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Between Justice and PoliticsThe Ligue des Droits de l'Homme, 1898-1945$

William D. Irvine

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780804753173

Published to Stanford Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.11126/stanford/9780804753173.001.0001

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Ici on ne fait pas de la politique

Ici on ne fait pas de la politique

(p.20) Two Ici on ne fait pas de la politique
Between Justice and Politics
Stanford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

For most of its first forty years of existence, the Ligue des droits de l'homme (League of the Rights of Man) could have adopted ici on ne fait pas de la politique as its motto. Its mandate was not politics, but justice. The League always insisted that it was above the partisan fray, and that it was political only because it saw itself as the “conscience of democracy.” The Dreyfus affair used by the League to justify its creation was relatively non-political, at least in its earliest stages. From the beginning, however, most members knew that the League could go beyond the plight of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. They often debated over questions concerning the church, war, and the social order. For the League, these were political issues that were consistent with the letter and spirit of its guiding charter, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man. Despite its claims, the organization had almost always been deeply enmeshed in the day-to-day politics of France. This is evident in the tensions between Radicals and Socialists within the organization.

Keywords:   Ligue des droits de l'homme, League of the Rights of Man, politics, Alfred Dreyfus, Declaration of the Rights of Man, Radicals, Socialists, justice, social order

Ici on ne fait pas de la politique. For most of its first forty years this could have been the motto of the League. Justice, not politics, was the League's mandate. It was neither Right nor Left. Rather, its spokesmen were fond of saying, the League was on the ceiling—above the partisan fray, political only in the sense that its role was to be, according to another favorite phrase, the “conscience of democracy.” Lines like this were repeated whenever two or more leaguers gathered together. Scarcely was there a public meeting of the League without someone reminding his colleagues that the League did not engage in politics precisely because it was above politics. Orator after orator, at section meetings, federation meetings, and above all, national congresses insisted that the League was above politics, outside politics, and unconcerned with politics. Its ideal was justice, a noble ideal that could only be tarnished by contamination with partisan issues. Indeed, the League owed its moral authority precisely to its detachment from politics. What accounted for the intensity and frequency of such assertions, however, was the fact that in most senses they were utterly untrue.

The Dreyfus affair that brought the League into existence was, at least in its earliest stages, relatively nonpolitical. As late as the 1898 legislative elections, most politicians chose to ignore it. If Dreyfusards were more likely to be on the Left than on the Right, the Captain's defenders as well as his antagonists could be found in all political camps. Yet from the beginning, most leaguers recognized that the League could not limit itself to the plight of Captain Dreyfus. As one of the first members of the Central Committee, Senator Alexandre Isaac, noted at an early meeting, “absorbing though the Dreyfus affair” was, there were many other examples of injustice crying out for redress, notably the plight of Algerian Jews. Any initial consensus about the new organization's appropriate sphere of activity lasted exactly six days. On June 10, 1898, at the second meeting of its newly formed Central Committee, the League debated a draft of its first manifesto. Paul Viollet, a distinguished (p.21) chemist but also a devout Roman Catholic, insisted that, as part of its defense of public liberties, the League should protest against the current laws restricting the right of priests and monks to teach in public schools. Since priests and monks were, after all, French citizens, Viollet's concerns were not, a priori, inappropriate for the new League. But most of its founding members, like most late-nineteenth-century republicans, were genuinely uneasy about the prospect of clergy having any role in public education. Moreover, given the hostility of many elements in the church to Jews, to Dreyfus, and to the Republic, this did not seem to be the ideal moment to focus on the grievances of Roman Catholics. The Central Committee therefore proposed to restrict its first manifesto to the issues directly raised by the Dreyfus affair. Viollet promptly resigned from the League and shortly thereafter founded a Comité catholique pour la défense de droit.”

His was not the only resignation. The decision to focus exclusively on the Dreyfus case disturbed a prominent left-wing university professor. He was not at all troubled by the Central Committee's lack of concern for the problems of the church; to the contrary. But he had joined the League because he believed in its broader goals of civil liberties and justice and was appalled to learn that it was becoming a “single issue” pressure group. Worse, he thought the committee was defending a lost cause; Dreyfus, he insisted, was surely guilty! Like many “Radical” republicans of his generation, he revered the army and could not believe that the sworn word of no fewer than seven senior army officers could be challenged. He too promptly resigned. Ten weeks later, of course, it became public knowledge that the documents upon which Dreyfus's conviction had been based were forgeries. The disgruntled founding member soon reappeared in the ranks of the League's leadership. His name was Ferdinand Buisson, and he was soon to have a distinguished career as a Radical deputy and, from 1914 until 1926, as president of the League. But the experiences of Viollet and Buisson clearly demonstrate that, from the outset, members of the League had trouble agreeing on exactly what its objectives ought to be and what the appropriate limits on its actions were.1

Although it was founded to deal with a specific case of a victim of injustice, from nearly the beginning many members of the League believed that its mandate could not be limited to defending individual freedoms. There were broader ramifications to the defense of the rights of man. Surely human rights could be secure only in a democratic society, free from the obscurantist fanaticism of the church, free from the threat of war, and free, or at least relatively so, from the social inequality produced by rapacious capitalism.

(p.22) Virtually everyone in the league was an advocate of “laicité.” By this they meant that although anyone was entitled to the religion of his choice, religion should never intrude on the public sphere. Not only should church and state be separated but also the educational system ought to be free from any religious interference. Similarly, most members of the League, haunted by the fear, or later, the experience, of modern warfare, also agreed that a basic right of man was the right not to be subject to the horrors of war. Finally, it seemed obvious for many of the League's adherents that the principles of legal equality and due process lost much of their meaning when applied to a society where extremes of wealth and power prevailed. Moreover, was not the right to a living wage, full employment, decent retirement benefits, and reasonable conditions of work a human right as basic as others? And if, as seemed to many to be the case, such conditions did not seem to be realizable under the prevailing economic system was not capitalism as big an obstacle to civil rights as had been, say, undemocratic government or an established church? For the next forty years, most of the debates at League meetings and most of the articles in the League's various bulletins focused on questions concerning the church, war, and the social order.

By any standards these were political concerns. They were, the League insisted, political issues that followed directly from the letter and spirit of its guiding charter, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man. This assertion was more than a little problematic. The connection between the Declaration and the League's political concerns was, in fact, often tenuous. On religious issues, Article 10 of the Declaration said only that “no one should be troubled for his opinions, even religious ones.” The document was utterly silent about war and peace. Even more awkward was Article 17, which flatly declared private property to be sacrosanct. Still, even if the literal text of the Declaration was at times unhelpful or worse, the League insisted that the spirit of the document was fully congruent with its contemporary political preoccupations.2 Blessed as the League's leadership was with some of the leading academic historians of the time,3 it was not hard to demonstrate that the 1789 Declaration had been drafted before the Revolution had been forced to deal with the thorny issue of the church, before anyone had experienced the destructive effects of modern war, and before modern capitalism had demonstrated the abusive effects of private property. The Declaration was a living document, which could be reinterpreted or even modified with the passage of time. After all, had not the Jacobins modified the document as early as 1793 to give it a marginally more social flavor? Granted, there were some logical difficulties and inherent dangers in treating the Declaration as a document that could be modified (p.23) at will, but surely it was susceptible to nuanced interpretations in the light of the gradual evolution of modern society.

Emphasising the spirit of the Declaration both permitted an elastic interpretation of its principles and facilitated the League's political engagement. But the specific application of this more elastic reading of the Declaration was much more problematic. For example, did the principle of laicité mean that citizens who were Roman Catholic ought not to have the right, at their own expense, to send their children to schools run by the church? If so, what was the standing of the Declaration's insistence that no one should be troubled for his religious beliefs? Did the state, by way of minimizing clerical influence on society, have the right to treat members of religious congregations differently from other citizens, and if so, did this not violate the principle that all citizens were equal? Did opposition to war mean merely a call for disarmament, international arbitration, and open covenants, all openly arrived at? Or did it mean integral pacifism and the belief that no war, under any circumstances, was legitimate? Did the social interpretation of the Declaration mean a call for progressive social reforms or did it mean the abolition of capitalism and the collectivization of the means of production? There was simply no way that any of these issues could be resolved by reference to the League's “principles.” These were quintessentially political issues, and the League's debates about them accurately mirrored the debates going on simultaneously among and within the various political parties of the Left.

Any attempt at a more elastic reading of the Declaration of the Rights of Man was bound to alienate those members of the League for whom its mandate began and ended with the defense of individual rights and manifestly did not extend to attacks on religion, the army, or the capitalist system. Indeed, it did not escape them that the broader definition of the rights of man was both consequence and cause of the growing influx into the League of Socialists, many of whom had not, in 1898, thought the defense of a bourgeois army officer to be exactly their issue.4 The League's leaders invariably insisted that the broader agenda was an extension of, not a substitute for, its concerns with individual cases of human rights violations. In time though, this formula failed to satisfy the more militant elements in the League who were increasingly frustrated by what they perceived to be an excessive preoccupation with individual rights. Significantly, by the 1930s, the substantial number and cost of the League's permanent employees, nearly fifty, became an issue with the more radical elements in the League who complained that far too much of their dues went to pay for people who mostly dealt with individual cases of injustice and (p.24) far too little went to political propaganda.5 In 1935, Jacques Rosner, a former employee of the League and self-proclaimed angry young man, complained that the League had become merely an organization “which deals with a few citizens who have been the victims of injustice.” But times had changed, and the 1789 Declaration was past its expiry date. A League that “only brings wornout formulae of so-called democratic defence” and which limited itself to “minor individual grievances,” would become comparably irrelevant. League rhetoric about defending “current freedoms” was naive given that under the capitalist system such freedoms were largely mythical and “we are but slaves.” “In a fully revolutionary period, two ideologies confront one another,” the tired ideas of 1789 and the revolutionary ones of 1935.6 In his capacity as a delegate from the ninth arrondissement of Paris, Rosner informed the 1935 congress, “we are witnessing a radical ideological rupture within the League.”7 Even far more moderate members, like the delegate to the 1933 national congress from the Saône-et-Loire, conceded that the League would “henceforth be oriented as much towards social struggles as to the defence of individual liberties.”8 Reflecting this mood, and in preparation for the 1935 congress, Léon Emery, leader of the left-wing opposition, proposed that the League adopt a new orientation, minimizing its defense of individuals and concentrating almost exclusively on the more fundamental issues of the struggle for peace and against capitalism. It received the support of 40 percent of the delegates.

