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  • 7/29/2019 58950452 Ranciere Jacques the Myth of the Artisan Critical Reflections on a Category of Social History


    International Labor and Working Class HistoryNumber 24, Fall 1983, pp. 1-16

    The Myth of the ArtisanCritical Reflections on a Category ofSocial HistoryJacques Randere

    University of Paris VIIIThe works devoted to the labor and socialist movements in France make useof a widely accepted interpretive principle: the relationship between professionalqualification (skill) and militant consciousness (militancy). According to this inter-pretation, the movement developed as the expression of a working-class culture andwas based on the actions and attitudes of the most highly skilled workers. Technicalability and pride in work thus created the basis for early labor militancy and it was

    the Taylorist revolution that spelled the end of this militancy by imposing massiveand bureaucratic forms, which led to the creation of a new working populationlacking professional skills, collective traditions, and interest in their work.I would like to show that such a view is very much debatable if one strictlyanalyzes militant practice and its basis in the trades. This supposed first axiom oflabor militancy is most likely a belated interpretation, born of political necessity insome sections of the labor movem ent which, in order to fend off new and competingmilitant forces, was led to harken back to a largely imaginary tradition of "authen-tic" worker socialism.

    1. The illusion of the elite trades: Tailors, shoemakers, and others.It is important that we go back to the period of "initial" worker socialism, theone which, through the strikes and associations of the 1830s. and through therepublican organizations. Utopian groups, workers' literature and the press of the1840s. led to the w orkers' erup tion of 1848. Indeed, we are accustom ed to seeing theworker of '48 as the typical representative of artisanal culture (whether it be. likeMarx, to deprecate this culture, or to revalorize it in opposition to Marxism).Nevertheless, the facts relating to the trades most prominently represented inthe republican associations, Utopian groups or simple street demonstrations seriouslychallenge this interpretation. The over-representation of certain trades and thepredominance in particular of two of themthe tailors and the shoemakershasbeen duly noted.1 and the conclusion has generally been that these two groups werepropelled to the front lines of combat by two factors: the consciousness of their own

  • 7/29/2019 58950452 Ranciere Jacques the Myth of the Artisan Critical Reflections on a Category of Social History


    2 ILIVCH, 24 , Fall 1983professional value and the threat of professional deskilling linked to the invasion ofready-made clothing.

    Looking at such an interpretation, we must, it seems to me, beware of acertain trompe I'oeil effect: for we have a tendency to project onto artisanal practicethe image of bourgeois luxury, which is its end prod uct. T hus we project the imageof Parisian fashion onto the professionals of the clothing trade. By doing this, wemisperceive not only the reality of their working conditions but also the subjectivevalue they place on their work, according to their own scale of values. Certaintrades which seem prestigious to us were in fact contemptible within the workers'tradition. Thus the occupations of tailor or typographer seem noble to us becausethey touch upon fashion or intellectuality. Yet. in the 1840s. the newspaper L'Atelierfelt obliged to "prove to the workers of all trades who had met there that a tailorhandling his needle, a typographer aligning his letters of lead are just as worthy as abaker, a cabinetmaker or a tanner of the respectable title of 'ouvrier.' " : These tradeswere contemptible in the workers'judgement, since they required little strength, skillor cleverness.From this point of view, one trade consistently symbolized the lowest of thelow from the standpoint of the strong and skillful: that of the shoemaker. In orderto get a feeling for the contempt associated with this trade, one must look to thesongs of the compagnonnage. including that of "conciliatory" tanner Piron. whichstigmatized the shoemakers as "vile and abject" in their ridiculous oversized smocks,using clumsy muffs or stinking pitch.3 Shoemaking is looked down upon not onlyfrom a professional point of view, but from an ideological one as well: Ashaverus,the Wandering Jew, was a shoemaker. And the tradition has it that shoemakerswere fraudulently initiated to the secrets of the compagnonnage. Thus it wasrecommended that shoemakers bearing emblems of the compagnonnage be killed.This tradition, of course, tended to fall into disuse among the compagnon-nages, yet some shoemakers were still being murdered by mid-century. And themalediction is further carried out by reality: shoemaking is the last of the trades. Orrather, it's not really a trade at all: it is the occupation of concierges who are tryingto supplement their income. It is the apprenticeship for orphans and the homeless,the one most often given in charitable institutions, or the one chosen out ofnecessity or bad luck, as in the case of the young haberdasher's apprentice who lostfirst his parents, then his tutor: "he remained alone after this second loss, and hishealth had suffered too much for him to continue in his preferred occupation. Whatcould be done? An occasion presented itself for him to become a shoemaker, a tradehe didn't like. He had to become a shoemaker." 4 Clearly then, it was not profes-sional pride that fueled the militant ideas of the shoemakers. If the trade producedso many activists and dreamers, it is more likely because of the extent of forcedleisure-time, and the fact that the material and symbolic rewards of the trade were sovery insignificant.The tailor's trade did not suffer from the same contempt, yet it was alsosomething of a refuge. The apprenticeship was a relatively short one. and in generalit was not remunerated.5 One therefore tended to find there young men of modest

