Chapter 1 - After the Commune

Chapter 1

After the Commune

On the day following the defeat of the Commune, the proletariat’s situation was as follows: the French section of the International dissolved, the revolutionaries shot, imprisoned or driven into exile; their groups dispersed, meetings prohibited; the few men who escaped the massacre took refuge from the terror in safe-houses.

The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, was euphoric. Industry and commerce were certainly still feeling the effect of the war. Many workshops—whose best operatives, as in the days of the Protestant exodus, had left for London, Brussels or Geneva, bringing with them their technical expertise1—were still closed and despite the arrogance which the easy victory of the “forces of order” seemed to have instilled in the business class, there was still a certain apprehension in their glances which were directed towards both Germany and that population which once again had demonstrated the forces it was capable of setting in motion.

Nevertheless, the federation of employers’ trade unions, known by the name of the “National Union of Commerce and Industry”, spread vigorously and, not encountering any opposing workers power, fixed the value and duration of labor according to its whims.

Then, some of the men who had founded the International but had afterwards desisted from all activity out of fear of the revolution, tried to resume their temporarily disrupted labors. Believing that they had been freed of the revolutionaries, and never ceasing to deplore the horrible repression of 1871, yet privately satisfied that the bourgeois caste had laid the foundations of the road which could lead to the “reconciliation between capital and labor”, they created the building blocks of new institutions in which the workers, refraining from any criticism of the government and the laws, were to dedicate themselves to studying labor’s situation in relation to the laws of economic exchange. From this original concept the Workers Trade Union Circle was born, “which”, in the opinion of Barbaret, one of its founders, “must solidly unite all the trade unions as a counterweight to the National Union of Commerce and Industry.”

This association was certainly not very subversive: its goal was “to achieve by means of study, harmony and justice” the convincing of public opinion concerning “the moderation displayed by the workers in claiming their rights.”

But as moderate as they were, as sensible as they proved themselves to be, the founders of the Circle turned out to be too advanced in the judgment of the guardians of moral order. However much they proclaimed themselves republicans, the kind of republicans who address the issues of social economy without causing discord, the politics of DeBroglie2 could nonetheless become dangerous. For this reason the Workers Trade Union Circle was dissolved, and if the government did not take the same action against the local trade union centers, this was due to the fact that these centers, which were not very numerous, whose existence was very precarious, and which had no relations of any kind with the Circle, seemed destined to impotence and immanent disappearance.

How did they manage to survive? How did they already have 135 trade union centers in 1875, some of which, above all those located in Roubaix, carried out activities of some significance? After the hecatomb of 1871, it seemed certain that any attempts at proletarian liberation had become impossible and that the people, although they truly had not lost their taste for freedom, which had often slumbered but never completely died out, were at least condemned to suffer a long sentence under the yoke of capital. However, not even four years had passed since the defeat of the insurrection, two years after the final dispersal of all intellectual groups and all workers organizations, and new forces and new energies began to reveal themselves, the mass of workers, held back momentarily, once again embarked on its journey toward emancipation. Is this phenomenon not due to the fact that the people’s intuition viewed the class grouping as the only means of social transformation? Might it not be because of the fact that, despite his reconciliatory positions and his apparent political indifference, and partly under the impact of an irrational perspective, the worker perceives in communism his own ideas and interests as well as the instrument to destroy despotism and construct harmony on the terrain of the economy?

In any case, by 1875 there were 135 trade union centers, regulated under Articles 291-294 of the Penal Code, in accordance with the law of April 10, 1834 and the decrees of March 25 and April 2 of 1852. During this whole period of reaction the trade union centers, content with not being dissolved, submitted to the precarious situation of living under the constant threat of being forcefully shut down. But when France allowed some breathing space and one could speak openly of professional associations, labor representation in parliament, and cooperatives, without being suspected of having shot the hostages, the trade union centers demanded their rights, and first demanded the cancellation of the laws and decrees to which they were subject, as well as the legal recognition of their existence. Afterwards, they debated and rejected the legislation proposed by Lockroy, at that time a deputy representing Bouches-du-Rhône, which he had elaborated to regulate the trade union centers, and finally they held a national congress in Paris.

