A century ago—the last time a book by Jean Jaurès appeared in English—nearly any American on the political Left would have known his name. Writing in 1904, the acerbic revolutionary Daniel DeLeon could expect his American followers to understand when he called the new reformist style of socialism “Jaurèsism;” in 1925, John Dos Passos could have characters in Manhattan Transfer drop Jaurès’ name with little explanation. Today, that pioneer of social democracy and martyr of French republicanism is less well remembered, at least in America. Our political thought would be enriched if we better knew him.

Thankfully, Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution, one of his principal works, is now available in a vivid and sympathetic translation and abridgement by Mitchell Abidor. A translator of authors such as Victor Serge and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Abidor is also the primary French-to-English translator for the Marxists Internet Archive.1 He renders Jaurès’ prose, which tends toward the elaborate, in fluid English. In its original form, Jaurès’ Socialist History was three thousand pages long, comprising the first four volumes of a thirteen-volume history of France from 1789 to 1900.2 In an impressive editorial feat, Abidor’s deft trimming yields a concise and lively overview of the Revolution, one of the better brief accounts we have of events in France between 1789 and 1794. The storming of the Bastille, the march to Versailles, the arrest and trial of the king, the conflicts between the enragés and the moderates, the rise of the Jacobins, Thermidor: all the principal episodes are recounted, making this a useful book for any student of the “Great Revolution.”

The most interesting aspect of the Socialist History, however, is suggested by the adjective. What Jaurès means by “socialist” might not be what readers expect. Although Jaurès sometimes writes about classes and class struggles, this is not a Marxist history. Jaurès is more concerned with what he calls the “mystical” side of human affairs—the power of ideas and moral impulses—than even a revised Marxism could permit. “It’s not only through the force of circumstances that the social revolution will be made,” he writes, “it is by the force of men, by the energy of consciousness and will. History will never exempt men from the need for individual valor and nobility.”3 Plutarch, Jaurès remarks, is as important an influence on his Socialist History as is Marx4—a clue that Jaurès’ socialist politics depends on well-educated capacities for perception and judgment.

A striking feature of the Socialist History, accordingly, is the way that moments of reflection so frequently interrupt the flow of events. The Socialist History has little in common with the grand oratory for which Jaurès was famous in his lifetime5; instead, it introduces readers to a pensive, ruminative Jaurès—and, consequently, to a pensive, ruminative socialism. Why did this leader make this decision? What was he thinking? What could, and what should, he have done differently? Jaurès asks such questions of figures he admires (and of no one more than Robespierre, who receives both his warmest praise and his sharpest critiques), but the most poignant reflective moments come when Jaurès writes about people who are not his heroes. Thus Jaurès on Louis XVI during the August 1792 assault on the Tuileries Palace:

What was the king’s state of mind during this drama? This is an impenetrable mystery. Did he momentarily hope that the chateau would be defended and that the Revolution would be defeated? He watched the Assembly’s session from the stenographer’s box. The cries that announced the arrival of the Swiss mercenaries doubtless echoed joyously in his heart. It’s also possible that when he heard the cannons, heard the crackling of the fusillade, he regretted not having remained among his soldiers to inspire them with his presence. Choudieu, who observed him closely, affirmed that his face remained passive as long as the combat continued and that he only showed emotion when the defeat of his last defenders became known to him. Too late he ordered the Swiss to cease fire.6

This description of the king’s regret, unexpected and resonant as it is, stays with a reader.

Passages like these turn out to be anything but inconsequential. Jaurès invites his readers to linger over questions of political judgment because, for him, socialism is not something inevitable, as it was for Marxists in his generation, and is not essentially a question of material necessities or economic models, as Leftist (and even centrist) politics seems to many today. Instead, Jaurès’ socialism is a moral stance, a democratic political ethos. When socialists of Jaurès’ sort confront political life, they are not armed with a dogma that answers questions in advance. Instead, they sense the moral imperatives that drive them, and they have a certain political craft or method to apply. Thus a need for the deliberate application of political craft to new circumstances is built in to Jaurès’ socialism, and telling history “from the socialist point of view”7 means to him, in no small part, demonstrating how political reflection and judgment operate in particular cases.

