Parallels with the French Revolution, in this case the danger of "Thermidor" had occupied the thoughts of the Bolsheviks almost since the seizure of power. Trotsky had argued on this question at a session of the CCC on on June 24  In July, Pravda published a series of articles by Maretsky, a student of Bukharin, entitled "The So-called 'Thermidor' and the Danger of Degeneration," denouncing Trotsky's use of the analogy as slander. This memorandum may have been stimulated by that series, or it may have been drawn up in connection with the joint plenum of the CC and CCC in late July - early August.
There were many opinions about the likelihood of a Soviet Thermidor - what Trotsky called counterrevolution on the installment plan - and a lively debate in the ranks of the Opposition would persist long after 1927. Even in 1927 some Oppositionists were of the opinion that Thermidor had already been accomplished, while Trotsky felt that it had not been, although the tendencies.
By permission of the Library of Social History in New York.
From: Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of The Left Opposition (1926-27), Pathfinder Press, New York, 1980, 258-264.
|Trotsky and Left Opposition 1927|
Can a Thermidor occur in our country? In Pravda they have proved with the aid of quotations that it cannot. Stalin said something about the ignorance of those who make references to Thermidor. But all of this is wrong; it misses the point.
To denounce the Opposition as a petty-bourgeois deviation, as a reflection of the growing petty-bourgeois element, and at the same time to deny the very possibility of a "Thermidorian" return of a bourgeois regime, is to fail to put two and two together. It means to make two mistakes: in assessing the Opposition and in assessing the dangers facing us in the process of our development.
Before the introduction of NEP and during its first phase, many of us had quite a few discussions with Lenin about Thermidor. The word itself was in great currency among us. It never entered anyone's head to argue - with absurd pedantry or charlatanism - that Thermidor was "impossible" in general, in view of the socialist character of the revolution, etc., etc.
In speaking of the Kronstadt uprising Lenin said: "What does [this event] mean? It was an attempt to seize political power from the Bolsheviks by a motley crowd or alliance of ill-assorted elements, apparently just to the right of the Bolsheviks, or perhaps even to their 'left'...
"The nonparty elements served here only as a bridge, a stepping stone, a rung on the ladder, on which the White Guards appeared. This is politically inevitable" [an inadequate translation of this passage is in Collected Works, vol. 32, p. 184; emphasis added by Trotsky].
What was involved in Kronstadt, as we know, was not just nonparty elements: many sailors who were party members took part in the revolt. Together with the nonparty people they shifted power so that it ceased to hew to the class line.
The Kronstadt form of Thermidor was an armed uprising. But under certain circumstances a Thermidor can creep up on us in a more peaceful way. If the Kronstadters, party and nonparty elements together, could backslide toward a bourgeois regime with the slogan of soviets and in the name of soviets, it is also possible to backslide into Thermidorian positions even with the banner of communism in one's hands. Herein lies the diabolical trickiness of history.
What is Thermidor? A stepping down one rung on a ladder of revolution - a slight shift of power to the right - as a result of a certain crucial change or break in the psychology of the revolution. At the top, at the helm, there seem to be the very same people, the same speeches, the same banners. The day after Thermidor, the victorious participants were profoundly confident that nothing catastrophic had happened: they simply had dealt with a group of "ex-leaders" who had become confusionists, disrupters, and "objectively" accomplices of Pitt, the Chamberlain of that day. But down below, deepgoing rearrangements of the class forces had taken place.
The propertied elements had succeeded by that time in righting themselves, recovering their strength, and gathering their courage. Civil order was restored. The new property owners wanted more than anything not to be prevented from enjoying the fruits of their property. They pressured the state apparatus and the Jacobin clubs, many of whose members felt themselves also to be property owners, people of order, and the Jacobin party was forced to regroup itself, to put forward some elements more disposed toward swimming with the new stream, to link up with the new elements, not of Jacobin origins - and to press back, cast out, incapacitate, and decapitate those elements who reflected the interests and passions of the urban lower classes, the sans-culottes. In turn, these lower strata no longer felt the same confidence in their power as before -feeling the pressure of the new propertied elements and the state apparatus that covered up for the people of property.
