1895-1921: The CGT, France

The CGT today

A history of the anarchist origins of the largest trade union in France and the development and decline of revolutionary ideas and practice within it.

Revolutionary Syndicalism in the French CGT
The CGT [Confédération Générale du Travail, trans - General Conferedaration of Labour] was founded by anarchist militants at the end of the 19th Century. It was the first workers’ organisation run upon the principles of syndicalism. The union was organised in a libertarian manner, with autonomous federated branches (syndicats) and without a permanent bureaucracy. Its ultimate aim was revolutionary social change, bringing about a society with social ownership and workers control through the direct action of their members. At the outbreak of war they had 600,000 adherants. But problems were already beginning to emerge with older militants complaining about the dilution of the Federation's principles. Some of the unions were beginning to centralise and when war decimated membership levels CGT leaders helped the war effort by serving on government committes. Despite this, opposition to war was led by CGT militants and the federation recruited to unprecedented levels after the conflict. War and expansion was to change French trade unionism for ever, collaboration with the government created a bureaucracy and central leadership, and the success of Bolshevism in Russia would attract many of France's revolutionaries.

The early history of French syndicalist union the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) asks difficult questions of a libertarian historian. In 1912 the Confederation’s congress voted overwhelmingly to keep its distance from the political parties of the left, as it had done at each of its previous conferences. Since the turn of the century it had continued to increase its strength year on year; in the eight years that separated the Bourges congress of 1904 and the 1912 gathering membership grew from 150,000 to 600,000 and from 21 per cent of all unionised labour to 55 per cent. Yet by 1920 it had split into two factions, with syndicalists a minority in both, and the CGT and the CGTU hitched to the political platforms of the French Section of the Second International (SFIO) and the Communist Party (PCF) respectively.

The CGT was founded in 1895, anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s ‘federalism of independent producers’ was the dominant ideology, but principles of regional autonomy for individual syndicates allowed it to grow into a broad church; comfortable accommodating socialists, communists and reformists. Enthusiasm for Proudhon’s ideas have often been categorised by hostile historians as evidence of a reactionary attitude toward modern capitalism and against industrialisation. Yet the philosophers of the CGT were pioneers of ‘workers’ control’, syndicalism for them did not mean an end to modern industrial progress, but turning direction of it over to the most appropriate group; the workers themselves. Fernand Pelloutier, one of the movements’ important thinkers espoused ‘unalienated labour’: “workers, after so long believing themselves condemned to the status of the machine, wish to become intelligent beings, to be simultaneously the inventor and the creators of their work”. The degenerate and conservative French bourgeoisie acted not only to exploit and enslave their fellow man, but also as a break on the same technological progress that they claimed to advocate. This new world was, by necessity, to be created through direct action. Emile Pouget, the confederation’s Deputy General Secretary from 1901, pushed for self-liberation, “direct action implies that the working class claim for itself the ideas of liberty and of autonomy instead of yielding to the principle of authority”. Direct Action was the focus of all CGT work, both as advocates of social revolution and the revolutionary general strike, but also in everyday union agitation for improved wages and conditions.

In terms of organisation, the CGT was dependent upon two structures – the syndicates, and the Bourse du Travaille (literally translated 'labour office'). The former were the basic parts of the union, you joined at your workplace a syndicate that was run democratically by all its workers. The syndicate was federated to the CGT as a whole, and sent delegates to its bi-annual Congress but otherwise was able to operate autonomously of the rest of the movement. Syndicates had low subscription fees and did not keep permanent strike funds. The union as a whole did elect a General Secretary and a small set of functionaries, but their existence was not to direct policy (which was decided upon at the National Congress) but to co-ordinate the autonomous syndicates. Alongside this loose union structure was the bourses du travaille, originally invented by local government following riots against private employment agencies, they functioned as among other things labour exchanges, workers culture and education centres, a means of co-ordinating the local labour movement, of organising solidarity with other workers and potentially as a forum for political agitation. Pre-existing bourses were taken over and run by CGT activists and were created where they did not already exist. While the syndicates functioned to unite workers of the same employer and industry, the bourse du travaille acted as a meeting place for the entire community (this idea also proved successful when exported to Italy as camere de lavoro). By 1902 these organisations were sufficiently intertwined with the activities of the CGT that they became incorporated into the union’s structure as a whole.

