Maurice Thorez (1900-1964) headed the French Communist Party from 1930 to 1964, developing a large working-class Marxist-Leninist party and fostering a close link between the French Communists and the Soviet Union.
Maurice Thorez was born into a poor coal-mining family on April 28, 1900, in Noyelles-Godault in the northern coastal department (state) of Pasde-Calais. At the age of 12 he himself became a miner. During World War I when his village was occupied by the Germans, Thorez was sent to his grandfather's farm in the Creuse. Following the war he returned to Pas-de-Calais, where he joined the Socialist Party (SFIO) in 1919. Although he was largely self-taught, he had a propensity for learning; during the course of his life he acquired a knowledge of Latin, Russian, and German.
In 1920 two important events occurred in Thorez's life; one was his induction into the army and the other was the socialist congress at Tours. While the army required two years of service from Thorez, the decision made at Tours shaped the remainder of his life and the life of the French left. Following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and Lenin's call in 1919 for the formation of Communist parties around the world and the creation of a Communist International, the French Socialist Party met at Tours and split into two factions. While a minority of delegates decided to remain with the old socialist SFIO, the majority formed the French Communist Party (PCF). Thorez sided with the majority, and from that point on played a key role in the construction of a militant Marxist-Leninist party in France, which Thorez once proclaimed to be "not a party like the others."
Aided by his jovial and outgoing personality, Thorez rose rapidly in the hierarchy of the PCF, becoming a party secretary in 1923. At the 1924 PCF congress in Lyons he was elected to the party's organizing committee and shortly thereafter was sent to the Soviet Union to meet Joseph Stalin for the first time. Then in 1930 Thorez was elected secretary general of the PCF, a post he held until his death. In 1932 he was elected as a deputy to the French National Assembly; he was reelected in 1936.
The rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930s encouraged Thorez to help lay the foundations for an anti-fascist popular front, an alliance between the Communists, socialists, and radical socialists in France. After winning the 1936 elections, the Popular Front enacted a number of social and economic reforms, such as a 40-hour work week and the nationalization of key industries.
On the eve of World War II Thorez and the PCF supported the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 and made an appeal to people not to fight in an "imperialist war." When the war broke out he was drafted into the army, but soon fled the country to spend the war years in Moscow. After the fall of France the caretaker Vichy government tried him in absentia and revoked his citizenship. In the Soviet Union Thorez supposedly spent his exile helping organize the European resistance movement against Hitler.
At the end of World War II Thorez returned to France and his citizenship was restored. Moreover, he was again reelected to the National Assembly. In the immediate post-war years he held an appointment as a minister-without-portfolio and from 1946 to 1947 he served as vice-premier.
With the onset of the Cold War, Thorez and four other Communist members of the Ramadier cabinet were ousted from government in 1947, thereby ending the PCF's collaboration with post-war governments, except for a brief period between 1981 and 1984. Thorez's statement that "the French people will never ever fight against the Soviet Union" exemplified PCF rhetoric during the Cold War.
Out of government and now in the opposition, the PCF encouraged strikes in a number of key industries. Under Thorez's leadership the PCF grew in political strength (with more than 900, 000 members in December of 1947), becoming the second largest Communist party in Western Europe, behind Italy.
Beginning in 1950 poor health began to plague Thorez; in this year he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. From 1950 to 1953 he resided in Moscow, where he attempted to convalesce. (During his absence, Jacques Duclos filled Thorez's post in Paris.) When he returned to France in 1953 he once again assumed the leadership of the PCF, but relied heavily on his wife, Jeannette Vermeersch, who was also a Communist deputy in the National Assembly and a member of the Central Committee of the PCF.
Throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s the PCF remained in political isolation in France and maintained close allegiance to Moscow. In 1956, for instance, the French Communists backed the Soviet suppression of the revolt in Hungary. Domestic events in France and new leadership in the Soviet Union would eventually force the PCF to make a zig-zag in policy and adopt once again a popular front strategy at home.
When General Charles de Gaulle returned to power in 1958 with the founding of the Fifth Republic, the representation of the PCF in the National Assembly plummeted to ten deputies. Thorez, however, was one of those reelected to the Assembly. The reemergence of de Gaulle in France, coupled with the rise of Nikita Khrushchev in the Soviet Union and his de-Stalinized policy of "peaceful-coexistence" with the West, renewed interest within the PCF in pursuing a popular front electoral alliance of leftist parties in France. Yet, on July 11, 1964, before such a strategy would be employed in the 1965 presidential elections, Thorez died on a Soviet vessel destined for Yalta.
Thorez's publications include: Fils du peuple (1937, Son of the People); Une Politique de grandeur française (1945, Politics of French Greatness); and Oeuvres, 23 volumes (1950-1965, Works).
In English, accounts of Thorez's life and political career can be found in the following works: Annie Kriegel, The French Communists (1972); Ronald Tiersky, French Communism (1974); and Irwin Wall, French Communism in the Era of Stalin (1983). In French, a solid critical study of Thorez is Philippe Robrieux's Maurice Thorez: vie secrète et vie publique (1975, His Private Life and Public Life). □