A Page of History: the 1834 Canut Revolt in Lyon

Last year was the 180th anniversary of the 1834 Canut revolt in Lyon. Engels had described the earlier Canut revolt in 1831 as ‘the first working-class rising’ (Socialism: Utopian and Scientific) in the early years of the modern capitalist period. In October last year the OECD released its study How Was Life? Global Well-Being Since 1820 which concluded that ‘global income inequality has returned to levels recorded in the 1820s – when the Industrial Revolution produced sizeable wealth gaps between the rich and poor’ (Common Dreams, 2 October). This study was shortly followed by the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2014 which stated that ‘the richest 1 percent of the world’s population own more than 48 percent of global wealth’ (Guardian, 14 October).

It is said that modern capitalism was born in 1825 after Britain revoked its law against joint-stock companies (the 1720 Bubble Act), Britain had gone on the Gold Standard in 1821, the business cycle began, and the ‘Panic of 1825’ was the start of modern economic cycles and crises. It was the first international economic crisis occurring in peacetime.

Capitalism imprisoned the working class in either workhouses, the ‘bastilles of the proletariat’ or in the factory described by Marx as ‘The House of Terror… realised a few years later in the shape of a gigantic Workhouse for the industrial worker… called the Factory’ (Capital).The 1832 ‘Great’ Reform Act did not extend the franchise to the working class, and when on 16 October 1834 (180 years ago) the Palace of Westminster (House of Commons) burned down, the people cheered in the street.

In France at this time during Louis Philippe’s reign of 1830-48, a very small portion of the bourgeoisie ruled the kingdom, the July monarchy gave freedom to the industrial, commercial and financial bourgeoisie, enriching the bourgeoisie and attacking the working class who were attempting to organise themselves. Greed was at the heart of French capitalism typified in Prime Minister Guizot’s slogan ‘Enrichessez-vous’ (Enrich yourselves) from ‘Enrichissez-vous par le travail, par l’epargne et par la probit’ (Enrich yourselves by work, saving and probity’ (Liberty-Tree.ca), and artist Honoré Daumier caricatured the bourgeoisie perceiving the meanness and mediocrity of the bourgeois class. Marx pointed out that ‘the July monarchy was nothing other than a joint stock company for the exploitation of France’s national wealth’ (The Class Struggles in France) while republican Lamartine worried that ‘the proletarian question is one that will cause the terrible explosion in present-day society, if society and government decline to fathom and resolve it’ (War and Peace in an Age of Upheaval).

Silk Weavers

In Lyon, the second city of France, the main industry was textiles in particular the silk weaving industry which had begun in Lyon in the fifteenth century, and would become the capital of the European silk trade. By the middle of the seventeenth century over 14,000 looms were in use in Lyon spinning the silk from the silk worms in the mulberry trees grown in the departments of Drôme, Gard, Vaucluse, and Ardèche. By 1830 Lyon had a population of 133,000 people, of which 25 percent worked in the ‘Fabrique’. Silk and silk-related products accounted for half of Lyon’s total commercial income and a third of the value of all French exports.

The Lyonnais silk weavers were known as ‘Canuts’ which probably derives from ‘canette’, a spool used in silk weaving. The Canuts worked on huge Jacquard mechanical looms in poor working conditions largely in the Croix-Rousse neighbourhood. The Jacquard loom was introduced after 1801 and greatly benefited silk production although for the worker it was expensive and enormous: it needed its own building with extra high ceilings and reinforced floors. The Canut lived and worked in the same building as the loom, and the weaver bore the costs of maintaining the loom. There were about 8,000 chief weaving craftsmen (Canuts), and 30,000 apprentices, women, and errand boys who lived and worked with the Canuts, everybody working 14 to 18 hours a day in buildings lacking ventilation.

The Lyonnais bourgeois class of silk manufacturers and bankers were known as ‘fabricants’ and numbered about 1,400. They, through the ‘Fabrique’ governed the Lyonnais silk trade, and contracted with the Canuts for a specific order or per price. The Fabrique had a raft of anti-worker regulations such as in wage disputes, the employer’s word was taken without question while workers had to prove wrongdoing, and also associations (ie. trade unions) of more than 20 workers were prohibited. One hated regulation was that ‘each worker was required by law to carry a booklet called a ‘livret’, in which his or her employer kept notes on the terms of service, personal conduct, debts etc’ (Silk in Lyons Erika Budde). The Fabrique also wanted to abolish the professional requirements (apprenticeships) to be a ‘master weaver’ so anyone who could afford a loom could become one. The Canuts had a thriving working class culture with a great emphasis on education; ‘by the late 1700s, 70 percent of male silk workers were literate’ (Budde), and Lyon had two workers newspapers. Marx wrote that ‘the working-class, stunned at first by the noise and turmoil of the new system of production, recovered, in some measure, its senses, its resistance began’ (Capital).

In 1831 there was competition from imported English silk which led to price decreases, the economy was in a downturn, and the Canuts struggled to maintain an adequate standard of living. The Canuts wanted a minimum price for silk which was refused by the Lyonnais bourgeoisie. In October 1831 the Canuts seized the arsenal and repulsed the localNational Guard with a slogan of ‘vivre libre en travaillant ou mourir en combattant!’ (live free working or die fighting!). This was the first working class uprising in modern capitalism. The revolt was quickly suppressed by Napoleonic officer Marshal Soult with 20,000 soldiers, and with little bloodshed. Engels identified that ‘the class struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie came to the front’ (Socialism: Utopian and Scientific).

