II: Syndicalism

After an initial phase of anarchism, Rosmer became associated with Pierre Monatte and La Vie ouvrière in 1909. His encounter with revolutionary syndicalism was to condition his entire future development, and to define the particular rôle he would play in the Comintern and the RILU. His reminiscences from 1951 provide a vivid picture of the pre-1914 syndicalist milieu. To this we have added two articles written by Rosmer in his syndicalist period. The article on the Bonnot gang deals with the celebrated incidents which led to the jailing of Victor Serge in 1913. Rosmer, while recognising the obligations of solidarity in the face of state repression, sets out clearly what distinguished syndicalism from individualist anarchism. The second deals with the Couriau case. A Lyons woman, Madame Couriau, had taken a job in the printing industry. The union not only refused her membership, but instructed her husband to tell her to abandon her job; on refusing, he was expelled from the union. Rosmer wrote five articles for the syndicalist daily La Bataille syndicaliste. In the first four, he interviewed various union officials to discover their different views about female labour. In the final article, published here, he set out his own position. The revolutionary syndicalists are often accused of misogyny; this article makes clear that Rosmer, at least, does not deserve the charge.

On this period see also J-M Schiappa, ‘Pierre Monatte et la fondation de la Vie ouvrière’, Informations ouvrières, 20-26 October 1993.

Alfred Rosmer

Forty Years Ago[1]



O Pierre Monatte, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, we offer this token of friendship. To the reader, we present these memories and these selected texts to bring back to life the movement which had such a great impact on working-class life in the first half of the century: Revolutionary Syndicalism.

La Vie ouvrière was originally announced as a ‘syndicalist journal appearing on the fifth and twentieth of each month’. The first issues appeared on the appointed date, but this initial regularity did not last; it soon began to appear late, often sufficiently late for us to have recourse to a double issue. Subscribers complained, some grumbling, and others enquiring in a friendly fashion why we did not appear on the promised date. Neither group could imagine the amount of effort required in order to put together and to keep going a journal of a type to which nothing comparable had previously appeared, and the like of which would not be seen again. The difficulties we had to overcome every month, indeed every fortnight, were well known to me; I shall say something about them later on, but I think I should begin by outlining briefly the context in which the La Vie ouvrière first appeared.

The Dreyfus Affair had not yet taken its place in history.[2] There is no shortage of works on the affair itself, but their authors have almost always failed to study its consequences which, however, were serious, in a wide variety of spheres. It ended badly for those fighting on both sides, who had been violently opposed for several years. The military judges insisted on finding him guilty, despite the clear evidence of innocence. Dreyfus accepted a pardon; he was not the hero required by the circumstances, so that the battle could be fought out to a conclusion. The bitter conflicts gave way to a general sense of unease. The affair had progressively drawn in all the energies of the nation, ranging against each other the France of tomorrow and the France of yesterday: army and clergy, the traditional alliance of the sword and holy water, had preserved the rule of the bourgeoisie. The pro-Dreyfus government of Waldeck‑Rousseau proposed nothing more substantial than clipping the claws of clericalism; it attacked the religious communities: they well deserved it; they had been committed right up to the hilt, and at a distance it is impossible to imagine how low the assumptionists[3] of La Croix[4] sank in their polemics. It was a derisory conclusion to a battle in which such efforts had been expended, and making Millerand a minister added nothing. Quite the reverse; it was a provocation which was confirmed by his personal policy of bribing workers’ organisations.

Among the masses set in motion, there were signs of resistance, and very diverse tendencies emerged. Péguy[5] was one of the first to start, with his Cahiers de la Quinzaine; he was the most loathsome of guides. Having begun with Socialism and waging war against the education system, he ended up with literary Catholicism and the pursuit of academic laurels. When he had discovered Bergson,[6] he poisoned with Bergsonism those intellectuals who were under his influence, notably Sorel, who was quite capable of going wrong without his help, and Charles Guieysse, a man of good will who had set up a journal called Pages libres (Free Pages), which well deserved its title. The Communist anarchism of Reclus[7] and Kropotkin, which was tending to be discredited as a result of the importance acquired by the individualist anarchists, was losing contact with the working-class movement; that of Malatesta was not unknown in France, but it had no equivalent there. The Guerre sociale[8] was launched with great publicity: it had four large pages and a huge headline, something new just like the combination which had come together to form it. Around Gustave Hervé, who had become popular because of his aggressive anti-militarism, were gathered Socialists, anarchists and syndicalists — a sort of revolutionary front. The formula was new; and for a time it had some success.

