MAURICE NADEAU (1911-2013)
Written for Revolutionary History but not yet published.
Maurice Nadeau, who has died at the age of 102, will doubtless be best remembered as a journalist, editor, literary critic and publisher. It is claimed that he first introduced French readers to over a hundred significant French and foreign writers, including Georges Perec, Roland Barthes, Michel Leiris, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Lawrence Durrell, Malcolm Lowry, Jorge Luis Borges and Richard Wright. But his well-deserved literary reputation should not overshadow the fact that he was also a revolutionary and a political activist.
Nadeau was born into a poor family. His father, a messenger, died at the battle of Verdun; his mother, a maid, was illiterate. But from the beginning he had a love of reading and an intellectual curiosity. At his primary school, pages from an old edition of the Larousse encyclopaedia were used as toilet paper. The young Nadeau grabbed bundles of these sheets, and read them in bed in the school dormitory.
By training as a teacher Nadeau got an education and went on to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure. But he did not turn his back on his class, and while still a teenager joined the Communist Party (PCF). But in 1932 he visited Germany and was disturbed to observe the Third Period line of denouncing Social Democrats as “social fascists”. On his return he expressed his concerns; the PCF philosopher Henri Lefebvre assured him that Hitler was a “flash in the pan”. A fortnight later he was informed of his expulsion, without any right to a hearing. His former student comrades refused to speak to him, insulted him and he even faced physical attacks.
By now he had begun to read the Trotskyist paper La Vérité; he had found a copy of Trotsky’s 1905 left lying around in the Communist Party bookshop. Soon he was actively involved in the Trotskyist organisation, the Ligue communiste. He describes the frenetic level of activity – “factory newspapers, leaflets, flyposting, meetings, street sales of La Vérité, we were mobilised by day and often by night.” He met many of the key figures in the tiny Trotskyist movement – Rudolf Klement, Blasco, Marcel Hic, Leon Sedov, Van Heijenoort. Above all he was strongly under the influence of Pierre Naville, and worked closely with him. He corrected the proofs of La Vérité, and in return was allowed to write a few articles, mainly on literary topics.
Nadeau’s literary interests developed in parallel to his political activity. Already when a student he had been on the executive of the AEAR (Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists) and had encountered former surrealist turned loyal Stalinist Louis Aragon. But a crucial turning-point came in 1938. André Breton, the leading figure in the surrealist group, had visited Trotsky in Mexico, and it had been decided to set up the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Artists (FIARI). At Naville’s suggestion, Nadeau was sent to meet Breton, and he took organisational responsibility for Clé, the journal of the .FIARI, of which only two issues ever appeared.[i] He thus came to know a number of the surrealists, though he felt they were “an aristocracy …. to which I was not called”.
Nadeau remained a Trotskyist during the German Occupation. He attended the first meeting where it was decided to publish a clandestine La Vérité. In 1941, before the PCF joined the Resistance, he was approached by Sartre, who wanted to draw surrealists and Trotskyists into his group Socialisme et liberté. Later he worked with David Rousset, who was arrested and sent to a German concentration camp.[ii] Among other things he hid paintings by the exiled surrealist painter Victor Brauner.
It was during the Occupation that he wrote one of his most influential books, The History of Surrealism. He wrote it “during the last months of the Occupation, at full tilt and with the means at my disposal”. Breton and Péret were exiled across the Atlantic, Aragon and Éluard had abandoned surrealism for the PCF; Naville was anxious that surrealism should not be forgotten.
His account was well-documented and sympathetic, and remains a standard text on the subject. His assessment, made by one who was both a lover of avant-garde literature and a political revolutionary, was that “if surrealism produces, in spite of itself, a magnificent artistic explosion, it also leads to an ideological dead end”.
This was scarcely designed to please André Breton, who defended surrealism with a degree of sectarian zeal that would put most Trotskyists to shame. Breton was outraged that Nadeau stated that surrealism as a movement had come to an end in 1940. In fact surrealism did survive after the war, though Nadeau in 1957 saw “its transformation into a school of esotericism as the avowal of defeat”. In fact, as Nadeau noted, many of the new generation who came to surrealism after 1945 got their first introduction to the movement through his book.
Breton also criticised Nadeau for consulting people like Queneau and Prévert, former surrealists - in true sectarian fashion he saw all renegades as deadly enemies. As Nadeau pointed out, he consulted them because they were still in Paris, while Breton was across the Atlantic. His friendship with Breton never recovered.
By the time of the Liberation Nadeau had broken with organised Trotskyism. But he had not abandoned his revolutionary commitment, and he was still strongly influenced by Pierre Naville. Together with Naville he was involved with a journal called La Revue internationale. This was launched as an explicitly Marxist counterpart to Sartre’s Les Temps modernes; its editorial team included Charles Bettelheim, Gilles Martinet, David Rousset and Gérard Rosenthal. Among its contributors were Georges Lefebvre, Tran Duc Thao and Daniel Guérin.
In the post-war period Nadeau performed another important service for the Trotskyist movement. Natalia Trotsky, already increasingly distrustful of the Fourth International, gave Alfred Rosmer the job of getting Trotsky’s works back into print in Europe and especially in France. Few of Trotsky’s books had survived the Nazi occupation; and given the PCF’s enormous influence in the post-war period, it was no easy job to persuade publishers to take on Trotsky. Rosmer approached Nadeau for assistance with this task. Nadeau managed to persuade the reluctant Éditions du Seuil to republish Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. Later, as Nadeau noted, they were very glad to have it on their catalogue. He remained a friend of Rosmer’s until his death.
In 1960 Nadeau played a key role in the production of the Manifesto of 121, which unequivocally supported those who refused to fight against Algerian independence, and who gave practical assistance to the Algerian struggle. His office at Les Lettres nouvelles (a literary review he had founded in 1953) was used to organise the Manifesto; it was searched by police and Nadeau was taken in for questioning. According to Nadeau, Dionys Mascolo initiated the project, Maurice Blanchot drew up the final draft, and Nadeau was the chief recruiter of signatories. He also organised the printing of this illegal document.
On 10 May 1968 Nadeau put his name to a statement in support of the insurgent students, and he became a member of a worker-student committee. In later years Nadeau’s unflagging energy went into his literary activities, but he never abandoned his fundamental faith in social revolution. In his autobiography, published in 1990, he commented on the fact that he had been described as a “cooled off Trotskyist”:
But in any case what hasn’t “cooled off” is my admiration for Trotsky, my friendship for Pierre Naville. What they passed on to me was the feeling which made them spew out the lukewarm, the “beautiful souls”, the short-sighted humanists, the born conciliators, the submissive devotees of the lesser evil. Trotsky had a word that covered them all: “philistines”.