Solidarity and Charity


Hradecky-La veuve-1903

Solidarity and Charity[1]

Ladies and Gentlemen,

If I pay tribute to the work done today, it is because it seems to me this kind of temporary work is extremely necessary between the past and the future; it is because solidarity is a beautiful word, a new word that has the good fortune to scare no one, at least for the moment; it is because solidarity is the chosen intermediary between charity and justice. (Applause)

Charity—I don’t mean to slander it but it seems to me that it is not something that has vanished or gone out-of-date but it is an historical expression. It had its great beauty, its heroic times at the start of our era, not to go all the way back to Antiquity where it was held in honor and practiced by the philosophers before the coming of religions, at the start of these new religions when the persuaded people, the persecuted and hunted people—Oh, those were the good times! How fortunate the persecuted to whom the future belonged!—when those people went into the catacombs and the arenas they did not have the same idea of charity as we do today. Duty was duty. It was the poor brother. They shared what they had in the name of a distant and beautiful ideal.

It was fraternity being practiced: You are my brother, let’s share.

Since then, charity has curiously transformed and all religious charity has its flaws: it is the principle by which we practice charity for what it gives back. We practice charity to get to heaven. Whether it be a Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, Buddhist or any other heaven, all religions say the same thing: Do good to receive a reward. And what a reward: an eternity of pleasure and happiness!

Logical minds tell themselves: This charity is really just usury.

It is usury. You give this (a little) to get that (a lot).

It is not charity. It is a business; a speculation on the miseries of the poor world but it is not charity. (Repeated applause)

Charity, I say, is a very beautiful thing when we understand in it not only the giving of the object, which is really a very small thing, but the giving of oneself.

I saw charity practiced by two people who were on opposite poles of belief: one was Cardinal Manning, bishop of London, a man, oh yes, truly of heroic times, who in his ecclesiastical garb went with John Burns, the Irish agitator, during the dock strike to speak with the workers in the bars to learn about their needs, their misery, their suffering. He was truly fraternal, a Christian in the best sense of the word.

The other, who for me was a person of admirable dedication and self-sacrifice, was Louise Michel who could not get a place here today (Applause) and to whom I have to apologize for speaking where she could not.

You see in her only one thing: the legend. Behind this legend, behind this bogeyman there is the most tender, the most fervent, the most dedicated heart you can imagine. She, yes, understood charity like it should be understood. She never had anything for herself; she gave herself by giving what she had; she refused to press charges against the man who shot her, saying that he was misled. There are the sick and the unstable who appear guilty but are not. Just so the penal colonies and scaffolds are made for the unstable. (Repeated applause)

Everything moves on and now this word charity is replaced by solidarity.

It is a very good name you took because it implies the feeling of justice. It walks hand in hand with it.

“You’re weaker than I, lean on me! You have nothing, let’s share! Why are you ashamed of your poverty?”

That’s what those who have nothing should keep in mind: poverty is no more degrading than it is criminal. To have no money is not a loss of pride; it is a circumstance of life and the poor are always equal to the rich. (Enthusiastic applause)

In our present society, which is, let’s say it, so savage and barbarous, where money plays a shameful role, we see all too often how the rich push away the poor, but in your solidarity you simply settle the issue: by going to look for those who are suffering. That’s what must be done: going to look for them.

And I won’t say, “Help one another.” But I will repeat the old saying, “Love one another.”

We can replace many things, but we can never replace this saying.

Love one another, meaning share with those who have nothing, give a little of yourselves, give a little of your heart.

Oh, you who enjoy this privilege, admirable and rare as it is to give, know your obligations and your happiness because to give brings pleasure, a joy that can be won by work and effort, I don’t deny, but do you know if some bad luck, some illness might not keep you from success and if you might some day be in the situation of these poor folk. (Applause)

Thus, you members of the Solidarité are one step ahead of tomorrow’s action, you are ahead of your time, you are reaching justice.

It is a beautiful thing to be the precursors of what will be just tomorrow when the State will finally do what it should. Your initiative makes the first move and I who do not believe that governments lead people but that the feelings of the people push governments to do what they should, I find that you are doing something very great here, very beautiful and very generous. (Applause)

So far as children are concerned you recognize their rights.

Up to recent times, up to thirty years ago, we were not very concerned with them. We are very proud of our scientific progress and we consider ourselves very advanced. And yet fifty years ago children still fell under the old Roman law: they belonged to their fathers; they were his property, his cattle. We condemned excessive abuses but children belonged to their fathers. Unfortunately, no matter what has been done, in a lot of areas we still think a father holds all rights over his child. This is false.

A child is a gift given by nature.

You have brought it to life; you are its debtors. In exchange for this lousy gift you owe it as much happiness as possible and at the very least everything that can guarantee it good health and standing.

Parents are the debtors of children.

When we stray from this principle we see that this poor little creature, thrown into life in spite of himself, asking only to stay where he was, who might bear the terrible defects from an unsuspected atavism, which might date back generations, this poor kid who is going to run all risks and face all dangers has the right to protection, to tenderness, to justice from his parents while waiting for society to do what it should.

This is for children, but society puts a heavy debt on this future man.

We don’t see the obligations that the State has toward adults; it will fulfill them later. It will learn to see that every being, just by being born, has the right to the bare necessities. The adult has to earn the extras, but from the fact that he was brought into this world he has the right to live and he, too, is society’s creditor.

The man to whom it is often said, “You’re fit, earn your living,” and who answers, “Sure, but I’ve got no work,”—we have to give him bread.

No one can say of his brother, “He’s not rich but he doesn’t work.” The man who is here on earth has the right to eat; the extras he can work for. (Applause)

While waiting for this time to come, give to those who have not. Enter into this still young solidarity that has a grand future ahead.

This will be a badge of honor for Beauvais and a shining example for the other cities in France.

What I admire is that this organization bears no complicated statutes or board of directors. There is only a good will committee.

I would make a special appeal to women. Under the pretext of working on those wretched little horrors that they later inflict on their friends, those things that are generally in bad taste (and that those who receive them have to hold onto because they are keepsakes), instead of those frivolous luxuries, do simple things.

A slightly faded dress, clothes that you could make acceptable, honorably, use your taste, your elegance to give joy to others with these things. The needle is light for fingers doing good.

Spend your evenings thinking about the women who have nothing. These things you have to work on, give them away, you will know joy and you are the ones who will be grateful.

You will know the treasure of thankful eyes, of seeing creatures now and again wild become calm because they feel that a kind heart has approached them.

Do good. Not to have (as Hugo said, who is also a great figure but already historical) The almighty prayer of a beggar[2], but to see the hateful eye grow tender, to feel in this woman’s embrace as she hugs and thanks you the purest joy and greatest treasure that a human being can know. (Prolonged applause and cheering)


On finishing Madame Séverine received the compliments of the committee members and of Dr. Baudon who said this: “I thank the audience and Mr. Bienvenu-Martin, our distinguished president, for his powerful, instructive speech, and Dr. Savoire who gave us a wonderful lesson on childcare and morality.” And he added, “As for Madame Séverine, what can I say? With all your heart you applauded her heart speaking. That’s the best reward for her and for us.”

     On leaving the meeting a collection was made. It was fruitful because everyone wanted to participate in this work of fraternity and love that the committee members want to carry out with all their energy and all their heart.

[1] Speech made on November 8 1903 at Beauvais during a conference organized by the Association Solidarité Familiale et Allaitement Maternel.

[2] From “Pour les pauvres” in Les Feuilles d’automne.



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