Louis Rigaudias (1911-1999)

ONCE more we have felt a painful pang in our heart, once more our flags are black-edged. Our old friend and comrade Louis Rigaudias left us forever on 13 May.

Louis, who was to become known in the Trotskyist movement under the pseudonym of Rigal, was born on 22 March 1911 in Constantinople (the former name of Istanbul), Turkey, from an impoverished family of European origins. He was sent to parochial schools first in France, where his family lived from 1919 to 1923, and then in Turkey, when they returned, until he finished his Lyceum studies. In 1928, he left for France to continue his studies at the post-baccalaureate level at the well-known Lycée Henri IV in Paris. There he met Yvan Craipeau, a fellow student, who was already a Trotskyist. Rigal joined the Socialist student youth group in 1929 and the Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO) in 1930, and was subsequently driven to the left by the tragic German events which brought Hitler to victory, and which marked a turning point in his political development. As he himself recalled: ‘I was traumatised by the Hitlerite movement’s ascent and seizure of power, in the very heart of a Europe where mass workers’ parties existed but were unable or unwilling to resist, either because of their attachment to Weimar democracy or to the pragmatic dogmas of the Third International.’

Thus in October 1933, Rigal resolved to enter the ranks of the Jeunesse Léniniste, the Trotskyist youth organisation, and during 1934 he become a member of their Political Bureau. A little later he joined the Ligue Communiste, the French section of the International Left Opposition, where he sided with the supporters of the entryist tactic sponsored by Trotsky. It was therefore as a member of the Ligue that Rigal re-entered the Social Democratic SFIO in September 1934.

A leading member of the Groupe Bolchevik-Léniniste (GBL) of the SFIO and of the Jeunesses Socialistes (JS), he was amongst the Trotskyist cadres who were expelled from the JS at the Lille Congress in July 1935, and, three months later, he was ejected from the SFIO too. In January 1936, he took part in the creation of the Jeunesses Socialistes Révolutionnaires (JSR), and in the June of that year he was one of the founders of the Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste (POI). After serving in the army in Nancy and Paris in 1936-37, he became a member of the POI leadership and of the editorial board of its organ, La Lutte Ouvrière, entrusted with following international politics, and was also charged with representing the adult leadership within the JSR and with following the activity of the ‘Groupe juif’, the Jewish-language group within the POI which had been dramatically weakened by a serious split in October 1933.

From October 1938, Rigal, together with the POI majority, opposed entry into Marceau Pivert’s Parti Socialiste Ouvrier et Paysan (PSOP), arguing that, since the war was approaching as a consequence of the Munich Pact, it was necessary to assign a priority to the achievement of homogeneity in the Trotskyist organisation and prepare it to function in the underground. Nevertheless, together with Pierre Naville and Pietro Tresso (Blasco), he was part of the delegation of the POI Political Bureau that, on 15 October, met the PSOP leaders in order to negotiate a fusion which the PSOP rejected two months later for the sake of the ‘individual entry’ of the POI’s members with no factional rights. At the POI national congress held on 14-15 January 1939, Rigal presented the main report on behalf of the anti-entryist majority. In the end, only a minority of the POI headed by Craipeau and Jean Rous, and supported by Trotsky and the majority of the International Executive Committee, resolved to accept the conditions posed by the Pivertists, and they consequently joined the PSOP on 3 February 1939, thus causing a split in the French Trotskyist organisation.

During that same period, Rigal met Margaret (Gretl) Glogau, a young American militant living in Paris, who had joined the POI in the autumn of 1938. Gretl became his lifelong companion, and, after the outbreak of the Second World War and until the ‘débâcle’ of May-June 1940, she ensured the technical preparation of the POI’s internal bulletins. In 1939, Rigal was accidentally involved in a police investigation into the JSR’s anti-militarist activity, and early in the May of that year he was arrested in Paris and imprisoned in the military prison of the Cherche-Midi and subsequently in Metz. After eight days captivity in the Metz prison, he was summoned, without a counsel, before an examining magistrate who accused him of espionage. ‘I laughed in his face’, Rigal recalled 40 years later. ‘I declared to him that it was our duty to keep in touch with our comrades in the army and to expose reactionary and fascistic activities within the army, and that, in that sense, I solidarised with my comrades, even though I had not directly participated in the affair.’

