Alfred Rosmer 1914

An island of resistance in 1914: la Vie Ouvrière[1]

Source: Le Mouvement Ouvrier Pendant la Guerre (1936) published in La Revolution Proletarienne no. 216, February 1936;
Translated: by Ben Windsor.

Panic seized Paris on Thursday 30 July [1914]. It was mainly reflected in a kind of paralysis. As war approached life came to a halt. There was a rush on the banks and the savings banks, where you could withdraw no more than fifty francs per fortnight.

Ready cash was scarce. Gold – and even silver – was being hidden away. The Bank of France began to circulate notes of five and twenty francs.

On the Saturday, towards the end of the afternoon, the paralysis suddenly intensified. The buses had been requisitioned, and were therefore out of service. On the silent streets one experienced a strange new feeling, in addition to the general anxiety.

During the following days, the city seemed to empty of its population. There was no longer any bustle except at the stations, and occasionally in the streets. In these moments crowds would march around shouting “To Berlin! To Berlin!” and singing the Marseillaise.

In order to feed their patriotic fervour, those who led the crowds would now and again launch attacks on the ‘boche’ shops. Those of the Maggi company were the first to be demolished. The press, bribed by Maggi’s competitors, had depicted the firm as an enemy enterprise.

But the crowds were not very careful in their choice of targets. It was sufficient for a shop to have a German-sounding name for it to be subject to looting and demolition. In the frenzy, our ‘brothers’ from the Alsace were not spared either – and any ‘Viennese’ bakery was ripe for destruction. The government did not see fit to intervene (assuming it was not itself the instigator of these patriotic demonstrations).

Historians and writers tell us that in 1870 there were eight demonstrations against the war, which were quickly stifled. Vallés recounts them in I'Insurgé. But in August 1914, we didn’t even see that level of dissent.

No doubt one finds the principal reasons for this in the levée en masse[2] that constituted mobilisation at the time – and in the immense numbers involved in the warring armies from the very first day. These incorporated the most active part of the population at a stroke.

Besides, this time the government’s preparation had been infinitely easier and more skilful. The republican leaders knew how to portray this war as a people’s war. The spirit that could be observed in the workers’ neighbourhoods did not seem so very different from that in the bourgeois and aristocratic areas.

The denunciations and the (more or less discrete) visits from the police had already begun. The unanimity of the press – and the newspapers of Jaurès and of the syndicalists spoke like the others – had greatly contributed to creating this situation. All sorts of fake news was in circulation.

On the Sunday evening, as mobilisation was just beginning, I overheard a conversation in a neighbouring road of the Saint-Antoine suburb. The speaker was discussing a major battle in the Alsace that would end in a victory (it goes without saying) for France.

It was no use trying to demonstrate that this was an absolute impossibility. Not an ounce of scepticism remained. One could recount the worst sort of nonsense as long as it cast the ‘Boches’ in a bad light.

In this empty and convulsed Paris – the convulsion being of the spirits – Monatte and I undertook a search for any little islands of resistance that might exist.

Guy Tourette, who had given us daily help in the month of July with the Vie Ouvrière, had to leave in a hurry. He no longer had an income, and was obliged to go back to live with his family in the provinces. Anyway, there was no question of us continuing to publish La Vie Ouvrière as the mobilisation for war deprived us of its most indispensable support – the subscribers.

The paper was at that time in its sixth year. It had taken its place in the workers’ movement – an important and enviable place – as the journal of revolutionary syndicalism. It was neither official nor officious, which didn’t make life any easier.

Monatte, who had founded the paper, and was in charge of it, was determined that it should maintain its independent character. He had succeeded in building up an impressive number of subscribers – almost 2,000 – who were very strongly attached to him.

Even in ordinary times balancing the budget was a serious problem. But mobilisation amounted to a forced stop, for the moment. The only thing left to do was make an inventory of those forces which had not been swept away by the current.

Monatte and I couldn’t be called up. We set out to look for potential allies. Our first visit was to James Guillaume. La Vie Ouvrière did not have a more devoted friend. He was always ready to help in all sorts of ways. He even took on the obscure work of translation, for which there were never many volunteers.

But it was a hopeless visit. His avowed hatred for social democracy and the tenacious grudges he held (dating back to the epoch of the First International), must now lead to a war against Prussian militarism, he told us.

He felt he must choose between one of the belligerents – and his choice was made, without hesitation. As he did nothing by halves, this decision would carry him far – so far he even denounced the heroic act of Liebknecht as a mere social democratic manoeuvre.

Next we visited Maurice Bouchor. He wasn’t such a close friend as James. He was a socialist, and a member of that party. But he had always been a faithful subscriber of the paper. He took a lively interest in it and when certain socialists proposed a boycott, he wrote to us immediately in order to publicly protest against the attempt to put us on a blacklist.

