Articles by Engels in the Labour Standard 1881

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Two Model Town Councils

Source: Reproduced from the newspaper;
Written: latter half of June 1881;
Published: No. 8, June 25, 1881, as a leading article;
Transcribed:, Labor Day 1996.

We have promised our readers to keep them informed of the working men's movements abroad as well as at home. We have now and then been enabled to give some news from America, and today we are in a position to communicate some facts from France -- facts of such importance that they well deserve being discussed in our leading columns.

In France they do not know the numerous systems of public voting which are still in use in this country. Instead of having one kind of suffrage and mode of voting for Parliamentary elections, another for municipal, a third for vestry elections and so forth, plain Universal Suffrage and vote by ballot are the rule everywhere. When the Socialist Working Men's Party was formed in France, [1] it was resolved to nominate working men's candidates not only for Parliament, but also for all municipal elections; and, indeed, at the last renewal of Town Councils for France, which took place on January 9 last, the young party was victorious in a great number of manufacturing towns and rural, especially mining, communes. They not only carried individual candidates, they managed in some places to obtain the majority in the councils, and one council, at least, as we shall see, was composed of none but working men. [2]

Shortly before the establishment of the Labour Standard, there was a strike of factory operatives in the town of Roubaix, close on the Belgian frontier. The Government at once sent troops to occupy the town, and thereby, under the pretext of maintaining order (which was never menaced), tried to provoke the people on strike to such acts as might serve as a pretext for the interference of the troops. But the people remained quiet, and one of the principal causes which made them resist all provocations was the action of the Town Council. This was composed, in its majority, of working men. The subject of the strike was brought before it, and amply discussed. The result was that the Council not only declared the men on strike to be in the right, but also actually voted the sum of 50,000 francs, or £2,000, in support of the strikers That subsidy could not be paid, as according to French law the prefect of the department has the right to annul any resolutions of Town Councils which he may consider as exceeding their powers. But nevertheless the strong moral support thus given to the strike by the official representation of the township was of the greatest value to the workmen.

On June 8 the Mining Company of Commentry, in the centre of France (Department Allier), discharged 152 men who refused to submit to new and more unfavourable terms. This being part of a system employed for some time for the gradual introduction of worse terms of work, the whole of the miners, about 1,600, struck. The Government at once sent the usual troops to overawe or provoke the strikers. But the Town Council here, too, at once took up the cause of the men. In their meeting of June 12 (a Sunday to boot) they passed resolutions to the following effect: --

1. Whereas it is the duty of society to ensure the existence of those who, by their work, permit the existence of all; and whereas if the State refuses to fulfil this duty the communes are bound to fulfil it, this Council resolves to take up a loan of 25,000 francs (£1000) with the consent of the highest rated inhabitants, which sum is to be devoted for the benefit of the miners whom the unjustifiable discharge of 152 of their body has compelled to strike work.

Carried unanimously, against the veto of the Mayor alone.

2. Whereas the State, in selling the valuable national property of the mines of Commentry to a joint-stock company, has thereby handed over the workmen there employed to the tender mercies of the said company; and whereas, consequently, the State is bound to see that the oppression exercised by the company upon the miners is not carried to a degree threatening their very existence; whereas however, the State, by placing troops at the disposal of the company during the present strike, has not even preserved its neutrality, but taken sides with the company,

This Council, in the name of the working-class interests which it is its duty to protect, calls upon the sub-prefect of the district.

  1. To recall at once the troops whose presence, entirely uncalled for, is a mere provocation; and
  2. To intervene with the manager of the company and induce him to revoke the measure which has caused the strike.

Carried unanimously.

In a third resolution, also carried unanimously, the Council, fearing that the poverty of the commune will frustrate the loan voted above, opens a public subscription in aid of the strikers, and appeals to all the other municipal councils of France to send subsidies for the same object.

Here, then, we have a striking proof of the presence of working men, not only in Parliament, but also in municipal and all other local bodies. How differently would many a strike in England terminate if the men had the Town Council of the locality to back them! The English Town Councils and Local Boards, elected to a great extent by working men, consist at present almost exclusively of employers, their direct and indirect agents (lawyers, etc.), and at the best, of shopkeepers. No sooner does a strike or lock-out occur than all the moral and material power of the local authorities is employed in favour of the masters and against the men; even the police, paid out of the pockets of the men, are employed exactly as in France the troops are used, to provoke them into illegal acts and hunt them down. The Poor Law authorities in most cases refuse relief to men who, in their opinion, might work if they liked. And naturally so. In the eyes of this class of men, whom the working people suffer to form the local authorities, a strike is an open rebellion against social order, an outrage against the sacred rights of property. And therefore, in every strike or lock-out all the enormous moral and physical weight of the local authorities is placed in the masters' scale so long as the working class consent to elect masters and masters' representatives to local elective bodies!

We hope that the action of the two French Town Councils will open the eyes of many. Shall it be for ever said, and of the English working men too, that "they manage these things better in France"? The English working class, with its old and powerful organisation, its immemorial political liberties, its long experience of political action, has immense advantages over those of any continental country. Yet the Germans could carry twelve working class representatives for Parliament, [3] and they as well as the French have the majority in numerous Town Councils. True, the suffrage in England is restricted; but even now the working class has a majority in all large towns and manufacturing districts. They have only to will it, and that potential majority becomes at once an effective one, a power in the State, a power in all localities where working people are concentrated. And if you once have working men in Parliament, in the Town Councils and Local Boards of Guardians, [4] etc., how long will it be ere you will have also working men magistrates, capable of putting a spoke in the wheel of those Dogberries who now so often ride roughshod over the people?

From the MECW

1 After the socialist congress held in Marseilles in October 1879 set up the French Workers' Party, a group of French socialists headed by Jules Guesde addressed Marx and Engels, through Paul Lafargue, requesting them to help to draft an electoral programme for the French Workers' Party. Its preamble was formulated by Marx who dictated it to Guesde. Engels wrote to Eduard Bernstein about it on October 25 1881: "A masterpiece of cogent reasoning, calculated to explain things to the masses in a few words.". Marx and Engels also took part in drawing up the practical section of the programme.

The programme was first published in Le Précurseur, No. 25, June 19 1880; however, Malon adulterated some of its tenets and "introduced sundry changes for the worse", Engels wrote to Bernstein on October 20 1882. In 1880, the electoral programme was adopted as "the minimum programme" of the French Workers' Party at the Havre Congress. Its first separate edition appeared in Paris in 1883.

2 At the municipal elections of January 9, 1881, the French Workers' Party obtained 40,000 votes and won all seats in the Town Council of Commentry.

3 From September 9, 1879 to June 15, 1881, the deputies to the Reichstag from the Social-Democratic faction were: August Bebel, Wilhelm Bracke, Friedrich Wilhelm Fritzsche, Wilhelm Hasselmann, Max Kayser, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Klaus Peter Reinders, Julius Vahlteich and Philipp Wiemer. After the death of Bracke and Reinders, their seats were filled by Ignaz Auer and Wilhelm Hasenclever.

At the Wyden Congress held on August 22, 1880, Hasselmann was expelled from the party and, correspondingly, from the Parliamentary group. At the supplementary elections the deputy mandate from Hamburg was received by Georg Wilhelm Hartmann.

4 The Boards of Guardians -- local government bodies in England elected to administer the Poor Laws in parishes or districts.