• 2012: Le Sou du Soldat

    Paper given to London Historical Materialism Conference, November 2012.

    War and militarism are still very much with us, and there may be something to be learnt from the historical experience of antimilitarism. One example of a serious attempt to establish links between the army rank-and-file and organised labour was the case of the sou du soldat in France from 1900 to 1914.

    The sou du soldat (the soldier’s sou) was a fund established by the main French trade union federation (Confédérationgénérale du travail, CGT) in 1900.[1] [A sou was five centimes – one twentieth of a franc; at this time a worker’s daily wage might vary between three and six francs a day.[2]]  The idea was stolen from the Catholic Church which had been running such a scheme for some years.[3] The idea was to ensure that trade-union members who were called up for military service were kept in contact with the trade-union movement during their time in the barracks, and that they should be encouraged to feel loyalty towards their fellow-workers rather than to their officers.

    So, for example, in the Paris building workers’ union,  conscripts who had previously been trade unionists would receive three times a year a letter containing a monetary gift of between five and fifteen  francs, enough to buy a few luxuries that would make the miserable barracks life a little more agreeable.  Soldiers who accepted promotion out of the ranks or who agreed to act as officers’ servants did not receive the money.[4] This would be accompanied by a circular that would, in guarded terms, remind the conscripts of their allegiance to the working class.

    For all the conscious exploited, the First of May symbolises the affirmation of the revolts of the proletariat pointing towards the conquest of its emancipation.

    Yesterday, you were alongside us in order to declare your suffering, cursing the brazen exploiters whose arbitrary laws had made you a rebel.

    Today, by the same laws, our masters are imposing on you the protection of their privileges and are arming you to defend them.

    The criminal act which they expect of you cannot be carried out, for it is contrary to reason. We have faith in you. But alongside you, among you soldier comrades, there are many whose deliberate ignorance may make them into instruments of crime against their own fathers and bothers, and their former comrades.

    Therefore we urge you to carry out this education, by making these men who are exploited like us understand where their true interests lie, and where their real family is.

    A sum of ten francs is put at your disposition to facilitate means of propaganda.

    There are other trade-unionist soldiers in the same barracks. Through an exchange of ideas and opinions, mutual advantages could be acquired for our cause, as well as by visiting the labour exchange : there would be a communion of opinions with your worker comrades.[5]

    The reasons for the adoption of antimilitarist policies in the French trade-union movement in this period lay in very concrete realities of the class struggle, notably the fact that the army was regularly used to attack striking workers.  At Fourmies, in North-Eastern France, on 1 May 1891, the army had killed nine strikers. In 1907 soldiers killed and wounded protesting vine growers in Narbonne in Southern France – but one regiment mutinied rather than shoot.[6]

    But alongside this concern to defend workers’ interests a more generalised antimilitarism grew up in the anarchist and syndicalist milieu which greatly influenced the policies of the CGT. Although not directly linked to the sou du soldatthe CGT produced in 1904 the Nouveau Manuel du Soldat, of which some 185,000 copies were distributed.[7]  This contained a virulent denunciation of militarism in all its forms. The pamphlet was short (32 pages) and clearly argued. It began by denouncing the whole idea of the patrie ‘one of the words which has caused the greatest loss of human blood’. It noted that ‘our first playthings were sabres, guns, helmets and flags.’ It insisted that a country could not be defined by a flag, a succession of kings or an extent of territory, but only in terms of ‘men grouped together in order to produce and consume what is necessary for their lives.’ Thus soldiers defended the interests of a minority, not of the whole nation, in particular when they were sent to attack demonstrations and replace striking workers. ‘The sons and brothers of workers will become murderers if they do not have the courage to refuse to shoot, to refuse to take part in the massacre.’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau was quoted as saying that armies ‘were created in appearance to contain foreigners, but in reality to oppress inhabitants’. It denounced the crimes of the army in the colonies,  and listed the terrible punishments imposed on common soldiers by brutal officers.[8]Originally the sou du soldat did not receive any great official opposition. Indeed, it has been suggested that it was viewed with some favour in official circles because it provided an alternative to Catholic influence in the army.[9]

    However, when there was a revival of the sou du soldat around 1910 it came into more direct conflict with the French state.  The builders’ union, known for its militancy on ages and for a shorter working day,[10] was prosecuted for its involvement in the sou du soldat, and three of its members were jailed.  They received very substantial support, with a demonstration on the day of the trial attracting 40,000 people – according to pro union sources[11] – or 12,000 according to police estimates.[12]

