Communism is on the agenda of history: Castoriadis, Munis and the problem of breaking with Trotskyism

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In September 1945 Marc Chirik wrote a letter from Paris to the writer Jean Malaquais and his wife Gally. Malaquais had worked with Marc in the French fraction of the communist left in Marseille during the war, a period which inspired his great novel Planet without Visa, one of whose principal protagonists is a communist revolutionary, an internationalist opposed to the “anti-fascist” war, named “Marc Laverne”.

The letter begins: “first, the disappeared. Michel, our poor Mitchell, no news of him, he must have ended his life in frightful conditions… Jean was the best element of the Belgian Fraction… the most talented, full of promise (did you know him?). He and his son were deported and died in a concentration camp in Germany”.

There follows a list of comrades and contacts from the political milieu in Vichy Marseille, as well as members of his own family: those who died, those who came back after suffering appalling tortures, those who managed to avoid the Nazi terror by adopting false names, or by flight. A terror continued by the Stalinist Resistance, as Marc recounts further on:

The most critical moment for me, when I could see death in front of me, was a few weeks afterwards when the Stalinists arrested me along with Clara1 and took all my writings. They were ready to show me what they were made of. It was just by a miracle of luck that Clara had met, among the leading chiefs, a woman with whom she had worked for a while in the UGIF (to help Jewish children) and we were able to save our skins from the hatred of the Stalinists”.

Such was the situation facing internationalists during and immediately after the second imperialist world war. Mitchell, who was one of them, had written a series of articles on the ‘Problems of the Period of Transition’ in the pages of Bilan. We have published them as part of this series2 because they offer an authentic marxist framework for discussing some of the most fundamental questions of the communist transformation: the historical and international context of the proletarian revolution; the dangers emanating from the transitional state; the economic content of the transformation, and so on. These articles must have had a powerful influence on Marc and the French fraction, later the Gauche Communiste de France, as can be seen from their efforts to take Mitchell’s critique of the transitional state to its logical conclusion: the rejection of any identity between the proletariat and this necessary evil in the transformation of social relations.3

Stirrings in the proletarian milieu

The letter to Malaquais asks for news about the political milieu in the western hemisphere – the Paul Mattick group in Chicago, which he linked to the Dutch left, the Oehler group in the same city, the group of the Italian left in New York, the Eiffels group in Mexico. Marc also answers Malaquais’ questions about Victor Serge, who had been with them in the milieu in Marseille but had become a democrat, supporting the allied imperialisms during the war4. Following a review of the counter-revolutionary role being played by the former workers’ parties in the post-war settlement, Marc talks about the proletarian milieu, such as it was , in France, mentioning in passing the French fraction and the divergences around the formation of the party in Italy, but also the groups who had come out of Trotskyism “L’Union Communiste is dead, but in its place has arisen a group, the Communistes Revolutionnaires, coming from a split with the Trotskyists, and although confused, it is sincerely revolutionary”. The CR was aligned with the Austrian/German group Revolutionären Kommunisten Deutschlands, which had also broken from Trotskyism over the crucial issues of the defence of the USSR and support for the war. The French fraction had discussed and worked with the RKD during the war, jointly signing an internationalist manifesto at the time of the “liberation” of France5.

Thus the French fraction, and subsequently the GCF, were keenly interested in discussion with all the internationalist proletarian groups which had survived the war and which were undergoing a certain revival in its wake6. Despite their characterisation of official Trotskyism as an appendage to Stalinism, they were open to the possibility that groups emerging from Trotskyism – provided they made a total break with its counter-revolutionary positions and practices – could evolve in a positive direction. This had evidently been the case with the RKD/CR tendency, and also with the Stinas group, the International Communist Union, in Greece, although we don’t know much about the existence of any contacts between Stinas and the Italian communist left during or after the war7

In France itself, the GCF entered into contact with the group around Grandizo Munis and, from 1949, with the Socialisme ou Barbarie group animated by Cornelius Castoriadis/Chaulieu (who had been a member of the Stinas group in Greece), Claude Lefort/Montal and others. In the case of the Munis group, then called Union Ouvrière Internationaliste, the GCF held a series of meetings with them on the present situation of capitalism. The seminal text ‘The evolution of capitalism and the new perspective’ was based on the exposé given by Marc Chirik at one of these meetings. Similar initiatives were taken with the Socialisme ou Barbarie group.

