Anarchy and Culture - Fernand Pelloutier and the dilemma of revolutionary syndicalism

ALAN SPITZER is Professor of History at the University of Iowa. We are grateful to him and to the editor of the International Review of Social History for permission to reproduce his essay. Passages quoted in French has been translated for ANARCHY.

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 19, 2018

ADVANCING UNDER SOCIALIST BANNERS, the labour movement in Western Europe won such success by the end of the nineteenth century as to produce a deep moral and intellectual crisis in European socialism. Internecine quarrels over revisionism, participationism, and antipolitical syndicalism reflected the malaise of a “revolutionary” movement that each year bound itself more closely to the system it had vowed to destroy. For socialist theoreticians, the crisis was cognitive or “scientific”—it had to do with issues of adequate historical analysis and prediction—but for the theorists of French revolutionary syndicalism it was essentially a moral crisis. In their eyes the socialist parties had already failed because they were the instruments for manipulation and betrayal of the workers by leaders whose ambitions could be gratified through the capitalist establishment. They identified a practical and moral alternative to political socialism in the revolutionary general strike prepared and carried out by autonomous proletarian organisations. Such organisations were necessary to the idealists of the general strike if their programmes were not to degenerate into a strictly verbal revolutionary Couéism and they therefore put great stock in the development of militant working-class associations. Among these, the Bourses du Travail, which flourished from 1895 to 1901 under the dedicated direction of the anarchist intellectual, Fernand Pelloutier, seemed the most promising.

Fernand Pelloutier came to revolutionary syndicalism out of a background of provincial republican politics. As a youthful journalist at Nantes he moved left from the radical republicans into the camp of the orthodox Marxists, and then, with his close friend Aristide Briand, broke with the Guesdists over the issue of the general strike and turned toward the commitment to anarcho-syndicalism that was to define the rest of his short career. During the 1890s he played a leading part in the growth and consolidation of the French trade union movement; and in the successful struggle to separate it from political socialism. He was one of those middle class martyrs to the ideal of proletarian freedom and self-respect, dying of a tubercular condition in his early thirties, after.some ten years of tremendous labours in agitation, pamphleteering, Journalism and most of all in consolidating the Bourses du Travail into an effective national movement. When Pelloutier became secretary of the national Federation of the Bourses du Travail in 1895 there were 34 Bourses made up of 606 syndicates, five years later shortly before his death there were 57 Bourses with 1065 syndicates.

During Pelloutier’s tenure the Bourses expanded their range of action far beyond that of the labour exchange which was their original function. Each Bourse was a federation of all the trade unions in a locality willing to co-operate across craft or industrial lines. The heart of each Bourse was, wherever possible, some permanent location—a union hall which was to be the centre of working class existence, and to provide a great variety of services including a mutual benefit society, a job information and placement bureau, a system of financial assistance for travelling workers, a strike chest, a programme of propaganda for organising the unorganised, a sort of bureau of labour statistics, and education courses, periodic conferences, and a library.

The growth and vitality of the Bourses du Travail aroused the enthusiasm of the various theorists of revolutionary syndicalism not only because they’ were self-directed working class organisations more or less uncorrupted by socialist factions and ambitions, but because they seemed to provide the institutional nucleus for the construction of a new order out of the ruins of the old. Georges Sorel thought that Pelloutier, recognising that socialism could only be based on “an absolute separation of classes and on the abandonment of all hope for political reconstruction of the old order,” had helped to establish the means for the final break “with the imitations of the bourgeois tradition” through the organisation of autonomous proletarian institutions: the Bourses du Travail.

Pelloutier’s place in the history of the French labour movement is secured by his practical contributions to the development of the Bourses rather than by the enthusiasm he aroused in the armchair ideologists of the general strike or by his own contributions to anarcho-syndicalist doctrine. However an examination of the doctrinal foundations of his brand of syndicalism helps to situate it in French social history and illuminates the ambiguities of his commitment to the self-emancipation of the workers. Pelloutier was a middle class intellectual who believed that for the workers to shatter, and transcend. the capitalist order they had to liberate themselves from the iron vice of bourgeois culture. His radical critique of this culture owed a great deal to its nineteenth century French critics including the tendency to draw upon the intellectual stock of the culture for the rationale that condemned it.

