Guesde, Jules

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GUESDE, JULES (1845–1922), French socialist.

Few figures better embody the force and the frailties of the Second International's "classical" Marxism than Jules Guesde, its French apostle. In historical memory, however, the frailties loom largest. The neoliberals and neoconservatives of the early twenty-first century, if they remember Guesde at all, recall a purveyor of ideological illusion. Even Guesde's heirs have dismissed him. Communists have written him off as a revolutionary who opposed their revolution, while Social Democrats have indicted him for antireformist rigidity. Yet, for some scholars, his creative force has been well worth remembering. Guesde, after all, animated Marxist socialism's rise from inchoate sect in the 1880s to political centrality during the French twentieth century.

Mathieu Basile (he adopted his mother's maiden name as a nom de plume) was born in Paris, on 11 November 1845. Scion of the teaching profession, rebelling against maternal Catholicism and paternal politics (while always retaining his family's traditions of learning and austerity), the youthful Guesde launched himself into the journalistic milieu of the late Second Empire, soon becoming caught up in the time's incendiary republicanism.

The Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune found him editing a radical newspaper in Montpellier, and his enthusiastic support for the Parisian revolutionaries earned him a prison term, which he escaped by fleeing to Switzerland. There, infuriated by the bloody repression of the Commune, he moved beyond radical republicanism toward social revolution, ironically in favor of the anti-Marxist "Bakuninist" faction of the disintegrating First International. Soon, however, Guesde turned toward political socialism, and, upon returning to France in 1876, he threw himself into the creation of a "labor party." He was to be a central figure in the resultant birth of the Parti Ouvrier—from which today's French Socialist and Communist Parties trace their origins. By 1882, with support from Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) themselves, Guesde had hardened his faction of the movement (the "Guesdists," as they came to be known) into what was to become the Parti Ouvrier Français (POF), the embodiment of Marxist socialism in France.

Then followed Guesde's ascendancy in the French political culture, as he preached a schematic but potent version of Marxism—limning the ubiquity of class conflict, indicting capitalist exploitation, prophesying inevitable socialist revolution. His charismatic persona (he was often compared in style and appearance to an Old Testament prophet), his tireless speaking tours throughout France's provincial industrial towns, his spectacular campaign in favor of the international May Day celebrations, his role in the founding of the Second International, his incessant organizational work (Guesde's tiny Parisian apartment was long the real Secretariat of the POF)—all contributed to forging France's most aggressive ideological movement. With Guesde's triumphant election to the Chamber of Deputies in 1893, Marxist socialism had blasted its way into the heart of French politics.

Yet Guesde's victories during the 1890s concealed debilitating contradictions. The great advocate of labor solidarity was dubious about trade unions, viewing them as vitally necessary to workers' class-consciousness, yet distrusting them as inherently "reformist." His internationalism could lapse into an abstract and antinational cosmopolitanism. And he signally failed to reconcile his revolutionary principles with his electoral practices. The moment of truth came in 1899, with the entry of his onetime ally Alexandre Millerand (1859–1943) into the "bourgeois" government of Pierre-Marie-René Waldeck-Rousseau (1846–1904), to Guesde's frustrated fury. For a time, it seemed as if "reformists" led by Millerand and Jean Jaurès (1859–1914) would triumph over the POF's intransigent Marxists.

Mobilizing all his enormous reserves of passion and intelligence, Guesde campaigned ferociously against Jaurès's "ministerialist" socialism, and by 1905 had prevailed. That year's merger of French socialist factions took place on terms dictated by Guesde, and his Marxist ideals suffused the newly unified Socialist Party. Yet the aging Guesde spent his last years defending principles reviled as anachronistic by his own party's radical left and reformist right. His final decade was tragic. The outbreak of World War I witnessed Guesde, that firm internationalist and militant class warrior, joining an all-party (and all-class) government of national defense, and he was to denounce the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, despite its apparent realization of his life-long revolutionary aspirations. Classical Marxism seemingly had little to offer a world characterized by total war and a "revolution against Capital" (as Antonio Gramsci [1891–1937] cleverly described the Bolshevik heresy). When Guesde died on 28 July 1922, the times had passed him by—in favor of Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) and Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924).

See alsoBakunin, Mikhail; Jaurès, Jean; Marx, Karl; Paris Commune; Second International; Waldeck-Rousseau, René.


Stuart, Robert. Marxism at Work: Ideology, Class and French Socialism during the Third Republic. Cambridge, U.K., 1992. A study of the Parti Ouvrier's ideology focused on Guesde's thought.

Willard, Claude. Le Mouvement Socialiste en France (1893–1905): Les Guesdistes. Paris, 1965. The definitive political and social history of the POF, with much information on Guesde's militancy.

——. Jules Guesde, L'Apôtre et la Loi. Paris, 1991. The most recent, and the best, biography.

Rob Stuart