2019 : MONATTE’S WARTIME CORRESPONDENCE
2019 : MONATTE’S WARTIME CORRESPONDENCE
Review written for Revolutionary History, but not yet published.
Pierre Monatte, Lettres d’un syndicaliste sous l’uniforme 1915-1918 (edited by Julien Chuzeville), Smolny, Toulouse, 2018, 111pp, 10€
The name Pierre Monatte is not much heard nowadays. Yet this French revolutionary syndicalist made an important contribution. In 1909 he launched the journal La Vie ouvrière, which acquired an international reputation. He and his comrade Alfred Rosmer were among the tiny handful who opposed the First World War from the very first day; he worked closely with anti-war Russian exiles in Paris, including Trotsky. He played a role in the process which led to the founding of the French Communist Party [PCF], though he did not himself join till 1923. After his expulsion in 1924 he played a key role in La Révolution prolétarienne which gave a voice to the anti-Stalinist opposition. Not surprisingly, he did not feature in histories of the PCF written by Stalinists, anxious to deny that such heretics had played any role in the creation of their party. But when he disagreed with Trotsky on trade-union tactics, the latter declared that he had “crossed the Rubicon”, and he became an unperson in Trotskyist histories too. Only recently has the full story of the origins of the PCF and the role of the syndicalists begun to emerge. [There is a biography of Monatte reviewed at https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/birchall/2000/xx/monatte.html ]
So we should welcome Julien Chuzeville’s publication of Letters of a Syndicalist in Uniform, a short volume containing Monatte’s correspondence during his years in the army. [Chuzeville has made an important contribution to the understanding of the early PCF, notably in a book reviewed at http://grimanddim.org/historical-writings/2018-review-of-chuzeville-un-court-moment-revolutionnaire/ ] Many of Monatte’s letters are irrevocably lost; his letters to Alfred Rosmer were destroyed by the Nazis during the German Occupation. Here his letters are to Marcel Martinet [future cultural editor of L'Humanité], to his wife Léo and to other friends and comrades.
Monatte was initially declared unfit for service, but when he resigned from the Confederal Committee of the CGT, denouncing the union’s support for the war, the authorities changed their mind and called him up. Monatte made no attempt to evade or refuse military service [the right of conscientious objection did not exist in France till the 1960s], and he firmly believed that the place of a revolutionary was alongside his fellow-workers in the army. But he also made it clear from the outset that under no circumstances would he fire his gun against the “enemy”; he insisted that he could not continue as a militant if he had killed a fellow-worker. Briefly it was feared he might be executed, but the authorities did not push the point. Certainly his courage was not in question; he became a signaller and was commended for repairing telephone lines under fire. There was a strong current of moralism in the syndicalist tradition, and Monatte often gave expression to it, observing the “moral bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie” – no bad thing; in general the left has been weak on morality.
After a period of training Monatte was sent to the front line. There is not much new in his descriptions of life at the front. He noted – perhaps over-optimistically – that since his trench was close to the German front line, artillery from both sides passed overhead. But later there are references to heavy losses and a grim allusion to the fact that soldiers had to wear wristbands “to identify corpses”. And he noted that “our enemy is mud”.
In an army that was largely peasant, not working class, there was relatively little that Monatte could actually achieve. He seems to have had little success in arguing for his position with his fellow-soldiers. He felt “isolated and lost in the herd” seeing those around him as “not daring to reason with their good sense and incapable of thinking other than according to their newspapers”. Yet under extreme circumstances “words exploded … from the depths of their being” and he saw his comrades in a different light. But the boredom of military life left him feeling he was “stuck in sand”.
And when his wife wrote that individuals expressing opposition to the war would have no effect, he responded vigorously that the main task was to change public opinion and that individual expressions of opposition were necessary to begin a process of change in opinion. He insisted that it was leaders, not the masses who were to blame for acceptance of the war; he despised those who put tactics before principle and wanted to be with the majority. He reasserted his belief in internationalism and looked forward to the “United States of the world”. While he recognised that his hope about revolutionary developments in Russia was based on faith rather than detailed knowledge, he insisted that such faith helped one to survive. He did not fall into the mechanical hostility to religion common on the French left, but insisted that “people who have a faith are closer to us” than superficial adherents of our own side. And he noted that while the syndicalist milieu had been hostile to women activists, it was important to work with anti-war women.
But in his correspondence he was always concerned to find out how things were developing in the political milieu. His hope was for the revival of struggle which he predicted would occur when the war finally came to an end. In particular he was interested in the situation in the Socialist Party [SFIO], where he looked to the growth of the anti-war left and rightly foresaw an eventual split. But he resisted the lure of “entrism” – he saw no point in the joining the SFIO in order to encourage the differentiation, when he would be unable to defend a politics based on antistatism and antiparliamentarism. This is a brief volume, and contains nothing that radically changes our view of Monatte himself or the anti-war left. But it gives us an insight into the experiences of a courageous and principled individual who deserves to be remembered.