The Lyon Silk Workers’ uprisings of 1831 and 1834

Engels described the Canut revolt of the Lyon workers in 1831 as “the first working-class rising” of the early period of capitalist development. In fact, it was the first time in history that the working class had taken power in a major city. Here Steve Brown, basing himself on Robert J Bezucha’s book The Lyon uprising of 1834, describes those momentous events.

In France, in the city of Lyon in 1831 and 1834 the silk workers or canuts [pronounced Ca-noos] as they were known, rose up in an attempt to break from the old system, from the old order. In one of the earliest examples of working class solidarity, collective struggle and democratic control, the canuts came to power in their city for one very short but significant period in the history of the class struggle and rose up a second time to take on the ruling class once again. They showed that, despite the limitations of their isolation, as a city based emerging working class community at the end of feudalism and the beginning of capitalism, the masses could come to power and begin the task of building a new society.


Lyon was located at the crossroads of Europe in medieval and late medieval times. Situated to the west of the Alps and at the confluence of the rivers Saone and Rhone in south eastern France, it became the natural conduit for the processing of silk and other goods into wider France and on, into northern and southern Europe also. The opening up of the Silk Road from China, across Central Asia, through the Middle East and on into Northern Italy and Venice, was part of the overall European renaissance emerging between the 14th and 17th centuries. Trade between the Far East and parts of the Middle East had been going on for hundreds of years but, with improving transportation the Silk Road eventually extended its reach into Europe via northern Italy and elsewhere. This opening up brought many sought after products from the Far East and also exported material goods from Europe in the other direction. The development of trade, the exchange of culture, technique and even ideas all added fuel to the coming bourgeois revolutions in Europe which eventually saw the overthrow of one feudal system after another. With it all came silk.

Map of lyon 1805 1911Map of Lyon, showing the growth of the city between 1805 & 1911. Note: On the map to the left, the fortifications surrounding the city with the workers suburb of Croix Rousse beyond the wall to the north.


Silk, as a finished material, was, and still is, a very desirable cloth to wear. Extremely soft and comfortable, it is also beautiful to look at, with a shimmery, shiny surface which can be dyed in many striking and vivid colours. It was also very expensive to buy and was therefore the sole preserve of the rich, being highly prized and sought after in all the royal courts and the houses of the French Aristocracy and beyond. Silk weaving in Lyon had grown exponentially for over 200 years since the first looms were brought in by a one Etienne Turquet, a native of Piedmont and cloth trader in 1536. Seen as a lucrative growth industry, silk weaving was exempt from taxes and all employed in its production were freed from militia duty by the then King Francis I. It is thought that by 1559 there were anywhere up to 7,000 looms in the city due to its popularity and rapid growth. By 1660 there were over 18,000. The majority of cloth produced at this time, and in subsequent years, was plain cloth (unies) and the use of small shuttle machines (petite navette) were used for the production of ribbons. The introduction of the more advanced Dangon looms in 1605, which enabled faster and less expensive production of brocaded materials (façonnés), spurned an economic upturn.

For two and a half centuries from the beginning of silk production the fortunes and crises experienced by Lyon and its great silk industry were very much linked by a thousand silk threads to the fortunes of the Crown and later to the growth of the wider economy. Changes in economic development lead to changes in the means of organisation of the silk industry (as with many others) which reflected the conflicting rise in the industry’s fortunes and the need to regulate the financial gains and means of commodity pricing, measurements and material quality as trade increased. As the industry grew, one of the clear and distinct divisions began to emerge between the merchants (marchands), those who bought and sold the finished products on and into the developing markets, the merchant-masters (maitres-ouvriers marchands), who bought and sold cloth commercially and also supervised its production locally on the looms, and the master weavers (maitres-ouvrier a façon), the craftsmen who owned the looms and tended them under short term contracts with the merchants.

New classes

These basic distinctions in the production and sale of cloth formed the origins of future class struggles. The merchants, who had no experience or skills in producing the actual cloth, were, under late medieval relations, the early traders and entrepreneurs, the wheelers-and-dealers who struck up links with other merchants in the network of the wider economy. The go-betweens, the merchant masters, were the next tier in the pyramid of social relations but, these were soon to disappear under the hammer blow of events. However, in the early days of silk production there had been little or no differentiation between the merchants and the master weavers. The fact is, the master weaver and merchant were often one and the same person. Like all craftsmen in the middle ages, the producers of a commodity had full control over the production and sale of their produce and protected their interests as members of guilds and craft societies. The master weaver was also his own salesman. But as trade expanded, as transport links improved and goods began to change hands in greater amounts and across greater distances, then mercantile capitalism began to flourish. This then gave rise to the merchant class and the separating out of roles and a division of “labour” to suit the emerging new trade relations. Bigger towns emerged and became linked, production changed and expanded to fit the new trading relations and new classes emerged. The former craftsmen weavers, once their own masters, once the arbiters of their own fate (within the restrictions of feudal relations), were now reduced to being producers only and, through the process of developing mercantile capital and expanding trade, were well on the road to somewhere else.

The Grande Fabrique

With the growth of trade came the need to standardise production and enable an agreed set of criteria within which “fair” trade could occur between the merchants and an imposition of their interests was brought to bear within the industry over time. Increasing regulation of silk production in Lyon accelerated as the industry expanded with the interests of the merchants and master weavers continually clashing. The loss of control by the masters had become irreversible with the tightening up of regulations (reglements), mainly suited to the growth of the merchant’s profits and with some new rules supporting and promoting the master weavers who were trying to protect themselves.

A whole series of changes in the manufacture of silk came into being as a result of this struggle. Prior to regulation, no rules or statutes existed to determine the nature of a master weaver or an apprentice, no limits on the number of looms owned and no restrictions on their location within the city. Also, there was no actual set of rules or definitions to separate out officially the difference between a merchant and a weaver.

Taking the silk industry as a whole and across France, King Henry IV responded in 1598 with an ordinance decreeing a 7 year apprenticeship for weavers as a prerequisite for master status. This also limited each master to having only two apprentices at any one time and excluded foreign weavers, unless they had served an evidenced apprenticeship elsewhere. In 1619, further regulation imposed a limitation of 12 looms per workshop, to operate only within the city boundaries and only within certain districts (arendisments). The weight of the market and the need for standardisation and pricing controls inevitably forced the industry toward capitalist relations and, along with other growing industries across France, laid the basis for the conflict between feudalism and capitalism leading to the coming revolution in 1879.

The rise of the Grande Fabrique, the company in Lyon which oversaw all the regulations, pricing and standards in the silk industry, reflected the rise in mercantile capitalist relations, but was also a forum which expressed the growing class antagonisms brewing between the merchants and master weavers.

Within the rules of emerging capitalism these regulations and restrictions facilitated the control and growth of the silk industry and the profits which flowed from its expansion, especially into the coffers of the merchants. There were several measures which were designed and engineered to overcome the traditional and restrictive practices imposed by history, by feudal relations and the craft or guild traditions but the merchants, the emerging capitalist traders, were constantly seeking to impose their will upon the growing industry and to secure greater and greater returns on investments (loans to the master weavers) into new looms and factory units.

