Leon Trotsky

The First Five Years of the Communist International

Volume 2

The Communists and
the Peasantry in France

(A Contribution to the Discussion on the United Front)

April 29, 1922

Our differences of opinion with the French comrades on the question of the united front are far from exhausted. On the contrary, if one were to judge by certain articles published in the French party press one would get the impression that the differences and misunderstandings – at least among certain party circles – are rooted much more deeply than might have seemed at first. I have before me the article of Comrade Renaud Jean [1] which appeared as an editorial in l’Humanité (April 6, 1922). Comrade Jean is an outstanding party activist who made the report on the agrarian question at the Marseilles Convention. With a forcefulness and frankness which we can only welcome, he has expressed himself against the views defended by us which seem to him erroneous. In a caption to his article he refers to the tactic of the united front as a dangerous indiscretion. In the text he speaks flatly of a catastrophe which must inescapably result from this tactic in France. “Our country has been debilitated for three-quarters of a century by universal suffrage. Consciousness of class division has permeated only an insignificant minority ... Bourgeois republican France is the promised land of Babel (confusion).” From all these absolutely correct and established facts Comrade Jean draws a conclusion with which we are in complete accord, namely: “The Communist Party must be more irreconcilable in our country than in any other.” And so, from the standpoint of such irreconcilability, Comrade Jean directs his blows against the united front which he continues to regard as nothing else but a combination for inter-party conciliationism. We could say – and we do say – that such an appraisal of a most profound tactical problem is evidence that Comrade Jean has not yet freed himself of the influence of purely parliamentarian traditions of French socialism. There where we see posed the question of conquering broad masses, the question of making a breach in the bourgeois-conciliationist blockade of the proletarian vanguard, Comrade Jean stubbornly refuses to see anything else but a “clever” combination, which can, at best, gain for us a slight increase of seats in parliament (!!), at the price of increasing the disorder and confusion in the political consciousness of the proletariat. And yet France – in this Comrade Jean is absolutely correct – more than any other country stands in need of clarity, precision and resoluteness in political thinking and in party activities. But if Comrade Jean considers that French Communism ought to be the most irreconcilable, then why doesn’t he – before taking up arms against the united front – take the trouble to specify that French Communism happens today to be the least irreconcilable, the most tolerant and the most indulgent to all sorts of deviations?

To the clarity and precision which Comrade Jean employs in formulating his criticism we shall likewise reply as precisely and clearly as possible. No other Communist Party would tolerate the articles, declarations and speeches against revolutionary force, in the spirit of vapid and sentimental humanism, that one meets in the French party press. Renaud Jean is absolutely justified in referring to the “gangrene” of bourgeois-democratic ideology. But, after all, the gravest consequence this has upon the working class is in blunting its revolutionary instinct and its will to offensive action, in dissolving the dynamic tendencies of the proletariat in the fog of hazy democratic perspectives. The humanistic twaddle of “The League of Rights of Man and Citizen” which at every critical hour, as everybody knows, crawls on all fours before French militarism; the moralistic, Tolstoyan gospel of political vegetarians, etc., etc., however sharply it might differ on the surface from the official policy of the Third Republic, renders the latter, in the final analysis, the best possible services, and is a supplement to it. Vague pacifist agitation, veiled by socialist phraseology, is an excellent tool for the bourgeois régime. This might appear paradoxical to a sincere pacifist, but it is the truth.

Neither Poincaré nor Barthou will be confused or seduced by the pacifist tunes of George Pioch. But these psalmodies do find a fertile soil in the minds of a certain section of the toilers. Hostility toward the bourgeois order and toward military violence does find a sincere but sterile outlet in humanitarian formulas and becomes dissipated without ever crystallizing into action. This is exactly the social function of pacifism. This was most crassly disclosed in America where Bryan’s gang [2] gained an enormous influence over the farmers precisely through the slogans of pacifism. Socialists of the Hillquit [3] type and other simpletons, who deem themselves to be super-clever, have fallen completely into the snare of middle-class pacifism and thereby facilitated America’s entry into the war.

