Ferdinand Lassalle 1863

The French National Workshops of 1848

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. 10, no. 4, 15 April 1906, pp. 236-242;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Proofread: Andy Carloff, 2010

The attitude of members of the present Government, notably Mr. John Morley, towards the demand of the unemployed for the “right to work,” and their gross misrepresentation of the experiment of ‘48, gives occasion for the following. Liberal statesmen, like their predecessors, assert that the so-called “National Workshops” of Paris were a failure, and use this as an argument against any attempt at the State organisation of labour. Even if their representation of the facts were true, it would not be conclusive evidence of the impossibility of the national organisation of the labour of the unemployed, but this historical retrospect shows that they have misrepresented the whole of the facts, and have thus destroyed their own case.

The French National Workshops of 1848
A Historical Retrospect, by FERDINAND LASSALLE.
(Reprint from “Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung.”)

The lie is a European power!

Hardly had my “Letter to the Leipzig Working-men’s Committee” appeared, when the learned Mr. Faucher declared, in a meeting at Leipzig, that I was merely dishing up again the French National Workshops of Louis Blanc, which were already condemned by their miserable fiasco in 1848.

The even more learned talmudist of the “Volkszeitung,” in his yesterday’s leader, in No. 95, delivers himself as follows:-

“After these ideas (‘to establish in the name of the State and with State funds workshops which would guarantee employment, regulate wages and satisfy the needs of the workman’) had been widely disseminated from France during the forties, the Paris revolution of February, 1848, brought the opportunity to put them to a practical test. Louis Blanc, a very able writer, who had up till then propagated these ideas as a means of political agitation, was, in consequence of the Revolution, made a member of the Provisional Government, and had in this capacity to attempt a realisation of his proposals. The attempt failed entirely, and the causes of the failure have been clearly discerned by science. The attempt failed so thoroughly, that in France the direct universal suffrage could be abolished, even under the Republican regime (!) though it had been adopted as the only means of safety for the majority of the propertyless classes. The attempt failed so thoroughly, that, though after the Coup d’État universal direct suffrage was re- established, the fantastic proposals of Louis Blanc remained a dead letter, and hitherto, neither in France nor elsewhere, no thinking person has dreamt of reviving them.”

And what Mr. Faucher and the “Volkszeitung” said, I believe Mr. Wirth said also. I am not certain about it, because I have to read day by day so many attacks upon me, that the recollection of them all gets a trifle mixed, and I do not rightly know what to put to the account of one or of another. I am afraid I shall have to prepare a “herring’s salad,” in which I have to cut up all my learned opponents, and to make them suffer all for each, and each for all, leaving it to them to sort out what properly applies to one or the other, just as State Governments do when raising contributions from a number of communities.

But at any rate I have read variants of the same theme in at least a score of papers, and from north and south, from west and east, comes the cry: “But these are the national workshops of Louis Blanc of 1848! They have been finally judged and condemned in 1848.

It would almost appear as if hardly anybody in Germany was correctly informed as to the true facts concerning the French National Workshops of 1848!

How diverting this sort of argumentation must he for those who know the true facts, who are aware (1) that the “National Workshops” were not set up by Louis Blanc, but by his enemies, the most vehement opponents of Socialism in the Provisional Government, the Minister for Public Works, Marie, and others who had the majority in the Provisional Government (2) that they were expressly intended for use against Louis Blanc, so as to oppose to his following, the Socialist workmen, both during the elections and on other more decisive occasions, a paid working class army devoted to the Government majority; (3) that in the National Workshops, precisely because there was no intention of competing with private industry, only unproductive work was done, that, in fact, they only served to dole out to the workmen, rendered unemployed, alms from public funds, disguised by a system of unproductive occupation, lest the men should succumb to the consequences of utterly idle loafing.

How diverting, I say, must it be for anyone, who knows the ascertained facts, to hear this victorious argumentation resounding throughout Germany! How diverting, and yet depressing! For it shows, what in truth was unavoidable, that along with public opinion, public lying and calumny has become a power in Europe. In France, in 1848, during the time of the most bitter party struggles, newspapers have uttered this calumny against Louis Blanc, that the national workshops were organised by him and according to his principles! In vain did Louis Banc, speaking from the tribune of the national assembly, half kill himself in protesting against this calumny! He was not believed then.

Afterwards, the historical works of the enemies of Louie Blanc have been published, also the proceedings of the Parliamentary Commissions of Enquiry, dealing with the risings of 1848.

From the mouths of the bitterest enemies of Louis Blanc the truth has been brought to light. As far as France is concerned, that calumny is done with. But for Germany it continues, and serves as a basis for the most pathetic argumentations, put forward with the most impudent assurance.

Of course, my learned opponents have not the remotest idea that they are telling lies. They have read something about it at the time in French journals, or in German papers copying from them, and which of these learned gentlemen would have either inclination or leisure for reading up the historical works and minutes of evidence since published?

I have no occasion to identify myself with Louis Blanc. In my “letter of reply” I did not ask for an organisation of labour by the State. What I have advocated is a credit operation of the State, whereby it would be made possible for the working men to establish a voluntary association emanating from their own action.