With further expansion, the quality of manufactured cloth became a problem, so more regulation was required to solve these issues too. The power of the Grande Fabrique Company grew more and more around the merchant’s priorities and more regulations and restrictions were placed upon the master weavers in order to boost profits. The swing toward complete control by the merchants was well under way so that by the year of the French Revolution, the economic balance of forces had been completely consolidated away from the weavers and into the hands of the merchant class.

typical canut workshopA typical canut workshop in the 16th century

The Canuts

In that year, out of a city population of 143,000 there were 34,762 people employed in the production of silk, by far and away the largest industry in Lyon. Controlling the sale of the finished product, there were only 308 silk merchants. Just to note the decline of the middle layers, there were only 42 merchant masters left across the entire city. Below them both were the Canuts, as they were by then known; a term imposed upon them. These were made up of the following:

5,575 master weavers
3,924 of their wives who worked the looms
5,575 of their children who also wove
507 apprentices
1,796 journeymen
1,015 other female weavers
2,236 male and female corders
4,993 female reelers
1,355 female throwers.

There were also thousands more engaged in spinning, carding and dying thread. Therefore, only 308 merchants set the prices for the 5,575 weavers who, in turn, managed the wages and livelihoods of a further 20,000 silk workers, operating within specifically designated districts in the city and working in tightly organised industrial units and workshops. Thus, at the time of the great French revolution, class relations across the city were crystallising into modern bourgeois and proletarian forms.

Two sous riot

Sous riotsPoster depicting a scene from the two sous riotIn the years leading up to the revolution and, given the fluctuations in fortunes within the industry related to the wider economy and the exposure of the masters and workers to the winds of capitalist uncertainty and instability, the canuts began to demand a tariff be set to ensure a minimum fixed rate for the cloth they produced. Over time the struggle for economic advancement by the canuts through the Grande Fabrique had become a closed route as the merchants gradually consolidated their interests, so they turned to the industrial front to fight for their demands.

In 1786, after 7 years of negotiations and political pressure, the dispute came to a head when the local Archbishop decided to use his feudal right to raise a wine tax (le banvin). Leading to high prices for their drink, sections of the canuts went on strike. On the evening of August 8th demonstrations erupted in the Place des Terreaux in front of the Hotel-de-Ville and in the aristocratic Place Bellecour. Windows were smashed, the local militia were disarmed and, after the mounted police fired on the workers, a bigger riot began. This lead to the call for state troops to intervene by the mayor.

Known as the “Two sous riot” (l’emeute des deux sous), the rate per measurement of cloth the canuts wanted, it showed the militancy and determination of the fledgling workers’ movement in pursuit of their demands. It also exposed a series of weaknesses in organisation and the chaotic nature of a class at the beginning of their historical and open struggle with capital.

The strikes continued but, the mayor was compelled by the merchant class to act and was forced to call in state troops to crush the movement. A certain Lieutenant Bonaparte was in command of the unit which was finally assigned the task of suppressing the discontent. With the weight of military numbers, all assemblies were banned, the carrying of arms was outlawed and two of the leaders were arrested and executed in the Place des Terreaux. It was recognised by Mayor Tolozan that the majority of those taking industrial action were the journeymen who made up the bulk of the workforce and were encouraged by the master weavers themselves. They were to play an even bigger and more fundamental role in the uprisings in 1831 and 1834. So disturbed by the determined action of the canuts, and attempting to recognise the problems which lead to such disturbances', Mayor Tolozan moved to apply a sympathetic tariff but was cut short by an edict banning set rates by the Royal Council.

The French revolution

Thus, following this defeat of the young proletariat in Lyon, a period of greater tensions between the classes ensued in the few years leading up to the revolution. In the year 1789 the masters and merchants would clash again in February for the elections to the local Third Estate. Via the Grande Fabrique in open elections, the master weavers won a majority and sent the city’s delegates to Paris and, via these means, took the opportunity to petition the King for a tariff.

On this occasion, and under the pressure of events, the King allowed a basic tariff which was to be enacted in the January of 1790. The merchants complained to Necker, the King's minister, but to no avail and then refused to implement it. Heightened tension existed across Lyon with the threat of another worker uprising implicit in the situation. On May 3rd 3,500 master weavers gathered in the Cathedral and voted to secede from the Grande Fabrique and form a separate corporation. This lead to the entire population of silk workers forming their own citywide organisation with delegates elected to represent the different sections of weavers and silk workers. However, when the National Assembly passed a law abolishing all guilds, the master weavers’ initiative lost its formal legitimacy and was still born.

It is worth noting at this point that the historical trajectory of the canuts, which developed as a struggle between themselves and the merchants, evolved over disputes within the Grande Fabrique on questions of ownership, regulation and, ultimately, rates of pay, with the canuts being outmanoeuvred on many occasions.

In 1744 the canuts reacted to changes across the industry as members of a corporation but, by 1786 they were acting like workers fighting for wages. The break with the Grand Fabrique in 1790, while on the one hand appearing to be a move toward establishing their own alternative capitalist company (which was an understandable objective at the time) actually gave rise to a heightened class consciousness which would come to play a central role in 1831 and beyond.

In many respects the revolutionary process flowing from the events of 1789 put a break on certain aspects of this development via the establishment and consolidation of power into the hands of the bourgeoisie, and placed the growth of class consciousness and the latent militancy of the canuts very much on the back burner for a whole period. During the revolution the sympathies of many canuts were leaning toward the King, with soldiers and guards from the working class districts parading the white flag of the Bourbons who were associated with the monarchy. After all, the King had agreed to a tariff, but the merchants, their sworn enemy, were securing the transfer of power into their hands and had refused to implement it. The bourgeois quarters now flew the tricolour.

Following on from the events of 1789, the merchants secured majorities in the municipal elections and supported the program of regional autonomy, demands promoted by the Girondists, the political party of the radical bourgeois. The canuts had not created their own political organisations yet, the tradition being that the masses should “stay out of politics and leave the decision making to the educated elite“.

Class consciousness

As the silk industry changed and expanded and dragged itself kicking and screaming away from feudal relations, the composition of the canuts became more and more crystallised into a proletarian class. Originally under medieval relations, the master weavers were in charge of their own production and sales and could determine much of their own economic destiny but, with the advent of new trade relations and advancements in technology came major changes to the production of the cloth itself. New looms could produce good cloth more quickly and investment in the form of loans to the masters saw a rapid expansion in production and good profits to be had for the merchants.

Fluctuations in the price of silk were also a reflection of the ever changing market for finished cloth. Increasingly, the industry was affected by events and developments around the world as capitalist relations became more interconnected between nations and even across continents.

Robert J Bezucha, in his book ‘The Lyon uprising of 1834’ states:

“One report, issued by the Chamber of Commerce in 1832 noted the cholera epidemic in Paris, revolutions in Latin America, the banking crisis in the United States, tariff debate in England, and the growth of Swiss and German competition as all directly effecting the Fabrique of Lyon.” (Page 36).

Between 1824 and 1826 the amount of registered silk fell by nearly 25%. threatening bankruptcy for many merchants and unemployment or lower rates for the weavers. Between 1828 and 1830 cheap English silk goods also added to the instability of the Lyon silk industry with imports rising from 119,570 francs to 643,730. However, there was robustness in the Lyonnais industry which continued to export 111,118,802 francs worth of finished goods, exporting to the USA, England and Germany.

