Chapter 8 - Conjectures on the future of the bourses du travail

Submitted by Alias Recluse on January 5, 2012

Chapter Eight

Conjectures on the Future
of the Bourses du Travail


Since 1894, the Federation of the Bourses du Travail has retained its character as the only vigorous French organization. If it was true that during the previous era, that is, the period between 1887 and 1894, the Bourses du Travail, reflecting the “excited condition” of the workers groups which they in turn influenced, had given form, via a series of brilliant institutions, to the secret desire of the workers to reject any kind of tutelage and to nonetheless achieve in their own ranks the elements of emancipation, they were however incapable due to a lack of a sufficient knowledge of the other Bourses du Travail, to get a glimpse of the full importance of their own mission, the total scope of their initiative, and to accurately measure the perspectives which were open to their activity. This consciousness could only be infused into them by the Federation.

It has, on the other hand, often been asserted by the parliamentary experts that any social transformation is subordinated to the conquest of political power; and by the revolutionary experts, that no socialist initiative would be possible before the purifying catastrophe, so that the needs of the present have always been neglected: hence the incoherence of their institutions.

But when, during the period between 1894 and 1896, the Bourses du Travail considerably expanded the scope of their initiatives and their services, firmly establishing their own job-placement offices, unemployment assistance projects, subsidies for the unemployed, the sick and those injured on the job, and resistance funds for strikes, and began to provide themselves with a complete array of technical training services and a well-stocked science library; when their study commissions succeeded in opening up to the trade unions previously unsuspected horizons, the Bourses du Travail, instead of working blindly and responding to circumstances with this or that improvisation, devoted their attention to the task of giving their propaganda a rational and systematic character. They surmised that all of their structures were connected by a mysterious bond. They confirmed that their initiatives—which they had themselves been unaware of—had spread to the greater part of the manifestations of social life and that, to various extents, this initiative had not only everywhere exercised a moral influence on the direction of the socialist movement, and more generally upon all social classes, but above all had brought to bear a material influence on working conditions.

The Bourses du Travail had themselves noticed that they exhibited surprising “faculties of adaptation to a higher social order”;1 they understood that they were henceforth capable of elaborating the elements of a new society, and the idea, which had already been circulating for some time, that economic transformations must be the work of the exploited themselves, was combined with the aspiration to construct within the bourgeois State an authentic socialist (economic and anarchist) State, and to gradually eliminate the capitalist forms of association, production and consumption and replace them with the corresponding communist forms.

The following question was raised on the agenda of the Fifth Congress of the Bourses du Travail, held in Tours in 1896: The function of the Bourses du Travail in the future society. “Should we perhaps start with the question of production, exchange and consumption in the future society,” the Bourse du Travail of Nîmes asked with respect to this question, “in order to inspire a new plan, and create a new doctrine? Or maybe, taking into account the important functions in which the Bourses du Travail are currently involved, if their resources permit a complete development of the Bourses du Travail everywhere, are we ready to place these organizations, at the culminating point of their complete development, in control of the social transformation? It seems to us that, for the moment, it would be preferable to contemplate the question within this framework…. It is advisable now to define, with as much precision as possible, the present and future functions assigned to the Bourses du Travail, which some consider to be most useful as intermediaries between the supply and demand of labor, while others consider them to be the seething vortex of the revolution….”

This is how the report written under the auspices of the Nîmes Bourse du Travail, presented by the comrades Claude Gignoux and Victorien Brugnier, would resolve the question as it was presented. What are the attributes of the Bourses du Travail, their presentation asked. First of all, one must know at all times, with precision and for each trade, the number of unemployed workers, in light of the various everyday causes of disturbance in the workers’ living and working conditions; then one must obtain through statistics, that new science called upon to assume an increasingly more important position in the life of society, “the living expenses of each separate individual, in comparison with their respective wages; the number of trades, and the number of workers in each trade, the quantities of the products manufactured, extracted or harvested in each, as well as the total number of products necessary for the feeding and upkeep of the populations in all the regions covered by the Bourses du Travail.”

“Let us assume for now,” the presentation continues, “that the Bourses du Travail have suitably discharged these functions and have conducted social and corporative action to a social transformation; what will they do?” And the presentation responds, “All the trades are organized in trade unions. All of the latter nominate a council, which we can call the workers trade council. These trade unions are in turn also federated according to trade, nationally and internationally.”

“Property is no longer individually owned: the land, the mines, the means of transport, housing, etc., have become social property. Social property! Take note, this is not the exclusive and inalienable property of the workers2 who operate it, because otherwise we would witness the emergence of conflicts within the corporative societies that would mirror those which are now carried out among the capitalists, and society would thus again be the victim of the competition of the corporative collectivity, rather than of individualist and capitalist competition….”

