Table of Contributors   Table of Contents   Return to Encyclopedia Home Page


On the morning of February 25, immediately following the successful revolution, the Provisional Government proclaimed complete liberty of press, assembly and association. Under popular pressure, the government subsequently abolished sweated sub-contracting (marchandage), limited working hours, and proclaimed the "right to work," which implied the "organization of labor." It then proceeded to take several measures to implement this proclamation, notably the establishment of National Workshops and the Government Commission for Laborers (Luxembourg Commission). These measures signalled to workers a responsiveness to ideals and actions commonly ascribed to the notion of "association," which embodied, concretely and practically, their understanding of the social republic. In various contexts they took advantage of the new climate of freedom to form organizations inspired by the ideal of association. Such organizations, as well as other groups and individuals promoting the workers' cause, issued manifestos and founded newspapers in which association was a central theme. These enterprises drew upon traditions, both ideological and practical, which had cultivated association in the past, especially those of labor demands (revendication) and utopian socialism in the July Monarchy.

Between February and June, the practice and rhetoric of association tended in two directions. These were the autonomous corporative organization of individual trades, centered on mobilization for labor demands and practical reform of conditions of work, and the unitary federation of trades around the Luxembourg Commission in what was called the "Estates-General" of labor. The former built upon a variety of practices, having a long or short history, specific to particular trades, such as mutual aid, syndicalist action, and compagnonnage. The abolition of sweated sub-contracting provided another practical basis for mobilization in some trades. The February revolution provided the occasion for generalizing these practices to the trade as a whole and for creating institutions for systemic organization within each trade. The existence of the Luxembourg Commission as an arbitral body strengthened the revendicative power of these emerging corporations and induced a standardization of settlements among trades, which endured even following the commission's dissolution. In these ways the corporation was the center of gravity for the movement of association in this period of the Second Republic.

Within the Luxembourg Commission a more visionary perspective of association was promoted in the constitution of labor as a political force. Here the theorists of associative socialism and social republicanism found a ready platform, especially Louis Blanc. Blanc's notions of the socialist organization of labor based on state credit and mobilization of the working masses into democratic and patriotic institutions echoed the inclinations of most leaders of worker corporations. Here, moreover, was cultivated the exercise of popular sovereignty through the election of worker delegates to what might potentially serve as a parallel political power. The corporation served as the primary electoral unit for this purpose and became a microcosm of the social and democratic republic (Sewell). Delegates of the trades to Luxembourg also cooperated with leaders of political clubs in organizing demonstrations, notably those of March 17 (which, according to Gossez, they initiated) and April 16. A central committee of such delegates in the Paris region was formed after March 17 to promote the election of workers to the constituent assembly on April 23. This central committee was a nucleus for reconstituting a unitary direction to the workers' movement in late May-early June, when the Luxembourg Commission was dissolved. Renamed the Society of Delegates of the United Corporations and creating the Journal des Travailleurs as its mouthpiece -- the first paper in Paris responsible to a representative class organization (Gossez) -- this unitary organism adopted the promotion of association as its central mission.

Along with workers' corporations, and often in association with these, numerous producers' cooperatives were founded by workers following the February revolution. Often these were inspired by specific utopian ideas of association, notably those of Buchez and the Fourierists. Frequently they served as adjuncts to corporative mobilization for making labor demands, strengthening resolve and moderating wage demands at the same time. The Luxembourg Commission in Paris and analogous unitary institutions in the provinces, such as the Committee to Organize Work in Lyon, encouraged such formations and provided a forum for discussing cooperative ideas. As practical efforts towards the organization of labor, moreover, they were an element of the grander perspective of the democratic and social republic articulated on the eve of the June insurrection by the Delegates of the United Corporations. This perspective, called "general association," divided the "question of work" into two parts -- that specific to each trade, and that concerned with the exchange of products. The latter required mobilization of workers as consumers and thus territorially, by arrondissement and section. Such general association envisaged the progressive assimilation of the entire economy -- production, consumption and distribution -- by associated labor, and thus the complete elimination of competition. Such perspectives converged with the National Workshop model of associated labor, though only some trades organized themselves on this model. The National Workshops were nonetheless politically significant for maintaining the viability of the organization of labor by and for the masses. Their suppression, along with the repression following the June insurrection, forced such organization to fall back upon more limited efforts in individual trades, involving only certain groups of workers.