For leaguers of this persuasion, the Declaration was not so much a sacred charter as a serious impediment to social change. Many questioned the relevance of a late-eighteenth-century document to the early twentieth century. By the 1930s, a number of members demanded a new Declaration, one fully consistent with their revolutionary socialism and devoid of anachronistic references to the sanctity of private property or the primacy of individual rights.9 This challenge from the Left posed a dilemma for the League's leadership. All agreed that the Declaration of 1789 did not adequately address the social problems of the twentieth century. All saw the need for, as Albert Bayet, a left-wing Radical and member of the Central Committee, put it, for an “economic” version of 1789. Whereas the French Revolution had abolished a political feudalism, the League now had to mount an assault on the “new feudalism” of the trusts, the banks, the 200 families and, in general, the puissances d'argent, or moneyed interests. But they also recognized the dangers implicit in scrapping outright a Declaration that was 150 years old. Its principles were eternally valid and, by virtue of its historical significance, it had political and emotional weight that no new Declaration, transparently drafted to deal with contemporary concerns, (p.25) could ever have. Adroitly, therefore, they proposed for the 1936 congress, a “complement” to the old Declaration, a gloss on the historic original that would tease out of the 1789 text the appropriate applications for the present. Article 17, for example, would remain but be reinterpreted to mean that private property was sacred only when it was not used to oppress the people. The private property of the peasant and the small merchant was still sacred, but that of François de Wendel and the Comité des Forges would not be.10

At the League's July 1936 congress, however, many, for whom the Declaration had become simply irrelevant, found the compromise outrageous. Retaining the Declaration amounted to clinging to “outdated values,” based on “dead ideas,” insisted the Parisian university professor, Gustave Rodrigues. The world was changing; as a result “all of the values of yesterday are today bankrupt.” The president of the large section of Marseilles could not hide his discouragement at the retention of the bourgeois individualism implicit in the 1789 document. “One cannot,” he protested, “use the pretext of individualism to subordinate the collective interest to the tyrannical interest of a handful of individuals…. The old revolutionary declarations have run their course,” adding that “faced with the decaying cadaver … of capitalism and bourgeois society and with a new society that is beginning to emerge, it is time to make forceful decisions.” In July of 1936, France was, or so many delegates believed, experiencing the dawn of a new social revolutionary age; yet the League seemed to be bogged down in academic discussions of a document produced for a revolution that was but a distant memory. The Popular Front had just taken power, and the wave of sit-in strikes in the previous month presaged for many a forthcoming social revolution. As Rosner insisted, the events of June 1936 eclipsed those of August 1789. August 1789 had made tabula rasa of the old regime; June 1936 should do the same for both capitalist society and the Declaration of 1789.11

The more radical positions were, to be sure, invariably in the minority (although as the vote on Emery's 1935 proposed reorientation of the League shows, a very significant minority) Still, the fact that the League should even be debating such issues effectively narrowed its constituency. In principle, anyone who rejected the more extravagant claims of the anti-Dreyfusards and who accepted the democratic Republic was welcome to join the League. By 1905, at the latest, almost everyone in France had rallied, with greater or lesser degrees of conviction, to the Republican form of government; partisans of Royalist and Bonapartist forms of government were few in number and politically insignificant. Nor were there very many who wished to challenge the essential justice of the outcome of the Dreyfus affair. But the League's incipient anticlericalism, (p.26) pacifism, and anticapitalism, even in their most moderate form, ensured that the natural constituency for the League would be limited to those who were in one of the families of the political Left.

Of course, this had not always been so. In the early days of the League, a clear majority of the League's leadership was drawn from what was quixotically known as the centre-gauche.12 As so often was the case with French political nomenclature, the label center-left was fundamentally misleading because those of this political persuasion actually stood on the center-right of the political spectrum. But politicians of every stripe were refractory to the adjective right; even those who actually were on the extreme Right were shunning the label long before the turn of the twentieth century. Right conjured up images of enemies of the republican regime and whatever else the centre-gauche might have been, it was devoutly republican. Its adherents were the political descendants of the founder of the regime, men like Jules Ferry and Jules Simon. They were sometimes also known as modérés because they were uneasy with the more radical claims of those on their Left but, for all that, they passionately insisted that they were republican moderates and not moderately republican.13 Indeed, what separated them from the political right was precisely their adamant defense of Dreyfus. The centre-gauche was moderately anticlerical, believing that the church had no business in the politics of the nation, nor, ideally at least, in education. They were, however, defenders of the socioeconomic status quo, ardent defenders of capitalism, and sceptical about all but the most cautious interventions of the state in economic matters. Members of the centre-gauche traditionally shunned affiliation with disciplined political parties; the closest they came to a political party of their own was the politically influential but organizationally vaporous Alliance Démocratique.

The prominence of the moderate republicans in the early League was symbolized by its first president Senator Ludovic Trarieux, and Central Committee members like Jacques Reinach, Yves Guyot, Alexandre Isaac, and above all Anthony Ratier, one of the leading figures in the Alliance Démocratique. With Trarieux's death in 1903, however, the leadership of the League fell to Francis de Pressensé, a Socialist deputy. In the years that followed, the centregauche gradually lost its preponderant influence to the representatives of the two major left-wing parties in France, the Radicals and the Socialists.

Until 1936 the largest party on the Left, and indeed in France, was the Radical party. Although not officially founded until 1901,14 the Radicals had been around in one form or another since the early days of the Republic. The official (p.27) title was the Radical and Radical-Socialist Party. This cumbersome title, misleading in some respects, nonetheless gives a clue to the party's political orientation. The party was neither radical nor socialist in the conventional sense of those words. Radical was used here in the literal sense of root, a reference to the party's early defense of root and branch republicanism. Unlike the very conservative republicans in the founding days of the republic, Radicals had been enthusiastic defenders of pure political democracy and opposed to such politically conservative institutions as the Senate and the presidency, neither elected by universal manhood suffrage. Socialist was a label added by some—although by no means all—local Radical committees to indicate a concern for the social question. They advocated social reforms, such as the income tax, and articulated a hostility to extremes of wealth and large-scale capitalist institutions. Socialism, many Radicals traditionally argued, was something very different from collectivism. The former was French, reformist, and evolutionary; the latter was German, violent, and revolutionary. One thing all Radicals shared in common was an extreme anticlericalism, which often took the form of insisting that most of the problems facing republican France could be solved by depriving the Roman Catholic Church of any influence whatsoever.

There was probably no such thing as a typical Radical. But if there were, it would probably have been André Teissier, a notary from Mâcon, an activist in the local Radical committee and, significantly, president of the very large local section of the League. Teissier was given to lecturing local Radicals and his section of the League (which in the early twentieth century sometimes held joint meetings) on the need for social reform. An income tax, he insisted, was necessary to close the gap between rich and poor; more attention had to be paid to the question of pensions for retired workers; and the influence of the plutocracy of wealth on the state was pernicious. He bowed to nobody in his savage denunciations of the clergy, but he also noted that whereas the government had made some progress in what he called its “laic duty,” its “social duty” remained pretty much at the level of “unfulfilled promises.” Of course he believed that “private property was an untouchable right” but he nonetheless wished that “wealth could be redistributed in such a way as to ensure that the poor might have at least the minimum necessary to survive.” Yet, legislature after legislature went by with little in the way of meaningful social reform, which meant that an increasingly impatient population was falling for the seductive promises of the collectivist Left, prone to violence and illegality. Throughout most of his career, Teissier sprinkled his discourses with roughly equal measures of (p.28) anticlericalism, calls for serious social reform, and increasingly savage denunciations of the Socialists and their loosely affiliated trade unions, which he freely described as hotbeds of “anarchism, violence and revolution.”15

Teissier's ambivalence on the social question reflected that of the Radical party as a whole. A large, sprawling, and thoroughly undisciplined party, its members could be found everywhere from the right-wing fringes of the Socialists to the edges of the formations of the center-right. The Radicals always insisted, of course, that their party was on the Left, although increasingly its only claim to left-wing status was its persistent anticlericalism. It had been the principal formation of the Left in the thirty years after 1870, but the growing parliamentary representation of the Socialists after the turn of the twentieth century pushed the party inexorably toward the political center. It also made it a party of government.

France had a multiparty system. There were five or six major parties as well as a sprinkling of minor ones. Because no party ever captured a majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies, every government was a coalition government. By virtue of its strategic position in the center-left of the political spectrum, the Radicals were essential ingredients in any governmental coalition, and parliamentary mathematics being what they were, it was virtually impossible to form a government without including at least some of the Radicals. Depending on the results of general elections, the governmental coalitions were sometimes oriented toward the Left with the Radicals governing with the more or less reliable support of the Socialist formations (as in 1902‒06, 1924‒26, and 1932‒34) or with the active participation of the Socialists (as in 1936‒38). Rather more often, however, the Radicals were in governmental coalitions that leaned to the Right and sometimes even including members of the extreme parliamentary Right, with the Socialists in the opposition. The fact that members of the League were more often than not on opposite sides of the political divide would have severe repercussions.

