Letter to Freedom about the Carmaux strike, Agnes Henry

Dear Comrades,

The Carmaux Strike, as a strike, is, as all the world knows, at an end. Reséguier, the employer, has succeeded in securing the services of the men he required, and has rejected 330, to whom he objects and are still unemployed.

On the other hand, he has not succeeded in crushing their Union, which was his object in forcing the strike, while it (the strike) has been the means of calling forth an enthusiastic manifestation of solidarity on the part of all the Socialists of France. That in itself is a gain in the development of Socialism, but that is not all. Where the politicians have failed, the non-political revolutionary Socialists have come not merely, as we trust, to the rescue of the Carmaux glass-blowers, but to effect a far grander, because more far-reaching purpose.

The French trade unions are composed of real Revolutionary Socialists and they would not support a mere co-operative glassworks. They are opposed to political influence and dictation, and they have learned the futility, for Socialist ends, of merely co-operative concerns. They have, however, set themselves the arduous task of erecting a Workingmen’s Glassworks, which is to belong to the whole body of French Socialist workmen, under the direction of a committee of 45 members of various unions, and the profits of which are to go to the benefit of the Socialist propaganda on purely economic lines.

Never yet has such a Communistic effort, on so large a scale, been attempted in the Socialist movement. Such an example, too, when once successfully carried out, will certainly be followed, and will strike a death-blow at all political Socialism.

There are two methods adopted for collecting the necessary capital: by the sale of tickets at 2d. each (which give the right to all who buy them to attend all meetings and all entertainment free, which may be held on behalf of the factory), and by lottery subscriptions of articles to be drawn for on 30th June next at Paris, or of money towards such articles.

The tickets at 2d. are sent post free in packets of 50. Could not our propagandists speak and collect in their meetings towards buying the tickets and gve entertainments to which the said tickets would give admission? In short, could not our English comrades immediately start a movement of assistance and, at the same time, of propaganda? I trust they will do so, and do it speedily.

Fraternally yours,

A. Henry.

The Issue of Sex, by Hertha Barwich

The Issue of Sex
Hertha Berwich
1929
Der Frauen-Bund

 

At the centre of a truly socialist education will be sexual education, the prevention of sexual debauchery and the development of sensual love. On all these issues, bourgeois education answers with a great silence. The attitude towards gender in the current social order has until now prevented the development of any more emancipated ideas. Women are in every relationship subservient to men. In contrast, men are the lords and owners of women. In this sense, bourgeois education works towards making girls good housewives and maids, and to educate me to be real men. Girls’ games, girls’ company and girls’ tasks are degrading for them. Consciously and unconsciously, the ruling instinct over the female sex is developed in boys. With such an education, marriage can have no meaning for men, they look for their satisfaction in alcohol and brothels. Capitalist exploitation has destroyed not only proletarian marriage, but also petty bourgeois marriage. Socialism demands the equality of the sexes, and workers understand this demand the fastest. Necessity and class interest force them to recognise women as colleagues and comrades. Such comradeship will only be possible if we totally get rid of the bourgeois moral lies about intercourse. The liberation of sexual life holds the danger of unrestrained intercourse. We don’t want to and can’t fight this danger with another system of constraint, complete education will prevent any misunderstanding and any wandering off from the natural way of morality. We refuse the current bourgeois concepts of morality. Natural morality is an egalitarian relationship between the sexes which finds its expression in companionate marriage. Maturing youths find in the anarcho-syndicalist youth movement a community of joyous comradeship, ideal enthusiasm, and serious work. The blooms which flourish in a decaying society cannot thrive in them. The class-struggle organisation is the best system of defence against youthful excesses. The love between man and wife is no longer a forbidden fruit for the socialist youth, it is the fulfilment of true comradeship. The solution to the issue of sex is true community between the sexes on the same work, the same worries, the same fights, joys and victories. Marriage is no longer legally-sanctioned prostitution, but a bond of friendship which is agreed upon with full conscience. In the anarcho-syndicalist youth movement, young men and women find the way to class struggle, to the liberation of their minds and the solution to the issue of sex. Through social revolution, in which men and women stand side by side in true comradeship, we will achieve the economic, moral and mental liberation of everyone and start to build a world of freedom, love and prosperity in common solidarity.

