CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Studies focusing on politicisation – and those that adopt a socio-historical approach in particular – have paid considerable attention to the role of specific social spaces in the development of political practices, even going so far as to speak of a political consciousness specific to the most dominated of individuals. Maurice Agulhon has thus demonstrated the role of barracks, of gambling rings, and of self-help groups in politicising the countryside of the Var region during the nineteenth century. [1] In much the same manner, Edward Thompson has shed light upon the effects of sociable practices in pubs, taverns and cafés on the formation of the British working class. [2] In a broader context, James Scott has highlighted the essential role played by “hidden text” sites – from slave quarters to small village groups, from the inns in working class neighbourhoods to the underground passages of the city – in the emergence of counter-hegemonic discourses and practices. [3] Notwithstanding this research, one such social space has until now failed to receive a comparable level of attention: studies of the cooperative-led Maisons du Peuple [Houses of the People], have remained few and far between, especially with regard to the processes of politicisation to which their frequentation might have given rise. [4] And this lack of attention persists in spite of the fact that, when explaining the rapid ascension of socialism within urban environments towards the end of the nineteenth century, cooperatives are often identified as a causal factor. Michel Offerlé has thus commented: “As the followers of Jules Guesde [Guesdistes] began to conquer the North, this conquest was primarily achieved by virtue of the network of cooperatives, unions and cabarets”. [5]

2The practical effects of the Maisons du Peuple, however, have rarely been studied on their own terms. [6] Alain Chatriot thus notes, “today the phenomenon of cooperatives hardly interests the specialists of social sciences, save for a few examples”. [7] He notes elsewhere in particular the existence of “very few case studies”. [8] One rare exception is Michel Hastings’ study of Halluin, where he underscores the role of the Maison du Peuple in the local spread of communism. [9] A book of collected articles has also been published on the Bellevilloise, which was founded in the aftermath of the Commune and worked in tandem with the socialists and then the communists. [10] The Maison du Peuple is here presented as an instrument of political socialisation, but the authors fail to explain precisely how such an instrument functioned. Finally, several short and often very politically engaged texts have been written about the Maison du Peuple of Saint-Claude, in the Jura; founded in 1899, it is presented as a centre for socialist propaganda. [11]

3Towards the end of the nineteenth century, more or less throughout Europe, cooperative structures began to appear, providing the working classes with affordable goods for consumption. [12] This emergence took place in connection with the rise of socialist and catholic movements (though not exclusively so, for a significant movement of independent cooperatives also existed at this time, most notably in France). These cooperatives first appeared in England and in Belgium. Though France never experienced a movement of comparable magnitude, it was no exception to the rule: many cooperatives were created there during this same era. Despite initially playing a principally economic role, such cooperatives never had the sole vocation of cheap bread and coal provision. They effectively came to embody essential structuring elements of the organisation of working-class life, regulating the rhythm of everyday social interaction in several cities. Sometimes directly linked to the different socialist parties or to the (predominantly catholic) employers’ groups, these cooperatives played a decisive political role. The Maisons du Peuple – spaces in which politics was intertwined with everyday social interaction – were an important site for the politicisation of the working class. We have chosen to focus on one such Maison, created by the cooperative La Paix [Peace], in Roubaix.

4Having suggested the value of studying Maisons du Peuple as a way of better understanding the processes of worker politicisation, why then this focus on Roubaix in particular? Most obviously, we do so because of its industrial nature; but also because of its proximity with Belgium, where the cooperative movement emerged earlier (and proved to be more resilient), and supported the creation of cooperatives in France through a border-crossing transfer of social innovation. [13] At the end of the nineteenth century, Roubaix became both one of the central nodes in France’s cooperative system, and one of the laboratories of the rapidly ascending socialist movement. The socialists gained control of the municipality as early as 1892 – a triumph personified by Henri Carrette and his “council of beer-drinkers” [14] – and Jules Guesde became its member of parliament in 1893, leading him to label Roubaix “the Holy City of the proletariat”. In 1907, Roubaix was one of the French capitals of the socialist cooperative movement (one in every four residents was a member of a cooperative, socialist or other). [15] At the time, La Paix was at the avant-garde of this movement, a flagship for socialist cooperation embodied by the Maison du Peuple, inaugurated in 1901. Should we see the strength of cooperation in the city as a key to the socialists’ rapid rise to municipal power? Can we locate the roots of socialist hegemony, which reigned in the city for a large part of the twentieth century, in the existence of one or several Maisons du Peuple, which may have functioned as incubators for politicisation? The case of Roubaix, and that of northern France more generally, tends to be so interesting because – excepting the Maison du Peuple of the Saint-Claude Fraternity – it was one of those rare spaces in which, as Gilles Morin has noted, [16] all of the structuring elements of the worker’s movement were unified: party, union, cooperative, social security, employment exchange. He notes that the region thus constitutes an exception to that which Frédéric Sawicki observed in relation to socialist activism:


“This kind of activism had always been plural, drawing variously on associations, unions, cooperatives, and political parties. Unlike the Communist Party or many social-democratic parties, the multiple belongings that resulted from socialist activism were never based upon the integration of these different organisations who, more or less, shared the same values.” [17]

6The politicising strength of the Maison du Peuple may thus arise from its lack of specialisation, and from the variety of activities that it conglomerates.

7More broadly, we aim to analyse the politicisation effects specific to this space. We do so by focusing on two of the ways in which politicisation functioned. On the one hand, we follow the classic definition given by Jacques Lagroye, according to whom politicisation is “the redefinition of an infinitely diverse set of social activities”, [18] and more precisely here, as the redefinition of everyday social interaction in political terms. We therefore specifically seek to understand to what extent the politicisation of social interaction constitutes a vector for the formation of working-class identity, [19] and is in this sense conducive to the grassroots political development of socialism in Roubaix. On the other hand, it is equally possible to focus attention on the politicisation of individuals, an approach that has seen recent development in political sociology. [20] Whilst this approach poses methodological difficulties for the analyst of contemporary phenomena, when attention is focused on the past one is confronted with even greater obstacles, most notably with regard to available sources. [21] We define the politicisation of individuals as the development of new practices and, possibly, an alteration of their life path, which might be characterised by a more intense relation to politics, and might find expression in various forms: political discussions, voting, activist engagement, and so on. [22] Consequently, the analyst should seek to observe the extent to which a specific social space – a Maison du Peuple – might be a vector for the politicisation of social interaction and of individuals; whether or not the two necessarily go hand in hand; and which factors are key to the successful outcome of any such processes that have been identified. Broadly speaking, our approach interrogates the opposition between a conception of politicisation that is focused upon the institutional sphere – politicisation would be here understood as exclusively composed of practices relative to the political field narrowly defined – and another conception focused on the sphere of “infrapolitical” practices and more underground forms of politicisation. We concentrate on the interactions between the two spheres, in particular how infra- or para-political practices can influence the field of institutional politics. [23] Our focus here is on practical politicisation and we call for this approach to be extended, so that it looks both at collectives and at individuals, at formal and informal politics, and situates these in relation to one another. Whilst we are not oblivious to the risk of “overly elastic definitions of the term politicisation”, [24] we wish to demonstrate that it is beneficial to have an approach to politicisation that is both precise and comprehensive; one which grasps this concept in all its diversity.

8It seems especially important to observe phenomena of politicisation based on parapolitical social networks in contexts other than rural ones, given the disproportionate amount of attention that historians have bestowed upon the latter as a way of studying the link between politicisation and social interaction (of political or non-political kinds). The aim is not necessarily to invalidate the hypothesis according to which the integration of “the political scene” into para- or infrapolitical “social networks” is more pronounced in the countryside than in urban industrial settings. [25] Rather, we seek to eschew a predominant trend towards “making rural dwellers a discrete caste, as if, inherently, their relation to politics were not natural”, while that of urban workers is presumed to be. [26] As Michel Offerlé has noted, “the hasty opposition between the city (held to be spontaneously politicised) and the countryside (difficult to galvanise) should […] be relativised”. [27] Without revisiting the intense historio-graphical debate around the politicisation of the countryside, opened up in particular by Eugen Weber’s work on “the end of the terroirs” [28] and the reactions that it provoked – the debate about the downwards diffusion of “modern” political ideas from the top to the bottom of society is well known – we must also modify the notion that, in the city, politics is no longer understood through localised registers of political expression. Peter McPhee, for whom “the model based on the diffusion of urban or ‘modern’ ideas and associative structures towards ‘archaic’ rural societies is too simplistic and even teleological”, underlines the manner in which rural culture allows countryside dwellers to enhance their political engagement. [29] We shall see that this also applies to the case of Roubaix’s workers. An “analysis at the scale of the micro-polis”, [30] and the employment of “spatial scales that are more detailed and attentive to daily social interaction”, [31] appear as fruitful approaches for the scholar seeking to shed light on the importance of “local mechanisms of appropriation”. [32] Whilst it cannot be denied that the period under observation in the present study is characterised by the extension of “political markets”, and by a new relationship between candidates and voters in which canvassing and outreach techniques were becoming increasingly professionalised and self-organised, [33] observing how such processes play out in Roubaix nevertheless leads to the conclusion that this general movement should not be thought of as putting a complete stop to traditional practices of local political leadership and oversight. The idea that cities have “clearly differentiated” public and private spheres needs to be put into perspective. [34] Rather, in this yet to be nationally unified political market, everyday social bonds remained very important to the creation of a loyal electorate. Politicisation in the nineteenth century cannot be conceived of as a clear departure from a world characterised by localism – one rooted in community – towards one in which political adhesion is primarily individual and dissociated from traditional practices of local political oversight. The “emergence of nation-statist citizenship” [35] does not inhibit another form of politicisation, one based on informal social and political mechanisms, and whose aggregate effect is to create the sense of belonging to a specific social group. Here, political socialisation is a creative force for, or at very least reinforces, a working-class identity that commands respect, and that is fundamentally linked to socialism.

9For all of these reasons, La Paix constitutes an especially appropriate object for analysing the political effects of an urban working-class space at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. From a chronological point of view, our study runs from 1885, the year in which the cooperative was founded, to the eve of the First World War, the end of the cooperative’s heyday. After describing the creation and day-to-day functioning of the cooperative, we focus on the Maison du Peuple’s mechanisms of social interaction. Our analysis of the politicisation of traditional working-class social interaction leads to an investigation of whether we can observe politicisation effects in the individuals and groups that frequented La Paix, and whether such effects can be measured. Although, given the tenuousness of our sources, it seems particularly difficult to shed light on the exact manner in which attending the Maison du Peuple might have fostered the politicisation of individual trajectories, we identify how it encouraged the formation of a working-class consciousness in Roubaix. Finally, we seek to explain the way in which frequentation of La Paix may have constituted a springboard towards a political career, as a site in which budding socialist political actors could accrue legitimacy in preparation for competition in the local political arena.

The creation of a space for worker togetherness

10The Maison du Peuple was a product of its eponymous cooperative, La Paix, founded in 1885 in Roubaix by Dutch workers. Although La Paix was originally intended as a consumer cooperative allowing workers to purchase bulk foodstuffs and make bread, the scope of its activities underwent a rapid extension. Any member of the cooperative could buy their bread, coal and other items of daily consumption at low cost, and the revenues were then redistributed amongst them proportionally to their purchases. The cooperative was thought of as a democratic place in which no single member held any more power than another, where the goods, and notably the premises, belonged to all, and wherein all members were therefore compelled to contribute to the proper functioning of the society.

