Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

With the Molinier group

Harry Ratner, born in 1919, joined the Labour League of Youth in 1936 and the Youth Militant Group which was working within it. He moved to the Workers International League and went to France in 1938. On his return to Britain in 1940 he joined the Revolutionary Socialist League. Called up into the army, he carried out revolutionary work in France and Belgium. He followed the RSL with its fusion in 1944 with the WIL into the Revolutionary Communist Party and worked with Gerry Healy until he left the Socialist Labour League in 1960, Here, Harry Ratner recalls his days in France.

I have been asked to write my recollections of the Molinier Group to which I belonged from 1938 to 1940. I apologise in advance for their scrappiness and any unintentional errors of fact – after all this was nearly fifty years ago and I have had to rely on a poor memory, not having kept any documents of that period.

Harry Ratner

Raymond Molinier, together with Pierre Frank and Pierre Naville, were among the earliest supporters of the Left Opposition in the French Communist Party. When Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union and found refuge on the Prinkipo Islands in Turkey they had all visited him there and Pierre Frank had joined him as one of his secretaries. Molinier and Naville together with Alfred Rosmer and Maurice and Magdelaine Paz had been supporters of Trotsky since at least 1929.

Naville was more at home in an artistic petit-bourgeois milieu than among workers. While in the Communist Party he had become known as a leading Marxist critic of Surrealism. He had been in Moscow in 1927 and sympathised with the Left Opposition and had subsequently been expelled from the PCF. According to Isaac Deutscher Naville possessed a theoretical education in Marxism but had little political experience and hardly any ties with the working class movement. By contrast Molinier was very much at home in the movement and full of energy and enterprise. However, he had the reputation of being a bit of an adventurer and not choosy about ways and means. He was always full of grandiose plans for mass meetings, large circulation newspapers and so on. The implementation of the schemes required much more money than the movement could raise from its members but he was always putting forward plausible but vague plans for raising money. He was always ready to engage in commercial ventures (as I was to see for myself when with him in 1940).

Deutscher describes the differences:

Rosmer and Naville took a more cautious view of the chances, discounted the possibilities of ‘mass action’ which Molinier held out, and were inclined to content themselves for the beginning with a rnore modest but steady clarification of the Opposition’s ideas and with propaganda among the more mature elements of the left. They were afraid that Molinier’s ventures might bring discredit on the Opposition and they distrusted him. ’Ce n’est pas un militant communiste, c’est un homme d’affaires et c’est un illetré. (He’s not a communist militant, he's a businessman, and he’s illiterate), Rosmer said. Unpleasant tales about Molinier were being told in Paris: one was that he had deserted from the army and then before a court martial conducted his defence in a manner unworthy of a communist, describing himself as a conscientious objector of the religious type. Allegations and hints were thrown about the shady character of his commercial activities, but it was difficult to pin down the allegations to anything specific. (I. Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, p.51)

Nevertheless Molinier had been extremely helpful to Trotsky in his exile, paying many visits to him on Prinkipo. When Trotsky came to France Raymond Molinier, his brother Henri and his family helped financially, arranged accommodation for him and were of great practical help.

Under Trotsky’s pressure the rival factions agreed to work together and entered the French Socialist Party (SFIO) in 1934/5 when the entrist tactic was adopted. Until then the Trotskyists, expelled from the Communist Party and subjected to a barrage of slander which effectively cut them off from the CP rank and file, were completely isolated and numbered no more than a hundred. The entry into the SFIO – and in other countries into their respective social reformist parties, the British Labour Party, the Belgian and American Socialist parties, etc. – was designed to break out of this isolation and find a way into the mass movement. It was hoped that with the development of the crisis of capitalism and growing class tensions large left-wing currents would develop in these parties which the Trotskyists could influence and eventually help to transform, when the inevitable splits came, into independent revolutionary parties.

In 1934 the suicide of a shady businessman called Stavisky exposed a web of corruption implicating many ministers, deputies and others involved with the government party, the Radicals. Quasi-fascist and right-wing organisations such as Colonel de la Rocque’s Croix de Feu and the Royalist leagues staged a semi-insurrection on 6 February 1934. During violent riots the Chamber of Deputies was besieged by a right-wing mob. This galvanised the French working class into action. On 12 February the workers of Paris staged a general strike and joint mass demonstrations in which socialist and communist workers spontaneously united. The Communist Party was in the process of abandoning its ultra-left policy of attacking the socialist parties as "social fascist". Later in the year the CP and SFIO formally concluded a united front pact against fascist attacks. This was later extended to the right by including Daladier’s Radicals to form the Popular Front.

