Obituary: Pierre Naville
Thursday 03 June 1993
PIERRE NAVILLE was the very last of the original Parisian Surrealists - those who launched the movement in the 1920s.
If Naville has outlived the others, it is in part because he was younger than the rest, rallying to the nascent Surrealist movement in 1924 at the age of 21. Like most of his friends, he was from a comfortable middle-class background: his involvement with Surrealism was a kind of apprenticeship in revolt, before his mature career got under way. Although the author of a book of Surrealist poetry, Les Reines de la main gauche (1924) and the co-editor of the first three numbers of the journal La Revolution surrealiste, his real interests were to be in politics and sociology. Indeed, the increasing distance between Naville and his fellow Surrealists in the latter half of the 1920s was indicative of the movement's difficulty in reconciling poetic freedom with political commitment. The movement's leader, Andre Breton, after attempting the impossible union of the two, was to choose the former by 1935; Naville had already chosen the latter in 1926.
That year he became co-editor of the independent Communist journal Clarte, and published a challenge to Breton and the rest of the group in the form of a brochure entitled La Revolution et les intellectuels, que peuvent faire les surrealistes? ('The Revolution and the Intellectuals: what can the Surrealists do?'). Here he placed before the movement a crucial choice between negative anarchism and 'the only revolutionary path, that of Marxism'. Breton was to reply, at first defending the revolutionary nature of artistic exploration, and then announcing in 1927 that all Surrealists were to become members of the French Communist Party - a move which led to the first serious schism within the group.
Despite his role in sparking off Surrealism's ill-fated adventure with the Party, Naville himself was quickly to show his colours as a Communist dissident. Having had first-hand experience of Trotsky's struggle against Stalin on a visit to Moscow in 1927, he published the following year in Clarte a chapter of Victor Serge's anti-Stalinist account of events in Russia, thus earning his own expulsion from the Party and his rejection by the now committed Surrealist group. Thereafter Naville militated openly in the Trotskyist cause, playing an important role in the founding of the ill-fated Fourth International in 1938. Although at this later date Breton also began to look to Trotsky as the antidote to Stalinism, no rapprochement between him and Naville took place.
During the Second World War Naville published the first studies in what was to be an immense oeuvre dedicated to sociology and political science, particularly focused on work and industry. Beginning with a book on Behaviourism and a significant examination of the 18th-century materialist thinker the Baron d'Holbach, Naville went on to publish a vast, seven-volume analysis of state socialism in the Communist world under the title Le Nouveau Leviathan ('The New Leviathan'). He grouped many of his works from the 1940s to the 1980s under the umbrella title Les Transformations modernes de la vie sociale ('The Modern Transformations of Social Life').
Although never a university academic, he was finally made an honorary director of research at the prestigious state-funded Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.
Throughout his career as a social scientist, Naville never forgot his militant youth, publishing a homage to Trotsky in 1962. Nor did he forget his early career as a poet. His first wife, Denise (the cousin of Breton's first wife), with whom he lived until her death in 1970, was an important translator of German Romantic poetry, and Naville himself was a passionate amateur painter all his life.
In 1977 Pierre Naville brought out Le Temps du surreel ('The Time of the Surreal'), a volume which combined memories of the heroic period of Surrealism in the 1920s with his own texts from that time and new reflections on the importance of the movement - a fitting memorial to one whose life embraced so much and with such remarkable consistency.
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