The International Workingmen’s Association. Wilhelm Eichhoff 1869

8. The International Working Men’s Association, The Trades Unions, and the Strikes

With the foundation of the International Working Men’s Association a new era began for the English Trades Unions. Previously, they were exclusively engrossed in the struggle over wages and the working time and were bound down by the narrow-mindedness of the medieval guilds system.

The trades unions are not only a wholly lawful but also a governmentally recognised body sanctioned by Act of Parliament in 1825b and necessitated by, the dally conflicts between labour and capital. Their purpose is to stand up for the interests of workmen against masters and capitalists. Their ultima ratio is the strike, whose legality is enshrined in the aforementioned Act of Parliament on the condition that any direct breach of the peace is avoided and no forcible restraint of trade is attempted Under the protection of this Act, the trades unions have spread in all factory districts of England and have, by virtue of their numbers, organisation and funds, grown into a powerful body which confronts, and commands the respect of, the employers, and makes its influence felt in many different ways. They have survived all the periods of political reaction, all the counter-schemes of the masters and capitalists, all the shortages and commercial crises of the past decades, and have the same importance for the organisation of the working class as the establishment of communes in the Middle Ages had for the middle classes of bourgeois society, as Karl Marx has, indeed, demonstrated as early as 1847 in his work against Proudhon, entitled Misère de la Philosophie. Réponse à la Philosophie de la Misère par Mons. Proudhon (Paris 1847).

It has now been brought home to these trades unions that, on the one hand, without knowing it, they are a means of organising the working class, and that alongside their immediate and current aims they must not forget the general aim of winning the complete political and social emancipation of the working class. On the other hand, it has equally been brought home to them that no ultimate success was possible without international combination and that by its very nature the workers’ movement cut across state and national borders.

That is why – the following resolution was framed and adopted at the big conference of delegates from the trades unions of the United Kingdom at Sheffield in 1866 [416]:

“That this conference, fully appreciating the efforts made by the International Association to unite in one common bond of brotherhood the working men of all countries, most earnestly recommend to the various societies here represented, the advisability of becoming affiliated to that body, believing that it is essential to the progress and prosperity of the entire working community.”

The London Trades’ Council,[417] Which is the central body, of England’s trades unions, had by then concluded an agreement with the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association in London. The Secretary of the Trades’ Council, Mr. Odger, was and still is also a member of the General Council of the International Association. Only from then on did the activities of the trades unions in England gain a universal character, which became evident very soon when they took a direct part for the first time in the political movement. How successful they were is common knowledge. After the fall of the Russell-Gladstone cabinet in June 1866 it had seemed that the parliamentary reform would be indefinitely postponed. The Tory leaders declared to the loud acclaim of the majority that no reform was necessary. At this point, the workers took charge of the movement. Mass meetings on a large scale were called in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Bristol, and other cities, in which the trades unions took part in their own capacity. The Trades’ Council gave its support to the Reform League, [418] the governing body of the movement. Within a few months, victory was achieved, and the Tory government was forced to initiate the parliamentary reform.[419]

In England as well as on the Continent the years 1866 to 1868 were especially plentiful in strikes on the part of the workers arid in factory lock-outs on the part of the capitalists. The common reason for this was the crisis of 1866[420] and its aftermaths. The crisis paralysed speculation. Large enterprises came to a standstill, and those entrepreneurs who, owing to the changed situation oil the money market, were unable to meet the financial commitments they had made at the time when speculation was at its highest, were forced into bankruptcy. The stagnation of all trading enterprises had reached a point where it was surpassed only by the extraordinary glut of gold in the banks of England and France. Arid the gold had piled tip in the banks because it could no longer find any use for business purposes. This led to a general stoppage of commerce and a general decline of prices. Victuals alone, notably bread, the workers’ most vital necessity, had gone up in price owing to the crop failures of 1866 and 1867. And precisely during this general shortage came the calamity of universal crisis, which made itself felt to the workmen through the reduction of the working time and the lowering of wages by the employers. Hence the many strikes and lock-outs. It so happened, furthermore, that the laws against working men’s coalitions had only just been lifted in France and other countries of the Continent. Unquestionably, too, the resolutions of the working men’s congresses in Geneva and Lausanne had had a moral effect, made still stronger by the workmen’s awareness everywhere that they could rely on the powerful backing of the International Association.

But that part of the European bourgeois press which denounced the International Working Men’s Association for inciting these conflicts was mistaken. Nowhere did the Association initiate any strikes, and confined itself merely to intervening where the character of the local conflicts justified its doing so and required it to take action.

