Organiser with Blanqui of the republican Rights of Man society, he was wounded in the 1839 insurrection and sentenced to life imprisonment. Called ‘the scourge of the establishment‘ by Marx , in 1892 perceptions had changed. The 18th arrondissement’s Boulevard Barbès and in 1903 the new Barbès metro station were named after him as a republican icon.
Barbès was one of the many left political prisoners who were jailed in the Sainte Pélagie prison from 1831.
On June 2 1836 several members of the Society of Seasons led by Barbès and Blanqui were arrested in their secret workshop at 22-24 Rue Dauphine where they were making gunpowder.
On May 9 1839 Barbès arranged for a trunk to be left that evening with the 55-year-old Catherine Rouchon, a widow who made trimmings for furniture, at 23 Rue Quincampoix. On May 12 when she wasn’t there some of the Society knocked down her door and collected its contents, ammunition. After the insurrection she identified Barbès to the police in the infirmary at the Conciergerie.
When the Society of Seasons insurrection finally took place on May 12 1839 Barbès and Blanqui took part in the pillaging of the Lepage armoury at 22 Rue du Bourg l’Abbé. Today, after the Haussmann rebuilding of Paris under the Second Empire, this is where the buildings stand at 64-66 Boulevard de Sébastopol.
Blanqui’s headquarters during the insurrection was in a café at 1 Rue Mandar. Barbès led another column to seize the Palais de Justice on the Cité island on the Seine, where they also attacked the police station, killing its commander.
The insurrectionaries, in the low thousands, including an estimated 200-300 students, occupied the Hotel de Ville. During the attack Barbès was wounded in the head. He was arrested outside 79 Rue des Gravilliers (now 248 Rue St Martin) at about 7 pm on May 12.
In 1848 Blanqui and Barbès were both released from prison, but they were no longer close allies. They did, however, found the Political Prisoners’ club at a meeting in the Salle Valentino at 251 Rue St Honoré with Barbès as President and Blanqui Vice-President.
On March 21 Barbès founded the Club de la Révolution at a meeting in the Salle Molière at 159 Rue St Martin. At the same time he was meeting Proudhon, Pierre Leroux and Étienne Arago. With Leroux at 12ter Rue Coquilliere Barbes founded the newspaper, The True Republic, whose first issue stated: ‘Without labour reform, there is no true Republic‘. It produced 104 issues before being banned in August by Cavaignac.
On May 15 1848 the Republican left (Barbès, the worker Albert, Louis Blanc, François-Vincent Raspail and others) organised a demonstration in Paris to the Palais Bourbon, the Chamber of Deputies in support of the Polish revolution. While not being planned as an insurrection, Barbès took centre stage in the Constituent Assembly and announced the formation of a new government. Soon after they are all arrested.
On September 7 1870 Courbet organised a meeting of artists in the Louvre Palace to create a Commission that would attempt to protect the museums of Paris from the imminent threat of an occupation by the then victorious Prussian army.
Orléans monarchy, republicans, socialists and feminists
The cartoon above of Louis-Philippe blowing soap bubbles of the broken promises of the 1830 July Revolution led to its creator’s arrest and trial for ‘insulting the king’ in May 1831
On August 7 1830 Louis-Philippe issued a new Constitutional Charter. This promised freedom of the press and declared that censorship would never be reestablished. Within weeks there was an explosion of papers with political cartoons.
On November 4 1830 Charles Philipon launched a weekly newspaper, La Caricature, whose four pages of text were accompanied by two of lithographs.
Within weeks the government reacted. On December 4 1830 it restored the stamp duty tax on newspapers and re-introduced censorship. Philipon’s response in the Foam of July cartoon above showed Louis-Philippe blowing bubbles of many of the unfulfilled promises in the Charter: popular elections, mayoral elections, an end to ‘jobs for the boys’.
Philipon was acquitted for this cartoon but was arrested again. On November 14 1831 he first drew Louis-Philippe as an image transformed into a pear. He was jailed for a year in January 1832 at Sainte-Pelagie prison, where he was joined by Daumier for his cartoon, Gargantua.
The Orléans monarchy deceived those who had hoped the relatively bloodless July Revolution would lead to a constitutional monarchy and deeply angered the Republicans who had been sceptical from the outset. At the same time, industrialisation was beginning to transform small bits of France, particularly its major towns and Paris. The scene was being set for the re-emergence of French radical republicanism and its more edgy components, socialist and feminist thought and organisation.
