Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3
Pierre Bois (1922–2002)
PIERRE Bois, one of the three leading members  of Lutte Ouvrière in France, died a few days before his eightieth birthday in February 2002. The coffin and bier lay on 15 February at the funeraium of Joncherolles Villetaneuse. Sadly, I was told that Granier, who had recently left LO but who was the man who had organised the LO Fête for many years, and who was fond of Bois, was not allowed to pay his respects. Pierre Bois was cremated next day at the Père-Lachaise crematorium on Saturday 16 February in the presence of many of his oldest and closest comrades with red flags, amounting to about 300 people of all ages. Songs were sung at the beginning and end of the ceremony, Chant de bataille, Hardi camarades, Chants des Survivants, Chant des Martyrs and finally the Internationale. Arlette Laguiller made a short oration. She was very moved as were all of those present. He was known to everyone in the Lutte Ouvrière tendency as ‘Vic’, and was enormously respected and held in the greatest affection within the organisation. The main speaker was ‘Hardy’ (Robert Barcia), from whose address the first part of this obituary is taken.
Pierre Bois’ mother was from a family of agricultural labourers in Picardy. She had to work in the house as a child, and at the age of 14 she became a live-in maid (une bonne). She was twice a refugee in the First World War, and then returned to a devastated country. She became an ordinary maidservant in Paris. His father, from a family of very poor peasants in Limousin, became a mason in the Paris region. Called up in 1912, he did two years military service and was then recalled for the whole four years of the First World War. He was in the battles of Alsace, Chemin des Dames, the Somme and Italy, and he was not demobbed until 1920, which made him bitterly anti-militarist. After the birth of his sons, Pierre and Jean, he joined the Communist Party in 1923, and stayed in it until 1933.
The Bois family came to Goussainville, then part of the Seine-et-Oise department, in 1925, living in a housing development without any amenities. It had no running water, gas, electricity or main drainage, and the streets were unmade. Pierre’s father put his whole life into the construction of his house, but died before it was completely finished. Pierre only started school at seven because there was no school in the area until he was that age. It was there that he met Mathieu Bucholtz, who later introduced him to Trotskyism.
Pierre Bois started work at 15 as a mason in a little one-man firm. Meanwhile, he joined the Goussainville Workers’ Brass Band in which he was the lead trumpeter, and he stayed in the band until it broke up at the beginning of the Second World War. All the members were either in the Communist Party, or were sympathisers of it.
At the age of 15, Bois joined the Young Communist League, which at that time was very active around the Spanish Civil War. With a score of his mates from the YCL, he built a YCL branch, buying a disused house from a railway company which they restored themselves. Here he had his first political lectures – Stalinist ones – and he managed the bookstall and was the local circulation manager for the YCL paper, l’Avant-Garde (Vanguard).
At 17, Bois succeeded in getting a job with a firm which made shunting engines and carriages for the Metro, at Montataire, near to Creil in the departments of the Oise. He had to cycle 70 kilometres a day to get to work and back. Then he joined the SNCF as an ‘élève-bureau’, a sort of white-collar apprentice employed at the lowest level of the administrative hierarchy. Just before the war, he worked in the station at Survilliers, still in Seine-et-Oise.
Bois continued as an active YCLer after Prime Minister Daladier’s decree banning all Communist organisations. Because he was a railwayman, he was able to move around the country during the occupation, even after the attack on the USSR by Germany in 1941. His old classmate, Mathieu Bucholtz, convinced him of the gap between the politics of the Communist Party and the principles of communism. Bucholtz made him read the basic works of Marxism. To do that he had a fake student’s identity card in order to read material at the Bibliothèque Nationale (National Library), where forbidden books could still be accessed. That involved getting up at three in the morning to cycle to St Denis where he then worked. He could not go by train, because he had to open the station at 5 a.m.! He worked until 1 p.m., and in the afternoon he went to read at the Bibliothèque Nationale until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. He then cycled back to Goussainville.
Bois saw Bucholtz once or twice a week. Bucholtz belonged to the little Groupe Communiste IVè Internationale, founded by David Korner (1914–1976) whose pseudonyms were Barta, Albert and A. Mathieu. Bois was convinced, and joined them as an activist. In November 1942, the so-called ‘unoccupied zone’ controlled by the Vichy regime was occupied by the Germans. Because he had a railwayman’s identity papers, Barta asked him to go to the unoccupied zone to see Michel Raptis (known as Pablo, then associated with the POI) in a sanatorium at Saint-Hilaire-du-Touvet, near Grenoble and take him the group’s publications. Several months later, Raptis, then back in Paris, gave the group, which now became the Union Communiste (IVè Internationale), a course on Marxist education which Bois attended. In June 1943, he was called up by the Germans for compulsory labour in the Todt organisation (identity card 4554) with other young men of his age, but he was able to continue his old job on the railway. But later, when he was told that he would be transferred to help with the railway transport of troops in Hamburg, he ‘deserted’ the Todt organisation, and for the rest of the occupation existed in illegality, like the other members of his group.
