“French Syndicalism was born from the reaction of the proletariat against democracy” (H. Lagardelle)
In the history of the European worker’s movement, French revolutionary syndicalism holds a special place due to the originality of its organization and its style of action.
The confiscation of the Revolution of 1789 by the bourgeoisie to their benefit alone, lead to the establishment of its domination. One of its priorities was to prevent the workers from organizing themselves in order to defend themselves against their exploitation. Under the fallacious pretext of eliminating the guilds of the Ancien Régime, the “Le Chapelier” law of July 1791 forbid any agreement between workers to assure their interests. Any attempt on their part was judged as “an attempt against liberty and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.”
Consequently, the worker’s movement was born in secrecy. The growing development of worker’s mutual aid organizations was recognized under the Second Empire which ended the criminalization of unionizing in 1864. But the bloody repression of the Commune lead to the disappearance of the best revolutionary cadres; shot, exiled, or deported to penal colonies overseas following the Bloody Week.
The working class would then be under the draconian surveillance of successive governments. The bourgeoisie, fearing a general uprising at any time against its power, encouraged the harshest resolve. We cannot understand bourgeois selfishness without taking into account the permanent fear of being denied the property they had bought up. For the workers, the state became the repressive tool of Capital. In 1831, 1848, and 1871, the ruling classes responded with violence to the legitimate claims of the working class. This experience of repression forged the conviction of the proletarian vanguard that faced with the authorities, they could not negotiate but only fight. The anti-parliamentarianism of revolutionary syndicalism is explained by the conviction that no reform is possible in a system derived from and dominated by capitalism. Anti-militarism also comes from that. The army was no longer the defender of the nation, but the breaker of strikes. The deployment of troops was the response of public power to the people’s expectations. The intense anti-militarist propaganda of the revolutionary syndicalists meet a favorable response in the popular classes forced to see their sons drafted into the service of the repressive regime.
The Labor Exchanges
The proclamation of the Third Republic did not put an end to repression. The disorganization of the syndicalist structures lead to the appearance of reformist groups, preaching agreement with the state and the bourgeoisie, which only confirmed the uselessness of dialogue with oppression. Which transcribed itself into a resurgence of revolutionary oriented syndicates.
During this period, with the goal to control the circulation of its workforce, the employers encouraged municipalities to create labor exchanges with the goal of regulating the labor market at the local level. They multiplied with prodigious speed (the first in Paris in 1887 and from 1890 in Toulouse).
Very quickly, their re-appropriation by revolutionary militants turned the exchanges into centers of social struggle. Organizing workers’ solidarity, they were a laboratory for future forms of action by French syndicalists. This movement was lead by an exceptional man, Fernand Pelloutier who was one of Georges Sorel’s inspirations, who qualified him as “the greatest name in the history of syndicates.” He drove the creation of the French Federation of Labor Exchanges (Fédération des bourses du travail de France). The French workers’ movement owes the idea of the general strike and the independence of the syndicates from political parties and the state to him. He was then in total opposition with Jules Guesde, founder of the Marxist inspired Parti Ouvrier Français, which affirmed the priority of the party’s political action over syndicalist struggles.
The exchanges pursued two axes of action in parallel. In the first place, social action, which consisted of employee placement, to help the workers qualify professionally and improve themselves. The labor exchanges were concrete applications of the revolutionary socialist program through professional and general teaching courses, medical dispensaries charged with fighting against insurance companies too complacent with the employers during work accidents, libraries for the workers’ ideological formation and leisure, or legal teaching services to inform workers about new social laws of the Third Republic. The dimension of popular education was one of Pelloutier priorities, according to his famous quote “educate in order to revolt.” The emancipation of the workers happens first by the realization of the reality of their exploitation. As Emile Pouget declared, “the task of revolutionaries does not consist of attempting violent movements without taking into account contingencies. But to prepare the spirits, so that these movements erupt when favorable circumstances present themselves.”
Secondly, the action of connecting and unifying with worker’s syndicates. The establishment of exchanges lead to the development of syndicates that could rely on their networks. They were gathering places for striking workers, strikes funds were raised from dues in the factories in order to aid the workers in the struggle. CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail) and the Federation of Exchanges merged in 1902 during the Montpellier congress, thus constituting a single central organization composed of two sections, that of the worker’s federations, and that of the labor exchanges. But before that a founding event for the French syndicalist movement took place: the birth of the CGT.
1895: The CGT
In 1884, when the law authorized the creation of syndicates, the Republic tried to seduce the working class in order to make them forget its objective alliance with big capital. The majority of the workers remained distrustful, considering that this law was conceived in order to control the existence of structures that were clandestine until then.
After preliminary negotiations, at Limoges in September 1895 the Confédération Générale du Travail arose, which fixed its principal objective as “to unite workers in struggle on the economic field and in bonds of tight solidarity, for their complete emancipation.”
After the first chaotic years, under the leadership of Victor Griffuelhes the organization would experience a period of intense activity. Named secretary general of CGT, this old worker was a fierce Blanquist militant, devoted to making the organization a machine of class war.
With Emile Pouget, his faithful comrade, we find him everywhere where strikes erupt. Not accustomed to interminable discussions, he imposed his authority with an iron hand. For which he would often be reproached and which would earn him many enemies, but we can never question his interest. Thanks to his relentless character, disputes between different currents were muted and the syndicate could retain total independence regarding the state which tried to corrupt the syndicalist leaders.
