What are great authors of libertarian books

Memories of an undefeated
Conversation with the libertarian writer Michel Ragon

Michel Ragon is not only one of the most famous libertarian writers of our time, but also the last significant representative of “proletarian literature”, a literary movement founded by Henri Poulaille around 1930. Although Ragon never shared their restriction to the authentic reproduction of proletarian reality, he has always committed himself to this tradition and made himself its historian with his third new edition, “History of Proletarian Literature in France”.

Is this your office here?
Yes, my kingdom, the dream of a whole life that will one day come true. Here I have my peace, look down on Paris, am surrounded by my books.

How do you work?
Preferably in the morning. In the afternoon I answer mail, meet people, take a nap ...

Do you start early in the morning?
No more. After all, I passed the retirement age a long time ago! But in the past I actually started very early in the morning because I had to work elsewhere during the day. I spend the whole morning here.

I don't see a computer ...
No computer, just an old typewriter. And dealing with it myself, I had my difficulties in the beginning. I also like to write by hand. That's how I often start.

What are you working on at the moment?
There are two directions in my literary work: the peasant novels and the political books. The next one will be a political book.

Back at Albin Michel?
Yes. Do you know a little about my books?

Of the fifty or so I've read just under a dozen, especially “The Red Shawls of Cholet” and “The Memory of the Vanquished”. The things about architecture, on the other hand, pass me by completely. “The memory of the vanquished” has a special place, of course, because it is a book that I read with great pleasure, because we sell it on our book tables and recommend it to the young people who join the anarchist movement.
Yes, I am not surprised. When people come to “Publico” [bookstore of the Anarchist Federation] and ask what the libertarian movement is, they say, “Read this first!” It's still a successful book, reissued in paperback, that has a readership and Reached people from a wide variety of backgrounds, including those who are very far from us.

Why was the book written around 1990? To prevent a memory from being lost?
I said to myself that I am the bearer of a memory because I got to know all known anarchists, in my youth and later. I was close friends with Maurice Joyeux, but I also knew Leval, Louvet, and even Armand. I was in close contact with Lecoin, we fought together for the right to conscientious objection. Since all these people are dead, I decided to tell about them and chose the novel form for it, which some historians resented me, but my goal was to reach a large audience. I wanted to write a novel in the tradition of the great popular novels of the 19th century and in that way incorporate people and ideas.

Let's talk about Fred Barthélemy, the hero of "The Memory of the Vanquished". His life seems incredible, as packed as it is, from the anarchist expropriators of the early century to the eco-struggles of the 1980s. Which role models were the inspiration for this character?
Fred is one of those cases where the writer realizes he's hit the mark. Fred has become an extremely vivid figure, so vivid in fact that quite a few readers thought he really existed and went to the Père-Lachaise cemetery to look for his urn grave. In fact, he's a mix of three people. It is initially inspired by Gaston Leval, whom I knew very well ...

Leval for the chapters on Spain 36 ...
Yes, more in relation to Spain. When I was 23 or 24, after the war, he used to invite me to his home and I learned a lot from him. Then Henri Poulaille, especially for childhood and old age.

The childhood in the Bonnot gang, is that Poulaille?
Yes.

The anti-nuclear demonstrations too?
No, these are more portraits of activists from the world of politics.

And Russia in the early days of the revolution? The great disputes between anarchists and Bolsheviks, the clashes of 1918, does that also come from the story of Poulaille?
No, this is someone who spoke Russian, who was part of the 1918 French military delegation and who stayed in Russia as an anarchist activist ...

Marcel Body?
Exactly.

He wasn't actually an anarchist, more an oppositional communist ...
I made an anarchist out of him. I also used what Leval told me about Russia. And the writings of Berkman, Emma Goldman. In fact, the book contains an entire summary of the history of anarchism, perhaps too much. Tardi would like to make a comic out of it, but it's just way too long for him.

You go into very little about World War II, the 1940-1945 period, except for mentioning the "Peace Immediately" leaflet and the arrest of Louis Lecoin. Why? Because it's a particularly dark period in anarchist history?
Yes, a bit of a dark period. Pacifism had led to a wait-and-see, opportunist attitude, even to collaboration. Even Lecoin, who was a great guy, was accused ...

What memory do you have of him? And the others?
A great memory, a little man, even smaller than me, who wasn't afraid of anything and who fought for the right to conscientious objection. He remains a role model for fighting commitment. Maurice Joyeux was younger, a buddy, a tribune, an extraordinary guy. His children are still on the move.

You see that more and more often. The libertarian legacy! And Henri Poulaille?
This is my spiritual father. When I came to Paris in 1945 because everything was happening there and because I wanted to meet him after we had exchanged letters, he put me in front of the door! I came back the next day, the day after that, and finally he introduced me to all of his friends. That's how I got into the libertarian movement. Poulaille was the great role model.

The spiritual father, also in literature?
Less in literature. It was important to me to write well, but Poulaille hardly. But as an advocate of proletarian literature, he influenced me. I wrote to him from Nantes after reading something from him. As a little painter who started to work at the age of 14, I said to myself: "That's great, there are people who come from the people and write about the people".

A literature by and for the people?
Not necessarily for the people, but one that draws on the collective memory, translates it into another language, another style, in order to reach the widest possible readership. That has always been my goal and I have achieved it, see the large number of my readers ...

Your biggest sales success is "The red scarves from Cholet"?
Yes, around 400,000 copies have been sold. That was the breakthrough, after that, says my publisher, you never have to start all over again, you always have a certain community of readers.