Soon after it was formed on the initiative of the trade union center of the horticultural workers,3 a labor delegation was sent to the Philadelphia World’s Fair. Later, a workers congress was held in Bologna. On June 19, 1876, the Tribune published the following piece: “Now that the labor delegation has departed France for Philadelphia, it is necessary to add another point to the agenda of the workers of Paris and the provinces. What would our friends think of holding a workers congress in Paris in August or September, a few weeks after the return of the delegation, in order to discuss the basis for a common socialist program?”

“For now we shall be content to spread the idea, which was suggested to us by the Congress of Bologna. It seems to be an excellent idea to us and we are convinced that a workers congress would have considerable influence on the course of the economic emancipation of the whole French proletariat.”

This proposal met with a quite understandable enthusiasm, especially when one considers the silence observed over the previous five years. Numerous articles on this topic appeared in the radical press. Large numbers of workers joined the trade union centrals in Paris and the provinces, and after several meetings held by the delegates to the World Exposition at Vienna, by the members of the workers commission sent to the Philadelphia Exposition, by the trade union representatives, etc., a committee was appointed to organize a congress and prepare its agenda.

This committee was composed of citizens André, di Chabert, A. Corsin, Delion, Deville, Eliézer, Gauttard, Guérin, Guillon, and Vernet. The congress program tackled other issues as well: female labor, the trade union centers, professional apprenticeship and training, the direct representation of the proletariat in parliament, trade associations, pension funds, agricultural associations and the advisability of establishing relations between agricultural and industrial workers.

The congress opened on October 2, 1876 in the Salle des Ecoles, on Arras Street. Among the notable delegates were citizens Chausse, Chambert (at that time involved in mutual aid activities), Isadore Finance, V. Delahaye, Masquin, Simon Soëns, Barbaret, Narcisse Paillot, Aimé Lavy and Feltesse (who was not allowed to address the assembly due to his nationality). The majority of the congress delegates were from cooperatives and mutual aid societies. Some collectivists (both statist and anarchist), however, were also in attendance; they did not hesitate to expound their theories, and staged vigorous protests against the presence of citizen Barbaret.

The report presented at the opening session of the organizing committee clearly indicated the spirit of the congress. “What we want,” this report says, “is for the worker to henceforth never lack work, that the price of labor should be truly remunerative, that the worker should have the means to cope with unemployment, illness, old age.... We also want, in accord with the congress, to show our rulers, and to show all our ruling classes that while they are arguing and fighting among themselves over power and to remain in power, that there is an enormous fraction of the country’s population which is suffering, and which needs reforms, which have not been sufficiently addressed.”

“We want this congress to be exclusively working class, and everyone immediately understands our reasons for this. There is no reason to deny it, all the systems, all the utopias which have been proposed to the workers, never arose from the workers ranks. They all came from the bourgeoisie, and were undoubtedly well-intentioned, but they sought solutions and remedies for our afflictions on the basis of intricate reasoning, rather than our needs and reality. Had we not decided, as a precautionary measure, that one had to be a worker to speak and to vote at this congress, we would have contributed to a repeat performance of what had already taken place in other times, i.e., the intervention of the defenders of bourgeois systems in order to impose upon the meeting a character which we have rejected. One thing must be made clear: the intention of the workers is not to improve their condition at the expense of everyone else. They only want the economists, who only care about the products but do not care about man, to give man and product equal consideration. We thus expect from the new economic science all the improvements which will comprise the solution to the social question.”

The imprecise formulations in this document give a good idea of the character of the congress—if not of the 360 delegates, or of the entire sponsoring commission, at least of the organizing committee. The members of this committee not only had to take pains to try to assuage the fears which the congress could provoke among the leaders of government and industry, but also, in order to secure capitalist protection, did not hesitate to slander (confusing them with politicians like Louis Blanc) proletarians of the vanguard such as Varlin, César de Paëpe, Emile Aubray, Albert Richard, Dupont, etc., who had professed and disseminated the doctrine of the International.