11From 1887 La Paix became overtly socialist, linked to the Worker’s Party (Parti ouvrier – PO hereafter), formed some years later by followers of Guesde. [36] Thenceforth, the cooperative backed the party financially, from electoral campaigns to strikes and other collective actions. But the revenues produced by the cooperative also allowed it to acquire new premises in 1887, which grew in keeping with the meteoric rise of its activities. A major step forward was taken in 1901, with the inauguration of the Maison du Peuple; from then on, the members of the cooperative had an official name for their premises. Thus, whilst the inauguration of the cooperative’s annex site – which allowed for the opening of a general store – is commonly considered as marking the date of the Maison du Peuple’s creation, it had always had its own premises. One building (represented in the photo below) housed a bakery, a coal store, a pub [estaminet] and meeting rooms. [37]

The Maison du Peuple run by La Paix

figure im1

The Maison du Peuple run by La Paix

Source: T. Delattre, J.-P. Popelier, P. Waret, Roubaix (Paris: Alan Sutton, 1999).

12The Maison du Peuple embodied the cooperative principle, belonging to all of its members, as recalled in the following leaflet announcing a General Assembly in 1906: “Members of the cooperative, you must never forget that at our place ‘Everything belongs to Everybody’”. [38] Emphasis was put on collective property.


“We are in possession of buildings that cost close to half a million; […] we house therein: the Socialist Party, the Textile Union, the Mutual Aid Societies, the Freethinking Groups; […] we maintain a brass-band, a trumpeters’ group, and a choir.” [39]

14The Maison du Peuple was a dwelling that owed it to itself to be alluring, for the very reason that it belonged to the people. All descriptions attest to its characteristic splendour.


“He who has not been to La Paix for a few months would no longer recognise the place. Everything has been restored. The coffee room has been painted in a most lovely manner. It will soon be decorated with the portraits of the foremost socialist activists the world over. […] The grand ballroom is splendid […]. In the insets painted upon the walls, are the names of Guesde, Jaurès, Karl Marx, Liebknecht, etc. The socialist mottos appear in painted bands of tender blue, artfully disposed”. [40]

16The Maison du Peuple was the showcase both for the cooperative and for Roubaix’s socialist movement. These premises enabled the cooperative to make itself visible, to open itself up, to acquire public visibility. By its very existence, the Maison du Peuple was a propaganda tool, an image of the radiant future that socialism had in store. “And in this building we cannot fail to recognise propaganda in action!”, proclaimed the Socialist Encyclopaedia. [41] The magnificence of the premises was equally a sign of the working class’s capacity for administrative coordination, and, more broadly, of La Paix’s sound health, its construction having been financed in large part through the profits procured through sales.

17As far more than a simple cooperative, the activities of La Paix cannot be reduced to the sale of bread, coal or general store items, and to collective organisation. It was equally, and perhaps more to the point, a space for worker solidarity. [42] The cooperative was ahead of its time in playing the role of a de facto social security system first and foremost. Through the pooling of proceeds, it provided a range of social and medical services that were unprecedented for that era. The very first article of its statutes states:


“The goal of the society is to […]: (1) successively establish people’s pharmacies, as well as establishments for training, convalescence and accreditation; (2) institute at the heart of the cooperative a Mutual Aid Society that will come to the aid of any member who is sick or unable to work.” [43]

19At La Paix, two percent of the profits were set aside every year. Of this, one third was assigned to a relief fund whose purpose was to come to the aid of sick or wounded workers, and two thirds went to the propaganda fund and a pension fund. The committee tasked with managing the relief fund assisted, for example, 334 families and distributed 5,415 loaves of bread between February and August of 1906. [44] Far from constituting a feature specific to La Paix, all of the socialist cooperatives – whether in Roubaix (such as the Avenir du Parti ouvrier, or later La Semeuse), [45] or beyond into the Nord department – maintained free medical and pharmaceutical services, a social security insurance in case of accident or death, and a relief fund in case of strikes. [46] In this sense, the socialists partly inspired the catholic cooperatives who later went about setting up legal and medical consultations, as well as interest-free loan funds, but which never had relief funds for sick or wounded members, and certainly no provision for strikes. [47] Rather than inspiration, a better term would be incitation, so ferocious was the competition between organisations within the cooperative field. Such services attempted to attract a maximum number of members. As member numbers stagnated, the cooperative societies increasingly emphasised practices of worker solidarity. From the beginning of the twentieth century, in effect, the socialist cooperatives, including La Paix, began to lose money and realised that their membership was no longer growing; this phenomenon was attributed to the price of bread, which was lower in non-socialist cooperatives that did not use part of their profits for propaganda and solidarity.

20The cooperative thus ensured support for its members on strike. [48] During the great strike from March to April 1904 in Roubaix’s textile sector, which affected some 25,000 workers in 150 factories, La Paix organised soup kitchens for its members. Five thousand francs were spent on meat, and bread was distributed freely. [49] More broadly, the cooperative’s role was to “guarantee an indemnity of fifteen francs per week to those of its members on strike. It defended them in court, and covered the costs of legal proceedings resulting from conflicts between members and their employers”, as indicated in the Bulletin mensuel de la Fédération des coopératives de la région du nord in September 1903. The relief fund was intended to do just that, but aid funds also came from the ticket sales for meetings, concerts and balls: “A public meeting, for the benefit of the iron-moulders [mouleurs]”, as a police commissioner noted in 1896. [50] The cooperative also supported strike movements coordinated by the socialists outside of Roubaix, such as that of the glassworkers in Carmaux near the end of 1895. [51]

21Beyond this material aid, La Paix provided logistical support to such social movements. From the end of the 1880s, it was at La Paix that strikers’ meetings were hosted; it was there that they held their general meetings; that they organised their strikes; that the relevant decisions were made. [52] This was an important element, given that the shortage of meeting rooms – and the cost of those that could be rented – constituted a very real problem. [53] In the years that followed the adoption of the law on the freedom of assembly in 1881, socialists were at several points responsible for legislative proposals including the free provision of locales for the purpose of holding meetings. In 1889, during a statement explaining the grounds for a “legislative proposal aiming to ensure the freedom of electoral meetings” presented by Jules Guesde, the lack of locales and the fact that their “hostile or intimidated” landlords refused to rent them out to certain candidates, was considered to be “a nullification of the right to assembly”. “Everywhere, the people, the voters, must have the material means necessary to assemble as a group”, states the explanatory memorandum of a legislative proposition from 1906, seeking to promote “the democratic organisation of universal suffrage”. [54] The Maison du Peuple constituted the headquarters of the strikers: “Every night, in the premises of the La Paix cooperative, a general meeting of the strikers takes place. In these meetings, the textile union leaders report on the results of the day”, according to Le Travailleur (19 October 1903). For nearly fifteen years, La Paix witnessed an intense schedule of meetings and assemblies held by the strikers, sometimes with up to 1,000 people in attendance, as on 17 October 1903.

22The Maisons du Peuple hence appear to have been spaces of resistance, or activist forums during strikes, providing a precious support base for workers’ struggles. [55] This should not be understood as specific to Roubaix, nor to northern France: all Maisons du Peuple in Europe during this era, and especially those in Italy and Belgium, appear to have fulfilled this role providing political and financial support role to the worker’s movement. [56] Beyond this, the Maison du Peuple appears also to have been a place for intense socialising amongst workers. More precisely, the Maison du Peuple reappropriated a number of parlour games and traditional forms of sociability in order to politicise them.

From evening classes to “trou-madame”: creating socialist workers

23The members of the cooperative ascribed a key educative role to the Maison du Peuple. It was to become “a machine whose multiple cogs attract the worker, take hold of him, retain him and make a socialist of him”. [57] The cooperative was then to contribute to the “physical, moral and intellectual improvement” of the worker. [58] The International Socialist Cooperative Congress of 1901 suggested several means for fulfilling this function.

“[It] seeks to impress upon the management of the Maisons du Peuple the importance of carrying out socialist education with their members, now more than ever. It reminds them that cooperation should not only serve to make the material condition of workers more tolerable, but that it also has the key objectives of initiating them into: (1) the exercise of administrative affairs through study and through discussion during committees and general assemblies; (2) the exercise of solidarity through pension funds, solidarity funds, and health insurance funds; (3) socialist ideas, through conferences, reading, subscription to journals, newspapers and brochures, and through the creation of libraries; (4) the culture of good taste and beauty, by making their premises as pleasant as possible.” [59]
This is an example of the type of discourse frequently employed by the leaders of the socialist cooperatives in the Nord region, who saw them as “schools of solidarity” [60] or “the rudimentary schools of practical socialism”. [61] This metaphor – not dissimilar to Tocqueville’s description of New England’s town meetings, referred to as the “primary schools of democracy” [62] – alludes in particular to the idea that the exercise of cooperation should enable the worker to acquire class-consciousness and distance him from selfishness. [63] Rather than remaining within the bounds of the official discourse, this conception of the cooperative’s role permeates its members. As one of the couplets from La Paix’s float put it, during the Carnival of 1910: “La Paix, your cooperative, the only house that is truly yours, the home of education”. [64]

figure im2

24How did the cooperative go about educating its members? First of all, it had at its disposal a considerably well-furnished library, which was free-of-charge to cooperative members and included “1,300 volumes covering all branches of literature, science and sociology”. [65] Moreover, it offered a wide variety of courses and lectures. The cooperative thus provided its members with courses in social economy. The 1 June 1983 edition of Le Travailleur announced, for example, “a class on social studies will take place every Thursday, in the premises of the La Paix cooperative. The course organisers are working to make the courses interesting by including well-known speakers from the Worker’s Party.” La Paix also hosted debates and lectures open to the public featuring leaders or intellectuals of the socialist movement eager to enlighten the proletarian masses. The subject of the debate was generally announced in the press. The 18 July 1900 edition of L’Égalité, for example, mentions the public debate organised by the cooperative and textile union, focusing on “(1) class struggle and the worker’s resistance as seen by the textile trade; (2) cooperation and its effects from a socialist perspective”. The Freethinking Group “Neither God Nor Master” also organised regular lectures. The aim was thus to inculcate the values of socialism and anticlericalism in Roubaix’s workers, as well as to propagate cooperative ideas. [66]

25But beyond this top-down education, from the elites to the masses, were there not also more horizontal forms of learning within the cooperative itself? The talks held by the Social Studies Circle most certainly played an important role in this regard: “[its] task is above all to produce speakers and writers amongst the members of the Party. Every week the circle organises talks in which all members of the Party can take part. The Roubaix section has the Social Studies Circle to thank for the majority of its speakers”, notes the September 1903 Bulletin mensuel de la Fédération des coopératives de la région du Nord. Its meetings were announced regularly in the socialist newspapers L’Égalité and Le Travailleur. The worker was supposed to better himself by means of discussion – rather than simply through listening. The goal was no longer to form socialists, but activists, speakers capable of convincing others and of spreading the Party’s message.

26Beyond these formal aspects, a range of recreational activities most probably contributed to the political socialisation of workers at La Paix. The Maison du Peuple was host to musical groups, a brass band, a choir, a trumpeters’ group, a group of gymnasts and dancers, a fencing and shooting section, a drama circle, and so on. It appears to have been at the heart of the city’s recreational activities, offering free courses to the cooperative members and their children. [67] These different sections for art and sport were in part subsidised by the cooperative. The Maison du Peuple was simultaneously the rehearsal room for different groups and the space in which performances were organised, leading to regular attendance by both its members and the general public.

27La Paix – or more specifically, its social committee – frequently organised concerts and balls. By providing them with entertainment, these festive events served to bolster the loyalty of the members to the cooperative, building bonds of affection and affinity that went beyond exclusively financial considerations. Entertainment and education were often intertwined, suggesting that such activities constituted a (non-political) means for attracting the population who, having become a captive audience, could then be instructed. [68] Thus, concerts were generally interspersed with talks or lectures, such as on the 25 May 1895:


“There were around 150 people present at the concert organised by the cooperative’s social committee. The evening ended with a talk about cooperatives and their role in the evolution of the worker.” [69]

29The interlacing of entertainment, propaganda, and education is discernible even in the program of plays at the theatre, which proposed in the same evening a political piece and one that was more frivolous.


