French History @ IHR: Transnational Solidarity

Date & Place: Monday 20 February, Pollard Room, IHR, North block, Senate House

Speaker: Nicolas Delalande (Sciences Po)

Paper Title: Transnational solidarity between French, British, and European workers at the time of the First International (1860s and 1870s)

Click HERE to listen to an mp3 recording of the paper (right click to save).

What is solidarity made of? This was a crucial question discussed by Nicolas Delalande at a special session of the IHR Modern French History seminar funded by the SSFH.

Solidarity, he outlined, blurred the lines between charity, philanthropy, taxation and loans. It was more than ideological sympathy or rhetorical flourish. In search of some greater sense of solidarity, Delalande explored the history of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), a transnational organisation which connected different struggles and different actors beyond the framework of the state.

The IWMA relied on forging networks of trust between workers: building networks between strangers, enforcing centralisation and compliance without sovereign power, and overcoming local and regional particularisms in service of a loftier cause. In navigating these challenges, the IWMA counted and compiled the working class movement, making solidarity a tangible concept in its management of this broader struggle. It benefitted from rumours that it was a wealthy, secretive organisation of extraordinary potential, giving a greater sense of its ability to challenge the governments of the day. Police rumours warned of untold riches filling the coffers of its seditious treasury in Birmingham, and European Trade unions sought to secure the support of this powerful ally. Yet, the IWMA also suffered from this inflation of its powers. Marx himself stated that it was important “not to reveal the true strength of the movement.” The reality was that a financial committee was only created in 1870, and it was faced with a precarious existence funded largely by workers dues that never quite met the many needs of the organisation. The central committee opposed indebtedness, and also the employment of bourgeois professionals to manage workers’ affairs. The myth of potency versus the reality of modest means created a sense that things were ‘going missing’, forever imperilling the work of the IWMA in building trust.

London became a financial platform for all of the IWMA’s activities in supporting strike across the continent, and emissaries from a variety of Trade Unions visited the capital looking for funds. The London Trades Council became a gatekeeper which could grant credentials for strikers to treat with all of the individual trade unions within London. Tracing the networks that intersected at these nodes shows how the IWMA became a go between connecting strikers with sources of funding rather than doling out support funds from its own account. This, in turn, demonstrated the importance of trust, and of cultivating relationships between a broad cross-section of the working class. Monies were given as loans, not as charity, and this carried important considerations with it as ‘moral indebtedness’. It encouraged the emulation of the ‘English model’ in trade union governance, and also sought to promote multi-directional solidarity (encouraging those on the continent to support other workers).

Delalande traced a number of Franco-British interactions which fleshed out these networks and these connections, including: the Roubaix textile workers’ strike in 1869, and the Parisian Bronze workers’ strike in 1867. He also discussed the Great Dock Strike in London in 1889, showing how reciprocity was shown by unions who had received support before this point. This was a presentation of a work in progress, but in the material that was presented there appears to be the basis for a rich and fascinating study to come. Teasing out what solidarity meant in a tangible sense, and how it connected working people across Europe, gives us a compelling glance at cooperation, action, and organisation beyond the level of the state.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Society for the Study of French History logo