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Jean Jaurès

The Inner Life of Social Democracy

Geoffrey Kurtz


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216 pages
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Jean Jaurès

The Inner Life of Social Democracy

Geoffrey Kurtz

“Jean Jaurès is one of the most interesting figures of French socialism and the Second International. Geoffrey Kurtz’s intelligent and thoughtful book succeeds admirably in capturing the man’s philosophical erudition, political courage, and contemporary importance. Jaurès’s deep commitment to reformism, cosmopolitanism, and pacifism anchored one of the important wings of the international socialist movement, and his equally important intellectual work informed generations of students and activists alike. Kurtz succeeds admirably in uncovering ‘the inner life of social democracy,’ and his own courage in approaching his subject contributes to a very important and revealing examination of what it means to be a socialist.”


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Jean Jaurès was a towering intellectual and political leader of the democratic Left at the turn of the twentieth century, but he is little remembered today outside of France, and his contributions to political thought are little studied anywhere. In Jean Jaurès: The Inner Life of Social Democracy, Geoffrey Kurtz introduces Jaurès to an American audience. The parliamentary and philosophical leader of French socialism from the 1890s until his assassination in 1914, Jaurès was the only major socialist leader of his generation who was educated as a political philosopher. As he championed the reformist method that would come to be called social democracy, he sought to understand the inner life of a political tradition that accepts its own imperfection. Jaurès's call to sustain the tension between the ideal and the real resonates today.

In addition to recovering the questions asked by the first generation of social democrats, Kurtz’s aim in this book is to reconstruct Jaurès’s political thought in light of current theoretical and political debates. To achieve this, he gives readings of several of Jaurès’s major writings and speeches, spanning work from his early adulthood to the final years of his life, paying attention to not just what Jaurès is saying, but how he says it.

“Jean Jaurès is one of the most interesting figures of French socialism and the Second International. Geoffrey Kurtz’s intelligent and thoughtful book succeeds admirably in capturing the man’s philosophical erudition, political courage, and contemporary importance. Jaurès’s deep commitment to reformism, cosmopolitanism, and pacifism anchored one of the important wings of the international socialist movement, and his equally important intellectual work informed generations of students and activists alike. Kurtz succeeds admirably in uncovering ‘the inner life of social democracy,’ and his own courage in approaching his subject contributes to a very important and revealing examination of what it means to be a socialist.”
“Jean Jaurès, perhaps the most remarkable exponent of social democracy not just in France but anywhere, deserves to be better known. Geoffrey Kurtz’s introduction to his life and work succeeds brilliantly in reviving both Jaurès and the unduly neglected social democratic tradition in French political culture. This book deserves to be read by all students of European politics.”
“Geoffrey Kurtz has written an excellent biography of Jean Jaurès. It is high time for a new appreciation of this leading figure in the early French labor movement. Kurtz beautifully situates Jaurès in his intellectual and political milieu even as he illuminates his enduring relevance for contemporary progressive theory and practice.”
“Geoffrey Kurtz’s insightful book is both a biographical and analytical survey of Jaurès’s political and philosophical thought that accurately describes him as a forerunner of the reformist orientation of French socialism. It places emphasis on Jaurèsian idealism, as opposed to Marxist materialism, in socialist theory and practice.”

Geoffrey Kurtz is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY.



List of Abbreviations

Introduction: The Problem of Hope

The Battle Is Never Won

Democracy Unfrozen

A Socialist State of Grace

The Question of Method

Life in Common

Conclusion: An Awkward Politics





The Problem of Hope

A political tradition has its characteristic principles, policies, and strategies. Beneath or behind these, it also has its characteristic patterns of coherence and instability, its sources of courage and anxiety, its hopes and worries. We recognize a political tradition by its outer features, but it thrives or fades according to its inner rhythms. Debates in recent years about the “renewal of social democracy” have focused on the feasibility and justification of policy programs. This book, in contrast, is an essay on the inner life of the social democratic tradition. Looking at the political thought of one of the giants of social democracy’s founding generation, it aims to recover certain questions asked by that generation, questions that might profitably be asked again by those who would like to see a democratic Left in the twenty-first century that is able to preserve and extend the best of what the twentieth-century Left achieved.

