Ian Birchall   |   ETOL Main Page

Ian Birchall

Trotskyist Dinosaur


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 4, 2000.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Yvan Craipeau
Mémoires d’un dinosaure trotskyste
L’Harmattan, Paris 1999, pp. 360, FF 180

NOT far from his ninetieth birthday, Yvan Craipeau has published an autobiography that is full of wit, insight and sheer enthusiasm for life. Despite the repeated batterings on the head he received in anti-fascist demonstrations, Craipeau retains a lively memory for concrete detail. Like other veterans of the movement, he shows that revolutionary Socialism is a better antidote to the ageing process than any drug on the market.

Craipeau has lived a varied life, and there are many sections of the book – his childhood in rural France, his marriages and children, his experiences teaching in Guadeloupe – that are a delight to read. However, for the purposes of this review, I shall assume that Revolutionary History readers are narrow-minded philistines, and will concentrate on the sections most likely to interest them, those on French Trotskyism in the 1930s and 1940s.

Craipeau was first drawn to Trotskyism as a teenager through reading Trotsky. When in 1929, he first made contact with the organisation, he was shocked to discover that since the French Trotskyists saw themselves as a faction of the Communist Party, he was expected to join the PCF. (‘These heretics see salvation only in the Church that is driving them out.’) However, he rapidly recovered from his surprise and spent the summer of 1930 building Communist Youth sections in the Vendée; the PCF youth was in decline and the party was unwilling to call a conference for the Atlantic region because the Trotskyists would have had a majority. It could not last, and he was expelled – but the bureaucracy was only able to win a vote for his expulsion by threatening that all those who voted against would themselves be excluded. Craipeau’s account is a reminder that the Stalinisation of the PCF was not such a smooth process as might appear in retrospect.

But the Trotskyist movement also had its problems; Craipeau arrived at around the time of the dispute between Rosmer and Molinier. He recalls Rosmer as seeming ‘unbelievably old’ (he was in his early 50s). Craipeau sided with Molinier, whose dynamism he admired, in the disputes with Naville. He gives a vivid account of Molinier’s driving, as impatient as the rest of his politics, which made ‘every journey an adventure’. But even Craipeau drew the line at one of Molinier’s stratagems. The Trotskyists were giving shelter to a very young Greek woman who had fled repression in her native country; she was a leading figure in the Archeiomarxist group. Since Molinier was anxious to win influence with the Archeiomarxists, he proposed that Craipeau should sleep with the young woman.

At a time when the extreme right was on the rise, violence was common, and Craipeau gives some vivid descriptions of street-fighting. Often the tactics employed were provocative. Thus a single comrade would be sent out into the streets of the Latin Quarter to distribute violently anti-fascist leaflets. This would attract a crowd of fascists who were then attacked by the Young Leninists, armed with iron bars, who had been waiting in hiding. Earlier, in 1931, the Trotskyists had invaded the notorious Colonial Exhibition and smashed various precious exhibits to protest at repression in Indochina.

But it was not all activism. By the mid-1930s, Craipeau had rejected the view that Russia was in any sense a ‘workers’ state’, and saw it as a new form of exploitative society, in no way progressive in comparison with capitalism. (Craipeau now accepts the state capitalist analysis.) He was strongly influenced by the writings of Ciliga, and claims to have anticipated the work of Rizzi. He claims that in 1937 about one-third of the members of the POI held his position.

At the outbreak of war, Craipeau was in the Pivertist PSOP, which effectively disintegrated. A small group of Trotskyists met in Paris and drew up a leaflet about the declaration of war. Barta (the grandfather of Lutte ouvrière) was assigned to get this printed in large numbers. He failed to do anything about it, and the others voted for his expulsion.

Though Craipeau says little new about the politics of Trotskyism under the German Occupation, he gives some lively stories of activity in clandestine conditions, including the time he escaped the Gestapo by hitting one of them on the chin with the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde.

Craipeau describes the situation in Paris at the Liberation, when the Trotskyist leadership was claiming that soviets were being established under Trotskyist leadership. In fact, Trotskyists comrades did hold leading rôles in the workers’ militias in several factories, but they had not ‘come out’ politically, so their influence was limited.

Nonetheless, Craipeau argues that the potential for the Trotskyist movement in the immediate postwar years was substantial. In the autumn of 1946, Craipeau fell only 300 votes short of being elected as the first Trotskyist member of parliament in France. In 1947, Craipeau argues, there was a real possibility of fusion between the Trotskyist PCI and two left splits from the SFIO, leading to a party of some 10,000 members. But the Craipeau leadership was replaced by a ‘sectarian’ alliance of Frank and Lambert, and the merger came to nothing. Of course, this is Craipeau’s account, and others might be less optimistic about the prospects. Nonetheless, this is clearly a period which deserves closer study.

Craipeau now abandoned the Trotskyist movement, but he remained active in left-wing politics for another three decades. He describes some colourful incidents, such as the time when he – literally – kicked Pierre Lambert downstairs. He was active in the Nouvelle gauche in 1954 and the Union de la Gauche socialiste in 1957. In the latter, in the aftermath of Hungary, he launched the slogan: ‘The UGS opens its doors to all Communists who have ceased to be Stalinists, but not to Stalinists who have ceased to be Communists.’ In 1960, he was involved in the founding of the Parti socialiste unifié; he recalls the leadership voting unanimously to reject one application for membership – from a certain François Mitterrand.

Craipeau’s memory may be fallible, and his account certainly needs to be checked against the available documentation. But his autobiography is an invaluable contribution to the history of French Trotskyism; it is also an enthralling and enjoyable read.

Ian Birchall Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 4.10.2011