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Charter of Amiens

Charter of Amiens

France 1906

Synopsis

The Charter of Amiens was a statement of anarchosyndicalist principles adopted overwhelmingly at the annual congress of the major French trade union, the Conféderation Générale du Travail (CGT), when it met in the city of Amiens on 8-16 October 1906. The charter quickly attained mythical status, principally for its emphasis on the importance of keeping trade union affairs separate from political parties. A close look at the charter shows that it was less a blanket endorsement of anarcho-syndicalism than an expression of the conflicting strains within French unionism and a realistic reflection of political realities. Within the CGT, support for the charter came from a broad political coalition that spanned left to right and united mainly in opposition to Marxist domination. While revolutionary syndicalists tried to avoid entanglements with the state, one of the chief reasons for the charter's success was a tacit acknowledgement of government legislation that restricted political participation among trade unionists.

Timeline

  • 1886: Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, kills seven policemen and injures numerous others. Eight anarchists are accused and tried; three are imprisoned, one commits suicide, and four are hanged.
  • 1891: Construction of Trans-Siberian Railway begins. Mean-while, crop failures across Russia lead to widespread starvation.
  • 1896: Nobel Prize is established.
  • 1902: Second Anglo-Boer War ends in victory for Great Britain. It is a costly victory, however, resulting in the loss of more British lives (5,774) than any conflict between 1815 and 1914. The war also sees the introduction of concentration camps, used by the British to incarcerate Boer civilians.
  • 1904: The ten-hour workday is established in France.
  • 1906: After disputes resulting from the presidential election in Cuba, various Cuban parties invite the United States, under the 1901 Platt Amendment (which limits the terms of Cuban independence), to restore order. American troops begin a three-year occupation of the country.
  • 1906: German neurologist Alois Alzheimer identifies the degenerative brain disorder that today bears his name.
  • 1906: An earthquake, the worst ever to hit a U.S. city, strikes San Francisco on 18 April. It kills some 2,500 people, leaves another 250,000 homeless, and destroys more than $400 million worth of property.
  • 1906: The British Labour Party begins.
  • 1908: The Tunguska region of Siberia experiences a strange explosion, comparable to the detonation of a hydrogen bomb, whose causes will long be a subject of debate. Today many scientists believe that a comet caused the Tunguska event.
  • 1912: Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, on 14 April. More than 1,500 people are killed.
  • 1916: Battles of Verdun and the Somme are fought on the Western Front. The latter sees the first use of tanks, by the British.

Event and Its Context

The Charter

Considered a classic statement of anarcho-syndicalist goals, the charter combined an extremely practical trade unionism with a call for revolution, based on a commitment to a new trade union tactic, the general strike. Written by Victor Griffuelhes, general secretary of the CGT, and Emile Pouget, the editor of the CGT's journal, the charter asserted that trade unions had a dual task as engines of social improvement and as tools of social transformation. Engaging in strikes to raise wages and improve working conditions were legitimate goals for radical trade unionists, for separate strikes for immediate demands might converge into a general strike that could bring about a new social order. Trade unions were the best representatives of workers' interests and the most capable of carrying out social revolution. Relations with political parties would only divide the labor movement.

Origins of the Charter

The charter emerged in response to a series of challenges to the anarcho-syndicalist leadership of the CGT. Months in advance of the Amiens meeting, a group of Marxist trade unionists announced their intent to introduce a resolution authorizing CGT leaders to consult with Socialist Party leaders about opportunities for social reform. The Marxists in question were followers of Jules Guesde, a doctrinaire whose talent for dividing movements was as remarkable as his ability to attract loyal followers. Guesde believed in the "iron law of wages" and argued that strikes could not successfully raise wages. Guesde's belief in the futility of demands for raising wages and bettering conditions provided little role for trade unions except to educate and mobilize their members for socialism. Guesde's combination of Marxism and sectarianism had wrecked earlier efforts to create a national trade union movement. Guesde's followers hoped that the creation of a unified Socialist Party in 1905, a party in which they had great influence, might provide a new opportunity to establish socialist control over the trade unions.