The life of the canuts, as determined by these new economic and class relations, was varied and depended most of all on the status of the different social layers within the silk worker community. As stated above, there were 5,575 master weavers at the time of the 1789 revolution but, by 1831, they were reduced to between 3-4000. Within this layer of the most prosperous weavers (chefs d’atelier) there was only 1 who owned and operated up to 13 looms, only 4 master weavers who owned 12 looms all the way down to the 614 weavers who owned only 4 looms. This also reflected the gradations of prosperity or the solidifying of an aristocracy of labour within the industry.

However, with the ever increasing power of the merchants and the imposition of outside events and continuing changes in pricing and demand, the economic position of the master weavers was eroded and continually undermined, leading to the greater impoverishment of wider sections of the canuts.

As Robert J Bezucha describes things:

“The master weavers were constantly reminded of the power which the merchants held over their lives. Conflict between them was a by-product of the industry. Here is a dramatised conversation which appeared in the weaver’s newspaper, L’Echo de la Fabrique. A unies weaver has just delivered a rush order to a merchant, who is sitting behind the iron grill (the canuts called this “the cage”) of his warehouse:

Chef d’atelier: “Here is the piece I’ve brought you.”

Fabricant: “Well, it’s about time. It was due at eight o’clock this morning and it’s already noon. Because of you I won’t be able to send the order out today.”

Chef d’atelier: “Please excuse me, Monsieur, but my wife and I have worked on nothing else for the last twelve days. We haven’t left the loom to eat. We had many problems because the thread was so poor and the weave so fine. And my wife, who is pregnant, intended to weave all night, but she fell asleep at the loom. That is why I am late.”

Fabricant: “That’s all well and good. Nevertheless you’ve caused my order to be late.” (Looks over cloth) “Here’s a stain. What did you do, eat your stew over the loom?”

Chef: “Oh Monsieur! If it’s there it’s because we were so pressed for time My wife didn’t even have time to make soup. We haven’t eaten anything but bread while we worked on your order.”

Fabricant: “Ah, here’s a thread out of line.” (To his clerk) “Monsieur Leon, mark this man down 1ten centimes per anue for waste.”

Chef: “But Monsieur, have you no conscience? After we worked all night with such poor thread there are bound to be mistakes. It isn’t fair to mark us down for that.”

Fabricant: “Fair or not, that’s the way it’s going to be. When I pay good money I expect good work. And if you’re as poorly paid as you claim, let me remind you that you didn’t have to take the job. You could have refused it.”

Chef: “But you know very well I haven’t worked for three months nd that I took it because my savings are gone. I couldn’t refuse it because my wife is pregnant.”

Fabricant: “That is not my affair. I’m in business to make money, not to give you charity. What you are saying means little to me.”

Chef: “Will you give me another order?”

Fabricant: “Give you another order? After the way you’ve made me late on a commission! You dare ask for another order. No, my dear man. We only give orders to those who appreciate what we give them. Here is your payment.”

Chef: “Dog of a merchant! If good times come you’ll hear from me again.”

Fabricant: (To his clerks)”Messieurs, you will be heads of commerce some day. I cannot recommend more highly such severity with the workers... It is the only way to force them to weave well. It is the only way that our industry can prosper.”

“Such a confrontation was not pure fiction.” (Pages 42 – 43)

Within this single conversation can be seen the sharp antagonisms which existed between the master weaver community, which was continually losing its status, and a merchant class who were only concerned with making more and more profits. The more successful weavers, however, held a much higher status and prospered with access to the more lucrative contracts but, they were not immune from the winds of economic change and crises.

The journeymen weavers, on the other hand, formed the back bone of the militant weaver community. Generally worse off than the master weavers, this deeply exploited section of Lyon society were continually impoverished and were reliant on the masters themselves for their wages and subsistence. Many of them lived with the masters in their households, often hiring a furnished room within the master’s family home. Many of them ate, worked and lived with the masters and they raised their families together. These journeymen were a very fluid part of the community, often comprised of foreign labour, moving two-and-fro between Lyon and their homelands and many of them were unable to speak French until they became settled. Because of this immediate relationship they did not always stand in direct opposition to the masters because of the closeness and integrated nature of their living arrangements.

Friction did exist between some weavers and journeymen but, as Robert J Bezucha states:

“If one were to regard the structure of the workshop in the crudest economic terms the master was a petit-bourgeois craftsman whose property (his looms) placed him in constant conflict with the journeyman, a sort of proletarian with only his labour to sell. Yet they worked side by side and their income was determined by a third party, the merchant.”

Thus, when it comes to the uprisings of 1831 and 34, the master weavers and the journeymen, despite any economic antagonisms, stand together in complete opposition to their common enemy, the merchants. This was also manifest in the emergence of a common culture within the working class districts, whereby the communities would come together to sing, dance and watch theatrical productions, alongside a popular cafe scene and even had their own newspapers which reflected the trials and tribulations of the lives of the canuts. Consequently, there was an increasing awareness that the canuts all had common economic and social interests and a greater recognition of a common enemy that was part and parcel of the process of a developing class consciousness.

Lyon workshop 1830Conditions in a typical canut home and workshop circa 1830

1831 – The first Canut Revolt

In 1831 the economic forecast was gloomy with silk orders on a downward spiral. The knock on effect saw many master weavers going out of business, thus throwing journeymen out of work with a corresponding downward pressure on wages. Revolution was already in the air with the overthrow of King Charles X the previous year during the “July Revolution” or “Second French Revolution” . Combined with extremely poor working conditions and long hours, the canuts were at breaking point come November that year. Working anywhere from 14 to 18, even up to 20 hours per day and seated in awkward positions at the looms situated in poorly lit, dingy basements with the bar constantly striking the chest of the operator and breathing in the dust generated by the machine, having tolerated these conditions for years and through gritted teeth, the workers patience was beginning to wear thin.

Like any explosive situation a catalyst is required, which came in the form of a refusal by the merchants to accept a tariff imposed across the industry by the Chief Constable of Lyon, Bouvier-Dumolart. In reality, this bourgeois manipulator was trying to avert an uprising which was implicit in the situation. The canuts had lost a minimum tariff which they had gained under the post revolutionary empire of 1804–14 and were petitioning him and the industry to return to such a measure to alleviate their difficulties in the face of the current downturn in fortunes.

On the 25th October, thousands of canuts marched in formation from the workers’ quarters in the Croix-Rousse down to the central square of Bellecourt and the Prefecture in Lyon. Bouvier-Dumolart addressed the crowd, convincing them to return home in peace and agreed that a rate would be se though it was less than the canuts’ demands. Even so, this was seen as a victory by the canuts and thus began a night of celebrations which lead to high expectations and much praise for the Chief Constable. The merchants on the other hand, and by the set date to implement the tariff of November 2nd, refused to pay it on the grounds that it had been obtained through worker threats and a form of mass terror.

