Paper given at Historical Materialism Conference, London 2011


    One of the first things that strikes anyone looking at the early history of the French Communist Party (PCF) is the fact that so many of those who played a key role in the founding of the party and its activity during its first few years had disappeared from the party by the late 1920s, to be replaced by a leadership team whose role in the early years had been negligible. This has posed a problem for both pro-PCF and anti-Communist historians. Thus in the official history of the PCF, published in the sixties, there is only one reference to Alfred Rosmer, noting that he was expelled in 1924 and that he became an anti-Communist[1]-  thus leaving any innocent reader bewildered as to why he had held so many important positions in the Comintern.[2] Meanwhile a much-hyped recent history of the early years of the PCF argues that the attitude to Bolshevism of the party’s original members  was based on a “relative failure to recognise the thought of its founder”.  Apparently they departed when they discovered what Leninism “really” was.[3] The notion that men and women like Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer, Boris Souvarine, Pierre Monatte, Marthe Bigot and Maurice Dommanget were naïve young things who joined the PCF under false pretences shows a quite stupendous lack of historical comprehension.

    One of the best accounts of the PCF’s early years came from outside France, from the American Robert Wohl,[4]  and as late as 1980 Philippe Robrieux[5]  broke new ground by giving their rightful place to some, if not all, of the key figures in the early years of the party’s development; the first volume of his history has a picture of Pierre Monatte’s 1923 membership card on its front cover.

    Although the bulk of the PCF’s membership came from the SFIO after the split at the Tours Congress in 1920,  some of its key militants came from the revolutionary syndicalist tradition, notably those who had been grouped round the journal La Vie ouvrière.  Lenin thought very highly of these and one occasion expressed the view that the existing leadership of the PCF should be removed and replaced by the Vie ouvrière team.[6] While the names of Rosmer and Monatte have never quite been written out of history, some other figures have largely disappeared from the historical record.

    Thus Robert Louzon[7] was involved with La Vie ouvrière from the outset. In 1906 he lent a sum of money to the CGT to purchase premises for its headquarters, and as a result was sacked by his employers, the Paris Gas Company. In 1913 he began farming in Tunisia; returning there after the war, he became secretary of the Tunisian Communist Federation.

    In 1921 the Tunisian Federation launched a daily paper in Arabic, the first Communist daily paper in Arabic.  Louzon, unlike many European settlers, was aware to the huge potential for colonial revolt. He wrote: “There is here a vast indigenous movement for national demands. This movement includes all classes of the population, and all of it is extremely favourable to the Communist Party, which is seen as the only party fully sympathetic to the political emancipation of the native population…. We must take advantage [of the situation] to create, within the indigenous movement, a clearly defined class movement of workers and peasants.”

    But if Louzon recognised the importance of an Arabic daily, so too did the French authorities. After eight days the paper was banned. For about ten days new Arabic dailies were launched, each day under a different title and each was immediately banned. Then a decree required prior permission or any newspaper in Arabic. In 1922, after the appearance of a pamphlet and a poem in Arabic, Louzon was jailed for six months, then expelled from Tunisia. He returned to France to work on l’Humanité, but two years later left the PCF after the expulsion of his friends Monatte and Rosmer.

    In 1936 he went to Morocco to try and prevent Franco from recruiting Arabs in the Rif. Then aged over fifty, he fought with the Republican forces in Spain. After 1945 he continued to work with Monatte on La Révolution prolétarienne. In 1960 he signed the Manifesto of 121 in support of those giving material support to the Algerian national struggle.

    If Alfred Rosmer is still remembered, far less is known of the remarkable woman who was his lifelong partner, Marguerite Thévenet. Thévenet’s name is largely absent from most accounts of the period. Her name never appears in the account her own husband wrote of the early years of the Comintern.[8]

    Certainly she shunned publicity. One of her obituaries bears the title “Discreet Marguerite”.[9] This was  inherent in the activity at which she was most skilled; her speciality in the period during the war and after was in smuggling people across frontiers. She was involved in anti-war activity from 1915 onwards, and  met Alfred Rosmer at a meeting in 1916.

