Pierre Monatte: no stripes, no rank

We are left with a sombre pride … We have managed to be the last Europeans of the splendid, intelligent Europe that the world has just lost forever, and the first men of a future International to come, and of which we are certain.
Raymond Lefebvre ‘L’Eponge du vinaigre’ [1921]

Pierre Monatte has just died [1960]. In his little apartment in a block of working-class houses in a Parisian suburb, shelves and stacks of books, hundreds of files, thousands upon thousands of letters, draft articles and chapters of books in the making bear witness to a relentless activity interrupted only by physical collapse.

As late as yesterday, doffing the black beret covering his white hair, he was chatting with some activist or other who had dropped by in search of advice, in the cramped little room where he worked, read and wrote. The welcome was warm, unfussy and free of any sham mateyness. Set deep in his round face topped by a prominent forehead that curved into the hair-line, two lively little eyes looked his interlocutor straight in the face. And within seconds they had cut to the quick of matters, shunning all beating-about-the-bush and standing on ceremony. From Paris and the provinces and from abroad too, there was a constant file-past of young and old, all of them committed to the social struggle. By means of such direct connections, through his vast correspondence, by means of an ongoing delving into newspapers and books, ‘Père (Father) Monatte’, carrying no title and holding no office, found himself in the thick of things. To some he was – and I have heard this said – a ‘living rebuke’. It was not easy thinking about him whenever one was pursuing a career, and the pretext of having ‘left the working class behind’ then turned into an indictment. To others, on the other hand, he exemplified human potential and was living proof that there is still a battle-station.

In his case, the word consciousness displayed its full meaning. It was never a philosophical consciousness, but the sort of consciousness that has to grapple with facts and events and people, a consciousness that is a method and a tool. Whilst Monatte did not come down hard on human failings, he was exceptionally rigorous with personal behaviour as it impacted on the workers’ movement. Way back in 1922, he had told [Gaston] Monmousseau: ‘You and I will never see eye to eye, for you are nothing but a coward.’ And on the death of [Léon] Jouhaux, the very symbol of a formal authority that he held in contempt, he lashed out vigorously when a trade unionist close to him had ventured to write a few lines about that labour leader, reminding people of the solidarity Jouhaux had displayed on various occasions. As far as Monatte was concerned, Jouhaux’s legacy needed to be repudiated. Those who had sought his protection instead of fighting, those who had secured it in return for their silence and ‘special affections’ had made moves that were unacceptable.

In Monatte’s view, the practice of the workers’ movement represented the school of the possible. In 1917, when he and a handful of internationalists were standing up to nationalistic lies, betrayals and desertions, he wrote in his ‘letters’ to the school-teachers: ‘When you say that there is nothing to do, it is because there is everything to do but nobody around to do it.’ And in his view an immediate start had to be made from whichever point life’s hazards had left us at.

Raging furies followed by prostration and vacuous tantrums were of little interest to him. But scrutiny of some milieu, some firm, some industry, some locality, for the purpose of acclimatising a team of militants to it and nurturing some organisation within it and injecting a workers’ determination into it, that was his forte. Patiently building up worker strength, in unfavourable circumstances so that it might tilt the balance in the operation of social dependencies – this he regarded as the only useful social endeavour, one that steered clear of illusions and warded off despair. The real militant was no longer the revolutionary burnt out by his own excesses, but the fellow who knew how to lay the groundwork for action, wait for the right moment to arrive and then live up to all his responsibilities. Of Alexandre Jacob, the individualist anarchist whose courage and daring and fate as the lost child of revolt earned him the admiration of lots of young people, Monatte used to say: ‘What a seamen’s organiser he could have made!’

The Sisyphean task of continually making a new start on militant activity amounted, as far as Monatte was concerned, neither to a consolation nor to pig-headedness, but to the gauntlet that someone who feels exploited can throw down to an unfair world: to accepting that that world was a fact and changing it by means of the simple effort to understand and to work as part of a team.

Titles, personal ambitions, ribbons and honours played no part in this game which is both thankless and terrifying. And location, the nature of the work, the type of society were the ‘givens’ of a problem which, when all is said and done, went beyond the classical approaches, the productivity figures, a problem that amounted to tailoring social structures to man-sized measurements.

That approach brings us back to the thinking of [Fernand] Pelloutier, for whom Monatte had a high regard and whom he claimed as his own. He had had plans to write a book about the founding father of the Federation of Bourses du Travail. With monkish care, he has gathered together his materials and documents. Anybody other than Monatte would have reckoned that he had more than enough there upon which to base an original and sound work. But Monatte was as pernickety about his own efforts as he was those of other people. And then again there was the age factor, ‘obsolescence’, as he used to say by way of an excuse.

A pity, because Monatte was a fine writer. He had a simple, blunt style that stuck to events and situations and faithfully revived them. Many a novelist envied his powers of description and explanation.  Back in days of Faux Passeports, Charles Plisnier told me: ‘I’d love to write the way Monatte does.’ In fact, one has only to read the reportage from Pierre Monatte covering the Courrières mining disaster back in 1906. It would make a great model for high-class journalism, steering clear of excesses and phraseology: we get the facts, the details, the timbering procedure, the technology of extraction, the arguments put by the Company and finally the hundreds who died get the chance to speak. Yes, Monatte had been to Courrières and not for a stroll. He was living up to his responsibilities, after taking over from an organiser, Broutchoux, who was the bête noire of the companies in the Nord department; Broutchoux, who was the driving force behind a tiny union nipping at the ankles of the huge reformist unions of the day. A big strike had followed the Courrières disaster and Clemenceau, the quiet-life socialists in the Pas-de-Calais, the radical bigwigs and the regional barons had come to an arrangement to restore order, jail the agitator, silence the eye-witness and bury them all under a purpose-made conspiracy.

