Preface to the English Edition

in The French Revolution and Social Democracy

When the original version of this book was published in 2012, it had been a long time since any history of pre-Nazi-era German social democracy had come out in French. The exception was the general history by Jacques-Pierre Gougeon, a work whose rather debatable approach above all emphasised the SPD’s turn toward a reformist, managerialist politics. This dearth of publications is symptomatic of the near-disappearance of academic studies of the history of the workers’ movement and Marxism in the French-speaking countries. The decline has been just as manifest in Germany, after the spectacular output in such histories in both East and West Germany from the 1960s to the 1980s – a period in which the origins of ‘state socialism’ in the East, and the SPD’s compatibility with the market in the West, were both hot topics. In Italy, in the Netherlands with the publications linked to the IISG, and indeed in the Soviet Union, ‘Second International Marxism’ was long a central focus. But after 1990, the crisis of the various forms of organised socialist politics and the end of the ‘Soviet century’ brought a striking collapse in research connected to this subject. English-speaking academia is a more varied terrain and one also less directly affected by the crisis of Marxism (for want of mass political forces that identified with it), and in this context the publication of such works has developed in a different direction. More recently, especially thanks to the Historical Materialism Book Series, we have seen the appearance of numerous important works on this period in Marxism’s history.

The ‘Kautskyan Moment’

The first thing to underline this small renewal is the historiographical importance of the ‘Kautskyan moment’, for instance in Lars Lih’s work on the history of Russian social democracy. Here is not the right place to examine in detail the works of the ‘pope of German social-democracy’: the book that you are about to read gives sufficient account of those. But what is worth underlining in advance is the limits of the critique of ‘Kautskyism’. A whole Marxist tradition from Karl Korsch to Michel Löwy has cast Kautsky as the emblem of a cold and dogmatic orthodoxy, a scientistic positivism more akin to Darwinism than to Marxism. For these authors, ‘Kautskyism’ opened the way to the worst kind of regression in the workers’ movement, legitimising both the reformist social democracy that maintained a formal relationship with Marxism and the worst kind of statist tendencies, ultimately culminating in Stalin. There are thus countless texts which compare the pre-1914 vulgate of the Second International, forged by Kautsky, and the vulgate of the Stalinised Third International.

This critique doubtless has certain merits and a certain coherence, especially if we remain at the level of theoretical considerations. But it has also had the effect of repressing major historical realities. First among these is the fact that, even simply at the level of theoretical debates, the incontestably dogmatic aspects of so-called ‘Second International Marxism’ are rooted only in Kautsky’s very most mechanical texts. Yet any attentive reader of reviews like Die Neue Zeit or Der Kampf will see what a high level some of the contributions reached, far less dogmatic than in the 1920s when the Comintern set up barriers to most debate.

From historians’ point of view, the radical critique of ‘Kautskyism’ also delegitimised research into the impressive mass movement embodied by the various expressions of German and Austrian social democracy. Two reviews of the French edition of the present work underlined this consideration. In the pages of Actuel Marx the Marxist historian of the French Revolution Claude Mazauric remarked that: ‘As an admiring reader of this strong dissertation, I can only repeat the powerful conclusion reached by the late Henri Lefebvre: the worst historical tragedy of the twentieth century was the collapse of the German workers’ movement and the destruction of its social organisations in the German-speaking countries, where they were deliberately uprooted. To that we can compare the weight of the unrelenting counter-revolution which is still on our heels’. Similarly, in a piece on this book appearing in the American Historical Review, the historian of Germany and Eastern Europe William W. Hagen concluded that: ‘It is another reminder of what was lost to Adolf Hitler’s national socialism’. To delve into this universe is to return to the origins of the first great emancipation project in Western Europe before it was finally destroyed by Nazism.

Questions of Method

This is not to say that our approach is some sort of exercise in rehabilitation, which would not make much sense. Rather, this study seeks to pursue a certain tradition in writing the history of Marxism, as embodied by various figures from Georges Haupt to Eric Hobsbawm, and illustrated in the English-speaking world by contributions like those by Robert Stuart or Andrew Bonnell which do not only concern themselves with intellectual history. From this point of view, The French Revolution and Social Democracy seeks to get to grips with a number of methodological problems in order to set out an approach attentive to the full historical density of Marxism and the workers’ movement.