    During the war she helped to maintain contact between the French opponents of the war and Romain Rolland in Switzerland. Rolland, who liked his women demure, was somewhat taken aback by her manner:

    She produced a letter from her hat, and two or three more from her bodice; I was expecting to see her take off her stockings.[10]

    Alfred Rosmer was in Moscow and did not attend the Tours Congress, but Marguerite was there. Maurice Chambelland claims she helped to organise the presence at Tours of Clara Zetkin. The appearance of this veteran German revolutionary, despite a French government ban, so soon after the end of the war, was a magnificent internationalist gesture. It was also one of the dramatic highlights of the Congress. In the middle of Frossard’s speech the lights went out; when they came on again Zetkin was on the platform, calling for the  destruction of the capitalist world and the advent of communism. While the delegates sang the Internationale she vanished again.[11]

    After attending the Congress, Clara Zetkin wrote a letter to Lenin[12]which remained unpublished until 1990. In this she commented:

    During my stay I was able to judge Madame Rosmer as being one of the most lucid, loyal, energetic and politically perceptive “men” in the French movement. She sees clearly and makes sound judgements on events and people.

    In the autumn of 1921 Thévenet began preparations for a major project, that of taking a train-load of supplies to the famine-stricken areas of Russia. By the Spring of 1922 the train was in Russia and in two articles in L’Humanité[13] Thévenet reported on the experience so far. As she noted, they were certainly “seeing a side of revolutionary Russia which was not visible to those who only attended conferences”. She made no attempt to romanticise her picture of Russia. She showed the appalling suffering, destitution and moral degeneration of the famine victims. Doubtless that is why her reports, though printed in the PCF daily,  did not receive more prominence; the rhetoric of revolutionary success was more useful to bureaucrats in Paris and Moscow. Thévenet left the PCF after her husband was expelled; later she was involved in the early activities of Left Opposition in France.[14]

    Thévenet was just one of a number of remarkable women anti-war activists;[15] often involved in socialist and feminist activity before 1914, they became involved in anti-war activity, and in 1920 gravitated towards the Communist Party. Yet few stayed in the party after the late twenties. Many were primary school teachers – one of the few careers allowing a woman, especially from a poor background, to get an education.

    Although it is often claimed that France had nothing to compare with the British suffragette movement, the period just after World War I offered great opportunities for the struggle for women’s rights. In 1919 the French National Assembly agreed to give equal voting rights to women, but this was delayed for three years by the Senate, which then rejected it.  The early PCF had a clear commitment to the defence of women’s rights, in particular support for female suffrage. In the 1920s the PCF stood women for election (although they were constitutionally ineligible) in order to highlight the issue. By the time of the Popular Front they had dropped the demand for female suffrage in the interests of “left unity”, thus allowing first Vichy, then de Gaulle to appear as the champion of women’s rights. The early PCF also defended birth control, in sharp contrast to the party’s later conservative positions on the question.[16]

    One remarkable activist was Marthe Bigot. A primary school teacher from 1896 she was active in the SFIO and as a trade unionist. In 1916 police reports described her as ‘one of the most active members of the lay teachers union in the Seine district’; she was acting secretary of the International Committee of Women for a  Lasting Peace and supported   the pro‑Zimmerwald tendency in the SFIO. She became a member of Central Committee of the PCF  and full-time women’s organiser of PCF.  She organised women’s candidacies at elections, taking up a pre-war tradition,  and in March 1922 presented her own “symbolic candidacy” in the Paris municipal elections; unable to hold her own meetings she demanded speaking rights at those of other candidates, and despite being ineligible came third in the vote.[17] She helped to found and was editor of the PCF women’s paper L’Ouvrière. She supported the Left Opposition and  resigned or was expelled in January 1926; she visited Trotsky at Prinkipo 1929. She was later  associated with La Révolution prolétarienne, which she continued to support after World War II.

    The PCF was also involved in systematic anti-colonial activity. It is quite often noted that the young Ho Chi Minh (Nguyen Aï Quoc) attended the Tours Congress and spoken on the anticolonial struggle. But most accounts of the early years of the PCF have little or nothing to say of the paper he launched and edited, Le Paria,[18] which grouped around it a significant number of activists from Algeria and the French Empire.

