Paul Lafargue

The Decazeville Strike


From Commonweal, 12 June 1886, pp.85-86.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE strike at Decazeville, owing to the incidents and the complications it has brought about, and the influence it has exercised on the Socialist movement in France, is one of the most considerable events of this fifteen years of the Lower Republic.

The strike opened with the execution of the engineer Watrin, which was the explosion of a working class population tortured and enraged by the injustice of the mining company. The workmen, mad with fury, hurled themselves upon one of the agents of the company, and after stunning him with blows from sticks flung him from the window. Similar revolts have occurred in the prisons against the warders. The Government, among whom were two Radicals, Messrs Lockray and Jeanet, determined to bring the miners to reason. We have seen in Belgium the course of events. The workmen exasperated, with no idea but to destroy, to avenge themselves, ravage the country like mad bulls, burning factories, laying the bourgeois under tribute, and generally producing “a hell of a funk”; the army on the Continent, always employed at once against workmen, mitrailleuses these poor devils, who made more noise than anything else, and at the end of a few days the, glorious Van der Smissen announces to the trembling bourgeois that he has saved society and re established order. In fact, the Belgian miners and glass workers, severely and brutally repressed, have re-entered their industrial galleys, and the most perfect calm would reign in that El Dorado of bourgeois liberalism, if the organised Socialists did not continue the agitation in transporting it to the ground of universal suffrage. This agitation; which neither burns factories nor lays the bourgeois under tribute; will not be suppressed by Van der Smissen. The miners of Decazeville would have shared the fate of their Belgian brethren fusillades and cavalry charges would have driven them back into their pits and order would have been established in the blood of the workmen, but for the energetic and courageous intervention of the Socialist deputy, Basly.

Monsieur Clemenceau and his Radicals, who court the workmen in order the better to dupe them, had judged it politic to procure the election of two workmen, Basly and Camélinat. They pictured them as second Broadhursts and Burts, ready to serve them in all circumstances. They were deceived. Basly, without deigning to consult Clemenceau, left immediately for Decazeville, and after two days enquiry he returned to Paris to accuse the government of having, permitted a handful of thieving financiers to cynically exploit the mining population of Decazeville. Since 1848, no such indictment of the capitalist order had been heard at the Palais Bourbon. The effect was immense in Paris and in France.

The miner Basly, for he had himself passed eighteen years in the pits of Anzin, unhinged the parliamentary machine, tore the prestige of the Radical party from the eyes of the working classes, and opened up a new path for Socialist propaganda. For nearly ten years we militant socialists have been working to spread the ideas of revolutionary Socialism, by means of journals, meetings, etc., in Paris and the provinces, not excluding even the villages. We can say without boasting that we have done our “level best,” and notwithstanding this our action has remained limited to the narrowest circle, as was manifest at the election of last year. In fact, it was the already convinced who read our journals and pamphlets, and attended our meetings. Our propaganda penetrated slowly, very slowly! The masses are so slow to move. All agitators commencing a movement dash themselves against this impenetrability of the masses. But with Basly, with Camélinat, the Socialist deputies, a new era commences. When a socialist deputy speaks in the “Tribune of Parliament” he does not address himself to the more, or less bald heads of the Chamber, but to the whole of France. His words penetrate to the smallest villages. The bourgeois journals are obliged, willy-nilly, to reproduce his words, to discuss and to attack them, Socialism thus spreads from the small lecture hall to the market place. In France it was five deputies who caused the rebirth of the Republican idea under the Empire. When you have your Baslys and Camélinats in the House of Commons, you will appreciate like us, what powerful instruments of propaganda are Socialist deputies.

The bourgeois parties, without distinction of opinion, are leagued against Basly, Camélinat, and Boyer. All the journals, Monarchist and Republican, Conservative and Radical, abuse them. A little journal, the Proletariat, the organ of the Possibilists, joins the bourgeois crowd. The Radicals arranged a plot against Basly; under cover of commercial interests, they convoked a great meeting, choosing the Radical minister Lockroy as president, they hoped to obtain a vote of censure upon Basly, and to force him to hand in his resignation. But the Socialists, forewarned, invaded the hall and carried the meeting, which passed a vote of confidence in Basly by acclamation. The blow was terrible for the Radical party.

