‘“At five in the morning, as always, the reveille was sounded by a hammer-strike on the rail by the staff quarters.” So begins A day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch, which made the name of Alexander Solzhenitzyn. When I read these words in 1963, the prolonged diiing pierced through me, from my eardrums to the pit of my stomach. I had been there. Twenty years previously in the winter of 1943-1944, I slept one metre from that rail, on the top bunk by the always-open window on the corner of what was then Block 1 of the Loiblpass North Camp. Every morning, also at five o’clock, the ‘anti-social’ black-triangled Lagerältester Rudi would come to strike the piece of rail hanging on the side of the barracks, almost at the height of my ear. By habit – and in such privileged circumstances nothing comes so easily as habit – I had already woken up before the hammer-strike, hearing his steps in the snow through the window.’

Thus Jean-René Chauvin introduces the tenth chapter of his autobiographical Un trotskiste dans l’enfer nazi (‘A Trotskyist in Nazi Hell’), a testimony to the struggle for revolution against both Stalinism and fascist tyranny.[1] The last survivor of the generation which upheld the Fourth Internationalist banner during World War II, Chauvin experienced the Nazi jackboot at first hand, imprisoned at the Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Auschwitz concentration camps. While he was certainly not the only Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste member to suffer such a fate – Buchenwald survivor David Rousset rose to much greater notoriety with his L’Univers Concentrationnaire, introducing the term ‘Gulag’ into French – Chauvin’s memoir is notable for its effort to integrate the author’s own experience of the camps into a wider internationalist politics. Chauvin explored not only his experience in the Nazi Lager and the analogy with Stalinism, but equally the internment of Spanish Republican refugees in democratic France and the British Empire’s camps in South Africa. Anti-fascism could not just mean supporting the Western Allies and their surrogates. Indeed, while Chauvin managed to escape the fate of a Pietro Tresso or a Mathieu Buchholz – murdered by Stalinist maquis fighters – he saw with his own eyes the potentially lethal threat that Communist Party cadre represented to Trotskyists amidst the turmoil of the war.

Neither fear of repression nor the Allies’ democratic appeal served to dissuade Chauvin and his comrades of the need to defend an internationalist standpoint. On the contrary, the POI produced propaganda for German troops calling for working-class fraternity across borders, most notably in the newspaper Arbeiter und Soldat (‘Worker and Soldier’). This perilous activity registered a grim balance-sheet, occasioning the deaths of dozens of German and French comrades when the soldiers’ organisation was cracked by the Gestapo in October 1943. Dozens more fell into police custody or were sent to the camps, where they continued to keep the revolutionary flame alive[2]. It may seem strange, then, that so many POI cadre devoted themselves so wholeheartedly to such dangerous work at the height of Nazi repression, only then to lessen their activity after the war was over. But this can be explained by the great hopes of the early Trotskyist movement that the war would bring capitalism to the brink: thus even small but well-organised groups could have a decisive impact in directing the inevitable strikes and mutinies. This apparent lesson of the conclusions of World War I disappointed in 1944–5, it was only natural to question the real likelihood of imminent revolutionary change and the nature of political organisation.

Early political formation

However, even if Chauvin was particularly notable for his experience of the camps, the arduous war years were just part of three-quarters of a century of activism as a Trotskyist. This was a lifelong struggle, notably marked by non-sectarianism, a commitment to the unity of the radical left, and with that a certain independence of minds.

Even from a very young age he was strongly politicised. This was in part thanks to his father René, an MP for the SFIO and personal secretary to Jules Guesde, leader of that party’s ‘intransigent’ opposition to participation in bourgeois governments. René Chauvin left the SFIO soon before Guesde capitulated and joined René Viviani’s War Cabinet in August 1914. Although an opponent of the SFIO’s gradual assimilation into bourgeois political life, René Chauvin had little time for the Communist Party (PCF) born in the wake of World War I, alienated by its ‘Bolshevik hardness’.