Specifically, it intervened in three important cases, where it also used the opportunity to make successful propaganda for its principles.

First, a few general remarks about the tactics of the Association during the English workers’ strikes, in which its cooperation had been required. An account of this is given lit the “Third Annual Report” which the London General Council placed before the Congress in Lausanne, and which says:

“It used to be a standard threat with British capitalists, riot only, in London, but also in the provinces, when their workmen would not tamely submit to their arbitrary dictation, that they, would supplant them by an importation of foreigners. The possibility of such importations taking place was in most cases sufficient to deter the British workmen from insisting on their demands. The action taken by the General Council has bad the effect of putting a stop to these threats being made publicly. Where anything of the kind is contemplated it has to be done in secret, and the slightest information obtained by the workmen suffices to frustrate the plans of the capitalists. As a rule, when a strike or a lock-out occurs concerning any of the affiliated trades, the Continental correspondents of the Association are at once instructed to warn the workmen in their respective localities riot to enter into any engagements with the agents of the capitalists of the place where the dispute is. However, this action is not confined to affiliated trades. ‘The same action is taken on behalf of other trades upon application being received. –

Indeed, this was how the manoeuvres of the English capitalists were frustrated during the strikes relative to workshop and factory lock-outs of railway excavators, conductors and engine drivers, zinc workers, wire-workers, wood-cutters, and so on. In a few cases, such as the strike of the London basket-makers, the capitalists had secretly smuggled in labourers from Belgium and Holland. Following an appeal of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association, however, the latter made common cause with the English workers.

Still greater services were rendered to a certain group of workers by the Association’s administrative committee lit Paris. In Roubaix, the ribbon manufacturers introduced arbitrary, penal regulations in their factories which naturally mainly amounted to deductions from wages. The inescapable result of this system of fines was the dismissal of the workers who protested against it, the lock-out leading to a revolt and to an armed intervention by the authorities. [422] Here, however, the Central Council of the International Association in Paris stepped in and proved that the manufacturers had made themselves guilty of breaking the law with their regulations by, playing legislator, judge and gendarme off their own bat. As a result, the French government was compelled to declare that any, private factory regulations, insofar as they were not purely administrative, but imposed fines, were unlawful and constituted an unmitigated usurpation.

The decisive and most important cases of intervention by the International Working Men’s Association, however, were the following three:

1. Closure of the Paris Bronze Workshops in February 1867

The great, fundamental importance of this conflict was the following:

Trade unions had only just been legally allowed in France. The bronze-workers, a body of approximately 5,000 persons, were the first to take advantage of this and to form a union on the English model at the beginning of 1866. Naturally, from the start, this association was a thorn in the side of the masters, and they decided to destroy it at the first opportunity. This opportunity came in February 1867, when the union found itself compelled to intervene on behalf of its members and to require five of the masters to comply with its directions. Instantly, the capitalists formed a coalition, which demanded of their workers that they either resign front the union or leave the workshops. This culminated in a lock-out of some 1,500 bronze-workers by 87 employers.

In this case, therefore, the existence of this important factor of the movement in France hung in the balance.

At the beginning of the lock-out, the union of bronze-workers had a fund of 35,000 francs. It decided to pay each of the dismissed workers 20 francs weekly, and to obtain a loan from the English trades unions for this purpose through the good offices of the International Association against a monthly repayment of 5,000 francs.

The workers won thanks to the moral and pecuniary support of the London General Council, which obtained the desired contributions from the English trades unions, arid also thanks to the intervention of the Paris Central Council of the International Association which persuaded the other trade unions lit France to render the bronze-workers vigorous support.

Besides the social significance of the French workers’ coming out victorious with the help of their English brethren, the case has its international importance, of which the Courrier français of March 24, 1867 says the following:

M. Thiers said that no new policy, is conceivable ill international relations. Yet a noteworthy arid in no was, isolated fact has just taken place which, coming from the people, serves notice of something that is really new.

“ we cannot tell if the bitter, hundreds of years old and almost inhuman hatred between the English and the French is still rooted in the bosom of a part of the two nations. Bill tile fact that the English proletariat offers alliance and assistance to the Paris bronze-workers to support them in a question of employment arid wages is a symptom of a new polity which the old parties do not and cannot comprehend.”