Finally, after the outbreak of the Second World War, Rigal was moved to the prison of Châlons-sur-Marne, and was eventually brought before a military court on 9 March 1940. He was sentenced to the maximum penalty of five years imprisonment, 15 years interdiction of his residence permit, and a fine of 60 000 francs. He was sentenced along with his comrades Isaac Bloushtein (Stève), Lucien Schmitt (Séverin) and Erich Polke. Faced with the advance of the Nazi troops, however, the penitentiary administration evacuated Rigal and his co-detainees to Fresnes, and then to a concentration camp next to Montargis, where he met Pierre Boussel (Lambert), who in 1938 had joined the dissident Trotskyist group led by Raymond Molinier and Pierre Frank. Ultimately, in June 1940, following the disbandment of the camp guards, he managed to get to Paris together with Schmitt.

Back in the French capital, Rigal joined the ‘informal’ Trotskyist group around Marcel Hic, and was amongst those who fought from the left against the various nationalist deviations which, under pressure from the Nazi victories, had been voiced by some of the French leaders. In July 1940, the Hic group merged with the Craipeau-led Comités de la Quatriè­me Internationale to form the Comités Français pour la Quatrième In­ternationale (CFpQI), whose underground organ La Vérité appeared in the following month. Rigal become a member of the newly-formed organisation. Besides actively taking part in the activities of the CFpQI, Rigal took part, together with Bloushtein, Marc Paillet (Soudran), Paul Parisot (Geoffroy), Jean Rabaut and Léopold Sabas, in producing the mimeographed bulletin La Nation Libre, the first issue of which was launched in December 1940, and which enjoyed the sympathy of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Having found a job at the Ministry of National Education, Rigal heard that the Ministry of Industrial Production was seeking personnel to prepare press reviews, and informed David Rousset of this vacancy. This marked the birth of the Centre d’Études Industrielles et Sociales (CEIS), to which Rousset recruited Hic, Charles Bettelheim and our lamented friend Jeannine Morel, an untiring shorthand typist, in the service of proletarian internationalism. Rigal opposed, with bitter but clear pessimism, the daring political work that some Trotskyists had started carrying out amongst German toilers in uniform:

‘Our group had proved to be unable to organise in the underground... On the other hand, a leading comrade [Marcel Hic] announced to me, late in 1940 or early in 1941, that some local groups in the province had formed nuclei of sympathisers within the occupation army. Agitational work in the army is only possible when the latter is experiencing a crisis. The Nazis thought that they had already won. Consequently, forming such groups was premature. It would merely enable the Gestapo surveillance agents working in the army to infiltrate those groups, to annihilate them, and to destroy the cadres of our organisation.’

Following the surfacing of this difference of opinion, Rigal unsuccessfully asked Hic to cancel that activity, and then, at a meeting of part of the CFpQI leadership, asked to be authorised to move to Marshal Pétain’s ‘Free Zone’: ‘I posed the question of my departure, which was ratified by a majority, even though I had not raised the problem of the German work, which I considered to be ultra-secret and should have remained between Hic and me.’ Thus at the end of 1941, he left Paris for Marseilles together with Pietro Tresso, who was wanted by the Gestapo because of his internationalist activities. Meanwhile, in January or February 1941, Rigal had convinced Gretl — who had taken refuge in Nantes after the entry of the German army into Paris, keeping in touch with Fred Zeller and Janine (the companion of the Rumanian Nelu Grunberg, also known as Nicolas Spoulber or Marcoux) — to return to the USA, since her nationality and her Jewish origins placed her in a doubly dangerous situation in view of America’s probable entry into the war.

