The Myth of the Artisan Critical Reflections on a Category of Social History - Ranciere

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  • 8/14/2019 The Myth of the Artisan Critical Reflections on a Category of Social History - Ranciere


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

    The Myth of the ArtisanCritical Reflections on a Category of

    Social History

    Jacques Ranc?ereUniversity of Paris VIII

    The works devoted to the labor and socialist movements in France make use

    of a widely accepted interpretive principle: the relationship between professional

    qualification (skill) and militant consciousness (militancy). According to this inter

    pretation, the movement developed as the expression of a working-class culture and

    was based on the actions and attitudes of the most highly skilled workers. Technical

    ability and pride in work thus created the basis for early labor militancy and itwasthe 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 strictly

    analyzes militant practice and its basis in the trades. This supposed first axiom oflabor militancy ismost likely a belated interpretation, born of political necessity insome sections of the labor movement which, in order to fend off new and competing

    militant forces, was led to harken back to a largely imaginary tradition of "authentic" 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 the

    republican organizations, Utopian groups, workers' literature and the press of the

    1840s, led to the workers' eruption of 1848. Indeed, we are accustomed to seeing the

    worker of '48 as the typical representative of artisanal culture (whether it be, like

    Marx, to deprecate this culture, or to revalorize it in opposition to Marxism).Nevertheless, the facts relating to the trades most prominently represented in

    therepublican associations, Utopian groups


    street demonstrationsseriously

    challenge this interpretation. The over-representation of certain trades and the

    predominance in particular of two of them?the tailors and the shoemakers?has

    been duly noted,1 and the conclusion has generally been that these two groups were

    propelled to the front lines of combat by two factors: the consciousness of their own

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    2 ILWCH, 24, Fall 1983

    professional value and the threat of professional deskilling linked to the invasion of

    ready-made clothing.

    Looking at such an interpretation, we must, it seems to me, beware of a

    certain trompe l'oeil effect: for we have a tendency to project onto artisanal practicethe image of bourgeois luxury, which is its end product. Thus we project the imageof Parisian fashion onto the professionals of the clothing trade. By doing this, we

    misperceive 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 because

    they touch upon fashion or intellectuality. Yet, in the 1840s, the newspaper LAtelierfelt obliged to "prove to the workers of all trades who had met there that a tailor

    handling his needle, a typographer aligning his letters of lead are just as worthy as a

    baker, a cabinetmaker or a tanner of the respectable title of 'ouvrier.'"2 These trades

    were contemptible in the workers'judgement, since they required little strength, skillor cleverness.

    From this point of view, one trade consistently symbolized the lowest of the

    low 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 the

    songs of the compagnonnage,including

    that of"conciliatory"

    tanner Piron, which

    stigmatized 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 shoemakers

    were fraudulently initiated to the secrets of the compagnonnage. Thus it was

    recommended that shoemakers bearing emblems of the compagnonnage be killed.

    This tradition, of course, tended to fall into disuse among the compagnonnages, yet some shoemakers were still being murdered by mid-century. And the

    malediction is further carried out by reality: shoemaking is the last of the trades. Or

    rather, it'snot



    all: it is the occupation of concierges whoare

    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 of

    necessity or bad luck, as in the case of the young haberdasher's apprentice who lost

    first his parents, then his tutor: "he remained alone after this second loss, and his

    health had suffered too much for him to continue in his preferred occupation. What

    could 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 professional 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 forced

    leisure-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 also

    something of a refuge. The apprenticeship was a relatively short one, and in generalitwas not remunerated.5 One therefore tended to find there young men of modest

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    The Myth of the Artisan 3

    backgrounds as well as youngest sons on whom little expense was lavished. Thus

    the tailor Constant Hilbey would have liked to have been a cabinetmaker's

    apprentice, but "the cabinetmaker demanded more money than Hilbey's father was

    able to provide. The father then declared that he could only afford to have his son

    trained as a tailor."6 Likewise, the leader of the tailor's strike Andr? Troncin, was

    condemned to a tailor's apprenticeship after the death of his mother and the

    remarriage of his father, a woodseller in Besan?on. When his stepmother took a

    dislike to the children of the first marriage, only his older brother received a

    professional training, and Andr? was shunted off to a poor man's apprenticeship.7Nevertheless, Andr? Troncin was to have considerable professional success.

    He became a cutter and shop foreman while at the same time pursuing, through

    study and the company of students, his education inmilitancy. Hilbey, on the other

    hand, seeking as much as possible to avoid "getting into a rut," chose to make

    children's clothes because that specialty "required less attention and intelligence."8

    Generally speaking, however, the work produced in shops where workers were

    squeezed one against the other, all bent over a too-narrow work bench with their

    legs crossed, the needlework accomplished "with a regularity approaching that of

    machines"9 had nothing in itwhich could have created a strong professional pride.And the supposed contrast between the quality work of the professional tailors and


    work of theclothing-industry

    workers is avery

    dubious one: it is the same

    workers who, when the shops are in their off-season, work in the clothing industry.10

    In addition, corporate tradition and the collective consciousness are very weak,

    given the great mobility of the workers. A correspondent from La Fashion stresses

    the weakness of collective professional links, in contrast to the tradition of mutual

    aid among the compagnonnages: "Nary a fraternal link uniting them. They see one

    another: Hello. They leave one another: Goodbye, and all is said. Another cause of

    their ruin is the brevity of their stay in each workshop. A term of three months is the


    For the tailors and shoemakers alike, the mobilizing role was played not by

    professional linksor

    by pride in their work, but rather by the particular "freedom"[disponibilit?] of the workers: Material freedom stemming from the trade's role as a

    refuge or outlet, also from the abundance of manpower and from the off-seasons,

    which add the dimension of unemployment to their identities as workers. Intellectual

    freedom, linked to the small intellectual and moral commitment required in the

    practice 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 mind

    idle and leading it to seek fulfillment elsewhere.12 This is especially the case with the

    shoemakers and tailors; and what is true for the common workers applies all the

    more to the leaders. These "easy" trades are t