He was returning from Switzerland in a hurry, where he had been on holiday. Monatte questioned him, asking for news, thinking that he must know things that the rest of us, stuck in Paris, would be ignorant of.

But he knew nothing – or didn’t want to know. One sensed that he was crushed by present events and was anxious about the future. Later he rallied to the cause of the ‘democratic war’ although he never sank into abject chauvinism.

One day, as we returned from one of our disappointing expeditions, we found a note left by Marcel Martinet. We had only encountered him recently, but had felt he was very well informed on workers’ activities and the issues effecting them. He had immediately given us active support.

The substance of the note amounted to: “Am I mad, or the others?”

We hurried to him without delay. It was the first time we sensed firm ground beneath our feet, and we felt great joy. From that moment Martinet was involved in all our undertakings, in a close working relationship. He will be the poet of those “cursed times.”

A few days later another note was left for us. It was equally laconic. This one was from Mme Compain. She was very interested – in an intelligent and useful manner – in the condition of working women. This subject was often neglected in the workers’ organs, but La Vie Ouvrière always made space for it.

She wrote that she wished to put herself at our disposition, in order to help us. But this time, it was a disappointment. The help that she proposed was for the war. When I went to see her, it was immediately apparent that all discussion would be useless.

Like many others, she was determined to stick to a few summary formulas. For example, imperialism was German because Germany had an emperor. I could have objected that on this basis Russia was also imperialist as it too had an emperor. But it was clear that there was no chance of a reasoned argument.

Meanwhile, Monatte had visited Libertaire[3] He met Pierre Martin, who had stuck to his principles. However, he was convinced there was nothing to be done until the women of the suburbs were ready to take to the streets. This was quite a widespread sentiment. We noted it in our meetings with several militant trade unionists. “There’s nothing to be be done.” “Let it pass.” It was a passivity that fed the belief – or the hope – that the war would be short.

From what could be seen in the working class neighbourhoods, this mood appeared to be widespread. Abandoned to themselves, the workers who remained had not been able to resist the tide. The same people that we had seen at Pré-Saint-Gervais on all the demonstrations against the war were now swept into the crusade against ‘Prussian militarism’. These Parisian workers were not the exception.

We often saw [Alphonse] Merrheim. He held firm. He kept us informed about what was happening at the headquarters of the CGT.[4] But we didn’t agree with the stance he was taking. On the occasions when he would merely raise his reservations we felt he should have made a clear statement of opposition – for example on the subject of the entry of Jouhaux[5] into the National Relief Committee.

But during those first days after the collapse, when we felt terribly alone, his moderate opposition could be well understood. Besides, it would soon come to a head. One morning when we arrived at his place two police officers stopped us, and asked for our papers.

Other militants that we visited remained indecisive. They didn’t approve of the new politics of the CGT, but neither did they want to condemn them. We just had to wait.

We were soon faced with the question of whether we would be able to stay in Paris at all. The answer came quickly, for all possibilities of finding a job were excluded. There was no work of any kind.

Later, when we settled into the war (and it had become clear that it would last a long time), the situation would change. At that point there would be work for everyone. The government would have to pay allowances to the parents of mobilised soldiers. But during the first month there was only total destitution; the national relief was organised very slowly, and what it provided was charity. We could have stayed in Paris if we had sought employment in its apparatus – but there was no way we could countenance that.

Towards 20 August, when the newspapers announced major French victories in Alsace (and the official account – commented upon and amplified by the press – implied that the fate of Germany was already settled), we left the city[6].

But Monattte could not keep away from Paris for long. From his village in the Auvergne he visited Saint-Étienne and Lyon, where he made the comforting discovery that fewer people had lost their heads than in Paris.

The militants who hadn’t yet been mobilised were certainly distraught; they couldn’t understand the attitude of the leaders of the CGT. But they were determined not to yield to the devastating currents.

In Lyon, the secretary of the trades council was among the most firm, and he had the committee of the union on his side. Convinced that the resistance of the comrades of Rhône was not the exception, he had already thought of launching an appeal with the aim of reassembling the scattered forces. This coincided too closely with the views of Monatte for him not to support the project enthusiastically.[7]

After this encouraging foray into the provinces Monatte returned to Paris, where I rejoined him a little later (as soon as Marcel Martinet found me work). I also bought back some booty: I had been scouring foreign newspapers and magazines, and had found evidence that outside of France there were islands of resistance in every country.

Monatte was already in touch with Martov[8], as I will explain below. Guilbeaux[9], who we did not know personally at that point, came to see us. He had heard by way of a chance encounter that La Vie Ouvrière was ‘holding firm’.

