Revolutionary Unions and French Labor: The Rebels behind the Cause; Or, Why Did Revolutionary Syndicalism Fail?

Gerald C. Friedman
1997 French Historical Studies  
The Higher Ideals of the Labor Movement Since its publication in 1971, Peter Stearns's Revolutionary Syndicalism and French Labor: A Cause without Rebels has haunted French labor history.' Rejecting the popular image of French workers as revolutionaries, devotees of the period's most radical union movement, Stearns argues that revolutionary syndicalist activists were out of touch with French workers. Vigorous producers of "distinctive and abundant rhetoric," syndicalists "did not characterize
more » ... not characterize French labor in their heyday and they did not set an enduring trend." Instead, their "image lives in the minds of those historians who wish that workers had been what they were not."2 For Stearns, revolutionary syndicalism mattered only because it hindered unionization by inhibiting the organization of effective unions.3 Lacking support among workers, the movement collapsed in a crise syndicaliste before World War I. By 1910, Stearns argues, there was growing talk of a crisis of syndicalism. The crisis resulted not from a basic change in the character of French labor, but from 156 FRENCH HISTORICAL STUDIES the syndicalists' growing understanding of what this character was ... the syndicalists' realization that they had never had a chance with French workers.4 Stearns's book is a tour de force, weaving together quantitative and qualitative information to make a revisionist case against revolutionary syndicalism. Beyond its scholarship, however, Revolutionary Syndicalism owes its success to its application of an economic model of the labor movement borrowed from two American labor economists, John R. Commons and Selig Perlman. Best known for their studies of American labor history, Commons and Perlman were theorists justifying the narrow and conservative policies of the American Federation of Labor.5 Discounting any higher ideals of the labor movement, they explain unionization solely in terms of the workers' material interest in protecting their jobs and raising wages. Exceptional circumstances, such as a charismatic leader or anger over repressive state policies, may allow radicals to dominate some unions for short periods. Commons and Perlman predict, however, that, over time, unions will adopt a businesslike focus on jobs and wages that matches the workers' own narrow concerns.6 Commons and Perlman developed their argument in studies of American trade unionism-studies that have since been challenged by generations of labor historians.7 But even if their assertions about American unions are accepted, their broad claims about worker ideology are weakly grounded if they rest only on the United States. The French labor movement has posed a particular problem for advocates of business unionism because of the apparent success radical unions and extremist doctrines enjoyed among French workers.8 Stearns's book is therefore an essential building block in a broader argument, not about French labor alone, but about all workers in mod-4 Ibid., 93. , 249. ists behaved as revolutionary syndicalists and insisting that, where they did, they were ineffective because they lacked support among workers. Stearns supports his case with anecdote, some quantitative data on strike patterns, and persuasive writing. But his work depends on the Commons-Perlman assumption that workers are uninterested in radical social change because Stearns actually provides little systematic evidence that French workers rejected revolutionary syndicalism.9 Stearns needs more than assumption and anecdote. He needs an argument about the attitudes and behavior of large numbers. Hypotheses about social phenomena involving large numbers of individuals are subject to straightforward quantitative tests. Were revolutionary syndicalist French unions smaller than business unions in France and elsewhere? Did French workers reject revolutionary syndicalist leadership in their labor disputes? And were revolutionary syndicalist unions less effective than business unions in conducting strikes? This article confronts these questions directly by using quantitative data to compare the membership rates and strike behavior of revolutionary syndicalist-led and other unions within France and of unions in France and in the United States and other countries with more conservative union movements. After a discussion of the meaning of revolutionary syndicalism for union organization and behavior, comparisons are made between membership in revolutionary syndicalist-led and other unions in France and elsewhere, including the United States and the United Kingdom, where business unionism was dominant. The comparisons show that revolutionary syndicalist unions attracted members, especially among workers in modern, large establishments. Analysis of strike data also reveals that French workers accepted revolutionary syndicalist leadership in their strikes. Finally, this study shows that revolutionary syndicalist-led unions were as effective in conducting strikes as were American business unions and were more effective than other French unions. By themselves, the comparisons do not explain the pre-World War I decline in revolutionary syndicalism. However, revolutionary syndicalists laid the seeds of their movement's decline by alienating needed allies outside the working class. This article explains the rise and fall of revolutionary syndicalism dialectically by including the response to worker militancy of state officials and employers. Revolutionary syndi-9 As might be expected for a work that challenges prevailing beliefs and uses theories developed in other disciplines, Stearns's book met with a chilly reception. See, for example, the reviews in Labor History 13 (winter 1972): 161-63; and American Historical Review 77 (Apr. 1972): 527-29.
doi:10.2307/286887 fatcat:kosmryq4wjhebaij6qmz5qxlzy