Issue 96 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Winter 2002 Copyright © International Socialism

Zola for the 21st century


Émile Zola died on 29 September 1902. In the 100 years since then his novels have been published in many languages; several are available to English readers in paperback.1 His books have been adapted for radio, television and the cinema. Of the classic novelists Zola is one of the most popular with working class readers, and is frequently cited--like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists--as offering an introduction to socialist ideas.

Of Zola's achievements two stand out. Firstly he wrote Germinal, the only major 19th century novel to deal, not just with working class life, but with a long and bitter strike.2 Secondly, he defended Alfred Dreyfus, a wrongfully convicted Jewish officer, confronting both the army and a wave of anti-Semitism.

In this article I shall try to locate Zola in the social and ideological conflicts of his own century. By so doing I hope to show that he is still relevant to the struggles of today, and, hopefully, to encourage comrades to read him more widely.

Childhood and empire

Émile Zola was born in Paris in 1840, the son of an Italian immigrant, a fact his xenophobic opponents often recalled during the Dreyfus case. He spent much of his childhood in Aix-en-Provence (the Plassans of his novels). When in Paris he was mocked by his school-fellows as a marseillais; in Aix he was derided as a Parisian. Perhaps this experience made him more hostile to racism when he encountered it.

Zola could not read till the age of seven or eight, and would have been judged a failure by New Labour's school tests. His father died just before Émile's seventh birthday, leaving the family in relative poverty. The following year France was shaken by revolution. In February 1848 workers, shopkeepers and the urban population united with the bourgeoisie to overthrow the king and the 'finance aristocracy'. Two socialists joined the Provisional Governing Council. Four months later, to appease taxpayers, the workshops for the unemployed were closed down; the slums of eastern Paris exploded in revolt, and the guns of the Republic turned on its former supporters. The Republic lost support to left and right; three years later Louis Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon, staged a coup, and had himself crowned emperor; his 'Second Empire' lasted 18 years.

Zola later realised that 1848 was the last point at which the bourgeoisie had been a revolutionary class. He wrote:

On leaving school Zola was unemployed. He never forgot those years of hunger, later recalling the time when he ate only one meal a day, and that often merely bread and cheese, or a few fried potatoes. In 1862 he finally got a steady job with the publisher Hachette. By now he knew that his aim in life was to be a writer. After one or two false starts, he discovered that his gift was for the novel.

Republicanism, positivism, realism

Zola was a young man seeking success--but also seeking ideas on which that success could be built. Napoleon III's coup led to a huge ideological offensive. The traditions of the Enlightenment were too hot to handle; the works of Voltaire were repeatedly banned from libraries. There were purges in the schools and universities, and philosophy was removed from the school syllabus. Two outstanding writers, Flaubert and Baudelaire, were prosecuted for offences against public morals. Under such pressure most leading writers openly supported the Empire. Zola, pursuing an alternative, was drawn to three intellectual currents which, in the Second Empire, offered a basis for radicalism.

(i) Republicanism: The term republican covered a variety of political currents. Essentially it referred to those who identified themselves with 1789, with Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. It implied anti-clericalism, especially the removal of education from the clutches of the church.

Zola combined commitment to republican principles with a sharp awareness of the contradictions internal to republican politics. In his novels he showed respect for the courage of the republicans, the only people to stand up against the crimes of the empire. And it was the left of the movement, the so called 'red republicans' who aroused his admiration most. He was contemptuous of those who adopted or abandoned republican principles to suit their own interest. Zola's republicanism pointed him in the direction of the socialism he was later to embrace.

(ii) Positivism: The basic tenet of positivist philosophy was a belief in scientific method, in particular the claim that the methods of the natural sciences should be applied to the study of human behaviour. It maintained the Enlightenment belief that human society could be subjected to rational understanding and control, but whereas the Enlightenment embodied the ideas of a pre-revolutionary bourgeoisie, positivism fitted the needs of a post-revolutionary class.

The philosopher and historian Hippolyte Taine, an important influence on Zola, was a conservative. But in the climate of Empire some of his formulations seemed profoundly shocking to orthodox thought, notably his claim that 'vice and virtue are merely products like vitriol and sugar', which Zola used as an epigraph for Thérèse Raquin.

For Zola the radical implications of positivism were the most important, and he tried to marry his optimism about science to his republican politics. The positivist who most influenced him was Claude Bernard, a medical researcher who wrote an essay on scientific method. Medical science does not profess neutrality, but is committed to preserving health and curing the sick; for Zola, the scientific method was inextricably linked to social reform.

The position Zola derived from Taine and Bernard was determinist, but his notion of causality was not a fatalistic one. For Zola determinism means that if we know a particular cause has a particular effect, then by taking a given action, we can produce a desired consequence. Determinism is not the negation of freedom but the precondition for human beings to control their environment.4

This is still a positivist and not a dialectical position--for Zola knowledge precedes action, rather than being indissolubly united with it as in Marx's 'Theses on Feuerbach'.5 Nonetheless, republicanism and positivism gave Zola a radical basis for developing the novel in new directions.

(iii) Realism: The realist novel in France begins with Balzac's Human Comedy, a series of interconnected novels aiming to give a picture of the different classes, professions and regions of post-revolutionary France. In the new bourgeois order, money replaced all other institutions that had held human society together. Hence Balzac presented his characters in painstaking material detail; to understand people we must know where they lived, what they wore, and above all what they earned.

The young Zola greatly admired Balzac because of the devastating way he portrayed the bourgeoisie:

Yet Balzac was a monarchist and devout Catholic. As Zola pointed out, if there was a radical message in Balzac's novels, it was there despite Balzac:

Zola aimed to be the new Balzac, but one whose conscious intentions coincided with the content of his writings.