“This evening, at seven o’clock at the locale of La Paix, the club L’Aurore will make its début. They will perform two well-known plays: Oppressors and the Oppressed, a drama in five acts, and My Wife and My Umbrella, a comedy in one act.” [70]

31Raffles were also organised at the end of the general meetings: the entertainment, reasoned the administrators, could constitute a means for keeping people at meetings that were almost certainly long and tiresome, for which a quorum of participants was necessary.

32The cooperative’s yearly celebration took place in early September. It brought in a considerable crowd – some 45,000 people in three days in the case of our example discussed below – and offered an equal dose of political lectures, given by well-known socialists, and of more convivial moments, such as those described by a journalist from L’Égalité on 6 September 1899. While the first two days featured lectures given by “citizen Anseele, Belgian Member of Parliament, [which] was greeted as a considerable success” [71] and by Delory, the reception of foreign delegations, and the voting of resolutions in a plenary meeting, the last day was devoted to entertainment.


“The sight of the cooperative, at two o’clock in the afternoon, was unforgettable and indescribable. All of the rooms – and even the courtyard – were packed with a joyous crowd. The goal was to win prizes: whether at Maze Billiards [billard labyrinthe], at ‘trou-madame’, or the frog race. […] At eight thirty, an excellent orchestra composed of 40 musicians went at it for the first dance. People were dancing everywhere, in the courtyard, the smoking den, and the ballroom. Forgetting the miseries of the present, opening their hearts to hope, they let themselves be carried by the waltz, and loosened up their legs to the enticing sounds of the polkas and the square dances. There were two or three thousand dancers; in the midst of the dazzling lights, under the chandeliers and the chains of coloured glass, under the flaming red lanterns, the general impression was superb. […] Around midnight the ball finished. The trumpet brass band ‘La Renaissance’ gave a concert while fireworks shot sparkling bouquets into the heavens, from rockets made in the De Bar workshop. And the cherry on top: a seven-meter high balloon was launched into the air, with ‘La Paix’ emblazoned upon it. Suddenly it was ablaze, and exploded with a deafening roar, sending sparkles in all directions: a true image of the socialist idea, which, elevating itself above all the meanness, will shine throughout the entire world, carrying with it the light and the truth!”

34Fireworks, special effects with light and illumination, exquisite decoration: everything was done with an eye to “creating the exceptional by dazzling the senses”, to adopt Nicolas Mariot’s expression, who, as we know, encourages us not to deduce automatically from the active presence of those attending this celebration any kind of adhesion to the socialist mantra (whence the importance of studying how these politicising enterprises were received – a point to which we shall return). [72] While such parties aimed to build an attachment with the cooperative members by impressing them and by giving them a good time, the aim was also to attract potential new recruits, by laying out publicly the strength and reach of socialism. With its parties, its concerts, its balls and its shows, La Paix embodied a living space, a central locus in the Roubaix worker’s social life. The recreational activities on offer drew on and were part of the traditional forms of working-class social interaction in the Nord region, a phenomenon that was also observed by Michel Hastings in Halluin, a few kilometres from Roubaix, in the interwar period. [73] The games organised for the parties – maze billiards, trou-madame, [74] frog racing, the smokers’ competition, etc. – were not political in the slightest, but did correspond with the traditional forms of entertainment in the region. Similarly, the words of the songs also borrowed occasionally from the local language. The goal was not so much to tear the worker from his traditional and regional culture, as to use this culture as a means for supporting political ends. In a general sense, one must therefore understand politicisation in terms of a “reciprocity of influences”, so as to avoid reducing it “to the substitution of one model for another, or to the eradication of archaic practices”. [75] Socialism thus founded itself upon traditional activities to win over the worker, and these activities in turn influenced the form that socialism adopted in Roubaix, through a process of reciprocal political acculturation. [76] “The fact of infusing a political dimension into the rituals of the community […], of the family […], of religious practice […] broadly aids the transition into politics and the establishment of political roots in working-class culture”. [77] While the temporality of socialist activism – Labour Day, the Anniversary of the Paris Commune – regulated the program of entertainments on offer, this temporality was also often aligned with the calendar of catholic holidays (middle-day of Lent, Saint Catherine’s day, Easter, the Ascension, Pentecost, 15th August). Far from simply eradicating all trace of the past, socialism coiled itself round it, working itself into the local customs and traditions, even the catholic ones. Non-political aspects of working-class sociability – the games, the songs, the language, and so on – constituted tools for propaganda and for education, as Rémi Lefebvre outlined:


“Sociability was the key avenue via which the political penetrated and permeated [Roubaix] […] The discourse of Guesde’s followers developed by way of a gradual incorporation and integration into workers’ daily lives. Bit by bit, pastimes thus became political affairs. Songs that promoted the socialist ideal were rooted in the everyday and immediate preoccupations of the workers.” [78]

36By means of these “peripheral” and entertaining events, politics was able to work its way into the daily life of the Roubaix worker, and become a permanent part of it. It is a “reciprocal contamination” of the political and the “folkloric”, to borrow Agulhon’s expression. [79] Far from negating social belonging, the practices of La Paix’s “entrepreneurs of politicisation” embedded the political in the everyday. Traditional forms of social interaction “took on political colours” and “politics [borrowed] its organisational forms from those of social interaction”. [80]

37By way of the Maison du Peuple, the cooperative – with its socialist values and politics – gradually seeped into the everyday life of the workers, who regularly frequented the Maison, for any number of reasons. Unimaginable by the standards of today’s complex and differentiated societies, the Maisons du Peuple were the vestige of an integrated society in which one could, within a single space, buy the principle commodities available at the time (bread, coal, general foodstuffs, sometimes meat products), read the newspaper over a beer after work, be entertained and educated, become politically engaged, and even find work. Though Gilles Pécout is undoubtedly correct in his criticism that “in their inventory of the interactions that form daily social life, studies of the mechanisms of politicisation sometimes give equal importance to daily meeting points (such as public squares, markets, inns and bars), events (celebrations, public and private ceremonies) and established associative structures (discussion groups, mutual funds, unions)”, [81] it seems that in the case of La Paix, it is precisely the existence of a daily meeting space, created through a fixed associative structure – the cooperative – which also organises demonstrative get-togethers, that enables the politicisation of workers’ everyday social interactions. But does the politicisation of social interaction necessarily mean the politicisation of the individuals that take part in these interactions?

From the politicisation of social interaction to the politicisation of individuals?

38How can we determine the extent to which the Maison du Peuple played the role of a politicising incubator in Roubaix? It is difficult to discern how participation in one of its activities necessarily guaranteed that politicisation would have taken place. More generally, it is also difficult to identify the specific “politicising force” [82] of the various activities of social interaction. How then are we to determine the impact that this work of politicisation, carried out within and around the Maison du Peuple, had upon the workers? So complex is this question, from a methodological standpoint, that it appears necessary to proceed with rigour. [83] Thus, in the case of Finland, Maurice Carrez has studied the links between local electoral scores and the density of the network of Maisons du Peuple in certain regions, remaining all the while very aware of the complexity of this task. It nevertheless seems to us that his conclusions – regarding the impact of the work of politicisation carried out in the Maisons du Peuple – are probably too categorical given the empirical elements presented as proof. [84] Here, a first step would consist in determining whether adhesion to the cooperative, or frequentation of the Maison du Peuple, translated into adhesion to the PO [Worker’s Party]. Did the workers that came to buy bread or listen to a concert progressively become socialist activists? As we attempt to evaluate the effects of politicising endeavours that took place in the past, it will become clear that the historical traces left by individuals turn out to be highly tenuous.

39Indeed, it is often presented as standard, and expected, that cooperative members of La Paix were also members of the PO, as though the two necessarily went hand in hand. “The socialist workers of Roubaix and from the surrounding cities could not have […] remained indifferent to the work of the cooperative […]. Their duty was, on the contrary, to participate in it and to enable its development through collective adhesion”, the La Paix administrator L. Mahu wrote in Le Travailleur, on 25 May 1905. The connection to the PO remained strong enough to constitute a basis for the exclusion of any cooperative member found to be acting against the Party. A police report in 1892 thus relates one speaker’s description of a “group for social reforms […] that seems to constitute a threat to the PO”. He underlines that cooperative members belonging to this group should be driven out of the cooperative: “If this group works against the interests of the PO, those who take part in it will be excluded from La Paix”. [85] And yet, adhesion to the PO was never a requisite for becoming a member of the cooperative. While the activists from the PO are encouraged to adhere to the cooperative, the reverse is not true: we found no explicit and public encouragement for members of the cooperative to adhere to the PO. In order to determine with precision whether or not involvement in the Maison du Peuple constituted a first step in a process of politicisation, one would first have to compare the list of PO activists with the list of the members of the cooperative, and then seek to determine whether membership of the cooperative had preceded or followed membership of the PO. However, there remain no archival traces or documents listing the members of these two organisations (through the use of our different sources, we were simply able to list forty or so names of the “leaders” of the cooperative; a point that we shall address below). Consequently, it is equally impossible to know the date at which members signed up. In his overview of the followers of Guesde at the end of the nineteenth century – which makes abundant reference to northern France – Claude Willard ascribes only a very marginal role to the cooperatives in explaining the spread of Guesde’s popularity, especially more widely in the Nord region. Nevertheless, it seems to us that this analysis underestimates the central role played by the Maisons du Peuple in the local organisation of daily social interactions (especially in Roubaix), principally due to the fragmentary character of the sources that are used – Willard notes the difficulty of finding access to reliable sources concerning the social make-up of the PO activists. [86]

40Baker nevertheless draws a link between the growth in the numbers of the Parti ouvrier français (the successor to the PO in 1893) during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the rise in the strength of the cooperative movement in northern France. [87] A few indications of this trend are indeed apparent in the trajectories of certain people. Thus, Louis Levy retraces the life and career of the miner Raoul Evrard, who was to become one of the union leaders of his region, but whose “conversion” to socialism was in large part due to his frequentation of Lille’s Maison du Peuple. [88] But such individual trajectories of politicisation, for which empirical evidence is rarely found, should be interpreted with a degree of circumspection. The presentation of such trajectories is to an extent mythologised by the worker movement itself; and certain authors make the transition from biography to hagiography all too readily. What’s more, focusing on life paths implicitly involves considering membership of parties or movements as an individual phenomenon, despite its often-collective character having been convincingly demonstrated for the era under consideration. [89]

41Another sign of politicisation – be it individual or collective – may be found in electoral choices: rather than having all become activists for the PO, the cooperative’s members might simply have voted for its candidates during local and national elections. No source exists that would tell us exactly how the individual members of the cooperative voted; but we can nevertheless surmise that the PO candidates would have achieved excellent scores, so highly connected was the cooperative to the Party, supporting its campaigns (financially and logistically), and celebrating its successes. Further, voters that were not convinced by the PO’s programme had the choice of a diverse range of cooperatives, and were therefore able to leave La Paix in order to prevent any cognitive dissonance. Undoubtedly, the choice of a given Maison du Peuple and the choice of a party to vote for were, to a certain extent, one and the same decision. The question then becomes: what are the conditions for the initial choice of a given cooperative? Why did workers become involved with La Paix rather than with L’Union, its catholic competitor? Did the bread cost slightly less at the former? No, rather the opposite was true, which did in fact gradually lead to the flight of a certain number of La Paix’s members. Were opportunities for socialising richer? Certainly: even though the catholic Maisons du Peuple were also vibrant hubs of social life, the intensity of La Paix was unrivalled in Roubaix at the time. Furthermore, the “social services” – medical care and insurance in particular – were much more developed in the socialist Maison du Peuple.