Coup d’état, Second Empire, Haussmann, Colonialism, Sedan, National Government – in progress
The topography of Paris changed dramatically under the Second Empire. Driven by dual needs to re-engineer whole areas to facilitate military intervention against resistors and to create and sustain housing speculation, Louis-Napoléon’s Paris prefect, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, invested public funds massively in renovating Paris.
Near the very beginning of this process, the realisation by some commercial entrepreneurs that the developing railway system made it possible to put on sale together a wide variety of national and international manufactured products and foodstuffs led to the establishment of what we now call Department stores. Huge stores that sold many different products rather than just one type of good or service catered for Paris’s growing wealthy upper and middle classes.
On November 18 1852 the Bon Marché store opened its doors on the Rue de Sèvres. With its fixed prices, acceptance of returns and advertising it revolutionised the shopping habits of well-to-do Parisians.
Four years later the second oldest surviving department store was opened on the rue Rivoli. At first it was called ‘The Parisian Bazar’, and from 1856 it was renamed the ‘Bazar Napoléon’ before the end of the Second Empire in 1870 led to its current name BHV (Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville). In 1865 Le Printempswas opened on the corner of the Boulevard Haussmann and the Rue du Havre, close to the busy Gare St Lazare, the capital’s first railway station built in 1837.
Built in 1838 in the Montrouge commune and absorbed into Paris in 1863 it was named after Michel-Jacques Boulard, Josephine’s official Imperial tapestry-maker, who. He spend the last three years of his life in a hospice and left a huge amount of money to build the new St-Michel Hospice that opened in 1830.
No. 36 was opened on 17 April 1871 as a recruitment office for the National Guard during the Paris Commune.
Proudhon lived at No. 46 with his family for several years in the 1850s. Having been rebuilt or built in the late 19th century as a local boys school, this address is now an elementary school .
Proudhon, of course, would not have approved of the state deciding how to educate children. He believed this could lead to brainwashing. He argued instead that each family (father) should be responsible for the education of their children.
Called after a grandson of Louis XIV, the Duke of Bourgogne (1682-1712), the road was opened in 1707. Running south from today’s National Assembly, the Palais Bourbon, on January 18 1798 it was renamed the Rue du Conseil des Cinq-Cents after the Council of Five Hundred had begun to meet in the Palais Bourbon.
On February 6 1934 there was a police cordon stretching across the road at Nos 7 and 8 to the rue St Dominique protecting the National Assembly from the extreme right demonstrators.
The music teacher and composer Adolphe Reichel (1816-1896) lived at No. 4 in the mid-1840s when Bakunin stayed with him. Bakunin was expelled from France in 1847, but Proudhon and Pierre Leroux visited him there often.
During the Occupation a Resistance group based at No. 28 (pictured) organised escape routes to Spain both for allied soldiers and later for the roughly 200,000 men over 20 avoiding the Obligatory Work Duty (Service du travail obligatoire) introduced by the Laval government on February 16 1943.
In 1821 the songwriter and pamphleteer Pierre-Jean de Bérangerspent three months at Sainte-Pélagie for an oblique political criticism of Louis XVIII. In 1832 Honoré Daumier is placed there. With cholera appearing in the prison a revolt organised by prisoners from the secret Society of the Friends of the People (Société des amis du people) that year led to one death. Hazan (WTP) writes that ‘under the Restoration and the July monarchy… all the opposition leaders passed’ through this prison.
Hazan (IOP) explains that when another prison to accommodate debtors was built in 1826 in the Rue de Clichy in the 9th arrondissement, ‘Creditors who requested the incarceration of a debtor were required to pay thirty francs a month for the prisoner’s maintenance’.
Honoré Daumier spent six months there in 1832 for his political caricatures attacking the new king Louis-Philippe.
164 arrests of republicans were made after the riots that followed the rue Transonain massacre of April 1834. Among those jailed at Sainte-Pélagie were Arago, Victor Schoelcher, Barbès and Godefroy de Cavaignac. Barbès organised an escape by 28 of them through a tunnel in July 1835.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a political prisoner held there from 1849 to 1852. After first fleeing to Belgium he returned to marry Euphrasie Piégard while still in jail.
Auguste Blanqui was held there in 1831, 1832 and 1836 and again from 1861 to 1865 when he escaped and went into exile in Belgium until the end of the Second Empire.
Jules Guesde was held there in 1878 in the section of the prison called Pavillion des Princes, entered through 2-14 rue due Puits de l’Érmite (roughly where 3-15 rue Lacépède is today).