Besides, I believe that between Louis Blanc’s and my own view on political economy there is a considerable amount of divergence.

But against that calumny of a man whose name is well-known all over Europe, and against the use which is now being made of it in Germany, it is the duty, and, I believe, also to the interest of public journals and the proper time to make known now the historical truth about those events. I shall prove my case by quotations from enemies of Louis Blanc, and as shortly as the limited space of public journals demands.

Monsieur François Arago, member of the Provisional Government (the only one of the witnesses to be quoted, who, though a political opponent of Louis Blanc, was a personal friend of his), Arago, the greatest savant of France, the friend of Humboldt, giving evidence on July 5, 1848, before the Commission of Enquiry, says (“Rapport de la Commission d’Enquête,” I, 288): “C’est M. Marie qui s’est occupé de l’organisation des atéliers nationaux.” “It is M. Marie (known as a most bitter opponent of Louis Blanc and of the Socialist minority in the Provisional Government in general) who has occupied himself with the organisation of the National Workshops.”

The director of the National Workshops appointed by M. Marie was M. Emile Thomas, a tool entirely devoted to M. Marie, and, as we shall hear now, decidedly hostile to Louis Blanc. This director of the National Workshops gives evidence on oath before the Commission of Enquiry, July 28, 18:18 (Rapport de la Commission d’ Enquête, I., 352, 358) “Jamais je n’ai parlé a M. Louis Blanc de ma vie; je ne le connais pas.” Also: “Pendant clue j’ai été aux ateliers, j’ai vu M. Marie tous les jours, souvent deux fois par jour MM. Recurt, Buchez et Marrast presque tous les jours j’ai vu une seule fois M. de Lamartine, jamais M. Ledru Rollin, jamais M. Louis Blanc, jamais M. Flocon, jamais M. Albert.” (I have never in my life spoken to M. Louis Blanc; I do not know him. Whilst I was at the workshops I have seen M. Marie every day, sometimes twice a day Messrs. Recurt, Buchez and Marrast [all anti-Socialists] almost every day. I have seen M. de Lamartine once never M. Louis Ledru-Rollin; never M. Louis Blanc; never M. Flocon never M. Albert.) The last mentioned three formed the Socialist minority of the Government Ledru-Rollin stood between the two parties.

In his further evidence on June 28, 1848, this same director of the National Workshops, says (Rapport, etc., I. 353): “J’ai toujours marché avec la Mairie de Paris contre l’influence de MM. Ledru Rollin, Flocon et autres. J’étais en hostilité ouverte avec le Luxembourg. Je combattais ouvertement l’influence de M. Louis Blanc.” (I have always worked along with the Mairie against the influence of Ledru-Rollin, Flocon, and the others. I was in open hostility with the Luxembourg (meaning Louis Blanc). I have fought openly against the influence of M. Louis Blanc.)

The decrees of February 27 and March 6, 18.18, by which the National Workshops were organised, bear the signature of only one man, M. Marie.

This director of the National Workshops, M. Emile Thomas, has written a book, “The History of the National Workshops,” in which he makes the following confession (“L’Histoire des Atéliers Nationaux,” page 200): “M. Marie me fit mander à l’hôtel de ville. Apres la seance du gouvernernent, je m’y rendis et reçus la nouvelle qu’un credit de cinq millions etait ouvert aux atéliers nationaux et que le service des finances s’accomplerait des lors avec plus de facilité. M. Marie me prit ensuite à part et me demanda si je pouvais compter sur les ouvriers. Je le pense, repondis-je; cependant, le nombre s’en accroit tellement qu il me devient bien difficile de posséder sur eux une action aussi directe que je le souhaiterais. Ne vous inquiétez pas du nombre, me dit le ministre. Si vous les tenez, il ne sera jamais trop grand; mais trouvez un moyen de vous les attacher sincèrement. Ne ménagez pas l’argent, au bésoin même on vous accorderait des fonds secrets. Je ne pense pas en avoir bésoin ce serait pent être ensuite une source de difficultés assez graves mais dans quel but autre que celui de la tranquillité publique me faites-vous yes recommendations? Dans le but du salut public! Croyez-vous parvenir à commander entièrement à vos hommes? Le jour n’est peut-être pas loin ou il faudrait les faire descendre dans la rue.”

(M. Marie had me called to the Hotel de Ville. After the sitting of the Government, I went there, and received the news that a credit of five million francs had been voted for the National Workshops, and that the financial arrangements would now work with the greatest ease. M. Marie then took me aside and asked me very quietly whether I could count upon the workmen. “I think so,” I replied “nevertheless, their number increases so much, that it becomes very difficult for me to exercise such a direct influence on them as I should like.” “Don’t worry about their number,” said the Minister. “If you have a firm hold on them, their number will never be too great but you should find some means of attaching them sincerely to yourself. Don’t spare the money if necessary, we might grant you secret funds.” “I don’t think I shall need them; that might later on be a source of serious trouble. But for what other purpose than that of public tranquillity do you make these recommendations?” “For the purpose of public safety. Do you think you will be able to rely entirely on your men? The day may not be distant when it may be necessary to call them out into the streets.”) Now let us listen to M. de Lamartine, an opponent of the Socialists, who, in his “Histoire de la Révolution de Février,” part II, writes as follows about the National Workshops:

“Some Socialists, then moderate and politicians, but since become extreme partisans, demanded in this respect the initiative of the Government. A great campaign at home, with tools instead of arms, like the campaigns of the Romans and Egyptians for cutting canals and for draining the Pontinian swamps, seemed to them the most appropriate remedy for a republic, which intended to maintain peace, and while protecting and lifting up the proletarian, would also safeguard property. A great Ministry of Public Works would have opened the era of a policy adequate to the situation. It was one of the greatest mistakes of the Government to have deferred too long the realisation of these ideas. While it waited, the National Workshops, swollen by misery and idleness, became, day-by-day, slacker, more fruitless and menacing to the public peace. At that moment they were not so. They were only an expedient adopted in the interests of public order, and a first attempt of public assistance (une ébauche d’assistance publique), called into existence the day after the Revolution by the necessity of feeding the people, and not keeping it in idleness, so as to avoid the disorders which idleness brings about. M. Marie organised them with great insight, but without utility for productive work (mais sans utilité pour le travail productif). He divided them into brigades, gave them leaders, and inspired them with the ideas of discipline and order. During the four months he turned them from a body devoted to the Socialists and given to riots, into a Pretorian army, but an idle one, in the hands of the Government (une armée pretorienne, mais oisive, dans les mains du pouvoir). Commanded, directed and maintained by chiefs, who were privy to the secret thoughts of the anti-Socialist wing of the Government, these National Workshops formed, till the National Assembly arrived, a counterpoise to the schismatic workmen of the Luxembourg (Louis Blanc’s following), and to the disorderly workmen of the clubs. They scandalised by their numbers and by the uselessness of their work (par leur masse et l’inutilité de leurs travaux) the eyes of Paris, but they saved it several times without its knowledge. Far from being in the pay of Louis Blanc, as has been said, they were inspired by the spirit of his opponents (Bien loin d’être la solde de Louis Blanc comme l’on a dit, ils étaient inspirés par l’esprit de ses adversaires).”

Do you wish to know exactly all the purposes that the National Workshops were intended to serve? Their director, M. Emile Thomas, is quite frank about the matter (“L’Histoire des Atéliers Nationaux,” page 200) “M. Marie told me that it had been the firm resolve of the Government to let this experiment, the Government Commission for the workmen, run its course (de laisser s’accomplir cette expérience, la commission de gouvernement pour les travailleurs), that in itself, it could only have beneficial results, by showing the work men the utter hollowness and falsity of these unrealisable theories, and by making them feel their doleful consequences for themselves. Then, disillusioned in the future, their idolatry of Louis Blanc would disappear, and he would thus lose all his authority, all his power, and would cease for good and all to be a danger.”

Such were the intentions which they had in view in the establishment of “Louis Blanc’s National Workshops.” And so that this purpose was more surely attained, and that this “experiment” should be more certainly accomplished, the workmen were employed on unproductive works only. The works which were carried out are specified in a letter of the director (M. Emile Thomas) to the Minister Marie:

“Réparations des chemins de ronde et rues non pavées de Paris. Terrassements rues les rampes d’Iéna, la pelouse des Champs Elysées et l’abattoir Montmartre. Extraction de cailloux sur les communes de Clichy et de Gennevilliers. Création du chemin de halage de Neuilly.” (Garnier-Pages, “Histoire de la Révolution de 1848,” VIII., 154.) Repairs of the military roads for patrols, and of the unpaved roads of Paris. Earthworks (levelling) on the Jena slopes, on the lawns in the Champs Elysees’ and the slaughter-house of Montmartre. Extracting stones in the communes of Clichy and Gennevilliers. Making the towing-path of Neuilly.)

As these works were only undertaken because they did not want to let the men whom it was intended to feed, loaf about altogether, they were put to work turn and turn about, two or three days per week (“Ils ne travaillaient qu’a tour de rôle deux ou trois jours par semaine.” (Gamier-Pagès).

Thus, indeed, was it possible to attain the purpose of that intentional calumny. And this purpose was so well attained, that as we have seen, even to-day, 15 years later, everybody in Germany is quite positive that Louis Blanc had started National Workshops on Socialist principles, which had miserably failed!

We see calumny is a European power, aye even one of the great powers! This calumny, at the time, was by the newspapers carried all over Europe, was readily believed, repeated, and though Louis Blanc has refuted it hundreds of times, it still rules supreme in public opinion in Germany. Shall we draw an obvious moral from this?

This, then, is the historical truth about “Louis Blanc’s National Workshops of 1848.”

In conclusion, Lassalle repeats, with personal remarks, the extract front the “Volkszeitung” given at the commencement of the article, and winds up as follows:-

“So, I shall make my apologies to Mr. Julian Schmidt before long! Instead of taking him to task, I ought really to have turned my attention to individuals who work far greater havoc in the minds of the people.”

Berlin, April 24, 1863.