“Society needs a certain quantity of grain, and of clothing; the farmers and the tailors receive from society, either in the form of money while the latter still exists, or in the form of products in exchange, the means to consume or utilize the products manufactured by the other workers. These are the foundations upon which society must be organized in order for it to really be egalitarian….”

“The Bourses du Travail, knowing the quantity of products which they must manufacture, will inform the workers trade councils of each corporative society of this quantity, which will then employ all the members of each trade in the manufacture of the necessary products…. By means of their statistics the Bourses du Travail will be aware of deficits and surpluses within their zones; they will determine, in the light of these statistics, the exchange of products between territories that are especially responsible for each type of production. Thus, for example, Creuzot in metallurgy, Limoges in porcelain, Elbeuf for high-quality fabrics, Roubaix for ordinary textiles, various zones of our countryside for wines; objects will be produced through which each area’s population will be able to provide themselves with as much as is necessary for their physical upkeep and intellectual development….”

“Since the technical means are being improved, due to the fact that science is today making new conquests, the workers will then have a great immediate interest in following and intensifying the march of progress, enabling society to valorize the wealth and natural forces which our capitalist society is obliged to abandon: the social wealth will therefore be significantly increased. The same thing will happen with consumption, because no one will be obliged to go without food, clothing, furniture, or luxuries and art, those two essential factors in taste and intelligence….”

Finally, with a certain prudence mixed with a certain audacity, the Nîmes Bourse du Travail concluded as follows: “This all-too-brief summary can only give the members of the corporative movement an idea of the functions which the Bourses du Travail currently fulfill and those which they will exercise…. Hasty decisions will do no good. It is sufficient to methodically pursue the development of the institutions in order to reach the goal and to avoid many defections and a return to the past…. To us, who inherit the knowledge and the science of all those who preceded us, falls the task of ensuring that the many riches and benefits accruing to us from their genius do not end up by generating poverty and injustice, but the harmony of interests through equal rights and solidarity among all human beings.”

For its part, the Federal Committee of the Bourses du Travail, in its report on the same topic, stated:

“ … the social revolution must therefore have as its goal the abolition of exchange value, of the capital that it generates and of the institutions that capital creates. We start from this principle: that the purpose of the revolution must be man’s liberation, not just from all authority, but also from any institution which does not have as its essential goal the development of production. Consequently, we cannot imagine the future society in any way except as ‘the free and voluntary association of the producers’. What, then, is the function of these associations…?”

“Each one of them is responsible for one sector of production…. They must inform one another, first of all, concerning their consumption needs and then of the resources available for their satisfaction. How much granite will have to be mined each day? How much grain will have to be milled and how many entertainments will have to be organized for a population of a given size? How many workers and artists will be necessary? How much material and how many producers will be necessary? How should the respective tasks be allocated? How much material and how many producers will be needed from neighboring associations? How should the warehouses be organized? How, once they are made, should scientific discoveries be used?”

“Knowing, first of all, the relation between production and consumption, the workers associations will utilize the materials produced or extracted by their members. Also knowing the quantity of the products of which there is a shortage or a surplus, they will canvass other regions, to seek what they need or what nature has not provided their regions….”

“The consequence of this new state of affairs, of this suppression of useless social institutions, of this simplification of necessary mechanisms, is that man’s production will be of improved quality, of greater quantity, and more efficient, so that he will thus be able to devote more time to his intellectual development.”

In this manner the ideal of the Bourses du Travail became even more noble, without which an ambition of this kind would seem rash, to judge by the initiatives which have already been implemented. In general, the sociologists, nourished more on reading than on observation, totally ignore what they have achieved and, consequently, what they could become—especially those which, becoming more numerous, exist independently of the “socialist parties” and have been freed from governmental fetishism. In a recent work, the socialist theoretician Bernstein, speaking of the “trade unions”, for which the English “Unions” undoubtedly appear to be the prototypes, as being most impregnated with the old unionist spirit, attributes to them an immediate mission and powers which no such association has ever entertained, and whose chimerical nature depicts all economic facts, even while he denies it, under the influence of the error or the narrow collectivist consciousness, by admitting their future role which was already eloquently defined by Bakunin who spoke of the federalist society of the future.

In Bernstein’s view, the trade union can and must be victorious over industrial profit in favor of wages. This can only be relatively true, within the limitations of the “laws of wages” which have been created by the capitalist mode of production and exchange. The power of the trade union is in any case neutralized long before the industrial profit no longer suffices for the capitalist to continue exploiting his business and, more understandably, long before this profit is reduced to the value of a worker’s wage. The cost of raw materials, the number of factories, the needs of the consumer, the need for available hands and a thousand other less tangible and less obvious, but equally important causes, prevent the trade union from exercising the influence it would like to exercise over wage levels.

