Leon Trotsky

A Letter to the Editorial Board of
La Lutte de Classes

(August 11, 1929)

Written: August 1929.
First Published: Fourth International [New York], Vol.7 No.9, September 1946, pp.285-287.
Translated: By Fourth 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.

Original 1946 Introduction by Fourth International

One of the main obstacles in France to the crystallization of the Trotskyist movement was the absence of a central and regular publication. The letter appearing below is a second document written by Trotsky in this connection (a previous one, A Letter to Souvarine, appeared last month).

With the exception of Brandler, bead of the right wing tendency in Germany, the references in the text of the letter are to figures in the French movement at the time.

Souvarine, upon his expulsion from the French Communist movement, flirted with the Left Opposition and then became one of the advocates of unity with the Brandlerites.

Rosmer, one of the most influential figures in the French trade union movement and in French Communism, closely collaborated with Trotsky at the time.

Treint was at one time General Secretary of the French CP. He was by profession a teacher. After his expulsion from the CP, he also flirted with the Left Opposition, only to become one of its bitterest opponents when the programmatic issues were posed point-blank by Trotsky.

Naville and Gerard were French intellectuals who remained on the periphery of the revolutionary Communist movement prior to the inception of the Trotskyist organization.

Naville was a literary man who became attracted to the Left Opposition. He took an active, and later a leading part in the French Trotskyist organization. He severed his connections with the organization after the outbreak of World War II.

Gerard, a lawyer by profession, was likewise attracted to the Trotskyist movement in 1929. He collaborated closely with Naville throughout the latter’s stay in the French section of the International Left Opposition.

For previous documentation the reader is referred to the May and August 1946 issues of our magazine.

Dear Comrades,

I reply quite willingly to the letter of Comrade Naville which touches on the most important issues for the French Opposition. I shall not dwell on the past of the French Opposition. This would require too much time. Inasmuch as the past interests us first and foremost from the standpoint of current and future practical tasks, I shall limit myself in connection with Comrade Naville’s letter to the most general conclusions on this score.

The French Opposition has not up to the present time engaged in political work in the true sense of the word. As a consequence it has virtually remained in an embryonic condition. But it is impossible to long remain in such a condition with impunity. Right and left wings have crystallized within it almost without any connection with the struggle of the French proletariat, and therefore, not infrequently, along accidental lines. The fact that the French Opposition remained too long on the first stage of development has led to a proliferation of groups, each primarily concerned with its self-preservation.

All this is true. But all this can in no case serve as an argument against the need to evaluate each and every group from the standpoint of the three basic tendencies inside the Comintern and on its periphery, namely: the Left (Marxist or Leninist), the centrist (Stalinist), and the Right (Bukharin, Brandler, etc.).

These basic criteria flow not from the peculiarities of the development of individual groups and grouplets of the French Opposition, but from the objective conditions – from the correlation of classes, the character of the epoch, the character of the given stage of the epoch, etc. Precisely for this reason the basic tendencies are international in character. If we wish to avoid becoming entangled in evaluating isolated Oppositional groups that became ossified before they were able to fully unfold, we ought to proceed from the objective to the subjective, from the international to the national, from classes to parties and factions.

“But is it worthwhile to pay so much attention to Brandler or Souvarine when such gigantic tasks confront Communism?” This is a rather favourite argument which appears to be profound but which in reality reflects only superficiality and indifference. People who reason in this manner thereby only show that they are not at all preparing to solve “gigantic tasks” in practice. To hide behind great perspectives in order to do nothing is a favourite ruse of sceptics and dilettantes. It is impossible to influence historical events with bare hands. An instrument is necessary. The basic instrument is the party, and at the given stage it is the faction. The faction is unified on the basis of specific ideas and methods of action. Today’s ideological sloppiness implies political bankruptcy on the morrow. When an aviator prepares to fly across an ocean, he must with tenfold care check nuts, screws, bolts, and rudder. For him nothing is too trifling. We are after all only beginning to build the mechanism for future flight. Sloppiness here is especially criminal.

Souvarine became so hopelessly lost precisely because he broke with the Marxist method, seeking to replace it by subjective and capricious observations, speculations, and “studies.” Every group that attempts in these conditions to tie its fate to this method is condemned to annihilation.

But in addition to the Right tendency there is another danger, very acute at the given stage of the movement. I would call it the danger of petty-bourgeois dilettantism. In Russia the Opposition is fighting under conditions which permit only genuine revolutionists to remain in its ranks. This cannot be said without reservations about Western Europe, particularly France. Not only among the intellectuals but even among the upper layer of the workers there are not a few elements willing to bear the title of the most extreme revolutionists so long as this does not impose upon them any serious obligations, i.e., so long as they are not obliged to sacrifice their time and money, submit to discipline, endanger their habits and their comforts. The post-war upheaval created not a few such revolutionists-by-misunderstanding, essentially discontented philistines masquerading as Communists. Some of them also fell into the Opposition, because membership in the Opposition under the present circumstances imposes even less obligations than does membership in the official party. Needless to say, such elements are ballast, and very dangerous ballast at that. They are one hundred percent prepared to adopt the most revolutionary program, but rabidly resist when it is necessary to take the first step toward its realization. Under difficult conditions they will of course leave our ranks at the first convenient pretext. A serious testing and a strict selection is needed on the basis of revolutionary work among the masses.

