Jean Jaurès, socialist and humanitarian/1

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The French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès was assassinated on the 31st of July, 1914. This cruel act was therefore one of the last things that happened while the world was still at peace. Before August, 1914, was many days old, the world was at war. On the last day of July there was still hope, though the hope was waning, that the terrible crisis might pass. And on that day, Jaurès, brave and far-sighted as he was, had bent his vigorous energies to influence French ministers to try to prevent war.… The day was over and in one moment the evil hand struck him down and darkness fell, fell on everyone who knew for what Jaurès stood. It was realised with something like despair, that the man who could have helped France best had been, with a mad cleverness, removed. There were thousands all over Europe who knew that Jaurès was the leader who might have shown the way through the dark mazes in which we are now wandering. He would at least have encouraged us, and have been the first to find the path onward out of the pitiless night to the new day. If such a path is to be found, Jaurès might have been trusted to find it. He loved France passionately, and loved Humanity too, and he was so disinterested that he saw the truth of things more clearly than those who have their own aims to serve. But he was torn away, and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the fall of the European house was so great that the death of Jaurès was for the time almost forgotten—not in his own country, but certainly here.

But it should not be forgotten. If in one sense the assassination of Jaurès is the closing scene in the life we lived before the war, when humanitarians could still believe that the world was moving in their direction, it is perhaps more truly to be described as the tragic opening scene in the great struggle now going on, not merely the struggle between the Allies and the Central Powers, but also that far deeper struggle that lies beneath it, which has begun in every country and will develop more and more — the struggle between Force and Freedom; between "l'homme animal," as Jaurès would have described it, and "l’homme mécanique." For Jaurès beyond and above most men stood for Freedom, the Freedom of the unprivileged, the Freedom of all men. He stood for the whole nation against a class, and for the whole of humanity against predominating nations. He wanted a living society, each man in it sacred, free, all banded together for social ends, making up free nations also banded together for social ends, each respecting the other, each secure from tyranny. Is it indeed to be a world such as Jaurès conceived it, or a world of drill-sergeants and of well-drilled slaves that is to come forth from the storm? The death of Jaurès was the first effort of the brute, blind force. It crushed out the most vigorous son of man that it could find, the most living, loving, ardent soul, the clearest brain, the warmest heart, the one most conscious of the whole trend of things. It only needed two small balls, mechanical forces, unmeaning, foolish, and that life was gone, lost to France here and now, though not really lost for evermore. It was a fitting prelude to the great calamity that has followed, with its frightful toll by dead mechanical means of the lives of living, loving men; though no one single life so precious, so ill to be spared, has been taken again.… He fell first.

Jean Jaurès was nearly fifty-five years old at the time of his death. He was born at Castres in Languedoc on the 3rd of September, 1859. It is easy to feel in his vivid and ardent nature a child of the South. "How many centuries had been necessary," said Romain Rolland in Au dessus de la Melée, "what rich civilizations of the North and the South, of the Present, of the Past, spread abroad and ripened in the good soil of France, under the western sun, to produce such a life! And when will the mysterious chance which combines elements and forces bring forth a second example of this good genius?"

Castres is the industrial centre of the department of the Tarn and is a busy town of more than 20,000 inhabitants. Endless spinning and weaving of woollens and of sheets goes on there, and there are dyeworks and tanneries and other factories. It has a certain seriousness of character, its houses are grey, its temperament business-like. It is overlooked by the Montagne Noire, a sombre blue mountain. But the country round is bathed in southern sunshine; vines, plum trees and peach trees abound, and Jaurès describes the maize growing higher than his head so that,[1] "when I cross the fields it seems as if I were in a real forest. In the evening when the moon rises, and there is a light breeze, a strong and health-giving odour, very enjoyable to breathe, streams forth from it.…"

During part of the time that Jean and his brother Louis were attending the college or boys' school of Castres, their parents lived at a distance of five kilometres out of the town and the boys had to walk backwards and forwards every day. These walks were delightful to Jean, who even then felt that passion for Nature which he retained through life.