In 1856 Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary--about the disastrous adulteries of a provincial doctor's wife--was unsuccessfully prosecuted for being morally offensive. The state prosecutor proclaimed that Christian morality:

Against this, Zola saw it as a republican duty to defend realism. It was an essential part of his struggle for intellectual truthfulness and social justice.


Zola's first successful novel was Thérèse Raquin (1867).6 The plot is pure melodrama. Thérèse and her lover, Laurent, murder her husband, Camille, but are pursued by guilt in the form of vivid hallucinations. One particularly intense passage describes Laurent's visits to the morgue in search of Camille's corpse.

Madeleine Férat (1868) introduced what was to become one of Zola's central preoccupations, the question of heredity. The topic continues to have considerable relevance in our own age, when the science of genetics combines great achievements with some dubious claims.

During Zola's lifetime the study of heredity was going through a transitional phase. The work of Darwin had drawn attention to the importance of inherited characteristics and a number of scientists had pursued the subject, notably Prosper Lucas, whose two-volume treatise on heredity Zola studied. However, he knew nothing of the work being done by the Austrian monk Mendel, who was laying the foundations of modern genetics.

His ideas on heredity combined scientific observation with rather dubious myths. The plot of Madeleine Férat centred around the belief that a woman's children would bear a physical resemblance to her first lover, regardless of who the actual father was. This theory owed more to the cult of female fidelity than to any 'scientific' knowledge. Yet Zola's ideas were not absurd in terms of current scientific thinking; in 1869 he received a letter from the future professor of zoology at the University of Marseilles, congratulating him on the novel.

Zola's stress on heredity formed part of his attack on the doctrine, deriving from Rousseau, and widely current on the French left, of 'natural goodness'. Flawed heredity showed that human beings were not born good; goodness could flow only from scientific understanding and beneficial environment.7

Zola had now brought together the elements that comprised his distinctive approach to the novel. Like Balzac, he aimed at a vast panorama grasping the totality of contemporary society. Unlike Flaubert, his primary aim was not beauty but truth. Inspired by the scientific method, he embarked on each novel with a programme of systematic reading and research. Though some of his formulations may seem naive to later readers, it was the belief that the novel could give an objective account of the real world that led Zola to his best creations. On this basis he began a cycle of novels which took up the major part of his adult life. He had barely started when he was interrupted by an unprecedented event--the world's first proletarian revolution.

The Commune

In 1870 Napoleon III declared war on Prussia. The Prussian army rapidly crushed the French forces and besieged Paris. The emperor abdicated; the working people of Paris collected money to buy cannon to defend their city. The French bourgeoisie could not tolerate an armed Paris and on 18 March 1871 troops tried to seize the cannon at Montmartre.

After fraternising with the local people, the soldiers refused to fire into the crowd. Paris declared itself an independent state. Eight days later the government of the Commune was elected. As with the soviets of 1917, members of the Commune got the pay of a skilled worker and could be recalled at any time. But workers' power could not survive more than a few weeks in a single city. In May troops massacred thousands of workers and thousands more were imprisoned or deported.

In 1870-1871 Zola was a republican, but not a socialist, certainly not a revolutionary. His political naivety was compounded by the fact that he still had to supplement his income by working as a journalist. During the early weeks of the Commune he commuted between Paris and Versailles, then stayed in Paris, finally leaving less than a fortnight before the massacre. He reported for two different newspapers--the republican La Cloche based in Paris, and the right wing Le Sémaphore of Marseilles. As now, editors bought opinions, and Zola tempered his views in quite striking fashion to suit their tastes.8

Yet even for a right wing readership Zola's honesty was sufficient to ensure that he gave a balanced account of events:

Zola had little sympathy for the bourgeois politicians who had fled to Versailles to plan the destruction of the Commune:

The Rougon-Macquart cycle

After prolonged wrangling the Third Republic was established. However, the conservative onslaught continued. The backlash against the Commune produced a religious revival, with the establishment of the cult of the Sacred Heart and the pilgrimages to Lourdes.9 The embryonic working class movement was decimated by repression, and the militants who survived were mostly exiled. French socialism revived only after the amnesty of 1880.

In 1870 Zola had completed the first volume of the Rougon-Macquart cycle which occupied him for the next 23 years, and included his masterpieces. There were 20 novels, each self contained. But, in accordance with his preoccupation with heredity and environment, there were two basic unifying themes.

The main characters of the cycle all belonged to the same family, descendants, over three generations, of one woman, Adélaode Fouque. She bore one child to her husband, Rougon, and two to her lover, the smuggler Macquart. (The legitimate branch rose into the upper layers of society, while the bastard line sank into the proletariat and peasantry.) All had what Zola described as 'excess of appetites'; the direction of those appetites--power, money, sex, art, religion, social justice, murder--depended on the environment in which they operated.

The whole cycle was set under the Second Empire, an age of meteoric political careers, financial speculation, labour migration, the growth and development of modern Paris, the emergence of new industries. After 1848 there were to be two decades of unbridled bourgeois power. What gives Zola's novels their strength is the undisguised hatred for the bourgeoisie that radiates from almost every page. Bourgeois greed, brutality and ignorance are constant themes.

The first six novels of the cycle dealt with the coup of 1851 and its aftermath. Zola showed the role of politicians, speculators and the church in consolidating the emperor's power. His hatred of the bourgeoisie came out most strongly in Le Ventre de Paris (1873, Savage Paris). Set in the Paris food markets, this portrayed the petty bourgeois shopkeeper class. In earlier revolutions this class had played a militant role; by the Second Empire it had become complacent and mean-minded. Lisa Quenu was the forerunner of millions of Tory voters when she declared, 'I support the government which is good for trade. If it's doing wicked deeds, I don't want to know.' In his notes for the novel Zola promised to show 'what an amazing underside of cowardice and cruelty there is beneath the calm flesh of a bourgeois woman'.