La Vie ouvrière came into existence when these various currents had already developed. The preparatory work took place in the course of the summer of 1909, and the first number bears the date of 5 October 1909. The CGT had then fought its great battles; revolutionary syndicalism had powerfully asserted itself; the relatively low level of trade union membership did not prevent it from succeeding in its challenge to parliamentary Socialism for the leadership of the working class.

I was not involved in the journal at its beginning. From anarchism to syndicalism there was a big step, made difficult by some of the ‘theoreticians’ of syndicalism, namely those who were claiming to join Bergson to syndicalism, to the great alarm of the author of Creative Evolution. So I remained for some months on the brink, reading the journal, but not getting involved. Amédée Dunois finally pushed me in by asking me to take his place in reviewing the ‘social’ play that Paul Bourget[9] had just put on at the Vaudeville theatre, The Barricade. So that I could get a decent seat, the journal was willing to grant me the sum of five francs.[10] I didn’t take advantage of its generosity, and climbed up to the gods from where it was quite possible to follow the play. It was a crude caricature: there was the good boss and the good worker (that is, the scab), while the ‘agitator’ was the villain of the story.

The ‘offices’ of the journal at the time were in an upstairs room in an old house in the noisy rue Dauphine. I went there for the first time, summoned by Monatte, in order to facilitate the discussion with William Z Foster. The current gauleiter of American Stalinism had just arrived in Paris after taking part in the struggles launched by the IWW[11] at Spokane on the Pacific coast. And from that day onwards, I took part regularly in the meetings of the ‘nucleus’.[12] There I met Griffuelhes and Jouhaux; they only attended irregularly, and soon stopped coming altogether. The discussion that evening was about collective contracts; the anarchists denounced them as an abdication, a betrayal of the workers. The syndicalist militants, coming to grips with the difficulties and the specific conditions of the struggle, explained that in certain circumstances it was the correct and best tactic. You can find echoes of the discussion in the pages of the journal where, of course, those holding various points of view had full freedom to express themselves.

Concerned to provide a book service to supply the libraries of working-class organisations — unions, labour exchanges,[13] departmental associations, federations and study groups — as well as the ‘militant’s bookshelf’, Monatte had thought that the rue Dauphine would be convenient for replenishing supplies from the publishers; it was, however, too far from the Labour Exchange and the CGT offices. The new premises, to which the journal soon transferred, the ‘grey shop’ on the quai Jemmapes, were exactly right; provincial militants coming to Paris on trade union business found the journal on their way.

From the first issue, Monatte had created a feature which he considered important: ‘Between Ourselves’, a discussion with subscribers telling of the fortnight’s activity, setting out proposals, replying to their questions, and drawing them into the enterprise. Monatte’s optimism broke out into songs of triumph: 150 subscribers, 300, 500, 800. ‘Look how far we have come’, he said to those who had been sceptical. It wasn’t enough to make both ends meet, but compared with the figures of other trade union or Socialist journals it was an encouraging result. The journal was nurturing a social movement to which Hervé’s Guerre sociale, with its slanging matches, brought only a transient excitement, which was often pernicious, and could not take it far.

The complaints of subscribers about delays gave Monatte the opportunity to define the character of the journal and its purpose. Its aim was to supply militants with the information, general and specific, which they needed in order to carry out their functions. But that was not all; it also aimed to be a journal of action. For that, each issue must open with the major question of the fortnight. Monatte was demanding: he wanted a complete journal. He explained to me that he had always enough copy to make up one issue and indeed several, but that a journal must not consist simply of articles inserted one after the other; it needed to have regular features: a review of the fortnight, books, journals, the employers’ publications, reports from abroad, and far from the least important, letters from subscribers. All that was necessary, and in addition it was indispensable to study the events of the fortnight: strikes, congresses, international conflicts and threats of war. But who could make such a study? It had to be an established militant, often at the heart of the struggle, caught up in action, and who had great difficulty in finding time to write. Delays were inevitable.

But in saying that, Monatte had not said everything. There were reasons of another sort for the delays, quite different and more worrying. The preparation of an issue represented in itself a large amount of work: the copy had to be checked, reports from abroad translated, proofs corrected, and when all that was done, when the issue of the fifth of the month was ready, we were already facing the deadline of the end of the month. We had had an encouraging start. Nonetheless the ‘treasury’ had very quickly run into difficulties. One of these, which had been genuinely unpredictable, was caused by the Seine being in flood in the winter of 1910; the districts close to the river were flooded, and the printworks at Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, where the journal was set and printed, had to suspend all activity for several weeks. This issue, which had just been prepared for a promotion, never got off the ground; all our efforts were wasted. Several militants who had taken part in the journal at the start turned their backs on us, and then disparaged us. Promises which had been made were not kept. All these factors built up and contributed to producing a debt which henceforth was going to hang over the head of the journal.

