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. 17, 2 May 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: In response to requests from many of our readers we are continuing publication of France at the Crossroads by Leon Trotsky. This introduction to the new French edition of In Defense of Terrorism is the third section of comrade Trotsky’s series Whither France? which is to be published in book form by Pioneer Publishers.

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The sharpening of the class struggle, and especially the open emergence of the armed gangs of reaction, caused a similar upheaval among the workers’ organizations. The Socialist Party which had been peacefully performing the role of the spare wheel in the chariot of the Third Republic, found itself compelled to half-renounce its cartel tradition, and even to break with its own right wing (the Neos). Concurrently, the Communists completed their evolution in just the opposite direction but on a scale infinitely more extensive. Over a period of several years these gentlemen had raved deliriously about barricades, conquering the streets, and so on (their delirium, to be sure, remained primarily literary in nature). Now after February 6, 1934, realizing that the situation had taken a serious turn, the specialists in barricades scurried to the right. The normal reflex action of the scared phrase-mongers coincided most propitiously with the new international orientation of Soviet diplomacy.

Status Quo – The Policy

Oppressed by the danger threatening from Hitler Germany, the policy of the Kremlin turned towards France. Status quo – in international relations! Status quo – in the internal relations of the French régime! Hopes for the social revolution? Chimeras! The leading circles in the Kremlin refer as a rule only with contempt to French Communism. One must hang on to what exists, lest things get worse. Parliamentary democracy in France is inconceivable without the Radicals: they must be supported by the Socialists. It is necessary to order the Communists not to hinder the bloc between Blum and Herriot and, if possible, the Communists – themselves must join the bloc. No convulsions, no threats! Such is the course pursued by the Kremlin.

When Stalin renounces the world revolution, the bourgeois parties of France refuse to believe him. Needless caution! In politics, blind credulity is, of course, not a great virtue. But blind distrust is no better. One must know how to compare words with deeds and be able to recognize a general tendency of development over a period of years. The policy of Stalin, determined by the interests of the privileged Soviet bureaucracy, has become conservative through and through. The French bourgeoisie has ample reasons to place faith in Stalin. All the less reason for trust on the part of the French proletariat.

The Society for Bankrupts

During the Trade-Union Unity Congress at Toulouse, the “Communist” Racamond gave a truly immortal formula of the policy of the People’s Front: “How to overcome the timidity of the Radical Party?” How to overcome the bourgeoisie’s fear of the proletariat? Very simply: the terrible revolutionists must fling away the knife clenched between their teeth, they must put pomade on their hair, and filch the smile of the most fascinating courtesan. The result will be Vaillant-Couturier – latest model. Under the onset of the pomaded “Communists”, who with all their strength pushed the leftward-moving Socialists to the right, Blum had to change his course once again, fortunately, in the accustomed direction. Thus arose the People’s Front – the society for insuring Radical bankrupts at the expense of the capital of the working-class organizations.

Radicalism is inseparable from Freemasonry. When we say this, we have said everything. During the debate in the Chamber of Deputies on the Fascist leagues, Mr. Xavier Vallat recalled that Trotsky had once “prohibited” French Communists from participating in masonic lodges. Mr. Jammy Schmidt, a high authority in this field, we believe, immediately explained this edict by the incompatibility between despotic Bolshevism and the “free spirit”. We shall not enter into a dispute over this point with the Radical deputy. But we still consider that a labour representative who seeks inspiration or solace in the vapid masonic cult of class collaboration is undeserving of the slightest trust. It was not accidental that the cartel was supplemented by the extensive participation of the Socialists in the mummery of the lodges. Now the time has come for the repentant Communists also to don the aprons! Incidentally, the newly converted pupils will be able to serve the old masters of the cartel more comfortably in aprons.

Safety Valve for Capitalism

But, we are told, not without indignation, the People’s Front is not a cartel at all, but a mass movement. There is, of course, no lack of pompous definitions, but they do not change the nature of things. The job of the cartel always consisted in putting a brake upon the mass movement, directing it into the channels of class collaboration. This is precisely the job of the People’s Front as well. The difference between them – and not an unimportant one – is that the traditional cartel was applied during the comparatively peaceful and stable epochs of the parliamentary régime. Now, however, when the masses are impatient and explosive, a more imposing brake is needed, with the participation of the “Communists”. Joint meetings, parade processions, oaths, mixing the banners of the Commune and of Versailles, noise, bedlam, demagogy – all these serve a single aim: to curb and demoralize the mass movement.

While justifying himself in the Chamber before the rights, Sarraut declared that his innocent concessions to the People’s Front were nothing else than the safety valve of the régime. Such frankness may have seemed imprudent. But it was rewarded by violent applause from the benches of the extreme left. There was no reason, therefore, for Sarraut to be bashful. In any case, he succeeded, perhaps not quite consciously, in providing a classic definition of the People’s Front: a safety valve for the mass movement. M. Sarraut is in every way fortunate with his aphorisms!

