The Labour Movement in France (1909)


Syndicalist and anti-militarist wings brought to declare for political action

Translated from Proletarii (Russian) by J. Kresswell and adapted from the Weekly People (New York), Socialist Standard (London), August and September 1909.

The late October, 1908, convention of the United Socialist Party and the General Confederation of Labor in France will undoubtedly serve as the turning point in the history of the French labor movement. The vacillating course and the somersaults, from « opportunistic » Socialism to « revolutionary anarcho-syndicalism » are destined to be relics of the past.

The tactics of the French proletariat are becoming more and more similar to those of Germany, Austria and Scandinavia.

By attaching the « Socialist » Millerand to the Cabinet of the clever and masterful Waldeck-Rousseau, the French bourgeoisie succeeded in temporarily breaking down the ranks of the labor organisations. At the head of the General Confederation of Labor at that time, went the reformers of the English trade unionist type, among whom were active adherents of Jaurès’ theory of the co-operation of the classes. Geraud, the then secretary of the Confederation, used to support in the Federation Millerand, who opened wide the treasury of the ministry of Commerce to the labor syndicates. In those days the Confederation used to give banquets in honor of Millerand, and radical municipalities used to give to labor unions free lyceums and pecuniary subsidies. Consequently the demoralisation of labor organisations became so great that nothing better seemed to remain to honest Socialists but to join the anarcho-syndicalists in their conflict with the reformers.

In Bourges the anarcho-syndicalists, thanks to the active co-operation of the Guesdists trade unions, captured temporarily the G.C. of L. and became the moving spirits in theory and practice in the French labor movement. The reformers also prepared a fine field for anarcho-syndicalists. The hostility to political action which seized the laboring masses in the rising period of neo-syndicalism, appears only as a just reaction to the excesses of the parliamentary tactics. Only four years have passed since « revolutionary » syndicalism triumphed, yet it is now passing. We limit ourselves to a short review of the evolution this syndicalism has gone through in this time.

Arming themselves at Bourges with a complete arsenal of revolutionary phrases, our syndicalists imagined that we were on the eve of the grand sunset of the capitalist world. In their inflamed imagination the first important strike became almost. the beginning of the Social Revolution, The words  » general strike » became a sacred commandment on their lips. The Paris Convention of 1901 even decided to form a special committee to prepare for such a strike, and the syndicalists were convinced that the day when the working class would go on strike would be the last of he bourgeois regime. Syndicalisls taught the workers that high dues, rich union treasuries and numerous syndicates lead to narrow English unionism only, that strikes must always be hastily improvised, and to prepare for them long is necessary. The general laboring masses they considered cowardly and apathetic, and they assigned the principal role to an active and energetic minority. These agitators being in most cases at the head of syndicates in embryo, acted with surprising self-assurance, and the unsuccessful outcome of strikes never worried them. Strikes in their eyes always served as « revolutionary gymnastics. »

With such views the syndicalists prepared themselves for the first decisive battle, which they were to give to « capital  » on May 1st., 1906, in order to gain the eight hour day. Their impressive revolutionary proclamations and the previously raised line and cry momentarily scared the French bourgeoisie. The radical ministry concentrated in proletarian centres enormous military forces. The French workingmen, without a sou in their union treasuries, without strong syndicates, temporarily influenced by the revolutionary phraseology of the demagogues, stumbled not only over the more perfectly organised capital, but also upon the government’s army. The result was the complete defeat of the workers. A great number of unions became almost wholly demoralised and disbanded. Others lost considerable of their membership— the metal workers, for instance, more than a third. The federation of pressmen, whose caution the syndicalists ridiculed and condemned, was the only one to carry on a successful struggle. This union succeeded in gaining a nine-hour day in a considerable part of France. How powerful was the blow delivered to the working class by this inflated first of May movement may be judged from the fact that the number of successful strikes for this year reached only 7 per cent., while the average for the previous ten years was 14 per cent. The Confederation of Labor, which, according to Pouget, had 250 thousand members in 1903, had at the convention of Amiens four years later only 203 thousand.

Far poorer results were shown from syndicalist practice the last two years, which even the revolutionary leaders, Pouget and Griffenlhes confess. At the same time the bourgeoisie had not remained idle. During one year the numbers in employers’ associations increased from 268 thousand to 315 thousand, a gain of 15 per cent. A more rapid progress is shown in the class-conscious organisation of capital in 1907. In the metallurgical, electrical, automobile, glass and chemical industries a series of trusts were formed almost embracing all the national industries. The league of merchants and storekeepers alone, which was shortly formed to combat the Sunday rest idea, counts l00 thousand members. To these well organised forces of capital the Confederation of Labor proposed to give battle with the small undisciplined and provisionless army, composing only 21 per cent, of France’s working population, and only one-third of the organised labor of the land.