These limited efforts centered on "associations of labor," or producers' cooperatives on the model of Buchez and the workers affiliated with the newspaper L'Atelier. This model emphasized mobilization of an elite of worker-producers in "partial" enterprises that preserved a degree of competition within each trade as a guarantee of democracy and consumer welfare. It also discouraged state interference and assistance, in contrast to the prevailing Luxembourg views, which regarded the state as the primary agent of social transformation. Such associations of labor, organized with varying degrees of conformity to the Buchezian ideal, served at once as a refuge for leaders of the organized trades of the Luxembourg period, as "practical socialism" for communist workers, and as an alternative to secret societies for the more politically militant workers. Together with various commercial associations formed without regard to specific trades, the "association of labor" replaced the corporation as centerpiece of the workers' movement in the period following June.

From this common base of association, workers' organization went in several different directions for the remainder of the Second Republic. One direction preserved the political legacy of Luxembourg by identifying association with the promotion of the democratic and socialist republic in a more activist way. Under the lead of the printers, this element promoted workers' candidacies in the May 1849 legislative assembly elections, while continuing to focus on the practical aspects of association. In the provinces, notably in Lyon, such militant radical democratic and socialist elements were concentrated in several consumers' cooperatives which embodied the vision of general association. Another direction involved loans to existing or newly-formed producers' associations by the government, from a fund of three million francs voted by the constituent assembly on July 5, 1848, on the motion of the atelieriste deputy Corbon. Corbon and other Buchezians initially dominated the proceedings of the Committee for the Encouragement of Worker Associations appointed to distribute these loans but resigned when forced to fund associations whose practices leaned too much in the direction of capitalist accumulation. Finally, various efforts were made to revive workers' solidarity and unitary organization on the basis of association. Most of these efforts originated from the need for credit. Among the more prominent enterprises were Proudhon's Bank of the People, the Syndical Chamber of Labor, the Mutuality of Workers, Jeanne Deroin's Union of Associations, and the Society of the Labor Press. Tensions emerged among the initiators of such enterprises between those proclaiming the need for central authority, organization of the masses, and a role for the state, and those, like Proudhon and his followers, who favored a more relational, voluntarist, contractual approach entirely autonomous of the state. The former tended to include the former Luxembourg militants, whose views prevailed among the great majority of "fraternal associations" formed in Paris. For all of these the "association of labor" rather than the corporation was the primary unit of more comprehensive organization.

Several re-interpretations of the French labor movement of the nineteenth century have centered on association as an ideological and discursive theme of emerging workers' class consciousness and mobilization. One set of interpretations has emphasized association as a medium through which the assertion of workers' identity as a class was adapted to specific circumstances of their economic condition or of the social and legal environment of property emerging from the French Revolution. In one study of this type, association was the first major articulation of a "federalist trade socialism" appropriate to conditions of independent or semi-independent skilled workers and small producers threatened with economic deterioration and proletarianization (Moss). Situated between "regressive" Proudhonian and "progressive" Marxian ideologies of class formation, such "socialism of skilled workers" pursued emancipation through producers' cooperatives formed in each trade and federated into a collective effort to appropriate the product of labor. From 1830 through the Second Republic, the democratic republic was emphasized as the necessary political foundation for the realization of such federative socialism. On this basis middle-class republicans were closely allied with workers in political movements. This interpretation also emphasized the commonalities among the diverse forms of association promoted by different utopian schools. Underlying the apparent divergences, especially, between association as proposed by the followers of Blanc and Buchez, was a com mon reliance upon the democratic republican state to provide loans and contracts and a supportive environment for successful association.

In another study, association was the predominant discursive idiom through which French workers constructed class consciousness between 1830 and 1848 (Sewell). This idiom was a creative adaptation of the French Revolution ideal of liberty to the legal regime of individual property issuing from the same revolutionary tradition. It was also a fluid idiom, embodying a variety of aspirations, projects and institutions, both traditional and novel, indigenous to workers' culture and affiliated with critical utopian theories. This idiom served the ideological ends of the workers' corporation, the center of continuous workers' mobilization, in both legitimating such mobilization to society at large and galvanizing workers into a class-conscious group. The idiom gave way to that of "labor" in the revolution of 1848, which assimilated the various projects and purposes of association into a new vision of popular sovereignty and citizenship. In this vision the workers' corporation became the center of public authority for the democratic and social republic, and the emerging class consciousness of the July Monarchy achieved a kind of apocalyptic fruition.

