Émile Zola was one of the foremost novelists of late 19th century France. He was also sympathetic to socialism and a hero in the “Dreyfus Affair” of the 1890s. This interview with him by Max Beer appeared in the Social Democrat (magazine of the Social Democratic Federation, then the main Marxist group in Britain) of October 1902. Beer was the British correspondent of the German socialist paper Vorwärts and author of a History of British Socialism. Jean Jaurès and Jules Guesde, referred to by Zola, led two factions in the French socialist movement; the “Guesdists”, though generally more revolutionary, were reluctant to take sides energetically in the “Dreyfus Affair”, seeing it as a non-socialist issue.
In March 1898, M. George Clemenceau gave me a letter of introduction to Emile Zola, who at once consented to receive me “at any time after nine o’clock in the evening.” It was but a few weeks after his condemnation to a year’s imprisonment, consequent upon his letter, “J’accuse” published in L’Aurore of 13th January 1898.
The nervous strain which Zola had endured in those stormy days of his trial was still visible on his whole countenance. He looked rather old and weary; his shoulders stooping and his beard was rapidly turning grey. His features were by no means as rigid as we see them on the usual photos. A sad smile played upon his face as often as he spoke of the persecutions he had to undergo from the judges and from the howling mob surrounding the court of justice.
Zola bade me take a seat on a sofa, while he moved a chair opposite to me, and scrutinising me very attentively, sat down. He bent forward, so that his head was close to mine, and asked me to begin with my questions.
“The subjects that always interested me most were Socialism and the Jewish question. It is, therefore, natural that I should look upon the author of Germinal and the defender of Dreyfus with deep admiration. But cher maitre, I cannot conceal the fact that your Rougon-Macquart series and Trois Villes do not contain a single Jewish character worthy of our sympathy.”
Zola: “Yes that’s true. All my Jewish characters have. so far been quite despicable. They are, however, such as I saw them.”
“Exactly. I do not impugn your power of observation. It is, as all the world knows, very comprehensive; and your studies are painstaking, sincere and scientifically correct. You will, however, permit me to say that your observation of Jewish life did not go far enough. You had no opportunity of seeing the whole of it.”
Zola: “During these last few months of anguish I thought a good deal of the Jewish question. And I had good reason for it, too. As you know, I was for a long time under the influence of the historical theories of Hypolite Taine, who laid so much stress on the racial factor in human development. My novels might surely give the impression that I regarded the Jew chiefly as a money-mongering and luxury-loving human being. My recent struggle, however, taught me that there are many Jews who belong to quite another category. There are in human history some factors more potent than race or religion.”
Zola: “Precisely. You see, the rich Jews and Jewesses hate me as much as the Nationalists and the Catholic bigots do. A few days ago a Jewish lady positively insulted M. Anatole France, our greatest critic and essayist, for having signed the petition for revision of the Dreyfus trial. But I am glad to say that the Jewish intellectuals are on our side.”
“And the Jewish proletariat too. One object of my coming to you is to express to you the respectful thanks of many thousands of Jewish workmen in New York for your defence of social justice.”
Zola: “I am deeply touched by this sign of recognition on the part of Jewish labour. I have seen their poverty, their wretchedness, and their toil when I was in London in 1893. I went round Whitechapel to convince myself of the evils of the sweating system.”
‘The anti-semites see only the few Jewish millionaires, and shut their eyes to the misery of the toiling Jewish masses in Russia, in Austria, in England and in America. There is no Jewish question at all, but there is a struggle between the owners of the means of production and the owners of labour-power. This struggle knows neither race nor religion. It is a struggle going on, consciously or unconsciously, in the whole civilised world. Abolish this antagonism and Dreyfus trials will be no more.”
Zola: “You are of course, pointing to socialism.”
“Yes, cher maitre. The final chapter of Germinal expresses the advent of socialism in words so powerful that it would be exceedingly presumptuous on my part to deal in your presence with this subject. Although you do not belong to any socialist organisation, all socialists look upon you as one of their great leaders.”