On 30 July 1891 Paul Lafargue lost his appeal against a year’s imprisonment for an ‘inflammatory’ speech made after the killing of 10 demonstrators by troops on a May Day march in the Northern textile town, Fourmies.
From the Concièrgerie, where he was held initially, Lafargue was finally sent to Sainte-Pélagie. This was to his great relief, since it was still a political prison. He had access to books and newspapers, and hot and cold water for washing and taking baths.
The Rue de l’Enfer (Hell Road) was only given its current name, Avenue Denfert-Rochereau, after the 1878 death of Colonel Pierre Philippe Denfert-Rochereau. This military hero was known as the ‘Lion of Belfort’ for his holding out against the German army in 1870-1871.
The Monastery at Nos. 65-73 originally hosted the end of the Rungis aqueduct that provided the water supply for the Luxembourg Palace – and then for the rest of the area. It was shelled and burnt down on May 23 1871 during the battle of the Communards against the Versaillais troops.
While Ledru-Rollin was in exile, another former political prisoner, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, moved in with his family to No. 83 during the 1850s.
Simone de Beauvoir moved from home in 1929 to a small flat at No. 91 owned by her grandmother, initially to escape her all-present mother. She stayed there until 1931 when she moved to teach in Marseille.
In June 1940, after having spent four weeks outside Paris, De Beauvoir returned to stay for a few more months in the flat at No. 91 until the winter got too cold for her. She occupied herself during the day reading Hegel at France’s National Library in the Rue de Richelieu.
This is the old royal road into Paris that linked the Saint-Denis basilica in the north to the Rue Saint-Denis in the South. Whenever the Bourbons and earlier kings entered Paris this is how they got directly to first their fortified palace on the island of the Cité , and later to their Louvre Palace in the heart of Paris.
In 1849, No. 23 was the location of the People’s Bank experiment set up by Proudhon to allow ordinary people to exchange work and goods. It only lasted four months.
From 1862 until 1871 this address was where Fortuné Henry, a supporter of Fourier who lived with his aunt, before becoming a well-known member of the Commune.
Paul Éluard lived in 1909 to 1909 No. 58 (then taking the name of his grandmother, Grindel).
The house at No. 60 was the birthplace in 1804 of Victor Schoelcher, who from wealthy origins became a lifelong campaigner against slavery as well as a left republican.
Maurice Feld, one of the first young communists to be shot for attacks on the Germans on August 22 1942, was aged just 17. He lived at No 83 and is remembered by a plaque there.
The St Lazare prison was at No. 107. The barricade across the road was taken from behind by the Versaillais troops in May 1871. Seventeen Communards who were captured after refusing to surrender were put up against the prison wall and shot on 25 May 1871.
Louise Saumoneau, the seamstress turned feminist and pacifist journalist was jailed at Lazare for making anti-war propaganda on October 2 1915.
A rare Communist Party demonstration took place under the German occupation at No 122, on the corner with the Boulevard Magenta on 1 July 1944.
On June 23 1848 a barricade was put up across the road at No. 125 where it meets the Rue de Chabrol. This was one of the three major centres of the workers’ uprising in Paris and the last to be crushed on June 25.
In 1828 the young Proudhon was working briefly at the Gauthier printworks in No. 55, the site of the old Augustin monastery that gave the quay its name. This was where Proudhon met Charles Fourier and became aware of his ideas.
This old narrow street running parallel to the Seine has both an international and a significant left history. It also used to flood when the Seine got very high, as it did in 1910.
In 1783 the British embassy was located at No. 44, and this was where Benjamin Franklin negotiated the American Independence Treaty from Britain. He refused, however, to sign it on British territory, so on September 3 1783 he and John Adams signed the treaty at the York Hotel where Franklin was staying at No. 56.
No. 44 became the Hôtel d’Angleterre and then the Hôtel Jacob, and this was where Hemingway and his wife Hadley stayed at first on their arrival in Paris on 22 December 1921.
Anne Pingeot used to live at No 40, where she was visited very regularly by the French deputy and future president, François Mitterrand.
Louise Michel spent her last years from 1897 to 1904 at No. 2. The Cronstadt hotel was then demolished in 1944 leaving a little garden.
In 1832 the independent Saint-Simonien, Pauline Roland lived in a flat at No. 10 with Pierre Leroux, who was then a foreman at the Panckoucke printers where the paper he helped found, Le Globe, was being printed.
After returning from exile in Belgium in 1862, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon returned to Paris and lived in an apartment at the back of the courtyard of No. 14 rue Jacob. An earlier resident, Richard Wagner, who stayed there from 1841-1842, has a plaque to his memory on the wall.
