French Trotskyists Under the Occupation

Terrorism or the Organization of the Masses?

Source: La Vérité September 15, 1941;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor.

When Paul Colette fired on Déat and Laval [1] the bought off press literally exploded with rage and fear and insisted on the cowardice of this young man of 20, firing alone, in cold blood, in the midst of the anti-Soviet contingent on the leaders of collaboration protected by the entire German and French police.

All these acts of violence offend the tender sensibilities of Hitler’s servants. Berthelot, minister of transports, expressed his indignation in the same terms as the German poster against sabotage: the derailing on the railroads, “the cowardly attacks on innocent children and convoys of workers.” In truth, up till now no one has heard of a single attack on a single “innocent child” or that a single “convoy of workers” was victim of sabotage. But the mere idea that such an accident could occur drives the Hitlerite officers to a state of hysteria, the same men who machine-gunned refugees, the same men who leapt for joy at the carnage of men and children in London, Rotterdam, and Moscow. As for the frantic admirers of the Hitlerite executioners, we would never have suspected them of so much humanitarianism.

In truth, the men of the people have nothing but contempt for these hypocrisies. They have learned, despite themselves, that the war gives free reign to violence, including that against innocent victims. As far as we know, the appeals to act as informers have not yet succeeded, even when supported by the promise of a million. The fascist Tartuffes, for whom counter-revolutionary violence is the supreme religion, only cry about violence when it is turned against them. We know full well that it isn’t by prayers that we will smash fascist terror, but only through revolutionary violence. And we salute the courage of those who, animated by the hatred of an entire people, give their lives to kill Hitler’s agents.

But it isn’t enough to be devoted to liberty; that devotion must serve a purpose. The development of terrorism demonstrates how strong the hatred is that’s rising against oppression. But is this an effective fight against oppression? As Marxists and Leninists we don’t think so. Why? This is abundantly obvious if we’re talking about of a poor bugger of a German soldier tossed in a canal: he is every bit as responsible as the poor French soldier sent to the Ruhr or a fort, and the terrorist act digs a trench between the French workers and the German soldiers, without whose unity no revolutionary victory would be possible. The attacks on officers are no more useful, since for every officer killed Hitler disposes of thousands of other officers. Even a Laval or a Déat is easily replaceable.

On the other hand, attacks set off a violent wave of repression which, in the absence of revolutionary conditions, frightens the hesitant, provisionally cuts the militants off from the masses, and for a time paralyzes the revolutionary rising.

The only effective violence is the violence exercised by the mass of workers. If the workers had armed themselves against fascism, if they had organized themselves in people’s militias as the Trotskyists called for, they would unquestionably have seized power in ‘36. Unfortunately, the Trotskyist appeals were considered provocations. It was claimed that they favored war and Hitlerism. The parliamentary bourgeoisie remained in power. We had the war. We had the Hitlerite victory.

We cannot now defeat Hitlerism through disordered recourse to violence. Our objective is not to sacrifice the working class vanguard in order to assist De Gaulle in establishing another military dictatorship. Our objective is the victory of the proletariat and socialism. If the derailing of a Nazi munitions train results in the arrest of a devoted militant it’s a small matter to Hitler but a serious loss for the working class, which lacks cadres. In factories the workers certainly know a hundred more effective ways to paralyze the production of Hitlerite death weaponry. This mass struggle is infinitely more effective because it threatens the whole of the economic machine and is a school of war for the workers. But it must not be separated from the general struggle of the workers for more bread and freedom. This is the great lesson the 100,000 miners of the North taught us with their general strike of last June.

Can true mass struggles be generalized today? It must be honestly recognized that they can’t. The masses hate the regime, but they don’t have enough confidence in the possibilities of the struggle because Hitler continues to carry off victories, however costly they might be. Even if they wanted to act they hardly could due to lack of organization. The Communist Party itself, even if it has the confidence of large masses, constitutes a thin layer of militants. These militants are courageous. They take the lead in demonstrations. The masses approve them, protect them, but they don’t follow them. They only participate in demonstrations in small numbers because no one has consulted them, and in any event they don’t see the possibility of success. In the current phase the ferocious repression reinforces this instinctive opinion. The sacrifice of a few men won’t shake this passivity. It will be the first defeats of the Nazi military and political system that will do so, defeats of which the current cracks are the first symptoms.

But the masses require some organization if we want the watchword to circulate and actions to develop towards victory. This is why today the number one task is organization. London understands this and is on guard against premature actions. On the purely military level which is theirs, the Gaullist general staff doesn’t intend to sacrifice the final victory to the current battle of sabotage. In the same way it would be a profound error to sacrifice the worker’s vanguard – i.e., the revolution of tomorrow – to the mediocre results of the campaign of sabotage.

The young want to fight for freedom? Let them join the worker’s organization and fight the terrible underground battle. Let the working class organizations, communist, Trotskyist, and any others, unite for the common struggle while preserving their flags. On the shop floor, between neighbors they should fight together to unite those who want to fight for freedom.

United in this way the masses can march towards the following stage, that of liberation and socialism.

1. On August 27, 1941 Paul Colette, a young Gaullist, attempted to assassinate Pierre Laval and Marcel Déat, two of France’s most notorious Collaborators. Tried and sentenced to death, Petain commuted Colette’s sentence and he survived the war. Laval, who was minister of state and head of the collaborationist government, was executed at the end of the war; Déat, sentenced to death in absentia, died in hiding in an Italian monastery.