Leon Trotsky

The “Clémenceau Thesis”
and the Party Regime

(September 1927)

Written: 24 September 1927.
First Published: New International, Vol.1 No.1 [Premier Edition], July 1934, ppp.24-26.
Translated: By New International.
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2002. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Transcriber’s Comments

This transcription comes from the first, premier edition of New International, the theoretical journal of the Communist League of American, the US Section of the International Left Opposition. This edition also contains a short greeting from Leon Trotsky on the launching of the New International.
– David Walters
   July 25, 2002, Pacifica, California

Original 1934 Introduction by The New International

At the height of the discussion in the Russian Communist party, Trotsky put forward a broad historical analogy between the situation in the Soviet Union and France of 1917. The vacillating, weak, incompetent cabinet of that time threatened France with defeat. The imperialist bourgeoisie thereupon put at the helm its most class conscious, resolute, extreme representative, Clémenceau, as best fitted by his capacities and policies to defend ITS class interests. The Soviet proletariat, said Trotsky, to defend ITS class interests best, especially, at a crucial moment, would, in place of the vacillating, unstable, unqualified Stalin régime, put forward ITS most conscious, consistent and determined wing, the Bolshevik-Leninists. The “Clémenceau thesis”, as it came to be known, unassailable from a revolutionary standpoint, was violently distorted and denounced by the bureaucracy in the subsequent discussion, which Trotsky, in a hitherto unpublished document, deals with below. The document not only rectifies a Stalinist falsification of Trotsky’s views, but retains a high degree of current importance regarding the question of a revolutionary defense of the Soviet Union. – Editor

THE campaign around the so-called “Clémenceau Thesis” was carried on under great pressure. But in its final results, this campaign succeeded in proving something altogether different from what it had been intended to prove. It is time that some preliminary summaries be drawn from it.

To begin, let us see how the “Clémenceau question” is formulated by the Agitprop of the Central Committee and of the Moscow Committee of the party in its Materials for the Report on the Summaries of the Joint Plenum of the CC and CCC, CPSU(b) – July 29-August 9, 1927. True, the Agitprop of the MC has a rotten reputation. Its theses have been called – both in the Plenum and in the press – unsuccessful, bad, and even foolish by the representatives of the majority. But in this instance the Agitprop of the CC came to the aid of the Agitprop of the MC. Consequently, we have before us a more authoritative propaganda document. But what do we find in it upon the Clémenceau question?

“In its attacks on the party and the Comintern, the Opposition has advanced the following assertions: (a) At the present time the leadership of the CPSU is passing through the period of Thermidorian degeneration. (b) The replacement of this leadership is inevitable, after the manner of Clémenceau’s overturn in France in 1914.” (Our italics.)

The key place in this quotation is occupied by the words: “after the manner of Clémenceau’s overturn in France in 1914”. However, the only thing that is correct in this statement is the fact that Clémenceau operated in France. No overturn whatever was achieved by Clémenceau. But if by the “overturn” is implied the coming to power of the Clémenceau group, then this occurred not in 1914 but in 1917. But there was no overturn in 1917 either. The bourgeois parliament entrusted the power to the Clémenceau group, considering it to be more capable of solving the war tasks of the imperialist bourgeoisie. The parliament is the mechanism by means of which the bourgeoisie under normal conditions solves its state affairs. Why then does the joint Agitprop of the CC and MC speak about Clémenceau’s overturn? Because without speaking about an overturn, it would be impossible to ascribe to the Opposition the intentions of following in Clémenceau’s footsteps on this road. The formulation is strictly purposeful. But why was Clémenceau’s overturn assigned to 1914? What difference does it make – let us reply – to what year one assigns an event which is non-existent in history? Only wily Oppositionists would make a point of such trifles.

The pupil cannot surpass his master. The most official theoretician of our party is comrade Bukharin. In his report to the general membership of Leningrad, Bukharin said that the Opposition set as its task “the perpetration on its own hook of a Clémenceaunian overturn in our country even in the event that the enemy were a distance of 80 kilometers away from the centers of our revolution”. In another place during the same speech reference is made to “the Clémenceaunian teeny-weeny overturn”, and at the same time these words are set in quotation marks as if they are a quotation – from the materials of the Agitprop of the CC perhaps? Only instead of the overturn, mention was made of “a teeny-weeny overturn”. This is altogether in the Bukharin manner: if one must serve up a fib, let it be in a diminutive form. Rykov would have said upon the occasion, “The Clémenceaunian terrific overturn”, thus demonstrating an indomitable state of mind. Bukharin speaks of a “teeny-weeny overturn”. The objective Agitprop confines itself to overturn. In nature however – due to utter misunderstanding – there was neither the one nor the other, nor any third. But that is precisely the reason for the existence of a secret crib against the Opposition: in order to correct the nature of things.

