Leon Trotsky

The Errors in Principle of Syndicalism

(October 1923)

To Serve in the Discussion with Monatte and his Friends

WHEN I arrived in France in October 1914, I found the French socialist and trade union movement in a state of the deepest chauvinist demoralisation. In the search for revolutionaries, with candle in hand, I made the acquaintance of Monatte and Rosmer. They had not succumbed to chauvinism. It was thus that our friendship began. Monatte considered himself an anarcho-syndicalist; despite that, he was immeasurably closer to me than the French Guesdists, who were playing a pitiful and shameful role. At that time, the Cachins were making themselves familiar with the servants’ entrance to the ministries of the Third Republic and the Allied embassies. In 1915, Monatte left the central committee of the CGT, slamming the door behind him. His departure from the trade union center was in essence nothing but a split. At that time, however, Monatte believed – and rightly so – that the fundamental historical tasks of the proletariat stood above unity with chauvinists and lackeys of imperialism. It was in this that Monatte was loyal to the best traditions of revolutionary syndicalism.

Monatte was one of the first friends of the October Revolution. True, unlike Rosmer, he had held aloof for a long time. That was well in keeping with the character of Monatte, as I was later convinced, of standing aside, of waiting, of criticising. At times this is absolutely unavoidable. But as a basic line of conduct it becomes a kind of sectarianism that has a close affinity to Proudhonism, but nothing in common with Marxism.

When the Socialist Party of France became the Communist Party, I frequently had occasion to discuss with Lenin the onerous heritage the International had received in the person of leaders like Cachin, Frossard and other heroes of the League of the Rights of Man, of the Freemasons, of parliamentarians, careerists, and babblers. One of these conversations – if I am not mistaken I have already published it in the press – follows:

“It would be good,” Lenin said to me, “to drive out all these weathercocks, and to draw into the party the revolutionary syndicalists, the militant workers, people who are really devoted to the cause of the working class. And Monatte?”

“Monatte would of course be ten times better than Cachin and those like him,” I replied. “But Monatte not only continues to reject parliamentarism but to this day he has not grasped the significance of the party.”

Lenin was astonished: “Impossible! Has not grasped the significance of the party after the October Revolution? That’s a very disturbing symptom.”

I carried on a correspondence with Monatte in which I invited him to Moscow. He was evasive. True to his nature, he preferred in this case too to stand aside and wait. And besides, the Communist Party did not suit him. In that he was right. But instead of helping to transform it, he waited. At the Fourth Congress we succeeded in taking the first step towards cleansing the Communist Party of France of Freemasons, pacifists and office-seekers. Monatte entered the party. But it is not necessary to emphasise the fact that this did not mean to us that he had adopted the Marxian viewpoint; not at all. On March 23, 1923, I wrote in Pravda: “The entrance of our old friend Monatte into the Communist Party was a great day for us. The revolution needs men of this kind. But it would be wrong to pay for a rapprochement with a confusion of ideas.” In this article, I criticised the scholasticism of Louzon on the relations among the class, the trade unions, and the party. In particular, I explained that prewar syndicalism had been an embryo of the Communist Party, that this embryo had since become a child, and that, if this child was suffering from measles and rickets, it was necessary to nourish and cure it, but that it would be absurd to imagine that it could be made to return to its mother’s womb. I may perhaps be permitted to say in this regard that the arguments of my 1923 article, in caricature, serve to this day as the main weapons against Monatte in the hands of Monmousseau and other anti-Trotskyist warriors.

Monatte joined the party; but he hardly had time to turn about and accustom himself to a house far vaster than his little shop on the Quai de Jemmapes when the coup d’état in the International burst upon him: Lenin was taken ill, the campaign against “Trotskyism” and the Zinovievist “Bolshevization” began. Monatte could not submit to the careerists who, by leaning on the general staff of the epigones at Moscow and disposing of unlimited resources, carried on by means of intrigue and slander. Monatte was expelled from the party. This episode, important but still only an episode, was of decisive moment in the political development of Monatte. He decided that his brief experience in the party had fully confirmed his anarcho-syndicalist prejudices against the party in general. Monatte then began insistently to retrace his steps towards abandoned positions. He began to seek again the Amiens Charter. To do all that, he had to turn his face to the past. The experiences of the war, of the Russian Revolution, and of the world trade union movement were lost upon him, leaving hardly a trace. Once again Monatte stood aside and waited. What for? A new Amiens Congress. During the last few years I was unfortunately unable to follow the retrogressive evolution of Monatte: the Russian Opposition lived in a blockaded circle.

