The four lives of Laurent Schwartz

Submitted by Matthew on 15 July, 2015 - 10:51 Author: Martin Thomas

I recently came across Laurent Schwartz’s autobiography, published in French in 1997, and in English in 2001. Maybe for reasons which I’ll indicate, it has not become a well-known book; but there is much to be extracted from it.

Schwartz was a Trotskyist from when he was shocked by the Moscow Trials, in 1936, at the age of 21, until 1947; and an energetic left activist all his life, often cooperating with Trotskyists.

In 1946-7 he had become active enough to serve on the day-to-day leading committee of the small French Trotskyist movement, and to be invited to work for the movement full-time as its secretary. He quit the movement in 1947, and so, soon after, did almost all the figures of the so-called “right wing” of the French Trotskyist movement at that time, to whom he was closest — Albert Demazière, Paul Parisot, Yvan Craipeau, and others.

Schwartz broke from Trotskyism more thoroughly than Craipeau and Parisot ever did, but remained active, especially in solidarity with Algeria’s war of independence (1954-62), against the US war in Vietnam (later 1960s and early 70s), against what he calls the USSR’s “new ‘Vietnam’ war” in Afghanistan (early 1980s), and in a Committee of Mathematicians which campaigned, sometimes successfully, for the freedom of mathematicians who were political detainees in countries from the USSR to Uruguay. He was also a prominent member of the PSU, a leftish split from the Socialist Party generated by opposition to the Algerian war.

His day job, all that time, was as a university professor of mathematics, and an eminent one. His most famous mathematical discovery, which in 1950 won him the Fields Medal (maths’ equivalent of the Nobel Prize), was made in 1944, while he was still a Trotskyist activist.

Schwartz’s later activism was not the usual sedate academic’s business of signing letters to the newspapers from time to time. He organised committees, spoke at meetings. His activity against France’s war in Algeria got him sacked from his university job for a year (1962-3). His son Marc-André, also active, was kidnapped by French right-wingers; though Marc-André escaped after two days, the kidnapping left him so scarred that he became mentally ill, frequently attempted suicide, and eventually succeeded.

The autobiography shows that Schwartz remained in contact with Craipeau and Parisot, and often worked with Trotskyists. But he explains his break with Trotskyism on the grounds — surely read back onto his 1947 mind with the hindsight of 1997, when, at the age of 82, he produced his autobiography — that Trotskyists fail to recognise that the working class is not and will never become educated enough to aspire to social power. “The proletariat and peasantry do not progress sufficiently in the educational system, not only because of defects in the structure of the system, but because of their own lack of ambition”. Schwartz, oddly for someone in the very hierarchical French university system, considers contemporary education too “egalitarian” and not “selective” enough.

Yet he recounts, with obvious pride, that some people still considered him a Trotskyist, and says that one friend’s political definition of him as “a former Trotskyist” is accurate. He is proud of his Trotskyist past, not ashamed of it.

Having (at the time, or in later rationalisation) made such a fundamental break with Trotskyism, he puts nothing in his autobiography about the debates in the Trotskyist movement either in his time or later. The French Trotskyist movement in 1946-7 was hot with debate. Parisot and others had, for a short while after 1948, links with Max Shachtman’s Workers Party in the USA. Craipeau remained active on the left until his death and sardonically entitled his 1999 autobiography “Memoirs of a Trotskyist Dinosaur”. He had been (in 1937) the first Trotskyist advocate of a “bureaucratic collectivist” description of Stalin’s USSR, and later wrote extensively to argue that it was state-capitalist.

Schwartz comments on none of that. But he attributes his internationalism to his Trotskyist past, and from that internationalist viewpoint gives a vivid picture of many political episodes.

The autobiography is a difficult book. Schwartz, not a modest man, describes himself as still energetic at 82 and having an exceptional memory. It must be true: he could not otherwise have led the life he led, or produced the book.

But I suspect, and am sometimes sure, that at 82 Schwartz is sometimes reading later thoughts back onto earlier events. The book reads as if dictated to an amanuensis (Isabelle Rozenbaumas, a historian who has since become a film director); scarcely copy-edited; poorly translated from French into English; and scrappily proof-read.

