Leon Trotsky

First of August! What will “International Red Day” Bring?

Written: June 26, 1929
First Published: The Militant, New York, Volume 2, Nos. 12, August 1, 1929
Source: Microfilm collection and original bound volumes for The Militant provided by the Holt Labor Library, San Francisco, California.
Transcription\HTML Markup: D. Walters
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“The West European Bureau of the Communist International” has called on the workers of the whole world to demonstrate in the streets on the first of August. This demonstration has been called in response to—the bloody repression of the vanguard of the Berlin workers by the German Social Democrats. No revolutionist has any doubt that the historic crime perpetrated on the first of May must not and will not remain unavenged. The only question is when and how we can avenge ourselves against the Social Democracy and its bourgeois master for the bloody attack on the May Day demonstration of the workers. The method chosen by the Comintern is wrong to the core. It is open preparation for a new defeat.

The May Day demonstration is a traditional demonstration of the proletariat which has been regularly scheduled to take place on a specific day of the year, independently of the course of the international and national life of the proletariat. But the entire history of the May Day celebration shows that it never elevated itself above the real course of the workers’ movement, but was wholly determined by this movement and subordinate to it. In parties carrying on peaceful reformist work it was transformed from the beginning into a peaceful mobilization and before the war had lost all its revolutionary attributes. In countries where an energetic struggle was taking place for universal suffrage the May Day celebration was transformed into a constituent part of this struggle. In Russia the May Day celebration was identified with the revolutionary struggle against Tsarism and from 1905 on reflected all the stages the struggle went through: from stormy attack to complete quiescence. We saw the same thing in Germany after the war.

Recent May Day celebrations naturally reflected those processes which have currently found their expression in the life of the trade unions, in the municipal and parliamentary elections, especially in England and Belgium, and in many other more trivial manifestations of the life of the working class. The political stabilization of the bourgeoisie during the last six years has found its chief prop in the policy of the Comintern, which has guaranteed the defeat of the proletariat in Germany, China, England, Poland, and Bulgaria, and the weakening of its position in the USSR; the consistent disintegration of the Comintern; the revival of the Social Democracy. The political stabilization of the bourgeoisie has been the necessary premise for its economic stabilization which in turn has weakened the possibility of direct revolutionary activity.

In more concentrated form this is the situation that has recently unfolded in England, where only three years ago the proletariat carried through its revolutionary general strike. In a country where capitalism is suffering a gigantic crisis of decline and where all the leaders of the workers’ organizations have succeeded in disgracing themselves by an unprecedented betrayal, the Communist Party has shown itself at the polls to be totally insignificant in size. For several years the Comintern and the Red International of Labour Unions have been announcing to the whole world that in the revolutionary Minority Movement of the trade unions there are about a million workers who follow the Communist banner. The unemployed together with adult family members easily add up to over two million voters. The miners, who have just come through an extensive strike and are compelled to work under worsened conditions, number almost as many. Out of this three or four million it would seem at least a decent share of the vote ought to have fallen to the Communist Party. And what happened? Nominating twenty-seven candidates in the districts most sympathetic to it, the Communist Party won in all only fifty thousand votes. This terrible débâcle is the direct and immediate payment for the bankrupt policy of the Comintern on the question of the Anglo-Russian Committee—the central question of Comintern policy in England during the last few years.

The recent British elections [ May 1929 ] revealed an unquestionable leftward movement of the mass of the workers. But this leftward movement, i.e., a breaking away of millions of workers from the bourgeoisie, has at the given stage a clearly reformist-pacifist character; that fact is sharply emphasized by the defeat of the British Communist Party. It is hard to imagine a more cruel joke than that perpetrated by the Comintern on British Communism. For several years the Comintern compelled the British Communist Party to hang onto the coat-tails of Purcell and hold a revolutionary wreath over the head of Cook. The Moscow leadership remained for a full year in a bloc with the undisputed strikebreakers of the General Council. Under these circumstances the Communist Party did not exist politically. The revolutionary minority of the trade unions were left intellectually helpless, and the Comintern with its entire policy helped Thomas and Purcell shatter, discourage, and absorb this minority. Then, after this, the British party received an order to make a 180-degree turn. As a result, it could only certify that the working class simply does not know it as an independent revolutionary party.

