Max Shachtman

Nine Years of Struggle of the Left Opposition

The Burning Questions of
Bonapartism and Thermidor

(August 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 32 (Whole No. 128), 6 August 1932, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

History is rich in analogy and analogy is rich in instruction. The events of the day have their roots in the events of yesterday and the one can best be understood by understanding the other and making comparisons. And while events do not repeat themselves in the same manner, but under new conditions and with new social forces and people working to produce them, it is nevertheless true that only by knowing how to utilize the method of analogy can the processes of historical development be best understood.

In utilizing this method, one must of course know not only its great scope but also its limits. That it is sometimes abused is an argument only against the abuse of it. If it is rejected out of hand, then history has only the most narrowly academic significance. Every event must then be approached as if it were entirely unique, entirely dissimilar from anything that ever went before it, entirely disconnected from our yesterdays, approached as if we were blind men groping for something without the benefit of the light thrown upon out of the past. Not only does such an approach make today unnecessarily difficult to understand, but it renders impossible an analysis of what tomorrow will bring.

Two Great Revolutions

An analogy, invaluable for an understanding of the powerful forces at work in the Soviet Union, is offered us when the Russian revolution is compared to the great French revolution of the eighteenth century. It is true that we live in a different epoch, that the Russian revolution is proletarian, that it has at its disposal far more vigorous and substantial forces to maintain its victory to the end than did the revolution of 1793–1794. But history, observed Lenin, knows degenerations of all sorts, and there is no mystic, automatic guarantee that the Russian revolution cannot meet with the same tragic defeat that was suffered by the Jacobins in France. To proclaim such a religious doctrine, which is foreign to the objective Marxian spirit, is in reality to drug the revolution into a spirit of false security and to facilitate the operation of the forces inimical to its preservation.

The Ninth of Thermidor (July 27, 1794) was the day on which the revolutionary Jacobins, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Couthon, Lebas – “the Bolsheviks of the French revolution” – were overthrown by a combination of the Right wing Jacobins, the vacillators and the royalist reaction. The guillotine which sent the 21 Jacobin intransigents to their death the next morning amid the insulting cries of the counter-revolutionary mob, thenceforth bit no longer into the reaction. On the contrary, the epoch of the Thermidorian Reaction was opened up, climaxed five and a half years later by the triumphant ascension to power of Bonapartism, the Eighteenth Brumaire of the ex-sansculotte, Napoleon.

The whole Thermidorian epoch is one of such sterility, such degeneration, such shame, that it is generally skipped over by historians, both revolutionary and conservative. Michelet as well as Kropotkin bring their histories of the revolution to an end with the Ninth of Thermidor. Yet this epoch of degradation is replete with illuminating lessons.

Thermidor is not the counter-revolution as it is ordinarily referred to – the naked, open counter-revolution of Napoleon, of Chiang Kai-Shek, of Kornilov. The Thermidorian transference of power to another class was accomplished by Jacobins, in the name of “true” Jacobinism, of the true revolution, presumably to save the revolution from its foes.

It was accomplished to all external appearances virtually under the same old flag, with the old watchwords scarcely altered. No claim was laid by the renegade Jacobins to any fundamental change; they pretended only – and many of them, no doubt, in all sincerity – that they were purging the revolution of a “few isolated individuals”, of a “few aristocrats” who were undermining the united fatherland. In fact, the wretched Jacobins who had moved far away to the Right, ever closer to the Gironde, to the “Marsh”, continued to write on the morning after the execution of Robespierre that “we have exterminated a handful of individuals who disturbed the tranquility of the party; now that they are dead, the revolution will finally triumph”.

In its manifesto to the people of the revolutionary fatherland, issued after the execution of Robespierre, the Convention declared: “Citizens, in the midst of the brilliant victories gained over the foreign foe, a new peril threatens the Republic ... The work of the Convention will remain fruitless, the valor of the army will lose all its meaning, if the citizens hesitate to choose between the fatherland and a few isolated individuals. Hearken to the voice of the fatherland, do not take your place in the ranks of the malevolent aristocrats and the enemies of the people, and you shall once more save the fatherland!”

