Battlegrounds

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children working in the mines 1840s

Battlegrounds[1]

Let’s leave the “speechmakers” to their vain arguments, the troublemakers, the anarchy-mongers, the utopists and idealists, the theoreticians and philosophers, the subversives and dissidents, the whole sorry bunch that muddles order and afflicts, understandably, good thinking little brains.

Let’s leave aside the casuistry and discussion, the turns of phrase and figures of speech, the arguments and the replies, all the confusion or sublimity of words—empty prattle! When it comes to social issues, nothing matters but the deed. It alone arbitrates; it decides the opinions, confirms or denies them, and irrefutably establishes where the truth lies, in what North is the pole, in what East is the dawn! For an unsure conscience it is like a compass needle for the hesitant traveler… Follow its direction, proceed from its deductions and no error is possible; no doubt can remain.

Therefore, let’s go look for this magic talisman, in the thick of the social struggle, in the ordinary, everyday realities. Far from the orators and even from those precursors who, opposed to Jean Grave, do not make the deed sister to their dream, do not bind their action to their word, their existence to their Ideal. Very far from the empty rhetoric, let’s enter the great battle of demands and interests to seek insight by contemplating the results. And they are a complete, very suggestive revelation of the antagonism in which the strongest (today!) insist on monopolizing all the rights and leaving all the duties to the weakest.

We can judge the mentality of a caste like the morality of an army: by following in its wake… by counting the pointless victims outside of regular combat, all the shameful plundering, all the inhuman devastation, all the massacres and fires.

There were surely honest men, whose hearts shook with revolt and whose brows were soaked in shame, among the Bavarians at the sack of Bazeilles[2]. History’s fatality will remain forever ignorant. Impassively it will write in the book of memory: “The Bavarian army sacked Bazeilles, set fire to the town and slaughtered the inhabitants.”

It is the same for the employers. They strive so hard to be impartial that the principle trumps the individual; and they cannot distinguish it in the work of collectivity.

“Wounded? Who hurt you?”

“I don’t know. Whoever forged the weapon…”

This forge here has the insignia of tiny scales, a pledge of balance, and a mighty sword, a threat of punishment—it is better not to talk about the weights.

#

And yet, if we talk about them! Because they play their role among the most important actions worthy of attention that I have noticed recently.

This is only an illustration, but instructive. It concerns a simple fraud—the nibbled morsel of bread swiped from the meager wages of young girls earning thirty sous a day… for eleven hours of work!

In this instance, P***, the manufacturer of wire ribbing, not yet satisfied with his profits, decided to pay for piecework. He weighed both the raw materials and the finished work, incoming and outgoing, so that he would only have to pay for the labor. Now, there were always discrepancies and waste tallied against the worker, but under the threat of being fired, it was forbidden to check. One of these young girls, feeling rather bold one Sunday when the boss was absent, snatched up the weight. IT WAS STUFFED WITH LEAD; IT WEIGHED SIXTY-FIVE GRAMS—6.50 percent stolen by the manufacturer out of everyone’s wages every day or nine centimes lost out of the pitiable thirty sous that was already so hard to get. P*** was sentenced to ten days in prison and a twenty-five franc fine for falsifying the weights. Great, but the fraud? Isn’t it pretty blatant? Or are the gullible victims so worthless that the avenging equity of the Courts did not care?

Well, its wrath takes a nap when it comes to the flock of poor.

#

So it is that the metallurgists have salt scalers to help them. What is this strange occupation? What task does this name refer to? I am going to tell you.

To reduce the material, he puts into the boiler a thick layer of sodium chloride (otherwise called sea salt) that he has to attack with a pick. His eyes burn from it and from the acrid smoke coming out of the lamp. In winter the humidity freezes his body, ruins his lungs and brings on consumption; while the cooking of his eyelids and the near-suffocation of his breathing congest his brain horribly.

