Flora Tristan's Worker's Union vs. the Communist Manifesto
By John Taylor; 2010 Sep 08, Asma 16, 167 BE
Strategic position of female householders
Female leadership, when allowed to express itself has traditionally acted as a centripetal force balancing out the centrifugal force of hierarchical leadership. The 31st Chapter of the Book of Proverbs describes how motherly power works in a well run household. Reading this encomium to womanly responsibility gives one a sense of why wisdom is traditionally personified as a woman (Sophia, in Greek). Without the female half of humanity being fully developed, it is difficult to imagine the human race attaining the harmonious balance that is needed to reach its full potential. If we are ever to have an efficient world government without toppling into tyranny or bureaucracy, neighbourhoods will have to hold many independent, well run households, involving both men and women, that are not unlike the one described in this chapter of the Bible.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that some of the most insightful pioneers of citizens as local planners have been women. One was Jane Jacobs, whom we have already mentioned, and the other was Flora Tristan. Tristan made an early (1843) proposal for French workers to come together.
"I come to you to propose a general union among working men and women, regardless of trade, who reside in the same region -- a union which would have as its goal the CONSOLIDATION OF THE WORKING CLASS and the construction of several establishments (Workers' Union palaces), distributed evenly throughout France. Children of both sexes six to eighteen would be raised there; and sick or disabled workers as well as the elderly would be admitted. Listen to the numbers and you will have an idea of what can be done with the union." (The Workers' Union, pp. 38-39)
As an expression of their solidarity the workers should pass the hat and build what she called workers' palaces, that is, social support institutions. These buildings would be paid directly out of their own wages, without government acting as middleman. She called them palaces because just as kings and magnates build palaces as gilded showpieces of wealth and power, so the proletariat should build visible symbols of the dignity of manual labour.
In "The Worker's Union," she pointed out that the 1789 French Revolution, although it pretended to uphold universal human rights, really was a revolt of business classes (bourgeois) against kings and aristocrats. They were looking out for their own interests and ignored completely the rights of women and the working class. A workers' union, she hoped, would not ignore the rights of women.
"Workers, perhaps in three or four years you will have your first palace, ready to admit six hundred old persons and six hundred children. Well! Proclaim through your statutes, which will become your charter, the rights of women for equality. Let it be written in your charter that an equal number of girls and boys will be admitted to the Workers' Union palace to receive intellectual and vocational training." (Flora Tristan, The Worker's Union, Translated by Beverly Livingston, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1983, p. 88)
Flora Tristan got the idea that she was destined for great things when in England, visiting the insane asylum of Bedlam. Here she met a French inmate who proclaimed that she [Tristan] had been sent by God. Tristan became persuaded -- at least five years before Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto -- that she was a "modern female savior committed to rescuing the working poor from their intolerable circumstances." The year after she wrote Worker's Union, she followed the example of the newly apprenticed tradesman, who traditionally took a "French tour" of the country -- which for most journeymen involved more carousing than professional development. Tristan took her mission deadly seriously, though, striving to persuade the proletariat of France to unite, organized and build their own palaces. On April 12, 1844 she officially began her "French tour" leaving from Paris.
On her first stop, Auterre, she wrote in her diary that "I felt in me something like a divine grace enveloping, magnetizing, and transporting me into another life." (Le Tour, P. 38, cited in Workers' Union, Translator's Introduction, xv) After six months she fell ill and had to stop her tour. She died soon afterwards.
Flora Tristan's idea was taken up four years after her death in the form of the much better known Communist Manifesto. Although they were atheists, Marx and Engels were evidently inspired by Tristan's martyrdom.
Like her, they believed that the poverty-stricken, exploited workers of the world should take their fate into their own hands. Only instead of fighting poverty and ignorance, which Tristan considered to be the real enemy, and building for themselves the cooperative enterprises for their own advancement, a truculent Communist Manifesto held that a united working class is not enough. The exploiting capitalists, after all, own the means of production. They are not likely to give that up without a fight. Only a declaration of war pitting oppressed proletarians against their vicious oppressors, the bourgeoisie, would solve their problems. The two are meant, by nature, to fight an endless death struggle. As a recent reader of the Manifesto remarked, it is hard to read this stirring tract without wanting to go out and shoot a businessman.
The Manifesto ends by twisting Flora Tristan's words into a manifest lie, "Workers of the world unite, the only thing you have to lose are your chains." For one thing, workers can lose their lives, their families and their tiny but living wage. Even if they did have nothing to lose, a peaceful world would be lost if we engaged in perpetual class struggle. What Marx and Engels had in mind when they spoke of chains was a singular event that took place some forty five years earlier in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. There, for the first time since Moses, a successful slave revolt took place.
After a long series of bloody slave uprisings the French controlled half of the island of Hispaniola was renamed by the victorious former slaves: "Haiti." Marx and Engels were right in one way. This event, where slaves really did throw off their chains, sent a chill down the necks of the ownership class. Unfortunately for it, Haiti was cursed by the fact that it was the wealthiest colony in the Americas. This inspired the great Western powers, France, England and America, to combine in crippling the new nation by imposing a huge reparation debt to France compensate her for "lost property," that is, the self-liberated slaves. It took over a century, but finally Haiti was forced to pay the staggering sum. Today Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas, and even after a devastating earthquake in 2010, France still stubbornly refuses to consider paying back Haiti's crippling reparation debt.
So, what the Communist Manifesto was saying was: Workers are slaves. They think slavishly. The only way for them to liberate themselves is by a violent slave revolt like that of Haiti. Flora Tristan, on the other hand, treated workers like free men, capable of carrying their own weight and building social supports on their own. Ignorance, iniquity and class differences would vanish as soon as labourers gain the knowledge and wealth to be a worker, an entrepreneur and an owner, all at once. When resources and means of production are owned by all people, wealth would be distributed equitably, without violent struggle or confrontation. Slaves, including wage slaves, would be liberated without bloodshed; they would educate their own children and cast off indigence in a generation or two.
If Flora Tristan had lived long enough to forge a Worker's Union there would have been no bitter aftertaste, no war, no endless struggle. The entire society would have been invested in the liberation of the worker because she was actively seeking contributions for the union not only from tradespersons but also the king, the nobility and the business class. They would have been wise had they listened to her appeals.
What is more, her plan for worker's palaces was, to the modern eye, astonishingly sustainable. They had their own farm to feed the children and the aged, as well as their own school. She even insisted that all employees of the Union be paid equally, be they native born or foreign. So called "undocumented workers" would be unknown today if she had had her way.