    Even more serious, in the eyes of the authorities, was the decision in August 1912 of the primary school teachers’ union to support the sou du soldat.  The teachers’ union had only recently affiliated to the CGT, and the debate on the sou du soldattook no more than ten minutes at its congress, where the decision was carried unanimously.[13]

    This was important because it seemed to be a threat to the principle of laïcité, still cherished by large sections of the French left.  Universal primary education had been established in 1882 and had been followed by the separation of Church and State in 1905. It was no coincidence that the pioneer of laïcité in French education was Jules Ferry, who also played a leading role in the colonisation of Indochina. The whole point of universal primary education was to strengthen national identity.  As Theodore Zeldin pointed out, in the late nineteenth century many peasants in the remoter areas did not know they were French.[14]  A school-teacher in every village was a counterbalance to the priests, who could not be relied on, since the Vatican – strictly speaking the Holy See -  had a foreign policy of its own which might not always coincide with that of Paris.

    School text-books had pages devoted to the glorification of war. Thus one officially approved text-book had a section on “The moral greatness of war”, which told pupils that it was war “which prevents peoples from degenerating and being satisfied with enjoyment and pleasure as aims in life.”[15]

    So the teachers’ decision threatened to undermine the work of the state school system. As critics pointed out, if there were 6000 anti-militarist teachers, that meant 120,000 pupils exposed to the ideas of “delinquent teachers”.[16] This was particularly serious because many of these pupils would be peasants, the main source of army recruitment, and hitherto largely untouched by the anti-militarist agitation.

    The catholic paper La Croix used the decision to argue that parents should not entrust their children to the state education system where they might encounter dangerously subversive ideas: “So the government wants fathers to blindly entrust their children to teachers who have painted themselves at the Chambéry Congress with the odious features of revolutionaries, saboteurs, enemies of the homeland and the family? We really might as well sign them up for the CGT as send them to a school run by such masters.”[17]

    On 30 November 1912 in the National Assembly AdolpheMessimy, formerly minister of war, launched a fierce attack on the sou du soldat and the Manuel du soldat, which he described as a “true catechism of desertion and cowardice”. [18]Messimy professed, doubtless sincerely, to be a defender of secular education and to be concerned that the sou du soldat was a threat to its principles.[19]

    In support of his argument Messimy produced a set of statistics which showed that since the introduction of the sou du soldat levels of desertion and evasion of conscription had increased massively. “While before 1900 the average figure for desertions was 1900, and that for draft evasion was 4000, between 1900 and 1904 desertions increased to 2200 and draft evasions to 5000, and in the most recent period, when propaganda is becoming more and more intense, there are 2600 desertions and 10,000 draft evasions, that is, three times as many as formerly”.[20]

    Messimy’s attack received a prompt rebuttal from Jean Jaurès, in L’Humanité, the paper of the socialist party which he edited. Jaurès pointed out that some of the increase in desertion and insoumission could be attributed to changes in army regulations which defined such offences more rigorously.[21]  Doubtless he had a point, but these factors were unlikely to have been entirely responsible for the statistics.[22] What is interesting is that Jaurès seemed concerned to minimise the impact of the sou du soldat, for which he clearly lacked enthusiasm. [L'Humanité had failed to report the original decision by the teachers’ union.[23]]  His article was followed by a quotation from Merrheim of the CGT stating that the CGT was against desertion.  Jaurès’s sole concession to antimilitarism was to say that the French republic should be warned by the evidence of antimilitarism that it should avoid any war that did not have “the general and profound assent of national consciousness” – a typical piece of abstract rhetoric which would have left him plenty of room for manoeuvre in 1914 if he had lived to see the outbreak of war.

    Clearly the state authorities were concerned about the sou du soldat. The repression and moral panic showed that it was perceived as a threat. But what did it mean on the ground. There is a fascinating article in La Vie ouvrière  by a serving soldier who was an antimilitarist and who described how the system worked and how antimilitarists were able to operate in the army.

    He first described the situation when the army authorities became aware that soldiers were receiving money and antimilitarist literature through the post. After a vain search for subversive literature the officers attempted to stamp out antimilitarist ideas: “Every day the officers gave us lectures about the anarchists and the CGT agitators. Most of the soldiers just gaped as they listened, not understanding a word; afterwards they came and asked us to explain.” Obviously this provided an excellent opportunity for the antimilitarist soldiers.

