Leon Trotsky

Our Political Tasks


’The Jacobin indissolubly linked to the organisation of the proletariat now conscious of its class interests, is precisely the social democratic revolutionary.’ (One Step Forward, Two Steps Back)

This formula sanctions all the political and theoretical conquests of the Leninist wing of our Party. In this apparently insignificant formula is hidden the theoretical root of the differences on the unfortunate Paragraph I of the statutes, and on all questions of tactics. We must dwell on it.

When Lenin in his definition speaks deliberately and seriously (and not for effect) of ‘the organisation of the proletariat now conscious of its class interests’ there is nothing heretical in this; it is simply a pleonasm. It goes without saying that one who is linked to the proletariat which has become conscious of its class interests is a social democrat. But then in Lenin’s definition one can put, instead of Jacobin: liberal, populist, Tolstoyan or anything you want. For once the Jacobin, Tolstoyan or whatever link their fate to the ‘organisation of the proletariat now conscious of its class interests,’ they cease to be Jacobins, Tolstoyans, Mennonites etc., and become revolutionary Social Democrats. But if Lenin intended something more profound by his definition than that a Social Democrat is a Social Democrat, then it must be taken as follows: without ceasing to be a Jacobin in the general methodology of his political thinking and by his organisational conceptions in particular, the Jacobin becomes a revolutionary Social Democrat once he ‘links’ himself to the revolutionary proletariat.

In the struggle between the revolutionary and opportunistic wings of international socialism, they analogy of the struggle between the Montagne and the Gironde has often been used. But, of course, this was not to establish an equation between Jacobinism and revolutionary socialism. Anyone who think not in terms of external words and analogies, but in living concepts, will of course understand that Social Democracy is at least as far removed from Jacobinism as from reformism. Robespierre is at least as far removed from Bebel as Jaures. In what sense can we be Jacobins? By conviction, by doctrine, by our methods of political struggle or internal politics? In our phrases? Jacobinism is not a supra-social ‘revolutionary’ category, but an historical product. It is the apogee of the tension of revolutionary energy in the period of self-emancipation of bourgeois society. It is the high point of radicalism that could be produced by bourgeois society, not through developing its own contradictions but by they stifled appeal to the rights of the abstract man and citizen; in practice, the guillotine. History had to halt for the Jacobins to keep power, for every forward movement opposed to each other the various elements supporting them and thus undermined the revolutionary will at the head of which stood the Montagne. The Jacobins did not and could not believe that their ‘Truth’ would gain ground increasingly as time went on. Facts showed that everywhere, from all the crevices of society, came the intriguers, hypocrites, aristocrats, and ‘moderates.’ Those who yesterday were true patriots and real Jacobins today appeared hesitant. To preserve the high point of revolutionary elan by instituting the ‘state of siege’ and drawing the dividing lines with the guillotine was the tactic dictated to the Jacobins by their instinct for political preservation. The Jacobins were utopians. They set themselves the task of ‘founding a republic based on reason and equality.’ They wanted an egalitarian republic based on reason and equality.’ They wanted an egalitarian republic based on private property; a republic of reason and virtue in the framework of the exploitation of one class by another. They straddled a gigantic contradiction and called the blade of the guillotine to their aid.

The Jacobins were pure idealists they were ‘the first’ to recognise the ‘principles of universal morality.’ They believed in the absolute strength of the Idea, of Truth. ‘I know only two parties,’ Maximilien Robespierre said in one of his last great speeches, on the 8th Thermidor, ‘that of good citizens and that of bad.’ Along with absolute faith in the metaphysical idea went total distrust towards real men. ‘Suspicion’ was the inevitable method for serving Truth.