He told us about a group that he frequented where Painlevé[10], among others, could be found. This surprised us a great deal. Their criticism of the war was very moderate and not very coherent – but at least it was another opposition group. However, it didn’t amount to much and neither did it prevent Painlevé from becoming, twenty months later, the Minister of War.

At that time Guilbeaux was in his ‘Rollandist’ period. Le Journal de Genève[11] carried an article by Romain Rolland[12] with the title ‘Above the mêlée’. In order to distribute it, and make sure it was more widely known, we made typewritten copies – and sometimes even wrote it out by hand.

We knew (vaguely) that among the socialists there were some people resisting the tide. In order to gather more precise information, I went along to the offices of l'Humanité. There I found Amédée Dunois[13] who had resolutely refused, from the very first day, to enrol in the ‘democratic crusade’ – or to accept any of the extraordinary fables intended to drag socialists into the war.

In these offices where most had completely lost their heads, he only had one ally – the cartoonist H.P Gassier.[14] His drawings, full of wit and intelligence, made him the paper’s best polemicist. But they no longer gave him space. Gassier had been frozen out of Renaudel’s l'Humanité.

Daniel Renoult[15] also resisted, although his opposition was more moderate. It was above all the chauvinist articles that l'Humanité published (notably those of Compère-Morel) that provoked his righteous anger.

The inventory of our forces was quickly accomplished.

Three months of war – and military disasters of an entirely different nature to that which the general staff and the newspapers had led us to expect – were sufficient to dampen the rash enthusiasm of the early days. Now there was a new illusion: peace by Christmas. People either believed it, or wanted to believe it. And once positions had been adopted, they could not be abandoned.

So the prospects for possible actions were still far off. But what we could do for now was resume our weekly meetings where old (and new) friends could find each other and keep in touch.

The appearance of the city had changed a lot. In August we had a dazzling sun and the delirious expectation of victory. But now, with the short days, the streets barely lit, the shops closing early and the rare pedestrians, Paris had a gloomy air after nightfall. And the list of fallen comrades was already circulating.


1. La Vie Ouvriere (working class life) was a syndicalist newspaper. – Tr.

2. The levée en masse was the policy of mass military conscription of all able-bodied, unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 25 first adopted in the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789. At its heart is the idea that the soldiers are fighting a people’s war – as citizens, in defence of their own nation. – Tr.

3. An anarchist journal. -Tr.

4. The Confédération générale du travail, a trade union. As recently as 27 July it had called demonstrations against the war. But just one day after war was declared on 3 August, its leadership decided to join the Union sacrée, and give their organisation’s backing to the French state’s prosecution of the war. – Tr.

5. Léon Jouhaux, general secretary of the CGT from 1909-1940. – Tr.

6. The official communiqué of 20 August reported: “Our troops have had great success, particularly between Mulhouse and Altkirch. The Germans are in retreat along the Rhine and have left many prisoners in our hands. Twenty four trucks have been captured of which six were taken during fighting by our infantry.” The French aviators have performed magnificent exploits. The forts of Liège are still holding and those of Namur “which are every bit as powerful as those of Liège, have not even been attacked.”

7. This plan was not carried out. However on 13 January 1915, the Rhône Trades Council general committee unanimously adopted a declaration that ended with these words: “The Rhône Trades Council places the common interests of humanity above all other secondary conditions. We strongly affirm the still living principle of workers’ internationalism and we declare our support for any sincere action aimed at achieving, as soon as possible, a just and definitive peace. War on war! Long live the Workers’ International! (See the appendix for the complete text of this declaration).

8. Julius Martov, leader of the Mensheviks. -Tr.

9. Henri Guilbeaux, an anarchist writer and militant. He later became close to the Bolsheviks, and was the French correspondent for Pravda. – Tr.

10. Paul Painlevé was a prestigious mathematician before he was elected, in 1910, as an independent socialist MP to represent the 5th arrondissement of Paris. -Tr.

11. A liberal Swiss newspaper. -Tr.

12. Romain Rolland was a well known dramatist and novelist at this point. His article was liberal and pacifist in nature, but it caused quite a stir because it came from such a high profile intellectual. -Tr.

13. Amédée Dunois was an anarchist, and political editor of l'Humanité from 1911. He later became a leading member of the French Communist Party. During the Second World War he organised the underground work of the Socialist Party in occupied France. The Nazis deported him, and he would die in Bergen-Belsen in 1945. -Tr.

14. The following year, 1915, Henri Paul Gassier would co-found the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné. -Tr.

15. Daniel Renoult would later join the French Communist Party at its inception. He was elected on to its central committee, and briefly edited its periodical, l'Internationale. -Tr.