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Leon Trotsky: ‘Clear-headed revolutionary thinking is needed’

February 6, 2018
Trotsky c1917

Leon Trotsky

Newly published speeches by Lenin, Trotsky, and Béla Kun, part 1

See also:

** Béla Kun, “The French Communists are guilty of opportunist conduct”
** V,I. Lenin, “Trotsky was a thousand times right”
** “Newly published speeches by Lenin, Trotsky, and Béla Kun”

Leon Trotsky gave the speech on 16 June 1921 to the Communist International Executive Committee plenum held to prepare the International’s Third Congress, which opened six days later. Trotsky replied to the two initial speakers in this session, Edy Reiland (1896-1967) of Luxemburg and Maurice Laporte (1901-87) of France, both of whom criticized what they considered to be opportunist errors of the Communist Party of France.

Laporte had attacked French Communist Party leadership’s alleged inaction during the government’s call-up of the conscription class of 1919. The 200,000 troops were needed to meet manpower needs related to France’s occupation of Germany’s Ruhr Valley.

Leon Trotsky:[1] I asked to speak in order to comment on the policies of the French Communist Party. But having heard the very eloquent speeches of our young friend Laporte and the comrades from Luxembourg [Edy Reiland] and Hungary,[2] I must begin by responding to them.

What was it that Comrade Laporte told us in such a spirited manner? He said that we experienced a decisive moment when the class of 1921 was called up, in which the party failed completely to carry out its revolutionary duty. In his view, the party should have demanded that members of the class of 1921 refuse to obey the mobilisation order. Now, Comrade Laporte, what does that mean for the class of 1921 to refuse–

Interjection: It was the class of 1919.

Trotsky: I do not see how that makes any difference, because in either case this concerns about 150,000 or 200,000 men. Well, you call on them to turn down the order to report to the army. The call-up order, as I understand it, is quite a serious matter. First you get an order written on paper, and then the policeman, the constable, comes to your door. Well, if the party tells a young worker, ‘You should not report for duty,’ the party should also say, ‘When the constable arrives at your door, you should do this or that.’ In other words, ‘You should equip yourself with a club, a stone, or a revolver and use violence to prevent the order from being carried out.’ Or else, the party can say, ‘Well, our opposition will merely be nominal. When the constable arrives and puts his hand on your shoulder, you will go along with him.’ Now Comrade Laporte has not told us which policy he recommends to the party.

Laporte: Provided that the party supports the demand.

Trotsky: Well, does this involve, in short, carrying out a revolution against the capitalist state during the call-up? I have learned through study and experience, Comrade Laporte, that making the revolution is the task of the working class, not of the class of 1919. There you have it. You say that when the mobilisation was decreed, the party should have told the class of 1919, ‘Given that the working class has not made the revolution so far, it’s up to you, my little class of 1919, to make this revolution.’ Yes indeed, Comrade Laporte. But you say that the conditions for revolution – not only a revolution of the class of 1919 but one of the working class – were not present. So it was not possible to make the revolution.

You have had three opportunities to make the revolution, because three classes are serving in the military. But the government wants to call up the fourth class. You say that we had to put up with having these three classes in the military, but now that the fourth class is at stake, well then, now we will make the revolution. Not at all, not at all, Comrade Laporte. Not at all. I completely understand your feelings; I understand them very well. But it is not enough to have intense revolutionary feelings. Clear-headed revolutionary thinking is needed. Where that is lacking, you can make attempts at revolution, but you will never achieve victory. And what we want to achieve right now in France is not just revolutionary movements, necessary as they are, but a victory over the French bourgeoisie.

Very well, you say that when the president of France issued the decree for mobilisation, the time had come to tell the workers to make the revolution. It’s up to you to demonstrate that to us, to show us that when the president signed the decree mobilising the class of 1919, the moment had come for social revolution in France – a moment determined by the entire economic and political situation, by the state of mind of the working class, by the party’s capacities and state of organisation. You say that you are not concerned with any of that. The only relevant fact is the mobilisation decree.

