Field Notes In Conversation
Henri Simon with Dominik Müller
An Active Life
In his Paris apartment, filled with books and other materials, Henri Simon spoke with Dominik Müller about his lifetime of activity. A living proof of the wellness benefits of class struggle, Henri Simon turned one hundred this year. Much of his life has been devoted to collecting and sharing information and ideas about the international workers’ movement as a member of such groups as Socialisme ou barbarie, ICO, and Echanges et movements. The conversation below considers this history and extends Simon’s ideas.
Rail (Dominik Müller): How did you come to politics?
Henri Simon: When I was young, I was in a sanatorium for over six months. For me it was like being on holiday. During the first meeting I had with the doctor there, he said to me, “Your case is not interesting.” Because I was already more or less healed. I took advantage of my time in the mountains. I started to collect and study plants and things like that in hopes of becoming an arborist, to learn everything I could about the subject. So I traveled around the mountains, ignoring strict orders to rest during the day.
At the sanatorium I met a man who had been working in a big bakery. He was politically educated, and we discussed various issues. He had helped organize strikes in 1936 and told me about that experience, explaining to me what was involved and sharing his broader political background. This was my initiation into the world of politics.
Rail: And your parents?
Simon: My father was more or less a social democrat. One notable characteristic of my father’s family, however, was the fact that they were the first in their town to publicly assert their atheism. For instance, when my grandfather was buried, my father refused to have anything to do with the Church. The funeral cortège processed not in front of the cathedral but before the townhall.
I was strongly influenced by my mother. Around 1936, she began to take inspiration from someone she’d made friends with. This friend had been forced to retire because she was too exhausted. She had five kids to care for at home while at the same time working as a teacher, obliged to look after forty kids at school. Suffering from an acute form of depression, my mother’s friend took an early retirement. This former teacher was well-informed about politics and literature, a very educated person. And she had a great effect on my mother, giving her lots of information. For my mother, contact with this woman was a kind of emancipation. Through her she read quite a lot of literature during this period, a great deal of it from England. In addition, this was wartime, and her friend received tracts and pamphlets from the Parti communiste français (PCF) as well.
To me, this was a literary and political revelation. Literary because I gained a familiarity with English literature, and political because it introduced me to Marxism. That was really the beginning of my taste for literature, on the one hand and my introduction to politics, on the other, and this double exposure allowed me to develop both sides of my personality.
Moreover, in a strange way, I was lucky to get tuberculosis in the nineteen forties. Even though I was ill, this allowed me to escape certain requirements that existed at the time. Under the Vichy regime, there was a service travail obligatoire [compulsory labor service] where they took young people and sent them to Germany to work. I had to pass a medical exam before German military doctors three times to prove my health situation, because they didn’t rely on the doctor’s declaration. So that was how I got out of serving in the war. At the same time, a good friend of mine was taken. While he was in Germany, his mother lived in the village as a widow. I helped her with gardening since her son was abroad.
Rail: So you were fortunate.
Simon: In a certain sense. It just shows how something can be bad on one side, but also good on the other side.
Rail: And then you met this man at the sanatorium?
Simon: He taught me a lot of things. This all took place in 1941. Later, when I started working, I grew close to the PCF. I joined the Confédération Générale du Travail (General Confederation of Labor, CGT) and became the secretary of the union section at a big insurance company. 1
Rail: And what happened as a secretary of your section? Was it a good idea?
Simon: The union? For a short period, the CGT had the motto, “class against class.” When the First Indochina War began in 1946, it was at first in opposition to the government. But then it changed its policy to one of class collaboration. I didn’t follow this turn, and thus in 1947 I was basically expelled from the union. Its leaders tried to conspire with members of the CGT section to isolate me, but they failed completely, because people supported me. So they used some underhanded maneuver to have me removed, which was the end of my involvement with that section.
