This is the story about a city of the 19th century inhabited by miners. Zola describes very well the reality of the working class during the industrial revolution, with all details: the hungry, the disease, the poverty, the dust, the pollution, the shit, the dirtiness, the young girls getting pregnant before menstruating by the first time, the children working in the mines, covered by the black dust from the mines, the old having to work because they have no money to live the few years of the rest of their lives, and all the other real facts of that time in the european nations that are now past (in Europe, but not in other places around the world).
This situation was the reality of many european towns. Zola took one imaginary town located somewhere in northern France so the tale could take place. Although this is an imaginary town, it's so close to that time's reality that you'll forget it's an imaginary town after starting the reading. This detail doesn't matter, then.
So we got that people, being explored by their bosses - the mine owners - who were rich and lived a very nice life in some chateaus, eating and drinking the most delicious foods and wines, dressing the fashion clothes and doing mostly nothing all day. This is a summary of the differences between the miners and the mine owners’ situation and I could guess that would be a very appropriate scenario to someone make a revolution. And this is exactly what a young guy tries to do. He arrives in that miserable town looking for a job. Maybe a village would ask him "why are you coming here to find a job? Can’t you see we got no job, no money, no nothing?" and he would answer "you're like everyone in everywhere... so it would make no difference if I moved to anywhere else". and he was right.
By the way, this revolutionary guy, protagonist of the story, is named Étienne. As I previously said, he was once an ordinary guy who has nothing and was pleased to find a job in the mine, despites of the awful working conditions. He was faded to continue being this forever. But one fact in his life might have been the only one that changed his fate for good: the day he knew Souvarine, a russian guy who left his country due to political issues back there. I don’t know exactly what issues were those, but the fact is that he’s a communist who found job in that mine in northern France and decided to stay there to live with he’s demons, he’s frustration to be another brick in the explored-miners-and-working-class-members wall, a reality he couldn’t change. Maybe that explains he’s quiet or never-talking personality. All he liked to do is to smoke a cigarette and to drink a good cup of beer in the few free time he had and to pet a white rabbit during this relaxing time, sitting in a chair, alone in a table, in some ex-miner’s pub who made it to leave the work in the mine and open his own business thanks to a relation with the miner owners.
So, one day, Étienne, after a terrible work day in the mine, tired and thirsty, decides to go to that pub to have a beer. That’s when he meets Souvarine. They become friends and create the habit to meet every day there with other as well thirsty miners. They talked about their common problems: the long ours in the mine, the lake of money and food, the lots of children to take care, etc. Étienne did not have family but he seemed to be the most revolted guy of the group. Souvarine starts to lend him some books by Marx, and other socialist advertisement material so Étienne becomes to identify his situation with the solution proposed by the books. He starts to dream with the revolution. And then, he starts to PLAN it. He was successful in convincing the explored miner population of the town to follow him in the revolutionary cause and many conflicts with them and the police starts to take place.
But there is a time that Étienne’s knowledge considerably grows and he became a totally different person than the miners who followed him. This knowledge growth was due to the continue reading of economics, sociology, political and law books. He becomes something like an intellectual person. And he also starts to receive gifts from the miners like clothes, food, shoes, etc. In summary, he became somebody different from the miners. He became some kind of rich person and his authority inside that large group of people becomes unquestionable. Anyone he considered as a traitor is punished under he’s orders.
The bourgeoisie (the miner owners) see him as the main enemy and fights him by not paying the salary to those who follow him. So people become hungry and Étienne leadership starts to fall apart. Some desperate people go back to the mines and restart the work so they could have something to eat. Étienne punishes them in a terribly way. But as his revolutionary mates starved, he was always well dressed, clean and had something to eat. That’s when he realizes he’d become a fake version of the miner owners himself. He became what he was fighting against and he felt ashamed of that.
I think this is very interesting because it’s a lot different from other revolutionary tale: the Che Guevara’s one. This latin guy is taken as an example of perfect hero that was simultaneously smart, good looking, brave and strong. This is ridiculous. The image built around Che was mostly like a pop boy band member’s then a communist revolutionary’s! I see nowadays people using shirts with the Che’s pic – capitalist people. These shirts are mostly expensive and this people seems to think they are in someway a revolutionary. When I say “this people” I’m referring to the people of the universities from my city (I don’t know if the students of other ares are the same, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are), who let their beards grow without any shaving and use cheap look clothes that actually are not so cheap. The do it only to exhibit a Che look. And they call themselves revolutionaries! Bastards. While they’re sitting in a bar, finding other students with their fake cause, their parents are working in some office, making money, hiring and resigning their employees as any capitalist would do. That’s how these self-called revolutionaries student’s parents make money to buy them these shirts, pay the university for them and everything else. And this very students who call them revolutionaries will be the same as their parents as soon as they graduate and realize they want money, cars, and everything everybody wants.
Étienne is for me all these self-called revolutionary student’s who doesn’t know much about revolution and wants just to be popular in the campus. They don’t care if there is people starving to death in some remote areas of the country. And there are in fact a lot people in this situation. I hate these fake “revolutionary” students and I love the way Zola critiques them in this book “Germinal” trough the Étienne character.
It’s not a critique to the communism, it’s a critique to the people who uses the communist utopia to become popular and forget everything about this cause when they find another nice thing to waste their time.
I’m not a communist. I’m not a neo-liberal as well. And I don’t have anything against people who are communist or neo-liberal. I live in a democracy where everyone are (or at least were supposed to be) able to believe and to fight for anything they want. But this is not about political views. It’s about personalities. In this case, fake personalities: one thing I don’t like is hypocrisy and these “revolutionary” students I talked about above are the most hypocrite people I’ve ever seen. “Germinal” is a good reading for people who hate them as well as I do.