42In the absence of individual data upon which to base an analysis, aggregate data – and electoral results in particular – can provide some significant indications. Yet, if we trace the electoral results in Roubaix they do not directly match the changes in cooperative activity. The PO won the municipality in 1892; back when the cooperative was still a relatively weak force, with around 3,000 members. Conversely, the PO lost the municipal elections for 10 years straight in 1902, while La Paix was in its prime, with 8,000 members and a considerable level of influence, as is attested to by the opulence of its anniversary parties which could attract tens of thousands of guests. Rémi Lefebvre, however, going beyond the conventional notion of socialist divisions, attributes this failure to the “lack of leaders” in the 17 party sections, and to the marked drop in numbers at political meetings. [90] And when the socialists regained power in 1912, La Paix had already begun its gradual decline. Should we then deduce that cooperatives and the Maison du Peuple had no impact whatsoever on socialism taking root in the city? Does the nearly 70-year long socialist hegemony in Roubaix owe nothing to the Maison du Peuple and to the activities of the cooperative? Although we cannot trace the trajectories of politicisation followed by individuals, it is nevertheless possible to identify the role played by the Maison du Peuple in the construction of a working-class identity that commanded respect – the formation of this group being an essential element in the politicisation of workers and their support for the socialist project.

Constructing Roubaix’s working-class identity

43The cooperative, through the construction of a valued and glorious image of the workers (embodied by the Maison du Peuple) and through its penetration of everyday social interactions, appears to have been able to contribute decisively to the formation of a working-class consciousness in Roubaix. While political conviction may also have been engendered by the use of modern techniques of persuasion, socialist voting habits here seem to have been principally motivated by class, a gesture of social affirmation, the testimony of allegiance to a group. What we observe in Roubaix is not so much that membership of a specific profession became depoliticised, but on the contrary, that this “belonging” was consolidated. The Maison du Peuple, along with the municipal elections that obviously played a central role in the politicisation of the working class, [91] constituted a space where this group could develop and becoming conscious of its own existence through the work done by politicisation entrepreneurs. Rather than looking at specific electoral results, which are difficult to analyse – one would have to compare the results of similar cities or neighbourhoods that did or did not have a Maison du Peuple, which seems difficult empirically [92] – the politicising strength of the Maison du Peuple most probably derived from its capacity to shape a valued working-class identity, or better still, class consciousness. Consequently, we have chosen to adopt a perspective that is sensitive to the manner in which the Party creates the group (which will subsequently support the Party) by means of the Maison du Peuple. This means bearing in mind that the Party’s representation of a group is “the ever precarious outcome of a constructed entity, in which the Party entrepreneurs are able to make people believe simultaneously in the existence of the Party as a whole and of the group upon which the Party is based; thus both are actually made to exist in reality”. [93] Just as Michel Hastings has demonstrated in the case of Halluin, La Paix was able to play a part in fashioning a valued working-class identity through its investment in the town’s traditional forms of social interaction, and its redefinition of such practices. La Paix’s premises were in this respect a symbol of pride for the cooperative members, to the extent that songs have even been devoted to the subject:


La Paix is the People who act and struggle
It is the Palace of all who suffer […]
Come to La Paix for knowledge and freedom[…]
Live long, live forever, La Paix
Long live this magnificent Palace
Residence of the socialists
It’s the ideal symbol
Uniting in its simplicity
The way forward, justice, and liberty.” [94]

45Not only is the Maison du Peuple magnificent and worthy of the working people’s pride – as a sympathetic journalist put it, “the cooperative members are proud of ‘their home’” [95] – but it aims to become a working-class citadel. Moreover, workers were the sole social group that had the right to become members of the cooperative’s management board, as is indicated in the 1887 charter: “In order to conserve complete and total independence of the board of management, no member may exercise any of the following supplementary functions: foreman, workshop manager, director, etc.” [96]

46La Paix was often associated with the leitmotif of the socialist fortress. For Anseele, workers’ cooperatives functioned as “fortresses from which the working class will bombard the capitalist society with potatoes and loaves of bread”. [97] Socialist cooperatives should be “veritable fortresses against which the most formidable efforts of socialism’s class enemies will shatter in vain”, according to a propaganda brochure published by the Fédération des coopératives socialistes de la région Nord. [98] The entire gamut of the vocabulary of struggle is employed to describe the cooperative members in the socialist press of the cooperatives and other outlets. It describes “valiant cooperative members”, [99] the “army of cooperative members”, [100] the “valiant musical phalanx” in reference to the La Paix brass band, [101] and the “young workers phalanx” in describing the La Paix theatrical troupe. [102]

47The fortress metaphor was subsequently to flourish, no longer to describe the cooperative, but the municipality, whether socialist or communist. The work of fabricating a tightly-bound local identity, which would go through a process of institutionalisation in the context of municipal socialism and communism in numerous cities, [103] has deeper roots: the leaders of the cooperative had already sought to construct the local community in opposition to the bourgeois social order. The fortress thus protects the group, united against adversarial attacks. The Maison du Peuple made itself all-encompassing, protecting the individual through the concrete mechanisms of solidarity, but also symbolically. The cooperative was the worker’s second home, and it was because it occupied a central place in his ordinary daily existence that it could progressively politicise him. The very term “Maison du Peuple” [House of the People], imported from Belgium, inevitably brings to mind the familial sphere. The vocabulary of the family and of the household is constantly used by socialist orators: “One senses that a fraternal union links all workers into one big family”; [104] “This grand family reunion that is the General Assembly”. [105] The family is here a space from which all conflict has been purged, failing which the unity of the community would be endangered. As the tract from 1907, entitled “Things all cooperative members should know”, explains: “If you wish to have harmony in your workers’ family [La Paix], never criticise, but rather go and express yourself to your Management Board, which is always happy to listen.” [106] The cooperative also sought to draw in the family of the cooperative member, who were able to participate in the activities of the Maison du Peuple and to take advantage of its benefits: La Paix was somewhere that men went with their wife and children, especially for the parties, the balls and the concerts.

48In this way, gradually, a “We, Roubaix’s workers”, was formed. The decisive role of group construction in electoral mobilisation is well known, as Michel Offerlé in particular has highlighted, specifically in relation to how Guesde and his followers conquered the Nord region.


“The most readily mobilised groups are precisely those who appear as the most ‘real’: in other words, those based on daily interactions in which reminders of community structure – internalised or reactivated by a visible and charged social constraint – can emerge, whether this is in terms of client or patron relationships, or solidarities based on local unity, with their roots in the everyday practices of the neighbourhood.” [107]

50Here the outcome of this process of electoral framing manifested itself in spectacular fashion: at the end of the nineteenth century, Roubaix had some of the highest rates of electoral participation and mobilisation in all of urban France, hovering around 83% and 74%, respectively. [108] The Maison du Peuple was certainly one place in which the construction of a socialist identity was at work. The role of the strong social network underpinned by the Maison du Peuple, with its clubs and activities, must also be recognised as one of the necessary conditions for creating this socialist identity. Roubaix was a very dense city, from an urban point of view, characterised by its cheek-by-jowl workers’ housing: electoral mobilisation was more easily carried out in such places, from the worker’s home to the Maison du Peuple. [109]

51Lastly, it should be noted that, as was the case in Halluin, the rise of the socialist vote in Roubaix coincided with the arrival onto the electoral landscape of Flemish workers, who had obtained citizenship through the laws of 1889. Until that point, these workers had represented an immigrant sub-proletariat, socially and politically marginalised. The PO tackled this identity gap, particularly through its involvement in traditional forms of Flemish social interaction, which it then politicised. Belgian speakers, also regularly invited to meetings by La Paix, sometimes gave speeches in Flemish. In 1899, the administrator of the Vooruit – a Maison du Peuple in the Belgian region of Ghent, a landmark for all socialists in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century – was invited to a public meeting. “He spoke in Flemish”, announced a police observer; [110] “the floor was then given to citizen Schaw, from Ghent, who spoke in Flemish about socialism and cooperation” notes another report about a public meeting in 1900. [111] As Michel Hastings underlines, “Flemishness, proclaimed as a rallying sign, encouraged the shift from ethnic solidarity to social solidarity, thanks to the “misappropriation of meaning” that the followers of Guesde were able to impose upon local traditions”. [112] The results of this identity work did not take long to manifest themselves electorally: Carrette won the town hall in 1892; Guesde was elected MP in 1893.

Learning the politician’s trade through the management of the cooperative, and the education of working-class leaders

52As we have seen, the identification of processes of politicisation for individual workers reveals itself to be difficult, in the case at hand at least. In the absence of available sources, does this mean that we should abandon any ambition to analyse individual paths of politicisation? It would seem that, beyond the formation of class-consciousness through social interaction, for the leaders of the PO, a stint at the cooperative constituted an important step in learning the politician’s trade. Instead of focusing on the politicisation of voters as individuals, let us turn at present to the politicisation of the leaders – though of course, we do not mean to imply that it is more important to grasp their trajectories than those of the other members of the cooperative. Simply, they have left more palpable traces. The majority of the first elected socialists in Roubaix were linked to a cooperative. Rémi Lefebvre notes of them that, “their only competency and experience in management was what they had acquired in the workers’ cooperatives”. [113] At La Paix or at L’Avenir du Parti Ouvrier, the locally elected socialists often gained their first and only experience in administrative matters, holding important roles there, particularly on the management board; apart from this they only participated in general meetings as a cooperative member. Moreover, the creation of the PO in Roubaix, in 1889-1890, came after that of La Paix. Socialism in Roubaix is characterised by these beginnings: the meetings of the Party were organised at the Maison du Peuple right until the war. Jean Lebas, who was elected Mayor of Roubaix in 1912 (and re-elected until his death in 1940), was bookkeeper at La Paix from 1901 to 1906. [114] In Roubaix as in other cities featuring powerful cooperatives, the cooperative structure was thus for many a springboard in gaining access to municipal power, as Ellen Furlough has outlined. [115]

53Being a member of both the cooperative and the PO, even at municipal council level, was thus very common. We recorded some 38 persons linked to the administration of the cooperative via our sources (charters of the cooperative, police reports, press articles, etc.), which seems relatively few when one takes into account the thousands of members of the cooperative at that point in time. However, this figure nevertheless appears much less anecdotal when one is aware that the cooperative’s management board was composed of 11-15 members, and that their turnover was relatively minimal, such that we can estimate that a maximum of around one hundred individuals worked for a period on the management board of the cooperative between 1892 and 1908. It appears that 24 of them were members of the PO and/or the French Section of the Worker’s International (SFIO), seventeen candidates and fifteen elected officials for the PO and then the SFIO between 1892 and 1908. [116]

54It is thus clear that socialist activists – even socialist elected officials – were overrepresented on the ruling elite of the cooperative. One could even argue that the fifteen socialist municipal councillors or deputy mayors that were members of the cooperative – most in the Carrette administration – were at the heart of the local political game at the time, accruing a number of organisational positions (in the cooperative, party, union, labour court, socialist press, cabarets, etc.). [117] Multi-positionality already constituted an important factor in the accumulation of political capital. But does membership of the cooperative constitute the source of these actors’ political resources – and, more generally, their politicisation – or is this membership simply their extension? Put simply, were these key actors cooperative members before they were socialists?

