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Maurice Thorez. A Biography. John Bulaitis. “The Best French Disciple of Stalin” – a Review.

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“The best French disciple of Stalin, the great artisan of workers’ unity”.

(This review appears in the latest print edition – November/December –  of the democratic socialist Chartist bi-monthly).

Maurice Thorez. A Biography. John Bulaitis. I.B. Tauris. 2018.

Maurice Thorez (1900 – 1964)  “described himself in a conversation with Stalin as a Frenchman with ‘the soul of a Soviet citizen’.” John Bulaitis suggests that this biography of the French Communist leader can be read as a “history of the PCF through the prism of its general secretary”. The dominant figure in French Communism for over thirty years, the General Secretary of the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) was despite being unfavourably compared to his Italian counterpart, Palmiro Togliatti (1893 – 1964) able to “do politics”.

A major actor in France’s twentieth century history, the Thorez led PCF had an impact on the progressive legislation of the Front Populaire in 1936-37 and as Minister of State in the in the immediate post-war government. He also presided over a party that reflected his pride in being a Stalinist, with its own cult of a domestic “fils du peuple”.

Maurice Thorez benefits from the ‘archival explosion” that has followed the collapse of that Soviet citizenry. In his extensive research, Bulaitis begins with the origins of Thorez’s attachment both to the Soviet Union and to “working class struggle”. The Communist’s adoptive father was a miner, his family, Catholic. Thorez’s was too young to be conscripted in the Great War, working in the mines, membership of the CGT miners’ union and the French Socialist Party, took place at time of a “deep crisis of socialist identity”.

For Bulaitis the French Communist Party was not created as a conjunction of accidents. Annie Kriegel called its Bolshevism an “ideological graft” (Aux origins du communisme français. 1969). These ideas took hold, however, in a European context in which the party of Lenin held hopes for a European Revolution that needed entirely new parties to carry it to success. In the resulting dispute inside French Socialism, Thorez took the majority side in the Congrès de Tours (1920). Refusing to stay within the “vieille Maison”, he joined the supporters of the new Third International whom Léon Blum accused of creating a party with “a sort of military chain of command whose orders are formulated at the top and transmitted from one rank to another down to the mere members.” (1)

Despite winning the vote inside the French Socialist party (SFIO, Section Française de l’internationale ouvrière) the French communists, initially called the Section française de l’Internationale communiste (SFIC). did not make much headway. Bulaitis covers the rise of Thorez from activist to full time organiser in the Pas-de Calais in the North of France, brief support for the “left fraction” to regional and national party leadership and pre-eminence in 1930 with deft clarity. But perhaps many will have a the back of their minds Jacques Julliard’s description of the history of the early PCF as marked by “purges, liquidations, witchcraft-trials” as Stalinist orthodoxy was imposed. (2)

Bolshevisation.  

During this “bolshevisation” of French Communism two rivalries stand out. The first was with Jacques Doriot. The Mayor of Saint-Denis, hostile to the ‘class against class’ strategy that labelled Socialists as “social fascists”, he was forced put in 1933 (when the party was down to 32,000 members) at the moment when the Moscow run Comintern  was about to change the line. Far from welcoming the Popular Front and its radical social legislation, Doriot began a red-brown drift in his own Parti Populaire Français. He ended with collaboration and death “strafed by an allied war plane” in 1945 while fighting for the Nazis.

The other conflict was with the leading Communist André Marty. Marty’s career spanned the 1919 Black Sea Mutiny, the role of Commissar of the International Brigades in Spain, marked by ruthless crushing of dissident leftists (which Bulaitis does not cover in detail) and official PCF representative in Algiers to de Gaulle’s Free French forces. Thorez had first clashed with him in 1927 over relations with the Socialists. A post-war bid for greater influence and radicalism failed. The impression is that Thorez resented his efforts to act as an independent representative of the views of Moscow. His career ended in ‘l’affaire Marty-Tillon’ in 1952 in which the PCF expelled him with the accusation that he was a police spy. Calls to defend Marty’s innocence are still out there on the Web (Comité national pour la réhabilitation d’André Marty).