Not at all, not at all! Revolution is not carried out in this fashion. This leads me to wonder what would have happened if the party had actually acted on your appeal. A call goes out to the class of 1919, 150,000 young men. I imagine that perhaps 50,000 of them, perhaps 5,000, perhaps 10,000 – you will agree – perhaps only half of them will not obey the call-up order. They are those with the greatest courage. And 5 percent of them, the bravest ones, would be executed, and the others would obey the decree – isn’t that true? And what would be the result? For the party, the result would be completely disastrous, because it would be shown by this action to be a part of purely verbal demagogy, because – at a critical moment, when it does not have the capacity to make the revolution – it turned to the youth. And in so doing, it indicated to the capitalist state who were the bravest among these youth, saying, ‘Kill them.’ That would be the outcome. Simply that. I do not see any other results of such an attitude; I do not see them at all.

As for the comrade from Luxembourg, he was even harsher. Indeed, pardon me, but he struck me as even a bit nationalist. What did the French party do when the French troops occupied Luxembourg? To stop the French army from occupying Luxembourg, you would have to carry out the revolution. And do the French workers have only one reason to make the revolution? Why would it be precisely Luxembourg that would lead the French worker to make the revolution? I do not understand this. Walking down the street, the French worker sees the jobless, the prostitutes, and the French cops: three reasons to make the revolution, right there in the street. And when he gets home, he finds a thousand more reasons. I wonder about the French worker – by and large, the French are not so gifted in geography, and particularly not the French workers – I wonder if the French worker knows exactly where Luxembourg is located. I have my doubts. He is told that because the French have just invaded this little country, because they have occupied this country, about which he knows so little, ‘You must make the revolution.’ Why? Because our comrade Reiland is from Luxembourg. But this motivation is national rather than revolutionary and communist. I could well ask what the French proletariat did when Loriot and Monatte were imprisoned. What did the French proletariat do? Why did it remain unconcerned? For that, too, was a reason to make the revolution.[3]

Why exactly have you come up with this example? Because it affects you. You see the young French soldier in his red trousers, and that bothers you somewhat. And then you ask: why don’t they make the revolution? That is no way to promote revolution. The Luxembourg comrade said that the French are afraid of action. If this involves individual action, it may of course involve individual fear, a lack of courage, and such a lack of personal courage is a quite painful situation. But this is not a case of a lack of personal courage. It’s a matter of political courage, given the results of such an action. Well, the Luxembourg comrade defended Laporte’s proposal without understanding or analysing its results.

On the contrary, the task in France is to prepare for the revolution through propaganda, agitation, and action. However, comrades, when the decree was issued mobilising the class of 1919, preparing for the revolution and making the revolution are two entirely different things. True, I can say that when the mobilisation took place, the [party] Executive Committee perhaps did not do what it should have done. It’s necessary to analyse what it did in terms of propaganda, of organising the masses, and of protests in parliament and in the streets. It can be said that the Executive Committee and the party as a whole could have done a great deal more than they actually did.

I concede that this is possible because I am not happy with the French party in its present condition, and Comrade Loriot knows this very well. But in criticising and persuading the French party, via Comrade Frossard, of course, I find the Luxembourg comrade’s proposal of expelling Comrade Frossard to be completely out of place. Let me make a parenthetical comment here. When Frossard and Cachin came here, I was just as sceptical as other comrades, and perhaps more so, because I had spent some time in Paris.[4] I had some knowledge of the socialist parliamentary milieu and a close-up view of the party’s stance during the War and at its outset. Many were not pleased, and I was among them. I was quite pessimistic regarding these two comrades.

But I have been quite pleased by what I have seen of their conduct since the Second Congress of the International. During this period they have been of service to the Communist International – that is a fact. They have succeeded – with the help and support of more resolute comrades, of course – in carrying out the split against the centrists. They assisted in launching the Communist Party. That is a fact, a very great fact, and we must now work on this foundation. We must give the party a stance that is more defined, more revolutionary. But to say at this point, when the party is coming into being, during the time between the two [French] congresses, that it’s necessary to expel those who aided in launching it – and this is said by those who did not take part in the Second [Comintern] Congress – no, no, not at all. Comrades from Luxembourg, you are getting carried away by your indignation.

