L.D. Trotsky

The “Third Period”
of the Comintern’s Mistakes

What are the Symptoms of the Political Radicalization of the Masses?

Written: 27 December 1929.
Source: The Militant, Vol. III No. 6, 8 February 1930, pp. 4 & 8.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2012. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

The question of the radicalization of the masses is not exhausted, however, with the strike movement. How do matters stand with the political struggle? And above all: how do matters stand with the numbers and influence of the Communist Party?

It is remarkable that in speaking ot radicalization the official leaders, with a striking light-mindedness, ignore the question of their own party. Meanwhile, the facts are that beginning with 1925 the membership of the party has been falling from year to year: in 1925, 83,000 members; 1926, 65,000; 1927, 56,000; 1928, 52,000; 1929, 35,000. For the past years, we use the official figures of the secretary of the Comintern, Piatnitzky; for 1929, the figures of Semard. No matter how these figures are regarded, they are undoubtedly highly exaggerated. As a whole, they very vividly present the curve of the party’s decline: in five years, the membership fell by more than half. It may be said that quality is more important than quantity, and that there now remain in the party only the fully reliable Communists. Let us assume that. But this is not at all the question. The process of the radicalization of the masses can by no means signify the isolation of the cadres, but on the contrary, the influx into the party of reliable and semi-reliable members and the conversion of the latter into “reliables.” The political radicalization of the masses can be reconciled with the systematic decrease in party membership only if one considers the role of the party in the life of the working class the same as a fifth wheel to a wagon. Facts are stronger than words: we observe a steady decline of the party not only during the years 1925–27, when the strike wave was ebbing, but also during the last two years, when the number of strikes was beginning to grow.

At this point, the honorable Panglosses [1] of official Communism will interrupt, pointing to the “disproportion” between the numbers of the party and its influence. This is now generally the formula of the Comintern, created by the shrewd for the simpleton. However, the canonized formula not only fails to explain anything but in some respects even makes matters worse. The experience of the labor movement testifies that the difference between the extent of organization and the extent of the influence of the party – all other conditions being equal – is all the greater the smaller the revolutionary and the bigger the “parliamentary” character of the given party. Opportunism is a lot easier than Marxism, is based on the diffused masses. This is especially evident from the simple comparison of the socialist and Communist Party. [2] The systematic growth of the “disproportion,” with the decline in the numbers of organized Communists could consequently mean nothing but the fact that the French Communist Party is being transformed from a revolutionary into a parliamentary and municipalist party. That this process to a certain degree took place in the last years, of that the recent “municipal” scandals are incontestable witness; and it may be feared that “parliamentary” scandals will follow. Nevertheless, the difference between the Communist party in its present form, and the socialist agency of the bourgeoisie, remains enormous. The Panglosses in the leadership merely slander the French Communist Party when they discourse on some kind of a gigantic disproportion between its numbers and its influence. It is not difficult to prove that the political influence of Communism, unfortunately, has grown very little in the last five years.

For Marxists – it is no secret that parliamentary and municipal elections sharply distort, and – always to the detriment of revolutionary tendencies – change the actual mood of the suppressed masses. Nevertheless, the dynamics of political development find their reflection in parliamentary elections: this is one of the reasons why we Marxists take an active part in parliamentary and municipal struggles. But what do the figures of the election statistics show? In the legislative elections of 1924 the Communist party polled 875,000 votes, a little less than ten percent of the total electorate. In the elections of 1928, the party polled a little more than a million votes (1,064,000), which represented eleven and one third percent of the votes cast. Thus, the specific gravity of the party in the electoral body increased by one and one third percent. If this process were to continue further at the same tempo, then the perspective of Chambelland with regards to thirty or forty years of “social peace” would appear too ... revolutionary.

The socialist party, already “non-existence” in 1924 (according to Zinoviev-Losovsky) polled almost 1,700,000 votes in 1928, more than eighteen percent of the total, or more than one and a half times the Communist votes.

The results of the municipal elections change the whole picture very little. In some industrial centers (Paris, the North) the winning away, of votes from the socialists by the Communists undoubtedly took place. Thus, in Paris the specific gravity of the Communist vote increased in four years (1925–29) from 18.9 percent to 21.8 percent, that is, by three percent, at a time when the socialist vote fell from 22.4 percent to 18.1 percent, that is, by four percent. The symptomatic significance of such facts is undeniable: but so far they have only a local character, and are strongly discredited by that anti-revolutionary “municipalism” personified, by Louis Sellier and the petty bourgeois like him. Generally, the municipal elections that took place a year after the legislative elections did not bring about any real changes as a result of the Selliers.