The Villeneuve printworks was a workers’ cooperative. Our relations with it, excellent to begin with, became strained as our debt grew instead of being wiped out. These cooperators were not all syndicalists; some of them — among them the business manager — were Socialists, and they were not sympathetic enough towards syndicalism and a journal whose utility was nonetheless undeniable, to give us credit for a long period. They weren’t inclined to do so, and we could not ask them for sacrifices of the sort which, for example, Russian printworkers made during the war in order to ensure the existence of their Paris daily.[14] In order to print the issue, they asked Monatte for bills of exchange, and that’s what made the ends of the months so difficult. Then we had to go and see friends whose dedication did not become weary. Several times I asked Monatte if I could accompany him to Villeneuve to be present for the making up and production of the issue; he always turned a deaf ear. But one day he did let me go with him. We had scarcely entered the office when the business manager exploded: it was impossible to carry on unless firm commitments were made about settling the arrears, and since in a previous issue I had criticised Jaurès’ writings, he turned on me: it’s very easy to have a go at Jaurès, but it would be better to pay the people you get to publish the attacks! … At least this time I had diverted the storm and served as a lightning conductor, and from now on I knew what the fortnightly trip to Villeneuve meant.

How did Monatte manage to keep going amid all these worries? How did he keep his spirits, his good humour, and enough mental freedom to pursue the path he had marked out for himself? That was his secret. But I don’t think the idea of giving up ever crossed his mind. Quite the contrary, he was constantly making new plans, increasing the number of pages in the journal, and adding illustrations… When relations with the cooperators of Villeneuve became impossible, we had to find another printworks. Monatte then turned to the provinces, where the journal could be produced more cheaply. For a while it was printed at Auxerre. But experience showed that travelling costs and time lost ate up all the gains we had achieved. We returned to Paris, but this time with a particular procedure which turned out to be practical and advantageous; the typesetting was entrusted to an association of Linotype operators, and the issue was printed at the Russian printworks in the rue Méchain. It was made up there in a cordial atmosphere; we made perceptible savings, and the issue appeared on the right day.

If the worries were numerous and troubling, there was no shortage of reasons for cheer and encouragement. The men that Monatte had brought together in his ‘nucleus’ were all deeply attached to the journal, and gave it every possible assistance. After five years of effort, he could measure what had been achieved: La Vie ouvrière had won its place in the French working-class movement, and abroad its influence was remarkable. In July 1921, when the Bulgarian Andryechin arrived in Moscow, he said to me: ‘I’ve known you for a long time; when I was still in Sofia I read La Vie ouvrière regularly.’ He had come from America, where the government had set up a major trial against the IWW for their opposition to the war; he and his comrades had been sentenced, and they had just been released. Zinoviev, then in Switzerland and a close collaborator of Lenin’s, was a faithful subscriber. Among the people who had come from all countries, and from all tendencies of the labour movement, whom I met in Moscow in 1920, there were few who did not know La Vie ouvrière; several of them had contributed to it. The shop on the quai Jemmapes was frequently visited by foreign friends; our last visitor there was Malatesta. Having escaped from Italy after the ‘red week’ when he and his friends had taken control of the Ancona region, he made a brief stop in Paris before returning to the London refuge where he went to live when he had to leave Italy.

In the course of the first half of 1914 — the journal’s last half-year — Monatte devoted himself primarily to administration. La Vie ouvrière now had between 1800 and 1900 subscribers — quite a good figure. But it was not growing; it seemed to have run out of steam before reaching 2000, our first target, which Monatte now wanted to exceed; he was convinced that a journal like La Vie ouvrière could get many more if systematic and unflagging efforts were made. He fingered the file of subscribers lovingly, classifying the index cards by département, by region, by employment, seeing where an effort was required, encouraging those who were successfully recruiting among their own circles, reviving the spirits of those whose zeal had diminished, and never leaving a letter unanswered. Early in July, he told us that he intended to go and get some rest in his native Auvergne; he certainly needed it. For the last five years, every day had been a working day, and in early 1914 the polemics had often taken on an unpleasant character. Guy Tourette, who had recently returned to Paris, asked no better than to help; we could easily give Monatte some leave. But the events which suddenly occurred just after his departure scarcely allowed him to take advantage of it. However, we hesitated to ask him to cut his holiday short; there had been other emergencies, and the governments had always backed off from unleashing the massacre; perhaps this time too… We had spent part of Sunday with Dumoulin, who was leaving for the army on the first day of mobilisation. Monatte came back to us the next day. The great test was beginning.