May Day, by Sophie Zaïkowska

May Day
Sophie Zaïkowska
May 1st, 1912

This day was chosen by our fathers so that the proletariat throughout the world protest and demand rights in a global movement. The boldest among them saw there, in a faraway future, the means for the proletarian class to rise up against oppression, to grab social wealth, and to establish a fairer system. In the meantime, to everyone, it was a means to remind the bourgeoisie that workers were tired of being treated like beasts of burden, and that they demanded a few immediate improvements.
The main demand was and still is the 8-hour day: to have 8 hours of work a day, okay, but also 8 hours of leisure and 8 hours of sleep.
Every demand must stem from economic conditions and not from a desire, as justifiable as it can be. The 8-hour day propaganda was intense for a number of years, but, in in the industry, commerce and agriculture, such a reform could only ever be imposed by force. Maybe a firm will of the proletariat acting directly, in a revolutionary capacity, could have succeeded in imposing this demand. But we know how the May Day march was transformed, we know that it was mutated into a delegation to public powers. Some of us have in front of our eyes the painting in which Guesde and a group of Socialist deputies give a man the notebook of worker’s demands in an office.
On May 1st, 1912, there won’t even be a delegation, some Socialists town councils will officially celebrate May Day. And in quite a few places where workers are conscious and organised, after a day’s work, they will attend meetings and parties!
Of course, many workers wish to obtain a shorter working day. But even if we achieve some results to that effect, we can see that it is not as a class that this demand is imposed. Shorter hours are obtained in such and such a trade, then in another by a series of strikes and struggles limited to that industrial branch.
May Day has totally failed. Maybe a small result was obtained in some industries, but that’s all. In the textile industry in Vienna, for example, thanks to the energy of some of our comrades, among whom was Pierre Martin.
May Day has failed like everything that the ignorant, cowardly mass of workers has ever undertaken, as they stop at the first obstacle on their way: even in Vienna, where workers obtained a few improvements in the brutality of their exploitation only thanks to anarchists, when a strike occurred, the women who had especially benefited from past struggles exclaimed: “If anarchists get involved, we are going back to work. We don’t want any more martyrs.”
Women, who sabotage every social movements by their narrow and personal minds, would need to be educated so that they acquire, like many men, some personalities. Unfortunately, this issue is never addressed head-on. People try to lure women, are afraid to scare them. As high as the motives which lead militants to try and win over women may be, they approve women who, like Jacqueline in “La Bataille Syndicaliste” (The Syndicalist Fight) flatter their sisters’ prejudices.
Still, “La Bataille” is truly the best daily paper, the only workers’ paper, but Jacqueline wants her sisters to read it, so she writes:
“Even without being greedy like many of these women are (women of the bourgeoisie) let’s not allow people to steal from us. Let’s keep a watchful eye and tell ourselves that this money which we get from our partner’s sweat and labour must be used in the most intelligent way and in the way that benefits the community the most.”
Proudhon had said: either a courtisane or a housewife; Jacqueline boldly claims: a courtisane and a housewife!
By giving us advice, Jacqueline tells us that when some friends unexpectedly visited, she bought a piece of roast beef which, all things taken into account (parts to be discarded, inaccurate weight and so on) she paid 2,70 franc a pound. She adds, grumbling:

“It is still necessary to have some on the table sometimes, especially in Paris to compensate for the air we don’t get. Workers need food well thought-up: not too much, not too little.”

Later she says: “we must not forget that beef stew is the basis of family food.”
Jacqueline’s main course is always a meat dish! The inevitable beef stew, that workers’ ignorance believes to be a healthy and fortifying food, is, even for the partisans of meat-eating, recognised to be a breeding ground for microbes, in such a way that it acts on our organisms like a real poison.

Ignorant like every courtisane, like every housewife, vegetarianism, dairy products and eggs don’t seem enough for her to feed her man who’s been working all day!

But this poor Jacqueline talks about cooking like Jouhaux talks about workers’ needs. That is because among the militant proletariat there is a unity of opinion on the issue of needs.

Jouhaux, in a study entitled “The Minimum Wage” (its social value), demands a minimum wage which should be indexed on the absolute necessities of the life of a worker’s family, that is: “rents, necessary foods: bread, meat, wine or beer, vegetables, clothes, etc.” And he concludes that “it is for an extension of our needs that the fight for wage increases must go on.”

How do you want a worker to work less while spending more and having to feed his courtisane—his wife—on top of that?

Workers can’t wait to go back to the factory because they are always on the break of terrible misery, despair, thanks to the excellent advice from Comrade Jouhaux, from revolutionaries, who tell them to increase their needs instead of reasoning them.

It is obvious that if consumer demand decreased, working days would be shorter. People will say that the number of unemployed people would increase without the working day getting any shorter. I’ll say that it is possible that unemployment rates would momentarily go up, but it would be such a danger that measures would have to be taken, because revolt would soon threaten. The people is great only when it is hungry, it is like my neighbour’s cow who moos when her hay is late.

People will say that there has been high unemployment rates in some capital cities at some time, and that this did not lead to the revolution. It is easy to reply that this was only momentary, that it was only some economic disturbance. But I believe this disturbance would soon become a chronic condition, if workers reasoned their needs. And then, and only then, would the bourgeoisie be forced to let workers’ demands be imposed by the course of events itself!

