Most historians who know anything about French labor between 1890 and and 1914 and some who know a great deal would claim that revolutionary syndicalism was its most striking attribute. In contrast with German workers, who can be described as well-organized socialists, a significant segment of French labor combined an antipolitical approach with their socialism or rejected politics altogether. Unlike pragmatic British trade unions, French unions, or at least the main union movement, stood for revolt by means of a general strike. Syndicalism,1 the argument runs, corresponded to the revolutionary tradition of French workers and to their pervasive individualism, for it sought to attack the existing order without forming any massive alternative organization.2
This view is at best a good guess, for it has never been seriously tested. Historians, being to some degree intellectuals, too often look at the expressed ideas of a movement or organization without checking the extent to which the ideas were held by participants or manifested in their behavior. It is more convenient to stick to the ideological level, for this is generally preserved in writing. Labor historians usually sympathize with the cause they are studying and want to believe that workers believed in it. Ironically, though committed to history "from the bottom up" when discussing workers and society as a whole, they fail to apply this principle to labor history as soon as they can find organized movements or doctrines to study.3
In the case of prewar French labor, this approach has led, at the textbook level, to a summary of worker attitudes as cited by Georges Sorel. But effective syndicalism considerably antedates Sorel's writings, and Sorel was not close to the actual syndicalist union movement before
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Publication information: Book title: Revolutionary Syndicalism and French Labor: a Cause without Rebels. Contributors: Peter N. Stearns - Author. Publisher: Rutgers University Press. Place of publication: New Brunswick, NJ. Publication year: 1971. Page number: 1.
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