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Socialism and Nationalism in the History of France

The collapse of French socialism at the outbreak of the First World War is considered by many historians to be the most significant case of its kind. We must go back in time to find its origins. The dramatic repression of the Paris Commune in 1871 was followed by a decade of shootings and the deportation of tens of thousands of revolutionary militants.

Reactionary monarchical legitimism attributed the decline of France to the Revolution of 1789, but by then the nouvelles couches sociales, the new classes produced by capitalism, as Leon Gambetta defined them, demanded a politics free from economic, social and clerical ties. The Radical Party, a turning point of French politics, was its expression.

The same taditional Catholic Judeophobia dating back to the Middle Ages — according to Michel Dreyfus’, research director at the CNRS in Paris, Anti-Semitism on the Left in France [Paris, 2009] — gradually transformed into the image of the Jews associated with money and modernity who destroyed national traditions.

The French historian reports some facts regarding this: in 1870, out of 36 million inhabitants, France had 35.4 million Catholics, 600,000 Protestants, 50,000 Jews and 60,000 freethinkers. Jews therefore made up just under 0.2% of the population, concentrated largely in Paris, and accounted for no more than 45 to 50 of the top 300 bankers of the time, even if their presence has been historically consolidated.

Recovery and limits of socialism in France

After they had been given amnesty, in 1879, the Communards began to return to France, bringing with them the divisions created during their exiles. Jules Guesde, an ex-anarchist turned socialist, went to London in 1880 to draw up a program for the French proletariat, with Marx, Engels and Paul Lafargue, who then moved to Paris. Engels, in a letter to Eduard Bernstein on October 25th, 1881, informed him that the program, dictated by Marx, while Guesde was writing, was a masterpiece of stringent argumentation that in a few sentences clarifies things for the masses, in a way that I have rarely seen and which, even in such a concise version, has left me amazed, although Guesde added some extravagance more suitable, in his opinion, for French workers.

The following year, the Parti Ouvrier Français (POF) [French Workers’ Party] lost Paul Brousse, who left the party wanting to put himself at the head of a demand for what he called possibilisme — that is, for taking such chances as offered to secure practical advances towards Socialism, by the promotion of social legislation and of progressive municipal policies, summaries G.D.H. Cole in the second volume of A History of Socialist Thought page 326 [MacMillan, 1957]. Guesde, remaining in the minority, instead supported a centralised and organised party, without alliances with bourgeois parties, which was however only well established in the North.

The ‘populist’ Boulanger

From 1885 France was prey to an economic and political crisis, marked by scandals and financial corruption, which the opposition blamed on the swamp of parliamentary mercantilism [Wolfgang Schivelbusch, La cultura dei vinti, (The culture of defeat) Il Mulino, 2006]. Then the figure of General Georges Boulanger (1837-1891), who in 1886 was appointed by the Radicals as minister of war, emerged. As one of his colleagues said: he was a man whose most insignificant action seemed to be of enormous importance. The new minister was perceived as the bearer of national stability and security, while the others found themselves representing laziness, cowardice and scandal. Boulanger, however, knew how to create a symbolic and rhetorical reality and use it to guide politics, but he lacked the ability to distinguish between the two.

Fearing his authoritarian populism (for example, inviting soldiers to divide their rations with strikers) the Radicals distanced him from the government, thereby offering him a wider space and role, as Sergio Romano wrote [La Franca dal 1870 ai nostri giorni, (France from 1870 to today) Mondadori, 1981]. Ousted, he gathered a heterogeneous coalition of Catholics and radicals, Jacobin socialists and nationalists from the Ligue des Patriotes, who provided the assault troops, usually recruited in popular neighbourhoods, before the government dissolved them.

The General pushed through local elections, up to Paris, where he received the votes of the working-class fanbourg (suburbs). Boulanger’s political battle ended in April of 1889 with his impeachment, the failure of his offensive, and his escape to Brussels, where he committed suicide.

Engels, Lafargue and Boulanger

The historian Zeev Stemhell, in Né destra né sinistra. L’ideologia fascista in Francia (Neither right nor left. Fascist Ideology in France) of 1983 [Baldini and Castoldi, 1997], believes that Boulangism was the first expression of the crisis of the liberal order to have assumed mass dimensions; the first meeting point between nationalism and a form of non-Marxist socialism, which later became anti-Marxist and flowed into fascism. This was countered by a broad coalition of moderates, which the most moderate wing of socialism had already joined.