However, despite the approval of this report by the congress, its organizers were aware that although many workers were not involved in the movement of the Commune, the propaganda of the International, by responding to the interests of the people, had profoundly affected them. On the first point of the agenda of the Congress (concerning female labor), the Congress upheld the principle of equal pay for equal work, and recommended the creation of women’s trade unions and the reduction of the working day to eight hours with no decrease in pay. Isadore Finance vigorously opposed the cooperatives movement. After emphasizing the failures, from Buchez forward, of the various forms of cooperative association, he concluded: “In this case, on the basis of money saved at the expense of a poverty-level wage, the small urban or rural proprietor is supposed to take possession of the ownership of the soil, the raw materials and the industrial plant and level the playing field against the influence of a capital which has been accumulated over the expanse of centuries!” But he could have gone on to ask: How many centuries would it take to reach their goal? No one has anything to say about this. If this is what is called being practical, what would utopia be like?

“The Cooperatives movement necessarily sacrifices the independence and free time of the individual required for acquiring an education, to a hope for material betterment, the commercial nature of which, however, renders its attainment uncertain. It tends to deprive the proletariat of its generous aspirations in order to instill it with the concerns proper to the egotistical and business-oriented bourgeoisie. Consequently, the cooperatives movement is the greatest obstacle standing in the way of that intellectual and moral regeneration which, as the advocates of cooperation themselves admit, must precede material improvements in the workers’ welfare....” A delegate announced his opposition to any form of charity or dole, because the dole appears to imply that unemployment is a necessary or inevitable fact, when in reality it is the responsibility of the proletariat to make it disappear. Another delegate condemned the mutual aid society for “not contributing any means at all for achieving the abolition of wage labor”, and for giving its approval to its existence, “asserting to the contrary that what should dominate our thoughts and direct our actions is the practice of seeking our economic emancipation.” Finally, delegate Hardy, of the Paris bronze workers, after having accepted the petition of the pension fund societies, on the condition that they should be funded exclusively by deductions from the military budget, exclaimed, without arousing the least protest, and despite the proximity of the defeat of 1870: “It is of little concern to us that France is small and Germany is large.” The Congress demanded the establishment of a pension fund whose administration would be independent of State control.

Next came the problem of the local trade union centers. As I have said, the congress had to examine legislation proposed by Lockroy dealing with workers associations. According to Articles 5 and 6 of Lockroy’s proposed law, every local trade union center, immediately upon being formed, and on every January 1st thereafter, would have to present to the mayor, the police prefect or the Attorney General of the Republic, in addition to the address of its meeting hall, a declaration including its statutes, the number of its members, and their names and addresses. These requirements, which gave rise to lively discussions in the working class, also caused great agitation among the delegates to the congress.

These regulations would constitute, stated the delegate of the Paris mechanics, “a trap of the same stamp, taking aggravating circumstances into account, as the laws of June 22, 1855 concerning personal documentation; it is a police law of a new kind and we refuse to accept the idea that the trade union councils are guilty of believing they could consent to becoming auxiliaries of the prefect of police and the magistrates.”

The Lockroy legislation, said citizen Daniel, “imposes conditions on the workers associations which would never be demanded of capitalist, religious, or civil groups.”

What, then, did the trade union center mean to the members of the congress of the trade union centers? What were its functions supposed to be, and how was it supposed to be composed?

“The trade union centers,” said Charles Bonne, a delegate from Roubaix, “are actually organizing committees for a different kind of society. They must, to begin with, devote themselves to the question of mutual enlightenment; they must then, of course, proceed to organize popular libraries and consumer associations, to impede the exploitation of the worker by the capitalists. The trade union centers must furthermore strive to create compensation funds to provide for workers’ families.... They must, finally, undertake the reorganization of the councils of trade union syndics or inspectors, whose operations are currently very precarious....”

