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From Communism to Anti-Communism

Andre Liebich
Svetlana Yakimovich

Boris Souvarine (1895-1984): A Biographical Portrait

Andre Liebich

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Boris Souvarine (1895–1984)

Boris Souvarine (1895–1984)

1Boris Souvarine moved from communism in the first years of the Soviet régime, to anti-communism, by the 1930s and throughout the rest of his long life. Such a trajectory is not unusual in the annals of the 20th century but Souvarine’s itinerary is, in many ways, paradigmatic.

2Boris Souvarine was born in Kiev in 1895 as Boris Lifschitz, to a Karaite Jewish family. His father, an artisan jeweler of modest though comfortable condition, moved the family to Paris in 1897. Souvarine was naturalized French in 1906 and he attended French public schools until the age of fourteen when he left to work in an airplane factory. He never received any formal schooling after that date. As of 1910, Souvarine considered himself a socialist. The family language having changed from Russian to French shortly after their move to Paris, Souvarine learned or re-learned Russian on his own while doing his obligatory military service on the eve of the First World War. In 1916 he was allowed to leave the army, after his only brother had been killed in action. It was in the same year that he chose the pseudonym, Souvarine, after an anarchist who appears in Emile Zola’s novel Germinal. The Russian ring to the name, undoubtedly, attracted Boris. By that time, however, he was thoroughly French, molded by the secular republican ideology of the French school system and keenly conscious of the saga of the French Revolution of 1789. Under the influence of his brother’s death, he moved ever closer to pacifist circles, though still attempting to advocate both national defence and an end to the war. It was not until the October Revolution in Russia that he came to espouse Bolshevik views and rekindled his Russian roots.

3Souvarine greeted the creation in 1919 of the Third International, the Comintern, enthusiastically. He initially militated in its favor through the Committee for the Resumption of International Relations (Comité pour la reprise des relations internationales) and then through the Committee of the Third International. He was among the moving spirits of the new organization and he wrote passionately on its behalf, stating the alternative as one between bourgeois dictatorship and proletarian dictatorship. The First Congress of the International, held in Moscow in March 1919, was sparsely attended, largely because of practical difficulties of reaching Russia. The true inaugural meeting was the Second Congress, held triumphantly in Petrograd and Moscow in July 1920, at a time when hopes of world revolution were high and Soviet power was more firmly established than it had been the previous year. Souvarine himself missed this Congress as he was in French prison at the time. This may explain the numerous photos from that occasion in his collection, some of which are presented in the first chapter of this exhibition. They were feeble compensation for Souvarine’s absence from the Congress but they were a comfort nonetheless. In spite of his imprisonment, Souvarine played a key role in the scission of the French Socialist Party at the Congress of Tours in December 1920. Elected one of the “honorary presidents” of the meeting it was the “Souvarine Resolution,” adopted by an overwhelming majority of the delegates, that led to the creation of the French section of the Communist International that eventually took the name of the French Communist Party.

4Soon after his release from prison, Souvarine left for Russia where he attended the Third Congress of the International as one of the French delegates. As secretary of the French Committee for the Third International he was destined for high office in the Comintern. Elected to its Executive Committee and then to its Presidium Bureau, he also became a member of the International’s Secretariat. At a very young age, Souvarine was thus the most prominent Frenchman in Moscow, aided, no doubt, by his affinity with Russia, his knowledge of the Russian language, and his enthusiasm for the new régime. Throughout 1922 Souvarine, like many other Comintern officials, lived in Moscow’s Hotel Luxe and delighted in the cultural and other privileges reserved for deserving high functionaries. He also enjoyed close relations with several Soviet leaders, notably with the notoriously gregarious Nikolai Bukharin. Although “Bukharchik” and “Souvarchik” or “Souvarinionok,” as they called each other got along famously, Souvarine’s relations with his home party were strained and soon he found himself entangled in intra-party politics in Russia as well

