Born in Brittany in 1902, René Lefeuvre, started work at 16, his father teaching him his trade as an artisan mason.
At the beginning of the 1920s, he moved to Paris. Enthused by the Russian Revolution, he became a reader of the Bulletin Communiste published by Boris Souvarine. He participated in the groups of discussion which formed after various militants were expelled from the Communist Party.
He, like many others in the workers movement, was self taught. His interests lay not just in politics but in artistic and cultural activity. This led him to join Les Amis du Monde, around the artistic and cultural magazine Monde, founded by the writer Henri Barbusse and supported by the Soviet Union. He became secretary of the association and launched a campaign for popular education among the masses, through the setting up of study groups.
There was a general wish within the study groups to bring out another publication, and Lefeuvre began to edit Masses, a monthly, which first appeared in January 1933, and was supported by the workers and proofreaders of Monde. Masses and the groups around it called themselves Marxist, defended the Russian Revolution but had no sympathy for the Russian Communist Party and the Soviet regime.
It took an anti-Stalinist stance, distinguishing itself from Monde which carried articles sympathetic to the regime. It lasted a year and a half, until René lost his job and was forced to terminate the journal. It was thanks to editing Masses that René learnt the arts of editing and proofreading. He was able to obtain a job as a proofreader, a trade which he exercised up to his retirement.
It was in December 1934 that René launched another publication, calling it Spartacus. André Prudhommeaux had published a magazine with the same name in 1931, and like that publication, made reference not to the slave revolt but to the German Spartacist movement of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. This weekly carried the sub-heading For Revolutionary Culture and Mass Action and its first editorial called for a socialist revolution.
The demonstrations of the French extreme right on 6 February 1934 profoundly disturbed him, as they did many others. He was as equally perturbed by the initial position of the Communist Party on these events, which downplayed the danger of fascism, in his view. This led him to join the SFIO (later to become the Socialist Party) and to militate in a current within it, Bataille Socialiste, led by Marceau Pivert and Jean Zyromski.
In October 1935, Pivert and others broke away from the Bataille Socialiste current to create their own current, the Gauche Revolutionnaire. René was put in charge of its bulletin of the same name, aimed at Party members. In spring 1936 he briefly published a version of the bulletin aimed more at the general public and called Masses.
For several years had entertained the project of setting up a magazine whose themes would be struggle and the current situation. He realised this in October 1936 when he brought out the first issue of Cahiers Spartacus. This contained the article 16 Shot in Moscow by Victor Serge, which described the first show trials of Stalin, which led to the execution of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Smirnov.
René wanted the Cahiers to appear monthly. The first issues were pamphlets of 60 pages, sold at 2 francs, about the price of a kilo of bread in France at the time. Victor Serge wrote other articles as did Alfred Rosmer on the First World War.
Rosa Luxemburg’s The Russian Revolution appeared in its pages as did articles by André Prudhommeaux (now an anarchist) on the Spanish revolution of 1936. Most issues were devoted to a single subject as with numbers 6 and 7, on the Spanish Revolution (number 7 exposed the Stalinist provocation in May 1937 and the attacks on the POUM and the anarchists).
Within two years 15 issues of the “monthly” Cahiers had appeared.
In June 1938 the SFIO triumphed in its hounding of the Gauche Revolutionnaire. Pivert and his group founded the Parti Socialiste Ouvrier et Paysan (Workers and Peasants Socialist Party-PSOP). René went on to the editorial board of its paper, Juin 1936. As an independent initiative he resurrected Masses in January 1939 for 3 issues.
Like many members of the PSOP, René called for resistance to the war. For this he served a prison sentence in July 1939. He was drafted into the Army and was a prisoner in Germany.
At the end of the war, he returned to the SFIO and worked on the editorial board of the paper Populaire as well as with the publishing house Editions de la Liberté. In January 1946 he relaunched Masses, with the sub-heading Socialism and Liberty, which was fiercely anti-Stalinist.
At the same time, he relaunched the Cahiers Spartacus. Whilst some were of the old sixty page pamphlet format, others were the size of a small book. The latter included Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution? and General Strike, Party and Unions as well as her Questions of Organisation of Russian Social-Democracy, under the title of Marxism against Dictatorship. The writings of Luxemburg had been for a long time unpublished and Rene helped re-popularise her thought.
Other titles included The Socialists behind the Iron Curtain by one Denis Healey (at a time when his politics were far further to the left) and the Kronstadt Commune (1949) by Ida Mett, an old friend of René.
Other anarchist publications from over the years included a biography of Francisco Ferrer by his daughter Sol, The Soviets Betrayed by the Bolsheviks by Rudolf Rocker, For a Libertarian Communism by Daniel Guerin, Russian anarchist texts collected and translated by Alexandre Skirda, Anarchism and Marxism in Russia by Arthur Lehning, and Prudhommeaux on the Spartacist uprising. Spartacus also published important works by the council communists Pannekoek and Gorter. The largest Spartacus book was a life of the pioneer of the theory of communism, Sylvain Maréchal, by Maurice Dommanget, at 500 pages.
René financed the out of his own pockets. With Guy Mollet at the helm of the SFIO, support for the Cahiers decreased and their readership fell. René finally broke irrevocably with the SFIO with the Algerian war. Publication of the Cahiers seized, although René continued to distribute (with difficulty) from the stocks he had.
In the few years before 1968, some young activists contacted René and helped him with distribution of the Spartacus stock. Spartacus texts circulated among the militants of Socialisme ou Barbarie and of the group around the anarchist communist magazine Noir et Rouge.
After 1968, the new wave of revolutionary enthusiasm led to the relaunching of the Cahiers Spartacus. In the next 10 years the Spartacus catalogue was to increase considerably.
The first new text was one by Ida Mett, followed over the years by writings on the Polish workers revolt, on critiques of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and on the Portuguese revolution of 1974. Sixty new titles were published in the 70s.
René Lefeuvre returned to the old format of the magazine in the years between 1975 and 1979, during which 15 issues appeared. By now distribution of the texts was falling off, and this, coupled with an over-optimistic print run, brought René to the limit of his financial resources and he had to cease publication.
Knowing that he was reaching the end of his years, and concerned with the future of the publishing venture, René founded an association, Les Amis de Spartacus, based round the editorial committee. This association officially took charge of the Spartacus publishing venture.
René died in 1988 at the age of 86. The association continued his work and today Spartacus publications are distributed by Difpop.
René Lefeuvre, if asked to give a description of his politics, often described himself as a Luxemburgist. He has been harshly criticised by some left communists as having an equivocal stance towards social democracy and as having failed to clearly break with that current.
On the other hand, his courageous efforts to bring out the best writings from the anarchist, council communist and critical Marxist bodies of thought was a great achievement. The circulation of the Spartacus texts in no small way contributed to the beginning of the end of Stalinist hegemony within the working class movement and to the revolutionary ferment of the 60s and 70s.
*La politique communiste [R. Lefeuvre, 1946] in french
*Les 70 ans des Cahiers Spartacus (2006) A history of Spartacus in french