Monday, October 27, 2008

vive Jaurès

Today I read about the death of Jean Jaurès. It was not a big job of research--actually I just read the article in Wikipedia. Probably I once knew who he was, and what he did, and how he died, but all that was a blank slate when I started this morning. So here's what I learned:

Jean Jaurès was a leader of the French Socialist Party at the turn of the last century, a leading figure in the Second International, a deputy to the Assembly, a hero to many. In those terrible months in 1914 when the most horrific war imaginable at that time was drawing ineluctably toward its opening bombardment,  Jaurès had the idea that the working people of Europe could still prevent it by acting in concert. This idea was wildly unpopular in France, where the fires of chauvinistic pride were already burning high. Even in his own party Jaurès, though respected,  was in the minority. Still he spent the last two weeks of July shuttling frantically between meetings of workers' organizations, trying to build the foundations for a general strike, which could only work if every combatant country was paralyzed simultaneously--an unlikely outcome.  To achieve partial success in one's own country was to risk the charge of treason, but for Jaurès, who seemed to understand better than most the weight of devastation that pulled on the other side of the balance, the cost of failure was too heavy to bear. So he labored on, returning to Paris on the afternoon of the 31st of July. He went to his office at the newspaper L'Humanité, where he wrote another appeal against the war. Then he went as usual to take his dinner at the Café du Croissant, rue de Montmartre where, sitting with his back to the sidewalk, he was shot in the head by a deranged nationalist student named Villain. He died instantly. The French army, like those all across Europe, was already mobilizing toward the front. His socialist brethren, along with many of his nationalist adversaries, paid Jaurès the honor of a massive funeral, but there was no further opposition in France to the war, which broke out in force two weeks later. 

Villain was imprisoned for the duration of the war and tried only afterwards, in 1919. Despite the certainty of the facts, he was acquitted by a French jury, who judged that "he had done a service for the fatherland" by murdering Jaurès. Under French law Jaurès's widow was obliged to pay court costs.

Why do I bother to excavate this little footnote? Well, I happened to be reading an article on the NPA website this morning, in which the author offered the opinion--which I happen to share--that the capitalist system will not be able to respond to the urgencies of the impending environmental catastrophe in time, if ever, and he therefore called for an anti-capitalist party that would be "100% écosocialiste." The author, Raoul Marc Jennar, notes in passing that he was not a member of the Trotskyist LCR, did not share"the political culture born in 1917," but rather belonged to the tradition of 1793 (the radical phase of the French Revolution), 1871 (the Paris Commune), and "the man who was murdered in the Café du Croissant in Paris in August, 1914." That was the remark that sent me to Wikipedia, where I retrieved the rather moving story of Jaurès's murder. 

But still the reader--if any has penetrated this far--may well ask, so what? Why that, why now? Or better still, why this quixotic fascination for the improbable Nouveau Parti Anti-Capitaliste, when you could be simply enjoying Paris (and perhaps entertaining a reader or two with your folkloric evocations, so much more fun to read than these tracts chiants)? But I find it remarkably interesting that M. Jennar, in the year 2008, continues to keep faith with Jaurès, let alone Robespierre and the communards. Like Jaurès we are staring into the abyss, though it may not cost us our lives to say so--just a little sleep, unless we change the subject. With whom are we keeping faith, dear reader, you and I?

So there, faithful reader, I'm done for now. Maybe tomorrow I'll have something lighter to talk about. But for now, vive Jaurès, vive le NPA, vive l'écosocialisme!

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