The revolutionary syndicalists, who during six years held noisy harangues about a general strike, understood the necessity of large and powerful organisations, when their attempt to call a general strike during the May agitation and the events at Draveil-Vigneux resulted in complete defeat. These events conclusively proved that their practical influence upon organised labor was absolutely nil. Pouget, the real head of the revolutionary syndicalists, wrote at the end of June in the Voice of the People: « Unfortunately it must be acknowledged that if the idea of the general strike has made great theoretical gains in France, in practice we are behind even the Italian proletariat. The cause of this appears to be the state of illusion of the workers. To the practical syndicalists the lessons of the past have not been in vain, many of them have found out the errors of the past. » Griffeulhes, sec. of the Confederation, confessed to the editor of L’Humanité that the empty revolutionary phraseology scared away the laboring masses, especially in the provinces, and instilled distrust in the trade unions. He added that what was wanted was less noise and more organisation work. Luke, the temporary secretary of the Confederation, wrote still more moderately « What the proletariat wants are real results, i.e., real reforms. And it has come to the conclusion that for the realisation and preservation of such reforms strong organisations are absolutely necessary. »

The same revolutionary experience has been made by other « revolutionary » syndicates. They have lost the sarcastic and nagging tone in which they used to attack contemporary class-conscious proletarian organisations of Western Europe. As a result the majority of the trade unions established high membership dues. Their contempt for the necessity of numerous and powerful syndicates has vanished and such hot heads as the secretary of the metal workers’ union, advises the workers to carefully prepare for each strike and to survey the field of battle beforehand. A few ultra-syndicalists still pin their faith to  » revolutionary manoeuvres ». But from the debates at Marseilles it is clearly seen how quickly the French proletariat is freeing itself from the guardianship of neo-syndicalism.

In those debates no mention was ever made of a general strike. The responsibility for the August 3rd events was by all present placed upon the government’s shoulders, but if the whole administration of the Confederation had not at that moment been behind prison bars, the « prehistoric » tactics of the « revolutionary » syndicalists would have been severely condemned there and then.

Latopy, another secretary of the metal worker’s union and a good « revolutionary » syndicalist, expressed himself thusly : « I would like to know whether we will continue to pass resolutions, which in the future we are unable to carry out or defend. … I would that henceforth we shouldn’t enter the battlefield for the pleasure and vanity of a few leaders, who themselves remain in the security of their homes. » This arrow was intended for the theoreticians and a few of the remaining supporters of syndicalism.

The syndicalists had to beat a retreat, as well in questions of anti-militarism and of the international trades union secretariat. At Amiens the syndicalists voted for the ultra-revolutionary resolution of Yvetot, binding them to carry on a strong anti-militarist and « anti-patriotic » propaganda, and at Marseilles, Merrheim, the prime mover of this resolution, brought forth another, in which there was not a word about « anti-militarism » or « anti-patriotism. » At Amiens the Confederation resolved to participate in the international conferences of trades union secretaries only under the condition that « anti-militarism » and the « general strike » should be deliberated. At Marseilles they were satisfied with a very moderate request: the international secretariat to be required to put on the order of the day the question of call for the convention of the international trades unions.

It is true that the « revolutionary » syndicalists have as yet preserved their majority in the central organisations, but this is because of the peculiar mode of representation at conventions, where every section of the syndicate has one vote, no matter what its numerical strength. Thus the produce union with 3 thousand members had 39 votes at Marseilles, while the miners’ union, numbering 30 thousand, had only 35. The weaker unions occupied in small production, were in fact rulers of these conventions. This is the real reason of the neglect of the majority of organised labor to obey the resolutions passed by a fictitious majority of delegates. No wonder the « revolutionary » syndicalists oppose with might and main a more just and proportional representation, for on the day of such realisation there will appear, at the head of those organisations, pure and simple reformers instead of reformers turned inside-out.

At Lyons, where the question of proportional representation was first raised, only five per cent. of the delegates present were in favour. At Montpelier this number rose to sixteen per cent., at Bourges to twenty-six per cent., and at Marseilles to thirty-four per cent., which, according to the minutest calculations, represents 160 thousand workers out of the total 170 in the Confederation. In fact, even now the majority of the trades unions, those who consider themselves « revolutionary, » do not in their practice differ from the reformers.

The two currents, considering the broad mass of organised labour, not the few secretaries of unions, are approaching ever nearer. The first are gradually freeing themselves from the excess of revolutionary phraseology, the second from the simple naive faith in the possibility of obtaining social reforms with the help of the « middle class. » Between them every obscurity in the methods of struggle against capital is clarified.