Pelloutier, of course, was not interested in formulating some completely new revolutionary ideology and explicitly placed hImself in the cranky and paradoxical tradition of moralistic radicalism, articulated in the writings of Proudhon and carried on, with reference to the practical example of Pelloutier himself, by the school of Sorel. He once described Proudhon as the least utopian of all the socialists precisely because he established morality as the criterion, not only for social action, but for any science or metaphysics, whereas “so-called scientific socialism” had to contrive sophistic arguments that would permit it to arrive at its utopian ideals by induction.

Pelloutier’s own refusal to separate theoretical from moral considerations was at the base of his repudiation of socialist political alternatives. He perceived parliamentary socialism as an ignoble avenue of social mobility, and revolutionary socialism as either a rhetorical facade for unrevolutionary ambitions or an academy for future authoritarians. The answer to these corrupting alternatives lay nowhere but in the working class itself—in its solidarity and its revolutionary will. He left Proudhonian channels, at the point where he accepted for the working class the moral obligation to be revolutionary in a literal as well as a metaphysical sense—where he asserted the liberating role of “that violence which in the end, alone, can curb violence, and which is the natural weapon of every proud and dignified creature.”

The voluntarism of the idea of progress as moral change is obvious, particularly when the regeneration is not to be confined to the hearts of individual men but realised through the very process of collective revolutionary action. However, Pelloutier did not conceive of the liberation of humanity as completely contingent upon the revolutionary will of the oppressed. Like most contemporary revolutionaries he mingled exhortations to bring down the capitalist system with predictions of its inevitable demise. Notwithstanding occasional expressions of contempt for “economic laws” so often wrong in the event, he was convinced that the inner contradictions of capitalism inexorably pointed to its extinction.

The economic theories which provided Pelloutier with this conviction were out of the common stock of a century of French radicalism. Although he occasionally borrowed the Marxian terminology of contemporary socialism, his essential conception of the nature and direction of capitalist development was that of the perversion of the exchange function through the illegitimate transformation of money from neutral standard of value to a valued commodity; “The standard of exchange gives scope for monopoly and to capitalisation because instead of remaining a standard. i.e. the fiduciary and exact equivalent of products, it becomes at the same time a value, Le. a commodity, an object of commerce, and an indispensable instrument of labour.”

The subordination of production to the accumulation of the perverted value represented by money enables those who possess it to exchange it for a “greater quantity of labour (hence, surplus value, surplus labour, usury in all its forms.)” So the surplus value of labour is conceived as that portion of created wealth siphoned off by the possessors and manipulators of the medium of exchange whose successful machinations have guaranteed The inversely proportionate and over-growing increase in wealth and poverty, and in their consequences: authority and servitude.”

This venerable notion of the illegitimate use of money as the original economic sin was the. commonplace of nineteenth-century French anti-capitalist polemic. It reflected lower-class preoccupations in a pre-industrial society where not only the peasants and petty proprietors but the town workers longed for easy credit as the crucial economic reform and where the usurer remained the popular personification of capitalist rapacity. Although social and economic changes during Pelloutier’s lifetime made these doctrines increasingly archaic they continued to serve him as the theoretical foundation for his polemic against all economic reforms within the framework of the capitalist state. He argued that all apparent benefits granted to the workers by opportunistic governments or wrested from the capitalist by direct action were wiped out by prices that inevitably rose to compensate for any diminution of profits. Indeed whatever augments, “for whatever cause, purchasing power, immediately augments, in the same proportion, the value of the products bought.” Since money is the counter in the endless competitive bidding for the fruits of labour, those who have more of it will always be able to bid up the price of goods for their advantage. And this is the way that “Money permits those who possess it to pass on to others the burden of unpleasant reforms,” and that is why genuine social equality waits upon the liquidation of the money economy and why “… instead of attempting to modify existing society …the only thing to do is to destroy it.”

