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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

VI — The National Workshops of 1848

page 36


The National Workshops of 1848

Dear Mr.——,—I want to state shortly what happened in Paris in 1848. On 25th February 1848—just sixty years ago—the Provisional Government of the French Republic issued a decree binding itself "to guarantee work to every citizen." On the following day another decree, issued in the name of the French people, ordered the immediate establishment of national workshops. Here, then, was the "right to work" made part of the law of the land. What was the result? Complete failure. Let me quote Victor Hugo, an ardent Republican, as a witness to the truth of what I say. In a speech made by him in the National Assembly he used these words: "The national workshops have proved a fatal experiment. The wealthy idler we already know well; you have created a person a hundred times more dangerous both to himself and others—the pauper idler.... At this very moment England sits smiling by the side of the abyss into which page 37 France is falling," Hardly less emphatic was the Report of the Commission appointed by the French Government to inquire into the subject. While compelled to recommend the expenditure of further enormous sums of money, it felt bound to admit that the Revolution, by treating the workmen of Paris like spoilt children, had been the cause of a change in their character "which makes every one now dread the excesses of which they may be guilty." At last the charge of the national workshops on the community, and their failure to do what they set out to do, became so complete that to save the State from bankruptcy they had to be abolished. Naturally the men who had been taught to look to the State, and not to their own exertions, for their living resented the abolition of the "right to work," or rather the right to wages—for that is what it had become—as unjust, and rose in insurrection, and there were four days and nights of such street-fighting as the world has never seen before or since. Twelve thousand men were killed outright, a number almost as great as that of those who fell at Waterloo.

I know, of course, that the Socialists who read this will not admit that the experiment was fairly tried, and will say that it proves nothing. That is the kind of answer often made by men who refuse to admit evidence which is disagreeable to them. They will also probably declare that the page 38 great public workshops were organised, not in order to carry out the ideas of Louis Blanc and the Socialists, but with a contrary intent, and in order to ruin his and their influence with the French people. This reading of history I do not admit;1 but even if the great national workshops are rejected, I can quote a different experiment tried under different conditions which proved equally disastrous. Louis Blanc, a convinced Socialist and a perfectly honest man, who was one of the members of the Provisional Government, conducted a special experiment of his own in the matter of national workshops, where it cannot be denied that he had an entirely free hand. He was allowed to organise the tailors of Paris in the Hotel Clichy, which was converted from a debtors' gaol into a great national tailors' shop. As to what happened there I can quote the special correspondent of the Economist newspaper, who, if I mistake not, was Mr. Bagehot, a man of exceptionally clear brain and impartial judgment. He tells us that the experiment began with special advantages. The Government furnished the capital without interest, and gave an order for twenty-five thousand uniforms for the National Guard. Eleven francs for each uniform was the usual contractor's price, a sum found sufficient to provide the profit of the master tailor, remuneration for his workshop and tools, interest on his page 39 capital, and wages for the workmen. The Government gave the fifteen hundred organised tailors the same price. The Government also agreed to advance every day a sum of two francs for each man as subsistence-money. When the contract was completed the balance was to be paid and equally divided amongst the men.

The correspondent of the Economist saw the men at the Hôtel Clichy at work, and the foreman told him that, notwithstanding the law limiting the hours of labour to ten, "the principle of glory, love, and fraternity was so strong that the tailors worked twelve and thirteen hours a day, and the same even on Sundays." One would have imagined that this enthusiasm would have proved quite as great an incentive to work as does self-interest, or, as Professor Smart has pointed out that I ought to say, interest for wife and children. Yet, strange as it may seem, enthusiasm and love of the State could not avail to make the wheels of production go round. When the first order was completed, instead of the Government finding that they had paid eleven francs per uniform, they found that they had paid no less than sixteen francs. While the master tailor would have made a profit, paid his rent, the interest on his capital, wages a good deal higher than two francs a day, and only charged the Government eleven francs, the national workshops, with all their advantages, had added nearly half as much again to the total cost. The corre- page 40 spondent of the Economist ends his account of the experiment with the significant words: "Louis Blanc is not a match for the master tailors of Paris."

I am bound to say that the failure here always strikes me as very remarkable. One would have thought that if ever a Socialistic experiment was to succeed, it would have been in Paris in 1848; for the whole of the working population was filled with an enthusiasm for Socialistic ideas such as is without parallel even in the history of France. Again, they were making necessary uniforms for the soldiers of the State. Yet even with all these advantages and incentives Socialism could not do as well in the matter of production as the humble and despised principle of voluntary effort. In truth, the history of State-supported labour is the same all the world over. Under the old Poor Law, parish farms, as they were called—farms taken by the parishes, in which the unemployed were set to work at a subsistence wage; in fact, small agricultural experiments in carrying out the Socialist principle of the "right to work"—were fairly common in many parts of England. The result of these experiments was almost always the same. The land produced little or nothing, and the workers became rapidly demoralised, and failed to do the amount of work which they would have done under ordinary employment.

Perhaps it may be said that I have only given you examples of failure under the "right to work" page 41 either in France or two generations ago in England. Very well. I will cite a more modern instance. In 1893 Mr. Shaw Lefevre, as Commissioner for Public Works, arranged to pull down a part of Millbank Prison by means of the unemployed. The report of the surveyor who superintended this work is most significant. When these men worked with the knowledge that their pay would vary according to the work done, they did twice as much as when they knew that whether they worked or idled their pay would be 6½d. an hour. While the cost of cleaning and stacking bricks by the unemployed, acting as the pensioners of the State, averaged from 12s. to 13s. a thousand, the same men when employed under a system of piecework managed to earn considerably higher wages than before, although the rate agreed on was only 7s. a thousand. Here is the root of the matter. Labour done under the conditions which, however much the Socialists may deny the fact, would be bound to prevail under Socialism is infinitely less productive than labour under the voluntary system. But here we come back once more to the crux. If the product of Socialism is to be so much less, how is it possible that every one is to have more of the good things than they have at present?—Yours very sincerely,

J. St. L. S.

1 See Appendix B.