Thus the Troksyists entered the SFIO at a time when there was an upsurge of activity and confidence in the working class which culminated in 1936 in the election of a Popular Front government, to be followed immediately by a wave of stay-in strikes and factory occupations by millions of workers. The Troskyists made some modest gains inside the SFIO but did best in the Jeunesses Socialistes, its youth movement. For a period they had a majority or at least control of the Seine (Paris) Federation before being expelled.

By 1935, however, the differences between the Naville and Molinier wings had surfaced again. The differences were over whether the Trotskyists should immediately leave the SFIO and proclaim an independent party (this was before they were actually expelled). Molinier set up his own paper La Commune advocating the setting up of the independent party. It may have been the case that Molinier was arguing that expulsion from the SFIO was imminent and inevitable and that he was merely advocating that they prepare the workers for this eventuality. As I have no documents to refer to this is mere speculation on my part. Eventually when the Trotskyists left or were expelled the split resulted in the formation of two rival independent parties, the Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste (POI) of Naville and Jean Rous and the Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI) led by Molinier and Frank.

These political differences were unfortunately compounded with other, more personal disputes. Trotsky’s son, Leon Sedov, was living with Molinier’s ex-wife Jeanne Martin and they were looking after Trotsky’s grandson, Seva, whose mother (Trotsky’s daughter) had committed suicide. When Leon Sedov died in mysterious circumstances (presumably at the hands of Stalin’s GPU agents) Trotsky wanted his grandson to come and live with him and Natalya in Mexico. Jeanne Martin refused to send him. There was also an acrimonious dispute over the fate of Trotsky’s archives which had been in Leon Sedov’s keeping. Trotsky and the ‘orthodox’ Trotskyists wanted them in their keeping but Jeanne as Sedov’s widow blocked their attempts. Naville and Trotsky’s supporters accused her of trying to keep them for Molinier’s faction and the matter was fought out in the courts.

There can be no doubt that this split in the Trotskyist ranks limited the progress the movement should have made in the favourable situation of 1936.

By 1938, when I went to live in France, the working class upsurge, which had reached its peak with the strike movement and factory occupations of June 1936, was very much on the ebb. The leadership of the French Communist Party under Thorez and the Stalinist leadership of the French trade union confederation, the CGT, had succeeded in limiting the aims of the strike movement to winning immediate concessions such as the 40-hour week, holidays with pay, trade union recognition which, though important and worthwhile gains in themselves, did not challenge the ownership and control of industry by the bosses. The political energies of the militant workers were channelled into support for the Popular Front government led by Leon Blum, which in its turn, restricted itself to administering the capitalist system with minor reforms. Both the Trotskyist parties agitated for a break with the Radical Party and for a SFIO-CP government based on a united front of the workers’ parties, for the extension of the strike movement of 1936 and the transformation of the strike committees and other workers’ organisations into organs of dual power. They met with limited success. I cannot now remember whether any analysis of this period has been written which examines other possible factors for this failure to break through but I have no doubt that the tragic split between the Naville and Molinier groups did not help, As soon as the strike movement subsided big business and the employers’ organisations set about eroding the gains of June 1936 in the factories while their political allies gradually pushed the Popular Front government to the right. Leon Blum, the Socialist premier, was replaced by Daladier of the Radical Party; the same Daladier who had been prime minister in the 1934 government tainted with the Stavisky scandal. Despite the rank and file’s tremendous support and sympathy for the anti-fascist struggle in Spain, Blum and the Popular Front government supported the Non-Intervention Agreement and restricted the supply of arms to the anti-fascist forces while the CP physically attacked and viciously slandered the Trotskyists and anyone else who opposed the Popular Front policy from the left as "splitters" and fascist agents. Despite some mild criticisms the Communist Party tagged along and continued to support the Popular Front governments even when these swung further to the right. arguing that the need for unity of all democratic forces against Nazi Germany was paramount. Many worker militants were disillusioned and demoralised by this, though the Trotskyists did not succeed in capitalising on this to increase their support.