Nevertheless, I stayed in contact with a number of people. In 1955 there was a big riot against a contract. I wrote about this in my 1957 book, Une expérience d’organisation ouvrière, reissued in 2002. This was the start of a new kind of resistance to union policy at the workplace, and that lasted a long time. We maintained a small bulletin up until my removal in 1971. The expulsion happened because they wanted to expand quicker. At the time we had a network of people opposed to the union. As the insurance companies were concentrating, they tried to get rid of all the advantages workers had gained from local contracts. There was a discussion among the different unions involved, aiming to level everything, so we could gain some advantage in some companies. We arranged a meeting to confer with the boss and the union, and asked to hold a session beforehand outside the location where the meeting was set to take place. But there was a bloc belonging to Lutte Ouvrière, a Trotskyist group. While I wasn’t planning to go beyond the arrangement, someone from this organization tried to do more in order to gain some influence. So he opened the door to the meeting between the union and the boss, and the people followed him in.
This changed the scene immediately, given the sort of secrecy the negotiation committee was operating under. The punishment came straight away. They sacked me along with the bloc. I refused to dissociate myself from this bloc, though I knew perfectly well what this meant. Either way, I would be fired from my job. But the union offered me a deal, where I would be quietly moved to another place. I didn’t go along with this. For me, it was a matter of solidarity. I could have had someone challenge my sacking, because I had not been behind the action by Lutte Ouvrière, and for this reason they gave me quite a lot of money as severance. Regardless of the consequences, it was important to me not to be dissociated even if I completely disagreed with what the members of this group did. You have to follow your principles.
Rail: And what happened then?
Simon: I was unemployed for one year, but in the end I found a new job in the legal branch of a state company. Here I have to mention something. I was first hired by this insurance firm—AGF, Assurances Générales de France—in 1945. Later, in 1946, this company was nationalized.2 But because it used to be privately owned, most of the managers from the old guard were very conservative. The new director was of Jewish origin and the former management orchestrated an antisemitic campaign against him. I was incredibly upset by this situation and openly fought the campaign in my capacity as secretary of the CGT. I think this man, the general director (not the president), later remembered that I had defended him. Curiously, I was offered this legal position despite having been placed on a blacklist which had blocked all my attempts to find a new job. It was because of this director that I found that job, because of my earlier solidarity with him… Of course, I have no proof that he did this—but I had been banned from employment everywhere. I was happy to be engaged in a state company and feel that my getting hired was more or less a consequence of what I had done years before. This was the last place I worked, in the legal division of a state company.
Rail: And how long did you work there?
Simon: At one point, this new place of work was reorganized and they proposed a contract to leave in three years with a specific agreement where you receive your full wage. I was lucky, because when this ended it was just when François Mitterrand was elected and made the age of retirement sixty. I had just turned sixty and had logged the requisite number of trimesters, so I went into early retirement. Luckily they counted three weeks I worked at a village sugar factory at the beginning of the war 1939, which were between two trimesters. Since 1982 I haven’t worked. I get a full retirement pension, so I’m okay.
Rail: Don’t you consider your activity in Échanges et Mouvement or Socialisme ou Barbarie to be work?
Simon: No, because when I was working, I was involved with those groups as well. When I was in SOB, I wrote some articles. Then when I split from it in 1958, I had another group—really a workers’ group, ICO (Informations et correspondances ouvrières)—until 1975.
Rail: How did you experience the movement of 1968?
Simon: Bon. Something happened. 1968 was a moment of possibility. For me what was important was that discussion was very open everywhere. In the factories there were occupations. You could discuss anything with anybody. At the same time, however, the unions quickly established control over the situation. Particularly if there was any spontaneous action, the unions took it over. But independently, there was this chance to meet anywhere. Not only at one’s place of work, but outside it there were places in Paris where people were meeting spontaneously. That was how things stood in 1968.
In a certain way, that year spelled the death of ICO. There were plenty of new members, but all these members were students—people without real experience. So they had discussions completely uninformed by class struggle. There was this new university in Vincennes where people talked about ideological problems with [Félix] Guattari, [Gilles] Deleuze, and others.
There were so many people coming to our discussions. All the meetings of ICO were held in a lecture hall at Jussieu university because there were sometimes more than a hundred people. But the success of the ICO was simultaneously its death. I recall one dispute. I had gone to the French border near Pontarlier to meet people from the Italian group Collegamenti from Milan. We talked a lot about class struggle in Italy. But when I came back and went to the next ICO meeting to report, it was impossible. An ideological dispute had broken out following some discussions at the Vincennes university I just mentioned. For me, this kind of thing was the reason I left ICO two or three years later. Before 1968 it was really a workers’ group, but afterwards it became a student group, not interested at all in class struggle.
