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Pierre Naville: The rebellious victim

(September 1993)

From Socialist Review, No. 167, September 1993.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Pierre Naville, who died recently, was one of the last surviving pioneers of both surrealism and the early Trotskyist movement.

Born in 1904, Naville, a painter, joined the Paris surrealist group in 1924. The surrealists were a group of poets and artists who sought to challenge all existing conventions in the field of art and to discover new sources of inspiration in the unconscious mind. They rapidly concluded that they could not revolutionise art without also making a revolution in society. As their declaration of January 1925 put it: ‘Surrealism is not a poetic form. It is a cry of the spirit ... determined to smash its fetters. If necessary with material hammers.’

But where were these ‘material hammers’ to be found? The surrealists remained confined to gesture politics – for example, writing open letters to hated authority figures, like Artaud’s magnificent denunciation of the Pope: ‘We don’t give a damn for your canons, index, sin, confessional, clergy – we are thinking of another war – war on you, Pope, dog.’ In 1925 Naville was called up for military service, and while in the army he took the risky decision to become a Communist, distributing leaflets in the barracks opposing France’s colonial war in Morocco. In this context he began to look for a way forward from surrealist revolt. His influential pamphlet The Revolution and Intellectuals posed the question:

’Do the surrealists believe in the liberation of the spirit prior to the abolition of bourgeois conditions of material life, or do they consider that a revolutionary spirit can be created only after the revolution has been accomplished?’

As a Communist, Naville became a key figure in the journal Clarté founded in 1919 in support of the Russian Revolution. But he also became an activist: in his autobiography he describes his work in the cell attached to the Farman factory at Billancourt in Paris – distributing leaflets, holding factory gate meetings, selling papers at tube stations.

It is interesting to compare Naville’s political evolution with that of other surrealists such as André Breton and Louis Aragon. Breton briefly joined the Communist Party, but found himself ‘unable’ to give a report on the economic situation in Italy to a gasworkers’ cell. Aragon became a lifelong Communist, but as a loyal Stalinist abandoned all surrealist principles (his later poetry even rhymes!).

Naville’s revolutionary principles soon brought him into conflict with the increasingly Stalinist Communist Party. He visited Russia in 1927, at the time when Adolf Ioffe killed himself in protest at Trotsky’s expulsion from the party. There he met Trotsky and Victor Serge. Largely under his influence, Clarté became a journal of the Left Opposition, changing its name to Lutte de Classes (Class Struggle), where he published a section of Serge’s Year One of the Russian Revolution. Naville was expelled from the Communist Party in 1928.

He also broke with the surrealist group, which Breton increasingly ran as though it were a revolutionary sect. Breton denounced Naville for the rather bizarre reason that he was taking money from his rich father to finance revolutionary publications – surely a wholly laudable activity. It was some time before Breton also made a clean break with Stalinism.

In 1929 Naville and his wife Denise visited the exiled Trotsky in Turkey. They discussed an abortive plan whereby Trotsky would escape to France by yacht.

In the early years of the Trotskyist movement Naville worked closely with Alfred Rosmer, former revolutionary syndicalist and veteran of the Communist International. Trotsky distrusted Naville as being too much an intellectual, preferring the youthful enthusiasm of Molinier (who ran a rather dubious debt-collecting business). Rosmer’s wife Marguerite wrote to Trotsky defending Pierre and Denise Naville: ‘They sell papers at 6.00 a.m., leaflet factory gates – that’s deintellectualising them, I assure you.’

Naville opposed the French Trotskyists’ entry into the Socialist Party in 1934, but remained active in the Trotskyist movement. In 1938 Rudolf Klement, responsible for organising the founding conference of the Trotskyist Fourth International, was kidnapped by Russian agents, beheaded and thrown in the river Seine. As a result much of the secretarial work involved in founding the Fourth International fell on Naville.

The outbreak of the Second World War threw the French left into confusion. Naville abandoned his links with organised Trotskyism, but remained committed to Marxism. Under the German occupation he published two books. One was a study of the 18th century philosopher d’Holbach, in which Naville claimed that Marx’s ideas owed more to Enlightenment materialism than to Hegel. The other was a study of the behaviourist psychology of J.B. Watson. Both were intended as a defence of materialism against the religious ideas sponsored by the pro-German Vichy regime.

For the rest of his life Naville wrote copiously, publishing books on psychology, sociology and military strategy. He contributed widely to the left press, polemicising with Sartre and others in defence of his view of Marxism.

Though many criticisms could be made of particular intellectual and political stances, it is clear he remained faithful to his starting point. In a preface to a book on surrealism published shortly before his death he wrote:

’It is not simply a question of keeping alive memories: it is also highly necessary to draw on these memories as a source of combative action that is capable of resisting oppression of all kinds. We are still, and for a long time to come, the rebellious victims of this oppression.’

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