The German Communist Party, incomparably stronger than the other parties, also has a more serious tradition and more militant cadres. But in 1928 the German working class had only begun to emerge from the paralysis which its vast majority was afflicted with after the catastrophe of 1923. Giving nine million votes to the Social Democracy, the German workers explicitly declared that they wish again to try their luck on the peaceful road of reform.

In China the Communist Party now numbers three or four thousand members, not the hundred thousand which was so light-mindedly claimed at the Sixth Congress by the Comintern bureaucrats. But this small party is in a state of still further disintegration. The leadership of Stalin, a combination of opportunism and adventurism, has wrecked the Chinese revolution for years, and with it the young Chinese Communist Party. When the Central Committee of the French party promises that on the first of August proletarian battalions will march in Shanghai as in Paris, their prediction can only be classed as cheap rhetoric. Alas, everything points to the fact that battalions will not march either in Shanghai or in Paris. The French Communist Party, like its pale shadow the Unitary General Confederation of Labour, has by no means increased its influence in recent years. There is not the slightest hope that the first of August will prove any more revolutionary in France than the first of May. Sémard and Monmousseau undertake everything and promise everything in order to do nothing.

Or perhaps the outcome of the Belgian elections allows one to hope for a demonstration of the workers of Brussels and Antwerp at the summons of the Jacquemottes?

We will not dwell on the other parties of the Comintern. They all reveal exactly the same features: decline of influence, organizational weakening, ideological fracturing, loss of mass confidence in the appeals of the party.

The Czechoslovak party was considered one of the most powerful sections of the Comintern. But its first attempt last year to designate a “red day” uncovered an alarming stagnant reformism in the party, poisoned with the spirit of Smeral and those like him. As a result of the mere command from the top to become revolutionary in twenty-four hours, the Czechoslovak party Simply began to crumble.

We were told during the period of the Sixth Congress that the situation in Germany was placing revolution on the order of the day. Thälmann unequivocally announced: “The situation is becoming more revolutionary every day.” But that judgment was fundamentally false. In a letter sent by Comrade Trotsky to the Sixth Congress in the name of the Opposition (“What Now?”) the official estimate of the situation was analyzed in complete detail, and a correct warning was issued a year ago against the ruinous adventuristic conclusions which that estimate would entail. The Opposition does not deny the signs of a leftward movement of the German working class. On the contrary, for us this “leftward movement” found unqualified expression in the last elections to the Reichstag [ May 1928 ]. But the crux of the question revolves around what the present stage of this leftward movement is. In Germany there has been a simultaneous growth of the Social Democracy and Communism. That has undoubtedly meant an ebbing of broad circles of the workers away from the bourgeois parties. But the principal current still flows in the channel of the Social Democracy. In these circumstances it is intolerably light-minded to say that “the situation is becoming more revolutionary.” The Social Democracy is not part of the revolution. Hermann Müller and Zörgiebel reminded the whole world of that on the first of May.

We have to understand correctly what growth of the Social Democracy means in the present circumstances. After the experience of the war and the defeat of German militarism, after the revolutionary uprising and bitter defeats of the proletariat, broad masses of the workers, including a new generation, feel the need to again go through the school of reformism. In the present epoch when all processes are rapidly carried through, this school Will not last for decades like the pre-war school of the Social Democracy, but most likely only a few years. It is just this period, however, that the German, yes, and the whole European working class is going through. The appearance of the independent Brandler faction is a small incidental symptom of this process. The turn of the workers from the bourgeoisie to the Social Democracy testifies to a leftward movement of the masses. But this leftward movement has still a purely pacifist, reformist, and nationalist character. The further development of this process depends upon a whole series of domestic and international factors, and to a considerable degree upon our own policy, upon our ability to understand the essence of the process, upon our skill in distinguishing its successive stages.

