Boris Souvarine

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Boris Souvarine
Portrait of Boris Souvarine (s.d.) (14369834947).jpg
Born Борис Константинович Лифшиц (Boris Konstantinovich Lifschitz)
5 November 1895
Kiev, Imperial Russia
Died 1 November 1984(1984-11-01) (aged 89)
Paris, France
Nationality French
Citizenship Naturalised French (Born in Imperial Russia)
Political party French Communist Party, Democratic Communist Circle

Boris Souvarine also known as Varine (born Boris Konstantinovich Lifschitz, Russian: Бори́с Константи́нович Ли́фшиц, 5 October 1895, Kiev – 1 November 1984, Paris) was a French Marxist, communist activist, essayist, and journalist.

Souvarine was a founding member of the French Communist Party and is noted for being the only non-Russian communist to have been a member of the Comintern for three years in succession.[1] He famously authored the first biography of Joseph Stalin, published in 1935 as Staline, Aperçu Historique du Bolchévisme (Stalin, Historic Overview of Bolshevism) and kept close correspondence with Lenin and Trotsky until their deaths.[2]

Due to his anti-conformism and early criticism of Stalin, Souvarine broke away from the Communist Party in 1924, and in the decades that followed the war Souvarine continued publishing as a leading Sovietologist and anti-communist, founder of L'institut d'Histoire Sociale (Paris), as well as an author, historian, publisher and journalist.[1]

Early Political Commitments

Souvarine was strongly affected by the First World War

Souvarine was born Boris Konstantinovich Lifschits in Kiev to a Jewish family. Souvarine's family moved to Paris in 1897, where he became a socialist activist from a young age. He trained as a jewellery designer. And at the age of fourteen came into contact with the French Socialist movement while working as an apprentice in workshops. During this time he began attending meetings held by Jean Jaurès.

Souvarine experienced his first trauma with the outbreak of the First World War. Mobilised as part of the French army in 1914, he quickly discovered the horrors of Trench warfare and in March 1915, lost his older brother who died fighting on the front-line.

War pushed Souvarine into politics and the pacifist movement. He joined the Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO) in 1916 and begins contributing to low-profile, under-current socialist magazines like Le Populaire, signing articles with the pseudonyme he held onto for the rest of his life: Souvarine, patronyme borrowed from a character in Émile Zola's Germinal.[3]

Souvarine and the October Revolution

Following the October Revolution, Gorki employed Souvarine as a correspondent for Novaya Zhizn

Souvarine's journalistic reputation grew rapidly during the war years as a talented, subtle writer and skillful polemicist. He welcomed with fervour the Russian revolution in 1917, and, thanks to his Russian bilingualism, relayed the events closely to left-wing circles in France. In the same year Souvarine was hired to Maxim Gorky's Novaya Zhizn as a correspondent in France.

In November 1917, following the Bolshevik coup d'état, Souvarine wrote:

It is to be feared that, for Lenin and his friends, the 'dictatorship of the proletariat', must be a dictatorship of Bolsheviks and their leader. This could become a terror for the Russian working class, and eventually, the global proletariat[...] What we wish we could see was agreement between socialists to organise a stable power, that truly becomes the power of the people and not the power of a man.[4]

Creation of the Section Française de l'Internationale Communiste

In 1919, Souvarine joins the committee of the Third International, also known as the Comintern and becomes one of its most active members, helping to diffuse large numbers of political and propagandist literature across Europe.

In one of these leaflets, Souvarine wrote:

The Socialist-Communist parties must attempt to create a proletarian democracy that will eliminate class by abolishing economic privilege, and of which the organes are soviets, i.e. peasant and worker councils - a new type of organisation governing itself.[5]

In 1920, he is elected delegate to the SFIO's Congress where he advocates for cross-party membership to the Communist International. In March 1920 he creates the widely read and influential Bulletin communiste as twice monthly mouth-piece of the Third International.

