Leon Trotsky

The First Five Years of the Communist International

Volume 1

A Letter to a French Syndicalist
about the Communist Party

DEAR FRIEND! You have serious doubts about the Third International in view of its political and party character. You are afraid that the French syndicalist movement will fall in behind a political party. Permit me to express my observations on this matter.

First of all I must say that the French syndicalist movement, for whose independence you are concerned, is already completely in the tow of a political party. Of course neither Jouhaux nor his closest aides – Dumoulin, Merrheim and others – have ever, for a moment, been deputies, nor do they formally belong to any one of the parliamentary parties. But this is merely a simple division of labour. The fact of the matter is that in the sphere of the syndicalist movement Jouhaux conducts the same policy of compromise with the bourgeoisie as French socialism of the Renaudel-Longuet variety does in the parliamentary sphere. If you were to demand that the leadership of today’s Socialist Party provide a programme for the General Confederation of Labour and pick its leading personnel, there is no doubt that the party would approve the present programme of Jouhaux-Dumoulin-Merrheim and would leave these gentlemen at their present posts. If you were to send Jouhaux and company to sit in parliament while putting Renaudel and Longuet at the head of the General Confederation of Labour, then through this transposition absolutely nothing would have changed, either in the internal life of France or in the fate of the French working class. You yourself of course will not begin to deny this. But it is just these circumstances which point to the that it is not a question of parliamentarism or anti-parliamentarism nor of formal membership of a party. The old labels have no grounds for rejecting the word “syndicat”. But you agree that the kernel of the question lies not in terminology but content. By the name of Communist Party we understand the unification of the proletarian vanguard in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the communist revolution.

There is often concealed behind the arguments directed against politics and the party the anarchist misunderstanding of the role of the state in the class struggle. Proudhon said that the workshop (l’atelier) would force the state to disappear. This is true only in the sense that the society of the future will be one enormous workshop free from the control of the state, because the state signifies a mandatory organization of class rule, while under communism there will be no classes. But the whole question is: along which road will we reach the communist society? Proudhon thought that the workshop would gradually by means of association supplant capitalism and the state. This proved to be the purest Utopia. The mighty factory ousted the workshop, while over it arose the monopoly trust. The French syndicalists thought, and some of them do still, that the trade unions as such would destroy capitalist property and smash the bourgeois state. But this is untrue. The trade unions are a powerful apparatus for the General Strike because the ways and methods of the General Strike coincide with the ways and methods of trade union organization. But for the strike to become truly general an “initiating minority” is essential which from day to day and from hour to hour will carry out revolutionary educational work among the masses.

It is clear that this minority must be grouped not by shop or industry but on the basis of a definite programme of proletarian revolutionary action. And this too is, as we have said, the Communist Party.

But the General Strike which can be best of all carried out through the apparatus of the trade unions is inadequate for the overthrow of the rule of the bourgeoisie. The General Strike is a means of defence and not of attack. [1*]

