Pierre, friend, revolutionary, Marxist

As we announced a few weeks ago, on July 25, Pierre Broué passed away. We have published several articles remembering the role this remarkable man played in the development of the ideas of Marxism. Here we publish a piece by two Italian Marxists that gives an interesting insight into the life of Pierre Broué, based on several long conversations with him in the final years of his life, and on a thorough reading of his works.

On July 27 2005 Pierre Broué’s heart ceased to beat. With the death of Pierre all those involved in the struggle for Communism have lost an indomitable revolutionary and an irreplaceable point of reference. Ever since the age of 17 when he joined the French Resistance, the struggle for the socialist revolution was at the heart of his conscious life. And since the following year, 1944, right up until his death, Pierre carried out this struggle under the banner of Trotskyism, the genuine expression and development of the ideas of Marx and Lenin. As a true fighter he never succumbed to the opportunist temptation to “modernise” or “go beyond” Marxism. Without in any way being dogmatic, he had a full grasp of Marxism, which he considered a guide to action for revolutionaries of the XXI century.

The works of Pierre Broué are essential for the education of every Marxist activist. For example, his biography of Trotsky corrected and deepened in a decisive way the work of Isaac Deutscher, which was distorted by that author’s hostility towards Trotsky’s political perspectives and also by his typical academic formalism. His books on Trotsky, Rakovsky, Sedov, the history of the Third International, the Spanish civil war, the German revolution (1917-1923), the Left Opposition in the USSR, the assassination of Tresso, the political revolutions in Stalinist Eastern Europe and the many others, define Pierre as the main Marxist historian of the XX century. That is why we should consider it our task to translate Pierre Broué’s works into the different languages.

The dramatic and lively way in which Pierre wrote is something which strikes every reader. That ability to recount the class struggle, capturing its dynamism, its ebb and flow, linking up dialectically the role of the individual with that of the classes and of society as a whole, is a treasure house full of precious lessons for the future. This ability of Pierre did not fall from a clear blue sky. It was tied inseparably to his 62 years of uninterrupted participation in the class struggle.

As Jean-Pierre Juy ‑ his student, his comrade since 1968, and main collaborator in the last years of his life ‑ said, Pierre’s lectures were based on a solid scientific knowledge and they were unforgettable, intense, political moments completely the opposite of that grey, asphyxiating academic atmosphere of university courses. After the lectures, meetings would be organised to discuss Marxism, where several generations of students found answers to their questions, to their search for a revolutionary political alternative to Stalinism.

The enormous amount of historical works produced by Pierre during the last 20 years is not to be seen as his withdrawing into his own private world, but rather as the task of a committed militant, a task which he had assigned to himself as a means of providing the new generations of revolutionary activists with effective political tools to face up to the enormous historical tasks that are still before us. Our gratitude can never be enough to this man who often faced this period in isolation and with very little genuine recognition.

He was an activist throughout his whole life. After the war he became a teacher, or a “lumpen” teacher, as he liked to define himself, and he threw himself into trade union activity with determination. He was an SNET shop steward since 1950, and later joined the SNES (syndicat national de l’éducation sécondaire) and was its representative in Grenoble during the May 1968 events. During the general strike – displaying his skills as a class fighter and a brilliant speaker – Pierre played a leading role in the wider trade union movement. Together with Jean-Pierre Juy, who was then the spokesperson of the University students and of the UNEF, he played a decisive role in organising a counter-demonstration of 30,000 people after the famous reactionary appeal of Charles De Gaulle. Grenoble was one of the few French towns where General De Gaulle met mass opposition and the pressure was so strong that even the Isère CGT joined the protest.

Pierre’s political memoirs, which are about to be published shortly, will help anyone who is interested in getting a more detailed and deeper understanding of his political life. We invite everyone to read this book and here we will limit ourselves to outlining some of his ideas through some significant moments of his life.

We will start with his first steps, those of a young rebel who joins the Resistance under Vichy France that is still under the firm control of the pro-Nazi government. Shortly afterwards Pierre joins the PCF through a Communist worker of Chalon, alias Prevot, who discusses with him the fundamentals of Marxism.

Pierre experiences fear but his courage is not lacking. In the Spring of 1944, with many political doubts, which he later expresses in writing, he obeys the adventurist directives of the Stalinist leadership of the PCF by organising a demonstration of 50 Communist students through the boulevards of Paris under Nazi occupation. His break with the PCF come shortly afterwards.

