Five things we can learn from the life of Alain Krivine.
Alain Krivine, a leading figure of May 1968 in France, has just died aged 80. All the French media have commented on his passing. Current presidential candidates like Melenchon, who leads the left in the polls with 11%, Roussel, standing for the French CP and Nathalie Arthaud for Lutte Ouvriere have all issued statements yesterday. Former members of Krivine’s organisations who are now MPs in Melenchon’s party or leaders of the Socialist Party also made public their respect for his contribution to the left.
For people of my generation whom he inspired or who worked with him it was a sad day yesterday. Leading members of the British left such as Alex Callinicos for the Socialist Workers Party, John Rees for Counterfire or his former comrade in arms, Tariq Ali, have all publicly mourned his passing.
But for many activists reading this who are not over fifty the name might not mean a great deal. If we are to build a deeper and broader political culture of a fighting left then it is important we remember those who went before us. Their lives are sometimes rich with lessons for us today. We learn not just from some of their smarter moves but also from where they may have got it wrong.
What can we learn from Alain?
- Stand with those fighting colonialism and imperialism
Krivine joined the Communist Party youth as a teenager when that party still had huge influence in France and was stronger than the social democratic currents of the time. He threw himself first into the solidarity work with the Algerian FLN involved in armed struggle against the French state. This was not without risk from state repression and the pro-settler fascists. Then later he helped organise the campaign in support of the Vietnamese people. In both cases his revolutionary commitment to supporting a people struggling arms in hand for self-determination brought him into conflict with the Stalinist leadership of the CP. It was not at all in solidarity with the FLN and were opposed to a line of Victory to the Vietnamese NLF (National Liberation Front). He was unceremoniously kicked out of the CP although his local section refused to take the disciplinary sanction on nine occasions, such was their respect for his activism. Fortunately his brother, Hubert, was already in touch with the small group of revolutionaries grouped in the PCI, led by Pierre Frank, a former secretary of Leon Trotsky.
- Revolutionaries need to organise a fighting political party
Once contact was made Alain went about organising a split from CP controlled student union. He succeeded in bringing several hundred together into a new organisation. This developed into the JCR, the Revolutionary Communist Youth which eventually led to the LCR, the Revolutionary Communist League which became the French section of the Fourth International. He understood you did not just have to have some good ideas but to change the world you have to organise people politically. It was a small factor in how far the student rebellion in Paris sparked off a much larger movement leading to the biggest general strike since the 1930s. May 68 in many ways was a spontaneous popular upsurge – nobody predicted it. Indeed people like Raymond Aron, the sociologist, pooh-poohed the very idea of a socialist alternative based on working people just before the events took place. Krivine’s current played an important role in politicising the movement and succeeding in bringing together thousands of young people into revolutionary Marxist politics. He correctly oriented to the working class and led demonstrations to the big Renault car works on the west of Paris. There he was met by a CP imposed blank wall . The party kept its base well away from these dangerous gauchistes. Indeed without the collaboration of the CP, De Gaulle might not have survived.
- Knowing the difference between struggle supported by the masses and terrorist adventurism
In both Germany and Italy the downturn after the euphoria of 1968 and then 1969 in Italy led some activists into the tragic and dead end strategy of armed struggle by small isolated groups in countries with democratic rights and extensive civil societies. Several commentators have suggested that the influence of the LCR in France limited the numbers of activists attracted to the politics of exemplary armed actions carried out by groups like Baader Meinhoff and the Red Brigades. Those groups mistakenly thought that armed attacks would spark both state repression and expose the reality of capitalism to the masses. Having said that, Krivine would be the first to accept that following the May events it took some time for the LCR to adjust to the more patient, long term politics based on the united front tactic – being the best fighters alongside the reformists on the demands of the day while maintaining your revolutionary strategy. Moving to an orientation aimed at building in the workplaces rather than vanguard students took some adjustment.
