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Chapter 7 - The federal committee of the bourses du travail

Chapter Seven

The Federal Committee of the Bourses du Travail

The Federation of the Bourses du Travail is represented by a Committee whose office is located in Paris, which is composed of one delegate from each affiliated Bourse du Travail.

To qualify as a delegate of a Bourse du Travail one must be a member of a trade union, have the means and the free time necessary for the punctual execution of one’s mandate, and have demonstrated an interest in the development of the Bourses du Travail.

At first glance, it may seem surprising that one can be a member of the Committee or, which is the same thing, one can be called upon to administer the general interests of the Bourses du Travail, without actually being a member of a Bourse du Travail. This anomaly is explained by the fact that the Committee’s office is in Paris and that the European corporative organization functions excellently.

The Federation declares that there is no Bourse du Travail in Paris. According to the Federation, a Bourse du Travail can only be the general association of the trade unions of a city, which freely administers the funds and the properties placed at its disposal by the municipality. There is not, nor can there legally be, in the properties at the Rue du Château-d’Eau and the Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, any kind of trade union association which enjoys prerogatives of that kind. These properties are administered by, and the municipal subsidy1 is under the control of, the prefect of the Seine; furthermore, the association of trade unions formed when these properties were opened (1896) renounced the right to assume the name of the Paris Bourse du Travail.

These groups, known by the name of the “Trade Union Association of the Department of the Seine”, were, of course, admitted into the Paris Federation of Bourses du Travail, but there are two reasons that militated against the automatic designation of members of the “Seine Association” as delegates to the Committee. The first (since eliminated) was that the Association had its headquarters on the Rue du Chateau-d’Eau, and that the Parisian trade unions dissatisfied with having to refuse the expected hospitality, no longer wanted to be part of a group that had accepted it. The second reason is that the Association rejected all the illegally-formed trade unions and the Federation could not prevent excellent trade unions from participating in its labors, trade unions which were guilty only of holding a particular point of view on the laws of March 21, 1884.

This is why, the Committee having established its headquarters in Paris, it was enough for a person to have exhibited conduct which was clearly devoted to the development and activity of the Bourses du Travail.

Apparently, there were no rules concerning the recruitment of members of the Committee. Each delegate designated the trade union militants of his acquaintance who could represent a Bourse du Travail, and the secretary published a list of the names he had been given, which was sent to all the Bourses du Travail which did not have a representative or had just joined the Federation. As a result of certain accusations it was agreed at the Congress that it should be the secretary who should draw up, to the greatest extent of this abilities, the list of the candidates for delegates on the basis of their political affiliations, so that the Bourses du Travail, if they thought it would be appropriate, could elect representatives whose opinions matched those of the Bourses du Travail.

This, however, only ratified a very old tradition. Since certain members of the local Parisian council of the Federation of Trade Unions and Corporative Groups had tried, in 1894, with more or less legitimate methods, to take over a committee which was thought to be very important, the secretary, nominated in 1894, always strove to maintain a proportional representation of the various socialist views professed in the Committee and also tried to guarantee that each Bourse du Travail should have a representative who would reflect its point of view, so that the Committee would reflect as faithfully as possible the Federated Bourses du Travail which it represented.

Forty-eight Bourses joined the Federation.2 Most rejected any political affiliations and it is among their representatives that one must seek the authentic libertarians in the Bourses du Travail who, despite the reproaches of many socialist schools, have quietly made decisive contributions during the years covered by this history towards reigniting individual initiative and to the growth of the trade unions.

Three Bourses du Travail, whose members were to various degrees affiliated with the (Blanquist) revolutionary socialist party, are represented on the Federal Committee by members of the revolutionary socialist central committee.

Finally, a dozen Bourses du Travail, of the “Alemannist” tendency,3 are represented on the Federal Committee by members of the revolutionary socialist workers party.

No Bourse du Travail professes the theory held by the (Broussist) Federation of Socialist Workers. As for the five Bourses du Travail which are to one extent or another influenced by the policies of the “French Workers Party”, on the day that they realize that the headquarters of the Federal Committee will never be transferred to the provinces and that it will never therefore be subjected to their influence, they will abandon the Federation.

