Charles Rappoport 1928

The Reformists of Twenty Years Ago

Source: L'Humanité of 4 June 1928, in Labour Monthly, August 1928;
Translated: by Adam Buick.

It is sometimes useful, even indispensable, to make a rapid survey of the past, in order to see how the men and the ideas who were then at the centre of the movement, have moved – not forwards, but backwards.

Let us begin with the Socialist Congress at Toulouse in 1908. The Congress was somewhat excited. The disputants were courteous but firm. However, this Congress was but a faint echo of the ferment amongst the workers. Anarcho-syndicalism and Hervéism, then in the first bloom of youth were in full swing. Jouhaux, now the disciplined official of a bourgeois government, was then on the side of the militant Anarchists and Anarcho-syndicalists, such as Griffuehles, Pouget, Yvetot, who at that time led the “great proletarian campaigns,” all of them, even the newspaper, le Matin (see the article by Griffuehles in this paper on the eve of the massacre of Draveil-Villeneu) preached “revolutionary gymnastics,” “boycott and sabotage,” decreeing a “General Strike” (without any strikers) once a fortnight. In short, they produced all the thunders of war, long since extinguished, which we Marxists called in Socialisme, Jules Guesde’s little weekly, “Smoke without powder.”

Alongside the militant workers, enthusiastic and sincere, were a whole group of intellectuals, briefless barristers, who swore only by Georges Sorel, or even by M. Bergson, carrying their “vital principles,” “their creative evolution” on to the working-class field. Ernest Lafon, now a member of the S.F.I.O., [1] Morizet, to-day a Senator, and Dormor who has disappeared, ran a red-hot news-sheet having for its title and programme Direct Action.

As to Gustave Hervé, one of the leaders of the movement, he went into retirement, and only came out to attack Aristide Briand, his former defender, or to develop in la Guerre Sociale, theses bearing the slogan, “Down with the Republic,” and urging the Party to throw out all those who, like myself, did not bow before his wooden sword and martial noises which savoured only of vanity and melodrama.

As for the Reformists, they courted the Anarcho-syndicalists, supported and cajoled them, at the same time secretly mocking them. They had their place of honour, their special rubric in l'Humanité of those days, nominally the organ of the Party, but actually the organ of the followers of Jaurès. They could attack the Party in it, criticise its programme, its tactics, and its composition. The Reformists were glad to have the advance guard of the working class, and above all the Guesdists on their side against the French Marxists. The real Guesdists, like Bracke and Compère-Morel sometimes showed traces of impatience, but were already, step by step, breaking away from the old Guesde. He himself remained an intransigent on the subjects of reformism and anarchism: no longer writing himself, he encouraged our campaign against these allied forms of confusionism, helping us to uphold the only true revolutionary doctrine, Marxism.

Jules Guesde was ill, and was being taken care of in Berlin. The real leader of the Party, then, was Jaurès. As a fighter he was and remains marvellous. For many generations he will be the object of passionate admiration. He would have been this even without the halo of a martyr for world peace.

But what about his political and social theory? We can now say quite objectively that it is not worthy of his great personality, so full, as it was, of vigour, brilliance and generosity. His optimistic outlook and his Pantheistic philosophy led him to an unquenchable faith (une véritable foi de charbonnier) in democratic reformism. He has made himself the true apostle of reformism, and as he possessed in the highest degree a synthetic philosophical mind, he sought to construct a harmonious and logical system out of his reformism, in accord besides with his idealist conceptions.

At Toulouse he was concerned to demonstrate the value of reforms to Socialism, always a favourite theme with him. Reforms, he laid down, are not merely palliatives, but preparations for a new regime. Organic reforms, piled one upon another, threaten the capitalist system more and more, destroy its fortresses, stone by stone, and finally lead to the ultimate goal, which, to do him justice, he maintained steadfastly even in opposition to his friend, Edward Bernstein, the leader of revisionism.

When I spoke on behalf of the Marxist minority and criticised the two confusionist trends, which resemble one another and stick together like two brothers – the Reformists and the Anarcho-syndicalists, the present Senator, Andre Morizet, who was reporting the Congress for Jaurès’ Humanité, crossed his arms ostentatiously, and did not take a single note of my speech, which lasted more than an hour. As my intervention had, on this occasion, been very much approved of by the Congress, which vigorously applauded me, Jaurès, Renaudel, and Bracke came to me to beg me to make a report of the speech which the Editor of Direct Action (which in my case became complete inaction) had sabotaged in conformity with the programme of the Jouhaux of that time.

