Collapse and resistance: the workers' movement facing World War One

Submitted by AWL on 3 July, 2014 - 6:45

In the twenty or thirty years before World War One, mass socialist and trade union movements were built across Europe, starting off very small in the 1880s and acquiring such strength by, say, 1905 that most of their activists believed that they would soon be able to overthrow capitalism.

That inspiring advance came to a sudden end in early August 1914. With the start of World War One, most of the big socialist and trade-union movements rallied behind their own bourgeois governments. A permanent line of division was drawn in the labour movement, and remains to this day, between the revolutionary socialists and internationalists on one side, and the time-servers, petty reformers, opportunists, and bureaucrats on the other.

Best-known is the collapse of the German Social Democratic Party. Also dramatic was the political collapse of the labour movement in France.

There, the strongest and most militant part of the labour movement was not so much the Socialist Party as the trade-union confederation, the CGT. It was an unusual sort of trade union confederation, in many ways more like a “trade unionist” revolutionary political party than a union focused on day-to-day details of wages and conditions.

Its leaders were “revolutionary syndicalists”, meaning that they aimed for a socialist revolution made without politics, through the means of a general strike which would paralyse the state and enable the union organisation in each workplace and industry to seize and exercise social control of the productive wealth of society.

They officially advised their members not to vote in elections, though in fact most members voted for the Socialist Party (and some of the CGT leaders were also “privatey” SP members).

More: the CGT’s most vigorous activity, outside struggles on wages and conditions and preparation for the revolutionary general strike, was against militarism. Many of them supported the idea that the war which everyone in Europe saw as threatening could be prevented by a trade-union commitment to call a general strike against any declaration of war.

The CGT collapsed as ignominiously as the German Social Democracy — indeed, more so, because its loyal internationalist minority was smaller. How did that happen?

Alfred Rosmer was an activist in the CGT, and one of the leaders of the internationalist opposition in World War 1. Later he joined the Communist Party, then allied with the Left Opposition. After a brief period in the French Trotskyist movement, he dropped out of active politics in the 1930s, but remained friendly with Trotsky (the founding congress of the Fourth International was held in Rosmer’s house) and wrote valuable books.

His most important book was The Workers’ Movement during the First World War, published in 1936 (volume 1) and 1953 (volume 2). The translated extracts below from volume 1 tell the story of how the CGT collapsed.


[As war approached] the CGT had renounced nothing. At the Havre Congress [in 1912] it resoundingly reaffirmed the positions of Amiens [from 1906]. In the middle of 1913 it refused to declare a schedule for a general strike, but only because it knew that it could not do that.

Despite the exhortations of the anarchists, it wanted to remain in control of its own activities. If the anarchists responded with bitterness and anger, that proves only that they were noticing, a bit late, that revolutionary syndicalism and anarchism are two different things.

However, it was incontestable that something had changed. What? The malaise and unease were undeniable. The CGT no longer had the élan and self-confidence which characterised it in 1906-8 when it was at the height of its strength and influence. It could only mark time. It stalled and declined. Why? Because the formula on which it had constituted itself and on which it had subsisted was worn out. Because the men who had resoundingly applied that formula were worn out, too.

[CGT leader] Emile Pouget had defined the formula as follows:

“The aim proposed by the Confederation’s declaration of principles is thus identified with the idea put forward by all schools of social philosophy; only, it proposes it in a form freed of all the useless doctrinal extras and all the particular views of the sects, keeping only the essence”.

It was a convenient formula which allowed for a regroupment of revolutionary forces by rallying along the same lines men who came from different points in the revolutionary spectrum but all wanted to free the workers’ movement from the incessant and stultifying quarrels of the anarchist and socialist sects which weakened it and to purge it of the opportunism which had got a grip on parliamentary socialism. It was convenient, but it could not last long...

The CGT’s weakness consisted in the fact that it was a hybrid, simultaneously a trade-union organisation and a political party, and more a party than a trade-union organisation... It retained, however, enough features of corporatist organisation to weigh down, at given times, on the activity of the CGT. The officials of the rank and file organisations could not but be preoccupied with trade-union membership numbers. Between the party work and the properly trade-union work that the CGT had to do, there was often an antagonism.

And the CGT faced two equally formidable internal enemies: the reformists and the ultra-lefts.

The reformists, basing themselves on the (at least theoretically) federalist structure of the CGT, only recognised the confederation’s decisions as much as suited them. And more: in the full swing of preparation for an action decided by the confederal leadership, and in the most serious circumstances, the reformists’ federations and unions did not hesitate to act publicly against the CGT. [Within the CGT, the “union” generally meant the workplace unit. The CGT was structured as a two-part confederation, on one side through federations covering industries, and on the other side through local Bourses de Travail, roughly equivalent to Trades Councils].

In that way the reformist minority, always defeated at the congresses, got its revenge. But the “ultra-lefts”, who were in the majority, were no less dangerous. Hervé’s paper La Guerre Sociale gave them a platform, and there, in that company and in that paper, which was really without doctrine, they could give free rein to their demagogy.