55For the actors for whom we have precise biographical information – the most important – it appears that politicisation (characterised in this case by membership of a socialist party) precedes membership of the cooperative. Henri Carrette – linked to the other socialist cooperative, the Avenir du Parti Ouvrier – thus appears as a longstanding socialist: already, in 1869, he had founded an association for the defence of textile workers and was a socialist municipal councillor by 1881. Neither did Jean Lebas discover socialism by way of the cooperative: “Born in the heart of one of Roubaix’s working-class neighbourhoods, into a republican and socialist family, he took as naturally to the party of Jules Guesde as a duck to water”. [118] Though this hagiographic reading transforms a simple transmission of familial political orientation into a destiny (in rather caricatural fashion), it would seem that beyond his birth into a socialist family, his politicisation was deepened via frequentation of the city’s Social Studies Circle, and its rich library, which enabled him to acquire considerable proficiency in Marxist thought. He joined the French Worker’s Party (POF) at eighteen years of age in 1896, and his work at the cooperative is mentioned only from 1901 onwards. Though involvement in the cooperative and frequentation of the Maison du Peuple do not seem to have constituted politicising factors for the most politically committed individuals, they were nevertheless able to get themselves noticed there and to distinguish themselves. “The socialists demonstrate their administrative capacity through an irrefutable piece of evidence: by administrating”, as Maurice Lauzel noted in his Manual of the Socialist Cooperative Member in 1900. [119] Thus, the Dictionary of French Parliamentarians notes with reference to Jean Lebas that in 1906 (when he was bookkeeper at La Paix), “Jules Guesde, who had noticed his methodological mind and his ability as an organiser, called on him to become the secretary of the socialist federation of the Nord region”. [120]

56In a broader sense, managing the cooperative could prove an instructive practice in and of itself. The management of La Paix, as in other socialist workers’ cooperatives, was in the hands of all cooperative members, without distinction. This principle is not particular to socialist cooperatives: it can be found at the heart of the École de Nîmes movement, led by Charles Gide. [121] Generally speaking, the “major cooperative rules” – along with the rebates to members calculated proportionally to purchases [122] – were that “ownership and management [were] put in the hands of the direct or indirect delegates of the consumers”, and, thus, that each shareholder disposed of one vote in the general meetings (although these rules were not however always respected by the neutral or catholic cooperatives connected with employers). The general assembly was the central institution that embodied this attachment to the full participation of all cooperative members in decision-making processes, and could thus constitute a space for political education. Several of the authors who, at the beginning of the century, chose to devote their theses to the subject of cooperatives support this view: “The education of the cooperative member takes place in the section meetings and the general assemblies”, states Marlière, in reference to the “cooperative education” that happened “almost automatically due to the functioning of the company”. [123] We come across this same idea again in more recent work: “cooperative members who supervise their own company, learn to better manage their affairs”, wrote Nicole Quillien on the subject of socialism in Roubaix at the beginning of the twentieth century. [124]

57But how are we to evaluate the precise educational outcomes of participation in the management of the cooperative? Lacking precise first-hand sources on the subject, we rely principally on secondary sources. And yet, most commentators have underscored the incompetence of the cooperatives’ managers. Far from having been a space for learning the political trade, experience managing cooperatives appears to have had detrimental effects, which find their way into the political arena. Aimable Toulouse, the author of a 1909 thesis on consumer cooperatives who is not shy about his preference for ruling-class cooperatives, has thus pointed to the problems that the “poor administration of the cooperative enterprises” brought about: “Concerning the workers’ cooperatives that have political leanings, most of the time their members’ ignorance and even sometimes that of their administrators, who are also incompetent, except in rare exceptions, has prohibited them from growing in the manner that had been hoped for”. [125] Should we take it from this that “cooperative education” was a failure? More contemporary authors are divided on this question. Robert Baker, who bases his work in particular on Toulouse’s writing, is very critical of the idea of cooperative education, and interprets the managers’ ineffectiveness and certain risky decisions they made – such as the construction of premises as grand in cost as in stature – as the cause of the Guesde-inspired cooperatives’ “mediocre results”. [126]


“Rather than training men, the socialist ‘primary schools’ seem to have taken up the energies of experienced activists, and in 1910 Guesde deplored this waste of talent.” [127]

59For many authors, the cooperatives in the Nord region were not therefore “the primary schools” of socialism, that they claimed to be; the administrative incompetence of Roubaix’s first elected socialists was held to reflect that of the cooperative members at La Paix. [128] The elected officials of the first socialist term in parliament – “the council of beer-drinkers” [129] – were not only held to be administratively incompetent, but also to be poorly politicised, despite having served in the cooperative. [130] Claude Willard notes of Carrette:


“While he might be popular among Roubaix’s working class whence he comes and whose interests he so devoutly serves, he is a rather [uncouth] individual, no more capable of speaking than he is of writing, lacking any great standing [he was arrested in November of 1898 for public inebriation], a mediocre administrator, a leader more preoccupied by local and personal issues than by the bigger political picture.” [131]

61In a similar vein, the historian Robert Baker offers an uncompromising assessment of the cooperatives run by Guesde’s followers:


“Cooperatives never did become the true ‘primary schools’ of the socialist movement. In truth, [such] primary schools never attracted nor correctly educated [the workers]. The efficiency of rival cooperatives, the indifference of the working class, the toxic effects of political quarrels, the failure to attract or train qualified leaders: all of these factors contributed to the mediocre results of the socialist cooperatives.” [132]

63In the final analysis, however, is the cooperative’s failure to form more competent elites not the very source of socialist hegemony in the city? For these signs of incompetence are also social markers that attest to the fact that, in spite of their rise to elite status, these socialist leaders – the first rung of officials in any case – remained workers through and through. While the incompetence of the “council of beer drinkers” is denounced time and again, the properly working class characteristics that these denunciations highlight – Carrette drinks, is “simple, frank, bold and honest” [133] – in fact support the valorisation of a working-class identity that has come into power; the stigma against workers is here turned on its head in an overt assertion of pride. In the Nord region, Guesde’s philosophy, “based more on community than on an ideology”, “derives its strength from the links that its leaders maintain with the world of the workers”: [134] those who were fully members of the collective “We, the workers”, and who were supported by a grassroots base, were the central pillars supporting northern socialism at the local level. While the working-class identity of the political leaders of the time did not necessarily afford them a significant national career, [135] this identity – along with the symbolic and sociable work undertaken at the Maison du Peuple – did allow for the durable local implantation of socialism because it contributed to the formation of an easily-mobilised group, which constituted a virtually unwavering support base for the socialist candidates.

64* * *

65Though the cooperatives of Roubaix began to decline from the First World War onwards, it might be claimed that it was their very success that brought about their demise.


“The increasingly powerful hold of the [municipal] institution was almost certainly a result of the decline of the workers’ society and of the disaggregation of the founding socialist trinity (cooperative, party branch, union); all-encompassing, the municipal institution occupied the space left vacant. But, at the same time, it cannot be reduced to these patterns of change. It is just as much the cause of them.” [136]

67Indeed, it is precisely at the moment when the socialists started to increase their local power base that the La Paix cooperative – like so many others – began its steady decline that would lead it, over the course of several decades, to its inexorable bankruptcy in 1962. Different factors drove this decline. These were first and foremost political in nature, the many scissions and divisions between socialists having weakened the cooperative movement: the fragmentation of the cooperative domain became an increasingly handicap in the face of the rising might of the large general stores, then of the supermarkets, and more broadly the advent of a consumer society. Such structural – and particularly economic – factors cannot be eschewed from the analysis. [137] In essence, La Paix had already begun operating at a loss as early as 1904, and its financial situation never recovered after this. But in order to understand exactly how the cooperative came to be weakened around the First World War, it is undoubtedly necessary to take into account the progressive municipalisation of many social services, which stripped the socialist cooperative movement of much of its raison d’être. As the socialists took municipal power, not only did the leaders quit the cooperative in order to begin political careers; but also, at the same time, a whole set of functions previously assumed by the Maison du Peuple were progressively appropriated by nascent municipal socialism. In Roubaix, around 1914, as was most probably the case with many cities at the time, a transformation took place in the forms of political intermediation and the organisation of local solidarity initiatives, with the municipalisation of numerous services and activities (libraries, artistic and sporting activities etc.) which had previously been carried out by members of civil society (and by the Maison du Peuple especially). This municipalisation of social interaction helped secure the loyalty of the socialist electorate.

68We have demonstrated the central role played by La Paix, prior to this decline, in the organisation and politicisation of Roubaix workers’ social interactions at the end of the nineteenth century. By investigating how it might be possible to understand the reception of this politicising endeavour in relation to traditional forms of social interaction, we have highlighted the tenuousness of the individual traces of politicisation that we were able to find. Yet we have shown that the specific space of socialisation constituted by the Maison du Peuple nevertheless occupied an important position in the organisation of Roubaix’s working class, and in the formation of a class-consciousness that, in the long term, allowed for the consolidation of socialist hegemony in the city. Rather than interpreting this phenomenon in terms of “resistances” to a process of national politicisation leading citizens to detach themselves from their primary affiliations, our approach leads to the conceptualisation of politicisation as something that takes place in various ways, and in particular, in the cities as well as in the countryside, by means of a politicisation of everyday social interactions and through the construction of working-class culture, thus ultimately encouraging socialist engagement.

69Moving beyond the case of Roubaix, is it possible to identify the specific characteristics that are shared by the different spaces of politicisation, from the Maisons du Peuple to the barracks of the Var, from the British taverns to the sleeping-quarters of slaves, in order to sketch out what might be conceived of as a historical sociology of the sites of politicisation? Whilst James Scott draws attention to the importance of places of togetherness, which are impenetrable to surveillance by those in a position of dominance, [138] Maurice Agulhon has shed light upon the role of interclass spaces that allow for the “downwards movement of politics towards the masses”. In our case, the Maison du Peuple is at once a space for worker togetherness – due to the absence of bosses or foremen – but also for interaction between more or less politicised individuals, who are then able to mutually influence one another, their heterogeneity being politically rather than socially derived. Politicisation in such spaces is for this reason never automatic, spontaneous, or natural, but always the product of a concerted effort, most often carried out by politicised leaders. In this sense, our analysis can here be contrasted with that of Scott, who has paid very little attention to this effort (and to the hierarchies that it creates) within the collectives that he studies. [139] Further, whether it is in a Maison du Peuple, the barracks, or a pub or tavern, what is observable is an interlacing of political and non-political activities. None of these sites of politicisation seems to constitute an exclusively political space. From this vantage point, politicisation processes do not seem exclusively derived from the political register, because individuals who are barely politicised initially frequent such places for non-political reasons and, through interaction with activists or politicised individuals, can undergo an incremental process of politicisation.

70Lastly, it is worth underlining a specificity of the Maison du Peuple that distinguishes it from other sites of politicisation: via the cooperative, it also managed to impact upon the everyday lives of its members. Not only did it provide them with fun, but also with bread, coal, medicines, and insurance for health and unemployment. In this respect, the incentive to participate goes beyond the simple pleasure of sociability. Here again, as in other periods, we find evidence of a number of mechanisms used to mobilise and politicise the working classes. In the case of municipal communism and socialism, activists were able to secure almost constant electoral loyalty by solving the everyday problems of workers. [140] More recently, studies of participatory democracy have illustrated that engagement in participatory venues is made much more effective when citizens have the feeling of being able to impact their own daily lives. [141] This helps to better understand the strong politicising potential of a social space such as the Maison du Peuple, which is able to combine everyday social interaction, the potential for impact upon the daily lives of its members, and traditional political practices (meetings, events, etc.). Perhaps, today, this means that we should seek explanations of the widening gap between the working class and the political sphere in the gradual disappearance of spaces of togetherness, in which the political and the everyday are intimately intertwined. [142]

Annex. Sources used in the study

1 – Archives

1.1 – Departmental Archives of the Nord department (ADN)

71Série M (Administration générale, Economie)

72• M 37: Élections législatives

73• M 59: Élections cantonales

74• M 89: Élections municipales (Roubaix)

75• M 99: Conseils municipaux. Procès-verbaux d’installation

76• M 100: Conseils municipaux. Listes et opinions politiques

77• M 149 / 73: Coopératives. Affaires antérieures à 1914

78• M 455: Sociétés coopératives généralités

  • 1. Renseignements
  • 3. Congrès Lille 1901
  • 4. Listes, notices sur sociétés
  • 6. Enquêtés, 1908-1914
• M 456 / 41: Sociétés coopératives Roubaix

79• M 458 / 49: Coopératives

80• M 154 / 68, 70, 73 à 77: Partis politiques, 1880-1940, socialistes

81• M 154 / 78: Partis politiques, 1880-1940, socialistes – Dossiers individuels

  • A: Dossier “Carrette”
  • B: Dossier “Guesde”
• M 154 / 84, 86, 87: Partis politiques, 1880-1940, Parti ouvrier

82Série J (Fonds de la Fédération socialiste du Nord du Parti Socialiste)

83• J 012-026: Les coopératives et leur fonctionnalité. La Fédération des coopératives de la Région

84• J 037-038: La Paix: Société coopérative de Roubaix

85• J 067-068: La Paix de Roubaix: coopérative ouvrière

1.2 – Roubaix Municipal Archives

86• FII / 1-2: Coopératives.