We must answer the question whether the situation in France is conducive to revolution. Yes or no?

Interjection: No, but it is favourable for action.

Trotsky: Favourable for action, but what kind of action? The proposed action is to refuse to obey the military call-up. In other words, an action that is permissible for a proletarian party only when the working class is on the verge of revolution. Only under those conditions can the conscripts called up into the army defy this order. This would have been justified, politically and historically, only in circumstances where the entire class to which the party belongs was drawn into a decisive revolutionary movement.

Tell us that we have now reached that decisive point. Tell us that the party’s Executive Committee’s stand is obviously wrong. Why? Because the revolution is knocking at the door, and nothing remains to be done but to open it. And here these members stick to their offices, writing leaflets – propagandistic, agitational, organisational – and attending to finances, instead of opening the door to revolution. Be that as it may, I have some knowledge of conditions in France. At this point, conditions across all of Europe and the entire world are destabilised economically. The spirit of the working class is fundamentally revolutionary. Conditions could become revolutionary in a very short time.

But what do we see in France? During this period, France has been the most reactionary country, the country most poisoned by illusions in war, in victory, and in the hopes that victory would bring tangible gains. France is the most poisoned country.

Shout: Yes!

Other voices: Hear! Hear!

Trotsky: Revolutionary France is strong in its spirit, in the resolve of its most advanced forces, and in you – yes! – because you also make up a significant part of the French working class. I have a good picture of that, Comrade Laporte. I have some knowledge of the French proletariat, of its spirit, the resolve it shows at the decisive moment. I understand that very well. But you cannot deny that Jouhaux’s General Confederation of Labour (CGT) ….[5] And the party, with Loriot, carried out the split only a few months ago. And now I see that the party is not decisive in its approach. What does that tell us? Of course the party has an apparatus, one that can become independent, quite independent – as in the CGT. But independent as it is, this apparatus reflects the thinking and spirit of the class – a clear inadequacy of the will needed to make the revolution….[6]

So the situation in France is as follows. Victory went to the chauvinists, who emerged triumphant. Hopes had not yet been quelled because of the continuous pillage of Germany, which of course paid a good deal less than had been hoped – a great deal less. Still, this booty nonetheless represented a partial payment of the enormous sum that the bourgeois class hopes to receive. The anticipation of this payment still governs the spirit of the bourgeois class. It makes concessions to the working class in the hope of receiving compensation extracted from the German nation.

That is the situation in France. Dominant following the War, it is the most reactionary country. We saw revolutions in Germany and Austria-Hungary; we saw quite revolutionary situations in Italy, when the police and the capitalist bourgeois state were demoralised. Nothing like this took place in France. Its government was by far the most stable and was led forcefully by the will of the ruling class, which even now feels that it is triumphant. Only now do we begin to notice a certain decline, reflected in the fluctuating results of Radicals and Radical-Socialists in the by-elections. This shows that the opposition has taken a very uncertain path via these Radicals and Radical-Socialists. This means that the political evolution of the masses in France, as I conceive of it, displays a wave of Radicalism and Longuetism, heading toward a Radical-Longuet bloc. If entirely unexpected events take place – a war, a revolution – so much the better!

We must prepare for a situation that will be less than ideal. Still, if events head in this direction, it is no misfortune for us. In a situation where the Radicals and Longuetists form the government, we will be the only party of revolutionary opposition. Our situation will be clearly defined. We will criticise and unmask the Longuetists, who represent the most extreme wing of the bourgeoisie in power. We will draw the masses into increasingly energetic action corresponding to their class needs as defined by conditions. We cannot foresee everything. That’s how I conceive of the situation in France. I believe that conditions there are fundamentally revolutionary, because the French economy has been thrown completely off balance. The society’s material foundations are off balance. France is very impoverished in terms of its productive forces, just as impoverished as a defeated county, yet it has a lifestyle that could be that of the most powerful and richest country in the world.