2. The Geneva Strike in the Spring of 1868

A thorough description of this strike is given in the following little brochure: Die internationale Arbeiterassociation und die Arbeitseinstellung in Genf im Fruhjahr 1868. Von Joh. Phil. Becker. Deutsche Verlagshalle, 33, 1868. The workers who read this book are most strongly to both the brochure of the stout-hearted Joh. Phil. Becker, the proceeds front which are exclusively intended for covering the costs incurred ill supporting the strike, and the monthly journal Vorbote. Joh. Phil. Becker is himself a worker in origin arid has fought for the working class with sword, word arid pen all his life long with the utmost self-sacrifice arid devotion. A veteran of the labour movement, he is as energetic as lie is original ill his thinking, and deserves the recognition of the entire working class in contrast to the present-day petits grands hommes of “satiated virtue arid solvent morality'’ who are pushing themselves forward everywhere ill labour circles. He is the life and soul of the international labour movement ill Switzerland and has, indeed, also enlisted all the German elements who so fat. adhered to the Association in Germany itself. [Note by Eichhoff.]

While the case of the Paris bronze-workers concerned the existence of trade unions in France, the case here concerned the existence of the International Working Men’s Association on the Continent. [423]

The conflict between the International Working Men’s Association and a part of the employers in Geneva broke out and ran its course in the following way.

Ever since August 1867 there were signs of deep dissatisfaction over their condition among the Geneva building workers. A general meeting of the building workers, held on January 19, 1868, moved to elect a joint committee, which would enter into negotiations with the employers and by amicable agreement secure a reduction of the working time from 12 to 10 hours and a wage increase of 20 per cent. A memorandum was drawn up and forwarded to all the masters. Instead of deferring to the workers, the employers formed a counter-coalition and called a general meeting of building masters for the 18th of March, their provisional committee turning down the repeated proposals of the workers’ committee to have amicable talks between delegates of the two sides before the general meeting was to take place.

This attitude of the masters’ provisional committee showed the workers what they should expect from the coming general meeting of masters. Their committee declared that it had failed in its task of negotiating an understanding with the masters’ committee, and in the evening of the 14th of March it requested the Geneva Central Committee of the International Working Men’s Association to take the matter in hand and to mediate an agreement.

It was the duty of the Association to comply with this request. It appointed a commission of three Geneva citizens, whose private attempts at mediation, however, also failed to yield results. On the 20th of March, therefore, after the general meeting of the 18th had finally constituted an employers’ association, the commission issued a public invitation to the “Messieurs les building contractors’, to come to a meeting on the 23rd of March. On the very next day a public reply appeared in the newspapers which let the commission of the International Association know in the name of the general meeting of the 18th of March that the masters’ general meeting had decided, with only three votes against, to have no negotiations with it whatsoever.

In the morning of the 23rd of March, the commission formed by the International Association made this state of affairs known in wall posters, serving notice that if no favourable result was achieved by the evening of that day and all prospects of an amicable understanding with the employers vanished, it would beat the drums and call a general meeting of all the sections of the International Association. At six in the evening the signal was given, and members of the Association thronged from all sides to the Rue du Rhône, where the union had its premises. The bourgeoisie was panic-stricken. Shops and houses were locked up, the cash-boxes were placed in safety, and the employees of some of the comptoirs were issued arms and ammunition. In the meantime, the Association, 5,000 men strong, marched in model order to the shooting-range, where the announced general meeting discussed the gravity of the situation and unanimously assured the building workers of the support of the International Association. After this had taken place, it was not the International Association but the governing bodies of the trade unions which, to their members’ thunderous cheers and enthusiastic assurances of support, declared a strike of block-cutters, bricklayers, plasterers and house-painters in Geneva. Thereupon, the gathering dispersed quietly – By nine in the evening Geneva had already, resumed its usual appearance.

Word of the strike, which had been unavoidable, was sent to the General Council of the International Association in London and the administrative councils in Brussels, Paris, and Lyons on the 25th of March; they, were approached for urgent support because the Geneva section of the Association had been unprepared for the strike, whose magnitude exceeded its capacities.

In the meantime, the masters lost no time either to invite workers for themselves, mainly from Ticino and Piedmont. But these were brought to the premises of the International Association the moment they arrived, and were there informed of the state of affairs and won over to the side of the strikers.

It goes without saying that during this time the International Association was subjected to the most savage attacks and the most venomous accusations. The journal de Genève set the tone and was most vigorously backed by the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, the Neue freie Presse of Vienna, and other organs of the radical, liberal and conservative bourgeoisie. As a result of the energetic behaviour of the Geneva Central Council, the cause of the strike faded completely into the background, while the International Association was pushed to the forefront of the movement.

