Pierre Lambert was in his time one of those “orthodox Trotskyists” who kept a banner of anti-Stalinist revolutionary Marxism flying in the worst years of Cold War and declining class struggle.
They tried — incoherently, but they tried — to resist the move of most “orthodox Trotskyists”, in the early 1950s, to see the Stalinist parties as the “owners” of all short-term revolutionary possibilities; they tried to sustain the idea of building an independent revolutionary working-class party against both capitalism and Stalinism.
Today the “Lambertist” organisation, now known as the Parti des Travailleurs (“Workers’ Party”), is a shadow of its former self. It has lost the thousands-strong activist base which Lambert won in the 1970s; it retains only some cranky ideas and a bureaucratic internal regime to remind Lambert’s disciples of what once was. The death of the sect-leader Lambert is far less sad than the tale of those who followed him, committed revolutionaries who acquiesced to the rule of an petty tyrant and his coterie in the belief that they were contributing to the cause of socialism and the liberation of humanity, and were politically destroyed and demoralised by the experience.
Lambert’s early record was rather better. Having joined the Trotskyist movement in 1939, Lambert was arrested in the early months of the Second World War and sentenced to a year in prison for his “anti-militarist” attitude to the French government. Escaping en route to prison, Lambert joined Henri Molinier’s La Commune group, but was soon expelled due to his hostility to the organisation’s efforts to win supporters from the Nazi-collaborationist Rassemblement National Populaire.
In 1943 Lambert joined the Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste, which the following year merged into the Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI), an ancestor not just of the Parti des Travailleurs but also of another current French Trotskyist group, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire.
By the end of the Nazi occupation, there were maybe three hundred Trotskyists in the PCI in France. These activists attempted to organise unrest in industry as well as promote working-class internationalism, using the slogan “behind every Nazi soldier is a German worker!” to combat the French chauvinist ideas of the Kremlin-backed Parti Communiste Français, whose watchword was “everyone kill a German”. Facing tough circumstances, the PCI mounted a heroic effort to propagandise for socialism among the German troops, organising the clandestine production and distribution of a newspaper Arbeiter und Soldat (“Worker and Soldier”). No doubt, the PCI bent the stick too far with its June 1944 claim that the Normandy landings would see no improvement over the rule of the fascist Vichy government. It took a while before they could recognise that bourgeois democracy was in fact being restored in France. Their hopes that the end of the Second World War would end with a revolutionary wave akin to the struggles of 1917-1923 proved to be naive. Nonetheless the group had a firm orientation to working-class political independence.
That was more than could be said for the Parti Communiste Français which allied itself to Charles de Gaulle and served in a cross-class government after the end of the war. Among many Communist Party crimes in this period perhaps the most ignominious was its complicity in the bombing of Sétif in Algeria — overseen by its Minister of Aviation, Tillon — which left 45,000 dead. The Trotskyists supported national liberation movements in France’s colonies — for example organising Marseilles dockers not to load arms into boats headed for Indochina.
But the CP’s patriotic aura from the Resistance, and the great prestige of the Soviet Union, assured it a dominant role in the working-class movement, with over a million members and near-monopoly control of the apparatus of the largest union federation, the Confédération Générale du Travail.
Pierre Lambert became the central trade union organiser for the PCI, which grew to about 1000 members by 1947.
The PCI was divided. Yvan Craipeau, Paul Parisot, Albert Demaziere were influenced by the arguments of the American Trotskyist Felix Morrow, who called for less declamatory revolutionism, more attention to concrete political demands including simple democratic demands, and more recognition of the realities of relative bourgeois stabilisation. They hoped to build a broad party by merging with the left-moving youth of the social-democratic SFIO.
A minority, led by Pierre Frank, Marcel Bleibtreu, and others, denounced Craipeau’s group as “right wing”. Lambert was not a major figure in these political battles.
Since 1944 the CP had been able to prevent almost all strike action. In April-May 1947 the dam broke, in a big strike at the Renault Billancourt car factory. Trotskyists played a big role in this; Pierre Bois, a member of a forerunner group of today’s Lutte Ouvrière was a strike leader, and PCI members were also active at Renault.
The Communist Party left the government coalition. In November-December 1947 the CP launched a big strike wave, but pretty much as a political gambit to counter the harder attitude De Gaulle and the bourgeois parties were taking to the CP with the development of the Cold War.
The right wing in the CGT, with CIA backing — and a fair number of left-wingers, too, including anarcho-syndicalists — split from the CGT to form a new confederation, Force Ouvrière.
At first the rise in strikes encouraged the PCI. The “left wing” of Frank and Bleibtreu won a majority at the November 1947 congress of the PCI. Agitation to “build the revolutionary party” became more strident.