During the adoption of the Charter of Amiens, during the confederate congress of 1905, we recall that : “The CGT, beyond any political school, gathers all the workers aware of the struggle to bring about the disappearance of wage labor and the employers… The congress considers that this declaration is a recognition of the class struggle in the economic domain that opposes the workers in revolt against any form of exploitation and oppression, both material and moral, established by the capitalist class against the working class.
In the socialist movement in January 1905, Victor Griffuelhes gave the following definition of direct action: “Direct action means the action of the workers themselves. That is to say, action that is directly exercised by the interested parties. It is the worker himself who directs his efforts; he personally exercises them against the powers that dominate him, in order to obtain the benefits he demands from them. Through direct action, the worker creates his own struggle, he leads it , resolved not to grant to another person the responsibility for his own emancipation.”
The revolutionary syndicalists lead the struggle for the improvement of labor conditions so that “the daily struggle prepares, organizes, and realizes the Revolution” as Griffuelhes wrote.
Direct action, done by active and aware minorities, aimed to strike the spirits (like during the general strike of 1907 where Paris found itself plunged into darkness following a sabotage action by revolutionary syndicalist electricians). It must impose the will of the workers on the employer, the possible use of just proletarian violence can enter into this strategy. “Actually there is only complete emancipation if the exploiters and bosses disappear and if the slate is wiped clean of all capitalist institutions. Such a task cannot be conducted peacefully – and even less legally! History teaches us that the privileged have never sacrificed their privileges without being compelled and forced to do so by their revolting victims. It is improbable that the bourgeoisie have exceptional magnanimity and will abdicate willingly… It will be necessary to resort to force, which, like Karl Marx said, is the midwife of societies.” (Emile Pouget-La CGT).
The Myth of the General Strike in Action
A fierce battle between the CGT and the state for the eight hour work day engaged in 1904. The campaign culminated in a demonstration of force on May 1st 1906, which was actively organized for a year. All the forces of the organization were thrown into the battle for eight hours. The context was then insurrectionist, the world of labor was seething following the drama of the Courrières mine where 1200 miners found death. 40000 miners in Pas-de-Calais went on strike spontaneously. Repression didn’t solve anything and the anger spread. Nearly 200,000 strikers mobilized in construction (a bastion of revolutionary syndicalists), metallurgy, printing … the movement culminated with 438,500 strikers throughout France! The government maintained the fear of imminent social war and collusion between the two anti-system forces of the epoch: the revolutionary syndicalist movement and the nationalist movement (convergences observed by Professor Zeev Sternhell).
Before this alliance, the Republic rapidly reacted, Clemenceau, named Minister of the Interior, directed the repression. Griffuelhes and the principal directors of the CGT were arrested without reason (including the treasurer Lévy who would be returned by the police during his imprisonment). The 1st of May was accompanied by an important mobilization of the Republic’s guard dogs that multiplied the arrests and fired on the crowd of strikers. In common agreement, the authorities and the employers organized the dismissal of the functionaries and workers most engaged in direct action, blacklists of militants were created to make their hiring impossible.
But where Clemenceau and his successor A. Briand were the most effective, was in the turning syndicalist leaders through corruption and the infiltration of provocateurs (the archives of the police prefecture are full of their reports on the activities of the CGT) who spread discontent and discredited the action of revolutionary syndicalists. Furthermore, the aggravation of internal dissent and the wars of tendencies created an explosive situation among the leadership.
The Rupture: The Proletariat Against the Republic
It was the Draveil-Vigneux affair, assembled from scratch by Aristide Briand, then Minister of the Interior that put flame to gunpowder. A demonstration of diggers and railway workers in the Parisian region on July 30th 1908 turned into a riot. We note two deaths among the workers. The CGT called for the workers mobilization in a general strike. Following a demonstration at Villeneuve-Saint-Georges they lamented seven more deaths. By the aid of an agent provocateur, the Minister of the Interior found the pretext to arrest most of the confederate leadership, among them secretary general Victor Griffuelhes, which allowed the traitors to benefit from his imprisonment in order to stage a veritable putsch.
The liberation of the imprisoned leaders was not delayed, but in the shadows the henchmen of Briand, and notably the treasurer Lévy (likely corrupt) and Latapie, launched a veritable cabal against Griffuelhes, openly accusing him of misuse of funds in the affair of the purchase of a confederate local. The following congress exonerated Griffuelhes of any suspicion, but the crisis was opened, as the embittered secretary general resigned. Niel succeded him, who was elected the 25th of February 1909, as secretary general of the CGT with the reformist votes. But the revolutionary syndicalists didn’t leave him alone: six months later Niel was forced to resign in turn.
He was replaced by Léon Jouhaux. It is not astonishing that tension with the state powers started to rise again from 1910. In October, the strike of railway workers, situated in the scheme of a grand campaign against the high cost of living, made Briand envision the dissolution of the CGT. Briand decided to make an example: the Durand affair. The secretary of the charcoal burners syndicate of Havre was condemned to death for strike actions that he was entirely uninvolved with. A vast workers’ protest movement was unleashed.
At this crucial moment in its history, the working world was largely opposed to the liberal Republic. It was disgusted by the attitude of the old Dreyfusards (Clemenceau et Briand), who had called for the working class to mobilize for justice and then once in power revealed themselves to be assassins of the people. This rejection of democracy was demonstrated until the war. The eruption of the Great War was a failure for the revolutionary syndicalists. After having done everything to halt the march towards war, the patriotic elan towards the Sacred Union carried them away. Léon Jouhaux, at the grave of Jaurès, called for the workers to rally towards the regime. This rally towards the Sacred Union marked the end of the heroic period of the syndicalism of direct action within the CGT, which, after the war was taken over by bureaucrats who made it the reformist tool we know today.