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Nineteenth Century French Workers In Politics

Jason Blundy

    A common misconception about the French Revolution of 1789 is that when the Bastille was stormed and, subsequently, Louis XVI was beheaded, the status quo was shattered and a new era of equality was ushered into France. Many Americans are left with the misunderstanding that the Revolution of 1789 set up a government similar to that of the United States. Americans hold this belief despite the fact that nearly everybody knows about Napoleon and his empire. The truth could not be much different.

    In reality the status quo in France was not shattered; it was merely cracked. The era of equality was not ushered in, but had to be slowly cajoled along before the people of France would come anywhere near achieving evenly distributed political representation. The Revolution of 1789 merely replaced one dominant class (the aristocracy) with another (the bourgeoisie). The workers of France had to struggle for years and through several "mini-revolutions" before they were able to achieve the equality that exists in modern France. In his collection of autobiographies, The French Worker, Mark Traugott offers several examples of just how difficult it was for French workers to make their mark in French politics.

    One striking thing about the collection of autobiographies is that nearly all of the authors become politically active at some point in their lives. (The notable exceptions were the female authors who would have to wait much longer than working men to achieve equality). The thing that varies, however, is the degree of success each is able to achieve. Jacques Etienne Bédé, author of the first autobiography in the collection, has little political involvement. Though he does become the head of a sort of union of wood turners in Paris and fights to stop unpaid labor, he never becomes involved in national politics. More significant than Bédé’s involvement, Agricol Perdiguier becomes a very active political leader for a time as a member of the National Assembly of the Second Republic, as Traugott notes. This level of involvement is matched by Martin Nadaud, who, after years as a mason, goes on to represent his home department under two different regimes. Norbert Truquin exhibits less political involvement. Though he becomes disillusioned by the events of the revolution of 1870, he does play a part in the events surrounding the Commune of 1871. In a more unique kind of action, Jean-Baptiste Dumay works diligently to organize a workers’ socialist party. Little of the political activity of these authors is recounted in their stories, which for the most part focus on their early lives, but Traugott is very careful to explain the political significance of each author in his notes preceding the autobiographies. What can be seen is that all of these authors show, through the accounts of their lives, the difficulty and varying levels of success that was achieved by workers of nineteenth century France.

    These authors were more educated than most of their contemporary workers. Therefore their struggles are not exactly indicative of the struggles and political activity of the majority of lower class workers in France. However, they do offer a good look into the pervading climate of French politics and its bias against workers. They also show the effects of their struggles and the increased level of equality (at least for men) that is apparent by the end of the chronological set of autobiographies. The status quo was not shattered and equality was not achieved in the Revolution of 1789, but the efforts of the authors in The French Worker and other workers like them eventually succeeded where the initial revolution failed.



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