Red Letter
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How to Consolidate the Working Class
by Flora Tristan
Estimated Reading Time: 9 min without footnotes

Marx and Engels did not write in a vacuum nor was it handed down etched in stone tablets from on high. Influences, from Hegel's Dialectic to the socialist utopians of the time, were plentiful. Five years before the publication of The Communist Manifesto, Flora Tristan urged French workers to put aside occupational and social rivalries in order to unite nationwide. We're picking her out for another obvious reason: her call for an organized working class explicitly included women workers.

Sandra Dijkstra wrote "Flora Tristan: Feminism in the Age of George Sand" a book about Tristan and this short bio is excerpted from it:

“Born in Paris in 1803, Flora Tristan came of age during that anticlimactic post-Revolutionary period known as the Restoration. As a child, her imagination was fired by her “mother’s reminiscences of her dashing Peruvian aristocrat lover, Don Mariano de Tristan y Moscoso (who died leaving Flora fatherless at age four), and of her father’s friend, Simon Bolívar, who passed through Flora’s life when she was only a child. Like others of her generation, Tristan grew up in the presence of the legendary Napoleon.
She realized very early on the limits society placed on her. A beautiful woman, she was considered a bastard because her parents had never legally married; nearly assassinated by her husband, from whom divorce was impossible because of the laws of the day, she was disinherited by her father’s rich Peruvian family after the publication of her forthright memoirs of her visit to Peru, Les Pérégrinations d’une paria (1833–4), a book her uncle burned publicly in Lima. Tristan came with good reason to think of herself as a pariah.
In Tristan’s work, the problematic connection of three sectors of society—women, artists, and workers, those groups which the July Monarchy had excluded from its bounty—was realized.”

As Dijkstra wrote, “Tristan boldly began to elaborate the outlines of the critique of utopian socialists that she would later develop more fully, one which prefigured that of Marx and Engels.”

Ernest Mandel adds "the French socialist Flora Tristan (1803-1844) advocated that workers organise themselves and rely on their own strength to struggle for their own emancipation, in her L’Union Ouvrière (The Workers’ Union). She also proposed the creation of “workers’ palaces.” Every city, she urged, should have such palaces where absolute equality would reign and both sexes receive a common education. Flora Tristan developed a radical critique of the condition of women at the time, describing them as “the proletarians of the proletarians themselves.” Her ideas were to inspire the attempts to “organise labour” made during the revolution of 1848, and Marx defended her against neo-Hegelian critics."

How to Consolidate the Working Class

It is very important for the workers to distinguish between the Workers' Union as I conceive of it and what exists today under the titles of guild associations, the Union, welfare societies, etc. The goal of all these various private groups is simply to give aid, mutually and individually, within each society. Thus they were set up to provide in case of sickness, accidents, and long periods of unemployment.

Given the working class's current state of isolation, desertion, and misery, these kinds of societies serve a purpose. For their aim is to give a bit of aid to the most needy, thereby mitigating some personal suffering, which often surpasses the strength and stamina of those afflicted. So I highly approve of these societies and encourage the workers to increase them and get rid of the abuses they may have. But alleviating misery does not destroy it; mitigating the evil is not the same as eradicating it. If one really wants to attack the root of evil, obviously one needs something other than private societies, since their only goal is to relieve individual suffering.

Let us examine what happens in the private societies and see whether this mode of action can actually improve the lot of the working class. Each society uses its membership fees to give so much per diem (between 50 centimes and 2 francs) to the sick and in some cases to those who have been out of work for a certain length of time. If, by chance, something happens, such as a member's being sent to prison, aid is available up to the time of the verdict. In the guild associations mutual aid is even more effective: members obtain work for those coming from provincial towns * Perdiguier gives the following definition of the "mothers": "When a companion goes to the inn where the Society is lodged, eats and holds it meetings, he says, 'I am going to the mother's.' If the innkeeper does not have a wife, one would still say, 'I am going to the mother's.' One can see that the word 'mother' evokes not only the mistress of the house but the house itself." and let the mother* know what their expenses are, up to a certain limit, while waiting for work. That is what they do on the material side. To boost their morale, each member of the association makes it his duty to go and visit sick members in their homes or in the hospital, and prisoners, as well. I repeat, given the current state of affairs, these sorts of groups are at least very useful in showing great sympathy and in binding the workers, for they encourage good morals, civilize their customs, and alleviate their awful suffering. But is that sufficient? No! Indeed not, since, in the final analysis, these groups cannot (and do not claim to) change or improve in any way the material and moral condition of the working class.

