French History @IHR: John Bulaitis on Maurice Thorez, the French Communist Party (PCF) and the art of writing a biography

Dr. John Bulaitis (Canterbury Christ Church) ‘Maurice Thorez in the Biographical Matrix’. Chaired by Andrew Smith.

Monday 12 November 2018

To listen to a recording of the event, click here (right click to save as MP3)

Maurice Thorez – the name is familiar to historians of France. Leader of the French Communist Party (PCF) for over three decades, he is a recurring character in the story of the twentieth century. In his paper, John Bulaitis allowed us to look more closely at Thorez himself, but also at the problem with writing the biography of a cult figure. Indeed, the problem with writing a biography of Thorez is that the man himself is not always easy to disassociate from the Party he led. For many, Thorez was the physical embodiment of the French Communist Party. In the 1930s, during the Popular Front the PCF created a cult around him, a cult which was reinforced by his autobiography Fils du Peuple (1937). During the war, Thorez somewhat problematically fled to Moscow, and yet his cult continued to live on afterwards, unwavering. For his 50th birthday in 1950, one widow sent him photos of her (deceased) sons, and the last words of her husband, who had been shot under Vichy.

But did he make the party, or did the party make him? This is a natural question for a biographer, Bulaitis points out. In this case, if it had not been Thorez, could the PCF’s cult leader have been Duclos, or Marty? If this question can never be answered with certainty, Bulatitis does draw a more rich and nuanced picture of this leader. At times he challenges the idea that Thorez was always in step with the Stalinist line, a statement which is made of the PCF, which was the party most loyal to Stalin. He also shows us more intimate details of Thorez’s mind, not least through a simple but evocative sketches of his wife which were scribbled into in a notebook at a conference in the Soviet Union.

Drawings of his wife, Jeannette, in the cahiers of Maurice Thorez.

Bulaitis thus falls into a small but prestigious line of historians who have explored the history and legacy of Thorez and his party, not least Annie Kriegel, Stéphane Courtois and Annette Wieviorka. We will certainly be keen to follow up discussions of Algeria, birth control and fan letters in his book, Maurice Thorez: A Biography (2018).

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