The Presidency of Mutual Assistance Societies

Eugène Varlin

La Marseillaise, 20 January 1870

Undoubtedly, personal power falls into ruin.

From top to bottom, the system built by the man of December collapses on all sides.[1]

Here is a member of the majority who is also tearing a stone from the edifice. M. Boutelier, in Saturday’s session, has tabled a bill aimed at the repeal of the article of executive order of 52 that allows the head of the State to appoint the presidents of mutual assistance societies.

Although we are not inclined to follow the liberals of the empire in the direction of small reforms and attach little importance to all these small measures, to all these special liberties that they grant to us with such reluctance, we who aspire to achieve the possession of all our rights as soon as possible, to true freedom, that which includes them all, we must not, however, miss an opportunity to undermine the obstacle which hinders us until we can destroy it completely. The more it is shaken, the more it will be weakened and the less trouble will we have when we give it the final shock.

Besides, the institutions of a people cannot change unless their morals are modified. To prepare the Republic, we must get used to practicing the customs as much as we can, on all occasions.

When we are accustomed to managing our affairs ourselves in the ordinary circumstances of life, it will be easy for us to institute direct government, since matters of general interest are no more difficult than matters of specific interest.

This is what practical socialists have long understood, and that is why they are working to group men so that they look after their concerns and strive to organise these groupings on the most democratic bases, the most consistent with true republican principles.

Although we have often been attacked by some revolutionaries, who have reproached us for dealing with superficial details when the whole had to be changed, we claim to have amply contributed to the advent of the revolution by accustoming people to the practice of republican institutions.

See our workers’ societies of all kinds: mutual credit, resistance, solidarity, trades council [chambre syndicale], etc. [ – ] everywhere the authoritarian presidency, last vestige of the monarchical idea, is banished from our organisations, everywhere our statutes and regulations, our own laws, are discussed and voted upon directly by those who must respect them.

The mutual assistance societies, very numerous in France, were unfortunately outside our activity. The empire had laid its claws on them to make it a powerful means of domination. Moreover, it is the only aspect of his social system that the author of l’Extinction du paupérisme has applied.[2]

Organise the poor, discipline them, given them leaders, in order to make sure that they can only act in accordance with the will of the master; to guarantee them against excessive poverty, which is always a danger for the State, by using their own resources to which are added, to bind them through gratitude, some subsidies made on behalf of taxpayers; this is the means employed by the empire to bond with the poor and ignorant mass.

Fortunately, the almost unlimited personal power granted to the presidents of the mutual assistance societies have produced the same result in each of these little associations as the power of the head of State in the great national association.

Almost everywhere, the arbitrariness of the presidents has stirred the most independent members and discord, dissensions have disturbed the societies.

Today the experiment is complete: we recognise that we must let people regulate their affairs themselves, freely choose their officials and revoke them, if they exceed their powers or do not act according to the general will.

We must support this reform.

But since I do not have much confidence in the liberalism of the Legislative Body, nor in the Council of State nor in today’s or tomorrow’s ministry, what I propose to all citizens who belong to mutual assistance societies and who want the abolition of the official presidents is not to make petitions or submissions, but to immediately ask their co-members to abolish the presidency in their respective societies.

This is a revolutionary process, and I am convinced that it is the only one which allows us to promptly obtain the reform which we all find so necessary.

If we ask, if we petition, the legislators will pass our demands and petitions from office to officer, they will refer the matter, they will postpone to next year, the year following, and we will exhaust our time and our existence waiting for the result.

We must know from experience that laws are usually repealed by legislators only when public customs have annulled them in fact by rendering their enforcement impossible. So let us act!

As for me, I am this very day speaking to the council of bookbinders’ mutual assistance society of which I belong to put my proposal to abolish the Presidency on the agenda of the next general assembly.

As for the timorous members who might fear that authority will dissolve their society if they put themselves outside of the law, they can rest assured. It is not possible for the government in the state of discipline to which it is now reduced to face a scandal as that produced by the violent dissolution for this specific reason of societies that aim to support their sick or elders.

End Notes

[1] A reference to Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, one time President of the Second Republic, who organised a coup d’état in December 1851 before being crowned Emperor Napoleon III in December 1852. (Translator)

[2] The extinction of pauperism was 1844 a work by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte which urged social reform and was influenced by Saint-Simonian ideas. (Translator)