The task of the French Opposition consists in finding avenues to such work. As a beginning it is necessary to have, at least, a weekly paper, and, moreover, without delay.

It is no secret to you that certain groups and individuals launched a struggle against the weekly even before its appearance. In the interests of this struggle the most unexpected alliances are now being hastily consummated. Only yesterday X wrote and said, “It is impermissible to draw Y into common work because he is capable only of ruining it.” Y in his turn wrote, “X does not deserve either political or moral confidence.” Today both of them write: “The best solution is X plus Y.” Others add that any other decisions would be “bureaucratic.” As everyone knows, especially expert and profuse in charges of bureaucratism are unsuccessful bureaucrats of the Zinoviev school.

Comrades Naville and Gerardi had the opportunity to talk things over with Rosmer and they know from his own lips that neither he nor his friends consider the present grouping as final. All that is involved is to begin It will be possible and necessary to correct, supplement, and improve in the course of action, attracting ever-newer forces and, of course, casting aside those elements which prove worthless in the course of testing. This is the only way in which a living project can be built.

What is the origin of the Verité group? It took shape in a relatively short period, but not at all accidentally. Under La Verité’s banner have gathered active comrades from various groups only because nothing came of attempts to get support from one of the existing groups for the creation of a weekly. We invariably heard one and the same reply: “We haven’t the forces, we haven’t the resources.” As if by sitting in a room it is possible to expect forces and resources from no one knows where. As if forces and resources fall from the sky and are not created by energetic work. People remained completely satisfied with issuing from time to time compilations of Oppositional documents, and failed to notice the glaring and devastating incongruity between the ideas which they accepted in words and the methods they used in action.

Comrade Naville writes that the Russian Opposition is itself responsible because it supported the “obedient ones,” who do not always happen to be the most active and revolutionary. I will not speak here of external conditions which made our connections with foreign countries extremely difficult and frequently made our ties with the foreign Opposition dependent on isolated, accidental, and not always suitable comrades. There were of course not a few mistakes committed. Nevertheless the gist of the matter does not lie here. Individual representatives of the Russian Opposition abroad exercised disproportionately great influence only because the groups of the French Opposition were themselves too weak, too flimsily connected with the movement in their own country. There is only one way out: strengthen the Opposition on French soil. To say, like Souvarine, that we incur the danger of transferring the methods of the Comintern into our ranks is to say something that bears no resemblance whatever to reality. The present methods of the Comintern presuppose first of all the existence of state power and state finances. Failing this, such methods are unthinkable. I can only repeat here the words of G. Gourov: “Revolutionary cadres in each country must take shape on the basis of their own experiences and they must stand on their own feet. The Russian Opposition has at its disposal – today one might almost say that this is fortunate – neither instruments of state repression nor governmental financial resources. It is solely and exclusively a question of ideological influence, interchange of experiences ... Each national section must seek for the sources of its influence and strength not above but below, among its own workers, by rallying the youth to its side, by tireless, energetic, and truly self-sacrificing work”

You might say that I, too, bear responsibility for delaying matters, to the extent that I supported publications which reflected the past and which did not prepare for the future. It is possible that during recent months I kept waiting too patiently for initiative from people who are incapable of initiative, that I restricted myself far too long to trying to convince people by letters, etc. In the final analysis involved here was a delay of two or three additional months, and nothing more.

But I am completely in agreement that it is high time to call things and people by their name and to do so out loud. Discussion-circle diplomacy will not move us forward. What can democracy consist of today within the Opposition? In the whole Opposition’s knowing everything that is being done and the reasons for it. The old circle methods have been exhausted and have completely discredited themselves. At the moment of sharp junctures it is important to observe and verify the activity of individual groups and persons. Today it is not a question of repeating ready-made formulas but of showing in action what each given group or its individual representatives are capable of. A brief history of how the weekly was prepared is most instructive. Every active Oppositionist should be acquainted with this history, through documents and letters. That is the only way cadres take shape. That is the only way to eliminate fictitious magnitudes and to destroy fictitious reputations. That is the only way those who deserve confidence are able to win it. That is the only way in which we can pass from shut-in diplomacy and circle squabbles to genuine democracy within the Opposition.

Having passed through a number of crises, each of which faintly resembles a tempest in a teapot, the Opposition – through the weekly – will not only find itself armed from head to toe but will also feel itself more united, strengthened, and mature.

