Max Shachtman


Genesis of Trotskyism


The Dangers of Thermidor and Bonapartism

The Great French Revolution of the eighteenth century is rich with instructive lessons for the working class today. Only a priest will declare that there is any absolute guarantee against the fall of the Russian revolution. The revolutionist will stand on guard against it; his vigilance will be keener if he understands the nature of the dangers that threaten and what measures must be taken to ward them off.

The French revolution experienced two periods of defeat: Thermidorian reaction and the Bonapartist dictatorship. On the Ninth of Thermidor (July 27, 1794) 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 21 Jacobin intransigeants to death the next day bit no longer into the reaction. In its turn, the Thermidorian epoch was climaxed a few years later with the ascension to power of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Thermidorian reaction was made possible by a degeneration and corruption of the revolutionary party of that time -the Jacobin clubs. It was facilitated by a yearning for “peace and tranquility” of certain sections of the people and above all by the politicians’ wearying of the revolutionary struggle and moving off to the Right; It gained momentum from the pressure of royalists and reactionaries who adapted themselves to the revolutionary customs and speech of the times in order to save their own hides. The weak-kneed and weak-minded among the revolutionists yielded to the social pressure of the reactionary class.

The Thermidorian overthrow was not the open counter revolution. On the contrary, it took place under the old banner and with the old watchwords scarcely altered. The Left-wing Jacobins were denounced by the Thermidorians as “agents of Pitt” (just as Oppositionists in Russia were denounced as “agents of Chamberlain”). They were charged with being merely a “few isolated individuals,” “malevolent aristocrats” who were undermining the united fatherland. The Right-wing Jacobins, who were unwittingly blazing the trail for the starkly counter-revolutionary Bonapartist dictatorship, calumniated the men they executed, imprisoned and banished, as “counter-revolutionists.”

The Bolshevik party today is not the party which took power in October 1917. It has gone through a period of social and political reaction. Its doctrine has been sapped at the foundation, distorted and corroded. It has swollen into a vast, shapeless mass by having hundreds of thousands of indiscriminately commanded workers and peasants poured into its ranks until it has 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 violently tom from it by the Thermidorian expulsions of the Left Opposition.

The systematic crushing of the leading party of the proletariat, without which the dictatorship cannot be exercised in a revolutionary sense, not only accentuates the danger of Thermidor in the Soviet Union but, at a given point, also the threat of Bonapartism. On the road of degeneration which leads to the counter-revolutionary triumph, Thermidor and Bonapartism do not present stages differing in their class foundation. In the Great French revolution, Bonapartism swiftly succeeded the Ninth of Thermidor and the Directory. But this succession is as little ordained and inevitable as is the certainty of counter-revolution altogether; a fusion of the two stages, a modification of one or the other under the conditions of a new social epoch – these and many other possibilities are quite conceivable. The Right wing in the Russian party had its strength essentially in the classes and not in the ranks, more specifically, not in the apparatus of the party. The Right wing was so easily crushed on a party scale because it was not prepared to make an open appeal for support to the class interests it represented: the Kulak, and the Nepman dependent upon him. The victory by the Stalinist center over the Right wing triumvirate halted, for the time being, the advance of the Thermidorian forces, of those dark and backward agrarian interests which had been whipped up and nurtured in the reactionary years of struggle against the Left Opposition. Only, this victory did not result in eliminating the other, and more acute, phases of the counter-revolutionary danger.

While both the Right and the Left wings of the party in the Soviet Union represent well-defined class forces and interests, the same cannot be said of the Centrist apparatus. Classic petty-bourgeois force, the graph of its policy reveals a broken line of leaps to the Left and to the Right which become shorter and more frequent with the aggravation of the crisis. It leans now upon the proletarian core of the country, as during the campaign against the Right wing, now upon the reactionary forces, as during the fight against the Left. It cannot find for itself a firm class foundation from which to operate; the closest it came to such a base was during the period of the idealization by the Stalin faction of the “middle peasant,” a shifty social stratum which, far from serving as a solid class foundation, required one itself.

The Stalin faction, however, has its strength in the party bureaucracy: it is the party bureaucracy. In the process of watering down the party until it is a bloated, shapeless mass, the apparatus has, at the same time, raised itself above the party to an unapproachable level and constituted itself a bureaucratic caste. The diffused party mass is unable to reach this caste in order to change it, or to have it reflect the interests of the mass itself. The apparatus, on the other hand, after having strangled the party, must stifle all life within itself. We say “must” because it cannot refer any disputes in its ranks to the party mass below for fear of unleashing a force that is inherently inimical to it. The whole bureaucratic system, consequently, moves inexorably toward a condition in which a decreasing number of individuals decide and speak for all; the number of these individuals today, to all practical purposes, is one, and his name is Stalin.

Devoid of a class basis, the apparatus is permeated principally with the desire for self-preservation and self perpetuation. Its policies, in all their zigzags, are subordinated essentially to this aim. The sickening Byzantine flattery of Stalin which is compulsory for every official, the conversion of the army and particularly of the GPU into an instrument with which the Secretariat operates ever more exclusively – combined with the suppression of workers’ democracy in general, and party democracy in particular, that is, of the principal guarantees against, a degeneration of the proletarian dictatorship – these are the signs of the present period in the Soviet Union. They disclose “the preconditions of the Bonapartist regime in the country.”

Tacking desperately between the various classes and social strata, the apparatus satisfies none of them. In this fact lies the danger that the mounting discontent of all sections of the population, and above all of the peasantry, will explode the very foundations of the Soviet power, that is, of the proletarian dictatorship. If the crisis breaks out into the open and reveals that the proletariat and its party have been so weakened that they cannot act decisively and victoriously, then the counter-revolution will probably assume the form of Bonapartism, of the iron man or men “standing above the classes” and apparently mediating between the contending forces, resting for the time being upon the strength of the military forces and the experienced cohesion of the bureaucratic apparatus. It is this prospect which reveals the Stalinist faction as the potential reservoir of the Bonapartist danger.

Superficial examination alone permits one to exclude this possibility, as well as the possibility of a Thermidorian overturn, on the ground of the so-called “liquidation of the Kulak.” If this were actually the case, the danger would undoubtedly be considered diminished, although even then, not eliminated. But a more careful scrutiny will reveal that the “liquidated Kulak” is still a substantial force, more threatening in this respect, that his present activities and progress are not only concealed behind the administratively established collective farms but are facilitated by the rupture of the relations between town and country, worker and peasant, rendered inevitable by the whole course of the Stalin bureaucracy.

“The French farmers,” wrote Marx in his classic study of Bonapartism, “are unable to assert their class interests in their own name, be it by a parliament or by convention. They cannot represent one another, they must themselves be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power, that protects them from above, bestows rain and sunshine upon them. Accordingly, the political influence of the allotment farmer finds its ultimate expression in an executive power that subjugates the commonweal to its own autocratic will.”

Such an executive power is present in the bureaucratic apparatus of the party and the Soviets. For it to be fully fledged as a Bonapartist ruling machine, it must first receive baptism in the blood shed by a civil war, that inevitable concomitant to the overthrow of the proletarian dictatorship which the reaction cannot hope to avert. The overthrow itself, however, can be averted, but only by restoring the party of the proletariat, the crushing of which has made possible the accumulation of all the internal contradictions and the maturing of the counter revolutionary factors. It is to achieve this restoration, to bring closer the day of its attainment, that the strength and activities of the Left Opposition are dedicated.


Last updated on 9.4.2005