A father belonging to one of these associations suffers miserably, and finds no solace in believing that his sons will be any better off than he. And in their turn, his sons as members of the same association will live miserably like their fathers, with no hope for their children. Mind you, each society acting in the name of the individual and trying to provide temporary relief invariably offers the same thing. Despite all its efforts, it will be 1. Since the advent of Christianity, there have always been in Christian lands so-called charitable societies, whose goal was to alleviate individual suffering among the poor. Well, despite the good intentions of these societies, the poor have always remained just as poor. In England, where they are literally starving to death, there are however an infinite number of charitable societies. Moreover, forced charity—the poor tax—brings in from two to three hundred million per year, excluding Scotland and Ireland (England has twelve million inhabitants). The poor tax increases every year. So, working-class poverty increases on a much larger scale.

2. To date, France, England, Russia, Austria, and the United States are the only ones unified.

3. As I have conceived of it, the Workers' Union would have as its goal first to consolidate the working class, and as an ulterior aim, to rally the 25 million non-owner workers from all walks of life in France to defend their interests and to demand their rights. The working class is not the only one to have to suffer from the privileges of property: artists, teachers, employees, small businessmen, and many others, even small investors who own no property such as land, houses, or capital, are fatally subjected to the laws passed by the landowners sitting in the legislature. Therefore, we cannot doubt that, as soon as the truly superior class (the dominant one in its abilities and talents, though refused a seat in the Chamber by the landowners) understands how important it is to be linked in interest and sympathy to the working class, the 25 million non-owners will of course unite their efforts to eradicate privilege. And in this aim, all will contribute more or less, as they will view the results to be obtained by the Workers' Union. Then, assuming the cooperation of the 25 million non-owners, the sum of contributions could amount to 100 million or more per year instead of the 14, 28, or 56 million francs contributed by 7 to 8 million workers.

4. The name of the Irish association has often been changed: each time it is dissolved by the Government it is immediately reformed under a new name. It has been called United Irish, Catholic Association, General Association of Ireland, Precursors Society. But under these various appellations, the same spirit always directs it. Here is what Monsieur de Beaumont has to say about it: "One of the particularities of the association is not only that it watches over the Government but it governs itself. It is not limited to controlling power, it exercises power. It establishes schools and charitable organizations, levies taxes to support them, protects commerce, aids industry, and does a thousand other things. For, as its powers are not defined anywhere, its limit is not delineated.
"In truth, the association is a government within the Government: a young and robust authority, born amidst a decrepit and moribund, but centralized authority which crushes and reduces to dust all the small dispersed powers of an anti-national aristocracy"

5. They accept anything from a farthing upwards.

* It appears that buying ballots did not strike Tristan as immoral or deviously manipulative.
able to create nothing great, good, or capable of notable results. 1 Therefore, Workers, with your private societies as they have existed since the time of Solomon, the physical and psychological condition of the working class will not have changed in fifty centuries: its fate will always be poverty, ignorance, and slavery, the only change being the types and names of slaves.

What is wrong? This kind of absurd, selfish, mean, bastard organization divides the working class into a multitude of small private groups, the way large empires,2 which we see today as so strong, rich, and powerful, were divided during the Middle Ages into small provinces, which in turn were further divided into small towns with their own rights and freedoms. Well, what rights! That is to say, the little towns and provinces, continually at war with each other (and today war is competition), were poor, weak, and had as their only right the ability to moan under the weight of their wretchedness, isolation, and the terrible calamities inevitably resulting from their divisive state.

So I am not afraid to repeat that the fundamental vice which must be attacked from every point is the system of separation, which decimates the workers and can only foster abuse.

I think this short analysis will suffice to enlighten the workers about the true cause of their ills—division.

Workers, you must leave behind this division and isolation as quickly as possible and march courageously and fraternally down the only appropriate path—unity. My union plan rests upon a broad base, and its spirit is capable of fully satisfying the moral and material needs of a great people.

What is the aim and what will result from the universal union of working men and women? Its goals are:

  1. to establish the solid, indissoluble unity of the working class;
  2. to provide the Workers' Union with great capital through the optional membership of every worker;
  3. to acquire a real power backed by this capital;
  4. by means of this power, to prevent poverty and eradicate abuse by giving working-class children a solid, rational education which will make them educated, reasonable, intelligent, and able men and women in their work;
  5. to remunerate labor as it ought to be, generously and fairly.

