Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 21, 2006

French Trotskyism

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 6:43 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on February 21, 2006

Although Trotskyism as an organized tendency has pretty much disappeared, France is one place where it still seems to have a presence based on the evidence of 12 new books on the topic ranging from memoir to scholarly (and less than scholarly) material published there recently. In an article that raises leftist-spotting to the level of the sublime, British SWP leader Ian Birchall reviews them in the latest HM magazine. With no particular ax to grind, a dry British wit, and a flair for the bon mot, Birchall is just the right choice for the assignment despite interjecting his own silly state capitalist prejudices from time to time.

A word or two of introduction might be in order. There are 3 significant Trotskyist currents in France. One is the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR) that is led by philosophy professor Daniel Bensaïd and that was a long-time supporter of the Ernest Mandel wing of the Fourth International. The next is the Courant Communiste Internationaliste, led by Pierre Lambert. During the 1950s, Lambert was allied with James P. Cannon and Gerry Healy against the Mandel forces, who they accused of adapting to Stalinism. The last is Lutte Ouvrière (LO), a group that has never made any attempts to project itself as part of a genuine Fourth International internationally and that has a strong orientation to trade unions that some might describe as “workerist”. In recent years, the LCR and LO have run joint electoral campaigns, capitalizing on the fact that about 10 percent of the French electorate show a willingness to vote for Trotskyist candidates.

Christophe Nick’s “Les Trotskistes” is a 583 page mess, from all appearances. It is filled with factual errors and misspellings. Max Shachtman comes out Max Chatman, which evokes for Birchall “the horrifying thought of a Shachtmanite chatroom.” Nick sounds basically like a David Horowitz clone, writing that “The Trotskyists are said to have placed their men in all the positions of power that seem to them to be of strategic importance.” Such an observation, and something that has a lot to do with the marketability of the books under review, would be borne out by the fact that Lionel Jospin was “exposed” as a member of the Lambertiste group while many of the editorial staff at Le Monde were members of the LCR in their youth.

Birchall describes Nick’s witch-hunting proclivities as follows:

“We are frequently reminded that we are never more than five metres from a rat. Apparently, the Trotskyists are nearly as close. (Rats are also reputed to be able to swim up sewers and bite our buttocks when we are sitting on the toilet; whether any Trotskyist group has yet perfected this technique is unclear.)”

Frederic Charpier’s “Histoire de l’extrême gauche trotskiste” is another redbaiting exercise with even more bizarre interpretations. Trotsky is depicted as doing “entryism” in the Bolshevik party, etc.

Despite having been a member of Lambert’s group for 5 years, Philippe Campinchi’s “Les lambertistes” is cut from the same cloth as Nick and Charpier’s books, while openly trying to cash in on the lurid “exposés” noted above: Birchall’s review copy had a bright red band around the cover marked ‘The former party of Lionel Jospin.’ Nearly everything that the Lambertistes are up to is regarded as sinister, including the posting of a security guard in front of their headquarters. Birchall notes that perhaps they do not want “simple citizens inflamed with curiosity by Campinchi’s books trampling through their offices.”

“Le veritable histoire de Lutte Ouvrière” is a series of interviews with LO leader Robert Barcia (alias Hardy). Barcia is an old-timer apparently, having spent time in prison during the German occupation. Although Birchall finds Barcia’s recollections of such events interesting, he is less taken with what he perceives as a tendency to cling to Trotskyist dogma. In particular, he takes umbrage at Barcia’s badmouthing of the Socialisme ou Barbarie group (Soub) that was led by Cornelius Castoriadis and that included Jean-Francois Lyotard in its ranks at one time. Soub’s sin, it seems, was clinging to the belief that the USSR was “state capitalist”.

It is not surprising that all of these Trotskyist groups suffer in comparison to Birchall’s:

Over thirty years ago, I attended part of an LO editorial board meeting, and I still recall Hardy haranguing members of his own leadership about how they did not appreciate what a hard time the working class had of it.

Hence the description of LO members as ‘soldier-monks’ is not wholly unfair. For the revolutionary organisation is a necessarily small group of hyperactive militants. Necessarily small, because only in a revolutionary situation will the vast majority of workers abandon their everyday pursuits in favour of politics. The revolutionary organisation is not part of the class – ‘the companion in struggle’ as Tony Cliff argued that genuine Marxists should be – but is composed of outsiders, who support workers’ struggles, aim to educate the class, but remain separate from it. (A similar view prevailed in the Lambertist organisation, summed up by Benjamin Stora as ‘the mysterious world … of the party, separated from the rest of society, but able to enlighten and organise it’ [p. 65]. If this view of the party can claim support from the Lenin of 1902, it gets none at all from the Lenin of 1905 or 1917.)

This explains LO’s notorious position of discouraging its members from having children. As Hardy puts it:

“It is scarcely possible to rear children properly and give them the affection and attention they require while at the same time leading the life of a militant at a certain level of activity.”

I must add the American SWP, which long ago disassociated itself completely from the task of constructing a Fourth International, had informal anti-children policies even more draconian than LO’s: one woman was expelled for breast-feeding at a branch meeting and another was encouraged to get an abortion so that she would be free to do political work.

“Itinéraires” is a series of dialogues between Pierre Lambert and Daniel Gluckstein, his heir apparent. We learn from Birchall that the two are contemptuous of NGO’s, antiglobalization groups like ATTAC and the campaign for the Tobin tax but he criticizes them for refusing to engage with the people involved in such efforts. (Although I have respect for the British SWP’s antiwar work, I was far less impressed with their tendency–and that of the LCR–to tail “antiglobalization” campaigns, especially the ill-fated ultraleftism of the Black Bloc et al.)

