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By Serge Marquis
9 February on Mediapart

Gilbert Marquis, aged about 50

Gilbert Marquis, aged about 50

My father has just died at the age of 84 in Paris. He was one of the last survivors of a history which became part of the past 60 years of Trotskyism in France. And more particularly, he was part of that political current called “Pabloism”.

It is difficult to evoke my father without also speaking of my mother with whom he found a happy balance. I can still hear the clack of typewriters, arranged in serried ranks in the large typing pool in the head office of the Bank of Paris where she worked in Boulevard Barbés in the 18th arrondissement. I still recall the unending noise morning, noon and night, the striking of the keys, the return of the carriage, the woman in charge, the canteen, the thousands of employees bustling in and out.

Until she was 21 the mother of my mother lived in the presbytery in the saintongeais region (Charente-Maritimes) with her mother (my great grandmother, maid to the curé), always dressed in black since the death of her husband in the war of 1914-18 … As soon as she turned 21 the first thing my grandmother did was marry a communist! He worked in the railways and was in the Resistance until arrested and interned. Under pressure from the (Communist) Party in the camp he was released to be with his family for a few weeks because he had been given up for dead. He weighed 37 kilos and he was a man 180mm tall. But he survived.

Then the first thing my mother, Nicole, did following this was marry … a Trotskyist.

I am for my part a partisan of self-managed socialism.

And so we have there the political path of my family over a century.

Gilbert and Nicole at the Sorbonne, around 1968

Gilbert and Nicole at the Sorbonne, around 1968

Still another word about my dear mother, Nicole, who always cared for my brother and me: she died at 64. Hers was a life of work, beginning at the age of 16 after gaining the certificate of study, involving a rich experience as a unionist, so obviously not the life for a high-flying career. Unionists knew that, to be lowly paid, was for them the fate of life. After May 68 she was elected to the executive committee of [her then union branch] CFDT BNP-Paris. But Edmond Maire [then head of CFTD] was alert: their union section was dissolved, the first example of what became called the “re-centring” of this union and which led to dissent and years later to the creation of [a new union federation] SUD.

During all her time as an active delegate my mother found herself the target of management harassment, shifted from one branch to another, from one office without windows to the next. She was delegated by the office staff, took them into the CGT, and became a union delegate once more. A life of disputes for a courageous woman who took everything to heart. At her death we wrote an epitaph on the funeral notice: “Nicole, always direct”.

You can imagine the conversations around our dinner table.

The life of my father was never to be at rest – he was a paper seller at 11. His older brother, Bernard, worked on building sites for public works from 14. The money was for the family. Soon, all the brothers were employed there, driving the big machines and the bulldozers. From small peasant stock, Gilbert’s father had been forced to abandon the family forge in the village of Dangers in Beauce to take up a job in public works near Paris – my father also did not last long at school, and began his active life young, like his three brothers and sisters. In 1950 at the age of 19 he joined the Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI), the French section of the 4th International, after a trip to Yugoslavia. Organised by the 4th on the model of the international brigades in Spain, these work brigades aimed to break the isolation that the Comintern wanted to impose on the Yugoslavia of Tito and its experiment with self-management. My father worked then in the factory of Chausson de Gennevilliers before becoming a union organiser for the Seine-et-Oise federation of metal workers in the CGT. Following that he found himself at Nord-Aviation where, at the head of the PCF branch, was a certain George Marchais [later the incorrigibly pro-Moscow leader of the PCF, the French Communist Party, and their presidential candidate].

In these post-war years, debates raged inside the 4th International.

The FI had emerged from the war a smaller minority than ever. The Stalinists wore the aura of their combat against the Nazis. A new war arising out of the Cold War was not excluded. The FI had not taken the place of the Third International as the latter had taken the place of the Second at the end of the First World War … the prognosis with which the Trotskyists entered the war proved false. Secretary of the FI, Michel Raptis, more commonly known by his pseudonym “Pablo”, proposed a new orientation of ‘entryism sui generis’. Far from being a tactical manoeuvre, it was a matter of a long-term entry into the majority structures of the working class – in France that was the PCF and [the major union federation] the CGT – in order to detach them from the hold of Stalinism and reformism. Pierre Lambert saw in this turn nothing but the burying of Trotskyism.