"This is too beautiful!" one will cry. "It is too beautiful; so it is impossible." Readers, before supressing your feelings and imagination with the icy words, "it is impossible," remember that France has between 7 and 8 million workers, and with a membership of two francs each, that makes 14 million in one year; at four francs, 28 million; at eight francs, 56 million. This is not at all whimsical. There are some well-off workers, and above all, many with generous souls. Some will give two francs, others four, eight, ten or twenty. And just think of how many you are, seven million! 3

Now let us examine the results the Worker's Union could have. I have just shown that it is not at all impossible for seven million workers, united in this concept, to serve their cause and their own interests. Through voluntary contributions, they could collect 15, 20, 30, 40 or 50 million francs a year. Applied to the gears of a huge machine like the government, 20-50 million is hardly anything; but applied toward a specific object and used carefully, economically, and intelligently, 20-50 million represents enormous wealth. I have stated that with this capital the Workers' Union could acquire true power, the one money grants. Let us see how.

For instance, the Irish with their union were able to set up and support something called the Association.4 Moreover, through voluntary contributions,5 they were able to establish a gigantic fortune for an honorable and talented man, O'Connell. Follow closely and you will see what can come of a union. O'Connell became Ireland's defender. Highly paid by the people who had mandated him, he was able to deploy both offense and defense on a large scale. Should he judge it appropriate to publish ten, twenty, or thirty tracts to be distributed by the thousands throughout Ireland, he could do it, having the money at his disposal. And his agents would distribute them in all the towns. Should he deem it important to get his son, son-in-law, or a trusted friend into the House of Commons, he had his agents give out guineas en masse to the voters, and the association's representative reached the Chamber to defend Ireland's interest.* If I constantly cite Ireland, it is because Ireland is still the only country to realize that if the people want to leave their slavery, they must begin first by creating a huge, solid, and indissoluble union. For the union gives strength, and in order to demand one's rights and to bring the right of such a demand to public attention, one must above all be in a position to speak authoritatively enough to make oneself heard.

The situation of the French working class cannot be compared in any way to the cruel position of the Irish people. A conquered country whose spirit of independence refuses to be resigned to bearing the yoke of oppression, Ireland is demanding religious, political, and civil rights from its lords and masters. The very articulation of that demand proves that this unhappy people is treated like slaves, since it enjoys no rights. At least, in principle, and this is considerable, we legally have no more slaves, at least among the male population. What is the social position of the French working class today, and what rights remain to be demanded?

Theoretically, the organic law ruling French society since the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1791 is the highest expression of justice and equity. For this law is the solemn recognition legitimizing the holiness of the principle of absolute equality, and not only that equality under God claimed by Christ, but that living equality practiced in the name of body and soul in humanity. Workers, do you want to know what your rights are in theory? Open the law book governing French society and you will see:

"Art. 1. The French people are equal before the law, regardless of their title or rank.

"Art. 2. In proportion to their wealth, they indiscriminately contribute to the State.

"Art. 3. They all have equal opportunity for civil and military employment.

"Art. 4. Their individual freedom is equally guaranteed; a person cannot be pursued or arrested except under law, in the form prescribed by law ....

"Art. 8. All property is inviolable not excepting any called national, as the law does not discriminate among them."

In fact, according to the spirit and the letter of the Charter's articles, the French worker has no claims with respect to the citizen's and man's dignity. From the Charter's standpoint, his social position is as desirable as he could want. By virtue of the recognized principle, he enjoys absolute equality, complete freedom of thought, and the guarantee of security for his person and property. What more can he ask? But, let us hasten to say that to enjoy equality and freedom in theory is to live in spirit. And if he who brought the law of the spirit to the world spoke wisely, "Man can not live by bread alone," I believe it is also wise to say, "Man does not live in spirit alone."

6. The national Convention almost recognized the right to work or at least public assistance. The Charter makes no mention of it: "Art. 21. Public assistance is a sacred duty. Society owes subsistence to its unfortunate citizens, either in form of providing work or by assuring them the means to exist if they are unable to work" (Declaration of the Rights of Man, June 27, 1793).

