Klara Feigenbaum, a Trotskyist activist of Romanian origin, known as Irène, died at the age of 97 in March 2017, a year ago.
Alongside her then-partner David Korner, alias Barta, she founded the “Groupe Communiste”, which in 1944 took the name “Union Communiste” (UC), and which led the 1947 Renault strike alongside the militant worker Pierre Bois, at a time when the CGT and the PCF (which was then in the government) were opposed to all strikes. It was from this group that would later spring Voix ouvrière (although Irène was only active in it for the first few years) and then Lutte ouvrière and Fraction l’Étincelle (a part of the New Anticapitalist Party, NPA).
A tribute by Mathieu and Richard Moyon, Klara and David’s sons.
[Irène’s] life as an activist was defined by a refusal to settle down. Everything she did was an attempt to make an active, concrete political response, as swiftly as possible, to a situation marked by grave crises, and threatened by actual catastrophes.
Irène didn’t pursue activism for a living, or for fame, or to give meaning to her life: but to put an end to injustice and to the poverty of the human condition. As a child, she saw that good works and charity were nothing but sticking plasters required by the capitalist mode of production. It was the discovery of Marxism, its clarifying analyses and its rational method that gave her the key – the only key – to evaluate events and to help history on its way towards the ending of the class struggle through the abolition of social classes, authentic world communism and a society with neither money nor oppression, where people simply manage objects: not other people.
In 1936, Klara was 16. When news of the first Moscow Trial broke, she turned her back on the Romanian Communist Party, to which she had been close. In July 1936, the Spanish revolution began: “We could feel a tremor on the air as far away as Bucharest”, she said. Along with three friends, she decided to go there. But very quickly, Stalinism strangled the Spanish revolution. The young Romanians stayed in France and joined the Internationalist Workers’ Party (POI). Klara became Louise.
The declaration of war in September 1939 and Daladier’s ban on communist organisations scattered the Trotskyist activists, and saw many of them lose their way politically. Louise and Barta published three editions of L’Ouvrier in which they denounced the coming repression and butchery, and what they termed the imperialist war. Louise and Lucien were arrested and jailed for three months in the Petite-Roquette prison [in Paris]. They were released before France’s capitulation.
The Occupation changed things. Louise became Irène. Recruiting and providing theoretical and practical training for young activists (like Mathieu Bucholz, murdered by the Stalinists in 1944 and Pierre Bois, who would later lead the May 1947 Renault strike) and the publication of La Lutte de classes took priority, in view of an analysis that predicted that the Second World War would create a revolutionary wave similar to the one that followed the First World War. The aim was to prepare the working class. Analysing the international situation, denouncing the imperialist war and the lot of the working class which was its cannon fodder, attacking the dead-end of nationalism: the articles in La Lutte de classes display an impressive breadth of political vision. While Barta took on the greater part of the analysis and writing, he was assisted by Irène, upon whose shoulders rested the functioning of the whole organisation.
But the predicted revolutionary wave did not materialise. Upon Liberation, the activists of the Union Communiste had to confront a novel situation: the participation of the French Communist Party (PCF) in government, and its opposition to any action by the working class (“the strike is a weapon of the trusts!”). A space opened up for intransigent denunciation of the government’s policy and of the collaboration of the PCF and the CGT with the government, and of the kind of dictatorship which between them they imposed on the workers. The UC concentrated its meagre forces on the Renault factory at Billancourt.
In April 1947, in spite of violent opposition from the CGT, the strike began in the Collas sector of the factory, where Pierre Bois worked, and quickly spread to the whole plant. A strike committee was set up. Even if its demands weren’t completely met, this strike was victorious: a pay rise, partial pay for strike days, and above all, the breaking of Stalinism’s hold on the workers.
But the danger that the movement could spread and get out of the PCF’s control led the party to have its ministers resign from the government. … this allowed the PCF and the CGT to regain control of the 1948 strike wave...
Despite the correctness of Barta’s analyses, workers’ day-to-day support of the SDR (the Syndicat Démocratique Renault, created in the wake of the strike), the work of activists and the sympathies of the workers, a new generation of militants did not arise. The UC was exhausted, and tensions arose. Pierre Bois and Barta parted ways. The last issue of La Lutte de classes came out on 30 March 1950, spelling the end of the UC. All of Barta’s and Irène’s subsequent efforts at launching common activity came to naught.
A group of the younger activists from the former UC, including Pierre Bois and Robert Barcia (alias Hardy), decided that they would continue their activity. Organised at first in different groups, Bois and Hardy got together in 1956, in what would become Voix ouvrière and then Lutte ouvrière. But even if this tendency claimed the same heritage, Barta and Irène thought that in reality its politics had nothing to do with those of the UC. Irène thought that, in fact, the group had given up on applying pressure to the course of history. But, in spite of her disagreements, for several years she gave “the young comrades” technical help, typing up workplace bulletins.
Irène would later inspire the re-publication of the UC’s writings, in particular articles from La Lutte de classes and La Voix des travailleurs but also pamphlets and internal documents which she found in the archives and typed up – again! It was more than just a matter of her wanting to give these actions, analyses, writings and activists the prominence they deserved. it was another way for her to prepare the way for the future, by politically arming future generations. In that sense it was true that right up until the end, Irène was full of optimism: that revolutionary optimism which persists in spite of anything.
In the face of the attacks carried out in 1995 by some youth from working-class estates, like Khaled Kelkal, Irène saw the pressing need to bring socialist political ideas back into neighbourhoods that had become activist deserts. The bulletin Cinquième zone, which she helped found, and assiduously proofread, addressed itself “to young people from the estates whom everyone talks about but never to, and certainly never about politics.” Today, we might well regret bitterly the fact that she didn’t bring the bigger organisations along with her in this initiative.
A fighter, funny, modest, clear-sighted, intransigent, devoted, sometimes hot-tempered, generous, driven to share her culture and learning, those of us who had the chance to know her, to learn from her and fight alongside her were lucky, because in so doing we were able to live for a while in the society of the future.
• Published 12 March 2017. Translated from Convergences révolutionnaires by Michael Elms