The reformist leftward movement will begin to be replaced by a revolutionary one from that moment when the masses begin in a continually increasing flood to turn from the Social Democracy to the Communist parties. But that has not yet happened. Individual, episodic manifestations do not matter. It is necessary to take the process as a whole. When Thälmann, imitating Stalin and other leaders of the Comintern, said in July 1928 that “the situation is becoming more revolutionary every day,” he only revealed a complete incapacity to understand the dialectic of the process that is occurring in the working class.

The German Communist Party received 3,200,000 votes in last year’s elections. After the defeat of 1923, that is, after the collapse of Brandlerism, and after the monstrous mistakes of the ultralefts of 1924 and 1925, such a result was altogether significant and promising. But it was not by any means a symptom of a revolutionary situation. Nine million are weighing upon these 3,200,000. This was made clear at the time of the armoured cruiser campaign, which completely refuted Thälmann’s sales talk about the situation becoming “more revolutionary every day.”

The working masses, and above all the new generation, are now passing through an accelerated repetition of the course of reformism. That is the fundamental fact. From this it does not follow, of course, that we must soften our attitude toward the Social Democracy or the Right Opposition (Bukharin, Brandler and Company). But our own tactical tasks ought to flow first of all from a correct understanding of what is taking place. The 1929 May Day celebration could not jump out of its political setting. It could not help the Communist Party become stronger in twenty-four hours than it actually was. May Day could be only an episode in the process of an as yet pacifist and reformist “leftward movement” of the masses. The attempt to reach the stars in twenty-four hours, strictly according to the calendar, flowed from a false estimate of the processes taking place among the masses and inevitably led to a defeat, in which there unquestionably was an element of adventurism. The opportunists always make gains on the miscalculations of revolutionary adventurism. In this case the Social Democrats made these gains and in part also the Brandlerites, who represent the smoothest, most honest, and newest edition of “revolutionary” Social Democracy. They are using the débâcle of revolutionary adventurism in order to discredit revolutionary methods in general.

There cannot be any doubt that the May Day celebration set the German Communist Party back. This does not mean of course that it set the party back forever, or even for a long time. The unexampled crime perpetrated by the Social Democracy will be gradually assimilated into the consciousness of the working masses and will help them make the transition to Communism. There can be no doubt of that—on one single condition: a generally correct policy of the Communist Party itself.

If you approach the situation from this point of view it is necessary first of all to ask the question: What is now needed by the Berlin workers and the German workers and all other workers? A repetition of May Day or a learning of the lessons of May Day? The question itself contains the answer. A repetition is unthinkable and not to be permitted. A repetition would be a naked, senseless adventure. What we want is a learning of the lessons, a correct evaluation of what happened. What we want is a correct political line.

We have said that May Day cannot artificially raise itself above the political level of the movement. Still less can artificial additions of “red days,” bureaucratically designated in advance according to the calendar, do this. Moreover, the Comintern is trying to make the first of August the revenge for the first of May. It is possible to say even now, and it is necessary to say it in the hearing of all: the first of August “red day” is condemned in advance to failure. In addition: what was of worth in the first of May (the self-sacrifice of a part of the proletarian vanguard) will be reduced to a minimum on the first of August. And what was bad on the first of May (the elements of adventurism) will be increased to a greater degree.

In the autumn of 1923, when ideological life in the Comintern was not yet entirely strangled, there was an international polemic in the leading Communist organs as to whether or not it is possible to set the date for an insurrection in advance. Basing themselves on all the experience of revolutions, the Marxists demonstrated that it is not only possible but necessary. Following Stalin and Zinoviev, Brandler and Maslow laughed at the idea of setting the date for an insurrection, thereby showing that on the fundamental questions of the revolution they were still hopeless philistines. The more revolutionary a situation is, the more necessary it is for the proletarian vanguard to have a clear and definite plan of action. The leadership of the party ought to stand firmly at the helm, looking ahead. One of the fundamental moments of leadership in such circumstances is the practical preparation of an insurrection. And since an insurrection, like all human activities, develops in time, the leadership must designate in good time the date of an insurrection. It stands to reason that with a change in the circumstances the date may be changed—as it was changed in Petrograd in 1917. But a leadership that cannot understand the significance of the time factor, that merely swims with the current, gurgling and blowing bubbles, is condemned to defeat. A revolutionary situation demands a revolutionary calendar.