    Later “…orders were given to break off all relations with me. There was a punishment of eight days imprisonment for anyone who spoke to me. They did worse. As I often went out with a few comrades, who had come closer to me because they shared my disgust with barracks life, their parents were advised to give them a talking-to because their sons were hanging around with criminals in the barracks. All that only increased the sympathy that most of the soldiers showed me.”[24]

    He also pointed out that the antimilitarists tended to be the best soldiers: “What upset our good officers even more was to observe that the anti-militarists were the cleanest soldiers, those who didn’t drink, those who, in short, behaved like real men. That didn’t stop them going on about how we were drunkards. But they just faced disbelief from the soldiers. There was even one tragi-comic incident. The regiment had just been supplied with new machine-guns. The trickiest jobs in handling these weapons had to be entrusted to anti-militarists.”[25]

    Louis Lecoin, who was to become a lifelong antimilitarist activist, also describes the low level of morale in the French army at this time. Military service “was a long and unpleasant burden, even for the volunteers who quickly regretted their mistake. Most of the young lads of twenty desired more than anything to see the army disappear.”[26]  To what extent this can be attributed to antimilitarist activity and propaganda must remain an open question.

    However, if such accounts and the virulent opposition in official quarters shows that the sou du soldatdid have a certain impact, it is also important to understand the weaknesses in the CGT.  Firstly the CGT only organised a minority of the French working class – there were 300,000 trade unionists in France as compared to two and a half million in Germany[27]  and up to four million in Britain.  There were various reasons for this, including the size of the working class, but it was also a result of syndicalist philosophy. The famous Charted’Amiens of 1906 laid down that the CGT should have no links with political parties and that political parties should not organise in the CGT. (Emile Pouget quoted a worker as saying: ‘Politics, we don’t need it! So if you really must, go and do it in the shithouse!’[28])

    The result was not so much that the unions were unpolitical, as is sometimes claimed,[29] but rather that the union tried to be simultaneously a union and a political party, rather than following the British model where there was a division of labour between the unions and the Labour Party. Alfred Rosmer described the pre-1914 CGT as an “authentic political party”.[30] As a result French trade unionism has always been a minority affair – in 1968 of ten million strikers at most three million were unionised. Only briefly in the aftermath of World War II did mass trade unionism exist in France. Likewise the teachers’ union had only about 5% membership of the profession.[31]

    Moreover, in many ways the CGT was in decline in the period just before 1914. Georges Dumoulin was a deputy leader of the CGT in 1914.  In 1912 he was sentenced to two years’ jail for anti-militarist activity; he was alleged to have said “If we have to make war, we’ll make it at home and not against German workers”.[32] Just after the war he wrote  a devastating pamphlet in which he showed how the CGT was reduced to impotence in face of the oncoming war.  The leadership failed to give any clear political guidance. And there was a disappearance of the moral commitment which had been central to all that was best in revolutionary syndicalism. He gave a horrifying depiction of the state of the CGT on the eve of war. “In Paris, a gang of adventurers hanging around the Labour Exchange buying drinks for the full‑time officials. … Drunks and profligates who correct the faulty grammar of the top officials and talk up their conference speeches. “ Faced with the challenge of impending war, the leadership lost its nerve.[33]

    In particular the CGT leadership was backing off from antimilitarism in the immediate pre-war period, very much aware of its own weakness and openness to repression. Thus in March 1914 Georges Yvetot and twelve others were sentenced to prison for their rôle in the sou du soldat. The building workers union issued a strong statement in protest, and this was taken by a union official to La Bataillesyndicaliste, the CGT’s daily paper. The managing editor, François Marie threw his arms in the air: ‘You’re crazy in your union. Do you want a new row about the sou du soldat just when we’re making such an effort to rebuild our membership?’ And when the official insisted that the Bataillesyndicaliste had an obligation to print the statement, he simply replied ‘You’re a bunch of idiots (cons).’[34]

    Moreover, the main source of army recruits was the peasantry. Out of 5,200,000 in the French armed forces by the end of 1914, 3,700,000 (71%) were peasants.[35]  There was hostility to conscription among the peasantry, and especially to the increase of military service from two to three years in 1913, because the labour of young men was needed on their family farms, but little seems to have been done to exploit this opposition.[36]

    But there were also political problems with the way in which the sou du soldatwas conceived.  Thus Merrheim told the 1912 CGHT Congress that the sou du soldat was “nothing to do with antimilitarism and is a purely an act of solidarity”[37] – that is, it was some sort of charitable or welfare service rather than an attempt to subvert the army. Obviously in face of repression it was important not to be provocative or to give the state authorities an excuse for intervening; nonetheless such statements must inevitably have caused confusion among members.