This contradiction is quite evident in the decline of the French franc. You know this from personal experience. The French franc has lost part of its purchasing power. The fact that this victorious franc retains only a small fraction of its value demonstrates the contradiction between the lifestyle of bourgeois society in its entirety and the poverty of this society’s foundations. This contradiction will also assert itself and find expression in the thinking of the working class. In other words, it is headed for ruin.

So conditions are excellent. We need a French honesty in fully utilising them. But in such conditions, it would be suicidal to let ourselves be drawn into partial actions whose scope and method lead to a showdown. I know this and understand it well. Defying the decree calling up the class of 1919 would have been a partial action created by entirely partial conditions that had no immediate and close relationship with the evolution of French politics – conditions, however, that would have required recourse to the most decisive methods, those of social revolution. Here we have a contradiction that could destroy us.

I do not say that I am happy with the conduct of the French Socialist Party.[7] Far from it, because what you need in a partial situation is clarity. Before you make the revolution, you need the will to do so. You have to understand what makes it possible and make yourself ready to carry it out.

I have noticed that the comrades making criticisms, while imbued with a desire to make the revolution, have not gained a full understanding of the conditions that make it possible. But if we consider the party at its outset, its Executive Committee and its parliamentary caucus, we note that the will to make the revolution is quite indistinct. Comrade Laporte has a great advantage in that this will, in his case, is quite defined.

I tell you truly, Comrade Laporte, without any irony, this is how things stand. If you had told us that the party’s Executive Committee lacked a well-defined will to make the revolution, that it could have done much more than it did in certain critical situations, you would have been correct. But that does not apply to the appeal that you proposed to us.

Let me give you an example from the pages of Le Temps. I see there some articles expressing a point of view from outside Paris, signed by initials that are not identifiable, but as far as I can see they reflect the views of Millerand and his extremely reactionary coterie. These articles express a fascist mentality that influences the country’s political and social life. You in France should be preparing for a quite crucial situation, because the bourgeois layers are now aware of their class situation. The bourgeois newspaper states:

We will experience difficult and quite dangerous conditions, and we have to create the appropriate state of mind right away. We must organise this and induce a universal awareness of this crucial fact: everyone must understand well his duty, his role, standing ready to struggle and when the signal is given, annihilating the anarchist-like forces led by agents of Moscow.

That’s the gist of one such article, well written with well worked-out ideas. I expected, of course, to find the next day in L’Humanité three responses to this article, to be reprinted in full. ‘Workers, an attack on you is being organised. The French bourgeois class is forming a combat organisation along fascist lines, equipped with arms, revolvers, rifles. Workers, we have to build our own combat organisation. We need a secret intelligence service, able to inform us regarding the enemy’s weaponry, combat organisations, and so on.’ That would be an initial, serious step. Not a vague and unprepared appeal to the class. A small beginning. I searched in vain through the pages of L’Humanité; I found nothing. No note was taken of this article in Le Temps.

Does this show a failure to direct all our attention to the most essential aspects of preparing for civil war? Attention to revolution is superficial; there you have it. Well, it is highly dangerous for the revolutionary will to be superficial. And it is just as dangerous if the party’s political thinking is superficial. And that can be seen every day in L’Humanité. I cannot give additional examples, but I have a collection of newspapers dealing with the congress. I can give quite a number of examples to anyone who is interested. The accounts of parliamentary debates report the positions of various parties, among which there is one that bears the name ‘Communist’. This is done with some shading, of course. The Communist speeches are presented as being more eloquent than those of the Longuet people. That is not always factually true, of course, but it provides shading.

We do not see here the abyss that our press and our language ought to create between the Communist Party and the entirety of bourgeois society. It is not visible. As for the workers who support L’Humanité, they have very good reasons to do so. But now these workers should be coming and telling you, ‘But what are you up to? Why don’t you speak like Communists? We see very indistinct shadings in what you write, hardly more distinct than among the Longuet people, in fact fundamentally the same.’