The story of social democracy’s outer life is well known. During the middle half of the twentieth century, parties and movements of the democratic Left constructed a new, social democratic model of political life. This model—as momentous an innovation as the nineteenth-century development of political parties based on mass suffrage or the eighteenth-century invention of the constitutional republic—comprised a comprehensive welfare state, extensive collective bargaining, and economic rules that favored equality and stability, all in the context of representative democracy and a market economy. Cultivating broad coalitions rooted in the labor movement and operating both inside and outside government, social democrats were able to reduce material poverty, foster associational life, create beautiful public spaces, and protect civil liberties and democratic institutions. No other version of left-wing politics has been so successful at realizing the Left’s dream of a modern society made fit for human habitation.

When I describe social democracy as a political tradition, I mean that it is not only this set of actions and results. More fundamentally, it is a distinct way of thinking about and approaching politics that has been sustained over time. Those who have championed the social democratic model have not always called themselves “social democrats”; some have instead called themselves “socialists” or “democratic socialists” or, in America, “labor liberals” or “left-liberals.” Nevertheless, they have been linked with one another by a consistent sense of purpose, by a project capable of being revived even when the tradition’s particular efforts failed or its particular achievements were undone. The social democratic tradition is thus defined not only by its strategy and its policy program but also by its broader commitment to freedom, equality, and solidarity. Just as fundamental as those principles is social democracy’s commitment to a genuinely political engagement with the modern world. Social democracy has been among the modern traditions that defend the classical Greek and Roman image of public talk in public spaces and the classical claim that human beings living together in ordered societies have the capacity to change or preserve their social orders through such talk, and, in doing so, to realize common goods. Thus social democrats have prized political life, with all its uncertainty and messiness; they have sought coalition and compromise rather than absolute victory; they have valued the continued possibility of dissent over the perfect realization of principles. They have declined to seek a society in which conflict has been abolished, in which politics has been transcended, and thus they have been able to embrace the fact of human plurality.

This history and these orienting commitments are what make social democracy an appealing tradition to me and to many others. That said, I want to point out something about social democracy that may be less obvious, especially in our time. During the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth, before there were social democratic governments with the power to enact a policy model, social democrats built a movement. At first no more than an unconventional style within the international socialist movement, this new politics gradually differentiated itself from the rest of the socialist family and emerged as a distinct movement with a forthrightly reformist and democratic character. In that movement’s early years, as its leaders and members thought about what they were doing and why they supposed it worth doing, they found that the ideas of nineteenth-century socialism (or, for that matter, those of nineteenth-century liberal republicanism) did not allow for an adequate account of their circumstances or their activities, and that they would need a new understanding of political life. That would have been challenge enough, but they also found—and this is what we are less likely to remember—that they had to reflect on the inner life of their movement.

This was no simple thing to do. For the first generation of social democrats, committing themselves to the practice of democratic politics meant abandoning the extravagant expectations that had oriented the nineteenth-century Left. Utopia, revolution, unbounded progress—what happens when these ideas lose whatever plausibility they may once have had? If the daily work of the socialist movement was not to be seen as a series of steps on the road to a wholly new and fully just society, what reason could the movement’s members have for making the sacrifices demanded by political life? If a final victory was not written into the trajectory of history, what could make participation in the movement worthwhile? What would bind the movement together? The early social democrats seem to have been surprised by the urgency of these questions, and some members of that first social democratic generation tried harder to think through the problems of their movement’s inner life than their descendants would in the period when social democracy moved from success to success. Building a movement, the first social democrats were haunted by the problem of hope.

Seeking to rebuild that movement, social democrats today are haunted by the same problem and need not face it as if for the first time. Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, adherents of neoliberal market fundamentalism have attacked the social democratic model with devastating results. Over the same period, the character of election campaigns has changed; the demographic bases of left parties have shifted; globalization has altered the terms of national policy making. Social democrats in recent years have found their confidence enfeebled, their sense of a common project less sure than it once was. Old questions about social democracy’s inner life have a new relevance.

