The Labor Movement in France


Translated from Proletary (Russian) by J. Kresswell and adapted from the Weekly People (New York).


The late October, 1908, convention of the United Socialist Party and the General Confederation of Labor in France will undoubtedly serve as a 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 Waldec-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 were the reformers of the English trade unionist type, among whom were active adherents of Jaures’ 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 complele 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. 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 the bourgeois regime. Syndicalists 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 unnecessary. 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 hue 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 Griffeulhes 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 18 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 shopkeepers alone, which was shortly formed to combat the Sunday rest idea, counts 100 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 27 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. cf the Confederation, confessed to the editor of L’Humanite 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 even 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 secuity 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, Marrheim, 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 ficticious 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.

(To be concluded)

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