Reading the 1830 Charter, one is struck by a serious omission. Our constitutional legislators forgot that preceding the rights of man and the citizen, there is an imperious, imprescriptible right engendering all the others, the right to live. Now, for the poor worker who possesses no land, shelter, capital, absolutely nothing except his hands, the rights of man and the citizen are of no value if his right to live is not recognized first of all (and in this case they are even bitterly derisory). For the worker, the right to live is the right to work, the only right that can give him the possibility of eating, and thus, of living. The first of the rights that every being enjoys by being born is precisely the one they forgot to inscribe in the Charter. This first right has yet to be proclaimed. 6

Today the working class must be concerned with this single claim, because it is based on the strictest equity. And anything short of granting this claim is an abrogation of fundamental rights. So, what is to be demanded? THE RIGHT TO WORK. The working class's own property and the only one it can ever possess is its hands. Yes, its hands. That is its patrimony, its sole wealth. Its hands are the only work tools it has. Therefore they constitute its property, and I do not think its legitimacy or utility can be denied. For if the earth produces, it is thanks to manual labor.

To deny that the worker's hands are his property is to refuse to understand the spirit of Article 8 of the Charter. Yet this property is uncontestable and, as soon as it comes under discussion, there will be a unanimous voice in support of it. To guarantee the working class's property (as Art. 8 indicates), this right and its free enjoyment must be recognized in principle (as well as in reality). Now, the exercise of this free enjoyment of property would consist in being able to use its hands when and how it pleases. And for that, it must have the right to work. So the guarantee of this property consists in a wise and equitable organization of labor. The working class thus has two important demands to make: The right to work and the right to organize.

Why I Mention Women

Up to now, woman has counted for nothing in human society. What has been the result of this? That the priest, the lawmaker, and the philosopher have treated her as a true pariah. Woman (one half of humanity) has been cast out of the Church, out of the Footnotes abridged for length
1. Aristotle, less tender than Plato, asked this question without answering it: Do women have souls? The Council of Macon deigned to decide in their favor by a margin of three votes.
Thus, with three fewer votes, woman would have been seen as belonging to the realm of beasts, and this being so, man, the lord and master, would have been obliged to cohabit with the best! That thought makes one shudder and freeze in horror. Besides, given the way things are, that ought to be a subject of deep grief, for the wise among the wise to think that they descend from the female race.[...]

2. Most scholars, be they scientists, doctors, or philosophers, have more or less explicitly concluded that women are intellectually inferior.

3. Woman was made for man (Saint Paul).

4.Convinced that neglect and scorn of man's natural rights are the only causes of the world's misfortunes, the French have resolved to proclaim man's sacred and inalienable rights in a declaration. Therefore, each citizen, in a position to compare government's activity with the goal of each social institution, will never submit to oppression or degradation by tyranny. The people will then have a constant and clear view of the foundations underlying their freedom and happiness, of their duties ruled by the magistrates and their mission led by the legislators.
Consequently, they proclaim the following declaration of the rights of man and the citizen in the presence of the Supreme Being:
1. The goal of society is the common good. The Government guarantees man's enjoyment of his natural and unalienable rights.
2. These rights are equality, liberty, security, and property.
3. All men are equal in nature and before the law.
4. The law is the free and solemn expression of the collective will.

5. All the famous generals of the Empire came from the working class. Before 1789, only noblemen were officers.

6. Here is what Fourier said, among other things:
"In the course of my research on society, I found greater reason among women than among men; for women have on several occasions given me new ideas which have afforded me very unexpected solutions to problems.
"Several times I have been indebted to women of the class called quick-witted (the mind which promptly grasps and immediately presents ideas with precision) for precious solutions which had tormented my mind. Men have never been of this kind of help to me.
"Why don't men have that aptitude for new ideas free from prejudice? It is because their minds are enslaved and imprisoned by the biased kind of philosophy learned in school. They leave school with their heads stuffed with principles contradicting nature and cannot independently envision a new idea. If one disagrees with Plato or Seneca, denunciation and excommunication follow for daring to contradict the divine Plato, the divine Cato, or the divine Rato." ["Rato" (raton in the original, along with Platon and Caton) means "little rat." —Trans.]
law, out of society. 1 For her, there are no functions in the Church, no representation before the law, no functions in the State. The priest told her, "Woman, you are temptation, sin, and evil; you represent flesh, that is, corruption and rottenness. Weep for your condition, throw ashes on your head, seek refuge in a cloister, and mortify your heart, which is made for love, and your female organs, which are made for motherhood. And when thus you have mutilated your heart and body, offer them all bloody and dried up to your God for remission from the original sin committed by your mother Eve." Then the lawmaker tells her, "Woman, by yourself you are nothing; you have no active role in human affairs; you cannot expect to find a seat at the social banquet. If you want to live, you must serve as an appendage to your lord and master, man. So, young girl, you will obey your father; when married you shall obey your husband; widowed and old, you will be left alone." Then, the learned philosopher tells her, "Woman, it has been scientifically observed that, according to your constitution, you are inferior to man.2 Now, you have no intelligence, no comprehension for lofty questions, no logic in ideas, no ability for the so-called exact sciences, no aptitude for serious endeavors. Finally, you are a feeble-minded and weak-bodied being, cowardly, superstitious; in a word, you are nothing but a capricious child, spontaneous, frivolous, for ten or fifteen years of your life you are a nice little doll, but full of faults and vices. That is why, woman, man must be your master and have complete authority over you."3