Already by January 1944 the UEC cell (union étudiants communistes) at the Henry IV lycée, of which Pierre iss the organiser, proposes to distribute a leaflet in German for the army barracks. The working class internationalism of these youth immediately attracts the suspicious eye of the PCF bureaucracy that accuses them of “Trotskyism”. Pierre rejects the crude anti-German nationalism of the Stalinists, which is expressed in the slogan “à chacun son boche” (“everyone kill a kraut”), and he defends the idea that it is necessary to see the Germans along class lines, even in the partisan struggle: on the one hand the officers and the SS, servants of the German bourgeoisie that had brought Hitler to power, and on the other hand the workers and peasants who were forced into the army and towards whom it was necessary to direct class propaganda with the aim of achieving revolutionary fraternisation. When he is asked to kill a German, Pierre replies “an officer or a member of the SS certainly, but not a soldier or worker”. That is how Pierre moved independently towards Trotskyism, at a time when the Stalinists kept a check on him by following him everywhere.

Pierre was never attracted to pacifism, even of the kind that was disguised behind revolutionary phraseology as was the case in several European sections (the French majority, Belgian, Dutch) of the then Fourth International, who in practice had moved much closer to the purely propagandistic policy of the Bordighists and away from the “revolutionary militarism” that Trotsky had already raised in June 1940 with the ranks of the US Socialist Workers’ Party. The inability to understand the proletarian military policy, developed by Trotsky shortly before he was assassinated, was one of the factors that determined the failure of the Fourth International to develop mass sections, a factor which later contributed in a significant manner to the rapid degeneration of that organisation.

His thoughts on why the international leadership of the Fourth International proved incapable of rising up to the tasks posed by the awesome test that was the Second World War is one of the most profound points in Pierre’s political analysis (see numbers 23,39, 43, 63, 64, 65 and 67 of the Cahiers Léon Trotsky). On the basis of his own experience and his own reading Pierre was convinced that within the Fourth International, on a series of crucial issues (proletarian military policy, democratic and transitional demands, economic perspectives after the war and the mass organisations) the minority of the US section (van Hejienoort, Morrow and Goldmann) and the majority of the British section (Grant, Haston and Deane) were the only ones to stay sober and apply the methods and principles established by Trotsky. If this tendency had not lost out, undoubtedly the history of the Fourth International would have been decisively different.

One may ask the question why Pierre stayed in the PCI for 45 years, why he didn’t break with them before 1989, the year in which he was expelled. We already know the answer that will be given by the sectarians, who spend all their time condemning and denouncing others. On this question Pierre liked to recall that in the Soviet Left Opposition the most rancorous in condemning the capitulators were often those who were closest to capitulating themselves.

In reality, Pierre Broué on many occasions expressed serious political differences with the leadership of the PCI and on many occasions he was brought before its disciplinary commission, even as far back as1944. At the end of 1944, for example, he offered to organise a search party together with other trusted partisans to go to the Haute-Loire and look for Pietro Tresso, a leader of the PCd’I (Italian Communist Party) who had been expelled for Trotskyism in 1930, and about whom there were already doubts that he may have already been killed by Stalinist agents. The leadership of the PCI, however, rejected the proposal, thus revealing on this question, among others, its own adaptation to Stalinism. In this Cannon played a large role, and this was recorded in a very clear manner in the editorial of La Vérité of February 1945 in which the advance of the Red Army was celebrated uncritically, without taking into account the fact that the prestige flowing from those military victories would be used by Stalin for counter-revolutionary ends.

In the decades that followed ‑ thanks also to a systematic political exchange with Claude Bernard, alias Raoul (for a biography see Cahiers Léon Trotsky number 56) ­ Pierre adopted a critical standpoint on the adaptation of the Fourth International to Tito, on the split in the French section in 1950, on how the Marty affaire was managed, on the opportunism towards Messali Hadj during the Algerian war and also on the decision to carry out “deep” entrism into the Socialist Party (PS) that was refounded at Epinay in 1971 under the leadership of Mitterand. On this last question Pierre carried out a bitter struggle in favour of an orientation to the PS with the creation of an “open” fraction that, without hiding itself, would struggle for the ideas of Marxism. According to Pierre the political parabola of Jospin ‑ a young activist in the PCI who later became a well-known social democratic leader and even prime minister between 1997 and 2001 ‑ was the most graphic expression of the bitter fruits of a serious political error.