Other indications of political life speak just as fully against, to say the least, premature parrotings on the so-called political radicalization of the masses, which is to have taken place in the last two years. The circulation of l’Humanité, to our knowledge, has not grown in the past two years. The collections of money for l’Humanité undoubtedly represent a gratifying fact. But such collections would have been considerable, in view of the demonstrative attack of reaction on the paper, a year, two and three ago as well.

On the First of August – it must not be forgotten for a minute – the party was incapable of mobilizing not only that part of the proletariat which voted for it but not even all the unionized workers. In Paris, according to the undoubtedly exaggerated accounts of l’Humanité, about fifty thousand workers participated in the First of August demonstrations. That is, less than half of the unionized. In the provinces, matters stood infinitely worse. This fact proves, be it noted in passing, that the “leading role” of the Political Bureau among the C.G.T.U. apparatus men does not at all mean the leading role of the party among the unionized workers. But the latter contain only a tiny fraction of the class. If the revolutionary rise is such an irrefutable fact then what good is a party leadership which, in the acute moment of the Soviet-Chinese conflict, could not bring out at an anti-imperialist demonstration even a quarter (more correctly stated, even a tenth) part of its electorate in the country. No one demands the impossible of the leadership of the party. A class cannot be seduced. But what gave the August First demonstration the character of a flat failure is the monstrous “disproportion” between the victorious shouts of the leadership and the real echo of the masses. So far as the trade union union organizations are concerned, they went through the party’s decline – judging by the official figures – after a delay of one year. In 1926, the C.G.T.U. numbered 475,000 members. In 1927, 452,000. In 1928, 375,000. The loss of 100,000 members by the trade unions at a time when the strike struggles in the country increased, represents an irrefutable proof that the C.G.T.U. does not reflect the basic processes at work in the field of the economic struggles of the masses. As an enlarged shadow of the party, it merely experiences the decline of the latter after some delay.

The data cited in the present outline confirm with double strength the conclusions we made in a semi-a priori order in the first article of the analysis of the strike movement figures. Let us recall them once more. The years 1919–20 were the culminating point of the proletarian struggle in France. After that, an ebb set in, which, in the economic field, began to change six years later by a new, but still slow tide: but in the political field the ebb-tide or stagnation continues even now, at any rate, in the main mass of the proletariat. Thus, the awakenings of the activity of certain sections of the proletariat in the field of economic struggle, is irrefutable. But this process too is only passing through its first stage, when it is primarily the enterprises of light industry that are drawn into the struggle, with an evident preponderance of the unorganized workers over the organized and with a considerable specific gravity of the foreign-born workers.

The impetus to the strike struggles was the rise in the economic conjuncture, with a simultaneous rise of the cost of living. In its first stages the strengthening of economic struggles is not accompanied ordinarily with a revolutionary rise. It is not evident now either. On the contrary, the economic rise for a certain time may even weaken the political interests of the workers, at any rate, of some of its sections.

If we take further into consideration that French industry has been experiencing a stage of rise for two years now; that there is no talk of unemployment in the basic branches of industry and that in some branches there is even an acute shortage of workers, then it is not difficult to conclude that with these exceptionally favorable conditions for trade union struggle the present swing of the strike movement must be acknowledged as extremely moderate. The basic indications of this moderateness are: the depression in the masses that still remains from the last period and the slowness of the industrial rise itself.

What Are the Immediate Perspectives?

Regardless of the rhythm of the conjunctural changes, it is only possible to forsee approximately the change in the phases of the cycle. What was said refers also to pre-war capitalism. But in the present epoch the difficulties of conjunctural prediction have multiplied. The world market has not attained, after the shake-up of the war, the establishment of a single conjuncture, even though it approached it appreciably compared to the first five years after the war. This is why one must now be doubly careful in attempting to determine beforehand the alternating changes in world conjuncture.

