Leon Trotsky

The Danger of Thermidor

An Analysis of the Significance of Stalin’s Latest Speech

(January 1933)

Written: 11 January 1933.
Source: The Militant, Vol. VI No. 5, 4 February 1933, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2015. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

The Soviet regime rests on the alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry. The proletariat constitutes the minority of the population; the peasantry, the overwhelming majority. Yet in the hands of the proletariat are the most concentrated means of production. The forces of the peasantry, on the contrary, are split up through their economic relations. Still more, it is not a homogeneous group. As long as there is no thoroughgoing change in technique and economy in the village – and for this even under the most favorable circumstances the work of a whole generation would be needed – the peasantry will crystallize out of itself a stratum of kulaks, which inevitably strives towards capitalism. The mechanical destruction of the present kulaks decides nothing. After the alleged “liquidation of the kulaks as a class” the Soviet press constantly keeps complaining (having gone over from materialism to idealism, since bureaucrats are always idealists), of the power of the kulak “ideology”, of the remains of kulak psychology, etc. In fact, behind these complaints is hidden the fact that the middle class of peasants, although locked up into kolkhozes, faced with the present level of technique and economy, sees no other way out for itself than to lift itself up to the level of the kulaks.

What the Peasant Demands

In the October upheaval two revolutions were interlaced; the end of the democratic one and the beginning of the socialist. By doing away with lease payments, the democratic revolution saved the peasantry almost half a billion gold rubles. The fruits of the socialist revolution are valued by the poor peasants according to the quantity of industrial products which he can obtain in exchange for a given quantity of grain. The peasant is no Utopian; he does not demand that socialism be built up in one country and in five years at that. But he does demand that socialist industry de. liver him goods under conditions which are no worse than those of capitalist industry. Under these conditions, the peasant is prepared to extend an unlimited credit in political confidence to the proletariat and its party. The Soviet state would receive the possibility of maneuvering according to the internal conditions and the world situation, and of drawing the peasantry into socialist economy.

The basis of mass collectivization can only be the equivalent exchange of the products of industry and agriculture. Without going into the theoretical economic hair-splitting, we must regard as “equivalent” such an exchange as will stimulate the peasants, individual as well as Collectivized, to till as much land and harvest as much grain as possible, selling the greater part to the city in order to obtain for it as large a quantity of industrial products as possible. Only such reciprocal economic relation between city and country – what Lenin called the “smytchka” – can free the workers state from the necessity of taking forcible measures against the village to compel the exchange. Only from the moment when the voluntary exchange is assured will the proletarian dictatorship be unshakable. The “smytchka” thus secured, means the closest political alliance of the poor peasantry with the urban workers, the firm support of the decisive masses of the middle peasantry, and consequently, the political isolation of the kulaks and of all capitalist elements in the country in general. The “smytchka”, thus secured, means the unshakable loyalty of the Red Army to the proletarian dictatorship, which in view of the successful industrialization and the unlimited human, largely peasant, reserves, will make it possible for the Soviet state to repulse any imperialist intervention.

As the Left Opposition has declared since 1923, industrialization is the prerequisite of the march towards socialism. Without a rising industrialization neither linen nor nails, not to speak of tractors, can be supplied to the peasants. But industrialization must be carried through at such a tempo and in accordance with such plans that the relation of the quantity of goods between city and village will steadily if slowly improve, and the standard of living of workers and peasants rise. This foremost condition of the stability of the whole regime limits the permissible tempo of industrialization and collectivization.

Back to War Communism

It means nothing to add, “Has the five year plan abolished classes and introduced socialism?” But we must unquestionably ask, “Has it assured the “smytchka” between city and country?” The answer is “No”, it has shaken and weakened it.” In his last speech at the plenum of the Central Committee, Stalin boasted that the planned collectivization had been exceeded three times over. But who needs these figures outside of the bureaucratic boasters? The statistics of collectivization do not take the place of bread. The kolkhozes are numerous, but there is no meat and no vegetables. The city has nothing to eat. Industry is disorganized because the workers are hungry. In its relation to the peasant, the city has passed from a semi-voluntary exchange through a tax in kind to compulsory expropriations, that is, to the methods of war-time Communism.