History would have had to stop for the Jacobins to be able to keep their position longer; but it did not stop. All that was left was to fight mercilessly against the movement of nature to the point of total exhaustion. Any pause, any concession, spelt death. This sense of irreparable historical tragedy filled the speech Robespierre gave on 8th Thermidor to the Convention and took up again at the Jacobin club: ‘On our present course, to stop before the end is to perish, and we are shamefully late ... Let go the reins of the revolution for one moment and you will see them seized by military despotism and national representation of the people overthrown by factional leaders; a century of civil war and calamity will desolate our party, and we shall perish for not having seized a moment marked out in the history of men for the founding of liberty; we give our people over to a century of calamities, and the curses people will bring down in our memory, which should have been dear to the human race!’

How different is this career from that of Social Democracy, the most optimistic of parties! The future guarantees it the growth of supporters of its truth, for this ‘truth’ is not a sudden revelation but just the theoretical expression of the growing class struggle of the proletariat. Revolutionary Social Democracy is persuaded, not just by the inevitable growth of the political party of the proletariat but also of the inevitable victory of the ideas of revolutionary socialism within the Party. The first certainty is based on the fact that the development of bourgeois society leads the proletariat spontaneously to take shape politically; the second on the fact that the objective tendencies of this process become clearest in revolutionary, that is Marxist, socialism. We can define the formal frontiers of the Party as wider or narrower, ‘softer’ or ‘harder,’ depending on a whole series of objective causes, considerations of tact and political reasons. But whatever its dimensions, it is clear that our Party will always form a series of concentric circles, from the centre outwards, increasing in number but decreasing in level of consciousness. The most conscious and therefore the most revolutionary elements will always be a ‘minority’ in our Party. And this can only be explained by our faith in the fate of the working class as being social revolution, and revolutionary ideas as being those corresponding best to the historical movement of the proletariat. We believe that the practice of the class will, thanks to Marxism, raise the level of the less conscious elements. This is what separates us from the Jacobins. Our attitude towards the elemental social forces, and therefore towards the future, is one of revolutionary confidence. For the Jacobins, these forces were rightly suspect because they also engendered the formation of the proletariat into a class.

Two worlds, two doctrines, two tactics, and two outlooks, separated by an abyss: in what sense are we Jacobins? It is true that they were intransigent, as are we. Among the Jacobins the dreadful accusation was moderation. We have the accusation of opportunism. But our ‘intransigence’ is qualitatively different. We separate ourselves from opportunism with the armoury of he class consciousness of the proletariat; and the opportunists either leave us to join the political camp of the other class or submit to the revolutionary (not opportunist) logic of the class movement of the proletariat. All such ‘purges’ strengthen us and often swell our ranks. The Jacobins inserted between themselves and moderation only the blade of the guillotine. The logic of the class movement was going against them, and they tried to behead it. It was folly; this was a many-headed hydra, and the heads devoted to the ideals of virtue and truth became increasingly rare. The Jacobins’ ‘purges’ weakened them. The guillotine was only the mechanical instrument of their political suicide but this suicide was only the fatal way out of a hopeless historical situation.

Two worlds, separated by an abyss ... There is no doubt that the whole of the international movement of the proletariat would have been accused of moderation before the revolutionary tribunal and Marx’s lion like head would have been the first to fall under the guillotine. Nor is there any doubt that to introduce the methods of the Jacobins into the class movement of the proletariat is and always will be the sign of the purest opportunism, sacrificing the historical interests of the proletariat for the fiction of a temporary benefit. In relation to the class struggle, which draws up its strength only as it develops, the guillotine seems as absurd as the consumers’ co-operative and Jacobinism as opportunistic as Bernsteinism.

Of course, if one tries to transpose the methods and tactics of Jacobinism into the field of class struggle of the proletariat, one ends up only with a pitiful caricature of Jacobinism, but not with Social Democracy. Social Democracy is not Jacobinism, much less a caricature of it. It is to be hoped that the ‘Jacobin, linked to the organisation of the proletariat, now conscious of its class interests,’ will in the end detach himself from it. But in so far as he keeps his Jacobin mentality of distrust and suspicion towards the unorganised forces and the future, he will show total inability to evaluate the development of the Party. ‘I know only two parties, that of the good citizens and that of the bad.’ The good citizens are those who today show favour to my ‘plan’ whether their political consciousness is advanced or not doesn’t matter.

