Some Lessons from the Paris Strike


The unfortunate end of the Paris postal strike is pregnant with meaning for the working class. It shows, in the first place, the stupidity or worse, of those who identify nationalisation with socialism. The Clarion folk repeatedly confuse their readers in this way. Blatchford does so in his “Britain for the British,” and the passage reappears at regular intervals in the Clarion. Now Suthers, also of the Clarion, again openly identifies the two opposites as one and the same thing on May 28th, in No. 48 of his “Points for Socialism.”

A Step toward Serfdom.

Yet the postal strike once more has shown that not only are the capitalists equally keen on exploiting the workers whether through private industry or through the State, which they control, but also that the spread of nationalisation may, while the capitalists are in power, spell a decrease in the economic and political liberties of the workers. Thus instead of nationalisation being a step towards Socialism it may well be a step toward serfdom. Nationalised industry cannot be Socialism until the workers are the masters of the State, otherwise it is but State exploitation. Hence the class struggle is extremely important. The concentration of industry by trust and State will go on whether the workers will it or not, so that the whole available energy of the workers is needed for the conquest of political power ; for then, and then only, can nationalisation be Socialism.

The failure of the Parisian postal employees has also illustrated the fact that on the economic field the capitalist class is becoming increasingly the stronger. Trade unions grow in numbers and federate ever more closely, but industry concentrates and capitalists combine even more quickly, and certainly with more economic power. Every year tells its tale of an increasing number of strikes decided against the toilers, and every year sees a worsening of labour conditions. Trade unions, to be effective, must comprise all workers who are willing to resist the encroachments of capital, and not, as some would have it, revolutionaries only. Conflict on the economic field is inevitable, nevertheless trade unionism can only be a brake on the downward trend of capitalist conditions.

The Folly of “Dlrect” Action.

Yet there are some who, because the politicians of the bourgeoisie do not work for working class interests, condemn even genuine working-class politics, and talk stupidly of “direct ” revolutionary action. In general these individuals have had no trade union experience, but have rushed from an anti-trade union attitude into the futile extreme of Industrialism. They preach working-class emancipation by means of a general strike that is to “take and hold” the means of production and overturn the capitalist State. This they call “direct action.”

The idea of replacing political methods by the r-r-revolutionarygeneral strike is in decline in every country in which it has lately been prominent. Such is the poverty of their cause that they are reduced to claiming all trade union activity as direct action, even when it has no political object whatever. Thus they try to make it appear that the critic of their anarchistic proposals condemns all economic action and is a blackleg !

When one compares the reserves of the possessing class with those of the propertyless, there can be no doubt which would issue victorious from such a strike. While the capitalists hold the entire organisation of the political State, command the armed forces and the stores of war, and are thus able to prevent the workers producing for themselves, who can deny that the proletariat would be speedily starved into submission ? The general strike (that is, a strike that is general) would be infinitely less effective as a means of overthrowing the State than a general lock-out prepared by the masters would be as a means of starving the workers into utter subjection.

Recent events in Paris give point to our contention, and hold lessons even more useful.

Some Fools Learn by Experience.

The Postal employees had apparently won their first strike. Entire satisfaction was to be granted them; Symian was to go ; their right to combine was conceded. One London neo-Anarchist cursed with an unhappy itch for scribbling, and a collosal ignorance of French Syndical affairs, claimed this as a victory for “direct action,” and cited it as vindicating the methods of the Anarchist clique who had controlled the French General Confederation. Yet the postal workers were in no way connected with the Confederation. Their organisation was not even a trade union, but merely an amicable association; and their action in striking against their insulting chief did not differ in essentials from any ordinary strike against their manager ; and finally, and unfortunately, their strike was not a victory at all. The French Radical Ministry had merely stepped back in order to jump further—they did not hold political power for nought The first strike of the ultra-respectable postal workers had been unexpected by the postal authorities. It caught them unprepared. This could not happen twice. Extensive preparations were now made. Men from the army and navy were ordered to be in readiness ; they were coached in their coming duties and familiarised with the necessary apparatus. Everyone saw that a conflict was coming. The General Confederation asserted that the postal workers would, next time, be, backed by the whole force of the Confederation. But, the Capitalists showed how little they fear the general strike, by deliberately forcing the struggle on. The ambiguous promises of the Ministry were broken. The detestable Symian was retained. Men who had taken part in the previous strike were prosecuted for their political utterances.

The Masters Wanted the Strike.

That the second strike was deliberately provoked by the Administration is admitted in the C.G.T. manifesto which avowed the collapse of the general strike. Pressed beyond endurance the postal workers came out, but from the first their defeat was certain. Soldiers and sailors replaced strikers. The Chambers of Commerce organised sorting offices, and but little perturbation was noticeable in the services. The strikers went back in batches, and when nearly all but those dismissed had gone back an urgent appeal was made to the trade unions for a strike in aid, in order to encourage the postal employees to make a stand and to force the Government to yield. Then occurred the fiasco which exposed the hollowness of the “direct action” bluff that has hitherto characterised the French labour movement. The experience of the past few years had shown the weakness of the French trade union movement with its small numbers, lack of funds, and loose organisaton, and demonstrated the futility of the Anarchist idea that an active minorily can carry with it an inert mass. Fatuous Anarchist gymnastics had jaded the workers into apathy. Niel, to his credit, moderate though he may be, bravely opposed the “direct action” all through, but he was not listened to. A majority of his council had been talking wildly and bombastically at the various meetings that had been held. They had spoken of the “legions” of the Confederation awaiting the order to strike. The Government was to be hurled into the dust and the society of to-morrow was to be inaugurated. The hour of emancipation was at hand. Niel, therefore, had to bow to the majority, and loyally executed its decree, though he foresaw plainly the result. The general strike was declared. And the consequence was the fiasco of which the reader will have already heard. It gave a parting kick to the already defeated postal workers, and exposed the whole Syndicalist movement to the ridicule of the world. As Nicolet said at the Manège St. Paul demonstration, the navvies were practically the only ones to obey the call. The notorious Pataud, of the electricians, had definitely promised the support of his union, but nothing came of it. And so it was all round. The rank and file had got tried of gymnastics, and they refused to march, even for a worthy object, at the behest of their “leaders.” In view of this the postal employés resumed work at once, and the Confederation issued a manifesto stating that the strike had failed of its object and advising its adherents to resume also.

Socialists in no Quandary.

Naturally the leaders of the “direct action” campaign have, on the collapse of their policy, fallen to mutual recrimination, each blaming the other for the fatal result. But the Socialist is in no quandary as to causes. The Syndicalist policy could have had no other result. Apathy and disgust are the usual consequences of a false policy and false tactics when their falsity is discovered, and it is fortunate that the experience of the French workers, bitter though it may be, is awakening them to the worthlessness of Anarchistic “direct action.” For such a policy, if its falsity lie undiscovered, can lead the workers but to the shambles or starvation.

But they will not allow their fit of apathy to hold them long. They will draw the plain lessons from their experience. That they are already doing so is evident. The French trade union movement, though weak and fitful, is nevertheless making strides toward the sound, democratic class organisation that husbands its resources for effective resistance to capitalist encroachment. While the curse of the leader and the phrasemonger is got rid of as it can only be got rid of—by Socialist teaching ; for when the workers understand their true policy the leader, like Othello, will find his occupation gone. But the lesson, above all, that we as well as our French fellow workers must learn is the need for definitely Socialist action for the conquest of the powers of Government, for it is political power that keeps us in subjection.


(Socialist Standard, June 1909)

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