So that is how for the six thousand years the world has existed, the wisest among the wise have judged the female race.

Such a terrible condemnation, repeated for six thousand years, is likely to impress the masses, for the sanction of time has great authority over them. However, what must make us hope that this sentence can be repealed is that the wisest of the wise have also for six thousand years pronounced a no less horrible verdict upon another race of humanity—the proletariat. Before 1789, what was the proletarian in French society? A serf, a peasant, who was made into a taxable, drudging beast of burden. Then came the Revolution of 1789, and all of a sudden the wisest of the wise proclaimed that the lower orders are to be called the people, that the serfs and peasants are to be called citizens. Finally, they proclaimed the rights of man in full national assembly.4

The proletarian, considered until then a brute, was quite surprised to learn that it had been the neglect and scorn for his rights that had caused all the world's misfortunes. He was quite surprised to learn that he would enjoy civil, political, and social rights, and finally would become the equal of his former lord and master. His surprise grew when he was told that he possessed a brain of the same quality as the royal prince's. What a change! However, it did not take long to realize that this second judgment on the proletariat, was truer than the first. Hardly had they proclaimed that proletarians were capable of all kinds of civil, military, and social functions, than out of their ranks came generals the likes of which Charlemagne, Henri IV, and Louis XIV could not recruit from the ranks of their proud and brilliant nobility.5 Then, as if by magic, from the ranks of the proletariat surged learned men, artists, poets, writers, statesmen, and financiers who gave France a luster she had never had. Then military glory came upon her like a halo; scientific discoveries enriched her; the arts embellished her; her commerce made immense strides, and in less than thirty years the wealth of the country trebled. These facts cannot be disputed: everyone agrees today that men are born indistinct, with essentially equal faculties, and that the sole thing we should be concerned about is how to develop an individual's total faculties for the sake of the general well-being.

What happened to the proletariat, it must be agreed, is a good omen for women when their "1789" rings out. According to a very simple calculation, it is obvious that wealth will increase immeasurably on the day women are called upon to participate with their intelligence, strength, and ability in the social process. This is as easy to understand as two is the double of one. But, alas! We are not yet there. Meanwhile, let us take a look at what is happening in 1843.

The Church having said that woman was sin; the lawmaker that by herself she was nothing, that she was to enjoy no rights; the learned philosopher that by her constitution she had no intellect, it was concluded that she is a poor being disinherited by God; so men and society treated her as such.

Once woman's inferiority was proclaimed and postulated, notice what disastrous consequences resulted for the universal well-being of all men and women.

Those who believed that woman by nature lacked the strength, intelligence, and capacity to do serious and useful work, very logically deduced that it would be a waste of time to give her a rational, solid, and strict education, the kind that would make her a useful member of society. So she has been raised to be a nice doll and a slave destined for amusing and serving her master. In truth, from time to time some intelligent, sensitive men, showing empathy with their mothers, wives, and daughters, have cried out against the barbarity and absurdity of such an order of things, energetically protesting against such an iniquitous condemnation.6 On several occasions, society has been moved for a moment; but when pushed by logic, has replied, "Well then! Let us suppose that women are not what the wise men have believed, that they have great moral strength and intelligence. Well, in that case, what good would it be to develop their faculties, since they would not be able to employ them usefully in this society which rejects them? What an awful torture, to feel one has force and power to act, and to see oneself condemned to inaction!"

How to Consolidate the Working Class
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