In reaction against an overly ideological history – the history of the Internationals, or what we might call the ‘history of conference resolutions’ – numerous historians have instead focused on a working-class history ‘from below’. This has incontestable merits. But in its conviction that all theoretical reflection begins and ends with ‘theorists’ it also tends to reject any remotely serious study of the content of the texts, which are reduced to debates among intellectuals cut off from the mass of their respective political organisations’ militants and sympathisers. We instead consider it essential to combine a sustained interest in the content of the texts with a history more centred on grassroots actors. That, at least, was one of the ambitions that inspired us as we wrote this book.

As we mounted our study of the ‘popularisation’ of Marxism, we did not find a dogmatic and fossilised universe. It is by no means certain that Kautsky’s cold, rigid, vulgarised Marxism was as grey and dismal as his later interpreters would make out. Pamphlets, leaflets, propaganda, historical myths – especially the ambiguous myth around the cult of the French Revolution – fed an ‘alternative culture’, full of elements that could mobilise hundreds of thousands of militants and leave an enduring mark on their class mentality. Yet this popularisation – sometimes limited to the mention of a few historical dates in a workers’ calendar, a bibliographical reference or even a few short citations from Kautsky – can never be entirely separated from doctrinal debate and the political developments of the moment. The Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 are a striking example of this, for the theoretical debates surrounding these revolutionary processes were in part linked to the propaganda and the idea of revolution that coloured the party at all levels.

Our other methodological concern was to write an ‘entangled history’ [histoire croisée] set in relation with ‘cultural transfers’ – concepts elaborated by Michel Espagne and Michel Werner that are relatively influential in writing on Franco-German history. Particularly important in this regard, when we look at the historiography of the French Revolution specifically, was a focus on the reception of the great classics of our period, from Jean Jaurès’s Histoire socialiste de la Révolution française to Albert Mathiez’s works.

Karl Kautsky and Franz Mehring in fact did little to get to grips with the tradition of French Marxist studies of the Revolution. They often mentioned the existence of such a tradition but never studied it in detail. The interpretation that the liberal historian François Furet terms a ‘Jacobin-Marxist reading’ – a term he uses pejoratively, but which can also be used in a descriptive sense – deeply influenced the whole Left’s reading of 1789, mixing republicanism and socialism. And it is interesting to note that one of the key problems for Kautsky and other Marxists in this period was precisely this connection between Marxism and republicanism, which they considered rather suspect. For a whole left-wing tradition in nineteenth-century France, Robespierre was to be admired, but in Germany and Austria he was the object of a great deal of suspicion.

Knocking down the walls that surround a tradition strongly rooted in French national heritage allows us to show what Jaurès owed to his engagement with Germany and the SPD. What might, reading these pages, seem rather obvious, was not in fact evident in any historiographical summary at the time. Many saw Jaurès as such a genius that he could be considered self-sufficient, or almost that. In reality, Jaurès’s whole complex relationship with revolution and Marxism passed precisely by way of this engagement. The study of transnational networks has become widespread in recent years and could doubtless shed light on other aspects not sufficiently addressed in the present volume, especially by means of a history of mobility, migration and points of contact between different nationalities.

Historical Time and Historical Narration

On many points, our work is only a first approach, which could well be developed further. The first such point concerns the ‘grand narratives’ that entered into crisis in the 1980s. Our concern was to understand how a coherent narrative of the past was first constructed in a left-wing political organisation. We did this by basing ourselves on an example that everyone at the time considered an undeniable moment of rupture: 1789. While in 1880s France the history of the Revolution was known through the transmission of memory and the mediation of the school classroom – which meant that the socialists’ task was more a matter of making the republican reading more left-wing, rather than defining a new one – in Germany and Austria, it was an opposition party that defined an interpretation of the French Revolution through thinkers like Kautsky. In fact, in this period the German social-democrats’ interpretation counted for far more than the French socialists’ did, including with regard to events of universal significance like the ‘Great French Revolution’. For instance, the narrative advanced by Kautsky was translated and read across much of Mitteleuropa, unlike Jaurès’s. Any synthesis on the history of the French Revolution must integrate this fact, even if it above all focuses on French authors.