Louis Lecoin, by May Picqueray

My enthusiasm for anarchism went in all directions. I was at risk of becoming inefficient, spreading my energies too thin. Chance made me cross paths with Louis Lecoin. It was in 1921 that I first met him. From that moment on, I spent most of my time making war to war.

Louis Lecoin was just out from the prison of Albertville after an eight-year sentence for antimilitarism. What stroke me first were his blue eyes which glistened with intelligence, with a touch of mischievousness, but also his goodness, his energy, and his courage. He even courted me for a short while. But, at 20, I thought this great man was too small. This did not stop us from being good friends all our lives.

I was not disappointed, the legend about him seemed justified. I knew him well from what Sébastien Faure, Pierre Le Meillour and other people had told me, with such warmth, such love! I knew all the things for which he had been imprisoned: his refusal, as a young soldier, to march against train workers on strike, and to shoot at them, defying the military machine of which he was a part. His campaign against the war, in 1914, the thousand leaflets he had distributed, his long years in jail, punctuated with hunger strikes to demand the reestablishment of the status of political prisoners, and for it to be granted to the anarchist comrade Jeanne Morand, injustly suspected of intelligence with the enemy.

Louis Lecoin was to us, young libertarians, young syndicalists, an example to follow. He had proven us that we could be at the same time syndicalists, liertarians, and antimilitarists.

When he got out he became the administrator of Le Libertaire, the newspaper of the Union Anarchiste, which did not prevent him from being a militant in his union (the builders’ union) and to intervene energetically and efficiently at the Lille congress in 1921 and Saint Etienne in 1922.

Like most of us, he felt enthusiastic about the Russian revolution, from which we expected great things, and which only brought us disillusions, but he resisted being enrolled into the Communist Party, unlike some other comrades.

In 1921, he led a campaign to avoid the extradition of three Spanish men: Ascaso, Durruti, and Jover, sentenced in Argentina pretendingly for some robbery, but in fact for being anarchists. Their extradition was imminent: a cruiser was coming to get them. He reached out to the highest political and judiciary figures, and, finally, won their case.

He also worked to avoid the deportations of Camille Berneri and Nestor Makhno and managed to save them.

But his biggest case was the Sacco and Vanzetti affair.

The Sugar Breakers: Notes from a woman on strike, by Séverine

The Sugar Breakers: Notes from a woman on strike
Séverine
1897

To François Coppée
To be on strike without having ever been an industrial worker can seem, at first sight, quite paradoxical. But if I haven’t got a taste of a factory, it is because of the bosses who haven’t hired me the day before yesterday.

I wished to know, technically, the cause and the goal of this strike; to know, through experience rather than hearsay, the bitterness, the harsh realities of this job, the name of which amused Paris; to realise, at last, the sum of endurance, tiredness, which a creature has to provide in order to earn just enough not to die – and start again the next day!

To go there as a “lady”, even as a friend, notebook and pencil in hands, a reporter among reporters, was to risk knowing maybe less than them; in any case, not to be able to do more, to remain parked in the same circle of evolution, in the same order of ideas.

The work of a journalist is, unfortunately, an official position, in such cases; which, without decreasing its interest, often makes it sterile. Whatever the rank of the informer in their professional hierarchy, it is known, it has to be told – hence, inferior. The two opposite sides only tell them what they wish to tell them; only let them see what they wish to let them see.

While the ideal thing would be to be ignored, anonymous, so much like anybody that no-one would suspect you; so mixed into the crowd, so close to its heart that they can truly feel it beat, only by putting their hand on their own chest… a flow incorporated into the Ocean, a sigh mixed in the great breath of humankind!

For labour issues, especially, this seems useful in my opinion. To describe workers’ lives is not enough – you must live it, in order truly to appreciate all its injustice and all its horrors. Then, we know what we are talking about; we are truly the echo of what we heard, the reflection of what we saw; we are soaked to the bone in pity and revolt!

To pretend, even with the best intentions, the most talent in the world, will only ever give this impression of honesty which an uncultured being sometimes obtains when they reproduce barbarously what they witnessed or took part in.

There is no need to spend years, months, weeks, to this study, to this neighbourhood, to this trial, as long as there is no question of studying the subtleties of the job, to become apt to deserve our wage – or, like in Russia, to catechise ignorant souls.

Our workers know how to think without a master; and the iniquities they suffer are so obvious (and, alas, so monotonous) that only a few hours suffice, for whom knows how to see them and hear them, to record them.

This is what I did. For almost a day, among these poor girls, dressed like them, I wandered under the scrutiny of the cops in front of the deserted factory, in the dreary comradeship of unusual idleness. I stopped at their stages; I heard their demands freely formulated; I went into the factories, saw the work of those who were submissive – who had too many children or were too hungry! – and that is why I can now tell you, in full knowledge, what this strike is about, and how much sympathy and interest it deserves.

