Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 4

Editorial [1]

This issue of Revolutionary History is devoted to the life and writings of Pierre Broué (1926–2005), who was first of all a revolutionary militant growing up in France during the Second World War and who later became an outstanding historian of the Communist and Trotskyist movements.

Readers of this journal will not be surprised to learn that Broué’s historical writings are better known in the continental part of Europe than on our predominantly Anglophone offshore islands. This situation has begun to change. In 2006 Merlin Press published The German Revolution 1917–1923, a translation of the original La Révolution en Allemagne, which originally appeared in 1971. This present volume aims to further the process by presenting a series of texts not previously available in English.

By way of introduction to the whole, we begin with a biographical essay on Pierre Broué written by Vincent Présumey, who knew him personally and worked together with him politically for a period. This inevitably has its own political bias, but we believe that it is of considerable value, as it gives the reader some insight into what it felt like to be a Trotskyist in France in World War Two and down to the close of the 20th Century, and that it sheds some light on the recurrent contradiction between scientific inquiry and political orthodoxy, between competing needs, the need for clear vision and that for organisational effectiveness, between the human relations striving to be born that should, as far as possible, prefigure the future communist society and the bureaucratic tendencies that inevitably arise under conditions of unremitting struggle in the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism. [See p. 70]

Présumey’s contribution also has relevance in regard to the real balance of forces existing between the Stalin-led bureaucracy and its opponents in the Soviet Union in the 1930s [see p. 50] and the subsequent fate of the American Trotskyist movement, a not insignificant part of the Fourth International, which was host to the International Secretariat during World War Two, before handing that baton back to comrades in Europe, only to abandon the FI for a Cuban-style version of Stalinism in the early 1980s (pp. 50–4). In this connection the biographical essay includes some interesting observations on the importance of the “Goldman-Morrow” tendency in the SWP (middle 1940s) dealing with its assessment of the European political situation at that time. Moving forward to the UK in 2007, the call by the OCI leadership to build sections of a workers’ party has obvious relevance to current debates about the desirablity or otherwise of a “Marxist Party” or, alternatively, a “halfway house” between reformism and revolutionary socialism/communism (Marxism). Présumey also includes a criticism of Broué’s politics at the point when he finally formed an oppositional tendency within the OCI; by contrast, what he alleges about the reaction in the OCI to Broué’s biography of Trotsky when it came out in 1988, published by Fayard, if true, tells us something about the politics of the OCI leadership at that point.

Our first translation is a piece on the history of the Bolshevik Party. Refusing to believe that the CPSU under Stalin was inevitably pre-ordained in the lineaments of Lenin’s party, Broué focuses on the uniqueness of the Bolsheviks lying, as he sees it, in being able to take power without abandoning their essential principles, whereas any number of working class parties have given up on their principles without seizing power in any decisive overall sense. He reminds us that this party came to include not only “professional revolutionaries” but “revolutionary working-class militants”; those who wished to confine the party to professional conspirators opposed Lenin on this question (examples are given). Broué argues that the working class militants won out thanks to the 1905 revolution – at least as far as 1907. The same process occurred on a much greater scale in 1917 involving workers, soldiers and peasants. Broué gives some interesting instances of working class democracy in action in the discussion and voting on various policies advocated by the Bolsheviks. There is evidence, he shows, that the party was tending to become fully fused with the soviets in the early part of the “heroic period” of the revolution (i.e. in the first two years of 1917–21). As is well known, this trend eventually went into reverse: the final part of the piece attempts to explain why.

There follows Broué’s defence of his doctoral thesis on the German revolution, which formed the basis of his later book on the subject. There is no point in furnishing any commentary on this here: the reader is referred to the text.

In the chapter we reproduce from L’histoire de l’Internationale Communiste Broué emphasises the double damage inflicted on the International by the loss of a number of tried and tested leaders (including Lenin) on the one hand and by the “developing crisis of the revolution” in the USSR on the other. He stresses the constraints placed on Trotsky in terms of the development of his thought. Short notes on various “second rank” leaders follow – John Maclean, John Reed, Raymond Lefebvre, Christian Rakovsky, Paul Levi, Serrati, Bordiga, Brandler, and others. The focus then shifts to the men who were actually running the International and the USSR in 1924 – Zinoviev, Kamenev and ... Stalin, who was beginning to explore international waters for the first time, so to speak. This leads naturally to the question of the calibre of the International’s apparatus personnel in the context of “Soviet” dominance. The result is that we get a credible picture of life at the International’s headquarters from 1919 to 1924, a view from inside the centre. We also get to understand how Stalin as CPSU General Secretary was able to extend his grip on the CI simply by virtue of the rule whereby all foreign communists working in the USSR (even temporary congress delegates) became automatically members of the CPSU and subject to its discipline. But Broué points out also that the International’s headquarters staff were never properly held to account as to their competence either centrally or by the International’s constituent parties. There follows a short consideration of Lenin’s advocacy of the United Front tactic, which Stalin effectively jettisoned both in the “Third Period” (c.1928–33) and in the subsequent “Popular Front” era (1935–43). Broué was breaking new ground here. Earlier Trotskyist accounts of the Comintern, while establishing the facts against the distortions of both Stalinists and anti-Communists, tended to be defensive in character, regarding everything done in the “first five years” as positive. Broué gives an account which, while in basic solidarity with the aims of the Comintern’s founders, is rigorously critical of the defects and weaknesses which afflicted the Comintern from its inception

With The Bolshevik-Leninist Faction (Chapter 35 of Trotsky) we move to the fortunes of the Left Opposition in Russia following the expulsion of Trotsky’s followers from the CPSU. It is refreshing to have an account of what the Opposition actually did, as we have here, as opposed to a rehearsal of its ideas. Nevertheless, Broué also includes (quite unavoidably) a narrative of the disagreements provoked by Stalin’s “left turn” (1928) and Trotsky’s dignified stand against the bureaucracy’s attempts to silence him.