In a subsequent article, we are going to examine the ideas of Munis and Castoriadis in more detail, not least because both of them devoted a great deal of energy to defining the meaning of proletarian revolution and of socialist society in a period of continuing reaction in which the hideous deformations of Stalinism, of “really existing socialism” in Russia and its bloc, were more or less dominant in the working class. This ideological domination was not at all challenged by official Trotskyism, whose “contribution” to understanding the transition from capitalism to socialism was limited to an apology for the Stalinist regimes, defined as deformed workers’ states, and an advocacy of “nationalisation under workers’ control” (i.e. a form of state capitalism) in the countries outside the Russian bloc. It is thus of particular interest to study the work of elements who were breaking with Trotskyism not only because of its abandonment of internationalism, but also because its vision of social transformation remained firmly within the horizon of capitalism.

As a kind of preface to this study, we think it would be useful to republish the text ‘Welcome to Socialisme ou Barbarie’ in Internationalisme 43, because it is a good example of the method employed by the GCF in its relationship with the refugees from the shipwreck of Trotskyism in the wake of World War Two

The title of the article immediately sets the tone: a fraternal welcome to a new group which the GCF recognises as clearly belonging to the revolutionary camp, despite the many differences in the method and outlook of the two groups. The new group was the result of a split by the Chaulieu/Montal tendency within the French Trotskyist Party, the Parti Communiste Internationaliste (in which Munis had also briefly sojourned). This led the GCF to qualify a previous statement it had made about this tendency:

The overall judgment we made of this tendency in recent issues of Internationalisme, however severe it might have been, was absolutely well-founded. We must however make a correction concerning its definitive character. The Chaulieu tendency was not liquidated, as we presented it, but found the strength, albeit after a very long delay, to break with the Trotskyist organisation and form itself into an autonomous group. Despite the heavy weight of this heritage on the group, this fact represents a new element that opens the possibility of its later evolution. The future alone will tell us to what extent it constitutes a gain in the formation of a new revolutionary movement. But right now we must say to them that they won’t be able to carry out this task unless they rid themselves completely and as quickly as possible of the scars they have inherited from Trotskyism and which can still be felt in the first issue of their review”.

And indeed, the “heavy weight of this heritage” was to prove an extremely difficult one to throw off. This burden can also be seen in the subsequent work of Munis, but it was to prove much more destructive in the case of Socialisme ou Barbarie, not least because, as the GCF article notes, the Chaulieu group immediately proclaimed that it had gone beyond all the existing revolutionary currents and would be able to provide definitive answers to the enormous problems confronting the working class. This arrogant assumption was to have very negative consequences for the future evolution of the group. We will seek to demonstrate this in a subsequent article.


Internationalisme 43, June/July 1949

Welcome to Socialisme ou Barbarie

The first issue of a new revolutionary review called Socialisme ou Barbarie has just appeared in France.

In the sombre situation in which the workers’ movement in France and the rest of the world finds itself today, a situation marked by a course towards war, in which the rare revolutionary groups – expressions of the life and state of consciousness of the proletarian class – who still survive thanks to a determined desire to act and a constant ideological effort , are becoming a little weaker each day; in a situation where the revolutionary press is reduced to a few small duplicated bulletins, the appearance of a new printed review, an “organ of criticism and revolutionary orientation” is an important event which every militant can only welcome and encourage.

Whatever the breadth of our disagreements with the positions of Socialisme ou Barbarie, and whatever the future evolution of this review, on the basis of the fundamental positions and general orientation expressed in this first issue, we must consider this group as undeniably proletarian and revolutionary. That is to say, we welcome its existence, and will follow with sympathy and interest its future activity and efforts. Since revolutionary sympathy is above all based on paying attention to political positions, we intend to examine the ideas put forward by Socialisme ou Barbarie without prejudice and with the greatest of care, to analyse them as they evolve, criticising what seems erroneous in them and in such cases countering them with our own views. We see this not with the aim of carrying out a vain polemic based on denigration - something which has become only too common among groups and which deeply repels us – but, however lively the discussion might be, as being exclusively geared towards the confrontation and clarification of positions.