Let’s talk about the Vendée, the other major theme of your work.
I come from this area, but I haven't dealt with the Vendée for too long. When my mother died, I started researching what was behind her accent, namely a farming family and a region. Little by little I knelt into this matter, went to the archives and found that the history of the Vendée is highly explosive, that it was falsified and appropriated by the nobility and the church in the 19th century. The Vendée uprising was one from below, ultimately very anarchistic. The peasants and workers - for in the Cholet area there were all these workers, the weavers, the farriers - stormed the cities and destroyed all files and documents. This insurrection was captured from the moment the Vendées made the great mistake of telling themselves: “We are too many and we don't know anything about fighting. We need officers. ”This is how they got the nobles, and that was the end of the guerrillas, the invincible soldiers. The nobles formed them into an army and they were inevitably beaten.

So this is a topic that you came across late. I always thought it came from your childhood in Fontenay-le-Conte.
It was one of my early memories, people talked about it, around me, in my childhood, but I didn't care. I wrote "My Mother's Accent" to rediscover that for myself.

Were you not ranked among the regional writers around 1980?
Yes, that was part of the success of “The Red Shawls of Cholet”. The book was carried by the great current for the reappropriation of the collective memory in the province. There was an expectation on the part of the readers. If the “Rote Tücher” were published today, they would not have the same success.

I owe the “red scarves” my departure from a very “blue” [according to the uniform of the republican soldiers], very Jacobean view of the Vendée wars and the discovery of the role of the people in this uprising, the rejection of the ruling bourgeoisie in Paris-originated orders. How did you come up with this idea of ​​a quasi-anarchist Vendée uprising, which was absolutely new in the history of the time?
I drove this wolf into the village and it was very controversial. Raymond Guérin [presumably referring to Daniel Guérin] influenced me significantly on this question. He was a thinker who tried to bring Marxism and anarchism together. He said to me: “You as a Vendéer should look again at the Vendée uprising in the light of Marxism. Something is hidden there. ”My reading is more libertarian. Nevertheless, it is a matter of the uprising of one class against another.

Can you tell us something about your relationship with the art world and your writings on architecture?
When I was around 24, I happened upon a group of painters that nobody was interested in at the time, at least not the gallery owners, collectors and museums. They were abstract painters. These artists asked me to write about them, and so, to a certain extent, I became their chronicler, for example for Soulages, Poliakov or Dubuffet. Dubuffet was an individual anarchist, he even visited Poulaille, but they didn't get along. Dubuffet was a middle-class citizen, they were too far apart culturally and were already too old. Art critic, especially for the magazine “Arts”, that was my job for a long time. As I became more influential, the art market got on my nerves because I found that a good review of a painter increased its market value. I was fascinated by architecture, especially Le Corbusier and the New Building. I began to deal with it, naively assuming that it would be less easy to “take over”. At the same time, I closed a gap because there were very few people who wrote about modern architecture at the time. My “History of Architecture” in three volumes is now available in a paperback at Seuil. It is still widely read in schools. I also got back in touch with my social concerns through architecture. Because in my books I don't just talk about aesthetics, but also about Fourier, Considérant and social housing.

Which authors have inspired you?
First and foremost Jean-Jacques Rousseau, because he was self-taught and came from the people. I recognized myself in that. In addition, Guéhénno and Poulaille.

What do you think of the libertarian movement today?
On the one hand I am part of it, on the other hand I am outside. I am still in close contact with many activists, I am still up to date. It's a very warm, very friendly milieu, but I've become a kind of senior mufti, a grandpa. I agree on the whole, but not on all points. For example, I have always criticized the Trotskyists' influence on the libertarian movement!

Maybe in Joyeux's time, but today ...?
They are never far away on the demos. And look at Besancenot, who mixes Marxism with libertarian ideas. You are very smart! [Olivier Besancenot, presidential candidate of the Trotskyist "Ligue communiste révolutionnaire" in the 2002 elections, who describes himself as a "libertarian communist"]

How do you feel about your life when you think back? Regret?
Much wasted time, a difficult path! I was an orphan of war, was entitled to government support, could have received training grants, but when I was 14 my mother asked the parish priest if I should go to secondary school and he replied, “To an ungodly school, don't you think it's there it's better if he works! ”So my mother and I moved to Nantes, she became a caretaker, I became a delivery boy. One of the great weaknesses of the poor is that they don't know there is a way out. Péguy also came from a modest background, but his mother knew about the existence of scholarships. Not mine.

Which book are you most proud of?
“The memory of the vanquished”, without a doubt. I could add “The Red Shawls of Cholet” and “My Mother's Accent”. All in all, three books that you can be satisfied with, that's something.

(From: Barricata No. 14, June 2006, Interviewer: Pâtre)
translated by MH


Rago’s reception in Germany has taken a peculiar course. While a considerable cross-section of his previously published work was being translated by the early 1970s - novels, writings on art, architecture and urban planning - interest subsequently collapsed. Only his bestseller “The Red Cloths of Cholet” was still published in German and - recently - his main literary work "The Memory of the Vanquished".

The adventure of abstract art, Darmstadt 1957
Geishas don't dance for everyone, Hamburg 1960
American (novel), Hamburg 1961
Joke and caricature in France, Hamburg 1961
The Idler (novel), Hamburg 1962
Expressionism, Lausanne 1967
Where do we live tomorrow ?, Munich 1967
Aesthetics of contemporary architecture, Neuchatel 1968
The great errors, Munich 1972
Der Eichener, Bremen 1986 (new under the title: The red cloths of Cholet, Munich 1989)
The memory of the vanquished, Lich 2006

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