Maurice Thorez: The Making of a Stalinist

Maurice Thorez: The Making of a Stalinist

by John Sharpe

REVIEW: Maurice Thorez, vie secrete et vie publique by Philippe Robrieux

[First printed in Workers Vanguard #85, 14 November 1975]

Joseph Stalin climbed to the summit of the Comintern over a mountain of strangled revolutions and massacred proletarians. Maurice Thorez rose to the top of the French Communist Party by utter prostration before the counterrevolutionary policies of that “great organizer of defeats.” Early in his career Thorez demonstrated the gutlessness and pliability demanded by the Comintern in the period of its Stalinization. His moment of glory came in the period immediately following World War II, when he personally led the CP’s all-out offensive against the militancy of the French working class, thereby putting a tottering French capitalist system on its feet again.

Thorez rose to prominence in the CP during the early 1920’s. Despite having been closely identified with Stalin, which became a political liability after 1953, Thorez lasted through the period of “de-Stalinization” and remained at the helm of the CP until shortly prior to his death in 1964. In the course of these forty years, only once did Thorez wage a determined fight against his Kremlin mentors: his battle against de-Stalinization and the “Khrushchev revelations.”

The French CP under Thorez faithfully followed every twist and turn of Kremlin policy: from the sectarian “third period” to the popular-front romance with the bourgeoisie; from the Hitler-Stalin pact to the nauseating French chauvinism of “to each his Kraut” after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent disarming of the working class which allowed De Gaulle to re-establish bourgeois control after the war; from the post-war “battle of production” during which strikes were declared “the arm of the trusts” to the senseless street confrontations (Ridgeway demonstration) of the 1950’s.

The undoubted high point of Thorez’s public political career was his participation, as one of the CP ministers of De Gaulle’s post-war government, in the restabilization of French capitalism. In France and throughout Western Europe, only the Stalinist and social-democratic parties in which the masses of the working people placed their confidence, could beat back the militancy and revolutionary aspirations of the advanced workers. Thorez personally intervened as the spearhead of the CP’s strikebreaking campaign. In July 1945 he addressed 2,000 striking pro-Communist miners and declared:

“In the name of the Central Committee, in the name of the entire Party, in the name of all the workers. I say to you: The eyes of all France are upon you’. All of France awaits a new and great effort from you… The least defiance on your part would assist the campaigns of the enemies of the people against you yourselves, against the working class, against the nationalizations, against democracy, against France.. I am certain that the call of our Party will be heeded. I am certain that we will win the battle of production as we won the battle of the Liberation.”

Debunking Stalinist “History”

Thorez’s career illustrates the evolution of a Communist militant into a cynical Stalinist hack loyal above all to the preservation of his position as chief of a reformist workers party. Philippe Robrieux’s informative biography (Paris: Fayard, 1975) provides a revealing look at the internal mechanisms of a Stalinist party as it seeks to balance between maintaining the loyalty of its working-class base and upholding the line dictated by the bureaucracy of the Russian degenerated workers state.

Philippe Robrieux was the General Secretary of the CP’s student organization in 1959-60 when he was caught up in and eliminated in the Casanova-Servin affair, the last of the Stalinist purges directed by Thorez. Casanova and Servin were popular long-time leaders, sympathetic to the Italian CP and Khrushchev’s “reforms,” who wanted a certain “liberalization” in the CP, and in particular a more militant policy against the Algerian war. Robrieux’s “crime” was to have criticized Thorez at a Central Committee meeting on the basis of parallel positions. He subsequently “had his eyes opened” by Pierre Broue, of the ostensibly Trotskyist OCI. Due to his former position and personal contacts with one-time members of the CP’s leading committees, Robrieux is in a position to detail the functioning of the Stalinist bureaucratic machine.