The second point concerns other political camps. The narrative on revolutions elaborated by the social-democrats cannot be reduced to questions internal to the history of socialism, or indeed ones linked to the historiography of the French Revolution. At the end of the nineteenth century, even the spectacular progress German social democracy had made was unable to mask the rising strength of anti-Semitism and pan-Germanism, which violently attacked the internationalism of the workers’ movement. As we know, behind its façade of internationalism a ‘negative integration’ led social democracy to become increasingly assimilated to Wilhemine Germany, ultimately explaining its turn to support for the war effort in 1914. It would be naïve to imagine that the German social-democrats had no attachment to Germany, even in their narratives on the French Revolution. Even in the 1880s, one of the works that was most read by SPD militants, Wilhelm Blos’s study, admired the popular action of the Revolution but was sharply critical of the brutality of revolutionary change. One of the best-informed readers of the Revolution, Heinrich Cunow – author of a remarkable, pioneering study on the press during the Revolution – placed his knowledge in service of the ‘ideas of 1914’ and German imperialism.

Nonetheless, the social-democratic milieu can hardly be totally identified with the other political camps (‘lager’) on this point, for its internationalist outlook remained one of its constant specificities, even after it had temporarily been overwhelmed by the war. The SPD’s lasting attachment to the French revolutionary tradition – sometimes challenged but never rejected – was absolutely exceptional in the Germany of the time, and thus in itself constituted an exceptional historical reality. In this lay the seeds of a great clash between different conceptions of the world and of history, which would end tragically with the triumph of Nazism. There was, indeed, another modernity, ‘another Germany’, whose bearings and points of reference included the French Revolution – not because it was French, but because it had opened up a new period in human history. Significantly, traces of this outlook remained up till 1933: the experience of 1914–18 did not totally break the pre-1914 Marxist narrative on the French Revolution. The ‘Kautskyist’ narrative did not disappear from SPD ranks, and it would also inspire the vulgate defined in the USSR, which in turn coloured the young KPD. It was here that Kautskyism doubtless had something of a family relationship with the Third International, contributing to the development of its dogmas, but also spreading an internationalist culture that championed the French revolutionary moment in opposition to a narrow and aggressive chauvinism.

We still need further reflection on temporalities in Marxism, a theme only timidly outlined in this book. Julian Wright has provided us with brilliant elaborations on this point. The socialists’ timeframe was that of history with a capital H. History occupied a decisive place. In our own time, when what François Hartog calls ‘presentism’ – the obsession with immediacy and imminent action, at the expense of an analysis of past experience – has taken over wide layers of activist politics, it is difficult to understand what this sense of History might have represented in a different era. From this point of view, the Marxism of the 1880s–1930s was a transitional phase that made up part of a regime of temporality in which the past conditioned action or was even its precondition. This shows the limits of the ‘Second International Marxism’ that assumed a rigid approach toward the relationship between past, present, and future, and which denied legitimacy to non-linear narratives. At the same time, it also shows the incontestable pedagogical force of this Marxism, a confident and powerful Marxism that contributed to the best elements of the history of the workers’ movement and the ‘workers’ dream’ that it once represented.

Some will ask if this debate, however interesting it may be, is perhaps a little dated. From the perspective of contemporary French politics, that is certainly not the case. Understanding the Marxist reading of the French Revolution allows us to grasp the specific political culture of the workers’ movement and the Left in France even in our own time, in which references to republicanism remain a hot topic. Even in the 2017 election we saw the former Socialist Party left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon draw inspiration from Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe at the same time as he remained viscerally attached to Robespierre and Jaurès. Much has changed, but it is striking that even in July 2017, the same Robespierre and Jaurès so disdained by a certain Marxist tradition elaborated in the Germany of the 1880s–1930s were being cited by new France Insoumise MP s in the Assemblée Nationale … A few days later, the hard-right French weekly Le Point ran the title ‘From Robespierre to Mélenchon, a History of Political Violence’, in order to attack the bloodshed that must come with any attempt to challenge the social and political order.

Political conditions have developed and changed considerably. But the fact remains that these figures so connected to the memory of the Revolution, and so passionately debated in the late nineteenth century, are still evoked in contemporary political debate. This gives us yet further reason to plunge into this history and these debates on the foundational moment that was the Revolution of 1789–93.

The French Revolution and Social Democracy

The Transmission of History and Its Political Uses in Germany and Austria, 1889–1934


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