With the consolidation of bourgeois parties now forming in France follows the consolidation of the class-organisations of the proletariat. The class-conscious elements of the French working class in the Confederation as well as in the United Socialist Party have at their Congresses in Toulouse and Marseilles demonstrated that they have realised the necessity of a thorough development of proletarian organisation. This is the watchword uniting all those in France who are guarding the interests of the working-class. This circumstance will not fail to reflect itself on the relations between the United Socialist Party and the trade unions. Mistrust and hostility toward political action are gradually waning, and the time is near when the political and economic organisations will go hand in hand in the struggle against the existing order.

I know those readers who take the « revolutionary » phraseology of the syndicalists to be the real sentiment of the French workers will accuse us of being optimists, but the near future will verify our view ; the relentless logic of capitalist development will compel the protagonists of French « prehistoric » neo-syndicalism to recant their methods, as it has compelled numerous honest adherents of another « prehistoric » means— ministerial Socialists—to confess the blunders and errors committed by them.

A significant role has of late been played by the complete bankruptcy of the petty bourgeois democracy, which has proved as reactionary a defender of the middle and upper capitalist class as the Second Empire. Finding itself in the opposition ranks during the establishment of the Third Republic, it promised golden conditions to the proletariat for its help in capturing political power. And with their democratic phrases, their « We have no enemies on the left, » sentiments with which the Radicals and Radical-Socialists have unceasingly come forth in labour assemblies and the Press, they actually succeeded in persuading a considerable part of the working class. But once in power all democratic illusions have vanished like smoke. Six years have passed since they became the absolute rulers of the nation, and of all the promises on their program they fulfilled only the one, which they earlier only darkly hinted at: the defence of the interests of capital. Instead of abolition of the Senate, aged workers’ insurance law, and abolition of military courts, French bourgeois democracy, in the person of its most brilliant and clever representative, Clemenceau, has repaid the working class for its sacrifices in conquering political power with 25 killed (during conflicts between capital and labor), 300 wounded, 312 discharged for their convictions, and sentences amounting to 140 years in prison. This is the balance of the Radical era of the last two and a half years !

This policy of the radical majority helped considerably the convention, Oct 14-18,of the United Socialist Party in solving the momentous problem of French Socialism, namely, to rend asunder those slight threads which held together a part of the Radicals and Socialists. It thereby helped to establish the class-conscious, revolutionary character of the party. Four sections, differing in their tactical views, met at the convention : Jauresists, Guesdists, Herveists and syndicalists.

The first, encouraged by the latest Bavarian events in the ranks of the German Social Democracy, and by the enticements of a small section of Radical-Socialists who agitated against Clemenceau in Parliament had grandiose plans before the convention. Their representatives, Warren, Ruy-Alex, and Breton, intended to pass a resolution binding Socialists to sacredly preserve at the elections « republican discipline. » But when they appeared at the convention and became acquainted with the sentiment of the delegates they got cold feet. The adherents for the organisation of a blockade in conjunction with the Radicals were swallowed up as if by an earthquake. To all present it was self-evident that this was the result of past deeds, and only Breton, who expected to be expelled the party for past sins, dared defend the above measure. Foreseeing defeat, our « Opportunists » hastened to carry the wrangle over to another platitude. Instead of disputing about tactics they insisted on the importance of reforms, and in thus changing the subject, and in their failure to defend their former views in tactics, they revealed their mental bankruptcy. Only after the dear lesson of the events of the last two years, was a confession wrung from their leader, Jaurès, that a Socialist party should have no affiliations with any bourgeois party. True, they have not yet lost all their illusions ; they still hope the Radicals will come to their senses or will split in two, one part of which will unite with the « alliance républicaine, » the representative of militant capitalism, and the other part with Combe and Pelton at their head, fight side by side with the Socialists for social reforms.

But these illusions are harmless, at least at present, because nobody in the Radical party evinces any dissatisfaction with the policy of the Radical majority controlling Parliament, except a dozen or so Radical-Socialist deputies who fear defeat at the elections without the help of Socialist votes.

The struggle with the Opportunists at the convention, therefore, was brief and unimportant. It was interesting only in that the Blanquists were the first to show themselves in the speech of their representative, Tanger, in favour of the old reformers, as they in reality are, but shield themselves with revolutionary phraseology.

Far more important to the Party was the struggle at the convention with the Herveists and anarcho-Socialists, which reminds one of the struggle against the young Socialists from Berlin at the convention of the German Social Democracy at Halle. Establishing the paper La Guerre Sociale as their centre, the Herveists made it their principal duty to discredit the political activity by haranguing on street corners of its complete uselessness. During elections many of them carried on an anti-political agitation. « Revolutionary » phrasemongery reached, with them, the comical stage. They always cursed everybody and everything. The French working-class, in their eyes, were a set of miserable cowards, because at the demonstration arranged by the fantastic Hervé at Longchamps during a military parade, there appeared only a hundred men. Their inflamed imagination daily pictured grand catastrophes. They charged the Confederation with sinking deeper in the mire of English trades unionism. The Socialist Party to them was only a ground for career seekers, and they were seriously convinced that their mission in life was to keep the fires of the Revolution burning, which would go out with their disappearance from this earth. At other times they did not neglect to appear as candidates for election, especially when chances of success were bright—and this by the very men who yesterday treated political activity as nonsense !