But this certainly does not mean that it is sufficient for Thälmann, Stalin, Manuilsky, or Sémard to pick up the calendar and put a red dot on August 1 in order to turn that day into a revolutionary event. Such an approach combines the most disastrous features of bureaucratism and adventurism. In those countries and those parties where sheer bureaucratism is dominant, and these are a majority, the first of August will in all probability end in a comical fiasco like the Vincennes demonstration of Sémard and Monmousseau. In those countries where the elements of adventurism are dominant, the first of August may end in a tragedy which this time—in contrast to May Day—will be wholly, absolutely, and irremediably to the advantage of the enemy.

The call of the West European Bureau of the Comintern issued in Berlin on May 8, although we are accustomed to much, shocked us with its lightmindedness, garrulousness, braggadocio, and disgusting irresponsibility. “Into the streets, proletarians!” “Down with imperialist war!” “Appropriate the political and military-technical experience of the struggle of the Berlin proletariat!” “Acquire the fighting methods of the police!” “Insure your ability to manoeuvre!” “Unite your support of the Berlin proletariat with the daily demands of the broadest masses of the workers!” “Down with imperialist war!” “Into the streets, proletarians!”

In other words, the European Communist parties are given a strictly scheduled task: in the course of three months (May to August) to unite themselves with the broadest masses of the workers (no more, no less), learn the art of manoeuvering, acquire the fighting methods of the police, appropriate the political and military-technical experience of the struggle, and go into the streets against—the imperialist war. It is really difficult to imagine a more pitiful document, testifying to the fact that the consecutive blows of the governmental apparatus on the skull of the Comintern have succeeded in producing an ominous stupidity. And now this brainless leadership, armed with the above-cited ideas and slogans, warns the bourgeoisie of all Europe that it intends on the first of August to lead the workers into the streets “fully armed with military-technical methods.” Could it be possible to play more shamelessly with the lives of the proletarian vanguard and the honour of the Comintern than these contemptible epigones headed by Stalin are playing?

The tasks and duties of the Bolshevik-Leninists flow very clearly from the whole situation. We represent a small minority in the workers’ movement today—and for the same reasons that the bourgeoisie is strong, the Social Democracy has grown, the right wing of the Comintern is consolidating itself, and centrism holds the apparatus in its hand. The task of the Marxist minority is to analyze, evaluate, foresee, warn against dangers, and indicate the road. What is to be done immediately? The first thing is to correct what has already been done. It is necessary to call off the first of August demonstration.

But will this be injurious to the prestige of the Comintern and its national sections? Indubitably. A crude political mistake cannot be made without affecting the authority of the Comintern. But the injury will be less if you call off the demonstration in time than if you stubbornly persist in the mistake, converting the demonstration in the one case into an unworthy comedy and in the other into a guerrilla battle between a few revolutionary troops and the police.

The recent congress of the German Communist Party seems to be trying to draw away from the call of the West European Bureau in the direction of common sense. But instead of clearly and firmly rejecting it, the manifesto of the congress is content to gloss over and dilute the military-technical slogans of the Comintern. That is the worst course to take, for it combines all the disadvantages of a retreat with all the dangers of adventurism.

It is necessary to call off the demonstration. The Opposition ought to use all its strength to accomplish that. We should be able to knock on the doors of all the party organizations, behind whose backs the demonstration was announced. We must appeal to the advanced elements of the trade unions. We must spare no effort to explain the error and the danger of this new invention. We must explain to Communist and revolutionary workers in general that the first—prerequisite for a militant mass demonstration at the call of the party is for the party to have influence among the masses, gained from day to day by a clear, farsighted, and correct policy. The present policy of the Comintern is undermining and destroying the influence won by the October Revolution and during the period of the first four congresses of the Comintern. We must change the policy fundamentally. We must begin by calling off the first of August demonstration.

The Opposition will under no conditions permit itself to be cut off from the masses and above all from planning in good time the date for the insurrection. The Opposition is the vanguard of the vanguard. It will fulfil its duty this time as in all others.

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Last updated on: 27 November 2008