Bonne concluded as follows: “Various systems have been proposed to create this organization: some want the trade union centers to be operated by just one trade union, but in the provinces this system faces numerous difficulties, since one trade union alone cannot always form a trade union center which could guarantee the provision of services.... I therefore believe that it would be easier to construct trade union centers by uniting different professional groups which have similar interests. Each professional group elects a number of representatives in proportion to their share of the total number of citizens who compose the trade union.... I also believe that the trade union centers, in order to assure their progress, must publish an administrative report on their operations and submit it to an office created for this purpose. This office will be responsible for collecting the various administrative reports from all of France’s trade union centers. This system will keep abreast of every achievement....”

According to Charvet (from Lyon), “the Trade Union Centers must not be mixed bodies; they must respect the interests of the workers, and put an end to the abuses which now affect the corporative groups. After their legalization, they could also establish, with the agreement of the employers, the rules which have the force of law and which will define the range of competence of the municipal inspectors....”

To conclude, Dupire (from Paris) proposed: “The trade union centers are invited to concentrate all their efforts on simultaneously decreasing the length of the normal working day in all trades and on increasing the workers pay. They must bring all their influence to bear on blocking the influx of women and children into the factories, workshops, and offices, as they are used against the men. The trade union centers will also use all their influence to cause these ideas to be impressed on the minds of their members and to make these principles accepted by public opinion.”

These views eloquently expressed the sentiment of the congress: the trade union centers should be freely-constituted study centers. Hence one may deduce the reception accorded to Lockroy’s proposed legislation by the congress. The committee’s report formulated the following conclusions, which were adopted without debate:

1. Repeal of Articles 291, 292, 293 and 294 of the Penal Code, along with all the other laws whose purpose is to restrict freedom of association and assembly.

2. Retraction of the proposed legislation on trade union centers presented in the Assembly.

3. A Commission should be appointed with the responsibility of informing the Assembly of the congress’s deliberations.

Such was the outcome of the first workers congress held in France since the Revolution of March 18, 1871.4 Its demands were undoubtedly quite timid, and it could even be asserted that its participants, far from taking their stand alongside the heroic workers who fell to the bullets of Versailles, had no other concern than to emphasize their distance from any attempt at social subversion. Nonetheless, this congress did take a stand in favor of resuscitating the professional associations, and creating a new link between the workers in order to oblige them to study the social question, and it is evident that eventually the exploited, after having in good faith sought the reconciliation of capital and labor, would come to understand that such a reconciliation is impossible and that one of the two factors of the official political economy must prevail over the other.

Immediately after the conclusion of the congress, the Paris trade unions appointed a commission of 62 members, which was to be responsible for formulating the issue of the trade union centers in a way which was as favorable as possible for the interests of the workers. This commission immediately set to work on this question and, at first, tried to reconstruct the Workers Trade Union Circle. But the government, especially the Ministry of the Interior, was aware of the commission’s activities and the Police Prefect opposed this project. The commission then began to elaborate a project to replace Lockroy’s legislation. But this was not easily undertaken, since the collectivists opportunely focused attention on the fact that the trade unions should not collaborate with the Ministry and that, furthermore, as the trade unions were being rebuilt despite the absence of any pertinent law, there was no need to modify the status quo. It was also felt that the Lockroy legislation was in a tenuous position and that they should therefore postpone any decision and continue their activities along the same lines as before. Their efforts were shortly crowned with success: the project finally approved by the commission of 62 and then amended by the trade unions was adopted by the latter.

The collectivists’ perception was indeed accurate. Lockroy’s legislation was rejected. The trade unions multiplied and since the propaganda carried out by the most advanced workers was subtle and did not attract the attention of the public, and since political affairs absorbed all the attention of the “official spheres”, as they were then called, the socialist idea gained ground every day.

