Jules Guesde Was One of the Great Pioneers of European Marxism

French socialist leader Jules Guesde established the first working-class party in modern history and popularized the ideas of Karl Marx at a crucial time. It’s impossible to imagine the subsequent history of Marxism and the French left without Guesde.

Illustration of Jules Guesde speaking in Paris, France. (API / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Jules Guesde played a central role in the history of French and European socialism. He set up the first working-class party in modern history, the French Workers’ Party (POF) that was created between 1879 and 1882, and he held discussions with Karl Marx in London in 1880. Guesde was the main founder, with Jean Jaurès, of the unified French Socialist Party in 1905. He also helped introduce and popularize Marxist thought in France.

Yet the legacy of Guesde is controversial. In the name of a rigid understanding of class struggle, Guesde refused to support the campaign for the release of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer who was falsely accused of treason and imprisoned in 1895. Guesde took this position not out of antisemitism, but rather because Dreyfus was a soldier, at a time when memories of the repression of the 1871 Paris Commune by the French military were still vivid.

Guesde combined his Marxism with a very pragmatic approach to politics that earned him accusations of opportunism. He became a minister in the French government after the outbreak of war in 1914 and was reviled by those who opposed the war. After 1918, he chose to remain with Léon Blum in the Socialist Party, rejecting the terms of the Bolsheviks for membership of the new Communist International.

On the other hand, there are several aspects of Guesde’s record that stand to his credit. He was an outstanding orator, one of the great figures of the French Chamber of Deputies. As a socialist leader, he was sensitive to the causes of women when others were completely disinterested.

Above all, Guesde was a first-rate organizer who was able to surround himself with loyal followers and build a structured, hierarchical party that functioned, despite difficulties, on a day-to-day basis. Whatever judgement we may reach about Guesde, he remains a key figure without whom the birth and subsequent evolution of the French left and Marxism would be incomprehensible.

Beyond the Caricature

One line of criticism directed against Guesde came from the philosopher Louis Althusser and his students. In For Marx (1965), Althusser condemned what he saw as the “poverty” of French Marxism, which had long been incapable of producing a theory worthy of the name. Indeed, it may seem surprising that France produced no Marxist theorists of comparable stature to Karl Kautsky, Otto Bauer, Rosa Luxemburg, or Vladimir Lenin before 1914, in view of the country’s importance to Marx and its rich revolutionary history.

Ten years after Althusser, Daniel Lindenberg directed some barbs at Guesde and his friends, accusing them of sterile dogmatism that had paved the way for the doctrinaire impasses of the French left. Lindenberg railed in particular against the Stalinism of the French Communist Party (PCF) and argued that there was no such thing as a distinctly French Marxism.

Another critical perspective on Guesde contrasts his record with that of Jaurès, presenting the former as the quintessential representative of the dark side of French socialism. In this framework, Jaurès embodied the humanist, staunchly republican socialist tradition, while Guesde was “revolutionary” in words but opportunist in deeds, operating with a narrow conception of the class struggle and unable to grasp the importance of the republican regime and the opportunities it offered for the workers’ movement.

However, this binary view of Guesde and Jaurès is a caricature. It cannot do justice to the complexity of the two men, let alone the political currents they represented.

The Nature of Guesdism

Let us begin by recognizing “Guesdism” as a pioneering and influential current of socialism in France. At first glance, we cannot see this movement as having been “national,” since it was above all the product of local bastions. These strongholds, which were sometimes very powerful, contrasted with entire regions where the supporters of Guesde had little presence.

We cannot say in deterministic fashion that one category of French workers was more likely to be Guesdist than others, and the way in which his Workers’ Party built itself varied from one context to another. In some cases, party militants saw the fight against clerical domination as a diversion from the class struggle, while in others they were in the vanguard of anticlericalism.

In spite of this diversity and pragmatism, Guesdism possessed a coherence that no other French socialist current could boast at the time. To call oneself a Guesdist, whatever differences there might be in the practice of any given locality, was to embrace a strong and specific political identity. Marxist vocabulary was a key element of that identity, with terms like “class struggle,” “exploitation,” and (more rarely) “dictatorship of the proletariat” used while making political arguments.