Because he was a Trotskyist, he and his brother Jean were seized by members of the Communist Party at the Liberation and taken to the party’s headquarters. His brother was questioned about ‘Bucholtz’. Pierre Bois was released, and Jean was able to escape. Only then did they hear that the body of Mathieu Bucholtz had been found in the Seine full of bullets, any one of which would have killed him.
In December 1944, Bois started work in the press shop of Citroën at St Ouen at the request of his group. His job was to help stamp out metal sheets weighing 28 kilos. The work was done by two men, one passed a sheet of metal to the other to put into the press at the rate of one a minute. He was then transferred to Citroën Levallois, where American GMC engines which had come back from the front were refurbished. They were dismounted, cleaned by a jet of hot water containing potassium and then remounted. Then he worked at ‘Vilebrequins’. Eventually, he was transferred to Clichy. He left Citroën after 11 months, and did a few little jobs before joining Renault in May 1946, always under his group’s direction. He was sent by Renault to ‘Department 6’, which mostly made gear-wheels.
In April-May 1947, he led the workers in Departments 6 and 18, who had elected a strike committee. There, under the political leadership of Barta, he was the leader and the soul of the Renault Billancourt strike which forced the Communist Ministers to leave the Ramadier government.  (Hardy did not make the judgements that follow in this paragraph, they are my own – ERC) Because of the legal situation in France as regards the trade unions and the vicious hostility of the Stalinist-controlled CGT, Bois and Barta were forced to try to organise an independent union within Renault (the Syndicat Démocratique Renault or SDR) using as their base the sections in Department 6 and 18. Despite heroic efforts they failed, in part it must be said because of the lack of support from the other Trotskyists, the PCI (later the OCI), which was the much more numerous tendency in France, and in part perhaps because things were even then gradually improving for sections of the working class. In the much later words of Barta in his letter of August 1972, ‘the proletarian tree rejected the revolutionary graft. And, in the end, this was what condemned us, and not the attitude of this or that revolutionary.’  So the Union Communiste collapsed because, unable to find fresh forces in the working class, it was at the end of its tether. It had done all that it could humanly do. Sadly, Bois and Barta fell out, but I am unclear why this occurred, except that both men must have been shattered emotionally by their efforts. Bois, or rather Hardy, the leading VO/LO comrade, has said that the ‘break-up followed a conflict between Barta and Bois on the way in which Barta tried to lead the SDR’, while Barta maintained that Bois had broken with him and dissolved the UC organisation. Both statements could be part of the truth.
Hardy went on to say that after the dissolution of the UC, Pierre Bois continued as an activist at Renault. With the comrades from the factory who were close to Socialisme ou barbarie , he published a little paper, le Travailleur émancipé. He also helped produce a paper whose circulation was limited to Renault called the Tribune Ouvrière, whose first number appeared in 1954.
From then on the obituary by LO gives few details of Bois’ life, except to say that he founded Voix Ouvrière and then Lutte Ouvrière after the banning of VO. He is said to have been at many national conferences, meetings of the Central Committee and the Executive Committee, where his interventions were forceful, and to have been active until the very end. At the last congress he attended, he admitted that he had not voted for Mitterrand in the second round in 1981, although that was the line of the group. He was, it is admitted by Hardy, a tiny bit of a libertarian. And that is all. This self-effacement seems extraordinary, and quite outside the socialist tradition and customs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to which, in so many other respects, LO still adheres more closely and more admirably than anyone else. Did he play no part in advising worker militants like Vitry during the rail dispute in 1987? What did he say about the problems around the Peugeot strikes? What was his contribution in 1968? Could comrades learn nothing from what he thought and advised then and at many other times? That he was often correct I have no doubt, but he must sometimes have been wrong, and if so we should learn from that. Lenin and Trotsky learnt from their mistakes, and I cannot believe that we have no further lessons to learn after a lapse of over 60 years. Surely there were disputes among the leadership in which he took sides?
So this portrait is very incomplete, as LO is a far from transparent organisation. Besides, no one is some kind of pure proletarian hero, however important and valuable. A young ex-LO comrade said about Pierre Bois the following things which, if true, do explain something of the nature of the LO organisation and an aspect of Bois’ personality:
I admire him as a worker militant and enormously respect his history (independently of the mystification of LO). But I could not stop myself thinking of the strange relation which linked him with Hardy (they have to be seen together to really understand it …). During more than 50 years there was a kind of pact between them: Vic had unfortunately contributed to creating a past for Hardy, an image of a clandestine militant who had suffered repression and was made of iron, and had even given him a rôle in the Renault strike (even if it was only by the means of unspoken evasions), protecting his credibility, even if he knew better than anybody it was a fraud. In exchange for that, Hardy created the myth of the Renault strike, and cultivated the image of the proletarian hero. It allowed him to make what was surely the best period of its life, the year 1947, and to prolong it. At least even had he believed it, and even if one would have preferred that this prolongation was a true prolongation, which did not turn its back on the revolutionary spirit which had been his when he was 24 years old, it is an attitude which one can try to understand. In the final analysis, in this strange pact, he was more a victim than accomplice.