On the 28th of March, the masters’ association put up wall notices dated the 26th of March, in which the masters promised to consider the workers’ grievances in all fairness, warned them against the despotism and menace of the International Working Men’s Association, which they said was maintained on foreign money and had instigated the strike, reminded them of the previous friendly mutual understanding, and called on them to return to work in good faith as individuals; the masters would be glad to improve the workers’ lot and would for the time being grant them an 11-hour working day. Should they, however, contrary to expectations, fail to comply with this, the masters would be compelled, for their part, also to close down workshops in those branches of the building trade which had not yet joined in the strike.

All attempts to come to an understanding foundered because the masters did not wish to deal with delegates of the International Association, and since no individual workers reported to work, the threatened factory lock-out was carried into effect on the 30th of March, and the workshops of joiners, carpenters and tinners were closed down. – The moral effect which this closure had on the Geneva workers is best illustrated by the fact that a number of unions which had previously stood aloof from the International Association, formed sections and asked it for admission. Thus the coach-makers, farriers, saddlers, upholsterers, file-cutters, curriers, and others. During these few days the Association won marry more than a thousand new members.

Workmen employed in the jewellery trade, such as goldsmiths, watchmakers, bowl-makers, and engravers, who with only few exceptions are all citizens of Geneva, held a meeting attended by more than 2,000 persons on the 30th of March, and resolved as one man to apply all moral and material means to help bring the cause of the building workers to victory. In reference to the International Association, the assembly declared itself quite firmly against the false and malicious statement that the Geneva workers were being subjected to tyrannical pressure by a foreign society.

If until then the International Association had applied itself diligently to settling the conflict, it was now, since all attempts at reaching an understanding had failed, a matter of obtaining means for a longer duration of the strike. The Geneva Central Committee of the International Association had to support some 3,000 workers and their families, which was a burden the Geneva workers could not conceivably cope with on their own.

But contributions were already pouring in from all sides. First of all, most appreciative acknowledgments are due to the Geneva working men and their unions for their spirit of self-sacrifice. It may be said without exaggeration that the employed workers of Geneva shared their bread with those who were out of work. And not just each and everyone gave willingly part of his wage; the unions’ savings banks and relief funds contributed sums ranging from 500 to 5,000 francs. The unions of other Swiss cities and the German workers’ societies in Switzerland were not found wanting either. Contributions arrived from Germany, – Hanover (Workers’ Union), Hamburg (Workers’ Educational Society), Schwerin (building workers), Rostock, Kaukehmen, Solingen, Mannheim (Tailors’ Union), Esslingen (Workers’ Educational Society), Munich (Workers’ Educational Society), and other towns. Especially active, however, were the General Council of the International Association in London and its administrative committees in Brussels and Paris. At the beginning of April the General Council was already able, despite the formal difficulties that it had had to overcome in order to obtain larger sums, to promise the Geneva Central Committee at least 40,000 francs monthly from England alone until the victorious culmination of the strike, partly as a loan and partly as a grant. And by the good offices of the Brussels and Paris administrative committees considerable contributions came from unions in those two cities, e.g. 2,000 francs from the printers, 1,500 francs from the tinners of Paris, and so on.

The masters saw then that their plan of starving out the workers had failed. But since they had vowed that they would not deal with the Central Council of the International Association, this was done on their behalf by M. Camperio, President of the State Council and Chief of the justice and Police Department of Geneva. He notified the Central Committee of the Association on the 8th of April to send delegates of all building trades to his office with a view to reaching an understanding. An agreement came about already on the third day of the negotiations. The masters conceded the workers a reduction of the working time by 1 and in some cases 2 hours, and a wage increase of 10 per cent.

In the evening of the same day (11th of April) M. Camperio let it be known in wall notices that the conflict between the workmen and the employers had been settled through his mediation, that the strike was to be considered over, and that work would be resumed on Monday (13th of April).

The International Working Men’s Association, too, lost no time in announcing the happy end of the strike in wall poster.”, and, while thanking the workmen for their brave conduct during the weeks of the struggle, it called on them to forget all that had happened and go to work on Monday in good cheer.

For the International Working Men’s Association the conflict resulted in a mass adherence of workmen in Switzerland.

3. The Blood, Conflict Between the Belgian Government and the Miners of Charleroi (March 1868)

Belgium is a paradise for the bourgeoisie. Its Constitution the ideal of a model bourgeois state. Its government is the agent of the bourgeoisie, representative of the domination of capital. Nothing is more natural there than that the least collision between the interests of capital and labour should precipitate a conflict which culminates in a bloody solution by powder and lead.[424]

The more resolutely the International Working Men’s Association concerns itself there with the cause of the oppressed and persecuted, the more necessary it appears to present an exhaustive account of the causes of the labour disturbances in the coal basin of Charleroi.