Alfred Rosmer

On the Subject of Bandits: The Bonnot Affair[15]


 NEVER met Bonnot, nor any of the members of the ‘rue Ordener’[16] gang. I have only some vague and contradictory information about them, quite inadequate for an understanding of exactly how and in what circumstances they developed from theoretical individualism[17] to systematic burglary, and then to murder. It is a point which would be of some interest if we could pin it down precisely — I speak for all those who want to give an accurate account of social facts, and are not satisfied with absurd or insane rhetoric.

Perhaps it will be possible to do so one day. What we can attempt at the present time is to seek the cause of the bold and considered actions which drove public opinion mad, and provoked ravings in the bourgeois press.

We are quite happy to refer to ‘bandits’ here. In theory, they are our enemies. They show the same hostility to syndicalism as do the bourgeois, and they fight against it with equal zeal. When they ‘take action’, as Bonnot and his friends have done, their acts have no revolutionary meaning; they are based on the capitalist mentality which has adopted the aim of accumulating money and leading a parasitic life. Their most assured result is to provoke a repressive fury and a strengthening of the police, which, in the absence of bandits, will be turned against all rebels.

Whether we like it or not, the actions of the Bonnot gang pose a problem. The bandits of whom it is made up are not the ordinary sort of bandits. They are disconcertingly bold, and they have frustrated the police. They have rightly been compared to the Russian burglars who have operated in different countries in Europe, and most recently in England. Both, at certain times, act like desperate men. They know their lives are at stake, and they go all the way. Ordinary burglars and criminals do not behave like that. They doubtless retain somewhere within themselves a certain respect for the laws and for the police. Even when they are facing the prospect of a convict jail or the guillotine, they hold onto life.

So what are these new criminals? If they are shaking society to its foundations — as everyone can see more or less clearly, hence the degree of public feeling — should we not blame the social organisation itself for having moulded them?

‘Here we go again’, our complacent readers will exclaim. ‘It’s Bonnot who kills, but it is society which is guilty. We’ve heard this song before.’ Those who are wilfully blind may choose not to see, and they will rely on repression alone to put a stop to crime. Deibler’s machine[18] was out of action for some time. There were cries enough for it to be restored. Now there have been fresh executions.[19] Has crime got less? No. So? Is it enough to say: ‘We don’t debate with anti-social monsters. We eradicate them.’ But Bonnot doesn’t debate, either. The duel which has thus been embarked on can last a long time if nobody wants to ‘debate’.

For our part, we intend to understand. Let us take the most representative publication of the French bourgeoisie, Le Temps.[20] In the last few years, it has visibly gone downhill. Nowadays, it often descends to the level of Le Matin, a rag that will stoop to anything, which lies cheerfully, slanders systematically, and on occasion acts as a police auxiliary. One day we shall remind it of the shameful article which was the starting-point for the prosecution of our unfortunate comrade Durand.

In recent years, it has repeatedly mocked French people of the ‘limp type’, meaning thereby all those who were trying to introduce a bit more justice into the relations between individuals and between nations. It was an unending hymn to strength and energy, an exaltation of the grotesque and cumbersome Roosevelt[21] and his ‘intensity of life’.

A few years earlier, Barrès took his ‘rootless ones’[22] to meditate before the tomb of Napoleon.

But come off it, teachers of energy, Bonnot is your pupil! Don’t deny it. He may embarrass you, but he is your pupil. Oh, I know very well that you will reply that the energy, force, and action which you advocate must remain within the framework of law and order.

The law and order which you posit as being untouchable, we can understand that you hold firm to them: you are the beneficiaries of them; one of them enables you to take your pleasure in peace, the other doesn’t trouble you because you have the means to evade it when you consider it necessary.

Today is not the first time we have seen business journalists, dodgy financiers and corrupt parliamentarians. But nowadays the secrets of their operations and the impunity they enjoy is more and more often brought to light, and this is an active cause of public demoralisation.