Socialisme ou Barbarie is the organ of a tendency which has just broken with the Trotskyist party, the Chaulieu-Montal tendency. It is a political tendency known among the milieu of militants in France and we have spoken about it on several occasions, and again quite recently8, not in exactly tender terms. This perhaps demands a supplementary explanation on our part.

Examining the Trotskyist movement in France and noting that it once again, for the umpteenth time, finds itself in a state of crisis, we posed the question whether this crisis had a positive significance from the point of view of revolutionary formation. We replied with a categorical No, and for the following reason. Trotskyism, which was one of the proletarian reactions within the Communist International during the first years of its degeneration, never went beyond this position of being an opposition, despite its formal constitution into an organically separate party. By remaining attached to the Communist Parties – which it still sees as workers’ parties –even after the triumph of Stalinism, Trotskyism itself functions as an appendage to Stalinism. It is linked ideologically to Stalinism and follows it around like a shadow. All the activity of Trotskyism over the last 15 years proves this. From 1932-33 where it supported the possibility of the victory of the proletarian revolution in Germany under Stalinist leadership, to its participation in the 1939-45 war, in the Resistance and the Liberation, via the Popular Front, anti-fascism and participation in the war in Spain, Trotskyism has merely walked in the footsteps of Stalinism. In the wake of the latter, Trotskyism has also contributed powerfully to introducing into the workers’ movement habits and methods of organisation and forms of activity (bluff, intrigue, burrowing from within, insults and manoeuvres of all kinds) which are so many active factors in the corruption and destruction of any revolutionary activity. This doesn’t mean that revolutionary workers who only have a little political education have not been drawn into its ranks. On the contrary, as an organisation, as a political milieu, Trotskyism, far from favouring the development of revolutionary thought and of the organisms (fractions and tendencies) which express it, is an organised milieu for undermining it. This is a general rule valid for any political organisation alien to the proletariat, and experience has demonstrated that it applies to Stalinism and Trotskyism. We have known Trotskyism over 15 years of perpetual crisis, through splits and unifications, followed by further splits and crises, but we don’t know examples which have given rise to real, viable revolutionary tendencies. Trotskyism does not secrete within itself a revolutionary ferment. On the contrary, it annihilates it. The condition for the existence and development of a revolutionary ferment is to be outside the organisational and ideological framework of Trotskyism.

The constitution of the Chaulieu-Montal tendency within the Trotskyist organisation, and precisely after the latter had sunk itself up to its neck in the second imperialist war, the Resistance and national liberation, did not, with good reason, inspire much confidence towards it on our part. This tendency was formed on the basis of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism in the USSR and consequently rejected any defence of the latter. But what value could this position of non-defence of the USSR have when your practice is to co-habit in an organisation whose activity clearly and concretely resides in the defence of Russian state capitalism and participation in imperialist war? Not only did the Chaulieu-Montal tendency find its cohabitation in the organisation possible, it participated actively, and at all levels, in the activism typical of Trotskyism, based on bluff and mystification, in all its electoral, trade union and other campaigns. Furthermore, we could hardly avoid being unfavourably impressed by the behaviour of this tendency, made up of manoeuvres, combinations, dubious compromises, aimed more at seizing control of the leadership of the party than at developing the consciousness of its militants. The prolonged hesitations of the members of the tendency to leave the organisation – at the last congress, in summer 1948, they were still accepting being elected to the central committee – denotes both their political incoherence, their illusion in the possibility of re-dressing the Trotskyist organisation, and finally their total incomprehension of the political and organisational conditions indispensable to the elaboration of revolutionary thought and orientation

The overall judgment we made of this tendency in recent issues of Internationalisme, however severe it might have been, was absolutely well-founded. We must however make a correction concerning its definitive character. The Chaulieu tendency was not liquidated, as we presented it, but found the strength, albeit after a very long delay, to break with the Trotskyist organisation and form itself into an autonomous group. Despite the heavy weight of this heritage on the group, this fact represents a new element that opens the possibility of its later evolution. The future alone will tell us to what extent it constitutes a gain in the formation of a new revolutionary movement. But right now we must say to them that they won’t be able to carry out this task unless they rid themselves completely and as quickly as possible of the scars they have inherited from Trotskyism and which can still be felt in the first issue of their review.

