Trade Unions and the Society of the Future (Brussels Section of the International, 1868)

Recently I posted Iain McKay’s translation of Eugène Varlin’s 1870 article on workers’ societies, in which Varlin expressed views that had become widespread among the libertarian federalists in the International Workingmen’s Association regarding the role of trade unions in combatting capitalism and achieving socialism. This position was first clearly articulated within the International by the Brussels section in its report to the September 1868 Congress of the International. Here I reproduce excerpts from Iain McKay’s translation of the report from the Brussels section, which will be included in his forthcoming Libertarian Reader, a collection of libertarian socialist writings from the 1850s to the present day. I included several selections from anarchist members of the International in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, which covers a time span from 300 CE to 1939. Previously I posted Shawn Wilbur’s translation of the widely circulated 1869 statement from the Belgian Internationalists on the role of the International in creating the social institutions of a libertarian socialist society.

Report of the Brussels Section of the International

We must first declare that in our eyes the strike is not a solution, even partial, for the great problem of the extinction of poverty, but we believe that it is an instrument of struggle whose use will definitely lead towards the solution of this problem. This is why we believe we must respond to exclusive co-operators who see no serious movement amongst workers other than consumer, credit and producer societies and who in particular regard the strike as useless, or even as disastrous to the interests of the workers. We believe that it is necessary here to distinguish between types of strikes, both from the point of view of the organisation of the strike and from the point of view of the goal it pursues. […]

We believe we have sufficiently demonstrated that the strike can therefore offer unquestionable advantages. But, in our opinion, strikes must be subject to certain conditions, not only of justice and legitimacy, but also of opportunity and organisation. Hence, for the question of opportunity, it is easy to understand that such and such a season, for example, may be more favourable to the success of the strike than another. As for the question of organisation, we believe that the strike must be conducted by resistance societies […]

[…] [D]espite our desire and the certainty that we cherish of one day seeing the social order completely transformed, that is to say the abolition of the exploitation of man by man, replaced by the equal exchange of products and reciprocity between producers, we maintain that it is necessary to establish resistance societies, as long as there are categories of workers whose complete liberation is currently impossible. Example: miners, whose instrument of work or raw material can hardly be acquired; navvies, who would require enormous capital to perform their transformations, etc. We again support this necessity, because while founding production associations, it will take, with the current organisation of credit, some time for each of the different professions to acquire the instruments of labour that could require the use of many arms, and because, during the time required to create the necessary capital, the exploiters could reduce wages in such a way that the worker, instead of being able to save enough for his down payment, would fall into the situation of a man who does not know how to meet his commitments.

The resistance society is again necessary because it inspires a certain fear in the exploiter. The latter, when he is not quite sure of success, will be careful not to violate conventions, knowing that he would lose his authority in the case of the failure of his arbitrary attempt. This remark is so true that it can be applied to the exploited. In fact, workers who are forced to return to work which they initially refused because the wage had been reduced, feel the authority exerted over them by the disdainful exploiter much more when need forces them to return, crestfallen, into this prison, which should be a place of happiness and satisfaction for the hard-working man since that is where life, wealth and well-being come from.

The resistance society is of indisputable necessity, as long as the exploitation of man by man remains, as long as the idlers take anything from the work of others. It is necessary not only in view of what we have said, but also because it is only through it that the bosses and the workers will know who they are dealing with in the person of those who come to ask for work. The Association gives each of its members a certificate of morality and honesty. The employer and the worker will know that the Association keeps in its midst only workers free from all taint.

One of the causes of the steady decline of the price of labour, we may also mention, is that unemployed workers go from house to house offering their arms, and thus give the exploiter the idea that there is a greater abundance of unemployed men than there really are. Through association, demands for workers should be made directly to the committees which could still send workers only where the need arises.