There is an important member of the staff of Le Temps called André Tardieu. He was recently involved in an embarrassing affair which ended up in court. His associates were prosecuted and sentenced. He was not troubled. A Tardieu is untouchable.

‘What a paradox!’ you may say. To discuss Tardieu in the context of Bonnot! It is a paradox, because it goes without saying, as though it were quite natural, that the law should not be administered with equal severity in the two cases. Otherwise, there would be no difference between Tardieu and Bonnot — except that one of them can get rich with impunity — they say: ‘He’s a man of talent, while the other takes risks.’

The least enlightened people can see that clearly. And it is rather puerile to be surprised, after so many political and financial scandals, that legality no longer exercises an irresistible attraction.

Society teaches respect for the laws protecting property very badly, since the lesson that emerges from the facts is rather more effective than that which is to be found in text-books of moral philosophy. But does it take any greater care of individuals? Do we need to recall the numerous catastrophes caused by capitalist greed, with human lives being sacrificed every day for squalid profit? The terrible disaster of the Titanic[23] is a capitalist crime in its origin and its results.

Such examples strike the public imagination by their scope. Yet the newspapers still generally succeed in concealing the true causes. But how many other slow murders are there which we don’t see, because they are not carried out by a single blow, and because the responsibility derives from the organisation of society?

When a question such as the abolition of night work in bakeries comes to be proposed, what sort of a reception does it get? On the employers’ side, it is very simple. As soon as there is a question of changing habits and extra expenditure, there is total, relentless opposition.

Do we find any sign of feeling about this on the part of the public? Scarcely. There is almost complete indifference. How many people would protest, even if they dared, when faced with the possibility of having to do without fresh bread for their breakfast? It doesn’t matter much to them that this is also a question of human lives.

The new sport of aviation has provided its share of examples of capitalist greed and collective egoism. The main circuits are organised by the manufacturers; the press drums up the necessary publicity; the public, overexcited, wants its spectacle at all costs. Whatever the weather, the pilot must fly.

Nor can there be any doubt that colonial ventures do not exhibit much respect for human life.

Writers are celebrating the reawakening of patriotism. Young bourgeois, it appears, would go to war as they would go to a football match. But if it is a good thing to kill for pleasure and in order to develop your muscles, then why blame Bonnot when he kills for profit, or out of necessity?

Who is really responsible for the outrages? For Le Temps — and on this point almost all the other papers have followed suit — it can only be the revolutionaries who preach contempt for property and for the law. And it develops this theme with its usual dishonesty. But Charles Maurras[24] intervenes to say: ‘Those responsible are the republicans, the democrats, who have destroyed the fundamental bases of any balanced society. As long as there is not a leader, a king, at the head of the country, disorder and confusion will continue.’ And Maurras’ argument is as good as that of Le Temps.

Being equally remote from Le Temps and L’Action française,[25] we can judge the reasoning of both of them impartially. There is a valid point in Maurras’ argument. His solution is childish and fanciful. It does not seem to be the case that monarchies, or even empires, are free from bandits. His king-phenomenon would not be enough to make them disappear. But when he states that the republic has destroyed but not rebuilt, he is right.

‘How beautiful it seemed under the empire.’[26] It has now long since ceased to be beautiful. It has witnessed every betrayal, every treachery, and it has kept the best places for traitors and renegades. Better still, it has welcomed them as saviours. Does not Le Temps, which has a weakness for them, believe that the example of a Clemenceau or a Briand is scarcely suitable to maintain republican faith?

The republic has found no substitute ideal for religious beliefs which were dead or dying — unless you consider the careerism it has maintained and encouraged to be an ideal.

And is it not also legitimate to take into account the widespread availability of ‘crime literature’ in order to explain the growing audacity and ingenuity of criminals? Is it not probable that reading Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle, and the works of his innumerable imitators, has encouraged individuals to experience for themselves adventures similar to those born of the imagination of novelists?

Vautel[27] in Le Matin announces that he has read all these novels, and cries idiotically: ‘You can see that that hasn’t turned me into a criminal!’

Doubtless, if all the Vautels who have read Sherlock Holmes began to rob their contemporaries, it would be a bit much!

Then there is the enormous amount of space devoted to crimes of all sorts in the so-called newspapers! The people are fed on this abject literature, and then we are surprised at the results.

A regime which ends up forming a public mood like that which was evident when the guillotine was restored, when the population hailed the executioner as a saviour, is doomed. There is something rotten in it.