At the end of the Second World War some leftist writers who had organised together before the war in the October Group led by Jacques Prévert, set up ‘Le Bar Vert’ (Green Bar) at No. 10. The first ‘American bar’ in Paris it stayed open all night, and it attracted many literary names including Raymond Queneau, Roger Vailland, Maurce Merleau-Ponty Juliette Greco and occasionally Jean-Paul Sartre.
Simone de Beauvoir went to the private Catholic secondary school at the Institut Désir at Nos. 37, 39, 41 and 45. The school’s buildings were partly taken over to build a new Medical Faculty in the the early 1950s and it moved away.
No. 60 used to host the Restaurant Michaud (later known as the Comptoir des Saints Pères), frequented by the ‘Lost generation’ of the 1920s such as Hemingway, Joyce and Scott Fitzgerald.
The road was named in 1687 after the nearby Four Nations College founded by the chief minister to Louis XIII and Louis XIV, Cardinal Mazarin. This is now the Institute of France, whose dome is seen at the end of the street.
It runs along the length of the Philippe August 13th century city wall, the base of one of whose towers can still be seen in the courtyard of the Institute of France at No. 5.
The first of several cooperative Marmite restaurant was opened by Nathalie Le Mel at No. 34 in 1868. Associated with the Paris section of the International Workingmen’s Association, it offered food and political discussions
Proudhon had a long association with Rue Mazarine. He roomed in No 36 in 1844 and 1845, when he had several discussions with Marx there.
Rarely for Paris, two plaques mark both these important spots in the story that helped define the modern French left.
The street has many other associations with the history of left struggles in Paris too. At No. 1, the barricade across La Pointe St Eustache saw considerable fighting on May 24 1871.
No 24 was the location of an arms depot created in 1942 by Paris city employees during the German occupation.
Nearly a century earlier, in March 1848, the Hôtel d’Angleterre at No. 64 was the location of the German Social Democratic Society organised by the poet Georg Herwegh, and the arms depot set up by the Republican National Guard to arm the ‘Democratic Legion’ of German volunteers formed to go to the support of the German Republican Hecker insurrection in Baden in April 1848.
A northern stretch of Rue Montmartre was a centre of newpaper printshops.
No. 123 was associated with left newspapers. In 1893, Le Chambard socialiste was based there. The CGT and then CGTU trade union paper Worker’s Life (La Vie Ouvrière) was printed at the Dangon printworks there from 1919. In 1927 the same printshop produced Ho Chi Minh‘s Vietnamese paper, l’Âme annamite (The Vietnamese soul).
On 18 April 1904 the first issue of the daily newspaper l’Humanité founded by Jean Jaurès was printed at No. 138-142. The same address in 1916 saw a left socialist anti-war newspaper, Le Populaire de Paris, appear. It was founded by Marceau Pivert, Jean Longuet, Paul Faure and Henri Barbusse.
On July 18 1927 the then Communist leaders Marcel Cachin and Jacques Doriot (who became a fascist leader between 1934 and 1936) were arrested at the L’Humanité offices now based at its printing works. The same address, No. 138-142, was the interwar editorial offices of the Young Communist publication, L’Avant-Garde.
On 27 February 1848, Proudhon published the first edition of his newspaper, The People’s Representative, at No. 154.
On November 15 1793, four months after Jean-Paul Marat‘s assassination, the delegates from the Montmartre commune called for the Rue Montmartre to be renamed Rue Mont-Marat.
Originally some believe the name Montmartre derived from ‘Mont Mars’ because of an alleged Roman temple to Mars built on the hill. Others consider it was because criminals or Christian martyrs were executed on the top of hills.
The road was given the name Mill Street after the mills situated on a small hill that existed there as late as the 17th century. It was opened in 1624 and the hillock levelled out by its new owner.
From January to December 1844 the fortnightly German language paper Vorwärts! (Forward!) was published by Henri Bornstein at what was then 32 rue des Moulins but is now No. 14. Its circulation was about 1,000 copies, and Marx became a major editor of it from the summer. This was where Bakunin stayed when he first arrived in Paris in July 1844.
Vorwärts! was outlawed on January 25 1845 after an article was published applauding an attack on Prussian King Frederick William IV.
Meetings of the editorial collective of the Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher (German–French Annals), also took place there. However, only one double issue appeared in February 1844. Several of contributors and potential contributors met and argued there frequently in 1844, eventually going their own ways. They included Proudhon, Leroux, Etienne Cabet and Louis Blanc, as well as Marx, Arnold Ruge and Bakunin.