The principal Socialist party of France was formally called the French Section of the Workers' International (Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière or SFIO as it was universally known). The name, every bit as cumbersome as the official title of the Radicals, also reflected the party's origins. Before 1905, French Socialists were divided into several doctrinally warring parties. Under pressure from the Socialist Second International, which was exasperated by having to deal with several different parties in the same country, the French Socialists formally unified in 1905. As the title also indicates, the united Socialist party also officially accepted the prevailing doctrine in the Second International, (p.29) an orthodox and fairly mechanistic Marxism. According to this doctrine, capitalism could not be reformed from within but must be overthrown by (more or less) violent revolution. Such an outcome was also inevitable owing both to the increasing internal contradictions within capitalist society and to the increasing size and class consciousness of the revolutionary proletariat. Although, in the interest of unity, most Socialists gave lip service to this doctrine, not all of them subscribed to it with equal conviction. From the beginning there were those who had more faith in evolutionary reform than in revolution. This tendency became more pronounced after 1920 when some of the more revolutionary elements within the Socialists joined the fledgling Communist party. Although more coherent and better disciplined than the Radicals (which would not be very difficult), the Socialist party remained divided among those who were secretly or overtly reformist, those who clung to the determinist Marxism of the Second International, and those who were consumed by a kind of nihilist revolutionary zeal.16

Unlike the Radicals, the Socialists were not usually a party of government. It followed from the doctrine of the Second International that if capitalism could not be reformed from within, then Socialists had no business participating in bourgeois governments, as at least one of them had prior to 1905. Only under very exceptional circumstances might a Socialist deputy agree to accept a ministerial portfolio.17 Once again, as with the party's official Marxism, some Socialists took this doctrine more seriously than did others. Socialist deputies in particular were inclined toward a more nuanced interpretation of the party's doctrinal declarations. Party congresses might pass some well meaning and apparently binding resolutions, but once in Parliament deputies tended to believe that they were entitled to some freedom of maneuvre and the right to make some critical tactical decisions that might be in violation of party doctrine, literally construed. One of the standing jokes of the time was that two deputies, one of whom was a revolutionary, had rather more in common than two revolutionaries, one of whom was a deputy. A significant number of Socialist deputies believed that the nonparticipation rule achieved doctrinal purity at the cost of political impotence. As a result, the lure of a ministerial portfolio exercised considerable charm on a number of deputies, especially those with relatively secure constituencies who felt able to risk the wrath of the party's rank and file. Because the Socialist party had rather more coherence than its Radical counterpart, one could not violate party principles with impunity. Consequently, from 1905 onward there was a steady migration of “socialists” out of the SFIO. Some (Alexandre Millerand, Aristide Briand, Réné (p.30) Viviani, Pierre Laval) migrated so far to the Right as to forget any links they once had with their socialist past. Others, more numerous (Joseph Paul-Boncour, Maurice Viollette, Eugène Frot, Adrien Marquet) drifted into splinter parties with names like the Republican Socialists or Socialists of France, which occupied a nebulous terrain between the Radicals and the SFIO. Many of them, significantly, belonged to the League and, after 1910, these independent Socialists represented the effective center of political gravity within the League.

The divided political loyalties of League members were the source of more or less permanent strains within the organization. Tensions between Radicals and Socialists were least pronounced in the four years after 1902. In the 1902 elections, both the Radical and Socialist parties made major gains; the post-1902 legislatures were the years of the Bloc des Gauches, an informal alliance between the Radicals, forming the government, and the Socialists, according them more or less consistent parliamentary support. For both parties, this unprecedented exercise of power offered an opportunity to effect significant changes, most notably with respect to the role of the church (a subject of general agreement between the two parties) but also, albeit to a lesser degree (because Radicals were less sure on this point) the army. But consensus between Radicals and Socialists during these years was often achieved at the price of alienating more conservative members of the League.

The classic example came with the affaire des fiches. In the early twentieth century, the French government had serious doubts about the loyalty of its officer corps, some members of whom were suspected of preferring a more authoritarian regime—royalist or, more likely, Bonapartist. Certainly the stance taken by some officers during the Dreyfus affair provided grounds for unease. To obtain information about the political reliability of its officers, in 1903 the Minister of War, General André, asked Freemasons to compile elaborate dossiers (fiches) on officers, commenting on their political and religious views as well as their personal lives and those of their families. The Masonic lodges, an elaborate network of free thinking, republican, and anticlerical Frenchmen (with, it is to the point, intimate links to the League) obligingly provided the War Ministry with an extensive array of information. It was clearly understood that the information so compiled would be used to determine advancement within the ranks. Whether this secret information significantly affected the careers of individual officers is a matter of some debate.18 What is not in dispute is that the process was highly irregular if not illegal. The files created by the Masonry were secret and not subject to any administrative checks. Much of the information was overtly partisan, concerned less with the professional (p.31) efficiency of the officers or even with their political reliability than with personal or confessional issues. And much of the information was inaccurate. In short, this was precisely the kind of abuse of power that ought to have invited the prompt intervention of the League.

Some members of the Central Committee, notably the distinguished academic Célestin Bouglé, thought so too.19 They granted that the government had the legitimate right to inform itself about the political loyalty of its officers but not by using methods that the League would certainly have denounced had they been directed against republican officers. As Joseph Reinach pointedly remarked, principles invoked “when we fear we will not be the strongest” could not be ignored “as soon as we no longer fear that we will not be the strongest.”20

Newly elected League President, Francis de Pressensé, by contrast, saw the matter in a different light. Pressensé was the son of a Protestant pastor.21 Like many leaders of French Socialism, he came from a solidly middle-class background; his early career had been spent in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and later as an editor of Le Temps, the organ of the comfortable Republican middle class, soon to become the semiofficial newspaper of the reigning Republicans. In the 1890s Pressensé underwent a spiritual crisis, the result of which was a passionate adhesion to the cause of Socialism. Like other Protestant Socialists (his fellow leaguer Jules Moch being the best example), his conversion to Socialism was an extension rather than a rejection of his devout Christianity. He was elected as a Socialist deputy from Lyon in 1902 and became president of the League the following year. Pressensé readily conceded that the conduct of the Masons was “an error and a deplorable one.” But surely it would be wrong for the League to make too much of the behavior of government officials “who could have made mistakes, even serious ones, in the heat of stubborn battle” lest such a position appear to be “a blow against the position of loyal officers and against the republic itself.” The practice of secret reports on officers was indisputably an unsavory one and ought to be abolished. But it ought not be forgotten that the royalists had employed it against republican officers for the past thirty years. The current protests of the nationalist Right were therefore utterly hypocritical, and the whole affair had been “deliberately instigated by the nationalist party in order to cause trouble and provoke disarray in the, alas, too sparse ranks of republican officers.” He was unmoved by the indignation of colleagues like Bouglé and Reinach. “On the pretext of remaining the purest of the pure, we have seen too many republicans—consciously or otherwise—playing into the hand of the praetorians.” The League ought not to “let itself be dragged into … giving aid to the clever plot of the (p.32) party of forgers,” and ought to “choose its moment, its reasons and its allies” before entering the fray.22

Pressensé's reasoning is worth dwelling on because it set a pattern followed, with some exceptions, by the League during its next forty years. Pressensé was probably not wrong in suggesting that General André set no precedent in spying upon members of the officer corps. But he deliberately chose not to grasp the moral high ground by asserting that illegal actions, even when carried out in a good cause by sympathetic people, are no less illegal. Instead he chose to argue, in essence, that “turnabout is fair play.” A fair enough position for a politician—Left or Right—but not exactly consistent with the principles the League professed to embrace. To be sure, in substantive terms, the harm done to the careers of Roman Catholic army officers paled by comparison with the plight of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. But in principle, religious discrimination was present in both cases, and Pressensé came perilously close to suggesting that what distinguished them in his mind was his politically motivated sympathy for one form of discrimination. By way of justification he suggested that republican officers were a distinct minority in the army and thus entitled to whatever advantages Mercier's policies would afford them Even were he right about the political orientation of the army—and the point is not obvious23—his position entirely ignored the fact that officers, provided they performed their assigned tasks competently, were entitled to their private political views. Finally, there was a serious disconnect between the League's principled stand to the effect that it had a duty to intervene in any case of injustice, regardless of who the victim was and who was responsible and Pressensé's contention that the League had to “choose its moment, its reasons and its allies.”

Yet on this issue, at least, Pressensé still had the support of some of the more moderate elements on the Central Committee. Yves Guyot would assert that “it would be a serious mistake to render the League in any way complicit with the campaign of the nationalists against the Republic.” Jean Psichari noted that “in order to judge the issue fairly one must take account of the state of exasperation of republican officers who have been spied upon by reactionaries and clericals.”24 Moreover on this issue the leaders had the overwhelming support of the rank and file. Of the 175 sections that expressed opinions on the issue, only fourteen expressed reservations, and virtually none condemned outright the official stance. The fuss about informers, the section in Antibes insisted, was just “a hypocritical, impudent, and perfidious manoeuvre”; the League had more important victims to worry about than army officers who “enjoy a situation that in its very nature is a privileged one.”25 The section in Calais regretted (p.33) that “under the influence of an exaggerated and misdirected sense of impartiality,” certain public figures were tempted “casually to sacrifice civil servants in response to the slightest protest by the reactionaries.” Governments had to rely on “all information coming from honest and reliable sources … without being restrained by an excess of phoney scruples.”26 It is easy enough, in retrospect, to find this kind of reasoning and rhetoric unsettling. But the concern was shared by informed and sympathetic contemporaries. It was, after all, Célestin Bouglé, one of the League's most prominent leaders, who at the time warned that too many of the newer members of the League found “liberalism” to be outmoded and were practicing a “clericalism in reverse.” Cropping up among too many leaguers were “instincts, habits and traditions that are singularly reminiscent of the traditions, habits and instincts of the nationalists.”27

The 1905 law separating church and state provoked another crisis within the League. Until 1905 church-state relations in France had been governed by Napoleon's 1801 Concordat by which ministers of all cults (Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish) were treated as paid civil servants of the state and subject to rigorous state control. Although the Concordatory regime had ultimately worked to the satisfaction of most republican politicians, separation of church and state was a long-standing demand of both Radicals and Socialists. The high-profile anti-Dreyfusard stance of some segments of the French clergy and deteriorating relations between France and the Vatican ensured that with the 1902 government of Emile Combes, an ex-seminarian, Freemason, and archly anticlerical Radical, separation would become a government priority. Moreover, the text of the resultant law on separation, finally adopted in 1905, was almost entirely the work of the Socialist deputy, Francis de Pressensé.