    One remarkable activist was Hadjali Abdelkader.  Born in 1883 he became a French citizen in 1911 and married a French woman. He came to Paris before 1914 and earned his living as a pedlar. Called up in 1914, he was injured at Bordeaux before seeing combat. He returned to Paris after the war, joined the SFIO and became a founder-member of the PCF and then of the UIC (Union inter-coloniale  - an organisation for those of colonial origin living in France). He contributed regularly to Le Paria  under such pseudonyms as ‘Ali Baba’ and “Hadj Bicot”. “Bicot” is a highly offensive racist term for Arab. Hadj Ali was thus a pioneer of the technique of the oppressed throwing the language of the oppressors back in their faces. He wrote of the conditions of North African workers in Paris, giving  a description which would be recognised by many immigrant workers of later date:

    And yet there are Algerians in Paris. There are tens and tens of thousands working themselves to death in the factories, rotting away in the Grenelle district, and in the slums of the Boulevard de la Gare and de la Villette.

    … They live alone, without wives, steeped in their patriarchal habits. They cannot bring over the women they left over there. They prefer to live in abstinence, cutting away at the minimum they need to live in order to send money to their children, to the aged parents they have left behind and who are being trampled on by colonialism.[19]

    He remained a Muslim and argued that Communists should adopt a non-polemical position towards Islam.[20] In May 1924 the PCF presented Hadjali Abdelkader as a candidate in the parliamentary elections for the second sector of Paris. (Hadjali had French citizenship and was therefore eligible for election.) A statement in L’Humanité set out the Party’s aims:

    All our comrades must indeed be convinced that whatever may be a worker’s origin or colour, he belongs first and foremost to the working class. Racial prejudice is something which any conscious worker must totally reject. By neglecting, or even worse, despising, the worker recruited in the colonies because he has different habits, the French worker is playing his exploiter’s game.

    Capitalism is precisely trying to sharpen these racial antagonisms in order to more effectively break the workers’ class action.

    French capitalism is holding in reserve its colonial subjects, as strike breakers, as troops to be used, if necessary, against French workers.[21]

    Two Communists were elected for the seat; although Hadjali failed to be elected by over two hundred votes, he had come quite close. He achieved 97.52% of the most successful Communist candidate’s vote, and 99.48% of the average for the list. This sent out a clear message to North African workers that it would be possible for an Arab to be elected to the French parliament with French working-class votes.[22]

    One of those who attended one of his election meetings was a young Algerian factory-worker called Messali Hadj. He was impressed by Hadjali, whose speech filled him with “great pride and great joy”.  They became close friends, and the next year Messali was recruited to the PCF.[23] Hadjali and Messali Hadj were key figures in the foundation of the Etoile Nord-Africaine in 1926.[24]

    Hadjali was elected to the PCF Central Committee in 1926, and went to Moscow, briefly holding a position of responsibility in the Comintern, but fell from favour after 1928 and was expelled in 1948. He ended up a supporter of Ferhat Abbas.[25]

    The PCF also attracted a number of talented intellectuals and writers. L’Humanité had an impressive cultural and intellectual coverage, thanks to Marcel Martinet.[26] In particular the PCF attracted a number of historians, notably some who specialised in the study of the French Revolution. Parallels between 1789 and 1917 were common, and it was useful for the PCF to draw on the pro-Jacobin sympathies that were widespread in the working-class movement.

    Ernest Labrousse had joined the editorial staff of L’Humanité  in 1919, and worked on the paper till 1924. In 1921 he published a major article, about 4000 words long,  in L’Humanité entitled “The Meaning of the Russian Revolution This drew parallels between the French and Russian Revolutions:

    This study is dedicated to all those who accept …. the French Revolution as a “bloc”, in its results and in its methods…. They will recognise, between this revolution whose sons they proclaim themselves with pride, and the great revolution in the East, an undoubted identity in methods, and also, though to a lesser degree, in results. …. If they go back fifty years they will observe that our revolution and its men were then the object of the same insults as is today everything connected with the Russian Revolution…..The millions of men who, in our country, declare their solidarity in thought and action with the French Revolution could not, without flagrant contradiction, condemn the Russian Revolution – which no people can interpret, appreciate and understand better than the French.[27]

    He left the party after the expulsions of Rosmer and Monatte. In his resignation letter he complained of the party’s “demagogic superficiality”, and said that the atmosphere in the party did not allow “the effective expression of any thought other than the official thought”.[28] Later he published important studies in economic and statistical history of France in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  He re-joined the SFIO in 1938 and after being active in the Resistance became editor of the SFIO journal La Revue socialiste.   In 1949 he was vigorously denounced as a “falsifier” by the young Annie Kriegel, then a leading PCF militant.[29] He resigned his editorship in opposition to the European Defence Community and opposed the SFIO position on Algeria. He  became a supporter of the PSU.

