The Moderation of French Workers
No historian can claim certain knowledge of what French workers wanted in the years before World War I. It would be convenient if they wanted what their leaders said they should want, but this is precisely what needs investigating. Happily an assessment of the methods the workers used in protest largely confirms my contention that they really wanted what they themselves said they wanted.
Strikes, of course, measure what workers judge tactically feasible, not what they might ultimately hope for. To be sure, many strikes in France began in a spontaneous burst of anger, and it is interesting that, as we shall see, the angriest strikes produced quite limited demands. Still, strikes were, for all their excitement, difficult and risky ventures, and few workers plunged into them without some sense of what was realistically possible. In suggesting that the desires of workers differed from those of syndicalist leaders we are saying, in part, that their sense of the possible differed. Furthermore, strikes, as a form of protest, tend to fall to the lowest common denominator in demands. That is, strikes depend on widespread support in the relevant work group, and both leaders and ordinary strikers realize this. An ardent minority, then, often moderates its goals or is forced to do so in the interests of spreading and winning a strike. This often happened in France. One of the reasons for the high incidence of wage demands was that these appealed to almost all workers, whether mildly aggrieved or bitterly angry, whether really concerned about their pay or primarily worried about the introduction of new machines (for which a raise might, however inadequately, have compensated). The usual goals of strikes concealed minority-majority divi