The novel was filled with descriptions of foodstuffs. Food was a major theme throughout Zola's work. For Balzac, the economic base of human society had still largely appeared in abstract form; he demonstrated the importance of money in human affairs. Zola, who probed lower depths of society than Balzac, gave equal importance to food. The fact that human beings must eat was grasped by Zola in its sensuous and painful wholeness.

The political dimension was supplied by Florent, Lisa's brother in law. A deported revolutionary in 1848, he returned to his brother's home. Eventually Lisa betrayed him to the police. Claude Lantier--a painter who stood back somewhat from the bourgeois world--pronounced Zola's damning conclusion: 'What scum respectable people are.'

As early as 1872 the conservative paper Le Pays noted that 'every day people are sentenced for offences against decency who are less guilty than citizen Zola'. In 1873 the police established a file on Zola--according to one informer he was a member of the First International. This was implausible, but perhaps an acute perception of how his politics were developing.


In L'Assommoir (1876)10 Zola produced a remarkable portrait of working class life. It was not, however, a novel of struggle. Written in the aftermath of the Commune, the story itself belonged to an earlier period of defeat. After June 1848 Paris workers lost faith in the Republic; in December 1851 they refused to defend it. Zola dramatised this in a scene in L'Assommoir where Goujet and Coupeau refused to risk their skins for the 'bleeding idlers in the Chamber'.

L'Assommoir was set in the quarter around the rue de la Goutte-d'Or, in northern Paris behind the gare du Nord. In the mid-20th century this was one of the main areas where North African immigrants settled. A century before it had received immigrants from provincial France; here the laundress Gervaise Macquart came from Plassans and met her husband, the building worker Coupeau.

This had been one of the strongest areas of working class militancy in 1848. Zola took up the story at the point of defeat, after which the working class became fragmented and private relationships (the family) and private pleasures (drink) dominated their lives. Zola depicted the slow degradation of the couple. After Coupeau suffered an accident they slid into alcoholism and the story--the bleakest of all Zola's novels--ends with delirium tremens and death.

But its strength lay in Zola's sensitivity to various aspects of working class culture. The most important of these was language. Zola called it 'a purely philological study' in his attempt to reproduce working class language, not just as an 'incorrect' version of standard French, but with all the vigour and concreteness it derived from the realities of working class life.

Zola examined the relation between class and culture most acutely in the scene where Gervaise's wedding party visited the Louvre. The working class celebration confronted the works of art cherished by the bourgeoisie. The effect was comic, for the workers did not respond in the authorised manner, remembering the appropriate distance between 'art' and 'life'. On the contrary, when they saw Rubens' Kermesse (a reflection of their own popular festivity), the women blushed while the men sniggered and looked for 'dirty details'.

Zola's political conceptions were still undeveloped. He claimed to have produced an apolitical work: 'My book is not a work of...propaganda, it is a work of truth.' Yet in the selfsame letter he went on to set out the 'lesson' of L'Assommoir by advocating a programme of education, slum clearance and struggle against alcoholism--a reformist programme, but one that put him to the left of most of his contemporaries.

L'Assommoir gave Zola instant notoriety. Serialised in Le Bien public in 1876, its publication was suspended by the editors, fearful of losing respectable readers--and replaced by a novel by arch-reactionary Léopold Stapleaux. The right accused Zola of wallowing in filth, but much more significant was the hostility provoked in left wing circles.

The republican Arthur Ranc wrote a pamphlet accusing Zola of 'bourgeois contempt' for the people. Charles Floquet gave a lecture calling Zola a 'public slanderer'. Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, accused Zola of turning 'naked poverty' into a 'spectacle'.

However, the condemnation was not unanimous. Jules Vallès, a leading figure in the Commune, now exiled in London, praised L'Assommoir: 'M Zola is a red in literature, a Communard of the pen.' Jules Guesde, later leader of the Socialist Party left before 1914, commended Zola's portrayal of workers under the Empire, 'crushed by the heavy burden of the past, brutalised by excessive toil, dragged into alcoholism by overwork'.

Zola responded vigorously to his critics, asking:

Zola was concerned, not with moralising about social phenomena, but with understanding their causes. The criticism of Zola was similar to that later directed at Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, when he challenged left wing stereotypes of working class virtue.

Zola did not see the working class as the subject of history. But any theory that takes the working class as the agent of socialist transformation must begin with the working class as it is, brutalised by capitalism and trapped by ideology. One does not need to be a moralistic teetotaller to recognise that drunkenness is not only a social problem, but a serious impediment to many working class militants. The aim of socialism is not to flatter the working class, but to abolish it.

Sex and class

The next novels returned to the bourgeois milieu. Encouraged by the success of L'Assommoir, Zola's attack acquired a sharper edge. Nana (1879)11 traced the fortunes of Gervaise's daughter, who had a brief but dazzling career as a high class prostitute before dying of smallpox; her physical decomposition mirrored that of the Empire.

There was much lurid sexual activity, but also a serious attempt to explore the social nature of sex as commodity. The 'oldest profession' long predated capitalism, but the prostitution depicted here reached a new level. The Second Empire was the period in which Paris gained its international reputation as a capital of entertainment and dubious pleasures, the age of the Folies-Bergère. In the opening scene a theatre manager was congratulated on his establishment; he responded dryly: 'You mean my brothel.'

The theme of class ran right through the novel. Nana was a child of the slums, seen by Zola as the revenge of the workers on the parasitic classes whose beds she now frequented. Her role was summed up by the image of the fly:

In his preparatory notes for Pot-Bouille (1882, Restless House), Zola made his intentions quite explicit:

A modern reader may well feel not much has changed.