The Committee does not have its own office nor does it even have a president for its headquarters. A secretary handles any questions pending (this secretary is paid 1,200 francs per year),4 with the help of an adjunct secretary and an official treasurer. All its sessions begin with a reading of the previous session’s minutes as well as any correspondence; it then proceeds with a discussion of the problems raised in the correspondence or brought up on the agenda proposed by the delegates. No votes are held, except in the rare case when insoluble differences of opinion arise. The meetings are held twice a month and last from 9:00 p.m. to midnight.5

The abolition of the role of president and of the useless votes was adopted only after the libertarian delegates joined the Committee. Experience soon convinced the members that, among serious and objective men, there was no need for constant external discipline and surveillance, since everyone made it a question of honor to respect the principle of free debate and also (without for this reason abandoning any principles) maintaining the debates on a high level.

Between 1894 and 1896, the Bourses du Travail of Lyon, Grenoble and Toulon made every effort to denounce this “anarchistic” tendency and to get every Federal Congress to transfer the Committee, either to a city in the Provinces, or to the site of each year’s Congress.

What Homeric debates we held with our adversaries at the Congresses of Nîmes (1895) and Tours (1896) to prevent their proposals from being adopted! What delicacy we had to employ to save an already-threatened association, so as not to shatter a harmonious diplomacy!

“You cannot think about moving the Federal Committee to the provinces,” we stated, “because you will find that, no matter what provincial city you propose, it will be impossible to recruit the delegates needed to form it; it is not right, while the State concentrates its own means of defense, to disperse our forces, because it will always happen that, just when the outgoing members of your committee have mastered skills which are difficult to acquire, it will be necessary to find successors for them, who will have to undertake administrative training from the beginning.”

“We are,” we concluded, “undoubtedly federalists; undoubtedly, we must not cease to demand communal autonomy, the separation of powers, the reduction of central authority. So, should we also apply these demands to ourselves? Evidently not, unless we want to make ourselves the victims of our own errors. Joint efforts to weaken the exploiting class, to wrest from the central power some of its authority today, some of its jurisdiction tomorrow, a particular prerogative some other day: this is effectively our mission; but at the same time that we are working to weaken our enemy, to bring about the disintegration of governmental centralization, the proletariat must also work to concentrate its own force to continuously increase its chances of victory and to hasten the advent of the social transformation. Once the revolution is complete there will be no more State and centralization will therefore disappear.”

The supporters of transferring the headquarters of the Federal Committee responded that by participating in the administration of the affairs of the Federation the small cities would acquire the administrative abilities which they unfortunately lack, and that such a transfer of operations would free Paris from the accusation of keeping to itself all those who had gone there; and besides, they argued, the provinces had a certain number of flourishing Committees of trades federations, and that, finally, the decentralizers had the duty to experience, at least for one year, the organizational capabilities of the provinces.

The Bourses du Travail did not at all welcome these objections, first of all because they noticed that they were hardly sincere and were instead inspired by political passions, and also because they held ideas about the problem of centralization and federalism which were more practical than sentimental.

In effect, the Bourses du Travail are profoundly federalist, and would have certainly denounced the pact of federation had the Committee attempted to dictate what they had to do, or had imposed top-down solutions by attributing itself with legal powers, transforming itself, in a word, from the information and correspondence office that it was, into a ruling committee.

The Bourses du Travail have not only never authorized the Committee to do anything but carry out a preliminary study of issues of common interest (studies and issues in relation to which they reserved the ultimate right to accept or to reject the Committee’s conclusions) but they likewise considered their congresses only as centers where the instruments of discussion and work were forged. We could also cite cases where the Bourses du Travail rejected certain deliberations. Nonetheless, it will be understood that, in order to be of use, the Committee had to have its headquarters in Paris, and to keep it there so that this would not signify any kind of adherence to a centralizing policy but would be the result of the need to prevent the Committee from falling into the hands of a new political sect every year (which would definitely have taken place if the Committee had been transferred to the provinces), as well as to keep it in direct contact with the life of society, to keep the door open for it in respect to economic events, and to fortify it with the strength of the other corporative groups in Paris; in short, it has to be located where it can inform itself rapidly and accurately concerning all public events of any interest.