The hungry workers are dissatisfied with the policies of the party. The party is dissatisfied with the leadership. The .peasantry is dissatisfied with industrialization, with collectivization, with the city. Part of the peasantry is dissatisfied with the regime. What part? We cannot know, but it is clear that under present circumstances, it can only grow.

“The planned collectivization has been exceeded three times over!” But that is precisely the misfortune. The forced kolkhozes not only do not lead to socialism, but on the contrary undermine the foundations of the dictatorship of the proletariat by becoming the organized form of the strike of the peasants against the city. By hiding its grain from the state or purposely limiting its seeding, the peasantry places itself on the road of the kulaks. “Permit me,” it says, “to buy and sell at will”. From whom and to whom? To and from the one who offers the right prices, whether it be the state, a private dealer, or a foreign capitalist. The peasant strike for the freedom of internal trade leads immediately to the demand for the abolition of cue monopoly of foreign trade. That is the logic of the mistakes of the Five Year Plan.

In his speech Stalin gave the summary. As to this we shall speak in a separate article, but in planned economy the statistical balance sheet corresponds to the economic balance sheet only in case the plan is correct. A plan full of mistakes, on the contrary, can compromise or even annul the greatest successes. The Five Year Plan has brought enormous gains in technique and in production. But its economic results are extraordinarily contradictory. As far us the political balance-sheet is concerned, it shows an open and very great deficit. But politics is condensed, concentrated economy. Politics is decisive. A socialist construction, which drives a wedge between the worker and the peasant and sows dissatisfaction among the proletariat is a lying construction. No figures can change this objective estimation. The real balance is not given on the pages of the newspapers, but in the fields of the peasants, in the barns of the kolkhozes, in the warehouses of the factories, in the dining-rooms of the workers and finally, in the heads of the workers and of the peasants.

Through all its zig-zags, its delays, its forward-leaps, bureaucratic Centrism has not strengthened the dictatorship of the proletariat, but on the contrary, has increased the danger of Thermidor. Only cowards can fear to name this result out loud, Facts are stronger than words. In order to struggle against inimical facts, we must call them by their right names. We must also call those responsible by their names; Stalin and his clique.

Why do we speak precisely of Thermidor? Because it is the best known and most complete historical example of a masked counter-revolution which still contains the outward forms and the ritual of the revolution, but which already changes the class content of the state. Here the clever ones will interrupt us, to show their cleverness, “In 18th century France, it was a question of a bourgeois revolution, in 20th century Russia, of a proletarian revolution; social conditions have changed considerably, the world situation has changed, etc., etc.” With such commonplaces any Philistine takes on an appearance of extraordinary profundity. For us too, the difference between the October revolution and the Jacobin revolution is no mystery. But that is no reason for turning one’s back on history. Lenin wrote in 1903 that the Bolsheviks are Jacobins who are inseparably bound up with the working class. At that time I replied to Lenin explaining in detail the difference between Marxist and Jacobin. My remarks, correct in themselves, completely failed of their purpose. Lenin knew well that Marxist and Jacobin are not the same thing, but it was necessary for a definite reason for him to point out the features which they have in common. Without such methods one can learn absolutely nothing from history.

In the same sense in which Lenin called the Bolsheviks the proletarian Jacobins, we can detect in the reaction against the dictatorship of the proletariat, features of Thermidor. Not every counter-revolution can be compared with Thermidor neither; Kornilov, nor Koltchak, nor Lenikin, nor Wrangel had anything in common with Thermidor. In all these oases it was a question of an armed struggle of capitalists and landowners to restore their domination. This danger was repulsed by the proletarian state. Can this danger rise up again? As an independent factor – scarcely. The Russian big bourgeoisie has been destroyed to the roots. The surviving remains could appear on the stake only as the tail-end of a foreign military intervention or of Thermidor.

