Leon Trotsky

The First Five Years of the Communist International

Volume 2

Preface to The Communist
Movement in France

March 25, 1923

Imperialist France is today the ruling power of the European continent and a major force outside the continent. This single circumstance imparts immense importance to the French proletariat and its party. The European revolution will triumph decisively and irrevocably only after it is the master of Paris. The victory of the proletariat on the European continent will almost automatically seal the fate of British capitalism. And finally, revolutionary Europe, which will be immediately joined by the enslaved peoples of Asia and Africa, will be in a position to speak a few convincing words to the capitalist oligarchy that rules America. The master-key of the European situation, and in a large measure also to the world situation, is thus entrusted to the French working class.

The Communist International has followed with the closest attention the internal life of the French party precisely because the CI had, as it still has, a very high estimate of the historical role of the French party. The French workers have been deceived, throughout history, far more often than any other working class. For this reason the French Communist Party must be all the more self-exacting and intransigent. In this respect major successes have been recently attained, which may in a certain sense be called decisive. Behind the shell of the internal factional struggles, or circle strifes, splits and expulsions, the French proletariat has during the last two years cut its real revolutionary teeth, and with these teeth it will have to bite through the armour of a mighty military state. The successes won along this road, still preparatory at present, are in a sense personified in Frossard’s departure from the party, and in the adherence of Monatte and Barbusse. [2]

Frossard, the party’s former General Secretary and at least to a certain point the chief inspirer of its official policy, headed that wing of its parliamentary past which made an attempt to adapt itself to the resolute shift to the left made by the proletarian vanguard. Not bereft of a certain mental agility and elasticity, resourcefulness, and eloquence – valuable traits which are highly useful to everybody, including revolutionists, but which are of self-sufficient significance for a parliamentary politician – Frossard apparently imagined in all seriousness that with the aid of these assets he would be able till the end of time to manoeuvre between the Communist International and its enemies; that he would be able to cover himself with the authority of Communism in his relations with the workers and at the same time safeguard the French working class from the “excesses” of Moscow. But when Frossard opposed his diplomatic improvisations, his masterpieces of evasion, equivocation, ambiguity, etc., to the principled line of the Communist International, he was bound to lose his bearings at the very first step. The position of this individual may best be characterized by the fact that a few hours before his departure from the Communist Party he did not himself know whether he would take a trip to Moscow in order to participate in guiding the policy of the Communist International as a member of the ECCI or whether he would take a walk into the camp of the enemies of the Comintern.

Frossard’s individual peculiarities must not, however, blind us to what is typical in Frossardism. In Italy we came, as everybody knows, into conflict with Comrade Serrati who placed himself and his faction outside of the Communist International for a long time. The exceptionally stormy character of Italy’s political development has now once again forced the Maximalist faction with its leaders back to the side of the Communist International. Our hope is that the merger will be more permanent this time.

In Germany we had the classical episode of Paul Levi who began by opposing the obviously erroneous tactic of the German Communist Party in March 1921 and who ended by proving within a few weeks that he had only been seeking a convenient pretext for crossing over into the camp of the enemies of the proletarian revolution. In a less clear and finished form, sometimes with bare hints only, we have experienced similar manifestations in the Czechoslovakian, Norwegian and other parties.

At first glance it is particularly surprising to note that in all these conflicts, the splitters or the vacillators are headed by the most eminent “leaders”, that is, by those individuals who appeared at least on the surface as leaders of the movement “for Moscow” and “for the Third International”. Serrati was the undisputed leader of the Italian party until September 1920; Paul Levi was the Chairman of the German party; his emulator Friesland [3] was General Secretary of the same party; Frossard was General Secretary of the French party, and so forth. This recurrence shows in and by itself that what rules here is not chance, but lawful necessity. And in the last analysis it is not so very difficult to explain this lawfulness. In the old capitalist countries, possessing old Social-Democratic traditions, the very formation of the Communist Party implied a break with the enormous and ancient deposits of reformism, nationalism, parliamentarianism. But the upper layer of Socialists, those with famous names, great authority, etc., had their roots sunk deeply into this past. And even those Social Democrats who in pre-war days or during the war belonged to the extreme left wing of the party and were therefore in opposition to the official Social-Democratic course, were in their overwhelming majority political captives of the Social Democracy. And their opposition to Scheidemannism and Renaudelism was merely the opposition of orators and journalists, formal and literary, but not revolutionary and dynamic in character.

