Ian Birchall   |   ETOL Main Page

Ian Birchall

Another Syndicalist Voice


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).

Colette Chambelland
Pierre Monatte, une autre voix syndicaliste
Les éditions de l’Atelier/Éditions Ouvrières, Paris 1999, pp. 190, FF 125

PIERRE Monatte was Alfred Rosmer’s friend and comrade over many years, an incorrigible class-fighter and an intransigent revolutionary till the day he died. Yet it is only now, nearly 40 years after his death, that a biography of him has appeared. Monatte was written out of history by the Stalinists, and ignored by Trotskyists because he kept his distance from Trotsky in the 1930s; as for the right-wing anti-Communists, Monatte was far too bloody-minded for them even to try coopting him.

Colette Chambelland’s biography is short, but rich in information. She knew Monatte in her childhood as a family friend, and she has had access to his diaries, letters and personal archives. Her book is an important contribution to the recovery of those currents in twentieth-century Socialism which resisted the twin perversions of Stalinism and Social Democracy.

Monatte was a born rebel. He became a revolutionary in circumstances which remind those of us born later just how easy a time we have had of it. He narrowly escaped expulsion from school for being in possession of a text by Zola on the Dreyfus case; later he was thrown out of the family home when a rich horse-dealer threatened to withdraw his custom from Monatte’s father, a farrier, unless the young Monatte renounced Socialism. When his comrade Benoît Broutchoux, an anarchist miner, was jailed, Monatte stood up in the courtroom yelling ‘Down with the court!’, and was lucky to get off with a suspended sentence.

Chambelland shows Monatte’s evolution to revolutionary syndicalism and his differences with both anarchists and parliamentary Socialists. The journal he founded, La Vie ouvrière, was a model of Socialist journalism; its articles were clear and accessible to worker readers, yet without patronising or over-simplifying. The journal never ducked the difficult issues; in 1912, when Charles Andler wrote an article dealing with what he saw as dangerous pro-imperialist trends in the German Social Democratic Party, many on the French left believed it should not be given wide circulation for fear it might inflame anti-German feeling. Monatte, despite opposition from Jaurès and others, reprinted the article because he believed the issues should not be evaded.

Chambelland shows how La Vie ouvrière brought together those from the Socialist, anarchist and syndicalist milieux. In seeking to establish dialogue between the different currents of the left, Monatte thus helped to pave the way for the radical regroupments that took place during and after the war.

In 1914, Monatte, alongside Rosmer, was one of the handful who opposed the war from the first day. When called up to the army, he went without question (though he had friends in the union bureaucracy who could undoubtedly have got him exemption had he asked) and served in the trenches. The decision to go to the army seems to have been essentially a result of the moral component that was so important in the syndicalist tradition; Monatte felt an obligation to fight alongside his fellow-workers, though he felt more anxiety at the prospect of killing than of being killed. In an army that was more peasant than proletarian, he had little opportunity to agitate or promote anti-war ideas.

Monatte rejoiced at the Bolshevik Revolution; yet it is at this time that the divergences with Rosmer begin to appear. Rosmer was always an enthusiastic traveller, and he was glad to visit Russia and stay there for many months working in the Comintern apparatus. Monatte was much more deeply attached to his roots in the French labour movement, and he never visited Russia, even for the founding congress of the Red International of Labour Unions.

Nor did he move as far as Rosmer in the direction of Leninism. He did not join the French Communist Party (PCF) at its foundation, and in 1922 he was writing that the trade unions would play the essential rôle in the emancipation of the working class, and the party only an auxiliary rôle. Only in May 1923 did he join the PCF, and he became a member of its Executive Committee the following January.

To understand Monatte’s brief period in the PCF, it is necessary to look at the historical context. The PCF was created in December 1920 when the majority of the Socialist Party (SFIO) voted to affiliate to the Comintern. All too often this is seen as providing some sort of Delia Smith-style recipe for the formation of all future revolutionary parties. On the contrary, it was a very contradictory victory. To win the majority of the main working-class party was of course highly desirable, but one vote scarcely converted the membership into Communists. And winning the majority meant including many opportunists of the species who would swim with any stream going (the same species as the ex-Bennite Blairites we know so well today).

In this situation, the rôle of the revolutionary syndicalists, the Rosmers and Monattes, was crucial. They were vitally needed in the PCF to provide a political and moral counterweight to the corrupt parliamentary cretins who had come from the SFIO. Lenin and Trotsky (but all too few of the other Bolsheviks) understood this, and urged Monatte and other syndicalists to join the PCF. Chambelland quotes a letter to Monatte from his Swiss friend Fritz Brupbacher, reporting a conversation with Trotsky in which the latter expressed his sympathy for revolutionary syndicalism, and urged Monatte and friends to state their conditions for entering the PCF.

Monatte could not last long in the PCF. Faced with the pretentious charade of Zinovievite ‘Bolshevisation’, Monatte, Rosmer and Delagarde issued an open letter to party members stating: ‘It is said that the party must be an iron cohort. In fact … it is not an iron cohort that is being formed, but a regiment of slugs.’ Expulsion followed the next month.

The potential and actual rôle of the revolutionary syndicalists in the early years of the PCF is one that requires much more study. With their stress on proletarian self-emancipation and workplace struggle, their anti-authoritarianism and their moral integrity, they could have played a vital part in complementing other currents in the party, and where necessary counteracting them. That they failed to do so cannot be blamed on Stalinism — the die was cast before Stalin had emerged from his relative obscurity. Much of the blame lies with Social Democrats and the Zinovievites, who, whatever the rhetoric, opposed the syndicalists for all the wrong reasons. But the syndicalists also take some of the blame for their own sectarianism — Monatte himself was surely wrong not to join the PCF at its foundation and fight within it at a time when he could have had a real influence (as did his friend Marcel Martinet). At a time when regroupment between different currents of the left is again on the agenda, it is important to learn from this period.

Monatte had no personal ambitions, and returned to work as a proof-reader (in the 1940s he read the proofs of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness). He never shared Rosmer’s hopes in Trotskyism, and devoted the rest of his life to La Révolution prolétarienne. A journal which had contributors such as Monatte, Rosmer and Louzon was way above the general run of left-wing papers, but although La Révolution prolétarienne admirably held together its basic core, it never recruited from a new generation, and its impact on the broader labour movement was negligible.

Chambelland entitles her last chapter Neither Stalinism nor Reformism. Like others, Monatte tried to walk the narrow line of independence from both Washington and Moscow. Certainly many of his judgements may be questioned — for example, his support for the American-financed Force ouvrière breakaway from the CGT, or his description of Russia as ‘red fascism’. But on the essentials he never wavered. At his funeral, in Gaullist France in 1960, while the Algerian war still raged, there were two wreaths from family and friends — and a sheaf of flowers from an Algerian workers’ union. This was not a man who had made his peace with imperialism.

Ian Birchall Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 21 May 2021