Born in Paris, he began his career as a clerk in the Interior Ministry, but, on the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, he was editing Les Droits de l'Homme at Montpellier, and had to take refuge in Geneva in 1871 from a prosecution instituted on account of articles which had appeared in his paper in defence of the Paris Commune. In 1876, he returned to France to become one of the chief French advocates of Marxism, being imprisoned for six months in 1878 for taking part in the first Parisian International Congress. He edited at different times Les Droits de l–Homme, Le Cri du peuple, and Le Socialiste, but his best-known organ was the weekly galit.
He had been in close association with Paul Lafargue, and through him with Karl Marx, whose daughter Lafargue had married. It was in conjunction with Marx and Lafargue that he drew up the programme accepted by the National Congress of the French Workers' Party at Le Havre in 1880, which laid stress on the formation of an international labour party working by revolutionary methods. The following year, at the Reims Congress, the orthodox Marxian programme of Guesde was opposed by the "possibilists", who rejected the intransigeant attitude of Guesde for the reformist policy of Benot Malon.
At the Congress of Saint-tienne, the difference developed into separation. Those who refused all compromise with a capitalist government followed Guesde, while the reformists formed several groups. Guesde took his full share in the consequent discussions between the Guesdists, the Blanquists, the Possibilists, and others. In 1893 he was returned to the Chamber of Deputies for Lille, with a large majority over the Christian Socialist and Radical candidates. He brought forward various proposals in social legislation forming the programme of the Workers' Party, without reference to the divisions among the Socialists, and, on November 20, 1894, succeeded in raising a two days' discussion of the collectivist principle in the Chamber.
In 1902 he was not re-elected, but resumed his seat in 1906. In 1903 there was a formal reconciliation at the Reims Congress of the sections of the party, which then took the name of the Socialist Party of France. All socialist tendencies were then unified in 1905 in the Section Franaise de l'Internationale Ouvrire (SFIO), the French section of the Second International. Guesde, nevertheless, continued to oppose the reformist policy of Jean Jaurs, whom he denounced for supporting one "bourgeois" party against another. In 1900, he had already opposed him on the question of socialist participation to "bourgeois" government . His defence of the principle of freedom of association led him, incongruously enough, to support the religious Congregations against mile Combes.
World War I, which threatened France's existence, had the effect of changing the uncompromising attitude of Guesde. In August 1914, Guesde was included in the national unity government of Ren Viviani as a Minister without Portfolio, and continued to serve in that role until the end of 1916. During this period, he adopted patriotic positions and sometimes even nationalist views.
Besides his numerous political and socialist pamphlets he published in 1901 two volumes of his speeches in the Chamber of Deputies entitled Quatre ans de lutte de classe 1893-1898 (Four years of class struggle).
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