L. Trotzky

The United Front

Communism and the Peasantry in France

(2 June 1922)

Source: International Press Correspondence, Vol. 2 No. 44, 2 June 1922, pp. 330–331.
An alternative translation can be found in The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 2.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2019. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

Our differences with the French comrades on the question of the united front are by no means at an end. On the contrary, if one judges from some of the articles in the French party press, one gathers the impression that the cause of the differences and misunderstandings, at least in some party circles, lies deeper than appeared at the beginning. I recollect the article of Comrade Renaud Jean which appeared as the leading article in l’Humanité of April 6th, 1922.

Comrade Renaud Jean, one of the most distinguished leaders of the party, who spoke on the agrarian problem at the Congress of Marseille, opposes with an energy and with a sincerity which we can only admire those views which we defend, but which to him appear to be incorrect. In the headlines of his article, he characterizes the tactics of the united front as a danger and an inaptitude (danger et maladresse). In the text of the article he even speaks of a catastrophe as the unavoidable result of these tactics in France, “Our country has been corroded for three-quarters of a century by the universal right to vote. Class differentiation has only been recognized by a very limited minority ... Republican bourgeois France is the Holy Land of confusion.” From these entirely correct facts Comrade Jean comes to the conclusion, which we accept entirely, “The Communist Party must be more uncompromising here than anywhere else.” From the standpoint of this uncompromising attitude, Comrade Jean attacks the united front which appears to him, as formerly, a combination Bloc of various parties. We could have said, and we do say, that such an estimation of the most important tactical problem shows that Comrade Jean himself is not free from the purely parliamentary traditions of French Socialism; there where it is a question of capturing the broad masses, of making a breach in the bourgeois social-reformist blockade by the vanguard of the working class, Comrade Jean only sees, obstinately sees, a “sly” combination which at best can only result in increasing the number of seats in Parliament (!!) at the cost of increasing confusion and vagueness in the political consciousness of the proletariat. And it is just France (and in this he is perfectly right) that needs more than any other country clearness, distinctness and decision in the political thought and work of the party. If however, Comrade Jean is of the opinion that French Communism should be the most uncompromising, why does he not take the trouble to find out, before fighting against the united front, that French Communism is at present the most compromising, the most tolerant, the most indulgent towards all deviations from the path?

To the clear and distinctly formulated criticism of Comrade Jean, we reply just as clearly and distinctly. In no other Communist Party would such articles be possible, containing declarations and speeches against revolutionary force in the sense of petty bourgeois and sentimental humanism, which are often met with in the French party press. If Renaud Jean speaks justifiedly of the sickness of bourgeois-democratic ideology, the most severe consequence of this sickness for the working class is the blunting of the instinct and desire to take the offensive, the dissolution of the active tendencies of the proletariat into a formless democratic perspective. “The humanitarian mixture of the ‘Ligue des Droits de l’Homme’, which in a serious hour, as is well known, crawled before French militarism, the preaching of the moralizing, Tolstoian political vegetarians, etc., etc., these all in the last analysis render excellent services to the Third Republic, by supplementing, although externally they greatly differ from it. This shapeless pacifist agitation, masked by Socialist phraseology, is of excellent service to the bourgeois government. This assertion will perhaps be considered as a paradox by sincere pacifists, but such is the fact.

The pacifist airs of George Pioch will confuse and seduce neither Poincaré nor Barthou. In the consciousness of a certain section of the workers however, such sermons find favorable acceptance. The hatred against the bourgeois regime and against military power finds in the humanitarian formula a sincere but futile expression and dies away without leading to action. Therein consists the social function of pacifism. This is particularly shown in America where Bryan gained an enormous influence over the farmers owing to his pacifist slogans. The Socialists of the type of Hillquit and other blockheads, who imagined that they were extraordinarily sly, are being completely enmeshed in the net of bourgeois pacifism and thus facilitated the entrance of America into the war. It is the task of the Communist Party to arouse in the working class the readiness to apply force. For this it is necessary to teach them to discriminate between reactionary force having for its purpose the hindrance of historical development going beyond the stage already reached, and revolutionary force which has the creative function of freeing the historical path of development from the hindrances accumulated by the past. He who does not desire to discriminate between these two kinds of forces will not discriminate between the classes, i.e., he ignores living history. He who declaims against any militarism without exception, against any kind of force, inevitably supports the power of the ruling class, as the latter is an existing fact, sanctioned by state laws and accepted by custom.

In order to overthrow it another force is necessary which primarily needs to be recognised in principle by the working class.

The last conference of the Enlarged Executive of the Communist International pointed to a series of occurrences in the internal life of the French party which all go to prove that if is in no way the most uncompromising. But it must be the most uncompromising; this is necessary in view of the whole political situation. In one thing we are in agreement with Comrade Renaud Jean; the application of the methods of the united front requires perfect clearness and distinctness of the political consciousness of the party, good organisation and perfect discipline.

Further on Comrade Jean refers to the fact that m the list of demands set up as the program of the united front (fight against the taxation of wages, defense of the eight-hour day, etc.) there is not a single demand which immediately interests “the peasants who comprise at least half the working population of France”. What does the eight-hour day mean to them? What does the taxation of wages mean to them?

This argument of Comrade Jean seems to us to be very dangerous.