- How to use electoral campaigns to build support for a socialist alternative
Krivine made quite an impact when he was the first revolutionary Marxist presidential candidate in 1969. He had already started his military service when the leadership proposed he stand. He made quite an impact and even wore a tie which caused some comments! But he received just above 1%. The next time he got even less but he retained a sense of humour saying he only lacked 99% of the votes to have become President.
After achieving a rare moment of unity with Lutte Ouvriere (the other main left group in France) he did manage to become a MEP after the coalition won over 5% of the vote. He used his platform to raise support for national and international struggles. I remember him at a meeting also highlighting the scandal of the expenses the MEPs could claim. Of course he always drew a worker’s salary and the rest went to the party. One result of his time there was the mentoring of his parliamentary assistant, Olivier Besancenot. As a postal worker he was to become the party’s presidential candidate winning over 4.5% of the vote twice. Today Phillipe Poutou, a former Ford car worker, is carrying on the tradition of presenting a clear anticapitalist position in the presidential elections. Part of Krivine’s legacy is that, despite a decline from heady time of the 1970s with a daily newspaper (Rouge) his current is still very much alive and acknowledged as part of French political life.
- Never give up, how to stay a revolutionary your whole life
A lot of the statements made on his death have remarked on the fact that Alain had not followed the path of many of the other sixty-eighters (soixantehuitards) who moved into the media, business, academia or politics but at a price of moderating their politics. Cohn Bendit, a well known soixantehuithard (he inspired the famous slogan ‘we are all German Jews after he had been called this by the French right) became a Green MP in Germany. He ended up defending the ‘humanitarian’ intervention in Afghanistan. Krivine also got into a dispute with the French Greens about taking his full MEP salary. Bernard Levy, an ex-Mao from 68 has become a very well paid liberal who has abandoned any left wing ideas but commands a regular slot as a pundit on international affairs on all the TV shows. We could go on….
Alain maintained, like Tony Benn, the labour leftist, that as he got older he found more things to be revolted by. His autobiography, which is a great read, is ironically entitled ‘He will grow out of it as he gets older’.
A number of pundits yesterday said his death marked symbolically the complete political extinction of the ideals embodied by 1968. The reality is that many of the ideals we fought for in that period have made some ground in our society, particularly those around personal freedoms although the anti-capitalist dynamic has been rolled back. Olivier Besancenot put it well in his tweet on hearing of his death. He said we often say when a revolutionary passes on that our best condolence is to follow his lead and keep up the struggle he lived for. Following Alain he said yes to that but it would never be quite the same without having him around.
I was lucky to have some contact with Krivine when I worked at the international centre of the Fourth International in the early 1980s. As a member of the LCR I took my turn sleeping overnight at their headquarters as part of their security – the far right in France are not exactly choir boys as the French say. I was surprised to see him coming in the next day to do his turn. Unlike some leaders of revolutionary groups, even quite small ones, he had no airs and graces, no sense he was some latter day Lenin. He was down to earth and good at relating to anyone – including comrades helping out at the international bureau.
My last memory of Alain was seeing him at the FI World Congress at a freezing north European coastal resort. He gave a rousing speech on the 50th anniversary of 1968. His health was already not too good and he was really feeling the cold but he mucked in with everyone else in rough and ready hostel accommodation. A year or so later I was surprised to receive an email from him after I had sent him an article about something that happened in Britain. Despite retiring from leadership duties he was still doing a turn supporting the party newspaper.
In some ways he had some of the same qualities as Jeremy Corbyn. He had a complete disdain for acquiring material benefits and was at his best on the front line galvanising people. He was great on TV or speaking but never claimed to be a revolutionary intellectual like his great friend Daniel Bensaid. As a human being giving his life in the service of the struggle to liberate humanity he was unsurpassed.
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Alain Krivine, from Dave’s account, was an exemplary activist — not full of himself, hard working and a principled advocate of working class agency to transform society.