There are also two books on the Trotskyist movement from the LCR and the Lambertistes respectively: “Les trotskysmes” by Daniel Bensaïd and “Le trotskysme et les trotskystes” by Jean-Jacques Marie. Bensaïd’s use of the plural is mildly provocative, according to Birchall. I myself find it in keeping with his generally donnish approach to politics, which is in full display in his response to John Holloway, also contained in the current HM. I remember reading translation of Bensaïd’s articles in the debates within the Fourth International in the 1970s and always wondered why he couldn’t express himself in a straightforward manner.

In Birchall’s view, Bensaïd comes across less dogmatic–no doubt a function of devoting four pages to a “generally fair summary” of Tony Cliff’s theory of state capitalism and insisting that it remains within the “parameters of Trotskyism”. In light of this, it should not come as a big surprise that the LCR and the British SWP have conducted some tentative regroupment type discussions. And not surprisingly, they have led nowhere.

Michael Lequenne’s “Le Trotskysme sans fard” (Unvarnished Trotskyism) focuses on the 1944 to 1960 period. Birchall regards his account of the 1952 split to be the most important part of the book even though Pablo’s famous “entryist” tactic into the French Communist Party was far less momentous than actually projected. After winning a battle to implement the line, only seven comrades were available to carry out the assignment. Birchall describes this as a “massive gap between grandiose perspectives and real capabilities”, which in some ways can be described as the epitaph of the Trotskyist movement.

Benjamin Stora’s “La derniére generation d’octobre” is a memoir of his life in the Lambertiste movement. Comrades might recall his name from a query posted to the list last year about histories of Algeria and the war of independence. Stora is considered one of the top scholars in the field. Frankly, it came as a bit of a surprise to learn that he was a full-time organizer for the Lambertistes in the 1970s since his book on Algeria seems fairly devoid of a sharp class analysis. This is not to say that he has turned his back on his past as his comments on the Jospin affair should indicate:

“Militancy remains a period of my life which I do not repudiate. I retain a nostalgia for these youthful commitments, as though they were a ‘paradise lost’…. Today I see my commitment as a mixture of idealism and blindness, of romanticism and a disturbing desire for purity, intelligence and dogmatism.”

Bensaïd has his own memoir, titled “Une lente impatience” (A Slow Impatience). It reveals living under the shadow of the Holocaust. (I was somewhat surprised to discover that he was Jewish since he was always understood by American Trotskyists as North African and presumably Moslem.)

As a clue to understanding the flirtation (but no consummation!) between the LCR and the British SWP, here’s Birchall’s account of a possible area of agreement:

“But Bensaïd is less helpful in disentangling the main lines of revolutionary strategy in the thirty-six years since 1968. Without raking over the debate about the class nature of Russia, he nonetheless believes that the events of 1989 were a ‘historic defeat for the working-class movement’ (pp. 370-1). And, despite a reference to Castro’s ‘outbursts of senile megalomania’, he still finds something progressive in Cuban society (pp’ 368-9).”

Senile megalomania?

Like this?

This insensitive world that spends one trillion dollars each year on the military –it’s already two trillion– this insensitive world that extracts various trillions of dollars a year from the impoverished masses, from the immense majority of this planet’s inhabitants, remains indifferent when it is told that around 100,000 people have died, among them maybe 25,000 or 30,000 children, or that there are 100,000 injured, and the large majority is suffering from bone fractures in their arms and legs of which barely 10% have been operated on, that there are children with mutilated limbs, and young people, women and men, old people.

This is the kind of world we are living in. It is not a world full of goodness, but a world full of egoism. It is not a world of justice, but one full of exploitation, abuse and pillage, where millions of children die every year –and they could be saved–, just because they are lacking a few cents worth of medicine, or some vitamins or re-hydration salts and a few dollars worth of food, enough for them to live. They die every year due to injustice, almost as many as died in that colossal war that I mentioned a few minutes ago.

What kind of world is this? What kind of world is this where a barbaric empire proclaims its right to launch pre-emptive attacks on 70 or more countries, and is capable of bringing death to any corner of the globe, using the most sophisticated weapons and killing techniques? It’s a world where brutality and force prevail, with hundreds of military bases on the entire planet. There is one of these on our soil, where they arbitrarily intervened after the Spanish colonial power could no longer stand by itself, and when hundreds of thousands of our country’s dearest sons –in a population of hardly a million– had perished in a long war lasting almost 30 years. And they left us with the revolting Platt Amendment, attached to an equally repugnant resolution that treacherously gave them the right to intervene in our country whenever they considered there to be a lack of order.

You know something, I am far more interested in hooking up with governments, parties and individuals who are inspired by the fact that a head of state utters such words than I am with people like Birchall and Bensaïd who regard them as “outbursts of senile megalomania”.

Shame on them.


  1. What utter nonsense! I am always amazed by those sects. They understand nothing and they never will. You are of course completely correct in saying that it’s far more interesting to work with people who support Cuba and Venezuela than insignificant sectarians who can offer nothing at all to the working class. BTW, you might want to check out the site I linked to. I believe you’ll find it interesting. (where do you live, btw?)

    Comment by Dark Socialist — March 6, 2006 @ 2:26 pm

  2. I live in New York City.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 6, 2006 @ 2:39 pm

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