Ian Birchall


[(Re-)Conceptualising Marxist Theories of Racism]
The “complex interplay of race and class” has caused many problems for Marxists, and it may be of interest to examine one of the first occasions when the emerging working-class movement was confronted with the question.
The conviction of Alfred Dreyfus for alleged treason came at a time when virulent anti Semitism was on the rise in France. Édouard Drumont and his followers recognised the significance of Dreyfus more quickly than those on the left. The initial response from the workers’ movement was lamentable. Socialist Jean Jaurès said Dreyfus should have been shot as a private soldier would have been; leading syndicalist Émile Pouget dismissed Dreyfus as a “rich youpin”.
The figures who initially defended Dreyfus – Bernard Lazare and Émile Zola – had connections to the labour movement, but they were not representative of it. It took some time, and the dedication of individuals, before the pro-Dreyfus bandwagon began to roll. Eventually it did, mobilising a new generation of activists – thus the young Pierre Monatte narrowly escaped expulsion from school for being in possession of a text by Zola on the Dreyfus case.
Dreyfus’s pardon was a victory, but not a clear-cut one. And the pro-Dreyfus alliance was divided on class questions. Thus Georges Picquart, who had courageously defended Dreyfus, became Minister of War in a government that was using troops to impose social order. Many of those who defended Dreyfus in the name of the republic went on to use that same republic as a justification for supporting the First World War.
In 1906 Robert Louzon published an article called “The bankruptcy of Dreyfusism”. It was a vigorous reminder that while there was a colossal danger in neglecting racial oppression in the name of an exclusive emphasis on class, an anti-racist movement which neglected questions of class was giving hostages to fortune.

Dreyfus - racism - anti-Semitism - class