[La Guerre Sociale (Social War) was a weekly unofficial socialist and trade-union paper founded by Gustave Hervé. In its early years it was stridently anti-militarist and advocated a general strike to stop war (a slogan rejected by Lenin, Luxemburg, and others as fanciful); in 1914 it became stridently nationalist, changing its name in 1916 to La Victoire (Victory)].

More than once, the CGT was put into difficulties by them; more than once they made the CGT commit expensive errors.

Griffuelhes [general secretary of the CGT from 1901 to 1909, and also a member of the “Blanquist” strand of the French Socialist Party] noticed this danger, and, courageously, he jumped on Hervéism, not when the danger from it was past, but at the time when the threat from it was at its height.

[But] there was a wearing-out of activists. Pelloutier had had no successor as leader of the Fédération des Bourses.

[Fernand Pelloutier was the first leader of French revolutionary syndicalism, founding the Fédération des Bourses, a federation of local organisations similar to Trades Councils, in 1895. He died in 1901.] Griffuelhes, who had been for the CGT what Pelloutier had been for the Fédération des Bourses, would have no successor either.

He embodied the CGT throughout its best days, in the years when it was at its height. He had all the qualities of a leader: clear-sightedness, courage, the ability to make quick and definite decisions — and also some faults which made it difficult for him to cope with opposition and led him to abandon his leadership position suddenly. [He resigned in 1909 after a row over finance for the new CGT office in Paris. He remained active in the movement, and joined the Communist Party after World War One, but was never again central].

Griffuelhes’ voluntary departure from the confederal secretaryship caused great unrest, thanks to which a dubious candidature won out but only for a very short time. [Louis Niel became secretary briefly]. Then [Léon] Jouhaux [who would remain secretary until 1947] was elected and held the position for lack of a rival.

Jouhaux was exactly the opposite of Griffuelhes, possessing no more qualities than an eloquence that was real but for public rallies. During the war, he learned the art of administration...

[As war loomed in July 1914, the CGT remained stridently anti-war. But it became more difficult to hold the line].

On Thursday 30 July panic seized Paris. It was expressed in a sort of paralysis. War was coming; life was stopping. There was a rush on the banks, which would pay out only 50 francs [150 euros] a fortnight. Cash was short: gold, and even silver, were being hoarded. The Bank of France put into circulation 5 and 10 franc notes.

On Saturday [1 August], towards the end of the afternoon, the paralysis suddenly sharpened. The buses had been requisitioned and stopped running...

In the days that followed, the city appeared to have been emptied of its population. There was life and movement only around the train stations, or occasionally in some streets. And then it was parades of loud mobs, yelling “To Berlin! To Berlin!” and singing the Marseillaise [the French national anthem].

To feed their patriotic fervour, the leaders of those parades directed them here and there against “Boche” [German] shops...

Historians and writers have told us about the demonstrations which took place against the war in 1870 [when France’s Second Empire attacked Prussia, in a conflict deliberately provoked by Prussian chancellor Bismarck]. They were small demonstrations, quickly stifled. In August 1914, there was not even the equivalent.

The main reason was the sort of levée en masse constituted by the military mobilisation, and in the large size from the very start of the army, which incorporated in a single move the most active part of the population...

On Tuesday 4 August... the editorial of the Bataille Syndicaliste [BS, the official daily of the CGT] said:]

“The time has come for the final and brutal argument from militarist, feudal, monarchic Germany...

“There is no point going back to look for the deep causes of the frightening drama which is beginning. It is too late, or too soon.

“But the world has assessed the cause. It was Austria that set off the crisis; it was Germany that, first by its duplicity and then by its aggression, made the spark flare which has set all Europe alight.

“At least, that is all we can discern in France...

“Our role is also clear: against the law of the jungle, against German militarism, we must save the democratic and revolutionary tradition of France”.

Jaurès was assassinated on Friday 31 July, at about 10pm. [Jean Jaurès was a Socialist Party leader, on the right wing of the party but widely popular and eloquently anti-war. He was murdered by an ultra-nationalist]. On Saturday 1 August, the call for general military mobilisation was put out at 4pm...

The CGT put out a manifesto to the proletarians of France...

“The forces of evil are on the point of triumphing. A glimmer of hope still remains, but so weak that we must reckon on the worst.

“Even if we are carried into the abyss, we want to retain the hope of a possible peace.

“The Confederal Committee [of the CGT] has remained at its battle-post, fighting for the cause of peace. Just yesterday, it made a last appeal to the workers’ International...

“As firmly as as before, we must stick with the whole of our ideas and our faith in their definitive triumph. The workers’ International will always remain our goal...”

[A few days later] the CGT and the Seine [Paris region] coordination of unions called on the workers to come en masse to Jaurès’s funeral [on 4 August] in order to demonstrate there “with calm and dignity”.