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It’s not our intention here to make a deep and detailed analysis of the positions of the Socialisme ou Barbarie group. We will come back to this another time. Today we will limit ourselves to observing that, after reading their first issue, this is a group in evolution, and that its positions are anything but fixed. This should not be seen as a reproach, far from it. This group rather seems to be moving away from its fixed position about a third class, the bureaucracy, and from the idea of a dual historical antithesis to capitalism; either socialism or bureaucratic collectivism. This position, which was previously the only reason for its existence as a tendency, was a dead-end both at the level of theoretical research and of practical revolutionary activity. It’s because it seems today to be abandoning, if only partially, this conception of a historical opposition between statism and capitalism, in favour of seeing statification as a tendency inherent in capitalism in the present period, that this group is managing to get a more correct appreciation of the present trade union movement and its necessary integration into the state apparatus.

We want to draw attention to a very interesting study by A. Carrier on the cartel of autonomous unions, in which through his pen the group Socialisme ou Barbarie for the first time expresses "our position on the historically obsolete nature of trade unionism as a proletarian weapon against exploitation".

However, we are a bit surprised to learn, after such a clear declaration on the historically obsolete character of trade unionism, that this position does not lead Socialisme ou Barbarie to refuse to take part in any trade union life. The reason for this practical attitude, which is in contradiction with the whole analysis made of the trade union movement, is formulated thus: “we go where the workers are, not just because they are there, so to speak, physically, but because that’s where they struggle, with more or less effectiveness, against all forms of exploitation. What’s more, participation in the unions is justified by saying: “We are not uninterested in the question of demands. We are convinced that in all circumstances there are correct demand slogans which, without resolving the problem of exploitation, assure the defence of the elementary material interests of the class, a defence which has to be organised on a daily basis faced with the daily attacks of capitalism”. And this after having, with the support of figures, demonstrated that “capitalism has reached the point where it can no longer give anything, where it can only take back what it has given. Not only is any reform impossible, but even the present level of poverty can’t be maintained”. From this point, the significance of the immediate programme has changed.

This whole study on “The cartel of united trade union action” is extremely interesting, but while it provides a valid analysis of trade unionism in the present period, it is also a very striking manifestation of the contradictory state of the Socialisme ou Barbarie group. The objective analysis of the evolution of modern capitalism towards statification, both of the economy and of the economic organisations of the workers (an analysis which is that of the groups of the ultra-left, to which we belong) is in competition with the old traditional subjective attitude of participation and activity in the trade union organisation, an attitude inherited from Trotskyism from which they have not fully disengaged.

A good part of this number of Socialisme ou Barbarie is devoted to polemics with the Trotskyist Parti Communiste Internationaliste. This is very understandable. Leaving a political organisation, where you have a whole past of militancy and conviction, doesn’t take place without a kind of emotional crisis, and often involves personal recriminations, which is quite natural. But here we are dealing with a polemic and a polemical tone which is well out of proportion.

We are thinking of the article by Chaulieu “Useless Mouths”, which is aimed at clearing a member of the group, Lefort, of the accusations made against him by La Vérité. We can well understand the strong indignation that can be provoked by this kind of accusation, full of hypocritical insinuations and malicious allusions. But Chaulieu doesn’t manage to keep things at a certain level, and in his reply he indulges in a regrettable grossness and vulgarity. Wordplay around the name of Pierre Frank is really worthy of a naughty schoolboy and doesn’t really have a place in a revolutionary publication. Once again we are in the presence of the decomposition which has been infecting the workers’ movement for years. The precondition for the reconstitution of a new revolutionary movement is to free itself of this venomous tradition imported by Stalinism, and maintained, among others, by Trotskyism. We can never insist too much on this “moral” aspect , which is one of the foundation-stones of revolutionary work in the immediate and in the future. This is why we were so disagreeably impressed to find this malodorous polemic in the columns of the first issue of Socialisme ou Barbarie. We should also point out that, caught up in the fires of polemic, Chaulieu and his friends have forgotten to reply to one of the key questions which gave rise to this polemic, i.e. whether or not it’s possible to carry out research into problems of the revolutionary movement through any publication that offers you its columns.