Jaurès' parents were of the middle class, and possessed no wealth. His father is described as a man of intelligence and of strong physique, but wanting in stability of character. He tried his hand at several ways of earning a living, and was not very successful at any of them. As is so often the case with Frenchmen, Jaurès was devoted to his mother, who was a large-hearted and tolerant woman. When between 1889 and 1893 he and his mother were both living in Toulouse, but not in the same house, he used to meet her every day in a certain road and would, if talking with friends when he caught sight of her, run away and leave them, going off with her arm in arm. Madame Jaurès deplored her son's decision to enter on a political life and leave the more studious career in which he had seemed so successful, but the relative whom she consulted declared that "Jean is drawn to politics as a duck to water," and that it was useless to attempt to stop him.[2]

At school Jean and his brother Louis both showed great capabilities. Jean was always at the head of his class and was very docile. He was gifted in languages and early learnt much Latin, and Greek, and some German. Much later he learnt English, and Spanish, and Portuguese. All his life he had a passion for the Greek writers, especially Homer and Plato. Jaurès' youth was very studious and he had to be restrained at times from reading even at meals. Owing however to the circumstances in which his parents were placed, he would not have been able to continue his education without the help of M. Felix Deltour, an Inspector of Schools, who "discovered" the young Jaurès in the college at Castres, and took him under his protection. M. Deltour's views were reactionary and he would probably have been far from satisfied if he could have foreseen the development of the boy in whom he was so interested. This, however, being mercifully hidden from him, he enabled Jaurès, with true kind-heartedness, not only to go to Paris to spend two years at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, but also to follow up his studies at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. The Ecole Normale Supérieure is a training school for teachers in State Secondary Schools, and the students follow the classes at the Sorbonne.

During his boyhood in the country, Jaurès had always loved talking with the peasants and sharing in their work. On the Thursday half-holiday which is customary in France, or after he had finished preparing his lessons in the evenings, he loved to help load the hay, and later in the year to join in the vintage and even to guide a plough. It has been remarked more than once that Jaurès always kept something rustic about him even when in the full swing of a Parisian journalist's life. When he first went up to Paris he was considered by his comrades to be[3] "very much of a Southerner, rather rustic, rather hirsute," but also "intelligent and gifted with an extraordinary facility." He worked rapidly, and exhausted by the sudden change from the country to the airlessness of Paris, he slept much and long, a habit which was quite scandalous in the eyes of the boys' superintendent. His many questions and his hearty laugh were rather trying to the feelings of some of the older professors, who were used to respectful silence in their classes. He seems however to have won their hearts by his transparent simplicity and goodness.

When he had to write a paper, or give a lesson at the training school, his method was not to take many notes, but to think much and to use his wonderful memory. When he had read what was necessary about the subject in hand, he balanced himself on a chair and ruminated. Then if he had to write a paper he seized a pen and wrote page after page with great rapidity in a large hand. If he were preparing a lesson he wrote nothing, but thought for a long time and, when the moment came, gave forth with ease.

Speaking of him as he was at college at about twenty years of age, one of his comrades has told us[4] "Jaurès was without any sense of the value of money: to tell the truth, he lived happy as a king without a halfpenny in his pocket, often not having enough to take an omnibus—withal very generous when it happened that he had a few silver coins. Moreover, as little practical as possible, … he kept no accounts and easily got into a mess over any calculation. Very neglectful in dress, but without the slightest affectation about it. The question of the toilette did not exist for him, and in the same way he ignored in his innocence many worldly proprieties, and one may say all exterior elegance. This disdain amused us, ravished us, and was the occasion of many jokes. Some verses long preserved the memory of 'one of Jaurès' hats.' But we had a profound esteem for him, we venerated this naiveté, this truly childlike simplicity of heart."

Jaurès passed through all his examinations with great success. At the final Agrégation, taken at the end of his career at the Ecole Normale, he was evidently expected to do well, and his eloquence being already recognized, the amphitheatre where the oral tests took place was filled when it came to Jaurès' turn to speak. It emptied immediately afterwards for the next student, Lesbazeilles, leaving only the examiners in their places. The lists however showed Lesbazeilles first, Bergson (who was taking the examination at the same time) second, and Jaurès third.

A letter to a college chum gives a charming account of the way he passed his holidays.…[5]

"A few days ago I was running from market to market at Castres, and from restaurant to restaurant, to sell our oats. I cut short all the wiles and artifices of the tradesmen. 'You know that I know nothing about it: tell me my oats are bad, that's all the same to me, this is the price I want.' They bought them at the price I asked; it is true it was a very modest one.… I have done some digging in the garden.… I promise myself to trace a few furrows. Something will come out of me, wheat, oats or maize; I should like it best to be wheat! I shall be one of the nourishers of the human race.

… I rise at seven, breathe the fresh air, go round my estate, and at nine I sit down to breakfast on the terrace in the shade of two acacias. I stay there and talk with Papa and Mamma, or I go and play billiards with a neighbour. In the heat of the day I take an umbrella and my botany book, and I go and sit in the shade in a cool valley. I study a little, or I look at the clouds, and I come home at supper time through woods and vines studying, as I pass, roots and flowers, to verify what I have read.

