Politics in Practice

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Revisiting the History of Socialism in Europe

Jean-Numa Ducange is Assistant Professor at Rouen-Normandie University, France. He is the author of Jules Guesde: The Birth of Socialism and Marxism in France (2020) and co-editor of The End of the Democratic State: Nicos Poulantzas, a Marxism for the 21st Century (2018). His forthcoming anthology on Jean Jaurès (also in the Marx, Engels, and Marxisms book series) is due to publish in early 2021. Read the chapter “‘Eternal Guesdism’: The Prophet’s Legacies” from Jules Guesde for free until 13th July 2020

The political and social situation in France often interests observers and journalists: so many strikes, social movements, highly ideologized political currents... Some of my recent research has been dedicated to a figure that is little known abroad, Jules Guesde, and provides examples to understand the specificities of the French left. 

Indeed Guesde introduced Marxism in France and contributed to building the Socialist Party in the north of the country – the north is a region where the left, socialism and then later communism held very strong positions. Born in 1845, Guesde fought in solidarity with the Paris Commune of 1871, met Karl Marx to write the program of his workers' party in 1880, went into exile (Italy, Switzerland...), frequented the most famous leaders of international socialism (J. Jaurès, F. Turati, W. Liebknecht, B. Mussolini...) and finally became Minister of the French Republic in 1914. Few left-wing men have gone through such a long period.  

Today "socialism" is a term that is coming back into fashion in some countries, particularly in the United States: we should look back on its history to better understand it. 

The vocabulary of the "class struggle" as a means to understand the social world, a vocabulary that remains very present in the French political imagination in the most recent crises (see, for example, the yellow vests movement one year ago), was systematically disseminated by Guesde and his supporters (the so-called "guesdists") at the end of the 19th century.

Guesde was also a great speaker (as were the other leaders of the French Left from Jaurès to Mitterrand), appreciated by activists and the working class population, who impressed his supporters as well as his opponents. Around him, there was a whole universe: workers' militants, trade unions and cooperatives linked to the party. In some regions, there were also peasants, small owners who supported him... 

But we have to go beyond the character, to understand the identity of socialism in France and Europe. My work, devoted to the "birth of socialism and Marxism," also comes back to this. “Guesdism" was the alliance of a revolutionary phraseology with social and political practices that were often very pragmatic. Thus, for example, when the partisans of Guesde managed to conquer the city of Lille (one of the largest French cities in the North of France) they did so thanks to a strategy of alliance with rather moderate members of the left. Was this simply opportunism? Obviously, this dimension cannot be neglected. Guesde and his supporters were in politics. They were waiting for a new revolution, yet at the same time, they wanted to increase their influence wherever they could. And there we find a major element that allows us to understand French political life up to the municipal elections of March 2020: the socialists (and the communists too, by the way) may have very bad electoral scores at the national level, but they resist in the cities where the results are based in the municipal elections. The "municipalism" as it was called in the 1890s is a very important fact. 

But then, is it opportunism? No, it's much more complicated. First of all, Guesde and his supporters, while affirming that only revolution and socialism could fundamentally change things, contributed to the development of public service at the local level. Thus Roubaix (a suburb of Lille where Guesde was a deputy for a long time) is nicknamed the "Mecca of socialism"! Guesde thus keeps a political tradition alive: elections are important, but what also counts above all for a strong Political Left is the existence of the Workers' Party and its red flags, its songs, its congresses, its big demonstrations... In a word: its identity. This is a marker of Guesde and his legacy to French political history. One will find these marks, for example, in the history of the French Communist Party (PCF), which was for a long time the first workers’ party in France (between 1945 and 1980): a practice of alliances and management and, at the same time, a very marked revolutionary rhetoric. On the side of the Socialist Party, which was the most powerful party of the French left until recently, it should be noted that this party has long had a strong left wing, borrowing an assertive Marxist vocabulary. Here again, probably a legacy of Jules Guesde. 

In times of political crises, there is no doubt that concerns about political identity will resurface. Returning to the trajectory of a man like Jules Guesde is therefore of more than just historical interest: it allows us to understand how an ideology is constituted through its concrete political forms.