• 2008: “Socialism and Freedom”

    2008: “Socialism and Freedom”

    This report appeared in the London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter July 2008 no. 32. This is not available on-line. As far as I know this is the only published report of this event.

    For those interested in the history of the French left a fascinating event took place on 27 April at the Gimpel & Müller gallery in Paris. The two surviving members of the Socialisme et Liberté(Socialism and Freedom) resistance group, Dominique Desanti and Simone Debout, gave an account of their experiences; they were joined by Denise Pouillon, widow of Jean Pouillon, who had been in the group, although she personally was not involved.

    All three participants were well into their eighties, but their memories seemed crystal clear. The presentations were transparently honest; when they were unable to answer questions they had no hesitation in acknowledging it. To someone like myself who is profoundly sceptical of the value of “oral history” it was a striking affirmation of the contribution it can make.

    The reason for holding the event was recent allegations that Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir had played no role in the resistance and had been little better than collaborators. Such charges, made by the ascendant right in journalistic and academic circles, are part of a project to bury Sartre, Marxism, May 1968 etc.

    Socialisme et Liberté is generally associated with Sartre, and indeed almost all the historical discussion of Socialisme et Liberté occurs in works devoted to Sartre’s political development. But though Sartre played an important role on his return to Paris in March 1941, the group developed from an earlier grouping Sous la Botte (Under the Jackboot) founded the previous year by Raymond Marrot, an unaffiliated Trotskyist.

    The group was small – perhaps fifty members in Paris and another twenty in Grenoble. Oral testimony is crucial since none of its publications survive. (One did not push old leaflets under the bed if a visit from the Gestapo was possible.) Yet there may have been as many as a dozen monthly issues of its publication, produced with a Roneo duplicator and (stolen) stencils of the sort older readers may remember from the 1960s and 1970s.

    The group was politically diverse. Some of its members were Marxists, either Trotskyists (often not affiliated to any Trotskyist organisation) or former members of the Communist Party who had left on anti-Stalinist grounds at the time of the Hitler-Stalin Pact or earlier. Other, like Sartre, did not call themselves Marxists, but were willing to work alongside them.

    All this was taking place before the German invasion of Russia in June 1941. The Communist Party was not actively resisting and the rest of the left was in some disarray. So though the group was indeed small its achievement in establishing an illegal propaganda centre was not insignificant.

    The Russian entry into the war, according to those involved, changed everything. But it was some months before the group was wound up; Sartre was eventually convinced by de Beauvoir that to continue meant risking lives which did not belong to him. Some members, like Desanti and her husband and Debout decided to join the Communist Party, which after the Liberation involved them in a sharp break with Sartre. But even after Sartre withdrew, some members kept the group, now reverting to its original name of Sous la botte, in existence for some time.

    One of the most remarkable details that emerged was that the group distributed leaflets aimed at German soldiers. As far as I know this had not been mentioned in earlier accounts of the group (and hence my own comments on the question in Sartre Against Stalinism (2004) are mistaken). Desanti wrote the leaflets in German, and they were left in the first-class carriages of tube trains, which were at the time reserved for German soldiers. She recalls that they were framed in humanistic terms, stressing to the German soldiers that the resisters were not their enemies.

    This was thus an anticipation of the more systematic work done by the Trotskyists around Paul Widelin in Brest, who later produced a German-language paper addressed to German soldiers and sailors. This contrasted sharply with the Communist Party slogan of chacun son boche, which saw German soldiers simply as a target for violent action.

    The event was filmed, and it is hoped that a video and/or transcript will be made available on the internet.

    Ian Birchall