Anton Dannat, Auf dem Floss der Medusa?, Marxismus (Vienna), no 11, August 1997, ÖS180/DM26.

THE experiences of French Trotskyism in the 1930s were some of the most important that the movement confronted anywhere; yet there is no full history of the period with the exception of Craipeau’s Le Mouvement trotskyste en France which, whilst useful, stands halfway between a participant’s memoir and a documented account. Readers of German will therefore welcome the appearance of Anton Dannat’s Auf dem Floss der Medusa?. (The title is a reference to Géricault’s famous painting of a tiny group of shipwreck survivors huddled on a raft in a stormy sea.)

Dannat traces the story through every split and turn. He has studied the primary sources in great detail, and most of his 1200 footnotes refer to the Trotskyist press and internal bulletins. He had patiently built up a picture of the various Trotskyist organisations, shows that their total membership never exceeded 750, and that they were always based preponderantly in Paris; his maps make it clear that there was never a fully national organisation, and that in particular the South-West of France remained largely untouched. A concluding section gives brief biographies of the main actors, though this is mainly derived from Maitron’s Dictionnaire biographique, which remains the key source for any serious researcher.

However, Dannat does not fall into the trap of seeing his subject matter as the centre of the universe. He carefully integrates the account into the development of the mainstream French left in the period, and places it in the context of the international Trotskyist movement. He also provides parallel accounts of various non-Trotskyist splits from the Communist Party (PCF), such as Doriot’s Parti populaire français and Ferrat’s Que Faire?. He uses an extensive bibliography of secondary material, in which there are only one or two surprising gaps. Whilst drawing on Deutscher’s and Broué’s lives of Trotsky, he makes no use of Tony Cliff’s work; and though giving considerable attention to the Gauche révolutionnaire in the SFIO, he makes no reference to Jacques Kergoat’s valuable biography of Marceau Pivert (Paris, 1994).

Dannat writes dispassionately, realising that at this distance there is little point in taking sides in factional disputes; what is required is a careful examination of the evidence and a willingness to learn from the mistakes of those who lived through much harder circumstances than our own. Only in his brief conclusion does he permit himself some judgements, based on his earlier narrative.

Dannat gives a full account of the dispute in 1930 which led to the departure of Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer and the rapid rise of Raymond Molinier, and explains the importance of this dispute for the Ligue communiste’s trade union strategy. Trotsky later recognised Molinier’s failings, comparing him to a cow that produces much milk, but then kicks over the bucket. But though Trotsky later accused him of ‘revolutionary impatience’, Dannat is quite right to say that if Trotsky had blocked Molinier’s career at the outset, a lot of trouble would have been saved. Not only did Molinier run a debt-collecting business (we all compromise to earn a living under capitalism, but that is going a bit far), but he used the fact that he was a major source of the organisation’s finances to influence its policy. The phenomenon of the bright-eyed youngster offering get-rich-quick solutions has a history in the movement, and it is time that Molinier was firmly labelled as a product of Trotsky’s own impatience.

The problem of Molinier persisted throughout the decade, and led to some of the ugly sectarianism that harmed the movement so much. In 1937, there was an election in the working-class suburb of Saint-Denis, where Jacques Doriot had been mayor. Workers were disillusioned by their experience of the Popular Front; Doriot had shifted towards the far right. Yet the two Trotskyist candidates devoted their time to abusing each other for financial corruption and Stalinist methods. Small wonder workers did not see them as a viable alternative.

Dannat also judges the ‘French turn’, entry into the SFIO in 1934, to have been a failure. Doubtless this will remain a point of controversy. The number who entered the SFIO was 113 out of a membership of 140 in the Ligue communiste; a year later the membership of the Groupe bolchevik-léniniste was 300, but since this was a period of rising struggle culminating in the mass strike of 1936, it would probably have grown in any case. As Dannat shows, entry into the SFIO meant a change of milieu for the Trotskyists; instead of remaining within a tiny propaganda circle, they had a potential audience of many thousands — though also the danger of believing conference resolutions represented a real influence on the masses. But as Dannat shows, there was great confusion amongst members as to why they were entering. Some saw it as a short-term raid, and some as a long-term strategy, whilst others actually believed the SFIO could be converted into a revolutionary party. Not surprisingly, there was equal confusion about their withdrawal, and again about their entry into Pivert’s PSOP at the end of the decade.

Tactics and personalities do matter, and the French Trotskyists made some grave mistakes. But were they enough to make the difference between their 750 and the mass movement needed to turn the Popular Front into a workers’ victory? On the evidence provided by Dannat it seems unlikely.

Ian Birchall