Finally, apart from its usefulness for strikes, the placement of workers, etc., the society for maintaining prices is also useful through one of its complementary institutions, namely the insurance fund against unemployment, an essential complement to the resistance fund itself. Indeed, if it is necessary that the association raises funds to provide for the existence of its members in the case of strikes, that is to say, unemployment as a result of a dispute with the bosses, it is at least as useful for it to do the same for unforeseen cases of unemployment due to more or less temporary industrial crises.

If strikes, in order to be successful, need to be made and directed by resistance societies, in turn the resistance societies will be serious only when they are all federated, not only in a trade and in a country, but between countries and between trades; hence the need for an international federation. […]

Lastly, we shall conclude this subject by saying that if we are such great supporters of societies for maintaining prices, as we say in Belgium; resistance societies, as they say in France; trade unions, as they say in England; it is not only with regard to the necessities of the present, but also with regard to the social order of the future. Let us explain. We do not consider these societies merely a necessary palliative (note that we do not say cure); no, our sights are much higher. From the depths of the chaos of the conflict and misery in which we are agitating, we raise our eyes towards a more harmonic and happier society. Therefore, we see in these resistance societies the embryos of these great workers companies which will one day replace the companies of capitalists having under their orders legions of employees, at least in all industries where collective force is involved and where there is no middle ground between wage-labour and association. Already in the major strikes that have broken out in recent years a new tendency is quite clearly beginning to emerge: the strike must lead to the production society. That has already been said during the strike of the association of joiners and carpenters in Ghent, as during the strike of tailors in Paris. And that will happen, because it is in the logic of ideas and the force of events. It is inevitable that the workers will to come this little argument: “But while we are on strike because the bosses refuse to accede to our demands, consumers are still clamouring for the products of our industry; since our inactivity does not come from lack of demand but only from the obstinacy of our bosses, why should we not work directly for the public; the money that our fund spends to maintain inactive workers because of the strike could be spent on the purchase of raw materials and tools.”

Once this idea is understood, it will soon be realised. Only, it is important to note (and this is an important point) that these production associations that will result from the transformation of the societies for maintaining prices, will not be these petty associations like most of those existing currently; these latter, excellent as examples and as education which we wish well, do not seem to us to have any great social future, no role to play in the renewal of society because, composed of only a few individualities, they can only succeed, as Dr. Buchner says, in creating, alongside of the bourgeoisie or third-estate, a fourth-estate having beneath it a fifth more miserable than ever. Contrariwise, the production associations derived from the unions encompass entire trades, invade large industry and thereby form the NEW CORPORATION; a corporation that bourgeois economists will gladly confuse (we know) with the old guilds, although the latter was organised hierarchically, based on monopoly and privilege, and limited to a certain number of members (just like our current small production associations), while the former will be organised on the basis of equality, founded on mutuality and justice, and open to all.

Here appears to us the real and positive future of the trade unions, because the strike, we admit, is only useful as an interim measure; perpetual strikes would be the perpetuation of wage-labour, and we want the abolition of wage-labour; perpetual strikes would be the fight without truce nor end between capital and labour, and we want, not precisely what has been called today the association of labour and capital (a hybrid combination, under which the capitalist, provider of finance, has an agreement with the workers to eliminate the boss, while still collecting interest and dividends from labour), rather we want the absorption of work by labour; since capital is accumulated labour, which must have only a simple exchange value equal to the value of the labour it has cost, it cannot be taken into account in the division of the products; product of labour, capital can only be the property of the worker, he cannot be associated with it.

So, this transformation of resistance societies taking place not just in one country but in all, or at least those which are at the head of civilisation; in a word, all these associations of all lands, federated, will intervene initially for the struggle, benefiting from this federation to apply the reciprocal exchange of products at cost price, and international mutual exchange will replace the protectionism and free trade of the bourgeois economists. And this universal organisation of labour and exchange, of production and circulation, coinciding with an inevitable and necessary transformation in the organisation of land ownership at the same time as with an intellectual transformation, having for a starting point integral education given to all, social regeneration will be carried out in both the material and mental domain. And humanity, henceforth based on science and labour instead of being based on ignorance and the domination of capital as today, marching from progress to progress in all branches of the arts, sciences and industry, will peacefully fulfil its destiny.

