Jean Jaurès Socialist History of the French Revolution

How Should We Judge the Revolutionaries?

Source: Histoire Socialiste de la Révolution Française, Vol VI. Paris, Éditions Sociales, 1968;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2012.

A historian is always allowed to oppose hypotheses to destiny. He is allowed to say here are the faults of men and parties and to imagine that without these faults events would have followed another course. I have spoken of Robespierre’s immense services after May 31, organizing the revolutionary power, saving France from civil war, anarchy, and defeat. I have also spoken of how, after the crushing of Hébertism and Dantonism, he was struck with doubt, blindness, and dizziness.

But what must never be forgotten when judging these men is that the problems destiny imposed on them were formidable and probably beyond human strength. Perhaps it wasn’t possible for one generation alone to bring down the ancien régime, to create new laws and rights, to raise an enlightened and proud people from the depths of ignorance, poverty, and misery, to fight against a world-wide league of tyrants and slaves, and to put all passions and forces to use in this combat while ensuring the evolution of the fevered, overworked country towards normal order and regulated freedom. The France of the Revolution needed a century, countless trials, backslidings into monarchy, reawakenings of the republic, invasions, dismemberments, coups d'état, and civil wars before it finally arrived at the organization of the Republic, at the establishing of equal liberty through universal suffrage. The great workers of revolution and democracy who labored and fought more than a century ago are not accountable to us for a labor that could only be accomplished by several generations. To judge them as if they should have brought the drama to a close, as if history was not going to continue after them, is both childish and unjust. Their work was necessarily limited, but it was great. They affirmed the idea of democracy in its full amplitude. They gave the world the first example of a great country governing itself and saving itself through the might of the entire people. They gave the Revolution the magnificent prestige of the Idea and the necessary prestige of victory. And they gave France and the world so prodigious a momentum towards freedom that, despite reaction and eclipses, the new law definitively took possession of history.

Democracy and socialism

Socialism claims and rests on this new law. It is a democratic party to the highest degree, since it wants to organize the sovereignty of all in both the economic and political orders. And it is on the rights of the human person that it founds the new society, since it wants to give every individual the concrete means of development that alone will permit him to fully realize himself.

I wrote this long history of the Revolution up till the 9 Thermidor in the midst of the fight; a fight against the enemies of socialism, the Republic, and democracy. A fight as well among the socialists themselves over the best methods of action and combat. And the further I advanced under the crossfire of that battle the stronger was my conviction that for the proletariat democracy is a great conquest.

It is at one and the same time a decisive means of action and a form according to which economic and political relations should be ordered. From this grew the passionate joy with which I noted the burning lava of socialism that flowed from the furnace of the Revolution and democracy.

In an important way – in the way Babeuf meant it when he invoked it speaking of Robespierre – we are the party of democracy and the Revolution. But we haven’t immobilized and frozen the latter. We don’t pretend to have fixed human society in the economic and social formulae that prevailed between 1789 – 1795 and responded to living and production conditions that are today abolished. Too often the bourgeois democratic parties limit themselves to picking out from the foot of the volcano a few fragments of cooled-off lava, to scooping up some extinguished ash from around the furnace. The burning metal should instead be poured into new molds.

The problem of property is no longer posed, can no longer be posed, as it was in 1789 or 1793. Private property was then able to appear to be a form and a guarantee of the human personality. With large-scale capitalist industry the socialist association of producers and the common and collective property of the means and methods of labor have become the conditions for universal liberation. And in order to wrest the Revolution and democracy from what is now outdated and retrograde in bourgeois concepts strong class action on the part of the proletariat is necessary.

“Class” and not “sect,” for it is all of life that the proletariat must organize, and it can only organize democracy and life by mixing itself in with them. The action must be grand and free under the discipline of a clear ideal. A democratic politics and a class politics: these are the two non-contradictory terms between which the proletarian force moves, and which history will one day merge together in the unity of social democracy.

In this way socialism is attached to the Revolution without being chained to it. And this is why we have followed with a free spirit and a fervent heart the heroic efforts of revolutionary democracy.

I pass to the hands of our friends the torch whose flames have been agitated by the storm winds and which half-devoured itself in tragically lighting up the world. A tormented but immortal flame which despotism and counter-revolutionaries would fight to extinguish and which, ever-revived, would expand into an ardent socialist hope. It was now in the troubled atmosphere of Thermidor that the clarity of the revolution would be debated.