Échanges was started in 1975. Some dissidents from ICO held a meeting in Boulogne with people from Solidarity from the UK, with Cajo Brendel from the Dutch left, people from Germany and France. Now, all the people who founded Échanges are dead!
Rail: What was the motivation to found Échanges?
Simon: To set up some kind of international group in order to advocate class struggle.
We adopted a line more or less related to council communism at the beginning. But by then, council communism was becoming something distant. The problem was to try to report on all class struggle all over the world.
Rail: And how did you find out about the class struggles before the internet?
Simon: We tried to have contacts with people everywhere, for instance in the United States. We had Dutch people, six people in England, another contact in Germany. So we collected information.
Rail: Were those workers writing about their own struggles?
Simon: No, generally. In my experience, most of the time people don’t write about their own struggles. I’ve tried several times to have people record things they’ve gone through.
Rail: What was and is the aim of describing all those struggles?
Simon: To inform people and perhaps have discussions around certain problems, but also to analyze things we consider important and allow people to discover new things. What we proposed for this publication was not a “line.” People could agree or disagree in the texts we published. If they disagreed, they could explain the reasons for their disagreement. A few contributors tried at one point to establish a line, but we told them that the goal was to serve as an open forum. We hoped to inform people about class struggle and provoke further discussion; that was the basis. Some refused this basis. They would try to collaborate with us, but left after a while because they considered it necessary to have a line. But this was something we refused.
Rail: And do you think you succeeded in sparking this discussion?
Simon: Well, we still maintain it, it’s not just in the past. It’s a new world: those who started it are mostly dead, so now others are collaborating.
Rail;: Were there certain struggles over the years that interested you more, or that gave you some hope? Which struggles were the most important for you personally?
Simon: That’s difficult to answer. What happened here two years ago was very important. The strike wave in England at the moment is very interesting. Right now there’s a very militant union there that has succeeded in bringing the means of a strike back into the discussion. In England there is a law on the books regulating strikes. Only strikes at one particular company are legal, not the severest form of strike, the general strike. There has thus been an extreme division of strikes. But this militant union has managed to reverse the situation: they managed to adopt the same motion at all the small units, thus making a general strike against the employer.
Rail: Karl Marx said that in the struggle against the existing state of affairs, criticism is not a passion of the head but the head of passion. What is your motivation for critique, for being a militant? What drives you?
Simon: From the first, I fought because I felt I had to do something against injustice. In a way, that’s the moral basis of everything. I inherited that from my mother, who I saw constantly fighting for what was right. Like her, I can’t tolerate injustice in society, so my motivation is always there. So I follow her example. For my mother, the fight against injustice covered everything from giving free lessons to the Polish children of a factory worker to collecting clothes for the Spanish Revolution. Fighting injustice was for her a day-to-day-thing in the class where she was a teacher, all the way up to the more collective things. She was my model, I was strongly influenced by her, by seeing her just do what she could and not follow any orders. My mother wasn’t a member of any organization; she was acting according to her own feelings, and for me it was exactly the same.
Rail: Do you think it’s still important to use the concept of the working class?
Simon: The concept of the worker is normal: people selling their labor-power to a boss, that’s it. You’re a worker if you do something in return for a wage. That is the Marxist definition, and for me there is no problem with it. Workers sell their labor power to get a wage and the boss confiscates the product of their work. That’s the basis of the capitalist system. I stick to the Marxist theory. The working class is people forced to sell their labor-power. Sometimes, you can get a special status as a wage-laborer, but sometimes you don’t have this status. There are a lot of people exploited in a certain way, so everybody obliged to sell their labor power is a worker, whatever their legal status might be.
Rail: Isn’t it important to discuss how the working class has changed over time and how the class is composed?