The editorial board of Contre le couran now advances a new argument in favour of continued passivity: it is first necessary to adopt a “platform.” It is hard to imagine a more moribund demonstration of doctrinairism. I am surprised that the Contre le couran group, which includes workers, does not understand how silly it is to demand that the proletariat, or its vanguard, or the Opposition which desires to be the vanguard of the vanguard, should mark time until someone writes for them, during leisure hours, a salvation platform. In the course of two months we were given two fragments which did not move us a step forward, we are promised a continuation in a month and a conclusion within another month, and only then will the discussion begin. Will the other groups agree to accept as a basis for discussion the draft which has leaped ready-made from its author’s head? As for me, on the basis of the first two instalments I would vote no. This is not a platform but a piece of literature and, besides, not of the best. I hope to demonstrate this in the columns of our future international periodical The Opposition.

In order to begin political work, the Opposition has a perfectly adequate programmatic base, assured by its entire preceding struggle. This base must be taken as the point of departure. And only active participation in political life can prepare the conditions for creating a platform, and not solely a platform but also the Marxist program for the Communist International. Nothing will come of Paz’s attempt to create a platform in a laboratory manner. Let us hope that after this experiment has been performed and after it has revealed its inadequacy, the majority of the group will support the initiative of action, i.e., will take its place under the banner of Verité. They will be accorded a friendly welcome, despite their blunders of today.

In this connection it is necessary to say a few words about Comrade Treint. Here it is necessary to dot all the “i’s.” No matter how much the various groups of the Opposition may have differed among themselves, they all agreed on one thing: no one considered it possible to work with Treint. All of them pointed to his past. I considered and still consider that, despite his past, the door must remain open to Treint, too. It was in this sense that I wrote to him. I tried to explain to him that before evincing such strictness toward all others, he must first win their confidence. Comrade Treint did not understand my advice. He now proclaims that the editorial board of La Verité does not merit his confidence. Naturally, in politics there is no room for absolute or blind confidence. Without verification and control no serious political work is possible. But it is necessary to state categorically that of all the possible candidates for editors of the weekly, Rosmer has the most right to confidence, and Treint the least. By this I do not at all mean to say that Rosmer has made no mistakes. Generally, there are no sinless people in this world. I take political conduct on a broad scale. Rosmer was one of a few dozen pre-war revolutionists who remained unswervingly loyal to internationalism during the war. Rosmer was the first to respond to the call of the October Revolution and went to Moscow to lodge there the first stones of the Communist International. When toward the end of 1923 the epigones began to revise Marxism, Rosmer raised his voice in protest, without being frightened by those abominations that were employed against him by Zinovievist agents, among whom there was a large percentage of careerists.

Facts of this sort enter as major signposts into a political biography and by these signposts it is possible to determine the road of a revolutionist.

In the biography of Comrade Treint there are no such facts. He became a revolutionist after the war. His new world outlook has not yet been submitted even once to the test of major events. In 1923 Treint became the instrument of a false policy and a fatal régime from which the French party as well as the entire Comintern have not freed themselves to this day. Almost up to the middle of 1927 Treint supported the official line of the Comintern and the struggle against the Opposition. In May 1927 at the enlarged plenum of the ECCI, Treint, although he did introduce isolated critical statements, nevertheless voted for the Stalin-Bukharin resolutions on the Chinese question, on the Anglo-Russian Committee, and on the question of the Opposition. Yet Treint had previously spent a year and a half in Moscow and had ample opportunity to follow and study the struggle of the Opposition against Stalin. Joining the Opposition in the autumn of 1927, Treint remained a Zinovievist, which signifies a combination of centrism and ultra-leftism. Finally, even now the ease with which Treint changes his appraisals and his readiness to take part in any combination, in order to obstruct our cause whenever he, Treint, is not in the leadership, testify that Treint intends to apply Zinovievist methods within the framework of the Opposition. This is impermissible. If Treint wants to take his place in our common ranks and prove in action that he is interested in the successes of the Opposition and not only in the post occupied by Treint inside the Opposition, all of us will rejoice equally. Only along this road is it possible to win moral confidence, without which it is absolutely inconceivable to pretend to any sort of leading role in the revolutionary struggle.

But it is necessary to bring this letter to a close.

It seems to me that a platform for the French Opposition in the next period can be formulated very briefly, approximately as follows:

  1. To understand well and explain to others that the most important and unpostponable task today is the creation of a weekly of the Communist Left Opposition.
  2. To understand and explain to others that the Verité group, given our common support, provides maximum guarantees that the weekly will be free from personal prejudices and intrigues and will be a genuine organ of the Communist Left as a whole.
  3. To support openly, loudly, firmly, and energetically the initiative of La Verité – by literary collaboration, by creating a network of workers’ correspondents, by collecting funds, etc.
  4. To openly and firmly condemn attempts to establish a competing organ as an act dictated by circle machinations and not by the interests of the Opposition.

This “Platform” fails to include many questions. But it does touch on the most vital and acute question, failing whose solution all big plans, projects, and “platforms” will remain in the realm of phrases.

As I gather from Comrade Naville’s letter and from my discussion with Comrade Gerard, you are likewise agreed that the group now fused around Verité has in the given conditions the best chances of establishing the needed weekly. This is a second step which is of no less importance than the first. I should like to hope that you will soon also take the third step, namely: declare the cause of Verité to be your own cause.

With Communist greetings,
L. Trotsky

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Last updated on: 15.4.2007