Among the national industries of various countries, coal and iron stand at the head of the list. The two industries form an organic whole. No ironworks and no furnace can operate without coal, and for the collieries, too, the furnaces and therefore, makes itself instantly felt in the other, and a metallurgical crisis, which recurs periodically like all crises, has an immediate and direct bearing on the price of coal.

The country that nature has favoured the most in respect of coal and iron is England. There, both coal and iron lie fairly close to the surface and can be extracted with little effort. France, on the other hand, is the most disinherited, for it produces practically no coal of its own and its ironworks are dependent on English or Prussian coal. But though for France importation of foreign coal is an economic necessity, it subjects coal-producing Belgium to highly disagreeable competition because England and Prussia (with a waterway along the Rhine and its tributaries) are in a more favourable position as regards transport, and because transportation costs have a bearing on the local price of coal.

The general price of coal in each country, on the other hand, depends on the wages that are paid for working it. Indeed, the international relevance of this factor strikes the eve owing to the difference in tile amount of labour time consumed in different countries to produce the same quantity of coal. Wages, too, are as different as the working time and in England they are at least 26 2/3 per cent higher than on the Continent.

[According to estimates by Richard Whiting. to deter mine how much worse off the workers were in France than then. colleagues in England, lie assumed that, considering the difference in the price of the most important necessities in the two countries, the worker got just as far with 5 francs ill France its he did with 5 shillings (that is, 6 francs) in England. This made a difference of 16 2/3 per cent by reason of just the price discrepancies. Having in this simple way identified francs and shillings as equal values for both countries, Whiting found in addition that wages in France were at least 10 per cent lower than those in England. while wages in France, Belgium, and Rhenish Prussia were approximately the same. – Note In Eichhoff.]

The implications for colliery workers of different countries are the following:

Whenever an iron and steel crisis or some other unfavourable commercial factor depresses the price of coal, the mine-owners try, to lower wages. Knowing, however, that wages are already so low that any further reduction is a hardship that may, in certain circumstances, such as a time of shortages, drive the worker to desperation, they are compelled to look for a plausible excuse.

As a rule, there are only two such excuses, one applicable only to England, and the other only to the Continent.

The plausible excuse of the English mine-owner is the low wages on the Continent.

The plausible excuse of the continental mine-owner is the low price and competition of English coal.

To what social straits the Belgian coalminers have been reduced in these circumstances is vividly described in the following article’ i ii the Demokratisches Wochenblatt:

[Demokratisches Wochenblatt, organ of the German People’s Party, Leipzig, printed and published by, C. W. Vollrath. Its editor-in-chief is Wilhelm Liebknecht. – Note by Eichhoff.]

A sadder plight than that of the Belgian coalminer is hardly conceivable. Reduced to the condition of an industrial machine, lie has been Stripped of all social rights and duties. He is nothing more than a chattel which figures in the mine-owner’s inventors, alongside horses, donkeys, implements, and other working material. That is a fact. A mining company considers itself richer when it has a greater number of workers ill its hands. When it establishes a workers’ town for ‘humanitarian reasons’ the direct gain is at most 2 to 3 per cent. Bill the indirect gain is immeasurably greater, for the company acquires an additional number of workers utterly dependent on the mine for their subsistence, thus ensuring the operation of the mine under any circumstances. It would be more appropriate to call the coalminer a serf or slave rather than a free man, which is a title that bourgeois economists so generously apply to him.

“Among all the labouring classes the Belgian coalminers wear the badge of slavery more distinctly than the others. Ignorance, brutishness, physical and moral degradation – those are the sad effects of the unrestricted domination of capital in an industry that is ill itself probably more demeaning to man than any other. To be sure, the bourgeoisie indulges itself in ascribing the coalminer’s misery to his own ingrained faults and vices, his lack of foresight, frivolity and dissipation. Wisely, it avoids tracing the case to its sources, lest it reveal the causes and circumstances that inevitably produce a condition which cannot find succour ill vain pity, but which it is ill the general interest to remedy, and as quickly as possible.

“Among the specific reasons that make the coalminer a machine of flesh and bone, the main one is the nature and condition of the work itself, and then also the extraordinary length of working time And it is all economic law of the present social system that working hours tend to increase in much the same proportion as the labour continuously tends to grow harder.

“The coalminer’s labour is purely, physical; it calls for no mental effort at all. His brain is almost completely idle. Deprived of any, stimulus, his mental aptitudes remain ill an elementary, inert, dormant state. Consequently, his mentality is narrow-minded to the extreme. just as his activity is purely physical, so his needs and tastes are also of a purely, physical and brutish nature. The coalminer’s intellectual and moral degradation is not at all surprising if you look at the nature of his trade. Considering the ruinous effects of the physical exertion that disfigures his body, it is indeed quite impossible for his habits and morals not to conflict with reason.

