Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3


The Trotskyists

Christophe Nick
Les Trotskistes
Fayard, Paris 2002, pp. 615, Є23

THIS book is a by-product of the successful recent campaign by the right to discredit Jospin in the French presidential elections, when he was caught out trying to deny that he had once been a Lambertist entrist within the French Socialist Party. So its main theme is entrism (particularly Chapter 6, pp. 218–64), and the book’s very first words are that ‘the Trotskyists are everywhere’. Trotskyists, apparently, ‘identify themselves with the mole, and venerate this animal’ (p. 12), and ‘entrism is a technique peculiar to the Trotskyists, a case unique in the annals of politics, an ethnological curiosity’ (p. 217). But the plain fact of the matter is that there was originally no connection between all this talk about ‘moles’ and the practice of entrism at all. ‘Mole’ was a word used by Marx to explain the slow, unnoticed progress of the revolution itself before crisis brought it to the surface. A simple perusal of the press of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, which first took up this odd obsession with moles in the late 1960s, in fact shows that it adopted this language after it had abandoned what entry work it had been doing in the first place, which in France, at least, appears to have been largely carried out among Stalinist students (pp. 228–9). And nowhere are we shown the real origins of the entry tactic, in Marx’s methods for constructing revolutionary parties, or in Trotsky’s theory of the united front from within. But for a journalist this is all good stuff, for it enables him to keep up the pretence at great length that he is really revealing something exotic, exciting and deeply mysterious, while at the same time doing his bit towards the collapse of the old left in France. Nor are the Socialists his only target: personal details included about Daniel Gluckstein, then standing for the Parti des Travailleurs in the presidential election (pp. 32–3, 39–40) have already formed the basis of an action at law (Agence France Presse, 26 February 2002; Informations ouvrières, 20 February, 27 February and 3 April 2002).

The book can thus be regarded as a work of the moment, and its peculiar structure and preoccupations bear all the marks of exposé-style journalism. There is no good historical reason, for example, why an outline of Trotsky’s life should follow a sketch of the early lives of the French Trotskyist leaders, or why his death should come four chapters after a description of the street politics of the LCR in the 1970s. Some chapters (for example, Chapter 6, on ‘moles’ and entrism) are obviously meant to lend an air of mystery, others (such as Chapter 8, on the Second World War) quite simply have the aim of belittling the Trotskyist movement, while yet others (Chapter 3, the LCR and insurrection) seem to be aiming at some sort of sensationalism.

This said, it would be mistaken to assume that the book has no permanent value. The first chapter contains some fascinating information, much of it based upon personal interviews, dealing with the family backgrounds of Jean-René Chauvin (pp. 19–20), Pierre Avot, who obtained the paper for Pablo’s plan to forge banknotes during the Algerian war (pp. 21–2), Marcel Bleibtreu (pp. 23–5), Pierre Broué (pp. 29-–30) and Maurice Najman, who turns out to be related to Rosa Luxemburg (pp. 31–2). Contrary to the propaganda put out by the Stalinists during the 1960s that the Trotskyists were ‘fils à papa’ (rich men’s kids), Nick shows that Trotskyism is really ‘a very French phenomenon, very much ours, linked to our traditions’ (p. 15). But he also shows that he himself is just as faithful to the traditions of the French right, by making much of Trotskyism’s input from with freemasonry (pp. 20–1, 347–8), what he sees fit to call ‘revolutionary Yiddishland’ (pp. 31–7, 39–42) and Protestantism (pp. 41–2).

In spite of this slant, there is much of real value here, in particular in the chapter on the origins of Trotskyism in France (Chapter 5, pp. 174–216), which reproduces some fascinating data from the unpublished memoirs of Raymond Molinier now on deposit with CERMTRI (pp. 174–80, 204–7, 210–1; also 301–2). Equally exciting is the information provided on Pablo’s involvement in the Algerian War (pp. 382–433), which also shows the small part that the Fourth International occupied in his extensive and rather visionary diplomacy, a curious anticipation of the present politics of the American SWP. It also reveals the unpleasant way Frank and Mandel used to get rid of him (pp. 429–34), which was to become a well-worn methodology, since it was also practised upon the group to which I belonged half a dozen years later, even down to the identical trick of turning people away from world congresses on railway stations (p. 434).

The description of the street politics of the LCR in the 1970s (pp. 72–132) makes clear much that completely mystified me at the time. Where did the odd dancing, skipping and chanting come from when the IMG went on demonstrations? And why did they lead their members into set-piece street battles with the police, ostensibly to break up fascist meetings taking place indoors? It was all apparently borrowed from the increasingly confrontational, putschist and militaristic tactics adopted by the LCR after recruiting large numbers of students in 1968. Accustomed as they were to a high level of demonstration politics, the group’s weak implantation in the labour movement prevented them from being used in any other way. Needless to relate, this little piece of petit-bourgeois adventurism had tragic results in both countries at the same time, with the suicide of Michel Récanati on a railway line in France (p. 132) and the killing of Kevin Gately outside Conway Hall in Britain. Information is also provided on the strong-arm methods allegedly used by the Lambertists against their opponents in the movement (pp. 527–30, 533–6), which, if true, is deeply disturbing.

But as was to be expected, useful details are nonetheless mixed up with a great deal of dross. Jay Lovestone was not expelled from the American Communist Party for belonging to the Left Opposition (p. 369). Pablo was not officially delegated to the founding conference of the Fourth International (p. 327). Pierre Frank was certainly not boosted by the British Trotskyists after the war (p. 342). ‘Chatman’ turns out to be Max Shachtman (p. 347), and Healy gets the user-friendly name of ‘George’ (p. 374). Pierre Frank, whose name is misspelled throughout, inexplicably has his history of the Fourth International, originally written in French, quoted from at second-hand from an English translation (p. 314, n3). But these are trivial slips. Much worse is the misrepresentation of the activities of the Trotskyists during the Second World War, where a thin pretence is made at claiming that, although many of them were Jews, they were soft on fascism and indifferent to the fate of Europe’s Jews (pp. 302–5), an accusation even directed at Henri Molinier, who was himself killed by the Germans (pp. 305–7). This nasty stuff obviously goes all the way back to the unpleasant ‘Trotsky-Fascist’ propaganda of the French Communist Party, notoriously one of the most wretchedly servile Stalinist outfits in Europe.

So this is certainly a book to be recommended, but only to those who know a great deal about its subject to begin with: and for all the detail contained in it, it never rises from the level of anecdote to that of analysis.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 22.10.2011