1.3 – National Archives

87Série F7 (Police 1789-1985)

88• F7 / 13936-13937: Coopératives (1890-1922)

1.4 – Médiathèque Jean Lévy (Lille) [the Jean Lévy Media Centre in Lille]

89• Fonds Régional / Réserve Fonds précieux: Chansons de carnaval

2 – Printed Sources

2.1 – Press and Periodicals

90• Systematic press review of the following sources:

91Le Cri de l’Ouvrier (30 November 1884-5 April 1885) > Médiathèque de Roubaix [Roubaix Media Centre]

92Le Réveil du Forçat (August 1885-December 1885) > Médiathèque de Roubaix [Roubaix Media Centre]

93L’Avenir du Travailleur (1887) > Médiathèque de Roubaix [Roubaix Media Centre]

94Le Cri du Travailleur (July 1887-September 1891) > Médiathèque de Roubaix [Roubaix Media Centre]

95Le Travailleur (1893-1894) > Médiathèque de Roubaix [Roubaix Media Centre]

96L’Égalité de Roubaix-Tourcoing (1895-1905) > Bibliothèque nationale et Médiathèque de Roubaix [National Library and Roubaix Media Centre]

97Le Travailleur (1900-1905) > Médiathèque Jean-Lévy (Lille) [the Jean Lévy Media Centre in Lille]

98• Systematic review of all issues held at the Office universitaire de recherche socialiste (OURS) [University Office of Socialist Research] and at the Departmental Archives of the Nord Department for the following publication: Bulletin mensuel Fédération des coopératives socialistes du Nord (1903-1909)

2.2 – Books and works treated as source material

99• A. Toulouse, “Les sociétés coopératives de consommation dans la région minière du Nord de la France”, thesis for a doctorate in political and economic science, Lille, Imprimerie Liégeois-Six, 1909 (SCD Lille 3)

100• A. Compère-Morel (ed.), Encyclopédie socialiste, syndicale et coopérative de l’Internationale ouvrière, vol. La coopération (Paris: A. Quillet, 1913) (OURS)

101• A. Devaux, “Les sociétés coopératives de consommation dans le nord et principalement dans l’arrondissement de Lille”, Lille, Imprimerie Le Bigot Frères, 1907 (SCD Lille 3)

102• “Fédération des coopératives socialistes de la région Nord (Federation of Northern Socialist Cooperatives)”, La coopération socialiste (Lille: Imprimerie ouvrière M. Dhoossche, 1906) (OURS)

103• A. Gide, Les sociétés coopératives de consommation (Paris: Armand Colin, 2nd edn, 1910) (SCD Lille 3)

104• M. Lauzel, Manuel du coopérateur socialiste (Paris: Société nouvelle de librairie et d’édition, 1900) (Bibliothèque socialiste. 1) (OURS)

105• B. Lavergne, Les sociétés coopératives de consommation en France (Paris: Armand Colin, 1923) (SCD Lille 3)

106• G. Marlière, “La coopération dans le nord et le Pas-de-Calais. Étude historique”, thesis supervised by M. Lavergne, Saint-Amand-les-Eaux, Maurice Carton, 1935 (SCD Lille 3)