Two years passed under these conditions, and then, in 1878, a second workers congress was held in Lyon. At that time, some men who had been involved in the International, but who had played a very minor role in the Commune,5 and who had thus managed to escape the repression, tried to organize a socialist party outside the trade union centers. Among these men (Guesde, Lafargue, Chabert, Paulard, and Deynaud), some were related to or acquainted with Marx, Engels, and the survivors of the 1872 congress at The Hague. Their propaganda was so successful during the months preceding the Paris Exposition that they could announce their proposal of holding an international socialist congress in Paris during the Exposition. This project was still premature, however, and its promoters were persecuted and repressed by the police.

Under such circumstances, and despite the professed aversion of the revolutionary socialists for workers enrolled in the trade unions, they thought they could take advantage of the occasion of the mutualists’ congress in Lyon in order to convert the workers to attend their congress.

As it turned out, the small number of their supporters prevented them from modifying the character of the congress, but they nonetheless made declarations of special interest, which we should pause to examine, above all in order to display the theories professed at that time by the collectivists ... and also to shed light on the events which resulted in excavating an unbridgeable abyss between the supporters of legislative action and the conquest of public power and the supporters of economic and corporative action.

With respect to the question of basic principles, Calvinhac, a delegate of the “Democratic Workers Union” of Paris, said: “You will discover the remedy for all social evils and every kind of exploitation in the collectivity, that is, in the institution of industry and collective property.” Calvinhac then spoke of the State. During that period all the French collectivists not only advocated the abolition of the State, but also displayed hostility towards any idea which presented the State as favorable to the workers. The revolutionaries, who would, a few years later, be divided between Statists and anarchists, were at that time in complete agreement on this point. Thus, Calvinhac, while speaking of the State, expressed himself in the following terms: “Very well! We shall learn to deal with this element the same way we shall deal with the bourgeoisie, whose position of unconditional support for the government is notorious. It is our enemy and only intervenes in our problems to impose regulations, and it can be taken for granted that these regulations are always crafted for the benefit of the rulers. We only demand complete freedom and we shall successfully realize our dreams when we are fully determined to manage our problems ourselves.”

The congress also debated and, of course, approved a resolution already passed at the Paris congress concerning the direct representation of the proletariat in the government electoral bodies. But we should also take a moment to listen to delegate Ballivet, of the Lyon mechanics, who eloquently spoke against the participation of revolutionaries in political elections. “For us,” he said, “the question must be posed in the following terms: Is proletarian representation in our legislative assemblies an advantage, or a disadvantage? To such a question, we clearly respond: the proletariat would only obtain illusory advantages and only apparent results from such representation, which would imply very serious disadvantages. Among those socialists who advocate proletarian representation in parliament ... the most deluded expect to legally conquer the majority in our political assembly. Once they get their hands on the government apparatus, they count on making it work on behalf of the workers, even though it has to this day always worked against them.”

“Some nourish more modest hopes. They hope to insinuate into the assemblies a minority of deputies strong enough to extract some material improvements in the workers conditions from the bourgeois majority, or some new political rights which would allow them to carry out their work of emancipation with a greater likelihood of success. Those who possess more experience in the use of such tactics, the German socialists, for example, no longer believe in the conquest of political power by way of the electoral process. The adoption of this tactic (workers candidates) is proposed solely in order to obtain propagandistic and organizational goals. We shall refute, one after another, every argument of the various categories of advocates of the direct representation of the proletariat in parliament....”

“How could it be that, here in France, we allow ourselves to be swayed by the absurd illusion that the bourgeoisie would contemplate, with folded arms, and with the greatest respect for legality, their own expropriation by legal means?.... The day that the workers so much as hint at the possibility of touching their privileges, there will be no law that the bourgeoisie will not break, no electoral process they will not manipulate, no prisons they will not fill, no proscriptions they will not organize, no executions they will not carry out.”

