Patrick Kessel (1926-2008)

Biographical Elements

Secrétariat, Société chauvinoise de philosophie

Nephew of the novelist Joseph Kessel, Patrick Kessel was born on September 14, 1929. For several years he was a journalist, first with France-Soir, then afterwards with Paris-Match, L’Express, Libération (first period), France Observateur (between 1948 and the early 1960s). A writer, his first novel was published by Julliard (The Benefit of the Doubt, 1955). In his second novel, Public Enemies (Julliard, 1957, republished by L. Harmattan, 2003), he returned to his background in journalism and provoked many comments. In many articles of which some were censored he denounced the war in Algeria and authored a short work devoted to General Bugeaud, a ‘soldier of the line’ (EFR, 1958). His interest in the struggle of the Algerian people led to a joint work with the Italian Giovanni Pirelli, The Algerian People and the War (Maspéro, 1963, republished by L. Harmattan, 2003), an anthology of testimonies along the lines of his articles that appeared several years earlier. At the beginning of the 1960s he was the director of Revolution (1963-1965) begun by Jacques Verges, a magazine in solidarity with the fight of the countries of the Third World and one of the first to introduce ‘pro-Chinese’ texts.

During these same years, he became very interested in the history of the French Revolution and the workers movements of the 19th century. He was the author of a noted history of The Night of August 4, 1789 (1969, Arthaud). Albert Soboul as well as John Tulard recognised the quality of this work, the only one of this type in French dedicated to the celebrated night of the abolition of privileges. He drafted a vast work on the history of the proletariat of the 18th to the 20th century of which only the first volume appeared (The French Proletariat before Marx, Plon, 1968). At the same time, he began a regular collaboration with Christian Bourgeois, publishing more than ten works in the collection ‘10/18’ during the 1970s. These anthologies of articles are essentially about the history of the revolutionary movements since the French Revolution (The ‘Left’ of 1789, 1969) as well as more contemporary debates (The ‘Maoist’ Movement in France, two volumes, 1972-1978; The Albanian Communists against Revisionism, 1974), including a large selection of historic texts (on the Paris Commune, the correspondence between Sacco and Vanzetti...). He was then sympathetic to Marxist-Leninist theory to which he remained faithful. Beginning in 1972, as editor of the New Publishing Bureau, he published many works of this kind related to the international (China, Albania, Chile, Guadeloupe, Germany...). At the same time, in 1978 he opened the ‘International Bookstore’ (Boulard Street, in the 14th district of Paris) and edited an International Bulletin (1st series), which ceased to appear at the same time as the bookstore closed in 1985-86.

Although never member of a political party, with the exception of a brief period, he thought of his editorial and political commitment as that of a ‘fellow traveller’ of a cause, while always keeping his independence that allowed him to be the editor, journalist, militant and historian for which he was known.

Living in Sarthe from the beginning of the 1990s, he resumed publication of the International Bulletin (2nd series) and was in charge of a collective that aimed at founding a study centre on the workers and peasants movements with the help of an important library that he built up throughout his life. He recently published his articles on the war in Algeria that had previously been censored (War in Algeria. Censored, Seized and Rejected Writings, L. Harmattan, 2003). Until his final days he continued to have a great interest in history, notably about the French Communist Party. He was preparing a voluminous work, To the French Colours: the Communist Blunder which was to deal with the PCF on the national and colonial questions.

Friday, November 14, 2008.

Translated from the French

Vijay Singh writes:

Patrick Kessel was a highly political person. According to his own account he declined to join the Communist Party of France because of the party’s failure to support the national liberation war in Algeria. Later he was actively engaged in the work of the Franco-Albanian Friendship Association and CEMOPI, the Centre for the Study of the International Workers’ and Peasants’ Movement. His literary work, outlined in the biographical note above, has been of considerable value in preserving the knowledge of the history of the revolutionary movement from the period of the French revolution right through to the socialist and people’s democratic revolutions of the twentieth century. Mention may be made here of his contribution in compiling and publishing the writings of Stalin in French for the period after January 1934; the point at which the Soviet edition had been halted after the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU.  These were to be consulted by the compilers of the subsequent Red Star Press editions of the ‘Works’ of Stalin in the German and English languages. The international chronology and documentary source-material which he effortlessly commanded in his presentation to the collection of texts and documents Les Communistes albanais contre le révisionnisme opened up little-known source materials for younger generations of communists concerned with unravelling the knotty issues of the international communist movement. These were of particular value as they illumined the post-war struggles led by Stalin directed against right-wing opportunism and nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe which posed mortal threats to the fledgling people’s democracies. The history of these collisions was clouded after the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU and their lessons for the communist movement eclipsed and almost lost with the rise of ‘market socialism’ in the Soviet Union and People’s China. He also disseminated to a wider audience outside France the seminal Marxist critiques of the writings of influential intellectual figures such as Louis Althusser and Charles Bettelheim. Through this connection this journal was able to arrange for the translation and publication of portions of the book of Claude Varlet which revealed to the English-reading world the life-long distance of Ch. Bettelheim from dialectical and historical materialism and Marxist political economy in his studies of the Soviet Union, People’s China, and by implication of Cuba and ‘India Independent’, as well as the profound influence exerted by the views of Trotsky on him in the period before the 20th Congress of the CPSU and the ideology of Khrushchev after 1956. It was not always possible, though, for the revolutionary movement to understand or support his political positions. Such was the case with his support for the pro-US ‘Kosovo Liberation Army’ at the time when NATO strove to destroy the Yugoslav Federation and undertook the barbarous bombing of Belgrade.  The latter-day views of Patrick Kessel led to his political isolation from the communist movement in his autumnal years. This should not prevent us from appreciating and hailing his enormously positive scientific contribution to the cause of the working class.

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