“What will the future be like, when the billions now thrown away in preparation for war are spent on useful things to increase the well-being of people, on the construction of decent houses for workers, on improving transportation, on reclaiming the land? The fever of imperialism has become a sickness. It is the disease of a badly run society which does not know how to use its energies at home.”
Oh to hear such words from an American leader! Written more than a century ago, we are no closer to them now than we were then.
Jean Jaures was the leader of the French Socialists, one the first true democratic socialists.
A brilliant orator and philosopher, co-founder and Editor of the newspaper L’Humanite, leader of the French Section of the Worker’s International, he had spent decades supporting workers in their daily struggles.
His eloquent speeches in the defense of worker’s right’s made him a towering figure in the growing socialist movement.
Above all he was an anti-militarist, leading a failed effort against French conscription in 1913. He is probably best remembered by socialists and non-socialists alike for his fervent efforts to avert the outbreak of World War I.
France however sought to be an imperialist power of the first order – and the nationalists carried the deep scars of defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany.
Jaures was especially hated by the right as he spoke to workers across Europe – making the case that workers in Germany and France had more in common with each other than they had with their own elites. Such observations are dangerous to the state and enraged the nationalists as did his history of support for Dreyfus.
On the eve of the outbreak of the Great War, Jaures publicly proposed a general strike by workers in both Germany and France in order to force their governments to back down from war and negotiate.
Could he possibly stop the outbreak of war between France and Germany? Those who wanted war with Germany, who wanted a French victory, who wanted revenge, who wanted the return of Alsace-Lorraine, thought he might.. And millions of French wanted war.
On July 31, 1914, while having a coffee at the Café Le Croissant, 146 Rue Monmartre, (it’s still there) Jaures was gunned down by an extreme nationalist, 29 year old Raoul Villain. Jaures had been scheduled to attend a conference of the International on August 6 in order to try to persuade the belligerents from going ahead with the war.
Villain took no chances.
After the war Villain was tried for his crime – and acquitted. Villian would die at the hands of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Poetic justice indeed.
On the death of his friend Jaures, Anatole France wrote:
“I say this with a pain-filled pride: he was my friend. I saw him from up close. In private this great man showed himself to be simple and cordial. He was the very soul of kindness and goodness.
In the serenity of a pure conscience, pursued by frightful hatreds, the butt of slander, he hated no one. He ignored his enemies. Martyrdom crowned his exemplary life and offers it as an example to all good citizens and servants of humanity.”
The day after his death, France mobilized for war.
And after a century of conflict, the War to End All Wars, Volume I and II, after the “lesser” wars of Korea and Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan and “actions” too numerous to count, we are no closer to Jaure’s words.
Jaures may be little known outside his homeland, but a glance at a map of any French town or city will reveal the extent of his impact on his country – thousands of streets, schools, metro stations and public squares are named after him. Perhaps only De Gaulle has more real estate dedicated to his memory.