At the same time, the trade union, contrary to Bernstein’s views, cannot, and in fact it is not unaware of this fact, influence the situation of labor power over the market except within the limits established by the innumerable unforeseen and “unforeseeable” circumstances which make the market overflow with hands, tools or products in quantities above the needs of consumption. Nor, in this case, can the trade union do anything but periodically collect statistics on the demand for labor in the various regions, and thanks to these statistics, intelligently guide the workers in their search for jobs and avoid the undesirable concentrations of the unemployed in this or that locality, which cause the price of labor to decline. But to carry out a compensatory operation, that is, to thin out the ranks of labor in this or that place in order to raise the wage level, cannot be done by the trade unions due to the limitations imposed upon the workers by their poverty—even affecting the highest-paid workers—which lead them to take the first job they can get in order to survive.

Finally, no trade union is unaware of the fact that, by “acting on the technology of production”, in other words, preventing the introduction of new machinery in certain workshops, or increasing the professional qualifications of the worker, merely constitutes a mediocre, temporary and naïve sort of attack on the normal economic situation. As for the machines, the trade union knows quite well that even if it manages to outlaw them, this would not redound to the advantage of the working class, but would be a reactionary development. The trade union now only carries out a defensive struggle. It also knows that any measure which has the effect of reducing the volume of production, except, of course, in the case of an interruption of supply, would be equivalent to a criminal conspiracy between the trade union and the capitalist against the consumer, and even in that case it would do so only under the pressure of circumstances and in self-defense.

On the other hand, however, how many trade unions still use such primitive means of defense? For example, do the typographers perhaps attempt to block the use of typesetting machines in France, the United States, Austria or Germany? Not at all; they limit themselves to requesting, as in Vienna, that in those businesses where such machines have been introduced, only typographers who have finished four years of apprenticeship in the same enterprise be employed, and that the typesetting be carried out in accordance with the so-called “conscious” system; that the working day should be eight hours long and that overtime be voluntary, etc.;3 in short, they request that the machine should not reduce what in England is called the standard of living.

Why is it that we are interpreted in such an erroneous way—Bernstein’s only merit being that he has provided yet more emphasis on the errors which are committed in relation to the trade unions—in regard to the nature and the level of economic knowledge of contemporary labor associations? Is this not due to the fact that, with an ignorance which would otherwise be comprehensible, the object of investigation and analysis is always taken to be the English “Unions”, the only such organizations which in particular no longer deserve the attention of the economist and the sociologist, as a result of the alleged backwardness of some of them and the advocacy on the part of so many others for the concept of State Socialism? Because, and this must be pointed out, the trade unions possess robust resources, resources which are, so to speak, incalculable, for sustaining the struggle of hundreds of thousands of men; but these resources and this struggle are in proportion to the wealth and the audacity of the English capitalists as well as to the standard of living of the workers, while a French “Union” like that of the mechanics is victorious partly as a result of the stubbornness and partly as a result of the violence of the capitalist coalition formed against the trade unions, the English “Union” has been so soundly beaten that it today renounces the wage struggle in favor of experiments in parliamentary battles…. Not only is it impossible for the English “Unions”, despite their impressive financial power, to use their money to defeat their employers, who are even richer than they are and are no less energetic, but their vast membership, the importance of their economic fund and their ingenious organization serve only to instill the trade unions with an ambiguous atmosphere composed of pride and the instinct for self-preservation, similar to that which animates the tens of thousands of persons, enjoying an illusory freedom, who attend demonstrations in Trafalgar Square or Hyde Park, and for whom it is enough to defend themselves against spontaneous acts of violence.

No, the English “Unions” no longer respond, and perhaps never will again, to the needs of the international proletariat, and we have the proof of this in the fact which is still unnoticed by so many who have written about the workers movement: in every country, with the exception of precisely England, the unions embracing one trade or even similar trades are inferior in strength and numbers to the unions which include diverse trades: Bourses du Travail, cartels, etc. What are the names of the well-known national labor associations? In Germany, the General Commission of Workers Societies; in Austria, the Central Union of Trade Unions; in Denmark, the General Assembly of the Workers Society; in the United States, the American Federation of Labor; in Australia, the Labor Federation of Queensland and the Labor Federation of New South Wales (the Australian workers propose, among other things, the formation of a labor federation of the British colonies); in France, the Federation of the Bourses du Travail…. So, perhaps England itself will attempt to create a general federation of trade unions? Not likely, and yet nowhere else are the unions of each trade as numerous or as well-organized, and France, in this respect, is also palpably behind the American “Unions”. Today, we base ourselves less on purely professional activity, of an individualist tendency, of which the old English unionism offers a perfect example, than on the organized activity of the various professions. And this is due to the fact that the trade unions, which are today more knowledgeable than they were before about the play of economic forces, have become aware of the fact that the situation of each industry, and consequently the situation of each trade union, does not really depend, as was believed for centuries, on particular circumstances for which no specific remedies exist, but is subordinated to the general economic situation, so that only the general activity of all trades would be capable of bringing about a greater effect in the social order, rather than provisional, minor and haphazard transformations.