Basly left immediately for Decazeville, and interposed between the strikers and the troops. He declared he would place himself at the head of the workmen in his insignia of Deputy, and that the first balls fired by the soldiers should strike himself. Never before had a Deputy been known to regard his Parliamentary mandate in this light. The Government was intimidated. The Mining Company desired a massacre, to abruptly terminate the strike. The Minister ordered the soldiers to make demonstrations but forbade them to use their arms. The capitalists, furious at being done out of their massacre of the miners, and being unable to touch Basly and Camélinat whose inviolability as Deputies protected them; turned their anger against Duc Quercy and Roche, correspondents of the Cri du Peuple and Intransigeant, whom they caused to be arrested and condemned to fifteen months imprisonment.

Basly had been, with Fauvian, the organiser of the great strike at Anzin of 1884. He set to work at Decazeville. In a few weeks he disciplined and organised the miners. The bourgeois journals are obliged to confess that his influence with the strikers is immense. The workmen of Decazeville began by being merely rebels: today they are Socialists, who know that they will not be emancipated until after they have expropriated the capitalists: The scenes of disorder which characterised the beginning of the strike have given place to order, to the great despair of the capitalists, who desire tumults in order to justify the intervention of bayonets and rifles. They have not even had recourse to the anarchist weapons – charges of dynamite – which displace innocent stones. But neither provocations nor dynamite plots of capitalists have shaken the strikers, who continue, the strike in the most perfect calm.

This firm and calm conduct of the miners has given to this economic quarrel between wage-earners and masters a great social importance. The workmen of Decazeville are no larger simply strikers claiming some ameliorations in their social situation, but champions of the Socialist idea, throwing down the gauntlet to capital in the name of the entire working class. And in this struggle they are sustained by all Socialists and workmen; the journals have opened a subscription, and one journal alone – the Cri du Peuple – has already received more than forty thousand francs.

Never before has an economic struggle assumed such a character. It has separated society into two classes: on the one side the workmen and the Socialists, and even the small middle class, who are despoiled and crushed by the great companies, financial, industrial, and commercial ; on the other the great capitalists, sustained by the Government, the bourgeois press, and all political parties, from the Monarchists to the Radicals. At the recent May election the case stood thus: Gaulier, the candidate of the Government and of the great companies, was patronised by the Radical press and supported with more or less of good grace by the Opportunists and the Monarchists; Roche, condemned to fifteen months imprisonment for defending the workmen, was supported by the Socialists and Revolutionary Radicals. The Clemenceau Radicals, furious at seeing the consolidation of the Revolutionary party, attempted to sow division by running an opposition Socialist candidate Soubrié. In this foul design they employed as tools the Possibilists, who for some years post have occupied themselves with sowing division in the socialist ranks. But in spite of this perfidious manoeuvre, of an election agitation of only eight days, and of an expenditure not exceeding £216, we succeeded in uniting under the name of Roche more than 100,000 electors. What do the good people who breakfast on dynamite and sup on nitro-glycerine say as to the significance of these 100,000 voting papers? It signifies we have succeeded in penetrating the Parisian masses, in hurling them into a movement of social revindication, that we have beaten it into the heads of 100,000 electors that they are bound to protest against the present social order and its government. It is true all the voters were not Socialists, but they have performed a Socialist act; it is true these 100,000 voting papers are not the revolution, but they are a great step towards the Revolution. The elections of 1866 dealt a mortal blow at the Empire, from which it never recovered. The election of May has cut in two the Radical party, throwing its bourgeois elements into the opportunist camp, and attracting to the Revolutionary Socialist patty its working class and Socialist elements. The election of May is the pick-axe laid at the foundation of the bourgeois republic – the trumpet call, rallying the Socialists to the final battle.

Paris, May 22, 1886


Last updated on 13.11.2003