Jean Ellenstein

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The Independent Online

Jean Ellenstein, writer, teacher and politician: born Paris 6 August 1927; died 16 January 2002.

Jean Ellenstein was a good example of the difficulties of being an intellectual in the French Communist Party. As one who prophesied that the Party would see its importance dwindle so that it would become a small party alongside other small left-wing parties, it could be said that he was an intellectual who got it right.

His beginnings were very unusual. His father was a Jewish businessman in Paris and the family had to take refuge in Haute Savoie; Jean's youth was dominated by living under a false name and by disguising himself when travelling. For him it was the Red Army that had been his saviour and at the age of 17, in liberated Paris, he went to the headquarters of the Communist students in the Rue de Médicis and joined the Party. He was immediately given a brush with which to stick posters on the walls celebrating the return of Maurice to Paris. "But who is Maurice?" he asked, perhaps the only carrier of a party card who did not know the name of Maurice Thorez.

He became heavily committed to the student Communist movement and was in charge of the French side of the World Federation of Democratic Youth. He was involved in a number of militant actions that involved him in legal troubles. At a Festival of Youth held in East Berlin he arranged for French delegates to take spare watches with them, which they sold in return for gold or for currency of a high value. The money was then paid into a Paris bank by Ellenstein, who was accused of being a foreign agent paid with Soviet gold. In 1949 he was one of the leaders of a demonstration at the Clignancout barracks trying to prevent soldiers leaving to fight in Indochina, and he was sent to prison.

After these experiences "Jean Ellen" (as he was known) had a period when he avoided publicity. He continued to organise Communist students, both nationally and internationally, but he returned to his own university career, becoming a well-qualified teacher of history. It was then that he began his reflections about the organisation and beliefs of the Communist Party.

Publicly he remained a loyal Party member. But privately he attempted to persuade the leaders to adopt less rigorous policies. This brought him into open conflict with Jeannette Vermeersch in 1964. In 1967 he claimed that the historical role of Trotsky needed to be re-evaluated, which led to further controversy.

It was in the 1970s that he appeared as the champion of the movement to liberalise the Communist Party and to make it independent of the Soviet Union. He was in favour of a common programme with the Socialists under Jacques Mitterrand and he blamed the leadership of the party both for the breaking of this agreement in 1977 and the Communists' poor performance in the elections of 1978, when, for the first time since the Second World War, the Socialists gained more votes than they. Ellenstein lectured in England and the United States. His articles appeared in all newspapers. His expulsion from the Party in 1980 was hardly surprising.

He continued to teach at the University of Poitiers until his retirement. In 1981 he published a biography of Marx.

Douglas Johnson