As the introduction to the next (companion) piece, the Bloc of Oppositions against Stalin in the USSR in 1932, makes clear, the existence of widespread contacts between the various anti-Stalinist communist oppositions then is important, but these contacts are missing from the third part of the standard biography of Trotsky in English, Isaac Deutscher’s The Prophet Outcast. Broué sees them as an ultimate political reason for the subsequent Stalinist terror of (roughly) 1934–39. Two other groups were involved apart from the LO – the so-called “Riutin Group” and a group of “liberal bureaucrats” whose “standard-bearer” was Sergei Kirov, famously assassinated in 1934. (Ordhonikidze was a member). As we know, the outcome was an unhappy one, and it included capitulation by some prominent followers of Trotsky, of whom Rakovsky is the best known. Broué points out how much Stalin benefited internally from Hitler’s triumph in Germany in 1933, which was a severe blow to the hopes of the oppositionists; but he also indicates a certain fragility in Stalin’s position which must have existed for himself and Molotov to come out at one point with a circular against what they called a “saturnalia of arrests” – see also the list of strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations and pro-oppositional activity among the working class mentioned – and he explains the discrepancy between the archival evidence uncovered by his team of researchers in the US relating to Trotsky’s initiatives in respect of the “bloc” in 1932 and Leon Sedov’s pamphlet Le livre rouge sur le procès de Moscou, written following the first Moscow Trial in 1936.

The piece on the Socialist Youth in Spain 1934–36 affords an insight into the political evolution of the Spanish Socialist leader Largo Caballero and documentation of demands by various Spanish Socialist Party leaders in the 1930s for a break with the bourgeoisie and the adoption of a plan for a seizure of power by the working class (led by the Socialist Party). These demands, and Largo Caballero’s bid for the leadership of the party, were backed by the Socialist Youth. Broué’s analysis reveals that Caballero and Prieto were agreed on this course of action, with detailed plans drawn up and implemented to the movement’s best ability – even if in the event the uprising was effectively confined to the Asturias province. (See Manuel Grossi, The Asturian Uprising: Fifteen Days of Socialist Revolution, Socialist Platform Ltd., 2000). There was also the complicating factor of the plight of the agricultural workers forced into strike action by the landowners’ union-busting offensive. The consequences of this are vividly illustrated (and analysed with characteristic flair) to explain why Trotsky seized on the PSOE youth organisation’s trajectory in order to influence the course of the ongoing Spanish revolution. The Spanish Trotskyists, however, chose to orient to another organisation, the POUM; for the results see The Spanish Civil War: the View from the Left, in Revolutionary History, Vol. 4, nos. 1/2, Winter 1991–92, Socialist Platform Ltd. 1992).

Finally there are three contrasting biographical pieces. Kurt Landau (1903–1937), who enjoys a somewhat shadowy existence in Trotsky’s writings of the 1930s as follower and then critic, clearly possessed sufficient charisma to consider himself as a potential international leader (to Leon Sedov’s chagrin); he and his partner were both swept up in the Stalinist purge of the POUM in 1937; she survived, but he did not.

Jan Van Heijenoort [1912–1985] was a very different figure. Clearly he and Broué had a lot in common. The central part of Broué’s sketch begins with the Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Fall of France in 1940, which Van Heijenoort drafted and the International issued from New York, followed by articles (mostly signed “Marc Loris”) on the war situation in Europe. All this material is of considerable interest, as Van Heijenoort identified the situation’s revolutionary potential (later confirmed by events in France, Italy and the Balkans), a potential dependent on the ability of those leading the mass movements to implement a strategy that would ensure true national liberation on the basis of the socialist transformation of society on a European scale. That such a strategy could not be implemented in no way detracts from the insights into the unfolding course of events that Van Heijenoort provided.

The intervening extract from Broué’s biography of Leon Sedov, Trotsky’s second son and close collaborator, scarcely needs an introduction, except to say that the focus here on the human side of revolutionary socialist activity – in the inevitable political context – is all too rare even among the movement’s historians. We ignore such concerns at our peril.

We should like to thank all those who assisted the Board in making this issue possible. Vincent Présumey not only gave us permission to translate his biographical study of Broué, but also provided us with some texts not easily available elsewhere. Richard Kirkwood and Gareth Jenkins assisted with the labour of translation.

A fairly full bibliography of Broué’s works can be found at http://www.trotskyana.net/Trotskyists/Pierre_Broue/pierre_broue.html.

Editorial Board


1. Notes marked [RH] throughout this issue have been added by Revolutionary History, mainly on the basis of Broué’s biographical index.

Updated by ETOL: 31.10.2011