At the present moment the following basic variations appear likely:

  1. The New York stock market crisis proves to be the forerunner of a commercial-industrial crisis in the United States, which reaches great depths in the very next months. United States capitalism is compelled to make a decisive turn toward the foreign market. An epoch of mad competition opens up. European goods retreat before this unrestrained attack. Europe enters a crisis later than the United States but as a result the European crisis assumes extraordinary acuteness.
  2. The stock market crash does not immediately call forth a commercial-industrial crisis, but results only in a temporary depression. The blow at stock market speculation bring about better correlation between the course of paper values and commercial-industrial realities, just as between the latter and the real buying power of the market. After the depression and a period of adjustment, the commercial-industrial conjuncture rises upward once more, even though not as steeply as in the previous period. This variation is not excluded. The reserves of American capitalism are great. Not the last place among them is held by the government budget (orders, subsidies, etc.).
  3. The withdrawal of funds from American speculation generates commercial and industrial activities. The further fate of this revival will in turn depend just as much upon purely European factors. Even in case of a sharp economic crisis in the United States, a rise may yet be maintained in Europe for a certain time, because it is unthinkable that capitalism in the United States will be able in the period of a few short months to reconstruct itself for a decisive attack on the world market.
  4. Finally, the actual course of developments may pass between the above-outlined variations and yield an equivalent in the form of a shaky, broken curve with weak deviations upward or downward.

The development of the worker, particularly through the strike movement in the whole history of capitalism, has been closely bound with the development of the conjunctural cycle. It is not necessary, however, to conceive this connection mechanically. Under certain conditions that overflow the boundaries of the commercial-industrial cycle (sharp changes of the world economic or political environment, sharp social crises, wars and revolutions), it is not the current demands of the masses evoked by the given conjuncture that find their expression in the strike wave, but their deep historical tasks of a revolutionary character. Thus, for instance, the post-war strikes in France did not have conjunctural character but reflected the profound crisis of capitalist society as a whole. If we approach the present strike in France with this criterion, it will present itself primarily as a movement of conjunctural character; the course and tempo of the labor movement will depend in the most immediate sense on a further movement of the market, on alternating conjunctural phases, on their fullness and intensity. All the more impermissible is it, in a changeable moment such as we are now passing through, to proclaim the “third period” without any regard for the real course of economic life.

There is no need to explain that even in case of a renewal of the favorable conjuncture in America and the development of a commerical-industrial rise in Europe, the coming of a new crisis is entirely unavoidable. There is not the least doubt that when a crisis actually arrives, the present leaders will declare that their “prognosis” was fully justified, that the stabilization of capitalism proved its weakness, and that the class struggle took on a sharper character. It is clear, however, that such a “prognosis” costs very little. One who started to predict daily the eclipse of the sun would finally live to see his prediction fulfilled. But it is doubtful if we would consider such a prophet a serious astronomer. The task of the Communists is not to predict crises, revolutions and wars every single day, but to prepare for wars and revolutions, soberly evaluating the situation, the conditions which arise between wars and revolutions. It is necessary to foresee the inevitability of a crisis after a rise. It is necessary to warn the masses of the coming crisis. But to prepare them for the crisis will be more easily possible the more fully the masses under a correct leadership, utilize the period of rise. At the recent (December) Plenum of the national committee of the C.G.T.U., quite healthy thoughts were expressed. Thus, Claveri and Dorelle complained that the last C.G.T.U. congress (May 1929) evaded the question of economic demands of the working masses. The speakers, however, did not stop to think how it could happen that a trade union congress passed by that which should be its first and most urgent task. In accordance with the so-called “self-criticism”, the main speakers this time condemned the C.G.T.U. leadership more thoroughly than the Opposition ever did.

However, Dorelle himself introduced not a little confusion in the name of the “third period”, in connection with the question of the political character of the strikes. Dorelle demanded that the revolutionary trade unionists, that is, the Communists, – there are no other revolutionary trade unionists in existence at the present time – show the workers in every strike the dependence of isolated manifestations of exploitation upon the whole contemporary regime, and consequently the connection between the immediate demands of the workers and the task of the proletarian revolution. This is an ABC demand for Marxists. But by this is not at all determined the character of a strike as such. By a political strike must not be understood a strike during which the Communists carry on political agitation, but a strike in which the workers of all trades and enterprises conduct a struggle for definite political aims. Revolutionary agitation on the basis of strikes is a task of Communists under all circumstances; but the participation of workers in political, that is, revolutionary strikes, presents by itself one of the sharpest forms of struggle and occurs only under exceptional circumstances, which neither the party nor the trade unions can manufacture artificially according to their desires. To identify economic strikes with political strikes creates chaos which prevents the trade union leaders from correctly approaching economic strikes, from preparing them and working out an expedient program of workers’ demands.

