Jean Jaurès (1859-1914), the greatest of the modern French Socialists, played a key role in the unification of the Socialist movement and in the struggle to prevent World War I.
On Sept. 3, 1859, Jean Jaurès was born at Castres, Tarn, into a lower-middle-class family. After studies there, he attended the lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. His intellect and articulateness won him first place in the 1878 entrance competition for the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, from which he graduated with a philosophy degree in 1881. While teaching at the lycée of Albi and then at the University of Toulouse, he became involved in politics.
In 1885 Jaurès was elected to the Chamber of Deputies from the Tarn as a moderate, unaffiliated republican. In the Chamber he worked for social welfare legislation and spoke vigorously against Gen. Boulanger. Defeated in 1889, he returned to teaching at Toulouse. His studies and his contact with the workers, especially the miners of Carmaux, whom he aided during the strike of 1892, led Jaurès to socialism.
Running on the platform of the Marxist French Workers' party, Jaurès was returned to the Chamber in January 1893, principally through the support of the Carmaux miners. Both within and without the Chamber he now emerged as one of the most effective spokesmen for the Socialist cause. His appeal was not limited to the working class; indeed, he was particularly effective with the petty bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia, who were impressed by his stand during the Dreyfus Affair, when he insisted that socialism stood for justice for every individual, regardless of class.
At the same time Jaurès was working to unify the Socialist movement, a role for which his eclectic formation, moralism, preference for synthesis over doctrinal purity, and conciliatory temperament well fitted him. The dogmatists, like Marxist leader Jules Guesde, distrusted him; but because he was the Socialists' most effective parliamentarian and most widely respected figure, they needed him. The first effort at federation (1899) broke down, largely over the entry of Socialist Alexandre Millerand into the ministry.
Jaurès defended ministerial participation under certain circumstances in a democratic regime, but this view was definitively rejected by the Second International (International Working Men's Association) in 1904. His decision to yield the point made possible the unification of French socialism in 1905, and his newspaper, Humanité, became the principal organ of the new party. Unification also forced him to abandon his leading role in the coalition which sustained the anticlerical ministry of J. L. E. Combes and to remain for the rest of his career an opposition leader.
The shadow of the coming war brought forth his greatest effort, to prevent France from causing conflict, to use the International to dissuade the powers, and to appeal to the common sense of mankind, but the forces for war were much stronger. His effort, mistakenly construed as unpatriotic, aroused bitter hatred that led to his assassination on July 31, 1914.
Further Reading on Jean Jaurès
The best book on Jaurès in any language is Harvey Goldberg, The Life of Jean Jaurès (1962), a sympathetic, scholarly, and well-written treatment. Two older, briefer works worth reading are Harold R. Weinstein, Jean Jaurès: A Study of Patriotism in the French Socialist Movement (1936), and J. Hampden Jackson, Jean Jaurès: His Life and Work (1943).