A short biography of the anarchist writer Henry Poulaille, champion of Proletarian Literature.
Henry Poulaille was born in a working class family in 5th December 1896, in the working class district of Menilmontant in Paris. His mother was a chair caner and his father was a carpenter. His father was interested in revolutionary syndicalism and supported all the actions of the dynamic young CGT and was sympathetic to anarchism and revolutionary socialism. As a child Henri avidly read the radical literature of his father, who whilst having little money, spent any disposable income on papers and the books of anarchists like Kropotkin, Jean Grave, Elisée Reclus, or Michel Zévaco. Very soon, his parents both died, his father after the collapse of scaffolding on a job, and several months later his mother from TB.
He was forced to fend for himself from the age of thirteen. His younger brother and sister were placed in a family, but he decided to remain independent and to start work. He had to work as a newspaper vendor, as a sandwich board man, and a host of similar jobs. He gravitated towards the anarchists and spent much time frequenting the stalls of the bouquinistes (book-sellers) on the Seine at Paris (some of those stalls still survive to this day). He managed to get work in a pharmacy which allowed him the opportunity to read during slack times. In 1911, during a festival organised by individualist anarchists, he became friends with Jules Erlebach, known as Ducret, who ran an anarchist bookshop L’idée libre (The Free Idea) in the Passage de Clichy. He also became friends with another anarchist, the anarcho-syndicalist Paul Delesalle, ex- secretary of the Bourses du travail and adjuster-mechanic with the film business of the Lumière brothers, who encouraged the young auto-didact (he later left his house to Poulaille after the Liberation as well as some of his archives on the anarchist movement).
At the same time Poulaille made acquaintance of the individualists Victor Serge and Rirette Maîtrejean, through whom he met other notable individualists like Han Ryner. He never subscribed to individualist theories, preferring the collective outlook of anarcho-syndicalists and anarchist communists like Jean Grave or Fernand Pelloutier. He was in the Army in 1916 and was seriously wounded in October of the following year. He then finished the war as a nurse. Demobbed in April 1919, he began work at a pharmaceutical factory. He then obtained work with the newspaper of the Commune Libre (Free Commune) of Montmartre, La Vache Enragée (The Angry Cow) edited by Frédéric Lefèvre, whom he had met during the war. He continued writing for it until 1924, and his articles appeared in other papers including L’Humanité, the Communist Party paper. He was a staunch partisan of the need to develop a proletarian literature and culture and in this spirit he signed the Manifesto of The International Union of Progressive Artists launched by the Dutch group De Stijl in 1922.
Lefèvre referred him to Bernard Grasset, editor of a publishing house of the same name and he soon became secretary of its press service and then its director. This helped him publish his own writings and those of other anarchist authors. He started writing for the anarchist press with an article on Strindberg for La Revue Anarchiste in 1924, following by several articles in L’Insurgé (The Insurgent) edited by André Colomer. Deciding to further promote the idea of proletarian literature he created the Prize Without A Name which he promoted in his paper Journal Sans Nom in 1925.
Poulaille soon published his first novel Ils Etaient Quatre (They Were Four). He questioned the idea of Art For Art’s Sake, arguing that it must take into account social conditions. He welcomed the growth of cinema, particularly appreciating the films of Chaplin, where simple ideas were put across without being simplistic. When Chaplin was the victim of a campaign of defamation, Poulaille took his side, along with the Surrealists. He fought against censorship attempts and protested against the banning of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in 1927, launching a big campaign and gaining the support of writers like Henri Barbusse, Marcel Martinet, André Malraux, as well as many film makers.