Tours Congress

File:SFIO Tours Congress, 30 December 1920.jpg
Souvarine's motion at the SFIO's Tours Congress founded what is today the French Communist Party

Boris Souvarine is arrested on 17 May 1920 in a government crack-down that accused a number of communist leaders and revolutionary activists of anarchist plots and conspiracy. Due to lack of substantive evidence, he is released shortly after with Fernand Loriot and Pierre Monatte, who are all acquitted in March 1921.

While in prison Souvarine buried himself in his journalistic, political and essay writing, writing almost non-stop for le Bulletin Communiste, L'Humanité, La Vague, La Vie Ouvrière. It is during this time that he composed the famous motion for the Tours Congress that would eventually split the SFIO and form the French Communist Party.

In December 1920, Loriot and Souvarine are named honorary presidents of the Tours Congress. Over 75% of congress delegates adopt the Souvarine motion thus creating the Section Française de l'Internationale Communiste. Much later, once the party became fully Stalinised, SFIC-Parti communiste was swapped for Parti Communiste Français.

Rupture with the PCF

As an executive member of the Comintern, Souvarine kept in regular contact with Leon Trotsky. When Trotsky became the target of vilification in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), Souvarine conveyed the PCF's support for Trotsky to the CPSU's 13th Congress in 1924. He became associated with the communist opposition against Stalin.

Souvarine was removed from his official roles within the PCF in early 1924, and was expelled by the Comintern in July.[6] He became close to anti-stalinist communist figures in Paris (including Marcel Body, Christian Rakovsky and the writer Panait Istrati).[7] In October 1925, Souvarine relaunched the Bulletin Communiste and in February 1926 he organised its supporters in the Marx-Lenin Communist Circle.

Having defended Trotsky against Stalin in the Comintern during the 1920s, Souvarine kept up close correspondence with him until his death

In the late 1920s, he remained active in the communist opposition, was close to Pierre Monatte and Alfred Rosmer, and wrote in La Révolution Prolétarienne. He shared some positions with the Left Opposition, as well with the so-called “Right Opposition”, but refused to take part in its international conference called by Heinrich Brandler and August Thalheimer in Berlin in 1930.[8] The Marx-Lenin Communist Circle was renamed the Democratic Communist Circle (Cercle Communiste Démocratique) ; Bulletin Communiste was continued, and Souvarine also launched La Critique Sociale. His growing break with Trotsky was indicated by his analysis, by 1927, of the Soviet Union as "state capitalist", in contrast to Trotsky's designation of it as a "degenerated workers' state".[8]

Souvarine worked closely with Pierre Kaan, a prominent member of the French resistance, with whom he edited l'Humanité and La Critique Sociale during the 1920s and 1930s

In 1936, Souvarine encouraged the newly exiled writer Victor Serge to continue political activity. By this time, Trotsky was harshly criticizing Souvarine's personal characteristics, and Trotsky stated that Souvarine was a journalist rather than a revolutionary. Serge's defense of Souvarine and other anti-stalinists who deviated from Trotsky's positions was among the factors that led to distrust between Serge and Trotsky.

In 1935, Boris Souvarine created the Institut d'Histoire Sociale (institute for social history),[9] a French branch of the International Institute for social history of Amsterdam originally created to preserve the archives of the German Social-Democratic Party. The president was Alexandre-Marie Desrousseaux, the director Boris Nicolaevsky, and Boris Souvarine was the secretary general. In November 1936, burglars stole the archives of Leon Trotsky that were deposited at the institute. In 1940, the institute was looted by the Nazis, who brought some of its collections to Germany.

After World War II and during the Cold War, Boris Souvarine moved towards a reformist politics, and increasingly adopted anti-Soviet positions. After his return to France in 1948, and with the help of Jacques Chevallier, he recreated the Institut d'Histoire Sociale. The institute published the magazine Le Contrat Social.

