The Strange Monsieur Lambert
One of the enduring debates in What Next? has concerned the politics of the Lambertist current, of which French prime minister Lionel Jospin was once a member. The editor confesses that he finds this all a bit esoteric. However, in keeping with our reputation (in some circles) as a "New Labour journal", we feel obliged to enthusiastically embrace market forces. So, in response to consumer demand, we publish this article, which first appeared in the 28 June 2001 issue of Le Monde. We are grateful to Bernie Moss for providing us with a copy of the original article and to Harry Ratner for checking the translation.
Who then is this man who was excluded in January 1944 from the Trotskyist movement – which was then completely underground – for breaches, which his comrades judged to be serious, of the harsh discipline of the period? A man who was lucky. Having returned to the movement at the time of the Liberation thanks to having joined another organisation, he became a humble and then a leading cadre. It is true that the man had all his time to engage in politics: an administrator of family allowances from the end of the 1940s, he practically never set foot in work. Who offered him this sinecure?
The climate of the years 1947-53 was a very special one: many then feared the outbreak of a Third World War, which would set American and Soviet troops against each other, in the theatre of Europe. France, Italy and Belgium notably, for evident strategic reasons, were the key territories for the Americans. But they included powerful Communist Parties, which Washington’s different services tried, by many and varied means, to contain.
The creation of the Force Ouvrière (FO) trade union – a split from the Stalinist CGT in 1947 – owed much to the efforts of a very special envoy in Paris, the CIA agent Irving Brown. It was without doubt in 1950 that Pierre Lambert joined the FO, where he met one of his old accomplices, Alexander Hébert. They would play a considerable role, to the extent of leading in fact one of the biggest French unions. What talent!
The personality of Hébert is worth a detour. No one knows when he became a Lambertist – from 1950? in 1952? – or more exactly a Lambertist mole. Complicated? Very, but Lambert’s men are like that. Hébert was, and would be for more than forty years, the "boss" of the Loire-Atlantique department of the FO and the "chief" of a supposedly anarcho-syndicalist tendency in that union. Meanwhile – we are in 1955 – Lambert became complete master of his minuscule Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI). Let us say it – it is necessary to repeat this, so difficult is it to believe – Lambert is a man of the extreme left.
All those of his generation would distinguish themselves by their support for the Algerian FLN, sometimes at the cost of their liberty – the "porteurs de valise". Not Lambert: he was close to the Mouvement National Algérien (MNA) of Messali Hadj, the great rival of the FLN during the first years of the war – the two movements killed each other’s members across all the four corners of France – to the point of printing its pamphlets. The Lambertists presented the MNA as the resurrection of the Bolshevik party, which wasn’t lacking in wit: in 1957 one of the officials of the MNA, Bellounis, would create a resistance movement thanks to the arms and logistical support of the French army.
Up until 1962, and despite an anti-colonialism which one can only suppose was incandescent, the PCI did not intervene otherwise over the issue of the Algerian war. In 1965, all the same, what a surprise: Hébert called for a vote in the municipal elections at Nantes for André Morice, a man of the hard, Atlanticist right who gave his name to the electrified line separating Tunisia and Algeria. Morice was minister of defence at the time when mass torture was used. Lambert nevertheless retained all his confidence in Hébert.
Did the small and happy band make up for it over the Vietnam war, which was the political crucible for the generation of 1968? No: Lambert was ferociously against the Vietnamese NLF and against those who supported it. Violently against: at the beginning of the 1970s, members of the Ligue Communiste who demonstrated against the American war were beaten over the head with pickaxe handles by the strongarm men of his security service, with exotic cries of: "Pabloites, fascists, assassins!"
In May 1968, what did our revolutionaries do then? On the 10th, towards midnight, when the Latin Quarter was covered with barricades and all the youth were defying the forces of order that they were committed to fight, the Lambertists appeared on the scene – in a procession, if you please – to call on the rebels ... to go home to bed! For them, the movement was only a conspiracy, a government plot, adventurism.
Over the ten years that followed, during which the revolutionary left blossomed, Lambertist activists were never seen on any terrain – except that of violence. They were neither in the women’s movement, nor in the anti-nuclear movement, nor in the anti-militarist movement, they did not come either to Lip or to Larzac, did not fight the fascists of the Ordre Nouveau. It is very simple: in the aftermath of 1968, the Lambertists were nowhere, at any rate not with the extreme left of the period.
What the devil did they do? They devoted themselves, and only themselves, to fascinating simulations of action. Every six months, there was a demonstration, said to be "central", on such baroque themes as: "Force the trade union leaders to call a conference to defend the youth!" And each year, a more or less large meeting, at the Mutualité or the Palais des Sports, to prepare the next demonstration.
Are they at least, as has been said here or there, great theoreticians? Not at all. The central thesis of the Lambertists, from 1967 until the mid-1970s, was that the forces of production worldwide – broadly speaking the totality of the material means of production – had ceased to grow in 1914. Thirty years after the end of the Second World War, and when expansion had never throughout history been so fierce, Monsieur Lambert professed that, as far as he was concerned, the earth was flat.
Hébert evidently sits on the Lambertist holy of holies, the political bureau. Comrade "Ernest" – his pseudonym – is very powerful: he still leads the so-called anarcho-syndicalist current in the FO, and he secretly leads the Lambertist movement. His role is essential to it, almost as important, in certain areas, as that of Lambert. But he carries on in his own sweet way. In 1983, for example, he was to be seen mobilising his network in favour of the RPR’s Michel Chauty, against the socialist mayor of Nantes, Alain Chenard.
But he was to go infinitely further. An influential member of the FO’s federal commission – its leadership – he remained based in Nantes where he was close to a certain Joël Bonnemaison, whom he appointed editor in chief of one of his union’s journals, L’Ouest Syndicaliste. Bonnemaison had been, in the 1970s, an official of the Front National and he remained a member of the extreme right. Bah! Without doubt he is also a Lambertist.
Hébert, towards the end of his life – he is today more than eighty years old – apparently decided to present his ideas better. So he gave an interview to Français D’Abord!, a LePenist journal, in October 1999. From it one learned, among other things, that it wasn’t necessary to condemn the heads of companies, who have many worries, and that Monsieur Jospin is decidedly a bad man. And Lambert still did not break from him, tied as he is by fifty years of secrets.
These days there are in Paris some former leaders of the OCI, and not the most minor of them, who ask themselves anxiously – perhaps even with some dread – for whom and for what they struggled so long.