Hyacinthe Dubreuil

passages from

A Chance for Everybody
A liberal basis for the organization of work




These are passages from a text originally published in French in 1934. The author was a worker and a trade unionist. The ideas here developed are still quite original. The suggestion to move from dependent work based on the wage-system to groups of independent workers that make contractual arrangements with the owner of the machines (the capitalist), is a wonderful proposition that, unfortunately, has not received the attention it deserves. Perhaps the time has arrived to test and apply it on a large scale.



Statism, bigness and irresponsibility

All those people who hypnotize the masses with the problem of merely political change do a great wrong in distracting their attention from the personal effort that each man can make if he wishes to see a better world come to life. If the workers of today are bent under the wage-system, they would be just as badly off under no matter what new political regime provided that no fundamental changes were carried as far as the internal regime of the workshop.

In a book containing passages which should be pondered by all who are interested in the upward progress of the workers Gabriel Séailles [La Philosophie du Travail, Presses Universitaires]  makes numerous references to the disastrous illusions of men who believe in revolutionary miracles.

“Just as we have disguised Providence, we disguise the miracle, we secularize it, we call it the Revolution, and we imagine some theatrical' stunt' or some coup d'état which, with the splendour of an apotheosis, will suddenly reveal, ready made for us and without us, the better society. We no longer gaze towards the sky for the coming of the Messiah borne upon the clouds amidst the tumult of angels' trumpets: we stare instead at the dusty road; looking for the cloud of golden dust in which justice and fraternity are to arrive astride the legendary horses.”

If it is no longer possible to expect the miraculous appearance of a better society, what then must we do?

“To educate the people we must not, as its leaders too often do, flatter its instincts and its pride, blame society for all of its faults, complacently ascribe to it virtues and abilities which it has not got, which it ought to acquire. . . .
" If we desire justice it is entirely vain to cry aloud for it, and still more vain to shake our fists with threatening gestures in the void. If we desire justice, let us create it. And to create justice means first to conceive it, to define our idea" of it, and to translate this idea into the complex facts that should be ordered by it, to discover its many and various applications, to sort out our problems and endeavours, and to expect always to be faced with new difficulties presented by new facts. He alone, cries Faust, who has come through his testing period deserves liberty which, like life, must be conquered afresh each day.”

As early as 1847 John Stuart Mill observed that the progress of the masses" is not achieved by passive qualities only, and in general what we do for people is no use to them unless it backs up only what they do for themselves". (Lettres de Stuart Mill à Auguste Comte).

Oh, no doubt, to draw the workers' attention to their duties and to the efforts they have to make would be a bad line of talk for an election address. Nobody would ever get elected on such a programme, and one would have to be a Jaurès to dare to say that "History will never excuse men from courage and individual nobility of character".

There are other reasons than those just indicated for not cherishing too much enthusiasm in favour of the idea of the "conquest of the State" as a solvent of the problem of the workers' freedom. At least, I should say, by the conquest of the State" from above", for we have yet to learn whether a line of conquest "from below" cannot be found, by setting up new social cells of the most elementary nature for the transformation of the State from the inside.

I wonder in fact whether the politicians' dream of the conquest of the State from above would not tend to spread an evil which has already done only too much damage, that of nationalization (étatisme), whose development so many persons view with apprehension.

M. Emile Vandervelde once wrote that he was disturbed at the prospects of the development of the State. "It is incontestable", he says, "that we are witnessing, alas, in all countries, in Germany as much as in France, in England, in Italy, in Russia and even elsewhere, an hypertrophic development of nationalization (étatisme)." (L'Europe Nouvelle, 24th December, 1932).

M. Vandervelde then recalls the well-known predictions of Marx on the subject of “capitalist concentration” which one day should enable socialism to succeed it as a natural heir.

“But”, he adds, “Marx seems to have made a mistake in saying that socialism ought to arise as a kind of apotheosis of this evolution towards state control (étatisme). One could perfectly conceive, alas, of a social order in which the State would be master of the great means of production, where all industrial activities would be regulated, where the citizens would be numbered as if they were in a barracks, and where the ideal would be realized that Flaubert once lent to the policeman Sénécal: a society which would resemble at one and the same time a dairy-farm and a spinning-mill”.

This criticism of "etatisme" from the pen of an eminent socialist will already have helped to rectify certain ill-informed opinions. But I will take the liberty of following it with a few reflections expressed by an expert of another kind, so that these two criticisms taken in conjunction may help us to get a clearer picture of the evil to which we have given the most unsuitable name of “étatisme”.