After the war, an irresistible leftward movement set in among the working masses, a movement to settle accounts with the bourgeoisie; and then the Social-Democratic oppositionists imagined that their day had come, that the masses intended to justify their criticism and were ready to follow their instructions. The position and policy of these gentlemen bear a strong resemblance to the position and policy of moderate liberals in times of revolution. The liberals invariably regarded the first awakening of the people as proof of their own strength and of the correctness of their own policy. But by the second day following the revolution they became convinced in horror that the masses, at least their revolutionary section, did not draw any fine line of distinction between the overlords of yesterday and those who had been in a loyal and moderate opposition to these overlords. At this point the liberals invariably threw themselves into the arms of reaction.

That it was possible for the fence-straddling leaders of the Social-Democratic opposition to place themselves at the head of the Communist Party is explained by the circumstance that the genuine revolutionary section of the working class was unable in the space of a few months either to find or educate new leaders. And it must be recognized as a fact that during its initial years, the Communist International had many sections headed by some leaders who were revolutionary but inexperienced or not firm enough; and by others who were semi-revolutionary and eternally vacillating, but possessing considerable authority and political aptitude. Although the situation has greatly improved in this respect, this has been, as it remains today, the source of internal difficulties, friction and strife within the Communist International. The greatest fear of the semi-centrist leaders was to find themselves pulled out of the groove of legality, decorated with formal radicalism. For this reason they took cover behind the Chinese screens of “national autonomy” as a safeguard against the revolutionary posing of political questions and against the methods involving actual preparations for a rising of the proletariat. But the qualitative sameness of the politics of Paul Levi, of Frossard and the rest shows that involved here are not at all peculiarities inherent in any specific national situation – which of course must be carefully taken into account – but a wholly internationalist tendency, in the spirit of left centrism, which is prepared to adopt the external ritual of the Communist International, to swallow 21 and more conditions without a grimace, but all on the sole condition that everything go on exactly as before. Frossard is a perfect representative of this type. That he and his co-thinkers have left the party is therefore a most significant signpost on the road to the creation of the revolutionary party of the French proletariat.

Although Frossard himself, as we have been, was by no means a unique national peculiarity, the reasons that enabled him so long to deceive himself and others about his actual political destination are nevertheless to be found in the peculiarities of the French political situation. In contrast not only to defeated Germany but even to the half-defeated Italy, victorious France was able to pass through the highly critical post-war years without any profound political upheavals. And although the basic tendencies leading the country toward revolutionary catastrophe are the same in France as in Germany or Italy, they have been much less sharply expressed in France, much milder and more veiled in form. The formation of the revolutionary proletarian vanguard has for this reason been correspondingly slow in France, at any rate until a few months ago. For a time it seemed on the surface as if the old Socialist Party was gradually evolving along Communist lines, after throwing all the openly discredited ballast overboard at Tours. But in reality there were many co-thinkers of Renaudel and Longuet at Tours who parted with them with “heavy hearts”, hoping by this sacrifice to purchase the right of holding a leading position in the Communist Party which would then, out of gratitude, refrain from interfering with their good old habits. In consequence of the general sluggishness and conservatism of political life in France since the war, even the left wing, as it took shape in the Committee for the Third International inside the Socialist Party, was distinguished by political amorphousness and heterogeneity. And it was precisely this fact – which was not sufficiently clear to all the comrades – that restrained the International for a time from taking more resolute measures against the policy of Frossard and Co.

As early as 1921 and during the first half of 1922, this group furnished ample grounds for an open split. But at that time such a split would not have been understood by the mass of party members; the split in the party would have occurred along somewhat accidental fines, and, finally, the International would have acquired in the person of the left faction an extremely variegated group which was itself in need of an internal cleansing. The first necessity was therefore to give the left elements an opportunity to clearly grasp their own tasks, to become fused ideologically, to rally an important section of the party around them. It was not until this preparatory ideological, self-critical and educational work had been accomplished that the International could proceed to supplement it on a large scale by more decisive organizational and “surgical” measures. And so in this sense, the lag in the political development of France has had also its positive side for the Communist Party. The left wing was not confronted with major political tests before it had the opportunity to seriously prepare itself for them. In Italy the moment of split in the Socialist Party was not determined by any tactical considerations, but was imposed by the appalling capitulation of the leading circles of the party during the events of September 1920. In France the moment of split with the left centrists depended to a large extent on the Communist International. Certain comrades, principally in the French party itself, admittedly tried to force the events, under the impression that the tactics pursued by the ECCI on the French question were too irresolute, far too patient, even erroneous. Without considering whether or not some necessary steps were omitted on this or that detail (in all likelihood there were), we can now, in reviewing the completed phase of French party life, say with complete assurance that the tactics of the ECCI have been fundamentally correct. Correct not only with regard to methods but also with regard to tempo which has corresponded to the inner rhythm of development of the proletarian vanguard in France. It is thanks to just this complete harmony, that our French party, after a severe and profound internal crisis, and after the ejection of alien elements, has been able to retain in its ranks the crushing majority of its members, the entire party apparatus and its central publication (l’Humanité) – which is of far greater importance in France than in any other country. In this connection, it must be remarked that the French party and the International have to thank Comrade Marcel Cachin for a great deal. There have been misunderstandings between him and the International, but in the decisive moment, he took his post unfalteringly in the camp of the revolution.