… After supper I go into the garden where we water the plants, or I watch over the cows in a field, in Mamma's company, or I go and talk to M. Julien. Most often the whole family sit in front of the door and scarcely is the sun set when thousands of grasshoppers do the same; they come out of their holes … and are so happy that they make unending music.… I sleep near the barn and there is always some grasshopper lost in the dry fodder who lulls me to sleep with the monotonous noise of his song."

When he left the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Jaurès returned to the South and for two years taught in the lycée at Albi so as to be near his parents, whom he was able to see every week. In 1883 he was given a lectureship at the University of Toulouse. He soon began to take an active part in politics and it was not till 1891, during an interval when he was not in the Chamber of Deputies, that he presented his "thèses"—the final step for a young Frenchman before having fully graduated. He was now docteur-es-lettres. The "thèse" represents a piece of original work which in Jaurès' case appears to have been of value. His French thesis was philosophical and was called "De la realité du monde sensible," and his Latin essay was "On the origins of German Socialism." It is of interest that in both writings the ideas expressed are prophetic of what Jaurès' later mental outlook was to be. Although not yet a Socialist, he is already sufficiently interested in Socialism to make its origins in Germany the subject of his work. In this historical examination he refers German Socialism back to the teachings of Luther, Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, and refuses the idea that modern Socialism is a result of purely economic developments. This was characteristic of Jaurès, for though be believed in the reality of the world of sense, it was always the underlying spiritual idea which interested him and seemed to him important. The spirit was that which united all things, and in his philosophical essay he developed this great idea of Unity. Unity and the Interpenetrability of things, were the mental keynotes from which resulted all his ideas and acts, for Jaurès had a most harmonious nature and mind. In his philosophy Life was a whole, and the course of history a real development, so that he did not believe in cataclysms, and Socialism became to him simply a necessary result of all that had gone before. So, too, we find him always seeking the point of contact, even with those opposed to him in many things, for he believed in contact, in comprehension of others, even in submitting to them at times. He believed in the power all things have of penetrating each other and of deriving good from this communion—man penetrating and being penetrated by Nature, and human beings understanding each other, uniting with each other in larger and larger units.

Thought and action were harmoniously blended in Jaurès; it seemed easy to him to transform his philosophical thoughts into the details of his daily activities. And it was the same with his moral convictions. When he came back from taking a first public part in the "Affaire Dreyfus," Jules Guesde said to him in words which he always remembered with pleasure: "Je vous aime, Jaurès, parceque chez vous l’acte suit toujours la pensée."

In 1885 Jaurès stood as a candidate for Albi and was elected to the Chamber of Deputies. He was then only twenty-six years of age. It was not long after this that he was married.

Jaurès was not re-elected in 1889; but he stood for Carmaux in 1893 and represented the miners there for the rest of his life, with the exception of four years from 1898 to 1902. After the first few years, besides speaking much in public, he spoke constantly in the Chamber, and was a most industrious member, being present even in the mornings when details of laws are discussed. He was also constantly in the lobbies, questioning and discussing with men of all parties.

Jaurès had also become a journalist, and he managed during his afternoons of varied conversation to compose his daily article in his head. He was thinking of it all the time, and in the evening he had nothing to do but write it down. This he did in the editor's room of La Petite République in earlier years and later in that of L’Humanité, amid a great deal of noise.

Even from the first Jaurès' sympathies were clearly on the side of the people, and when in 1893 he definitely joined the Socialists, this was no real change, but merely that he had come to see the Socialist point of view quite clearly. At first he was, as he tells us, so much under the influence of the older Socialist leaders that he may have appeared to accept that type of revolutionary Socialism which he afterwards opposed.

But Jaurès' mind was too practical, his grip on human life was too keen for him to remain long with those who confine their energies to propaganda. He was an idealist, but he was a realist too. He believed, if anyone ever believed, in a new earth in which all men would be free and equal, but he wanted to set about realizing this by adapting all the forces for progress that were to hand. Above all it was clear to him that the great majority of the nation must become sympathetic to Socialism before Socialism could come about, and he was ready to hold out his hand to anyone—Socialist-Radical, Radical, or even moderate Republican—who gave signs of honestly working for progress. A difference of opinion arose amongst French Socialists over the part which Jaurès took, in conjunction with men like Zola, and with other mere Liberals, in the Dreyfus case. Afterwards the split became wider when, with the co-operation and leadership of Jaurès, the French Socialists in the Chamber of Deputies helped to form the bloc which, composed of men of advanced views of various shades, fought the Church and the reactionary forces and, under M. Waldeck-Rousseau and M. Combes, succeeded in passing the Law of Associations by which the Catholic teaching orders were destroyed, and ultimately brought about the complete separation of Church and State.