5Souvarine was re-elected to the Presidium Bureau of the International in June 1923. Not long thereafter, however, he found himself the target of attacks, not only at home but in Moscow too. His preface to the French edition of Leon Trotsky’s New Course in early 1924 provoked an uproar. Not only did he identify with one of the contestants for power after Lenin’s death but he also criticized the direction in which the Russian revolution was going. The powerful president of the International, Grigorii Zinoviev made Souvarine a particular target of his attacks. Even Souvarine’s friend, Bukharin, defended him only flaccidly, simply inviting delegates to the 13th Congress of the Russian Communist Party in May 1924, where Souvarine had used his prestige within the International to make a speech (in French, translated into Russian), not to take account of it stating that one does not attack someone who is already down. Leon Trotsky, whom only Souvarine had openly defended at the congress, avoided public references to his supporter. In the wake of Souvarine’s intervention, the French delegation demanded his removal from the leading bodies of the International. The request was parried by Karl Radek who insisted that it was not a national delegation but only a congress of the International which could take such steps. Thereafter, Souvarine attempted to mend matters with his French comrades, in part by bringing about a meeting between them and Leon Trotsky; it proved counter-productive as it ended in a fiasco. In July 1924, in the wake of the Fifth Congress of the International, Souvarine was duly excluded from the French Communist Party. Even though the exclusion was supposed to be “temporary,” the bill of charges against him was overwhelming. Even as the French party acknowledged his brilliance as a journalist and his ability as a polemicist, it accused him of being an authoritarian autocrat, infatuated with himself. The French party’s decision was accepted by the Executive of the International (according to some sources it was the International that first authorized Souvarine’s exclusion), resulting in Souvarine’s dismissal from his Comintern posts.

6Perhaps surprisingly, Souvarine decided to stay on in Russia. He may well have expected political winds to turn and to be able to recover his position. In any case, he enjoyed life in Russia and was keen to perfect his Russian. Only months later, in early 1925, did he return to France. There he militated to change the course that the French Communist Party was taking, contributing, anonymously, to an opposition publication, La Révolution prolétarienne, and animating a Cercle communiste Marx et Lénine, that brought together oppositionist communists and those who had left the party or been excluded, like himself. Reflecting his continued faith in communism, in December 1925, Souvarine made a formal request, that was denied, to be readmitted into the Executive Committee of the Comintern. At the time, Souvarine was more opposed to Stalin’s erstwhile allies, Lev Kamenev and Zinoviev, than to Stalin himself and he continued to put out, often at his own expense, the Bulletin communiste, a theoretical publication that he had directed previously and that now came out as a voice of the communist opposition. His concerns about the future of the revolution also differed from those of many other communists, particularly those in Russia. Whereas they feared the threat to Soviet achievements posed by the New Economic Policy (NEP), pursued since 1921, which seemed to be steering the Soviet Union in a capitalist direction, Souvarine warned of the dangers of bureaucratization and authoritarian rule. It was only after celebrations of the tenth anniversary of the revolution, in an article published in March 1928, that Souvarine’s argument concerning the degeneration of bolshevism gave way to an assertion that the interests of the party no longer matched those of the proletariat and that the party was turning its back on communism. Even thereafter, he briefly pinned his hopes on Trotsky after the latter’s expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1929. Trotsky proved unreceptive to Souvarine’s position, which implied criticism of Trotsky himself although Souvarine had defended him years earlier, and he rebuffed Souvarine’s overtures. For years, however, both before and after this altercation, Souvarine was loosely identified as a “Trotskist.”

