Pouget, Émile, 1860-1931

Émile Pouget.
Émile Pouget.

Paul Delesalle's biography of Emile Pouget, a major influence on the development of early anarcho-syndicalism.

Submitted by Ed on November 17, 2010

Emile Pouget's Life As An Activist by Paul Delesalle1

Emile Pouget was born in 1860 near Rodez in the department of the Aveyron. His notary father died young. His mother re-married and in this way his life was, in a sense, unbalanced. Nonetheless, his stepfather, a good republican in his day, and a fighter like his stepson, quickly lost his post as a petty official over something he wrote in a little campaigning journal which he had founded.

It was at the high school in Rodez, where he began his studies, that his passion for journalism was conceived. At the age of fifteen, he launched his first newspaper, Le Lycéen républicain. I need not say what sort of reception this little sheet received from his teachers.

In 1875, his stepfather died. Emile was obliged to leave the high school to earn his living. Paris attracted him ( ... ) Working in a novelty store, he began, after work, to frequent public meetings and progressive groups and quickly became wholly committed to revolutionary propaganda.

But even then, merely speculative, idealist anarchism left his pronounced social sensibilities unsatisfied and, as early as 1879, he was involved in the foundation in Paris of the first shop assistants' union. Such was Pouget's single-mindedness as an activist that he soon got his trade union to publish the earliest of anti-militarist pamphlets. Needless to say, it had been penned by our syndicalist and let me add that it would be unpublishable today on account both of the vehemence of his text and of the advice with which it was punctuated.

In and around 1882-1883, unemployment was pretty bad in Paris, so much so that on March 8, 1883 the cabinet-makers' chamber of trade invited the unemployed to an open air meeting scheduled to be held on the Esplanade des Invalides.

Naturally, the meeting was quickly broken up by the police, but two sizable groups of demonstrators formed: one set off for the Elysee palace, only to be dispersed quickly; the other, which included Louise Michel2 and Pouget, raced towards the Boulevard Saint-Germain. A bakery in the Rue de Four was pretty well stripped bare.

Nevertheless, the demonstration carried on and it was only on arrival in the Place Maubert that it confronted a significant force of police. When the police rushed forward to arrest Louise Michel, Pouget did what he could to free her: he in turn was arrested and marched off to the station.

A few days later, he was brought before the assizes on the incorrect charge of armed robbery. Louise was sentenced to twelve years in prison, and Pouget to eight years, a sentence he was to serve in the criminal prison in Melun. He remained there for fully three years and an amnesty granted after pressure from Rochefort3 ensured that he was then released. Prison, however, had not cowed the militant.

Le Père Peinard
February 24, 1889 saw the publication of the very first edition of Le Père Peinard in small pamphlet form, reminiscent of Rochefort's La Lanterne and written in the picturesque style of Hubert's Père Duchene, but in a more proletarian style.

( ... ) Pouget's little pamphlets met with a success difficult to appreciate today. During the life-span of Le Père Peinard -- and then La Sociale -- there was real proletarian agitation in certain workers' centres and I could name ten or twenty workers' districts, like Trélazé or Fourchambault, where the whole movement dwindled to nothing once the pamphlets stopped coming out.

In Paris in particular, among the cabinet-makers in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, the trade union movement lasted just as long as Le Père Peinard did. In the years 1891-1893, a little campaigning sheet called Le Pot-à-Colle was published there, imitating the style.

( ... ) Pouget's anarchism is above all primarily proletarian. Right from the earliest issues of Le Père Peinard, he was praising strike movements and the May 1st editions were wholly given over to encouragement to the "lads" to get involved: "May 1st is an occasion that can be put to good use. All that is required is that our brothers, the troopers, should disobey their orders as they did in February 1848 and March 18, 1871 and that would be that."

He was one of the first to grasp the potential of the idea of the general strike and as early as 1889 he was writing:

Yes, by God, there is nothing else for it today, but the general strike!

Look what would happen if the coal was to run out in a fortnight. Factories would grind to a halt, the big towns would run out of gas and the railways would be at a standstill.

All of a sudden, virtually the whole population would be idle. Which would give it time to reflect; it would realise that it is being robbed blind by the employers and yes, it might shake them up in double quick order!