Ignorant journalists have mentioned Ravachol[28] in connection with Bonnot. But there are great differences between them. Ravachol had robbed and killed, but the outrages which led to his arrest had purely disinterested motives: they were aimed at judges and policemen guilty of scandalous violence against the anarchists.

Bonnot was motivated only by self-interest, and acted only for his personal profit. There was no other motive for his actions than the desire to live in idleness like the bourgeois.

How did public opinion react to the deeds of the tragic gang? There is no doubt that it was victim of an intense fear. For a few weeks, a sort of mythical Bonnot existed, a formidable character, sowing death everywhere he went, whom people imagined they saw everywhere, and yet who could not be caught. This fear was rather oddly linked to the sort of admiration which the masses feel for heroes and for great adventurers.

Once the first shock had passed, there was naturally a cry of: ‘Protect us! The police must be inadequate, if such outrages can be committed. Strengthen it!’ And there was no delay. The government asked parliament for a million francs to create new policemen of all sorts. And parliament consented almost without opposition.

Hordes of police will sweep down on the country. They won’t arrest the bandits, nor will they prevent further outrages. But they will hunt down revolutionaries. It has already been announced that that there will be strict surveillance — we know what that means — of libertarians in Meurthe-et-Moselle.

Throughout this episode the police have been neither clever nor brave. They were concerned above all with staging a spectacle. Everything developed like a lavish theatrical production. The arrests were announced several hours in advance, to give journalists and photographers time to get to the scene. If some wretches had not given information to the police, they would have arrested nobody, apart from stooges and the innocent.

That they weren’t brave was obvious after the Ivry episode. The day after the ‘siege of Choisy-le-Roi’, reading the papers which took their line from the police headquarters told us a lot. How much calm heroism was there on that Sunday morning! There was enough for several tragedies by Corneille.[29]

The way Bonnot was finished off on the spot by Guichard[30] and his acolytes — although we have been told that Bonnot was gravely wounded, wrapped in a mattress, gripping in either hand an automatic pistol — is no more glorious. Guichard’s summary justice was not striking at the time, because death there in the garage was the best thing that could happen to Bonnot. The precedent is nonetheless a dangerous one. The police, who have already assumed so many rights, will now be able to use their weapons quite haphazardly. The papers have already told us the story of a policeman from Bougival who killed a burglar on the spot, even though he had no other weapons than two candles and some Metro tickets.

There is another worrying consequence: all the reforms whereby a little justice has been laboriously introduced into ‘justice’ are being called into question again. They want to go back to having the preliminary investigation behind closed doors and to abolish the Bérenger law.[31] An instinct of barbarous ferocity is being encouraged in the public. It is being whipped up against magistrates who do not impose maximum sentences on all the offenders brought before them. They come close to saying that these magistrates are in collusion with the bandits. The public are also whipped up against juries which acquit. Léon Daudet[32] has rewritten against them the ignoble article of Edmond Lepelletier after the trial of the Thirty.[33] What fury has been unleashed by the press against this woman on a private income in Sceaux, who pleaded for the acquittal of young men who had broken into her home to burgle it, and even offered to give accommodation to one of them. But one could scarcely find in the whole of antiquity a finer act of true greatness. And how embarrassing heroism is when it is found anywhere other than in books, when it is found in everyday life!

This is another grotesque symptom of collective madness. The most preposterous inventions are given credence by the police and seriously investigated. The most recent consists in providing police with a shield behind which they can shelter from the revolvers of the bandits. A procession of police with these shields seems to be on the agenda for the next ‘inspection’. Society’s instrument of defence has thus put itself on the same level as society itself. If it were capable of a little calm thought, it would realise that against the automatic pistol of a desperate man there is no protective shield. Moreover, this panic demand for a strengthened police is not without danger even for ‘decent people’ themselves. Perhaps they will finally realise this.

Alfred Rosmer

Women in the Workshop: After the Couriau Affair[34]


 HAD intended to follow up the investigation I had made in the printworkers’ union about the Couriau affair, and to extend it to all the trades where women workers are found, and then to show what has been done in England, in Germany, in the USA. From all that indications could have been deduced, and lessons which would have been extremely useful. This wide-ranging investigation would have been encouraging, because it would have shown that if traces of the feelings and ideas about women’s work which are so widespread in the printing industry can be found almost anywhere, nowhere else are such conceptions prevalent with the same force. And that we could hope that when we here apply ourselves to the task without ulterior motives, we could rapidly achieve the fine results obtained in England and Germany, where more than 200 000 women workers are organised in unions.

