Modern History Sourcebook:
The Organisation of Labour, 1840
Louis Blanc (18111882), called a "utopian Socialist"
by Marx looked for a solution to the pain of the industrial revolution
by reorganizing the economy. He was heavily influenced by the
Saint-Simonians of the 1830s. During the Revolution of 1848,
Blanc became director of a commission on labor, but his plans
did not come to fruition.
The question should be put thus: Is competition a means of ASSURING
work to the poor? To put a question of this kind, means to solve
it. What does competition mean to workingmen? It is the distribution
of work to the highest bidder. A contractor needs a laborer: three
apply. "How much do you ask for your work?" "Three
francs, I have a wife and children." "Good, and you?"
"Two and a half francs, I have no children, but a wife."
"So much the better, and you?" "Two francs will
do for me; I am single." "You shall have the work."
With this the affair is settled, the bargain is closed. What will
become now of the other two proletarians? They will starve, it
is to be hoped. But what if they become thieves? Never mind, why
have we our police? Or murderers? Well, for them we have the gallows.
And the fortunate one of the three; even his victory is only temporary.
Let a fourth laborer appear, strong enough to fast one out of
every two days; the desire to cut down the wages will be exerted
to its fullest extent. A new pariah, perhaps a new recruit for
Who would be blind enough not to see that under the reign of free
competition the continuous decline of wages necessarily becomes
a general law with no exception whatsoever? Has population limits
which it may never overstep? Are we allowed to say to industry,
which is subjected to the daily whims of individual egotism, to
industry, which is an ocean full of wreckage: "Thus far shalt
thou go and no farther." The population increases steadily;
command the mothers of the poor to be sterile and blaspheme God
who made them fruitful; for if you do not command it, the space
will be too small for all strugglers. A machine is invented; demand
it to be broken and fling an anathema against science! Because
if you do not do it, one thousand workmen, whom the new machine
displaces in the workshops, will knock at the door of the next
one and will force down the wages of their fellowworkers.
A systematic lowering of wages resulting in the elimination of
a certain number of laborers is the inevitable effect of free
The government ought to be considered as the supreme regulator
of production and endowed for this duty with great power.
This task would consist of fighting competition and of finally
The government ought to float a loan with the proceeds of which
it should erect social workshops in the most important
branches of national industry.
As these establishments would demand considerable investments,
the number of these workshops at the start ought to be carefully
limited, still they would possess, by virtue of their organization-as
we shall see later-an unlimited expansion.
The government, considered as the only founder of the workshops,
must determine the statutes regulating them. This code, deliberated
and voted for by the representatives of the people ought to have
the power and force of a law.
All workmen who can give guarantee of morality shall be called
to work in these social workshops up to the limit of the original
capital gathered together for the purchase of tools....
For the first years after the workshops are established, the government
ought to regulate the scale of employment. After the first year
it is no longer necessary, the laborers would then have time enough
to truly estimate their respective work, and, all being equally
interested as we will soon see, the success of the association
would eventually depend on the elective principle....
Every member of the social workshops would have the right to use,
according to his discretion, the profits of his labor; but it
would not be long before the evident economy and the incontestable
excellence of this communal life would call forth other voluntary
associations among the workmen according to their needs and pleasure.
Capitalists can also be taken into the association and would draw
interest on their invested money, which would be guaranteed by
the budget; but in the profits they would participate only if
they were laborers at the same time.
If the social workshops were once established according to these
principles, you could easily understand what the results would
be. In every great industry, in machinery, for example, or the
silk or cotton industry, or in printing establishments, the social
workshops would be in competition with private industries. Would
the fight be a long one? No, for the social workshops would have
advantages over the others, the results of the cheaper communal
life and through the organization by which all laborers, without
exception, are interested in producing good and quick work. Would
the fight be subversive? No, for the government would always endeavor
to prevent the prices of the products of the social workshops
from dropping to too low a level. If today an extremely rich man
were to enter into a contest with another less wealthy, this unequal
fight would be only disastrous, for the private man looks only
to his personal interest, if he can sell twice as cheap as his
competitors, he will do so, in order to ruin them and be master
of the situation. But when the power itself steps into the place
of a private individual, the question develops a different phase....
From the common interest of all the laborers in the same workshop
we infer the common interest of all workshops in the same industry.
In order to complete the system, we must establish the solidarity
of the various industries. Therefore, from the profit yielded
by each industry, we must set aside a sum by means of which the
State could give aid to every industry, which has suffered through
extraordinary and unforeseen circumstances. Besides, in the system
which we propose, crises would become rare. What causes them most
frequently today? The veritable murderous contest between
the interests, a contest from which no victor can come forth without
leaving conquered ones on the field of battle; a combat, that
like all wars, chains slaves to the chariot of the victor. In
destroying competition we strangle at the same time the evils
which it brings forth. No more victories and no more defeats!
. . .
Is it necessary that I should continue to enumerate the advantages
which the new system brings about? In the industrial world in
which we live, all the discoveries of science are a calamity,
first because the machines supplant the laborers who need work
to live, and then, because they are also murderous weapons, furnished
to industry which has the right and faculty to use them against
all those who have not this right and power. What does "new
machines" mean in the system of competition? It means
monopoly; we have proven it. However, in the new system of association
and solidarity there are no patents for inventors, no individual
exploitation. The inventor will be recompensed by the State and
his discovery is then placed at the service of all. What is today
a means of extermination, becomes an instrument of universal progress;
what today reduces the laborer to hunger, to despair and
drives him to revolt, will serve only to render his task lighter
and to produce a sufficient leisure to live a life of intelligence
and happiness, in one word, that which has tolerated tyranny will
aid in the triumph of fraternity.
From Louis T. Moore, J. M. Burnam, and H. G. Hartmann, eds., University
of Cincinnati Studies (Cincinnati, 1911), Series II, Vol.
7, pp. 1516, 5156.
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997