2) Origin of Sabotage

Submitted by Ed on November 19, 2010


UP to fifteen years ago the term SABOTAGE as nothing but a slang word, not meaning "to make wooden shoes" as it may be imagined but, in a figurative way. TO WORK CLUMSILY AS IF BY SABOT1 BLOWS.

Since then the word was transformed into a new form of social warfare and at the Congress of Toulouse of the General Confederation of Labor in 1897 received at last its syndical baptism. The new term was not at first accepted by the working class with the warmest enthusiasm - some even saw it with mistrust, reproaching it not only for its humble origin but also its - immorality.

Nevertheless, despite all these prejudices which seemed almost hostilities, SABOTAGE went steadily on its way around the world. It has now the full sympathy of the workers.

More still, it has secured its rights of citizenship in the Larousse2 and there is no doubt that the Academy (unless it is itself "saboted" before arriving at the letter S of its dictionary) will have to bow to the word SABOTAGE its most ceremonious curtsey and open to it the pages of its official sanctum.

However, it would be a mistake to believe that the working class waited to apply sabotage until this new weapon of economic action had been consecrated by the confederation congress.

Sabotage as a form of revolt is as old as human exploitation.

Since the day a man had the criminal ability to profit by another man's labour, since that very same day the exploited toiler has instinctively tried to give to his master less than was demanded from him. In this wise the worker was unconsciously doing SABOTAGE, demonstrating in an indirect way the irrepressible antagonism that arrays Capital and Labor one against the other.

This unavoidable consequence of the conflict that divides society was brought to light three quarters of a century ago by Balzac in his "Maison Nucingen," apropos of the bloody riots of Lyons in 1831. He has given us a clear and incisive definition of SABOTAGE.

"Much has been said," writes Balzac, "of the Lyons revolt and of the Republic shot down in the streets but nobody has said the truth. The Republic had seized the movement just as a rebel seizes a gun. The commerce of Lyons is a commerce without courage it does not manufacture an ounce of silk without its being demanded and promptly paid for. When the demand is low the worker starves - when he works he has barely enough to live on. The galley slaves are happier than he is.

"After the July revolution, poverty had reached such a stage that the workers raised a flag with this motto: Bread or Death - a flag which the government should have seriously considered. Instead of that, Lyons wanted to build theatres to become a capital - hence a senseless squandering of money.

"The republicans smelled through the increasing misery the coming revolt and organised the spinners who fought a double battle. Lyons had its three days, then order prevailed again and the beggar went back to his kennel.

"The spinner who had up to then transformed into threads the silk that was weighed to him in cocoons, put fairness out of the door and began to oil his fingers. Of course, he gave back with fastidious scrupulosity the exact weight but the silk was all stained with oil and the silk market was thus infested with defective merchandise which could have caused the ruin of Lyons and the loss of a goodly share of the French commerce.

Balzac had been careful to bring out that the spinners' sabotage was nothing but a reprisal of victims. By putting oil in the spindles the workers were getting even with the heartless manufacturers who had promised them bayonets to eat instead of bread and had so lavishly kept their promise.

Indeed, when isn't an act of sabotage the equivalent and consequence of a suffered wrong?

Isn't perhaps in the origin and causes of each act of sabotage revealed the capitalist exploitation which often reaches to cruelty?

And this reaction against exploitation, in whatever condition it manifests itself, isn't it even too an attitude or action of revolt whatever form it may take? And here we are brought back to our affirmation that sabotage is as old as human exploitation.

Neither must it be believed that sabotage is a product with a Parisian trade mark. It is, indeed, if anything, a theory of English importation and it has been practiced across the Channel for a long time under the name of "Go Cannie" - a Scotch expression which means literally "Go slow."

An example of the persuasive efficiency of the "Go Cannie" is given by the periodical, "The Social Museum":

"In 1889 the Glasgow dockers went on strike asking an increase of two cents an hour.

"The contractors and stevedores flatly refused and imported at great expense a considerable number of farm hands to take the place of the strikers, with the conclusion that the dockers had to give up the fight and return to work on the same conditions.