Nor would his son Jean-René, a child of November 1918, ever display particular attraction to that party. Having read Leon Trotsky’s My Life (‘a book I read as you would swallow down strong liquor’[3]) and witnessed the monstrous spectacle of the Moscow Trials as a teenager, he was put off the pro-Moscow PCF. Rather, his first political involvement was in the Jeunesses Socialistes, the autonomous youth wing of the SFIO. As a 15-year-old the junior Chauvin attended his first protest, the mighty 12th February 1934 Paris demonstration of working-class unity against fascism. This march came in response to the far-right riots of 6th February, which brought down Édouard Daladier’s liberal government: and this at a time when the PCF was still spreading word of the ‘social-fascism’ of the SFIO.[4] The fascist threat was soaring, just one year after Hitler’s coming to power in Germany: nonetheless, Chauvin reckoned he was the only boy from his lycée to skive a day off school to attend the counter-protest.

But the clearly-growing strength of the fascist ‘anti-establishment’ demanded a sea change in the French left’s whole outlook. Indeed, after 6th February PCF soon abandoned the lunatic ‘Third Period’ theory that the real threat to workers came from the ‘social-fascist’ SFIO, and a degree of working-class unity was achieved. However, the new strategy quickly developed into something quite different, the cross-class People’s Front of all forces opposed to fascism[5]. When the People’s Front entered government in 1936, a young Chauvin soon realised that ‘cross-class’ unity was in fact anti-working class and no means to fight fascism, as evidenced by SFIO Prime Minister Léon Blum’s apathetic stance to the crushing of the Spanish Republic. As a Madrid government of noticeably similar composition to that in Paris was besieged by Franco and his accomplices Mussolini and Hitler, Blum waved the white flag of non-intervention. Chauvin was repulsed by this attitude.

Indeed, it was in support of a comrade who had gone to fight in Spain that Chauvin first spoke at a Jeunesses Socialistes meeting, leading to his selection as a member of the Gironde regional leadership of the SFIO youth. This was in fact after the point at which the Trotskyists’ Groupe Bolchévique-Léniniste had borne significant influence in the Jeunesses Socialistes leadership, with figures such as Yvan Craipeau, Jean Rous and Fred Zeller having left in the wake of the 1935 expulsions, and Chauvin was drawn to Marceau Pivert’s centrist Gauche révolutionnaire. However, Chauvin was already in contact with Pierre Naville and quickly left the social-democracy in favour of the country’s largest Trotskyist formation, the Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste (POI). Like Trotsky, Chauvin favoured the POI’s merger with the centrist PSOP (created after the Gauche Révolutionnaire was expelled from the SFIO in 1938), but in January 1939 the POI decided it would not follow this course of action, with individual members being allowed to join if they so wished.

The camps

Chauvin and his former Jeunesses Socialistes comrades in Bordeaux thus formed a local PSOP section, although their conduct was perhaps more daring than the centrist party’s general demeanour might suggest. After the announcement of the Hitler-Stalin pact the Bordeaux PSOP youth headed to the ship-building yards with thousands of anti-war leaflets, the first sentence Trotsky’s ‘Stalinism is the mortal enemy of communism’[6]. Two days later Chauvin and his comrades were picked up at home and charged with ‘provocation of soldiers to sedition, anarchist goings-on and propaganda of foreign inspiration’. The trial was a farce and Chauvin was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment… however, given the chaos of the French war effort, he was in fact passed from barracks to barracks, with officers completely unable to decide what to do with him.[7] This did at least spare him from any front-line service, although he remained prisoner even after the June 1940 armistice and was not released until October 1941.

The first efforts to build a Resistance movement within France were already underway, in particular given the growth of PCF involvement following the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union. The PSOP had collapsed under the pressures of war, while the POI[8] had quite different perspectives from the Stalinists and the French-nationalist Resistance. It sought not to promote the Allied cause, the French nation or vague notions of democracy, but rather the use of the crisis to promote independent and internationalist working-class politics. This was a difficult task both politically and practically, given the extreme repression and the fact that the group had only three or four hundred members, with no experience of underground work.[9] Chauvin himself was too well-known in Bordeaux for clandestine activism so headed for Paris, the nerve-centre of the POI’s operations and its newspaper, La Vérité. He was charged with the party’s ties to groups outside the capital and, from August 1942, contacts with German refugees. The idea behind this latter project was to disseminate revolutionary propaganda amongst the German troops and encourage revolutionary sentiment in Germany, a strategy quite at odds with the PCF’s ‘Everyone kill a Kraut’ chauvinism. This would later lead to the production of Arbeiter und Soldat, a newspaper for the Wehrmacht rank-and-file[10].