    Another remarkable historian was Maurice Dommanget.[30] Dommanget was an active socialist before the First World War, and organised one of the first teachers’ strikes in France. He could have had a successful university career, but he was strongly influenced by the revolutionary syndicalist idea of the ‘refus de parvenir’ (the refusal to be a success) – namely that a socialist militant had a moral obligation not to pursue success, wealth or fame. He remained a primary school-teacher and an active trade unionist throughout his working life.

    He was associated with the Vie ouvrière group from the time of Zimmerwald, and was a founder-member of the PCF, and was originally a fierce defender of Russia, on one occasion telling anarchist critics that “you don’t look for lice in a lion’s mane”.[31] But in 1924, when Rosmer and Monatte were sacked from L’Humanité, he was offered a job in their place, but refused. He left the PCF in June 1929, forestalling probable expulsion. When Trotsky was exiled in France, Dommanget had political discussions with him, but his political sympathies lay with revolutionary syndicalism.

    Dommanget wrote prolifically on the French Revolution, Babeuf, Blanqui and working-class traditions. His work was scrupulously documented, but he always wrote as a committed socialist, concerned to be truthful about the past but equally concerned to mobilize the past in the service of the present. Dommanget produced three volumes on Babeuf: a short outline of Babeuf’s life and ideas;[32] an annotated collection of Babeuf’s writings; and a volume of essays on various aspects of Babeuf .

    In 1922 he published an essay called “Structure and Methods of the Conspiracy of Equals”.[33] Dommanget intended the experience of Babeuf to help arm the PCF for insurrectionary struggle. He noted that modern Communist Parties confined themselves to public propaganda; as a result

    … when the revolutionary storm rages, they prove incapable of adapting themselves to the new conditions of struggle and leading the most heroic proletariat to victory.

    He was also probably involved with a journal called Le Militant Rouge, produced by people in or close to the French Communist Party, which aimed to use historical studies, for example of Blanquism and 1848,  to assist workers with coming struggles.[34]

    In October 1921 the PCF claimed 109,391 members  – by 1923 the figure was down to 55,598  and by 1930 it was 31,500.[35]  Doubtless many who left were fair-weather friends; some became demoralised and abandoned activity; others returned to the SFIO.  Some moved to the far right – L-O Frossard, secretary of the PCF in 1921-23, ended up in Pétain’s first government.  But a significant number – of whom those cited here may be a small representative sample – were genuine revolutionaries who remained committed to the principles that had taken them to the PCF in the first place.

    The reasons for departures were many and complex. There was no single turning-point – resignations and expulsion extend from 1924 to the end of the decade. It is certainly too simple to blame it all on “Stalinism” -  one key factor was the Zinovievite “Bolshevisation” of 1924,[36]which predated Stalinism, though it prepared the way for it. Amédée Dunois, another key figure who has largely disappeared from the party’s history, described the “unbreathable atmosphere of a guard-room or a convent”.[37] It is interesting to note that as  late as 1926 an acute observer like Alfred Rosmer saw Zinoviev as a greater threat than Stalin.[38]

    While many of those who left remained committed to revolutionary principles, there was no effective regroupment of the opposition.  While many of those who left the PCF were initially sympathetic to Trotsky, relatively few were drawn to the Trotskyist movement. Part of the blame for this must lie with Trotsky himself.  He broke with the Rosmers in favour of the get-rich-quick schemes of Raymond Molinier.[39] In general he was dismissive of those who came from a syndicalist background. Thus in a letter to Victor Serge in 1936 Trotsky argued that the only political contribution Dommanget was capable of would be writing occasional articles on Babeuf for the Trotskyist press.[40] But the syndicalists, while showing remarkable consistency and stamina, proved incapable of recruiting a new generation.

    The activities of the PCF in its early years – trade-union struggle, anti-colonialism, defence of women’s rights, support for tenants etc. –   were entirely creditable, and its press was lively and effective. It showed the enormous potential that communism had in the aftermath of the Russian revolution. The reasons why the initial project failed and the party became transformed into something quite alien to the intentions of its founders are many and complex. Some, like the economic problems inside Russia and the failure of the German revolution, were outside the control of French militants. But the failure was not automatic, and the way in which so many remarkable militants were forced out of the party they had created has lessons that would repay closer study.

