The Labour Elector

The Paris International (Possibilist) Congress

Written: by John Burns;
Published: in The Labour Elector, August 3rd 1889, pp. 73-75;
Transcribed: by Graham Seaman, for Sept. 2019.

Encouraged by the recent awakening of the Trade Unions, by the victory of the Gas Stokers in securing Eight Hours, and possessing a mandate from the council of a Trade Union of 57,000 members, in favour of an International Eight Hour Day, I went to Paris with high hopes of bringing about a fusion of the two Congresses and presenting to the world a united workmen's Congress pledged to work for Labour.

I arrived in Paris on Saturday, and went to the Labour Exchange where many Trades Unions are located. In the evening there was a ball at which 40,000 people were present, nearly all workmen, invited by the President of the Republic. This was the Panem et Circenses of the middle-class Republicans to the people of Paris. On Sunday; to Review of Garrison, and at night to see the crowd of gay Parisians dancing till five in the morning to the music of eighty bands provided by the Municipality.

The fall of the Bastille was celebrated quietly by fetes, illuminations, and dancing, in marked contrast to the turbulent scenes of 100 years ago.

On Monday, attended the Congress at nine, where I found that many of the English delegates, particularly those of the S.D.F., had been primed with lying statements as to the bogus character of "the other Congress." No evidence was forthcoming to prove it, but simply bald statements that the MARXISTS were individuals, not delegates. Yet, when these same delegates attended the 1886 Congress in Paris and the Congress in London they were described as "Leaders," "Representatives," "Heroes" and "Martyrs," by the very hirelings who now defame them and exclude them from the reports and articles which they have sent of the Congress to the Times and other papers.

I persuaded several members of the S.D.F. to visit the Marxist Congress that in my opinion was as representative internationally as ours. They went, and in the language of one was found the truth, "that individually, intellectually, and from an International point of view it was the best." This expression of opinion was immediately rebuked and I have not the least doubt he will be expelled for "backsliding" and accused of being a Tory tool.

The English delegation had a meeting at which JOHN BURNS suggested the fusion of the two Congresses. This was opposed by HYNDMAN and ADOLPHE SMITH who as interpreter did not forget his partisanship, but when the English Trade Unionists expressed themselves favourably Mr. HYNDMAN, Apostle of the Cult of the jumping cat that he is, altered his position and proposed that they be fused upon verification of mandates, which if applied to himself and many others at the Possibilist Congress would have meant their exclusion.

The most amusing, nay villainous, part of this business was that the objections to fusion came not trom men like FENWICK, EVELEIGH, COOPER, and others, who represented vast organisations, but from men like HYNDMAN sent by 28 persons, and by BURROWS, who was so doubtful of the bona fides of the Clerkenwell Branch of S.D.F. as to get a double-barrelled mandate from some other people who knew nothing of Socialism, and if they did would have sent someone else.

The 15 branches of S.D.F. numbering 1926 (really less than half of this) at HYNDMAN's instigation voted for the exclusion of men like ANSEELE, VAN BEVEREN, VOLMAR, BEBEL, LIEBKNECHT, COSTA, and other Deputies, CIPRIANI, deputy nine times, NIEUWENHUIS, Deputy, LAVROFF, DE PAEPE, BASLY, Deputy, CAMELINAT, PALM, BRANTING, DANIELSEN, LEO FRANCKEL, DR. ADLER, MORRIS, GRAHAM, HARDIE, and scores of others who had mandates better than their own, sixteen Deputies and nine Municipal Councillors, besides the delegates of genuine Trade Unions.

The English delegates went to the Congress morally pledged to amalgamation, but did not vote either way.

The Congress was opened by Citizen LAVY, the able secretary of the National Committtee. He called upon the Congress to elect its chairman, and JOFFRIN was elected.

LAVY then requested the Congress to name a Foreign President, whereupon the Frenchmen and several Englishmen called out BURNS. This was done because he represented the biggest number at Congress, was, like the President, an engineer and a Municipal Councilor. The name of SNOW was mentioned by one Englishmen, and then ADOLPHE SMITH showed how nobly he could act for Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity by leaning over to LAVY, and in French telling him that SNOW had the voice of the foreigners. LAVY innocently repeated it, and SNOW was elected. Several Frenchmen asked me if I had withdrawn my name, whilst PARNELL and others wanted me to expose this dirty trick, but for harmony and peace I let it pass by. LAVY was elected Secretary, and after a good speech from JOFFRIN, the reading of telegrams from several countries and exchanges of good wishes, the first day's business was ended.

There were about 400 delegates present the first day and business was better done than at previous Congresses.