It cannot be said that the course which Jaurès took with regard to the bloc was without danger, nor that the expostulations and fears of Jules Guesde, who led the idealistic party, were without weight. What should exonerate Jaurès even in the eyes of the most idealistic was his disinterestedness. While backing his friends in taking office under Republican leaders, from the conviction that this was the right way to further the progress of Socialism, he himself remained outside the ministry. And when the Socialist Congress at Rheims, and the International Socialist Congress at Amsterdam, decided against the policy of Socialist participation in progressive ministries, and urged on French Socialists the necessity of reconciliation, Jaurès loyally agreed to the termination of the bloc and joined the United Socialists, out of whom the new party was formed. From that time to his death he worked for the whole party. It was a life of unceasing activity, for he was not only writing daily for L’Humanité, and speaking in the Chamber, but speaking also in public, drafting motions for Conferences, working without intermission for Internationalism and Peace.

Jaurès was a man of very great gifts which were never used for his own advancement but devoted to the service of the people. In a nation where the power to speak well is quite common he was recognized as the greatest orator. It is curious that in spite of being already so accomplished a speaker, when he first entered the Chamber of Deputies the mere thought of having to get up and speak caused him a terror which he found it very difficult to overcome. He soon had the ear of the Chamber, which not only realized his wonderful powers, but also the care with which he studied all the questions on which he spoke. Although his voice was not in itself attractive—Rappoport calls it "monotonous" and Macdonald speaks of it as "harsh"—yet he always won the sympathy of his audience. For the power of Jaurès' words sprang above all from the mind and heart of the man. "Even when he improvised," says M. Rappoport, "he only spoke of things which he had studied deeply. Headdressed himself at the same time to the reason, the feelings and the ear. He was at once an artist, a savant, and a statesman. Full of vigour and of passion, he yet had himself in full control. He said nothing but what he wished to say and what was necessary to say.… He was a veritable athlete of the platform. He cried, he thundered, he stormed, he clasped his hands, he carried away the listener, but he did not cease at the same time from instructing and enlightening him.… One felt the sincerity, the solidity, the truth of all he said.… Clear and keen thoughts alternated with sumptuous images. Interesting facts accumulated and came in crowds to the help of the ideas developed by the orator, with a vehemence and a passion which communicated itself to the audience.… In the midst of fiery and yet well-ordered periods, a stroke of delicious irony and of charming gaiety broke forth, like a flash of lightning in the midst of the storm. A gentle warmth of real kindness and good humour penetrated through all the words of the orator.… All the cords of the listener's heart were set vibrating in unison by the words, at once passionate and exact, vehement and measured, of the orator. One felt the physical need of applauding, of extolling the great tribune. One felt oneself in the presence of an extraordinary force, of a superior force, a force of goodness and light.… A current of friendship, of cordiality established itself between the orator and his audience. And one went out better from the hall where Jaurès had been spreading forth the sonorous and limpid floods of his vigorous and healthy eloquence."

M. Romain Rolland has also described delightfully the impression that Jaurès made on him when he spoke:[6] "I have listened to him often in the Chamber, at socialist congresses, at meetings held on behalf of oppressed nations.… Again I see his full face calm and happy, like that of a kindly bearded ogre; his small eyes bright and smiling; eyes as quick to follow the flight of ideas as to observe human nature. I see him pacing up and down the platform, walking with heavy steps like a bear, his arms crossed behind his back, turning sharply to hurl at the crowd, in his monotonous, metallic voice, words like the call of a trumpet, which reached the farthest seats in the vast amphitheatre, and went straight to the heart, making the soul of the whole multitude leap in one united emotion" …

Partly no doubt because of this wonderful gift of speech, Jaurès became very widely known. Camille Huysmans, the Secretary of the International Socialist Bureau, speaking in its name at the funeral of Jaurès, said: "We are, throughout the world, ten millions of organized workmen for whom the name of Jaurès incarnated the most noble, eloquent, and complete socialist aspirations.… Jaurès did not belong only to France. He belonged to all the nationalities.… I remember what he was for workmen of other countries. I still see foreign delegates waiting till he had spoken to fix their decisive opinion; and even when they were not in agreement with him they liked to come as near as they could to his conception. He was more than an artist. He was more than the Word.… He was the Conscience. He was a moral value. He knew how to give the example of discipline. He was like those oaks of Finland, which, high as masts, and powerfully attached to the soil know how to bend their heads without uprooting themselves, and whose elasticity redoubles their force."