    Ian Birchall

    November 2011

    [1] Commission d’Histoire auprès du Comité Central du PCF, Histoire du Parti communiste français, Paris, 1964, pp. 175,757..

    [2] C Gras, Alfred Rosmer (1877-1964) et le mouvement révolutionnaire international, Paris, 1971, pp. 175-238.

    [3] Romain Ducoulombier, Camarades!, Paris, 2010, p. 152

    [4] Robert Wohl , French Communism in the Making, 1914-24, Stanford, 1966.

    [5] Philippe Robrieux, Histoire intérieure du parti communiste tome I, Paris, 1980.

    [6] Cited George Paizis, Marcel Martinet: poet of the revolution, London, 2007, p. 211.

    [7] Where sources are not given for biographical details, these are taken from J Maitron & C Pennetier, Dictionnaire biographique du mouvement ouvrier français, Paris, 1964ff.

    [8] A Rosmer, Lenin’s Moscow, London, 1987.

    [9]Maurice Chambelland in La Révolution prolétarienne: February 1962. Translated in Revolutionary History 7/4, pp. 11-12. See also obituary by Roger Hagnauer (La Révolution prolétarienne: March 1962, Revolutionary History 7/4, pp. 12‑13) and article by Pierre and Paule Godeau, La Révolution prolétarienne, January 1963.

    [10]R Rolland, Journal des années de guerre 1914-1919, Paris, 1952, p. 685.

    [11]G Badia, Clara Zetkin, féministe sans frontières (Paris, 1993), p 216.

    [12]Letter of 25 January 1921; see Briefe Deutscher an Lenin 1917-1923 (Berlin 1900, pp. 211‑13; reproduced in G Badia, op. cit. pp. 222-3.

    [13]11 & 13 June 1922. Translated Revolutionary History 7/4, pp. 86-92.

    [14]See L Trotsky, A & M Rosmer, Correspondance 1929-1939 (ed. P Broué), Paris, 1982, and Gras, op cit, pp 354-82.

    [15] Others included Hélène Brion, Lucie Colliard, Gabrielle Duchêne, Henriette Izambard, Lucie Leiciague, Marthe Pichorel, Nelly Roussel and  Louise Saumoneau.

    [16] J Rabaut, Histoire des féminismes français, Paris, 1978, pp. 291-2.

    [17] L’Humanité 15, 20, 27 March, 3 April 1922.

    [19]Le Paria,  No 22, January 1924, p 1.

    [20] Le Paria, April-May 1924.

    [21]L’Humanité, 28 April 1924, p 2.

    [22] B Stora, Dictionnaire biographique de militants nationalistes algériens, Paris, 1985, pp 51‑3.

    [23] Les Mémoires de Messali Hadj, Paris, 1982, pp. 136-8, 145.

    [24] Les Mémoires de Messali Hadj, p. 151.

    [25] Stora, op cit, pp 53-5.

    [26] See Paizis, op cit, London, 2007.

    [27] L’Humanité, 6 November 1921.

    [28] MN Borghetti, L’œuvre d’Ernest Labrousse, Paris, 2005, pp 55-6.

    [29] Annie Besse, « L’action contre la décrépitude de l’enseignement officiel », L’Humanité 10 March 1949.

    [30] See J‑L Rouch, Prolétaire en veston, Treignac, 1984.

    [31] Rouch, op cit, p. 41.

    [32]Babeuf et la conjuration des égaux, Paris, 1922; reprinted Paris, 1969.

    [33] Annales révolutionnaires, May-August 1922.

    [34]Le Militant Rouge, No. 1, November 1925, pp. 14-20.

    [35] S Courtois & M Lazar, Histoire du parti communiste français, Paris, p. 423.

    [36] See Wohl, op cit, pp 396-9.

    [37] Letter of 9 February 1924, in J Humbert-Droz, “L’Oeil de Moscou” à Paris, Paris, 1964, p. 228.

    [38] A Rosmer, “The Liquidation of ‘Putschism’”, La Révolution prolétarienne: February 1926, translated in Revolutionary History 7/4.

    [39] C Gras, op cit, pp 368-80.

    [40]L. Trotsky, Writings: Supplement 1934-40, (New York, 1979), p. 679.