The strikes, however, were the start not of a real rise in working-class self-assertion, but of the dark years of the Cold War. The Communist Party waged war on all Trotskyists and independent minded revolutionaries in the labour movement, hounding its opponents out of the CGT, breaking up meetings and perpetrating physical assaults.
In early 1948 the PCI suffered a major collapse. Its weekly paper stopped appearing after 16 April 1948; it resumed regular publication, and then in diminished format, only from November, with just three issues published in the interim.
Most of the left wing Socialist Party youth went into to Jean-Paul Sartre’s short-lived Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire; so did many of the Craipeau wing of the PCI. Two smaller groups in the PCI who believed the Soviet Union to be state capitalist also left.
The rump PCI struggled to reorient itself in a world that was developing in a way completely different from what they had expected.
For a while, activity with the “Titoites” — supporters of the Tito regime in Yugoslavia, which had fallen out with Stalin in summer 1948 — appeared to offer the PCI a way out. Like many Trotskyists, Lambert had been expelled from the CGT in 1950. He started work in Force Ouvrière, and, helped by funds from the Yugoslav embassy, was able to start a newsletter advocating trade-union unity on a democratic basis. The PCI also organised some 3000 volunteers to go to Yugoslavia in work brigades.
But all that was based on gross illusions about the nature of the Tito regime; ended embarrassedly when Tito backed the USA in the Korean war; and anyway brought the PCI little profit.
Michel Pablo, the main international leader of “orthodox Trotskyism”, started to argue that a Third World War between the USA and the Stalinist bloc was imminent and certain; that in that war, the Communist Parties would be forced into a “roughly revolutionary orientation against capitalism”; and that Trotskyists should therefore join the Communist Parties.
Bleibtreu and others criticised Pablo (though, in hindsight, very insufficiently: their attitude to Tito and Mao was no more critical than Pablo’s). They rejected Pablo’s notion that world politics was defined by the two “blocs”, US imperialism and Stalinism; they contested Pablo’s ideas that there was no point in opposing World War Three and that in any case nothing of any significance could be done before World War Three.
Lambert still played little role in the theoretical debates. But he tended towards Bleibtreu, who had a majority in the PCI. And then in early 1952 Pablo instructed the PCI to send most of its activists into the French Communist Party.
The PCI readily agreed to send a limited number of peopple in to do “fraction work” within the CP. Pablo insisted that the PCI must send its leading activists in, even if they would have to make grovelling denunciations of their Trotskyist “past” in order to gain entry — and, of course, in those days of high Stalinism, they would have to.
The PCI split. A majority, maybe 150 as compared to the thousand members of 1947, defied Pablo. A couple of dozen, with Frank, complied. Lambert, with his trade union work relying on networks in Force Ouvriere, went with Bleibtreu.
Lambert was still not the “leader” of the group. Over the next three years or so, he became that. The “theoreticians”, Bleibtreu, Michel Lequenne, Jacques Danos, Marcel Gibelin, were forced out between 1953 and 1955.
From all accounts, this was not just a matter of Lambert being authoritarian. Bleibtreu and the others were demoralised and disoriented. They were flummoxed, and understandably so, by the way the world had turned out.
Lambert had no better theories. But he did have ideas about what to do, organisational talent and energy to make them happen, and a temperament that left him not too bothered about the theoretical issues.
Lambert developed contacts among left wingers in Force Ouvriere and in the Socialist Party, and in the wing of the Algerian independence movement led by Messali Hadj. Operationally, in the mid 50s, the Lambert group became almost a variety of anarcho-syndicalism.
Its paper La Vérité had headlines like: “The odious comedy of elections will change nothing. Let’s prepare the struggle for power!” (16 December 1955); “General strike for bread and peace” (28 September 1956 and against 19 September 1957); “War and poverty or socialist revolution” (27 December 1956); and “The general strike can win 10,000 francs increase for all and peace in Algeria” (17 October 1957). Week after week it hammed away on the call for troops out of Algeria, wage increases, and a general strike to win them.
1958 brought a sudden shock and a drastic shift in orientation. In May 1958, General De Gaulle was brought back to power by a military coup, executed by the army in Algeria. He abolished the old parliamentary constitution and set up a new presidential “Fifth Republic”. As it turned out, De Gaulle would retain an essentially bourgeois-democratic regime rather than going further, and concede independence to Algeria; but many leftists thought they faced a military dictatorship.
Meanwhile, Messali Hadj’s movement was eclipsed by the rival Algerian-nationalist FLN, and moved towards compromise with De Gaulle.
Dismayed, the Lambertists shut down their weekly paper, declaring that “It is not slogans for action, which is impossible for now, that the vanguard workers need today”. In the modest duplicated bulletin they started to replace it, they wrote: “The working class today is incapable of intervening as such in political struggles”.