In the evening a reception was given to all the delegates. H. M. HYNDMAN, says Mrs. BESANT in her reports to the Pall Mall Gazette, was elected to the chair. He was put in by ADOLPHE SMITH against the wish of the majority of the English delegation. Delegates COSTA, JOFFRIN, BOWEN, VERRYCKEN and others from all countries delivered good speeches. HYNDMAN deliberately tried to shut out the English because he heard BURNS was to speak, and only yielded after repeated calls from delegates, and then tried to excuse himself by saying "that the French thought there was no need for an English speech as we have already had a good deal of English" (not one had spoken) "and it is late" (the jumping cat again). "If we call on an Englishman it will be BURNS." After this making of necessity a virtue BURNS spoke for the English delegation and was heartily received by the very Frenchmen whom HYNDMAN represented as not wanting a speech.

How sorely pressed these men must be, who with Liberty on their lips, have Coercion in their hearts; and display their Fraternity by vilifying and excluding men whose only fault has been the resistance of egotism and jealousy on the part of those who have disrupted the Socialist movement at home, and if they had their way, would wreck it abroad. In spite of this incident it was a grand meeting, about 1,000 present who heartily enjoyed themselves.

On the second day, CLEMENT of the Commune, was elected as President and DEFNET, a Belgian, Vice President.

The first business was the verification of credentials. For England, a Committee of five were appointed, con- sisting of PARNELL, FENWICK, HUNTER, TURNER and BURNS. Having gone through the mandates, we found and reported that 15 Trades Councils and 19 delegates represented 116,081 members; 5 Clubs consisting of Metropolitan Radical Federation with 20,000 members; Fabian Society, 130; Dublin Socialist Club, 35; Knights of Labour, Birmingham, and Labour Union, 200; for the five Associations, 20,365.

Fifteen branches of the Social-Democratic Federation, consisting of 1,926 members, had 15 delegates, and four of these, including Mr. HYNDMAN, represented 124 people, and in the vote for fusion of the Congresses, were equal to four other men of England and America, who represented over 200,000. Who are the bogus delegates?

In all there were 139,272 people, with 39 delegates from England. The greatest number ever sent.

At the Congress there was a total of 612 delegates, of whom 521 were French, the rest being from England, America, Spain, Ireland, Scotland, Austria, Italy, Denmark, Belgium and Poland, the latter having no credentials at all.

A Boulangist delegate was objected to, but Mr. FENWICK in a forcible speech appealed for toleration, and he was admitted.

In the evening sitting PAULARD was President, CAMPES, a Spaniard, Vice. After minutes and other formal business, the question of the fusion of the two Congresses was discussed. CIPRIANI, the Italian Socialist, nine times in prison and nearly as many times elected for Deputy, a man of striking and handsome appearance, spoke ably in favour of union. BLONDEAU, one of the French delegates to London in 1886, a burly blacksmith, proposed union if mandates were verified, but laid down impossible conditions. Several delegates having spoken, mostly in favour, JOHN BURNS stated that he had friends in both Congresses, in both were men who had been in prison many times, suffered much for the workers, their aims and objects were the same, their resolutions similar, and pointed out that the enemies of both would be delighted at their separation. A union of the two Congresses would, if nothing else were done, justify all trouble, and the surrender of petty personal prejudices, which alone were at the bottom of the separation, would mean a defeat of the enemy, a victory for the workers, This was well received, and BURNS moved that a committee be appointed of one from each nationality in each Congress, to ascertain the possibility and conditions of amalgamation.

He was followed by ANNIE BESANT, who made a clever and an eloquent, but a wicked and immoral speech. She stated that we all desired union. This was not a matter of personality, but a question of of principle. The Possibilists she knew were above personalities, and had only been influenced by principle in their action. The other Congress was composed of individuals not delegates, without mandates, and representing themselves, not a tittle of evidence to support this. This speech was cleverly translated by herself into French, received with great regret by five nationalities, but with exultant cheering by the Frenchmen, to whose personal prejudices she directly appealed, and in whose pride she knew there would be ready acceptance of the worst speech potentially I have ever heard. HYNDMAN, BURROWS, and ADOLPHE SMITH were delighted at their victory, gained by the suppression of principle, and the exaltation of the meanest passion that egotism, vanity, and prejudice can raise.

After speeches by COSTA, PARNELL, LAVY, and others, the vote was taken, seven nationalities voting for fusion with verification of mandates, under conditions they knew could not be accepted by the Marxist Congress. The Italians were entrusted with the negociations.