My criticism of reformism was quite simple. No revolutionary gives up the struggle for immediate reforms, and for as many reforms as possible. But the reformists substitute their hypothetical reforms for the certainty of revolution. Reforms, whatever their number, never lead to a transformation of the system. For as soon as a reform threatens the basis of the system, the ruling class put forward such resistance to it, that a revolution is unavoidable.

Also, there are reforms and reforms, those which the ruling class bring about in order to save the capitalist system (such as those of Jouhaux, Boncour and their friends one could now add) and those which the proletariat extort through struggle, by the power of organisation and the effectiveness of action. The capitalists, if they are clearsighted, consent to ameliorate the lot of the workers in order to keep them in subjection, whilst the workers, although demanding amelioration of their prison conditions ought above all to strive to force the doors of the capitalist prison. In any case, one has no right, for the sake of one or two palliatives to make the proletariat forget its captivity .

To these general remarks, which are based on incontestable facts, I will add a purely practical observation. Even if we were to admit the goodwill or the clearsightness of the capitalists, capitalist society, involved, as it is, in a maze of armed peace, imperialism and colonialism, has deprived itself of the material possibility of bringing about big reforms, which are very costly. The imperialist war, which ruined Europe, has added weight to this argument. It is as valid then as now.

As to Anarcho-syndicalist confusionism, it has managed to justify all the criticisms of the Marxists. It led the workers into a blind alley, agitating in the void, working against their own aims. In fact, it uses, when it carries out its own method logically, the maximum effort to attain the minimum result, if not negative results.

Jaurès’ reply, in spite of his extraordinary eloquence and obvious sincerity, did not refute a single serious argument against opportunism and reformism. What is still more, at the commission in which I took part, Jaurès agreed to the inclusion of most of my remarks. But as a resolution, strained to unanimity always bears the mark of the reformist, I refused to vote for it, in opposition to my friends, the Guesdists, who could not resist the charms of Jaurès. Jaurès bitterly reproached me. I salute you, Marquet, now Mayor of Bordeaux, and future minister in the Blum-Boncour Cabinet. Twenty years later you also have refused to vote for a unanimous resolution.[2] But your reasons are the exact opposite of mine. You found a scandalously reformist resolution not sufficiently reformist. They are particular in Bordeaux. Is it that they put, perchance, too much water in the wine. Monsieur le Maire, think of your good town’s reputation for its wine. ...

It would, however, be unjust to Jaurès to put him on a level with the petty reformists of the present time. Jaurès lived in the epoch of capitalist prosperity. He was surrounded by great democrats, such as Pelletan, Ranc, Combes and the Clemenceau of that time. He still believed in the possibility of avoiding the folly of war. He exercised a real influence on the democratic governments of his time. He had the ardour of faith and unusual talents.

Is that the position of our present reformists? Assuredly not. War has ruined and unhinged the capitalist world. The great democrats are dead. The radicals of to-day give their mercenary souls to Poincaré in exchange for the assurance of re-election. War, the last and most terrible, is at our doors. The bourgeoisie have become, or are becoming Fascist, that is to say, anti-democratic.

What was understandable, and perhaps excusable in Jaurès before the war, is absolutely inconceivable in Blum after the war. One must attain the keenness for office of a Boncour, or the ignorance of a Renaudel in order to nourish reformist and democratic illusions and to combat the virile and active revolutionary forces.

And as for the Marxists, Paul Faure and Compère-Morel who understanding the position, and cherishing no love for Blum, allow themselves to be blindfolded because of their hatred of organised Communism – so much the worse for them.

History will ridicule this show of unanimity, which deceives no one, not even the authors of this hotch-potch, which is distinguished from the other kind by its disagreeable taste. Fortunately, the workers know a more wholesome fare.

1. The French Social Democratic Party.

2. A reference to an incident in this year’s Toulouse Congress of the French Social Democratic Party (S.F.I.O.), May 29, 1928.