The task of the Communist Party is to awaken in the working class the readiness to apply force, and this requires teaching others how to differentiate reactionary force whose function is to detain history upon its already accomplished stages, from revolutionary force whose creative function and mission is to clear the path of history of all obstacles heaped up by the past. He who refuses to differentiate between these two types of force, does not know how to differentiate between classes, i.e., remains oblivious of living history. He who declaims against any and all militarism, any and all forms of violence, will ineluctably end up by supporting the violence of the rulers, because the latter is a fact, ratified and sealed by federal legislation, adopted and sanctified by the moral code,

To overthrow it, a different sort of violence is necessary, which must first of all conquer its legitimacy in the minds of the toilers themselves.

The last session of the ECCI [4] called attention to a number of other manifestations in the internal life of the French party which testify that it is by no means the most irreconcilable party. And yet it must needs be such – this is demanded by the entire political milieu. In one thing we are in accord with Comrade Renaud Jean, namely: the application of the methods of the united front demands complete clarity and precision in the party’s political consciousness, streamlined organization, perfect discipline.

Comrade Jean goes on to cite the fact that in the list of demands advanced as a platform for the united front (the struggle against wage taxes, the defence of the 8-hour day, etc.) he fails to find a single demand that might directly interest a good half of the toilers of France, i.e., the peasants. What meaning has the 8-hour day for them? Or taxes on wages?

This argument of Comrade Jean seems to us to be dangerous in the extreme. The question of the small peasants is undoubtedly of great importance to the French revolution. Our French party has taken a big step forward by advancing an agrarian program and putting the conquest of the peasant masses on the agenda. But it would be dangerous in the extreme and truly fatal if the French proletariat were simply dissolved among the “toilers” or “workers”, as a mere half of a single whole. Today we embrace organizationally as well as politically only a minority of the French working class. The revolution will become a possibility after we shall have politically conquered the majority. Only the majority of the French working class, united under the banner of the revolution, can attract and lead behind it the small peasants of France. In France the question of the united working-class front is the basic one! Failing a solution of this question, work among the peasantry, no matter how successful, would not bring us closer to the revolution. Propaganda among the peasantry and a good agrarian program constitute a very important factor for success. But the peasantry happens to be hard-headed and sceptical; it places no faith in promises, especially in France, where it has been so often deceived. The French peasant – in the village or in the army barracks – will not be drawn into a serious struggle by programmatic slogans. He will incur a serious risk only if he sees such conditions as guarantee success, or at least render success extremely probable. He must behold before him a force which instils confidence in him by its massiveness and its disciplined character. A working class that is split along political and trade-union lines cannot loom as such a force in the eyes of the peasantry. The premise for a victorious revolution in France is the attraction to the side of the working class of the broadest possible section of the peasantry. But the premise for this attraction still remains the unification of the overwhelming majority of the French working class under the revolutionary banner. This is the basic task. It is necessary to win over the workers who today follow Jouhaux and Longuet. It is futile to object that there are only a few of them. Naturally the active supporters of Longuet, Blum, and Jouhaux, those who are self-sacrificing, that is, those ready to stake their lives for such a program, are insignificant in number. But there are still a great many of those who are passive, ignorant, inert, lazy mentally and physically. They remain on the sidelines, but should events touch them to the quick they will in their present condition sooner rally to the banner of Jouhaux-Longuet than to ours. Because Jouhaux and Longuet both mirror as well as exploit the passivity, ignorance and backwardness of the working class.

If Comrade Jean, who is in charge of party work among the peasantry, pays disproportionate attention to the peasantry as against the proletariat, then this is vexing, but understandable; and it is, after all, not so very dangerous because the party as a whole will correct him. But if the party adopted Comrade Jean’s standpoint, and were to regard the proletariat as simply one “half” of the toilers, then truly fatal consequences would ensue because the revolutionary class character of the party would become dissolved in a formless “party of toilers”. This danger looms all the more distinctly in the light of Comrade Jean’s subsequent line of thought. He flatly rejects such tasks of struggle as do not embrace all of the toilers, or as he puts it: “which do not include demands common to both of the major sections of the proletariat!”. The term “proletariat” here implies not only the proletariat but also the peasantry. This highly dangerous abuse of terminology leads in politics to Comrade Jean’s attempt to place the demands of the proletariat (maintenance of the 8-hour day, defence of the wage scale, and so on) under the control of the peasantry!

