Sunday 24th May 2015, Guise
Today has been delightful. We have spent the entire day in Guise and have returned to the same campsite this evening.
Our friend Geneviève emailed us to say we should stop at Guise on our way back to Caen to investigate a utopian community set up there during the late 19th century by Jean-Baptiste André Godin. It turned out to be completely absorbing and apart from stopping for lunch in the former restaurant of the commune we have been exploring the history of the factory and its workers all day.
Godin came from this region, the Aisne, and originally trained as a locksmith. Later he established a foundry in Guise producing cast-iron stoves for heating and cooking. He became absorbed by the ideas of the philanthropists and social philosophers of the time, anxious to find ways to spread wealth more equitably and improve the lives of their workers. He was particularly drawn to the ideals of Charles Fourier and decided to set up his utopian dream at his factory site. Here he planned and built his ideal town to house his workers and their families. At its height he had nearly 2000 people living in the accommodation he provided, known as the Familistère. He felt that a good living standard should not be the prerogative of the wealthy. Just because a metal worker earned less than a banker it should not mean that he should had a deprived standard of living. Nowadays there are public parks, leisure facilities and libraries open to all but in the late 19th century this was a new concept. The housing he provided was in the form of large and airy blocks of well designed and ventilated flats on four floors. He provided flats to accommodate each family with a kitchen and a couple of large rooms for bedrooms and living accommodation. Water was supplied on each floor and attention was given to communal sanitary arrangements and rubbish disposal. On the ground floor were large communal facilities for the use of residents. There was also a school for all children living in the commune, a communal laundry, a theatre, a library and surrounding parkland for the use of the residents where they could establish their own allotments. Hot water as a by-product of the foundry was used in the laundry, the public bathrooms and also for a swimming pool to encourage his workers to take exercise and to keep clean and healthy. There were social clubs, choirs, orchestras and amateur dramatics. There was even a crèche so that children could be cared for while both parents were at work. (This was in the 1880s!) Even shops were provided on the ground floor where groceries and anything that was needed by the tenants could be purchased at a price that was lower than in town!
Resident workers could hardly believe it when they arrived to find such high living standards. It was indeed a People’s Palace. And for its time it was quite remarkable when considering the general standards of sanitation and health of the French working classes at that time – and well into the 20th century.
Godin’s idea was that nobody specifically owned the company, that all workers and residents were by default shareholders and part owners working together to constantly improve the business and their quality of life.
Sales of stoves went from strength to strength, the experiment proved to be an outstanding success and successive generations of the same families continued to live, work and thrive in his commune. The company diversified producing not only stoves and cookers but cooking utensils, flat irons, waffle irons, cast iron umbrella stands – everything, says Ian sadly, except manhole covers!
The company thrived during the lifetime of Godin. He died in 1888 by which time ideas were changing with workers unions being set up and workers rights becoming recognised. Others took over the running of the company. Sales began to drop, particularly with the outbreak of WW1. The left wing of the residential complex was badly damaged during the war and by the end of the war the company had sustained heavy losses. It worked steadily to rebuild both its business interest and the damaged accommodation for its workers. Then came the 1929 economic crisis and the company started the slow road of decline. Godin stoves, washing machines, refrigerators, pots and pans continued to be produced until 1968 though efforts were being made to find a buyer for the company. As it was owned by the workers it was difficult to attract prospective buyers who were mainly interested in capitalist ideals rather than social reforms and innovations. Eventually the kitchen pans company Le Creuset bought out Godin buying the workers shares at half their value. Thus ended Godin’s utopian dream.
Thus too have ended all other such idealistic dreams. Godin’s was more successful than most, outstanding for its time, but by 1968 that time was past. Trade unions existed, workers had rights, conditions had improved generally and Godin’s accommodation was becoming outmoded and shabby. The flats were sold off to private purchasers and the concept of communal living was no longer so eagerly embraced.
Godin was born just a year before Karl Marx. While Marx was a theoretical socialist, living a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle, in debt to fellow idealists and never personally experiencing the life of the underprivileged working classes, Godin put his theories into practice, living alongside his workers in the flats he provided. He educated them, improved their quality of life as well as raising their personal aspirations. At the end of the day which of these two reformers did most to help those he supported? Many of the ideologies of Communism and the misery they carried in their wake for so many oppressed people stem from the writings of Marx. Godin raised the living standards of his workers with a clean and healthy environment, education, sanitation, outdoor exercise and participation in communal social activities.
Guise is otherwise an unexceptional small French town. Overlooking it is the defensive château of the Dukes of Guise. This evening we can see it floodlit on the hillside above the campsite. Ian climbed up there on his way back from the factory but said there was little to see.
Of far more interest is the flamboyant statue in the town centre of Camille Demoulins (1760-1794) who came from Guise. Amidst the unrest in Paris in 1789 he leaped onto a table and gave an impromptu oration to his fellow agitators calling on them to take up arms. “Aux armes, citoyens” (a phrase later picked up in the Marseillaise.) This general unrest led to the outbreak of the French Revolution with the Bastille being taken only a couple of days later. Desmoulins died during the regime of the Terror that followed.