First of all, the word is misleading: We shouldn’t say “breaker” but “organiser”, since the task consists in layering, in cardboard or wooden boxes, the sugar cut into stronger or less strong morsels, according to their number. In this way, the sugar for the cafés are 50, while the bis, cut into cubes, is especially reserved for use in the Midi. Only the refuse, the powder and shards, sold by weight, does not need to be aligned.
[…]
In ordder to understand what the “cassoir” is, you must imagine a big, very long table, around a metre wide, with parallel drain, like the lines of a music score in relief for blind people. It is between these rails that the sugar is going to go past – as an ingot before the knives, then as morsels – which the six organisers, in a continuous, unceasing, mechanical movement too, pick up a line, turn around, put it in the box placed behind them on some sort of wooden bench; they turn back, start again, forever, eternally, from seven in the morning to six in the evening, without rest, without ever sitting down, apart from ten minutes of break and an hour for lunch.
For example, they circulate. When their box is full, they must carry them to the scales, placed, at Mr. Sommier’s place for example, 20 or 25 metres away. The average number of journeys per day is 40. Pregnant women, young girls carry up to a thousand kilos. Many are injured; the hardiest lose on average two to three days per fortnight, because of faintness, exhaustion, stiffness, aches in their sides, problems with their pregnancy or their puberty.

I am only speaking here of the physical effort of it, because you need to read, as I just did, in medical books, to know which diseases are linked to this unfortunate lot.
They have no more nails, no more teeth; the first were used to the flesh by the handling of the sugar; the latter lost their enamel, fell, broke because of the dust which comes out – this dust which burn their eyelids, their throats; which makes their voices coarse; causes stomach infections, tuberculosis – suffering always, and an early death!
How much do they earn? They used to get 60 centimes per 100 kilos, that is, depending on their courage, from 3 fr. 25 to 4 fr per day. They have been told, almost a fortnight ago: “You will now only receive 50 centimes for 100 kilos. Competition is too harsh; take it or leave it.”
They left; they got out, preferring to starve completely, and quickly, than to slowly die from this. Because this meant a 10 centimes decrease per day – and you realise what 10 centimes a day mean in a workers’ household?
They tried a general strike. The workers from the Lebaudy, Lucas, and François companies first followed the movement started by the Sommier refinery. Then they grew wary… went back. Only the workers from Lucas’s place, men and women, sacrifice 15 centimes a day to support the Sommier’s strikers. But there are less than twenty of them – and there are over 140 people on strike!
A little help arrived, from here and there, sent by plebeian solidarity, or the compassion of some people who were moved by so much distress and so much bravery. They were able to distribute 30 centimes a day; and families of five, six people lived with this on bread and water – but still not giving up!

I went to meet with them on Monday, at dawn, at the top of the rue de Flandre. The day before, three delegates had come to find me, to tell me what I wrote earlier; and as I had mentioned my idea to spend a day there, to get hired if possible, they were enthusiastic at this prospect, if slightly sceptical as to its implementation.
However the “secretary”, Hélène Milani, a tall blond woman with confident eyes, a gallant air, had told me: “See you tomorrow!” But she had added: “You will never manage, Madame,” which had upset me. I am not a wimp, and what I want, I get.
Therefore, there I was, showing up at one of their homes, at the given time. In a second, I took off my gloves, veil, hat, coat, and there I am bare headed, hairs pulled-back – ha, this damn hair! How they rebel! – in a cloth petticoat and blouse, an apron around my waist, a basket in hand, so similar to any of them that they start gushing about it, amused.
We walked down the rue de Flandre, up unto the great building of the Sommier refinery, to see whether they are hiring. I will sneak into the group of renegades, even if I get a bit “pushed around” by the strikers I came to defend.
The street is full of policemen, in and out of uniform. I am only afraid of Granger, the member of parliament for this part of Paris, who is there, with Lhermitte, from the Trade Union Hall, and my colleague Degay, from La Marseillaise. The three of them came because, the other day, the police had been really brutal, and, in case of a repeat offence, Granger would show his credentials.
If they recognised me, maybe they could not contain a sign of surprise, and my cover which should let me come and go as I wish to talk with my friends would be blown.
Gatherings are banned; if there are more than three of us and we are standing still, a policeman intervenes. And as I am lingering in front of the factory gates, observing every brick of it, contemplating the doorman in his pretty, blue uniform with its metal buttons, looking like a grunt, with his terrible white moustache, who seems rather flattered by my examination, a cop gently pushes me:
“On you go, honey! Move away! You shouldn’t stay here.”
I obtemperate and take refuge, with many others, at “our” office, located opposite, at number 122 at the wine seller’s which is called “Let’s go to Charles’s”.
I go to Charles’s. We walk to the bar, where a few workers and many snitches are having a drink, and we meet at the back, in a sort of modest hall lit from above, half dancing-room, half palm game court… like a century ago! Only, thank goodness, no-one is giving a speech; we are simply discussing, without sentences, what would be the best thing to do in our common interest.
The fact that I am new does not alert them – one of the delegates, Mrs. Gasse, vouched for me – and I observe once more, with inexpressible emotion, how much naïve goodness, sweetness, resolve these despised, exploited people have (among its women especially). No, or very few, angered words, only melancholy to see how hard it is to agree on things, and, despite everything, the hope to achieve it.
“We weren’t demanding anything; only to be given back what they took from us… Mr. Sommier is not bad, he will agree: he is so rich!… How boring it is not to work, when you’re not used to it!”
It is true, they are like bodies without souls, these good workers, although, between ther fingers, a bone hook crochets some wool. On a small table, there is an inkwell, some paper, a wooden box, a registrar. From time to time, a striker shows up, signs, gets her 30 centimes – then leaves clutching at them, like a drowning man holds onto a branch! She does not stop, does not talk, runs… people are waiting for her for their food!
These poor emaciated faces, with pale lips, with almost no pink at all In the palor of their flesh; the poor baggy eyes, poor creatures!
One of them, in a corner, has opened her camisole to offer her breast to a child who looks like an old man with such a wrinkly skin and a waxy countenance!
And the meagre breast appears, the speaking weapon of all this race, who is hungry before they have teeth, who is hungry once they have fallen out – who is hungry always!