7At the beginning of the 1930s, Souvarine still expressed hope in the future of communism, free of the corrupting influences of post-Leninist neo-bolshevism. He transformed theCercle communiste Marx et Lénine into the Cercle communiste démocratique and began to publish La Critique sociale which drew a number of prominent, non-communist contributors. It was then too that he agreed to write much of a book published under the name of Panait Istrati, a writer who had originally sympathized with the Soviet experience but had recently returned from the Soviet Union completely disenchanted. Souvarine claimed that he agreed to contribute to the book, and to do anonymously, for material reasons but, clearly, he was then reluctant to publish openly the devastating critique of the Soviet experience that appeared in Istrati’s book as La Russie nue. The contribution was republished as L’URSS en 1930 under Souvarine’s name in 1997. Souvarine’s continued interest in the Soviet Union and his lingering hopes for radical change there are manifest in the photograph collection of Soviet life in 1931 that are part of his archives. Executed by a photographic studio in Berlin and probably intended as propaganda in the years of industrialization and collectivization, the photos reveal, sometimes in spite of themselves, an unvarnished view of the Soviet Union in these fateful years where the hopes and joys they seek to portray reveal a stark background of misery and backwardness.

8In the early 1930s, Souvarine worked on what was to be his opus magnum, Staline, aperçu historique du bolchevisme. The book came out in mid-June 1935. It enjoyed a second edition in 1940 with an additional chapter bringing it up to date. This second edition was re-published in 1977 with a new preface by the author. An English-language edition soon appeared, though without its bibliographic apparatus, and a Dutch translation came out in 1940. The book has now been translated into eight languages. Souvarine’s Staline deserves a bibliographic and historiographic study of its own but, suffice it to say here, that its impact extended well beyond the several thousand copies initially sold, although this was already an impressive demonstration of the interest it aroused. Interestingly, the book’s first admirers were ultra-leftist opponents abroad of the Soviet regime. Obviously, it was belittled by orthodox communists as well as by those who still put their faith in the Soviet experiment even as it was touted by anti-communist forces then and later.

9Souvarine’s qualifications to write Staline were those he had acquired during his years of intimacy with the communist movement. He could not claim to be on terms of familiarity with Stalin himself as they had only met, for the first time, in August 1923 in the Caucasian spa town, Kislovodsk, where the two were vacationing. Then and later, he denounced the “pseudo-revelations” of those, such as Boris Bazhanov and Grigorii Bessedovsky, who claimed special insight into Stalin’s mind by virtue of a putative closeness to the dictator. Most significant from our point of view, however, was the impact that this book had on the author himself. It turned out to be a cathartic experience as it purged Souvarine of his own past. As Souvarine himself wrote, though many years later, “I was still a communist, though in my own way (à ma façon) at the beginning of the 1930s … I was ever less so as I advanced chapter-by-chapter.” Whereas Souvarine was already being denounced earlier by the Communist Party as a renegade, with this book he could accept such a designation with relative serenity. Whatever remained of Souvarine’s attachment to Marxism too was buried under a flood of denunciations so that the anti-Marxist label which was henceforth pinned on him could not readily be shaken off.

10Even earlier, Souvarine had begun what was to be a long scholarly career. In leaving Russia in 1925 he had been asked by David Riazanov, the erudite head of the Marx-Engels Institute, to help gather archival materials in Western Europe. He did so with growing enthusiasm participating in 1935 in the creation of the Paris office of Amsterdam’s International Institute of Social History, itself founded to preserve the Marx-Engels Archive that had been spirited out of Germany to forestall Nazi depredation. This was the origin of the Institut d’histoire sociale, despoiled after the French defeat in 1940 and refounded by Souvarine in 1949. Souvarine’s name is inextricably linked to the history of this institution, where he served at its permanent secretary until retirement as he passed the age of eighty and to its publications, the most important of which was the journal, Le Contrat social, that came out between 1957 and 1969.

11During World War II, Souvarine, like many European intellectuals of anti-Nazi persuasion, was forced to flee to the United States. He hated New York feeling himself isolated among the eight million other people who didn’t know why they were there, as he put it. Initially, he hesitated to return to France after the liberation fearing the strength of the French Communist Party and the prevailing pro-Soviet tendencies. After his eventual return, Souvarine threw himself into the struggle against the ambitions of the communists and against popular illusions about the Soviet Union. The posters selected from Souvarine’s archives for the final chapter of this photographic exhibition come from this period. They were produced and plastered throughout France in hundreds of thousands of copies by the anti-communist movement Paix et Liberté created in 1951 as a reaction against the success of the communist-inspired Stockholm Peace Congress and against communist utilization of the famous Picasso image of the dove of peace.