The novel traced the fortunes of individuals living in one apartment house. Zola confronted the private life of the bourgeoisie, the futility and violence that marked interpersonal and especially sexual relations. Of the many scenes showing total absence of common humanity, perhaps the most striking was when Duveyrier, rejected by his mistress, came home and, trying to kill himself, shot off part of his jaw. His wife, finding him dripping with blood, afraid to shoot again, howled in horror, 'Go and kill yourself outside!'

Zola showed how the bourgeois family crushed women's freedom and humanity. Madame Josserand was determined to find a husband for her not very marriageable daughter, Berthe. The daughter recounted how, when dancing with a well placed prospect, he had grabbed her and she had pushed him against the furniture. The mother screamed at her that she had ruined her chances of marriage, saying she should have let him do what he wanted, trapping him into marriage. The other side of the coin was the story of the servant Adèle, forced to give birth in complete solitude, in fear and terrible suffering. Zola saw this as a clear indictment of the society that drove women to this situation.


Zola was always ambitious, and knew that whatever antagonisms his writings provoked, they could only boost sales. His earnings rose rapidly; by the late 1870s he was getting at least 15,000 francs a year, well over £30,000 in today's money. He missed no opportunity to exploit the market. In 1880 he developed a new form of hype, launching the term 'naturalism'. Zola claimed that as a naturalist he was developing a new kind of writing that went beyond the mere 'realism' of his predecessors.12 The difference, he argued in his essay The Experimental Novel (1880), was that his work was more systematically scientific; the placing of a character with certain hereditary features in a range of environments was akin to a scientific experiment--say the testing of the effect of a variety of acids on a given type of metal. The work contained some interesting passages but the overall thesis lacked plausibility. The main point was to promote the brand name 'naturalism'.13

At 40 Zola was at the stage in his career when many rebels have turned right and made their peace with an existing order which gives them a comfortable living. Zola moved in quite the opposite direction.


Germinal was Zola's masterpiece.14 Whereas L'Assommoir had shown a working class just emerging from an older world of small workshops, Germinal shifted to the coal mining industry, a central source of energy for France's developing capitalism. Mining, with a large, disciplined labour force herded into pit villages and facing the dangers of underground work, produced a class for which solidarity was the key value.

The novel took its title from a month in the revolutionary calendar introduced in 1792. Germinal fell in springtime (March-April), the month of germination and hope; but on 12 Germinal Year III (1 April 1795) hungry crowds had rioted, demanding 'bread and the 1793 constitution'. The events of Germinal inspired Babeuf, the first revolutionary socialist, to establish his secret organisation of Equals. In the novel Zola argued that the bourgeoisie, having made its own revolution, now wished to suppress any further revolution from below.

The first part of Germinal gave lengthy descriptions of work underground, one of the few novels to deal with the experience of work. The second part focused on the dynamics of the strike. No novel before--and very few since--had given such a detailed and authentic account of an industrial struggle.

The central figure was Etienne Lantier, son of Gervaise Macquart and half-brother of Nana. He was an outsider to the pit village, a worker intellectual, who read socialist papers and pamphlets, and talked to the Russian asylum seeker Souvarine while his workmates were preoccupied with beer and sex. But when the management cut pay rates, a strike began, and Etienne emerged as leader. At a mass meeting of workers Etienne captured the mood of the crowd, and made the speech of his life. He was 'tasting the heady wine of popularity' and dreamed of being the first working man to enter parliament. Yet when the action started, the crowd, not restrained by ideas or traditions of organisation, rapidly outflanked Etienne. He found himself holding his fellow workers back, preventing gratuitous violence to scabs or damage to equipment. As the strike dragged on the miners rejected Etienne, threw bricks at him, and turned back to the more moderate Rasseneur whom Etienne had earlier supplanted.

Finally the defeated miners returned to work. Etienne saw:

Many readers of International Socialism will have experienced at least some of these stages of struggle. Zola showed that working class leadership is not a question of a fixed hierarchical relationship, but an ever-shifting interrelation.

Zola also drew out the importance of spontaneity, showing the slow, painful dawning of consciousness in struggle. He went into detail on matters of tactics, for example the possible use of sabotage, or flying pickets. The latter played an important role in the strike; they were a well-established tradition in French mining, having been used in the Loire strike of 1869.

He also showed how ideas developed in the minds of the less articulate characters, bringing out the effect of a strike on those who for year after year had taken their situation for granted; now, faced with the fact of struggle, they had to painfully think through the questions raised. Maheu confronted old Quandieu, who tried to prevent the strikers forcing out working miners:

Zola stressed the role of women in the strike--miners' wives, but also miners, since female labour in the mines had not yet been banned. Zola rejected the conventional nonsense about the 'weaker sex'--the women were extraordinarily tough, notably the indomitable Maheude. They were capable of great savagery, as in the scene where they took vengeance on the shopkeeper Maigrat, who had long exploited women by demanding sexual favours in return for unpaid debts. When he was killed in a fall, they tore off his genitals and paraded through the streets with them on the end of a stick.

Zola showed a microcosm of the late 19th-century labour movement. One small village contained articulate representatives of three political currents: Rasseneur, the reformist, believing in negotiation rather than confrontation; Souvarine, the anarchist; and Etienne, somewhere between the two, groping towards militant class struggle and a version of Marxism. The currents Zola presented were the main political trends in the First International prior to the Commune.

