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David Rousset (1912–1997)


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 1, 1998.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DAVID ROUSSET was a veteran of French Trotskyism of the 1930s who became a victim of the political crisis of the late 1940s. Born in 1912, he became active in the Socialist Party students’ organisation in 1931. But he was shocked by the complacency of Léon Blum, who in November 1932 proclaimed that Hitler had been definitively defeated. Attracted by Trotsky’s writings on Germany, he aligned with the French Trotskyists, and transferred his activity from the Socialist students to the SFIO Youth; he was shocked at his first meeting to find young workers reading pornography and telling dirty stories! Initially, he opposed ‘entrism’, but was convinced by a personal meeting with Trotsky. He remained a leading figure in French Trotskyism throughout the decade.

In 1936, Rousset was sent by the Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste to establish a Trotskyist organisation in Morocco. After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he was involved in negotiations between the Moroccan nationalists and the Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalists for the former to organise a rising in Spanish Morocco in return for the recognition of independence. Eventually, the deal was quashed by the Madrid government.

After the German occupation of France, he was involved in clandestine activity, but was arrested in October 1943. Initially, he was sent to a jail at Fresnes to the south of Paris. He tells how, to communicate with comrades outside, messages were written on cigarette paper and inserted into the crotch of dirty underpants being sent home for washing; the underpants were encrusted with damp bread to discourage close investigation by guards.

Then he was sent to Buchenwald, and later other Nazi camps. Here, as a Trotskyist, he confronted a double problem – not only the Nazi regime, but the German Stalinists, who, with the complicity of the SS, managed many aspects of camp life.

Rousset survived, but at a terrible cost. Before his arrest, he had weighed nearly 15 stone; on his return he weighed just over eight, and was described as ‘a frail skeleton drifting about in a Japanese bathrobe’. These sufferings did not deter Jean Kanapa of the French Communist Party, from later describing him as a ‘Hitlero-Trotskyist’. Rousset made an important contribution to the understanding of Nazism by his two major books on the camps, L’Univers concentrationnaire and the novel Les Jours de notre mort.

Rousset remained a member of the Parti Communiste Internationaliste. But he was developing a new perspective. In October 1945, he wrote:

‘The Soviet bureaucracy today finds itself constrained ... to pose and carry through the Socialist revolution abroad ... in the new period which we have entered ... the Soviet forces represent the sole effective guarantee in the world for the Socialist revolution. With all its defects, its conservative, reactionary neutrality, the Stalinist bureaucracy represents one of the decisive bastions of the Socialist revolution in the world in the present period. In consequence, we must keep silent about part of our disagreements with Stalinism, and do so consciously and thoroughly.’ [1]

This liquidationist line was unanimously rejected by the PCI Congress in February 1946, and marked Rousset’s break with organised Trotskyism. For a while, Rousset collaborated with Pierre Naville on La Revue Internationale. Then, in 1948, he played a key rôle in the founding of the Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire. Although at the time and later, the RDR was generally associated with its most prestigious member, Jean-Paul Sartre, Rousset was in fact the main political driving force in the organisation. An impressive orator, he had great hopes that the RDR could rapidly become a mass organisation.

In its founding statement, the RDR took a ‘neither Washington nor Moscow’ line, proclaiming:

‘Amid the decay of capitalist democracy, the weaknesses and defects of a certain Social Democracy, and the limitation of Communism to its Stalinist form, we believe that an assembly of free men for revolutionary democracy is capable of giving new life to the principles of liberty and human dignity by linking them to the struggle for social revolution.’ [2]

But it was a position based on moral reaction rather than a clear analysis of the nature of Stalinism. Indeed, in 1948, Rousset argued that society had entered a period of crisis in which there were so many unanswered questions that it was impossible to form a party with a homogeneous programme; instead any organisation had to be broad and loose like that of the RDR. [3]

In 1949, Rousset visited the USA to raise money from the American unions for the RDR. In his autobiography, he rather naïvely notes his surprise at the fact that when he went to the AFL-CIO offices in New York, the bureaucrats there immediately put through a call to the State Department. [4]

Rousset’s growing pro-Americanism assisted the disintegration of the RDR; but it was his next move that led to his real break with the French left. In the autumn of 1949, he launched a campaign in the Figaro littéraire on the question of the Russian camps. Here the erstwhile critical supporter of Stalinism argued that the Russian camps were ‘the expression of new social relations based on a new type of exploitation of man’; that they were thus an essential defining feature of the Russian economic order and hence more dangerous than the Nazi camps which were ‘an accident of history’. [5] This caused great consternation amongst the Stalinists, some of whom denied the existence of the camps, whilst others saw them as one of Russia’s most praiseworthy achievements, and a bitter court case against the journal Les Lettres Françaises ensued. It also led to a clean break, not only with Trotskyism, but with such independent leftists as Sartre and Claude Bourdet – not, as Douglas Johnson ignorantly implied in his Guardian obituary [6], because they supported the camps, but because they opposed a campaign in a right-wing paper which did not also attack the crimes of Western imperialism.

Rousset had now largely lost his bearings. He had links with the CIA-run Congress for Cultural Freedom, though he also opposed French repression in Algeria. In the 1960s, he became a so-called ‘left Gaullist’ – in 1967, whilst standing as a Gaullist candidate, he told a journalist that the political figures of the twentieth century he most admired were Lenin and Trotsky [7] (imagine a British Tory doing the same). He later served as a Gaullist deputy, but by 1981 he was supporting Mitterrand.

David Rousset was a lucid witness to some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century; as such he deserves our respect. But the period also demanded theoretical clarity, and Rousset failed this test.


1. Cited by J.-J. Marie, La Vérité, no. 583, September 1978.

2. Published in Combat and Franc-Tireur, 27 February 1948.

3. See Sartre, Rousset and Rosenthal, Entretiens sur la politique, Paris 1949, pp. 11–13.

4. D. Rousset, Une Vie dans le siècle, Paris 1991, p. 109.

5. Le Figaro littéraire, 12 November 1949.

6. Guardian, 17 December 1997.

7. Rousset, op. cit., p. 177.

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