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 classicnovelists 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.2Secondly, 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 in1840, 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 amarseillais; 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 theage 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 socialistsjoined 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 'SecondEmpire' lasted 18 years.
Zola later realised that 1848 was the last point at which the bourgeoisie had been a revolutionary class. He wrote:
The bourgeoisie betrays its revolutionary past to try to safeguard its capitalist privilege and remain the ruling class. Having taken power it does not want to pass it on to the people. It ceases to move. It allies with reaction, with clericalism, withmilitarism. I must bring out the vital, decisive idea that the bourgeoisie has ended its role, that it has gone over to reaction to preserve its wealth and power, and that all hope for the energy of tomorrow is in the people.3
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 hugeideological 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...