Souvarine was one of the most interesting figures in the book. He was a refugee from Tsarist Russia, where he had tried unsuccessfully to blow up the Tsar's train. His lover was captured and he saw her hanged. As Zola observed, he had the 'crushing scorn of the man prepared to sacrifice his own life in obscurity without even the glory of a martyr's crown'--in modern terms, the suicide bomber. In Souvarine's view all trade union activity was futile. The only hope was 'anarchy, the end of everything, the whole world bathed in blood and purified by fire... Then we shall see.' His rejection of class struggle revealed the elitism inherent in terrorism.

Only after the strike was defeated did he look for an alternative form of action, and sabotaged the mine. Zola showed terrorism as a sign of weakness, of lack of confidence in collective action, of desperation in the face of a declining movement--as Trotsky put it, 'it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness'.16 But Zola's concern was to understand rather than to condemn.

Germinal was not just an extended strike report. It had many other literary qualities. The powerful imagery conveyed Zola's sense of the dehumanising force of capitalist society. Men and women were denied freedom and human wholeness, subordinated to an alien logic in which the production of commodities was more important than human beings.

Thus the mine--named Le Voreux (with echoes of devouring)--was depicted as a living monster:

The mine was a human product, made to satisfy human needs, yet it took on the life of a beast, satisfying its own desires, not those of the people who made it; human beings became the inert fodder that the beast devoured.

Those who would like to drain the book of its socialist content often quote from a letter by Zola: 'Germinal is a work of pity and not of revolution.' But this sentence should be put in context. In the same letter he went on to say:

These were the words of a middle class reformer, not of a revolutionary; but this reformer had at least integrated the possibility of revolution into his historical perspective.

This was confirmed by the novel's conclusion, all too often misunderstood. Etienne left the village, not because he had abandoned hope in the working class, but because he had been offered a job in Paris by Pluchart, an organiser for the First International. Since the novel was set around 1867, it was clear he was heading for the Paris Commune.

How did a prosperous middle class novelist who had never been involved in any industrial struggle give such a perceptive account of a strike? By 1884 the French working class movement was recovering from the defeat of the Commune. The miners of Anzin went on strike, and Zola himself visited the scene of the strike to gather material. Posing as the secretary of the left wing deputy Giard, he observed the action at close quarters. By courtesy of the management he visited the pit and crawled 675 metres on all fours below ground. He also met Emile Basly, an ex-miner who was the model for the figure of the reformist Rasseneur. As an honest and perceptive observer who detested all the bourgeoisie stood for, Zola undoubtedly learned a great deal from this experience.

Moreover, he was influenced by one of the great, though much neglected, socialist writers of his time, Jules Vallès, a leading activist in the Commune, exiled till 1880 in London. Zola helped him get journalistic work and encouraged him to write his powerful autobiographical novel trilogy.17

Vallès had written articles about the miners' strikes of 1869 and 1870 when the army was used against workers. On 12 March 1884 he participated in a public meeting in support of the Anzin miners. Later that year, when Germinal was being written, Zola spent long hours discussing with Vallès during his summer holiday at Mont-Dore.

While academics often miss the point about Germinal, it has been properly appreciated in the working class movement. During the 1984-1985 British miners' strike a militant miner saw direct parallels between the novel and the current struggle:

Towards socialism

Writing Germinal had a permanent effect on Zola's own political development. A year later he noted, 'Every time I write a study now I come up against socialism.' But what kind of socialism? Marxism was only beginning to get a foothold in France. In preparing his novel The Earth, Zola conducted an interview with Jules Guesde, one of the leading advocates of Marxism in France. According to Zola's notes, Guesde argued for socialism in the countryside on the basis of technical advance. The large farms of North America, equipped with machinery, could export corn to Europe. Competition would compel French peasants to accept nationalisation of the land so that their production could be competitive. Guesde believed in 'scientific evolution'; according to Zola he hoped to win over the peasantry merely by displaying posters proclaiming the abolition of taxes and military service. This was 'Marxism' without class struggle, class consciousness or workers' democracy; if this was the only Marxism on offer, small wonder Zola rejected it.

La Terre (1887, The Earth)19 was one of Zola's most successful novels. During the 19th century there was continuing division of land into ever smaller units. Zola followed Guesde's argument that socialism was the answer to rural decline. The plot of the book--loosely based on King Lear--dramatised the problem. There was lots of sex, human and animal. The book opened with the coupling of a bull and cow, assisted by the helping hand of a young girl. There were vivid descriptions of child-birth, calf-birth and coitus interruptus. There was also a lot of shit. Characters included an old woman who manured her cabbages with human excrement and a peasant who farted extremely loudly and was known to everyone as 'Jesus Christ'. Zola understood long before Malcolm McLaren that scandal sells; it was one of his bestselling books.20

But socialism was one thing, socialists were another. The socialist in The Earth, Canon, was shown in a negative light. His socialism was deterministic and authoritarian:

The Debacle (1892)21 depicted the final collapse of the Second Empire. The first part, dealing with the disastrous Franco-Prussian War, showed Zola evoking the horror of modern warfare, anticipating some of the best novels of the First World War. But the second part, on the Commune, revealed all his contradictions. Zola was a socialist sympathetic to the working class, but had never been convinced of the need for revolution or working class violence. The Commune was represented by two characters, Maurice, sincere but naive, caught up in enthusiasm, and Chouteau, corrupt and violent, the most malicious of all Zola's portrayals of leftist agitators. It was a complete travesty of the Commune and the ideas that animated it. Happily Vallès did not live to see this appalling betrayal.

Vision and terror

The Rougon-Macquart cycle was completed in 1893 and Zola needed a new project. As he progressed beyond negative hatred of the bourgeoisie but without embracing revolution, he often lapsed into moralism. Yet old passions did not die completely, and the two late cycles contained some interesting works.