The question of the small peasantry is undoubtedly of enormous importance for the French revolution. Our French Party has taken a great step forward in adopting an agrarian program in which the capturing of the masses of the peasants is placed among its daily tasks. It would however be dangerous and directly suicidal to dissolve the French proletariat into “working masses” or into “workers” as one dissolves the half in the whole. We have at present not only organically but also politically only the minority of the French working class. The revolution will only be possible after our having politically captured the majority. Only the majority of the French working class united under the banner of revolution can enthuse and carry with it the French small peasants. The question of the united front of the workers of France is a fundamental question: without the solution of this question, propaganda among the peasantry, however successful, will not accelerate the revolution. Propaganda among the peasants and a good agrarian program are very important factors for success. But the peasant is realistic and sceptical; he does not believe mere words. Especially in France, where he has been betrayed, he does not believe them. The French peasant in the villages as well as in the barracks will not enter a serious contest for the sake of problematical slogans. He will only take serious risks in the event of his seeing the conditions which guarantee success or make it at least very probable. He must see. before him a power which inspires confidence by its mass character and by its discipline. The working class split up industrially and politically cannot be such a power for the peasantry. The capturing of a certain, if possible, important portion of the peasantry for the working class is a prerequisite for a victorious revolution in France. The unification of the overwhelming majority of the French working class under the banner of revolution is a prerequisite for such a capture. This unification of the overwhelming majority of the working class is the fundamental task. We must win the workers who today still follow Jouhaux and Longuet. Do not say they are only a few. Of course the number of the self-sacrificing active adherents of Longuet, Blums and Jouhaux, that is, those who would be prepared to sacrifice their lives for their program, is small. But there are still many passive, uneducated, inert, mentally and physically torpid workers. They are standing to one side. But should however events awake them they will in their present circumstance gather rather under the banner of Jouhaux and Longuet than under our own. Jouhaux and Longuet express and exploit the dullness, the ignorance and the backwardness of the working class.

If Comrade Jean, the director of the party’s work among the peasants, is dividing his attention in incorrect proportions between the proletariat and the peasantry it is deplorable but understandable and not very dangerous, as the party as a whole will correct him. Should however the party adopt the point of view of Comrade Jean and consider the proletariat as merely the “half” of the workers, this would involve the danger of annihilation as this would dissolve the revolutionary class character of the party into an amorphous party of “workers”. We can see the danger more distinctly if we follow the further mental processes of Comrade Jean. He directly rejects such tasks as do not comprise the totality of the working masses. As he expresses it, “the demands which are common to the two great halves of the proletariat (!) are not contained”. Here by the word “proletariat” we are supposed to understand not only the proletariat, but also the peasantry. It is the most dangerous misuse of terminology, which has this political consequence: Comrade Jean demands that the demands of the proletariat (the maintenance of the eight-hour day, the fight against the taxation of wages, etc.) be put under the control or the peasants.

The peasant is a small bourgeois, who is more or less capable of approaching the proletariat, and who under certain conditions can be captured by the proletariat for the revolution. To identify the agrarian petty bourgeois, however, with the proletariat and to reduce the demands of the proletariat to the point of view of the peasantry means the renunciation of the actual class basis of the party and the sowing of this confusion for which there is such a favourable soil in peasant-parliamentary France.

If, as we have heard, the eight-hour day cannot be the slogan for the united front in France, as this demand does not interest the peasantry, then from Jean’s point of view, the struggle against militarism is the real revolutionary program for France. There is not the least doubt that the French small peasant, betrayed by the war, hates militarism and willingly listens to anti-militarist speeches. Of course we have to expose capitalist militarism pitilessly in the towns and in the country. The lessons of the war must be made full use of, but it would be very dangerous for the party to allow itself to be deceived as to how far, and to what a degree, the peasants’ anti-militarism can become of independent revolutionary importance. The peasant will not give his son to the barracks; the peasant does not wish to pay taxes for the maintenance of the army. He sincerely applauds the speaker who opposes militarism (and even “militarism of all kinds”). The peasant’s opposition to the army however has not a revolutionary, but a boycottist pacifist foundation. Fichez moi la paix (leave me in peace), that his his programme! This mood can create a favorable atmosphere for the revolution, but it cannot create a revolution itself and secure its success.

Sentimental pacifism in the spirit of Pioch is the expression of the peasant and not of the proletariat attitude towards the state and militarism. The organized and conscious proletariat, face to face with the state armed to the teeth, asks itself the question, “How should it organize and arm itself for the overthrow and annihilation of bourgeois power by its proletarian dictatorship?” The isolated peasant does not go so far. He is simply against militarism, he hates it, he is ready to turn his back upon it; fichez moi la paix, leave me in peace with all your sorts of militarism! Such is the psychology of the dissatisfied oppositional peasants, the intellectuals, and the petty bourgeoisie of the towns. It would be absurd not to make use of these tendencies in our eventual petty bourgeois and semi-proletarian allies; but it would be criminal to transfer these tendencies to the proletariat and to our own party.

The social patriots have spoiled their chances of approaching the peasantry thanks to their patriotism. We must profit by this advantage in every way. But this does not confer on us the right to place the proletarian class demands into the background even if these would result in bringing about a temporary misunderstanding with our friends the peasants. The small peasantry have to follow the proletariat as it is. The proletariat cannot adapt itself to the peasantry. Should the Communist Party in avoiding the vital demands of the proletariat follow the line of least resistance and place in the foreground pacifist anti-militarism, it would be running the risk of betraying the peasants, the workers and itself.

In France as everywhere else we need before all a united front of the proletariat itself. The French peasantry will not become proletarianized by the misuse of sociological terminology by Comrade Jean; but the need for such a misuse is a dangerous symptom of such a policy which can only result in the greatest contusion. French Communism more than any other needs clearness, distinctness and an uncompromising attitude. In this we are quite in agreement with our French opponents.

return return return return return

Last updated on: 27 December 2019