By November 1938 the employers felt confident enough to begin attacking the most important of the gains of 1936, the 40-hour week. This was after Munich and on the pretext of the need to increase production of armaments they proposed the introduction of compulsory, overtime thus in effect nullifying the 40-hour week. The CP and the CGT put up a token resistance. They were still supporting the line of subordinating the needs of the class struggle to the forging of an alliance of Russia and the democracies of France and England against Nazi Germany. The CGT called a 24-hour general strike which was only patchily supported. No doubt many workers felt in their bones that their organisations did not intend a serious struggle and were therefore reluctant to engage in a futile gesture.

Soon after I had started to live in France in September 1938, I attended a public meeting organised by the POI to commemorate the October Revolution which was addressed by Naville and André Breton, the painter, and came away very unimpressed. The audience of two or three hundred were mainly petit-bourgeois artistic types and students. I saw few people who looked like workers. Although I cannot after fifty years remember the details of the speeches I remember that they did not seem to be addressed to workers or their problems; André Breton spoke mostly about his recent visit to Trotsky in Mexico but in a non-political way. All I can remember is that he spoke of Trotsky’s "rosy cheeks" and health and Diego Rivera’s paintings and murals. On the other hand the PCI was publishing La Commune two or three times weekly with articles orientated towards the workers and the factories. I was unaware of the previous histories of the two factions nor can I remember that they had any serious theoretical differences at this time. I joined the PCI because I saw them as the more serious and active of the two parties.

After Munich and the November 1938 strike the general shift to the right continued. The CP was driven out of the Popular Front it itself had helped to set up, the SFIO breaking off all relations with it. Attacks on left-wing organisations, and papers were stepped up. In April 1939 a series of mutinies occurred in the army in protest at the government’s order calling for additional service for reservists of the class of 1936 who had already served more than the two years normal conscription period. Reservists in Strasbourg, Metz and other points on the Maginot Line went on hunger-strike and refused to drill. The ringleaders were imprisoned and the movement suppressed. No mention of these mutinies appeared in either the bourgeois press or in the Socialist Le Populaire or the CP’s Humanité. The papers of the left-wing organisations which reported and commented on the mutinies were confiscated and their editors prosecuted. These included the POI’s Lutte Ouvrière, the PSOP’s Juin ’36, the anarchist Libertaire and others. The headquarters of the PSOP (the Socialist Workers and Peasants Party) in Cherbourg and other cities were raided. Pierre Frank and Raymond Molinier were indicted under a law making "threats to the integrity or defence of the French Empire" an offence. Léon Rigaudias, a member of the POI, was arrested on a charge of sedition (punishable by death) for anti-war propaganda among the conscripts and held in solitary confinement in the fortress of Metz. A new law was promulgated making even mention of his arrest punishable by a 30,000 franc fine and/or three years’ imprisonment.

The morale and momentum of the working class movement continued to ebb. This must have also had its effect on the Trotskyist organisations. Late 1938 or 1939 the PCI was disbanded and we entered the PSOP and its youth section the JSOP as a faction. The PSOP (Parti Socialiste Ouvrier et Paysan) had under Marceau Pivert originally been a left-centrist current in the SFIO but with the right-wing drift of this party had eventually split off. It was a relatively small party but a lot bigger than us. It was anti-Stalinist and opposed the Moscow Trials and spoke a semi-revolutionary language.

The agitational paper La Commune had been discontinued but we still published a monthly or two monthly theoretical review La Vérité. I do not remember what our membership was at that time. It must have been mostly in Paris. I remember that during the summer holidays in July 1939 I and another comrade, a student called Jacquot, hitch-hiked throughout Central France visiting contacts. One was a young worker in the big Michelin tyre factory in the industrial town of Clermont-Ferrand and he was our only member there. We also visited a peasant who had a farm in a remote region of the Puy-de-Dôme in the Auvergne. He was either a member or a sympathiser. We expected that with the imminence of war all left-wing and revolutionary parties would be driven underground and we were trying to establish means of communication. Altogether Jacquot and I contacted only about half a dozen people in that region. I do not know whether we had many members in the industrial North or in towns like Marseilles so I doubt if our national membership was much above a hundred.