The peasant is a petty bourgeois who can be drawn more or less closely to the proletariat and who, under certain conditions, can be more or less firmly won over by the proletariat for the revolutionary cause. But to identify the agrarian petty bourgeoisie with the proletariat and to curtail the demands of the proletariat to conform with the views of the small peasantry is to renounce the party’s genuine class base and to sow that self-same confusion for which the soil is so extremely favourable in peasant-parliamentarian France.

While the 8-hour day cannot, as we have heard, become a slogan of the united front in France because it is of “no interest” to the peasant, the struggle against militarism does, from Jean’s standpoint, provide a genuine revolutionary program for France. There can be no doubt whatever that the French small peasant, duped by the war, is filled with hatred toward militarism, and responds sympathetically to anti-militarist speeches. Needless to say, we are under obligation to mercilessly expose capitalist militarism in city and country alike. The lesson of the war must be exploited to the utmost. It would, however, be extremely hazardous for the party to beguile itself with illusions about the extent to which peasant anti-militarism can acquire an independent revolutionary meaning. The peasant does not want to send his son to the barracks, he does not want to pay taxes for the army’s upkeep; he sincerely applauds orators who talk against militarism (and even against “all militarisms”). However, peasant opposition to the army has not a revolutionary but a boycottist-pacifist lining. “Fichez-moi la paix” (let me alone) – that is the peasant’s program! This mood can create a favourable atmosphere for the revolution, but it cannot create the revolution itself, nor assure its success.

Sentimental pacifism in the spirit of Pioch is the very expression of a peasant – but not proletarian – attitude toward the state and toward militarism. The organized and class-conscious proletariat confronted with the state, armed to the teeth, poses the question of how it, the proletariat, can best organize and arm itself for the abolition and destruction of bourgeois violence by means of its own dictatorship. An isolated peasant doesn’t go that far; he is simply opposed to militarism, he hates it, he is ready to turn his back upon it – fichez-moi la paix! Don’t bother me with ALL your militarisms! Such is the psychology of a disgruntled, oppositional peasant, of an intellectual or an urban petty bourgeois. It would be nonsensical not to exploit these moods among our possible petty-bourgeois and semi-proletarian allies but it would be criminal to transmit these moods to the proletariat and to our own party.

The social-patriots, because of their patriotism, find it difficult to reach the peasant. We must profit in every way by this advantage. But this in no case gives us the right to relegate the class proletarian demands to the background – even if we thereby incur the risk of provoking some temporary misunderstandings with our friends, the peasants. The small peasantry must follow the proletariat as it finds it. The proletariat cannot remodel itself after the peasantry. If the Communist Party were to circumvent the vital class demands of the proletariat and follow the line of least resistance, advancing pacifist anti-militarism to the fore, it would ran the risk of deceiving the peasants and the workers – and itself.

In France as elsewhere what we need first of all is the united front of the proletariat itself. The French peasantry will not be converted into the proletariat by the fact that Comrade Jean takes the liberty to abuse sociological terminology. But the mere hankering for such an abuse is a dangerous symptom. It is symptomatic of a policy that can sow only the greatest confusion. French Communism more than any other needs clarity, precision and irreconcilability. At all events, on this point we are in accord with our French opponent.


1. Renaud Jean was at that time one of the prominent French CP leaders. He was in charge of the work among the peasantry. At the Marseilles Congress he was elected to the Central Committee. He was a delegate to the Fourth World Congress and a co-reporter on the agrarian question. His views on the peasant question tended to approximate those of the Russian Social Revolutionaries. Although he remained in disagreement with the policies of the Comintern, Jean submitted to the decisions of the Fourth Congress.

2. William Jennings Bryan typified pacifism in the US in the days before the first World War. His lamentations against war and praises of the advantages of peace invariably ended in a pledge to support war if it became “necessary.” The same spirit imbued most of the American Socialist leaders at the time.

3. Hillquit, a case-hardened opportunist and one of the founders of the American Socialist Party, was characterized by Trotsky as “a Babbitt of Babbitts, the ideal Socialist leader for successful dentists.” In 1918-20 Hillquit simulated sympathy and friendship for the Soviet Union. When the revolutionary tide following World War I subsided, he came forth as one of the most rabid opponents of the pioneer Communist movement in the US.

4. The reference here is to the enlarged Plenum of the ECCI which convened from February 22 to March 4, 1922.

First 5 Years of the Comintern (Vol.2) Index

History of the Communist International Section

return return return return return

Last updated on: 16.1.2007