Of all the past counter-revolutionary movements in the Soviet Union, the Kronstadt rebellion of March 1921 is the closest to Thermidor in type. All the proletarian elements of the Kronstadt garrison had been removed during the three preceding years for the purposes of Soviet construction and the civil war; the best of them had been destroyed. On the ships and in the barracks remained only the immature, half-starved peasant elements. Many of these sailors considered themselves as Bolsheviks, but they did not want the Commune; they were for the Soviets, but without Communists. It was the rebellion of the injured, dissatisfied peasantry, which had lost its patience, against the dictatorship of the proletariat. If the petty bourgeoisie had won, it would have shown its bankruptcy the next day, and its place could only have been taken by the big bourgeoisie. Under the conditions of the present day, that is, of the 20th and not of the 18th century, years would not have been necessary for this; months, even weeks, would have sufficed. The petty bourgeois counter-revolution which still honestly regards itself as revolution, which does not want the domination of capitalism, but inevitably prepares it – that is Thermidor.

In the Soviet Union, only the peasantry can become a Thermidorian power. For this it is necessary that it seriously separate itself from the proletariat. The destruction of the normal relation between city and village, the administrative collectivization, the compulsory expropriation of agricultural products, confront the peasantry with the Soviet state now no less sharply than in the winter of 1920-21. It is true that the proletariat is now numerically much stronger; therein lies the success of industrialization. Biut the proletariat is completely deprived of an active, watchful Party, capable or action. The apparent Party is without a Marxian leadership. On the other hand, the peasantry has acquired an organization for resistance against the soviet state, in the form of the kolkhozes. The abolition of the “smytchka”, which was beginning to be formed, threatens to break the political alliance between proletariat and peasantry. Precisely therein lies the source of the danger of Thermidor.

We must not represent the matter to ourselves in such a way, that the break must be marked by a very exact social line; on the one side the peasants, on the other, the workers. The peasant masses surround and interlock with the proletariat from all sides. In the proletariat itself there are millions who have just come from the village. Finally, the open mistakedness of the policies of the leadership, the shipwreck of bureaucratic adventurism, the absence of a clear orientation, the absolute choking-off of workers democracy – all this makes even the genuine worker accessible to the pressure of petty-bourgeois ideology, therein lies the second source of danger of Thermidor.

But we also must not think that the line of fracture will have to go some-where between the party on the one baud, and the peasantry and a part of the working class on the other. No – the line of Thermidor would inevitably have to pass through the party itself. In his will, Lenin wrote, “Our party is sup-ported by two classes. For this reason, an upset of its stability is possible, and if no agreement between both classes can exist, the breakdown of the party is inevitable – – in such a case, no measures could prevent a split (of the party – L.T.); but I confidently expect such a possibility will prove too remote, such an event too improbable, to need to be discussed”. Lenin in those days expressed the certainty that ten to twenty years of correct policy toward the peasantry would assure the victory of the proletarian revolution on the world scale. Precisely for this reason he thought – and we all did too – that the perspectives of Thermidor were not only tar oft’, but also highly improbable.

Of the ten to twenty years indicated by Lenin, ten have already passed. On the field of the international revolution, the Comintern during this period has reaped only defeats. Today, in spite of the exceptionally favorable objective conditions, Communism and consequently the international revolution is weaker than at the time when Lenin wrote his will. In addition, the danger of a split between the two classes on which the dictatorship in the USSR rests, has been extraordinarily acute.