One of my guides comes to pick me up:
“At lunchtime, François’s place is going to hire people, rue Ricquer. Are you coming with?”

I get up and follow her.

At François’s, for this ten minutes’ break, the staff escapes in a roar. Most of them are young (others being dead or retired), many are dressed in petticoats and camisoles, with light, flowery fabrics, a handkerchief tied around their heads, pointy corners flying in the wind on their hair iced with sugar. At first sight, it is almost pretty, under this clear September sunlight, like a flight of grisettes at the Porcherons.
But the illusion ceases in front of the broken smiles, the parched lips, the narrow shoulders, the sunken throats, the dry little coughs which break out all around. Whet had made these cheeks look red was the fire from a fever. As the droplets of sweat dry on the cheeks, the redness disappears from the cheeks. There they are pale like old dolls…
We have sneaked into the courtyard.
“There you go, here’s the Vésinet,” my friend tells me.
It is a dark cellar in which machines, human shapes, can vaguely be recognised.
“What is this?”
“That’s where we work, but come above it, it’s better.”
Indeed, above a few steps, the room is well-lit, at least. But there’s still this same crushing heat, same steam, same sugar dust, which asphyxiates you, suffocates you…
There are some “cassoirs” there; and the other one gives me a lessons on how it works, on what I would have had to do.
“The only thing is,” she says, “in the evening, your fingers would have pissed blood.”
She indicates me with a glance the women’s hands, rolled in towels, bandages, cuts of linen.
Here comes the foreman. Shyly, she addresses him, asks him her request. Looking away, but very politely, he answers:
“I have enough people for today. Come back tomorrow at six, you will be hired.”
I put the employment book borrowed for the occasion from my stepsister, and we leave, across the courtyard, meeting the workers who are coming back.
At the gate, a striking woman, come to watch for defections, calls out to me:
“You lazy cow!”
Certainly not.

All I have left to do is to attempt to get into Mr. Sommier’s, to catch a glimpse of the building.

“There’s only one way: you have to bring a litre to Barthélémy!”
I don’t mind giving Barthélémy a litre, but I would have to know how.
“Here. Barthélémy is a basin carrier at the refinery, under the place where we usually work. Bassin carriers never come out; they are brought what they need from outside, until three. My man took him his lunch, but we can still bring him a litre.”
“How would I do that?”
“You go under the doorman’s nose without talking to him, walk straight across the courtyard, down a few steps, and there, in the cellar, you’ll find the basin carriers. Then you shout “Hey! Barthélémy!” And you will have seen how hard their job is, too, and how hot it is down there!”
As soon as she said this, I went; the plan was executed step by step. I sneaked past the caretaker, and, presto, stumbled down into the cellar. At the entrance, I almost fainted, because of how high the temperature was. Men in cloth trousers, bare chested, their breasts and stomachs protected by some kind of currier’s apron walk past in a line, with a huge copper container in their arms, which they empty, one after the other, in the machine where the loaf moulds are. It is the molten sugar they are carrying; you must see their bored gestures, when they have versed their charge and go get another one in their metal vases! And these foolish painters who insist on painting the Danaids, while these flesh and blood creatures here give such a spectacle of art, superb and pitiful!
All around, like a huge bombshell factory, the moulds are lined up one against the other, pointing downwards.
However, I daren’t shout “Hey! Barthélémy!”. I inquire instead.
“Don’t know him!” the first one answers.
“Wait a minute…” another one says “But it’s Jughead!”
“Hey! Jughead!” repeats the whole floor in a single voice.
A tall curly haired boy, with a good natured air emerges from the depths.
“Who is calling for me?”
“It’s you girl who’s bringing you a litre.”
“That’s not my girl, but I’ll take the litre anyway.”
I handed it to him with a smile:
“It’s from Eulalie!”
“Tell her I thank her. And you too, miss.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Barthélémy.”
As I left, I wandered a bit. I look at the beautiful layout of the factory, I calculate what source of wealth these buildings, these machines, this powerful organisation of Capital represent.
And I suddenly think back of a visit I paid, a long time ago, to the Vaux-Fouquet castle, this royal residence of a royal superintendent, and which Mr. Sommier now owns. I think of the statues in the bowers, of the freshness of the undergrowth, of the marvellous shade, of all this well-being, all this luxury, all these pleasures as an art collector, turning these ruins in such a home.
Those poor girls are right; people cannot be merciless with such satisfactions in this world.
Outside, the delegates meet me.
“We just went on the last delegation to the boss. Even to split the difference, and give us 55 centimes, he won’t hear of it.”
One of them is crying:
“What’s wrong with you?”
“He was cold as ice… He spoke to us so harshly!”
“And what is the reason for this refusal?”
“Mr. Sommier said like this that ha cannot, that he can’t afford it.”