In the workplace, syndicalist militants were forced to punch above their numerical weight. French labour was relatively disorganised with barely 10% of all workers in a union before World War One. With a focus on autonomy and direct action, CGT activists were able to effectively mobilise non-union members. In one industry, metalwork, the Federation des Metaux (FM) had membership levels of just 3 per cent, yet in 1913 was the driving force behind one huge strike at Renault (otherwise renowned for its suffocating patriarchal management) and 137 separate strikes elsewhere. The CGT often had to learn to live with the French worker's habit of joining the union at times of industrial action and drifting away during quieter times. Organisers among Audois wine growers enthusiastically built unions spanning the entire population of some villages, only to return to square one a few years later. More so than their compatriots in other Great Power nations, French workers were given to brief explosions of revolutionary ardour as opposed to patient and consistent collective action and solidarity.

In many ways this was the condition in which they found themselves. There were no employers in the world quite so intransigent as the French 'patron' , personalist patriarchs like Renault felt their success was the legacy of the liberty and property embodied in the French Revolution. French workers suffered in 1905 from just two thirds the purchasing power of British equivalents and half the real wages of Americans. The liberal French political system also managed to put the authoritarian German government into the shade in terms of social repression. It only became legal to join a trade union in 1884 and then only on the condition they didn't federate and membership lists were submitted to the town hall. Dismissal for unionising was not merely tolerated but actively encouraged. In this hostile atmosphere the police and secret services were used aggressively to attack demonstrations and break picket lines. In 1891 twelve workers died in clashes with the police at Fourmies, in 1900 strikers were shot dead at Chalon-sur-Saone (on the orders of the France's first socialist- minister Alexandre Millerrand), three separate strikes and demonstrations ended in murder in 1907 and in 1908 the deaths of two striking quarrymen at Draveil were followed days later by the murder of six construction workers protesting in solidarity. The Interior Ministry had a dedicated 'political brigade' responsible directly to the minister and agent provocateurs and spies infested the CGT. When protest could not be contained by aggressive union-busting employers or the machinations of the security services, the government would typically turn to the army. When more than 200,000 workers walked out in strikes for an 8 hour day on May 1st 1906, the government brought 50,000 troops to the capital and arrested 700 strike leaders. On other occasions they used conscription as a weapon against workers, calling-up striking railmen to force them back to work in 1910 on pain of execution, jailing 200 strike leaders.

Much of this pressure was beginning to take its toll on the CGT as war approached. Industrial action hit a high point in 1906 with 1,306 strikes marking a new record but as France entered a depression bosses began to form employers’ trusts and strike success levels started dropping. The massacre at Villeneuve-st-Georges in 1908 sparked a furious row over the supposedly reckless tactics of the anarchist leadership, effectively leading to the fall of Victor Griffuelhes as general secretary (although his reformist successor Niel was quickly replaced by another libertarian, Georges Yvetot). Even moderate syndicalists such as Metalworkers General Secretary Alphonse Merrheim complained at the often aimlessly aggressive tactics, “unorganised workers were capable of sudden bursts of militancy. Isolated, ill-planned, these proved easy targets for employer counter-offensives”, Latapie, one of Merrheim's members was more forthright, “I, for one, henceforth refuse to lead workers to the slaughter house!” Certainly some of the accusations have a ring of truth to them. The enthusiastic intellectuals and journalists that populated the higher reaches of the movement did have a reckless attitude regarding the revolutionary elan of their members, Emile Pouget remarked that even defeats were “deposits in the workers memory bank. [Stimulating] desires for revenge”. Direct action and vanguard activity were fetishised among some members of the CGT, even to the point of eschewing mass membership. Yet these accusations are hollow in the context of the organisation as a whole. Because of the federal nature of syndicalism, it was virtually impossible for the likes of Pouget and Griffuelhes to exert their influence across the union. In fact there is evidence to suggest that French workers were actually impressed by this rhetoric. Membership was continuing to rise both as a proportion of all unionised labour and in absolute terms. Even traditionally moderate federations such as the railway workers were radicalising, when they struck in 1910 it was at least in part in defiance and in protest against their reformist leadership. In 1912 affiliation to the newly unified SFIO was rejected even more heavily than at previous congresses; 1,057 syndicates to 35.

