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Zola's Germinal: still relevant today
It is 125 years since Emile Zola's Germinal was first published. Dave Gorton delves into one of the most renowned and important works of French literature.
Germinal was the 13th of Emile Zola's monumental 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series but, like all the books, stands alone and can be read without knowing any history of the characters or previous events.
Set in the coalfields on the French/Belgian border in 1867, it was the first 19th century novel to have a major strike as one of its central features, but Germinal was more than this.
It was written shortly after a period of revolution and counter-revolution throughout Europe, including France's revolutions of 1789 and 1848. Zola, who wouldn't have called himself a socialist at the time of writing Germinal, showed the battles taking place between competing class forces.
The disagreements between two of the central characters emulate debates between socialism and anarchism in the then newly formed First International.
At the outset of the novel we accompany a wandering Étienne Lantier in his quest to earn a few sous to feed himself. He was hired at one of the many pits in the region, in horrendous inhumane conditions which Zola describes at some length.
Étienne was in contact with the First International and tries to sign up fellow miners to its ranks. Early on we read of "a rebellion [was] germinating in this narrow hole nearly six hundred metres below ground. Soon the voices rose in anger, and these men, blackened with coal and frozen with waiting, accused the company of killing half its employees underground and letting the other half die of hunger."
Anger let loose
As the employers tried to change payment methods (ie cut wages), that anger was let loose. The French mines employed through sub-contracting so that groups of workers had to bid to work on the 'better' seams, in the process undercutting their colleagues and neighbours.
The employers used arguments that will appear familiar to readers currently active in trade unions. To a delegation of miners that interrupted a bosses' dinner party to demand an increase in the basic rates of pay, the manager of the Montsou mines retorts: "Do you think that the company hasn't as much to lose in the present crisis as you have? It cannot fix wages as it likes, it must be competitive or go under. Why don't you blame the facts instead of the company?"
The workers strike and receive massive support. Zola leads us through all the, still relevant and recognisable, facets of a strike: the attempts to widen it to other pits in the coalfield (today this would be secondary picketing); the excruciating hardship; the role of the women in support of their striking husbands, fathers, sons and daughters.
Zola makes it plainly clear that the women were as much to the fore, if not more so, than the 'menfolk'. Yet the brutal work and social conditions manifested themselves in the appalling treatment of women: "It was the usual thing, wasn't it? She had never imagined it would be anything else - raped behind the slag-heap, a baby at sixteen and then a poverty stricken home if her lover married her."
Zola introduces us to Rasseneur, formerly a militant miner turned reformist who owned a local bar: "Surely it was stupid to think the world could be changed at one blow... It would need perhaps thousands and thousands of years for that to come about... The wisest course, if you didn't want to come a cropper, was to go straight ahead with demanding feasible reforms and bettering the workers' conditions as and when the chances arose."
Germinal is also a great story. Zola, with the knowledge of the events that led to the Paris Commune, finished Germinal with an evocative passage:
"Men were springing up, a black avenging host was slowly germinating in the furrow, thrusting upwards for the harvests of future ages. And very soon their germination would crack the earth asunder."
by Emile Zola
£3.99, plus £1.50 p&p
Available from Socialist Books, PO Box 24697, London E11 1YD
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The Transitional Programme
by Leon Trotsky
With an introduction by Socialist Party general secretary Peter Taaffe
£2.50 plus 50p p&p from Socialist Party Wales
In The Socialist 9 September 2010:
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