In Internationalisme we have already looked at this question, and the conclusion we arrived at is in the negative. Today there is an anguishing problem of a lack of means of expression for revolutionary thought. Every thinking revolutionary militant has had this feeling of being stifled and feels the need to break out of the silence which has been imposed on them. But beyond the subjective aspect of the problem there is a political problem linked to the present situation. We can’t find relief by depositing our thoughts anywhere: we have to make our thought an effective weapon of the proletarian class struggle. Have Lefort, Chaulieu and their friends asked themselves what is the result of collaborating with a literary and philosophical review like Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes?

This kind of collaboration will not only produce little more than ‘revolutionary’ verbiage, but it will also give credibility among militants to a review, an ideological current towards which the greatest political and ideological reserve is necessary. In this way, instead of clarifying things by distinguishing between different currents, you only end up increasing confusion. It shows a real lack of understanding of the conditions for revolutionary research to turn Sartre and his review - for whom the political application of his philosophy means support for the RDR9 - into a place, a milieu, for discussion about the role played by Trotsky and Trotskyism in the degeneration of the Communist International. Revolutionary theoretical research can never be the topic of conversation in a salon, or provide a theory for left-leaning literary types. However pitiful the means of expression available to the revolutionary proletariat, it’s only in this framework that you can work towards the elaboration of the theory of the class. Working on, improving, developing these means of expression is the only way for militants to make their thought and action effective. Trying to use means of expression that don’t belong to the organisms of the class always denotes an intellectualist and petty bourgeois tendency. The fact that this problem is completely neglected in the polemic written by Socialisme ou Barbarie proves that it has not even grasped, let alone solved, the problem. We think that this too is very significant.

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Before engaging in a critical examination of the positions defended by the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, we think that it’s necessary to pause a moment at another point, which is also highly characteristic: the manner in which this group presents itself. It would be wrong to consider that this is something without any importance. The idea one has of oneself, and the appreciation one has of other groups, is intimately linked to the general conceptions one professes. It is often this aspect which is most revealing about the nature of a group. In every case it is an indispensable element which makes it immediately possible to grasp the underlying conceptions of a group.

Here are two extracts from the leading article of the first issue of the review, an article which is in some ways the credo or political platform of the group.

Talking about the present-day workers’ movement, and having noted the complete alienation of the masses in anti-working class ideologies, the review writes:

The only ones that seem to be keeping afloat in this universal deluge are weak organisations like the ‘4th International’, the anarchist federations, and a few so-called ‘ultra-left’ groups (Bordigists, Spartacists, council communists). Organisations which are weak, not because of their meagre numbers – which in itself means nothing, and is not a criterion – but above all because of their lack of ideological and political content. Linked much more to the past than to the anticipation of the future, these organisations already find themselves absolutely incapable of understanding the social development of the 20th century, and even less of orienting themselves positively in response to it

And, having enumerated the weaknesses of Trotskyism and anarchism, the article continues a few lines later:

Finally, the ‘ultra-left’ grouplets either passionately cultivate their sectarian deformations, like the Bordigists, sometimes going so far as to making the proletariat responsible for their own incapacity, or, like the council communists, content themselves with drawing up, on the basis of past experience, recipes for the ‘socialist’ kitchens of the future….Despite their delirious pretensions, both the ‘4th International’ and the anarchists and the ultra-lefts are in truth nothing but historical memories, tiny scabs on the wounds of the class, doomed to disappear with the rise of the new skin being prepared in the underlying tissues” (p 9).