“The coalminer’s worth is measured exclusively, by his muscles; intelligence counts for nothing, for it is not needed. It takes neither skill nor talent nor education to work in a mine; physical strength alone is enough. A brief description of the various operations in a Coalmine will show the reader that under the present economic system it is impossible for the miner to improve himself either physically or mentally or morally.

Working a mine is generally divided as follows: the ouvriers a veine cut the coal from the seam, the bouteurs take it to the gallery, and the chargeurs a la taille load it into carts or tubs. The seloneurs pull the tubs to the shafts where the coal is raised to the surface. The coupers de voies, the releveurs and the meneurs de terres dig shafts and galleries, and take out the earth and stones. All these jobs are done in the dim light of a little lamp, in all unhealthy, dust-laden atmosphere. To do his job, the coalminer must assume unnatural poses, either lying on his side or kneeling, crouching or bending laboriously, and often fie can only crawl in order to move forward or backward. All this makes his condition worse, more painful, than that of all excavator or field labourer, whose jobs are also admittedly of all entirely, manual nature, but at least performed in open air and daylight.

“Is it any wonder, therefore, that the coalminer should be mentally, and morally at so loss: a level? How can a man who labours daily for 15 to 18 hours in a murky, unaired hole, retain a trace of the qualities that distinguish a human being from a beast? The best organised creature with the happiest spiritual aptitudes is bound t o degenerate swiftly ill such a regime, which seeks to destroy the individual’s abilities. Nowadays, one can no longer deny the influence of the body on the spirit, of the physical on the moral. The physical state of the individual is usually an indication of the mental. The report of the Mons Chamber of Commerce for 1844, an official paper, portrays the coalminer in the following terms: ‘These workers are pale of face in their young years, their frame is bent, they are and their walk is slow. Almost without exceptions, they bear the stamp of premature senility, at the age of 40 to 50.'

Bidaut, a mining engineer, wrote in an official report in 1843: ‘It is quite indisputable that this occupation (that of the coalminer), which deprives one of sunlight, subjects one to inhaling gases other than plain air, makes the body assume unnatural postures, exposes one to constant dangers, and so on, is of a kind that removes man the farthest from the normal conditions of life and should therefore be an object of special regulations. For me this is beyond any doubt.'

“What was true in 1843 is still true in 1868. The physical and moral condition of the coalminer, even though it may not have deteriorated, has certainly not improved. Far from having been reduced, the working time has since been lengthened, and wages, even if we disregard the current decline of business, are still the same while the price of victuals has gone up. Though considerable improvements have been introduced in mining, the workers have derived no benefit therefrom. If, for example, the miner no longer goes down into the mine and up again by ladder, the time and energy saved thereby benefit the master because more work is done. The effect of all this is that the miner lacks mental flexibility, that he scorns schooling and education as being the pursuit of ‘idlers’, that he does not send his children to school, and indulges in the coarsest of pleasures and amusements. While the mine-owner has an interest in keeping the miner in this brutish state, he is helped by a profusion of lesser businesses which profit exclusively off the workers and would, therefore, cease to be profitable if the worker were sober, prudent, and provident. They set traps for the miner at every step to part him from his last penny. And how easy is it to seduce people who lack the least schooling and whose mental capacity is in hibernation!

“This state of affairs cannot and must not continue. It is futile to appeal to the obligations of humanity; they are impotent against the laws of bourgeois economics. But the bourgeoisie is badly mistaken if it thinks it can reduce the workers to serfs and beasts without being itself affected by the moral consequences thereof. Suffice it to look at the bourgeoisie of the coal regions and factory towns. Whence the contempt for culture, for learning, and the lack of independent thinking outside the limits of its enterprises, and whence the crude lust for pleasure that distinguishes the bourgeois? It is quite the same as it was with the planters and slave-owners of the United States. There it was slavery and slave labour that caused the demoralisation. Here, too, similar effects would seem to justify the conclusion that the causes are the same. The lower the worker is pushed the lower his master sinks in his wake; he becomes morally corrupted as surely as the one whom he has ceased to regard as a human being.

“The workers have themselves found a remedy against the evils they suffer from private industry and which retroactively cover the body of society with festering sores. This remedy is education and cooperation. Nothing but a reduction of working time can put the benefits of enlightenment and education within reach of the worker. Nothing but participation in the benefits of capital call deliver him from the misery to which he is now helplessly exposed.