At the same congress the CGT re-affirmed the anti-militarist clauses within its constitution. The syndicalist movement in France had always identified with opposition to war and the armed forces in general. The prestige of the French Army had been heavily damaged when a conspiracy to frame a Jewish Captain called Alfred Dreyfus for espionage had outraged the French left. The use of soldiers as strikebreakers, to disperse pickets and to suppress demonstrations never endeared the army to French workers and campaigns such as Sou au Soldat (penny of the soldier) exhorting soldiers not to fire on their brother workers, were very popular. In the years preceding the war, syndicalists protested the conflict, marking May Day 1911 by marching the Champs Elysée and burning the social security cards which were the basis of conscription in the event of war. Yet when hostilities finally began the CGT, like labour organisations in other combatant nations, was unable to significantly interrupt preparations for the conflict. Two per cent of Frenchmen refused conscription but generally even syndicalist workers joined the conflict. Senior members were even to help with organising the war and disciplining the workforce, when the CGT was invited to join the Union Sacrée (sacred union) in defence against German expansionism.

The war impacted very rapidly on the CGT. The principle of conscription in French society was not merely a practicality but also a principle embodied in the notion of levée en masse, with each man equally called upon to defend la patrie. Initially, call-ups simply sucked in everybody, decimating union branches and by 1915 around four-fifths of the CGT's members had ceased paying dues. As war planners quickly discovered this left war production hamstrung and many metalworkers and engineers were rapidly recalled as mobilisés; sent back to factories under army command. The French state rapidly moved to invest heavily in the munitions industry; 50,000 workers in August 1914 became 1.7m by the end of the war. New workers flooded into these industries, mobilisés being joined for the most part by women, youths and migrants from neutral Spain and France's colonial outposts. Meanwhile, the pre-war workforce was busy being slaughtered at the front; no country suffered as many casualties comparative with population as France.

The lack of continuity in CGT organising over this period, is then, partly understandable. Old militants were called up and killed on the battlefields of the western front. Those that were permitted to return as mobilisés were subject to military discipline and were often reliant on relatively inexperienced workers to carry out collective action on their behalf. With much of North West France occupied by the Germans, the social peace of 1914 took time to unravel. The French party of Labour (the SFIO) was united behind the war and prominent syndicalists (notably Leon Jouhaux) joined the government's Mixed Commissions for labour mobilisation. Living standards were holding up quite well and police reports from 1915 expressed surprising levels of contentment. It was not to last, war priorities meant that mobilises were increasingly subject to more intrusive factory discipline, all working conditions legislation having been suspended in 1914. With war production being fuelled by government loans, inflation was beginning to eat into the purchasing power of French workers, prices more than doubling outside Paris. Overcrowding in the suburbs of the capital and in Lyon, already horrific pre-war, was exacerbated by the most significant influx of new industrial workers in France's history. Meanwhile, not everyone was getting poorer. Public investment was flowing toward private industrialists, who more than trebled their share of war production. Merchants and traders hoarded food and supplies, which drove up prices, and nakedly profiteered from shortages.