My father followed Pablo. He carried out entryism into the PCF but was ‘excluded’ in 1958 following a purge of members associated with opposition bulletin Tribune de discussion.

The FI was to divide – in a definitive way – one more time in 1962. In the context of the colonial revolutions tensions arose around the following question: given the small number of militants, was it best to participate inside the movements of national liberation, banking on the social dynamic it would open up, or to maintain the activity of an independent Trotskyist organisation. While he is in prison in Belgium for counterfeiting money for the Algerian FLN, Pablo was excluded from the organisation, which he had led since 1944.

This leads to the split in the ‘Pabloite’ International: on the one side the “Frankistes” (Pierre Frank, Ernest Mandel, Livio Maitan); on the other, Pablo and Gilbert Marquis, Michel Fiant, Henri Benoits … The International Revolutionary Marxist Tendency (TMRI) is created and the Alliance Marxiste-Revolutionnaire became its French section. On their side, the “Frankistes” form the Ligue Communiste, then the LCR, ancestor for part of the present NPA, while Lambert continues in his work for the “reconstruction of the Fourth International” including his French organisation which is today the Parti Ouvrier Independent (POI).

In Algeria where Pablo worked as a special adviser to Ben Bella, widespread nationalisations are followed by agrarian reform and the launching of self-management of enterprises, mostly agricultural but some industrial too. Mohamed Harbi and Hocine Zahouane, who were the moving spirits in the left wing of the FLN, become ‘friends’ of Pablo, of Gilbert and the TMRI. Gilbert will also be closely associated with the revolt in Cyprus led by Archbishop Makarios; the struggle against the colonels junta in Greece; in supporting the ANC in South Africa and the FDLP in Palestine. This period is marked by several feats of arms, such as the publication of the clandestine press of the FLN in France; the escape from prison in Turkey of Yilmaz Güney, the director of Yol, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1982; the protection of Stokeley Carmichael, spokesperson for the Black Panthers, who also stayed with us at Clamart; the support of dissidents in Eastern Europe, like Piotr Eguidès and Tamara Deutscher, and other actions which still aren’t known.

May 1968 gave new life to the organisation with the arrival of young ones such as Maurice Najman, the initiator of the Comités d’action lycéens (CAL). Once Michel Rocard left the PSU (the Unified Socialist Party) the AMR joined it. Gilbert became a member of its national office. But the graft didn’t take. Split and rebirth under the name of CCA (Comités communistes pour l’autogestion).

Gilbert, second from right, with from left; Alain Krivine, Michel Rocard (future French PM) and Michel Fiant

Gilbert, second from right, with from left; Alain Krivine, Michel Rocard (future French PM) and Michel Fiant

Arguably the appetite of this political current for new ideas and its rupture with traditional Trotskyism destabilised it. It is not an easy path to challenge in practice the “Leninist” concept of the revolutionary party, the guide and the vanguard, a tight core of leaders and cadres around which other forces will cluster. The ‘Pablistes’ preferred the idea of an arc of independent forces, doomed to unify, decompose and recompose in response to the unfolding revolutionary process and the political tasks to be undertaken. It was a “movementist” vision more in tune with the situation of the times. They searched for ways to link the traditional workers movement with those of the “new social movements (young, women, immigrants etc) – a term they used before it became commonplace in the social sciences.

