Pierre Broué: A rare combination

Issue: 108

Ian Birchall

Pierre Broué (1926-2005) who died in July, was one of the most important historians in the revolutionary socialist tradition.

Broué became a Trotskyist in 1944. It was not an easy time. Militants faced lethal danger not only from the Nazi occupiers of France, but also from the Stalinist Communist Party. Towards the end of his life he returned to his roots, publishing a book investigating the deaths of Pietro Tresso and three other Trotskyists killed on Stalinist orders in 1943.

Broué always remained true to his initial commitment. After the splits of the early 1950s he remained for over 30 years in the group led by Pierre Lambert. The experience was not without friction—Broué once threw a chair at Lambert during a meeting—and ended with his expulsion in 1989. Right up to his death he continued to write on current issues for Le Marxisme aujourd’hui, which he edited.

From his experience as an activist he got an understanding of the dynamics of political organisations and their relations to the ups and downs of class struggles that could never be grasped by a historian who simply remained buried in the archives.

For many years Broué taught at the University of Grenoble. His lectures were popular and inspiring: a former student, Jean-Pierre Juy, recalls that ‘he related the taking of the Winter Palace as though he’d been there’. But his most important contribution was the string of books he wrote, together with a huge number of articles. He founded and edited the journal Les Cahiers Léon Trotsky, devoted to the history of the revolutionary movement.

Broué was that rare combination, a scholar-militant. His works show a tireless ability to trawl through obscure documents in numerous languages in order to establish historical facts. But all his wide-ranging work centred on one central question—the fate of the Communist movement, born in 1917, which offered unprecedented hope to humanity, and its transformation into the monstrosity of Stalinism.

His first major book was The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain (1961). Earlier works, like Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, had shown how the revolutionary potential of 1936 was strangled and betrayed by Stalinism and the Popular Front. But Broué and his co-writer Emile Témime provided a comprehensive and fully documented account of the events. His history of the Bolshevik Party (1963) showed in remorseless detail how Lenin’s party was transformed into the brutal and murderous instrument of Stalin’s rule. The German Revolution 1917-1923 (1971) [reviewed below] was probably his masterpiece.

Broué’s biography of Trotsky (1988) was consciously written in order to correct and go beyond the three volumes by Isaac Deutscher. Deutscher gave a magnificent portrait of the individual Trotsky, but gave relatively little importance to his efforts to build a new organisation to oppose Stalinism. Broué stressed the importance of Trotsky’s long struggle to found a new international.

His final major work was a synthesis of his earlier writings, a history of the Communist International (1997). Here Broué broke new ground. Previous histories of the Comintern had come from Cold Warriors who saw it as a conspiracy against human freedom, or from Stalinists who simply suppressed all the real problems. Even Trotskyist historians, faced with terrible isolation, tended to a defensiveness in which they applauded everything from the early pre-Stalin years—‘the First Four Congresses’. Broué showed that although the Comintern had its roots in massive social struggles, it also had substantial defects from the very first day, notably narrow-minded bureaucrats who thought the revolution could be spread simply by mechanically copying Russian experience. As he put it, history sometimes progresses ‘by stammering’.

Broué opened the way for a new, non-defensive history of the early years of international Communism (though neither man might have welcomed the comparison, his approach had much in common with that adopted by Tony Cliff in his Lenin).

Broué did not limit his attention to the Trotskyist current. He helped to rescue from oblivion many other individuals from the history of the left opposition. He was the first to publish the writings of Victor Serge from Germany in 1923 and he collected the correspondence between Trotsky and Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer.

Broué’s work provides a vital foundation for the study of the successes and failures of the 20th century revolutionary movement, for the honest and objective understanding of the past that we need if we are to be more successful next time.

Unfortunately, relatively little of Broué’s work is available in English. The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain (translated 1972) may still be available in libraries; The German Revolution 1917-1923 had to wait 33 years for an English version. It is hoped that it may be possible to produce a special issue of Revolutionary History containing material by Broué not previously translated. At all events, Broué has left us a valuable legacy on which a new generation of socialist historians will have to build.