Passing through Lyons, Rigal and Tresso met the Trotskyist leader Abram Sadek (Kamo) — who was to be assassinated by the Stalinists in October 1943, together with Tresso himself and two other activists — and Alfred (Léon) Bardin, who had broken with the organisation a little before to take up position in favour of the cross-class Resistance movement. Finally arriving in Marseilles early in August 1941, the two immediately established contact with Albert Demazière (Granet), who was the main leader and promoter of the Trotskyist organisation in the ‘Free Zone’. Rigal recalled: ‘There was, of course, a certain autonomy between the groups in the southern zone and the Paris group. Dispatch bearers arrived continuously from Lyons, Toulouse, etc. The comrades in Marseilles were making many reservations about our stance towards the national Resistance against the occupation, and it took some time to me to convince them of the correctness of that orientation.’ To this end, he drafted a lengthy discussion document on the ‘Socialist reasons’ for the anti-German national Resistance and the struggle against the Vichy regime.

Some months after his arrival in Marseilles, forced to live in an extremely precarious situation, Rigal resolved to leave France, in agreement with the leadership of the group. Having at last obtained an exit visa on the basis of a passport under an assumed name, he received a Cuban visa through the services of the International Rescue Committee which had been set up by Varian Fry in New York in June 1940, and managed to embark for Cuba on 2 January 1942. On 30 September that year, in connection with the trial against the Marseilles Trotskyists, the Marseilles military court sentenced him in absentia to lifelong hard labour, under the name of Pichon.

After a long voyage, stopping in Casablanca and Jamaica, Rigal eventually landed in Havana on 14 February 1942. He remained in Cuba for three-and-a-half years, during which, besides studying the works of Marx and Engels, the thought of utopian Socialists and the history of Latin America, he first learnt of the theoretical positions of the Council Communists. His companion Gretl reached him some months later, and on 14 September 1942 they got married on the advice of the New York Trotskyists, who thought that this would facilitate the rapid granting of a US entry visa to Rigal. In fact, he had to wait until the end of the war, and was plagued by numerous practical problems thereafter.

In what Gretl called the Cuban ‘cultural half-desert’ of that time, he become a close friend of the surrealist painter Wifredo Lam — who had taken part in the Spanish Civil War before passing through Fry’s rescue organisation in Marseilles — and met the British Trotskyist Mary Low, who had also fought in Spain, together with her companion Juan Ramón Breá, who had been one of the pioneers of the Left Opposition in Cuba and had died in April 1941. But above all Rigal put himself at the disposal of the Cuban section of the Fourth International, the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (POR).

Under the pseudonym of Marco, he did much to ensure the publication of the POR’s organ, Revolución Proletaria, which was frequently written by him alone, as he had the necessary spare time, whereas the other comrades were overburdened by their jobs. He recalled with satisfaction two special issues of the paper — which had a wide echo and aroused the fury of the Cuban Stalinists — devoted to a critique of the dissolution of the Communist International by Stalin in May-June 1943, and to the Athens insurrection of December 1944, which had been betrayed by the leaders of the Greek Stalinist party and drowned in blood by Stalin’s British allies. But he refused to take positions on Cuban domestic matters, as he thought they were beyond his field of experience and comprehension.

By that time the POR leadership — the main members of which were the editor of Revolución Pro­letaria, Pablo Díaz González, and Roberto Pérez Santiesteban — was faced with the task of reorganising and, in particular, politically reorienting the group after the crisis experienced by Cuban Trotskyism during the mid-1930s. But the POR leadership did not prove equal to this task. Thus on the occasion of the 1944 elections, faced with the possibility of the victory of the retiring President Fulgencio Batista, the POR adopted a policy of critical support to the bourgeois nationalist Partido Revolucio­nario Cuba­no (Auténtico) of ex-President Ramón Grau San Martín, who had links with the USA, and, after his own electoral success, could count on several occasions on support from the Cuban Stalinists of the Partido Socialista Popular. The policy followed by the POR at this juncture was harshly criticised by the Trotskyists in the USA, and in the following months the Cuban section of the Fourth International engaged in a re-examination of the mistakes they had made in relation to Auténticismo. But ambiguities still remained unresolved, all the more so as in May 1946 the POR claimed that its 1944 election policy was entirely correct.

Gretl left Cuba in November 1944 to settle in New York, and in March 1945 she gave birth to their only child, Chris. But Rigal remained in Havana until October 1945, when he obtained an immigration visa for the USA, where the couple lived until August 1963. In New York, Rigal joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), within which he used the pseudonym of Charles Milner, and took the positions of the minority faction headed by Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman, which had already manifested itself at the Eleventh National Convention of the party in November 1944 — although at that time Morrow and Goldman were in prison after having been sentenced, together with another 16 leaders and members of the SWP, at the famous Minneapolis trial because of their opposition to the imperialist war — with a criticism of James P Cannon’s ‘bureaucratic regime’.