Already an important shopping street in the Passy village in the 19th century, by 1860 its wealthy residents not only had the usual shops selling basic foods, but also clothing and furniture shops, a chemist, an optician and a bookshop.
Proudhon lived at No. 12 from 1861 until his death here on 19 January 1865. There is a rare now very faded plaque above the entrance to a smartphone shop.
While anarchism may contain extreme individualism, in France it emerged as a bottom-up collective ideology alongside communist thought as a major mutualist strand within early French socialism.
Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) suggested anarchism emerged out of the ‘naturalist philosophy’ of the enlightenment.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) considered that in putting individual human rights at the legal heart of the social order, the French Revolution itself was the start of doing everything differently. Justice became possible in political, economic and social life within a peaceful transition to an anarchist world he described as ‘Anarchy is Order Without Power’.
Proudhon, who many see as the ‘father’ of anarchism, regarded property as a means of exercising authority.
He rejected it, god and government – whether elected or imposed by
revolutionaries. He opposed both reformists and utopians.
For Proudhon, only the
workers themselves could achieve freedom. And they could only do so through exercising
direct control over their daily work.
Proudhon, Perry Anderson (The New Old World) reminds us, also believed in a European confederation of federations – a bottom-up association of mutually supportive workshops.
In the 1850s and 1860s Proudhon’s writings reached a wide audience among the growing numbers of skilled French workers, who often found themselves in workshops alongside their working employer. The French delegates to the First International, founded in London in 1864, were largely Proudhonist, without their belonging to a specific anarchist organisation.
The suppression of the 1871 Paris Commune killed (literally) the Proudhonist collective bottom-up dynamic.
It took the return of the amnestied Communards in 1879 and 1880 for anarchism to re-emerge. But its form was then quite different.
The now-marginalised Proudhonists increasingly wished to differentiate themselves from the socialists. In 1882Louise Michel (1830-1905) argued ‘
No more flags dyed red with the blood of our soldiers. I will carry the black flag to mourn our dead and all illusions.
In 1884 in a regular meeting place, the Salle de la Réunion, at 8, Rue de Lévis, the anarchist grouplet, the ‘Batignolles Panther‘ (la Panthère des Batignolles) held one/two meetings that ended in street battles with the police and monarchists. This was a period of rising monarchist agitation. Either on 23 November or 7 December 1884, or on both dates, the meetings included speakers such as Louise Michel,Jules Favre, Henri Rochefort and Léon Gambetta.
Propaganda by the deed
Many anarchists reflected their frustration with the conservatism of the strongly liberal and anti-socialist Third Republic by turning to what became called ‘Propaganda by the Deed’.
Breaking with Proudhon’s moderation as well as with Mikhail Bakunin’s (1814-1876) anti-authoritarianism, the new generation of libertarians increasingly considered that a social revolution could only occur if sparked by insurrectional acts.
At the right moment, the
‘spirit of revolt’ inherent in the working masses would spontaneously lead to a
This ideology justified violence directed against individual capitalists and their supporters on the grounds that capitalism itself was founded on violence. ‘Individual seizures’ of bourgeois goods and possessions were justified as helping to destabilise the bourgeois order.
The ‘propaganda by the deed’ anarchists denounced
attempts to create lasting organisations, as well as strikes (reforming the
system) and any joint work with the socialists.
Their public presence grew,
as their ideas attracted many intellectuals and artists who detested the authoritarianism
and conformity of 1880s French society.
Felix Fénéon (1861-1944) and some of his artistic and literary friends like Maximilien Luce started attending anarchist meetings. Anarchism also attracted younger workers angry at continuing massive poverty and inequality.
Anarchist papers were selling 20,000 copies a week in Paris by the mid-1880s. The papers edited by Jean Grave(1854-1939), successively le Révolté, La révolte and Les Temps nouveaux (New Times) and supported by Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus, were the most influential.
On May Day 1891 nine demonstrators for the 8-hour day were shot dead by police at Fourmies near the Belgian border.
On the same day at another demonstration at Clichy in Paris three anarchists were arrested and badly beaten up after the police decided to seize the red flag at the march’s head. Gunfire was exchanged. One anarchist and some police slightly wounded.
Two of the anarchists were jailed by the judges
for five and three years.