  • [1]
    Maurice Agulhon, La République au village (Paris: Seuil, 1979 [1st edn 1970]). See also his typology of sites of working class sociability (the object of the present analysis is somewhere in between the formal and informal places that he differentiates), in Maurice Agulhon, “Working class and sociability in France before 1848”, in Pat Thane, Geoffrey Crossick, Roderick Floud (eds), The Power of the Past. Essays for Eric Hobsbawm (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 39-51.
  • [2]
    E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Penguin, 1991 [1st edn 1963]).
  • [3]
    The “hidden text” [texte caché] comprises discourses and practices that are developed in spaces that are sheltered from the gaze of those in a position of dominance, whereby intimate togetherness appears to favour the expression of criticism and “infrapolitical” practices better than public situations in which those in dominant and dominated positions are put into the same space. Cf. James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).
  • [4]
    For a fairly general study of the way in which the worker-based Maison du Peuple model, which grew out of the Belgian cooperative movement of 1870-1880, “rapidly spread throughout the other countries: Germany, Austria, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Romania, Switzerland”, see Mario Scascighini, “La Maison du Peuple en Europe et en Suisse. Le temps d’un édifice social”, thesis defended in the Architecture Department, Lausanne, EPL, 1989, 347.
  • [5]
    Michel Offerlé, “Mobilisation électorale et invention du citoyen. L’exemple du milieu urbain français à la fin du 19e siècle”, in Daniel Gaxie (ed.), Explications du vote. Un bilan des études électorales en France (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1985), 149-74 (170).
  • [6]
    Finland’s Maisons du Peuple constitute a notable exception, and are presented as a “favoured (and very efficient) instrument for politicising disadvantaged rural classes at the very beginning of the twentieth century”: Maurice Carrez, “La politisation des campagnes finlandaises vue sous l’angle des Maisons du Peuple (Työväen Yhdistykset), 1893-1917”, Histoire et Sociétés rurales, 25, 2006, 37-67 (65). See also, on Italian Maisons du Peuple: Margaret Kohn, Radical Space. Building the House of the People (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003).
  • [7]
    Alain Chatriot, “Les coopérateurs”, in Jean-Jacques Becker, Gilles Candar (eds), Histoire des gauches en France (Paris: La Découverte, 2005), 91-7 (91).
  • [8]
    Alain Chatriot, Marion Fontaine, “Contre la vie chère”, Cahiers Jaurès, 187-188(1-2), 2008, 97-116 (98).
  • [9]
    Michel Hastings, Halluin la rouge. Aspects d’un communisme identitaire (Lille: Presses Universitaires de Lille, 1989).
  • [10]
    Jean-Jacques Meusy (ed.), La Bellevilloise (1877-1929). Une page d’histoire de la coopération et du mouvement ouvrier français (Paris: Créaphis, 2001).
  • [11]
    For archival material on the subject, see the La Fraternelle association: <>.
  • [12]
    See Patricia Toucas, Michel Dreyfus (eds), Les Coopérateurs. Deux siècles de pratiques coopératives (Paris: L’Atelier, 2005).
  • [13]
    Philippe Couton, “Ethnic institutions reconsidered. The case of Flemish workers in nineteenth century France”, Journal of Historical Sociology, 16(1), 2003, 80-110; on the “inductive role of Belgian workers and the influence of Ghent’s socialism”, see also Daniel Ourman, “Les influences du socialisme belge sur le socialisme français: la coopération (1885-1914)”, Revue internationale de l’économie sociale, 280, 2001, 80-91 (80).
  • [14]
    Rémi Lefebvre, “‘Le conseil des buveurs de bière’ de Roubaix (1892-1902). Subversion et apprentissage des règles du jeu institutionnel”, Politix, 14 (53), 2001, 87-115.
  • [15]
    André Gueslin, L’invention de l’économie sociale. Idées pratiques et imaginaires coopératifs et mutualistes dans la France du 19e siècle (Paris: Economica, 1998), 248. In France, on the eve of the First World War, less than 9% of the population were cooperative members. Though socialist cooperation was always stronger in northern France than in any other region, it remained marginal. The majority of cooperatives were “independent”, not linked to any particular federation. Cf. Denis Lefebvre, “Coopération et socialisme. La fédération socialiste du Nord (fin 19e-20e siècles)”, in Jean-François Sirinelli, Bernard Ménager, Jean Vavasseur-Desperriers (eds), Cent ans de socialisme septentrional (Villeneuve-d’Ascq: Université Lille-III, 1995), 55-66.
  • [16]
    Gilles Morin, “Les socialistes et la société française. Réseaux et milieux (1905-1981)”, Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire, 96, October-December 2007, 47-62: 53.
  • [17]
    Frédéric Sawicki, “Les socialistes”, in J.-J. Becker, G. Candar (eds), Histoire des gauches en France, 27-50 (31). In broad terms, F. Sawicki rightly promotes a conception of the political as much more embedded in the social than is acknowledged by studies that insist on the “professionalisation” of politics. Cf. Frédéric Sawicki, Les réseaux du parti socialiste. Sociologie d’un milieu partisan (Paris: Belin, 1997).
  • [18]
    Jacques Lagroye, “Les processus de politisation”, in Jacques Lagroye (ed.), La politisation (Paris: Belin, 2003), 359-72 (360-1).
  • [19]
    We use the term “identity” here in a way that is close to that of “groupness” [groupalité], which is to say, “the feeling of belonging to a group that is unique, limited and founded on solidarity”. Cf. Rogers Brubaker, “Au-delà de l’ ‘identité’”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 139(4), 2001, 66-85 (79).
  • [20]
    Cf. in particular Myriam Aït-Aoudia, Mounia Bennani-Chraïbi, Jean-Gabriel Contamin, “Indicateurs et vecteurs de la politisation des individus: les vertus heuristiques du croisement des regards”, Critique internationale, 50(1), 2011, 9-20.
  • [21]
    This has not stopped researchers from undertaking highly ambitious micro-historical studies in order to remedy this situation, and to shed light on individual paths to politicisation. For a recent example of such work, see Laurent Le Gall’s research on the region of Finistère, and in particular his impressive switching between scales of observation that enables a highly refined understanding of how politicisation works: Laurent Le Gall, L’électeur en campagnes dans le Finistère. Une Seconde République de Bas-Bretons (Paris: Les Indes savantes, 2009).
  • [22]
    Cf. Camille Hamidi, “Éléments pour une approche interactionniste de la politisation. Engagement associatif et rapport au politique dans des associations locales issues de l’immigration”, Revue française de science politique, 56(1), 2006, 5-26.
  • [23]
    On the two conceptions of politicisation that they label “restrictive” and “extensive”, depending on whether the indicators are derived from a specialist institutional sphere or from interests, attitudes and practices that are not linked to this institutional space, see M. Aït-Aoudia, M. Bennani-Chraïbi, J.-G. Contamin, “Indicateurs et vecteurs de la politisation des individus…”, 11-15. On the opening up of the study of political institutions, as in Lagroye’s notion of politicisation and its social embeddedness, see, by the same authors, “Contribution à une histoire sociale de la conception lagroyenne de la politisation”, Critique internationale, 48 (3), 2010, 207-20.
  • [24]
    Yves Déloye, Sociologie historique du politique (Paris: La Découverte, 1997), 88.
  • [25]
    Julian Mischi, “Observer la politisation des ruraux sous l’angle des sociabilités. Enjeux et perspectives”, in Annie Antoine, Julian Mischi (eds), Sociabilité et politique en milieu rural (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2008), 7-21 (10).
  • [26]
    Jean Vigreux, “Les campagnes françaises et la politique (1830-1914)”, Parlement[s], 5, 2006, 54-72 (55).
  • [27]
    Michel Offerlé, “La nationalisation de la citoyenneté civique en France à la fin du 19e siècle”, in Raffaele Romanelli (ed.), How Did They Become Voters? The History of Franchise in Modern European Representation (The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 1998), 37-52 (48).
  • [28]
    [Translator’s note: Terroir in French refers to a very specific mix of notions of territorial identity and regional distinctiveness.] Eugen Weber, La fin des terroirs: la modernisation de la France rurale, 1870-1914 (Paris: Fayard, 1983).
  • [29]
    Peter McPhee, “Contours nationaux et régionaux de l’associationisme politique en France (1830-1880)”, in La politisation des campagnes au 19e siècle: France, Italie, Espagne, Portugal (Rome: École française de Rome, 2000), 207-19 (214); The Politics of Rural Life. Political Mobilization in the French Countryside, 1846-1852 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992). One might also refer to Jean-Louis Briquet’s case study of Corsica, which deals with politicisation as the manner in which “rural individuals use totally novel political categories to reinterpret the social relations in which they are involved”. Jean-Louis Briquet, “Les “primitifs” de la politique. La perception par les élites du vote en Corse sous la IIIe République”, Politix, 4(15), 1991, 32-47 (42).
  • [30]
    Laurent Le Gall, “Des processus de politisation dans les campagnes françaises (1830-1914): esquisse pour un état des lieux”, in Jean-Claude Caron, Frédéric Chauvaud (eds), Les campagnes dans les sociétés européennes. France, Allemagne, Espagne et Italie, 1830-1930 (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2005), 103-39 (111).
  • [31]
    Julian Mischi, “Observer la politisation des ruraux sous l’angle des sociabilités…”, 11.
  • [32]
    Yves Déloye, Olivier Ihl, “Le 19e siècle au miroir de la sociologie historique”, Revue d’histoire du 19e siècle, 13, 1996, 47-57 (53).
  • [33]
    See, for example, Olivier Ihl, Le vote (Paris: Montchrestien, 2000), 79-84.
  • [34]
    Christine Guionnet, L’apprentissage de la politique moderne. Les élections municipales sous la monarchie de Juillet (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1997), 66.
  • [35]
    Y. Déloye, Sociologie historique du politique, 71.
  • [36]
    We have demonstrated this point in Paula Cossart, Julien Talpin, “‘Les coopératives ne valent que pour battre monnaie’. Les relations du champ politique socialiste et de la coopération ouvrière à Roubaix (fin 19e-début 20e siècle)”, in Laurent Le Gall, Michel Offerlé, François Ploux (eds), La politique sans en avoir l’air. Aspects de la politique informelle, 19e-21e siècle (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2012), 163-78.
  • [37]
    Gustave Marlière, “La coopération dans le Nord et le Pas-de-Calais. Étude historique”, doctoral thesis (Saint-Amand-les-Eaux: Maurice Carton éditeur, 1935), 29.
  • [38]
    Departmental Archives of Northern France (ADN)/J 037/Fonds de la Fédération socialiste du Nord du PS. La Paix: Société coopérative de Roubaix, tract, 6 August 1906.
  • [39]
  • [40]
    L’Égalité, 9 August 1899.
  • [41]
    Adéodat Compère-Morel (ed.), Encyclopédie socialiste, syndicale et coopérative de l’Internationale ouvrière, vol. La coopération (Paris: A. Quillet, 1913), 218.
  • [42]
    This form of solidarity underpinned by La Paix played a fundamental role in the emergence of class consciousness amongst Roubaix’s workers – a notion to which we will return. Similarly, in reference to a period long before ours, William Sewell has demonstrated that the antagonism between workers and employers was less important than workers’ fraternal solidarity. Cf. William H. Sewell, Work and Revolution in France. The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).
  • [43]
    ADN/M 456/41/Sociétés coopératives. Roubaix: Statuts de La Paix, approuvés par l’assemblée générale du 18 décembre 1887.
  • [44]
    Auguste Devaux, “Les sociétés coopératives de consommation dans le Nord et principalement dans l’arrondissement de Lille”, thesis in political and economic science (Lille: Imprimerie Le Bigot Frères, 1907), 194.
  • [45]
    Translator’s note: in English, the names are Future of the Worker’s Party and the Seed-Sower, respectively.
  • [46]
    See Fédération des coopératives socialistes de la région Nord, La coopération socialiste (Lille: Imprimerie ouvrière M. Dhoossche, 1906), 5-7. For a description of this kind of activity, see also Robert Baker, “A regional study of working-class organization in France. Socialism in the Nord, 1870-1924”, PhD, Stanford, Stanford University, 1966, 173.
  • [47]
    Robert Pierreuse, “La vie ouvrière à Roubaix de 1890 à 1900”, masters in contemporary history, Lille, Université Lille-III, 1957, 268.
  • [48]
    The period under analysis, during which La Paix went through its golden age, is concomitant with the extension of the strike as a means of action, “like an irresistible tide”. Michelle Perrot, Les ouvriers en grève (Paris: Mouton, 1974), vol. I, 59.
  • [49]
    A. Devaux, “Les sociétés coopératives de consommation”, 196; G. Marlière, “La coopération dans le Nord et le Pas-de-Calais…”, 32. See also the October 1899 issue of L’Égalité, which follows the great strike in the yarn-spinning industries of Roubaix, for which most general meetings were held at La Paix.
  • [50]
    ADN/M 154/68/Partis politiques, 1880-1940, socialistes: rapport du commissaire central au préfet, Roubaix, 26 September 1896.
  • [51]
    See for example L’Égalité, 29 November 1895.
  • [52]
    Several police reports on strikers meetings at La Paix can be found in ADN/M 154/68/Partis politiques, 1880-1940, socialistes.
  • [53]
    More broadly, Maurice Agulhon emphasised this difference between ruling classes and the working class: while the former have fixed places in which they can gather, it is rarely the case for the second. This observation, established for a period before the one currently under analysis, remained true into the dawn of the twentieth century; whence the importance of the La Paix premises. Cf. M. Agulhon, “Working class and sociability in France before 1848”, 39.
  • [54]
    “Annexe no 594, session extraordinaire”, 21 December 1906, Journal officiel. Documents Parlementaires. Chambre, 317-18. On this matter, see Paula Cossart, Le meeting politique. De la délibération à la manifestation (1868-1939) (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2010), 68-9.
  • [55]
    Cf. Ellen Furlough, “French consumer cooperation, 1885-1930. From the ‘third pillar’ of socialism to ‘a movement of all consumers’”, in Ellen Furlough, Carl Strikwerda (eds), Consumers Against Capitalism? Consumer Cooperation in Europe, North America and Japan, 1840-1990 (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 173-89.
  • [56]
    On this point, see Robert Flagothier, “Contributo allo studio delle case del popolo in Vallonia e a Bruxelles (1872-1982)”, in Maurizio Degl’Innocenti (ed.), Le case del popolo in Europa (dalle origini alla seconda guerra mondiale) (Florence: Sansoni Editore, 1984), 271-310 (299-300).
  • [57]
    A. Compère-Morel (ed.), Encyclopédie socialiste…, vol. La coopération.
  • [58]
    Fédération des coopératives socialistes de la région Nord, La coopération socialiste, 7.
  • [59]
    L’Égalité, 4 October 1901.
  • [60]
    Fédération des coopératives socialistes de la région Nord, La coopération socialiste, 2.
  • [61]
    Speech by Henri Samson, president of the Union de Lille cooperative, subsequently secretary of the Fédération des coopératives socialistes de la région Nord, in “La réunion de La Paix”, L’Égalité, 5 June 1901.
  • [62]
    “Town hall meetings are to freedom what primary schools are to science; they make it available to the people; they teach the people how to enjoy it and how to make use of it.”: Alexis de Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique (Paris: Gallimard, vol. I, 1986 [1st edn 1835]), 112-13.
  • [63]
    Cf. R. Baker, “A regional study…”, 172.
  • [64]
    Médiathèque Jean-Lévy, regional archives: “Char de la Paix. Coopérative La Paix de Roubaix. L’Action ouvrière, vu au bureau central de police”, 28 February 1910.
  • [65]
    “La coopération socialiste dans la région du Nord”, Bulletin mensuel de la Fédération des coopératives de la région du Nord, September 1903. See also Le Travailleur, 11 January 1903.
  • [66]
    On the educative aspects of socialist propaganda (especially that which was diffused by the French Section of the Worker’s International from 1905 onwards), see in particular: Gilles Candar, Christophe Prochasson, “Le socialisme à la conquête des terroirs”, Le Mouvement social, 160, 1992, 34-64.
  • [67]
    See in particular: “La coopération socialiste dans la région du Nord”, Bulletin mensuel de la Fédération des coopératives de la région du Nord, September 1903.
  • [68]
    On the role of recreational activities in socialist propaganda in Roubaix, see Nicole Quillien, “La SFIO à Roubaix de 1905 à 1914”, Revue du Nord, 51(201), 1969, 276-89.
  • [69]
    “Le concert de la Paix”, L’Égalité, 25 May 1895. We could give many more examples. See in particular: “Concert du syndicat textile au local la Paix”, L’Égalité, 16 August 1895: “Entre la première et la seconde partie, le citoyen Michel Servais fera une causerie sur l’origine et la nécessité du syndicat”.
  • [70]
    L’Égalité, 6 January 1899.
  • [71]
    G. Lesur, “Les fêtes de La Paix”, L’Égalité, 5 September 1899.
  • [72]
    Nicolas Mariot, “Conquérir unanimement les cœurs. Usages politiques et scientifiques des rites: le cas du voyage présidentiel en province, 1888-1998”, social sciences thesis (political studies), Paris, EHESS, 1999, 558; and also Bains de foule. Les voyages présidentiels en province, 1888-2002 (Paris: Belin, 2006).
  • [73]
    M. Hastings, Halluin la rouge…, 386-414.
  • [74]
    A game invented during the sixteenth century, popular in Flanders, which involved throwing flat disks into small holes [trous]; the name derived from the fact that “Madame” – the Queen of England – had her own such machine, albeit made of gold.
  • [75]
    L. Le Gall, “Des processus de politisation dans les campagnes françaises…”, 108.
  • [76]
    Y. Déloye, Sociologie historique du politique, 88-90.
  • [77]
    Y. Déloye, Sociologie historique du politique, 86 (on the work of Peter McPhee).
  • [78]
    Rémi Lefebvre, “Le socialisme saisi par l’institution municipale (des années 1880 aux années 1980). Jeux d’échelles”, thesis in political science, Lille, Université Lille 2, 2001, 164.
  • [79]
    M. Agulhon, La République au village, 265-6.
  • [80]
    Maurice Agulhon, Le cercle dans la France bourgeoise, 1810-1848 (Paris: Armand Colin, 1977), 67.
  • [81]
    Gilles Pécout, “La politisation des paysans au 19e siècle. Réflexions sur l’histoire politique des campagnes françaises”, Histoire et sociétés rurales, 2, 1994, 91-125 (112).
  • [82]
    Emmanuel Taïeb, “La politisation par le regard. Exécutions publiques et brutalisation”, conference paper in “Politisations comparées”, 11 February 2008, Ceraps-Lille 2, CRPS-Paris 1, IEPI-Université de Lausanne, Pacte-IEP Grenoble: <>, 4, 6.
  • [83]
    As mentioned, other researchers working on the past have, naturally, already tackled the question of politicisation. It is not possible here to retrace the long debate provoked, in particular, by Edelstein’s work (see especially: Melvin Edelstein, “La participation électorale des Français”, Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, 40(4), 1993, 629-42). See also Patrice Gueniffey, Le nombre et la raison. La Révolution française et les élections (Paris: Éditions de l’EHESS, 1993).
  • [84]
    M. Carrez, “La politisation des campagnes finlandaises…”, 63-5. Similarly, while Margaret Kohn’s work offers a convincing description of the intertwining of ordinary social interactions and political practices in the Italian Maisons du Peuple, the conclusions that are drawn regarding the politicisation effects linked to the frequentation of these Maisons lacks empirical support (M. Kohn, Radical Space…, 83-5).
  • [85]
    ADN/M 154/68/Partis politiques, 1880-1940, socialistes: rapport du commissaire central de Roubaix au préfet du Nord, 24 January 1903.
  • [86]
    Claude Willard, Les guesdistes. Le mouvement socialiste en France (1893-1905) (Paris: Éditions sociales, 1965).
  • [87]
    Robert Baker, “Socialism in the Nord, 1880-1914. A regional view of the French socialist movement”, International Review of Social History, 12(3), 1967, 357-89 (366).
  • [88]
    Louis Levy, Comment ils sont devenus socialistes (Paris: Éditions du Populaire, 1932), 64-5.
  • [89]
    Raymond Huard, “L’adhésion: engagement d’un individu ou ralliement d’un groupe?”, in La naissance du parti politique en France (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1996), 270-5.
  • [90]
    R. Lefebvre, “Le socialisme saisi par l’institution municipale…”, 223. Yet, on the other hand, “Eugène Motte explained his defeat to Jules Guesde in 1906 as linked to the emergence of a new generation of workers that were better educated and more aware” (236). Moreover, we might also argue that the effect of education via cooperative movements lagged somewhat behind: while it was too early to be felt in 1902, politicisation by La Paix might have had a delayed impact, in 1912.
  • [91]
    Cf. R. Lefebvre, “Le socialisme saisi par l’institution municipale…”, 170-2.
  • [92]
    This would resemble the approach taken by Maurice Agulhon in his work on barracks in the Var region. In some cases, he manages to explain surprising republican election results – a high score in the countryside – as resulting from the presence of propaganda and the space for its expression (M. Agulhon, La république au village, 265-79).
  • [93]
    Michel Offerlé, Les partis politiques (Paris: PUF, 1997) (“Que sais-je?”), 107.
  • [94]
    The Jean-Lévy Médiathèque, regional fund: “Chanson Vive La Paix, vu au bureau central de police, 13 mars 1912”. Translator’s note: The original reads as follows: “‘La Paix’ c’est le Peuple qui lutte et bouge / C’est le Palais de tous les miséreux […] / Viens à la Paix t’instruire et t’affranchir […] / Vive à jamais ‘La Paix’ / Vive ce beau Palais / Demeure Sociale / C’est l’image idéale / Réunissant dans sa simplicité / L’avenir et le droit la Liberté.”
  • [95]
    L’Égalité, 9 August 1899.
  • [96]
    ADN/M 456/41: Statuts de La Paix, 1887, art. 14.
  • [97]
    See, for example, G. Marlière, “La coopération dans le Nord et le Pas-de-Calais…”, 28.
  • [98]
    Office universitaire de recherche socialiste (OURS): Federation of Northern Socialist Cooperatives, La coopération socialiste, 1.
  • [99]
    Bulletin mensuel de la Fédération des coopératives de la région Nord, September 1903.
  • [100]
    Ibid., August 1905.
  • [101]
    “La fanfare ouvrière La Paix”, L’Égalité, 12 July 1898.
  • [102]
    “Théâtre socialiste”, L’Égalité, 21 February 1899.
  • [103]
    Jean-Noël Retière, Identités ouvrières. Histoire sociale d’un fief ouvrier en Bretagne 1909-1990 (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1994); Michel Hastings, “Les filigranes du communisme français”, in Daniel Céfaï (ed.), Cultures politiques (Paris: PUF, 2003), 322-33; R. Lefebvre, “Le socialisme saisi par l’institution municipale…”.
  • [104]
    L’Égalité, 5 September 1899.
  • [105]
    Le Travailleur, 16 December 1902.
  • [106]
    ADN/J037: Tract, 4 August 1907.
  • [107]
    M. Offerlé, “Mobilisation électorale et invention du citoyen…”, 171-2. Alain Garrigou has also pointed out that electoral mobilisation has long been fuelled by relations of dependency and community, such that electoral results “tend more to measure the force of social bonds than political opinions”. Alain Garrigou, Le vote et la vertu. Comment les Français sont devenus électeurs (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1992), 89.
  • [108]
    M. Offerlé, “Mobilisation électorale et invention du citoyen…”, 156.
  • [109]
    Similarly, Maurice Agulhon has insisted on the role of the “housing community” [communauté d’habitat] as the basis for working-class social interaction in the barracks (M. Agulhon, La République au village, 211).
  • [110]
    ADN/M 154/70: rapport du commissaire central de Roubaix au préfet, 30 August 1899.
  • [111]
    ADN/M 154/73: rapport du commissaire de police délégué, 4e arr., Roubaix, au commissaire central, 2 September 1900.
  • [112]
    M. Hastings, Halluin la rouge…, 168.
  • [113]
    R. Lefebvre, “Le socialisme saisi par l’institution municipale…”, 177.
  • [114]
    Marc Pollez, “La SFIO à Roubaix dans les années 1930-1940”, Masters dissertation in contemporary history, Lille, Université Lille 3, 1976, 78.
  • [115]
    E. Furlough, “French consumer cooperation…”, 156.
  • [116]
    Figures obtained through systematic analysis of candidate lists, results and voting intentions at the municipal, cantonal, and legislative elections from 1892-1908. Cf. ADN/M 37 (élections législatives); M 59 (élections can-tonales); M 89 (élections municipales); the research was finalised through an analysis of the official minutes for the installation of new members and the lists of municipal council members: ADN/M 99-100.
  • [117]
    Having established a list of the members of the cooperative, we attempted to find biographic material concerning them in our bibliography, and particularly in C. Willard, Les guesdistes…; R. Lefebvre, “Le socialisme saisi par l’institution municipale…”; Dictionnaire biographique du mouvement ouvrier français: Le Maitron, CD-ROM (Paris: L’Atelier, 1997).
  • [118]
    Jean Piat, Jean Lebas. De la Belle Époque à la Résistance (Roubaix: Maison du livre, 1994), 19.
  • [119]
    Maurice Lauzel, Manuel du coopérateur socialiste (Paris: Société nouvelle de librairie et d’édition, 1900) (Bibliothèque socialiste. 1), 35.
  • [120]
  • [121]
    Charles Gide, Les sociétés coopératives de consommation (Paris: Armand Colin, 2nd edn, 1910).
  • [122]
    Bernard Lavergne, Les sociétés coopératives de consommation en France (Paris: Armand Colin, 1923), 16-21.
  • [123]
    G. Marlière, “La coopération dans le Nord et le Pas-de-Calais…”, 202-3.
  • [124]
    N. Quillien, “La SFIO à Roubaix de 1905 à 1914”, 94.
  • [125]
    Aimable Toulouse, “Les sociétés coopératives de consommation dans la région minière du Nord de la France”, thesis in political and economic science (Lille : Imprimerie Liégeois-Six, 1909), 155-60.
  • [126]
    R. Baker, “Socialism in the Nord, 1880-1914…”, 377; “A regional study of working-class organization in France…”, 189-95.
  • [127]
    R. Baker, “A regional study…”, 190.
  • [128]
    Cf. R. Lefebvre, “La question de la compétence administrative”, in “Le socialisme saisi par l’institution municipale…”, 198-200.
  • [129]
    R. Lefebvre, “‘Le conseil des buveurs de bière’…”.
  • [130]
    R. Baker mentions “inefficient management” and “a lack of expertise” (“Socialism in the Nord, 1880-1914…”, 377).
  • [131]
    C. Willard, Les guesdistes…, 236.
  • [132]
    R. Baker, “A regional study…”, 194-5.
  • [133]
    Michel Offerlé, “Illégitimité et légitimation du personnel politique ouvrier en France avant 1914”, Annales ESC, 4, 1984, 681-716 (699).
  • [134]
    Rémi Lefebvre, “Le socialisme français et la ‘classe ouvrière’”, Nouvelles Fondations, 1, 2006, 64-75 (69-70).
  • [135]
    Cf. M. Offerlé, “Illégitimité et légitimation du personnel politique ouvrier en France avant 1914”.
  • [136]
    R. Lefebvre, “Le socialisme saisi par l’institution municipale…”, 369.
  • [137]
    Beyond the single case of La Paix, it was noted that “from the end of the last war, and especially from the 1960s onwards, […] in most parts of Europe, the Maison du Peuple underwent a marked reversal, and entered into a decline that proved to be irreversible” (M. Scascighini, “La Maison du Peuple en Europe et en Suisse…”, 348). “It was consumer society and its new rules that, in the end, relegated consumer cooperatives to a secondary role in the second half of the twentieth century” (A. Chatriot, “Les coopérateurs”, 96).
  • [138]
    J. C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance.
  • [139]
    We did not find traces of resistance to this work of politicisation, nor tensions between politicised and nonpoliticised workers within the Maison du Peuple, because each social space, despite the togetherness it allows for, can always be represented either through a public text, or remain within the hidden text.
  • [140]
    Cf. J.-N. Retière, Identités ouvrières….
  • [141]
    Alice Mazeaud, Julien Talpin, “Participer pour quoi faire? Esquisse d’une sociologie de l’engagement au sein de budgets participatifs”, Sociologie, 1(3), 2010, 357-74; Julien Talpin, “Ces moments qui façonnent les hommes. Éléments pour une approche pragmatiste de la compétence civique”, Revue française de science politique, 60(1), 2010, 91-115.
  • [142]
    This work is part of a broader research program: a state-region project contract (Contrat de Projet État-Région – CPER), awarded by the Maison Européenne des Sciences de l’Homme et de la Société (Lille), for the project “Participatory democracy: historical and contemporary aspects” (DPHC), co-directed by M. Carrel and P. Cossart. We wish to thank the other members of the research team (M. Bresson, M. Carrel, M. Doytcheva, N. Eliasoph, W. Keith, R. Lefebvre, M. Nonjon), particularly those who gave us feedback during the workshop organised around a first draft on this subject. Thank you also to Michel Vangheluwe, from the departmental archives of the Nord department, who helped us to find “traces” of La Paix.