In a brochure on “The optimum size of business concerns” (La Taille Optimum des Affaires, 1930), M. Paul Maquenne records “the progressive inertia of the administrative function in an expanding business, and also the waste if not the muddle that is generally to be found”.

“To remedy this situation”, he adds, “the Management is always obliged to multiply the organs of control, the audits, to seek the semi-automatic operation of these checks; but then we come upon this other obstacle which we have termed inertia and all the inconveniences of a red-tape administration. It is just here that all those who have had business relations with firms that are growing beyond normal size have, had occasion to complain and lament the old days when the 'master' took personal charge of his concern and was accessible to his customers, to his suppliers, and to his workpeople. The 'Departments', apart from their necessary slowness, have an impersonal character which generally does not help their relations with the outside world, and they have sometimes been known to operate in an inopportune and clumsy manner. This is one of the most vexatious disadvantages of these firms that have overshot their optimum scale of operation; it is especially noticeable when prompt decisions have to be taken owing to a sudden and unforeseen change of circumstances. It still further aggravates the already painful situation created by lack of suppleness and adaptability.”

M. Maquenne's observations have the great interest of helping us to understand how the evil of “étatisme” or, in other words, bureaucracy, has fundamentally nothing to do with the fact that the enterprise is in the hands of the State, for it is found just as much in the big organizations created by private monopolies when they have contrived to grow to the dimensions of public services. This evil is simply caused by a vice of organization which, as we see, applies equally to State and to private enterprises. It springs from the fact that pari passu with the extension of the business no steps whatever have been taken to distribute and decentralize responsibility. Introduce responsibility into the functions of the State with some system of sanctions operating as automatically as those which hit a business man who makes a mistake, and at the same stroke you will restore life and activity. What I am saying now is not intended, by the way, to launch a movement here for administrative reform, which is outside my competence, but rather to insist on the need to base all organization of work, at no matter what level, upon the sentiment of responsibility.

Let us hear M. Vandervelde again, for after having criticized “étatisme” he tells us how to avoid its evils:

If it is to be otherwise", he added after the preceding lines, "the workers themselves must begin a reaction in the direction of freedom, initiative and human dignity.

We can scarcely exaggerate the importance of these last words, of which the italics are mine. They will inspire every line of this little work. We must give the workers a taste for freedom, a sense of initiative, a sentiment of dignity. But these are qualities which will not be won through electoral channels. They will only be forged in the fire of workshop responsibilities, when their work will have passed from the passive to the active stage, from obedience pure and simple, from compulsory output, to the independent enthusiasm of the entrepreneur.



From dependent work to free contracts

I was then employed in a factory where the whole of the labour force was on “piece-work”, and in a gang with which we had succeeded in maintaining the “time-rate” system - in accordance with the authority and opinion of the unions, which were always theoretically hostile to “piece-work”. I must say that the satisfaction that we derived from this was moral rather than monetary, which proves that if there is need of them, people are still to be found who can sacrifice their material interests for their idealism.

In order to clarify this last remark I must recall the fact that according to a theory that is familiar to certain amateur economists who are but superficially informed regarding the real nature of the life of labour, the workers are usually divided into two categories, the well-paid “aristocrats” and the true proletarians who alone are supposed to suffer the indignities of the working-class position. I am sorry to give the lie to this facile, demagogic theory, and point out that on the contrary - and this is an assertion that is easily verifiable - the wages of many unskilled workers often exceed those of the skilled for the simple reason that many of the former are engaged on tasks that are easy to pay by the piece, whereas the work of the latter, for practical reasons, cannot for the greater part of the time be paid otherwise than by the hour. Everyone in the factories knows this, that is to say all those for whom work is not a mere field of observation and study, but the only way they have of earning their bread.

Actually, such was the case with my gang, and we had around us workers who were quickly familiarized with very simple operations, and who drew wages well above our own, although without the tools that we made they would not have been able to work. . . .

The head of the business naturally knew of this situation and never left off chaffing us about it. According to him, our union principles “cost us money”. And every time this occurred he used to insist that we should fall into line with the general rule, and thus raise our own wages, at the same time, naturally, giving him more plentiful production. For if our work did not lend itself as readily to rapid operation as was the case with the other men, it is no less certain that the initiative of the interested party, stimulated by piece-work, could nevertheless contribute some means of speeding up the work. As he was satisfied, however, with the quality of our work, he did not dare to override our objections and impose upon us by force a system of work which was distasteful to us.