And again:

So once the miners are all out and the strike would be all but general, by God, let them set to beavering away on their own account: the mine is theirs, stolen from them by the moneybags: let them snatch back what is theirs, double-quick. Come the day when they've had enough arsing about, there'll be a crop of good guys who will raise a storm like this and then! by Père Peinard, we'll have the beginning of the end!

A Great Proletarian Pamphleteer
But while the labour movement occupies a prime position, Pouget subjects every other aspect of the social question to the fine scrutiny of his implacable censure: he overlooks none of the blights of bourgeois society: one huge bank, the Comptoir d'Escompte, had just gone bust: it is worth quoting his article "The gabbers" in its entirety:

Those in government, cake-guzzlers and financiers, blackguards and sidekicks they are! Take today: it has been decided that there will be an inquiry. Let me have the system of '89, which was better. Thus, in July '89, Berthier de Sauvigny was strung up on a street lamp and another of his cronies, Foullon4 , was massacred. When are we going to get around to reviving that system for popping the clogs of the whole Rothschild and Schneider clique?

The excitement on the streets never left him cold.

Thus: "At home with our pals next door"; "In addition to the lads from Germany who are strutting around with bravado, the Macaronis are socking it to their big landlords and the Serbian and Bulgarian peasants, whom our hack journalists describe as brigands, are pitching into the bigwigs. And even the Brits, for all their phlegm and namy-pamby airs, have had their little strike." Next came the "military nincompoops," criticism directed at the army, the "dirty work in the barracks" and an all-out assault -- and how! -- against the army and militarism.

"In the Palace of Injustice" takes on the bench and class justice and all I can say is that it too gets the treatment it deserves.

But that is not all. Every murmur of public opinion triggered an article, a special edition, for Pouget, above all else, had a real talent for propaganda and what needed to be said to the crowd.

The drawing of lots was one good excuse, as were the anniversaries of the Commune or of July 14, and the relevant issue of Le Père Peinard often carried a pull-out poster5 . Nothing that roused public opinion, however trivial, left him indifferent. Because Pouget was, above all, a born reporter.

But where his polemics took a more personal turn - which was not exclusive to him, for it was typical of all the anarchists of the day - was in his criticisms of parliamentarism and the whole machinery of State.

What Pouget and the anarchists of his day were reviving in fact were the old tussles of the First International, between libertarian socialism on the one hand, represented by Bakunin, and Marx's authoritarian socialism on the other.

Guesde, the best of the representatives of the authoritarian socialism of the day, Pouget's bete noire, who gave as good as he got, used to go around everywhere shouting: "You working class! Send half of the deputies to Parliament plus one and the Revolution will not be far off a fait accompli." To which Pouget and his friends retorted: "Band together into your trades societies, into your unions and take over the workshops."

Two approaches which then and now pitted libertarian and authoritarian socialists one against the other, sometimes violently.

And when Pouget turned to illustrating his argument, the polemics were mordant. Judge for yourself. "These blessed elections are scheduled for Sunday! Naturally there is no shortage of candidates - there is something for every taste and in every hue; a sow could not pick out her own farrow. But by God while the candidates' colours and labels may alter, one thing never changes: The patter! Reactionaries, republicans, Boulangists, socialists, etc. - they all promise the people that they'll work themselves to death!"

And there was a virulent poster to expand upon this line of argument.

But such propaganda, conducted with so much vigour, was certainly not without drawbacks. Prosecutions came hot and heavy and while his editors might escape, Pouget too served his time in Saint-Pelagie, the prison of the day, not that that stopped Le Père Peinard from appearing, as his colleagues took it in turns to collect his copy from inside prison itself.

A period of such intense agitation - and, it must be said, not just that had driven a number of individuals over the edge; a series of attentats followed, culminating in the assassination of President Carnot6 in Lyons.

Whipped up by its servile press, the bourgeoisie was so spooked that it could see no way of salvation other than the passing by Parliament of a series of repressive laws quite properly described, once the panic had subsided, as lois scélérates (blackguardly laws).

Arrests followed the hundreds of house searches carried out across the country and a great trial, known as the "Trial of the Thirty" was mounted.

Pouget and quite a few other comrades put some distance between themselves and their would-be judges. For him, it was the start of his exile and February 21, 1894 saw the publication of the 253rd and final edition of the first run of Le Père Peinard.