Of course, the revolutionary situation is not going to evolve more quickly because of our activity and influence or because of the voice of this congress. However, we must recognise and understand another fact: The party’s attitude to the trade unions, in my opinion, is completely wrong. This is the most important question posed in France – that of relations between the parties and the unions. There are the unions [syndicats], and then there are the French syndicalists.

The French syndicalists are a party without knowing it. They do not consider themselves a party and are confused because they use the same name as the unions. The unions are workers’ organisations that include all working people, without regard to their points of view or affiliations – workers who are socialist, communist, or unaffiliated – people organised for the economic struggle. Yet the unions have a certain leaning and a certain programme. Around this programme and certain comrades who advocate it, a party comes together that treats the unions as a territory subject to its influence. Two questions arise here: first, relations between the parties and the unions; and, second, relations between the Communist Party and this syndicalist party within the unions.

Small groups within the unions assert with regard to this socialist-syndicalist party that they do not want to be mixed up with the Communist Party for various reasons. These reasons were false and remain so. Wishing to avoid such contact, they hide behind trade-union autonomy. But we do not want to subordinate the unions to the party. What they are really saying is that they do not want their party to unite with another. I want to defend trade-union independence, but this is a camouflage – sincere, to be true – but a camouflage that must be removed, in the most friendly fashion, given that there are outstanding revolutionary forces among the French syndicalists. And then there are the French workers in their trade unions. We have to act with adroitness, but we must say openly what we are doing.

Well, in my view the French Communist Party does not always show courage in its conduct toward the syndicalists. It still preserves the practice of Jaurès, who managed the unions without speaking about it. Just as you do not speak of the rope in the house of the hanged. You do not speak of the union’s strengths or weaknesses; you just say that it is a workers’ organisation with which you have fraternal relations – and let it go at that.

In the time of Jaurès, the party was quite reformist, opportunist, and nationalist, while the syndicalists represented a really revolutionary current. So the diplomatic management employed by the Jaurès current aroused legitimate fears. Any time the Jaurès current told the syndicalists that they had made such and such errors, the syndicalists could respond with a much longer list of errors by the Jaurès people. We are not required now to offer any apologies to the working class regarding our approach to the syndicalists. But I never see a word of criticism in L’Humanité regarding syndicalist doctrine. As for the syndicalists, I find only the Amiens Charter.

It was not their spirit or their willpower that led them to support reconstruction [of the International],[8] but intellectual subservience. I very well remember my old friend Bourderon, who said with regard to resuming international relations, ‘Avoid above all seeking a Third International’. What Bourderon wanted was a return to the International as it had existed before 31 July 1914.[9] As for the syndicalists, they tell us, ‘You talk about the dictatorship of the proletariat, you talk about soviets, but what we want is to go back to the Amiens Charter.’ But my god! After the Amiens Charter there was that little war! There was the revolution in Russia and half a revolution, or a third of one, in Germany! A great upsurge in Italy! Does the Amiens Charter take these events into account? Not in the slightest. But didn’t we, as Marxists, make many corrections and changes in our programme? We made corrections, we made changes, while the syndicalists in France always insist on going back to the Amiens Charter. It’s like in the old song of Béranger.[10] In my opinion, the Socialist Party will do well to initiate in its press a fraternal and open discussion with the syndicalists. Our friend Monatte, for whom I have the greatest respect and affection, does not have a fixed position on these issues. He has been silent, and our comrade Loriot helps him remain silent on these issues. He did this in prison. It’s true that you have to exercise tact in maintaining relations, because discussions in prison can end up badly; you can get too worked up there. But when you get out and rejoin, in your case, the party, and in his case, the trade union, you must open up a discussion. And I am confident that when comrades such as Monatte – and there are many others among the syndicalists – enter the party, this will result in a strong revolutionary impulse, an impulse very favourable both to the party and the unions. Well, this question is still pending. Not only is it unresolved, but nothing has been set in motion to resolve it. And here I think we see a lack of courage.