For we have to topple the bourgeoisie and tear the state apparatus from its hands. The bourgeoisie in the form of its state rests on the army. Only an open insurrection where the proletariat collides face to face with the army, inflicting cruel blows on its counter-revolutionary elements and winning over its better part, only such an open insurrection of the proletariat is capable of making it master of the situation in the country. But for the insurrection energetic and concentrated preparatory work is essential: agitational, organizational and technical. It is necessary, day in and day out, to expose the crimes and the villainy of the bourgeoisie in every area of social life: international politics, colonial atrocities, the domestic despotism of the capitalist oligarchy, the rascality of the bourgeois press; all this must form the material for a really revolutionary exposure, together with all the consequent revolutionary conclusions. These topics are too broad for a trade union organization and its tasks. Besides this, it is necessary to create an organizational fulcrum for the insurrection of the proletariat. There has to be in every local trade union branch, every factory and every workshop a group of workers closely linked by a unity of ideas, capable of winning the mass at the decisive minute by their unanimous action, indicating the correct road to them, safeguarding them from mistakes and guaranteeing victory. They have to penetrate the army. In every regiment there must be a tightly-knit group of revolutionary soldiers ready and able, at the moment of conflict with the people, to go over themselves and call on the whole regiment to go over to the workers’ side. These groups of revolutionary proletarians, ideologically serried and organizationally linked together, can operate with complete success only as cells of a single centralized communist party. If we could manage to have in different government institutions, including the military ones, our true friends who would either openly or secretly be at the heart of everything, of all the schemes and machinations of the ruling cliques, and would keep us opportunely informed on everything then this would of course be of nothing but benefit to us. Moreover We could be only the stronger if we managed to send into the bourgeoisie’s parliament even a handful of workers loyal and dedicated to the cause of the communist revolution, closely linked to the legal and illegal organizations of our party, unconditionally subject to party discipline and playing the part of scouts of the revolutionary proletariat in parliament – one of the political headquarters of the bourgeoisie – and ready at any moment to abandon the tribune of parliament for the barricade.

Of course, dear friend, this is not Renaudel, nor Sembat, nor Varenne. But we do know of Karl Liebknecht. He was also a member of parliament. The capitalist and social-patriotic scum drowned his voice. But the few words of indictment and of appeal that he did manage to hurl over the heads of the German tyrants awoke the consciousness and conscience of hundreds of thousands of German workers. From parliament Karl Liebknecht went out on to the Potsdam Square summoning the proletarian masses to open struggle. From the square he fell into the hard-labour camp and from prison on to the barricades of the revolution. He, the ardent defender of the Soviets and the dictatorship of the proletariat, then considered it necessary to take part in the elections to the German constituent assembly, while at the same time he was organizing soldier-communists. He fell at his revolutionary post. What was Karl Liebknecht? A trade unionist? A parliamentarian? A journalist? No, he was a communist revolutionary who found his path to the masses over every obstacle. He addressed the trade unions and exposed the German Jouhauxs and Merrheims. He directed the work of the party in the forces, preparing the insurrection. He published revolutionary newspapers and appeals, legal and illegal. He penetrated parliament so as to serve the same cause there that, at other hours of the day, he was serving in the underground.

Until such time as the flower of the French proletariat creates for itself a centralized communist party it will not take over the state power, destroy the bourgeois police, the bourgeois military machine or the private ownership of the means of production. And without this ... the workshop will not destroy the state. Whoever cannot understand this after the experience of the Russian Revolution is completely beyond hope. But after the victorious uprising of the proletariat has put the state power in its hands it will in no way be able to liquidate the state once it has given effective power to the trade unions. The trade unions organize the leadership of the workers according to trade and sector of production. Power, though, must be an expression of the interests and needs of the working class as a whole. That is why the organ of the dictatorship of the proletariat is formed not by the trade unions but by the Soviets which are chosen by all the working people, including millions of those workers who have never belonged to the trade unions, and who have been aroused for the first time by the revolution. But creating Soviets is only the beginning. It is necessary for the Soviets to carry out a definite revolutionary policy. It is necessary for them to firmly distinguish their enemies from their friends. It is necessary for them to be capable of decisive, and if the circumstances require, ruthless actions. The bourgeoisie, as is shown by the experience of the Russian Revolution and also the Hungarian and the Bavarian ones, does not by any means lay down its arms after its first defeat. On the contrary as soon as it has become convinced of how much it has lost, its despair doubles and it trebles its energy. The regime of the Soviets signifies the regime of a severe struggle against counter-revolution at home and abroad. But who will give the Soviets, which are elected by workers of differing levels of consciousness, a clear and intelligible programme of action? Who will help them to comprehend the confused international situation and find the correct path? It is self-evident: only the most conscious and most tested advanced proletarians, tightly linked by a unity of programme. And this is the Communist Party.