Schwartz was part of the Bourbaki group of French mathematicians. He argues that the Bourbaki project would have been impossible except that André Weil, one of its founders, had gone to Germany to study with Emmy Noether and others in the 1920s, when most French mathematicians were trying, for chauvinist reasons, to ban Germans from international mathematical conferences.

Even if he had done nothing in politics and had he not made his great mathematical discovery in 1944, Schwartz’s role in Bourbaki would be a remarkable life’s work.

The group produced 19 books, over many years, as a systematic rewriting of large areas of mathematics in the way that Noether and her colleagues had rewritten algebra.

It was an extraordinary procedure, maybe the only example in history of important books being produced in a more-or-less planned way by a committee. Each area of mathematics was successively named as the subject for a book. (There were many arguments about the order).

One member of the group would then write a “zero-th” draft of a book. The draft would be “completely demolished” in the group’s stormy, rowdy monthly meetings. The main organiser of the group once it got going, Jean Dieudonné, whom Schwartz describes as doing mathematics full-tilt 18 hours a day, every day, would threaten to walk out, or actually walk out, at almost every meeting.

Then another member would write another draft. Then another, another... until “around the seventh or eighth version”, the group finally conceded that a draft was ready to publish under the authorship of the fictitious “Nicolas Bourbaki”. The result was not a textbook, nor a report of research — members of the group wrote their own textbooks, and research reports, separately — but an attempted model of how the particular area of mathematics could be systematised and generalised.

The project never achieved its stated goal. Pure mathematics was expanding much faster than the group’s attempts to systematise it, and the group never tried to integrate applied mathematics. But Schwartz is surely right to say that Bourbaki changed the whole style of mathematics.

The book includes large chunks of mathematics, recounted as to another mathematician specialising in Schwartz’s chosen areas, with few explanatory concessions even to professional mathematicians specialising in other areas. Schwartz had a fourth life as an ardent butterfly collector, and there is a lot in the book about butterflies.

He recounts that in the 1920s French mathematicians refused, for chauvinist reasons, to pay attention to German mathematics (which then led the world), and even sought to ban German mathematicians from international conferences.

Schwartz met the other Bourbaki mathematicians during World War 2, which, as a Jew and a Trotskyist in France, he survived only through luck. He moved to the Vichy area, and then to the small Italian-occupied part of France, living in small hamlets, maintaining multiple identities, sometimes meeting people who (he later discovered) really knew he was Jewish but chose to protect him, but often finding French people who hated Jews and the English much more than they disliked the Nazis.

At one point he survived a round-up at a railway station — in which, as was routine, the Gestapo ordered all men to undress and took for deportation all who were circumcised — only because he noticed the officers gathering and slipped out early enough.

His post-Trotskyist political activity reads as that of a “Third-Worldist”, but his attitudes are not like that at all.

He criticises, for example, the fringes of the Vietnam movement in Europe and the USA who went for terrorist activity as the most militant form of solidarity: “a dangerous insanity which recalls the insanity of today’s fundamentalist Islam... a generally more or less concealed anti-semitism, called ‘anti-Zionism’.”

He describes himself “breaking with” Noam Chomsky, because Chomsky “continued to support Pol Pot for too long”. Schwartz became a member of a committee to expose Pol Pot’s atrocities in Cambodia.

On Afghanistan he comments: “One might claim that we shouldn’t have expended so much energy on the expulsion of the Soviets... their social program was so much better than the Taliban’s. But... the Red Army was a foreign conquering army, bringing bombings, massacres, torture and mass executions. The Afghans unanimously revolt against it... it was impossible not to support them.

“The final result is execrable...But it was the... Soviet repression which gave rise to civil war and the Taliban”. Similarly, Schwartz does not regret opposing the Shah of Iran even though “the regime of the Ayatollahs is obscurantist and uses torture even more”. Schwartz depicts himself as clearly aware that FLN rule in Algeria, or Stalinist rule in Vietnam, would be horrible, even while he was active in solidarity with their struggles against imperialism.

It is not because he looks to an independent working-class “Third Camp”. He sees a moral obligation to stand against repression, and sees no reason why that stand should require illusions about the victims of repression.

There are worse compasses in politics.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.