In outlining these and other details of French Communist history Maurice Thorez does not lose sight of its protagonist nor of the historical backdrop. The contentious role of the PCF during the Hitler-Stalin pact, Thorez’s escape to Moscow and war years in the Soviet Union, the National Front for Liberation that brought the Communists into the heart of the Resistance, led to the political highpoint of his “career as a communist politician” After October 1945 Thorez was minister of state, and on two occasions, deputy prime minister within a coalition government. In 1946 score of 28,6% of the vote, 800,000 members, strident calls for increased production, and, as the biography begins a 1959 rally, for “by the people of France to their greatest son, the best French disciple of Stalin, the great artisan of workers’ unity”. There was never a Communist led Cabinet, still less a Communist France.

Stalin’s Crimes.

The 1950s saw Thorez handling badly Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes. He supported the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. The party was ambiguous even hostile to the independence struggle of the “evolving nation” of Algeria. Large sections of the intelligentsia found new radical left vehicles in anti-Stalinist parties such as the Parti Socialiste Unifié. Thorez kept his loyalties. In 1961 “brimming with enthusiasm” he welcomed Khrushchev’s ambition to “surpass, economically and culturally the United States”. The designated successor, Waldeck Rochet, took the helm in 1964. But for a decade “the thought of Maurice Thorez remained the reference point for PCF politics”.

The “communist passion” is said to haunt French politics. Mingling with the heritage of the French Revolution, a “national-Thorezist” culture has left its imprint. While the PCF vote was down to 2,49% at the last European election commentators have found echoes of Thorez elsewhere. Some find them in the anti-globalist tirades of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s call to federate the People against the Oligarchy.

John Bulaitis is more cautious. Thorez “displayed skill and acumen,” and an “ability to  relate to ordinary French people.” His life “can be viewed as reflection of the intertwined hopes and tragedies of the communist movement in the twentieth century”. Maurice Thorez a Biography is a remarkable achievement, an indispensable reference point that helps us consider that legacy.

****

(1) Léon Blum 1920 Speech at the Socialist Party Congress at Tours, 27 December 1920

(2) Page 545. Les Gauches Françaises. Jacques Julliard. Flammarion. 2012.

5 Responses

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  1. The contortions of altruists struggling to imagine differences between Christian National Socialism and Collectivist International socialism is always fascinating to behold, mainly for the Roman Holiday of them going at each others’ throats over which kinds of altruism better justify the initiation of deadly force both sides value. We who value non-aggression–tempered with blindingly deadly retaliation if attacked–never tire of watching these wrestling matches. Just the fact that y’all no longer brag about which is the more sincere version of altruism, but struggle to ignore that and the equally mawkish beatitudes is wondrous. But I am waiting for the sequel to the book: Communist Deaths. THAT promises to be a page-turner!

    oiltranslator

    November 4, 2019 at 1:52 pm

  2. You may find tis wiki article relevant https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugen_Fried

    David Walsh

    November 5, 2019 at 11:06 am

  3. Thanks, I have heard the name of Eugen Fried and Cde Google informs me of why:

    Eugen Fried : le grand secret du PCF Author: Annie Kriegel; Stéphane Courtois.1997.

    Kriegel was by that time relentlessly hostile to the PCF, and Stéphane Courtois is best known for this: Le livre noir du communisme : crimes, terreur et repression Stephane Courtois.

    This looks a useful summary of the book:

    Livre. La biographie d’Eugen Fried ­ chargé par Staline de «bolcheviser» les communistes français ­ écrite par deux historiens grâce aux archives du Komintern.L’agent qui «purgea» le PCF. Eugen Fried, le grand secret du PCF. Annie Kriegel et Stéphane Courtois. Ed. Le Seuil, 448 pp., 160 F

    https://www.liberation.fr/tribune/1997/02/10/livre-la-biographie-d-eugen-fried-charge-par-staline-de-bolcheviser-les-communistes-francais-ecrite-_197452

    Andrew Coates

    November 5, 2019 at 11:57 am

  4. Yes. In a Wiki side comment, it seems Cde Fried had some links to King Street as well.

    David Walsh

    November 6, 2019 at 8:50 am

    • David, I checked the biography and he uses the book I cited here. He was not always supportive of Thorez.

      It is an important issue, but personally I am wary of histories about somebody whose activities were so complex and controversial.

      Andrew Coates

      November 6, 2019 at 10:55 am


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