Pressensé's proposed legislation received, after an extensive discussion, the enthusiastic endorsement of a majority of the members of the Central Committee, thereby profoundly troubling a conservative minority and some of the more prominent leaders of the Protestant community. As to substance, not all of them were convinced that Separation was entirely desirable; others found the proposed bill to be harsher and more punitive than necessary. But the more pertinent point they raised was: why was the League even involved in the issue? Separation of church and state may or may not have been desirable as a matter of public policy. But what did the question have to do with the Rights of Man, especially given that the Declaration, the League's charter, was absolutely silent on the point? Even were one to agree that the separation of church and state was consistent with the spirit, if not the letter, of the Declaration, surely the League should limit itself to pronouncing on the principle of separation. Yet here was the (p.34) Central Committee giving its benediction, ratified by the 1903 general assembly, not to the principle, but to a specific and partisan piece of legislation. Gabriel Monod, a distinguished historian as well as a Protestant leader, reminded Pressensé that the original mandate of the League had expressly forbidden it to “involve itself in the daily political struggles.” Separation of church and state, much like the graduated income tax, was a political question about which reasonable people could disagree. Neither one was an appropriate matter for the League to discuss, still less endorse. At this rate, he warned, the League risked becoming “a mere political and electoral association, destined exclusively to the battle against nationalism and clericalism.”28 A number of Protestant dignitaries echoed this argument.29 These were not necessarily very telling arguments in an association already filled with individuals who believed that the battle against clericalism and nationalism was an entirely appropriate mission for the League. Pressensé was particularly unmoved by Monod's arguments. He did not care what the Declaration of 1789 actually said; as far as he was concerned, it contained the “implicit affirmation” of the principle of separation. The fact that the leaders of the French Revolution, by introducing the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, the precursor to the 1801 Concordat, did not see it that way merely proved that it was inconsistent with itself, an inconsistency, he noted, for which it had paid a terrible price. He had little use for the nit-picking of “a few so-called liberals” in the Protestant community who seemed, perversely, to be fueling the campaign of the enemies of the regime. “We are beginning to grow accustomed,” he thundered “to finding on the lips of our adversaries and the worst enemies of freedom, words like liberty and tolerance.”30

Pressensé's response was both understandable and predictable. But, in some important respects, it was also disquieting. Gabriel Monod had a penchant for lugubrious moralizing, which was not to everyone's taste. But on this issue he had raised an important point of principle. To dismiss it as “so-called liberalism” (a phrase that would in time attain a disquieting currency within the League) was at best glib. It was also somewhat facile to dismiss the notions of “liberty and tolerance” merely because they were currently falling from the lips of those who ordinarily cared for neither principle. As with the case of the affaire des fiches, important and transcendent values did not automatically lose their legitimacy merely because they were adopted by and for the wrong crowd.

Pressensé's response to questions of “liberalism” and “tolerance” could be selective, however. In 1908, General Picquart, war minister in the government of Georges Clemenceau, punished a number of officers in the garrison of Laôn for attending mass (in civilian dress) and for participating in a private meeting (p.35) of the Jeunesses Catholiques. In principle, these actions differed little from those of General André during the affaire des fiches; moreover, Clemenceau, and especially Picquart, had become legendary for their courageous defense of Dreyfus. Nonetheless, Pressensé chose to challenge Clemenceau in parliament on this issue, noting, quite correctly, that there was nothing illegal about the actions of officers merely exercising their legitimate civil rights. The argument that punishing certain officers for their religious and political beliefs constituted a small reward for loyal republican ones—current during the affaire des fiches—was, Pressensé now insisted, nonsense. At best it was “a precedent that will turn against us.”31 The Laôn episode would in time serve the League very well. For the next thirty years, a new generation of League leaders regularly cited Laôn as decisive proof of the League's willingness to defend the victims of injustice regardless of their political or confessional affiliation. What they discretely avoided mentioning was how much controversy Pressensé's principled stance had provoked within the League at the time. Clemenceau, a formidable opponent, took most of the lustre off Pressensé's polemic by pointedly reminding him how frequently sections of his own League had demanded sanctions against officers on exactly the same pretexts. Worse, many sections of the League were puzzled, if not outraged, by Pressensé's position. Seventy-three of the 137 sections that published views about the question disavowed the stance of their president, accusing him of playing into the “reactionary and clerical party.” Pressensé's seeming about-face on the question, a number of sections suggested, owed less to any renewed commitment to tolerance and everything to politics. Pressensé was a Socialist, and his intervention reflected the growing antagonism of the Socialist party to the relative social conservatism of a Radical like Clemenceau.

These political tensions also surfaced during the more or less simultaneous Augagneur affair. Victor Augagneur was a prominent member of the League and until 1905 the Socialist mayor of and deputy for Lyon. He subsequently drifted toward the Radicals. In 1905, he accepted the post of governorgeneral of Madagascar. Although he was a relatively enlightened colonial administrator, he was quick to implement recent anticlerical legislation in Madagascar. In particular, this involved closing a number of Protestant schools that provided much of the education for the indigenous population. Pressensé, with the support of the Central Committee, sharply attacked the policies of his former friend and colleague, arguing, plausibly enough, that the immediate consequence would be to deprive natives of educational opportunities.32 Radicals in the League, however, suspected that once again Pressensé's Socialist (p.36) politics dictated his attacks on a fellow leaguer. Worse, they suspected that Pressensé, a notoriously devout Protestant, did not share their instinctive anticlericalism and was partial to his coreligionists in Madagascar. Some Radicals were not sure which was more troubling, Pressensé's political views or his religious ones. The President of the section of Macon alluded to Pressensé's Socialist politics but bluntly complained that both he and some of his fellow members of the Central Committee “display an excessive benevolence for the [Protestant] religion.” The president of the federation of the Vienne, in his letter of resignation, fulminated against a League that was increasingly “more concerned to prepare for the triumph of certain economic ideas than to defend individual rights and expand the principles of 1789.” He complained of the “collectivist and revolutionary doctrines” emanating from the Central Committee and announced that he was leaving the League to avoid having “to bow down … before Marx and Calvin.”33

The changing political climate after 1906 had profound consequences for the internal life of the League. Until 1906, Radicals and Socialists collaborating in the Bloc des Gauches, had enjoyed a working alliance owing to their agreement on the Dreyfus affair and the religious question. By 1906 these issues had been resolved, and newer issues began to dominate the French political scene, the most important of which was the social question. In the second half of the decade, labor unrest increased dramatically. In 1907, agricultural workers in the Midi launched a massive and at times violent labor protest, one the Clemenceau government put down with the aid of the French army. In 1908 the French postal workers struck; two years later it was the railway workers. In the latter case, the government, headed by Aristide Briand, an old Dreyfusard and former Socialist but by now moving to the Right, broke the strike by mobilizing the workers, effectively meaning that refusal to perform their duties now took the form of military disobedience with the concomitant sanctions. These strikes were largely the work of the most militant of French labor unions, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT, the General Confederation of Labor). The CGT, loosely affiliated with the Socialist party, espoused a particularly violent form of revolutionary syndicalism, replete with calls for general strikes and violent overthrow of the state. In truth, the union was usually a good deal more pragmatic and reformist than its rhetoric—or more accurately, the rhetoric of a few high-profile spokesmen—suggested. By 1911 even its leaders had adopted a more conventional trade union position. But this was less evident at the time and for many mainstream republicans, the CGT was the incarnation of the class struggle, revolutionary violence, and antipatriotism. Its actions were anathema to many (p.37) Radicals and virtually everyone in the centre-gauche. In short, by 1906 the Dreyfusard coalition, so well represented in the League, had fallen apart; this rupture had immediate consequences for the League.

Pressensé and a majority of his colleagues on the Central Committee sympathized with the working-class protests and were indignant with the repressive policies followed by the governments of the day. In their view, this represented no departure from the principles upon which the League had been founded. Pressensé repeatedly noted that the current social question was more complex and less easy than had been the Dreyfus affair. But justice was no less at the heart of these questions.

At issue for many was the delicate case of fonctionnaires (civil servants.) Early in the twentieth century, under French law, civil servants were allowed neither to unionize nor to strike. For many in the League this was as it ought to be. Civil servants benefited from job security and pensions not enjoyed by their colleagues in the private sector. A strike by civil servants was different from a strike in the private sector; the former was a strike against the nation that fonctionnaires were supposed to serve. Others, however, countered that civil servants were citizens like any others; the right to unionize could no more be denied them than it could be denied to any other French citizen. The right to strike was more complex. It was inappropriate for the highest ranks of the civil service, those who had supervisory positions, but surely not for the more modest ranks. The issue was a potentially burning one in an organization in which a high percentage of members, including teachers, were modest civil servants. A series of League congresses endorsed this position.34 But many of the early leaders of the League did not agree. Anthony Ratier resigned from the Central Committee in 1909, declaring that the League was becoming “more and more a propaganda and combat auxiliary of an extremist party.” For his part, he no longer wished to be “in complicity with civil servants in revolt” nor to support “the disorganization of the public service.”35 Adolph Carnot, of similar political persuasion and a member of the League since its foundation, resigned complaining that since the death of Trarieux, the League “is entirely infeudated with collectivism and is more and more drifting towards anarchism and antipatriotism.”36 Many others joined them in these years, including Jean Psichari and founder and vice president, Dr. Emile Gley, Yves Guyot, Charles Richet, Gabriel Trarieux (son of the first president), and Emile Bourgeois. Of the thirtyfive members sitting on the Central Committee when Pressensé became president, twenty-two resigned in the next decade, most of them because of the changing orientation of the League.37

(p.38) Although the Central Committee invariably prevailed at its congresses, there was no denying the existence of a profound malaise within the League. In 1911, a delegate from the Seine summed up the feelings of many of the dissidents. He had been a member of the League since its foundation, had always defended the Central Committee within his section, and was sensitive to the legitimate grievances of the working class. But did this mean, he asked that “we must always support the working class, right or wrong, against both the law and the interests of the other classes of the nation”? The demands of the postal and railway workers had been legitimate ones, he conceded, but they had fallen prey to “the violent actions of revolutionary minorities which threaten the Republican regime itself.” The workers were one thing, but the CGT “represented the very negation of liberty and equality.” The League needed to be more evenhanded in its treatment of political issues and be “a bit fairer with respect to those who have the heavy responsibility of power” rather than persistently lining up with “the worst enemies of the Republic and of democracy.” In a thinly veiled reference to the Socialists, he noted that some of those “who had stood prudently silent” in 1898 were now using the League for purposes for which it had not been intended. “For some years now individuals have been slipping into our ranks not to defend justice per se but to defend a special justice, a special legality … a Socialist or Radical justice.”38 Dissidents like this did not carry the day at League congresses, but a growing number of sections voted with their feet. In 1909, for example, 82 sections published resolutions critical of the Central Committee, whereas only 40 expressed their support.39 Moreover, for the first time in the history of the League there was a net loss of members. In 1908, for example, there were 15,631 new members for 6,555 resignations and 105 new sections for 64 dissolved ones out of a total of 88,932 members and 870 sections.40 The next year, by contrast, saw 21,757 members resign and only 12,346 new recruits; there were 111 dissolved sections against 76 new ones.41 Their departure seems not to have unduly troubled Pressensé. The good old days of the Dreyfus affair, when the issue was narrow and relatively simple, could not, he observed, last forever. Even then there had been those who viewed the affair as a limited issue of one particular injustice as well as those who saw it as part of a broader and more systematic question of social injustice.42

