THE FRENCH STRIKE.
rilHOSE French Labour leaders who have long been .1_ trying to guide industrialism along the path of revolution have come nearer than ever before to their ideal of a "general strike." We do not believe in the possibility of a general strike, and. we do not believe that even such a strike as that which is now paralysing the railway systems of France can continue very long. But the strike is undoubtedly a most serious affair which has already done vast injury to the country, and. challenges thought and. anxiety at every turn. The story of the railwaymen's discontent reaches back over many months. They held a Congress in Paris last spring and stated. their grievances, and most of these grievances remain. They demand a minimum wage of five francs a day (this minimum has already been conceded on the Western Railway, which is owned by the State, and in the Paris area of the Northern Railway), shorter hours of work, a weekly day of rest, and. the payment of pensions on a retrospective scale. It can easily be believed that in urging some of these grievances the men have, or have had till now, popular sympathy on their side. When the law of the land, for instance, ordains a weekly day of rest—the repos hebelomadaire—it must seem to most people that it should be made effective in the railway world. sooner than in other trades. But even if there be substance in some of the men's grievances, there can be no excuse whatever for the declaration of war on the whole nation, for that is what a general railway strike amounts to. And that war, which affects the food-supply of the whole country, was entered into without any more formal warning than was given in the mutterings of discontent. Last Saturday eight hundred men employed by the Northern Railway at the St. Denis depot came out on strike, and the movement spread like lightning. Drivers left their engines midway in their journeys—apparently- they drove themselves to their homes—lines were blocked by throwing engines across the permanent way, and violence was used on those who were slow to join the strike. The coal and the flour have ceased to come to Paris by the Northern line, the dairy produce and. the fish by the Western line, and. the fruit and vegetables from the "Midi." Such a strike as this cannot last long because it is self-destructive. A strike to be successful must have public support, if it be that kind of strike which postulates a good deal of sacrifice on the part of the onlookers. No one accepts a wound. without complaint unless there is a very good reason for being wounded. Railways are the most vital part of our daily • life, and unless the injustice to the railwaymen is some- thing quite exceptional, and shows no promise whatever of bang removed peaceably, the public will never consent to bear long with the hideous inconvenience of a railway • strike. The blackleg of the railway employees rapidly becomes the hero of the exasperated passengers. We read. that at the St. Lazare Station in Paris—a station com- parable with Liverpool Street, which discharges tens of thousands of workers from poor suburbs into the city— the passengers who had been driven to their daily work by blackleg drivers expressed their obligation with presents and. showers of compliments.
M. Briand has said, and we fear that there is only too much truth in the statement, that the strike is not an economic argument, but a, criminal act. It is a, criminal act in the sense that it is definitely directed against the authority of the State. We need not suppose that all the strikers, or even the majority, are conscious of joining a. subversive or treasonable movement. They are for the most part primarily occupied with their personal grievances, and. they join the strike through a sense of industrial cohesion, or under compulsion, or, it may be, in a fit of reckless exhilaration such as frequently makes discon- tented. men have their fling without a thought of the consequences, and certainly with no conception of the broad political principles involved. But at the back of the industrial forces which take the field there is the Confederation Generale du Travail, which for a. long time has tried to engineer a general strike. Since the rupture between the State Socialists of the old-fashioned type and the Syndicalists, the Confederation has been in the hands of the latter. They defied the Socialists, and outvoted them at a meeting of the executive of the Confederation, and since that moment France has had to reckon with a new force. It is curious how many political changes result from the malaise of Labour. The Syndicalists, who are still often spoken of as Socialists, have, as a matter of fact, nothing in common with the State Socialism which is still the fashionable type in Germany They believe—and so far we of course agree with them— that if the State became the universal employer it would be a very severe master, and very likely also a stingy one, because it would become progressively poorer through its inevitable administrative wastefulness. The Syndicalists, therefore, hate the State and all its works with a