The anarcho-syndicalist leadership of the CGT used the fear of Guesdist Marxism to rally conservative trade unionists around their anarcho-syndicalist program. At Amiens, the CGT leadership also faced a challenge from conservative trade unionists who believed that wages and working conditions should be the exclusive concern of the union movement. A group of conservative trade unionists let it be known that they intended to submit a resolution opposing the antimilitarist propaganda carried out in the trade unions by some CGT leaders and by a small coterie of followers of the fiery Gustave Hervé. Conservative trade unionists not only opposed formal connections with political parties but argued that antimilitarism was a brand of politics pursued by the CGT leadership. In the context of the increasing hostility between France and Germany that would shortly yield World War I, antimilitarism was certainly a highly controversial policy, one that attracted opposition among conservative unionists and the liberal politicians sympathetic to the trade union movement and even among many socialists.

The charter was intended to persuade conservative trade unonists that anarcho-syndicalism constituted less of a threat to their everyday trade union practices than Marxist socialism. The charter validated strikes for higher wages that the conservatives saw as the main task of the labor movement. Also to the conservative's taste, the resolution promised no ties to socialist parties. Conservatives dreaded the thought of relations with any Socialist Party, but particularly with one influenced by Jules Guesde. In his address at Amiens, Griffuelhes maintained a distance from the leadership of the antimilitarist campaigns, although he did not condemn them. Syndicalist principles posed no challenge to their day-to-day practices, and conservative trade unionists ultimately came around to support the charter.

Despite his mastery of revolutionary rhetoric, Victor Griffuelhes was an astute politician and went out of his way to court the moderate socialists. In the weeks preceding the congress, for example, Griffuelhes attended a trade union meeting in Carmaux, the electoral bailiwick of the great French moderate socialist, Jean Jaurès. Griffuelhes praised Carmaux as a model of militant class struggle and skillfully suggested that if less dogmatic Jaurèsian socialists were at the helm of the new Socialist Party (instead of the sectarian Guesdists), it might be possible to restore healthy relations with the CGT.

More important considerations led many moderate socialists to endorse the resolution. By insisting on the separation of political parties and trade unions, the Charter countered a growing source of tension and turmoil within the French trade union movement. The legal recognition of trade unions had come very late in France, and French law, chiefly the law of 1884, strictly regulated the conduct of trade unions. Among other restrictions, the law forbade trade unions from dealing with religious or political questions. State authorities had considerable power to enforce this law: indeed until 1901, the authorities possessed the right to dissolve trade unions almost any time they wished to do so.

In the years before 1906, conflicts over the legal status of trade unions emerged most sharply within the Bourse du Travail movement affiliated with the CGT. The Bourses were labor exchanges run by the trade union movement; most received subsidies from municipal government. The law of 1884 granted corporate status only to local trade unions. Such legislation greatly weakened the strength of the national organizations visà-vis their local branches. Making use of the local strength of French trade unions, the Bourses linked trade unions across occupations within a city or region and exerted a powerful political influence at the local level.

As the influence of the Bourses grew, the organizations came into confrontation with the local and even national government. In many cities, the local Socialist Parties controlled the Bourses. These parties used the Bourses to oppose republican or even moderate socialist municipal governments. When the Bourses became too militant or too overtly political, such as occurred in Paris or Limoges, municipal governments could always use the 1884 law to shut down a local Bourse, a move that often brought a city's trade union movement to a screeching halt. The delegates at Amiens were not hostile to Socialist Parties per se; very likely most of the delegates at Amiens ignored anarchists calls to abstain from elections and voted for Socialist Parties. Yet by 1906, after their experience with the politicization of the Bourses, even many moderate socialists could see the wisdom of avoiding a close relationship with left-wing parties. Moderate socialist support combined with that of the conservatives and anarcho-syndicalists helped to make the final vote for the charter overwhelming, with 830 voting in favor, 8 opposed, and one abstention. The vote made it appear that the charter reflected the will of the broad trade union movement, not just that of a handful of syndicalist militants.