The 'Three Cities' cycle told the story of a priest, Pierre Froment. Appalled by the superstition at Lourdes, he went to Rome, where he found careerism and corruption. He abandoned the church and returned to Paris, a city marked by the vast gulf between rich and poor, parliamentary corruption and ineffective charity. There was repeated reference to the much vaunted 'bankruptcy of science'. In this context Zola turned to a theme relevant to our own times, terrorism.

At the beginning of Paris (1897) Zola introduced Salvat, whose unsuccessful search for work had driven him into brutalised silence and 'incendiary dreaming'. He planted a bomb outside the home of a wealthy baron; eventually he was tracked down in the Bois de Boulogne, tried and executed; unbroken, he shouted, 'Long live anarchy!' when dragged to the guillotine.

Zola showed terrorist violence as a direct product of poverty, and of the impotence of both politics and charity. There was savage satire of the way the press exploited the whole episode, presenting Salvat as a monster. As Zola showed, capital punishment merely prolonged the cycle: 'It was blood paying for blood, and it was like the eternal debt redeemed by human misery, without mankind ever being able to free itself from suffering.'

Meanwhile Pierre's brother Guillaume, a scientist, had discovered a new form of high explosive. Guillaume had stored a quantity of this beneath the Sacré-Coeur, planning to ignite it on a day when ten thousand pilgrims were visiting the church. Guillaume himself was not a victim, but had been inspired by Salvat's execution. He believed his new explosive would make war impossible and intended to demonstrate its power by a vast explosion. Luckily Pierre averted the atrocity, took up cycling and got married. (Happy endings were never Zola's strongest point.)

Zola now moved on to his final cycle of novels. The overall title--'The Four Gospels'--showed he did not suffer from undue modesty. The four heroes (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) exemplified the virtues of fertility, work, truth and justice.

Travail (1900, Work) was Zola's attempt at a socialist utopia. Luc Froment took over a steel mill in a small town, and under the influence of Fourier's ideas turned it into a workers' co-operative. There followed the irresistible ascent of the co-operative way of life, as people were drawn in by the sheer power of example. But Luc's paternalism was the very antithesis of the self emancipation of the working class. The question of the state was simply evaded; 'socialism in one town' developed while the rest of France made no effort to obstruct it. Strangely, Lenin is reputed to have liked the novel.22

The Dreyfus Affair

By now Zola had become involved in the defence of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer, wrongly accused of spying for Germany and deported to Devil's Island. This revealed profound corruption at the heart of French political and military life, compounded by pervasive anti-Semitism. The affair created divisions in French society that lasted over 50 years; the right wing current that crystallised around the affirmation of Dreyfus's guilt provided support for the Vichy regime in 1940.

Most of the French left failed the test. On 18 January 1898 a statement signed by all socialist deputies (including Jaurès and Guesde)23 urged workers not to take sides in a 'bourgeois civil war'. In July the Parti ouvrier français (led by Guesde and Lafargue) argued that 'workers...have no place in this battle which is not theirs'. The same year the syndicalist CGT issued a pamphlet declaring, 'We workers, eternally exploited, should not take sides in this conflict between Jews and Christians!'24 (All these came after Zola's intervention.)

It is hard to express just how stupid this position was. It is as though people on the British left had argued that, since Stephen Lawrence was a middle class youth aiming to become an architect, the circumstances of his death were no concern of socialists. The price of stupidity was a heavy one. Among those observing the development of the affair was Theodor Herzl, who claimed the Dreyfus case convinced him that Zionism was the only solution to the oppression of Jews.25 If the French working class movement had intervened wholeheartedly on Dreyfus's side, the case for Zionism would undoubtedly have seemed much less plausible. The world--especially the Palestinian people--is still suffering the effects of the French left's failure.

Zola's intervention in the affair, with his famous article 'I Accuse'--in which he named those he claimed had perverted justice--was a matter of considerable significance. The article appeared in the national newspaper l'Aurore on 13 January 1898--300,000 copies were printed. Zola concluded with an appeal to the power of truth that was rooted in his whole career as a realist writer:

He was tried for defamation, enabling him to give the issues public exposure, and found guilty in a courtroom which broke into chants of 'Down with Zola! Death to the Jews!' He took refuge in England in order to avoid imprisonment.

Zola's defence of Dreyfus was based on a complex, evolving critique of racism, nationalism, militarism and the state machine, and cannot be reduced to platitudes of liberalism and tolerance.

Among French intellectuals of the 1890s anti-Semitism was widespread. The writer Maurice Barrès declared quite simply, 'I deduce from his race that Dreyfus is capable of treachery.' Zola stood outside this. In 1896, before being at all involved in the Dreyfus Affair, he had published an article entitled 'In Defence of the Jews'. Here he described anti-Semitism as:

It was because of this article that Zola was first approached to intervene on Dreyfus' behalf.

Zola's intervention can be linked to his belief that the writer's job was to observe and truthfully describe an objective reality. What better basis for pursuing the proposition that there is a difference between guilt and innocence? It is interesting to contrast the naturalist Zola with one of the key figures of modernist literature. As Michael Löwy has shown,26 Kafka's novel The Trial was inspired by the experience of the Dreyfus Affair and other anti-Semitic trials. Kafka gave us a powerful but bewildering nightmare in which it was quite impossible to discern what was the law. Zola's aesthetic, cruder and simpler, helped him to keep faith that truth was attainable.

The end of the road

The Dreyfus Affair led Zola to reconsider the whole question of the state, so that he took up other cases of injustice and in particular became more sympathetic towards anarchism, for instance supporting a campaign for the release of imprisoned anarchists.

His developing political stance was also apparent in his fiction. The third novel of the Four Gospels cycle, Vérité (1902, Truth), was a fictional version of the Dreyfus case.27 Here Zola regained all his old polemical vigour; he showed a savagery comparable to the best of his earlier works. Zola had not made his peace with religion: 'Dirt and vermin are established in all the countries where Catholicism has triumphed...'