The book strips away the layers of prettification which official CP sources apply to even small matters. One indicative anecdote is the story of Thorez’s 1929 arrest. For years Thorez was portrayed as a heroic victim of base treachery; the real chain of events was not even hinted at until after Thorez’s death. In June 1929 Thorez, subject to arrest since 1927 for his anti-militarist articles, attended a clandestine meeting of the Central Committee at a chateau on the outskirts of Paris. Because of the danger of a police raid, careful escape preparations had been made in advance for the three “illegals” – Thorez, Ferrat and Duclos. But when the cops arrived, Thorez lost his head. The other two followed instructions and successfully effected their escape according to plan; Thorez was found cowering in the darkness. having locked himself in a closet.

He was duly arrested. The CP — as part of a “third-period” policy of refusing to legitimize bourgeois authority – had a policy that comrades were to stay in jail rather than pay their fines. It was up to the Political Bureau to decide if a comrade’s usefulness on the outside justified an exception to this procedure. But in April 1930 Thorez unilaterally secured his release by paying the required sum. (Since he had refused to follow the CP’s accepted procedure that functionaries were not entitled to draw their salaries while in prison, it would appear that Thorez even used party money to violate party policy!)

A more important falsification concerns Thorez’s wartime history. Thorez was in the army when in late September 1939, as a consequence of the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Comintern proclaimed the new policy of ” revolutionary defeatism.” With breathtaking suddenness, opposition to thc imperialist war replaced the old line of “anti-fascism.” The CP began to make hasty preparations to preserve its apparatus, which had been swallowed up by the mobilization of the armed forces. It instructed its leaders to desert. Thorez wanted to remain “with the masses” to defend France against Hitler’s Germany, but on Dimitrov’s insistence he dutifully deserted on October 4, only a month after he had enthusiastically answered the mobilization to defend the French fatherland.

On 25 November Thorez was sentenced in his absence to six years imprisonment; on 17 February 1940 he was deprived of his French citizenship. He made his way to Moscow, where he seems to have been kept on a rather tight leash; he completely disappeared from the public eye until his signature appeared on the May 1943 proclamation by which Stalin dissolved the Comintern in order to reassure the Soviet Union’s nervous imperialist allies.

“Revolutionary defeatism” had been only an episode in the line of the French CP. As soon as Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the CPs of every country rushed to align themselves with the imperialist “democracies,” glorifying this turn in an orgy of sickening patriotic fervor. This made Thorez’s Comintern-ordered desertion an embarrassing encumbrance, and so the CP concocted the tale that as late as 1943 Thorez was still hiding in France, hoping to pass him off as some kind of underground resistance hero. After the “liberation” of Paris an amnesty was declared for deserters, but it required considerable haggling between De Gaulle and Moscow before the French government would agree to restore Thorez’s citizenship.

Thorez vs. De-Stalinization

A cowardly bureaucrat, the only time in his long career that Thorez fought a sustained political battle was during his ten-year struggle against de-Stalinization, from 1953 to his death. After Khrushchev’s revelations at the 1956 Twentieth Congress, Thorez linked up with the pro-Stalin bloc led by Molotov and Kaganovich in Russia and internationally by the Chinese. Robrieux is certainly correct when he observes that. whereas the Russians could point to historical scapegoats (e.g.. Stalin, Beria). Thorez as the “First Stalinist of France” would have had to take responsibility for the role he himself had played in inner-party purges (the Barbe-Celor affair in 1931, the Marty-Tillon affair in 1952) and in enforcing the class-collaborationist policies of the Kremlin which time after time sold out potentially revolutionary opportunities for the French proletariat.

Robrieux captures what must have been Thorez’s reasoning – and, with appropriate modifications, that of countless other Stalinist bureaucrats when he writes:

“To admit the truth of Khrushchev’s diatribe was to admit at the verv least that the USSR was far from socialism and that, in a certain sense, everything had to be done over. Then too, didn’t Khrushchev go so far as to insinuate that Trotsky, Bukharin and Zinoviev were not guilty of the crimes of which they were accused? Would he go so far as to rehabilitate them? Then we would have to go back to the years of our youth and turn back to the old masters: Souvarine, Monatte and all the other comrades, slandered, dragged through the mire, crushed, expelled, on whom he had spit, and say to them: you were right!”