The sittings of Wednesday were confined to the reading of reports by various delegates. JENSSEN, of Denmark, gave in a good report, which was very encouraging.

The most depressing was that of Belgium, where conditions are bad for the workers. We here regretted the absence of ANSEELE and VAN BEVEREN at the other Congress.

Reports from Spain were hopeful, Trade Union and political action were there being taken up very well.

The English and Americans waived their right to report, but would hand their report in for the official report of the Congress.

In the evening, FORTUJYN, a Belgian, was President. After minutes, the reply from the Marxist Congress was as expected, a refusal to accept the dictatorial terms of the Possibilists, but agreeing to amalgamate as a Congress without conditions, having satisfied themselves of the bona fides of its delegates.

The Congress then settled down to its most important work, that of International Labour Legislation.

Thursday. — DUMAY, President; JENSSEN, Vice-President. Discussion on International Legislation, reopened by T. WALKER, of S.D.F., who had not much belief in legislation for Eight Hours. Thought Trade Unions were not doing so much as they might, and believed that Eight Hours would not solve the social problem, but would do some good.

He was followed by HOBART, who dealt principally with the Gas Stokers Union in London. He was in favour of Eight Hours, but did not expect so much from it, as some of its advocates. CLEMENT and other Socialists spoke heartily in favour of shorter hours. The most remarkable feature of this Congress, is the fact that real and proved revolutionists expect much from the International reduction of hours, and do not think much of others who oppose it.

Thursday evening. — BERTRAND, President; Mrs. BESANT, Vice-President. Dr. MERLINO made a strong speech against all Labour legislation and palliatives, and in favour of Anarchism. This, although very eloquently put, was very mildly received.

He was followed by JOHN BURNS, who, in sledgehammer style, advised him to tell the Gas Stokers of London to work 12 or 14; instead of the Eight they now work. Reduction of hours was of great importance. Unskilled workers were especially in need of it. Palliatives would not make the workers contented as supposed, but the more they got the more discontented it made them with what remained. Legislation often helped these who were too poor to combine and win it for themselves. It meant leisure and education, without which progress was impossible.

Citizen DUMAY spoke in a similar strain, and gave instances of national and international action where the workers' condition had been improved.

Dr. DE PAEPE made a forcible speech, particularly in favour of Legislative suppression of poisonous industries.

FENWICK, M.P., the Miners delegate, made a good speech in favour of shorter working hours. He told the Congress that many English miners worked 6 to 8 hours per day, were willing to reduce this still further and get better wages, but could not do this till the foreign miners improved their position. National legislation was good, but Internation legislation was better and wanted most.

The Polish delegate, LIMINOVSKY, without credentials but very properly admitted under the circumstances, appealed for help for Poland, and demanded political freedom for every nationality.

The resolutions drawn up by Standing Orders Committee were then submitted to the vote. Italy abstained. England dissented from No. 6 being against all overtime. FENWICK objected to No. 10 as being rather encouraging to crime and lenient to criminals. DE PAEPE’s resolutions were added and the whole were carried with great cheering.

is was a good day's sitting, and much real and genuine work was done. The hall was packed to suffocation and great enthusiasm prevailed.

Friday morning. — President, DUBOIS; Vice-Presidents, LIMINOVSKY (Poland), and CHRISTIE (Scotland). After minutes were read, several resolutions were passed. BURROWS moved one that all the resolutions passed be sent to the Berne Conference, also one in favour of free education and free meals.

  1. Eight hours a day for the maximum day's work fixed by international law.
  2. At least one day's holiday in each week, and no work on fete days.
  3. Abolition of night-work, as far as is practicable, for men and women, and entirely for children.
  4. The total suppression of children's labour below the age of 14, and protection of children (regulation of child labour) up to the age of 18.
  5. Complete general, technical, and professional education.
  6. Overtime to be paid for at double rates, and limited to four hours in each twenty-four.
  7. Civil and criminal responsibility of employers for accidents.
  8. An adequate number of qualified inspectors, to be nominated by the workers themselves, and paid by the State or the Commune, with full powers to enter workshops or factories or religious establishments at any time, and to examine the apprentices at their own homes.
  9. Workshops organised by the workers, with subventions from the municipalities or the State.
  10. Prison and workhouse labour to be conducted under the same conditions as free labour and to be employed as far as possible on great public works.
  11. That no foreign labourers be allowed to accept employment, or employers be allowed to employ such labour, at rates of wages below the Trade Union rates fixed for their trade.
  12. That a minimum wage be fixed in every country in accordance with a reasonable standard of living.
  13. The abrogation of all laws against the international organisation of labour.
  14. Equal pay and opportunities for women and men for equal work.