"Just before resuming work their general secretary gathered them once again and said: 'Boys, you must go back today on the same scale of wages prevailing before.

"The contractors have expressed and repeated all their satisfaction for the work done by the farmers who have scabbed on us during these last weeks. We have seen them at work and know full well what kind of satisfactory work was theirs we saw indeed that they could not even keep their balance on the bridges and saw how they dropped in the sea half the cargo they loaded and unloaded. In one word, we have seen that two of them could not do as much work as one of us. Nevertheless, the bosses said they were satisfied with their labour, therefore, we have one thing left yet; let us give them the same kind of labour. Work then just like the farm hands did they often pushed their incapacity to the point of falling overboard, but it is not necessary for you to do this, of course."

These instructions were scrupulously followed, and the dockers applied the "Go Cannie" theory to the point. After a few days the contractors called the general secretary of the longshoremen and begged him to induce the dockers to work the same as before, declaring themselves ready to grant the two cents increase.

Passing from a practical to a theoretical example. It is interesting to quote a few pages from an English pamphlet published in 1895 for the purpose of popularising the "Go Cannie."

"If you want to buy a hat worth $2.00 you must pay $2.00. If you want to spend only $1.50 you must be satisfied with an inferior quality. A hat is a commodity. If you want to buy half a dozen of shirts at fifty cents each you must pay $3.00. If you want to spend only $2.50 you can only have five shirts.

"Now the bosses declare that labour and skill are nothing but commodities, like hats and shirts.

"Very well - we answer - we'll take you at your word. If labour and skill are commodities, their owners have a right to sell them like the hatter sells hats and the haberdasher sells shirts. These merchants give a certain value in exchange for an equivalent value. For the lower price you will have an article of either a lower quality or a smaller quantity. Give the worker a fair wage and he will furnish you his best labour at its highest skill.

"On the other hand, give the worker an insufficient wage and you forfeit your right to demand the best and the most of his labour, any more than you can demand a two dollar hat for one dollar."

The "Go Cannie" consists then in systematically applying the formula: "Bad wages, bad labour." Not only that. From this formula there are derived, as a logical consequence, various manifestations of the proletarian will in conflict with the capitalist.

This tactic, which is today widely diffused in England, where it has been advocated and practiced by the labour organisations, could not delay long to cross the Channel and establish itself in France - as it cannot delay to cross the Alps and expand from France to Italy. Accordingly, shortly after 1889 we find its first manifestation in France.

The National Railwaymen's Union was at the time engaged in a campaign against the Merlin Trarieux Railway bill which aimed at depriving the railway workers of their right to unite.

The question of answering with the general strike to the passing of the bill was being discussed. Guerard, secretary of the Railwaymen's Union, delivered a categorical and precise speech. He affirmed that the Railwaymen would not stop at any means to defend their syndical liberty and made allusion to an ingenious and cheap method of combat.

"With two cents worth of a certain ingredient, utilised in a peculiar way" - he declared - "it will be easy for the Railwaymen to put the locomotives in such a condition as to make it impossible to run them."

This clear and blunt affirmation, which was opening new and unforeseen fields of struggle, raised a great roar and a deep commotion in the ranks of the employers and the government, which were already perceiving, not without terror, the consequences of a general strike of the railway workers.

If, however, with the declaration of Guerard, the question of Sabotage was openly confronted, it would not be exact to assume that it had been practiced in France before then.

To prove this it suffices to recall the typical example of a "trick" which has remained famous in telegraphic centres. Towards 1881, the operators of the central office, dissatisfied with the wage scale for night overtime, sent up a petition to the minister of Post and Telegraphs 70 of that time, M. Cochery, asking for ten francs instead of five which they were then paid for work ranging from six p. m. to seven a. m. They vainly waited a few days for an answer from the administration, and having been informed that it would never come, a sullen agitation and anger began to circulate amongst them.

A strike being impossible, they resorted to a trick.

One fine morning Paris awoke to find out that all telegraphic connections were cut off. (Telephones had not yet been installed.) This continued for four or five days.

