“The last Trotskyist” — so Michel Lequenne, who died on 13 February 2020 aged 98, sometimes described himself, according to a tribute by Antoine Artous and Francis Sitel.
Arguably he was indeed the last surviving Orthodox Trotskyist with an unbroken political thread from the early 1940s. There are other Orthodox Trotskyists — the more-or-less theory-free network around Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party, the “Morenist” diaspora, those post-Mandelites who still call themselves “Trotskyist” — but they scarcely attempt to offer a systematically-developed ideological tradition.
In the introduction to the 2018 edition of his book on the history of Trotskyism, Lequenne wrote that the “Mandelite” Fourth International, in or around which he had been active almost all his adult life, had bio-degraded into general “anticapitalism” so far that it no longer existed.
He had long been a nonconformist in those circles. In fact, he formally quit the LCR (the French Mandelite organisation) in 1988, though he remained “around” it long after.
In 1968 a big influx of new young revolutionaries had launched the LCR as the continuation of the older (tiny) French Orthodox Trotskyist group, the PCI. Lequenne had been a leader of the PCI, but for a few years at that pivotal time, apparently because of domestic-life troubles, he stepped down his activity.
From the time he returned to full activity, he was a dissident on many issues.
He was initially the only member of the “Mandelite” international leadership to support USSR withdrawal from its war in Afghanistan from 1979. He had almost a majority (from the start), and soon a clear majority, of the LCR with him.
Impelled, perhaps, by that political battle, over the 1980s he came to argue that what the Orthodox Trotskyists had called “degenerated and deformed workers’ states” should be considered just “bureaucratic states”, and not “defended”. As far as I can see, the later version of the argument by LCR leader Daniel Bensaïd (who would die in 2010) was pretty much a philosophical elaboration of Lequenne’s.
It was, I think, an attempt to adjust Orthodox Trotskyism to the collapse of its sustaining illusion of an already-ongoing “world revolution” (not as Stalinist as it looked, they claimed, and anyway requiring only some further push to become fully socialist).
But I wrote of Bensaid that “having by ‘methodological’ argument removed the sails, masts, and rudder of the ‘degenerated and deformed workers’ states’ account, [he] still sits on the hulk, rather than launching a new vessel”.
Even in Lequenne’s last writings he vehemently rejected the idea that the Stalinist states were worse (from a working-class point of view) than bourgeois-democratic capitalism. He continued to see Tito’s rise to power in Yugoslavia, for example, as a genuine socialist revolution.
The only viable way to develop a continuing Trotskyist tradition, I think, was to rediscover the tradition of the “Heterodox Trotskyists”, who developed a more illusion-free alternative to the “Orthodox” from 1940 onwards.
Lequenne came from a white-collar working-class family, and worked most of his life as a proof-reader. He joined the Trotskyist movement in 1943.
He stuck to it through the decline and dispersion of the Trotskyists in 1948-52. In 1952 he was, with Marcel Bleibtreu, the ideological leader of the PCI majority which split from the Fourth International led by Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel because they considered it too complaisant towards Stalinism.
The “practical” leader of the “anti-Pablo” PCI, Pierre Lambert, soon marginalised Bleibtreu and Lequenne, and in 1955 found a pretext to expel them. After a period in the left social-democratic PSU, Lequenne joined the “Pablo-Mandel” PCI in 1961, and soon became a leader in it.
The magazine Contretemps has put together some tributes to Lequenne, and selected writings, here.