“The hope formulated by other socialists of insinuating a minority of deputies into the legislative assembly strong enough to obtain some concessions is equally illusory. This minority, due to the very fact of being a minority, will not be able to do anything on its own. It will be compelled to forge alliances with bourgeois parliamentary fractions.... Nonetheless, you will say, certain political reforms like freedom of association and assembly could hasten our emancipation, and if the deputies we send to parliament achieve only these two reforms, it might be said that it was worth the trouble to send them. Is it really necessary to send some of us to parliament in order to obtain these freedoms? Would not the republican bourgeoisie perhaps have the same interest in conceding these freedoms to us when we demand them?.... Such weapons, which are effective in their hands, become completely useless in ours. Freedom of the press! But of what value is the right to do something if you lack the means to do it? Freedom of assembly! So we can listen to orators speaking the fine words authorized for us by the bourgeoisie? Freedom of association! To associate poverty with poverty can only add up to poverty. Such freedoms, citizens, will be the consequence rather than the cause of our emancipation....”

“Some members of the socialist camp are well-enough acquainted with the bourgeoisie to know that no serious reform can be obtained by the legal route, but nonetheless argue that ‘workers participation in the elections would grant us an excellent means of propaganda....’ We maintain that direct representation would not grant the workers a good means of propaganda, and that if it could lead to the formation of a numerous party, it would also lead to the formation of a party without real organization or force. When one speaks of propaganda it is necessary to clarify two things: first, which principles you want to propagate, and then whether the means you have chosen are sufficient to achieve the proposed goal.”

“... Do we not, perhaps, know that the real cause of our present poverty resides in the accumulation of all social wealth in the hands of a few? And do we not, perhaps, want to put an end to this state of affairs by replacing the individual form of appropriation with the collective mode of production?.... Do we not also know that what upholds this economic injustice is the centralized political organization, in other words, the State, and that we must therefore proclaim ourselves antiauthoritarian and anti-state?”

“The two principles which must therefore be disseminated by our propaganda are collective property and the complete rejection of the State. Now, during an electoral campaign not a word concerning these topics escapes anyone’s mouth. During a campaign what is of the utmost importance is getting your candidate elected.... What, therefore, remains in electoral programs? Formal grandiloquence and a basically innocuous radicalism....”

“But, you will say, once elected, the workers delegate will put his program into action by taking advantage of the influence of the French tribune, and his message will be disseminated thousands of times in all the newspapers, thus reaching a vast audience. Another error! The moment a workers deputy shows his face at the tribune, he will be the object of objections, of rude interruptions of every kind.... But the newspapers would reproduce his interventions? Yes, all the newspapers of the bourgeoisie will falsify them and will circulate their caricatures. Only the socialist papers will publish his speeches in full, and in this case, this speech by a deputy whose election cost thousands of francs from the slender wallets of the workers would possess neither greater nor lesser importance than a normal article which could have been composed and printed at less expense and without so many sacrifices.”

“We admit that by making the radicalism of our program as inconspicuous as possible ... we could build in France, as they have in Germany, a large party; but the day we make ourselves dangerous in the eyes of the bourgeoisie ... will see the violent, brutal and illegal intervention of the bourgeoisie, and in that event will this large party also be a strong party, capable of resistance? We think not, and we must say this frankly. When an instrument has been constructed for one end, it is not possible to demand that it fulfill another one. This party constructed for electoral action will only have electoral machinery. Its soldiers will be voters and its leaders will be lawyers. This will allow it to give birth to the heroes and the martyrs who will give their lives for their legal rights. But this completely peaceful and legal army will not possess the organization it will need to resist the violence of the State’s armies....”

The effect produced by this speech was so great that the organizing committee of the congress threatened to deny the right to speak to anyone who would henceforth speak of collectivism. And from that moment on, nothing subversive was said again at the congress until it voted on its final resolutions and rejected a proposal by Dupire and Ballivet calling for the collective appropriation of the soil and of the instruments of production.

Finally, we shall conclude our narrative of the congress of Lyon by adding that while the congress did consider the question of legislation concerning the trade unions, its deliberations had nothing in common with the proposal mentioned above.