Last updated: 21 May 2021

Ian Birchall: From Trotskyism to Libertarian Communism (2004)

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Ian Birchall

From Trotskyism to Libertarian Communism


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 4, 2004, pp.288–9.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Jean-Pierre Hirou
Du trotskysme au communisme libertaire
Editions Acratie, La Bussière 2003, pp. 279, Є25

JEAN-PIERRE Hirou, whose obituary appeared in Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no. 2 (2002), joined Voix ouvrière, the predecessor of Lutte ouvrière, in 1963 at the age of 15, and soon became a regular contributor to the organisation’s paper. He and his partner Michèle left LO in 1979, and he subsequently called himself a ‘libertarian communist’, though he never again joined an organisation. He was best known for his insightful book on the pre-1914 French left, Parti socialiste ou CGT? (1905–1914) (Editions Acratie, 1995), which savagely undermines some widespread myths about the pre-1914 French left. He died at the shockingly early age of 53. His comrades have edited this collection of articles and letters as a tribute to his memory and as a contribution to continuing debates on the left.

The first section, consisting of articles published in Lutte ouvrière, is the least interesting. The articles, mainly on international and historical topics, are of the sort to be found in the left press the world over – clear, well-researched commentaries on current events, but basically second-hand accounts with few new insights. Since Hirou was a member of a tendency that considers innovatory analyses of the world as petit-bourgeois self-indulgence, this is no surprise. Many of the articles end with the familiar refrain that a revolutionary party is absent – undoubtedly true, but equally undoubtedly inadequate. However, the article on socialist election strategy before 1914 shows a scholarship rare in this kind of left journalism, while a piece on child torture reveals a controlled anger that gives us a glimpse of what made Hirou a revolutionary in the first place.

The latter part shows Hirou in a much more free-thinking mode. However, anyone looking for revelations about the inner life of Lutte ouvrière will be disappointed. In recent years a flood of articles have appeared in France concerned to ‘expose’ LO’s effective leader, Hardy (Robert Barcia). Hirou had the elementary decency not to contribute to this process; while he knew that there are grave problems with LO, they were very different from the ones pointed to by ignorant and sensation-seeking journalists. In some ways he remained attached to LO; he supported Arlette Laguiller’s election campaigns, and noted that LO had, in general, made far smaller concessions to social democracy than either the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire or the Lambertistes. He was clearly deeply hurt at not being allowed to present his book to a forum at the LO fête. He took a deep interest in the various small splits from LO, hoping to engage them in political dialogue. But he was strongly critical of Hardy’s authoritarian style of leadership, and from his new, ‘libertarian’ standpoint, he regarded LO as being essentially centrist.

Hirou was a student in the period leading up to May 1968, and he has some interesting recollections of the movement. His memory of Daniel Cohn-Bendit at Nanterre in 1966, failing to sell a single copy of his magazine, will give a spark of hope to all frustrated paper-sellers. And he recalls something of which I for one had hitherto been unaware, that in June 1968 LO proposed to other far left groups that they should run a joint slate of candidates in the general elections. The idea came to nothing as everybody else was denouncing bourgeois elections. At the time, I should undoubtedly have rejected LO’s proposal, but in retrospect I think that LO were right; a revolutionary election campaign could have given a focus to the far left as the movement disintegrated.

Some of Hirou’s judgements of more recent events are more dubious. Thus he repeatedly refers to what he calls ‘Islamic’ fascism. This is not the playground abuse of a Hitchens or an Aaronovitch; he invokes the work of Daniel Guérin, whom he admired greatly, in support of his stance. Yet nowhere does he effectively make his case for believing that, for example, Osama bin Laden can meaningfully be described as a ‘fascist’. There are undoubtedly some very nasty Islamic fundamentalists, but many of them are hiding in caves while the equally nasty Christian fundamentalists are sitting in the Pentagon with nuclear weapons.

On his specialist area of French labour history, Hirou is much more perceptive. It is particularly good to read his devastating critique of Jaurès, a name still much admired on the reformist left. As Hirou argues, it was only the assassin’s bullet that saved Jaurès from joining Guesde and Hervé in support for the First World War. Like Charles Kennedy, Jaurès was against war until the fighting actually started: ‘Jaurès always clearly anticipated that his tactical “pacifism” would turn into fierce strategic warmongering as soon as a foreign army had crossed the frontier.’ Hirou claims that both Trotsky and Luxemburg (impressed by Jaurès’ powerful intelligence and formidable oratory) had illusions in him, and only Lenin clearly evaluated him for what he was.

But whatever specific agreements or divergences one may have, Hirou’s book shows an active mind using the past to understand the present and prepare the future. Today, as in the early years of the Comintern, the border-line between Marxism and ‘ultra-leftism’ of various varieties is becoming the locus of crucial debates in the movement. All the more pity that Hirou is not with us to contribute to them.

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Last updated: 21 May 2021