’I know only two parties, that of the good citizens and that of the bad.’ This political aphorism is engraved on the heard of Maximilien Lenin and, in a gross way, sums up the political wisdom of the former Iskra. The practice of mistrust certainly was the basic trait of the Iskra team: the milieu in which they worked was that of the intelligentsia which showed its anti-proletarian nature in various ways. The old Iskra took it as its task not to enlighten the political consciousness of the intelligentsia, but to theoretically terrorise it. For the social democrats trained in this school, ‘orthodoxy’ is something very close to the absolute Truth of the Jacobins. Orthodox Truth ruled everywhere, even in the matter of co-option. Whoever challenged it was removed; whoever questioned it came under doubt.

Lenin’s speech to the Congress of the League provides the classic expression of his ‘Jacobin’ views in this respect. Lenin knows the absolute organisational Truth; he has a ‘plan’ and is trying to carry it out. The Party would be flourishing if he, Lenin, were not surrounded on all sides by intrigues and traps, as though everything was in league against him and his ‘plan.’ And Lenin reaches the conclusion that to make the work more efficient it is necessary to remove the troublesome elements and make them unable to harm the Party. In other words, it has become necessary, for the good of the Party, to institute a ‘state of siege’; at its head there had to be, as the Romans said, a dictator seditionis sedendae et rei gerundae causa (a dictator to put down sedition and govern affairs). But the regime of ‘terror’ was from the outset and impotent. The dictator seditionis sedendae could not subject the ‘disrupters,’ nor expel them, nor lock them up in the straightjacket of discipline. He was not able to intimidate the ‘backward elements’ who continued to take new positions. And all our Robespierre had left was to repeat his namesake’s pessimistic words.

Lenin and his supporters will not understand the reasons for their failure as long as they refuse to realise that you cannot outlaw the path of development of either society as a whole or the Party. The political rationalists and metaphysicians think it is enough to ‘think,’ as a substitution for the development of the Party and arm oneself with the emblems of official power, in order to move outwards. But when all conditions for success are present, new obstacles and new resistances arise. The period of ‘intrigues’ begins. Some do not understand what is happening and ask why. Others argue there is a better way. Still others take account of this and look for tactics which will enable the Party to go forward. The political metaphysician is incapable of making any distinction between them. He sees only a ‘single reactionary mass’ opposing the advance he imagines he is achieving in the Party. The rationalist logic of his thought removes our ‘Jacobin’ further and further from the historical logic of the development of our Party, and finally concludes that the whole Party is intriguing against him. The totality of individuals, with their different levels of development and conceptions and temperaments, in short, the material body of the Party itself turns out to be a brake on development rationally planned out beforehand. This is the secret of Lenin’s failures and the cause of his petty distrust. The distrust is only the heritage of the tactics of the former Iskra. But these methods and practices, which had their justification at a certain historical period, must today be wiped out of all costs, before they threaten our Party with total political, moral and theoretical decomposition.

It is no accident, but a characteristic position, that the head of the reactionary wing of our Party, Comrade Lenin, believed himself psychologically obliged, by keeping up the tactics of a caricature of Jacobinism, to define Social Democracy in a way which is a theoretical attack against the class character of our Party. Yes, a theoretical attack, no less dangerous than the ‘critical’ ideas of some Bernstein. For what was the theoretical operation Bernstein carried out in relation to liberalism and socialism? Mainly he tried to wipe out their marked class character and turn them into systems of political thought located above classes and related to one another by internal logic. It is the operation Jaures and his faithful friend Millerand are carrying out in relation to the principles of democracy and of socialism. It is no good pointing out that along with this ‘high-level’ theoretical speculation there are speculations of a quite practical nature involving ministerial portfolios; or more broadly, that to deduce socialism logically from liberal and democratic principles means, in practice, turning the proletariat into a political appendage of bourgeois democracy. The same operation too is being carried out by the ex-Marxist idealist ‘critics.’ They send socialism to the school of liberalism but with this difference, that they first make it go through the purgatory of idealist philosophy.

