Chris Bambery remembers the life of French revolutionary, Alain Krivine
My first acquaintance with Alain Krivine, who died on Saturday, was through reading a Penguin Special, French Revolution 1968, by Patrick Seale and Maureen McConville, when I was 16. It gave a detailed account of the student protests of May 1968 and the general strike they helped ignite. Central to the former was the Jeunesse communiste révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Communist Youth, JCR), and central to it was Alain Krivine, and as the book spelt out, one of the central leaders of the student protests.
A little later I heard him speak when he did a speaking tour of Britain organised by the International Marxist Group, to which I then belonged. By then the JCR had been banned and was absorbed into the Ligue Communiste (Communist League) with the “adult” group, the French section of the Trotskyist Fourth International. It would be banned in turn after it led an all-out attack on a fascist rally in Paris in 1973, complete with Molotov Cocktails (the IMG would try and emulate this with an attack on a National Front rally in London, in which Kevin Gately was killed by a police baton). It would then re-emerge as the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Communist League, LCR). Throughout this Krivine was part of the leadership and its front man when it came to elections.
That leadership consisted of a gifted grouping which included him, a great speaker, Daniel Bensaid, street fighter and intellectual, Catherine Samary, who wrote on Yugoslavia and Women’s Liberation, and Pierre Rousset, who wrote widely on China and Asia.
Later, at the beginning of the 2000s I would get to know Alain a little. The LCR and the British Socialist Workers Party, of which I was a member from 1979 to 2011, had survived the 1980s, the years of Thatcher and Reagan and, in France, the disillusionment following the election of the Socialist François Mitterrand as President in 1981. In Italy, Spain and elsewhere in Europe, revolutionary groups which had emerged post-68 fell apart, most spectacularly in Italy where they were biggest.
At the start of the new century there were a series of anti-capitalist mobilisations, beginning in Seattle, and the World Social Forums and European Social Forums. The LCR and SWP agreed on the necessity to be fully involved in these but also on two other things. The first was that the hollowing out of the traditional social democratic and Communist parties under neo-liberalism made it necessary to strive to build new parties, wider than revolutionary organisations. I had already encountered the Portuguese Left Bloc which the LCR held up as a model, and was impressed. Another was PSOL in Brazil (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade, Party of Socialism and Liberty) whose international congress I attended.
Within this the two groupings discussed working together to ensure revolutionary Marxism remained a vibrant force.
By that time the LCR had achieved a degree of electoral success. Krivine was elected to the European Parliament in 1999 and served five years there. Meanwhile, the LCR’s young and dynamic candidate in the 2002 presidential election, Olivier Besancenot, secured 1.3 million votes, 4.25% of the total. Among voters under the age of 25, he gained 13.9 percent, beating Lionel Jospin and Jean-Marie Le Pen.
In 2007 Besancenot stood again, winning 1,498,581 votes or 4.08%, some 300,000 votes more than in 2002.
Krivine was a champion of the launch of the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (New Anti-Capitalist Party, NPA) in 2008, into which the LCR dissolved.
Unfortunately, on both sides of the Channel, the hopes of that time were largely dashed but Krivine remained active.
He was born in Paris in 1941. He became a member of the Young Communists. At the time the French Communist Party (PCF) was the dominant party of the French working class with its record as the leading force in the war time resistance.
As a loyal member Krivine was delegated to the World Youth Conference in Moscow in 1957. There he met with representatives of the Algerian Front de libération nationale National Liberation Front, FLN), which from 1954 to 1962 fought a war of independence from France.
This was a precursor of the Vietnam War and 1.5 million Algerians died. French military losses were some 27,000.
The PCF was lukewarm at best in its support for the FLN, but as the war drew in more and more conscript troops unrest spread in the army, and networks independent of the PCF helped fund the FLN.
Krivine, while remaining in the Young Communists became involved with the Jeune Résistance (Young Resistance) network through his two brothers who were already active in it, and who were Trotskyists, both things they kept secret from Alain.
Later Krivine recalled:
“My two brothers were directly involved in the support networks, in liaison with the Federation de France of the FLN. They handled the transporting of money. From time to time I gave them some help. For the most part I took care of transports in Paris: when cars full of cops closed off certain neighbourhoods you had to put people at the intersections to be sure there weren’t any checkpoints set up. Our friends sent us signals permitting cars transporting FLN militants to cross Paris without hindrance. I did this many times.”
