Leon Trotsky

Whither France?

The French Revolution
Has Begun!

(June 9, 1936)

Never has the radio seemed so precious as during these days. From a distant village in Norway one can follow the pulse beats of the French revolution. Or rather, to put it more exactly, the reflection of these pulsations in the minds and voices of the Messrs. ministers, trade-union secretaries and other mortally terrified leaders.

To say “French revolution” may seem exaggerated. Oh, no! This is no exaggeration. That is precisely how a revolution springs into being. Generally speaking, a revolution cannot come into being any other way. The French revolution has begun.

To be sure, Léon Jouhaux, tailing Léon Blum, keeps assuring the bourgeoisie that this is a purely economic movement within the rigid framework of the law. The strikers, indeed, are seizing factories for the duration of the strike, establishing control over the bosses and their staffs. But one may shut one’s eyes to this deplorable “detail”. On the whole, these are “craft strikes, not political strikes”, the Messrs. Leaders keep repeating. Yet, under the influence of these “non-political” strikes the entire political situation in the country is being radically transformed. The government decides to act with haste it never thought of the night before. Indeed, according to Blum, true strength lay in patience! The capitalists are unexpectedly compliant. The entire counter-revolution bides its time behind the backs of Blum and Jouhaux. And this miracle is brought about entirely by “craft” strikes. What then would have happened had the strikes been political?

Oh, no, the leaders are not telling the truth. The craft union embraces the workers of a single, isolated trade, separating them from other trades. Trade unionism and reactionary syndicalism bend all efforts to keep the working-class movement within the framework of crafts. Upon this, in fact, rests the dictatorship of the trade-union bureaucracy over the working class (the worst of all dictatorships!) while the Jouhaux-Racamond clique in turn slavishly depends upon the bourgeois state. The essence of the present movement consists precisely in that it is breaking through trade union, craft and local bounds, raising beyond them the demands, hopes and will of the whole proletariat. The movement takes on the character of an epidemic. The contagion spreads from factory to factory, from craft to craft, from district to district. All the layers of the working class seem to be giving echoing answers to a roll call. The metal workers begin – they are the vanguard. But the strength of the movement lies in the fact that just behind the vanguard follow the heavy reserves of the class, including the most backward trades, the rearguard, completely forgotten on weekdays by Messrs. parliamentarians and trade-union leaders. Not for nothing did Le Peuple openly confess that the emergence of certain particularly low-paid categories of the Paris population came to it as a complete “surprise”. Yet precisely in the depths of these most oppressed strata, inexhaustible springs of enthusiasm, selflessness and courage lie hidden. The very fact of their awakening is the infallible mark of the tidal wave. It is necessary to reach these layers at all costs!

Tearing loose from the craft and local bounds, the strike movement has become terrible not only for bourgeois society, but also for the workers’ own parliamentary and trade-union representatives who are primarily concerned with closing their eyes to reality. Historical legend has it that Louis XVI, upon asking: “What is this, mutiny?” was answered by one of his courtiers: “No, sire, this is revolution.” Now to the question of the bourgeoisie: “Is this mutiny?” its courtiers are replying: “No, these are only craft strikes.” In giving comfort to the capitalists, Blum and Jouhaux are comforting themselves. But words will not help. To be sure, when these lines appear in the press, the first wave may have subsided. Outwardly life may seem to be returning to its old channels. But this changes nothing. These are not craft strikes that have taken place. These are not just strikes. This is a strike. This is the open rallying of the oppressed against the oppressors. This is the classic beginning of revolution.

The entire past experience of the working class, the history of its exploitation, miseries, struggles and defeats, comes to life under the impact of events and rises up in the consciousness of every proletarian, even the most backward, and drives him into the common ranks. The entire class has been set in motion. This colossal mass cannot be stopped by words. The struggle must be consummated either in the greatest of victories or the most ghastly of defeats.

* * *

Le Temps has called the strike the “practice manoeuvres of the revolution”. This is infinitely more serious than what is being said by Blum and Jouhaux. But even the definition given by Le Temps is incorrect, for it is in a certain sense exaggerated. Manoeuvres presuppose the existence of a command, a general staff, a plan. This does not exist in the strike. The leading centres of the working-class organizations, including those of the Communist Party, have been caught unawares. They are afraid, above all, lest the strike spoil all their blueprints. The radio relays a remarkable statement by Marcel Cachin: “We are all of us – we and the others – confronted by the fact of the strike.” In other words, the strike is our common misfortune. With such words the terrible senator persuades the capitalists to make concessions in order not to aggravate the situation. The parliamentarians and the trade-union secretaries, who are adapting themselves to the strike from the sidelines the sooner to extinguish it, stand in reality outside the strike, dangling in the air. They themselves do not know whether they will land feet or head first. The awakened mass is still without a revolutionary staff.