Simon: Yes. Some people are not workers legally or officially, but they are workers in fact. For instance, there’s a lot of discussion about people making deliveries. You see all those people in the streets taking food somewhere. Most of the time these people are not considered wage laborers, but they are in fact. So the notion of a worker is more than the legal status of “worker.”
Rail: What about work that you don’t get paid for, which mostly women do, unpaid labor?
Simon: We could consider them workers. But a woman staying at home for the kids, doing quite a lot of work, is not legally considered a worker. She’s just expected to take care of the family. That’s a problem, of course. Of course, a woman working at home could eventually be considered a worker, but she’s not now. It’s evident that she’s working for the reproduction of the human species. But it’s never considered work, even if that’s the actual situation.
With most couples nowadays, however, women are working outside the home. Today things are not the same as a century ago. Even fifty years ago, most women stayed at home. Now most of them are working as well and have their own income. But even under present circumstances women have to care for daily life more than men. They are not paid for that, of course. It’s changing little by little—moving very slowly, but moving anyway.
Rail: If you understand the concept of worker in a very broad sense, I understand why the Marxist concept is helpful. But who is the working class today?
Simon: Marx developed his theory more than 150 years ago, reflecting on the economic situation of his day and the conditions under which labor was exploited during that period. He couldn’t foresee some of the changes that would take place in the 1960s in the nature of work and the means of control over work. I think that while the fundamentals of Marx’s analysis are still sound, the workers’ condition is nevertheless different than it was when he was writing. Certainly the basis for the exploitation of labor power and the extraction of surplus value by means of wages is the same, but the way the system otherwise operates has changed. There is stricter control than before. For instance, a century ago workers answered to the foreman and no one else. Now it’s completely different. You’re watched everywhere, in the street, on the subway, in the shop, at work, even at home. When you go out into the street you are filmed by camera systems, and at work too. There are plenty of means by which to pressure the worker. Back when it was just the foreman, you could get away with a lot on the job, but now it’s nearly impossible. They monitor you and can see at any moment what you’re doing and where you are the second you try to cheat. It’s made it much harder to resist. Marx couldn’t have predicted that, of course. There is some resistance, but it’s very difficult to escape this system of total and constant control.
Rail: Do you see ways of resisting and escaping this system?
Simon: There are some ways. It’s more about individual behavior, from what I can see. For instance, few people participate in French elections today. Only twenty-five percent of the people vote, which is a kind of disaffection towards the system. No system can last for long without the support of the majority of the people. So you could say that in the present situation individual attitudes become more important than before. It’s not collective action, but the fact that a collection of individuals does it, makes it a collective movement … You see what I mean? It’s not a concerted action, but anyway the result is a collective attitude. There’s what they call it the great resignation: people moving from one job to another, they can’t prevent that. There’s a labor shortage in numerous sectors presently, not only in France, but all over the world. They don’t know what to do, they accept to change the conditions of work at some places. But generally, people are moving to where they feel better. It’s an individual attitude. When I started to work there were big strikes everywhere, now the era of strikes is over. There are still some strikes, but most resistance occurs through individual attitudes towards work. What we see is a kind of individual refusal of a lot of things, a kind of retreat from participation in the system.
Rail: How do you turn an individual approach into a collective action that is powerful?
Simon: It’s not something new. Most of the time class struggle was considered a collective activity of workers. But individual attitudes towards work could become a collective action because they are repeated individually by the workers. That has always existed. For instance, at my job people worked in big offices. Before the end of the workday, they were ready to stop work perhaps ten minutes before they were scheduled to clock out. They’d do this individually together and crowd in the stairs to be able to rush outside. It was not a concerted action, it was an individual attitude, but became a collective action. This is just an example.here are a lot of similar situations, but they are completely neglected, because most sociologists and union people consider that rubbish. But it’s very important, and some studies organized by the bosses saw the importance of all these things. It’s something on the verge of becoming collective action, taking back a share of productivity. They know that there is a kind of struggle that is difficult to understand. There are a lot of situations where individual actions become collective. For instance, if people stop work to have a cigarette. At one time, people were not allowed to smoke at work, so in some places where there are many offices like in La Défense in Paris you could see plenty of workers going outside to take some free time. There are a lot of situations like that that are very damaging for productivity. There’s a kind of underground fight of the boss to try to control this thing, but it is very difficult to control. I could quote quite a lot of examples like that. You can see that it exists, but people don’t talk about that.