The declaration of war on 3 September 1939 ushered in what was virtually martial law. The CP, PSOP and other left-wing and anti-war groups were driven underground. Maurice Thorez, the CP leader, found refuge in Moscow. Hundreds of militants were taken into custody. A decree made it an offence to "prepare, furnish or store communist literature". In the factories militant workers were weeded out, particularly those who might normally have been exempted from military service on the grounds of special qualifications (the equivalent of reserved occupations in Britain). The 40-hour week, won by the 1936 strikes, had already been eroded in November 1938; compulsory overtime stretched the working week to 60 hours and more. Forty per cent of all overtime pay was compulsorily deducted and paid into a "National Solidarity Fund" for the war effort. In addition to normal taxes a special tax ranging from 2 per cent to 15 per cent was levied on men of military age in reserved occupations or unfit for military service. The peasants were hit by the mobilisation of three million men from family farms and the requisition of 50 per cent of their horses with meagre compensation.

On the whole these measures met with little resistance. One may ask how long this passivity would have lasted before these attacks began to generate resistance in the form of strikes, demonstrations and further mutinies if the collapse of the French armies in May-June 1940 and German occupation had not intervened. Certainly the resentment building up in the conscript armies was a factor in the collapse as well as the fear of revolution among sections of the ruling establishment and their preference of a Nazi victory as the "lesser evil".

The driving underground of all left-wing organisations, including the PSOP, created, new conditions for our work and we – the Molinier Group – became again de facto an independent organisation. We continued to meet illegally through the winter of 1939-40, the period of the "phoney war". Our branch in the eastern part of Paris consisted of Pierre Lambert, who was then called Pierre Boussell, a girl called Suzanne Simkovitch and myself. We illegally issued some leaflets denouncing the war as an imperialist war. We distributed some in blocks of workers’ flats starting on the top floor and working down so that if any of the tenants were hostile and called the police we would not be trapped. With no phones anyone wanting to call the police would have to pass us on the way down. This proved a wise move as on one occasion we were well away and in the street when we were stopped and searched by a police patrol who found nothing incriminating on us. We would also leave copies on the seats on the metro and buses and also shove them through the Central Post Office letter boxes hoping the postal sorters would pick them up and read them. I also threw bundles over the walls of the barracks in Vincennes, near where I lived. Organisations like the Youth Hostels movement and rambling clubs like Les Amis de la Nature which were formally non-political but had a left-wing ethos were still allowed to meet and those of us that belonged would still attend their meetings and try to make sympathetic contacts.

Early in 1940 a meeting of comrades in the North of Paris was raided by the police and everyone arrested. Shortly afterwards Pierre Boussell (Lambert) and Suzanne were arrested. I was fortunate to arrive at their flat only minutes after the police had left and ransacked the place.

I went again to Clermont-Ferrand in March or April 1940 only to find that our peasant contact had been conscripted and our comrade in the Michelin factory had been arrested. His mother told me that he had been subjected to electric shocks while being interrogated. Obviously the French police did not need a lot of tuition from the Gestapo with whom they would soon be working.

There has been some discussion about whether there was any contact between the WIL in Britain and the Molinier Group. Both were then outside the ranks of the Fourth International. The WIL had refused to join in the united organisation set up in 1938 at the Unity Conference chaired by J.P. Cannon and Molinier’s group had been condemned by Trotsky and the International following his split with Naville. It would therefore seem natural that the two organisations should get together. I was in the WIL when I left England to live in France and kept in touch, sending a couple of articles on the November 1938 strike and the situation in France which were printed in Workers International News. I was not advised to join the PCI and did so on my own bat.

In the winter or spring of 1940 Millie Lee contacted me while on a visit to Paris. I think this was just after the arrests which had decimated our organisation. At the time my contact with the group was through a woman called Gabie (Gabby?) and Jeanne Martin, Molinier’s ex-wife who had left him to live with Trotsky’s son Leon Sedov. It seems likely I would have tried to put Millie in contact with them if she had wanted this but I cannot now remember whether I did so. I am now reminded she had some family connections in Paris and it is possible she went to see them and only contacted me because she had known me in the WIL. When Molinier, Frank and I later came to London the WIL was hostile and Betty Hamilton was expelled from the WIL for being in contact with us.