He fled to London, where he found Louise Michel7 . It would be a mistake to believe that our comrade was about to stop, and in September that very same year the first issue of the London run of Le Père Peinard appeared. Eight issues appeared, the last in January 1895. But exile was no solution. The bourgeoisie was feeling a little more reassured and Pouget went home to face the music, and was acquitted, as were all of his co-accused in the "Trial of the Thirty."

None of these adventures had changed the militant's fervour one iota; on May 11 the same year, Le Père Peinard's successor La Sociale came out. For a number of reasons, its founder was unable for the time being to resurrect the former title (which reappeared only in October 1896).

What are we to say of Pouget's two newborn creations, except that in terms of the intensity of their propaganda they were the match of their older brother? There was the same courage, more than courage indeed, for the "blackguardly laws"8 made difficulties even worse, and there was the same effrontery. It is from this period that the celebrated Almanachs du Père Peinard date, as do numerous propaganda pamphlets, one of which, Les Variations Guesdistes (Guesdist Zig-zagging) under Pouget's own signature created something of a sensation in socialist political circles.

Come the Dreyfus Affair, Pouget again could not help commenting. He threw himself into the fray, but his goal was to demand justice also for anarchists deported for penal servitude and perishing on Devil's Island, which was a destination specially reserved for them. Through his many articles and the pamphlet Les Lois scélérates (co-written with Francis de Pressense), he successfully captured the attention of the masses, and the government of the day was obliged to release some of the survivors of a supposed revolt adroitly staged in advance by the prison administration.

"La Voix du Peuple"
We come now to the year 1898. The General Confederation of Labour (CGT) was growing and growing and assuring an ever greater significance in society.

At Pouget's instigation, the Toulouse Congress (1897) had adopted a significant report on Boycotting and Sabotage offering the working class a novel weapon of struggle.

Finally, and this was his most cherished idea, he had dreamt of equipping the working class with a fighting journal written entirely by interested parties. An initial commitment to this had been forthcoming at the Toulouse Congress, and had been reiterated by the Rennes Congress. What the comrades had in mind at that point was a daily newspaper, a project which they were later forced to abandon in the light of all sorts of financial difficulties.

No matter. The idea had been floated and we would do well to remember here that it was also thanks to Pouget's tenacity that the first edition of La Voix du Peuple appeared on December 1, 1900.

Pouget, who had been appointed assistant secretary of the CGT, Federations branch, was in charge of getting the newspaper out each week. Thanks to his dogged efforts and with the aid of Fernand Pelloutier, the working class for the first time ever had a newspaper all of its very own.

( ... ) It would be an easy matter for me, with the aid of a complete run of La Voix du Peuple to rehearse, one by one, the campaigns of all sorts, the struggle against the placement offices, the campaign for a weekly rest day, the eight hour day and the battles against all manner of iniquities, in which the name of Emile Pouget continually crops up in the forefront of the battle.

The entire working class fought through his pen.

However, I have to recall those splendid and unforgettable special editions on "Drawing lots" or "May the first," conceived and presented in such a way that it is no exaggeration to say that such intensity of propaganda has never been outdone.

Let me recall too the campaign for the eight hour working day, culminating in May 1, 1906: One has to have lived through those times alongside Pouget to appreciate what propagandistic science - and no, that does not strike me as too strong a word for it - he deployed then. With the aid of his alter ego Victor Griffuelhes9 , over a period of nearly two years, he was able to come up with something new every time to hold spellbound a mass of workers occasionally overly inclined to self-doubt. So there is no exaggeration in saying that, wherever it was able to enforce its will entirely, the working class enjoyed the eight hour day and owes that, in no small part, to Emile Pouget. One need only review the succession of CGT congresses between 1896 and 1907 to get the measure of the profound influence that he wielded over those labour gatherings. His reports, his speeches and above all his effective work on working parties are still the most reliable index of syndicalism's debt to him. Might I recall that in Amiens he wielded the pen and that the motion which to this day remains the charter of authentic syndicalism is partly his handiwork?10

Apart from the many brochures written by him, we ought also to remember his contributions to many little labour newspapers as well as his great articles in Hubert Lagardelle's11 Le Mouvement socialiste, studies so substantial that they cannot be ignored in any future examination of the origins and methods of the syndicalist movement in France that may wish to probe beneath the surface.