Thus his analysis of the economic process reinforces his voluntarist political ethic: “exploitation … will continue to dominate as long as we do not strike at its heart, and consequently it is not enough to aim at restraining its evil instincts; they will only be suppressed by suppressing capitalism itself.”
The demand for the root and branch destruction of the source of evil was of course a common plank in the orthodox platforms of Pelloutier’s peaceable socialist contemporaries. The logic of capitalist economic development could only be confuted by the elimination of capitalism. Yet even such an activist as Pelloutier realised that the immediate regeneration of the victims of capitalism would not be guaranteed by its destruction. He once remarked that he was not so foolish as to believe that a “moral transformation would proceed at the same pace as the social transformation,”—evil would not disappear overnight but better institutions would provide the conditions for its disappearance. The unarticulated but truly painful question for Pelloutier was not so much will the proletarian revolution guarantee the moral transformation of the workers, as, can they sufficiently transform themselves in the debasing present to will the regenerating future?

This was a question of more than tactical significance. Pelloutier was well aware of the practical difficulties in organising the workers against the system that devoted huge resources to deluding them as to their true interests and their real enemies. Nor were all radical solutions acceptable to an anarchist deeply committed to the self-emancipation of the proletariat. Even if the working class found the resolution to rise out of slavery this was no guarantee that it would rise to freedom. Pelloutier is often praised for recognising that revolution was not enough—that the promise of the new order would depend upon the quality of the men who constructed it. In the very speech in which he admitted that institutional change might proceed more swiftly than moral change he also said: “And as long as there remains in the spirit of men the shadow of prejudice, we can make insurrections, modify the useless machinery of politics, change the course of empires even; but the hour of the social revolution will not have struck!”

One might argue that “prejudice” could only be eliminated after a political revolution had destroyed its institutional context, but for Pelloutier the moral and intellectual preparation for the genuine social revolution could not be postponed until the present iniquitous political order had been destroyed. The working class has to begin in the present to make itself worthy of the future despite the efforts of its exploiters to deepen the ignorance and reinforce the prejudices which were the condition of their survival. The answer to this dilemma lay at hand in the French antecedents of Pelloutier’s social thought and was in essence, the self-education of the working class outside of, and against, the deadening and manipulating culture of capitalist society.

When Pelloutier identified the sources of Proudhon’s socialism in the “revolutionary metaphysic of 1789”, he was referring to the tradition that supplied the premises for his own brand of anarcho-syndicalism. Like so many French ostensible materialists or even “orthodox” Marxists he did not really believe that ideas were epiphenomenal but that they were the motors of social progress. He confidently asserted “mankind’s inevitable tendency towards innovation in ideas and in opinions, the source of all progress.” Therefore the education of the masses as the very condition of their revolutionary consciousness was always his central concern. Even the meagre education doled out to the workers to date had produced that fund of aspirations labelled socialism. However, public education under the aegis of the State could only become another method of conditioning the masses to their servitude because the State in all of its manifestations was the classic instrument of social and economic exploitations.

To some extent Pelloutier would perceive the revolutionary education of the proletariat in the very conditions of its existence. With the Marxists, he was confident that the logic of capitalist development would reveal to the workers the outlines of their plight and their genuine interests: “Unfortunately for the capitalists, the proletariat opens its eyes sooner than might have been expected. Through the force of disastrous experience, it discovered one day that the remedy for social ills is neither born out of political revolution nor in the necessary but incoherent struggle against day-to-day injustices … it begins to perceive the necessity of a social revolution, that is to say, a complete economic and social transformation.”

However Pelloutier did not believe that the working class would attain the appropriate knowledge and resolution to undertake the necessary revolution merely through a passive assimilation of the objective facts of life under moribund capitalism. Because the system which degrades and brutalises the worker will never afford him the institutional means of a genuine education he must himself construct organisations through which “he can reflect on his condition, disentangle the elements of the economic problem, fortify himself in knowledge and in energy, to make himself capable of the self-liberation to which he has a right. “Such institutions would not only help the worker to understand what sort of future he should desire but could help him to “elaborate, here in the present, the elements of a new society.”—they would not only show him how to shape his destinies but train him to be worthy of them. And these institutions already existed—as the Bourses de Travail, for Pelloutier the chosen instrument for the work “of moral, administrative and technical education, necessary to make a society of free men viable.”