By 1910 there was widespread talk about a “crisis” in the League.43 Dissidents condemned the League's involvement in political issues, although this was usually another way of saying that they did not care for the League's current political stance. Typically, Gabriel Monod complained that the League was “exceeding its mandate” by being consumed by “political passions.” In more or less (p.39) the same breath, however, he also denounced “revolutionary socialists who, in the name of collectivism, fulminate against the wage system.”44 Like many moderates, Monod was disturbed that the Central Committee had dwelt at length on the illegalities of Briand but had said very little about the acts of violence of the CGT; two hundred lines in the Central Committee's resolution on the first issue as opposed to nine on the second, remarked Paul-Hyacinthe Loyson, delegate at the 1910 congress from the sixteenth arrondissement of Paris.45 But quite apart from the question of balance, Monod insisted, was what the League was doing in this matter in the first place. The League was increasingly involved in “political pre-occupations,” “socio-political crises about which the best republicans and the best friends of the people are in disagreement.” Better it should stick to the “exclusive pre-occupation with justice that ought to determine all of the acts of the League.”46 It was all part of a lengthy campaign for a “return to principles.”47 He had a point, but when members of the League decried the nefarious effects of creeping politics, what many of them really deplored was the wrong kind of politics. What bothered Loyson, an archly ambitious political figure, was not so much the politicization of the League but the growing influence of Socialist politics.

The charges that by 1910 the League had fallen into the hands of antipatriotic revolutionaries said more about the political passions of the period than about the evolution of the League. True, the influence of both the Socialist party and the CGT within the League had increased dramatically in recent years. It was equally the case that some of the Socialist members of the League were not beyond a disquieting verbal radicalism. During a 1910 debate on the railway workers strike, one Socialist delegate cited Article 35 of the Jacobin Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1793 to the effect that when the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is both the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.48 This was a line that would be invoked incessantly in the years to come. But, rhetoric aside, it was also true that both the Socialists and the CGT were at that very time becoming more moderate and more reformist. Moreover, verbal flourishes aside, the position on civil servants and union activity adopted by the Central Committee was usually both cautious and sensible. Fifteen years later the Central Committee was confronted with the case of a worker in the tax collection service who was fired for circulating a letter from his union raising the possibility of job action, effectively obstructing the collection of taxes. The Central Committee dutifully, if unenthusiastically, pleaded his case on compassionate grounds but made it clear that his actions were in violation of his duty and his legal obligations. (p.40) It was not, Victor Basch would argue, as if the nation were not badly in need of tax revenue; obstructing tax collection would “paralyse national life … and the name for that is revolution.” An alert delegate reminded Basch that he was both a Socialist and a self-proclaimed revolutionary. Basch countered that he was indeed a revolutionary, but his idea of revolution was the carefully planned, long-term, and rational variety of which the Socialist party still vaguely dreamed; it manifestly had nothing to do with the salaries of certain categories of civil servants.49

The critics of the prewar period were, however, right on at least one count: the issue of the labor union rights of civil servants was not an obvious one for the League. There were compelling reasons for supporting the right of French civil servants to strike but they were, in the end, political reasons. The merits of the debate simply could not be resolved by recourse to the only principles universally agreed upon in the League: the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

The crisis of the years 1906‒11 had significant long-term consequences for the League. As a result of it, most of the centre-gauche and some fraction of the Radicals who had formed the early League were gone, and the League had become more or less exclusively a formation of the Left. With unconscious irony, the president of the very large federation of the Aisne, Marc Lengrand, in 1930 insisted that when it came to choosing its leaders “the vast majority of leaguers are never concerned about their [political] nuances, provided they are red.”50 The League's political center of gravity henceforth stood somewhere between the more left-wing Radicals and the more moderate Socialists. Significantly, the years 1906‒11 marked the last time that the Central Committee would be consistently under fire from the more conservative elements in the League. After 1914 the attacks came from the Left.

The League was clearly on the Left. But which Left? The formation of a French Communist party in December 1920 posed a further challenge for the League. The new party, the result of a secession from the Socialist party, had an obvious appeal for members of the League's militant minority, which since 1916 had condemned the League's cautious and critical support for the French war effort and the Union Sacrée. Not only did the Communists excoriate the other parties of the Left for their wartime stance, but they held forth a model of a genuinely revolutionary society that contrasted markedly with the increasingly tepid reformism of the Socialist majority. Some members of the League, like Max Maurange, spokesman for the radical section in the sixth arrondissement of Paris, were clearly fascinated by the Soviet experiment. “Out of the east,” he exuded, “there comes a new light which blinds us.” To those who (p.41) complained of the lack of formal democracy in the new regime, he responded that the “sovereignty of the worker” has replaced the bourgeois notion of “sovereignty of the citizen” and that, in any event, “the grand principles of ′89 are today outmoded.”51 But simultaneous membership in the League and the Communist party was ultimately impossible given that the Communists routinely denounced the League as, at best, a representative of the “haute bourgeoisie of the Left.” Finally, in December 1922, the Third International declared Communist party membership to be incompatible with “bourgeois” organizations like the League. Forced to choose, many, including Mathias Mordhardt, Félicien Challaye, and Sévarine, opted for the League; others, most notably Marcel Cachin, opted for the Communists.

In the years that followed, few leaders of the League expressed much sympathy for the Communist party, but many initially extended to the Soviet Union a considerable measure of goodwill. Victor Basch, while decrying the violence of the Bolsheviks, reminded everyone that France too had had its share of violence, and to make too much of the shortcomings of the Soviet regime would be “to reason like the systematic detractors of the French Revolution who execrate it because of the guillotines of the Terror.” Moreover, the real issue was not whether the French Communists were sympathetic but whether they deserved the systematic harassment to which the conservative French government was currently subjecting them. Conceding that, should they get into power, French Communists would probably lock up people like himself, Henri Guernut insisted that the role of the League was nonetheless to defend them from specious charges of conspiracy and other assaults on their public liberties. In short, they ought to be treated just like the by now famous officers of Laôn.52 The League routinely documented cases of human rights violations in the Soviet Union, although no more frequently and no less evenhandedly than with abuses in Italy, Eastern Europe, or the United States. Communists were unimpressed and responded by disrupting League meetings.53 As on so much else, the League remained divided on Communism. For a majority, Communism was, in the words of Emile Kahn, “a system of government based on the violations of the Rights of Man.” But a vocal minority within the League was selectively sympathetic to the Communists, particularly with respect to their campaigns against militarism and colonialism. As for the League's campaigns against Soviet abuses, Challaye wondered if they were really “opportune.” Not only were there sufficient abuses to protest without leaving France, but “it would be a serious matter to take part in the campaign against the Soviets currently unleashed by all the capitalist powers, by our own (p.42) government and by our venal press.” “We are not unaware,” he conceded “that the rights of man are not respected in Russia; all that we can or should say is that we would be happy if they were.” What was called for, therefore, was not some “violent” attack on the Soviet Union but rather a “cordial appeal.”54

At the end of 1935, as part of its Popular Front strategy, the Third International lifted the ban on League membership. Fearing a massive Communist infiltration and acting on the resolutions of ninety-two sections, the Central Committee proposed that newly admitted members wait a year before exercising executive functions in local sections and two years before playing similar roles in departmental federations. The leadership predictably denied that this new rule was directed against Communist infiltration, insisting, utterly implausibly, that the real purpose was to keep closet right-wingers like the Jeunesses Patriotes, from slipping into the League. The League congress of 1936 duly ratified this proposal but not without making it clear that it was not fooled by these claims.55 Significantly, and to the great outrage of many members, the League saw no reason to apply this rule to membership in the Central Committee, almost certainly because it had just admitted both Léon Jouhaux and Julien Racamond to the Central Committee as soon as (and by some accounts, shortly before), they joined the League. Jouhaux had until 1934 been the head of the principal labor organization, the General Confederation of Labor. Racamond had been the leader of its Communist rival, the Unified General Confederation of Labor. As part of the Popular Front campaign, the two labor movements had united at the end of 1935. Their appointment was almost entirely symbolic, and neither one played an active role on the Central Committee. Although in the late 1930s there were periodic and predictable charges from the pacifist minority that Communists had infiltrated the League, there is little evidence for this at any level.

After 1922, the League reflected almost exclusively the views of the non-Communist Left. It therefore occupied a far narrower political terrain than it had at the beginning of the century, but it was still vast. The non-Communist Left was notoriously divided by at least as much as united it. Conservative Radicals, fundamentally content with post-1905 France and reduced to conjuring up an increasingly nonexistent clerical peril, rubbed shoulders with revolutionary socialists whose spiritual home, in the early 1920s at least, was Bolshevik Moscow rather than Republican Paris. It required considerable rhetorical virtuosity to hold such disparate elements together. Fortunately, rhetorical skills were abundant in the League, and its leaders were adept at finding formulae that might reconcile fundamentally irreconcilable principles. An overt attack on (p.43) the capitalist system would surely alienate some Radicals, whereas an assault on the “puissances d'argent,” an ambiguous notion but one suggesting that the target was not capitalism but merely certain abuses thereof, might not. If, instead of “big business” one used phrases like “the economic congregations,” one might subliminally suggest to Radicals that a vague and imprecise anticapitalism was but a logical extension of anticlericalism. Radicals were traditionally at ease with a rhetoric that went far beyond anything they ever intended to do. Socialists, by contrast, were more (albeit only somewhat more) serious about the language they used. It followed that the League could afford the kind of radical discourse so dear to its left wing, safe in the knowledge that its more moderate members would not take any of it seriously. By embracing a passionate language that disguised a far more moderate substance, leaders of the League held their disparate coalition together. But once committed to this kind of language, they were at some pains to prevent some segment of the League from taking it far more seriously than anyone ever intended.