Inside the PCI, a small but completely bureaucratised organisation, there was absolutely no freedom of criticism, never mind the freedom to form a faction. So Pierre, as far back as the 1970s organised a secret tendency within the PCI together with Raoul. Once he told us how the profits from the book “Revolutions”, written together with Desvages, were used to finance this factional activity. His political collaboration with Raoul was uninterrupted. Leaving the PCI immediately after Pierre, Raoul joined the Le marxisme aujourd’hui circles shortly before his death in 1990, something that Pierre was very proud of.

Could Pierre and Raoul have broken formally with the PCI before 1989? Yes, undoubtedly. The closed and gloomy atmosphere that pervaded the PCI did not help them to widen their political horizon earlier and to understand the need to come out openly with their positions. They attempted to save what remained of what was still alive and revolutionary within that organisation, especially among the workers. They hesitated for too long, but let us not forget that since the late 1940s the PCI had had significant points of support among the workers, starting with Daniel Renard, the main leader of the April 1947 Renault strike, which was the only significant strike in those years that was not controlled by the Stalinists.

We should also remember, however, that since the 1970s every time Ted Grant visited his sister who lived on the outskirts of Paris, he would spend time discussing with Raoul who would then report the discussion to Pierre. Raoul, who was a friend of Jimmy Deane and with whom he was still exchanging letters in the 1960s on the question of the crisis of the Fourth International, had huge political admiration for Ted Grant. So on September 4, 2000, when we had only known each other for a little more than one hour and Pierre asked us which Trotskyist group we belonged to, his reaction was: “Ah, I have a lot of respect for Ted Grant, I would like to meet him”.

He was already moving independently towards our international tendency. The seriousness with which he expressed his opinion of our tendency is demonstrated by subsequent events, by his speedy and enthusiastic coming closer to the international political perspectives represented by the In Defence of Marxism web site.

Unfortunately, for health reasons, the meeting with Ted Grant was unable to go ahead. In his living room, in a flat in the working class suburb of St Martin d’Hères, near Grenoble, his table where he had his computer and printer was covered in articles he had downloaded from the In Defence of Marxism web site. For example, he was a great admirer of the work of the Pakistani Marxist tendency, The Struggle, whose tactics he defined as the “quintessence of Marxism”. Without flaunting it or demanding any particular personal recognition, in the last 4 or 5 years Pierre Broué defended the ideas of our international tendency wherever he could, even when this did not make him popular. What brought us together so easily was above all the need for revolutionaries to carry out systematic work within the mass reformist organisations, both political and trade union.

An occasion when we had a very strong political agreement was undoubtedly the moment between the first and second ballot in the 2002 French presidential elections. Pierre had the same position as ourselves, and had not a shadow of a doubt that the correct position was to refuse any support for the “democratic” Chirac and to maintain the principle of class independence. From the hospital he was in at the time, Pierre wrote a very sharp statement, particularly critical of the Gauche Socialiste (Socialist Left) of the PS:

“… I thought I was in August 1914. The attitude of certain comrades and especially of those of the Gauche Socialiste (of which I am not and never have been a member) comes like a slap in the face, a humiliation, a very grave initiative […] There is not a French problem. It is laughable to state that a vote for Chirac will become a referendum against Le Pen. We are in this world and what our fellow citizens will learn is what they read in the newspapers: “The democrats support Chirac”. It is serious. An old woman who survived the Gulags, a daughter of Argentine desaparecidos, have asked me how is this possible… and also my Algerian friends. […] Marx in his time refused to give support to Ledru-Rollin as did Trotsky to Hindenburg. Honesty and courage. You who denounce the corrupt and super-liar and who have young children, how will you explain to them that you are voting for him? … Nothing is obtained by reneging on oneself. We must march forward, organise a grand May Day, help the youth to link up with the traditions that they are seeking”.

Quite clearly, Pierre never had anything to do with timid left reformism. On the other hand he also could not tolerate the sectarianism of the French ultra-left. In a provocative manner he would say that he preferred Trotsky, Rakovsky, Sedov and I.N. Smirnov to Arlette Laguiller, Olivier Besancenot and Daniel Gluckstein (and how could you blame him?). Ever since 1944, he had great admiration for Trotsky and very little for those self-proclaimed Trotskyists that he had met.

He never abandoned the idea of building a revolutionary party, not even in the periods of greatest political and personal isolation that he experienced inside the PCI or during the 1990s after his expulsion from that organisation, an organisation that suffered bureaucratic sclerosis and which was at the same time both sectarian and opportunist.