“The moral and material improvement of the worker is a question of social justice and of the public weal. There is no way to solve this question other than public education and the establishment of cooperative societies. It is up to the state to set these remedies in motion, to encourage and to support them. It will destroy itself if it looks on idly while the effects of the bourgeois economic system corrupt and erode society.”

In February 1867 there had already been disturbances among the miners of Marchienne, which could only be quelled by armed force. The cause was the prevailing shortages, notably the high price of bread due to the crop failure of 1866. Calling on the English workers for contributions to support the families of the unfortunate victims of the massacre, the General Council of the International Association issued the following appeal at the beginning of March 1867":

Central Council of the International Workingmen’s Association

18, Bouverie Street, E.C., London

To the Miners and Iron-Workers of Great Britain

Fellow working men, it is but a few days since The Times, presaged the ruin and destruction of the British iron trade if the Unionists persisted in not working under a certain price. The Belgians, it was said, with cheap coals and low wages, would engross the trade, both in the home and the foreign market. Two men, Creed and Williams, expatiated in The Times on the felicity of the Belgian coal and iron-masters not being bothered with vexatious factory laws and Trades Unions; the Belgian miners and iron-workers worked contentedly, with their wives and children, from 12 to 14 hours a day, for less than their British equals received for ten hours’ work a day. However, hardly was the ink of the print dry, when tidings arrived that these contented beings had revolted. The iron trade, says the Economiste belge, has been queer for some time on account of the high price of coal and an indifferent yield of the mines. The same journal says: “The ignorance of the mining population is so profound, their brutality so great, their way of spending their money so disorderly and so improvident that the highest wages would be insufficient. This is no wonder. The responsibility rests with those who keep them in a worse than brutish drudgery from the cradle to the grave.

At the beginning of February, three furnaces stopped in the neighbourhood of Marchienne; the other iron-masters forthwith announced a reduction of wages of ten per cent; the coal-masters of Charleroi followed suit, vet the Economiste belge says that coals were never more in demand, nor at a higher price than at present. The outrage, was aggravated by a simultaneous rise in the price of flour, the coal and iron-masters being also the proprietors of the flour mills of the district. A great many of the work-people became exasperated, and not being organised and in the habit of deliberating upon their common affairs, they, had no plan of action for their guidance.

They gathered upon the high roads and went from place to place to prevent such as might be disposed to work under reduction. The colliers of Charleroi arrived by a flour mill guarded by a hundred soldiers whose guns were loaded with ball cartridges. This provoked an attack, the result is: killed, wounded, and prisoners. These poor provoked and ill-used victims have left families outside the graves and the prison walls who are in dire want. Nobody ventures ill Belgium to say a word in their behalf. Mistaken and misguided as these men were as to their course of action, they yet fell in labour’s cause, and those they have left behind deserve sympathy and support. Some pecuniary help to the widows and orphans, and the moral influence it would produce, if coming from abroad, would raise the drooping spirits of the whole class, and might lead to communications and interchanges of opinion which would give our Continental brethren a better idea of how labour’s battles must be fought, and what organisation and education tile fighting army requires.

The Central Council of the International Working Men’s Association appeals to you to take the case into your consideration, for the cause of the labourers of one country is that of the labourers of all countries.

George Odger, President
J. George Eccarius, Vice-President
R. Shaw. Secretary

Despite their own sad plight, Britain’s miners and iron-workers responded willingly and warmly to the appeal that was addressed to them. That was the reason why the influence of the International Association on the labouring population of Belgium kept rising steadily, until events occurred in the district of Charleroi in March 1868 which laid the way open for it all over Belgium and decided its social superiority.

The reason for this year’s labour disturbances was the following.

There had been a considerable over-production of coal. In Belgium coal consumption had declined, partly due to the general Monetary and financial crisis of 1866 which occasioned an iron and steel crisis, affecting mainly the iron-works and blast-furnace industry of France and Belgium, and partly’ because of the competition of Prussian against Belgian coal. the Belgian mine-owners had, in fact, formed a coalition to push up the price of their coal. But then the owners of the iron-works and furnaces found it more profitable to bring their coal from abroad. And to protect themselves against price increases they, concluded contracts for several years in advance. For the mine-owners it was now a question of making good the damage they had brought down on themselves by their greed, and, above all, a question of reducing production. It might be mentioned in passing that a large proportion of the Belgian coalmines are run by public companies which have great assets and distributed enormous dividends among their shareholders in the previous few years. The owners and directors of the mines now decided to reduce the working week to four days, which meant a loss of 33 1/3 per cent of their regular wage for the workers. When this, tool failed to restore the balance between supply and demand, the coal-masters decided to reduce the price of coal. But to avoid having to lower the dividends of their shareholders, they reduced by another 10 per cent the wages that were already down to 66 2/3 per cent of normal. Yet at this very time the price of the most indispensable victuals was higher than ever owing to the two crop failures of 1866 and 1867. The half-starved coalminers, already painfully affected by, their days of involuntary idleness, remonstrated against the wage cut, which doomed them to hunger. The strike became universal and spread throughout the district of Charleroi. Hunger and misery drove the wretches to rebellion and pillage, for otherwise the women would surely not have in a manner of speaking pin themselves at the head of the crowds of workers, marching in front and holding poles to which they had nailed some miserable rags.