  • 7/29/2019 58950452 Ranciere Jacques the Myth of the Artisan Critical Reflections on a Category of Social History


    The Myth of the Artisan 3backgrounds as well as youngest sons on whom little expense was lavished. Thusthe tailor Constant Hilbey would have liked to ha\e been a cabinetmaker'sapprentice, but "the cabinetmaker demanded more money than Hilbey's father wasable to provide. The father then declared that he could only afford to have his sontrained as a tailor."6 Likewise, the leader of the tailor's strike Andre Troncin. wascondemned to a tailor's apprenticeship after the death of his mother and theremarriage of his father, a woodseller in Besanc,on. When his stepmother took adislike to the children of the first marriage, only his older brother received aprofessional training, and Andre was shunted off to a poor man's apprenticeship."

    Nevertheless, Andre Troncin was to have considerable professional success.He became a cutter and shop foreman while at the same time pursuing, throughstudy and the company of students, his education in militancy. Hilbey. on the otherhand, seeking as much as possible to avoid "getting into a rut." chose to makechildren's clothes because that specialty "required less attention and intelligence.""Generally speaking, however, the work produced in shops where workers weresqueezed one against the other, all bent over a too-narrow work bench with theirlegs crossed, the needlework accomplished "with a regularity approaching that ofmachines"9 had nothing in it which could have created a strong professional pride.And the supposed contrast between the quality work of the professional tailors andthe poor work of the clothing-industry workers is a very dubious one: it is the sameworkers who, when the shops are in their off-season, work in the clothing industry.10In addition, corporate tradition and the collective consciousness are very weak,given the great mobility of the workers. A correspondent from La Fashion stressesthe weakness of collective professional links, in contrast to the tradition of mutualaid among the compagnonnages: "Nary a fraternal link uniting them. They see oneanother: Hello. They leave one another: Goodbye, and all is said. A nothe r cause oftheir ruin is the brevity of their stay in each workshop. A term of three m onths is thelongest."11For the tailors and shoemakers alike, the mobilizing role was played not byprofessional links or by pride in their work, but rather by the particular "freedom"[disponibilite] of the workers: Material freedom stemming from the trade's role as arefuge or outlet, also from the abundance of manpower and from the off-seasons,which add the dimension of unemployment to their identities as workers. Intellectualfreedom, linked to the small intellectual and moral commitment required in thepractice of their trade. Indeed, this was a constant concern of bourgeois observers:that a certain number of working-class occupations were not interesting or chal-lenging enough to occupy the mind as well as the body, thereby leaving the mindidle and leading it to seek fulfillment elsewhere.12 This is especially the case with theshoemakers and tailors; and what is true for the common workers applies all themore to the leaders. These "easy" trades are those where one is most likely to findmen whose intellectual capacities and hum an aspirations are not used professionallyor satisfied in the work place.The relationship between these two "freedoms" allows us to conceive of themobilization of a trade, the capacity of its workers to rally around valuespolitical

  • 7/29/2019 58950452 Ranciere Jacques the Myth of the Artisan Critical Reflections on a Category of Social History


    4 ILWCH, 24, Fall 1983(e.g. republican) or ideological (e.g. Utopian)that are external to. and