A highly influential figure in French revolutionary syndicalism from 1905 to 1925, Monatte was an opponent of the First World War from the start. In the 1920s he joined the Communist Party briefly but was expelled after opposing its shift towards Stalinism. He remained a principled socialist throughout his life.
Anti-war activists were few in number in August 1914.
Why was the 32-year-old proof-reader, red-haired Pierre Monatte, against the war from the start?
Monatte had become a leftist while reading Les Misérables by Victor Hugo at school at the age of 13. In 1902 after working as a teaching assistant for two years, he moved to Paris. He was just 20. The Dreyfus Affair was sharpening left-right political divisions across France. Working for various left papers as a proof-reader he then joined the proof-readers’ trade union, where his latent libertarianism shifted towards revolutionary syndicalism.
In 1905 he walked alongside socialists and anarchists in the funeral procession of Louise Michel from the Gare de Lyon, where the Communard’s body arrived on a train from Marseille. Another demonstrator suggested he take up a temporary post editing the 5,000-circulation paper, L’Action syndicale. The four-page weekly focusing on miners’ problems was based in Lens, in France’s northern coalfields.
On March 10 1906 Europe’s biggest ever-mining disaster took place at the Courrières company pits at Lens. 1,099 miners were killed. Then, 17 days after the company had stopped trying to rescue surviving miners and started trying to save its mines, first 13 miners emerged alive and then another three days later, another man emerged unaided.
Cries of ‘Assassins’ greeted the company directors at the funerals. The shock and the scandal unleashed a wave of strikes by 60,000 miners. Within days Monatte and 40 others were arrested and charged with plotting against the Republic.
Released after a month in jail Monatte attended the Amiens Congress of the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail) in October 1906. He was one of the 840 (to 8) delegates who voted for the independence of the trade union from the political parties and the sects. He was now less an anarchist and much more a revolutionary syndicalist, believing, through the amazing miners’ actions following Courrières, that social transformation could occur very rapidly.
In 1907 he developed his analysis of revolutionary syndicalism at the Amsterdam conference of the Anarchist International.
In 1908 Monatte, then living in Rue Daubenton narrowly escaped arrest with the other main leaders of the CGT for organizing a huge demonstration for the 8-hour day, where four demonstrators were killed by the army. He went into exile disguised as a clergyman and changed train stations in Lyon thanks to the secretary of the taxi trade union. He lived under a pseudonym in Switzerland until the failure of the case against the other CGT leaders allowed him to travel back to Paris.
In 1909 he married. The same year he founded the fortnightly CGT paper, la Vie ouvrière (Worker’s Life), editing it from his flat in Rue Dauphine. The numbers of its subscriptions rose from 500 in 1909 to 2000 in 1914 before it was banned. It expanded from 64 to 80 pages. It was read widely among the most active and leading trade unionists.
In November 1914 Trotsky and Julius Martov met Pierre Monatte, Alfred Rosmer and a handful of French socialists who opposed the First World War from the very start at the anarchist Librarie du Travail bookshop on the Quai de Jemmapes.
In December 1914 Monatte became the first trade unionist to resign publicly from the Federal Committee of the CGT, in protest against the French union’s refusal to support a meeting of the Socialist international being organized by Swedish socialists. His close friend and collaborator, Alphonse Merrheim, signed the anti-war Zimmerwald Manifesto in 1915.
‘Irrespective of the truth as to the direct responsibility for the outbreak of the war, one thing is certain. The war which has produced this chaos is the outcome of imperialism, of the attempt on the part of the capitalist classes of each nation, to foster their greed for profit by the exploitation of human labor and of the natural treasures of the entire globe.’
1915 Zimmerwald declaration
Lenin, Zinoviev, Radek, Warski and Trotksy were among the 42 delegates from 11 countries who unanimously passed a resolution of sympathy for the victims of the war and of persecution by the belligerent governments. This mentioned the fate of the Poles, Belgians, Armenians and Jewish peoples, the exiled Duma members, Karl Liebknecht, Klara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg and Pierre Monatte. In January 1915 Monatte had been conscripted in the 252nd Regiment, and would shortly spend two years at the front.
Demobilised in March 1919, Monatte quickly re-launched La Vie Ouvrière, this time as a weekly. He also organised and then led the left minority at the CGT Congress in September 1919, criticising the Federal Executive for its ‘holy union’ wartime policy and its weak support for the Russian Revolution. In 1920 he was elected Secretary of the Revolutionary syndicalist committees, launched by the left minority, which decided to affiliate to the Communist (Third) International.
Monatte became a leading figure of the workers’ left after the war, challenging both the anarchists and the shift towards Stalinism. He resigned from the CGT’s La Vie Ouvrière and in March 1922 became the labour correspondent for l’Humanité, that had become the new Communist Party’s daily paper. Two years later, having constantly been attacked as a left supporter of Trotksy by Albert Treint, Monatte first resigned from the paper and was then expelled from the PCF in November 1924.
Robert Louzon (1882-1976), who had helped produce the first Arabic language Communist daily paper in Tunisia in 1921, resigned from the PCF when his friends Monatte and Rosmer were expelled. In 1936, aged over fifty, Louzon fought at the front with Republican forces in Spain. And in 1960 with Rosmer, he signed the Manifesto of 121.
In January 1925 Monatte responded with a second (equally unsuccessful) appeal signed by him and Alfred Rosmer to Communist Party members to challenge the growing Stalinisation of the PCF. This revolutionary syndicalist journal ran until 1939 and is still in existence today after Monatte relaunched it in 1947 (although he ceased to play an active part in 1951 when he objected to its occasional pro-American positions).
From 1925 to 1952 Monatte worked as a proof reader, but through his RP articles, contacts and correspondence he continued to be a voice on the left attacking both the reformist CGT and the descent into Stalinism. He was one of the few French anti-colonialism campaigners.
During the German occupation Monatte believed it was necessary to struggle against the occupiers, but to guard against nationalism and the idea of a ‘holy alliance’.
The Maitron, France’s national labour dictionary, ends its biography of Pierre Monatte like this:
‘Few who got close to him were not influenced by his personality. He remained resolutely optimistic about the future of the working class, believing that while the revolutionary flame could dim, it would not go out’.