Elements within the remnants of the syndicalist movement (now down to just 49,000 dues payers) began to organise against the war and industrial action began to re-emerge as a significant factor in French life. As the war entered its final two years there was a significant revolt building in the industrial heartlands. The introduction of a new wage scale in April 1917 provoked protest among metalworkers, including demonstrations and limited strike actions. With what remained of the CGT dominated by Leon Jouhaux and the reformists, workers began to organise around ad-hoc new federations, anti-war action was generally relatively spontaneous and crystallised outside traditional channels. Concerned after strike waves in June and November 1917 in the Loire department, the government set about sending militants off to their deaths on the Western front. When prominent anarchist Clovis Andrieu received his draft papers, up to two hundred thousand workers from across the region downed tools, including the usually moderate miners. The anti-war wing of the CGT was more and more regularly finding itself drifting behind the feelings of rank and file workers. As leading figures in the movement met in May 1918 to found the Comité de Defense Syndicaliste (CDS) as a tendency with the CGT for pacifist activism they found themselves in the midst of an expanding strike across the military industrial sector. Walkouts in solidarity with workers sacked for damaging a Furnace at Verdie Steelworks spread across Firminy and then the whole Loire, then on to 200,000 Parisians. The CDS could only call a general war industries strike, having been presented with a fait accompli. For the most part proponents of a negotiated settlement, like Aphonse Merrheim (the leading figure in the CDS) following the Spring German offensive and Russia's exit from the war, were increasingly hostile to actions that might actually endanger the French war effort. Strikers clashed with the police and some protesters were arrested or sent to the front. These actions should not be overestimated though, they were at heart demonstrative actions rather than a serious attempt to dislodge either the French government or bring the war to an end. Frustration even with the anti-war left was growing though, in St. Etienne strikers had actually occupied the bourse du travaille in protest at the labour movement's complicity in the war. Marius Blanchard, Merrheim's deputy and unquestionably against the war, was heckled by around 2,000 Loire left-syndicalists for his group's genteel stance. By this point advocates of a negotiated settlement were absolutely dominant across the French labour movement. In July 1918 the left faction came to control the SFIO and bring its policy into line with the line the anti-war proposition the CGT had adopted in December 1917.

When the armistice came in November 1918, union organising had already surpassed the pre-war achievements of the CGT. The Confederation was the only show in town, with 600,000 members in 1918, doubling to 1.2m in 1919 and rising even further to 1.6m in 1920. The number of strikes and strike participants was also on the rise, from 499 strikes and 176,000 strikers in 1918 to a new high point in the history of French industrial militancy in 1920, 1,831 strikes and 1.31m strikers. Most of these actions were fairly representative of moves toward the coming split in the French labour movement. To the right of the movement the new rapprochement between the reformists in the CGT and the political leaders in the SFIO, embodied in joint 'action committees' formed during the war, meant that the reformists in the syndicalist movement were becoming increasingly intent on replicating the arrangement in Britain and Germany, where unions and parties were intertwined. To the left, enthusiasm for the October revolution in Russia was mixed with old forms of radical organising. Like their counterparts in Spain, French revolutionaries identified with the success of the Bolsheviks, but in the immediate aftermath of the war continued with old forms of organising. Much of the nascent Communist movement was at this point practicing some form of left-syndicalism rather than authoritarian Leninism. Unlike in Spain, though, Leninism was eventually to prove a permanent fixture in inter-war French politics.

The CGT as an organisation by this point was becoming increasingly moribund, and the potential for libertarian organisation within it less promising. A process of 'concentration' observed by old-style syndicalists like Victor Griffuelhes had began before the war with a reorganising drive to form Industrial Unions (by industry rather than by trade), with most of the CGT's members leaving the union during the war this process continued. In addition to the reformist group around Jouhaux becoming involved with war mobilisation, the CGT had also become embroiled in the factory delegate system that emerged from government attempts to contain workers’ discontent through limited consultation. The culmination of all these moves had been the union's first central committee, the Comité Confederal National (CCN), supposedly to direct the union between congresses. Jouhaux devised a minimum programme for submission to the government, among whose reformist provisions was a request for a seat on a National Economic Council to reconstruct formerly occupied North-West France. In April 1919 he was granted one small part of his programme in the eight hours act.