The Brussels Section of the International, September 1868


Félix Frenay: The Law (1864)

Félix Frenay was a Belgian worker who may have been involved in the Belgian section of the International Workingmen’s Association (the “First International”). In addition to writing political pieces like this one, Frenay was a poet. An English review of his book of poetry about working class life described his views as being radical communist-Internationalist. His comments regarding the law are reminiscent of Proudhon’s statement in his 1851 work, General Idea of the Revolution: “Laws: We know what they are, and what they are worth! They are spider webs for the rich and mighty, steel chains for the poor and weak, fishing nets in the hands of government” (included in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas). The translation is by Shawn Wilbur.

The Law

It is truly interesting to observe that over the course of the centuries that history allows us to survey, the human mind, in its slow, but continual march, while undermining institutions, beliefs and prejudices, while attacking all the abominations, has always made one exception. Indeed, when all the religions have fallen or totter on their foundations, one alone will remain upright and solid… and that is the law.

We have polished manners and softened legislations, ridding them of the most shocking asperities, but who has ever attacked the law in its very essence? Who? We could almost respond: no one. And, yet, isn’t it an injustice!

A few men gather and devise constitutions, codes and rules, to which they give the name of laws and which they then impose on others under penalty of death or prison. How is this not tyranny?!

The least idea of justice and injustice is enough to make us understand that, if we can sacrifice our own interests, we are not allowed to dispose of those of others, and that, according to this principle, a law could only be legitimate if, against all odds, an entire nation, since there is a nation, could gather, hear one another out and reach agreement to draw it up; still, it would only be legitimate for a generation. So make as many laws as you like, but obviously only for yourself; give up your own liberty, but respect ours.

What is the law? A dictate emanating from sovereign authority, says the dictionary. But dictated by what right and by what authority?

Law implies justice, harmony, and yet whoever says law says violence and oppression.

The most precise definition of the word law is imposed justice. But justice imposed by force ceases, by that very fact, to be justice. Besides, justice imposes itself, and has no need, like law, to rely on bayonets, to have an escort of gendarmes. True law is written in the consciousness of free people, where it illuminates much better than in codes produced by minds that are sick or clouded by prejudices.

Thus, what we are accustomed to call the law cannot be justice, car justice is one, and the liberal subtleties of the relative can in no way be applied to it, for what is just is just everywhere, as much in Belgium as in France, as in Prussia, Turkey or Japan, unlike the law, which condemns in one country what it permits in some other.

On the other hand, and in modern scientific language, law has a more rational definition and means: necessity, inevitable; thus all bodies obey the laws that govern matter and non can escape from them.

Can we make a body raided in the air and then left to itself not fall toward the earth, which is its center of attraction? Can we make a light that is not transmitted in a straight line and a shadow that would be on the side of a body facing the source of light? No, the laws of nature oppose it. It is impossible that is should not be thus and, consequently, it is not necessary that someone makes sure that the law is observed, for the law is the thing itself… The law is harmony and does not resemble in any way the human absurdities that we manage to impose and enforce a bit only by means of a large cohort of police, and which demand a frightening abundance of courts and condemnations.

We know full well that man, reading this, will cry “abomination,” because we attack the conventional ideas, which are those of the majority, and that the majority must always be right and true. And yet, when the minority becomes the majority, as we almost always see, does it follow that what has just and true yesterday can be unjust and false tomorrow?… How are we to reconcile all that with the universally accepted axiom that justice and truth are immutable?

