Optimism of the intellect

In his introduction talk to Hall Greenland's new biography of Michalis Raptis "The Well-Dressed Revolutionary," Nick Riemer praises the book as a valuable yet critical look at the influential 20th century far-left figure. This book insightfully examines his revolutionary optimism and activism while acknowledging controversies surrounding his political strategies within the Fourth International.

 

Source >> Actual Tasks

It’s an honour to launch Hall’s fascinating book on Michalis Raptis or – to use the nom de guerre he was mostly known by – Michel Pablo.

I have to admit that Pablo was barely even a name to me before I read The Well-Dressed Revolutionary. He makes a number of appearances in Hall’s 1998 biography of Nick Origlass, Red Hot, but this new book makes it clear just how far his charmed and controversial life contains in a nutshell the story of the 20th century left. Pablo is fortunate to have a biographer with such a sympathy for and understanding of his subject. His life and times are particularly well served in Hall’s retelling.

The book is a serious political biography which takes the time to analyze the numerous important debates in which Pablo took part. In some ways it’s as much a story of revolutionary organisations like the Fourth International and the FLN, and of their splits, as it is of a single individual.

Strikingly, Hall begins the narrative with Pablo’s death in Athens in 1996. Perhaps this is a counterintuitive opening for a biography, but it’s a resonant one in 2023, a moment where it’s impossible not to be conscious of everything that the Left has lost, where the prospects for radical political transformation, at least in the West, could hardly be at a lower ebb, and where melancholia often seems the appropriate underlying note in revolutionary circles.

Start with its subject’s death it may, but The Well-Dressed Revolutionary certainly isn’t any sentimental elegy for a dead-and-buried political past. In Hall’s telling, Pablo’s disappearance from the political stage is the opportunity to register the remarkable influence he exerted on it in many parts of the world, including Greece, Algeria, Portugal, Chile and France, and so to recognise the very real traction that is available for a far-left agenda – even an ultra-minoritarian one – if it’s executed with determination and talent.

One of the things that comes through most in Hall’s book is the sheer incurable optimism and revolutionary stamina that ran through Pablo’s political life. That’s salutary, when so often on the left we’re reminded of Gramsci’s advice to cultivate an optimism of the will, the flip-side of which is a pessimism of the intellect that provides the real political baseline. That isn’t necessarily an easy schizophrenia to sustain. Pablo’s life illustrates a refreshing optimism of both faculties, and exemplifies a commitment to action and hope that couldn’t be more needed today.

No doubt it was sometimes delusional. Regardless, there’s a lot the contemporary reader can admire about Pablo’s controversial political career: his life-long, tireless dedication to the cause of a just and equal world; his advocacy of socialist direct democracy or self-management as the form that world should take; his recognition that anticolonialism, environmentalism and the fight to end sexism are essential parts of the struggle to achieve it; his unstinting and dedicated support to imprisoned revolutionaries, including his organisation of escapes; his tolerance of and support for dissidence in political organisations; his continual struggle against bureaucratism.

All this is clearly and elegantly charted by Hall, whose own political and journalistic background eminently qualifies him to tell the story of Pablo, ‘the only revolutionary Marxist with a regular newspaper column,’ as he describes him. Hall participated in International Marxist Revolutionary Tendency meetings in Paris in ’68 and ’69, so TWDR is the work of someone who knew its subject and the world he inhabited. This personal involvement in Pablo’s milieu has been supplemented by careful and extensive archival research, which included commissioning a translation from Greek of Pablo’s own autobiography.

Hall’s understanding of the dynamics of far-left political parties is on frequent display. The book contains insightful observations on how they work, the major role that interpersonal drama can play in them, the blurry line they can encourage between ambition and fantasy, and the risk they run for political homogeneity to ‘be consensus around an error’. As those observations suggest, Hall’s attitude is sympathetic but critical: his book is a contribution to political biography, not to the lives of the Marxist saints, and it recognises that Pablo has often been the object of significant controversy and serious criticism on the left. This is for many reasons: his conception of entryism and its consequences for the very viability of an identifiable Trotskyist current; his continual overestimation of revolutionary possibilities; his role as counsellor of princes; his concessions to the Right; the failure of the organisations he led to ever really expand. On this last point, Pablo himself acknowledged the inadequate growth of his tendency, even in favourable political circumstances. It’s certainly bracing to realise just how tiny the groupuscules he frequented were.

The criticisms of him from other political traditions on the revolutionary Left are serious: John Molyneux accuses him of spearheading a ‘massive lurch towards Stalinism’; Tony Cliff writes in Trotskyism after Trotsky that anyone ‘must be shocked that rational human beings could carry such illusions’ as did Pablo, Mandel and other Fourth International figures. Hall doesn’t dodge criticism like this. His book contains ample acknowledgment of Pablo’s failings, but the aim is to understand more than to judge.

The book’s subtitle refers to the ‘Odyssey’ of Pablo’s life. The label captures not just the ancient Greek heritage which was so important to Raptis/Pablo, but the colour and variety of the places to which this ‘explorer of revolutions’ was led in his long and peripatetic life, and the numerous political contexts which he influenced. What comes through is Pablo’s commitment to continual concrete activity as the only viable mode of revolutionary praxis. He was after all, someone for whom the mass arrest of all the delegates to the 1946 Paris conference of the Fourth International, including himself, was simply the occasion to continue proceedings in the basement lock-up of the Palais de Justice. Maybe what strikes the reader most is just how much influence on world events Pablo and his minuscule organisations were able to exert. There are surely few Western revolutionary left organisations that have made as concrete a contribution to revolution in modern times as did Pablo’s in setting up a clandestine armaments factory in Morocco to support the FLN across the border in Algeria.

The biography offers a very useful introduction to debates that were current in the Fourth International about revolutionary socialist strategy in developed capitalist societies. These debates are ongoing and still relevant today on a variety of political questions like entryism, liquidationism, movementism or substitutionism. In doing this, the book presents a valuable opportunity to reflect at length on the 20th-century history of the left and its agonising and desperate rallentando in the West. The result has something for everyone: leftist trainspotters; enthusiasts for international intrigue; anyone interested in anticolonial movements, eco-socialism or the history of the Fourth International; readers curious about the long shadow of October and what Trotskyism meant for one of its distinguished but controversial exponents; what it might mean to make socialist transformation the centre of a political life, this time as an international leader rather than as ‘a soldier of the revolution,’ as in the case of Hall’s previous book on Origlass.

It’s the fate of biographers to be overshadowed by their subject, so we shouldn’t allow Hall’s achievement to be minimized. TWDR is a valuable contribution to the self-understanding and self-consciousness of the internationalist revolutionary left, and testament to the necessity – and to the consolation – of political resistance in an age where the prospects for revolution in the self-styled advanced capitalist world seem more remote than ever. Hall deserves congratulations for a book that is as engaging as it serious: two qualities it takes some skill to marry. TWDR deserves to be widely read and discussed, and we owe Hall a real debt for having put it in front of us. It’s a great pleasure and privilege for me to declare it launched.


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