So much for the other existing tendencies and groups. It thus becomes understandable that, after such a severe judgment, a condemnation without appeal of the others, you present yourself in these terms:

By presenting ourselves today, through the means of this review, to the vanguard of manual and intellectual workers, we are the only ones responding in a systematic way to the fundamental problems of the contemporary revolutionary movement; we think that we are the only ones taking up and continuing the marxist analysis of the modern economy, posing on a scientific basis the problem of the historical development of the workers’ movement and its meaning, defining Stalinism and the ‘workers’’ bureaucracy in general, and finally, posing the revolutionary perspective by taking into account the original elements created by our epoch…We think that we represent the living continuation of marxism in the framework of contemporary society. In this sense we have no fear of being confused with all the editors of ‘marxist’ publications seeking ‘clarification’, all the men of good will, all the chatterers and gossips. If we pose problems, it’s because we think that we can resolve them (our underlining).

This is a language in which pretension and limitless self-flattery is only equalled by the ignorance shown about the revolutionary movement, its groups and tendencies, its work and its theoretical struggles over the last 30 years. Ignorance explains a lot, but it is not a justification and still less does it entitle you to claim a glorious medal for yourself. What medal authorises the Socialisme ou Barbarie group to speak so dismissively of the recent past of the revolutionary movement, its internal struggles, and its groups, whose only fault is to have posed some ten or twenty years in advance the problems which SouB in its ignorance claims to have discovered today?

The fact of having come into political life very recently during the course of the war, and even more the fact that it has come from the politically corrupted organisation of Trotskyism, in whose swamp it was floundering up till 1949, should not be invoked as a certificate of honour, as a guarantee of political maturity. The arrogant tone here bears witness to the evident ignorance of this group, which has not yet sufficiently freed itself from ways of thinking and discussing that derive from Trotskyism. If it looked at things in a different way, it would be seen quite easily that the ideas it announces today, and which it considers to be its original work, are for the most part a more or less happy reproduction of the ideas put forward by the left currents of the Third International (the Russian Workers’ Opposition, the Spartacists in Germany, the Council Communists in Holland, the Communist Left of Italy) over the course of the past 25 years.

If, instead of contenting itself with a few bits of knowledge and even of hearsay, the Socialisme ou Barbarie group had taken the trouble to make a deeper study of the many, though hard-to-find, documents of these left currents, it might perhaps have lost its pretensions to originality, but it would assuredly have gained in depth.


1 Marc’s wife and member of the GCF and later the ICC. See ‘Homage to our comrade Clara’ which also recounts this incident.

2 In IR 128, 129, 130, 131, 134. See International Review 2000's : 100 - 139

3 We have also republished the GCF’s ‘Theses on the nature of the state and the proletarian revolution’ from 1946, with a critical introduction.

4 This divergence had already appeared in Marseille, judging from the version provided by Malaquais in Planet without Visa, which has the fictional Marc arguing against the pro-allied position of the character Stepanoff, a thinly disguised version of Serge.

5 This joint intervention with the RKD was falsely described as “collaborating with Trotskyism” by the Partito Comunista Internazionalista, and served as a pretext for the expulsion of the GCF from the International Communist Left. But the RKD had clearly broken with Trotskyism on the key question of internationalism, opposition to the war, and denunciation of the USSR.

6 See for example our article on the internationalist conference in Holland in 1947.

7 For Stinas, see our introduction to extracts from his memoirs in International Review 72 (Memoirs of a revolutionary (A. Stinas, Greece): Nationalism and antifascism). See also ‘Greek Resistance in WW2: patriotism or internationalism’. The memoirs of Stinas have been published in Greek and French Agis Stinas, Mémoires: un révolutionnaire dans la Grèce du XXe siècle, preface by Michel Pablo, translated by Olivier Houdart, La Brèche, Paris, 1990, pp369. A partial English translation can be found on libcom: Revolutionary defeatists in Greece in World War II - Aghis Stinas. Stinas was unwavering in his opposition to the imperialist war and to the patriotic Resistance. In his case, given the lack of real centralisation in the self-proclaimed Fourth International, he had assumed for some years that this was the ‘normal’ position of the Trotskyist party. It was only later that he discovered the full extent of official Trotskyism’s capitulation to anti-fascism….

8 Internationalisme 41, January 1949, in the article ‘Where are we?’.

9 ICC note: Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire: a short-lived party formed by Sartre in 1947 along with various left social democrats and Trotskyists.