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From Revolutionary Theater to Reactionary Litanies

Gustave Hervé (1871–1944) at the Extremes of the French Third Republic


Michael B. Loughlin

Gustave Hervé (1871–1944) seemed to have traditional Breton roots and a typical republican education. As a young socialist journalist and professor, he gained notoriety following a 1901 article which appeared to plant the tricolor in a dung pile. When French socialists unified in 1905, the Hervéistes were an influential minority. The antimilitarist movement called Hervéism gradually emerged as a quixotic crusade to unite revolutionaries against war and for socialism. Hervé soon founded a weekly newspaper, La Guerre Sociale. Over the next six years, press campaigns, trials, prison, demonstrations, strikes, and conspiratorial organizations maintained Hervé’s profile and sold newspapers. Ironically, Hervé advertised conspiracies, which suggests revolutionary theater more than practical politics. Among Hervé’s rivals, such theatrics often generated resentment. While Hervé’s movement succeeded as a media experience, his leftist competitors became jealous and skeptical. As revolutionary theater Hervéism might have been entertaining, but the actors and some of the audience often confused revolutionary art with political reality. By 1911 the ingenuous Hervé felt betrayed. His failure to unite revolutionaries began an evolution toward the nation and its traditional Catholic faith. Besides the international situation, one crucial determinant in Hervé’s evolution toward French national socialism sympathetic to fascism involved ongoing rivalries within the French Left. Hervé’s marginal interwar national socialist parties sought to employ patriotism and religion to solve French problems. By 1935 he attempted to draft Pétain to lead an authoritarian republic. Gradually losing hope in Pétain after the fall of France, the aging Hervé put his faith in Christian socialism.
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Chapter 9 The Postal Strikes of 1909, the Francisco Ferrer Affair, and the Liabeuf Affair


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In 1909 Hervé and La Guerre Sociale were searching for a method that could push the “masses” to action. Such a tactic would reverberate if it involved risk and hence demand courage. A tactic involving secret groups of militants in illegal activities would fit Hervé’s insurrectional methods and the results could be reported in the press. It could certainly be argued that such activities would be especially efficacious if they had some connection to immediate worker interests. It was no coincidence that the tactic involved almost no threat to life. The tactic chosen was the strike-related sabotage of the telephone and telegraph lines that ran beside the French railway network. The postal strikes in 1909 and the strike of French railway workers in 1910 were the events which allowed Hervé to try to adapt insurrectionalism to workers’ reality. Hervé’s long talked about secret organizations undoubtedly came into some kind of existence then and played some role in sabotage. But it seems probable that La Guerre Sociale adapted to spontaneous and popular actions rather than created the movement of sabotage. The police and the Hervéists both credited La Guerre Sociale with control of these illegal acts, but from the very beginning Hervé stressed that he did not sanction, much less control, saboteurs who wanted more frightening results than downed telegraph lines. Jonathan Almosnino admits that it is impossible to assign direct responsibility to the Hervéists and their legendary Organisation Secrète de Combat ← 309...

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