This refusal of the merchants to accept the fixed price tariff was seen as a final insult which lead directly to the revolt. Negotiations went back and forth, with the merchants and capitalists resisting the imposition of the tariff, and with mounting pressure from the canuts to have it brought in. Eventually, by November 10th, Bouvier-Dumolart had backed down from his original promise in favour of the merchants, as many had closed down their warehouses to prevent the tariff from being paid. They had, in effect, staged a lockout which completely enraged the workers. On the 21st November, and following Bouvier-Dumolart’s climb down, the canuts struck.

“In the name of the fifteen thousand workers, the master weavers are hereby informed that all looms will stop until further notice on Monday 21st. That same day the workers will gather in the principal square of their quarter at seven in the morning in order to climb to the Croix Rousse suburb. Good order is recommended.” (By the workers, 1831)

At 7am the canuts assembled, unchallenged, in the Grande Place of the Croix Rousse. The procession of hundreds of workers then began to make their way toward the Prefecture. The First Legion of the city National Guard which met the canuts were made up primarily from merchants, clerks and other middle layers of society who assembled at the entrance to the Grande Cote to prevent the workers from advancing. A First Legion Commander, a merchant named Gentlet, waved his sword in the air and cried out “My friends help me sweep away this rabble.” But still the canuts advanced. Bayonets were fixed and still they came, this time hurling stones at the guard. Finally, as the confrontation reached a crescendo, shots rang out and several canuts fell. This forced them into a temporary retreat to the working class districts but, back they came with more support and in their thousands, walking 4 abreast behind a large banner proclaiming “Live working or die fighting.” Under the sheer weight of numbers and following fierce fighting, which included artillery fire aimed at the district of Brotteaux, they forced the guard back and occupied the main square. With the main military resistance quelled, the canuts streamed into the city.

Bouvier Dumolart came to the balcony of the town hall to appeal for calm when shots rang out again. With a tenacious surge and show of anger and strength, the canuts took both him and the guard commander prisoner and, with the troops now in confusion and disarray, the canuts had seized control of the city. What was left of the National Guard which remained loyal to the authorities was completely surrounded in the area of the Hotel-de-Ville. The uprising spread to other parts of the city very quickly, with insurgent worker militias springing up and, with those National Guard units in the workers’ districts which were mainly comprised of weavers coming directly over to the uprising, the working class had come to power in a modern city for the first time in history.

The following day, the remainder of the National Guard retreated from Lyon under the watchful eyes and trained rifles of the canuts. The city was in their hands. During the fighting on the previous day 275 were dead (75 on the government side and 200 civilians) and 263 wounded. The canuts set to work quickly to shore up their control of the city with militias patrolling the warehouses and, after initial looting of food stores and other goods shops, they had managed to quell any further misbehaviour and brought a sense of order to the situation. It was noted that, following the initial uprising which had been lead and organised by the journeymen and supported by the master weavers, it was the former Napoleonic soldiers and veterans who dominated the military strategy across the city which so quickly brought about an organised peace. Attempts by the “authorities” to overturn the canuts’ victory were inevitable with the entry into the city on the 22nd November of troops from nearby Trévoux, in an effort to take back the workers’ quarters in Croix Rousse, but was resisted brilliantly and successfully by the workers themselves.

On the political front, a hodge-podge of activists put themselves forward as the new Provisional General Staff, basing themselves in the Hotel-de-Ville. There were Republicans, Carlists and other various conspirators and agitators who, on November 24th released the following proclamation:

“Lyonnais! The Perfidious magistrates have lost their right to public confidence; a barrier of bodies has been raised between us and them. Any arrangement should thus be impossible. Lyon, gloriously emancipated by her brave children, should have magistrates of her choice; magistrates whose habit is not to defile the blood of their brothers.

“Those who have defended us will nominate officials to preside over all corporations for the representation of the city and the department of the Rhone.

“Lyon will have committees or primary general assemblies; the needs of provincial people will finally be heard and a new citizens’ guard will be organised. No longer will ministerial charlatanism be imposed on us...

“Long live liberty!”

They became known by the workers as leaders of the “Volunteers of the Rhone”. Despite the quick politicisation of the uprising, the workers, in general, did not posses any mass political organisation. The Republican Party had only one or two cells in the city and was comprised of mainly intellectuals and middle class professionals (the radical wing of the bourgeoisie) and were mainly active on the left in civic affairs as libertarians and defenders of the poor, who came forward as well spoken political advocates on behalf of the canuts on many occasions.

As affairs calmed, Prefect Bouvier-Dumolart, who had been released, seized the opportunity to call together the more moderate master weavers into a “Council of Sixteen” to discuss the crisis and to call for sound governance. The traditions and acquired historical authority of the city’s now former rulers was used to mediate and pull the uprising back onto more “reasonable” territory. The perceived coup plotters of the Provisional General Staff, sensing the ground opening up in front of them, fled the Hotel-de-Ville and were arrested while the Prefect and the newly assembled Council oversaw an orderly transition of power back into the hands of the bourgeoisie. On the 29th of November the Council of Sixteen returned power back into the hands of the Prefect and by the 2nd of December, when the Minister of War Soult and the Duc d’Orleans reached the city with their armies, they found the gates open and the Canuts in holiday dress. The rebellion was over.

1831-1833 – Toward the second Canut revolt

“Their victory, so singularly the result of a succession of accidents and the incapacity of the authorities, will make them [the canuts] more demanding... Perhaps for a hundred years the marvellous tale of the defeat of the National Guard and the garrison of Lyon by the unarmed workers will charm the leisure of the workshop. This tradition will pass from generation to generation; a son will say with pride... ‘My father was one of the conquerors of Lyon’.” (Monfalcon – Editor: The Orleanist 1831)

The aftermath of the 1831 rebellion saw a number of repressive measures being deployed to try and dissipate the revolutionary zeal of the canuts. The aim was to restore order, to bring about a peace between the classes on behalf of the authorities and to try to resolve future disputes over tariffs and wider questions of the industry through mediation between the master weavers and the merchants and via an unwritten truce between the more moderate weavers and the bourgeoisie. Those canuts accused of more serious crimes were arrested but a general amnesty was declared with regard to the mass of those workers who participated in the demonstrations and the fighting. The civilian population were systematically disarmed while some canuts were enrolled into the army, with many foreign born journeymen expelled from the city. However, the authorities did not move against the wider layers of the Volunteers of the Rhone for fear of provoking violent repercussions, as they still had support amongst the workers. It was estimated that there were still 800 canuts organised in military style units in the city who would openly drill in the market places and would have meetings in the local cafes and estaminets on Sundays. The memory of the uprising amongst the radicalised canuts would not dissipate so easily, therefore the tensions between the classes had clearly not disappeared, despite all the measures designed to tackle them.

On the bourgeois side, they made moves to improve the city’s defences. The National Guard were disbanded temporarily, only to be reformed with more reliable soldiers who were attached to, or more loyal to the bourgeoisie. The newly reconstituted Guard was also given more policing powers, which made certain layers of the petit bourgeois nervous. The wall between the main city and the Croix Rousse, which had been damaged in the fighting, was also to be rebuilt and a series of detached forts were commissioned to be erected around the city.