Where exactly did the majority of League members sit in the political space extending from the right-wing of the Radicals to the left wing of the Socialists? Historians have frequently suggested that by the early 1930s the League was effectively dominated by the Socialists.56 But these claims must be taken with caution. In the first place, the League had no way of knowing the political affiliation of most of its 180,000 members, many of whom did not formally belong to a political party. Moreover, most of the contemporary statements about the League's presumed political orientation were made in a partisan political context. Oft cited, for example, is the statement of the ex-secretary general of the Radical party, Edouard Pfeiffer, at the party's congress in May 1934, to the effect that the League had become more or less exclusively Socialist. But Pfeiffer asserted this in the midst of a severe internal crisis of his party when its leadership was under attack by dissident Radicals, all of whom belonged to the League. At more or less the same time, and for comparably polemical purposes, League President Victor Basch declared, most improbably, that the great majority of leaguers were Radicals.57

Quantitative analysis yields ambiguous results. Roughly 60 percent of League politicians in the early 1930s were Radicals, the rest being Socialists of various stripes. On the other hand, a recent study of the interwar Central Committee, including both members and unsuccessful candidates, shows that fully onethird belonged, at some point, to the Socialist party as opposed to fewer than 20 percent who belonged to either the Radicals or various independent Socialist formations.58 But given the very heterogeneous nature of all left-wing parties in (p.44) France, the vague (when not incoherent) and overlapping nature of their platforms and the ease with which left-wing politicians moved back and forth between different formations, political labels lose much of their value. The basis of Pfeiffer's aforementioned assertion was the fact that his fellow Radical, Henri Guernut was no longer secretary general, and the Socialist, Emile Kahn was. But Guernut began his career in the Socialist party before migrating to the Republican Socialists and finally, in 1932, to the Radicals. In this respect he was typical of many Socialist politicians in the League (Maurice Viollette and Joseph Paul-Boncour, for example) in that their preferred space was precisely that nebulous terrain between the official Socialists and the Radicals. Significantly, most of the League's leaders who remained in the SFIO (Basch, Kahn, Grumbach, Frossard, Frot, and Renaudel) were those who advocated closer and less doctrinally burdened links with the Radicals. Similarly, the most prominent Radicals in the party (Jean Zay, Marc Rucard, Pierre Cot, Jacques Kayser, Albert Bayet, Gabriel Cudenet, and Gaston Bergery) were left-wing Radicals who urged a more intimate cooperation with the SFIO. It was not accidental that when dissident parties emerged in the mid-1930s—the Parti Radical Camille Pelletan to the left of the Radicals and the neosocialistes to the right of the SFIO—they were led by members of the League, in the former case by Gabriel Cudenet and in the latter by Marcel Déat, Adrienne Marquette, and Pierre Renaudel. This suggests that the political center of gravity of the League lay almost exactly in the gray areas between the Radicals and the Socialists.

All of this said, it was the case that congresses of the League did at times resemble Socialist revival-hall meetings. In 1927, the Central Committee prepared a document for the League's annual congress on the “organization of democracy.” At the heart of the report was the proposition, now central to the League's thinking, that a meaningful democracy would have to be a “social democracy,” one in which significant differences of wealth and power no longer stood between one citizen and another. Among other things, the report called for the abolition of the “wage system.” Although no one quite said so, this was perilously close to the position of the contemporary Socialist party.

As a result, the inevitable question arose as to the exact modalities of a transition to the proposed new order of society. The issue (a burning one in Socialist circles) of the temporary “suspension of legality” and the “dictatorship of the proletariat” could not help but surface. Indeed, as one member observed, the chances of abolishing the wage system without a temporary suspension of legality were remote. Disturbed by the discussion, one delegate had the temerity to suggest that in the League any mention of “suppression of legality” or dictatorships (p.45) of any kind was singularly out of place. In response, a number of delegates, Victor Basch not least of them, treated this erring soul to an stern lecture on French history. Was he somehow unaware that a revolution was, by definition, a suspension of legality and that France had experienced no fewer than five revolutions since 1789, the last of which had given birth to the republic under which he lived? No one thought it relevant to observe that none of the revolutions had been directed against liberal democratic regimes or that the last of them, that of 1870, had not been, strictly speaking, much of a revolution.59 Emile Kahn, future secretary general of the League, patiently took the same innocent leaguer through the theory and practice of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Citing the classic patristic literature, from Marx's Critique of the Gotha Program through the later works of Engels, Kahn sought to establish that it would inevitably be the case that after the majority had triumphed, it would still have to deal with the machinations of an economically powerful minority. Had not, one delegate helpfully noted, the democratic left-wing majority elected in 1924 been overturned two years later by the “wall of money,” that is, the forces of entrenched capitalism? To prevent the forces of capitalism from destroying the new regime, Kahn insisted, a temporary dictatorship might be necessary, a dictatorship of the proletarian majority. He did not address the question as to whether such a regime might have been appropriate in 1924, but he did stress that such a dictatorship had little in common with dictatorship of a party that currently prevailed in the Soviet Union.60

What is significant about this discussion is that, for all the rhetorical extravagances unleashed, it was part of a broader debate about an exceedingly moderate clause in the Central Committee's motion dealing with “deviations” from democracy. In the end, all the motion said was that Italian Fascism and Soviet Communism were both regrettable. The first it condemned, not surprisingly, in the strongest of language and the second in only slightly more measured tones. There was nothing in the motions to suggest that the League was anything other than arch partisans of liberal democracy. Moreover, Victor Basch, for all his revolutionary rhetoric during the debate, had actually opened the congress with a plea for moderation on the grounds that the League, now a large and influential organization, had a responsibility to the French public to make the most measured judgments.

The rhetorical flourishes at League congresses served the purpose of keeping the more ardent militants more or less in line. But they also robbed the League's proclamations of much of their substance. The call for the abolition of the wage system, for example, cannot have been taken very seriously by (p.46) many of the Radicals in the League, or by anyone else. Eight years later the ardent young Socialist, André Philip, was still demanding that the League pronounce on the question of wage labor. He was a member of the Central Committee so he cannot have been ignorant of past resolutions; for the same reason, he was fully aware of how little force they had.

But revolutionary rhetoric continually set the tone of League discourse. Leaguers, Victor Basch not least among them, were fond of reminding everyone of the 1793 dictum that when public liberties were threatened, insurrection was the most sacred of duties. Using language that would come back to haunt him, Basch repeatedly assured the League that if and when it became necessary to descend into the streets, he would be at the head of the insurrection.61 Basch almost certainly did not mean any of this literally, but many rank and file took the language seriously and began to talk of “descending into the street” and preparing “a decisive riposte to the fascist provocations.” As the keynote speaker at the 1934 federal congress of the Calvados admitted, there were some “who claim that the League has gone too far and is abandoning its principles.” But, he countered, “it seems to us that the days are gone when we could afford such a formal definition of freedom, now that we are confronted by people who, in the name of that same freedom, beat up people, burn public monuments and are invariably armed.” The League's choices, it appeared, were coming down to “submission or insurrection.”62 All of the talk of insurrection, to say nothing of the casual dismissal of “formal” freedoms, seems oddly misplaced, the more so because France remained a democratic nation. But the public statements of the League's leaders seemed to indicate that the democratic nature of the regime was more apparent than real. The secretary of the section of Vincennes announced that “there are some of us in the League who think that the Third Republic is in the process of dying,” adding that “we will not stop to mourn” this moribund institution.63 The League was unsparing in its attacks on the corruption of the democratic process by the “puissances d'argent” whose nefarious hold on so many deputies perverted parliament and whose domination of the mass-circulation newspapers short-circuited the democratic process. No one listening to speeches at the League's congresses in the early 1930s would have concluded that the existing regime had many redeeming qualities.

Nor would they have received much guidance from the League's leaders. In 1932 César Chabrun, the treasurer, presented the Rapport Moral before the annual congress. It consisted largely of a sustained invective against the “puissances d'argent” who were currently corrupting French democracy. He concluded, logically enough, that some would suggest “that this leads us to (p.47) revolution.” At this point, he reminded everyone of the famous Jacobin dictum of the legitimacy of revolution when faced with tyranny and pointedly asked his audience if it seriously believed that France was not currently living under the tyranny of the moneyed interests. So, was this a call for revolution? Ah, but this was a political question. “Leave this to the political parties,” he insisted, “for this does not concern us. But as Leaguers, let us enlighten the parties, let us show them the way.” What did any of this bafflegab actually mean? It is unlikely that Chabrun, who entered politics as a moderately conservative deputy and who as recently as 1930 had agreed to accept a ministerial portfolio, took his own inflammatory rhetoric very seriously. But some members of his audience certainly did.64

Again, inflammatory language served to mask a rather more conventional substance. In practice, most of the League's leaders wanted to preserve the republican regime, warts and all. Indeed, they clung rather tenaciously even to the warts. Two of the more scandalous features of the Third Republic were its failure to enfranchise women and its preservation of an undemocratically elected upper house, the Senate. An exclusively masculine suffrage made France an anomaly among democratic nations by the early 1930s and stood in overt violation of the League's stated principles. Yet its leadership resisted any attempts to give women the vote, even at the municipal level, lest enfranchised women vote for clerical and conservative candidates. A Senate, elected by restricted suffrage and explicitly designed to put a conservative brake on the policies of the democratically elected Chamber had always been an affront to the League's principals as well as those of democracy, the more so since the Senate exercised its powers to topple the kind of progressive governments the League championed.65 Yet the League resisted appeals for the abolition of the Senate, arguing that although its social conservatism was regrettable, it nonetheless was a solid defender of the republican principle. In essence, then, the League's rhetoric appealed to revolutionary Socialists, but its substantive positions catered to the sensibilities of conventional Radicals.