The surgical operation undertaken by the Fourth Congress was doubtless a very grave one, and it appeared to some comrades as altogether too risky. It was a question of a final and irrevocable simultaneous break between the party and bourgeois public opinion and its most equivocal institutions in the guise of Freemasonry, the League of the Rights of Man, the radical press and so forth. When this surgical operation was approaching its successful conclusion, the still vacillating Frossard surveyed the scene and saw that he had nothing in common with this party. And the very same door which served as a means of exit for Frossard in company with the Masons, the Human Righters and the rest, has also been the door through which two others have entered the party: Monatte and Barbusse.

The entry of Monatte is as far from being a mere personal episode as is Frossard’s exit. During and after the war, Monatte represented more clearly and intransigently than anyone else the traditions of revolutionary syndicalism in its heyday. Mistrust of “politics” and “party” formed the most important ingredient of these traditions. This mistrust had an adequate historical justification. During all these years Monatte has been the loyal friend of the Russian Revolution. He never wavered, not even at the most critical moments. But toward the French Communist Party he maintained an attitude of extreme distrust, remaining on the sidelines, outside of it. It was only when the party proved by deeds that it does not shrink from the harshest measures, if need arises, to secure its proletarian composition and its revolutionary character, that Monatte applied for a membership card. This was more than a personal “gesture”. It means that the party has broken down the wall of distrust which had separated it from a whole layer of the revolutionary French workers. It is quite likely that internal friction will continue inside the party. which contains elements from different political schools, but the party’s genuine proletarian character is henceforward assured, and with it, its revolutionary future.

The entry of Barbusse bears a more individual character. Barbusse does not stand for any revolutionary traditions of pre-war times. But by way of compensation, Barbusse is the best embodiment of the indignant conscience of the war generation. As president of the Revolutionary Union of War Veterans, Barbusse has until recently kept up his formal independence from the Communist Party, and thus mirrored the profoundly revolutionary, but un-crystallized, indignation among the workers and peasant masses of the post-war period. As soon as political relations had cleared up, and declaimers of pacifism and the dilettantes of revolution had returned to their old bourgeois feeding troughs, Barbusse entered the door of the party and said, “Here I am!” By this he proved that there is no spiritual avenue other than the Communist Party for all that is left of thought, of honesty and indignation in the war generation. Beneath the restrained lyricism of Barbusse’s letter to l’Humanité one can sense genuine revolutionary passion. We congratulate the French party upon this conquest!

Scarcely had Frossard and his entourage crossed the threshold, when the events connected with the Ruhr [4] put the party to severe political tests. And the party proved that now, freed from alien elements, it has grown stronger and taller by a head. The repressions that descended upon it have only served to increase its moral cohesion.

Naturally the greatest difficulties still lie ahead. But there is one thing we can say positively: in France a real Communist Party is living and breathing, fighting and growing.

March 25, 1923


1. This article was written on March 25, 1923, as an introduction, or more accurately “in place of an introduction” to a special volume of Trotsky’s writings devoted exclusively to France and entitled The Communist Movement in France, published in 1923 simultaneously in French and Russian editions. The most important documents dealing with France have been included in volumes I and II of the present work.

2. Henri Barbusse, celebrated French novelist, depicted the horrors of World War I in his novels, Light Fire etc. He became one of the initiators of the anti-militarist organization of French war veterans, but remained outside the French CP until 1923. After Lenin’s death, Barbusse became one of the court writers attached to the Kremlin.

3. Friesland – a one-time prominent German Communist leader. Friesland left the CP in 1921 together with Paul Levi, first joining the Independent Socialists and then moving over to the official Socialist Party. [Friesland was a pseudonym of Ernst Reuter, who later became Social-Democratic mayor of West Berlin 1946-1953. – TIA]

4. The reference here is to the occupation of the Ruhr by the French troops in January 1923. This action precipitated the revolutionary crisis in Germany in 1923, an exceptionally favourable revolutionary situation which was let slip by the German leadership and the already Stalinized International.

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Last updated on: 19.1.2007