Matters stand still worse with the general economic orientation. The philosophy of the “third period” demands at all costs and immediately an economic crisis. Our wise trade unionists, therefore, close their eyes to the systematic improvement of the economic conjuncture in France for the past two years at a time when without a concrete estimation of the conjuncture it is impossible, in turn, to work out correct demands and to struggle for them with success. Claveri and Dorelle would do well if they would think the question through to the end. If the economic rise in France should last for another year (which is not out of the question) then primarily the development and deepening of the economic struggles would soon be on the order of the day. To be able to adapt themselves to such circumstances is a task not only of the trade unions but also of the party. It is insufficient to proclaim the abstract right of Communism to a leading role; it is necessary to conquer this by deeds, and at that not within the narrow frame of the trade union apparatus but on the whole field of the class struggle. To the anarchist and trade unionist formula of autonomy of the trade unions, the party must oppose serious theoretical and political aid to the trade unions, making it easier for them to orientate correctly in questions of economic and political developments, and consequently, the elaboration of correct demands and methods of struggle.

The unavoidable change in the rise produced by a crisis will change the tasks, taking the ground from under the successful economic struggles. It has already been said above that the coming of a crisis would serve in all probability as an impetus to the political activity of the masses. The strength of this impetus depends directly on two factors: on the depth and duration of the previous rise, the sharpness of the crisis that has come. The sharper and deeper the change will turn out to be the sharper will be the action of the masses. The reason for this is not difficult to understand. By the power of inertia, strikes generally acquire the greatest impetus at the moment when the economic rise begins to pass into depression. It is as if in the heat of running, the workers encounter a solid wall. With economic strikes you can then accomplish very little. The capitalists, with the depression under way, easily utilize the lockout. It is natural if the class consciousness of the workers which has risen begins to seek other roads for itself. But which? This already depends not only upon conjunctural conditions but on the whole situation in the country.

To declare in advance that the next conjunctural crisis will create an immediate revolutionary situation in France, for that there is at present no basis. Under the juncture of a series of conditions overflowing the boundaries of conjunctural crisis, this is quite possible. On this count only theoretical suppositions are thus far possible. To put forward today the slogan of a general political strike as an actual one, on the basis that the coming crisis may push the masses on the road of revolutionary struggle, means to attempt to appease the hunger of today with the dinner of tomorrow. When Molotov stated at the Tenth Plenum that the general strike has already practically been put on the order of the day in France, then he only showed once too often that he does not know France nor the order nor the day. The anarchists and syndicalists do not a little to compromise the very idea of a general strike in France. Official Communism apparently travels the same road, attempting to substitute goat-leaps of adventurism for systematic revolutionary work.

The tide of political activity of the masses, before it assumes a more decisive form, may, for a certain and for that matter a lengthy period, express itself in a greater attendance of meetings, in a wider distribution of Communist literature in the growth of electoral votes, increase in the number of Party members, etc. Can the leadership adopt in advance a purely a priori orientation on a stormy tempo of development at all events? No. It must have its hands united for one and for the other tempo. Only under this condition can the party, not deviating from the revolutionary direction, march in step with the class.

At the expense of the above-developed considerations I can already hear the caressing voice of the tin rattle accuse me of “economism” on the one hand and capitalist optimism on the other, and of course of social democratic deviations. For the Molotovs, everything they cannot grasp, that is, a great deal, is related to the domain of social democratic deviations, just as to barbarians, ninety-nine percent of the universe is related to the domain of the activity of bad spirits. Following Molotov, Semard and Monmousseau will teach us that the question is not exhausted with shakings in conjuncture, that there are many other factors, for example, rationalization and the approaching war. These people talk about “many” factors all the more readily when they are incapable to explain a single one of them. Doubtless, we will reply to them, the war would have overthrown the whole perspective and would have opened, so to speak, a new chronology. But in the first place, we do not yet know today when the war will come, nor what gates it will come through. Secondly, in order to enter a war with open eyes, we must carefully study all the curves in the road that leads to it. War does not fall from heaven. The question of war and its date is connected most closely with the question of the processes of the world market.

Prinkipo, December 27, 1929


1. Pangloss is Voltaire’s classic character for whom everything is at its best in this “best of all possible worlds”. – Ed.

2. On the eve of the legislative elections of 1924, the president of the E.C.C.I, in a special appeal to the French Communist Party pronounced the Socialist party of France as “non-existent”. The call emanated m the light-winged Lozovsky. I protested in vain, in a letter addressed to the president, against this light-minded evaluation, explaining that a reformist-parliamentary party may retain a very wide influence with a weak organization and even a weak press. This was looked upon as my “pessimism”. Naturally, the results of the 1924 elections, just as the entire further course of development this time also light-mindedness of Zinoviev-Lozovsky.

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Last updated on: 27.8.2012