Then it was that I remembered the experiment of the typographers' commandites, about which I had read in one of their propaganda pamphlets and suggested to my comrades that we should undertake our work an the same basis. They accepted, and we then made a proposal to the head of the business which I may describe in this way:

Having prepared a detailed list of all the jobs that we were doing regularly, we calculated the cast of production of each piece according to the time that we took over it and the wage that was paid us. That enabled us to tell the head of the business that up to the present these various pieces were casting him so much each. We asked him then to take these prices purely and simply as a basis far a collective enterprise, that is to say that we undertook collectively to deliver him these pieces at the same price, but under the same conditions as an outside supplier, it being understood that thenceforth nobody would any longer be concerned with the time that we took over the work. I think I can even remember that we were “good fellows” and fixed lower prices far same pieces than the old costs of production. And, believe me, that was because we knew that we could make them easily!

Naturally the work-place, equipment, raw materials and miscellaneous supplies would be at our disposal as formerly (Note: we did not demand ownership but merely the utilization of the means of production). It was finally agreed that every fortnight one of us would present at the counting-house a docket of work delivered and draw the total sum due, so that no one at all could interfere in our distribution of this sum among the members of the gang.
Taking advantage of the opportunity we added an extra demand to our proposal, saying to the head of the business: “You know . . . your time-recording clock at the entrance . . . we should very much like to be rid of it ! What is the good of uselessly punching these cards now, seeing that we have just done a deal that makes us your suppliers, and you are only paying far the work that we deliver to you. . . .”.

Being businesslike and frank, and smiling as if to say " but you can't do that to me", this employer resisted the temptation that so many others would have had to yield nothing under the heading of "authority ", and agreed to everything : We became independent in the heart of the vast organization where we had to go on living, and from that moment onwards we passed scornfully by the time-recording clock, instrument and symbol of the mechanization of the worker!

There we were in business “on our own account”! Revolution! We have no longer a moment to lose. No longer any effort to waste. No longer a talent that must not be used to the maximum.

We soon get to work on rearrangements in the team. By Virtue of the principle of the utilization of abilities we soon arrange ourselves so that the jobs shall be shared out in such a way as to fit more exactly the competence of each man. There is among us an element that is precious above all others, and that is the skill of those who can be sure of executing the finest class of work. We decide immediately that those who are capable of doing this highest-grade part of the work shall do only that in future, to the exclusion of all jobs of preparation and “roughing out”. One of us who we think has hitherto had a poor share in the distribution of the work gets a job of a more important order. We cannot afford to throw our resources away! Now, then, take care about the quality of the work! It won't do to have arguments of this sort when the goods are delivered, or when they come to be used later on: we should run the risk of awkward discussions about the payment of the collective account. Everyone understands that, and through the fact of the close interlocking of all the interests we now have a regime of the most thorough-going mutual aid. The member of the team who is good at figures will keep the accounts. We consult an engineer, who supplies us with the formula we need for proportional sharing on a double basis. First we want the coefficients which distinguish the differences in value of the participants. Then one to represent the time put in by each of us during the week or the fortnight. We must in fact have advance knowledge of absences. All that is arranged without discussions, and is finally consolidated at the sharing-out of the first invoice.

Nothing is in fact more decisive than the sanction of results: From the first fortnight each man's share is raised to a third more than the wage he drew before. If it were necessary -but there is no need of anything over and above our observations - we might remark to the master - who has become our customer - that his pieces are not costing him any more than before. In reality they are costing less, because we have given him more of them in the same time: his overhead charges have evidently gone down, and consequently his production costs.

Between ourselves our solidarity will take on later some novel and efficacious forms: A comrade is going to entertain some relations at home, and would very much like to be free to be with them: “Stop at home this afternoon. We shall not make any deductions. It will be our turn another time. . . .” Another one who is particularly courageous and devoted, is taken ill for a few days. We decide - because we know him to be no scrimshanker, that we shall take no account of his absence. On the day of the share-out, he will touch his full quota. It is cordial and spontaneous. And it is efficient and elastic, quite different from the cold and mechanical operation of an insurance policy. The group is a family.

But I will return later on to the examination of possible consequences of work thus organized in the group. Consequences the first effects of which I was able to observe in this experiment, and the like of which can be observed in every case of application, and when the workers are left to themselves.