For the canuts, the master weavers were already courting ideas of establishing cooperatives, to split away once and for all from the Grande Fabrique and the merchants. The same struggles for better wages and contracts still persisted, with none of the central contradictions and antagonisms having been resolved. Previously existing mutual societies were being transformed into deeper expressions of worker organisation. Worker associations such as the “Second Lodge of Mutualism” and the “Society of Ferrandiniers” were part benevolent funds, part organs of struggle. The latter organisation, while banning discussions on religion and politics in its ranks, had an organisation of 5,000 whose declared aim was the solidarity of both the master weavers and the journeymen. A Ferrandiniers song in that year proclaims:

“To the parvenu who despises us
And enriches himself by our labour
Let him learn that our motto
Is an honest wage or no work
From the first harmony will be born
From the second would come anarchy.”

The rebellion had stirred the young proletariat to its foundations. The sense of defeat was felt but, much more than that, an air of questioning and assessment of what had happened was taking place like never before. The rise in the associations was widespread across the canuts, with the varying sections coming together to find ways to express the solidarity and the power felt in November 1831. The bitterness and hatred toward the merchants had been solidified into a greater sense of determination, never to suffer at their hands again. On relating the fears of the bourgeoisie, Robert J Bezucha quotes a merchant newspaper, Le Courrier de Lyon from 24th February and 17 July 1833:

“It is no surprise that the merchants viewed the formation of secret labor associations with alarm. Their newspaper warned that ‘when the organisation of the workers into lodges is completed.....they will be the masters of the Fabrique.’ The solution, it said, was strict enforcement of the law against strikes and the formation of a merchants Commercial Circle to prevent the canuts from using ‘the weight of their masses’ to crush ‘isolated men.’ The merchants failed to understand that the worker societies were the weaver’s response to the sense that they were the ones who were isolated.” (Pages 105-106)

The rise in worker associations after the uprising was eventually used as a tool by the canuts in their struggles against the employers. In July of 1833 a series of selective strikes began over wage rates where the Society of Ferrandiniers actively sought to close down those merchants who were opposed to the new mutual societies. Members of the Society of Ferrandiniers went from workshop to workshop, convincing the canuts to stop work and, with the support of the another association the Society of Mutual Duty, managed to shut down 8 major merchant operations, targeting one in particular, Monsieur Berlie, who had refused to pay the tariff in November 1831. The leaders of the strike were subsequently arrested and the strike was lost as the authorities, acting on behalf of the merchants, clamped down on the societies. Freedom of association was a right which had been won through successive revolutions and uprisings across France over the previous decades but, the growth in worker associations in Lyon alarmed the bourgeoisie which found itself having to take tough measures to stem the tide of encroaching class consciousness.

The increase in Republican Party activity was also a cause for concern amongst the merchants as it chimed with the development of the workers’ associations. Although there was never any mass support for the Republicans in Lyon at that time, in terms of elections to assemblies, etc, the ideas of liberty and freedom as political aspirations as espoused by the Republicans, found their way into the minds of a layer of canuts. The Republican paper in Lyon, La Glaneuse, stated on the 8th December 1833: “The worker at his loom is the equal of Louis Philippe seated on his throne.”

What is more striking, however, is the fact that the canuts’ sense of solidarity and growing class consciousness was evolving as a natural product of the class struggle itself. Their organisations and the means of struggle came into being as a direct result of their battle with the bourgeoisie. In this respect, and with significant changes taking place in the wider economy and the political turmoil across France, the scene was set for the next phase in the canuts’ war with the merchant bourgeois of Lyon; April 1834.

The 1834 General Strike

Early in 1834 unrest was brewing again due to a downturn in orders and the lowering of rates by the merchants for those workers producing shalls and peluches (cheap cloth for men’s hats) from 1 franc 50 centimes to 1 frank 25 centimes per annue. As a result, on the 12th of February the Society of Mutual Duty voted 1,297 to 1,004 to strike for a tariff on the 14th, which had wide support amongst the journeymen of Lyon.

Coincidentally on the 13th, 1,000 mutualists and Ferrandiniers marched together, with two masters and two journeymen walking side by side in rows during the funeral procession of a deceased weaver. This was a big show of solidarity between the two sections of the canuts which terrified the merchant bourgeois and set the scene for the strike the following day.

The memory of 1831 was still fresh in the minds of all those who would participate, in particular those who had been elevated into leading positions within the mutuals. There was a cautious atmosphere in the build up to the strike with different wings of the canuts expressing differing ideas as to how the strike should proceed. Firstly, an Executive Council of 33 canuts (mainly master weavers) had been elected from all the mutuals to coordinate the action but was dominated by the most moderate wing who made it clear that the goals of the strike should be obtained via peaceful means. Their view was that virtue was its own reward and if the strike could be prosecuted in a peaceful manner and using gentlemanly negotiations in an air of good conduct, then all would benefit from a strong and conciliatory movement based upon a rational and worked out solution; this also included keeping the strike free from political interference. The journeymen, on the other hand, who had very contrasting views to the moderate leaders, wanted to give the merchants a bloody nose.

There was also a firm realisation at the same time amongst the moderates, who were simultaneously prepared for treachery and skulduggery from the merchants. The desire to conduct a struggle via legal means was counterbalanced by a very clear understanding that the merchant class were acting like a class, conscious of its own power, and was capable of delivering damaging blows to the canuts if necessary. To maximise the impact of the strike the Executive Council, on behalf of all canuts, demanded that every worker would stand together and that no one section should be bought off with a tariff by any one employer to divide the strike. All would benefit, or no-one would benefit! The Council also took measures to encourage those master weavers to join the strike who were not members of the mutuals, through an appeal to class solidarity. Through maximum unity it was felt that the ugliness of 1831 could be avoided, that no one had to die and that the city could return to peace following the successful execution of the strike. All involved knew the tensions which had developed between the two main antagonistic classes was extremely fragile and, under the weight of events, could crack at any time. Thus the scene was set for the first organised proletarian city wide general strike in history.

On the morning of the 14th February the Mayor, Prunelle, reported: “I walked today in the Saint Just quarter and the northern part of the town where the workshops are found and I failed to discover a single loom in operation”. The streets were deserted, the shops were closed, theatres were shut and the annual carnival had been cancelled. Some merchants had even locked their warehouses and fled the city. The standoff between the two classes was underway with messages passing back and forth between the Executive Council and the authorities, who were acting on behalf of the merchants. The propaganda war was well under way also with both sets of news outlets giving their own account of events, with threats from the bourgeois press towards the canuts and messages of solidarity and strike reports reflected in the workers’ press. The classes were polarised and tension was high.

The strike developed into a war of attrition with both sides digging in with only little shifts in either side’s position. Two wings of the bourgeois were in play also. The fearful wing, who prayed for their businesses and who wanted to avert the destructive nature of class conflict, called for a deal, as negotiations were ongoing but little progress was apparently being made. The other wing of the bourgeois, whose priorities prevailed, wanted to tough it out with the canuts. Their view was “Give them an inch, and they will take a mile.” In the Courrier de Lyon, between the 14th and 19th February it stated: “there is no reason why in a week they will not demand five francs as today they will demand five sous.” The mood was changing and the strike breaking forces of reaction were gathering. The stakes were high. In the Ordre du jour, the daily order sheet to the workers from the Executive Council on the 17th, the following words were sent out:

“It is no longer a question of whether or not we have acted wisely, rather we must convince ourselves that all concessions on our part, that is to say resuming work without having settled anything, would be to destroy mutualism.”

