Yvan Craipeau, who died at the end of 2001, aged 90, was the first Trotskyist to argue systematically that the Stalinist USSR was not a degenerated workers' state, but a new system of class exploitation. He had been convinced since 1934 that the USSR was no longer a workers' state, and in 1937 he had debated the question with Trotsky in writing. In the myth-ridden orthodox histories of the evolution of Marxist thinking on the USSR (including academic accounts, and Isaac Deutscher's well-known biography of Trotsky), Craipeau's ideas are typically attached to Bruno Rizzi, a maverick and eccentric who repeated some of them in 1939. Jean-Renˇ Chauvin and Paul Parisot were among his close comrades in the leadership of the French Trotskyist movement, the Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI), in the 1940s. They spoke to Martin Thomas about the struggles and debates of that time, and their lessons for today.
Parisot became active as a student socialist in 1934, and joined the Trotskyists in September 1935; Chauvin joined the Trotskyist movement at the end of 1936, from the Gauche Rˇvolutionnaire, a left current in the Socialist Party.
France has long been a central country for the Trotskyist movement. There were quibbles, squabbles, departures, though - even more in France than in other countries where the hard-pressed Trotskyists organised. In 1935 there was a large split. Raymond Molinier, long suspect in the eyes of many of his comrades as a businessman and a political 'entrepreneur', full of schemes but short on theory, took a contingent off around a supposedly broad-left paper, La Commune.
Actually La Commune was never anything 'broader' than any other Trotskyist paper, and Molinier soon recognised that. But the split was lasting.
During World War 2 the Trotskyists were divided into two main groups. The Molinierists (minus Molinier, who was now in South America) organised the CCI, and denounced the other group, the POI, led by Craipeau and Marcel Hic, for its efforts to integrate concern for the national rights of the French people under Nazi occupation into socialist politics. In February 1944 the groups were reunited; between then and 1948 the Trotskyist movement, called PCI, grew from some hundreds to maybe 1000 strong, and had more impact than it had had before or would have again until 1968.
But the political situation, in France and internationally, was one difficult to orient in, and there were sharp arguments among the Trotskyists. The wing led by Craipeau was regarded as 'right-wing' by the other wing - led by some ex-Molinierists, such as Pierre Frank, Jacques Privas, and Pierre Lambert, and some ex-POIers - whom they in turn regarded as sectarians and phrasemongers.
The Frank wing held the leadership until September 1946, and the Craipeau wing from then until November 1947. In 1948, the PCI, buffeted by the Cold War and the Communist Party's demagogic turn to the left, fell apart. Most of the Craipeau wing left in search of broader political frameworks; by mid-1952 the PCI was down to about 150 members, and then it split again. Only small groups were left to struggle through 1968 - which they did, though accumulating much baggage of political confusion on the way.
P: In the 1940s there was a majority in the French Trotskyist movement, undeclared and unorganised, who questioned the theory which Trotsky had continued to defend. We were not convinced, especially after the publication in France of The Revolution Betrayed [by Trotsky, in 1937] that one could talk of a degenerated workers' state in the USSR. There was no longer any element of a workers' state. What served as the argument for the thesis of the degenerated workers' state was that private property in the means of production and exchange had been replaced by the collective property of the Soviet bureaucracy, so we were divided among supporters of the ideas of state capitalism, or bureaucratic capitalism, or bureaucratic collectivism.
I am still of the same opinion as Craipeau on that subject - that none of these formulations amounts to a programmatic basis. What mattered was our daily activity in France, especially in relation to the Stalinist party. That is why in 1946 we did not push for a debate on the USSR. We wanted to remit the question of the characterisation of the USSR to a serious scientific inquiry. There was one person who did something in that direction - not conclusive, but interesting studies - and that was Charles Bettelheim. Later he became a Maoist [and a very prominent academic figure] but he nevertheless developed a serious critique.
For us the formulation on the USSR was not decisive. What was decisive was to push the Communist Party, first not to disarm the 'patriotic militias', and not to accept the deal which De Gaulle [post-war president of France], and then to push the CP and the left of the Socialist Party to support working-class struggles, to which they were very hostile until the episode of spring 1947 of the Renault strike. The CP did not support the strike at first. The Socialist Youth supported it, and the real cause for the expulsion from the Socialist Party of the leading comrades of the Socialist Youth was their support for the strike. Guy Mollet, who had just taken over the leadership of the SFIO [the Socialist Party] expelled them on the pretext of 'factional activity by Trotskyists inside the Socialist Youth'.