In February 1956, therefore, Thorez suppressed Khrushchev’s secret report. When that had become impossible, he systematically attempted to cushion its impact, for example by criticizing Stalin’s “errors” but refusing to let the CP press use the terms of Khrushchev’s report, which referred to Stalin’s “crimes.” As late as November 1956, Thorez publicly stated that “Stalinism did not exist.” Robrieux quotes Thorez’s remark to a trusted Italian collaborator that Khrushchev had “dirtied a splendid, shining, heroic past.”

Forced to pay lip-service to deStalinization, the Thorez regime continued in force, although without some of the more grotesque excesses of the Stalin era. In 1960-61, when the impulse for an Italian-style “liberalization” reared its ugly head in Thorez’s personal fiefdom, the Central Committee, he was more than ready to purge Casanova and Servin, whom he held responsible.

Robrieux himself seems to feed illusions in the de-Stalinizers, both Khrushchev and the French “reformers,” as honest men unfortunately hemmed in and limited by the pro-Stalin forces. This is also the central flaw in the book’s presentation of Thorez’s long Stalinist career. Thorez is presented as an “honest militant” with healthy political instincts, drawn into the Stalinist apparatus due to lack of character. Robrieux refuses to characterize Thorez as a full-blown Stalinist until after World War II and refers to him as “cynical” only after 1956.

Lessons in Betrayal

The detailed description of the manner in which Stalin and his agents accustomed Thorez to betrayal in carefully increasing doses is no doubt accurate: it gives weight to the Russian poet Bebel’s 1937 observation, quoted by Robrieux, that “Stalin doesn’t like spotless biographies.” Many Communists paralleled Thorez’s evolution from a weak, inexperienced and confused militant into a hardened Stalinist. In that sense, Thorez’s biography is the history writ large of countless others. But the key to Thorez’s later evolution into the embodiment of French Stalinism is his first capitulation, which was qualitative. In late 1923, as Secretary of the CP in Pas de Calais, an important mining region in the north of France, Thorez supported Trotsky’s views on the struggle in the Russian party, as presented in the theoretical journal of the French CP, then edited by Boris Souvarine. In the spring of 1924 Thorez, then an alternate member of the Central Committee, indicated his willingness to sign the opposition statement. He personally contributed money for the publication in France of Trotsky’s “New Course.” At first Thorez thought he could swing a majority of the Executive Committee of Pas de Calais, but on 25 May 1924 the pro-troika (Stalin) majority motion was passed without opposition. Unable to endure the prospect of isolation in a tiny minority, Thorez took refuge in an abstention.

After this decisive capitulation Thorez hardened rapidly as a rightist element; in fact, he was aligned more with Zinoviev and then Bukharin than with Stalin in the 1925-29 period. His rapid rise in the French party from 1924 on (he was elevated to the Political Bureau in mid-1926) was due largely to his willingness to turn on his former allies–a trait which, combined with his undoubted organilational talents, made him particularly useful to the emerging Kremlin bureaucracy. Whatever hesitations he may subsequently have had, he had already demonstrated to Stalin’s Comintern representatives that he could be counted on to capitulate and could be used as a token “oppositionist” to lend credence to the bureaucracy’s “good faith.” In short, Thorez owed his ascension to his malleability – that is, to his lack of principle.

In the framework of a meticulous empirical account of the career of Maurice Thorez, Robrieux has presented an objectively devastating indictment of Stalinist class treason. As the personification of the French CP, Thorez personally played a heavy role in breaking the 1936 general strike, which swept the country in a wave of militancy punctuated by countless factory occupations, it was in this context that Thorez on 11 June 1936 made his most famous remark. “It ·is necessary to know how to end a strike.” It is perhaps this sentence which best sums up Thorez’s “contribution” to the working-class movement.