    Likewise, the CGT seems to have been very unclear on what action should be taken in the event of war. While they were quite clear in their recommendation to soldiers not to shoot on strikers, what should antimilitarists in the army do in the vent of a declaration of war. Should individual soldiers desert? Or should they use the arms they had learned to use to make an insurrection? Or was the answer the traditional syndicalist idea of the general strike?  Discussions in CGT circles show a considerable lack of clarity on these points.[38]

    Likewise the argument on desertion was unclear. The Nouveau manuel du soldat offered conscripts the choice of desertion or agitation:

    If you think you won’t be able to stand the vexations, the insults, the imbecilities, the punishments and all the squalid experiences which await you in the barracks: Desert! That is better than serving as a source of amusement to the drunken thugs and raving lunatics who will take care of you in the military prisons. [30]

    But if the affection of those who surround you, if the fear of the unknown, of all the troubles and sufferings that await you in a land whose language and customs you know nothing of; if other reasons too are stronger than your horror of the regiment: Go into the army! But do your best to remain a man while you are there. Overcome your disgust. Make yourself loved by your unfortunate companions in slavery and make propaganda to them individually. Make the school of crime into a school of revolt.[39]

    The CGT’s report to an international conference in Dublin in 1903 cautiously described desertion as a matter of “individual conscience”. But it also urged trade unionists in other countries to welcome those who had left France in order to evade conscription.[40]

    The lack of clarity on such points obviously contributed to the confusion in 1914.

    Historians of the period have recognised that the sou du soldat did make a certain impact.  Jean-Jacques Becker’s assessment, based on an analysis of state papers, seems a fair one: “It is certain that this project, carried out persistently by a number of unions, affected, even if it did not wholly convince, many young soldiers. In any case the police took it very seriously and they did not conceal a certain resentment at the relative moderation of government repression.”[41]

    But the problem is that pre-1914 antimilitarism is always viewed in the context of the 1914 collapse. It is therefore all too easy to write it off as a failure, leaving us with the conclusion either that nationalism will always triumph over class consciousness, or that some particular formulation offers the only alternative – thus a mythical “Second International Marxism” takes all the blame of “Bolshevism” is offered as the only correct strategy.

    It seems to me that this offers too negative a view of the achievements of the French antimilitarists in this period. August 1914 was indeed a total disaster; the few internationalists were left in total isolation, as described by Alfred Rosmer. In Marcel Martinet’s words they were reduced to asking: “Am I mad? Or everyone else?”[42]

    In 1905  Hubert Lagardelle conducted a survey of trade-union activists.[43] Of the forty-two he interviewed, there were only a few nationally known militants; most were activists within a particular trade or locality. From the forty-two forty-one were in general support of antimilitarism, though there was a genuine division about the desirability and feasibility of a general strike.

    I have attempted to trade the subsequent development of these antimilitarists through Jean Maitron’sDictionnairebiographique du mouvementouvrierfrançais.[44] Of the 42 9 could not be identified. Of the remaining 33, three seem to have abandoned all labour movement activity before 1914, and of another seventeen there is no reference to their activity in relation to the war. They may well have been too old for military service and have simply continued trade-union activity without either endorsing or opposing the war. This leaves eight who actively backed the war, two who actively opposed the war, and three more who opposed it somewhat more inconsistently or ambiguously. But at least two who supported the war later joined the Communist Party, showing a reversion to their earlier ideas.

    While these figures illustrate the devastating impact of 1914 on the labour movement, they also show that there was an oppositional current which survived. It should also be noted that some of those to the forefront of the adoption of the sou du soldat by the teachers union, for example Marie and François Mayoux and Louis and Gabrielle Bouët were anti-war activists after 1914 and subsequently joined the Communist party, though leaving by the end of the twenties.

    So the sou du soldat was not entirely wasted. A tradition survived. When the Communist Party was founded in 1920 the twenty-one conditions for affiliation to the Comintern laid down that “The duty of propagating communist ideas includes the special obligation of forceful and systematic propaganda in the army. Where this agitation is interrupted by emergency laws it must be continued illegally. Refusal to carry out such work would be tantamount to a betrayal of revolutionary duty and would be incompatible with membership of the Communist International.”  This was not something imposed from Moscow on the French working-class movement, but rather the resumption of an already existing tradition.

    In 1923 the French government invaded the Ruhr in response to German failure to pay reparations. The Communist Party created a journal addressed to soldiers called La Caserne (the barracks).  It dealt with practical questions like food and accommodation, but also urged fraternisation with German workers. The Communists distributed some two million leaflets and posters. La Caserne reported several incidents where soldiers refused to shoot.[45]

    And again during the Algerian war  the networks of deserters organised in particular by the réseauJeanson echoed the traditions from before 1914.[46]

    Old-style conscription has vanished in many parts of the world – perhaps because governments recognise that resistance would be such that conscription would be difficult to enforce. But economic conscription is still very much with us, and there may still be lessons to be drawn from the antimilitarism of a hundred years ago.

