Emile Pouget was one of the most outstanding militants of the French labour movement. Together with that of Pelloutier, his was a crucial influence at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries.
Born in Salles-de-Source in the Aveyron department in 1860, he was raised in a progressively-minded family setting where phalanstery-style socialism was the keynote. In 1871, the trial mounted against the communards in Narbonne sent ripples through the region’s villages. After starting his education at high school in Rodez, Emile was obliged to earn his living in 1875 and went to Paris, where he found work in a large store: he used to attend public meetings, the circle of Bakunin’s disciples known as the “demi-quarteron” that used to meet in the Rue Saint-Martin, in the hope of the elder Rousseau, helped re-launch the first workers’ associations and to set up a shop employees’ union, his own. He was at all the demonstrations and in 1883, at a rally of the unemployed in the Esplanade des Invalides, some bakeries en route were looted and he was arrested in the Place Maubert, while trying to rescue Louise Michel. Sentenced in the assize court to eight years’ imprisonment (he was freed under an amnesty after three months) he returned to active life as a bookseller’s agent and resumed his revolutionary propaganda. In this regard, he engaged primarily in journalism for the first part of his life as an activist.
His journalistic talents had surfaced back in his high school days when he put together a news-sheet, Le Lycéen républicain, which earned him detentions and impositions. By 1889 he was joining Constant Martin in the publication of Ca ira, where he started to write in the vulgar tongue understood right across France and of which the workers were fond: he continued by writing a number of posters and then launched Le Pere Peinard, reflecs d’un gniaff. When Boulanger was elected, Le Pere Peinard appeared, written in the timeless style of popular language and illustrated by great artists, first of all in the format of little octavo booklets, and then as an eight page review and finally as a newspaper. Continually harassed, it altered its format in order to escape the police.
In 1894, Pouget was implicated in the Trial of the Thirty: he fled to London from where he dispatched copies of Le Pere Peinard, by then a tiny review printed in letter format, back to France. He did this up until 1895 for, following the election of Félix Faure to the presidency of the Republic in France, Pouget returned to the country, stood trial and was acquitted.
Right after he was acquitted, Le Pere Peinard turned into La Sociale before reverting to Le Pere Peinard from October 1896 to 1900. As much harassed as loved, Le Pere Peinard reached out even into the remotest villages to inspire social activism. Anti-parliamentary, anti-militarist and anti-clerical, the paper attacked not individuals but institutions and injustices and above all, capitalism, as well as all flim-flam, including that practised upon the people by the workers’ parties, particularly the Guesdists at that time: its verve and audacity take one’s breath away today. Its propaganda was very widespread: Pouget sought to arouse the people for the purposes of revolutionary social action and in this regard supported all forms of social activism – individual, collective, conscious or otherwise: by his reckoning, powerful concerted forces might emerge from the diversity of the populace, rather than their being corralled within boundaries.
An anarchist by temperament, he had also seen in trade union activity a means of inciting the populace to revolution and he made this his chief preoccupation from 1894 onwards, doubtless following his many exchanges with Pelloutier.
The last years of the 19th century saw syndicalism on the rise: Pouget and Pelloutier thereafter dedicated their lives to marshalling the workers for the prospect of action. From as early as 1889, Le Pere Peinard was pushing the general strike and direct action: in 1894 it was calling upon anarchists to enter the trade unions: “If there is one group the anarchists should be delving into, it just has to be the trades council.” And again: “The union’s object is to wage war on the bosses and not concern itself with politics.” In 1895, Pouget had used the term sabotage in Le Pere Peinard and he offered an explanation of its meaning in a report submitted to the Toulouse congress in 1897 ‘Boycott and Sabotage, a New Form of Struggle’. The report was adopted: he fleshed out his ideas in La Sociale and in Le Journal du peuple.
His dearest hope was for a daily newspaper for all revolutionary tendencies: he wrote for Sébastien Faure’s Journal du peuple when the Dreyfus Affair was at it height; and the foundering of that paper as a daily impelled him launch a weekly. The trade union congress in Toulouse in 1900 determined that a syndicalist paper, La Voix du peuple, should be launched; Pouget was secretary of its editorial staff after 1 December 1900 in his capacity as joint secretary of the CGT. Its main campaigns were against the placement bureaux, for the eight hour day, for the May Day commemoration and anti-militarist propaganda.
During this age of revolutionary syndicalism in opposition to reformism, Pouget shouldered most of the actual work inside the CGT up until 1908, especially following Pelloutier’s death and alongside Griffuelhes, in terms of his contributions, reports, countless articles, pamphlets and silent presence (he was no public speaker): he stood out on account of the clarity and breadth of his vision: he was unrelenting in his insistence upon the character of trade union action and organisation and in La Voix du peuple, he wrote: “Improvement wrested from the privileged is in proportion to the workers’ level of consciousness, the degree of their cohesion and their vigour.” “Let’s not delude ourselves. The social revolution is not going to be made without a formidable effort’s being required.” As he saw it, revolutionary syndicalism had to build upon the work of the First International “by striving for an ever more conscious determination”. Its task was to bring popular forces together on the battle-round, to arouse their will and their consciousness, to remind them of the essential, far-off objective, without letting itself be taken over by short-term concerns. In his view the outcome of syndicalism and social emancipation had to be to set the individual free.
After contributing to numerous papers, he trued again to launch a daily newspaper, La Révolution, in partnership with Griffuelhes and Monatte but it was forced to cease publication after two months (in March 1909). That came in the wake of the Draveil-Villeneuve-Saint Georges incidents in 1908, followed by the Marseilles congress and then, on 2 February 1909, Griffuelhes resigned from the secretaryship of the CGT. Pouget, weary but doubtless also because of the reformist turn taken by the CGT, withdrew from activity and returned to earning his livelihood, until he died at the age of 71 in 1931.
Translated by: Paul Sharkey.