A heavy stress on defensive demands, on the “workers’ united front”, and on deep burrowing within trade-union officialdom, came to be the hallmarks of the Lambert group.
They developed extensive contacts within the world of free-masonry and a habit of having “undercover” members in the most unlikely places. Lionel Jospin, who would eventually become Socialist Party prime minister, turns out to have been still been paying dues to the Lambertist group as late as 1987, when Jospin was already a well-integrated part of the inner circle round Socialist Party president Francois Mitterrand.
The 1952 split in the PCI merged into an international split in “orthodox Trotskyism” in 1953. Lambert joined a new international network with Gerry Healy in Britain and James P Cannon and the Socialist Workers’ Party in the USA. They were known as the International Committee of the Fourth International.
In 1963 Healy’s and Lambert’s groups separated from the Americans. In 1970 Lambert would split from Healy, rejecting the British group’s increasingly manic ultra-leftism; but by the 1960s Lambert’s group, in its internal organisation, had become much like Healy’s.
There was a culture of top-down control, rather than of democracy. More and more, everything was centred round Lambert’s efforts to build a strong organisational machine and to establish a network of contacts and influence around by bending the ears of people in prominent positions. At the end, all the general secretaries of Force Ouvriere for the last forty years felt obliged to honour Lambert by attending his funeral.
Lambert’s most famous ally was Alexandre Hébert. Hébert, a self-proclaimed anarcho-syndicalist, was operationally a careerist bureaucrat and the little Napoleon of the Force Ouvrière union in Loire-Atlantique from 1947 until 1992 (now succeeded by his own son, Patrick!). Moreover, as I discovered when I interviewed Hébert in researching a study of May 1968, his attitudes to immigrants are racist. In 1995, he contributed to Jean-Marie le Pen’s paper Français d’abord (“The French first”), outlining his hostility towards immigrants. Hébert and his periphery joined the Parti des Travailleurs.
From the early 1960s, the Lambert group grew again. It had won over a very slow trickle of discontented CPers and well-known intellectuals such as the historians Jean-Jacques Marie and Pierre Broué. It grew seriously among students, and began to copy the Healy view that its sect was the revolutionary party in embryo. The most startling example was the group’s attitude towards the student movements of the late 1960s and the general strike of May-June 1968.
Despite the low ebb of the workers’ movement, the years leading up to “May ‘68” saw a rise in student activism, with questions such as the Fouchet plan’s technocratic reorganisation of the education system, war in Vietnam, and sexual radicalism feeding a burgeoning movement.
The Lambertists’ CLER was the largest student organisation to the left of the Communist Party. It favoured basic bread-and-butter student unionism and stressed that building their own organisation was the best way of fighting the Fouchet reforms. The sexual revolution was very much off the agenda of this group! Eschewing meaningful engagement in anti-war activity with the youth group JCR (close to the mainstream Fourth International) or the Maoist youth, the UJCml, the CLER imitated the Lambertists in industry and arranged a panoply of “action committees”, “co-ordination committees” and “committees for struggle” which were in reality very shallow fronts for their own organisation. CLER was however (of course!) interested in taking positions in the bureaucracy of the students’ union UNEF!
Over the winter of 1967-1968, as Strasbourg and Nantes universities and the Nanterre Faculty of Paris University saw rising waves of student activism, including anti-war demonstrations, occupying halls of residence in protest against gender segregation, and large student strikes, the Lambertists focused their efforts on building a rally of their own members and periphery, looking to galvanise their “party” rather than agitate in broader movements.
The January/February 1968 issue of the CLER newspaper Révoltes carried a call for “a rally of 3,500 youth at the Mutualité on the 29-30 June”, and articles on both domestic and international politics ended with a call for activists to attend this event, as if it were some catch-all solution. The next month, the April issue of Révoltes, had the same theme. One might have assumed that the plans for a rally like this would have been shelved in early May, when protests leading to the occupation of the Sorbonne by police, street battles which pitched students and young workers against the riot cops and anger at the victimisation of student activists signified great unrest among the student population. Even if other groups had played a greater role in setting events in motion than the Lambertists, a revolutionary organisation worth its salt would have wanted to get involved in the struggle. Yet Lambert’s group abstained.
The most notable flashpoint came on the evening of 10 May 1968, when a demonstration of students, lycée pupils and young workers through Paris, protesting against the police occupation of the Sorbonne, met with lines of riot police and blockades in the Latin Quarter. After several days of skirmishes and small clashes, both sides were spoiling for a fight. The demonstrators levered up cobblestones, benches and street signs to construct some sixty barricades, with eight-foot paving slabs for foundations.