As an individual act of reprisal for this
injustice, the 32-year-old François (Koenigstein) Ravachol then bombed the homes
of two judges involved in the Clichy trial. He was caught and guillotined on 11
On November 8 1892, five days after the end of the 10-week Carmaux miners’ strike in the south of France, Émile Henry, the 20-year-old son of a Spanish communard, planted a time-bomb at the Carmaux company’s Paris office. It was found and taken to a police station where it exploded killing five gendarmes.
On 9 December 1893 August Vaillant threw a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies from the public gallery in protest against political corruption. It wounded 20 deputies and Vaillant was guillotined on 3 February 1894.
Nine days after Vaillant’s execution, the 22-year-old Henry carried out a revenge bombing at the Café Terminus at the Paris Gare St Lazare. It killed one man and wounded another 19. Henry was caught at the scene and guillotined on 21 May 1894.
On 24 June 1894 an Italian 20-year-old anarchist knifed the French president in Lyon. Sadi Carnot died a day later and Caserio was tried and guillotined in August.
Under new anti-anarchist laws passed in December 1893, 426 anarchists were rounded-up in April 1894 of whom 30, including Fénéon, the anarchist journalists Jean Grave and Émile Pouget(1860-1931), and a burglar, Philippe Léon Ortix, were also put on trial in August 1894 for ‘criminal conspiracy’.
The prosecution aimed to
prove that the anarchist anti-capitalists were working closely with known
criminals. After Fénéon’s brilliant appearance in the dock, and Bernard Lazare
‘s committed legal defence, only three were finally jailed.
Later in 1894 a few anarchists, including Bernard Lazare and Fénéon, were among the first to denounce the silence on the left in front of the national anti-Semitic lynch mob atmosphere after Captain Dreyfus was arrested for alleged treason on October 29.
Earlier that year Lazare had published Anti-Semitism, its History and Causes, and Lazare became the key figure in exposing the framing of Dreyfus with a pamphlet published in November 1896.
Criticism of the ‘propaganda
by the deed’ ideology, the repression targeting anarchist newspapers and
individuals, as well as the clear failure of these terrorist acts to stimulate revolution,
led many anarchist sympathisers to turn towards trade union and socialist
As early as 1893 Michel, Kropotkin and others in the Avant-Garde group of anarchists began to argue against the individualist-isolationism of ‘propaganda by the deed’ and for a return for anarchism to the workers’ movement as a component of socialism.
Their object, inside the
trade unions and socialist sects, was to attack the advocates of state
socialism through parliament and to argue for extra-parliamentary action,
particularly the general strike as a means of achieving emancipation. Entering
unions that were only legalized in 1884 and working with the socialists there
would end the isolation fueled by the failures of ‘propaganda by the deed’.
It would also dovetail with the understandings of the very small numbers of trade unionists. They rationalised their minority status in relationship to their fellow workers as proving their responsibility was to lead by example. If a minority took direct action on an important issue, then the majority might join in.
‘Direct action’ was thus democratic – it offered workers the possibility of participating in their own liberation – and it did not involve a dependency upon either the state or the employers. Neither party politics nor collective bargaining could be relied on to improve workers’ conditions; workers could only rely on what was gained through direct action.
In September 1895, albeit paradoxically, the founding conference of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) trade union centre at Limoges voted to ‘stay outside of all political schools’. The paradox is that this apolitical stance was adopted by the majority of delegates made up of Jean Allemane supporters, anarchists and Blanquists in order to scupper the influence of Jules Guesde‘s French Workers’ Party.
syndicalist’ trade unionism tended to place a greater emphasis upon the
‘general strike’ for longer-term goals of social transformation and
internationalism, and to stress the importance of generalising actions against
the employing class as a whole. It took a deep
hold on the unskilled worker activists whose uncertain, irregular and very low
paid work meant they were effectively excluded from the widespread
state-supervised mutual savings societies (mutualités)
with the requirement of regular payments before benefits could be accrued.
syndicalists were sometimes politically close to the still sizeable body of anarchists.
They often came from smaller firms and trades where the prospects of reactionary
paternalist employers ever agreeing to trade union recognition and collective
bargaining were highly remote.
They defended direct action, confrontation with the employers, the General Strike and sabotage such as ‘go slows’. In the CGT’s 1906 agitation for the Eight Hour Day, it therefore called neither for legislation on working time nor for negotiations: its aim was to have enough workers take strike action to convince everyone to simply impose the eight hour day on the employers.
The anarchist Émile Pouget (1860-1931), author of Le Sabotage (1898), became Joint-General Secretary of the CGT from 1901 to 1908. In 1906 he helped draft the Amiens Charter that is still a cornerstone of much French trade unionism with the cobbler, Victor Griffuelhes (1874-1922).
