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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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“The writers of history organize the events of which they write according to, and out of, their own private necessities and the state of their own selves.”1

In The Banquet Years, Roger Shattuck’s fascinating account of the Parisian avant-garde, the author employed several prominent iconoclastic French artists from various fields to exemplify his themes even though they were never considered the leading figures. By focusing on lesser lights or marginally important artists, Shattuck thought he could better comprehend the phenomenon of the Parisian avant-garde since the fame and importance of the most well-known innovators of the era could easily skew the rich texture of the avant-garde.2 A study of Gustave Hervé may offer a parallel possibility for politics during the Third Republic. Even though Hervé was an important figure, especially before the Great War, he had much less stature and played a relatively minor role compared to men like Jaurès, Clemenceau, Briand, Blum, or Pétain. In hindsight, what may be most interesting about him is not his prominence before the Great War but the trends and problems which a study of his career can bring to the fore. Hervé “was a third-rate political theorist, but he was a first-rate activist”3 and polemicist. He was not a seminal thinker on the extreme French Left nor did he ever come close to attaining the political power that he apparently sought. However, the simple ideas that he espoused, the striking episodes which involved him,...

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