Where I worked, when children started school there were a lot of orders for new pencils and pens—they don’t need it, they need it for their kids. You are stealing time or objects, for example using the phone when the boss is out of the office, because the management usually takes a lot of time for lunch, so people have free access and they use the boss’s phone to make calls. People do such things when they get the chance and they are very inventive. I could quote a lot of examples, but generally, things like that are not considered “class struggle,” when in fact they are class struggle. We had a lot of discussions about that at one time, because even some militants saw the struggle only in the organized forms, not as a collection of individual attitudes. But if people are doing something this way the others can see it, but they will say nothing because they could do the same. It is a kind of complicity; for the manager it’s important, because when you have several hundred or several thousand people doing this kind of thing it affects productivity.
Rail: When you are thinking and analyzing a strike in your words you are using language the ordinary workers do not use. Why?
Simon: For a long time, a group of people where I worked published a small bulletin and distributed it at the gate. When I wrote an article,I used normal language. It was about facts, not theoretical things—for example, if a manager had a bad attitude towards the workers or something like that we would mention that. I tried to push the other workers to write. But they thought if they would write for others it was literary work. So they didn’t want to use their normal language. So I had to listen to them and write what they told me. You see. Because when they talk they use the language they use with other workers.
Rail: To go back to the idea that a worker is someone who has to sell his or her labor power: How can we say that the situations of a teacher and an illegal informal migrant worker are the same?
Simon: They are not the same. But it’s the same anyway. Because they sell their labor power. That’s the basis. And at the same time what they do is confiscated by the manager. They produce surplus value and that is the basis of everything–legal or illegal. It’s the basis of everything. What is certain is that the manager always tries to take as much as possible of the surplus value. Pay less if he can. Increase productivity if he can. It’s the basic thing. I stick to that. Because it is evident. I stick to what is simple. What is different is the way that thing is accomplished. In a certain way you can say a worker today is in fact more exploited than in Marx’s time because he or she has less possibility for collective defense. But the manager always uses their labor power to make money. That has not changed since Marx’s time. What has changed are the conditions of work. But the basic thing is still the same.
Rail: Workers’ conditions are increasingly similar across the world. Do you see any possibility for an international class struggle?
Simon: There are a lot of movements that have taken an international stance within the Western world—for instance, Black Lives Matter. And #MeToo, spreading internationally without any previous organization. And that has happened several times recently. The climate movement started from that young Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg. But such movements have not happened among the workers. They are generally what we call social movements. There is no international class movement so far. If that can happen, I don’t know. But there is already some tendency for movements to spread spontaneously—without organization. Fifty years ago organizations—the Communist party, the Trotskyist party—tried to act internationally. But that is over. But now you can see international movement spreading spontaneously. That is completely new. And you could think that things could happen one day like that with class struggle. I think, considering the situation, we can be somewhat optimistic.
Rail: It is just what you said, the control at the workplace is intensifying. At my places of work the people are afraid to speak out against the boss. They only do it in private. But in the end, every time, they overcame their fear. They still have the solidarity that comes with the shared experience of having to work together, and knowing that your colleague is in the same situation as you are, and this is still one thing that gives me trust in the potential of the working class at the place of work to overcome their situation collectively. They just must throw away their fear.
Simon: You think people are afraid? Of what?
Rail: To do anything.
Simon: You think people are afraid to do something? No, no! If you are in such a situation, you must defend yourself. You act. The proof of that: there are a lot of strikes. People know all the means of control but they don’t care anyway. They don’t care. No, they know the balance of struggle is for them. When they have to defend their condition, people are not afraid.
- In 1943, Henri became involved with a group of resistance fighters in his hometown, Rozay-en-Brie. In 1944 he was secretary of the local Liberation Committee of Rozay. In 1944–1945, in the same city, he led a group of young people linked to the National Front, then dominated by the PCF.
- This was part of a broader legislation passed that year by Charles de Gaulle nationalizing the insurance industry.