deadly hatred. They want to end. it. They want Labour to be its own employer, and they regard anarchy as the means of arriving at that result. Anarchy, we need hardly say, would be the end as well as the means of such a procedure. Apparently the guiding principle of Syndicalism was borrowed from Italy, where workmen club together to provide their own capital and undertake contracts without the assistance of an employer-capitalist. That estimable practice is, of course, only one form of co-operation. But how it is distorted. and rendered infamous in its new application in France ! The Confederation, which champions this anarchy called Syndicalism, has had several trial trips in the matter of strikes. We have heard of a scheme by which all the bakeries should. stop work at once so that Paris should. be deprived of bread ; and of another scheme by which Paris should be plunged in darkness by a strike of all the electricians and gasmen. Every now and then an heroic figure, like the "King of the Electricians," appears as a leader, passes across the stage like a lesser Boulanger, and disappears in a cloud of disfavour or ridicule. M. Briand does not, we imagine, suppose for a moment that the Syndicalists can achieve anarchy by the logical—paradoxically logical—procession of events which they picture to themselves. But he sees, nevertheless, that one thing may lead to another, and that infinite harm may be done, and even temporary anarchy be brought about, before the essential madness of Syndicalism is proved to its disciples. That is why he displays the measure of his anxiety by the extent of his precautions. He undertook to do all he could to improve the condi- tions of labour on the railways, and. quite recently it seemed that his promises had satisfied. the deputation which visited him. Then, without any further negotia- tion on the subject, this strike takes place. He can hardly be mistaken in the meaning he reads into it. It is anarchical. It is, as he says, "a criminal act." But M. Briand has a tremendous weapon in his hand. As France is a country of universal military service, he can at will turn the majority of civilians into soldiers at a moment's notice. By a stroke of the pen tens of thousands of men in civil employment can be called out by a mobilisation order, and they instantly become the servants of the State. As soldiers they have to do what they are ordered. to do by the Minister for War, even, though it be the very . work which, as civilians, they have struck against doing. If they refuse they are liable to military punishment. No wonder that the revolutionary politicians of France have long been trying to seduce the French soldiers from allegiance to the State. From their point of view they are perfectly right. If the Army and the State are interchangeable, as we see they are, the only hope for Syndicalism and for every other revolutionary political idea. is the success of the anti- militarist propaganda which requires a French soldier to vow that he will never fire on a brother-Frenchman. Of course the leaders of the strike have countered M. Briand's order for the mobilisation of thousands of railwaymen as Reservists by placarding the towns with exhortations to the men to ignore the order. They could hardly do any- thing else. We are therefore face to face with the critical question whether the Army intends to be the servant of the State or the servant of anarchy. We have no doubt ourselves what the answer will be. But though we are sure that France will return to her normal life very soon, she will have had a taste of the power of Syndicalism, and will know well in the future that if the bold and summary course which M. Briand has taken is to be repeated with success, it is essential that no more than an insignificant proportion of the Army should be infected with what is called anti-militarism. We cannot blink the likelihood of the distresses of the people giving many pretexts for industrial outbreaks in the coming months. In every one of the great Protectionist countries the cost of living has recently been the subject of loud complaint. We have mentioned elsewhere the extraordinary meeting of protest held at Vienna. In Germany and the United States, as well as in France, it is the same story. In Great Britain alone the wave of industrial unrest passes without much bitterness because of the elasticity, the instant adaptability, of our markets. Protection is indeed the chief cause of rising prices ; but something should also be said for the view of the older eeonomists—rather rashly rejected by many to-day—that the increase of gold is partly to blame. It can hardly be doubted that the dis- covery of gold in America caused prices to go up in the reigns of Henry VIII. and Elizabeth, and again, for example, in 1870. If the wages of French railwaymen have no longer a sufficient purchasing-power for their needs, we shall all be agreed that they should be raised proportionately ; but that cannot be done by an insane slaughter of capital, which, as even the hare-brained Syndicalists themselves admit, is the necessary source of employment.