    Ian Birchall


    [1] L Gravereaux, Les Discussions sur le patriotisme et le militarisme dans les congrès socialistes, Paris, 1913, pp. 115-7.

    [2] C Tillon, La Révolte vient de loin, Paris, 1969, pp. 38, 71.

    [3] J.-J. Becker, Le Carnet B, Paris, 1973, p. 23.

    [4] Léon Lacour, « Le Sou du soldat », La Vie ouvrière, 5 October 1911, p. 402.

    [5] “Le Procès Viau, Dumont et Baritaud”, La Vie ouvrière, 20 January, 1912, pp. 146-8.

    [6] PB Miller, From Revolutionaries to Citizens, Durham & London, 2002, p. 77.

    [7] Miller, From Revolutionaries to Citizens, p. 54.

    [8]Nouveau manuel du soldat, Paris, 1902.

    [9] “Le Procès Viau, Dumont et Baritaud”, La Vie ouvrière, 20 January, 1912, p. 152.

    [10] Becker, Le Carnet B, p. 28.

    [11]La Vie ouvrière, 20 January, 1912, p. 152.

    [12] Becker, Le Carnet B, p. 31.

    [13] A Salabelle, “Le Congrès de Chambéry”, La Vie ouvrière, 5 September, 1912, pp. 719-20.

    [14] T Zeldin, Intellect and Pride, Oxford, 1980, p 3.

    [15]Cited in F Bernard, L Bouët, M Dommanget& G Serret, Le Syndicalisme dans l’enseignement, Vol. I, Grenoble, n.d. (1968 ?), p. 41.

    [16] Miller, From Revolutionaries to Citizens, p 178.

    [17]La Croix, 20 August 1912, cited in F Bernard, et al, Le Syndicalisme dans l’enseignement, p. 195.

    [18]Le Temps, 1 December, 1912.

    [19] Becker, Le Carnet B, p. 34.

    [20]Le Temps, 1 December, 1912.

    [21] J Jaurès, « Les Erreurs de M Messimy », L’Humanité, 30 November 1912.

    [22] Cf. M Leroy, La Coutume ouvrière, tome II, Paris, 2007 (1913), pp. 815-6.

    [23] F Bernard, et al, Le Syndicalisme dans l’enseignement, pp. 190-2.

    [24] Léon Lacour, « Le Sou du soldat », pp. 405-6.

    [25] Léon Lacour, « Le Sou du soldat », pp. 405-6.

    [26] L. Lecoin, le Cours d’une vie, Paris, 1965, p. 48.

    [27] A Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier pendant la guerre, tome I, Paris, 1936, p. 532.

    [28]Cited H Dubief, Le Syndicalisme révolutionnaire, Paris, 1969, p. 70.

    [29] For an excellent analysis and critique of syndicalism see Ralph Darlington, Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism, Ashgate, 2008.

    [30]Alfred Rosmer, “Speech to the Congress of the Red International of Labour Unions in July 1921”, Bibliothek der RotenGewerkschafts-Internationale, Volume III, Berlin, 1921.

    [31] Miller, From Revolutionaries to Citizens, p 179.

    [32]La Vie ouvrière, 20 June 1912.

    [33] G Dumoulin, « Les syndicalistes français et la guerre », in Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier, pp. 523‑42.

    [34] Becker, Le Carnet B,  p. 44

    [35]Tillon, La Révolte vient de loin, p. 136.

    [36] Miller, From Revolutionaries to Citizens, p 106.

    [37]CitedL’Humanité, 30 November 1912..

    [38] Cf. debateat 1908 CGT Congress, Gravereaux, Les Discussions, pp. 134-40.

    [39]Nouveau manuel du soldat, p. 30.

    [40]La Voix du people, 5-12 July, 1903.

    [41] Becker, Le Carnet B, p. 46.

    [42] Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier, pp. 209-11.

    [43] « Enquête sur l’idée de patrie et la classe ouvrière », Le Mouvement social, August 1905, pp 433-70, September 1905, pp 36-71, October 1905, pp 201-31, November 1905, pp. 320-38.

    [44] J Maitron& C Pennetier, Dictionnaire biographique du mouvement ouvrier français, Paris, 1964ff.

    [45]See V Vouïovitch : L’ICJ en lutte contre l’occupation de la Ruhr et la guerre, Moscow, 1924;  La Caserne, August, October, 1923 ; January 1924.

    [46]See Revolutionary History10/04 (2012): European Revolutionaries and Algerian Independence 1940-1961.