The Lyonnais bourgeoisie refused to set a tariff, a fixed minimum, statutory wage for the Canut silk weavers which they had during the Napoleonic Empire. In 1833-34 the Lyonnais silk industry was booming, and Canut wages had increased which led the Comte d’Argout, Governor of the Bank of France to write to the King: ‘the manufacture is in a state of simply fabulous prosperity’ (Guy Antonetti Louis-Philippe). The Lyonnais bourgeoisie sought to lower the wages of the Canuts which caused a general strike in Lyon in February 1834. The Canut leaders of employees’ benevolent associations such as Medailles de la Societe de Secours Mutuels des Ouvriers de Sole (Silkworkers Provident Society) were arrested and sent for trial in April.

Bloody repression

At the same time as the Canut leaders were on trial, the French parliament was discussing restrictions on republican groups, collective bargaining and the rights of association for workers. This anti-working class legislation was passed on 9 April 1834. On the same day the Canuts took over parts of Lyon, erecting barricades, raiding the barracks and taking arms from the arsenal. The National Guard were forced to evacuate the town. The Canuts adopted the French Republican Calendar, 9 April 1834 becoming Germinal 22, Year XLII of the Republic in homage to the 1789 great bourgeois French Revolution. This revolution did not solve the socio-economic problems facing the working class in France. The Canut revolt was not a political revolt but an economic one, at this time the franchise being limited to the bourgeois class.

The bourgeois class strategy under the leadership of Thiers, the Interior Minister, was to abandon Lyon to the Canut rebels, surround it and then retake it, a tactic again used by Thiers against the working class in the 1871 Paris Commune. Thiers was a resolute enemy of the working class, described eloquently by Marx as ‘that monstrous gnome, [who] has charmed the French bourgeoisie for almost half a century, because he is the most consummate intellectual expression of their own class corruption… consistent only in his greed for wealth and his hatred of the men that produce it’ (The Civil War in France). Thiers had Lyon subjected to artillery bombardment then had the army retake the town between 11 and 15 April during what became known as ‘sanglante semaine’ (bloody week). The Canut revolt was crushed with 600 workers, men, women and children killed by the army and police and 10,000 workers imprisoned or deported to the colonies.

The bourgeois class were just practising their revenge on the working class which would find fulfilment in the 1848 June Days in Paris when 10,000 workers were either killed or injured, while over 4,000 were deported to Algeria. All this pales compared to the suppression of the 1871 Paris Commune when 30,000 communards were killed by a vicious bourgeoisie. The capitalist class is ruthless when they feel threatened in their minority ownership of property and capital.

The Canut revolt of 1834 as the first major working class uprising in modern capitalism signifies that ‘philosophy finds its material weapon in the proletariat’ (Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right) but the lessons of the 1834 Canut revolt were not learned by the working class for several decades. Engels pointed out in a letter to Paul Lafargue of 11 March 1892 that ‘the era of barricades and street fighting has gone for good; if the military fight, resistance becomes madness.’

Engels on street fighting

Engels summarised the nineteenth century of working class street fighting in his 1895 Introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France: ‘rebellion in the old style, street fighting with barricades, which decided the issue everywhere up to 1848, had become largely outdated… everywhere the bourgeoisie had thrown in its lot with governments… and feasted the military moving against insurrection. The barricade had lost its magic; the soldier no longer saw behind it the ‘people’ but rebels, subversives, plunderers, levellers, the scum of society; the officer had in the course of time become versed in the tactical forms of street fighting, he no longer marched straight ahead and without cover against the improvised breastwork, but went round it through gardens, yards and houses.’

In the same essay Engels saw ‘with this successful utilization of universal suffrage, however, an entirely new method of proletarian struggle came into operation, and this method quickly took on a more tangible form’ with organised working class political parties such as the German Social Democratic Party, and from 1904 the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Since control of parliament is obtained via elections based on universal suffrage, a socialist majority can win control of the machinery of government and the state through winning a parliamentary majority via the ballot box. The state is the institution with the power to employ socially-sanctioned physical force, it is an expression of and enforcer of class society. On the eve of a socialist election victory, the working class would already be convinced of the need for socialism and would have organised themselves in parties, unions, councils and other bodies ready to keep production and administration going, and socialist ideas would also have penetrated into the armed forces. If die-hard capitalists attempted a coup against a socialist majority, the armed forces would tend to side with those who have the undisputed democratic legitimacy, ie. those who want socialism. Even anarchists concede that ‘the majority of military personnel are working class, and however indoctrinated they are, we doubt that they will be prepared on the whole to shoot down their friends, neighbours and relatives’ (Beyond Resistance).

As socialists we remember the working class struggles of yesteryear such as the Canut revolt of 1834. Slavoj Žižek paraphrasing Walter Benjamin says ‘the authentic revolution is not only directed towards the future but it redeems the past failed revolutions. All the ghosts as it were; the living dead of the past revolution, which are roaming around, unsatisfied will finally, find their home’ (The Perverts’ Guide to Ideology).


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