But I’ve already taken up a lot of space. For the moment, I must stop this investigation and come to a conclusion.

There are two questions to be answered: that of women’s work in the printing industry, and the solution provided by the Printworkers’ Federation, and secondly the general question of female labour.

The first can be dealt with rapidly. After the statements by Mammale[35] and Burgard, the responsibility of the Central Committee appears clearly. The committee has twice failed in its duty, and first of all by not striving to make the Bordeaux resolution into a living reality.

It was responsible for the resolution; four of its members had defended it heatedly. A decisive victory had been won over the old retrograde state of mind. But that victory was short-lived. Moreover, with the Couriau affair, in the aftermath of Bordeaux, narrow selfish craft exclusiveness was to reveal itself in all its ugliness. The indolence of the Central Committee had left the way open for it; the Central Committee’s abdication in face of the Lyons branch allowed the latter to take the two decisions which aroused strong feelings in the working class, and produced numerous protests among the printers themselves.

There is no point insisting on it. The responsibilities of the Central Committee are unquestionable: it was members of the committee, not its opponents, who have established them most forcibly.

We are noting this fact because it cannot be avoided. But in this affair, it is not the question of responsibility which arouses our interest; it is a matter of limited concern, and it is up to printers and their federation to discuss it.

However inadequate it may be, a result has already been achieved, since the committee has urged the Lyons branch to take Couriau back into membership.

What we should like, and what we fervently desire, is that decisions like those taken by the Lyons branch should be the last of their kind, and that there should be no need of the intervention of an Executive Committee to forestall any recurrence. They are evidence of short-sightedness, old-fashioned ideas and outdated methods which no longer have any place in the workers’ organisation.

Those who support them should look at the facts instead of deliberately shutting their eyes to them: they will see that they go against the interests they intend to defend.

I think I shall not be the only one to be struck by finding so many defenders of the family among worker militants. Doubtless for some of them it is a hypocritical means of getting rid of women workers. But the majority are sincere. When Paul Bourget finds no more disciples among the bourgeoisie, he can look for them in the unions.

They defend the family as though they were members of the Academy of Moral Sciences.[36]

They cannot see that it is dead: large-scale industry has killed it. On the day when the factory needed women and children, the family was done for. It may serve as a theme for academic dissertations; it may serve as a basis for still-born social systems. The bourgeoisie, who celebrate its virtues, have crushed and demolished it. And they don’t want it for themselves any more, since they don’t have children, and they live in hotel rooms. So let it be left among dead things.

And also it is time enough for some of our comrades to abandon the antediluvian way of thought which gives them such a strange conception of the relations that should exist between men and women. I shall have to deal with this very briefly, but one fact will suffice to illustrate the point. Bottinelli[37] accused Couriau of being a bad trade unionist. Why? Because he refused to ‘withdraw’ his wife from the workplace. What is typical is the very possibility of writing such things. Does Bottinelli want to re-establish the Roman family, where the father of the family would have complete authority over his wife and children? I suppose not. So he should not preserve fragments of a practice which has been abolished. Is it so difficult to accept that a woman can act on her own account, and that she has a say in the matter when it comes to controlling her life and her destiny?

I have great admiration for men who attribute so many virtues to their own sex. I admire them, but I cannot imitate them. They have faith. They say: ‘A woman can’t be a printer.’ And women are printers. They say: ‘Women are docile; they can’t stick at anything for long’, when they have before their eyes the wonderful example of the suffragettes in England. Men wanted to go on hunger strike. Women did go on hunger strike and, by their tenacity, they succeeded, among other things, in alleviating the harsh English prison conditions, even for political prisoners. When Tom Mann was able to have the advantage of special treatment, when he went into prison, it was thanks to this heroic struggle of English women, where so many among them have had their health broken.

I simply ask our comrades to open their eyes. Let them look around: they will see women everywhere; they will see them where there were none and could not have been any yesterday, and with the assistance of the progress of machine production, they will see even more tomorrow.

Will they go on saying ‘women should stay at home; they can’t do such and such a job’? The bosses for their part will continue to laugh and to use women as an army of scabs which the workers have handed over to them.

Having seen that, they will not be able to fail to recognise that there is only one remedy, and that it lies in organising women. The task may be difficult; as time passes it becomes even more difficult. The printers can see that today. If, having recognised it, they abandon their prejudices; if they strip away selfish craft exclusiveness; if they don’t merely accept the organisation of women grudgingly, but adopt it wholeheartedly, then a great step forward will have been taken towards the liberation of workers, of men as well as of women.