The ruling class has a real staff. This staff is not at all identical with the Blum government, although it uses the latter very skilfully. Capitalist reaction is now playing a big and risky game, but playing ably. At the present moment it is playing the game of “losers win”. “Let us today concede all the unpleasant demands which have met with unanimous approval of Blum, Jouhaux and Daladier. It is a far cry from recognition in principle to realization in action. There is the parliament, there is the senate, there is the chancery – all these are instruments of obstruction. The masses will show impatience and will attempt to exert greater pressure. Daladier will divorce Blum. Thorez will try to shy to the left. Blum and Jouhaux will part company with the masses. Then we shall make up for all the present concessions, and with interest.” This is the reasoning of the real staff of the counter-revolution, the famous “200 families” and their hired strategists. They are acting in accordance with a plan. It would be light-minded to say that their plan is groundless. No, with the assistance of Blum, Jouhaux and Cachin, the counter-revolution can attain its goal.

The profound organic and genuinely revolutionary character of the strike wave is best of all characterized by the fact that the mass movement, though improvised, has acquired such vast scope and has exercised so great a political influence. This is the guarantee of the endurance of the movement, its stubbornness and the inevitability of a series of ever-rising waves. Without this, victory would be impossible. But all this is not enough for victory. As against the staff and the plan of the “200 families” there must be a staff and a plan of proletarian revolution. None as yet exists. But they can be created. All the prerequisites and all the elements for a new crystallization of the masses are at hand.

* * *

The sweep of the strike springs, we are told, from the “hopes” in the People’s Front government. This is only one-quarter of the truth and even less than that. If matters were really limited to hopes alone, the workers would not have run the risk of struggle. The strike expresses above all the distrust or the half-trust of the workers, if not in the good intentions of the government, then in its ability to overcome obstacles and to come to grips with its problems. The proletarians want to “assist” the government, but in their own way, in the proletarian way. They still of course lack complete consciousness of their own strength. But it would be a gross distortion to portray matters as if the masses were guided only by pious “hopes” in Blum. It is not easy for them to muster their thoughts while yoked to the old leaders who try to drive them as soon as possible back into the old rut of slavery and routine. Nevertheless, the French proletariat is not at the beginning of its history. The strike has everywhere and in every place pushed the most thoughtful and fearless workers to the fore. To them belongs the initiative. They are still acting cautiously, feeling the ground under their feet. The vanguard detachments are trying not to rush ahead so as not to isolate themselves. The echoing and re-echoing answers of the hindmost ranks to their call gives them new courage. The roll call of the class has become a trial self-mobilization. The proletariat was itself in greatest need of this demonstration of its strength. The practical successes won, however precarious they may be, cannot fail to raise the self-confidence of the masses to an extraordinary degree, particularly among the most backward and oppressed strata.

That leaders have come forward in the industries and in the factories is the foremost conquest of the first wave. The elements of local and regional staffs have been created. The masses know them. They know one another. Real revolutionists will seek contact with them. Thus the first self-mobilization of the masses has outlined and in part brought forward the first elements of revolutionary leadership. The strike has stirred, revitalized and regenerated the whole colossal class organism. The old organizational shell has by no means dropped away. On the contrary, it still retains its hold quite stubbornly. But under it the new skin is already visible.

We do not speak now of the rhythm of events, which will undoubtedly be accelerated. In this sphere only suppositions and guesses are possible as yet. The second wave, its duration, its sweep and its intensity will doubtless permit a much more concrete prognosis than can be made now. But one thing is clear in advance: the second wave will not have by far the peaceful, almost good-natured, Spring-like character that the first has had. It will be more mature, more stubborn and harsh, for it will arise from the disillusionment of the masses in the practical results of the policies of the People’s Front and their own initial venture. In the government a process of stratification will take place as well as in the parliamentary majority. The counter-revolution will immediately become more self-assured and brazen. Further easy successes cannot be expected by the masses. Faced with the danger of losing what seemed to have been won, faced with the growing resistance of the enemy and the confusion and indecision of the official leadership, the masses will feel the burning need of a program, an organization, a plan and a staff. For this we must prepare ourselves and the advanced workers. In the atmosphere of revolution the masses are swiftly re-educated, the cadres swiftly selected and tempered.

The revolutionary general staff cannot emerge from combinations at the top. The combat organization would not be identical with the party even if there were a mass revolutionary party in France, for the movement is incomparably broader than the party. The organization also cannot coincide with the trade unions for the unions embrace only an insignificant section of the class and are headed by an arch-reactionary bureaucracy. The new organization must correspond to the nature of the movement itself. It must reflect the struggling masses. It must express their growing will. This is a question of the direct representation of the revolutionary class. Here it is not necessary to invent new forms. Historical precedents exist. The industries and factories will elect their deputies who will meet to elaborate, jointly, plans of struggle, and to provide the leadership. Nor is it necessary to invent the name for such an organization; it is the soviets of workers’ deputies.

The main section of the revolutionary workers is now following the Communist Party. In the past they have more than once cried: “Soviets Everywhere!” The majority of them undoubtedly accepted this slogan honestly and seriously. There was a time when we regarded this slogan as untimely. But now the situation has radically changed. The mighty collision of classes is heading towards a climax. Whoever vacillates, whoever loses time is a traitor. The choice lies between the greatest of all historical victories and the most ghastly of defeats. We must prepare for victory. “Soviets Everywhere"? Agreed. But it is time to pass from words to action.

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Last updated on: 19.3.2007