On the destitution of your master, cry, nymphs of Vaux! It makes many more cry, this poverty which shrinks salaries and moves into palaces; which makes so many young children, old mothers, exhausted women, slowly die in one of our neighbourhoods.

Workers’ Unions and the Social Revolution, by Marie isidine

Workers’ Unions and the Social Revolution
Marie Isidine
Plus Loin
1931

This book, which, according to its author, is the result of a long preparatory work, answers the most pressing need of our time: to know which spirit must animate the great social change which everyone awaits, and which way must everyone follow in their action who wishes to avoid the next attempt of such change to be a failure or a disillusion. This is a serious personal contribution to setting up a programme of action for today’s struggles, and for the constructive work of the “day after” the revolution.

Here is the general plan of this book.

First, the analysis of the current situation and the existing social forces, examining two opposite tendencies: class collaboration and class struggle; a detailed critique of the collaboration policy drives the author to reject it in all the forms and at any scale it may be practised. Then, the fighting methods employed by modern capitalism (collaboration with the opposite class being one of the most dangerous of those) leads to the idea that the working class must, also, modernise and “rationalise” its action.

Contrary to a certain tendency which wishes to make the theory and practice of revolutionary syndicalism as obsolete, in order to replace it with the dictatorship of the party (actually a much older tactic and obsolete in many more ways), Besnard shows the inability of political parties to become actor of social change and the fateful character of a dictatorship, even if it were not exerted by a party but by unions. “In order to be the proletariat’s, a dictatorship would have to be exerted through the channels of the class organisations of the proletariat: the unions… Revolutionary syndicalists reject however this kind of dictatorship. They do not see any more need for an economic dictatorship – which would also be political – than for an exclusively political dictatorship.” (page 104-105) Actually, the idea of the constitution of a new state, whatever it might be, is rejected for both current and historical reasons, in which we can strongly sense the influence from Kropotkin’s ideas. In his whole work, Besnard draws on Bakunin, Kropotkin, and J. Guillaume; his ideal is free communism, or anarchy, which is the “great human demand”; the mode of organisation which he considers possible after a successful revolution is some sort of very loose federalist system, intended to open the way to such an ideal. This system is however not presented as a minimum programme for a transition period, since the author thinks that “it is criminal and, to tell the truth, counter-revolutionary, arbitrarily to set the limit to reach, when this or that stage could easily be reached without obstacles.” (page 332)
What he calls a “transition period” is actually not characterised by this or that preset political and economic regime: it is “the period of time between the destruction of the old regime and the stabilisation of the new regime” (page 268).

It is a state which is no longer the capitalist regime and which is not yet libertarian communism; the evolution toward the latter must be allowed to happen, during this period, naturally, without violent struggle. The “stabilisation” of the revolution happens when “the degree of understanding of individuals and the capacity of realisation of existing organisations do not allow to go any further” (page 273).

On this issue, about the way in which this stabilisation can happen, Comrade Besnard seems to be making a terrible mistake in our opinion, unless he did not express his view clearly enough. The stop in the ascending march of the revolution is a natural and unavoidable phenomenon; can it be the result of a decision made beforehand? Yes, if the revolution is seen as a succession of revolutionary measures taken by some dictatorial power which can, , at any given moment, stop or backtrack. No, if we see the revolution as the spontaneous action of all the people. Yet, Besnard supposes that we can stop “having observed unanimously or with a huge majority… that we cannot go beyond the limits reached without danger” (page 273). This is therefore a decision taken by some organisation for the whole society, which presupposes the existence of such an organisation, which has the right (and the power, as it can meet with some opposition) to pull the brake on the movement. Of the men who would endorse this responsibility, Besnard makes superhuman demands: they “will have to be deep psychologists. They will have to measure, as precisely as possible, the efforts to be made during the hole revolutionary process, during the length of the whole transition period. They will have to know its limits, reach it without crossing it” (page 335).