It is not possible here to draw a balance sheet of the people he met in his lifetime. We have, however, always been struck by his ability to re-enthuse and get back into activity ‑ at least partially – revolutionaries who had abandoned the struggle, from his friend Jan van Hejienoort to Alfonso Leonetti. He made no concessions and did not use diplomacy, and thanks to this he was able to win the confidence of these people.

There is the case of Ivan Vratchev. He was a leading figure in the Russian Left Opposition in the 1920s, but had capitulated and had later behaved as a traitor in denouncing more than one hundred comrades to the Stalinist political police. When Pierre found him still alive and met him in Moscow in 1991 he managed to get significant help from him in his research and this eventually led to the very important work, Communistes contre Staline. Massacre d’une generation, the first real satisfactory history of the Left Opposition. Vratchev had spent a lifetime feeling remorse for having betrayed Trotsky and he told Pierre that it was his duty to testify even against himself and thus play his part in digging up that history that had been buried by the Stalinist assassins.

One could also admire Pierre’s consistency in his lifestyle, his revolutionary morale. He skipped his youth. First he was committed to the partisan movement and then to political activity, and then at the young age of just 20 the first of his five children was born, Michel. Since then his holidays were always of a political nature. He could not conceive mere resting. When in 1948, at the age of 22, he went to a work camp in Yugoslavia his idea was that of winning as many youth as possible to Trotskyism.

In these days several personal memories have come to mind. We will give one detail from the first conversation we had in the summer of 2000. We had decided to get in touch with Pierre, all of whose books that were available in Italian we had avidly read. We sent him an email, although we were a bit sceptical at the time. Based on several preconceptions we had, we thought we would be meeting an academic who would have given us some interesting reading sources and nothing more. The first thing that started to sweep away our preconceptions was a phone call we made to him. We asked him if he could be so “kind” as to receive us in his study at 10am (the train was arriving in Grenoble at 5am!). Pierre replied almost annoyed, “Of course not. I will come to the station at 5am and then we will go to my house!”

His house was, to all intents and purposes, open to anyone who is involved in the struggle to change the world. What was decisive for him was that the youth should know and connect with the revolutionary traditions of the previous generations. This made him very open towards the younger activists and also generous with the time he dedicated to them. He would let you spend hours discussing with him, or just simply reading one of his books, which he would then lend you and ask you with a smile on his face whether you would bring it back! He was reproducing what he had experienced before the Second World War with Elie Reynier, a Communist expelled from the PCF in 1923 and arrested by the French police in 1939 for having expressed “defeatist” positions on the back of a postcard.

Pierre was a very modest person. He discussed with activists 50 or 60 years younger than him on the same level. He was capable of recognising when he had made a mistake, a precious quality for a revolutionary leader who must not be attached to any form of personal prestige. We remember a discussion we had with Pierre on the question of the PCF, a heated discussion where we did not reach an agreement. The next morning, without even saying good morning, he took up the discussion again on several points saying he had thought it over and had changed his mind. Of particular value was his severity and attention to detail when he analysed and corrected articles, especially those written by those comrades he considered closest to him. His opinions, even the harshest, were always a stimulus to sharpen and freshen up one’s analysis.

Pierre wrote this concluding remark to his Communistes contre Staline: “Here is the reason for this book. It should become a weapon against the horrors of the past and against everything that today resembles them, a lesson in courage and dignity, the balance sheet of a collective experience without which we would be condemned to repeating constantly the same mistakes and going through the same defeats. And we hope that after having read this book, all the readers, whatever their background, will side with the oppressed and the fighters of Vorkuta and Magadan”.

That chapter was titled “Are the Trotskyists the grain of sand of history?” Our answer is “yes”, and we will go forward with all our forces to become that grain of sand that blocks all the plans of the capitalists and poses the basis for the emancipation of the working class and for the whole of humankind.

We will miss you. Adieu Pierre.

Modena, August 23 2005,


* Paolo Brini is a member of Central Committee of the Fiom-Cgil (metalworkers’ union), a shop steward at the Smalti Modena and a member of the Provincial Committee of the PRC in Modena, Italy. Francesco Giliani is a member of the Emilia-Romagna Regional Committee of the PRC. Both are leading supporters of the Italian Marxist Tendency gathered around the journal FalceMartello and supporters of the ideas of the In Defence of Marxism web site.