That the polemics and introspections of social democrats a century ago might be of interest today may seem an odd notion. Why read old arguments against revolutionary politics when there are no longer any viable revolutionary movements to argue against? Nevertheless, this is just what I want to propose. Because those first social democrats could not take for granted the appropriateness of a commitment to democratic reform, they—or at any rate some of them—not only examined the outer shape of their politics but also attended to the problems that accompanied their new commitments. We might say that they listened not only to the melody but also to the undertones of social democratic politics. Social democrats’ multiple commitments—to principles like freedom and solidarity but also to the worth of political life itself—raise difficult questions, today as in earlier periods, about the sources of political motivation and the kind of political hope that can orient a project of democratic reform. I am convinced that the original social democrats can help today’s social democrats not only to develop an account of what they—or, rather, we—are doing and of why our political commitments might be worthwhile, but also to confront the consequences of those commitments. I should add that, although I write here with those purposes, I am also aware that social democracy’s problems are neither all new nor all unique to the Left. In many respects, they are iterations of the oldest problems of Western politics and political thought, and so I would suggest that the travails of social democracy ought to be of interest to anyone who wants to defend the possibility of political life in the modern world.

This book, then, should be understood as a study in social democratic political theory that reconstructs the questions asked by the first generation of social democrats in order to pose those questions in a way that might be useful to the democratic Left today. Its medium is the political thought of Jean Jaurès, a French writer and politician whose career in public life lasted from his first election to public office in 1885 to his assassination in 1914. Jaurès was one of many people in several countries who contributed to the birth of the reformist socialism that would grow into the tradition of social democracy. Except in France, where he is fondly remembered, Jaurès is not the best known of the early social democrats; Eduard Bernstein, his German counterpart, has received more attention. Studying Jaurès makes sense for my purposes, however. Like other reformists of his generation, Jaurès thought through the consequences of the social democratic commitment when those consequences were new and surprising. It seems to me that he undertook that intellectual work with exceptional vigor and creativity. He also did so with exceptional prominence: in a way Bernstein never did, Jaurès became an international spokesman for the new reformism; indeed, “Jaurèsism” was one of the first names for social democracy.

In some ways, Jaurès was a representative member of the first generation of social democrats, albeit a particularly vocal and prolific one. He also contributed something unique to the new politics. Jaurès was unusual among his contemporaries in that he was not only a journalist and a parliamentarian, but also a historian and a philosopher, distinguished by the uncommon breadth of his curiosity and intellectual aptitudes. Although he never wrote a systematic statement of his ideas—in itself a suggestive fact—he thought broadly about both the outward and the inward consequences of social democratic commitments. Best of all, he wrote blazing prose and gave intricate and soaring speeches. These traits have sometimes been seen as faults. I want to suggest, however, that Jaurès’s writerly prowess should be seen not as a quirk of temperament, but as an indication of the kind of political thinking appropriate to social democracy.

Irving Howe, who knew something about both rhetoric and social democracy, wrote: “It has been customary in radical circles to praise Jaurès as a brilliant personality, a scintillating orator, a fine leader, but to condescend a little toward his intellectual powers, often because he was far from Marxist orthodoxy. But time is a cruel teacher. Many of the clogged Marxist tracts of theoreticians allegedly more profound than Jaurès are now all but unreadable, while his writings, for all their oratorical quality, retain a clear vision of the indissoluble link between democracy and socialism.”

I would go only slightly farther than Howe: Jaurès’s works convey something about the link between democracy and socialism because of their oratorical quality and because of the poetic mood of his oratory. Theory can be allied with rhetoric, ideas with imagery, and when citizens talk with one another, this alliance is not only possible but also indispensable. When we aim to illuminate a shared moral world, we need words that touch the intangible: we need symbols. When we aim to move listeners to political commitment, or to give an account of such commitments, we need models of speech other than those we associate with scientific discovery and technological invention. Because Jaurès’s works were elements of his own thoughtful engagement in the democratic politics of his time, they pursue those aims, they meet those needs, and they rely on that alliance. That is no small part of why they remain useful today.