Now the capitalists let the government and military forces intervene and most deliberately provoked bloody conflicts in which many workers were killed, wounded or thrown behind bars. The first clash occurred on the 25th of March in the vicinity of Charleroi. The workers were about to comply with the well-meaning entreaties of an officer who pleaded with them to disperse, when a stone was flung and hit the major in command, giving the latter air excuse to open fire. Seven killed and 13 wounded was the outcome of that first collision, followed by others with the gendarmerie and cavalry. In Arsimont, gendarmes and the public prosecutor came to the scene even before any acts of violence had occurred, making arrests among workers, who had only just announced a strike. Directly in the wake of the police came the soldiers, who pounced without ado on the lot of workers returning home from the mine.

In modern history only the scenes of carriage and bloodshed during the Negro uprising in Jamaica [426] can compare with these atrocities. Here, as in Jamaica, the capitalists celebrated bloody orgies. Here, as in Jamaica, they hoped to break what was left of the workers’ spirit of resistance and self-esteem by acts of extreme brutality. The cheerful, insolent and humorous tone affected by them as they revelled in their terreur branche may be seen, among others, from the following passage in their organ, Indépendance belge, of the 1st of April 1868:

“The land is inundated with troops, and as these withdraw all individuals named as the leaders, as well as all those generally, known to be dangerous, will be under lock and key. That is a prudent measure necessitated by the circumstances.... The arrests are accompanied with a military show of pomp and force, partly to create a crushing impression on the spirits of the populace and partly to be ready for any surprise attack that may be tried to snatch the prisoners front under the armed custody of the authorities.... Considering such organised pressure on the masses, it is easy to see that the rising cannot conceivably break out again. The bloody drama has also had a profoundly intimidating effect.... The restless but not in the least dangerous mass of rioters will be reduced to a state of complete impotence before nightfall. All leaders whom they had listened to in the past few days are being thrown behind bars, and even those whose voice they might perhaps be minded to heed are likewise being imprisoned.... It is in fact no longer the military but the police who are dealing with an iron hand.... One seeks advice from burgomasters, police officials and gendarmerie brigadiers in the rural communities, and has all those in one’s own area indicated in reports as trouble-makers arrested.”

In the midst of the stupefaction to which these brutalities reduced the afflicted part of the workers, the Brussels Central Committee of the International Association for Belgium raised its voice in the press, called public meetings, stigmatised the industrialists and their accomplice, the government, galvanised the Belgian working class to joint resistance, supplied the persecuted with legal counsel and defence lawyers, and declared the cause of the Charleroi coalminers the common cause of the International Working Men’s Association. The General Council in London, like the two committees in Paris and Geneva, supported the committee at Brussels.[427]

After having suppressed the coalminers’ movement in the district of Charleroi by force of arms, the employers did nothing at all to conciliate the unemployed and starving workers. They were perfectly happy to be able to close down their mines for some time. The government, too, did nothing. The workers, who received no support from any quarter but the International Working Men’s Association, which was already badly taxed by the simultaneous events in Geneva and whose aid committees were only being organised, were on the edge of death from starvation. But at this time the townsmen of Charleroi, who saw the daily increasing misery, began to have misgivings. The Liberal association of Charleroi threatened the government that if no work was immediately provided to the jobless workers, it would dissolve its election committee and leave the field free for the Catholics. The threat had the desired effect. It was fear of losing votes in the next elections, not the crying distress of the starving workers, that drove the liberal government to initiating considerable public works in May 1868.

In the meantime, the proceedings against the men arrested in March are following their course. Whatever the outcome may be, whether the judges convict or acquit them, the government will have suffered, a setback. The workers know that they can expect nothing but powder and lead or imprisonment from the government. They cannot expect the government to redress their legitimate grievances or to protect and help them against the abuses of their employers. The government has itself opened their eyes to where help can come from and to whom they must turn: not the government but rather the International Working Men’s Association.