There was, to be sure, more to the leadership's defense of the existing regime than appeasing the Radicals. By 1934, at the latest, the League's leaders began to recognize that attacks on the deficiencies and scandals of the democratic regime were no longer the exclusive province of the Left. Antiparliamentary rhetoric was ideally suited to the growing fascist leagues for whom “descending into the street” was manifestly not an empty phrase. It escaped few that the League's periodic assertions that insurrection was the most sacred of duties served primarily as a ritualistic commemoration of the association's republican (p.48) heritage; when uttered by Colonel Charles des Isnards, one of the Parisian leaders of the protofascist Jeunesses Patriotes, the same phrase explicitly justified a very real assault on the democratic regime. Socialist deputy and Central Committee member Paul Ramadier sat on the parliamentary committee investigating the antiparliamentary riots of February 6, 1934. He pointedly reminded his colleagues that in this capacity he had been treated to a steady diet of lectures coming from the extreme Right justifying insurrection in the name of the sacred duty of the oppressed people.66 Basch, therefore, began to remind the rank and file that for all its faults, the democratic republic provided a degree of public liberty that was becoming rare in Europe. Exclusive concentration on the regime's shortcomings served no purpose save providing ammunition for the enemies of democracy. One ought not, in the name of a purer democracy, adopt a language that was perilously close to that of the fascists.

But the distinction between legitimately revolutionary language and fascist discourse—absolutely clear to Basch—escaped many leaguers. Conditioned over the years to immoderate language, many began to feel entirely at home with statements that, by any standards, were foreign to the spirit of the League. By the mid-1930s, members of the League felt comfortable asserting that while the ultimate goals of fascism were clearly inimical to the League, fascist tactics might not be. In 1935, the uncontested leader of that wing of the League that wanted to adopt a radical new approach, Léon Emery, boldly asserted: “We must, albeit reluctantly, employ certain of the methods of fascism.”67 When, at the 1935 congress he declared: “that Parliament has, in the last twenty years, done nothing for democracy strikes me as utterly and literally true” and that as a consequence “the distinction between fascist states and democratic ones is merely a question of degree and not a fundamental one,” he received a standing ovation. When Eugène Frot, deputy and former minister, attempted to dispute these assertions and argued that “parliament is, after all … the reflection of the wishes of universal suffrage,” he was literally booed off the podium. Victor Basch was rightly aghast at Emery's language, noting that it was perilously close to the antiparliamentary rhetoric of the extreme Right. In time Basch's suspicions about the implications of Emery's language would prove to be only too well founded. But in 1935, Emery could counter, with some plausibility, that there was nothing in his highly pessimist view of French democracy that could not be found in the more “lugubrious” declarations of Victor Basch. Both sides were right. Emery was a protofascist in the making; Basch was a principled defender of the parliamentary republic. But, as late as 1935, they still spoke the same language.68

(p.49) When not engaging in revolutionary rhetoric, the League was often engaged in issues of day-to-day politics. In 1924 the Central Committee seriously debated whether to attempt to persuade the Socialists to enter into a government with the Radicals in the recently elected Cartel des Gauches. The Committee decided not to, but the fact that such a debate took place at all indicates how much the League thought that one of its legitimate functions was to be a coordinating agency of the parties of the Left.69 No less purely partisan was a 1929 debate concerning the ratification of the interallied accords on war debts. This was an issue that had embroiled French politics for much of the 1920s. During World War I France had borrowed heavily from Great Britain and, above all, the United States. Although no one contested that the debts had been contracted, French public opinion felt uneasy about allied demands for repayment. These, after all, were not ordinary commercial debts but sums of money expended, at least after 1917, in a common cause against a common enemy. American expenditures in dollars had been more than matched by French expenditures in human lives. Moreover, at a minimum, the French tended to argue, surely repayment of loans should be tied explicitly to German payment of reparations. Unfortunately these arguments made little impression on the American government, which was notoriously uneasy about the entire question of German reparations and denied any logical link between them and French debts. Finally, in 1926 with the Mellon-Beringer and Caillaux-Churchill accords, France agreed to a repayment schedule that made few concessions to her concerns of principle but that effectively absolved her of about half of the debt she had actually incurred.

The accords, however, were not submitted to parliament for ratification (although the Poincaré government began repayment anyway), and the issue did not come up for parliamentary scrutiny until spring 1929. By this time, important elements in the Socialists and the Radicals, since the 1928 elections comfortably in the opposition, were increasingly vocal in their opposition to the accords. Three days before the issue was to be discussed in parliament, Basch demanded a special meeting of the Central Committee to discuss the issue, despite the resistance of a number of deputies on the Central Committee, notably the socialist leader Léon Blum who argued that such a debate would be “awkward” for “the many members of the League who are at the same time members of [the Socialist] party.”70 Basch agreed that on the face of it the issue might appear to be a purely political one and thus outside the League's jurisdiction; indeed, this had been the position of the Executive in 1926.71 But there were broader issues at stake. The question of the debts was one of “public (p.50) morality” and thus far more important than the parliamentary maneuvering of the parties of the opposition. Surely the League believed that living up to freely consented contractual obligations was a principle worth defending. To be sure, given the political orientation of the League, the principle of the sanctity of commercial debts was not self-evident. Basch himself would alternate between describing the debts as “sacred” and insisting that talk about the respect for contracts amounted to a “vain and demagogic phraseology.”72 Moreover, as Emile Kahn reminded him, another of the League's principles was that although it was acceptable for the victor to demand that the vanquished pay for the damage he had done, the League had strenuously, in the past, rejected the notion that the vanquished could be obliged to pay for the general costs of the war. Yet without some safeguard clause ensuring that German reparations exceed French war-debt payments, German payments would merely be transhipped to the United States, meaning that Germany would, indirectly, be paying for the cost of the war. The militant left-wing pacifist, Félicien Challaye came, most unusually, to Basch's defense with yet another principle: the debt was sacred because French people needed to be constantly reminded of the financial consequences of the war in order that they might be rather more critical of France's role in 1914 and more dedicated to preventing a repetition of that catastrophe. Ernest Lafont, usually an ally of Challaye but also a Socialist deputy, charged that the League was “meddling in a question over which it had no competence,” in a debate serving no useful purpose save that of “stabbing in the back the two parties who support democracy.” No one quite wanted to acknowledge that Basch was attempting to import a debate, currently raging in (and perfectly but also uniquely appropriate for) his Socialist party, into the League. For all his passion, Basch's real concern about the war debts was pragmatic rather than principled, and fundamentally, although he chose not to admit it, those of Raymond Poincaré. The interallied accords were, pace some of Basch's fellow Socialists, the best France was likely to get; failure to ratify them would saddle France with more onerous terms and, worse, jeopardize the implementation of the Young Plan and the evacuation of the Ruhr thus imperiling a rapprochement with Germany. In the end the discussion was little more than a dress rehearsal for the one that would soon take place in parliament. The Central Committee voted, as would parliament, in favor of ratifying the accords.

This kind of public stance troubled some prominent members of the League. The recently elected Socialist deputy from the Drôme, Jules Moch, a leaguer as had been his father before him, pointedly wondered why the League (p.51) was involved in this issue in the first place. The League had begun as an organization dedicated to the rights of Alfred Dreyfus. It soon became an organization dedicated to defending the rights of everyone persecuted by the state. In time it expanded its mandate to defending public liberties in France. This was already, he insisted, a very vast terrain. Should not the League stick to this mandate and let the politicians take care of the messy issues of commercial debts?73 At the League's 1927 congress, one delegate from Paris suggested that perhaps the League should limit itself “exclusively to the pure defence of the rights of man and citizen, excluding all the large problems of general politics which ought not to be its concern.” No one paid the slightest attention to his plea.74 Granted, whenever the Central Committee was discussing some purely political matters, some kind of platonic demurral was to be expected. A debate on the 1931 Hoover war debt moratorium prompted Jean Bon to remind everyone that “we are not a council of ministers,” an assertion that was literally true but that would not have been scant years earlier.75 Prior to 1927, Ministers could and did sit on the Central Committee, and its deliberations did at times have a ministerial quality. When Central Committee members confronted questions of colonial policy they did so in the most direct manner—by asking pointed questions of their fellow committee members: Theodore Steeg, minister resident in Morocco; Alexander Varenne, his counterpart in Indo-China, and Maurice Viollette, governor general of Algeria.76 Anyone following the Central Committee's 1927 deliberations about impending legislation on the organization of the nation in wartime might have thought they were witnessing a miniature version of French parliament. Defending the project was the author of the law himself, Joseph Paul-Boncour, an independent Socialist deputy and currently minister of national defense. Leading the attack was Ernest Lafont, a left-wing Socialists; mounting a defense was the more moderate Socialist deputy, Pierre Renaudel. All were members of the Central Committee, and all were repeating arguments previously made in the chamber. Not altogether surprisingly, Paul-Boncour responded to the predictable pacifists laments by insisting that “the League need not concern itself with the problem of national defence.”77 But this was an argument appealing only to those, mostly deputies, who approved of the bill. A debate about a parliamentary proposal to eliminate the run-off ballot in legislative elections moved Victor Basch to wonder if the Committee had not approached the limits of “the problems the League is qualified to deal with.” But no one else thought so if for no better reason than the fact that the proposal, were it adopted, would strengthen the parties of the Right. As Emile Kahn bluntly reminded Basch, (p.52) the issue self-evidently concerned the League precisely because it had “a politically reactionary purpose.”78

However much it continued to claim that it was “above politics” the League was, from very nearly its beginning, deeply enmeshed in the day-to-day politics of France. Defining human rights in the broadest possible manner meant that there were few political questions the League did not feel called upon to address, including those that seemed at best tenuously connected to even the most expanded definition of the rights of man. Not only was it intimately involved in politics but those politics were almost invariably left-wing politics. At one level, this was a logical consequence of its very broad definition of human rights and therefore of its mandate. But adopting the broader mandate was also a clear political choice. Put another way, the League was not ineluctably driven into the political arena by its broad definition of human rights; to a substantial degree, the broader definition of human rights was a consequence of the political orientation of its leaders. As a result, the League's self-appointed role as “the conscience of democracy” was effectively reduced to being the conscience of the Left. To be sure, there was arguably a role for a “conscience of the Left” in Third Republic France. But such a role presupposed a critical detachment from both electoral and parliamentary politics. As the next chapter will show, this proved impossible.


(1.) Buisson had been misled by his fellow Radical, Léon Bourgeois, recently appointed minister of the interior. Bourgeois had, quite dishonestly, assured Buisson that there was conclusive evidence of Dreyfus's guilt. The best source for the earliest days of the League is a series of articles written by the secretary general after 1932, Emile Kahn. Kahn, a young history student at the time of the foundation of the League was witness to all its earliest history. In 1938 he wrote a series of articles in La Lumière (June 10, 17, 24; July 1, 8, 1938) celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the League and, incidentally correcting the minor errors to be found in both Henri Sée, Histoire and Jean Psichari, B.O. 1904, 887 ff.