It was largely thanks to
Griffuelhes’ organizational talents as General Secretary that the CGT grew from
around 100,000 members in 1901 to the near 500,000 claimed when he was forced by
the 1908 reformist coup to resign.
World War 1
Anarchism, like the whole revolutionary left, took a big hit in 1914. All belief that class interests would trump national interest crashed. Worse still for the anarchists than for the social democrats who wanted to win state power, and had already seen some former socialists move into ministerial positions, Kropotkin and Grave and a handful of other leading anarchists argued that workers should support the Entente alliance against the greater evil of German militarism.
The 1917 Russian Revolution
was experienced by the revolutionary syndicalists as an emotional
roller-coaster. Revolutionary inspiration turned quickly to the sad
confirmation of their greatest fears and predictions about the consequences of a
single party state.
Anarchist insistence that workers
could and would seize a revolutionary opportunity to overthrow the state was shattered.
The defeat of the 1919 German revolution and the arrival of the successful
fascist counter-revolution in Italy added to their demoralisation.
The shrinking numbers of anarchists began to see anarchism as first needing to educate the masses and even to organise to ensure this happens.
The ‘anarchist summer’ of 1936 in France and particularly in Spain, with agricultural collectives being formed bottom-up across whole regions, and with revolutionary syndicalists dominant in the trade union refuelled the anarchist belief that they could make history and not just be subjected to it.
Yet by November 1936 the choice between making the revolution and defending the Spanish Republic had to be made: the anarcho-syndicalist CNT trade union confederation decided to enter the Spanish Republican government and was backed by the Iberian Federation of Anarchists (FAI).
After World War Two
In the 1940s and 1950s some French libertarians tried to resuscitate anarchism from its identification with violence by renaming it ‘libertarian socialism’ or ‘libertarian humanism’. Most kept defending the earlier anti-state mantra, and failed to support growing anti-colonial struggles.
The most prominent sympathisers in this period, like the surrealist André Breton (1896-1966) and poet/singer George Brassens (1921-1981), remained individualist rather than collectivist. Brassens was one of the editorial collective behind the revival of Le Libertaire, which resumed production in December 1944 and came out on a weekly basis until 1956, when the fragmenting anarchist movement suspended its production.
A libertarian renaissance started in the early 1960s, inspired partly by the experiments in self-organisation in Tito’s Yugoslavia and in Ben Bella’s (1916-2012) Algeria.
May 1968 saw an explosion of radical libertarianism. Spontaneous and anti-authoritarian it denounced the bureaucratised trade unions and Communist Party.
For a time a black flag was raised over the Odéon Theatre. This was occupied by the students, and became a centre of debate about the future of the movement. My step-mother recalled how the teargas used by police in 1968 to end the occupation wafted up into the flat 50 metres from the theatre that I’m now lucky enough to be able to use to follow the footsteps of the French Parisian left.
May 1968 generated a new
mass feminist movement in France. It relaunched the ecology environmental
movement. It led to the formation of hundreds of experimental self-governing
collectives and a large squatting movement.
Among those radicalised by 1968 were many French anarchists. A journal, Camarades, was launched in 1974. It was influenced both by increasingly the militaristic Italian ‘Autonomous Workers’ organization (of whom many members fled to France in 1979) and by Spanish anti-Franco activists in the Groupes d’action révolutionnaires internationalistes (GARI) who believed it necessary to continue an armed struggle against the state.
In 1976, Jean
Bilski, an anarchist acting alone, murdered the chief executive of the giant
Credit Lyonnais bank, and then killed himself.
In 1977 a group of Maoists belonging to the Armed Units for Mass
Self-organisation (Noyaux armés pour l’autonomie populaire) carried out 7 bombings on their own and
another series of attacks on nuclear targets with anarchists belonging to GARI.
The first ‘General meeting
of Parisian self-organised groups’ (Assemblée générale parisienne des groupes
autonomes – AGPGA) is held in October 1977,
after the July 31 brutal police attacks on the anti-nuclear demonstration in
the ‘Battle of Malville’. Some of those there created a loose ‘internal armed
political coordination network’ within the wider group.
A month later on the night
of 19 November 1977, 23 coordinated attacks (bombings, Molotov cocktails) on
the French electricity company (EDF) and the nuclear industry took place across
While most French anarchists considered the time was not ripe for mounting similar attacks and robberies to those associated with the Red Brigades in Italy from 1975 to 1979, a tiny minority clearly did.