There was a special mention for the Sacré-Coeur: 'On the highest peak of the great, revolutionary Paris, [the Church] had erected this Sacred Heart, red and quivering, like the hearts you see hung on butchers' hooks.'

In September 1902 Zola died of carbon monoxide poisoning due to a blocked chimney. The circumstances of his death may never be wholly clear, but newspaper revelations half a century later suggested he might well have been murdered by a deliberate blocking of the chimney. There were enough vicious-minded rightists, enraged by Zola's defence of Dreyfus, to make this plausible.

When the news broke, shopkeepers in Montmartre shut up shop, householders pulled down the shutters, and crowds took to the streets. When he was buried, six days later, delegations of miners attended the funeral, chanting, 'Germinal! Germinal!'

Marxists and Zola

One might imagine Zola would be the darling of the left. In fact the left has always been uneasy about him. From L'Assommoir on, Zola had opponents on the left as well as the right.

Most leftists are wary of imposing political criteria on literature. So they feel that if they commend one novel that deals with a strike, it will seem as though they are saying that all art should deal with picket lines and barricades. We reject this. Oedipus Rex and Wordsworth's 'Daffodils' are part of a human heritage that belongs to us all, and which the working class will inherit. But from Robert Tressell to Jim Allen there is a tradition of writing dealing specifically with working class experience, from Gorky to Victor Serge a tradition focused on working class organisation and struggle. These deserve a place in literature just as much as Milton's Satan or Proust's madeleine.

Moreover, while in the latter part of his life Zola was a socialist, he rejected Marx, was ambivalent about the Paris Commune, and was influenced by the ideas of the Utopian Socialist Fourier. Unfortunately there is a longstanding sectarian habit on the left of directing the greatest hostility at those whose ideas are closest to our own. Socialists often seem happier with overt reactionaries like Balzac and Dostoevsky than with 'unsound' socialists like Zola. Even great Marxists like Engels and Lukács have had problems with Zola.

Shortly before the translation of The Earth, Vizetelly published A City Girl, by John Law, pseudonym of Margaret Harkness. Vizetelly forwarded a copy to Engels, who, in April 1888, wrote a letter to Miss Harkness, thanking her for her novel and making a number of observations on it.28 Among these was a reference to 'Balzac, whom I consider a far greater master of realism than all the Zolas passés, présents et á venir [past, present and future]'. This letter has hung fatefully over subsequent Marxist discussion of Zola.29

Most who cite this letter have clearly never read A City Girl. It was a very poor novel. The plot--working class girl seduced by middle class radical--was neither original nor striking, while the descriptions of working class life were largely conventional and certainly not comparable to those of Zola. The tone was highly sentimental. Engels' praise, going well beyond what politeness required, does not enhance one's respect for his literary judgement.

The essence of Engels' criticism of Harkness was that an account of the working class could not be 'realistic' if it saw workers simply as a 'passive mass' and ignored their 'rebellious reaction' against oppression. The point fitted very badly with the condemnation of Zola in the next paragraph. For if asked in 1888 to name a novel which did show 'the rebellious reaction of the working class against the oppressive medium which surrounds them, their attempts--convulsive, half conscious or conscious--at recovering their status as human beings', surely many readers would immediately have seen Engels' words as an accurate description of Germinal.

Had Engels ever read Zola? Those who quote Engels' dismissive reference to 'all the Zolas' assume that it was based on a knowledge of Zola equivalent to his undoubted familiarity with Balzac. But a study of Engels' voluminous writings reveals no such acquaintance with Zola. In his published correspondence there are, apart from the celebrated letter to Harkness, just two references to Zola.30 In neither case is there any reference to a specific book or any indication of textual knowledge.

Engels probably derived such knowledge of Zola as he had from Paul Lafargue, Marx's son in law, with whom he was in regular contact and with whom he might well have discussed Zola. Lafargue had been highly critical of L'Assommoir:

One of the best-known Marxist critics, Georg Lukács, followed Engels in his low view of Zola.31 Like Engels, he had only a very thin knowledge of Zola's work. Lukács was mainly concerned with the concept of 'totality'. He argued that in comparison to true realists, Zola merely engaged in accumulation of detail. Zola, he conceded, was successful in depicting 'the outer trappings of modern life':

This is a travesty of Zola's best work. If he does not present such memorable 'characters' as Balzac or Dickens, it is because he does not believe that great people make history. But the striking miners of Germinal are scarcely tiny, haphazard people. If objects--like the mine in Germinal--sometimes take on a life of their own independent of human control, than that is the fault of capitalism and not of Zola's narrative technique. But Zola's faith in science and truth, and his contemptuous hatred for bourgeois greed and ignorance gave his novels a unifying force that Lukács failed to grasp.33

A hundred years on, it is surely not necessary for Marxists to share the literary tastes of the founding fathers. The failure of Marxists to make a positive appropriation of Zola has left the field wide open for the Freudians (for whom Zola's work means something different from what he intended) and the postmodernists (for whom it can mean just about anything).

Zola and the future

Zola was not a Marxist. He was, however, an anti-capitalist--almost every page he wrote was a denunciation of the greed, brutality, corruption and hypocrisy that characterised French capitalism in his day. Since then the system has had to make some concessions to working people, but it claws them back whenever possible. Now that the long detour of Stalinism is over, capitalism is reverting to the pre-1914 model of the unbridled pursuit of power and profit, sinking into congenital corruption; increasingly Zola's descriptions have a ring of familiarity. Ultimately capitalism keeps going by devouring human flesh, just like the pit in Germinal. Zola never made his peace with the bourgeoisie, and those who read him will be encouraged not to make theirs.