Furthermore, these very men who repeated what Friedeborg in Germany and Domela Nieuwenhuis in Holland, said before more force fully and eloquently, imagined that they were expounding a new found truth, and bravely repaired to the Toulouse convention, hoping that the opportunistic majority would, as at Nantes, unite anew with them in carrying a compromising resolution about anti-militarism. And this they wished to accomplish for the purpose of showing that they were of some importance in the party.

But at the convention an unexpected grouping of factious formed. To the Guesdists, who led the attack on the Herveists, came the Jauresists, whom the comradeship of Anarcho-syndicalists was compromising. To the Herveists this was so unexpected that they were completely routed, and didn’t even open their mouths in their own defence. Their representative, Jobert, found it imperative after the convention, to write to La Guerre Sociale: « We have not only lost our battle, but we didn’t even fight. » When they saw at the congress that there was a majority sufficient to expel them from the party they cried « mea culpa, mea culpa, » and hastened to beat a retreat from their theoretical positions so precipitately that they lost all their theoretical baggage.

In the committee another of their representatives, Bruckère, gave this pledge: Henceforth they would cease their attacks in their Press on the political activity of the party. In order to emphasise their promise they declared through the same Bruckère, that they would not work against political action. They voted unanimously only for the party resolution which ends with the following : « It is the imperative duty of every Socialist to strive for the augmentation of the parliamentary forces of Socialism through the ballot. »

No mention is necessary of the syndicalists. Only Lagardelle rose in their defence, and even he confessed that the proletariat is always in need of political liberty in its economic struggles.

The congress of Toulouse is, therefore, destined to play an important role in the history of French Socialism. The Opportunists, as well as the Anarcho-syndicalists, were given to understand by the representatives of the class-conscious French proletariat that it is the firm intention of the latter to put an end to all kinds of confusion, whether of a revisionist or anarchistic type. From the start this congress declared that the Socialist Party is a party of social revolution striving for the capture of political power for the liberation of the proletariat. If we stand for reforms, continues the congress in its declaration, if we point to the utility and necessity of such, and their limits which they cannot overstep in capitalist society, it is only to show the proletarian that reforms are insufficient, and that with the abolition of private property only will the proletariat completely reconstruct life. But, added the congress, only organisation and propaganda ; only the more intense work of developing the political and economic organisations of the proletariat; only the unceasing propaganda of the Socialist ideal are the necessary elements for the social revolution.

The idea of a gradual, peaceful establishing of Socialism in France has suffered a fiasco. This was reflected in the speeches of all the orators, including Jaurès, who chanted a five-hour panegyric to the reformers. All except Breton and Warren, were forced to the conclusion that with the use of its own forces, with their own political and economic powers, would the proletariat gain partial and final and complete control.

The anarcho-syndicalists were given this notice by the congress : Retire, or recognise the necessity of the political struggle in all its forms. We do not refuse any single method of struggle, including even open rebellion. We have just the same right to use it as the bourgeoisie of 1789. We are only against toy revolutions, and we should not mix grand mass movements with petty conflicts which the proletariat may have with all the forces of the state. The proletariat grows and frees itself with the untrammelled, collective and organised pressure on the contemporary state and capital.

With this declaration the Toulouse congress has made giant strides toward revolutionary Social Democracy, and we Marxists are bound to feel gratified. If there are a few obscure expressions in that declaration which are likely to give the bourgeois Press (especially in those countries where revisionism is only potential) a chance to discover bacilli of reformism, one thing at least is certain, that the spirit of that declaration on the whole is Marxism.

Reformism and anarcho-syndicalism now lose the strongest position which they have occupied and the efforts of Lafargue and Guesde begin to bear fruit. The labour movement of France strikes the right direction. Thanks to the specific form of development of French capitalism, which often had to emigrate abroad to find a field of usefulness; thanks to the comparative poverty of the country in minerals, such as coal and iron, which are the foremost factors in 19th century industry, French capital was mainly usurious. Class contrasts could not be so sharp. Only the revolution made by electricity gave a strong impetus to capitalist activity. The revolution of minds follows. Faith in bourgeois democracy is destroyed even in the most backward spheres of the working masses, and the class-conscious spheres are speedily recovering from the charms of the mystification of parliamentary inactivity on the one hand, and from anarcho-syndicalism on the other.


Speakers from the C.G.T. at the Meru strike (1909)

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