Socialist Politics in Zola’s Germinal

Scene from Germinal (1993)

Last night I finished reading Zola’s Germinal (1885). I picked up this book, widely acknowledged as a masterpiece, upon a friend’s recommendation and worked through it over the course of the last ten days or so. Set in 1866-67, Germinal is the story of a miners’ strike in northern France near the Belgian border, and part of Zola’s larger, twenty volume chronology of life in the Second French Empire. The main protagonist of the story is twentysomething Etienne Lantier, who arrives at the fictional town of Montsou looking for work and settles into an occupation as a miner. There he works long hours under miserable conditions, all the while gaining a sense of the unhappiness of his fellow laborers and of the unjust ways in which their toil is exploited by the well-to-do bourgeoisie owning the mine. Eventually he begins organizing the workers and reading voraciously (including Proudhon and Lasalle, before moving on to Darwin), until his autodidactic pursuits leave him in a halfway place, with the cultivation of a bourgeois and the sympathies of a proletarian.

I do not want to recap the plot here, but instead to focus on the way that Zola worked to incorporate the radical theories of his 19th century contemporaries to present a picture of Etienne’s intellectual development. Initially we’re told that Etienne read “technical treatises on political economy, some anarchist pamphlets, which made his head spin”, and outlines of co-operative societies “about a universal exchange system which abolished money and based the whole of social life on the value of labour.”

All of these materials are lent to him by Souvarine, a Russian anarchist who fled his native land after a failed assassination against the Czar and who winds up playing a crucial role in the plot. Here Zola presents a contrast to Etienne’s humanistic collectivism, which is sincere in its moral outrage but theoretically flimsy and naive in its desire to overthrow the exploitative society through a spontaneous act of revolt. On the other hand, Souvarine is a hardened cynic who dismisses the potential of the strike as “nonsense” and, we are told, would rather see all of civilization razed to the ground if it meant the realization of freedom on earth. Yet he is also the much more studied on the two, at one point making casual reference to the iron law of wages.

Two other politically conscious characters play smaller roles. One is Rasseneur, a former worker at the mine who runs a pub that acts as the setting for some of the scenes where the clashes of ideologies take place. Unlike Etienne and Souvarine, Rasseneur sees to better the miners’ stake through gradual improvements and appeals to the bourgeoisie, and disavows political agitation as counterproductive. Fittingly, his views resemble the reformist, electoral politics of the “possibilist” movement, otherwise known as the Federation of the Socialist Workers of France (founded 1879). The other figure is Pluchart, a traveling organizer for the First International, who appears in Montsou upon Etienne’s invitation to provide the miners with membership, linking their cause to the larger movement. Pluchart, with his oratorical skills and political connections, represents the epitome of the revolutionary intellectual that Etienne wishes to become.

The International looms in the background of the narrative, with numerous characters referring to it as the savior of the workers’ cause and the definitive step toward a socialist utopia on earth. Yet while both Etienne and Rasseneur are members, Souvarine rejects it as “nonesense,” albeit with the qualification that “only one man could have turned their organization into a truly fearsome instrument of destruction” – Bakunin. “Under his leadership the International will have crushed the old order within three years.” At another point, Souvarine mentions that the politics of the International will be righted now that the anarchists are coming into power. This is a bit of artistic license on Zola’s part, since the novel is set some six years before the clash between the Marx-led socialists and the Bakunin-led anarchists at The Hague in 1872, and the Bakunists’ taking over the de facto leadership of the now-powerless International the following year.

On the whole, Zola’s portrayal of the 19th century mining community is utterly realistic, and   openly represents the difficulties that it would take for a mass-based socialist movement to organize the workers into a political force. Their wretched poverty has degraded them to such an extent that they have little concern for the lofty programmatic visions of a Proudhon or Fourier. For that reason, political discussion and the depiction of the clashing of different ideologies is rather limited, occurring in a few scenes and never unfolding in a satisfying way. None of the characters seem particularly fit to act as mouthpieces – Etienne is too unrefined, Souvarine too taciturn, Rasseneur too vain and self-absorbed. And whatever discussion of these ideas does occur stays within the walls of the pub, never being directed toward the laboring masses.

Yet Zola is unambiguous about the way history is headed. Even though the workers have little care for revolutionary political theory, the immediate circumstances that have led them to strike – reduced wages, dangerous working conditions, hunger – created the conditions under which their class consciousness could develop. And despite the failure of the strike,  their continuing grievances and this political awakening would lead to a new stage in the movement toward equality, up to the Paris Commune and beyond.

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