However, Chauvin never had the chance fully to participate in this work. Having once been arrested and managed to escape police custody through a window, he was arrested for good by the French police on 15th February 1943. In what was a terrible year for the POI, seeing dozens of its members captured, tortured and murdered in a string of Gestapo attacks, Chauvin too was lost to the organisation. He did not return to its ranks until after the war was over. He was taken first to the Compiègne transit camp, then to forced labour at Mauthausen, Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Unaware of what was really happening in the world around him, unaware if and when he would ever be released, he lived through two years of dizzying terror. However, moral courage (and no small degree of physical strength) meant he would outlive the thousand-year Reich.

While it would be remiss of me to simply précis an account of camp life so thrillingly detailed in Un trotskiste dans l’enfer nazi, linking his own hardship to that of so many other camp-prisoners worldwide, one particular aspect deserves particular mention: the twin threat posed by Nazis and Stalinists. Within the underworld of the camps, the etiquette and rules imposed by prisoners on each other, the overriding Stalinist policy was to anathemise and boycott Trotskyists, who were accused of all sorts of complicity in fascism. Sometimes, however, this went a step further, not least the murders of Pietro Tresso, Jean Reboul, Abraham Sadek and Pierre Salini by the Camp Wodli maquis after their liberation from the Puy-en-Velay prison camp. Chauvin came under similar threat at Buchenwald as two Stalinists threatened to ‘break the neck’ of this ‘Hitlero-Trotskyist’. When the blows started landing, Chauvin’s rugby and boxing experience served him well, however, and another pair of Communists intervened to break up the fight.

The end of the war meant Chauvin was at liberty, although La Vérité was refused a licence to appear legally and thus maintained a degree of semi-illegality.[11] Upon his return from Buchenwald in June 1945, Chauvin wrote a letter to Sud-Ouest, La France and the PCF’s La Gironde Populaire, also signed by another five former Mauthausen detainees, calling for freedom of the press. These newspapers all printed the letter, but dismissing Chauvin’s experience La Gironde Populaire replied the next day with an attack on “Hitlero-Trotskyists who collaborated with the Nazi occupation”. Chauvin successfully sued for libel, but Bayet’s decision stood: La Vérité was not authorised until April 1946. This only came some 18 months after Liberation, during which time six Trotskyists were arrested for their illegal propaganda.

Postwar activity

The Trotskyist movement was not in good shape coming out of the war period, its hopes of revolutionary outcomes to the Resistance disappointed. 1944 saw the POI merge with two of the other three Trotskyist groups, the Octobre group and the CCI led by Pierre Frank and Marcel Bleibtreu, thus forming the Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI). In 1946 Yvan Craipeau became the party’s general secretary, leading a ‘broad’ faction including Chauvin (who became secretary) and other long-standing POI leaders like Albert Demazière and Roland Filiâtre. As well as doubting the Fourth International’s belief as to the ‘degenerated workers’ state’ in Russia, the tendency did not accept the assertion that capitalism would not recover from the war: if anything, the potentially revolutionary moment of the late war years had been and gone. Indeed, given the lack of growth of Trotskyist forces, Chauvin, like Craipeau, believed the POI should have done more to try and participate in the maquis, even while repudiating Stalinist and Gaullist politics. This was in contrast with the line of the CCI, which was essentially blind to the existence of any national question in France, and when the former CCI leadership took charge of the PCI in 1947, the organisation as a whole adopted similarly unreal perspectives. Whereas the ‘broad’ tendency had worked to influence the Jeunesses Socialistes (expelled from the SFIO for supporting the Renault strike), the post-1947 leadership proclaimed the imminence of capitalist collapse and thus the need for organisational ‘tightness’.

This dismayed many of the more serious militants, and most of the ‘broad’ tendency left: Chauvin himself was expelled. This aggravated the already-existing crisis in the PCI, which also saw a break to the left in the form of Socialisme ou Barbarie: indeed by 1952 the PCI had shrunk to about one-quarter of its 1947 size. However, the task of regrouping the anti-Stalinist left beyond the PCI proved a challenging one. Chauvin joined the Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire (RDR) led by David Rousset, Georges Altman and Jean-Paul Sartre, which promised a sizeable alternative to the PCF. Former prominent POI figures such as Pierre Naville and Fred Zeller also took this step. However, the RDR lacked political cohesion and struggled to carve out an independent space between the SFIO and PCF as the Cold War got colder: this ‘third force’ soon collapsed. Chauvin’s visit to Tito’s Yugoslavia in 1948 – and total disappointment with what he found there – similarly attested to the difficulties in finding any significant alternative force which could challenge Stalinism from the left.