Not that this was his first time in the fray. He had worked alongside Charles Guieysse on Pages libres, made the acquaintance of [Charles] Péguy, been active in various labour organisations and been a contributor to Jean Grave’s Les Temps nouveaux. This son of a blacksmith father and a lace-maker mother from the Upper Loire, this native of the Auvergne who might have been mistaken for a man of the soil, had stunned the Parisians with his thirst for knowledge, the way he devoured books. At the age of 15 he was working with little local socialist publications and devouring Dreyfusard writings.[1] He had to start out in his working life as a labourer and give up education after playing truant to attend an anti-militarist talk.

In 1907 – he was then 25 – he was one of the delegates to the Amsterdam Congress which brought libertarian theorists and activists together. It was there that he argued his syndicalist case against Errico Malatesta, the Italian revolutionary steeped in insurrectionist battles, who looked upon unions as merely the primary schools of socialism and reserved the leading role exclusively for the anarchist movement. Despite their clash of ideas, there was an enduring friendship between the two men and Malatesta bumped into Monatte while passing through Paris, between prison terms and insurrectionist campaigning. In Monatte’s eyes, Malatesta was someone whose words and deeds matched: the golden rule.

In Monatte, there were no pipe-dreams about the determination to act and the need to build. In his memoirs – published in La Révolution prolétarienne of October, November and December 1959 – he recalled the conditions in which La Vie ouvrière, one of his creations, came into being: ‘Instead of the great upsurge that ought to have followed the victory in Amiens, the trade union movement was afflicted by an obscure and lamentable crisis.’ He detected a ‘crisis of thinking’ among militants. And therefore had to respond to it. A trial syndicalist daily paper Révolution, launched by Émile Pouget with funding from Charles Malato, Francisco Ferrer and Robert Louzon, failed. Monatte took over the baton, with support from James Guillaume, Charles Guieysse, [Amedée]Dunois, Fuss-Amoré and, again, Louzon. Albeit always beset with difficulties, this would lead to La Vie ouvrière, a bi-monthly review, one of the finest publications working class France had ever known; it was crammed with studies, news, movement analyses, monographs and international correspondence. A review whose subscribers were all militants and whose foreign readers included such as the Russian Zinoviev, the Bulgarian Andreytchine, the American Foster and the Englishman Tom Mann …

And whilst La Vie ouvrière vanished with the first cannon-fire of the Great War as the movement fell apart, it was nevertheless around some of the review’s die-hards that those who went on to offer internationalism a fleeting boost as bright as a flash of lightning: Zimmerwald.[2] ‘Extraordinary times,’ as Romain Rolland was to say in L’Âme enchantée.

Monatte was to experience many such extraordinary times, remaining clear of thought and unwearying as the tides rose and fell away. In face of the decadence of the Russian revolution and stalinism, as well as in the face of defection, on the part of parties or individuals, such as in 1939 and 1945.

His reportage, his pamphlets explain, appeal, invite and incite. Not some mania but dogged questing after what might be and sometimes was. With no illusions and no regrets. He was too aware of the difficulties to under-estimate them: ‘There are plenty of folk ready to mouth off, but few, very few to offer encouragement while holding nothing back.’

Having been ill for several years and undergone two operations within a short time of each other, he nevertheless hated looking after himself. He preferred to talk about his wife: ‘My poor old woman, overloaded with chores and cares, has been teetering on the edge for so many months’, he wrote. But he is the one who has not finished the lap.

In the working-class epic in which most episodes remain unknown and most of the heroes nameless, Monatte occupies a significant place. And the many men and women who flocked to the columbarium at the Père Lachaise[3] to bid him a final farewell knew that his legacy has already been added to what Maxime Leroy termed working-class mores.

Louis Mercier, in
CILO,[4] No 12, June 1960, pp. 12-15


1, Dreyfusard: supportive of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French army officer charged with colluding with Germany. Opinion was divided. Support for Dreyfus was not for the man so much as for the republican principles defining what it meant to be French – a political/ideological identity with the principles of the Republic – versus the blood+soil+faith definition of the traditionalist Army, aristocracy and Church. People who despised Dreyfus as a wealthy officer saw past him to he forces by which he was being victimized. Sebastien Faure was an early Dreyfusard. 
2, Zimmerwald: the conference of anti-war socialists held in Switzerland in 1915.
3, the columbarium is where cremated remains are housed
4, CILO: Commission Internationale de Liaison Ouvriere (International Workers’ Liaison Commission) an anarcho-syndicalist platform covering all the continents at a time when anarcho-syndicalist organizations had seen their footholds shrink and themselves reduced basically to propaganda bodies. Its bulletin was CILO (see http://archivesautonomies.org/spip.php?article2225)

From: CILO, No 12, June 1960, pp. 12-15. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.