The use of torture by the French military, the Paris demonstration of October 17, 1961, when hundreds of Algerians were killed, their bodies thrown into the Seine, the growing number of conscripts mutinying, deserting or refusing to fight and the regular battles with fascist gangs that Krivine was involved in, created a radicalisation.
In 1961 he was one of those involved in launching the Antifascist University Front to fight the Organisation Armée Secrète (Secret Armed Organisation, OAS), a far right paramilitary terrorist group formed to oppose the peace talks which had got under way. This group had 120 members at the start.
By now Krivine had been won to Trotskyism but was trying to organise dissidents within the PCF. In 1965 Krivine organised a meeting of 60 from the Sorbonne-Lettres section of the Union of Communist Students (UEC), with the Trotskyist economist Ernest Mandel.
The JCR was founded in April 1966 when some 70 youths attended a seminar in Briancon with Mandel.
Alain Krivine was expelled from the UEC in January 1966 at the instigation of the PCF leadership. After his expulsion was announced he stood up and sang the Internationale. By April 1968 the JCR had 350 members. It was fully involved in the movement in solidarity with the Vietnamese, particularly in the late 1967 high school protests against the war.
In six Parisian high schools, Vietnam High School Committees organised a demonstration involving their teachers. In Lyon 8000 marched, in Le Mans and Lille three to five thousand, 2500 in St Etienne and 2000 in Bordeaux, Grenoble and Rouen.
May 1968 was a seismic event. Since 1945 the world had been told that politically the choice was between Washington or Moscow. The social democratic parties chose the former, the Communist Parties the latter, naturally...
Now the barbaric reality of American imperialism in Vietnam was being shown on TV screens across the world. In August the reality of the USSR was shown when it sent in tanks and the Red Army to crush the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. The events in France in May 1968 showed there was an alternative to both Washington and Moscow: international revolution.
The French bourgeoisie was terrified by what happened and as working-class insurgency grew in the aftermath of May ’68 so were their global counterparts.
As soon as they felt back in control, they began a systematic campaign to portray May ’68 as being a rather overgrown student prank. As the struggle ebbed they were helped by many participants who denounced what they themselves had been involved in.
Writing in 1988, twenty years after, Krivine and Daniel Bensaid said this:
“What makes May 68 really important, a real event, are not the barricades around the Sorbonne or the Odeon. Nor is it the microcosm of the Parisian intelligentsia, returning to their salons from the street. The difference between the May movement and other protest movements lies in the conjunction between the student movement and the workers’ movement, in the most general strike of our history. This massive, major fact is simply erased in the miserable portraits painted by those who put out fires and colour the brightest images with the dullness of their ideas.
One ends up wondering whether 1968 actually took place.”
But it did take place and Krivine and Bensaid pointed out the key element of May ’68, in an article written in 2014:
“May 68 therefore broke all records. For the first time in a developed capitalist country, the absolute majority of the wage earning population, and without doubt the immense majority of the working class (15 million at the time), was on strike.”
In this sense May’68 unleashed a wave of workers struggles in Western Europe that lasted until 1975 and included the 1969 Hot Autumn in Italy with 37 million strike days officially recorded. There were 14 million in Britain in 1974, when the miners’ strike brought down Edward Heath’s Conservative government.
In the same article, Krivine and Bensaid also noted that May ’68 mobilised new sections of the working class:
“… white-collar workers occupying their offices, footballers their headquarters, actors their theatres. At the time, we were struck by the entry into the struggle of new sectors like the saleswomen of big department stores.”
Looking back at the “night of the barricades,” both authors argued:
“On the night of 10 May, the elements that came into play were the wearing-out of the regime, the democratic legitimacy of the student movement in public opinion and the receptivity of the working class, itself in full radicalization.”
They went on to describe the student movement as the “bit of yeast … needed in the dough.”
Alain Krivine’s life spanned the opposition to the war in Algeria to the great anti-capitalist and anti-war protests of this century. Throughout it all he remained a revolutionary socialist and upheld the possibility of revolution he had seen in May’68.
He was a comrade and a giant figure in the revolutionary movement.
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Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
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