Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Pierre Naville (ed.), Pierre Naville, Denise Naville and Jean van Heijenoort, Leon Trotsky: Correspondence 1929-1939, L’Harmattan, Paris 1989, pp229, 110ff

The flood of fascinating French books on revolutionary history continues. This latest work is a collection of 123 letters from three of Trotsky’s main French correspondents during the 1930s, together with 24 letters from Trotsky. Pierre Naville was one of the key leaders of the French section. of the Trotskyist movement. Denise Naville was a close friend of both Trotsky and his wife, Natalia Sedova. Jean van Heijenoort was Trotsky’s most capable secretary.

Between 1927 and 1939, Pierre Naville was a leading member of the Trotskyist movement. After the outbreak of war, he turned to the academic world, and wrote a large number of books, mainly on the sociology of work and on philosophy. Over the last 15 years he has begun to publish material from his years of political activity, including a volume of his writings between 1926 and 1939 (L’entre-deux-guerres), and a book of memoirs (Trotsky Vivant).

This latest collection of documents has a curious history, as Naville explains in his Introduction. At the outbreak of war Naville put about 300 letters from Trotsky, together with copies of his replies, in the care of a friend of his wife. Following the German occupation of France, this person took fright and destroyed the letters. When Naville came to try and reconstitute the correspondence in the 1970s, he discovered that many of the letters were missing from the three main archival collections (Harvard, the Hoover Institution and the International Institute of Social History at Amsterdam).

Naville claims that these gaps must be due to Trotsky’s archives having been rifled by his son, Leon Sedov, and by one of Trotsky’s secretaries, Jan Frankel, or even by Jeanne Desmoulins, ex-wife of Raymond Molinier. As Naville points out, he was at loggerheads with Sedov and Frankel on many points throughout the 1930s, and there was – and still is! – a mutual detestation between himself and Molinier. Given that Naville presents absolutely no proof for his allegations, it seems far more probable that he is interpreting events in the light of a series of rivalries which are now over 50 years old.

Despite the book’s title, the bulk of the documents are written by Naville and van Heijenoort. Amongst the letters by Trotsky there is little that has not previously been published, and the few documents that are not in the French Oeuvres add nothing fundamentally new to our knowledge of Trotsky’s positions and activity during these years. Further, with the exception of a couple of previously published documents by Trotsky, these are not letters dealing with major theoretical questions. Rather, they deal with the practical problems of building the Trotskyist movement in the 1930s. This does not, however, detract from the interest of the collection in any way.

Most of the letters are from 1937 to 1939. Nearly two-thirds of the book is devoted to this period. The main subject they deal with is the Moscow Trials, and the struggle waged by Trotsky to clear his name and expose the Stalinists. Naville’s letters to Trotsky and van Heijenoort explain in detail the work which the French Trotskyists undertook, notably their campaign of public meetings and political confrontations with the French Communist Party.

In February 1937 the POI – the French section – held a meeting with 2,000 people at it. At the same time, Naville was in Belgium, speaking about the Trials to a meeting of miners. The letters describe how the PCF was forced to respond to the POI’s campaign, by organising its own meetings, at which the POI intervened with leaflets and by organised heckling.

During this time the POI grew to several hundred, with scores of youth and workers who were at least partly won on the basis of their work around the Trials. The enthusiasm with which Naville describes the growth of the organisation in this period makes its decline – within two years it was down to a few dozen – all the more difficult to fathom. Unfortunately, none of the letters shed any light on this collapse, although there is a telling remark in a letter to van Heijenoort (23 April 1937): “With lots of work and initiative, we can double our membership in the next two months. The only problems – as always – are our organisational and propagandistic capacities.” (p.l27)

The POI was riven by the same differences of opinion over the nature of the USSR as were to split the International, notably the SWP (US). In October 1937 Naville reports that he expected around 30 per cent of the POI’s conference delegates to support Craipeau’s position, which denied that the USSR was a workers’ state. Similar problems hit Raymond Molinier’s PCI during the same period.

A theme which runs through all the letters, especially during the period of the campaign against the Trials, is that of mutual reproaches by both Naville and his correspondents. Trotsky and van Heijenoort complained that the POI was slow in getting vital evidence with regard to Trotsky’s visits in France; Naville retorted that Trotsky had not done enough to encourage support from the author Andre Gide.

This, coupled with bitter complaints – from both sides – about not having received documents (which were clearly ‘lost’ in the post), Naville’s bleatings about van Heijenoort’s translations together with the somewhat sharp replies he received in return, give an impression of distinctly uncomradely relations. This is not the case, as other, more relaxed letters show. Rather, we are given an indication of the pressure under which both men – who were in fact very friendly – were working.

A major disappointment is the lack of any discussion on the Founding Conference of the Fourth International, presumably due to the gaps in the various archive collections. In one of the few references in the book, Naville writes to van Heijenoort that the Transitional Programme had already sold 1,200 copies – by 23 June 1938, 10 weeks before the Programme was adopted (and amended) at the Founding Congress!

One point which will draw a sigh of recognition from anyone who has been in France during the summer months is Trotsky’s exasperated letter to Naville (2 September 1935), with regard to an attempt to organise a conference of the Bloc of Four!

The conference was adjourned in order to prepare it properly, but as far as I can tell, nothing has been prepared. In many respects the internal perspectives document has been overtaken by events. The political perspectives document is not ready. Having been adjourned, the conference is now going to take place any old how. But nothing can be done, because there is a supreme historic factor which is called the holidays. We are in France, in a civilised country and the revolution can just wait at the door. (p.62)

A final historic footnote which drew a smile from this reader was Trotsky’s request for help in finding quotes from Robespierre and other French revolutionaries, to include in his book on Stalin. Denise Naville organised a team of young comrades to help out, whom Trotsky wished to thank in the preface to his book. Two of those involved were Barta and his companion Louise, who were shortly to found the Union Communiste, of which the French organisation Lutte Ouvrière claims to be the continuation.

Despite the gaps in the record, and the fact that a good 15 per cent of the letters are of virtually no interest whatsoever, (especially a series of covering notes sent by van Heijenoort with documents in 1938-39), this collection is extremely interesting, and Naville had done us all a service in reassembling the correspondence and publishing it. Given the wealth of other, more important, material which is in French and remains untranslated, it is probably too much to hope that Naville's book will be published in English in the near future. However, everyone who has an interest in this period and can read French should get hold of a copy.

Alison Peat

Updated by ETOL: 7.7.2003