Some fools (and knaves perhaps) point in alarm to the fact that here in Russia the party “commands” the Soviets and the trade unions. Other syndicalists say: “The French trade unions demand their independence and will not put up with a party commanding them.” But once again I repeat: how is it then, my dear friend, that the French trade unions put up with the fact that Jouhaux – that is, the direct agent of French and American capital – commands them? The formal independence of the French trade unions is not a safeguard from the bourgeoisie commanding them. Such an independence was rejected by the Russian trade unions. They have overthrown the bourgeoisie. They have achieved this because they had driven out of their ranks Messrs Jouhauxs, Merrheims, Dumoulins and had put in true, experienced, steeled fighters, i.e. communists. In this way they assured themselves not only of their independence from the bourgeoisie but their victory over it too.

It is quite true that our party guides the trade unions and the Soviets. Has this always been so? No, the party has won its leading position in a perpetual struggle against the petty-bourgeois Parties, the Mensheviks and the Social-Revolutionaries and against the non-party men, i.e. the backward or unprincipled elements. To be sure the Mensheviks whom we had routed say that we made sure of our majority over them by means of “violence”. But how do the toiling masses who overthrew the power of the Tsar and then the power of the bourgeoisie and the compromisers, in spite of the fact that the apparatus of state violence was in the hands of the latter, now not only tolerate the “violent” power of the Communist Party which leads the Soviet but also join our ranks in greater and greater numbers? This can be explained only by the fact that over recent years the Russian working class has undergone an enormous experience and has had the opportunity of checking in practice the policies of different parties, groups and cliques, of measuring their words with their deeds and thus coming, in the final analysis, to the conclusion that the only party which turned out to be true to it at every moment of the revolution, at times of setback and at times of trumph was, and remains, the Communist Party. It is absolutely natural then, if each election meeting of working men and women, each trade union conference elects communists to the most important posts. It is this which determines the leading role of the Communist Party.

At present the revolutionary syndicalists, or rather communists like Monatte, Rosmer and others constitute a minority within the framework of the trade union organizations. There they find themselves in opposition, criticizing and exposing the machinations of the ruling majority which follows reformist, i.e. purely bourgeois policies. In just such a position the French communists find themselves within the framework of the Socialist Party which follows the ideas of petty-bourgeois reformism.

Surely Monatte and Jouhaux do not share a common trade union policy? No, they are enemies. The one serves the proletariat, the other in a disguised form, pursues a bourgeois tendency. Surely Loriot and Renaudel-Longuet do not have a common policy. No, the one is leading the proletariat towards the revolutionary dictatorship, the other subordinates the toiling masses to national bourgeois democracy.

But what distinguishes Monatte’s policy from Loriot’s? Only that Monatte operates primarily on trade union soil and Loriot, in poli-tical organizations. But this is simply a division of labour. The truly revolutionary syndicalist as also the truly revolutionary socialist must be united in the Communist Party. They must cease being the opposition in alien organizations. It is their duty to stand as an independent organization standing under the banner of the Third International and face to face with the broad masses to give clear and lucid answers to all their queries and to lead them in struggle, directing them along the road of the communist revolution. Trade union, co-operative, and political organizations, the press, illegal circles in the army, the tribune of parliament, the city councils, etc., etc. are all merely different organizational forms, practical methods and different points of support. The struggle will remain a single one no matter what field it extends into. The working class forms the vehicle of this struggle. Its leading vanguard is the Communist Party in which the revolutionary syndicalists must take their rightful place.


August 1920

Trotsky’s Footnotes

1*. It is however necessary to say that history has known of General Strikes carried out with the virtual absence of trade unions (October 1905). On the other hand the attempts of the French trade unions to call a General Strike have up till now always ended in failure precisely because of the absence of a leading revolutionary organization (a communist party) in France which can, day in and day out, prepare systematically for the uprising of the proletariat and which does not simply from time to time attempt to improvise spectacular mass actions.

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Last updated on: 19.1.2007