In Quelques pages sur Jean Jaurès, M. L. Levy-Bruhl says: "The religious sentiment wells up in Jaurès from two sources which never dried up. The first is the love of Nature which revealed itself so strongly in Jaurès when he was quite a child, that sort of intimate blending of his being with the earth, the sky, the forest, the fields, the grasshoppers, the bees, with all the palpitating and humming life of his beloved South; from thence came the genuine hymns with which his thèse is strewn, a hymn to light, to night, to the earth, to the stars, etc. The other is the profound need of justice, the presentiment of, and the demand for, a social order which would be harmonious and truly human, from which the present reality is still far off, but which is bound to realize itself. This faith, which doubt never touched, is in essence truly religious."

It is this deep undercurrent in the life of the ardent and vigorous politician which is so surprising. His was a nature at once deep and wide, readily responsive and yet having in its own inner life the capability for those finer experiences which seem generally to come only to poets and to those who live much alone. In illustration of his idea of the interpenetrability of Man and Nature Jaurès wrote:[7] "… In the same measure that we act upon the exterior world it acts upon us. There are hours when we feel in treading the ground a joy as tranquil and profound as the earth herself.… How many times, walking in the paths across fields, I have said to myself suddenly that it was the Earth that I was treading, that I was hers and she mine, and without thinking of it I slackened my pace because it was not worth while to hasten on her surface, because I felt her in each step and possessed her wholly, and my soul, if I may so express it, walked in her depths. How many times also, lying on the top of a ditch, turned, at the decline of day, towards the soft blue East, I thought suddenly that the earth was journeying, that flying the weariness of day and the limited horizons of the sun, she was going with a tremendous impetus towards the serene night and the illimitable horizons, and that she was carrying me with her: and I felt in my flesh as well as in my soul, and in the earth as in my flesh the shudder of this rush, and I found a strange sweetness in these spaces which opened out in front of us without a clash, without a fold, without a murmur."

Jaurès had a subtle and powerful brain. His mind seized on the fundamental meaning of things and was not disturbed by the non-essentials. He could be very passionate, even unfair in excitement, but he had a fundamental sanity and an almost unique wide-mindedness and the humility of the truly great. He had besides, and that was his charm, a warm heart. A little incident, told by M. Rappoport, belonging to the very last moments of his life, reveals his simple kindliness.[8] Jaurès had been labouring hard that last day, urging the Minister, it would seem, to put more pressure upon Russia to act so as if possible to save Europe from the horror of war. He returned to the office of L’Humanité very late. Much had still to be done.

"They came down to the restaurant of the Croissant," says M. Rappoport, "two steps from the office of L’Humanité, where Jaurès and his friends took their places at the long table at the left of the entrance. The seriousness of the time had thrown them all into a state of deep emotion. Jaurès spoke in his beautiful grave voice.… He was giving some instructions to his political collaborators. They finished dinner. At this moment Citizen Dolié of the Bonnet Rouge, who was dining with his young wife at another table, rose and came across with a photograph in his hand and held it out to one of Jaurès' companions, saying: 'Look, it's my little girl.' 'Can I see?' said Jaurès with a kind smile. He took the photograph, examined it a moment, asked the young father the age of the child, and congratulated him" … A little act of gentleness done at a moment when a man might well be excused for preoccupation, even for haughtiness or brusquerie. It was just then that the assassin's bullet struck him behind the ear. He fell forward and did not recover consciousness. A doctor was fetched, but nothing could be done, and a few moments later he died.

  1. Quelques pages sur J. Jaurès, by L. Levy-Bruhl.
  2. See Quelques pages sur J. Jaurès, by L. Levy-Bruhl.
  3. Quelques pages sur J. Jaurès, by L. Levy-Bruhl.
  4. Quelques pages sur J. Jaurès, by L. Levy-Bruhl.
  5. From Quelques pages sur J. Jaurès, by L. Levy-Bruhl.
  6. Au dessus de la Mêlée, par Romain Rolland.
  7. From La realité du Monde sensible.
  8. J. Jaurès, L’Homme, Le Penseur, Le Socialiste, par Ch. Rappoport.