E. Belfort Bax

Mr. Morley and the “National Workshops” of ’48

(10 February 1906)

Mr Morley and the “National Workshops” of ’48, Justice, 10th February 1906, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The speech delivered by Mr. John Morley just before the elections; in which the Secretary of State for India once more trotted out that stalest of stale falsehoods only capable of deceiving the ignorant, anent the failure of the ateliers nationaux of 1848, ought not to be permitted to pass without remark. Had it been an ordinary politician who tried to score a point against Socialism by means of this ancient “wheeze”, it might not have been worth while taking any special notice of it. But if there is one subject about which Mr. Morley is supposed to know something, it is about modern French history – i.e., of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – and hence the repetition of this exploded fallacy by a man of his reputation as an historical scholar wears another aspect. Moreover, that it is possible at this time of day to gull an average audience with this old story, indicates the desirability of once more clearly stating the facts.

After the Revolution of February, 1848, in Paris, which the Paris workmen, led by Democrats like Ledru Rollin, and by the Socialists of the period, with Louis Blanc as their leading representative, had been largely instrumental in bringing about, the provisional Government, though in the main purely bourgeois in character, found it impossible to exclude altogether from its councils popular leaders, such as Rollin, Blanc, Albert, and Flacon. Accordingly, the idea put forward by Louis Blanc for establishing national workshops at Government expense, was nominally agreed to, the “Commission du Gouvernement pour les travaiileurs,” of which Louis Blanc was the most prominent member, being installed in one of the salons of the Luxembourg Palace.

The fact of his having advocated State action, and having been the head of a commission appointed by the Government to report on matters affecting the working classes at the time the national workshops were established, led to the actual organisation of them being attributed to Louis Blanc. And in spite of the fact that Louis Blanc shrieked himself hoarse in the Assembly protesting that he was not only in no way responsible for their organisation and management, but that it was even in opposition to his own ideas, this did not prevent the falsehood from being eagerly propagated by interested parties.

It is a fact open to every one who chooses to consult the historical sources that Marie, the Minister of Public Works, a violent political enemy of Socialistic ideas in general, and of Louis Blanc in particular, with whom was associated the no less hostile Emile Thomas, had in his hands the whole business of organising the national workshops, and, in effect, organised them for the express purpose of failure in order to discredit such schemes once for all. Emile Thomas, the right hand of Marie, in his evidence given on oath before the Commisson of Inquiry on the whole affair, subsequently instituted by the Government, says: “I have never spoken to M. Louis Blanc in my life. While I was at the workshops I saw M. Marie every day, often twice a day ... never M. Ledru Rollin, never M. Louis Blanc, never M. Flocon, never M. Albert.” In other words, none of the recognised socialist and democratic leaders of the day had any share whatever in the organisation or management of the scheme, which was exclusively machined by enemies intent upon proving its impracticability. Emile Thomas, in his Histoire des Ateliers Nationaux (p.142), states that the object of the Government in allowing the experiment to be made was “to show the working classes the hollowness and fallaciousness of these impracticable theories, and to let them feel the regrettable consequences they entail on themselves.” He goes on further to say that the Government believed the result would be that the working class idol, Louis Blanc, would lose his whole following among them, and cease for ever to be a danger. With this object, accordingly, it was arranged that exclusively unproductive work was to be carried on by the State-employed, and, indeed, only one class of arduous labour totally unsuited to the majority of those applying – to wit, road-making and mending, the construction of embankments, and similar undertakings. Add to this that those taken on were seldom or never occupied more than two or three days a week.

Besides furnishing an object-lesson in the futility of State aid for the unemployed, the provisional Government, as represented especially by M. Marie and M. Thomas, his factotum, sought to kill two birds with one stone by getting together a proletarian body dependent upon the Government, and pliable in its hands, to act as a counterpoise to the Luxembourg and the democratic workmen’s clubs. This object alone, in the opinion of M. Marie, would have been worth the unproductive expenditure of public money. Emile Thomas, in his “History” above quoted from, relates (p.200) how Marie sent for him to the Hotel de Ville and told him not to mind the number of applicants or the amount of money he spent. “Don’t spare money; if necessary, I am prepared even to supply you with secret funds.” And again, Thomas reports his chief Marie as having said, after asking him if he thought he could make sure of his workmen: “The day is not far oft when we may have to send them down into the street” (les faire descendre dams la rue), i.e., of course, to fight their democratic and Socialist brethren. As is well known, the attempt to “nobble” any number worth mentioning of the workmen for the Government by means of corruption, while throwing the blame of the failure of the workshops on the Commission at the Luxembourg, completely miscarried. The sudden abandonment of national workshops by the Government, under pressure of middle-class public opinion, led directly to the insurrection of June 1848.

No Socialist now-a-days is concerned especially to defend the scheme of Louis Blanc. There were, doubtless, many points in it open to criticism, But so far from its having been tried and found wanting, it might have been the most perfect proposal for dealing with the unemployed question ever made, for all the trial it had. The State-employment in the national workshops of Paris in 1848 was a travesty, consciously and deliberately organised for failure, and it offers only one moral – timeo Danaos et donna ferentes – beware of the governing classes offering concessions to the working classes, but retaining the management in their own hands.

Now the question arises, can Mr. john Morley be ignorant of the true state of the above case? Any way, noblesse oblige. I have never met Mr. Morley in my life. But if, as I have heard, it is true that he is given to putting on the airs of the superior person, making himself “unapproachable” in his dignity with humbler parliamentary colleagues, he ought to support the character generally. The true facts about the ateliers nationaux, are readily accessible, not only in the original sources, but even in outline in the well-known general histories of such hostile writers as Garnier Pagès and Lamartine, or even in Seignobos Histoire Politique de l’Europe Contemporaire. So we seem left with the alternative, either that Mr. Morley is deplorably ignorant of an important chapter of modern French history, or that he is guilty of something like deliberate misrepresentation. Neither alternative seems to exactly suit the character of one whose claim to be above his fellows can hardly be based on anything else than his scholarship and the historical probity expected of true scholarship. Mr. Morley, surely, does not think that the fact of his having hobnobbed with the late Mr. Gladstone is enough of itself to make him not as other men are.


E. Belfort Bax


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