Are there such men with infailible judgement? And the common mortals who would inherit this task, wouldn’t they risk to act instead according to their own particular doctrinal and practical beliefs, which they would then impose as a minimum programme to everyone else? The illusion which Besnard seems to have on this issue might be linked to an idea which he expressed several times throughout his book. Not to condemn the revolution to failure, the workers’ movement, he says, must direct itself entirely and immediately following a few great lines; if it does, society will be able to be organised in a loose enough fashion for majority decisions always to be enforced willingly, without violence or resistance, for imposed duties always to be fulfilled, etc. We can however emit some doubts about this issue, because during a revolution, ideas move fast and soon burst out of pre-established frames. And then, which means would the leading organisation have to be obeyed in a stateless society? This point remains unclear, and it is lacking in Besnard’s exposé.

Two main ideas – both extremely far-reaching – dominate this book. First of all, a very wide definition of unions and syndicalism. Under the term union, the author really includes any free association created to defend collectively the material and moral interests of its members, from the most primitive human groupings to the different organisations of today. According to him, “federalist syndicalism is a movement of an essentially natural kind, such as packs of wild animals, forests of oak trees, or coal deposits” (page 113); it is the result of the social sentiment which characterises humans.

Current syndicalism is defined as “a movement which groups… the workers from the same town, from the same region, trade, industry, country, from all countries” (page 112). And by “workers”, Besnard does not only mean manual labourers, but also technicians, scientists, and peasants; he insists at length (and rightly so in our opinion) on the need fur unity among all these elements, which he calls class synthesis (see the chapter with this title, from page 257 on).

“Any individual which receives wages or payment, any man who does not exploit anyone, belong, in fact, whatever their situation, to the working class” (page 260). Collaboration between manual and intellectual workers must start right now; during the revolution, it will be a sine qua non condition for the success of its constructive work.

The second leading idea, is the need to give the syndicalist movement such organisational forms as to make them able to give, immediately after the revolution, the framework for the new society, in order to reduce to a minimum the unavoidable period of stoppage and prevent the stranglehold of any new form of power.

We are unable to explain here the proposed mode of organisation (which is the one adopted by the C.G.T.S.R. in its constitutive congress) based at the same time along industrial lines and according to locality; one of the most important tasks for these organisations must be the precise knowledge of the functioning and the situation of the industry, and of the economy in general. That is why such an important place must be given among workers’ demands to the demand for workers’ control. After the revolution, on top of all these economic organisations, from the workshop group of the C.G.T. to the Economic Council of Labour “must be added another symmetrical ensemble, from the town council to the Great Council of Workers” which constitutes the political bone structure of the new society. To both of these are added a series of “social” offices, dealing with exchanges, housing, statistics, hygiene, etc.

Besnard’s book, which attempts to encompass all the issues surrounding the fate of workers’ struggles and the revolution, still has many more interesting chapters, among which we will highlight the programme of immediate workers’ demands (envisioned from the viewpoint of the future) and the analysis of the different possibilities of how the revolution may arise (general strike, political movement from right-wing or left-wing parties).
When we compare Besnard’s exposé to the writings from syndicalist propaganda from the early stages of the movement, the distance crossed is striking: despite contrary appearances, we can feel in it the wind of near-future achievements.

The Need for Women’s Unions, by Milly Witkop-Rocker

The Need for Women’s Unions
Milly Witkop-Rocker
Der Frauen-Bund
1925

That the support of several male comrades for the dissolution of the women’s unions had to cause a storm of protests among our female comrades is natural. The women have come to realise that such organisations are necessary, and there she deals seriously with her issues, so we must not be surprised that she defends her point with energy. It would be very unfortunate if it weren’t the case, it would only prove that women had less interest for their issues. Despite everything, it would be an injustice if those comrades, who are committed to the union of both men and women in the same united organisation, wanted to presume an evil intent. Without a doubt their motives stem from thinking and are perfectly honest in order to help the movement. However, not everything that is done meaning well is also good in practice and desirable, especially not in this case.

Before we called the women’s unions into existence, we had well considered the question, and if we have decided in favour of the unions, it happened mainly because we wanted to reach out first and foremost to housewives and female relatives who are not considered directly as producers. It would be in my opinion a complete waste of time if we brought in these women in the general organisation, where they would have little opportunity to develop their own initiatives and they would end up most of the time playing the role of silent observers. In this way they would not be able to bring anything useful neither to the general movement, nor to themselves.