12Even Souvarine’s opponents acknowledged his qualities as an ardent and acerbic debater. Until the end of his life, he loved to argue, as his later controversy with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn demonstrates, however, with time he became evermore bitter and acidic. Judging from his correspondence, the transformation began in the mid-1930s, a period of political reconfiguration but also of personal anguish connected with the illness and death of his companion, the writer Colette Peignot, who had also financed La Critique sociale until, according to Souvarine, the publisher had stolen her capital. Souvarine’s increasingly rancorous temperament was evident in his relations with the exiled Mensheviks who had moved to Paris from Berlin after Hitler’s takeover. Souvarine was welcomed within the group of exiles which met at the Petit Saint Benôit on Paris’ left bank and that included not only Russians but, after Munich, Czechs such as Hubert Ripka and Ivo Duchacek. The exiled Mensheviks showered Souvarine with both help and sympathy. Boris Nicolaevsky, the famous Menshevik historian, was Souvarine’s partner at the Paris office of the Amsterdam Institute of Social History. It was Mensheviks in America who managed to obtain a visa for Souvarine to escape France during the Second World War. After the war, it was a Menshevik, Alexander Shifrin known as Max Werner, who helped Souvarine recover his library and archives that had been taken by the Germans. In New York, they were Souvarine’s natural allies and much of his argument that the industrialization of Russia had advanced significantly under the tsars rather than under the Bolsheviks has often been dubbed “Menshevik history.” Nevertheless, Souvarine denounced his allies as inhabiting a madhouse. Indeed, “madness” became something of catchall phrase, if not an obsession, for Souvarine. He considered Stalin to be mad in the latter’s last years and he was resentful that only one Menshevik, Nikolai Valentinov-Volsky, shared this view. Nevertheless, in the clippings on the death of Stalin, presented in the third chapter of this exhibition, Souvarine confined himself to collecting accounts of the dictator’s death from contrasting French, American and Soviet sources, with an eye to the power struggle that, he was sure, would ensue upon Stalin’s demise. He did not allow his own views to impinge upon his sources, making no comment, for instance, upon the contrast in the legend under the same picture of Stalin’s wake in the New York Times and in Pravda.

13Until the end of his life, Souvarine refused to be branded simply as an anti-communist, a designation conferred upon by his friends as well as his enemies. He insisted that his underscoring of the essential incompatibilities between Marxism and Leninism and between Leninism and Stalinism exempted him from this label. Few were convinced by this plea. Souvarine did write harshly of America too although, in the final analysis, his criticism amounted to chiding the United States for not standing up sufficiently strongly to the Soviet Union. For example, he condemned the celebrated Paris daily, Le Monde, for being more anti-American than anti-Soviet, a stance which made it, he believed, into an auxiliary of communism. Some of my older colleagues remembered a colloquium in Geneva, probably the one held in anticipation of the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution, where “big Boris” (Nicolaevsky) and “little Boris” (Souvarine) walked up and down the lakeshore arguing fiercely. They were both exiles, sometime Marxists who declined to acknowledge that they had renounced completely that heritage, nostalgic of Russia and ferociously anti-Soviet. In spite of these many commonalities, Souvarine refused to embrace the views of his interlocutor, a refusal to agree with others which had characterized him throughout his life. Whatever his political position, he always defended it passionately.


[La Critique sociale] Les Vies de Boris Souvarine [first published as a brochure, 2008]

Liebich, Andre, From the Other Shore : Russian Social Democracy after 1921, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997, Pb 1999.

Panné, Jean-Louis, Boris Souvarine: le premier désenchanté du communisme, Paris : Robert Laffont, 1993.

Robert Wohl, French Communism in the Making 1914–1924, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966.

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Titre Boris Souvarine (1895–1984)
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