And there was one rather shameful event which tends to confirm the judgement above. In December 1964, Barta contacted VO as it was then, and asked if he could participate in the work of building the new organisation, as he believed he had something to offer. He wrote, of course, to Bois who had been so very close to him in the Renault strike – after all Barcia had been merely a young inexperienced comrade who had been ill for the entire period of that formative and titanic struggle. There was an exchange of letters, and it was agreed that he could serve on the editorial board of the paper. A month or two later in early 1965, he was told that the meetings occurred at a time when he could not be present because of his work commitments. He protested. But it was his old comrade Bois who sent and signed the letter. Thus in this underhand way it was made clear he was not wanted.
In 1967 – and the only time that I met Bois – I worked for a week with LO and was told all about their history by Arnoux (Michel Ojalvo), then a Central Committee member. I asked if Barta were dead. No, said Arnoux, he was still around. So I asked if it would be possible to bring someone with those qualities back into the organisation. Arnoux gave me a very funny look whose significance escaped me for 35 years, and murmured something about people ceasing to play the same rôle, as times changed.
But we all make mistakes, and at the funeral itself Hardy did, in his own way, make belated and at any rate partial amends, for, after referring to the criticisms by Barta of Bois in his article of 1972 , and after replying to these points, he read an extract from a letter to a young comrade written by Barta in June 1975, shortly before his death in 1976, and so long after the Renault Billancourt strike.
Here Barta said of Bois that he ‘was the heart of this strike, because that is in line with the plain historical truth’:
The strike would not have taken place there at that time, and even less so under our leadership without Pierre Bois. It is not enough for an organisation to play a rôle in events, for it to have a correct strategy, that it carries out its propaganda and agitation with the correct ‘slogans’ (which correspond to the balance of forces and the level of consciousness of the masses). On the ground there must be men capable of inspiring total confidence amongst the rank-and-file workers so that they move into action! And through his activity and his courage Bois of the time was fully equal to the critical situation. Because the greatest courage is not, as one might imagine, on the barricades or in the prisons. It is that of openly going against the current, in everyday life, in the work milieu, subjected not merely to some violence, but risking being misunderstood if not torn to pieces by one’s audience. An anecdote will illustrate this situation. After the first meeting, which Bois mentions in his booklet, he asked me the following question: ‘What do we do now?’ (implying: ‘Do we call a strike?’). And my answer was: ‘The worst thing is not to be imprisoned for a successful strike. The worst is to call on the workers to strike and to find oneself alone outside the gates with one or two others.’ After that a second meeting was arranged … It was by working from dawn to dusk, subject to the pressures and sometimes to the violence of the Stalinists that our comrades in the factory and particularly Pierre Bois swam against the current (such was the total incomprehension of the workers during the first phase of our work). But if the strike were led by the political organisation, all the practical initiatives in the factory came back to Bois, where, once the strike started, he had to behave like the captain of a sailing ship in a storm … it is absolutely clear that Pierre Bois played a decisive historical role in the Renault strike of 1947, where he carried out the most difficult moral rôle for the organisation.
Hardy ended with the words: ‘Barta knew how to write!’ He added that that Vic and Irène (Madame Louise Barta) were the founders of the organisation, and it was they who had the confidence of the workers, while he was only a rank-and-filer at that time.
Pierre Bois was a devoted worker, militant and much loved individual who undoubtedly always acted in what he believed were the best interests of his class. He was a most impressive personality, I can still remember the impact he made on me after 35 years. Though people who left LO have moved in many directions politically, nonetheless, whatever their differences, they all seem to have fond memories of Vic. His going is a loss not merely to LO but to the French and indeed the world’s working class.
Material for this obituary has been drawn from correspondence with a number of French comrades, my personal memories and the website by ex-LOers devoted to Barta at http://unioncommuniste.free.fr/.
1. These were Bois, Hardy and Hardy’s partner, Denise, who were founder members, and who did and do not have to stand for election on the Central Committee, but hold permanent places on it.
2. See Revolutionary History, Volume 2, no. 1, at www.revolutionaryhistory.co.uk for a fuller account of this struggle and the legal necessity of the tactic of forming a new trade union after the strike.
3. This is from a letter sent to Éditions Spartacus and published in its book devoted to Rudolf Rocker in August 1972, which concerns its previous volume on the French Trotskyist movement called Les Enfants du Prophète, published in January 1972.
4. This was a French tendency with which the old Socialist Review Group of Tony Cliff had a relationship.
5. See note 3. I have a translation of this letter and a number of others.
Updated by ETOL: 21.10.2011