In such a case what could one demand from Yaroslavsky? His fundamental peculiarity as orator and writer lies in his incapacity to render without distortion a single complex idea of any sort – even if he has no immediate interest in distorting it. This capacity of his (or his incapacity) has been developing terrifically, fostered by impunity. Out of the “Clémenceau thesis” Yaroslavsky makes the following indignant deduction.

“The Opposition is not loath to draw exemplars for its tactic from the alien class.” The accusation immediately acquires the form of a colossal historic generalization. It would be a waste of time to follow in Yaroslavsky’s footsteps along this line. This Saul, anointed as a prophet, does not even suspect what rôle the examples of “alien classes” played in the formulation of the entire theory and policies of Marxism. Upon more than one occasion the revolutionists had to teach by taking even reaction as an example, in order to explain that the reactionaries, in contradistinction to liberals and conciliators were “not eloquent babblers but men of action”. And on the other hand, the overthrow of feudalism by the French bourgeoisie played, as is well known, no unimportant rôle as an “exemplar” for the teachings about the dictatorship of the proletariat. In general it would be impossible to take a single step without the exemplars of the tactics of the alien classes. But one must utilize these exemplars correctly. And this precludes, first of all, the falsification of history.

The notorious N. Kuzmin [1], utilizing the same “Clémenceau thesis” as the inexhaustible source of knowledge, develops the following idea in the Komsomolskaia Pravda: Clémenceau, if you please, strove for power in order to force the French army to carry the war to the end by applying ruthless measures against the workers and peasants; the Opposition, lacking faith in the peasantry, wants to obtain power in order to make shrift of the peasantry “after the Clémenceau manner”. Of course, nothing can he gotten from Kuzmin for nothing – he is just as capable of this as of the opposite. But it is no accident, it is not on his own initiative – and precisely in the Komsomolskaia Pravda besides! – that Kuzmin spins these abominations of his which reek of Thermidorianism a kilometer away.

Still, a Marxist would not refuse to utilize the ‘example of Clémenceau” in this question as well – only in correlation with the class line of the proletariat. Clémenceau led the imperialist war, and he really led it. The imperialist war was in fundamental contradiction with the interests of the proletariat, and the lower strata of the peasantry. It was impossible to lead such a war successfully, especially in its fourth year, otherwise than by means of ruthless measures against advanced workers and revolutionary peasants. Our war will be a socialist war. It can be led only by leaning for support upon the idealism of the proletariat and the lower strata of the peasantry, only by holding in a vise the bourgeois-kulak, and the Thermidorian elements of the country. Clémenceau leaned for support on the chauvinist “idealism” of the bourgeois and the petty-bourgeois-kulak youth, defuddling and poisoning the workers and peasants, and crushing every sign of a critical attitude toward the war. We will lean for support upon the heroism and resoluteness of the proletariat and the peasant poor, sweeping behind them the mass of the middle peasantry. We will be able to sustain and strengthen their revolutionary idealism only by telling the toilers the whole truth and only the truth about the real situation, the real friends and the real enemies. That is why, in particular, the Thermidorian lying in the spirit of Kuzmin deals the greatest injury to the cause of defense because it instills in the workers and peasants false conceptions as to where the friends and enemies are.

We pass by the writings of the Vareikises, from Saratov and elsewhere. Let us turn to the organ of the Ivanov-Voznesiensk district committee, Rabochy Kray, a newspaper circulating among the proletarian masses of one of the most important of our industrial centers. Still elucidating the same fatal Clémenceau thesis, Rabochy Kray writes in its August 12 issue:

“In his Clémenceau thesis, comrade Trotsky advances the idea analogous to the idea of Clémenceau who, in 1871 when the German army was advancing on Paris, proclaimed that before giving battle to the external enemy – to the German army – it was necessary to put an end to the enemy within.”

Is this news to you? Now you are informed! These remarkable words represent the most finished, and, so to speak, the most “principled” and, in any case, the most expedient interpretation of the Clémenceau thesis. The only trouble is that nothing ever existed resembling the historical reference of Rabochy Kray. But is that really so troublesome? If the Agitprop of the CC could mix up 1917 with 1914, why shouldn’t Rabochy Kray confound 1917 with 1871? True, the so-called Trotsky thesis on Clémenceau speaks with absolute clarity about the imperialist war of 1914-1918, naming the ministries of Painlevé, Briand and so forth; true, there was no Clémenceau overturn either in 1914 or in 1871; true, Clémenceau did not speak in any of these years about the necessity of overthrowing the internal enemy prior to defending Paris; true, there was nothing generally resembling these fictions and there couldn’t have been – but if one must perforce twist history in accordance with the requirements of the secret crib, then one must decidedly give preference to the Ivanov-Voznesiensk variant, as the one meets best its purpose, slandering the opposition, that is.