For Jaurès, the means and end of socialist politics can be summed up in one word. “Democracy,” he writes, “is at one and the same time a forceful means of action and the form in accordance with which economic and political relations should be ordered.”8 The great lesson of the Revolution, for Jaurès, is that democracy tends to deepen. That means two distinct but related things: first, that democracy’s “form” or norm is altered, fundamentally but not without continuity, as the rights of citizens are broadened to include economic rights—such as the social insurance programs and union rights that Jaurès championed while in public office—and, second, that democratic “means of action”—representative institutions like the Revolution’s Assemblies as well as participatory bodies like its clubs, committees, and sections9—reveal their radical meanings as they establish their primacy over non-democratic social and economic institutions.

This understanding of democracy plays out gradually through the Socialist History, allowing Jaurès to show how mildly democratic principles, like those established in the first stage of the Revolution, can have consequences that their authors did not anticipate. The Revolution’s turn toward questions of social equality came, he writes, not through a repudiation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen—a document written by and for members of the property-owning classes—but through new interpretations of the Declaration. The Revolution moved leftward through immanent critique: “The people were proud to be able to say to the bourgeoisie that they interpreted the Rights of Man better than they,” and the people’s “boldness” in pressing social and economic demands seemed to them “a logical extension of all that had occurred.”10 The way to build a democratic left, for Jaurès, is to make explicit the radical implications of an imperfectly democratic society’s common values.

Thinkers on the democratic left have often tried to make do with either “watered-down Marxism” or “bulked-up liberalism.”11 Jaurès aims at something different: a social-democratic political theory that can stand on its own. His Socialist History presents his convictions that, precisely because it holds to democratic ends and depends on democratic means, the left needs a moral language, and, conversely, that precisely because it is an enterprise sustained by a thirst for justice, Left politics needs to be democratic in its means and ends. As Jaurès portrays it, the politics of the democratic Left is, at bottom, not a matter of social science or “critical theory” but of commitment and character.

  1. Studies in Socialism, Margaret Minturn’s 1906 translation of Jaurès’ Études socialistes, and Democracy and Military Service, G.G. Coulton’s 1916 abbreviated translation of Jaurès’s L’Armée nouvelle, can both be found on that site, along with early versions of Abidor’s work on the Socialist History and several previously unpublished Jaurès translations by Abidor and others. 

  2. Jaurès began working on the Socialist History (originally L’Histoire socialiste, 1789-1900) in 1898; his four volumes were published in 1901 and 1902, and the remaining nine volumes (which he oversaw, but, except for a few short sections, did not write) between 1902 and 1908. The years during which Jaurès wrote his portions of the Socialist History—one of the few periods in his adult life when he was not serving in the French parliament—encompassed the Dreyfus Affair, the controversy over the socialist Alexandre Millerand’s service in a “bourgeois” coalition government, and the sorting-out of the complex French left into two rival parties, one reformist and the other revolutionary. For the classic account, see Harvey Goldberg, The Life of Jean Jaurès (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1962), pp. 235-292; on the publication history of L’Histoire socialiste, see Goldberg, p. 571. 

  3. Jean Jaurès, A Socialist History of the French Revolution, ed. and trans. Mitchell Abidor (Pluto Press, 2015), p. 8. 

  4. Jaurès A Socialist History, 9. 

  5. For the finer rhetorical passages in A Socialist History, see the chapter titled “How Shall We Judge the Revolutionaries?” (249-251). 

  6. Jaurès A Socialist History, 105. 

  7. Jaurès A Socialist History, 1. 

  8. Jaurès A Socialist History, 250. 

  9. Jaurès calls these representative and participatory bodies the “two coinciding centers” of the Revolution (A Socialist History,p. 33). 

  10. Jaurès A Socialist History, 149. 

  11. Sheri Berman, The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 200.