The splinters of the RDR did have something of a continuity across the 1950s, from the Nouvelle Gauche to the Parti Socialiste Autonome, the Union de la Gauche Socialiste and finally the Socialiste Unifié, a party of some ten thousand by 1968. The New Left was not quite at one with his own politics, which were more specifically Trotskyist: however, he was somewhat of an independent-minded figure, not valorising any particular organisation as the sole incarnation of revolutionary spirit. One gesture of anti-sectarianism displays this in particular: when almost the entire far left was banned in June 1968 following May’s general strike, and the groups were thus forced to reconstitute themselves, he agreed to be registered as legally liable for Lutte Ouvrière, even though never associated with that tendency as such. Instead he turned from the PSU to the Ligue Communiste. This organisation was itself banned for a second time after a violent clash with the fascist Ordre Nouveau (in fact an episode of particular merit in its curious student-Guevarist turn), and, after the group’s reconstitution as the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire in 1973, Chauvin became a leading figure in its Tendance 3, which advocated more of a commitment to unity in action with reformist forces.

Chauvin enjoyed several periods in and out of the LCR, continuing to advocate an essentially similar perspective to that he had argued for in the 1939 POI debate on unity with the PSOP: revolutionary, yes, but not standing aloof from reformists. For instance, in a 2001 article for Carré rouge[12] he argued for a ‘States-General’ of the left, drawing explicit parallels with the formation of the POUM. In this sense he was sticking to his life-long original conceptions rather than developing new ideas, although the idea of the groups one day overcoming their divisions (and that, not just advocated as one sect looking to swallow up the others) was certainly a worthwhile perspective.

Aside from his involvement in the organised left Chauvin’s activity was strongly influenced by his time in the camps. As early as 1946 he participated in a meeting of Trotskyist camp survivors; he was not afraid to speak out against the Stalinist gulags even when the Cold War dominated French political life; and well into old age he spoke at schools about his experience of the totalitarian nightmare. This also informed his 2006 book, Un trotskiste dans l’enfer nazi, his only published volume. In 2002 he was the subject of a film, whose title bore witness to his critical-thinking spirit: Jean-René Chauvin, trotskyste indépendant.

Jean-René Chauvin was the last of the generation who upheld the revolutionary message in World War II, a lifelong revolutionist and a man of great wit, courage and activist experience. His loss is a loss to all those who wish to understand the vivacity and critical-minded spirit of the early Trotskyist movement, its heroic struggle to survive in occupied France and its darkest period of repression. Sadly, the united radical left he always fought for, lived and breathed, remains a work yet to be accomplished. He died on 27th February 2011, aged 93.

David Broder

[1] See the review by Ian Birchall in Revolutionary History Vol. 9, No. 4.

[3] Jean-René Chauvin, Un trotskiste dans l’enfer nazi, Syllepse, Paris, 2006, p. 60.

[4] “The Parti communiste will never tolerate a policy of over-arching entente, the politics of retreat and abdication before the social-fascists” – Maurice Thorez, L’Humanité, 8th March 1934.

[5] In 1939 Maurice Thorez even suggested this front could be extended include those ‘patriotic’ Croix de Feu fascists willing to fight German Nazism.

[6] Un trotskiste dans l’enfer nazi, p. 65.

[7] Humorously recounted in Un trotskiste dans l’enfer nazi, pp. 66-73.

[8] To be precise, the early-wartime period the group took the name Comités pour la IVe Internationale; from April 1942 Comités de la IVe Internationale; and then POI again from June 1943, a name I will use throughout for simplicity’s sake.

[9] Yvan Craipeau, Contre vents et marées, Savelli, Paris, 1977, p. 93.

[10] In English: www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/soldat/index.htm, originally in Workers’ Liberty 3/20, June 2008.

[11] In La Libération Confisquée, Savelli, Paris, 1978, Yvan Craipeau also attributes some of the responsibility for this to the POI itself, given its failure to participate in the various parties’ take-overs of printing presses which coincided with the Liberation of Paris.

[12]No. 18, summer 2001, available at http://www.carre-rouge.org/Numeros/N18/69.pdf