In July 1945, the minority faction of the SWP raised the question of reunification with Max Shachtman’s Workers Party, which the Cannonite leadership considered at least politically premature. The range of differences subsequently extended to the analysis of the world situation and the political perspectives in the immediate postwar period. Opposing the ‘catastrophist’ standpoint of the SWP majority, Morrow and Goldman argued that postwar Western Europe would pass through a period of vigorous economic recovery due to US aid, which would restore bourgeois democracy and dismiss any revolutionary possibilities for decades.

Another crucial point of difference revolved around the ‘Russian question’, on which Rigal was entrusted with drafting a minority document in view of the forthcoming Twelfth National Convention of the SWP. At the plenary meeting of the SWP leadership on 16 May 1946, Morrow had declared, in substantial agreement with the positions of Natalia Sedova, that there were no more reasons to defend the Soviet Union. The document written by Rigal, dated 27 October 1946, went even farther, and was much more explicit in justifying the abandonment of unconditional defence of the USSR. It questioned Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinist Russia as a degenerated workers’ state, and defined it as a state capitalist society governed by a bureaucracy which was in fact a ‘new class’ carrying on an ‘imperialist’ policy. The Twelfth Convention of the SWP, held in November 1946, resolved to expel Morrow and the minority for unauthorised collaboration with the Workers Party.

This break brought about the start of a new stage in Rigal’s political evolution. A little while later he broke with Trotskyism, which in his opinion had exhausted its historical function and had transformed itself into a sterile sect:

‘Trotskyism had “been surpassed”. It had been useful in its denunciation of Stalinism and Social Democratic opportunism, but... its perspective proved inadequate and erroneous in its two stages: 1) reforming the Russian regime and the Communist parties; 2) overcoming Stalinism in the West through a revolution taking advantage of the crisis. The course of the Second World War and the immediate postwar period brought a consolidation and an expansion of the Stalinist regime, and a partition of the world into North American and Russian spheres of influence. As a matter of fact, Russia was, and is increasingly, a bureaucratic and totalitarian state capitalism.’

Together with a tiny grouplet of comrades — which included Horst Brand and Amos Vogel — he devoted himself to ‘rediscovering’ Marx’s works and to deepening the study of economy and sociology. He also contributed to Dissent, the magazine of the students of Columbia University.

Rigal returned to France in August 1963, after having arrived at political positions which were analogous to those of the Council Communists. In the course of 1968, he joined the short-lived Comité d’Initiative pour un Mouvement Révolutionnaire, and regularly contributed to the magazine edited by René Lefeuvre, Spartacus, from its inception in 1975 to its demise in 1979. This period of his life also witnessed other writings, namely ‘Pourquoi faut-il lire Veblen?’, an introduction to the French-language translation of Thorstein Veblen’s works The Engineers and the Price System and On the Nature of Capital; the essay ‘Veblen and Marx’, which appeared in the January-June 1974 issue of the magazine L’Homme et la Société; and ‘L’Espagne: hier et demain’, an introduction to the 1975 reprint of three prewar Spartacus booklets under the title of Espagne. Les fossoyeurs de la révolution sociale, by Katia Landau and Marcel Ollivier.

In 1979, at the age of 68, he wrote that he regretted he was unable to carry on any militant activity, even though he continued constantly to analyse in a critical way both the development of the new movements and the new forms of struggle that emerged after May 1968, and political and social events in France and internationally. Rigal attached great importance to the preservation of the historical memory of the workers’ movement; it was precisely for this reason that in 1978 he agreed to join the Board of Directors of the Centre d’Études et de Recherches sur les Mouvements Trotskyste et Révolutionnai­res Internationaux (CERMTRI) in Paris, of which he was appointed honorary member in 1996.

