Leon Trotsky

France at the Crossroads

In Lieu of an Introduction to the Second Editionof In Defense of Terrorism

(26 March 1936)

Written: 26 March 1936.
Source: New Militant, Vol. II No. 16, 28 April 1936, p. 4.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive (5 May 2018).
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2018. Creative Commons (Share & Attribute).

Editor’s Note: Following is an excerpt from the third section of Leon Trotsky’s work, Whither France, which is to be published in book form by Pioneer Publishers. Only the second section of Whither France has been published in the English language, in The New International.

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This book is devoted to elucidating the methods of the revolutionary policies of the proletariat in our epoch. The presentation is polemical in nature, like the revolutionary policy itself. Once the masses have been won, the polemic against the ruling class turns, at a certain stage, into revolution.

Revolutionary policy has its theoretical basis in a clear understanding of the class nature of modern society, of its state, its laws and its ideology. The bourgeoisie operates with abstractions (“nation”, “fatherland”, “democracy”) in order to cover up thereby the exploiting character of its rule. Le Temps, one of the most venal newspapers on the terrestrial globe, gives daily lectures to the popular masses of France on patriotism and altruism. Meanwhile, it is a secret to nobody that the altruism of Le Temps itself is on the market at fixed international rates.

The first step of revolutionary politics is the exposure of bourgeois fictions which poison the consciousness of the masses. These fictions acquire a particularly malignant character when amalgamated with the ideas of “socialism” and “revolution”. Today, more than ever before, the tone in the workers’ organizations of France is being set by the manufacturers of such amalgams.

Between Editions

The first edition of this book played a certain role in the formative stages of the French Communist Party. At that time considerable evidence of this came to the author’s notice, and, incidentally, it is not difficult to find traces of it in l’Humanité up to the year 1924. During the twelve years that have since elapsed, a radical recasting of values took place in the Communisw International – after a number of feverish zigzags. Suffice to mention that this work is listed today among the proscribed books. In their ideas and methods, the present leaders of the French Communist Party (we are compelled to retain this name which is in complete variance with reality) do not differ in any principle from Kautsky, against whom our work was originally directed. They are only infinitely more ignorant and cynical.

The relapse into reformism and patriotism that Cachin and Co. are now living through might itself have served as a sufficient justification for a new edition of this book. However, more serious motives exist: they are rooted in the profound pre-revolutionary crisis which is convulsing the régime of the Third Republic.

A Significant Incident

After a lapse of eighteen years, the author of this book has had the occasion to spend two years in France (1933–35); to be sure, only as an observer in the provinces, who, moreover, found himself under constant police surveillance. During this time, in the Isère Department, where the writer had to live, a minor and quite banal routine episode occurred, which, however, provides the key to French politics as a whole.

In a hospital, owned by the Comité des Forges (steel trust – Ed.), a young worker, about to undergo a serious operation, took the liberty to read the revolutionary press (or, to be more precise, the press which he innocently accepted as revolutionary, namely: l’Humanité). The hospital delivered an ultimatum to the careless patient and, later, to four others who shared his sympathies: either they must renounce receiving the undesirable publications or they would be immediately thrown out into the street. Of course it availed the patients nothing to argue that clerical-reactionary propaganda was being carried on quite openly in, the hospital. Inasmuch as only ordinary workers were concerned, who had neither mandates as deputies nor ministerial portfolios to risk, but only their health and lives, the ultimatum proved ineffectual. Five sick men, one of whom was scheduled for an operation, were ejected from the hospital. Grenoble at that time was a Socialist municipality, headed by Doctor Martin, one of those conservative bourgeois who generally set the tone in the Socialist Party, and whose consummate representative is Léon Blum.

The ejected workers sought a champion in the mayor. In vain. Despite all entreaties, letters and intercessions they failed even to obtain an interview. They then turned to the local left newspaper Dépêche, in which Radicals and Socialists composed an indivisible cartel. Upon learning that the matter involved the hospital of the Comité des Forges, the director of the newspaper refused point blank to intervene: anything your heart desires, except that! For a previous indiscretion in connection with this all-powerful organization, Dépêche had already been deprived of an advertisement, and suffered a loss of 20,000 francs. In contrast to the proletarians, the director of the “left” newspaper, like the mayor, stood to lose something. They therefore refused to engage in an unequal struggle, leaving the workers with their diseased intestines and kidneys to their fate.