And we should thank the Lyons printers who, by giving rise to the Couriau ‘Affair’, have become the initial — albeit involuntary — cause of this promising new direction.


[1].      La Révolution prolétarienne, January 1951.

[2].      Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was a Jewish officer in the French army who was convicted of spying for Germany in 1894. A vigorous campaign was launched to prove him innocent, raising major questions about militarism and anti-Semitism. In 1899, new evidence made his innocence clear, and he was pardoned.

[3].      The Augustins de l’assomption were a conservative Catholic religious community, founded in 1850, and dissolved in 1900.

[4].      A Catholic daily paper, founded 1883 by the Augustins de l’assomption.

[5].      Charles Péguy (1873-1914) was a French essayist and poet who was originally a Socialist, but became a nationalist and semi-mystical Catholic.

[6].      Henri-Louis Bergson (1859-1941) was a French idealist philosopher who wrote extensively on memory, evolution and time.

[7].      Élisée Reclus (1830-1905) was a revolutionary and distinguished geographer; he participated in the Commune and was exiled from France thereafter.

[8].      A journal launched by Gustave Hervé in 1906; originally on the extreme left, but backed the war in 1914; in 1916 replaced by La Victoire.

[9].      Paul Bourget (1852-1935) was a novelist and critic who displayed growing Catholic and royalist sympathies in his later work. Rosmer’s review — describing the play as ‘boring’ and ‘ill‑constructed’ — appeared in La Vie ouvrière in February 1910.

[10].     Before 1914, Paris engineering workers earned around 1.20 francs per hour.

[11].     The Industrial Workers of the World was an American trade union centre launched in 1905, in opposition to the AFL, on principles of industrial unionism and class struggle.

[12].     The Vie ouvrière grouping rejected any notion of a party; but they saw the group around the journal as a nucleus (noyau) which could raise the political and cultural level of union activists, and develop a leadership in the class.

[13].     The labour exchanges (bourses) were workers’ organisations bringing together members of various trades in a given locality; from an original concern with hiring and wage levels, they developed into social centres for the discussion of working-class problems.

[14].     For Nashe Slovo, see Chapter 3 of this volume.

[15].     La Vie ouvrière, 5 June 1912.

[16].     For a full account, see R Parry, The Bonnot Gang, London, 1987.

[17].     That is, individualist anarchism, as advocated for example by Victor Serge before 1914.

[18].     The guillotine, so called after a well-known family of executioners.

[19].     The guillotine was not formally abolished in France till 1981, but under Presidents Grévy, Loubet and Fallières (1879-87, 1899-1913) most, but not all, capital sentences were commuted.

[20].     Influential bourgeois daily paper founded in 1861; replaced by Le Monde in 1944.

[21].     Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was US president in 1901-09; he was an expansionist and advocate of a strong navy.

[22].     A reference to the novel Les Déracinés (1897) by Maurice Barrès (1862‑1923), a study of provincial students in Paris who had been influenced by Kantian philosophy and lacked cultural roots.

[23].     The Titanic sank in April 1912, just two months earlier.

[24].    Charles Maurras (1868-1952), a poet and journalist, was a monarchist and anti-Semite, and founder of Action française.

[25].     A monarchist, anti-Semitic, pro-Catholic political group, founded in 1899; from 1908 to 1944 it was the name of the group’s daily paper.

[26].     A parody of the saying that the idea of the republic seemed beautiful under the repressive Second Empire (1852-70).

[27].     Vautel (Clément Vaulet, 1876-1954) was a journalist and writer who adopted the stance of a ‘common-sense, average Frenchman’.

[28].     Ravachol (FC Koenigstein) (1859-1892) was an anarchist, responsible for various ‘outrages’; he was guillotined.

[29].     Pierre Corneille (1606-84) was a French dramatist; his tragedies focus on the triumph of duty over desire.

[30].     Xavier Guichard was head of the Sûreté.

[31].     A law of 1891 giving judges powers to suspend imprisonment and fines.

[32].    Léon Daudet (1868-1942) was a right-wing journalist associated with Action française.

[33].     A trial of anarchists in 1894.

[34].    La Bataille Syndicaliste, 28 September 1913.

[35].    A CGT activist in the proof-readers’ union.

[36].    The Académie des sciences morales et politiques was founded in 1795; it consists of groups of distinguished specialist scholars, with sections for philosophy, law, history, etc.

[37].    Possibly Joanny Bottinelly, a Lyons printworker, born in 1875.