"La Revolution," Villeneuve-Saint-Georges and Retirement
( ... ) Pouget had a life-long obsession with a daily newspaper, but it had to be a proletarian newspaper reflecting the aspirations of the working class only. This is what he had in mind when, with other comrades, he launched La Révolution. Griffuelhes had a hand in it, as did Monatte12 . Unfortunately, it takes a lot of money to keep a daily newspaper afloat and the anticipated help was not forthcoming. After a few months, La Révolution was forced to shut down. It was one of the greatest disappointments he had in his life, watching the foundering of a creation for which he had yearned so fervently.

I might stop at this point, but I have to recall the Draveil-Villeneuve-Saint-Georges affair. Indeed, with hindsight, it really does appear that this miserable and dismal episode was desired by Clemenceau13 . That moreover was Griffuelhes's view, as well as Pouget's. Prosecutions were mounted against a number of militants, of whom Pouget, of course, was one. But after more than two months spent in Corbeil prison, the charges had to be dropped and there is no exaggeration in saying that had it come to trial, the stigma would doubtless not have attached itself to those in the dock.

But even then the health of Pouget, who is a good ten years older than us, was beginning to leave something to be desired.

In the long run, the struggle - as he understood the term - consumed the man to some extent. For him rest consisted of starting back to working for a living and right up until the day when illness laid him low, he never stopped working, despite his seventy one years14 .

  • 1Paul Delesalle (1870-1948), former steel-worker, anarchist and revolutionary syndicalist: contributed to Les Temps nouveaux, then was elected secretary of the Federation of the Bourses du Travail until 1907: later publisher and revolutionary book-seller. This text has been taken from Le Cri du People of July 29 and August 5, 1931.
  • 2On Louise Michel see note 7 below.
  • 3Henri Rochefort (Marquis de Rochefort-Luzay, 1830-1913), journalist and pamphleteer: mounted lively opposition to the Empire from his weekly paper La Lanterne. Deputy of the Commune in 1871.
  • 4Joseph Foullon (1717-1789) comptroller-general of finances, hanged and then beheaded after the fall of the Bastille.
  • 5A number of placards and posters under the title of " Le Père Peinard au Populo" had a print run in excess of 20,000 copies, and I could cite more than thirty such. (Note by Paul Delesalle)
  • 6Sadi Carnot (1837-1894) President of the French Republic, assassinated in Lyons by the Italian anarchist Caserio.
  • 7Louise Michel (1830-1905) teacher and indomitable anarchist militant: she participated in the Paris Commune of 1871, was deported and later pardoned.
  • 8The "blackguardly" laws, designed to stamp out anarchist terrorist activity were passed after Auguste Vaillant's outrage in 1894. Auguste Vaillant (1861-1894), anarchist, enfant de la balle, Jack of all trades, was guillotined after throwing a bomb into the benches of the Chamber of Deputies on December 9, 1893.
  • 9Victor Griffuelhes (1874-1923) one-time cobbler, at first a Blanquist, he became a revolutionary syndicalist: general secretary of the CGT from 1902 to 1909.
  • 10The Charter of Amiens (1906), in which revolutionary syndicalism proclaimed itself independent of political parties.
  • 11Hubert Lagardelle (1875-1958), lawyer, began as a Guesdist, then became founder of Le Mouvement socialiste (1899-1914), a theoretical revolutionary syndicalist review: author of the remarkable book Le socialisme français. He ended up a minister under Marshal Petain.
  • 12Pierre Monatte (1881-1960), proof-reader, contributed to the anarchist review Les Temps nouveaux then, having become a revolutionary syndicalist, joined the CGT's pre-1914 Confederal Committee: he founded the review La Vie ouvriere which lasted from 1909 to 1914. In 1923 he joined the French Communist Party and became editor of the social affairs page in l'Humanite. He was expelled from the Party in November 1924, whereupon he launched La Revolution Proletarienne, organ of the Ligue syndicaliste. See Syndicalisme revolutionnaire et communisme, les archives de Pierre Monatte (1969).
  • 13In 1908 strikes in Draveil and Villeneuve-Saint-Georges were crushed with bloodshed by the government of Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), after which the leaders of the CGT were arrested.
  • 14In 1920, in the village of Lozere (Palaiseau) a pauper's hearse, followed by Pierre Monatte, Maurice Chambelland and a few others, myself (Daniel Guérin) among them, bore Emile Pouget to his final resting place.