Research on politicisation has stressed the role of specific social spaces on the development of political practices, or even of a political consciousness, among more dominated individuals. But the ‘Maisons du peuple’ have attracted little attention to date. This article examines the Maison du peuple organised by the socialist cooperative La Paix in Roubaix from 1885 to 1914. We study its role within social relationships. Analysing the politicisation of workers’ traditional sociability, this article then examines the effects of politicisation on individuals and groups who attended La Paix. We emphasize the difficulty of accurately tracing individual trajectories of politicisation; however frequenting the Maison du peuple may have constituted the springboard for a political career and, more generally, fostered the formation of a local working-class consciousness.

Paula Cossart
Associate professor in sociology at the University of Lille 3 (at the “Individus, Épreuves, Sociétés” research unit, CeRIES, EA 3589), Paula Cossart is a member of the Institut universitaire de France (French University Institute). Her publications include: Le meeting politique. De la délibération à la manifestation (1868-1939) (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2010); “Initiative, Référendum, Recall. Progrès ou recul démocratique? États-Unis, 1880-1940”, in Marie-Hélène Bacqué, Yves Sintomer (eds), La démocratie participative. Histoires et généalogies (Paris: La Découverte, 2011), 174-90. She has also coedited (with William Keith and Julien Talpin) a special issue, “La participation au prisme de l’histoire”, Participations, 2, 2012. Her current research focuses on the historical sociology of participatory democracy. She is particularly interested in the genealogy of deliberative mechanisms (CeRIES, Université Lille 3, Domaine universitaire du Pont de Bois, BP 60149, 59653 Villeneuve d’Ascq cedex).
Julien Talpin
Julien Talpin is a research fellow in political science at the CNRS, working at the CERAPS research unit (UMR 8026/University of Lille 2). He has most recently published a book on the individual and collective effects of engagement in participatory budgeting: Schools of Democracy. How Ordinary Citizens (Sometimes) Become More Competent in Participatory Budgeting Institutions (Colchester: ECPR Press, 2011). He has also edited (with Yves Sintomer) La démocratie participative au-delà de la proximité. Le Poitou-Charentes et l’échelle régionale (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2011); and “La démocratie délibérative”, Raisons politiques, 42, 2011. His research focuses on the ethnography of political participation, participatory democracy, processes of politicisation and the relation of the working class to politics (University of Lille 2-Ceraps, 1 place Déliot, 59000 Lille).
Translated from French by 
Jasper Cooper
Uploaded on on 03/03/2014
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