Even as the CGT and its leaders were trading in the Confederation's libertarian soul, tension was rising in the banlieues (suburbs – akin to British inner cities). Like in other combatant nations, conditions inside the factories had led to a growth in worker hostility toward both boss and state. Inflation was continuing to eat into living standards (costs rose 40% from 1919 to 1920) and crucially, employers who had dined so heartily on vast public expenditure during war years, were now looking to cut back on expenses as armaments orders dried up. The CGT's massive post-war expansion had been accompanied by the emergence of a variety of new structures around the fringes of the movement. In Paris, a 50,000 strong Seine Tenants Association became a focus of radical attention in the overcrowded banlieues that surrounded the city. Factory delegates’ organisations like the Comité d'Entente des Syndicats de la Region Parisienne became new focuses for working class power. Tension deepened when police violence killed one and injured hundreds (including Jouhaux) on May Day 1919 and anger began to spill over into workplace agitation. When the Metalworkers Federation signed off on a new contract which swapped productivity rises for shorter hours, Parisian workers spontaneously walked out; against employers, against the CGT right and against the CGT left. Improvised networks of factory committees brought out 160,000 metallos, union and non-union, on a wildcat strike. They were swiftly joined in solidarity by 80,000 chemical workers and the 90,000 construction workers building the Paris Metro. Fiery orators denounced war profiteers from strikers’ platforms, calls were made for withdrawal of French troops from the Russian civil war, immediate demobilisation, for extensions of the strike and in St. Denis (a district of Paris) workers even constituted the local Comité Intersyndical as the 'Soviet (workers’ council) of St.Denis'. As the strike persisted into June, the CGT reached another agreement with employers on the 21st: Workers stayed out. Merrheim, General Secretary of the FM and previously at the forefront of anti-war mobilisation, could not hide his frustration at independent organising and sneered at the “unchained crowd, pushed as it is in the street by necessity and claiming as its only personal material satisfaction the augmentation of the salary”, complaining that meetings were increasingly swamped by non-union people with the temerity to waste his time by demanding membership cards. Isolated by the hostility of the CGT and their inability to push the strike movement outside Paris, the metalworkers reluctantly came back to work.

The FM was not the only union with rank and file militants challenging their leaders. The Rail workers syndicate (the FNTCF) had grown tenfold by the end of the war and was still growing. Huge state interference in the railways during the war had logically raised the question of nationalisation. Employers for their part had produced an extensive programme for what they saw as the revitalisation of their industry; the end of cost-of-living allowances (meaning workers' salaries would drift behind prices for necessities), the harassment of unions out of their workplaces and a widespread programme of work speed-ups and de-skilling. The Spring 1920 rail strike, like the metalworkers the year before, began with wildcats: In January, 2,000 workers walked out at Perigueux in solidarity with colleagues disciplined for attending a union conference, 90 per cent of the workers on the Paris-Lyon-Mediterrannee (PLM) line then joined them. The CGT hesitantly approved the action, optimistically hoping it would keep within a narrow economistic agenda. Their hopes were dashed as the rail companies started laying off workers and provoking further protest strikes. In April Emile Olivier, the leader of the Perigueux strikers, was elected leader of the Paris-Orleans (PO) section of the rail workers union, while radical syndicalist Gaston Monmousseau was elected leader of the whole federation. Plans were made for a general strike for rail nationalisation involving the entire CGT, a final test of what remained of the ideals of Revolutionary Syndicalism. By Late May the CGT had called the whole thing off. Despite shutting down the rail network, bringing out the builders, the dockers, the metalworkers and the miners, the Confederation now had no interest in 'reckless' direct action. It preferred to rely upon the 1.8m votes that the SFIO had managed to garner in the 1919 elections. Workers now left the CGT in droves; after seeing 18,000 rail workers sacked in the wake of the disastrous, abortive, half-hearted general strike, the FNTCF proceeded to lose 80% of its members. The CGT as a whole lost around half its membership by the following year. The fall-out from the crumbling labour movement continued with the majority at the SFIO's December 1920 congress choosing to affiliate to Moscow's 3rd International, forming the PCF. The CGT followed soon afterwards with the central committee siding against the 3rd International and a minority of the confederation forming a rival union the CGTU. If the dominance of reformism and the rise of bureaucratic unionism blighted the CGT, the leaders behind the CGTU were not much better. Men like Pierre Monatte who had moved toward Leninism from a revolutionary syndicalist background were to prefigure the thorough Bolshevisation, through conversion or expulsion, that the CGTU would go on to experience.