The “isolated individuals” to whom they referred were those who sought to preserve the real essence of the revolution, who responded the interests of the nethermost social classes against the onslaught of the bourgeoisie, the royalists, the counter-revolution.

“Their enemies,” writes the historian, Aulard, “were not content with having killed Robespierre and his friends; they calumniated them by depicting them to the eyes of France as royalists as people who had sold out to the foreigners.”

The unwitting Thermidorians, the Right wing Jacobins who were blazing the trail for the genuinely counter-revolutionary Bonapartist dictatorship, denounced the men they executed, imprisoned and banished, as “counter-revolutionists”. Could an analogy be more startling? In a report he made on the Convention which condemned the Left wing Jacobins, Brival, one of the Right wingers, said:

“The intriguers, the counter-revolutionists who covered themselves with the toga of patriotism, sought to destroy liberty, the Convention has decided to put them under arrest; these representatives are Robespierre, Couthon, Saint-Just, Lebas, Robespierre the Younger.”

Do not all these one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old words and acts have an astoundingly modern ring? The “counter-revolutionists” the “few individuals”, the “malevolent aristocrats”, the “royalist agents” (in those days they were the “agents of Pitt” just as they are today the “agents of Chamberlain”!) – do these designations require much change to become identical with the slanders directed against the Left Opposition today?

Reasons for Thermidor

The Thermidorian reaction in France was made possible by a degeneration and corruption of the revolutionary party of that time – the Jacobin clubs. It was facilitated by the yearning for “peace and tranquility” of certain sections of the people and above all the politicians, wearied of revolutionary struggle; who were moving away to the Right. It gained impulsion from the pressure of royalists and reactionaries who had adapted themselves to revolutionary customs and speech to just the extent required by the times to save their hides from the wrath of the rising classes. The weak-kneed among the revolutionists yielded to the social pressure of the cunning among the reactionaries. The latter staked their cards upon the Right wing of the Jacobins to destroy the Left wing, and in the period of reaction which followed, all that remained of Jacobinism was destroyed and the Directory gave way to the naked and frank dictatorship of Napoleon.

* * * *

Such a process has been at work in the Soviet Union for many years now. The pedant who seeks an analogy of personalities, who identifies the execution of Robespierre with, let us say, the exiling of Trotsky, who hunts for identical occurrences and individuals in the two revolutions, will not only hunt in vain but will have missed the point entirely. At the head of the Russian revolution stands a proletariat, not a petty bourgeoisie mixed with artisans and a still amorphous working class. In the leadership stands a revolutionary Marxian party, steeped in proletarian revolutionary traditions, not an immature motley of Jacobin clubs. After the French revolution, a counter-revolutionary class took power which was able to rise and even to play a progressive role. The Russian revolution takes place in an epoch of the decay of world capitalism, when the leadership of the proletarian alone is progressive and can bring humanity forward. Factors like these form the limits of the analogy. But they do not eliminate it.

The Bolshevik party today is not the party which took power in October 1917. It has experienced a period of social and political reaction since the revolutionary wave broke on the defeat of the German October in 1923. Its doctrine has been sapped at the foundation, distorted and corroded. It has been swollen into a vast, shapeless mass by having hundreds of thousands of indiscriminately commanded workers and peasants poured into its ranks until it lost that distinctness and independence essential to a revolutionary party. It has been deprived of its principal functions by a usurpatory, bureaucratic apparatus, which raised itself above it and replaced it. Its revolutionary wing has been torn from it violently by the Thermidorian expulsions of the Left Opposition. For the free interplay of forces which can be controlled and checked by a trained party mass, has been substituted the manipulations of the apparatus which is itself manipulated, helplessly at times, by alien social forces pursuing their reactionary class aims through the channels of this apparatus. A Thermidorian corrosion has been eating away the vital organs of the party, and paralyzed it.

(To be continued)

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