This is why the Bourses du Travail, when directly consulted on this question in 1897, vehemently reconfirmed the decision previously accepted at the Congresses of Tours and Nîmes. Since then, an annual debate on whether or not to transfer the Committee has no longer played any role in the agendas of the Federal Congresses.

Has the Committee taken unfair advantage of its victory? Its working methods can tell us.

All the Federal meetings, as we said above, are devoted to:

1. Questions posed by correspondence;

2. Proposals put forth by the Committee;

3. Proposals from the Bourses du Travail.

The questions posed by correspondence generally concern administrative procedures and are of minor importance, and it is rare for the Committee to purely and simply limit itself to approving what the secretary has elaborated.

But it sometimes happens that thorny questions of trade union doctrine as well as socialist principle will emerge from this source. For example: should itinerant peddlers or people who only occasionally work for wages, be accepted into a Bourse du Travail? Should someone who, for whatever reason, has left the trade union of their profession be admitted into another trade union on the pretext that there are workers from both trades in the same workshop, or, in other words, that the two trades work together in the manufacture of the same product? Should a militant whose profession does not have enough members to form a trade union nonetheless be allowed to be the secretary of a Bourse du Travail? Can a trade union devote a portion of its funds to the creation of a mutual aid service, despite the protest of a certain number of its members? One can observe how, on the one hand, such questions involve the principle of the class struggle, considered not as a dogma (the corporative organizations are not infected with theory and their empiricism, expressed in a few words, is equal to that of any other system and, furthermore, is as long-lasting and as precise as an almanac), but as a means of self-defense against the invasions of the petit-bourgeois socialists; finally, such questions are adopted to the structure of the trade union organization.

Of course, these problems were, as always, resolved in the most libertarian manner and the resolutions were distributed to the Bourses du Travail under the aegis of a purely informational mailing, leaving it to the judgment of each Bourse du Travail whether or not to implement the Committee’s resolutions, in the light of whether the arguments put forth by the latter seemed coherent or not.

The proposals of the other two categories are more important and demand not just assiduous study, but also on certain occasions extensive surveys. We saw, for example, how the Committee went about preparing to implement a project like the travelers aid service.

At the Congress of Tours (1897) a Bourse du Travail proposed that the Federal Committee be responsible for establishing a common travelers aid service for the federated Bourses du Travail, so that an unemployed worker from any trade would be able to find in every Bourse du Travail the moral and material accommodation which would protect the workers from the self-interested influences of the capitalist.

In order to bring its efforts to a good conclusion, the Committee began by investigating the bases upon which this travelers aid service was established and operated by the “Union compagnonnique du Tour-de-France”, “La Fédération française des Travailleurs du Livre” and the “Société générale des Chapeliers”. Then the Committee proceeded to compose a draft proposal which was submitted in 1898 to the Congress of Rennes. Despite arduous debate, the Congress, fearing the consequences of coming to a decision under great pressure, returned the proposal to the Committee for the purpose of printing it and immediately sending it to the Bourses du Travail. Today, the Bourses du Travail have made their wishes known: almost all of them accept the proposal, some would like to modify it, and only a few have resolutely declared that it would be impossible for them, due to a lack of resources, to take on the burden of a travelers aid service. It does not matter. Unlike what happens in other places, all the Bourses du Travail which accept the proposal are themselves responsible for establishing the ways and means of implementing it. And as for those which do not want to or cannot undertake immediate steps in that direction, no majority will violate their autonomy. Example alone, following the traditions of the Federation of the Bourses du Travail, leads them to develop their functions so as to join their predecessors on the terrain of solidarity, or to understand the usefulness of the viaticum.

The absence of collective despotism which characterizes the Federation is yet more vividly manifested in the projects established at the initiative of the Federal Committee.

Once the Federal Committee considered that the moment had arrived for undertaking special propaganda in the countryside, it sought to provide the Bourses du Travail with a kind of guide for forming agricultural trade unions which could be adapted to every particular locality. It therefore consulted the propagandists familiar with the life and customs of the peasants, in order to obtain from them the exact guidelines we have outlined above and to compose the model-statutes shown in the appendix [not included in the Spanish edition—Translator’s Note].

What meaning, then, do these statutes possess? Do they constitute a code for rural propaganda? In a sense, they do. They merely constitute, although at a highly advanced degree of elaboration, guidelines which the Bourses du Travail are authorized to use insofar as the circumstances of time and place allow.