The first shift of power was expressed in the movement within the same old ruling party: some Jacobins forced out others. But that too was - to use Lenin's words - as stepping stone, a bridge, a rung on the ladder, on which later the big bourgeoisie, headed by Bonaparte, was to step into power.
Is there a danger of Thermidor in our country? This question means: (a) Is there a danger of bourgeois restoration in general? (b) Are there reasons to think that this restoration would not be carried out all at once, with one blow, but through successive shiftings, with the first shift occurring from the top down and to a large extent within one and the same party - a shift from the elements who represented the upward sweep of revolution to elements adapting themselves to its downward turn?
To deny the danger of bourgeois restoration for the dictatorship of the proletariat in a backward country under capitalist encirclement is inconceivable. Only a Menshevik or a genuine capitulator who understands neither the international nor the internal resources of our revolution could speak of the inevitability of a Thermidor. But only a bureaucrat, a windbag, or a braggart, could deny the possibility of Thermidor. We of course are only talking about the possibility, only about the danger - in the same sense that Lenin did when he said that no force in the world could take back the agrarian revolution but that our enemies could still take away the socialist revolution.
But bourgeois restoration, speaking in general, is only conceivable either in the form of a decisive and sharp overturn (with or without intervention) or in the form of several successive shifts. This is what Ustryalov calls "going downhill with the brakes on." Or course when you go downhill with the brakes on things don't always work out smoothly, without injuries, as the French Revolution itself showed. The Ninth of Thermidor was supplemented by the Eighteenth Brumaire.
Thus, as long as the European revolution has not conquered, the possibilities of bourgeois restoration in our country cannot be denied. Which of the two possible paths is the more likely under our circumstances: the path of an abrupt counterrevolutionary overturn or the path of successive shiftings, with a bit of a shake-upat every stage and a Thermidorian shift as the most imminent stage? This question can be answered, I think, only in an extremely conditional way. To the extent that the possibility of a bourgeois restoration is general cannot be denied, we must keep our eyes out for either of these variants - with the brakes on or without the brakes - to weigh the odds, and to note elements contributing to either. In politics, as in economics, the same question continues to be posed: Who will prevail?
At the Eleventh Congress Lenin brilliantly sketched out the possible way a Thermidorian shift in power might take place. He took up the question of the cultural level, which of course is closely linked with both politics and economics"
"History knows all sorts of metamorphoses. Relying on firmness of convictions, loyalty, and other splendid moral qualities is anything but a serious attitude in politics...We were told in our history lessons when we were children: sometimes one nation conquers another, and the nation that conquers is the conqueror and the nation that is vanquished is the conquered nation. This is simple and intelligible to all. But what happens to the culture of these nations? Here things are not so simple. If the conquering nation is more cultured than the vanquished nation, the former imposes its culture upon the latter; but if the opposite is the case, the vanquished nation imposes its culture upon the conqueror" [Collected Works, vol 33, pp. 287-288]
Did Lenin think that such a degeneration of the administrators was inevitable? No. Did he think it possible? Undeniably. Did he consider it probable? Under certain historical circumstances, yes. Did this signify pessimism? No; the very question sounds foolish. (It should be stated parenthetically at this point that one of the pillars of the party had a bad trick played on him by a friend, who showed him the excerpt I have quoted from Lenin's speech at the Eleventh Congress under the pretext that it was his own article. Our party "stalwart" did not recognise the real author and judged Lenin's speech as follows: "The ravings of an old man; it has the smell of the Opposition about it.")
Thus Lenin did not think the possibility was excluded that economic and cultural shifts in the direction of bourgeois degeneration could take place over a long period even with power remaining in Bolshevik hands; it could happen through an inconspicuous cultural-political assimilation between a certain layer of the Bolshevik Party and a certain layer of the rising new petty-bourgeois element. By this very position Lenin acknowledged the possibility of a Thermidorian breaking point and a shift of the power, although that does not in any way mean he considered the party Thermidorian or was simply cursing at the Thermidorians. It is necessary after al to understand the language of Marxism.