Souvarine was involved in a variety of organizations and journals of the anti-Stalinist left in France, publishing frequently on the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, and Stalinism. He also criticized Lenin. His criticisms of Stalinism were important sources for some less orthodox Trotskyists, such as C. L. R. James, who translated his Stalin biography into English.

Death and legacy

In 1976, a declining health forced him to abandon his position at the Institut d'Histoire Sociale. He died in Paris on 1 November 1984.


Original French Publications

  • Souvarine, B., 1935. Staline, aperçu historique du bolchévisme, Paris, Plon (re-edited Champ libre 1978 and 1985, then éditions Ivrea 1992).
  • Souvarine, B., 1936. À travers le pays des Soviets, under the pseudonyme of Motus, Paris, Éditions de France.
  • Souvarine, B., 1937. Cauchemar en URSS, Paris, Revue de Paris, (re-edited Agone, 2001).
  • Souvarine, B., 1937. Ouvriers et paysans en URSS, Paris, Librairie du travail, (re-edited Agone, 2001).
  • Souvarine, B., 1971. Un Pot-pourri de Khrouchtchev : à propos de ses souvenirs, Paris, éditions Spartacus.
  • Souvarine, B., 1972. Le Stalinisme, Paris, Spartacus.
  • Souvarine, B., 1981. Autour du congrès de Tours, Paris, Champ Libre.
  • Souvarine, B., 1982. L'observateur des deux mondes et autres textes, Paris, La Différence.
  • Souvarine, B., 1983. La Critique Sociale – 1931-1934, Paris, La Différence.
  • Souvarine, B., 1985. Souvenirs sur Isaac Babel, Panaït Istrati, Pierre Pascal - followed by Lettre à Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Paris, éditions Gérard Lebovici.
  • Souvarine, B., 1985. À contre-courant (collection of textes from 1925 to 1939), Paris, Denoël.
  • Souvarine, B., 1990. Controverse avec Soljenitsyne, Paris, Allia Editions.
  • Souvarine, B., 1998. Chroniques du mensonge communiste, texts chosen by Branko Lazitch and Pierre Rigoulot, Plon.
  • Souvarine, B., 2007. Sur Lénine, Trotsky et Staline (1978–79), interviews with Branko Lazitch and Michel Heller; Boris by Michel Heller.
  • Boris Souvarine additionally wrote anonymously one of the three parts of Vers l'autre flamme, published under Panaït Istrati's name in 1929. Re-edition, 1997. L'URSS en 1930, introduced by Charles Jacquier, Paris, éditions Ivrea.

Translated into English

  • Souvarine, B., 2005. Stalin: A Critical Survey of Bolshevism, Kessinger Publishing Legacy Reprint Series.*
  • Souvarine, B., 1964. Stalin, Hoover Institution for War, Revolution and Peace, University of Stanford.*
  • Souvarine, B., 2010. The Third International, Bibliobazaar Reprints.


  1. 1.0 1.1 [1] 'Historical Note', Preface to Boris Souvarine Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University
  2. Boris Souvarine, Prologue to La Critique Sociale, Reprinted 1984, March 1984, p. 15
  3. [2] Les vies de Boris Souvarine,, 14 October 2008.
  4. Boris Souvarine, 'La Commune Maximaliste', Ce Qu'il Faut Dire, No. 78, 17 November 1917
  5. Boris Souvarine, La Troisième Internationale, Editions Clarté, 1919, pp. 29-30
  6. Richardson, p.iii
  7. Tănase; Richardson p.iii
  8. 8.0 8.1 Richardson, p.iv
  9. La Souvarine - Institut d'Histoire sociale

Further reading

  • Brown, C.J., 1966. Boris Souvarine and the French Communist Movement, University of Wisconsin, Madison.
  • Ilford House., 1978. Homage to Boris Souvarine.
  • Richardson, Al., 2001. What Became of the Revolution: Selected Writings of Boris Souvarine, Socialist Platform, Foreword by Al Richardson.

External links