If this is the case, then why, instead of expecting the workers associations—and by this expression we mean the cooperative as well as the trade union and the other institutions derived from these two basic groups—to provide what the social system refuses to offer, because money dominates all other forces—why do we not demand that they do what they are by their very nature necessarily destined to produce in the context of the future society? It is true that men who believe in the providential State, and for whom “scientific” collectivism consists of the master-State, want to interpret any forerunner of these free associations of men in such a manner, where the managed will more frequently discuss what is considered to be appropriate for the tranquility of their managers. Now, we should ask, how is it possible that so many love freedom, so many reject the centralizing system because its drawbacks outweigh its benefits, benefits which can on the other hand be just as well obtained by freely-united human groupings, how is it possible, I say, that they should not come to understand that the corporative groups are the cells of the federalist society of the future?

If it is true, as all free spirits feel, that “authority is in permanent decline and freedom in continuous ascent”, that the peoples are becoming increasingly accustomed to living and acting outside the boundaries of the State, the consequence could not be more obvious: the current authoritarian system must give way to a system “in which the governing hierarchy, instead of being situated at the summit, will be clearly installed at the base….”4 So, how is this system necessarily constituted? In the formation, upon the basis of the law of the separation of powers, intermediary groups, respectively sovereign and united, in such a manner and for as long as they are considered to be useful, by means of the freely-accepted federative pact.

What, consequently, are the conditions assumed by the trade union and cooperative associations? “They separate all powers which can be separated, restrict everything which can be restricted, allocate among the institutions and officials all which can be separated and restricted, and grant their administration all the preconditions for publicity and control”.5 They are suitable by virtue of their professional training, not so imposing by virtue of their numbers for a member to complain about his voice not being heard, and open enough for a discontented member to pack up and leave in order to form a new association with other people, for well-determined reasons, to apply the federative principle as it was formulated by Proudhon and Bakunin.

These are the conclusions of our study. Now we know the origins of the Bourses du Travail, how they were formed, the services they provide as well as those which they propose to provide in the future, the functions—in a word—which they intend to fulfill in the political and economic organization of the present day. In light of all this, will anyone be surprised to learn that “they do not consider themselves to be only instruments of struggle against capital”, or as humble job-placement offices, but that they aspire to a higher role in the formation of the future social state? It is true, of course, that we must not be more optimistic than is warranted by the facts, and we confess that, in most workers, economic instruction, the sole sure guide for the workers associations, has hardly even begun. But have we not perhaps found in the intellectual communion which the Bourses du Travail alone can facilitate the key to the organic system of society, upon the basis of which everything else will have to be built, taking into account the time which will be needed to replace capital’s influence on the administration of human interests, thus establishing the only justifiable sovereignty: that of labor?

We have enumerated the results obtained by the workers groups in regard to education and have reviewed the program of the courses offered by the trade unions and the Bourses du Travail, a program from which nothing has been omitted which contributes to a complete, dignified and satisfactory moral life; we have observed the authorities who figure in the workers libraries; we have been impressed by this trade union and cooperative organization which is growing larger every day and embracing new categories of producers, an amalgamation of all proletarian forces into one solid network of trade unions, of cooperative societies, of norms of resistance. We shall see its interventions multiply daily in various social manifestations, this examination of the methods of production and the distribution of wealth, and we shall declare whether this organization, this program, if this tendency directed towards the useful and the beautiful, if such an aspiration to the perfect flourishing of the individual, we say, does not justify all the pride which the Bourses du Travail feel.

If it is true that the future belongs to the “free associations of the producers”, as foreseen by Bakunin, as announced by all the great events of this century, and also as proclaimed by the most skilled defenders of the current political regime, it will undoubtedly be in these Bourses du Travail or in similar institutions, open, however, to all those who think and act, where men will be found who will together seek the means of disciplining the forces of nature and putting them at the service of humanity.

  • 1Claude Gignoux and Victorien Brugnier, Du Rôle des Bourses du Travail dans la société future.
  • 2The term “inalienable” was evidently used in error, because it is not necessary to say that property which cannot be the object of speculation ceases to be property, that is, an arbitrary right, and becomes a simple usufruct.

    We also prefer “social property” to “inalienable property” because the latter implies the existence of a power responsible for preserving the social character of property, while the former can establish and guarantee the respect for social property by means of agreements between groups of producers, and particularly by means of the replacement of monetary exchange by the free exchange of products.

  • 3La Typographie française, No. 428, August 1, 1899.
  • 4Du principe fédératif, p. 81. Dentu, 1863.
  • 5Ibid., p. 83.