Pioneers of internationalism

Issue: 117

Ian Birchall

Robert Stuart, Marxism and National Identity (SUNY, 2006), $29.95

Today Jules Guesde is remembered, if at all, for the treachery at the end of his life—he joined the French wartime government in 1914 and remained in it till the end of 1916. Leon Trotsky, on being expelled from France in 1916, addressed a letter of bitter contempt to his former comrade (

But 30 years earlier Guesde was leader of a Marxist party, the POF (Parti Ouvrier Français—French Workers’ Party), and was accused of being in the pay of the German government because of his anti_war line. The POF later fused with other groups to form the French Socialist Party (SFIO), in which Guesde upheld the left against the right wing of the much overrated Jean Jaurès, who would undoubtedly have backed the war in 1914 had he not been assassinated just before it started.

People like Guesde and his followers are often written off as “Second International Marxists”, defined by their ultimate failure in 1914 and generally characterised by a crudely determinist version of historical materialism. But the Second International contained a rich variety of Marxisms (Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg were all leading members). Robert Stuart has made a thorough and detailed study of the POF, and in this book examines the internationalism of the POF, giving a picture that is a good deal more positive than one might have expected.

Guesde himself was not much of a theoretician. The real brains of the POF were Paul Lafargue and his wife Laura, Karl Marx’s daughter. Lafargue was the author of the splendid The Right to be Lazy (, an eminently relevant work today. He was a living embodiment of internationalism, combining in his own person African_Caribbean, Jewish and Indigenous American blood. He took particular pride in his black roots. He and Laura committed suicide in 1911; otherwise they might well have been at the centre of opposition to the war.

The Guesdists took as their starting point Marx’s writings in the Communist Manifesto on the essentially international nature of capital. Capital constantly crossed national frontiers in search of profits, and in so doing it undermined the nation and created an international working class. The Guesdists can be accused of excessive optimism in believing that the nation_state and nationalist consciousness were withering away, but their analysis ensured that they made no compromise with nationalism.

The Guesdists had a clear Marxist view of the state, and therefore recognised the nation_state as embodying ruling class interests. They saw clearly that the main function of state primary education was to “poison the population with patriotism”. They thus firmly distinguished themselves from the republican tradition, which, to this day, sees secular state education as a great achievement.

For the Guesdists there was nothing natural about the nation. Force alone had established “the transient unity that carries the name French nation”. They had no sympathy for the desire to reconquer Alsace-Lorraine, removed from France at the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1870_1). They advocated self_determination for Alsace_Lorraine, and showed that French industrialists had greatly profited from the fact that the lost provinces were now behind a tariff wall. So hostile was the party to nationalism that one branch expelled members for celebrating Bastille Day.

Likewise they were quite perceptive as to what a future European war would mean: “slaughterhouses many kilometres square where hundreds of thousands of men will be massacred without glory and without heroism”. Their only error was to believe that such a prospect would be enough to prevent the ruling class from launching a war. They condemned the arms trade and believed that capitalism was producing arms for a war that would never happen in order to counteract the falling rate of profit. They were firmly anti_militarist, pointing to the way that the army was used both for conquest abroad and to repress the working class at home.

The POF also had to face the question of immigrant labour. In the 1890s 10 percent of the French workforce was foreign. The POF took a positive attitude, pointing out that immigrants often did “the most repugnant and dangerous of jobs”. The POF advocated full legal rights for immigrant workers, so that they could not be used to weaken class organisation or depress wages. The POF organised in the West Indian colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique, so it had many black members.

The POF could perhaps be accused of complacency in the face of racism. As Stuart points out, there were often good relations between French and immigrants among skilled workers, where the POF had its main base; among the unskilled things were not always so harmonious.

Frequently the POF found itself in conflict with the anti-Semitic far right. Stuart demolishes the claims of those who, like the buffoon Bernard_Henri Lévy, have claimed that the POF was marked by anti_Semitism. The POF showed unqualified opposition to anti-Semitism, and its street fighters frequently came into conflict with the French Anti-Semitic League. When anti-Semites attacked a Jewish shop in Nantes, POF militants were among local inhabitants who defended the shopkeeper. (The police arrested the defenders—some things never change.)

The POF did set out to win over “left anti_Semites”, and held public debates with the anti-Semites (as the German Communist Party were to do three decades later). But it would be quite wrong to project back the “no platform” policy of the present day onto a very different situation.

The POF could be accused of underestimating anti-Semitism, arguing that it could have no influence on workers. While it is easy with hindsight to criticise such complacency, it should be remembered that the anti-Semitic movements of the late 19th century were very different from modern fascism. Drumont, the leading anti-Semitic propagandist, was an extreme conservative, who believed that electric light was a dangerous modernising innovation. There was indeed little future for such backward looking thought. Adolf Hitler, subsidised by Henry Ford and a fervent promoter of the motor car, was a very different matter.

It is true that the Guesdists, like all the currents of the French left, failed the crucial test of the Dreyfus case, leaving it to unaligned individuals such as Emile Zola to save the honour of the left. But the POF’s abstentionism (about which Lafargue had severe reservations) sprang not from anti-Semitism, but from an oversimplified notion of class. Dreyfus, it was argued, was an army officer and hence a class enemy; therefore it was not incumbent on workers to defend him against anti-Semitism.

Yet the overall balance sheet is very positive. Stuart scrupulously documents the fairly rare lapses by the POF, such as the article which expressed the fear that the French labour market would be flooded with “Chinese sodomites”. He notes that some Guesdists moved to the far right, but every movement has its renegades.

Stuart claims that Guesde did not betray the left in 1914 and that he had always taken the position of defending France against German aggression. This does not adequately explain how far the rather pathetic Guesde of 1914 had moved from his earlier revolutionary principles. A full explanation of 1914 would require examination of the SFIO’s development up to that year, and a study of the analyses offered by Lenin, Alfred Rosmer and others.

If 1914 is seen as the end of the story, then the POF, and the whole Second International, must be accounted a failure. But after the catastrophe of 1914 France saw a rapidly growing anti-war movement and then, in 1920, the founding of a mass Communist Party which, in its first five years at least, had a very creditable record of internationalism. (For a fresh angle on this, see George Paizis’s excellent new book Marcel Martinet: Poet of the Revolution.) All this undoubtedly drew on the memories and experiences of an earlier phase of internationalism.

Stuart’s narrative is sometimes irritating. In his insistence to show Marxism’s weakness in face of the “enduring vitality” of nationalism, he often makes parallels with 20th century history that are out of context and insufficiently developed. All too often he engages in nitpicking linguistic analysis of Guesdist texts. Nevertheless, for reviving a largely forgotten period of socialist history, he deserves our thanks.