Under Pelloutier’s aegis, the educational possibilities of the Bourses were given an emphasis never repeated by his successors. The various technical and educational courses, the periodic conferences, the statistical services, the libraries, the never to be realised project of labour museums were not for Pelloutier peripheral, but essential functions of the Bourses. Libraries he felt were particularly promising agencies for introducing the workers to the discoveries of the human spirit so long denied them. He proudly described the intelligent eclecticism of the bibliothèques of the Bourses where volumes by Marx, Saint-Simon, Darwin and Kropotkin were found side by side in’ a fraternity of genius with those of Chateaubriand, de Maistre, and Lammenais. Not all of the militants were ready for this rich diet but even those whose literary interests had to be “artificially aroused” could benefit from the novelists closest to them in age and social orientation.

Pelloutier, who was the product of a classical French education, conceived of a cultural heritage that transcended class boundaries as well as the narrow limits of propaganda and indoctrination. The aesthetic quality of the worker’s existence had both moral and practical relevance. His present cultural possibilities were crucial conditions of his political and social future: “Just as bourgeois art does more to maintain the capitalist regime than all the other social forces—government, army, police and judges—together; so a social and revolutionary art would do more to advance the coming of free communism than all those agents of revolution to which man has been led by his sufferings.”

The ruling groups bitterly resist any measure to enlighten or purify the tastes of the masses because they know that the appetite for liberty, and the development of the intellect, proceed together, and that resignation is bred from ignorance. Not only have they enlisted priests, mystics and obscurantists to persuade the worker that his salvation is not to be ’found on this earth, but they have bribed venal ,artists and writers to supply him with debased and salacious entertainment that inspires rut instead of reflection. And how much more dangerous than capitalist exploitation itself is the work of its cultural accomplices: “Deprived in the daytime by his work, brutalised at night by impure alcohol, by ribald shows, the masses have neither the time nor the freedom of spirit necessary to reflect on their lot, and from this arises the indifference, the cowardice with which the people, the same people who revolted in 1848 and 1871, undergo worse outrages today. The insults they receive are washed away by absinthe; the uncertainty of their future is forgotten in the music hall: their revolutionary virility is dissipated in the brothel.”

In this very depressing picture one can discern Pelloutier’s concern, not merely to enlighten the masses, but also to combat the debasing and cheapening of the very fabric of working-class through the effects of a pervasive commercialised culture. Of course I may be guilty of projecting backward present concerns. We are still far, in turn of the century France, from the erosion of working class culture “in favour of the mass opinion, the mass recreational product and the generalised emotional response.” But the contemporary French worker’s consumption of recreation, entertainment and culture in general was scarcely calculated to provide him with those nobler perceptions which were the conditions for a truly free society.

The reluctance of the masses to absorb the culture appropriate to their historical destinies posed not only a practical problem for a revolutionary moralist such as Pelloutier but also a profound dilemma. As what the French call a libertarian, devoted to the emancipation of the workers by themselves, he could not conjure away unfortunate proletarian dispositions with reference to inadequate class consciousness in a given historical situation. As George Orwell once observed, the desire to “level up” the culture of the working class often includes an element of snobbish presumption as to what it should, but doesn’t want. Pelloutier’s efforts to level up the French working man certainly did not stem from some genteel condescension. Nothing would have been more repugnant to him than what Raymond Williams calls the “Fabian tone in culture … leading the unenlightened to the particular kind of light which the leaders find satisfactory for themselves,” yet his assumption of a cultural “general will,” not necessarily equivalent to the sum of proletarian tastes, reflects the deeper dilemma of his anarchist political morality. That is to say—either the products of collective freedom of choice are not necessarily the True, the Beautiful and the Good, or, the worker was not actually free to make the correct moral decisions under capitalism. But if these decisions were the prerequisites for some genuine future freedom, was it necessary for some one, if not to impose, at least to urge them on the workers? Pelloutier hoped that the answer lay in a gradual voluntary assimilation of the cultural and educational possibilities of the Bourses du Travail, yet the affirmation of these possibilities had somehow to precede the workers’ recognition of them.

None of these remarks are meant to denigrate the purity of Pelloutier’s motives or the remarkable self-effacement of his devotion to the workers cause. But there is a final irony in the very dimensions of his contribution to the development of autonomous proletarian institutions. With his passing the Bourse movement seemed to lose its momentum and there were many who testified to the words of the militant syndicalist Pierre Monatte: “After the death of Pelloutier in 1901, the Fédération des Bourses du Travail was nothing more than a great wounded tree, from which every year a withered branch fell to the ground.”