In the end, the split of the Socialist Youth, supported by the Trotskyists, pushed the Communist Party to change its position and to support the Renault strike. The consequence was that Ramadier threw them out of the government and the Communist Party remained excluded from the direction of the country for 34 years. All that did not contribute at all to bringing the Communist Party closer to a revolutionary tactic. On the contrary, it became stuck in an ultra-Stalinism, violent in the forms of struggle - on some demonstrations they took placards made of iron so as to bash the police with them - but with a politics which consisted of trying to get back into government in one form or another.
J-R: In the period that followed, the Communist Party still considered itself as a party of government. The Russians were not content to see the French Communist Party marginalised. They hoped to do in France what they had done in central Europe - to gain control of the state machine, to colonise the state machine in one way or another, rather than to base themselves on the masses. Where they had control, in Toulouse, it was like Poland.
[Given the character of the Communist Party, was it right for revolutionaries to call for the seizure of power by the Communist Party at that time? In 1944-7 the Communist Party was a big force, facing a bourgeois state machine that scarcely existed. The Trotskyists demanded a Communist Party/ Socialist Party government. But if we look at the countries where the CP took power, it was not good for the working class].
J-R: At the time I agreed with that slogan. But on reflection it was a mistake. I was sceptical even at the time as a result of the experience I had had in the concentration camps with Russian prisoners. They had political commissars, and their conduct had nothing in common with socialist politics. I discussed with those of them with whom one could discuss, and they thought that the revolution in France - in Europe, more generally - would happen thanks to the Red Army, without reference to the masses of the people. Of course, I was not able to have very deep discussions with them, and besides I was in the same block as those political commissars only for a short time.
P: On this particular point, I would say that we were making a gamble - if the Communist Party had put itself on the side of the workers' demands, if it had taken the risk of entering into conflict with De Gaulle and a whole section of the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie around that great centre-right regroupment which was the MRP [the main Establishment party of the time], then the Communists risked creating a situation in which a differentiation would develop even inside the CP. We thought that the mass movement after the war was sufficiently powerful to provoke breaks between Stalinism and the authentically working-class forces. That was the basis for our gamble.
To go back further, what characterised our current and what we did in 1946-7 was an argument which went back right to the start of the war, in 1940, at a time when we were the majority of the little group which would become the Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste (POI). That majority was led by Marcel Hic with the support of David Rousset and a series of very young comrades. The debate between the two groups which subscribed to the Fourth International, the POI and the CCI - essentially, the Molinierists - was about where or not there was a national question in France due to the German occupation. The Molinierists said no, and they pushed their own logic far enough to have comrades doing entry work in a fascist and collaborationist party, the RNP of Dˇat [originating from a right wing of the Socialist Party]. I should say in fairness that inside the CCI Lambert differentiated himself from their disdain for the national question.
On the other hand, we thought that we should constitute, inside the nebulous current of the Resistance, a group which was working-class and revolutionary but also fought against the occupation. All the discussion just after the Liberation revolved around this argument, and one other problem. Pierre Frank developed a theory according to which capitalism following the Second World War would be incapable of reconstructing Europe, and thus, becoming stuck in impotence and crisis, it would create new revolutionary opportunities. We. on the other hand, saw that the reconstruction had actually begun, not only in France but across Europe, including Germany.
If one speculated on rising difficulties for capitalism and consequent revolutionary opportunities, one would follow the Molinierists; if on the contrary one put that estimate in question - that was at the centre of the congress where we took the majority [in 1946] - then one turned more to the tactic of the united front. It was like the situation the Bolsheviks faced in 1921-2, when Lenin and Trotsky pointed out that there was a certain stabilisation of capitalism - it would not last for ever, but it was there for the moment - and thus one could no longer reject all alliances with social democracy. Radek put it one way when he said to the Germans yes, we must sit at the same table as the assassins of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. We thought we should follow the ideas of the Third Congress of the Communist International. We had close relations with Shachtman's group at the time. Shachtman stayed in France for a while. He was a remarkable speaker, who could speak in four or five languages, and he won a lot of sympathy among us. In 1945-6, three American leaders came to France, first Shachtman, then Cannon, then Goldman.