This, of course was the real intention of the merchant class, to wear down the resolve of the canuts and to smash their organisations.

The situation for the canuts was becoming desperate with food shortages and other pressures coming to bare on the young workers’ movement. On the 19th February 300 women marched through the streets crying for food. The Guard were very cautious and held back from attacking the demonstration but a potential clash was written into the script. The women then threatened to bring their children with them next time as an act of defiance; however, the key turning point in the strike finally came the same day when a merchant decided to open his warehouse with the protection of the city guard. They assembled troops around the rue Tolozan where his warehouse was and successfully oversaw his return to work, even without the workers turning up. The Executive Council then issued appeals to all sections of the working class for support and to assist with food and money, and even sent couriers out to other towns and cities to raise money for the strikers. The EC issued a rallying cry and proclamation saying: “our cause is that of the entire city, of all France, even of the universe.” But the bourgeois had dug their heels in and, under the pressure of events, the strike collapsed. On the day of the women’s march, the mutuals held a vote to return to work. In one mutual the vote went 1,382 to 445 to resume work on the 21st. The strike was over!

A different question

Over the next few days splits opened up in the workers’ movement. Many journeymen who had been on the more radical wing of the strike refused to start work again without, as they saw it, “sufficient compensation for their struggles”. A brawl even broke out in the Croix Rousse between those who wanted to continue the strike and those who sought to return to work. Cracks were beginning to appear in the workers’ movement which had been brewing under the surface for years. Introspection and an evaluation was taking place which sought to understand the events which had just occurred and a struggle for a way forward was opening up across the canuts to ascertain the defeat and its implications. Many thought that great strides had been made in terms of better organisation, with the rise of the mutuals and the growth in the power of the Executive Council. The development of the EC and a semi-professional apparatus had lead to a greater concentration of ideas, knowledge and power in the hands of a democratically elected, city wide leadership. Such an innovation in working class organisation was seen as a landmark in European social history but there were still lessons to learn. As Robert J Bezucha points out:

“Their ability to impose the strike decision on the entire industry was an innovation whose significance disturbed the merchants, the government, and even the Republicans. Although the attempts to organise distribution centres for food and strike funds was a failure, the methods employed were remarkably sophisticated for the time. Most important, the mutualists and Ferrandiniers were aware of how their opponents would perceive their actions and took explicit steps to avoid playing into their hands.” (Pages 127–128)

What can be gleaned from these processes, even as far back as the dawn of the organised working class, is its innate desire to begin the tasks of socialist transformation and reconstruction, even if only in an embryonic form. Flowing organically from the struggle with the capitalist class there comes this ability to address the social questions of the workers and their families. From the execution of a strike comes the need to feed and sustain the workers in the face of a hostile bourgeoisie, to raise funds, to organise food collection, distribution and cooking and to build links with other workers and across several locations. The workers are eventually forced, through the circumstances of their own struggles, to look to the question of “Who rules”. The bourgeois will not leave the stage of history without a fundamental and conclusive fight and the working class learns through this continual battle that, without a determined and politically advanced leadership, it will not be possible. The canuts were learning, but there were serious problems at the heart of the movement, a series of problems which had to be resolved.

The political authorities and their masters the merchants began preparing a number of laws outlawing secret societies in the city. The bourgeois, using the overblown and exaggerated pretext of Republican infiltration of the canuts, moved to close down the workers’ organisations. They pre-empted the passing of the law to immediately move against the canuts and arrested six leaders of the strike. The trail was set for the 5th April, and would play an important role in the build up to the uprising.

Other factors were also conspiring to enrage the canuts. The war of information was well underway with the bourgeois press attacking the workers, their Executive Council and the mutuals for having the audacity to conduct a strike while, the workers’ own press was attempting to defend itself from the lies and venom pouring forth from their opponents. One particular article infuriated the canuts. An Oleanist Deputy and liberal economist, Charles Dupin, attacked the workers’ movement, accusing the Executive Council of paralysing the city with the strike and in effect causing the temporary “unemployment of 50,000 workers at the behest of 50 workers’ leaders.” Writing in the Courrier de Lyon and insulting both the master weavers and canuts he stated: “a poor simple canut... who only uses his intelligence to push the shuttle” and, expecting more responsible behaviour from the master weavers he said, “you simple intermediaries, who wanted to exercise dictatorial power over the worker and the merchant.” The use of the phrase “simple intermediaries” was an insult suggesting that the workers’ movement had been infiltrated by radicals who had reduced the fledgling democracy to a “shadowy veil of secret associations and clandestine coalitions”. This vulgar tone and arrogance was an expression of the loathing and contempt the bourgeois had for the working class and, combined with other factors, added more fuel to the fires of the coming uprising.

In reality, the merchants and wider bourgeois were terrified of the working class and its newly constructed organisations. In Paris, the Minister of the Interior, the Comte d’ Argout referred to the events in south-eastern France saying: “there was harmony in those disorders and no one can deny it! There was a system, a plan, an organised project” Another report used the term “counter governments” which showed how the bourgeois were thinking. The threat, for them, was real. They feared an organised proletarian revolt, an insurrection which had to be quelled at all costs. Whereas previous revolutionary upsurges had been chaotic, were often of a disorganised and sporadic nature and primarily lead by either military means at best and general mass movements at worse, the workers’ movement in Lyon, from the ruling class point of view, was of a magnitude as yet to be fully appreciated. This was all together different!

The fear surrounding the Republican Party however, was completely unfounded as support for the party had been rather sporadic and unfocussed during the strike and, following the defeat, any worker involvement in it was in serious decline. This did not stop the authorities using the activities of the Republicans as a precursor to shutting down many organisations. The authorities moved against the Republicans directly by closing down their paper which rendered the organisation toothless, politically divided and unable to act.

Now, in the days immediately prior to the uprising on the 9th April, a brutal downturn in the economy was advancing at a rapid pace. In March a financial crisis in the United States caused the sudden cancellation of all the main contracts for the city. The US was the main destination for the Lyon silk industry which accounted for half of all exports and as such, the cancellations represented a catastrophic blow to the fortunes of many. The canuts were hoping to recover the losses made during the general strike, to recoup as best they could what income they had lost. This new situation cut across any hoped for recovery and lead to the shutting down of loom after loom, workshop after workshop. This lead to a series of demonstrations called by the mutualists who were enraged at the sharp growth in unemployment, but also by the attacks on their societies, and took the opportunity to protest for both reasons. At the beginning of April several marches, proceeding from the working class districts, were converging in the centre of Lyon, gathering in different streets and squares. Journeymen from Les Brotteaux, as they marched toward the city, were shouting “If they want a fight, then we’ll give them one.” Even the more conservative canuts, the compagnonnages, were taking to the streets with a demonstration of 2-3,000 workers proclaiming “No. No. The compagnonnages will never end.” These new slogans reflected the growing politicisation taking place. A political ferment was under way as the canuts from all parts of the city were becoming restless.