The higher personnel of the administration, with engineers and numerous squads of foremen and mechanics invaded the central office to inspect minutely every apparatus, battery wire, etc., from the front door to the cellar, but, strange enough, they could not find the cause of the trouble.

Five days after this memorable and wonderful "accident," a notice from the administration informed the operators that from that day on the night service would be paid ten francs instead of five.

They had not asked for more. "The next day all the lines were again buzzing as by magic. The authors of the miraculous trick were never found out by the administration which, if it guessed the motive, was never able to guess the means employed."3

The die was now cast.

"Sabotage," which up to that time had been applied unconsciously and instinctively by the workers, with the popular name which has remained attached to it begins in 1895 to receive its baptism, its theoretical consecration and to take its place amongst the other means of social warfare, recognised, approved, advocated and practiced by the labour unions.

In 1897 the Confederation Congress was held at Toulouse. The Prefect of the Seine had refused to the delegates of the Municipal Workers' Union the leave they were asking in order to attend the Congress. The federated unions of the Seine justly protested, qualifying this denial as an open attack on the right to organise.

The impeachment of the Prefect was called for during a session of the Congress and a vote of censure against him was immediately and unanimously taken. One of the delegates (who was none other than Emile Pouget), remarked that the Prefect would not care a fig for the censure and protest of the workers and added:

"Instead of protesting, it were much better to resort to action. Instead of bending our heads to the orders and injunctions of the ruling classes, it would be much more effective to retaliate. Why not answer a slap with a kick?" And Emile Pouget added that his remarks were derived from a tactic of combat which the Congress would be called to pass on in a short while. He cited on this score the emotion and fright with which the capitalist world had been stricken when Comrade Guerard had declared that the ridiculous sum of two cents, intelligently spent, would have been sufficient to enable a railway man to stop and put out of running condition a whole train propelled by powerful engines, and concluded with this proposition:

"The Congress, considering as superfluous any blame to the Government, which merely exercises its natural functions, invites the municipal workers to produce one hundred thousand francs of damage to the service in order to reward the Prefect for his veto."

This declaration of Pouget exploded like a bomb. At first there was a great stupefaction amongst the delegates themselves, who did not immediately grasp the purposely fearless and challenging meaning of the proposition then many protested. A pure and simple resolution buried the proposition.

But what did it matter? Its aim had been reached; the attention of the Congress had been called to this subject, discussion was opened and reflection sharpened.

Thus the report that the committee on Boycott and SABOTAGE submitted some days later to the Assembly was received with the greatest and most helpful sympathy.

In the said report, after having defined and explained SABOTAGE, the Committee added: "Up to now the workers have confirmed their revolutionary attitude, but most of the time they have remained on purely theoretical ground. They have worked for the diffusion of the idea of emancipation and elaborated a plan of future society from which human exploitation is eliminated. But why, along with this educational and unquestionably necessary propaganda, was nothing done or tried to resist the counter attacks of the capitalists, so as to render less hard to the workers the greedy demands of their employers? Our meetings always adjourn with the cry of 'Long live the Social Revolution' a cry that is very far from materialising in any way whatever. It is indeed to be deplored that our congresses, while they always reaffirm their revolutionary standing, have not yet elaborated any practical revolutionary means and methods out of the orbit of words, and entered the field of action. Of things revolutionary, so far, we have as yet found and applied only the strike - and it is the strike alone that we continually resort to. Now this committee believes that there are other means besides the strike whereby we can checkmate the capitalists."

One of these means is the boycott - only the committee argued that it was insufficient against the manufacturer. It was necessary, therefore, to find something else. And here sabotage appears.

We quote from the same report that "this tactic comes from England, where it has rendered a great service in the struggle of the English workers against their masters."

