The French strike: impressions of a man on the spot

The present unrest among the French wage-workers, as with the increasingly bitter struggle for more wages in other countries, has been quickened by the general increase in the cost of living. In Value, Price and Profit, the then prevailing  Continental labour troubles were mentioned as being largely due to the depreciation of gold, and the endeavour of wage-workers to increase their wages in compensation for the reduced purchasing power of money. A similar thing is happening to-day, owing to labour-saving devices on the South African gold fields having rendered the ounce of gold the equivalent of a smaller amount of labour than formerly.

For a considerable time the railway workers, especially, have been in ferment. Many meetings have been held, and innumerable resolutions passed. The chief of their demands were (and are) the establishment of a minimum wage of 5 francs (barely 4s.) a day –  a large number of them receive, in fact, as little as 5Frs. 75 (3s) per day! The whole of their modest demands, and their entire procedure, were distinctly professional in character, despite the lying statements of the renegade Briand that it is a political insurrectional movement. Many thousands of arrests have been made, nevertheless, and terms of imprisonment have fairly rained upon the unfortunate strikers. As a somewhat amusing illustration of the state of mind of the ruling class I quote the following incident from the police news of the paper Le Journal (Oct 18th).

“A prosecution was instituted by the prosecuting magistrates at the eighth chambre correctionelle (police court) against an unfortunate Paul Boiblé, for carrying prohibited arms – a corkscrew.
“‘If it was not an arm, what was the use of it to you?’ asked Presiding Judge Flory of the accused.
“‘Why, mon président’, replied the latter, ‘to uncork bottles’!”

The novelty of this use for a corkscrew apparently flabbergasted the judge, for the accused was actually acquitted. The great majority, however, were not so fortunate.

It is characteristic of this republic of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” that every movement of the workers for an increase in wage or a reduction in hours is declared insurrectionary in order to provide excuse for brutal repression. This is one of the reasons that the General Labour Confederation is given a revolutionary character that it does not really possess. At the same time, however, the purely economic movement is led at least to attack the minister (Briand in this case) who is most active against it. No doubt a very determined attempt will be made when Parliament assembles to secure the downfall of Briand and Millerand. Another cause of misrepresentation among “Industrial Unionists”, is the fact that in France any strike for purely economic demands that embraces more than one section or establishment is dignified by the name of “General Strike”, though it has nothing in common with what is implied by the English term “General Strike”.

In spite of the agitation among the railway workers during the summer, the Central Strike Committee which was formed hesitated to give the signal to strike owing to the unreadiness of the P.L.M. and Eastern lines, and to poor organisation generally. But the Northern company hastened matters by precipitating a strike on one of its depôts (which the men deliberately abandoned in order to be ready for the greater movement) and later by dismissing Toffin, the president of the Drivers’ and Firemen’s Federation. A strike of the whole Northern system was then declared and acted upon without the order of the Central Committee. This was followed by the strike of the Western (State) railwaymen, and by the declaration of a “General Strike” by the Committee. Unfortunately, however, the strike was only partial on the remaining systems, and discouragement set in from the start.

The Radical Government, in their desire to serve their paymasters, added fuel to the conflagration by arbitrarily arresting ten of the men’s officials. At the same time the Electricians of Paris came out, and were rapidly replaced by detachments of the Engineers Corps. At the time of writing most of the important generating stations around Paris are still being worked with the aid of soldiers. A “General Strike” in the building trade of Paris was also declared, but on learning of the resumption of work on the railways to-day the men in this trade also decided to return to work. In each of these cases the discontent had gradually been coming to a climax. All of them put forward definite economic demands, and none started with any defined political motive, notwithstanding the absurdities published by the Press. It was simply considered that the strike on the railways provided the opportune moment.

Despite the lies of subsidised journals the strike on the North and West lines was no fiasco. It was to a very large extent effective, though the work of the railways in difficulties was lightened by the reluctance of travellers to avail themselves of the few “expresses” then running and between three and twenty four hours late. The ordinary slow goods traffic was completely at a standstill, and suburban ticket holders are clamouring for compensation for their continued losses in to-day’s papers.

The trump card of the Government has been the railway mobilisation order, in imitation of the Italian example. Nevertheless this did not give quite the result the exploiters hoped, probably because the French law had to be broken in order to mobilise the railway men.

During the agitation this summer the capitalist class were busy preparing measures to crush the strike that was threatened, and La Guerre Sociale, a sensational “direct action” sheet, having guessed that some attempt to mobilise the railway workers might be tried, proceeded to turn a more or less honest penny by reproducing an ordinary mobilisation call for 28 days, filled out ready to be sent to a railway worker, and which it claimed to have obtained clandestinely from the Ministry of War. As I already knew that railwaymen were legally exempted from the ordinary short term mobilisation calls except in time of war, I suspected the enterprising journal of “trying its arm” once more. Indeed, such an order would be useless to the Government in a railway strike, firstly because railway workers are legally and specially exempted; secondly because it allows a delay of 15 days before submission; thirdly because it instructs the men to join their corps (usually at a great distance) at a time when transport is unobtainable, and when they are required, not with their corps, but at their usual place of work! Surely enough, on July 6th a decree was issued by the Ministry to provide for a special mobilisation in case of need, under which the men may be called upon to present themselves on the day following the issue of the order at their usual place of work to secure the running of the normal traffic of their section. Very different from the Guerre Sociale’s ridiculous version.

The railway workers have to a large extent ignored the mobilisation order on legal advice. It is claimed to be illegal because it has not been passed by Parliament, and because the law allows 15 days to elapse before insubordination occurs. Thousands of torn mobilisation orders have been addressed to the despicable Briand in reply to his lie that practically all the railway workers had responded to the mobilisation order. Only the blacklegs of the first day reappeared the day after with the mobilisation scarf on their arms, reinforced, however, by a number of half-hearted strikers glad of such a plausible excuse.

Nevertheless it cannot be denied that the use of the soldiery to guard and run trains, together with the mobilisation order and the lies of the Press, considerably discouraged the strikers, and the Central Strike Committee, realising the impossibility of victory, have decided on the day of writing, to return to work in good order. The strike has been a splendid demonstration and will doubtless not be entirely in vain. Few, in fact, expected the movement to assume the proportions it did; but weak organisation and lack of resources told their sad tale in a steady weakening of the strikers’ position.

The French proletariat have had another lesson in the supreme need for organisation. An active minority cannot be depended upon to carry the mass with it. Moreover, it is again made evident that control of the political machinery and forces, and their use (legally or not) by the capitalists, is the enemy’s strong position which must be captured at all costs.

The very prevalence of the propaganda of “sabotage” (the destruction of machinery and the precipitation of accidents) is evidence of a lack of sound organisation. In the present instance it has mainly the effect of lightening the traffic and difficulties of the companies, and strengthening their hands, while it provides the great excuse for repressive measures. As a means of securing a standstill upon the railway systems it is obviously an utterly ineffective substitute for sound organisation among railway workers. In other countries of Western Europe, indeed, the economic movement has already passed through a similar period of rudimentary organisation and tumult. Yet it is precisely countries like France, where the organisation of labour lags behind other countries, and where primitive organisation brings with it the inevitable corollary of “sabotage” and futile street fights, that are taken as having the most advanced forms of economic organisation, models that the Rip Van Winkles of “Industrial Unionism” in Great Britain try to imitate. Like the petty bourgeoisie, their ideals are behind them, and they think they are advancing when in reality they are walking backward.

(Socialist Standard, November 1910)

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