(2.) As the League's more adroit dialecticians would not fail to note, the Declaration, as lucid and concise as it was, did permit a degree of interpretative “wiggle room.” Article 10 qualified its assertion of freedom of opinion with the words “provided such expression does not trouble the lawful order.” Article 17, while insisting on the sacredness of private property, did concede that citizens could be deprived of it when (and only when) to do so was in the obvious public interest, provided there was a fair indemnity.

(3.) By way of example, both Alphonse Aulard and Charles Seignobos were founding members of the League.

(4.) For an example of the initial agonizing in Socialist circles see Les droits de l'homme de la ligue Stephanoise, 30 July 1899. Here local Socialist Dreyfusards and League members struggled against local Guesdistes who argued that the Dreyfus affair was an internal matter of the bourgeoisie, and socialists ought to let “the Jews and the Jesuits fight it out among themselves.” The newspaper countered that “even though he is both rich and Jewish” Dreyfus was a worthy cause simply because he “suffers unjustly.” Moreover, it argued, this affair opened the door to a much wider range of reforms including disarmament, international arbitration, and the suppression of permanent armies.

(5.) See, for example, Congrès national de 1931 (Paris, 1931), 41; Congrès national de 1936 (Paris, 1936), 36.

(6.) Nouvel Age, January 17; April 13‒20; May 30, 1935.

(7.) Congrès national de 1935 (Paris, 1935) 207.

(8.) La ligue (Saône-et-Loire), November 1933.

(9.) The prime movers of the idea of a new declaration were Jean Maristan, vice president of the section of Marseille, and Gustave Rodrigues, author of a tract entitled La droit de vie (unique solution du problème social (Paris, 1934). Of course they disagreed with one another as well as with the Central Committee. For some of the feuds associated with the new declaration see Maristan to Kahn, January 30, February 28, March 17, April 22, May 20, 1936. ALDH, 138.

(10.) The 200 families were technically the 200 largest stockholders in the private Banque de France until 1936. More generally they were the symbol of the financial oligarchy. De Wendel, a major steel magnate, headed the powerful steel trust, the Comité des Forges.

(11.) Congrès national de 1936 (Paris, 1936), 237‒275.

(12.) Any precise statement of the political allegiances of early League leaders is difficult, owing both to the vagueness of French political labels and the fact that a number of early leaders were more or less apolitical. By Wendy Perry's meticulous calculations, of the twenty-eight early leaders whose political affiliations are more or less certain, seventeen (or 60 percent) were centre-gauche, five Radical, and six Socialist. Perry, “Remembering Dreyfus,” 27.

(13.) Strictly speaking, by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, the term modéré was reserved for those on the far Right.

(14.) French law made it difficult to form national political parties until the adoption in 1901 of the law on associations.

(15.) Bulletin de la section Maconnaise, February, May 1906; June 1907; October 1908; June 1909. A courageous minority in this section, led by a local Protestant minister, attempted to dispute Teissier's doctrine of the sanctity of private property, which he considered to be tantamount to “theft.” In this section he was fighting an uphill battle, and for his pains he came close to being expelled by the section. April, June, August, 1906; March, 1907.

(16.) The emergence of the Communist party did not for long rid the SFIO of its ultrarevolutionary wing. Some of the more overtly revolutionary elements in the SFIO could not stomach the kind of discipline demanded of the Communists, abhorred what passed for Socialism in the Soviet Union, and concluded, by the 1930s at least, that Soviet-style communism was uninterested in, if not hostile to, revolution in the West.

(17.) Just what those circumstances were was a matter of arcane debate. World War I appeared to fit the bill, although not all socialists agreed that this was in any way an appropriate occasion. In 1924, the Socialist leader, Léon Blum, declared that Socialists would not enter governments until they were the largest party in parliament and thus in a position to dominate the government. This did not happen until 1936.

(18.) For a thorough, albeit partisan, discussion of the Affaire des fiches, see François Vindé, L'Affaire des fiches (Paris, 1989).

(19.) See his letter, BO, 1904, 1578.

(20.) Ibid., 1905, 9‒10.

(21.) The best summary of his career is Remi Fabre, “Francis de Pressensé,” Le mouvement social (April–June, 1998, no. 183.), 61‒92.

(22.) B.O., January 16, 1905, 11‒12, 18. The reference to “the party of forgers” is to the anti-Dreyfusards who had forged some of the evidence against Captain Dreyfus.

(23.) The army certainly did harbor some deeply Catholic and secretly royalist officers but they were no more numerous than ambitiously republican ones. In any event, most officers, at least until 1940, if not the mid-1950s, kept their political preferences to themselves.

(24.) B.O., 1905, 88‒89.

(25.) Ibid., 1905, 198.

(26.) Ibid., 1905, 273.

(27.) Célestin Bouglé, Le Bilan des ligues (Bordeaux, 1903) 24.

(28.) B.O., 1903, 775.

(29.) Ibid., 1903, 777‒779.

(30.) Ibid., 1903, 780‒783.

(31.) Ibid., 1909, 214.

(32.) Fabre, “Francis de Pressensé,” 82‒86.

(33.) Bulletin de la section Maçonnaise, August, October 1908. Here, as elsewhere, Radicals rarely shared even the fairly tepid anticolonialism of the Socialists. It also did not help that the Protestant schools in Madagascar had been primarily the work of Anglican clergy.

(34.) B.O., 1907, 351‒84, 677‒89, 704‒25, 783‒95, 819‒39, 841‒76; 1908, 1197‒1204, 1335‒60. See in particular, H. S. Jones, “Civil Rights for Civil Servants? The ligue des droits de l'homme and the Problem of Trade Unionism in the French Public Service, 1905‒1914,” Historical Journal, vol. 31, no. 4, 1988, 899‒920.

(35.) B.O., 1909, 632‒33.

(36.) Ibid., 1910, 720.

(37.) Perry, “Remembering Dreyfus,” 97.

(38.) B.O., 1911, 69‒78.

(39.) Ibid., 1909, 646, 712, 745, 1236.

(40.) Ibid., 1909, 1089.

(41.) Ibid., 1910, 1266.

(42.) Ibid., 1909, 812.

(43.) Because the League was both highly political and transparent, hardly a year went by without commentators detecting a “crisis.” Only in the years before World War I and World War II, however, did the crises translate into a decline in membership.

(44.) Les droits de l'homme, 20 November 1910. This newspaper was the political organ of a dissident member of the League, Paul Hyacinthe Loyson.

(45.) Ibid., January 8, 1911.

(46.) Ibid., December 18, 1910.

(47.) Ibid., June 11, 1911.

(48.) B.O., 1911, 121.

(49.) Congrès national de 1927, 40‒54.

(50.) Notre action (Bulletin mensuel de la Fédération de l'Aisne), December, 1930.

(51.) Cahiers, 1920, 16, 8.

(52.) Cahiers, 1920, 14‒15.

(53.) See, for example, the debate surrounding the disruption of a meeting at Collombes in May 1927 and agonizing about whether in the future League members could even share a podium with a Communist. Cahiers, 1927, 346.

(54.) Cahiers, 1930, 326. Despite the pleadings of Challaye and others, on this occasion the Central Committee did issue a condemnation of the systematic terror in the Soviet Union.

(55.) Congress national de 1936 (Paris, 1936), 444‒48.

(56.) Serge Berstein, Histoire du parti radical, (Paris, 1980), vol. I, 246‒47; Daniel Bardonnet, Evolution de la structure du parti radical (Paris, 1960), 245; Jean et Monica Charlot, “Un Rassemblement,” 1002.

(57.) Basch informed one delegate at the 1934 congress that 160,000 of the 180,000 League members were Radicals. La ligue d'Orléans, June 1934.

(58.) Claveau, “L'Autre,” 136‒42. As the author notes, the political affiliations can be established for just over 50 percent of her sample, and Radicals were less inclined to stress their political affiliation than were Socialists. By including unsuccessful candidates for the Central Committee, more often than not from the militant left-wing minority, her analysis almost certainly exaggerates the importance of the Socialists.

(59.) The five revolutions were those of 1789, 1792, 1830, 1840, and 1870.

(60.) Congres national de 1927, 195‒242.

(61.) Congrès national de 1934 (Paris, 1934), 50. Basch's antagonists within the League repeatedly threw that line back in his face, especially when he attempted, with good reason, to expose the demagoguery of much of the organizations's leftwing minority. See for example, Emery in La Flèche, 3 November 1934.

(62.) Les droits de l'homme (Calvados), May-June, 1934.

(63.) Bulletin mensuel de la ligue des droits de l'homme (Vincennes), February 1934.

(64.) Congrés national de 1933 (Paris, 1933), 316. Chabrun was suffering from a mortal illness at the time and had also been defeated in the 1932 elections, all of which might explain his splenetic discourse.

(65.) To cite but the most obvious example, in 1937 the Senate would bring down Léon Blum's Popular Front government.

(66.) Cahiers, 1934, 539.

(67.) Ibid., 1935, 285.

(68.) Congrès national de 1935 (Paris, 1935), 146‒69; 275‒82.

(69.) Cahiers, 1924, 334.

(70.) For the debate see Cahiers, 1929, 470 ff. Blum, who almost never attended its meetings, nonetheless resigned from the Central Committee shortly thereafter. Indeed, it would appear that he quit the League altogether because four years later Emile Kahn was surprised to learn from the president of Blum's section that he had not been a member since 1929. Montel to Kahn February 1, 1933; Kahn to Montel, January 30, February 30, 1933 in ALDH 22. Blum is not listed as one of the League's deputies in February 1934. He certainly did belong to the League in 1937 and probably had since 1935.

(71.) Cahiers, 1927, 88.

(72.) Ibid., 1931, 675, 461.

(73.) Ligue des droits de l'homme (Drôme), October 1929.

(74.) Congrès national de 1927 (Paris, 1927), 167.

(75.) Cahiers, 1931, 460.

(76.) See, among many examples, the interrogation of Steeg in 1927, Cahiers, 1927, 107, also, 309.

(77.) Cahiers, 1927, 256; also 235, 254.

(78.) Ibid., 1931, 761.