One could multiply almost indefinitely the number of such and other samples pertaining to the job of polishing off the Opposition to fit Clémenceau, with the initial polishing off of Clémenceau himself to fit the secret crib, and this without having to pass beyond the limits of speeches and articles in the leading organs and of the functionaries locally and in the center. Everyone can gather for himself without much difficulty in what form these revelations are served in the districts, in the village districts, in the Ivanov-Voznesiensk factory or to the Saratov peasants. Generally speaking it is difficult to imagine a more systematic poisoning of consciousness. All this does not pass by without leaving a trace, all this continues to collect, all this is getting ready to “backfire” – the force of which may strike not only the secret cribbers, the pupils, apprentices and past masters of persecution, but the party as a whole.

Following the example of Stalin and of others, Yaroslavsky in the article, The Party and the Opposition which we have cited, speaks about the unsuccessful pamphlet of the MC. Agitprop, On War and the War Danger. Others have called his unsuccessful pamphlet idiotic. It is filled with illiterate assertions of a Black Hundred tinge. How did it happen that the Agitprop of the proletarian capital, Moscow, could issue such a pamphlet – and not merely a pamphlet, but a guide to political education – upon so fundamental a problem as war and the war danger? Yes, how could such a thing have happened? Unfortunately one cannot even hoodwink oneself by passing it off as an “accident”. The secret crib of the same MC Agitprop upon the question of the Anglo-Russian Committee has an even more scandalous character, if that is possible. In it there is an assertion that the ARC will become the center of the struggle against the war danger, the chief weapon of the international mobilization of revolutionary forces and so forth and so on. When in July 1926 the Opposition called attention to this document which disgraces the party, the Opposition was condemned and not the Agitprop of the MC. This same MC Agitprop issued an instructive pamphlet on the question of the Chinese revolution, simultaneously with its pamphlet on war and the war danger, of precisely the same quality and standard. Finally, after all these experiments, and after their exposure, there was issued the pamphlet of the Agitprop of the CC and MC in which the world is informed of the intentions of the Opposition to follow the “example of the Clémencean overturn in France in 1914” .

What has made this possible? The answer is incontrovertible: It has been made possible by the general régime in the party, and with the selection of the personnel bound up with the régime. People write not what they know, not what they have mulled over, not what they want to say, but what is demanded of them at any given moment. Every writer knows beforehand that he hears no responsibility whatever, provided only he directs his ignorance and his citified doltishness against the Opposition. Everyone who writes knows that it is bootless to burden himself with research or the study of a question because the Opposition won’t be able to refute the lie anyway, and also because everyone who might wish to refute or to reestablish the facts would be immediately enrolled into the Opposition. The régime of strangulation of the inner-party criticism, the régime of the mutual oath within the closed apparatus, the hegemony of the secret crib and of irresponsibility tend fatally to lower the official theoretical level of the party rung by rung.

Concurrently, the entire campaign around the so-called “Clémenceau thesis” was inaugurated not because the enemy was camped 80 kilometers away from Moscow, and not because the Opposition was preparing to accomplish an overturn after the manner of Clémenceau, who accomplished no overturn, but in order to stifle inner-party thinking still further, and by this very thing to unbridle still further the irresponsibility of the apparatus.

The Clémenceau example, the example from the political experience of a class inimical to us, was used by me to illustrate a solitary and a very simple idea: the ruling class, in the guise of its leading vanguard, must preserve its capacity to reform its ranks under the most difficult conditions without internal convulsions, without the catastrophic splitting of forces. The dictatorship of the proletariat in a country which is surrounded by capitalist states does not allow either the existence of two parties or the factional splitting of a unified party.

But this same dictatorship demands such a régime of the unified and only party of the proletariat as would afford it the possibility – by those methods which are peculiar to it as the revolutionary party, by the methods of democratic centralism – to control even under the most difficult conditions all its organs, that is, to direct their policies, check them in action, appoint them, and replace them.

The dictatorship is a very sharp instrument. One must manipulate this instrument correctly in order not to dull, or chip it. Stalin is of the opinion that the stifling of all criticism, the substitution of an almighty secret crib for collective ideological life and the interminable repressions are only temporary evils, necessary to maintain the equilibrium of the party. In reality, however, these measures disrupt more and more the necessary correlation between democracy and centralism and foster the all too real historical danger of the bureaucratic degeneration of the dictatorship.