Foreign Policy of People’s Front

Foreign policy is the continuation of home policy. Having entirely renounced the viewpoint of the proletariat, Blum, Cachin and Co. adopt, under the screen of “collective security” and “international law”, the viewpoint of national imperialism. They are preparing precisely the same policy of bootlicking which they had conducted in the years 1914 to 1918, adding only the phrase “For the Defence of the USSR”. Yet during the years 1918–23, when Soviet diplomacy was also obliged to veer considerably and to conclude a good many agreements, not a single one of the sections of the Communist International so much as even dared to think of a bloc with its own bourgeoisie! Is not this alone ample proof of the sincerity of Stalin’s renunciation of the world revolution?

The self-same motives which impelled the present leaders of the Comintern to suckle at the paps of “democracy” in its period of agony led them to discover the glorious image of the League of Nations, when the death rattle was already emanating from it. Thus was created a common platform of foreign policy between the Radicals and the Soviet Union. The home program of the People’s Front is concocted of generalities which allow of as liberal an interpretation as does the Geneva covenant. The general meaning of the program is to leave everything as of old. Meanwhile, the masses refuse to accept the old any longer: therein lies the gist of the political crisis.

Proletarian Disarmament

Disarming the proletariat politically, the Blums, Paul Faures, Cachins and Thorezes are most concerned lest the workers arm themselves physically. The agitation of these gentlemen does not differ in any way from the preacher’s sermons on the superiorities of moral principles. Engels, who taught that the problem of state power is the problem of armed detachments, and Marx who looked upon insurrection as an art, appear as medieval barbarians in the eyes of the present deputies, senators and mayors of the People’s Front. For the one hundred and first time, Populaire prints a cartoon picturing a naked worker with the caption: “You will learn that our bare fists are more solid than all your blackjacks.” What a splendid contempt for military technique! Even the Abyssinian Negus holds more progressive views on this subject. The overturns in Italy, Germany and Austria apparently do not exist for these people. Will they cease singing paeans to “bare fists” when de la Rocque claps handcuffs upon them? Sometimes one feels sorry that such an experience cannot be afforded privately to the Messrs. Leaders, without involving the masses!

From the standpoint of the bourgeois régime as a whole, the People’s Front represents an episode in the competition between Radicalism and Fascism for the attention and good graces of big capital. By their theatrical fraternization with Socialists and Communists, the Radicals want to prove to the master that the situation of the régime is not as bad as the rights assert; that the threat of the revolution is not at all so great; that even Vaillant-Couturier has swapped his knife for a dog collar; that through the medium of the domesticated “revolutionists” it is possible to discipline the working masses, and, consequently, to save the parliamentary system from shipwreck.

Not all the Radicals believe in this manoeuvre; the most solid and influential among them, headed by Herriot, prefer to take a watchful position. But in the last analysis they have nothing else to propose themselves. The crisis of parliamentarianism is first of all the crisis of the confidence of the voters in Radicalism. Until some method for rejuvenating capitalism is discovered, there is not and cannot be any recipe for the salvation of the Radical Party. The latter has only the choice between two variants of political doom. Even the relative success it may score during the coming elections can neither avert nor even long postpone its shipwreck.

Is This a Bloc?

The leaders of the Socialist Party, the most carefree politicians in France, do not burden themselves with the study of the sociology of the People’s Front. No one can learn anything from the endless monologues of Léon Blum. As for the Communists, the latter, extremely proud of their initiative in the cause of collaboration with the bourgeoisie, picture the People’s Front as an alliance between the proletariat and the middle classes. What a parody on Marxism! The Radical Party is not at all the party of the petty bourgeoisie. Nor is it a “bloc between the middle and the petty bourgeoisie” in accordance with the idiotic definition of the Moscow Pravda. The middle bourgeoisie exploits the petty bourgeoisie not only economically but also politically, and it itself is the agency of finance capital. To give the hierarchic political relations, based upon exploitation, the neutral name of “bloc” is to make a mock of reality. A horseman is not a bloc between a man and a horse. If the party of Herriot-Daladier extends its roots deeply into the petty bourgeoisie, and in part even into the working masses, it does so only in order to lull and dupe them in the interests of the capitalist order. The Radicals are the democratic party of French imperialism – any other definition is a lie.