This current also renewed its approach to the countries of Eastern Europe which it now defined a ‘bureaucratic societies” rather than as “degenerated workers states”. Furthermore it deepened its approach to self-management which it conceived in a clear-cut formula as “the content of socialism and the means to achieve it” …

In 1981 it analysed the arrival of Mitterrand as paradoxical: the Left comes to power at that moment when the dynamic of May 1968 had played itself out, a conjuncture which posed unanticipated problems …

When I reflect on my father, what returns to me is his spirit, the extent to which he was a stickler, a man of extraordinary voluntarism and of a rare energy. Down the years, during many, many nights I waited for him, staying up to midnight or even one o’clock in the morning, so that he could report to me the latest developments. He would take some bread, some cheese, the radio was already on and we would talk. Oh, he didn’t preoccupy himself with us and it is true if he hadn’t transmitted this passion for politics all would have ended badly for me. My brother ran into trouble and almost finished in a correctional facility for young offenders. My cousins were prostitutes. And my milieu of the streets introduced me to gang life. I did belong to gangs and I thought then that I wouldn’t escape prison.

It was the grand hiatus in my life and that of my father: we found ourselves in a militant milieu socially different from our origin. My father remade himself in it; for me it was more difficult. It is probably why I haven’t taken on the responsibilities that he has had. And, yet, of all my large extended family, I am practically the only one to have taken the baccalaureate. My brother chose to become a printer at the age of 15 and a half. Ironically, I am in some way the petit-bourgeois of the family. Go figure…

In 1984 Ben Bella, then in exile, appealed to my father to help the democratic opposition in Algeria. But the diverse publications that Gilbert Marquis authorised were all banned by the French governments of the Left as well as the Right as “contrary to the interests of France”. The lawyer for these publications, Ali Mécili, was assassinated in Paris – a contract hit arranged by military security. His murderer was arrested and sent back to Algeria by then interior minister Charles Pasqua. Algeria descended into a long dark period which it still hasn’t emerged from. The murders of October 1988, the end of the Ben Bella-Ait Ahmed alliance, the emergence of the Islamists, the coup d’état, the civil war … We have experienced all that, we were on the boat – Le Hoggar – with Ben Bella on his return to Algiers…

Then there was the fall of the Wall and the opportunity for us to travel together to Berlin and the East, in order to better understand the aspiration of East Germans for reunification. Gilbert finds himself in Moscow too with Maurice Najman and Marcus Wolf (the ex-chief of the East German secret services) at the time of the attempted coup against Gorbachev in 1991. Then he pursues his support for the people of Iraq against the sanctions, something which leads him to meet Saddam Hussein, as he had Gaddafi previously, meetings which are held against him. However he was conscious that his actions didn’t always leave him with a choice of partners.

With the break-up of Yugoslavia, the construction of the European Union, the advance of untrammelled markets, my father tried to prolong the spirit of the ‘Pabliste’ current with which he was ineluctably identified, by creating the “international review for self-management” Utopie Critique.

The nation, the state, the republic – at the time when the bourgeoisie was ready to abandon them – became his themes for reflection and action. He offered a tribune to ‘sovereigntist’ currents of the Left. Without discussing it with the editorial committee, composed of intellectuals and militants of diverse origins (Tony Andréani, Henri Benoits, Robert Charvin, François Cocq, Eric Coquerel, Denis Collin, Sophie Combes d’Alma, Jean Copens, Jacques Cotta, Claude Debons, Gérard Delahaye, Jean-Pierre Garnier, Florence Guathier, Mohammed Harbi, Jean François Morvan, Michel Naudy, Francis Pothier, Christophe Ramaux, Danielle Riva, Patrick Silberstein, Christophe Ventura …), he supported Jean-Pierre Chevénement in the presidential elections of 2002. Later he drew closer to the Front de Gauche.

My father consecrated his whole life to the idea of international solidarity and to socialism with a human face, which kept him insulated from the pull of certain ideological fashions but without him ever rallying to reformism as the epoch would have liked.

My father was an indestructible Trotskyist of the old school. I loved him as he loved us. Dead at 84, he attended his last demo on the 11th January. I think of him and my mother. It is hard to have lost them.

My last meeting with Gilbert, Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris 2010

My last meeting with Gilbert, Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris 2010