Once again, a concatenation of events and developing factors would be the dry tinder which would ignite the working class of Lyon. The attack on the mutuals and the right to organise, the arrest of the six worker leaders and the impending trial, the collapse in orders from the US and the wider economic questions which had remained unresolved for years, the memories of 1831, the bitterness of the general strike, the deep poverty which permeated wider and wider layers of the workers of the city, the vile hypocrisy of the merchant class and its lust for profits at the expense of the working class, the utter contempt for the canuts by their so called “masters”, the revolutionary age through which the whole of France had been living for decades with its calls for “liberty, equality and fraternity”; all these elements had come together in a revolutionary magazine of explosive potential. What was different about this situation was the organisations of the working class, which had not been anticipated by the bourgeois and which kept many, if not all of them, awake at night.

On the 1st April and in a massive show of solidarity and a brave Spartacus moment, the Executive Council wrote a letter to the authorities asking to be tried along with the six jailed workers’ leaders who were due to stand trial on the 5th April – although nothing came of it. On the day of judgement, and in combination with the brewing discontent and increasing demonstrations, the EC called upon on all mutualists to stop work and to gather in front of the Palais du Justice to await the verdict. A massive crowd had gathered to hear the outcome of the trail. The courtroom which was so noisy and so full to the rafters made it difficult for the judge to hear the evidence and postponed the trail for 4 days, asking all to leave the building. The crowd outside, in the confusion, thought the trail was to be conducted behind closed doors which they deemed unacceptable. When a scab weaver, who was testifying against the accused, tried to leave he was mobbed along with his legal representative and a protective gendarme. A company of soldiers rushed into the square in anticipation of a riot and rapidly surrounded the crowd. A fracas did erupt but, in the face of such a large and enraged crowd the soldiers turned their muzzles to the ground, refusing to fire and shouted, “Long live our brothers!” This calmed the situation.

The authorities, having witnessed such an instant collapse of loyalty amongst these soldiers, began a desperate investigation into the state of its troops. What was found, according to military reports, was a range of Republican sentiments in the ranks and sought to purge them as quickly as possible. Time was running out, however, and the city went into a state of siege and lock down in the run up to the retrial, with the deploying of the entire garrison onto the streets. By the 9th of April the garrison stood at battle alert with squads of infantrymen patrolling the districts with 2 days of provisions in their nap-sacks. All squares, bridges and key intersections were guarded, all government building and churches were covered and artillery was trained on prominent sites across the city. The scene was set for a major clash between the classes.

The second canut uprising

On the morning of the 9th, protesters began to assemble outside the Palais du Justice to await the outcome of the trail, but also across other locations in Lyon. They were assembling in the Place Saint Jean, the Prefecture in the Place des Jacobins and the Hotel-de-Ville in the Place des Terreaux. Thousands were gathering, drawn like moths toward a candle light, in anticipation of... something. After a short while two or three small incidents had occurred, but the key flash point came when a man was handing out Republican Party handbills in the Place Saint Jean and was arrested by the soldiers. The crowd rush forward to protect the activist and managed to wrest him from the clutches of the troops and ushered him away. The same bills had been pasted on the walls at the entrance of the square and the workers built a barricade to stop the soldiers taking them down. The soldiers, rather than immediately engage the workers in open combat, waited for reinforcements and instead moved to dismantle the barricade. They were met with resistance, with the workers pelting them with stones. The troops opened fire and one person fell. In an unlikely twist of fate, the first to be killed in the uprising was an actual police spy, who was spirited away to the Palais du Justice and who died in the Judge’s chamber. At 10am another incident occurred in the Place des Jacobins where a group of 24 soldiers were confronted with a big crowd of canuts. In panic, the soldiers were ordered into a courtyard and behind a metal gate. The canuts, who remained friendly at first, were trying to distribute Rights of Man literature to the trapped soldiers. An officer came forward to the gate to talk to the protesters and asked them to disperse but they refused. They were then threatened with the coming reinforcements, but still refused to leave and indeed grew angry. Taken from a local construction site, the canuts used a large beam to try and break down the gate. A shot then rang out which killed a worker and another was bayoneted. By 10.45 the other troops had shown up which lead to an open salvo against the canuts and many fell. In the Croix Rousse district the gun ire could be heard by both civilians and soldiers alike. The masses in this working class district acted quickly and instinctively and immediately erected barriers around the Grand Place of the Croix Rousse. The April uprising had finally begun.

Lyon 1834 uprisingThe 1834 uprising

Over the first 2 days of the uprising, which lasted 6 days in total, the military fought a defensive and controlling action across parts of the city. The canuts and their supporters built several barricades in various squares and engaged in direct combat with the troops, fighting with bravery and determination. Many of those who had participated in the demonstrations in the morning had dissipated back toward their homes and did not take part in the conflict and did not re-emerge till the uprising was over. The military aim, which had been worked out based on the experiences of 1831 and the general strike, was to keep the “insurgents” contained in pockets and to restrict their movements and ability to communicate. The troops took control of all major public buildings and institutions, controlled the bridges and main arteries of the city and prevented any movement between districts. This enabled the military commanders to keep the fighting contained in very specific areas over the first 2 days and to then, once the situation was under their control, begin the task of breaking up the groups of canut fighters. Other than the Croix Rousse, which was the biggest canut stronghold, other concentrations of fighting rebels were to be found around the commercial district between the Place Bellecour and the Place des Terreaux. They were in fact trapped there, having retreated from the Prefecture and had erected a barricade in the Passage de l’ Argue, directly off the Place des Jacobins. Barricades were also erected in the Place Sathoney near the Hotel-de-Ville.

Although the fighting was fierce and the canuts fought bravely and with tenacity, the bourgeois military strategy began to work. The plan had been to “contain and control”, which had succeeded. The canuts were pinned down in very specific locations which made it easy for the troops to manoeuvre and to replenish ammunition and supplies. By the end of the first day the resistance had become isolated into 4 main pockets: The Croix Rousse commune and hillside, and the right banks of the Soane and Rohne rivers. In other areas the fighting was limited to sniper fire, with individual canuts attempting to disrupt the movement and the morale of the troops with harassing shots and the shooting of key officers. This had a few but limited successes and, on one or two occasions, was met with artillery salvos which lead to the destruction of entire buildings. On the second day, the most intense day of fighting, the canuts were able to take control of some churches in the local districts where they were at their strongest. On the 10th of April at 6am the bells rang out from a rebel held church, the Saint Bonaventure in the Place des Cordeliers. In response, several other rebel held churches in other areas rang out a reply. This brief glimmer of solidarity and hope was, however, to be short lived.

Also on the 10th, reinforcement troops arrived from Grenoble and, despite having met tenacious resistance from the canuts in La Guillotiere, had won out, adding to the overall military barrage and assault on the rebels. Another morale boosting event for the canuts was achieved in the suburb of Vaise on the other side of the city to the fighting, where a group of rebel fighters had managed to cut the telegraph wires to Paris for the entire city, thus hindering news and updates on other government troop movements. Also, a company of liberated soldiers who were to be sent to Algeria for punishment had joined the uprising too. In the main pockets of rebellion the barricades became strengthened and a more thorough search for weapons was being conducted in the localities. Following the first 2 days of fighting, the canuts, just like the bourgeois forces, were preparing for the next phase of what had become a strictly military campaign.