Molinier and Frank were wanted by the French police in connection with the charges already mentioned and had escaped to Belgium and then to England which they had entered illegally with false papers. In April 1940 the group asked me to return to England. They felt that as a British subject I would be useful there providing safe accommodation to them since I could legally rent a flat in my name and with ration books and so on. It took some time to organise my journey because though I held a British passport wartime travel restrictions necessitated getting official papers and travel permits from the Paris Prefecture giving the reasons for my journey and so on. By enlisting by subterfuge the unwitting help of a French businessman whose books I was auditing and by forging various signatures and official stamps I eventually had all the necessary papers. All these preparations had taken time and it was now June and the German armies were at the gates of Paris. I managed to catch one of the last boats that left Le Havre before it was occupied. On the eve of my departure Jeanne Martin sewed into the lining of my jacket a list of addresses of contacts and comrades all over Europe.

Having arrived in London I rented a flat in my name and Pierre Frank moved in with me. Molinier and Frank produced a cyclostyled bulletin called, I think, International Correspondence Bulletin. We were now completely cut off from the comrades in France and Nazi-occupied Europe and many of the addresses on the list I had smuggled in were now useless but the Bulletin was sent to the various addresses we had in North and South America and elsewhere. Copies and a covering letter were sent to Trotsky in Coyoacan seeking to re-establish relations with him and a friendly letter signed by his pen-name "Crux" was received back. Relations with the WIL were cool. Frank and Molinier were critical of their general attitude and particularly of their attitude to the Labour Party. Betty Hamilton, as I have mentioned, was in close contact with us, in fact she had helped harbour and protect Frank and Molinier before I came over. She was expelled from the WIL. I cannot remember on what exact pretext but it was basically because of her relationship to our group.

In July or August 1940 Molinier sailed to South America, I think originally to Bolivia, as I remember I borrowed £25 to bribe a Bolivian Consulate employee in order to obtain an entry visa.

Before he left England he engaged in one of those commercial ventures that have already been mentioned. Pierre Frank was a qualified chemist and had developed a fatless substitute for shaving soap which we anticipated would soon be in short supply. It was a sort of pumice stone which you had to wet and rub on your face. This softened the outer sheath of the hair before applying the razor. We tried to interest the big wholesale and retail chemists. I particularly remember an occasion when I accompanied Molinier to see the head buyer at Timothy White’s. His office was a glass-walled one in the centre of a big office and Raymond had arrived with one side of his face clean-shaven and the other side with two days’ growth of beard to demonstrate the effectiveness of Frank’s invention. He sat down, took a large white towel out of his briefcase and draped it over his shoulders and after asking for a bowl of water to wet his face, took out his razor and proceeded to shave himself before the astonished gaze of an office full of typists. We got no order from Timothy White’s but we did persuade several stallholders in Petticoat Lane to display our Fatless Shaving Stick which we had set in some prettily turned and coloured wooden holders.

We had set up a bench in my flat with chemical equipment, flasks and test tubes, etc., to manufacture the stuff and when the Special Branch detectives raided our flat to arrest Pierre Frank they must have thought they had uncovered a bomb-making workshop! They eventually took all the chemicals away for analysis.

Pierre Frank was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for entering the country illegally. He was not set free at the end of his sentence but was interned under Regulation 18B till the end of the war. I was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment and a fine for harbouring him.

After Molinier’s departure for Bolivia I heard no more of him.

In August 1944 I was in the British army, in Normandy and managed to attach myself to a unit of Resistance fighters who were making their way into Paris. We arrived just after the city had been liberated by the armed uprising of the Resistance. As well as seeing my mother and grandmother who had lived in Paris during the whole occupation I was able to contact Jacques Privas, a member of the Molinier faction I had known from 1939, I learnt from him that the movement in France had lost many comrades to the repression, one of the latest casualties being Henri Molinier, Raymond’s brother, who had been killed during the insurrection.

Unfortunately I cannot remember much of Privas’ account of the politics and activities of the movement during the Nazi occupation but I gained the impression that they did not participate to any great extent or have much impact in the various resistance movements, in particular the CP-controlled FTP. There seems to be a great lack of information about the Trotskyist movement in occupied Europe, a gap which I hope will one day be filled.

Harry Ratner

Updated by ETOL: 28.6.2003