While we were the leadership, the party's official position was still that the USSR was a degenerated workers' state. The open, proclaimed break with what had been Trotsky's old doctrine was made by the group which became Socialisme ou Barbarie, especially Claude Lefort and Cornelius Castoriadis. Our opinion was that it was best not to have an official party doctrine, but to continue the discussion.
J-R: Although we were interested by what Castoriadis said theoretically, on the political level he represented quite ultra-left positions. It was difficult to work with his group. They contented themselves with being a group of intellectuals. Later on they posed to themselves the question of activity in the workplaces, but it did not get very far. They remained a group of intellectuals; they developed some interesting ideas but it led to nothing. We knew about the hypothesis of Burnham, which assimilated the extension of the Soviet bureaucratic regime to the growth of managerial layers in Western capitalism. We did not follow that view. We saw Stalinism as something in evolution. It was showing itself even more reactionary when it destroyed the workers' movement in the so-called People's Democracies [of Eastern Europe]. We had a moment of hope at the time of the split between the USSR and Yugoslavia [in 1948]. We thought that maybe in Yugoslavia there was a regeneration of the communist movement. I went to Belgrade as a correspondent for France-Observateur. We were well received as Trotskyists by the upper circles, but in the population it was different. There was strong opposition. There were a certain number of discussions in the Yugoslav Communist Party, but when Djilas came out with his critical views, it was all stopped, and the bureaucratic control was reconstituted.
There was industrial self-management, but it was self-management on paper.
P: What decides the character of an economy is not the economic relations, but, in the last analysis, the social relations. The social relations that existed in a country where a small group - or, at the limit, one person, like Stalin - could dispose of all the productive forces define a regime which is not far from capitalism.
We had discussions on Palestine, too, starting in the PSOP [before the war]. In 1945 it became an issue in the organisation that I had spoken in a meeting in defence of a Zionist who was threatened with being hung by the British in Palestine.
J-R: We were for a binational state in Palestine. After we were excluded from the PCI [in 1948], we produced a magazine called Confrontations Internationales. It lasted for four issues. The Shachtmanites were involved, and Maximilien Rubel, one of the best French editors of Marx's writings.
P. Craipeau bore the burden of being the artisan of the fusion with the Molinierists in 1944. Later I think he recognised that he had made a serious mistake. At the time of the Liberation [of Paris from the Nazis] the main thing was to get a newspaper. All the groups, large or small, seized a newspaper. But the Molinierists would not do it. They were sectarian.
J-R: The Molinierists had an almost religious position on the USSR as the workers' state...
[But in 1937 they had officially renounced the view that the USSR was a workers' state, returning to it only at the start of the war].
P: It was just an immediate reaction to the break between Molinier and Trotsky.
J-R: Everything was really decided in the course of the Resistance. After that, those groups that did not have arms were marginalised. There had been an underestimation of the national-liberation character of the fight against the Nazis.
P: The Molinierists had a position of rejecting any kind of alliance - neither Washington nor Moscow nor London nor De Gaulle nor anyone at all.
Our tendency failed, essentially, because we were defeated by the Molinierists. The Molinierists conducted a factional struggle everywhere, based on a naive belief in the imminent collapse of Stalinism. The international leadership was on their side. Our tendency was considered to be rightist, because it was a working-class tendency which tried to play a role in the trade unions as they actually were.
The Molinierists were a caricature of Bolshevism - all the faults of Bolshevism with none of the merits.
J-R: After Confrontations Internationales I was active in the RDR [Rassemblement Dˇmocratique Rˇvolutionnaire, a 'third camp' group launched by David Rousset, Jean-Paul Sartre and others].
P: Everyone went their own way. We were for quitting the nebulous Fourth International, and everyone integrating themselves into the broader workers' or trade-union organisations. I joined up with a newspaper called Franc-Tireur, put out mostly by former Communists who had broken with the CP but also including members of Souvarine's circle and an old leader of the PSOP, Jean Rous. We went into the SFIO [Socialist Party] until the Algerian war, then I joined a little group which later became one of the components of what would become the PSU [a left split from the Socialist Party].
J-R: After the RDR, I made contact with the editorial board of Franc-Tireur. Then I was in the Nouvelle Gauche, the Union de la Gauche Socialiste, and the PSA, then the PSU.
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