.
- For a dialectical materialist reading of the history of Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Friedrich Engels, The origin of the family of private property and the state, published by Tribord.

Video: The French Revolution: Crash Course European History #21 (January 2022).