DENIS BERGER (1932-2013)
Written for Revolutionary History but not yet published.
Denis Berger was one of what his old friend Michael Löwy has described as “the tiny handful of anticolonialist militants who, during the Algerian war, saved the internationalist honour of the French left”.[i]
Berger became a Trotskyist in 1950, as a student. He had difficulty even finding the tiny organisation, eventually discovering an address on a fly-posted copy of La Vérité. He attended a meeting where he met Henri Benoîts[ii] and Jean-René Chauvin[iii].
It was a difficult time to be a Trotskyist. Paper sales faced physical attacks from Stalinists, while at a meeting in 1953 he was attacked by bunch of cudgel-bearing right-wingers including the young Jean-Marie Le Pen.
At the time of the 1952 split he sided with Pablo and Frank against Lambert. Their group, the PCI, with little more than thirty members, embarked on entry work in the Communist Party (PCF). Berger joined a student cell of the PCF in 1953, though he had to admit his past as a “Trotsko-Titoite”.
In the ferment of 1956 Berger was involved in launching an oppositional publication within the PCF called Tribune de discussion. This collapsed,[iv] but Berger and others of those involved went on to launch a new journal, La Voie communiste, which was on public sale and aimed at a broader audience than simply oppositional PCF members. This brought Berger into conflict with the PCI leadership, and he was excluded in 1958.
By now Algeria was the paramount issue. He made contact with the FLN (Algerian National Liberation Front) in 1958, and later that year was held for ten days in the cellars of the DST (Home Security Police), though unlike his Algerian comrades he was not tortured.
He now revealed talents far removed from those of the academic milieu, and became a specialist in organising jail-breaks. He successfully organised the escape of six women from the Jeanson solidarity network.[v] Berger was also involved in an attempt to organise the escape of Ben Bella, but this seems to have been sabotaged by Ben Bella himself.[vi]
After Algerian independence Berger wrote a document in which he argued that the French left had overestimated the socialist potential of the Algerian revolution, and he backed Boudiaf against Ben Bella. Without the overriding commitment to solidarity the Voie communiste grouping fell apart.
Berger became involved in the Russell Tribunal on war crimes in Vietnam, and in 1967 visited Vietnam together with Stokely Carmichael. In 1971 he joined the Parti Socialiste Unifié, and in 1975 returned to the Fourth International, whose French section was now the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR).
In 1977 he and two other LCR members published a book on the crisis of the Fifth Republic. Berger’s essay was extremely sceptical about the prospects for a Socialist-Communist government after the 1978 parliamentary elections: such a government was likely to be a “transitional government between two phases of the maintenance of the bourgeoisie in power”.[vii]
In 1977 he and Michel Lequenne formed Tendency Three of the LCR, which was critical of the orthodox Trotskyist position on the nature of the USSR. They were later reprimanded for criticising the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.
In around 1980 I and another member of the SWP International Sub-Committee met Berger. I recall a long and very cordial discussion, during which he commented favourably on Chris Harman’s article on the “Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left”.[viii] But nothing came of it.
Berger left the LCR discreetly in 1985, but unlike other Tendency Three members he did not join the Green Party. He never became a member of any other organisation, but collaborated with people from various traditions. In 1990 he and Toni Negri were involved in founding the journal Futur Antérieur, and in 1996 he wrote a critique of the anticommunism of François Furet jointly with Henri Maler, a former leader of the semi-Maoist Révolution!, arguing that existence of illusions in the former USSR did not make the idea of communism itself an illusion.[ix]
Berger was never an orthodox thinker, but he remained a consistent revolutionary. In a book published just after the 1989 collapse of “Communism” he rejected both the idea that the economic demands of the working class would automatically fulfil all hopes of social change, and the need for “rigorously centralised organisation”. But he concluded:
“Tomorrow, perhaps, new ghosts will come to disturb the established order…. They will be libertarian spectres.”[x]
[i] http://blogs.mediapart.fr/blog/michael-lowy/070513/denis-berger-1932-2013#comments Much of the information in this obituary is taken from Lowy’s article, which includes his entry on Berger for Maitron’s biographical dictionary of the French labour movement.
[ii] See interview with Henri and Clara Benoîts in Revolutionary History, Vol. 10, No. 4.
[iii] See obituary in Revolutionary History, Vol. 10, No. 4.
[iv] For a full account see I Birchall, “Nineteen Fifty-Six and the French Left”, Revolutionary History Vol. 9, No. 3.
[v] For more details see the sections of Sylvain Pattieu’s The Comrades of the Brothers translated in Revolutionary History Vol. 10, No. 4.
[vi] See obituary of Ben Bella in Revolutionary History Vol. 11, No. 1.
[vii] D Berger, H Weber & J-M Vincent, La Ve. République à bout de souffle, Paris, 1977, p. 165.
[ix] H Maler & D Berger, Une certaine idée du communisme, Paris, 1996.
[x] D Berger, Le Spectre défait, Arles, 1990, p. 151.