Out of the whole treasure of the theory and practice of the world struggle of the proletariat, Monatte has extracted but two ideas: trade union autonomy and trade union unity. He has elevated these two pure principles above sinful reality. It is on trade union autonomy and trade union unity that he has based his newspaper and his Syndicalist League. Unfortunately, these two ideas are hollow and each of them resembles the hole in a ring. Whether the ring be made of iron, silver or gold, Monatte does not care in the least. The ring, you see, always hampers the trade unions’ activity. Monatte is interested only in the hole of autonomy.

No less empty is the other sacred principle: unity. In its name, Monatte even stood out against the rupture of the Anglo-Russian Committee, even though the General Council of the British trade unions had betrayed the general strike. The fact that Stalin, Bukharin, Cachin, Monmousseau and others supported the bloc with the strikebreakers until the latter kicked them out, does not in the least reduce Monatte’s mistake. After my arrival abroad. I made an attempt to explain to the readers of the Révolution prolétarienne the criminal character of this bloc, the consequences of which are still being felt by the workers’ movement. Monatte did not want to publish my article. And how could it have been otherwise, since I had made an assault upon the sacred trade union unity, which solves all questions and reconciles all contradictions?

When strikers encounter a group of strikebreakers in their path, they throw them out of their midst without sparing blows. If the strikebreakers are union men, they throw them out immediately, without worrying about the sacred principle of trade union unity. Monatte surely has no objections to this. But the matter is entirely different when it is a question of the trade union bureaucracy and its leaders. The General Council is not composed of starving and backward strikebreakers; no, they are well-fed and experienced traitors, who found it necessary at a given moment to stand at the head of the general strike in order to decapitate it all the more quickly and surely. They worked hand in hand with the government, the bosses, and the church. It would seem that the leaders of the Russian trade unions, who were in a political bloc with the General Council, should have immediately, openly and relentlessly broken with it at that very moment, in full view of the masses deceived and betrayed by it. But Monatte rises up fiercely: it is forbidden to disturb trade union unity. In an astonishing manner, he forgets that he himself upset this unity in 1915 by leaving the chauvinist General Council of the Conféderation Générale du Travail.

It must be said outright: between the Monatte of 1915 and the Monatte of 1929, there is an abyss. To Monatte it seems that he is remaining entirely faithful to himself. Formally, this is true, up to a certain point. Monatte repeats a few old formulas, but he ignores entirely the experiences of the last fifteen years, richer in lessons than all the preceding history of humanity. In the attempt to return to his former positions, Monatte fails to notice that they disappeared a long time ago. No matter what question is raised, Monatte looks backward. This may be seen most clearly in the question of the party and the state.

Some time ago, Monatte accused me of underrating the “danger? of state power (Révolution prolétarienne, No.79, May 1, 1929). This reproach is not a new one; it has its origin in the struggle of Bakunin against Marx and it shows a false, contradictory, and essentially non-proletarian conception of the state.

With the exception of one country, state power throughout the world is in the hands of the bourgeoisie. It is in this, and only in this, that, from the point of view of the proletariat, the danger of state power lies. The proletariat’s historical task is to wrest this most powerful instrument of oppression from the hands of the bourgeoisie. The Communists do not deny the difficulties, the dangers that are connected with the dictatorship of the proletariat. But can this lessen by one iota the necessity to seize power? If the whole proletariat were carried by an irresistible force to the conquest of power, or if it had already conquered it, one could, strictly speaking, understand this or that warning of the syndicalists. Lenin, as is known, warned in his testament against the abuse of revolutionary power. The struggle against the distortions of the dictatorship of the proletariat has been conducted by the Opposition since its inception and without the need of borrowing from the arsenal of anarchism.

But in the bourgeois countries, the misfortune lies in the fact that the overwhelming majority of the proletariat does not understand as it should the dangers of the bourgeois state. By the manner in which they treat the question, the syndicalists, unwittingly of course, contribute to the passive conciliation of the workers with the capitalist state. When the syndicalists keep drumming into the workers, who are oppressed by the bourgeois state, their warnings about the dangers of a proletarian state, they play a purely reactionary role. The bourgeois will readily repeat to the workers: “Do not touch the state because it is a snare full of dangers to you.” The Communist will say to the workers: “The difficulties and dangers with which the proletariat is confronted the day after the conquest of power – we will learn to overcome them on the basis of experience. But at the present time, the most menacing dangers lie in the fact that our class enemy holds the reins of power in its hands and directs it against us.”