And here the committee, after having quoted from the pamphlet for the popularisation of the "Go Cannie," which we have referred to above, continued:

"It is left to define under what aspects we can recommend SABOTAGE to the French workers and how they can ultimately put it in practice. We all know that the employing manufacturers in order to increase our slavery always select those moments in which it is most difficult for us to resist their compulsion. Being unable to strike under conditions of extreme misery and disorganisation the workers must often bow their heads and submit. With sabotage, instead, they are no longer at the mercy of their bosses - they are no more a heap of nerveless flesh to be trampled upon with impunity. They have found a means whereby they can affirm their own virility and prove to their oppressors that even the toilers are men.

"On the other hand sabotage is not as new as it would appear at first sight.

"Since the world began the workers have applied it individually, in spite of a lack of method. By sheer instinct they have always slackened their output, when the employer augmented his requirements. Without even being conscious of it, every worker more or less realises the watchword of sabotage: 'For bad wages, bad work.' It can be said that in many industries that the substitution of piece work for day work is principally due to sabotage. If this tactic has already brought practical results, what will it not bring the day when it shall have become an organised menace?

"Nor must it be assumed that the bosses, by substituting piece work for day work, have insured themselves against sabotage. This tactic is by no means limited to work by the day - it can, in fact, be equally applied to piece work. Only in this case, the line of action is different.

"To reduce the output would, of course, mean to reduce the wages - therefore, sabotage must be applied to the quality rather than the quantity of products.

"In this way the worker not only does not return to the employer a labour effort greater than the wages he gets, but will also strike at his trade (customers), which is the only thing that allows the employer to indefinitely enlarge his capital - the basis of exploitation of the working class.

"By this method the exploiter will be forced to capitulate and either grant the demand of the workers or surrender the instruments of production into the hands of their sole legitimate owners. Two instances of piece work we are generally confronted with: the case in which work is done at home with tools supplied by the worker himself, and the other when work is performed in the employer's shop where the tools and machines belong to the boss himself.

"In the latter case, to sabotage on the goods can be added sabotage on the instruments of production.

"And herein is explained the tremendous emotion that shook the capitalist class at the first announcement of sabotage.

"It is necessary for the capitalists to know that the worker will not respect the machine until it has become his friend that will reduce his physical labour instead of being, as it is today, the enemy that steals his bread and shortens his life."

As a conclusion to this report the committee proposed to the congress the following resolution:

"Whenever an open conflict breaks out between employers and workers, whether determined by the exigencies of the former or the demands of the latter, in case the strike be recognised as insufficient and inadequate, the workers are advised and recommended to apply boycott and sabotage - both simultaneously - regulating themselves according to the aforesaid considerations."

The reading of this report was received with the applause of the Convention. More than an approval, it met with veritable enthusiasm. All the delegates were conquered - not a single discordant voice was raised to criticise or make a single objection, or observation whatever.

The delegate of the Federation of Printing Trades was not amongst the less enthusiastic. He approved unreservedly the proposed tactics and made it plain in precise terms, of which we have but this cold record in the minutes of the Congress:

"All means are good in order to win. I may add that there are quite a number of them whereby we can reach our goal - easy to apply, provided it is done with care and ability. I mean to say with these words that there are things that must be done but not spoken of. You understand me.

"I know that if I were more explicit I would; be asked whether I have the right to do this or that thing - but if we continue to do only what we are allowed to do, we will never come to anything.

"Once a revolutionary method is adopted it is necessary to have courage. And when the head has gone through, the whole body must also be pulled through."

The warmest applause underscored the speech of the delegate of the Printing Trades, and after several commending remarks by various speakers, the following motion was introduced and carried unanimously:

"The Syndicate of Commercial Employees invites the Congress to vote by acclamation the conclusions of the committee's report on sabotage and to put them in practice on the first occasion that presents itself."

The christening of SABOTAGE could not have been more propitious. And it was not a momentary success or a fire of straw, in consequence of a passing enthusiasm, for the unanimous sympathy with which sabotage was received, was never again denied to it.

In the succeeding congress of Rennes in 1898, these tactics were, in fact, again unanimously endorsed.

Amongst the various speakers that, in the course of the debate, sustained sabotage, we cite the mechanic Lanche, today a deputy from Paris. He expressed the happy satisfaction of the Mechanics' Union of the Seine which he represented at the resolutions passed at the Toulouse Congress in favour of boycott and SABOTAGE.

