“Workers Parties” and Trade Unions
We should not allow ourselves to be deceived: at the precise moment that some obscure members of the collectivist faction asserted their revolutionary faith at the “congress of Proudhonian cooperators and mutualists,” and showed the trade union centers how displeased they were about the desire of the workers groups to provide proofs of their excessive moderation in their confrontation with the State and capital, the leaders of the newborn socialist party had already modified their own principles and tactics. Inspired by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, they had clandestinely elaborated a new plan of action, and when the third workers congress opened in Marseilles in 1879, all the conditions were in place for a definitive break between socialists and syndicalists, so that the former were able to eliminate from the party all those who continued to reject Marx’s theory of the conquest of political power.
The Marseilles congress approved the constitution of the Workers Party with a dual program: political and economic. The political program (the principal object of interest to the Workers Party’s founders) involved the following demands: abolition of all laws restricting the press, assembly and association, suppression of the personal police identification pass, suppression of religious privileges and the return to the nation of the so-called “dead hand” [manus mortua] properties owned by religious corporations; also, repudiation of the public debt, abolition of the standing army, and the arming of the people; it also sought communal rule over the government administration and the police. The economic program (which was of secondary importance and whose primary goal was to win over the working masses to the overriding objective of “the collective appropriation of the means of production”), contained the following demands: that a law be passed mandating a maximum working week of six days, the legal establishment of a minimum wage, a law to prevent business owners from hiring foreign workers at a lower wage than French workers; it also demanded the scientific and professional training of all children by the State and the Municipalities, etc. Having just been born, the Party essentially demanded, in political affairs, the purification or, in other words, the moralization of the State; in economic affairs, it demanded the extension of the State’s powers to the most extreme limits of individual freedom.
Although it was the work of intelligent and educated men, this program, as one can see, displayed an uncommon simplicity; it also manifests a noteworthy degree of archaism, since the majority of its points had already been adopted by various republican fractions which, at one time or another, especially after 1848, had their sights set on taking power. On the other hand, it did possess the dual advantage of relieving its supporters of the necessity of any mental efforts and of placing the onus for any responsibility for defeat squarely on their shoulders. Strictly speaking, these goals were subordinated to the conquest of political power. But what had to be done to consummate this taking of power? The proletariat must be organized in a distinct political party, that is, a sufficient number of voters must be rallied to socialism in order to obtain an absolute majority in parliament. The activity required to achieve this goal (which could take many years) must henceforth be limited to carrying on a discussion, in party journals and publications and electoral rallies, on the 17 articles of the program, and to facilitate this task it was enough to “put at the disposal of all the party’s militants an arsenal for their everyday struggle against the prevailing system, so they can learn the program article by article, sentence by sentence, and demonstrate its correctness from both the scientific and tactical points of view.”
As for the economic education of the proletariat, the molding of its spirit of initiative, its adaptation to the purposes of a socialist institution—all of that was mere stupidity!
“Social emancipation subordinated to the collective appropriation of the means of production; and this appropriation subordinated to the revolutionary action of the proletariat organized in a distinct socialist party.” This is what matters. “It is our duty, as Filippo Turati says, to be the guide which follows the development of the bedrock foundations of the class struggle.”
Despite its simplicity, this program encountered an unforeseen obstacle. Not requiring the least reflection or any study, promising anyone who would take up this easy message a success like that of street-corner snake oil salesmen, it provided an easy opening to any ambition and attracted every sort of mediocrity. Every one of the men at the highest levels of the Party therefore aspired to sole leadership of its collective activity. And on the pretext that a division of forces was the precondition for the growth of the Party, it was not long before some of them separated from the Party, bringing with them their faithful followers so as to construct tiny unprincipled sects.
What happened? For one thing, the propagandists, worried more about electoral numbers than about the actual value of such numbers, and believing (perhaps in all good faith) that the election of an important candidate would be enough to define, in the absence of principles, electoral success, did not hesitate to attenuate the Party’s transitional program, deleting one or another article according to the place or circumstance. Also, the masses, ignorant of real socialist principles, only see the candidates of the new party as a new category of aspiring politicians, not unlike the radicals and lacking the prestige, at that time undeniable, of the deputies of the extreme left. Furthermore, the main body of voters, for whom the word “socialism” was nothing new, abstained from entrusting their votes to a handful of unknowns, thus placing the Party in the position of being incapable of delivering any of its promised benefits.