The bourgeoisie, by this time, had gained the upper hand, wearing down the canuts and began the painstaking task of clearing the streets of rebels. Some sniper action by the canuts continued to make life difficult for the troops and house by house guerrilla fighting took place over the 3rd and 4th days but, with the bringing forward of more artillery and greater troop numbers, the insurrectionary mood began to fade. More and more barricades were smashed by shell fire and the workers were pushed further back into their districts. By the 13th April traffic began to circulate around almost all the city roads and shops and stalls began to reopen. By the evening of the 14th the final pockets of resistance had been quelled and the uprising was over.

Engels commented on this kind of street fighting in his 1895 Introduction to Marx's - The Class Struggles in France:

“…rebellion in the old style, street fighting with barricades, which decided the issue everywhere up to 1848, had become largely outdated... everywhere the bourgeoisie had thrown in its lot with governments... and feasted the military moving against insurrection. The barricade had lost its magic; the soldier no longer saw behind it the 'people' but rebels, subversives, plunderers, levelers, the scum of society; the officer had in the course of time become versed in the tactical forms of street fighting, he no longer marched straight ahead and without cover against the improvised breastwork, but went round it through gardens, yards and houses."

These were lessons the canuts did not have time to learn and had to live through its brutality.


In total, 269,000 musket rounds had been discharged and 1,729 artillery shells had been hurled at rebel positions which resulted in the loss of 300 lives. It was estimated that between 3,000 and 6,000 canuts and their supporters took part in the initial demonstrations on the 9th, but that a greatly reduced number had engaged in the actual fighting. What was clear, from reports which were compiled at the time, was that the majority of those taking part were predominantly youth. 50-60% of those involved in direct fighting were between the ages of 15-30 and were mostly from the journeymen layer within the canut community. Although the most militant fighters were from the silk worker and cloth trades’, the figures produced in Robert J Bazucha’s book show clearly that they were also joined in a show of solidarity by workers from the construction trades. These figures, produced to show who had been arrested and what their occupations were, demonstrate that it was the youth, the young workers who formed the backbone of this great revolutionary movement. The defeat of the 1834 revolt was certainly not the fault of those workers who fell, not the fault of those youth who fought bravely and who suffered at the hands of the victors, but the blame for the extinguishing of the burning flame of insurrection had to be laid squarely at the feet of the mutualist leaders. Their failure to act in the face of a bourgeois military strategy was testament to their lack of foresight and class perspective. They sought to trust their Lords and Masters, to try to show themselves as reasonable statesmen by living within the rules and laws of bourgeois society and failed to prepare, like their enemy, for the coming battles and inevitable clashes. In some respect they could be forgiven, in that this was the first time in the history of the class struggle that a mass movement of class conscious workers had tried to overthrow the capitalist system, even though it remained within the confines of a single city.

The nature of this insurrectionary movement differed radically to the previous 1831 uprising in two key respects. Firstly, the military strategy of the bourgeoisie, having had its fingers burned the previous time, was much better organised and far more prepared. The bourgeois had in fact planned and resourced for such an incident for a whole period, to cut across and quickly crush what they could see was an inevitable consequence of the crisis within their own system. Secondly, although the initial demonstrations were well attended and reflected a very a militant mood on the part of the masses, the level of preparedness of the canuts can be said to have been completely inadequate. The mutuals, those workers’ associations which showed such great promise in the build up toward and during the general strike in February, played little or no official role in trying to organise the rebels once the revolt had begun, and many of its leaders showed no level of organised participation in the fighting whatsoever. This unorganised and spontaneous uprising (which could have been anticipated and prepared for following the outcome of the trial) demonstrated a lack of perspective and lack of understanding on behalf of the weak leadership of the canuts. In its infancy, the young proletariat showed how it was able to conduct a struggle, how it was able to organise itself in the previous 1831 revolt and the general strike, but, and it is easy to see why, the question of leadership and military strategy had not been worked out nor anticipated fully in the fight with the bourgeoisie.

Like most subsequent revolutionary movements of the working class, reformist leaders who find themselves at the head of the workers do not have the perspective of taking power in their minds and do not understand how to wield it, even when it has been handed to them on a plate. They attempt to play the statesmen, play the role of the labour grandees who know how to negotiate with the enemy, find ways to smooth the path toward peace between the classes, but are ultimately lead up the garden path toward their doom and which results in the defeat of the class they purport to represent.

Out of the hundreds arrested there were thirty nine identified as Republicans and only eight of these were brought to trial but, not because they were Republican agitators or party members. It appears that they did not play a prominent role on the basis of their political beliefs although, based on anecdotal evidence, many of the canuts were heard shouting slogans against the rich and handbills with revolutionary slogans had been circulated. In many respects, what truly worried the ruling class, even after they had defeated the canuts, was the radicalisation which had built up over the decades within the city. Years of discontent on the industrial front had eventually spilled over into the political arena and way beyond what any Republican or other radicals had anticipated.

The canuts had become, way before their time, a revolutionary workers’ movement which was hell bent on destroying its class enemy and were prepared to die fighting to achieve it. The build up of experiences, of the memories of the Two Sous Riots, of the 1831 revolt, the general strike, the poverty, the hardship and yes, the loss of status over the decades of the master weavers themselves and their “descent” into the proletariat, all these factors played their part in fomenting the disquiet and class hatred of the merchant bourgeoisie.

Most of all, however, was the nature of the class consciousness which set the Lyon silk workers apart from others across France and the rest of the world. Their unique position as workers within that great city, their traditions, their communities, working relationships and place within the productive forces of France at that time, created a movement which, for the first time in the history of modern capitalism, put them on a direct collision course with the new masters of the world.

All the lessons learned in those days, the early days of the capitalist system in France, were noted by the bourgeoisie across the emerging globe. The British capitalists were the leading class conflict strategists of the world, but even they observed the events in Lyon with growing unease. They had developed their tactics, their institutions and traditions in a different set of circumstances, in a time when British capital was asserting itself across the entire planet and where concessions were used to maintain peace between the classes. The British ruling class were past masters and had vast experience of putting down uprisings and suppressing discontent also; representing the most confident and powerful ruling class of all during the 19th century. However, only five years after the defeat of the canuts would come another revolutionary wave which would sweep Britain in the form of the Chartist movement, unleashing the vast forces of the British working class for the first time.

Only ten years after these titanic events, the silk workers of Lyon would come back onto the streets once again to play their role in the revolutionary movements of 1848. The Lyon bourgeoisie had, in 1834, won a victory, but it was only a prelude to greater struggles, struggles which would shake the entire world and provide valuable lessons for all workers, shaping the events at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th too.

Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky also drew on these valuable lessons to demonstrate that the mighty world proletariat will move time and time again to finish what the canuts of Lyon had started all those many years ago.

It was no coincidence that in 1848, a famous document was written which read:

“Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.”

“Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: The Communist Manifesto


(Many thanks to Robert J Bezucha for his splendid book ‘The Lyon uprising of 1834’)


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