The important thing is to record the change in our relations with the business. They are no longer those of superior and subordinate. Our “person” exists no more. We are no longer supervised. According to Godin's aspiration, this supervision has been entirely transferred to the work that leaves our hands. It is a contract, a true working contract, or rather a contract of exchange, for it is clear that our relations with the business present a commercial aspect rather than the usual aspect of subordination that exists under the régime of the wage-system pure and simple. For we are in fact no longer wage-earners, but really suppliers, no more nor less free than outside contractors. This situation is even confirmed by the fact that we have competitors. Getting supplies of certain pieces from outside firms, the employer sometimes says to the team: “Such and such work you are doing is costing me too much. X. is offering them to me for less.” Then the team gets together. We examine whether the objection is well-founded. We accept or refuse as the case may be. But we are no longer in the humiliating position of the man who can only discuss his salary, for this new situation is no other than that of people who are “in business” and discuss a deal in the traditional manner.

Moreover, let those who are disturbed at the idea of the disappearance of wages ponder these words: The only possible alternative to wages is the contract system. If the wage-system is slavery, the contract alone is the practical basis of freedom.



Work, life and human nature

There is nothing more regular nor more powerful than the laws of life and of nature. This has long been recognized in connection with many matters to which man's scientific attention has been extended.

It is precisely on the basis of this discovery, in fact, that we have succeeded in making rational use of the great forces of nature. When it was seen that it sufficed to allow these forces to operate in order to produce, with the aid of the appropriate apparatus, a given result, we obtained from gravity the movement of the pendulum, or the rotation of the water-wheel. With heat and water we have utilized thermic energy. It was then that Francis Bacon was able to enunciate his famous axiom:

“We only command nature when we obey her laws.”

Human science has already derived great benefits from this law of obedience, but precisely and solely in the material order of things, such as those which have been realized by technology.
As for man, nobody, or hardly anybody, has yet perceived that to command him it is necessary first to obey him, that is to say to obey the profound laws of his nature.

In every man, indeed, no matter how rough he may be, nature has set her mark in deep features, which no man can efface. She has granted forces and resources which we must know if we would use them to the maximum, for only if these forces and incentives to action are found in conditions suitable to their natural expansion can the individual give the whole of the output of which he is capable.

Those who up till now have pitied the lot of the worker, and have pondered over the means of liberating him, have never really gone beyond the realm of sentimental, vague generalizations, instead of attempting to analyse the positive problems that we have to solve. We must, then, discover the laws which determine the satisfaction of every human personality, from the humblest to the most complex. If we are to utilize them, we must know how to recognize the genuine and most secret springs of action.

No doubt it is a long time since the psychology of man was first studied. But as for its application to matters of labour, it is still in its first steps, not so much perhaps so far as concerns research into aptitudes, but in regard to the principles that have to be taken into account if we are to ensure a distribution of tasks that corresponds to the capacities of each.

Scarcely anywhere save in England, or in the United States, where the science of work is studied with so much zeal, has there been resolute examination of problems of this order in a spirit of intellectual liberty that shrinks from none of its aspects.

“This composite mystery (man)” [says Arthur Pound, The Iron Man in Industry, Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston, I922] “enters the shop and takes his place beside the machine, to use a small but definite fraction of his powers in assisting it to produce and distribute goods. Call him No. 3141 if you choose; nevertheless, he differs from No. 3142 and all other men living or dead. . .. Labor is more than labor; each labor unit is also an individual, immeasurably dear to himself, even in despair.
“What the shop precisely wants, it cannot hire. It may want, though never wisely, mere hands and feet and backs; they do not exist detached from lusts, faiths, superstitions. It may want eyes, sensitive fingers, or specialized knowledge; they are not to be divorced from nerves and prejudices. . . .
“The mental luggage of the man going to the machine may be listed briefly as instincts, emotions, traditions, beliefs, habits of thought and conduct - those qualities of mind and spirit which, in their interplay, not only establish the individuality of their possessor, but also govern his reactions to authority and to the responsibilities involved in home and social relationships.”

In a work devoted to the organization of relations between firms and their personnel, Scott, Clothier and Matthewson [Personnel Management, New York] distinguish in the light of psychology the three principal angles from which the worker should be regarded if we wish to obtain his unreserved efforts. He must be examined from the point of view of his capacities, interests and opportunities.
It is certain that an attentive examination of the whole individuality ought to reveal on these three planes and at some stage of development the existence of the particular capital that each man has at his disposal for making his way in life.

When, instead of simply demanding a required performance of the first-comer, about whom one knows nothing, we are able to take account of this inner capital of which the man himself is often unaware, we shall be able, according to the forgoing principle, to ask for efforts which will really be but acts of submission to his own inmost nature, and which will consequently unlock forces in him which he could not otherwise have utilized.


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