At this point the French labour movement as a whole was stuck in a rut that it would fail to escape until the mid-1930s; what had proved fertile breeding grounds for post-war revolutionary agitation, were now barren landscapes for more long-term organising. A demoralising defeat was followed by an employers’ offensive and a depression. The split in the union movement further depressed potential activists, dissipated solidarity and hampered effective action. The down-turn in union organising and labour activism in general was what gave the determined cadres of the PCF the opportunity to finally bury syndicalism in France. With many union branches down to negligible or non-existent membership, purges of the disinterested and inactive rump of the movement were relatively easy to do and when the long years of inactivity stretched into the 1930s, very hard to correct. Except in the guise of committed individuals, libertarian unionism had by this point disappeared and whilst it's easy to set blame for its demise on the machinations of other political creeds, the example of the CGT has pertinent questions for anarchist organisers. The case of French syndicalism is one of workers choosing to abandon libertarian organising. There are mitigating factors, continuity proved difficult with the advent of war and with fluctuating membership levels throughout the period. Certainly the Russian Revolution proved a powerful image for revolutionaries across Europe, not least amongst many anarcho-syndicalists whose ideals were left untouched by their initial enthusiasm. Reformers in the CGT also built up significant inertia toward centralising the confederation in the years before and during the war. The entrenchment of the Comité Confederal National and its role in undermining the actions of the post-war period demonstrate that organisationally this was now a very different animal. By 1921 we are left with two seething, hostile factions, one hijacked by centralisers and the other disorientated and disillusioned. Yet many in the CGT had brought this situation upon themselves, the ideologues of the pre-war period at times had managed to lose the debate with more hard-headed reformists, particularly in light of increasingly unimpressive strike success rates. As a result there was a significant proportion of what remained of the CGT that could be co-opted into the war mobilisation process. Obviously there were also many syndicalists that did rally to the flag when war came, as fighters and as workers, and the anti-war movement never moved beyond protest and demonstration. It is not though, particularly surprising that French trade unionism emerged transformed from World War One. It had after all expanded to roughly four times its pre-war size within two years of the armistice. It had also received unprecedented influence in the machinery of French industry and state, and been exposed to the only example of workers' revolution that Europe had seen. Despite all this both union confederations probably contained sizeable numbers of workers who still held to syndicalist ideals, and they formed a majority of those who formed the CGTU (before it was purged), the disorientation of the war had now placed them in unfamiliar surroundings both in terms of French society and within the labour movement.

In part, the demise of libertarianism in the CGT can be looked upon as a product of circumstance. Several factors created the conditions for social democracy and Leninism to flourish in place of syndicalism, particularly that a concerted attempt to centralise the CGT was made at the time of its greatest vulnerability, as membership fluctuated around the upheavals of war. Libertarian trends had never been quite as dominant in France as they had been in Spain and the line between anarchists and state socialists was not as clearly marked as it was in Italy. In France more authoritarian trends joined the CGT's broad church and became activists within it rather than attempting to set up their own alternatives. Whilst it isn't really possible to observe any occasion on which federal organising was rejected by the membership, it's clear that opposition to the bureaucracy that began to crystallise in the war years was incoherent. In some ways the reformists did win the debates regarding the character of the pre-war confederation. Certainly the majority of the ideologues who had dominated the CGT's early years were not to be seen after the war and some workers did tire of the insecurity of endless direct action and social conflict. Yet the most significant factor was probably turnover of membership, principled opposition to political affiliation and central structures was difficult to maintain with so many inexperienced workers joining up. Opposition to the emergent union hierarchy was expressed in terms of immediate grievances (particular strikes and protests) rather than an ideological hostility to centralisation and authority. Workers reacted strongly to demands from labour leaders that they disagreed with but never challenged the structures that gave them their power. Ultimately syndicalism in the CGT proved far too vulnerable to corrosion by seemingly innocent organisational changes and the confusion created by war, industrialisation and mass unionisation.
Jack Ray