Some of them formed Action Directe, borrowing the name from
the revolutionary syndicalists. This group’s first action was on May Day 1979.
They machine-gunned the headquarter offices of the Patronat (the largest French
employers’ organization, then called the Conseil
national du patronat français).
The group followed this up with another 80 bombings,
bank robberies, acts of sabotage, machine-gunning and assassinations over a
nine-year period. In 1987 its four remaining leaders were jailed for life. The
last one, Jean-Marc Rouillan, aged 66 was released in May 2018 after spending
28 years in prison, of which ten were in isolation, and then published his
account of Ten years of Direct Action.
Most ‘new’ anarchists resumed
involvement in the major struggles of the late 20th century –
against racism, for equality, against unjust laws, and even for workers’
rights. In the 1970s and 1980s a ‘workers’ control’ movement appeared.
Many are involved in
‘alternative world’ movements, often working closely with radical environmentalists.
Eco-anarchists, following Élisee Reclus, generally argue that mankind should
stop attempting to dominate nature.
These groups usually stress key libertarian themes such as direct democracy, task rotation, anti-authoritarianism, solidarity and federalism.
The black and red flag of French anarchism is now mainly carried by a few hundred young men at the margins of demonstrations. They are often primarily interested, it would seem, only in confronting the police or in being attacked by them.
Yet the conviction that a radically different way of organizing economic and social relations to contemporary capitalism is both possible and necessary remains alive and kicking. And French anarchism reminds us that this cannot be achieved without also ensuring individual freedom.
What is shared between those who define themselves or are defined by others as ‘communist’? And how may ‘Communism’ be distinguished both from French anarchism and French socialism, with which it shared much common history and ground?
The 1795 Paris revolutionary ‘Manifesto of Equals’ inspired by François-Noel Babeuf and rescued from oblivion by Philippe Buonarroti (1761-1837) summarised what remained (and remains) common to nearly all those who described themselves as communist across the following two hundred and some years:
‘We need not only that equality of rights written into the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen; we want it in our midst, under the roofs of our houses… We lean towards something more sublime and more just: the common good or the community of property! No more individual property in land: the land belongs to no one. We demand, we want, the common enjoyment of the fruits of the land: the fruits belong to all.
We declare that we can no longer put up with the fact that the great majority work and sweat for the smallest of minorities. Long enough, and for too long, less than a million individuals have disposed of that which belongs to 20 million of their kind, their equals.
Let it at last end, this great scandal that our descendants will never believe existed! Disappear at last, revolting distinctions between rich and poor, great and small, masters and servants, rulers and ruled.’
After agreeing to this general statement of belief, communists had much more to disagree with each other upon.
We have divided the considerable history of Communism in France into five periods:
The French Revolution’s legacy of a strong small farmer base coupled with influential skilled artisans was fertile ground for Saint Simon and in particular for Proudhon‘s advocacy of cooperative working or mutualism.
Early socialists such as Buchez and Leroux also called for cooperation to replace capitalism. After the defeat of the Commune cooperatives appeared the only way of keeping up the fight for equality.
Cooperatives today still associate tens of thousands of small producers across France.
French socialism began to distinguish itself both from Proudhon’s anarchistic appeal to humanity’s moral responsibilities and from Blanqui’s insurrectionism in the 1890s. Founded by Blum, Jaures and Vaillant in 1905 in the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair, the SFIO united left reformist republicans and Marxist sectarians. The alliance broke up in 1920 when a majority at the Tours Conference voted to affiliate to the new Communist International.
Despite being a minority at that SFIO conference, the SFIO of left reformist socialism became the leading left political current through nearly all the interwar period. After the Communist Party ended Stalin’s ‘class against class’ propaganda against the Socialists and proposed a Popular Front alliance, Blum became prime minister in 1936.
Under the Fourth Republic its internal divisions over Algerian independence, with Mendes France and the challenge of the stronger Communist Party allowed De Gaulle to take power. In 1981 Mitterrand won a decisive majority on a left platform that he abandoned three years later. From then the Socialist Party became largely a party of elected national and local officials, without any real mass membership. In 2017, following five politically disastrous years under Hollande, the Socialist Party suffered a major defeat in both the presidential and National Assembly elections. A new left party, La France Insoumise (France untamed), did relatively well, with the Left Front’s presidential candidate getting 19.6% of the vote in the first round.
Like the Socialists, though, Melonchon’s La France Insoumise has still virtually no local membership base. In the European elections of 2019, its share of the vote fell to 6%.