He never joined the Communist Party, even though his writing was well received within the Soviet Union. After the affirmation of the doctrine of Socialist Realism by the Soviet regime he increasingly became the target of vicious attacks. He refused to associate the concept and movement of Proletarian Literature with Communist Party propaganda. In 1925, he signed a declaration against the war in Morocco. In 1927 he was involved in the campaign around Sacco and Vanzetti. In 1933 he set up a support committee for his old friend, Victor Serge now an oppositionist in Russia who had been deported to Siberia by the Stalinist regime, earning the increasing hostility of the French Communist Party. He further exacerbated this hostility when he joined the Comité International Contre La Répression Anti-prolétarienne En Russie (International Committee Against Repression in Russia) in March 1936, and the Comité pour l’Enquête Sur Les Procès De Moscou Et Pour La Défense De La Liberté D’opinion Dans La Revolution (Committee for an inquest on the Moscow trials and for the Defence of Freedom of Opinion Within the Revolution) set up in autumn of the same year. In 1938 he took part in the campaign for the liberation of Zenzl Muehsam, the widow of the anarchist Erich Muehsam, murdered by the Nazis. She had taken refuge in the USSR, only to be implicated in one of the imaginary plots thought up by Stalin’s security services. At the same time he campaigned for the freedom of press in the USA, writing for the anarchist paper Man! ( over the years he committed himself to other protests , against the fascist regime in Italy and the Ethipian war, against the Indo-Chinese war, etc.).
In 1939 he signed the anti-militarist declaration Immediate Peace initiated by the anarchist Louis Lecoin and was, unlike many of the signatories who proved to be faint-hearted, unwilling to renege on his original commitment. Only his call-up saved him from a prison sentence. He was arrested by the Nazis in 1942 for being a Communist (!). Only the influence of Grasset saved him from deportation and he was eventually freed.
In 1963 he signed Lecoin’s campaign letter calling for the recognition of the status of conscientious objector.
He sought to both encourage and to publish writers from a working class background like him, like the miner Constant Malva or the level-crossing keeper Rose Combe, and he published them in his series Les romans du Nouvel âge. In addition to the series he published a book on the subject Le Nouvel âge littéraire (1930), and a review of the same name which then dropped the last word. In addition to Le Nouvel Age he was the founder of other magazines, whose appearance was often fleeting, like Prolétariat and À contre courant. Apart from the anarchist papers already mentioned he contributed to Monde, Esprit, Peuple and La Flèche. He published or enabled the publication of many great French writers like Henri Barbusse, Marcel Martinet, Jean Giono and a host of others including non-French writers like Serge, the American John Dos Passos, and the Romanian Panaït Istrati. Along with Martinet he set up the Le Musée Soir (Evening Museum) built around a library which fostered debates. This was directly based on the Universités Populaires (People’s Universities) founded at the end of the 19th century by the anarchist Gustave Geoffroy, an associate of Pelloutier, which offered workers courses and lectures in art, technology, science, etc. One of the first exhibitions and lectures, put on with the help of Pierre Monatte, welcomed the great Neo-Impressionist painter and anarchist Maximilien Luce.
Together with the painter Joseph Lacasse he founded L’Equipe which sponsored presentations, exhibitions and theatre in the Montparnasse neighbourhood of Paris. Following the Liberation he published the magazine Maintenant, a « proletarian review » which dedicated its last issue to the 1848 Revolution. Together with the libertarian anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep he founded the review Le Folklore Vivant (Living Folklore) which addressed itself to one of Poulaille’s interests, the folk traditions and ceremonies still continuing throughout France and the world. Unfortunately there were only two issues of this review.
In addition to Ils Etaient Quatre he wrote Pain Quotiden (Daily Bread), Les Damnés de la Terre (The Wretched of the Earth), Les Rescapés, Seul dans La Vie à 14 ans (Alone In Life at Fourteen) and Le Pain du Soldat (Soldier’s Bread). These are based on his own early and hard life. In contradiction with the novels of Zola, he emphasises working class solidarity, and gives much space in them to the various movements and personalities of the period. At this present time only Le Pain du Soldat and Les Damnés de la Terre are in print in France.
The character Fred Barthélemy in the novel La Mémoire des Vaincus (The Memory of the Defeated) by Michel Ragon is partly based on Poulaille. Ragon, working class anarchist and autodidact himself, was inspired by Poulaille.
Henry Poulaille died on 30th March 1980.
Ragon, M. (1974) Histoire de la littérature prolétarienne en France
Henry Poulaille, défenseur du cinéma humain :