For a long time, socialists abroad thought of Guesde and his followers as the “real” French socialists. Christian Rakovsky, a leading figure in the Bolshevik Party after the October Revolution, met Guesde in Paris in 1892. He later recalled that Guesde made a strong impression on him:

I came to the French capital to get to know the man for whom the group of Russian and foreign revolutionary Marxists, inspired by [Georgi] Plekhanov, had a deep and genuine admiration. Along with Wilhelm Liebknecht, who was branded as a Frenchman by Bismarck’s reptilian press because of his internationalism, Jules Guesde was considered to be one of those who best embodied the aspirations of revolutionary and internationalist Marxism.

The Great Task

During Guesde’s lifetime, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels expressed more critical opinions on the man who had introduced Marxism to France. Yet Marx also believed in Guesde. A recently discovered letter reveals that he hoped Guesde would found a militant workers’ party that was independent of the bourgeoisie. At the time, Marx had not yet met Guesde:

No French refugee who has dealings with me could possibly doubt either the deep sympathy I feel for you or the great interest I take in your work. Militant socialism certainly has many supporters in France, but there are few who combine knowledge with courage and dedication as you do. . . . The great task for socialists in France is to organize an independent, militant workers’ party. This organization, which must not be confined to the cities, but must extend itself to the countryside, can only be achieved by means of propaganda and continuous struggle — an everyday struggle that always corresponds to the given conditions of the moment, to current necessities.

We should set these explicit sentences from Marx against a much better-known quote of his that is frequently quoted in discussions of Guesde. According to Engels, when speaking about those who called themselves Marxists in France, Marx exclaimed in annoyance that if this represented Marxism, “what is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist.”

However, this line was directed above all at Charles Longuet and Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue, rather than Guesde himself. To the end of his life, Guesde was the bearer of the Marxist tradition, who had rubbed shoulders with the master of “scientific socialism” himself. This gave him a strong sense of historical legitimacy that other socialists sorely lacked.

Popularizing Marxism

One of Marx’s objectives in making his ideas known was to use reliable intermediaries who were talented enough to pass on those ideas. This obviously involved the translation and publishing of his works. But there was another element that was decisive in the history of Marxism at the end of the nineteenth century: the popularization of Marxist theory in the form of summaries that might be short or substantial.

Aware of the difficulties involved in mastering volume one of Capital, Marx took a keen interest in attempts to simplify its meaning so that it could really penetrate the French labor movement. He expressed this aspiration several times to his correspondents. Shortly after Marx’s death, a book appeared by Gabriel Deville, who was a loyal Guesdist at the time, summarizing Capital and presenting the main principles of “scientific socialism.”

Deville’s summary is of purely historical interest in terms of its philosophical or theoretical merits. While it is clearly written, the book contains numerous intellectual shortcuts and omissions. Yet it was certainly the work that gave many cadres of the Workers’ Party a rudimentary grounding in Marx’s ideas, enabling them to unravel the workings of the capitalist system.

While it may seem incomplete and outdated to us today, it was probably a difficult enough book in itself to grapple with for many such militants. It was surely better to have them study Deville than circulate texts that nobody would read. This approach enabled socialist cadres to grasp some of Capital’s key concepts. As such, the criticisms directed at Guesde and his supporters by figures like Althusser from the vantage point of postwar France are anachronistic.

Practical Efficiency

Marx and Engels were looking for concrete political intermediaries in France. In Guesde and Lafargue, they found effective men whom they initially found quite reliable. In the same spirit, Engels continued to observe French political life closely after Marx’s death in 1883, even hoping for the swing of certain republican radicals such as Georges Clemenceau toward socialism.

Of course, his hopes in that case proved to be groundless. Clemenceau, having been appointed president of the Council in 1906, the equivalent of prime minister today, suppressed strikes and became the sworn enemy of the organized French labor movement. But Guesde had originally been a nonsocialist republican, who then went through an anarchist phase, so it wasn’t absurd to imagine other such figures evolving toward Marxism.

At a time when traditional political organizations are in a state of advanced decomposition, we can learn a lot from revisiting the origins of the first socialist currents. All the more so as certain features of Guesdism will remind us of later political currents: a lack of theoretical reflection can be accompanied by remarkable practical and organizational efficiency.