Even if the legislature were to pass “social” legislation, this could not prevent the parliamentarism advocated by the party from being completely discredited. The paths of experience had convinced the people not only of the insufficiency or inapplicability of such laws, but also that any other outcome was impossible as long as men and money were placed above the law, with all powers subordinated to them, legal as well as political and (also through a lack of such prerogatives), which granted them the possibility of influencing the class which produces the burdens of the laws. This was demonstrated by, for example, the case of the law of May 19, 1874 on child and adolescent labor, as well as the law of July 12, 1880, which abolished the prohibition mandated by the law of November 18, 1874, for certain times of year; also in reference to the law of February 1883, which reasserted the law of September 9, 1848, concerning the length of the working day and which was never enforced; or the law of December 19, 1889, which provided for exceptions to Article 1 of the law of September 1848; the decree of the Council of State dated March 21, 1890, on municipal labor; the law of July 8, 1890, concerning protection for minors; and finally, the law of November 2, 1892, on female and underage labor.
None of these laws were enforced due to the hypocrisy and the vivid imagination of the capitalists (who were always ready to replace any prohibited methods of exploitation with other methods which were even more oppressive) and they contributed to the enlightenment of the men who were members of the diverse fractions of the Party concerning the value of parliamentary action. Gradually, but continuously, key elements became conscious of these facts, the members of the more moderate groups established contacts with the more revolutionary groups, and, once they were enlightened, they devoted themselves wholeheartedly to economic action, and slowly came to reject any kind of legislative action. They were later replaced by petit bourgeois elements eager to prosper at the expense of the masses and to shine in the game of politics.
In short, within the process of the rebirth of the world of labor, two conceptions of the mode of organization and struggle for the socialist movement were presented as alternatives. One of them, professing man to be ignorant and a creature of routine (despite its understanding of the economic domain), and inspired solely by visible facts, considered the State to be the indispensable instrument for social advancement and therefore demonstrated its support for increasing its authority, adding to its current prerogatives authority over the production and distribution of the public wealth.
The other alternative was supported by men whose intuition made up for their lack of economic science and who based themselves (along the lines of Proudhon) on the idea that social functions should be and must be limited to the satisfaction of human needs of every kind and that the State’s sole reason for existence is exclusively the protection of superfluous or harmful interests. For this reason they concluded by seeking the replacement of the State with the free association of producers. The first concept called for the systematic, yet legal, conquest of every electoral post and the replacement of capitalist political personalities by socialist political personalities, thus bringing about the transformation of the economic system. The second concept spoke of mutualism, cooperation, credit and association, and asserted that the proletariat possesses in itself the instrument of its own emancipation.
One could undoubtedly have reproached the trade unions for being too lukewarm. They denied that they were capable of advocating socialism and very nearly celebrated the sudden defeat of the revolutionaries in May 1871. They openly sought the means to “reconcile capital and labor” and attempted to do so by appealing to the good sense of both parties and by moderating wage levels so as to always be adjusted to the cost of living. They also tried to use labor’s own funds to obtain sufficient protection against unemployment, accidents, illness and old age. The trade unions, which had always rejected any kind of society of resistance, limited their ambition to the institution of arbitration committees responsible for resolving professional questions in cooperation with the employers, and organizing comprehensive technical training which would allow the workers to become technical specialists and to master all the secrets of their trades. This was intended to offer the nation’s industry a competitive advantage which would, with the increase in sales prices, lead also to an increase in wages. The principal goal of the Association of consumers cooperatives was reducing the prices of necessities; the Association of production cooperatives sought to raise small groups of workers into the ranks of the owners; the mutual benefits society, funds for strikes, for travel, etc.; all that was sought was to obtain some protection for the worker, to provide a safeguard for him which he had to create by his own efforts and the members of these societies went down on their knees in gratitude whenever an employer was compelled to proclaim his personal concern in his relations with the workers.
But just as the authors of the socialist program, despite their economic erudition, proved to be inept economists in their work by dealing arrogantly with the workers associations, they also underestimated them without totally ignoring them in the confrontations which arose as a result of the normal tendency of humanity to renew its ideas and opinions, the outcome of progress. Those who asserted that, within the capitalist regime, any kind of reconciliation between capital and labor was impossible, the same people who proclaimed that the class struggle was unavoidable, did not take into account the fact that it was the course of events itself which would take care of modifying the moderate resolutions approved by the workers associations, and that this would permit them to be won over to socialism after a certain period of time. Nor did they notice that the members of the workers associations had a preference for practical and personal experience as against the formulas of the parties, and it was perhaps advisable from the political point of view to treat them with kid gloves, so that, once the day of their adherence to socialism had arrived, the party could reinforce its political organization (should the workers associations join the party) by the use of its administrative organization.
As a consequence of these errors the administrative differences between the Party and the workers associations became more profound. Now and then some socialists sought to bring about an understanding, but the failure of this policy became more evident every day and the dissensions introduced into the trade union milieu by the debates concerning electoral action dissuaded the trade unionists from joining a partnership in which they confusedly perceived themselves to be victims. The Party’s leaders were trying to subject the trade unions to their will and they asserted that economic emancipation would not be the cause, but the consequence, of political emancipation. The efforts of the two forms of proletarian struggle would therefore remain separate, and would later become openly antagonistic.