“When a system of morals and politics is established over a people,” say Paul de Jouvencel, “that system may be true or false, just or unjust, but if it has soldiers, magistrates and executioners, it is necessary to obey. Vainly the conscience of man makes a just rebellion against the absurd iniquity; they insist to the man that it is his conscience that is criminal, and they prove it by reading the article of the code that declares it criminal; and, in order that the proof be most efficacious, they throw him in a dungeon, hang him, burn him, they have him drawn by 4 horse or they cut off his head, according to the customs of the country and the prescriptions of the code that watches over the system of morals.

“There is little hope that this will end. On the contrary, in time one becomes accustomed to it: one accepts what the code says as just and for what it forbids as unjust. Finally, in order to have peace, one tries to do as they are ordered and not to do what is forbidden. And then the time that this obedience has lasted forms a kind of prescription, and serves, if need be, as roof and support for the system of morals and politics. “

The child is born. The law takes note of it, hovers over his cradle, like a threat, to the great despair of the mother; it guards him, observes him, lies in wait, waiting with an implacable patience until he is big and strong enough. Then when the young man emerges from adolescence, when he becomes useful to his fellows, when he begins to help his family or create a new one, that is when all at once the law appears, and he is torn from his affections, from his future. They put in his hands a weapon, which they teach him to maneuver absolutely like an automaton. They read him regulations, from which, they tell him, he cannot free himself without dishonor. It is forbidden for him to think, to speak, to love and to move. He must disregard all the faculties that make him a man. He must abdicate his individuality, become a machine, and, like the machine, obey blindly. Such is the military law: obedience, passive… and stupid.

And there is a man who becomes, despite himself, a member of the soulless body that we can the Army.

There is a being, living an individual life, a man who only asks to develop his own faculties, suddenly reduced to the ranks of the zoophytes, for what is the regiment, if not a collective being like the coral, which has [un]intelligence instead of immobility? Yes, there is an individual who can no longer walk like everyone, nor greet others like you and me; an individual whose hair must be cut in a certain manner and whose beard must be trimmed according to a certain fashion, who eats, drinks, sleeps and, as needed, kills—all according to the rules. In short, there was a man… there is a beast.

Is the law equal for all? No, it tolerates compromises; it has, above all, a weakness for money. It is only inexorable for the poor. For them society has nothing, neither instruction, nor science, nor food, nor clothing, nor shelter, nothing but scorn and harshness. It pushes the wretch to the brink of the abyss, then strikes him with all the rigor of its laws. In this it resembles the imbecile who plunges his dog in the water and then beats it because it is wet.

In a particular society there exist a rule, most often absurd, it is true, but one made known to you before you are admitted, to which you submit willingly. From then on, humiliations and fines can rain down without anyone being about to find fault with it. Didn’t we make an informed commitment? But what would say of a society where we found ourselves inserted despite ourselves and subject to all the humiliations of a regulation that is that much heavier as we cannot avoid it? We would laugh, as that clearly far surpasses the mark of injustice and absurdity, and we would break both the rules and the society. Yet this is how we are in the great society, where individual sovereignty has pride of place. We find ourselves ruled over by an arsenal of codes and regulations that, far from having been made by us, we never even manage to known, although we most certainly feel their effects.

Can we take a step without bumping up against the law? Make a move without feeling its aggravations? Doesn’t it weigh on us in every act of life, from the cradle to the grave? Assuredly. Consequently, the law is a yoke, a straightjacket and cannot be reconciled with liberty, any more than darkness can be reconciled with light. — That is our conclusion.

It might not be superfluous to seek the causes of this obsession with following a rule, from which even the most independent minds have so much difficulty freeing themselves. But as that is a study that goes beyond the scope of this article, we will set it aside for later, promising however to address, along with that other question comes after it: Can or must the law be eliminated abruptly or gradually? We will limit ourselves, for the moment, to protesting against all the laws, oppressive or protective, no matter what one wishes to call them, against all codes, regulations and prescriptions, as being incompatibles with liberty, and declare that above the principle of the sovereignty of the people we put that of the sovereignty of the individual.

Brussels, December 1864.


Le Prolétaire 10 no. 1 (January 8, 1868): 2–3