Thus, the Bourses du Travail among themselves, and the Committee in its relations with the Bourses du Travail, are nothing but intermediaries that reciprocally offer one another the theoretical and practical means for their mutual development. The Bourses du Travail which are faltering or which are suddenly deprived of receiving their subsidies are assured of receiving the necessary grants to enable them to securely construct their own independent existence. The Bourse du Travail that needs to know the procedures employed and the results obtained in any field of propaganda or on any particular information pertaining to a certain region, receives the most complete satisfaction from the other Bourses du Travail or from the Federal Committee.

But it must be repeated that no information or guidelines contributed by the Committee or by the annual Congress have ever been considered to be obligatory. And it is undoubtedly to this freedom of inquiry and choice, to this kind of method, to this faculty exercised on the part of each Bourse du Travail in adapting to its environment, that the extraordinarily rapid growth of these institutions is due.

Despite what we have just said, and despite its efforts to collaborate in the spread of the Bourses du Travail, the Committee is in no position to render all the services which it may seem to be able to offer. On the one hand it lacks the resources needed to publish a newspaper, equipped with the corresponding editorial committee, which the Federation could of course expect; it also lacks the means to create a Museum of Social Economics, in which all the Bourses du Travail could be inspired to form their own sections and depict their professional training; and, finally, it lacks the means required to organize a circulating library with information on training, legislation and methods of propaganda.

Not having these various services at its disposal, the Federal Committee is currently only a slow and defective correspondence office, whose actual usefulness, perhaps, does not justify its expense. But it does have a future ahead of it and the labors it has carried out in the past allow us a glimpse of those which it might realize tomorrow.

  • 1. When it was still in effect, which is no longer the case at the time of this book’s publication, because the 110,000 francs credit granted to the Bourse du Travail was cancelled by the newly-elected majority of the municipal council (at the meeting held on December 29, 1900)—or, which is more precise and amounts to the same thing—the allocation was withdrawn from the administrative committee of the Bourse du Travail (Note added by Maurice Pelloutier).
  • 2. At the present time there are sixty-five. (Note added by Maurice Pelloutier).
  • 3. Named after Jean Allemane, the socialist deputy. At that time the socialists were divided into various currents, one of which was composed of the supporters of Allemane. Among the others were the Blanquists (supporters of Blanqui), the followers of Jules Guesde, and the Possibilists or “Broussists” (followers of Henri Brousse). (Note from the Italian edition). But let us refer to the following text for clarification:

    “These two groups (Allemanists and Blanquists), and especially the former, dominated the Paris Bourse du Travail after a brief period characterized by the supremacy of the moderate fraction of socialism, represented by the Federation of Socialist Workers, currently known as the “Possibilists” or the “Broussists”. It was this latter group which had been responsible for gradually leading an important group of workers who subscribed to the socialist ideology to the trade union ideology. The 1890 split, led by Allemane, was the origin of the formation of the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party. It is thus not so strange to see this man fervently advocating the general strike, the supremacy of trade unionism, and, in general, associating himself with a workerist ideology.”

    “In 1895, even before the opening of the Congress of Limoges, Fernand Pelloutier published the first of a series of articles in Les Temps Nouveaux, edited by Jean Grave, the official spokesperson of anarchism, devoted to an appeal to the anarchists to join the trade unions…. In the first article, which appeared on July 6, 1895 under the title The Current Situation of Socialism, Pelloutier maintained that the situation was characterized by progressive clarification and that very soon there would be only two socialist parties, the first Marxist and parliamentary, which would be composed of the Broussists, Guesdists and Blanquists, and the second revolutionary, composed of the Allemanists, the syndicalists, and the libertarian communists.” (Jacques Juillard, Fernand Pelloutier et les origins du syndicalisme d’action directe, pp. 120, 132; Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1971).

  • 4. After March 22, 1901, the date that Fernand Pelloutier was replaced, a permanent service was instituted in the Bourse du Travail central committee, whose officer, comrade Georges Yvetot, receives a daily salary of eight francs. (Note added by Maurice Pelloutier).
  • 5. After the Congress of Nice (September 17-21, 1901), the meetings were held only once a month, on the second Thursday of each month. (Note added by Maurice Pelloutier).