Note on reading

Thérèse Raquin, L'Assommoir, Nana, The Ladies' Delight, Germinal, The Earth, and The Debacle have been published as Penguin Classics. All the Rougon-Macquart cycle have been translated into English. Sixteen of the Rougon-Macquart novels were published by Elek Books between 1950 and 1960. Since 1975 there have been English editions of The Fortune of the Rougons (Sutton), The Kill (Panther), The Conquest of Plassans (Sutton), Abbé Mouret's Transgression (Sutton), Pot Luck (OUP, Grafton), The Masterpiece (Sutton, OUP), The Beast in Man (Panther, OUP), Money (Sutton), Doctor Pascal (Sutton), Truth (Sutton). The Émile Zola Society holds regular meetings in London, and publishes a twice yearly Bulletin of material by and about Zola. Details from Chantal Morel, Institut Français, 17 Queensberry Place, London SW7 2DT.


    Thanks to Dave Harker, George Paizis and Jim Wolfreys for comments.

  1. References to novels published as Penguin Classics are to the English translation. In other cases translations are my own.

  2. There are strikes in Gaskell's Mary Barton and North and South, but in neither are they the centrepiece. Generally, in English novels of the Chartist period, it is riots and violence that predominate.

  3. Zola uses the word 'people' (peuple) to refer to all the oppressed layers of society, ie the working class plus artisans, peasants etc.

  4. Thus Engels wrote in Dialectics of Nature, 'The activity of human beings forms the test of causality.' K Marx and F Engels, Collected Works (London and Moscow, 1975 onwards), vol 25, p510.

  5. The notion that knowledge precedes action belongs to the ideology of a minority class, such as the pre-1789 bourgeoisie. The working class, because of its position in production, cannot first acquire enlightenment and then make the revolution; it can only acquire enlightenment in the process of making the revolution.

  6. Penguin Classic (Harmondsworth, 1962).

  7. Stress on the improving powers of environment was more progressive than a belief in the blind force of heredity; yet, as Marx pointed out in the Theses on Feuerbach, 'The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change circumstances and that the educator himself needs educating.' Zola was never a revolutionary, and never made the dialectical leap embodied in this proposition.

  8. The articles are compared in a fascinating study by D S Gross, 'Émile Zola as Political Reporter in 1871: What He Said and What He Had to Say', Literature and History, no 7 (1978).

  9. The Sacré-Coeur (sacred heart) church in Montmartre was built in the 1870s to expiate the 'sins' of the people of Paris.

  10. Penguin Classic (Harmondsworth, 1970).

  11. Penguin Classic (Harmondsworth, 1972).

  12. It should be noted that Zola's distinction of 'realism' and 'naturalism' is not the same as that used by Lukács, for whom 'naturalism' lacks the totality achieved by 'realism' (see below).

  13. English translators entered into the spirit of things by giving Zola's novels titles more lurid than the originals. Thus Le Ventre de Paris was published as 'La Belle Lisa, or the Paris Market Girls'; Zola's study of the painter Claude Lantier, which in French had the austere title L'Oeuvre (The Work), became 'Christine the Model, or Studies of Love'.

  14. Penguin Classic (Harmondsworth, 1954).

  15. As well as powerfully evoking the end of the miners' strike in 1985, this scene is reminiscent of the end of Orwell's 1984, where Winston and Julia, having betrayed each other, are reunited. The lesson is the same: individual heroism is not enough--victory requires effective collective organisation.

  16. See L Trotsky, Marxism and Terrorism (New York, 1995), p10.

  17. As far as I know no English translation exists.

  18. Norman Strike (Westoe NUM) in Socialist Worker, 21 July 1984.

  19. Penguin Classic (Harmondsworth, 1980).

  20. In 1888 Henry Vizetelly published an English translation of The Earth. Following a prosecution instigated by a Liberal MP, who claimed Zola's novels 'are only fit for swine, and those who read them must turn their minds into cesspools', Vizetelly, aged 69, was sentenced to three months jail for publishing novels by Zola.

  21. Penguin Classic (Harmondsworth, 1972).

  22. A Wurmser in the collective work Zola (Génies et Réalités) (Paris, 1969), p230.

  23. Jaurès and Guesde opposed the position within the parliamentary group, but accepted the majority position. Guesde abandoned support for Dreyfus after poor election results in May 1898.

  24. E Cahm, L'Affaire Dreyfus (Paris, 1994), pp129-130, 145.

  25. See S Beller, Herzl (London, 1991), pp31-32.

  26. M Löwy, Redemption and Utopia (London, 1992), p89.

  27. Zola died before writing the fourth volume.

  28. MECW, op cit, vol 48, pp166-168.

  29. It is quoted approvingly by Chris Harman in the January 2002 Socialist Review, p31. For a fuller discussion, see I Birchall, 'Another Vizetelly Connection: Engels, Harkness and Zola', Bulletin of the Émile Zola Society no 6 (1993), pp1-11.

  30. A letter of 15 July 1887 to Laura Lafargue appears in MECW, op cit, vol 48, p85; a letter of 30 April 1891 to Karl Kautsky, ibid, vol 49, p174.

  31. For a full discussion of Lukács's views of Zola, see I Birchall, 'Georg Lukács and the Novels of Émile Zola', in D Laurenson (ed), The Sociology of Literature: Applied Studies (Keele, 1978), pp92-108.

  32. Studies in European Realism (London, 1972), p92. In this essay, 'The Zola Centenary', Lukács performs the tour de force of never naming a single novel by Zola.

  33. As a leading literary representative of the Popular Front strategy, which sought alliance with the 'progressive' bourgeoisie, Lukács could scarcely emphasise Zola's hatred of the bourgeoisie.

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