Engels held the strategic compass based on class autonomy, oriented towards two fundamental issues: international unity and war. In a letter dated June 3-rd-, 1888 [MECW vol. 48], he demolishes Lafargue’s idea that Boulangism was a mouvement populaire to be supported, precisely because it was directed by an ass, and concludes that, if the French see no other issue than either personal government, or parliamentary government, they may as well give it up.

Engels urged action in light of the coming POF congress, in preparation of the constitution of the Second International in 1889, given the competition from Brousse’s Possibilists. He therefore urged make a clean break with the Boulangists, otherwise no one will come.


Paul Lafargue, born in Santiago de Cuba in 1842, expelled from French universities, frequented Marx in London and became a socialist, in addition to marrying his daughter Laura, with whom he had three children who died at an early age. After various assignments for the First International and the Paris Commune, he participated with Jules Guesde in the founding of the Parti Ouvrier Français (POF) and was more active than any other in spreading Marxist positions. He took advantage of his parliamentary mandate to make himself a committed salesman of socialism, unlike the other elected officials, including Guesde, who were slipping into reformism. Lafargue, together with his wife, decided to commit suicide on November 26th, 1911, at the age of seventy, to avoid the degradation of old age. This was a controversial decision, because the two could still have contributed much to the revolutionary movement; however Lenin, at the funeral, called Lafargue one of the most intelligent and profound propagators of Marxism.

In The Right to be Lazy of 1880, Lafargue writes that in capitalist society work is the cause of all intellectual degeneracy, of all organic deformity. And yet, even the proletariat, […] has let itself be perverted by the dogma of work. Lafargue’s denunciation of work for the benefit of others is in line with Marxism, but the forced tone also carries errors with it. For example, when he rejects the idea to erect a capitalist factory in the midst of a rural population because it would mean farewell joy, health and liberty; farewell to all that makes life beautiful and worth living. It is not his intention, but he left openings for the residues of utopian socialism, which, taken up today by some, can become reactionary.

The proletariat must trample underfoot the prejudices of Christian ethics, economic ethics and free-thought ethics. It must return to its natural instincts, it must proclaim the Rights of Laziness and it must accustom itself to working but three hours a day, reserving the rest of the day and night for leisure and feasting. In the abstract, this solution could also be in line with Marxism: social work and shorter hours; the problem is always the deliberately exaggerated tone. Lafargue wants to shake the proletarians but, without realising it, delays their scientific awareness of class problems with outbursts against the world. The irony about the bourgeoisie, however, hit the mark: a century or two ago, the capitalist was a steady man of reasonable and peaceable habits. He contented himself with one wife or thereabouts. He drank only when he was thirsty and ate only when he was hungry. He left to the lords and ladies of the court the noble virtues of debauchery. Today every son of the newly rich makes it incumbent upon himself to cultivate the disease. He even anticipated today’s issues: the great problem of capitalist production is no longer to find producers and to multiply their powers but to discover consumers, to excite their appetites and create in them fictitious needs, also our products are adulterated and shorten their life. Our era will be named the age of adulteration.

Two letters to Laura Lafargue, sent sequentially on the 14th and 15th of December 1882 [MECW vol. 46], confirm these limits and these merits. The first is from Marx: Paul has latterly been writing his best stuff with humour, impudence, and solidity combined with verve, whereas before that I had been troubled by certain ultra-revolutionary turns of phrase, having always regarded these as ‘hot air’. The second is from Engels: Whether it is the cumulative effect of Parisian life and journalistic activity, Paul’s articles lately have been very much better, since he dropped the dogmatism of the scientific oracle.

Two strategic knots

Writing to Lafargue on March 25th, 1889, Engels saw in Boulanger a chauvinist, who fostered war in order to recover Alsace, but would fall into Bismarck’s web and be forced into a disastrous alliance with Tsarist Russia. This would be the most terrible of eventualities. Otherwise I shouldn’t give a fig for the whims of Mme la France. But a war in which there will be 10 to 15 million combatants, unparalleled devastation simply to keep them fed, universal and forcible suppression of our movement, a recrudescence of chauvinism in all countries […] and, withal, only a slender hope that that bitter war may result in revolution — it fills me with horror.

Engels was well aware of the military outcome that would finally materialise in August of 1914: this was not a lucky intuition. Regardless of Boulanger’s actual will to go to war at that stage — which Sternhell denies for example — the strategic framework was the one Engels outlined.

Finally, in a letter to Laura Lafargue on February 4th, 1889, Engels was looking to the future: when Paul gets to work at a paper again, he will brace himself up for the fight and no longer say despondingly: il n’y a pas à aller contre le courante. Nobody asks of him to stop the current, but if we are not to go against the popular current of momentary tomfoolery, what in the name of the devil is our business?

Lotta Comunista, June 2020