Comrades, I could present many more facts on the condition of the party, indicating that it is not yet equal to its job. Yet I must also say that at this time the Communist Party is more favourably situated in France than, perhaps, in any other country of Europe. Why is this? Events in France are developing much more slowly but in a fashion that is much more instructive for the working class. The great illusions in the War and in victory and the evolution of the Longuet forces are like preparatory lessons – a first, then a second and third – that they pass through gradually. The Communist Party that has been formed is strong in the context of conditions in France, where parties are not usually very large. Not usually. But they have very broad political influence. And for a party to have 120,000 members in France means a great deal indeed.

We see the rising wave of radical, Longuetist opposition. But this will position us, tomorrow, as the only opposition party. There was a similar revolutionary period in Italy where ideas were much less clear and the Communist International much less understood. In Germany, during the revolutionary period, the Communist Party was almost non-existent. There were the large Social Democratic and Independent parties. The German Communist Party was formed, and it developed after great struggles and great decisions by the German working class. Already the will to revolution there is very strong, but there is also a certain scepticism and a certain weariness among some forces in the German working class. These are obstacles faced by the German Communist Party.

In France, we have not seen revolutionary struggles, but there is increasing discontent. Current conditions are more and more sharply defined. We have a Communist Party launched in France on the eve of the first great revolutionary event there, a party based on all the experience gained by the Communist International during the first three years after the War. That is a very favourable situation for the French Communist Party, and that is why I am confident, of course, that Comrade Reiland will not counterpose to the motion before us his proposal to expel Comrade Frossard. Of course, if anyone were to make a motion along these lines, it would be rejected, I trust, by a unanimous vote.

But we need to say the following to the Communist Party of France, in a friendly but emphatic manner. We do not ask that it undertake revolutionary actions without sizing up whether or not the situation is favourable. Of course, conditions must be analysed. Rather what we are asking of you is that you break with your previous attitudes, your previous relationships, your previous links with capitalist society and its parliament – with this parliamentary courtesy, which reveals simply a lack of revolutionary determination and clarity. We ask that you make this break not only in a formal sense but rather in your ideas, your feelings, your overall attitude, and that this break be categorical, total, and absolute.

What we ask of you is that your revolutionary resolve find expression in your press, in your parliamentary activity, in the unions – anywhere and everywhere, and that it ultimately find its highest expression on the Paris barricades. That is what we ask of you, without posing precise conditions or saying it must all be done tomorrow.

We do not say that you must make the French revolution tomorrow, but we do say that tomorrow the French party must have the determination to carry it out.


[1]. The Comintern archives contain a French text, which appears to be a direct transcription of Trotsky’s speech, plus a quite different German text, and a Russian translation of the German. It is likely that Trotsky gave this speech twice, once in French and once in German. In the German text, he sought to answer views held by Hungarian and German delegates. The present translation is based on the French text.

[2]. The Hungarian delegate is János Lékai. The text of Lékai’s remarks to the plenum can be found in RGASPI, 495/1/37, pp. 46–51.

[3]. Fernand Loriot and Pierre Monatte were among a number of Communists and syndicalists arrested in May 1920, charged with breaking the laws against ‘anarchist intrigues’ and plotting against the security of the state. They were imprisoned for ten months.

[4]. Louis-Oscar Frossard and Marcel Cachin came to Moscow in 1920. When Trotsky was living in France (1914–16), Cachin was a prominent supporter of the French war effort, while Frossard advanced both pacifist and patriotic views.

[5]. Several words have here been erased from the French transcript.

[6]. The ellipsis is in the original text.

[7]. Trotsky means the French Communist Party, the name adopted by the Socialist Party majority several months earlier.

[8]. A reference to the Committee for the Reconstruction of the International (CRI).

In January 1916 a number of prominent socialists and syndicalists formed the Committee for the Resumption of International Relations to oppose the pro-war stance of the leaderships of the SP and CGT. In March 1917 that committee split into pacifist and revolutionary wings, with the revolutionary minority founding the Committee for the Defence of International Socialism. In December 1919 the CDSI became the CRI.

[9]. This is the date of the murder of SP leader Jean Jaurès by a chauvinist assassin on the eve of the War.

[10]. Pierre-Jean de Béranger was a celebrated French songwriter of the early nineteenth century.

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