In spite of the great difficulties, there is nothing in the economic situation of the country which cannot be repaired. But something is needed to do the repairing – a party is needed. But a party in the true sense of the word does not exist. There is an organization, which formally includes millions and millions of members and candidates. Both members and candidates have no rights. In the tight limits of the party there are in fact the terrorized elements of two parties, the proletarian and the Thermidorian. Above them rises the bureaucracy. It bears the responsibility for the mistakes in economic policy, for the undermining of the “symtchka”. It bears a still heavier responsibility for choking the party. At the same time, as through its policy it confronts hostilely the peasantry and the state, it has politically disarmed and split up the proletariat. Not only do the workers physically wander from one factory to another, but politically too they find no permanent place.

It would be false to assume that the line of the Thermidorian split must pass between the Stalinist apparatus and the Right wing of the party. No – it must pass through the apparatus itself. What percentage of Bessedovskys and Agabekovs does it contain? That, even the betrayers of tomorrow do not know. All depends on the relation of forces outside of the apparatus. It needs only a sufficient blow from the petty bourgeoisie for the bureaucratic Thermidorians to recognize themselves and to leap over the wall that separates them from the class enemy. Therein lies the third source of danger of Thermidor.

But, someone from the Stalinists or their admirers will say, “Don’t you see that the C. C. is preparing to purge the party of the Right wingers? Just this proves that Stalin is taking measures against Thermidor”. “No”, we will answer, “the bureaucratic ‘purging’ only facilitates the work of Thermidor.” The new purging, like all those that have preceded it in the course of the past ten years, will be directed primarily against the Left Opposition, and in general against the thinking and the most critical proletarian elements. In spite of the official slogan, “The main danger’ is to the Right” – Rykov too repeats this formulation now – prisons and places of exiles are being filled primarily with Left Oppositionists. Still, even when the blows fall on the Right wing they do not strengthen the Party but weaken it. Among the Right wing, besides the truly Thermidorian elements, there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, who are profound enemies of a capitalist restoration, but who demand the revision of the whole policy from the standpoint of the working masses in city and village. The program of these Right wingers is confused. They can for a time support Thermidor; but they can also support the revivification of the party by the revolutionary way. The Stalinist bureaucracy prevents them from understanding the situation. Through its “purging” it endeavors first of all to choke off critical thinking. Thereby it only strengthens the Right wing.

And who will do the purging? In Paris, Bessedovsky led the commission that “purged” Rakovsky. Let us never forget this. Since then the demoralization of the apparatus has gone further. In all the letters which we receive from the USSR, the most tragic note is this: “No one has confidence in another; everyone is afraid that a class enemy with a party card is next to him”. Louder than anyone else, the careerists, the adventurers, the Bessedovskys and the Agabekovs will shout about the necessity for a purging. But who will purge the party of these purgers? Not the apparatus, but only the irreconcilable enemies of the absolutism of the apparatus.

Is the situation hopeless? Such words do not belong to our vocabulary. The struggle will decide. On the side of the proletarian revolution, there are many historical possibilities, negative ones; the dreadful decay of capitalism, the raging quarrels of the imperialists, the bankruptcy of reformism, as well as positive ones: the hardened cadres of the Bolshevik-Leninists, understanding the course of development, clear perspectives. The struggle will decide. The danger has grown and has come nearer – that is absolutely unquestionable. But the poison of Thermidor carries within itself too the elements of the antidote. The more immediate and the nearer the danger, the stronger becomes the need of resistance. The more the Stalinist bureaucracy loses its head, and the more its omnipotence proves to be only apparent power, the louder will be the demands of the advanced workers for a Bolshevik leadership.

The last speech of Stalin – we come back to this – means a turn to the Right. Every phrase of his bureaucratic boasting is only a concealed recognition of the falsehood of the whole “general line”, which has brought the dictatorship nearer to Thermidor. The diseases and dangers will be treated by Stalin through a new bureaucratic zig-zag amidst redoubled bureaucratic terror. A redoubled struggle against Stalinism will be our answer.

Prinkipo, January 11, 1933

Leon Trotsky

return return return return return

Last updated on: 12 April 2015