Another set of interpretations contextualized association in situations that are more circumstantial and contingent, either those of workers' environment or those of their moral universe. One study situated the emergence of association into the texture of workers' everyday life, deriving from sources that were at once traditional and casual (Agulhon). Prior to 1848, workers' organization frequently formalized informal sociability at locations and in moments of natural encounter, especially those identified with use of leisure time. Formalization often led from cultural to political expression of such sociability. Such a course of association thrived in the 1840s, notably in the proliferation of mutual aid societies and in the attempt to emulate the cercle, a popular form of bourgeois sociability tolerated by the authorities. The cercle was one of several instances of the interpenetration of bourgeois and worker culture in the constitution of class identity and democratic political consciousness among workers, which reached fruition in 1848 and after. Such interpenetration brought into play personal ties and mediated political conversion through local habits of patronage, notably in the midi.

Association as the horizon for the reformulation of social consciousness and moral commitment was a prominent theme in another study inspired by post-Althusserian "new philosophy" and using as method of analysis the deconstruction of various utopian socialist texts of the period 1830-1850 (Rancire). In this study the associationist vision of the Second Republic was read selectively as the moral critique of fraternal community, as the latter had been formulated and practiced especially in the Saint Simonian and Fourierist schools of the July Monarchy. The critique was made in the name of an ideal of work as self-sacrificing dedication and was counterpoised to that of the union of workers absorbed in indistinguishable harmony or egotistical self-satisfaction. In such a view the foundation of association was morality, which presumed the duality of spontaneous freedom and resistant matter. In contrast, the other utopian visions tended towards suicidal pantheism or self-indulgent corruption. Workers' associations formed in 1848 with such moral perspectives could thus regard themselves as simple and virtuous "families" challenging the integrity of bourgeois society, which was petty and depraved by contrast. Such an understanding had been promoted by the Christian socialists Buchez and the worker-editors of L'Atelier. Their opinion initially guided the deliberations of the Committee for the Encouragement of Workers' Associations. Rancire used the discourse surrounding the distribution of subsidies by this committee and that evaluating the subsequent fate of funded associations as material for deconstructing the Buchezian/atelieriste ideal of work and association. This material demonstrated that, especially on matters of wage and management, the fine line between collective emancipation based on moral effort and success through capitalist accumulation and profit vanished. Association through dedication was thus revealed as at once beyond the realistic capacities of the worker and inadequate to his higher aspirations deriving from his essentially nomadic condition and nature.

George J. Sheridan


Agulhon, Maurice. Une ville ouvrière au temps du socialisme utopique: Toulon de 1815 à 1851 Paris: Mouton, 1970.

Agulhon, Maurice. "Working Class and Sociability in France before 1848" in The Power of the Past: Essays for Eric Hobsbawm eds. Pat Thane, Geoffrey Crossick, and Roderick Floud, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 37-66.

Gaumont, Jean. Histoire générale de la coopération en France: Les idées et les faits, Les Hommes et les oeuvres Tome 1: Précurseurs et pérmices Paris: Fédération nationale des coopératives de consommation, 1924.

Gossez, R. Les Ouvriers de Paris Livre premier, L'Organisation, 1848 - 1851 Bibliothque de la révolution de 1848, tome XXIV, 1967. La Roche sur-Yon: Imprimerie centrale de l'ouest, 1968.

Moss, Bernard H. The Origins of the French Labor Movement, 1830 - 1914: The Socialism of Skilled Workers Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Rancire, Jacques La nuit des prolétaires Paris: Arthme Fayard, 1981 Translated as The Nights of Labor: The Workers' Dream in Nineteenth Century France Translated by John Drury, with an introduction by Donald Reid. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Reybaud, Louis. "Mémoire sur les associations entre ouvriers ou entre patrons et ouvriers, fondées en France avec une subvention de l'état" Journal des économistes XXXII, no. 135 (juillet 1852), 209-254.

Sewell, William H., Jr. Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Table of Contributors   Table of Contents   Return to Encyclopedia Home Page

jgc revised this file ( on September 9, 2004.

Please E-mail comments or suggestions to

© 1997, 2004 James Chastain.