Accordingly, this book reflects on the social democratic tradition by presenting and interpreting the political thought of Jean Jaurès both because he is representative of social democracy’s founders and because he has something unusual and valuable to say. Although it resembles a work of intellectual history, it attempts to project the lines of Jaurès’s thought beyond his own situation; its purpose is as much rumination as exposition. I am concerned with what Jaurès said because I want to figure out what his political thought might mean now. To that end, I write with an eye toward how Jaurès thought; I try to show the process by which he responded to concrete political problems as much as I try to show what his responses were.

Thus, although I try to explain enough about Jaurès’s life to put his thought in its proper context, I offer no full-fledged biography of Jaurès, nor even an intellectual biography, no history of the socialist movement in the France or Europe of his time, nor an account of Jaurès’s historical legacy or influence on later generations. I also offer no apology for social democracy itself. Instead, I write here as a “connected critic” of social democracy; I start from the assumption that social democratic politics is worth practicing and worth thinking about.

With that in mind, I look at Jaurès’s political thought in order to explore certain questions, thinking with and alongside Jaurès in order to discover what he has to say to us today, at a time when the social democratic tradition seems unsure of its way forward. I ask, what follows from the decision to engage in social democratic politics? What account can those who make this decision give of what they are doing? What tends to trouble them, and how can they think clearly and usefully about those troubles?

In exploring these questions, I argue that Jaurès’s account of the public character of his politics makes a connected whole out of the principles and method that later became the hallmarks of the social democratic tradition. Jaurès was able to give this account of social democracy’s outer life in part because he drew on the vocabulary and imagery of classical political thought. When he uses the word “republic” to describe his political commitments, he is expressing an understanding of reformist socialism that is not peculiarly French. Social democracy, though a distinctively modern tradition, is also a tradition that can be best accounted for by drawing on certain premodern resources. And no one can show us the republican—or, to use the equivalent Greek-rooted word, the political—quality of social democracy better than Jaurès.

What I have found most interesting in Jaurès’s writings and speeches, however, are those points at which his thought becomes murkier. Jaurès is not shy about revealing the inner life of social democracy, but his account of that inner life is not entirely consistent, and when he spoke to his contemporaries, he at times contradicted himself. Jaurès wants to understand what can motivate a political tradition that does not expect to fully realize its ideals; he wants to give an account of social democratic hope. This, it seems to me, was the deepest concern of his intellectual life. That his account of this hope never became entirely clear may have been less a failure on his part than a feature of the problem he faced.

The subsequent chapters are a reading of several of Jaurès’s major writings and speeches. These span the years from his young adulthood to the end of his life and are situated in the context of French and European socialist politics and the events of Jaurès’s own life, with occasional, briefer references to other writings or speeches by Jaurès or his contemporaries. Because how Jaurès says things is important to what I want to show about his political thought—and also because so few of his writings have been translated into English —I often quote substantial sections of his texts in my own translations. Although I have tried to convey both the sense and the sensibility of Jaurès’s words, as an amateur translator, I have certainly fallen short of that aspiration. But if the inadequacies of my efforts spur someone more competent to undertake a fuller and better translation of Jaurès’s writings into English, that alone will justify the existence of this book.

Each chapter examines either one major text or a small number of related texts, set in their respective contexts. There is one chapter each on Jaurès’s doctoral theses (chapter 1), his Histoire socialiste (chapter 2), his major speeches during the reformism debates toward and just after the end of the nineteenth century, especially his 1900 speech on “the evolution of socialist method” (chapter 3), his Études socialistes of that period (chapter 4), and his L’armée nouvelle (chapter 5). In the conclusion, I try to make room for both clarity and murkiness, piecing together the implications of Jaurès’s thought for politics in our time.