Malaquais, Jean, 1908-1998

Jean Malaquais.

A biography of writer, council communist and "stateless person", Jean Malaquais.

Stateless Person
Wladimir Malacki was born in Warsaw in 1908 of a Polish family of Jewish extraction which had renounced Judaism. His father was a man of letters, a teacher of Latin and Greek, and a great lover of books. His mother was a socialist militant of the Jewish internationalist organisation, the Bund, which had developed in Poland. His family perished in the Nazi concentration camps.

In 1926, he decided to leave Poland, travelling through Russia, Romania, Turkey and Palestine, before ending up in France.

Malacki had idealised France as the political paradise. He was soon to be rudely awakened. The France of 1926, riddled with xenophobia and anti-Semitism, gave a cold welcome to the young man. His Polish passport was seized by the authorities, making him a stateless person. He got work in a number of jobs, including working in the mines at Gardane in the south of France. Here he worked alongside workers from all over the world, from all parts of the French Empire, from Indochina and Africa. This experience was to be the basis of his first novel Les Javanais. At the same time he devoured every book that came his way. Disgusted by nationalism and xenophobia, he contacted the Trotskyist Ligue Communiste, but, unlike his friend Marc Chirik, did not join it.

By now going under the name of Jean Malaquais, Malacki ended up in Paris in 1935, where he worked unloading crates at Les Halles market. In Paris he made contact with the left-wing of Trotskyism organised in the Union Communiste and the Italian Bordigists who had been forced to flee to France and Belgium by the rise of fascism and who edited Bilan.

In Paris, he read the paper of the writer André Gide, where he regretted never having to earn a living. Writing a sarcastic reply to the writer he was surprised to receive a cheque for 100 francs from Gide. He tore this up in disgust, writing back: ‘If you think you can buy a little bit of paradise on my back with 100 francs you are mistaken.’

The correspondence continued, with Gide ending up employing Malaquais as his private secretary, giving him the opportunity to write himself. Gide realised that the young man was a gifted and passionate writer. Les Javanais, a social novel on immigration and the xenophobic France of the extreme right organisations, was rejected by one major publishing house, but was finally published in 1939, receiving the prestigious Renaudot prize, and being translated into several languages.

Escape
In the meantime, the Spanish Civil War had broken out and Malaquais went there in 1936. Here he joined the militia columns of the left Marxist POUM and the Lenin Column formed of dissident Italian Bordigists like Enrico Russo (Candiani). He had the misfortune to be arrested and confronted by Ilya Ehrenburg, Russian Stalinist writer working for the Russian secret police and was close to being shot as a ‘fascist agent’ and ‘provocateur’. He managed to escape back to France. Here he made contact with Victor Serge, the French-Russian writer and with the Yugoslav, Ante Ciliga, who had both been released from Stalin’s Soviet concentration camps.

Despite being stateless, the French State judged Malaquais sufficiently French to conscript him into the Army on the outbreak of war. He was captured by the Germans, but managed to escape and fled south to Marseilles. Here he fell in with Serge and the surrealists André Breton and Benjamin Peret. He got employment in the Croque-Fruit, a co-operative run by Trotskyists. With Marc Chirik, he denounced the exploitation of workers in the co-operative. They were both sacked. Chirik, under the name of Marc Lavergne, is the hero of Malaquais’ masterpiece Planète sans visa (Planet without visa), published in 1947.

Malaquais managed to get a boat to Venezuela and then Mexico in 1943. Here he associated with Peret, Breton, Serge, the French left socialist Marceau Pivert, and the Spanish Civil War veteran Grandizo Munis. He was able to edit his Carnets de Guerre (War Notebooks), which he had started at the beginning of the World War. It was a platform for his denunciation of all forms of patriotism and chauvinism, and took an internationalist stand against both sides in the war. Attacked publicly by Serge, as was Marceau Pivert, Malaquais broke with him.

He spent the next few years in the United States, returning to France in 1947-48. Here, he joined the left communist group, Internationalisme, which had emerged from Bordigism and in which his old friend Marc Chirik was active. Others active in the group for a time were Maximilien Rubel, Louis Evrard and Serge Bricianer.

Independent
He returned to the States in 1948, teaching European literature up to 1968, without being attached to a university, but acting as a roving speaker. He was given American citizenship, although he always regarded himself proudly as a stateless person. No longer a militant and of an increasingly independent libertarian communist outlook, he made contact with various council communists around the world like Rubel in France, Anton Pannekoek, and Henk Canne-Meyer in Holland. In the States he made contact with the German council communist Paul Mattick and the Marxist-Humanist Raya Dunaevskaja, as well as Herbert Marcuse. He also put up Albert Camus when that writer visited the States. On a long stay in France in the ‘60s he participated in the meetings of the group animated by Rubel, around the magazine Cahiers pour le socialisme des conseils (Notebooks for council socialism). Returning to France from a conference tour in Australia he found himself plunged into the events of May 1968, which filled him with enthusiasm. He started discussing with the groups of the anti-authoritarian council communists. Returning to the States he kept up his links with these groups through correspondence and frequent visits.

He visited Poland in 1980 and talked with workers in the Solidarnosc unions. He moved back to Europe in the ‘80s, living in Switzerland maintaining his links with the groups in Paris. He never totally subscribed to the certainties of these groups, but had a gut reaction to the myth of socialist Russia and to all forms of the State. As he said, he was: ‘Anti-cop, anti-capitalist, anti- all that which alienates man (sic)’. These were to be consistent themes in his activities and his writings. His political journey led from the left of Trotskyism to an anti-authoritarian council communist position not far from that of class struggle anarchist communism. Another theme in his works was his affirmation of life, that despite everything life was worth living. As he said: ‘The best thing about life is life!’ Malaquais died in December 1998.

That year marked the republication of many of his books in France, including Planète sans visa. The background to this book is the situation in Marseilles in 1940, peopled with black marketeers, collaborators and fascists on one hand, and on the other Jews, refugees, anti-fascists seeking a visa to escape France. The book is filled with immense compassion for the refugees, and somehow he describes them individually, in a whole range of accents. As this century ends, and as we remember the great waves of refugees produced by the world wars, and gaze in horror at the mass exoduses in the Balkans and East Timor, this book is a testament for all the wretched of the earth.
Nick Heath