French History


'Emile Digeon and Socialism in the Narbonnais'

by Christopher E. Guthrie

French History, Volume 12 no. 1 (Mar. 1998)

Emile Digeon (1822-1894) was a French Socialist writer and journalist who is perhaps best remembered as the leader of the short-lived Narbonne Commune of late March 1871. But he also earned a degree of fame in his native region of Bas-Languedoc as a twicedefeated Socialist candidate for the Chamber of Deputies in the early 1880s and as the author of several books and numerous articles on revolutionary strategy and principles. However, this relative obscurity should not detract from his value as a way to better understand the intellectual processes which lead certain individuals to embrace a populist, neo-Jacobin version of socialism which rejected both the 'orthodox' Marxism of the Guesdists and the reformist tactics advocated by many others. Digeon placed economic analysis in a clearly secondary position to his primary emphasis on political change. This emphasis was the result of accumulated personal experiences sifted through the filter of a slightly overbearing and self-righteous, but highly moral and steadfast, personality. But it played well with the petit peuple of the Narbonnais. His glorification of the common man through his stress on the benefits of direct democracy corresponded to their own political desires, which were, at least in part, created by the unique economic and social development of the region and through the influence of a radical democratic tradition born of their brief experience with real political power in 1848-49. This tradition did not determine the content of Digeon's thought but it did provide him with a loyal following for his ideas. These ideas also contained many of the same biases, such as the acceptance of women in a subordinate position within the private sphere and a cavalier attitude towards practical organizational efforts, as his Narbonnais audience and thereby provided articulate and reasoned confirmation of what they already believed. And, perhaps above all, he gave them his personal example, a man who was willing to sacrifice all in order to implement his political principles and who truly believed in the 'drapeau rouge de nos martyrs.' Digeon personified the impassioned and dedicated militant political machismo of the Narbonnais and illustrated, in both his actions and thoughts, its strengths as well as its weaknesses.