Dora B. Montefiore 1901

Maison du Peuple in Brussels

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. V No. 2 February 1901, pp. 35-37;
Transcription: Ted Crawford.
HTML Markup: Brian Reid.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

THE centre of activities, the focus of mutual interests, the living, animating symbol of Democracy and of Collectivism in nearly every town and village in Belgium, is the Maison du Peuple, whether it be the modest hired and adapted house of half-a-dozen rooms, such as one finds in country and outlying districts, or whether it be the modern building of appropriate design and construction, such as the Vooruit, in Ghent, or the Brussels Maison du Penple, the photograph of which is reproduced in the present number of the SOCIAL-DEMOCRAT. The internal work and organisation, the exterior propaganda and the well-being and recreative possibilities of this People’s Home or Hostel, form the articulate self-expression of the Belgian Workman’s Party, and are the result of a welding together of the forces of co-operation (used as a means and not as an end), of trades unionism, and of collectivism, which latter, in continental countries, is taught as an economic and scientific reconstruction of society, and not as an indefinite collection of emotional aspirations and beliefs.

The experimental ventures of, the Workman’s Party in Brussels in securing, through co-operation, a sound financial basis for propaganda were humble, for they commenced in 1880 with a capital of 600 francs (£24), and with a membership of 88 families. Its first meetings were held in a cellar, and its first attempt at productive co-operation was the hiring of an oven at 30 francs a month, in which bread was baked and was afterwards distributed at a price which only allowed a profit of two centimes, or less than a farthing, on every loaf sold. Nineteen years afterwards the half-yearly output of loaves was 4,994,850, out of which 22,163 loaves were distributed amongst the families of members where there was illness.

A focus or centre having once been secured, and an administrative council formed, the material or trading side, and the propaganda or intellectual and spiritual side, went on steadily hand in hand, till it was decided in 1898 that the Workman’s Party in Brussels was justified in building suitable and convenient premises for itself, to be the outward and visible sign of its prosperity and growth. The design was entrusted to one of the leading architects of the town, who was so evidently in sympathy with the feeling and work he had to express that when he was asked if he were not intending to have “Maison du Peuple” writ large on the façade of the building replied, “Do you write ‘Church’ on the buildings that express your religious aspirations? No, you build them so beautifully and so expressively that they interpret to all comers the meaning of the edifice; and in the same way I hope to work out my design for the People’s Home that all may understand and read the symbol aright, and that the people when they come across it may recognise it at once as being the expression of their needs and aspirations.”

Everything within and without the building speaks of light, strength, suitability and cleanliness. A very lofty café, lighted by electricity, and capable of holding close on a thousand people, shares the ground floor with the various trading departments; on the first floor, and approached by iron staircases, are the administrative departments, and halls of various sizes for public meetings, trade union meetings, and social gatherings. On the roof is a large theatre and concert hall, holding over 2,000, with an outside promenade and refreshment rooms. Iron, cement and glass are largely employed in the construction of the building, and the architect has relied for decoration more on line and form than on colour, with a result that makes for dignity and simplicity rather than for show and glitter.

Of the advantages of membership in this collectivist co-operative we may judge from extracts from the pamphlets of a Belgian writer, Zeo, on this subject. He writes: “In order to become a member of the Maison du Peuple, the name and address, accompanied by a payment of 25 centimes (2½) must be sent into the administration, in exchange for which a pass-book and a share (the rest of which is paid up in instalments) is received. Every three or six months bonuses on purchases are paid in the form of tickets which can be exchanged for clothing or boots. Each member pays ½d. a week, in exchange for which he has the right to the services of a doctor and to medicine free during a year, and six loaves of bread a week during six weeks. In the case of the death of a member the family receives 10 francs. Since 1892 the Ghent Co-operative has instituted a pension fund for its aged members. All those who buy goods to the amount of £6 a year exclusive of bread, and who have been members for 20 years, can receive a pension at the age of 60. Women have a right to bread and groceries for a week after their confinement. Besides this, libraries and educational advantages are provided by the larger Maisons du Peuple for the benefit of their members.”

We also have on Zeo’s authority the facts that these larger Maisons du Peuple have brought down the price of tread to such an extent that many of the smaller bakers have disappeared; that at Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp, and Liege they regulate the bread market; that their products are subjected to rigorous analysis and criticism; that they have introduced in their establishments an eight hours day worked on the system of three shifts; that their staff participate in the profits of the undertaking; that they have encouraged the organisation of their staff, which, as a union, discusses, examines and proposes measures likely to be of benefit to the working of the undertaking; that they are able to subsidise the workers during strikes and to help forward educational and social ideals in the interests of the workers.

Zeo further gives a list of the conditions necessary to success in similar undertakings, and it may be of interest to reproduce them for the benefit of English comrades. They might, he says, be called the commandments of collectivist co-operation:

1. Sell only for ready money.
2. Do not sell at the lowest rates, but sell only goods of the best quality.
3. Adhere to the federation of co-operative societies.
4. Allow employees, managers, and staff a share in the profits.
5. Distribute the profits according to the amount of purchases.
6. Give all one’s custom to the co-operative trading centre.
7. Interest the co-operators, especially the women, in the management of the business, and in social questions, and instruct them.
8. Exercise a serious control over the business through the intermediary of a commission, of a trusted administrative council, and by the aid of a clear and simple form of book-keeping.

This practical set of rules are of value as coming from the secretary of the Federated Societies of Belgian Co-operatives, and that their application has contributed largely to the success of the collectivist co-operators in Belgium no one can doubt who has visited the Maisons du Peuple in Brussels and other centres, and who has studied their administration and watched the results of their political and social propaganda.

D. B. M.