The premiership of Georges Clemenceau (1906-1909) tested these beliefs. A social reformer, Clemeanceau was committed to bringing the CGT to heel. His policy of confrontation helped produce the bloody events of Villeneuve-Saint-Georges (1908). At Villeneuve, CGT leaders could not prevent the overzealous actions of newly unionized building workers. They were unable to launch a general strike to protest the repression of the building workers. Almost all of the CGT leadership was arrested in the action. Faced with the full force of government repression, many syndicalists began to turn to the political order for defense. The speedy decline of militant anarcho-syndicalsm after 1908 reflected the rapidly shifting political coalitions within the trade union movement in the wake of Villeneuve-Saint-Georges. Only a minority had ever been firm believers in the syndicalist creed.

In the years after World War I, the charter was frequently invoked as both socialist and communist political parties began to collaborate more closely with trade union leaders. After World War II it justified the indignation of many unionists when the French Communist Party unofficially took control of the CGT.

Key Players

Griffuelhes, Victor (1874-1922): Trained as a shoemaker, Griffuelhes was politically active in the leatherworking federation before becoming the general secretary of the Conféderation Générale du Travail (CGT) (1901-1909). His leadership marked the height of the CGT's commitment to anarcho-syndicalism. He promoted the general strike for an eight-hour day on 1 May 1906. His militant leadership led the CGT into head-on conflict with the government of Georges Clemenceau (1906-1909). Clemenceau's brutal repression forced many trade unionists to reconsider anarcho-syndicalist tactics. Griffuelhes's pupil and successor as head of the CGT, Leon Jouhaux, remained longer in office by avoiding direct confrontations with state power.

Guesde, Jules (1845-1922): Founder of the Parti Ouvrier(Labor Party), the first Marxist-Socialist Party in France, Guesde was an indefatigable organizer and propagandist. The highly industrialized French departments of the Nord and Pas-de-Calais became bastions of Guesdest strength. Party organization there resembled that of the German Social Democrats. Unable to impose his own unity on French socialism, Guesde united with Jean Jaurès to from a unified French Socialist Party, the Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière (French Section of the Worker's International or SFIO) in 1905. Guesde was notorious for his sectarian and uncompromising positions.

Jaurès, Jean (1859-1914): Undoubtedly the most beloved and charismatic of prewar French socialists, Jaurès was an intellectual engaged in reform politics who joined the socialist movement after witnessing the Carmaux mining strike of 1892. His undoubted integrity, eloquence, and willingness to compromise made him a pivotal figure in the creation of a unified French socialist movement. On the eve of World War I he was assassinated by a right-wing extremist.

Pouget, Emile (1860-1931): A longtime anarchist, Pouget became the editor of the CGT newspaper La Voix du Peuple in 1900 and assistant secretary in 1901. He was a strong advocate of the antimilitarism. His book (coauthored with Emile Patau), How We Shall Make the Revolution, was about as close as CGT theorists ever got to describing their overarching strategy for revolution.

See also: Conféderation Générale du Travail.

Bibliography

Books

Hanagan, Michael. "Markets, Industrial Relations and the Law: The United Kingdom and France, 1867-1906." In European Integration in Social and Historical Pespective, 1850 to the Present. Edited by Jytte Klausen and Louise A. Tilly. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997.

Lefranc, Georges. Le Mouvement Syndial sous la Troisième République. Paris: Payot, 1967.

Monatte, Pierre. Trois Scissions Syndicales. Paris: LesÉditions Ouvrières, 1958.

Vandervort, Bruce. Victor Griffuelhes and French Syndicalism, 1895-1922. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

Periodicals

Turner, Patricia. "Hostile Participants? Working-Class Militancy, Associational Life, and the 'Distinctiveness' of the Prewar French Labor Movement." The Journal of Modern History 71 (March 1999): 28-55.

—Michael Hanagan

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