It is self-evident that the roots of these processes are inmbuded not in inner-party relationships, isolated by themselves, but in the inter-relations of classes, in the relations between the classes and the state, in the relations between the party and the classes, and in the line of the party policies taken as a whole. Only an honest bureaucratic numbskull, or an unconscionable adventurer who does not give a hoot for tomorrow could the progressive deterioration of the inner-party régime from the day after Lenin’s death until the present time. We have seen above the eloquent consequences pf this deterioration in the sphere of the ideological life of the party: the foremost organization in the country, the one in Moscow, issues upon the most important questions of party policies – the Anglo-Russian Committee, the Chinese revolution, the war danger, and inner-party relations – pamphlets with directives of a most debased character. And this fact, so terrible by its very nature, not only passes unpunished but it is shielded by repressions addressed against those who point out the radically false policies of the leadership of the Moscow Committee.

Stalin and Molotov and Uglanov and Kaganovich and other more outstanding representatives of the bureaucratic degeneration of the party leadership are, of course, not striving for bureaucratism; on the contrary they would like to put their policies through with methods of party democracy, that is, they would like the party to approve their policies and to reelect those who are ready to put them through. But they run up against some sort of dull resistance in the party and they are forced more and more to impose their policies from above. The party congress is only an inevitable evil for them. In direct contradiction to the party statutes they postpone this for an additional year. Discussion they decree to be an absolute evil, a hindrance to practical work, but at the same time they do nothing else except convulse the party with interminable discussions, a small sample of which we viewed above, on the matter of the Clémenceau thesis. They correlate this one-sided discussion with interminable cleansings of organs, which affect practical work cruelly. Expulsions from the party fall like hail. For what? For spreading “secret” documents. In the meantime, the actual crime consists in the fact that articles and speeches which should be the property of the entire party have been decreed – yes, even two months before the congress – to be secret documents. Instead of realizing the inner-party democracy which had been proclaimed during all the recent congresses, it is necessary to resort to ever more forceful methods of inner-party repression.

The preparation for the fifteenth party congress was long ago put under the sign of the war danger. The discussion was declared to be doubly impermissible because we were surrounded by enemies. In order to befuddle the party, the malignant myth was created to the effect that the Opposition threatened an overturn “after the Clémenceau manner”. By the very nature of things, all this is aimed to finish off the remnants of inner-party democracy, completely supplanting it by the autocracy of the apparatus. And this amounts to the prerequisite for the Thermidorian danger, under the corresponding class shifts in the country and under corresponding shifts of the policies of the party leadership.

The danger of war is not some accidental, episodic or temporary phenomenon. World contradictions are becoming more concentrated. The possible mitigation of the relations between us and the capitalist states will be of a rather temporary character. The fundamental line runs toward the sharpening of antagonisms, the deepening of the war danger. According to the logic of the present régime this means that it is necessary to bid goodbye forever to ideas of inner-party democracy. The campaign on the score of the “Clémenceaunian overturn”, plus a number of other similar campaigns, as well as the entire present interminable discussion convulsing the party from above, must drive out completely any thoughts of the possibility of switching party life back onto the rails of democracy.

Precisely in this sense it is incontestable that of all the dangers the most terrible one is the inner-party régime. These words have also served as the cause of an unbridled and thoughtless campaign – in the press and at meetings. And yet they are absolutely incontestable. If I were threatened by an enemy and my eyes were blindfolded or my hand tied to my shoulder, I would say that the chief danger was – not the enemy, but the handicaps restricting my movements. It is a lie that the danger or even war itself excludes the self-action of the party, which discusses and decides all questions and which directs and checks all its organs from top to bottom. If as a result of our mistakes the enemy did appear within 80 kilometers of Moscow, then the self-action of the party would have to be ten times greater than under any other conditions. But the task right now is not to permit such a situation, to prevent it. This can be realized only by a living party, self-acting and completely alive. The first thing that follows from this is that there must be a change in the party régime.

Moscow, September 24, 1927



1. Among other things, Kuzmin is notorious because of his ability to write one way or another – all depending upon the conjuncture. In his own time Kuzmin wrote almost inspired dithyrambs on the score of my books, How the Revolution Armed Itself (cf., for example, Izvestia No. 115, May 22, 1924). Now he writes just the opposite. My attitude – and I think that in this I am by no means alone – to Kuzmin’s writings and to the author himself remains as it was despite all the “dialectic”, not to say chameleon-like, transformations of Kuzmin.

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Last updated on: 15.4.2007