The political tendency of bourgeois democracy (which consists of subjecting the proletariat to its tutelage) requires that in the ideological sphere liberalism and socialism appear, not as principles of two irreconcilable worlds – capitalism and collectivism, bourgeois and proletariat – but as two abstract systems of which one (liberalism) incorporates the other (socialism) as the whole includes the part, or more correctly, as the algebraic formula has its own arithmetical sign. There is no doubt that Bernstein, Juares and Millerand, and tomorrow, in free Russia, Messrs. Berdeyaev, Bulgakov and perhaps even Struve, will agree on the following definition: ‘The Social Democrat is a liberal (or democrat) linked to the organisation of the proletariat, now conscious of its class interests.’

What will Comrade Lenin say? He will say that it is logically absurd and politically shows the tendency to try and pin an alien ideology, tactics and even a political outlook onto the proletariat. But what is Comrade Lenin doing himself? He is carrying out an operation similar to them: with the difference that in line with his revolutionary position he chooses not liberalism but its extreme revolutionary offshoot, flesh of its flesh and blood of its blood, Jacobinism. But then Comrade Lenin must adopt the other formula, that of Osvobozhdenie, but replacing liberalism with its left-wing variety, Jacobinism. It will then read: ‘In no way can Jacobinism and Social Democracy be separated from each other, much less opposed to each other; their basic ideal makes them identical and inseparable.’ So the balance can be drawn: Jacobinism is a particular variety of liberalism; Social Democracy is a particular variant of Jacobinism. If Comrade Lenin does not want to take ‘two steps back’ from the only principled slogan he has issued – a shameless (if not blameless) principle, he will be forced to take ‘one step forward’ along the lines of his own definition, accept all the conclusions flowing from it, and send the Party comrades his new visiting card.

Either ... or!

Either, you end up making your theoretical ‘bridge’ between bourgeois-revolutionary democracy (Jacobinism) and proletarian democracy, like the liberals who, having abandoned Marxism, raise a ‘bridge’ between bourgeois liberalism and proletarian socialism, or you give up the practice which leads you into such a theoretical attack. Either Jacobinism, or proletarian socialism!

Either you abandon the only really principled position you have taken in the fight against the ‘minority’ or you abandon the field of Marxism which you have apparently been defending against them. Either/or, Comrade Lenin!

Only a Jacobin can become a leader of the revolutionary bourgeois democracy. Marxism may appear to be an ideological cover for the revolutionary intelligentsia to carry out its limited, bourgeois revolutionary role. Comrade Axelrod, Lenin asserts, ‘has found nothing at all to demonstrate the existence of given tendencies (bourgeois revolutionary or Jacobin tendencies – T.) among representatives of the Orthodox wing of the Party, which he detests (sic).’ (One Step Forward ...) Axelrod has ‘proven nothing’ neither to the Economists, whom he was the first to attack, nor to our Jacobin administrators when he described them politically in his historic resolution to the Congress of the League. Axelrod has ‘found nothing.’ He has not drawn clever diagrams or repeated banal statistics, which is why he has ‘proved nothing.’ He did something different: he defined a tendency which has emerged in the Party. For the first kind of work you need an able statistician or lawyer. For the second, you have to be a Marxist and a perceptive politician. As for documentary proof, others will see to this. There are plenty in the Party practice of our Jacobins, in the resolutions of our committees, especially the famous Urals Manifesto. And all these attacks against Marxism have acquired a special importance since Lenin, himself, ‘centralised’ them in his pamphlet crowned by the immortal ‘formula’ of the Jacobin-Social Democrat!

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Last updated on: 29.8.2006