Some might object that so far women’s unions have only achieved little result and have not brought many advantages to women. On its own, this reproach is not conclusive. Despite the decisions of the Düsseldorf and Erfurt congresses1 which completely recognised the need for these unions and for supporting them, precious little has been done on this issue in the past five years. It would therefore be foolish to want to expect greater results. I do not wish to make a reproach against anyone when I say this, my words are conceived much more as a reminder that in this respect a lot more must be done.

But even so the little that was done did not remain without success. If today we have quite a number of women in the country who are able to represent effectively their own issues as well as the interests of the movement, this is a direct result from the women’s unions that we would hardly have achieved without the existence of the unions. And that women have understood their duty, this comes out of the fact that in quite a few of the groups mutual aid has been practised in a way which could serve as a very good example also for male comrades. This however does not mean that we are content and that we reject any critique. On the contrary, it must be emphasised over and over again that far too little has been done so far and that we must direct all of our power to create new groups and always better to build up and develop the existing ones. It would be however completely wrong if people wanted to reproach the women for not having done their duty, after the comrades have done theirs in their congress and taken resolutions in favour of women’s unions. Could anyone not make the same reproach to the men? Most of them believed that after they put down the need for unions in a particular resolution, the thing would just happen by itself. The means, they took this issue a bit too lightly. Without a doubt it would be desirable the women had shown up in higher numbers, but the same can also be said of the male comrades. From those who are organised as syndicalists we could have expected with full justification that they would have stood by the women who were completely inexperienced in those areas.

Unfortunately, things are not going the way we wished and that’s why we must be patient and not throw in the towel. The fact that something does not make as much progress as we we wish does not say anything at all about its necessity. If that were the case, we should also assess all the work of the pioneers of the syndicalist movement in Germany as very modest, since they also did not get the success which they maybe had expected. And no-one will contest that men, who go every day to their workplaces, are much easier to reach than women who, withdrawn in their families, are much to difficult to influence with new ideas.

If someone talks about the little success of the women’s unions, there is one circumstance they must not fail to mention: it is unfortunately an indisputable fact that a whole number of our comrades are anyway against their wives taking part in the movement. For a long time, especially in Germany, a deeply-ingrained prejudice played the lead role. The fear of having to warm up their evening bread themselves for once, if their wives attended a meeting, or just the dread that she could run away from them if she heard people speak about freedom or – God forbid – free love, often lead to really strange results. How laughable and petty as these objections should be, they nonetheless exist and are making the fight of women for their issues naturally all the harder. If we take all of this into consideration, we must not be surprised if the women’s unions have not managed to reach any major results so far.

That women are realising they need to do something is unquestionable. It is the duty of our comrades to support this inclination and to develop it, instead of nipping it in the bud.

Let’s treat women’s unions not as something trivial, but as a part of the general movement. It would be ridiculous to think that a movement with such goals as the syndicalist movement’s could ever reach those without the practical help of the women. Even the most conservative of men no longer dare to suggest this today. In the area of parliamentary politics, women have today become an important factor, and assuredly a scary reactionary factor, which doesn’t surprise us in the least, as we could predict it. An element which for centuries has been kept in blindness and ignorance, and which is then given full representation to take decisions, even if only in appearance, in public affairs, must logically help to reinforce the ranks of the reaction.

We, on the other hand, who know that the duties of women just as those of men lie in an entirely different area, must use all means of propaganda to lead women onto a new path. We must get the message across to them that their field of action does not lie in the parliamentary area, but that her effectiveness lies first and foremost in cultural affairs and in the economic field, where she comes into consideration especially as a consumer and can serve the good of all through her influence.

Luckily people have also already undertaken other steps in this task elsewhere. Thus the English comrades are now strongly concerned with the issue of organising consumers into women’s guilds, where they are trained and taught in all the issues of economic life.

The best experts are selected for this explanatory work which has shown remarkable results. We always come to the same conclusion that the economy is the most important factor of social life and that, especially in this matter, the involvement of women as consumers is of vital importance. We are therefore following the right path.

It would now be desirable if people also stood by us and not just in theory, but always determined themselves to go over to the work of cultural and economic education, in order to develop a larger work field for the women’s unions, which could make them financially independent.

How would it be if we created, everywhere where there are women’s unions, small consumers’ leagues, which would then acquire bulk buy for their members, and use the profit which would thus be taken from the middleman for the spreading of our propaganda? In this way, the women’s unions need not be a financial burden on the general movement and can at the same time do their propaganda and launch their initiative in these modest beginnings. Such experiments can lead to many consequences, about which I will not go into more details. The main point is that it is a start. To implement this suggestion, our women comrades must above all assemble where the women’s groups are, to be clear on the details of the beginning, and to discover means and ways.
Above all else, we must have the will to do something. Everything else will then fall into place.