Boris Souvarine

The French Syndicalist Movement

Source: The Call, 11 March, 1920, p. 2 (1,268 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid

The French syndicalist (or trade unionist) organisation before the war was a genuine organisation of battle against the bosses, against the bourgeoisie, against the capitalist state. The enormous majority of syndicates, industrial federations, and bourses de travail (the literal meaning of this term is “labour exchanges” representing the communal organisation of all the syndicates in the same city or town) were impregnated with the revolutionary spirit and inspired to a large extent by the doctrines of anarchism. But the war has orientated the workers’ movement in a new direction.

The reformist/minority of the old days has become the majority. Several of the advance guard elernents have become forces of moderation. The old leaders who invoked the thought of Bakunin and advertised the formulas of Proudhon, who adopted the conceptions of Geoge Sorel or of Kropotkin, speak to day in the dialect of Gompers. How has this shift of policy been brought about?

It is impossible for the foreigner to grasp the causes for this evolution. One has to live in France, rub elbows with the militants, and frequent the syndicalist circles to understand the true motives.


Before the war the principal terrain of combat of the revolutionary syndicalists was that of opposition to war and to the army. Anti-militarism and anti-patriotism were the favourite platforms of the workers of the advance guard. The leaders, Jouhaux, Dumoulin, Yvetot, Merrheim, Monatte, Rosmer, Griffuelhes and others were in accord in calling for a general strike in case of war and in resisting militarism by all possible means. They reproached the German syndicalists for not declaring themselves ready to employ the same tactics. And they had nothing but disdain for the English and American trade unionists, wham they reproached as being interested only in their own narrow and selfish corporate interests.

The truth is that the French revolutionary syndicalists were drunk with words and anarchistic formulas, and they did not take any account of realities. If they had been guided by the Marxist method, they would have understood that it is not sufficient to make promises, but that the action has to correspond to the possibilities, presented by the economic situation. And so they would not have promised, in the event of a war, to call a general strike which they were incapable of accomplishing, but they would have adopted an attitude of opposition which would have permitted at the end of a few months to determine an irresistible current against the war and the belligerent governments. It is in this manner that the Russian Social-Democrats and the Italian Socialists have acted.


What was to happen has happened. On the morrow of the declaration of war, the syndicalists found themselves incapable of resisting the wave of chauvinism, and consequently incapable of realising their programme, for the sabotage of mobilisation, for the general strike etc. Realising their isolation and their feebleness, they renounced all their hopes, and submitted to the government. But in their fall they lost even the idea of moral resistance, in default of violent opposition. There lies the treason of the leaders.

Impotence is not a crime. But treachery is a crime. The syndicalist leaders were afraid of their responsibilities, and they feared also governmental repression. In order to escape it they adopted the official point of view, that is to say, they completely, repudiated all their pre-war ideas. They could have maintained silence and awaited a favourable moment for raising their voices; they preferred to “howl with the wolves,” as the French expression goes. And thus they are discredited for ever.

This attitude was that of Jouhaux and the greater part of the officials of the Confederation Generale du Travail an attitude identical to that of Gompers and Co. They easily carried with them the majority of the syndicates, who had the habit of following their leaders, and who were deceived, as was the entire country, by the all powerful capitalist press. This venal press has literally poisoned public opinion by spreading to profusion lies and legends about the causes of the war, and calumnies against the Socialists. With the assistance of this press and thanks to the support of the reactionary government, Jouhaux and his friends have been able to deceive the syndicates and to lead them into the way of reformism.


Against this majority a powerful minority was rapidly formed during the war. It had as its leaders Pierre Monatte, who was the first one, in November, 1914, to raise his voice as a protest against the war policy of C.G.T., and resigned from the Executive Committee; Alfred Rosmer, a collaborator with Monatte in the revolutionary syndicalist revue, “La Vie Ouvriere”; Dumoulin, representing the miners; Meerheim, secretary of the Metal Syndicates; Bourderon, secretary of the Federation of Tonneau; Pericat, Hubert, and a few other militants less known. But the censorship and the state of siege stifled and paralysed the propaganda of these courageous comrades. Monatte, Rosmer, and Dumoulin were mobilised and could not carry on their activity, while Jouhaux and his accomplices, thanks to their servility to the government, obtained “sursis” or exemptions, by which they escaped the law of mobilisation.

This faction was dislocated by the defection of three of the principal leaders, Merrheim, Dumoulin, and Bourderon, who reconciled themselves in 1917 with the men of the right, and abandoned, their friends. This defection diminished the forces of the minority. But after demobilisation, Monatte and Rosmer took up again their place at the head of the movement, and recommenced the publication of “La Vie Ouvriere,” which became an important weekly newspaper. Aided by several new militants who gained each day in authority and prestige—the principal one was Monmousseau who represented a considerable nucleus of revolutionary railroad workers—they have intensified their propaganda to lead the C.G.T. back into the way which it followed before the war.

At their side Pericat carried on his activity, trying to found a new organ, “L’Internationale,” and creating a “Communist Party” of great numerical weakness. Up to the present he has not succeeded, as he is not surrounded by men capable of leadership. Other syndicalist elements collaborate with the anarchists and their weekly paper, “Le Libertaire.” Among them the only one who has real influence is Sirolle, a young and devoted militant railroad worker.


These divisions are naturally not profitable to the movement, which lacks a sufficient number of propagandists. Nevertheless, the minority resembles a revolutionary élite, which is continually growing. The same remarks apply to the minority of the Socialist Party, for whom it is necessary to traverse a period of preparation and organisation before it will be able to orientate the working forces towards Revolution.

This minority will be powerfully aided by the course of events, which is working in its favour. If the workers have been long deaf to the appeals of the minority, it is because they were enjoying a relative prosperity, thanks to the increases of wages accorded by the war industries which realised enormous profits, and thanks to the law of rentals which suspended payments. But at the present moment billions of francs of taxes are inevitable in order to balance the budgets; rents are increasing rapidly; the existence of the workers is threatened. It is not to be doubted that in a few months there will be such extreme poverty that the proletariat will awaken and the spirit of revolt will be heard throughout the land. It will be then that the revolutionary tactics will triumph in the