After this the Congress discussed thesecond question on the paper. "The most practical means of establishing constant relations between the working class organizations of all countries, without however in any way interfering with their autonomy or self-government."

HYNDMAN proposed two committees, one for Socialists, and one for Trade Unionists. He objected to one for both bodies as it would mean an autocratic general council sitting in London, and would degenerate into a clique. At this point several delegates thought he was referring to a body not roo miles from Blackfriars, and whose cliquism had done much harm.

We were rather surprised at his coquetting with the Trade Unionists, and patting them on the back, particularly after the way in which he has in England denounced them as reactionary.

Taken by itself, it was a very good speech indeed. Judged by what has happened in England, and his condemnation of Socialists who are Trade Unionists, it was the veriest piece of rhodomontade ever indulged in. We must excuse the passage where he said, "They did not stand under the wall where the Communards were slaughtered for palliatives, but for the emancipation of Labour, which they must work for, if need be, fight for." Our minds reverted to Dod Street, Feb. 8, 1886, Nov. 9, 1888, Nov. 13, 1887, and April 9th at the Old Bailey, and many other times when his actions did not square with his professions.

BENJAMIN COOPER thought the Trades Unions were becoming Socialistic, and with a mild but effective piece of sarcasm regretted that Mr. HYNDMAN had not delivered his speech years ago in England, as it would have been better for Socialism if he had.

Miss SIMCOX and GREENWOOD advised the interchange of reports. LAVY made a good speech in favour of each country having control of its own affairs.

Mr. FENWICK objected to two committees and thought that although Socialists and Trade Unionists may differ, there was no reason to justify that division which did not exist and which he for one did not feel.

The two committees were voted upon and carried.

A resolution moved by Mr. EVELEIGH in favour of a dual language being taught in all schools was carried by acclamation.

On Friday evening thé two Congresses attended a reception given by the Municipal Council in the beautiful chambers of the Hotel de Ville.

There the delegates from both Congresses met and chatted in a very friendly spirit. One English delegate who had voted against the union, remarked to me that if that meeting had been held the day before the two Congresses opened there would have been amalgamation.

On Saturday, Mr. Bowen, an American delegate, made a good speech on "Trusts and Syndicates," and called for the nationalization of all monopolies. He referred to the concentration of land and capital as the necessary stage towards collective ownership. HERBERT BURROWS also took the same line.

Mr. WAUDBY, delegate of International Typographical Union, moved, so as to place clearly before the world what the Congress meant, the following resolution. "That this International Congress declares that its resolutions in favour of a reduction of hours of labour, the limitation of child labour, and kindred measures, are not to be considered as expressing its full programme of Industrial Reform, but that those measures are demanded to secure the present mitigation of the hardships of labour, and to promote the leisure, education and organization necessary to secure the ultimate ownership and control of all the means of production by the masters themselves; which, we affirm is the only measure that will secure to labourers complete rights." This resolution moved by a Trade Unionist, was put to the vote and carried by all, including the English Trade Unionists.

Mr. J. DEW, representing 3,000 carpenters, moved a resolution in favour of public bodies doing their own work and paying Union rate of wages. He alluded to Mrs. BESANT and Mr. COOK's action on School Board, and referred to the good work being done by Mr BURNS on the County Council. This was carried.

In the evening the hall was crowded. ANNIE BESANT in the chair. It was decided to hold the next Congress at Brussels, the Belgian Labour Party to convene it, this means one Congress.

A farewell speech by Mrs. BESANT, and by LAVY brought proceedings to an end.

The conduct of the English Trade Unionists on this and all the subjects before the Council was of the best possible character. The reactionary tendencies of the Parliamentary Committee were in marked contrast to the progressive speeches and votes of the whole of the representatives of 116,000 men. Speaking of the Congress week as a whole it was exceeding good, very harmonious, and more business-like than preceding ones.

The fact is that contact with Englishmen is making the continental worker pay more attention to organisation, payment of subscriptions, and the detailed work that must be done.

What the French have to lose, is that fatal prolixity, that is their great drawback, this they show less than they have hitherto done. The Englishmen have gained much by their presence. The Congress has toned down many of their similar prejudices, and, I believe, idealised them to a greater extent than I thought possible. There has been reciprocity of feeling and action that must be productive of great good to the workers of the world.

In the future, workmen must learn another language, to save interpretation that loses time and causes much suspicion and trickery. Above all, they must see that the reports of their work done at Congresses are not sent to Capitalist papers by partisan delegates of any colour, who, in turning an honest penny, obscure the facts, but by paid reporters, without bias and prejudice.