A new column appeared in the Bataille Syndicaliste [BS, the official daily of the CGT]: “What Bakunin said”, and from then on it would reappear very frequently.

[Mikhail Bakunin led the wing of the First International which later came to call itself anarchist. He had been pro-France in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and constantly championed what he considered the revolutionary spirit of the “Latin” and “Slavic” “races” against the “authoritarianism” which, he said, characterised Germans].

Among the speeches at Jaurès’s funeral, we need here note only Jouhaux’s. The BS of Wednesday [5 August] gave long extracts. Jouhaux first explained why the working class loved Jaurès, then he exclaimed:

“Today, it is still from our memories that we draw the strength we need. In the name of those who are going to war — including me — I declare that it is not hate of the German people which will impel us on to the battlefield, but hate of German imperialism”.

The BS reporter added:

“Applause erupted. Emotion was at its height. People wept. Maurice Barrès [a right-wing nationalist politician] clapped loudly and said to one of his neighbours: ‘Very good! Very good!’. A senator who was a sworn enemy of the CGT exclaimed: ‘And to think that these are the men whom we wanted to imprison’.”

[In the background of the CGT’s turnaround in August 1914 was “Carnet B”, a list of alleged “subversives” which the government was known to keep and to be likely to jail in case of war. In the event, none of the CGT leaders were jailed, and Jouhaux and his friends were not made to do military service, either.]

In the BS of Thursday 6 August, a new explanation of the war was given in an unsigned but prominent article:

“Let liberty flow from the conflict of two races! ... In the current conflict, the ethnic question has some weight. The Germans, with heavier blood, with a more submissive and resigned spirit, do not have our spirit of independence”.

However, the anonymous author said in his conclusion that it was only the “haughty and aggressive caste” [ruling Germany] which had to be defeated...

On Sunday 2 August, the first day of official military mobilisation, the Confederal Committee of the CGT had met in the afternoon. There was an atmosphere of defeat and of being crushed. At the meeting were men who that very evening were due to join troop trains...

One member of the committee, already half-drunk, interrupted with a patriotic sally, against Germany, against the “Boches” [chauvinist term for Germans, similar to “huns” in English]. This was the language of the ignorant crowds whom the nationalist leaders would soon lead to attack “Boche” shops.

A painful moment, which passed quickly. No-one had the heart to reply to these stupidities. The meeting discussed Jaurès’s funeral and the wreath the CGT should send. It sorted out details. There was no reference to Jouhaux making a speech there.

Had the CGT secretary already decided the line he would take? Did he already see clearly what his policy would be, and the confederal leadership’s? Probably not.

Doubtless with him it was not a sudden and total turn-around but rather a rapid drift. The negotiations about Carnet B, in which he had surely participated — directly or indirectly — had been the point of departure. That would lead him, within a few days, through the Committee of National Salvation [a government-sponsored committee in which he participated] to the union sacrée [the “holy alliance” of classes in wartime].

The new policy did not need to be spelled out, and it never would be, openly and clearly: it would be implied in deeds and actions...

On Tuesday 4 August Jouhaux made his speech at Jaurès’s funeral. At the same time posters appeared on the walls of Paris announcing the creation of the Committee of National Salvation, its aims, and its list of members.

Jouhaux claimed later that his speech caused no protest in the Confederal Committee, and that even that it was unanimously decided to print it. However, one thing is certain: from the next day, very clear reservations were expressed on the question of his participation in the Committee of National Salvation, a participation decided by Jouhaux alone, without any previous consultation with the committee...

In the report he made at the National Council of the metalworkers’ federation, in September 1917, [Alphonse] Merrheim [the metalworkers’ secretary, a courageous though cautious internationalist during the war, who after 1918 he moved to the right]... gave details...

He recalled that, the day after Jaurès’s funeral, on the question of Committee of National Salvation, the metalworkers’ secretariat warned the CGT bureau and Confederal Committee against too close a collaboration, which would annihilate the independence of the CGT.

He said how, when visiting the office of the Bataille Syndicaliste on 2 September, he learned by chance that the confederal secretary [Jouhaux] and some other activists were leaving for Bordeaux, following the government [which had fled lest the Germans take Paris].

He recounted the discussion which obliged the confederal secretary to delay his departure by 24 hours and convene the Confederal Committee; he recalled the decision of the committee, which passively tolerated the departure for Bordeaux, since the confederal secretary had declared that whatever the Committee decided he would go anyway.

Merrheim said that it was at that meeting that comrade Lenoir recalled the principles of the CGT and specifically declared that the war was not our war. That earned him a scornful reply from the confederal secretary...

In an empty and overwhelmed Paris — the overwhelming being in the mind — we set out, [Pierre] Monatte and I, to find the islets of resistance which still existed. [They went out visiting old comrades, one by one, being disappointed in most cases but, one by one, recruiting a small group who would raise again the banner of socialism, class struggle, and internationalism. Around and after the end of World War One, many millions would rally round that banner].