In contemporary society, there are only two classes capable of holding power in their hands: the capitalist bourgeoisie and the revolutionary proletariat. The petty bourgeoisie long ago lost the economic possibility of directing the destinies of modern society. Now and then, in fits of desperation, it rises for the conquest of power, even with arms in hand, as has happened in Italy, in Poland and other countries.

But the fascist insurrections only end in this result: the new power becomes the instrument of finance capital under an even more naked and brutal form. That is why the most representative ideologists of the petty bourgeoisie are afraid of state power as such. The petty bourgeoisie fears power when it is in the hands of the big bourgeoisie, because the latter strangles and ruins it. The petty bourgeoisie also fears power when it is in the hands of the proletariat, for the latter undermines all the conditions of its habitual existence. Finally, it fears power when it falls into its own hands because it must inevitably pass out of its impotent hands into those of finance capital or the proletariat. The anarchists do not see the revolutionary problems of state power, its historical role, and see only the “dangers” of state power. The anti-state anarchists are consequently the most logical and, for that reason, the most hopeless representatives of the petty bourgeoisie in its historical blind alley.

Yes, the dangers of state power exist under the regime of the dictatorship of the proletariat as well, but the substance of these dangers consists of the fact that power can actually return to the hands of the bourgeoisie. The best known and most obvious state danger is bureaucratism. But what is its essence? If the enlightened workers’ bureaucracy could lead society to socialism, that is, to the liquidation of the state, we would be reconciled to such a bureaucracy. But it has an entirely opposite character. by separating itself from the proletariat, by raising itself above it the bureaucracy falls under the influence of the petty bourgeois classes and can by that very fact facilitate the return of power into the hands of the bourgeoisie. In other words, the state dangers for the workers under the dictatorship of the proletariat are, in the final analysis, nothing but the danger of restoring the power to the bourgeoisie.

The question of the source of this bureaucratic danger is no less important. It would be radically wrong to think, to imagine, that bureaucratism rises exclusively from the fact of the conquest of power by the proletariat. No, that is not the case. In the capitalist states, the most monstrous forms of bureaucratism are to be observed precisely in the trade unions. It is enough to look at America, England and Germany. Amsterdam is the most powerful international organisation of the trade union bureaucracy. It is thanks to it that the whole structure of capitalism now stands upright above all in Europe and especially in England. If there were not a bureaucracy of the trade unions, then the police, the army, the courts, the lords, the monarchy would appear before the proletarian masses as nothing but pitiful and ridiculous playthings. The bureaucracy of the trade unions is the backbone of British imperialism. It is by means of this bureaucracy that the bourgeoisie exists, not only in the metropolis, but in India, in Egypt, and in the other colonies. One would have to be completely blind to say to the English workers: “Be on guard against the conquest of power and always remember that your trade unions are the antidote to the dangers of the state.” The Marxist will say to the English workers: “The trade union bureaucracy is the chief Instrument, for your oppression by the bourgeois state. Power must be wrested from the hands of the bourgeoisie, and for that its principal agent, the trade union bureaucracy, must be overthrown.” Parenthetically, it is especially for this reason that the bloc of Stalin with the strikebreakers was so criminal.

From the example of England, one sees very clearly how absurd it is to counterpose, as if it were a question of two different principles, the trade union organisation and the state organisation. In England, more than anywhere else, the state rests upon the back of the working class which constitutes the overwhelming majority of the population of the country. The mechanism is such that the bureaucracy is based directly on the workers, and the state indirectly, through the intermediary of the trade union bureaucracy.

Up to now, we have not mentioned the Labour Party, which in England, the classic country of trade unions, is only a political transposition of the same trade union bureaucracy. The same leaders guide the trade unions, betray the general strike, lead the electoral campaign and later on sit in the ministries. The Labour Party and the trade unions – these are not two principles, they are only a technical division of labour. Together they are the fundamental support of A domination of the English bourgeoisie. The latter cannot be overthrown without overthrowing the Labourite bureaucracy. And that cannot be attained by counterposing the trade union as such to the state as such, but only by the active opposition of the Communist Party to the Labourite bureaucracy in all fields of social life: in the trade unions, in strikes, in the electoral campaign, in parliament, and in power.

The principal task of a genuine party of the proletariat consists of putting itself at the head of the working masses, organised in trade unions and unorganised, to wrest power from the bourgeoisie and to strike a deathblow to the “dangers of statism.”

October 21, 1929

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Last updated on: 3.3.2007