The crisis of the capitalist system disarms the Radicals, depriving them of their traditional implements for lulling the petty bourgeoisie. “The middle classes” are beginning to sense, if not to understand, that it is impossible to save the situation through paltry reforms, that it is necessary to scrap audaciously the existing system. But Radicalism and audacity are as incompatible as fire and water. Fascism is fed above all by the growing lack of confidence of the petty bourgeoisie in Radicalism. One can say without fear of exaggeration that the political fate of France in the period immediately ahead will take shape depending largely upon the manner in which Radicalism is liquidated, and who will fall heir to its legacy, i.e., its influence over the petty bourgeoisie: Fascism or the party of the proletariat.

An Axiom of Marxism

The elementary axiom of Marxist strategy reads that the alliance between the proletariat and the little men of the city and country can be realized only in the irreconcilable struggle against the traditional parliamentary representation of the petty bourgeoisie. In order to attract the peasant to the side of the worker, it is necessary to tear the peasant away from the Radical politician, who subjects the peasant to finance capital. In contradistinction to this, the People’s Front, the conspiracy between the labour bureaucracy and the worst political exploiters of the middle classes is capable only of killing the faith of the masses in the revolutionary road and of driving them into the arms of the Fascist counter-revolution.

Unbelievable as it may seem, some cynics attempt to justify the policy of the People’s Front by quoting Lenin, who if you please, proved that there is no getting along without “compromises” and, in particular, without making agreements with other parties. It has become an established rule among the leaders of the present Comintern to make mock of Lenin: they trample underfoot all the teachings of the builder of the Bolshevik Party, and then they take a trip to Moscow to kneel before his mausoleum.

The Tradition of Lenin

Lenin began his activities in tsarist Russia, where not only the proletariat, the peasantry and the intelligentsia but also wide circles of the bourgeoisie stood in opposition to the old régime. If the policy of the People’s Front has any justification at all, one should imagine that it could be justified first of all in a country that has yet to achieve its bourgeois revolution. The Messrs. Falsifiers, however, would not do badly at all if they were to point out at what stage and under what conditions the Bolshevik Party ever built even a semblance of the People’s Front in Russia? Let them strain their imagination and rummage among the historical documents!

The Bolsheviks did conclude practical agreements with the revolutionary petty-bourgeois organizations, for example, for joint illegal transport of revolutionary literature; sometimes to repulse the Black-Hundred gangs. During elections to the state Duma they did, under certain conditions, enter into electoral blocs with the Mensheviks or the Socialist Revolutionaries, on the second ballot. That is all. No common “programs”, no common and permanent institutions, no renunciation of the criticism of temporary allies. Such episodic agreements and compromises, confined strictly to practical aims – and Lenin never spoke of any other kind – have absolutely nothing in common with the People’s Front which represents a conglomeration of heterogeneous organizations, a long term alliance between different classes, that are bound for an entire period – and what a period! – by a common program and a common policy of parades, declamations and of throwing up smokescreens. The People’s Front will fall to pieces at the first serious test, and deep fissures will open up in all of its component sections. The policy of the People’s Front is the policy of betrayal.

The rule of Bolshevism on the question of blocs reads: march separately, strike together! The rule of the leaders of the present Comintern is: march together in order to be smashed separately. Let these gentlemen hold on to Stalin and Dimitrov, but leave Lenin in peace!

Is France Saved from Fascism?

It is impossible to read without indignation the declarations of the bragging leaders who allege that the People’s Front has “saved” France from Fascism. In point of fact, they mean only to say that the mutual encouragement “saved” the scared heroes from their own exaggerated fears. For how long? Between Hitler’s first uprising and his coming to power, a decade elapsed, which was marked by frequent ebbs and flows. At that time, the German Blums and Cachins also used to proclaim more than once their “victory” over national socialism. We refused to believe them, and we were not mistaken. This experience, however, has taught the French cousins of Wels and Thaelmann nothing. In Germany, to be sure, the Communists did not participate in the People’s Front, which united the Social Democracy with the bourgeois left and the Catholic centre (“the alliance between the proletariat and the middle classes”!). During that period the Comintern rejected even fighting agreements between working-class organizations against Fascism. The results are quite well known. The warmest sympathy to Thaelmann as the captive of executioners cannot deter us from saying that his policy, i.e., the policy of Stalin, did more for Hitler’s victory than the policy of Hitler himself. Having turned itself inside out, the Comintern now applies in France the quite familiar policy of the German Social Democracy. Is it really so difficult to foresee its results?

The coming parliamentary elections, no matter what their outcome, will not in themselves bring any serious changes into the situation: the voters, in the final analysis, are confronted with the choice between an arbiter of the type of Laval and an arbiter of the type, Herriot-Daladier. But inasmuch as Herriot has peacefully collaborated with Laval, and Daladier has supported them both, the difference between them is entirely insignificant, if measured by the scale of the tasks set by history.

(To Be Continued)

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Last updated on: 4 May 2018