The delegate of the Cooks' Federation made quite a big hit when he humorously related the following case of sabotage:

"The cooks of a great Parisian cafe, having some unsettled grievances with their employers, remained the whole day at their places before the red hot stoves - but in the rush hours when clients were swarming the dining rooms, nothing was found in the pots but stones that had been boiling for hours, together with the restaurant clock."

We believe it opportune to quote the following passages from the report that closed the discussion and which was unanimously adopted:

"The Committee wishes to emphasise that sabotage is not a new tactic. The capitalists practice it any time they find that it pays.

"It is sufficient to mention the private and public contractors, who never keep their agreement to furnish first class material. Besides, are not the reductions of wages that the bosses from time to time impose on their employees a sabotage on the stomachs of the workers?

"We have already demonstrated how the worker instinctively answers to the heartless capitalist by reducing production, that is, rendering a work proportionate to the scarcity of wages.

"It is well that the workers realise that sabotage, in order to become a powerful weapon, must be practiced with method and intelligence.

"It is often sufficient to merely threaten it to obtain useful results.

"This Congress cannot enter into particulars as to its application. These particulars must issue from the temperament and initiative of each one of you and are subordinate to the various industries. We can only lay down the principle and wish that sabotage enter the arsenal of proletarian warfare against capitalism alongside of the strike; and that the attitude of the social movement assume an increasing tendency towards individual and collective direct action and realise a greater consciousness of its own personality."

For a third and last time sabotage met the battle fire of a Congress - in 1900 at the Confederation Convention at Paris.

It was then an agitated and troubled period. Under the influence of Millerand, Minister of Commerce, a deviation had taken place which had its origin in the allurement of political power. Many militants had been lured by the corrupting fascination of ministerialism and several labour organisations had been swerved towards a policy of "social peace" which, had it gained the upper hand, would have proved fatal to the syndicalist movement. The open antagonism of the revolutionary syndicalists was daily becoming more pronounced. Of this internecine struggle, the discussion and vote on sabotage were one of the first embryonic manifestations.

The debate was short. After several speakers all in favour of sabotage, a voice was raised to condemn it. It was the chairman of the Congress himself. He declared that if he "did not have the honour of presiding he would have opposed sabotage, which he considered more harmful than useful to the workers and repugnant to the dignity of many of them." To justly value this condemnation it is sufficient to note that some weeks later it did not offend the "dignity" of this immaculate moralist to accept, thanks to the good office of Minister Millerand, a fat governmental sinecure4 .

The chairman of the Committee on Sabotage was an adversary. He expressed himself in these terms:

"I must make a statement about sabotage. It will be frank and clean cut. I admire those who have the courage to sabot an exploiter. I must, indeed, add that I have often laughed at the merry tales that are told about sabotage. But, I, for my part, could not dare do what our friends have often done.

"The conclusion is that if I have not the courage to carry out a certain thing, it would be cowardice to incite others to do it. And I confess that in the act of deteriorating or disabling a tool or other things confided to my care, it is not the fear of God that paralyses my courage, but the fear of the policeman. Therefore, abandon to you the destinies of SABOTAGE.

The Congress, however, gave SABOTAGE a different reception than had been advised. A vote was taken, which gave the following result: .

Favourable to Sabotage: 117

Contrary: 76

Blank ballots: 2

This clean cut vote closed the gestatory period of the theoretical infiltration of SABOTAGE. Since then SABOTAGE, unquestionably accepted, recognised and advocated, was no more invoked in the labour congresses and took a definite place in the number of means of war devised and practiced by the toilers against Capitalism.

  • 1Sabot means a wooden shoe.
  • 2The standard dictionary of the French language. The word is not registered in any English dictionary, but it surely will be in the near future.
  • 3Le Travailleur des P.P.T., Sept., 1896.
  • 4We refer to Mr. Treich, then secretary of the Bourse du Travail (Central Union) of Limoges and a fiery Guesdist, since appointed a Receiver of the Register (County Clerk) at Bordeaux.