Twenty thousand people stood their ground against police aggression, piling up branches, petrol-soaked pieces of wood and even cars to fend off a police attack. The JCR occupied a flat as a command base and communicated to activists over the radio. But where were the Lambertists?
Having refused to cancel a planned “vanguard” meeting at the Mutualité to organise the demonstration for 13 May, the Lambertists’ five hundred-strong contingent did not reach the Latin Quarter until one in the morning, marching up to the barricades in close formation and holding red banners aloft. Upon their arrival on the front line the group’s leaders grandly announced to the protestors that they refused to “risk the necks of the revolutionary vanguard” in a supposedly pointless fight, and — calling upon the students to “disperse and organise strike committees” — promptly marched away again. Révoltes explained that “without the revolutionary party, there can be no victorious struggle. We know that we represent the only force able to organise the workers’ and students’ fight.”
Knowing that in fact they had already lost any opportunity to organise the workers’ and students’ fight from the outside themselves, the Lambertists had already gone home when the police launched their three-hour campaign to clear the streets of protestors by means of tear gas and truncheons.
The organisation was not all bad. The first factory occupation in 1968 was the direct result of the agitation of Yvon Rocton, an OCI member who was a Force Ouvrière militant at the Sud-Aviation aircraft plant near Nantes. Rocton had built up an activist base at the plant, whose workers were fighting a difficult campaign against cuts in working hours, and the strength of the student movement and the crisis of de Gaulle’s administration gave impulse to more radical workers to risk the occupation tactic rather than just occasional strikes. Rocton was able to win the argument for an occupation of the factory, but the workers also kept their boss as a prisoner in his office for over two weeks during the occupation.
The efforts of Alexandre Hébert were rather less admirable. With the Nantes police force in disarray following the sacking of their headquarters on 13 May, and the local council in considerable trouble as groups of workers in the suburbs of the city began to take over food and petrol distribution for themselves, Hébert arranged with the leader of the social-democrat local government and the head of the police (who, like Hébert, were freemasons) for the trade unions to take over the administration of the Town Hall. It was not “dual power”, as described in some accounts; at Hébert’s instigation the trade unions sought to prop up the authorities and face off spontaneous working-class action. The local authorities did not react at all to the union bureaucrats’ “taking power”, and were even invited to speak at public meetings staged by the unions for the sake of public information. As Noir et Rouge explained.
“Given the deficiency of the old authorities (police prefecture and municipal government) but also with their active support, the trade unions jointly used their respective organisations, and supporting bodies, to put in place a new power structure. Far from reopening the huge modern distribution centres — of which the workers were on strike — which would have meant taking “risks” and an attack on the rule of private property, instead they supported the small-scale farmers and shopkeepers. Stuck in the middle between this ‘social base’ of theirs and the old police and administrative apparatus, the inter-trade union committee would limit itself to pathetic vacillation until the ‘return to normality’.”
It was such bureaucratic manoeuvres that marked Pierre Lambert’s decline, rather than the grotesque physical assaults and sexual abuse of Gerry Healy committed against comrades of the OCI’s sister organisation in Britain.
The Lambert organisation constantly declared itself to be going from strength to strength, never reviewing its own problems; but in fact, after growing in the 1970s, it declined in the 1980s. Lambert expelled most of his close collaborators, one after another: Michel Varga, Charles Berg, Pierre Broué, Stéphane Just...
At the same time the Lambertists puffed up a ridiculous posture of openness. They declared a new “broad” party, the Parti des Travailleurs, supposedly comprising Socialist, Communist, Trotskyist and anarcho-syndicalist “currents”. In fact, the group is weak (except in Force Ouvriere officialdom!), and the diverse “currents” fictional.
The Parti des Travailleurs complains that the European Union is an affront to the “sovereignty” of France and calls for the “defence of the Republic”. The EU is blamed as primarily responsible for almost all social ills, and the Lambertists denounce “Brussels” is a vehicle for the agenda of the Vatican. In the 2007 Presidential elections the Parti des Travailleurs promoted Gérard Schivardi, who declared himself the “candidate of the mayors” and stressed that he would defend “mayors’ rights” against the Paris government.
It is hard to look at the career of Pierre Lambert and think of him as a defiant opponent of Stalinism or a fighter for the working class. In reality, he was neither, and the sectarian mores of his organisation were matched by its complete lack of internal democracy and debate and the ensuing stagnation of ideas.
Of course, his comrades’ intervention in the labour movement was not wholly fruitless. But essentially the activity of the Lambertist group came to be geared towards sect-building and winning influence among trade union bureaucrats rather than encouraging the working class to organise itself. Lambert’s story, in the end, is an object lesson in sectarianism, a sad chapter in the history of the Trotskyist left.