Reviewed by Alan Kenny in International Socialism 119
Marcel Martinet was born in France in 1887. In his lifetime he would witness huge social transformations. Technological advances around the turn of the century meant big changes to workers’ daily lives as they found themselves in much larger workplaces. The year 1914 would see the beginning of the horrors of the First World War, and with 1917 came revolution in Russia and the hopes of its flames spreading across Europe. In this, the first book on Martinet in English, George Paizis introduces us to a man who consistently used his passion for poetry and literature to intervene in this tumultuous political period.
The changes in the structure of the working class and the subsequent upturn in struggle (a tenfold increase in the number of strikes between 1900 and 1910) saw the development of larger trade unions and the birth of new workers’ parties. 1895 saw the creation of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and 1905 the foundation of the French Socialist Party (SFIO). In 1914 these organisations would face the test of how to respond to the First World War. The subject of this book found himself at the centre of these debates.
One measure of his impact is that, as Leon Trotsky was writing a preface to Martinet’s 1922 novel La Nuit, Lenin asked him why he was spending so much time in doing so. Trotsky explained the role that Martinet and his group had played during the war. Lenin’s response was to ask whether these people could lead the newly formed French Communist Party, instead of the existing leadership, which Lenin did not trust.
As a young man, Martinet had thrown away a prestigious education in L’Ecole Normale Supérieure to devote himself to his writing. This was a deliberate rejection of everything that an elite education could furnish upon his life – it was a “refusal to climb”. What interested the young poet in his studies and writing was the relationship between art and the people. He wanted to go beyond the novels of authors such as Emile Zola, who he saw as being an outside observer of the world of the poor.
Martinet orientated on workers. He wanted “to study the world with them and embark on the conquest of the world, which is to say the liberation of mankind and social equality”. Martinet would begin to argue in his essays for what he described as a “proletarian art”. He believed that a class that was beginning to fight for itself needed an art that could express this.
This orientation led him to a group of revolutionary syndicalists within the CGT, who produced the fortnightly publication La Vie Ouvrière (the worker’s life). As the SFIO and CGT dropped their initial opposition to the First World War, and the Second International collapsed, Martinet’s group would continue its steadfast agitation against the war in the face of a deep pessimism in the movement.
The middle section of the book is devoted to Martinet’s anti-war poems which scream with rage not only at the horrors of war but also at the failure of workers’ organisations to oppose it. In “Cadavres” (“Corpses”) the poet describes the potential of the working class to change the world and its betrayal by its leaders in sending armies of men to fight. It cries out to us that the men that could have been fighting against the ruling class are being sent to die in their war. Hope returns in the poem as he imagines armies of corpses rising up from the dead in revolution.
Hostilities were declared at an end in November 1918. Russia’s October Revolution of 1917 now served as a beacon of hope as a revolutionary wave washed across Europe. The group around La Vie Ouvrière joyfully relaunched their paper in 1919 and circulation reached 20,000. But the post-war militancy would dramatically lose momentum as the CGT called off a general strike in July 1920 after discussions with President Clemenceau. A major split would now take place in the SFIO, with Martinet joining the newly formed Communist Party. His group would be a part of the left in the new party, fighting to turn it into a mass revolutionary organisation.
Martinet would spend three years as literary editor of the party’s daily, L’Humanité. In this time he would write over 50 articles on his ideas on the relationship between art and struggle. Martinet was determined to open up the pages of L’Humanité to the working class. He felt that previously it had been a publication for those “in the know”. Martinet would leave L’Humanité as Stalinism began to take hold in Russia. Twelve years later he would describe his departure as “motivated not by defection but by fidelity to the proletarian revolution”. This commitment to socialism from below shines through in Paizis’ book.
The book is useful in two ways. First, it introduces us to an important writer many of us will not have read before. In many ways Martinet prefigured Bertolt Brecht in his dramatic style. He marks a turning point in the literature of the period, one which Paizis identifies as the “individual on his way back to the collective”. Second, the book helps us to understand the contours of the class struggle at a critical period for the European left. The book is able to do this because, as Trotsky said, what is most admirable in Martinet is the “organic combination of poet and revolutionary”.