Zola: “I am not a leader in socialist thought, yet I sincerely wish to have all socialists as my friends. You see, only Jaurès and his friends are supporting me. Some Guesdists are standing aloof; some of them are behaving badly. They do not see that I am not fighting for a certain individual, but for the liberty of our great and noble France and against a conspiracy of mighty foes, militarism and the Catholic Church. I need all sympathy, all assistance I can get.
“It is, therefore, painful to see socialists taking no interest in the stormy events which are convulsing the French nation. They think I entered into a deadly struggle for a rich Jewish captain. He is for me only a symbol, a victim of terrible forgeries, a witness of the degradation of our Republic, which inscribed on its portals the democratic trinity: Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality... But, after all, truth is almighty. It will prevail.”
Zola was speaking passionately and with great fluency. He was easily accessible, eager to impart knowledge and imbued with a modesty as sincere and deep as his love of truth. He actually thanked me for the trouble I had taken in calling upon him. At the conclusion of the interview he inquired again about the position of the millions of Jewish workingmen, about their aspirations and ideas. He also asked a good deal about England, and regretted that he was no linguist. “ Je suis du Midi,” he remarked smilingly; “mon cerveau n’est pas organisé pour des langues.” (“I am from the South: my brain is not organised for languages.”)
After a hearty handshake, I left the little house in the Rue de Bruxelles, having spent one of the happiest hours of my life. It is perhaps, an echo of that interview, when Zola in his last novel, Truth, now in course of publication, says:
“And at the sight of that paradise acquired by Jew wealth, at the thought of the splendid fortune amassed by Nathan the Jew money monger, Marc instinctively recalled the Rue du Trou and the dismal hovel without air or sunshine, where Lehmann, that other Jew, had been plying his needle for thirty years and earning only enough to provide himself with bread, And ah! how many other Jews there were, yet more wretched than he — Jews who starve in filthy dens.
“They were the immense majority and their existence demonstrated the idiotic falsity of anti-semitism, that proscription en masse of a race which was charged with the monopolisation of all wealth, when it numbered so many poor working folk, so many victims, crushed down by the almightiness of money, whether it were Jew, or Catholic, or Protestant. There were really no Jew questions at all; there was only a Capitalist question — a question of money heaped up in the hands of a certain number of gluttons and thereby poisoning and rotting the world.”
This passage is probably the most socialistic in all Zola’s writings.
Who was Alfred Dreyfus?
Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish member of the French general staff, was convicted in 1894 of spying for Germany and sent to a penal colony on Devil’s Island. Dreyfus was entirely innocent, and eventually this became clear. But even when it came to be widely known that the imprisoned Jewish captain was innocent, there was tremendous resistance by the French military establishment to exculpating him or releasing him from captivity.
Their attitude was in parallel to that of the British judge, Lord Denning, who said that it was better for the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, the Irish men wrongly jailed in the ‘70s, to rot in jail, than for the British judicial system to be discredited by having to admit their innocence.
But there was more to it: anti-semitism. The facts of the case in question, Dreyfus’s innocence or guilt and his fate rotting on Devil’s Island, became less and less important as all of France polarised for and against “Dreyfus.” The case became on one side a rallying point for all the anti-semitic, chauvinist and Catholic traditionalists in France.
On the other side the Republicans, the Radicals, the Democrats, and the working-class left — part of it reluctantly, suspicious of such a non-socialist issue — took up the cause of Dreyfus like people who knew that they were fighting for the soul of France. and that the outcome of this struggle would determine the state of French politics for a longtime to come. For a time it looked as if even civil war was not ruled out.
Finally the left won, routing the right. After four years Dreyfus was released and reinstated. The forces who won this victory dominated French politics for the next 40 years, overshadowing the right. After 1940, the political descendants of the “anti-Dreyfusards” helped the Nazis to round up Jews for systematic murder.
Émile Zola was the outstanding hero of the Dreyfus case. When all legal recourse seemed exhausted with the acquittal of the real traitor Esterhazy by a court martial which believed he was guilty, Zola deliberately courted imprisonment by publishing on the front page of L’Aurore an open letter to the President of the Republic under the famous title, “J’Accuse.” There he spelled out the truth about Dreyfus.
It was the turning of the tide. Sentenced to a term in jail for libel against the head of the army, General Billot, the sixty-year old Zola fled to London. He died. asphyxiated by leaking gas, in 1902.