A “Democratic Republic”

Once every week or every fortnight, the Socialist mayor disturbs the dim recollections of his youth by delivering a speech on the superiorities of socialism over capitalism. During elections, Dépêche supports the mayor and his party. Everything is in order. The Comité des Forges maintains an attitude of liberal tolerance towards socialism of this sort, which does not do the least harm to the material interests of capitalism. By means of an advertisement of 20,000 francs per year (so cheaply are these gentlemen priced!), the feudalists of the heavy industry and banks keep a large cartel newspaper in actual subjection. And not the newspaper alone. The Comité des Forges apparently has arguments, both direct and indirect, weighty enough for Messrs. Mayors, Senators, Deputies, including the Socialists. Entire official France is under the dictatorship of finance capital. In the Larousse dictionary this system is called a “democratic republic”.

It seemed to the Messrs. left deputies and journalists, not only in the Isère but in all the departments of France, that there would be no end to their peaceful cohabitation with capitalist reaction. They were mistaken. Long corroded by dry rot, democracy suddenly felt the barrel of a gun at its temple. Just as the rearmament of Hitler – a coarse material fact – brought about a real upheaval in the relations between states, laying bare the vain and illusory nature of the so-called “international law”, just so did the arming of the gangs of Colonel de la Rocque result in convulsing the internal relations of France, compelling all parties without exception to reform their ranks, to assume a different colouration and to effect regroupments.

Friedrich Engels once wrote that the state, including the democratic republic, consists of detachments of armed men in defence of property; everything else serves only to embellish or camouflage this fact. Eloquent champions of “Law”, like Herriot or Blum, always became incensed at such cynicism. But both Hitler and de la Rocque, each in his own domain, have once again demonstrated that Engels is correct.

More Vital Than Statistics

Early in 1934, Daladier was the presiding minister by will of universal, equal, direct and secret suffrage. He walked around with national sovereignty in his pocket alongside of his handkerchief. But the moment that the detachments of de la Rocque, Maurras and Co. showed that they dared to shoot and to slash the tendons of the police horses, sovereign Daladier surrendered his post to a political invalid designated by the leaders of the armed detachments. This fact is of considerably greater importance than all the electoral statistics, and it cannot be erased from the pages of the most recent history of France, for it forecasts the future.

Assuredly, the course of the political life of a country cannot be altered by every group armed with revolvers, at any time. Only those armed detachments which are the organs of specific classes can play a decisive role under certain conditions. Colonel de la Rocque and his henchmen seek to insure “law and order” against convulsions. And inasmuch as law and order in France signify the rule of finance capital over the middle and petty bourgeoisie, and the rule of the bourgeoisie as a whole over the proletariat and the social strata closest to it, the detachments of de la Rocque are simply the armed pickets of finance capital.

Two Agencies of Finance Capital

This idea is not new. One can often run across it even in the pages of Le Populaire and l’Humanité, although, of course, they were not the original formulators of it. These publications, however, speak only half of the truth. The other and equally important half consists of the fact that Herriot and Daladier with their followers are also an agency of finance capital; otherwise the Radicals could not have been the ruling party in France for a period of decades.

If we are not to play the game of hide and seek, we must say that de la Rocque and Daladier both serve one and the same master. This does not mean to say that either they themselves or their methods are identical. Quite the contrary. They fiercely war against each other, like two specialized agencies each of whom has its own special secret of salvation. Daladier promises to maintain order through the exercise of the self-same tricolour democracy. De la Rocque holds that outlived parliamentarianism must be swept away and replaced by an open military-police dictatorship. The political methods are antagonistic but the social aims they serve are identical.

The Decline of Capitalism

The historical basis of the antagonism between de la Rocque and Daladier – we use these names merely for the sake of simplicity in our presentation – is the decline of the capitalist system, its incurable crisis, its decay. Despite the constant triumphs of technology and the explosive successes achieved by individual branches of industry, capitalism as a whole acts as a brake upon the development of the productive forces, engendering an extreme instability in social and international relations. Parliamentary democracy is indissolubly bound up with the epoch of free competition and free international trade. The bourgeoisie was able to tolerate the freedom of strikes, of assembly and of the press only so long as the productive forces were mounting upwards, so long as the sales markets were being extended, the welfare of the popular masses, even if only partially, was rising and the capitalist nations were able to live and let live.

It is otherwise now. If we exclude the Soviet Union, the imperialist epoch is characterized by the stagnation or decline of the national income, a chronic agrarian crisis and organic unemployment. These phenomena pertain internally to the present phase of capitalism just as gout and arteriosclerosis pertain to certain ages of man. To explain world economic chaos by the consequences of the last war is to lay bare a hopeless superficiality in the spirit of Caillaux, Count Sforza and the like. The war itself was nothing else than an attempt on the part of capitalist countries to unload the already impending crash upon the enemy’s back. The attempt failed. The war only deepened the manifestations of collapse, which, in its subsequent development, prepares a new war.