One of these damned, named Sabatier, talked to a journalist at the L’Ouvrier syndiqué of Marseille, from whom I borrow these revelations:

“I worked in construction; I made rope; I was a coalman; and now I’m a salt scaler. Well, of all the jobs I’ve done, the hardest work was in construction as a laborer. But the most exhausting, what’s killing my chest, is the salt scaler. But I have to do it. If I want to get any scraps for my brothers to eat.”

So, do you know how old this poor fellow is? Thirteen or fourteen years old.

For (here is the horrible crime!) they get children to use for this deadly work. The mouth of the machine is generally too small for adult bodies. The boilers are fitted with cross “turners” that block a man from getting all the way in. So they get twelve-year old children—AND THEY CHOOSE THE SKINNY ONES!

#

After the injured, the martyrs. After the martyrs, the dead.

They disappear when they are between fifteen and twenty years old, the poor little powder girls in Limoges, the ones who decorate ceramics with butterfly wings, tossing in the blush of their cheeks and the sparkle in their eyes.

The powder girl (with a cotton swab she fixes the pulverized colors on the still fresh tracing sheets for the ornamentation of luxury dishes) gets 15 to 20 centimes an hour and rarely lasts more than three years. Starting work at around fifteen years old, she is affected within a few months and at around eighteen—or nineteen for the laggards—she leaves to die wherever she can, poisoned, permeated with lead salts to the marrow of her bone.

It is useless to give them masks to wear. It is useless to give them milk to drink. They are rapidly reduced to nothing but skeletons, old women ravaged by disease. And the pain devours them, constantly tears them apart… until the grim reaper finishes them off!

It was, to say the least, the seventh death in a few months that made me cry out for mercy. And no worthwhile measures were taken—as always, my call was lost in the void, in the desert, in profound indifference!

There were seventeen or eighteen girls who passed away recently in the Limoges hospital. Two others died at their parents’ house. And neither the Health Council nor the Inspection Office warned of such crimes being bound to happen. They let them do it!

Right now they are quibbling over the last corpse—sixteen years old. The inspector, being accused of negligence, says that he referred the matter to the Administration four times in two months: on November 3, 10 and 17 and then on December 1. How will the Administration respond? While all this red tape rolls out, other girls, being poisoned at four sous an hour, are breathing their death.

In the meantime, around the Somme[3], there is a silica factory where in four years forty-two workers have died of tuberculosis, this kind of work being so deadly, from breathing the dust that deteriorates the lungs. Those who wrote to me about this, in their vast, voiceless desolation, said, “Although they treat us like slaves, at least the master will feed us because our death would be a loss!” And they recounted the torments of six thousand workers in the region of Vimert, Saint-Valéry, Escarbotin, Fressenneville and Wonicourt.

#

Yes, it is monstrous, but an ordinary monstrosity, everyday and everywhere, which nobody worries about too much.

The sugar crackers[4] are vowed to gastritis and tuberculosis, wounded in their sides from carrying the crates to the scales; their fingernails are worn down to the nub, their teeth are gone, their chests hollow—who cares? Furthermore, when they tried to alleviate their misfortune, how many people did they find to support them?

The workers in the matchstick factories (a State-owned business) are guaranteed necrosis, i.e. bone death… the most horrifying torture in the world! They asked that a harmless phosphorus be used rather than the one that was inflicting them with such torments. They were refused—IT WOULD BE TOO EXPENSIVE!

#

Faced with such things, you see, the notion of legal good and evil is eradicated in passionate souls and all that remains is a morality freed of conventions, drawing its support from the conscience and its strength from righteousness.

A society that allows, that owns such murders for the sake of profit is rotten to the core—let the axe men through!

 

Next:  4-Propaganda by Deed

[1] Included in En Marche 1896.

[2] On September 1 1870 just before the Battle of Sedan and Napoleon III’s crushing defeat.

[3] In Picardy in the north of France.

[4] The “casseuses de sucre” piled sugar onto crates and hauled them to the scales.

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