I met Rigal for the first time in Paris in 1989. Our old friend Louis Bonnel, who had been a member of the POI leadership during the 1930s, had handed to Rigal a copy of the book Vita di Blasco, which I had written together with Giorgio Sermasi and had been published in 1985. And it was the selfsame Bonnel who put me in touch with Rigal and Gretl, who in May 1989 received me very warmly in their small apartment in the Square Albin-Cachot. Having always maintained a close friendship with Tresso’s companion Debora Seidenfeld (Barbara), they had attended her funeral after she died in Rimini in November 1978. Margherita Zoebeli, head of the Centro Educativo Italo-Svizzero, which she had founded with Barbara immediately after the Second World War for abandoned and shell-shocked children, conveyed to Rigal at his request the political books in Barbara’s personal library. Rigal and Gretl generously decided to donate them to the Centro Studi Pietro Tresso, of which I was the director at that time. I left for Italy with a precious collection of old, long-unobtainable books.

I visited Rigal and Gretl almost every year over a decade or so. Rigal’s state of health visibly worsened with the passing of time, making him more and more vulnerable, and involving a steady increase in the number of medicines stacked upon a table in his study that was filled with books in several different languages. He was an omnivorous and polyglot reader, endowed with a great sharpness of mind and an inexhaustible intellectual curiosity. Our meetings found us in long discussions, and he asked me to keep him informed about the Italian political situation in general, which he followed anyway from the French press, and about the state of the Italian far left. Rigal and Gretl concretely supported, in various ways, the publishing activities of the Centro Studi Pietro Tresso, subsequently continued by the Quaderni Pietro Tresso issued in Florence by the Bi-Elle publishing house.

With Rigal has gone not only a participant of French Trotskyism in the 1930s and of Cuban and American Trotskyism in the 1940s, but also a highly-cultivated militant intellectual and an unrepentant revolutionary, an irreconcilable enemy of the capitalist system in all its forms. He donated his body to medical research. Many of his old comrades met in the afternoon of 25 September in Paris to pay homage to him; Jean-René Chauvin, Yvan Craipeau, Jean-Paul Dessertine, Maurice Nadeau and Paul Parisot, to name just some. During the commemoration a testimony by Ronaldo Guedes, who frequently visited Rigal between 1971 and 1974, was read to the audience. It is a worthy epitaph for a man who always genuinely strove for a better future for mankind:

‘What was remarkable was his creative way of applying dialectics to the interpretation of the history of people, especially in revolutionary periods. He sought to integrate it, as a living whole, with economy, sociology and the historical and cultural traditions of peoples, frequently expressed through literary and artistic works. Belonging in general to the Luxemburgist current of thought, he had an extremely rich and non-mechanical way of understanding and explaining the political and social behaviour of popular masses in history... What is absolutely certain is that his main concern never ceased to be the quest for another society, more just and free from any form of alienation. The sense of his political and intellectual battle, from his youth in the gloomy and dramatic 1930s, remains an urgent necessity at the end of the century.’

Paolo Casciola

Primary sources

Louis Rigaudias, ‘Résolution sur la question russe soumise à la convention de novembre de 1946 du Parti Ouvrier Socialiste par la minorité du SWP (27 October 1946)’, unpublished French translation.

Louis Rigaudias, Autobiographical testimony (18 October 1976).

Louis Rigaudias, Letter to Jean Maitron (6 March 1979).

Louis Rigaudias, Unpublished recollections (1979).

Louis Rigaudias, Interviews with Alberto Rojas (December 1981-January 1982).

Louis Rigaudias, Letter to a Scottish comrade (4 August 1986).

Paolo Casciola, Notes from talks with L Rigaudias (1989-1998).

J Maitron and R Prager, ‘Louis Rigaudias’, in J Maitron-Claude Pennetier (ed), Dictionnaire bio­graphique du mouvement ouvrier français, Volume 40, Les Éditions Ouvrières, Paris, 1991, pp152-4.

Louis Rigaudias, Letter to Gary Tennant, with an addendum by G Glogau (23 February 1996).

Gretl Glogau, Letter to Gary Tennant (15 March 1996).

Paolo Casciola, Notes from a talk with Gretl Glogau (28 May 1999).

Ronaldo Guedes, Testimony (September 1999).

Horst Brand, Testimony (undated, but September 1999).

Gretl Glogau, Letter to Paolo Casciola (20 October 1999).