Social Disintegration in France

Bad as French economic statistics are, and although they deliberately evade the problems of class contradictions, even these statistics are unable to cover up the manifestations of a direct social disintegration. Amid the general decline of the national income, amid the truly horrifying fall in the income of the peasants, amid the ruin of the little men in the cities and the growth of unemployment, the gigantic enterprises with a turnover above 100 to 200 millions a year are doing a brilliant business. Finance capital is sucking the lifeblood from the veins of the French people, in the full sense of the term. Such is the social basis for the ideology and politics of “national unity”.

Mitigations and flickers of better times are possible in the process of decline; they are even inevitable. They remain, however, purely episodic in character. The general tendency of our epoch imperiously drives France, in the wake of a number of other countries, to the alternative: either the proletariat must overthrow the utterly decayed bourgeois order, or capitalism, in the interests of self-preservation, must replace democracy with Fascism. How long can Fascism last? The answer to this question will be provided by the fate of Mussolini and Hitler.

The Fascists fired their guns on February 6, 1934 at the direct orders of the Bourse, the banks and the trusts. From the self-same ruling summits, Daladier received the instruction to hand over power to Doumergue. And if the Radical premier capitulated – with the pusillanimity that is generally characteristic of the Radicals – it was precisely because he recognized his own master in the gangs of de la Rocque. In other words: sovereign Daladier surrendered power to Doumergue for the self-same reason that the director of Dépêche and the mayor of Grenoble refused to expose the abominable cruelty of the agents of the Comité des Forges.

An Unsolved Question

The transition from democracy to Fascism carries with it, however, the danger of social upheavals. Thence arise the tactical vacillations and differences among the summits of the bourgeoisie. All the magnates of capital are in favour of further strengthening the armed detachments, which can serve as safety reserves in the hour of danger. But what place should be allotted to these detachments even today? Should they be permitted immediately to assume the offensive or should they still be held in reserve as a threat? – These questions remain unsolved as yet.

Finance capital no longer believes in the ability of the Radicals to lead the petty-bourgeois masses behind them, and by means of the pressure exercised by these masses to restrain the proletariat within the framework of “democratic” discipline. But finance capital is likewise uncertain of the ability of the Fascist organizations, which still lack a real mass base, to seize power and establish firm order.

An Unstable Situation

The behind-the-scenes leaders have been instilled with the need for caution not by parliamentary eloquence but by the rage of the workers, by the attempt of the general strike, which, to be sure, was stifled at its very inception by the bureaucracy of Jouhaux and, later, by the local uprisings (Toulon, Brest ...). A slight curb was placed on the Fascists, and the Radicals breathed just a bit easier. Le Temps, which had already rushed to offer its hand and heart in a number of articles to the “young generation”, discovered anew the superior merits of a liberal régime as the one most in harmony with French genius. Thus, the unstable, transitional, bastard régime was established, which harmonizes not with the genius of France but with the decline of the Third Republic.

What stands out most sharply in this régime are its Bonapartist traits: the independence of power from parties and programs, the liquidation of the parliamentary legislation by means of emergency powers, the rising of the government in the guise of an “arbiter” above the struggling camps, i.e., factually above the nation. The ministries of Doumergue, Flandin, Laval, all three with the invariable participation of the compromised and abject Radicals, represented minor variations of one and the same theme.

Léon Blum’s Wisdom

Upon the inauguration of the Sarraut ministry, Léon Blum, whose perspicacity possesses two dimensions instead of three, proclaimed that: “The final effects of February 6 have been destroyed on the parliamentary plane.” (Le Populaire, Feb. 2, 1936) This is commonly known as cleaning the shadow of a carriage with the shadow of a brush. As if it is possible, in general, to abolish “on the parliamentary plane” the pressure of the armed detachments of finance capital! As if Sarraut can escape feeling this pressure and not quake before it! In point of fact the Sarraut-Flandin government represents another variation of the self-same semi-parliamentary “Bonapartism”, only somewhat inclined to the “left”. Sarraut, himself, in replying to the charge of his having resorted to arbitrary measures gave the Chamber the best answer possible. Said Sarraut: “If my measures are arbitrary, it is because I aim to be an arbiter”. This aphorism would not have sounded badly even on the lips of Napoléon III. Sarraut feels himself to be not the plenipotentiary of a certain party or a bloc of parties in power, as is in accordance with the rules of parliamentarianism, but an arbiter over classes and parties, as in accordance with the laws of Bonapartism.

[To Be Continued]

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Last updated on: 4 May 2018