Are there processes taking place in the country which can produce a very real danger of Thermidor - given blindly bureaucratic policies or our part? Yes there are. I will not dwell on the kulak, the private trader, or the external pressure from imperialism. These are know to all. But let us take this example: At a certain factory the old cadre of revolutionary workers is being pushed aside or is simply driven into opposition by new elements, sometimes ones who did not even go through the civil war, and among these new elements there are quite a few who before the revolution were obedient to the bosses and in the first period of the revolution were hostile to the Bolsheviks - and now these elements, as party members, rail at the Opposition, with the same words they had used at another time against the Bolsheviks.
Such "shifts" even in the factories are not rare exceptions. What do they mean? They do not constitute a counterrevolution, or an overturn, but a realignment of the elements within one and the same class, one and the same party - the kind of regrouping that brings to the top these elements who most easily adapt themselves. By the same token this lowers the revolutionary powers of resistance of the class. Is a realignment of elements on this pattern taking place among us on a broader scale? I contend that it is. The frenzied struggle against the Opposition is ni fact a method that facilitates the indicated realignment of forces inside the party - under the pressure of the non-proletarian classes. This is what the most dangerous process consists of, a process that can greatly facilitate the aim of the Thermidorian elements in the country to strike at the party.
Against our admonitions, as to the danger of Thermidor they argue that these is a different correlation of classes in our country than there was in France, etc., etc. But we too have some inkling of the fact that the base of the Bolsheviks is not the pre-proletariat of the eighteenth century but the industrial working class of the twentieth. And we have heard about the fact that the French Revolution had no apparent way out, for France was surrounded by more backward feudal countries. Our revolution, on the other hand, has a way out, for we are surrounded by more advanced capitalist countries. The counterrevolution in France was an absolute historical inevitability. In our case it is only a possibility - in the event of exceptionally unfavorable combination of international circumstances in the future and exceptionally incorrect policies internally.
One of the present theoretical disarmers of the party has quoted Marx to the effect that there is no reason to clothe the proletarian revolution in a costume of the past and has drawn the silly and sugary conclusion form this that there is no reason to speak of Thermidor. One may wrap oneself in a toga of the past in order to hide from oneself and others the puniness of one's historical role. That should not be done. But one can and should seek analogies with the past and learn from past examples. In 1902 [actually 1904] Lenin wrote that a Social Democrat is a Jacobin who has linked his fate with the revolutionary movement of the working class [see Collected Works, vol 7, p. 383]. At that time, twenty-five years ago, I myself took the occasion to argue against Lenin to the effect that the French Revolution was a petty-bourgeois revolution and ours is a proletarian revolution, that there was no need to return to the past, to the Jacobins, etc. In short, I expounded the same super-wisdom that is now being repeated, and added to considerably, by the critics of the opposition. There is no need to point out that Lenin had no worse an understanding than we did of the difference between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, between the sans-culottes and the industrial workers. Nevertheless he was completely right in following a thread of historical continuity from the Jacobins to Bolshevism.
The analogy with Thermidor makes the same kind of sense. It teaches a great deal. Thermidor is a special form of counter-revolution carried out on the installment plan through several installments, andmaking use, in the first stage, of elements of the same ruling party - by regrouping them and counterposing some to others.
Several wise observers have referred to the fact that Robespierre's group was still in power on the Ninth of Thermidor and not in opposition. It is completely laughable to make much of that. No one is talking about an exact identity of the two processes. If the Thermidorians had not guillotined the Robespierre group right away but had only stripped them of power gradually - let's say, had only "worked them over" at the start - the group would have ended up in opposition. And on the other hand, we have no shortage of already fully fledged Thermidorians who call for speeding up measures of physical retribution against the Opposition. What is involved here is technicalities, and not the political essence of the process.
I have not the slightest doubt that from these words of mine someone will draw the conclusion, and publish it widely, that our revolution is doomed, that before us lies only the road of Thermidor, that our party is Thermidorian, that socialist development is impossible, and so on and so forth. I view this method of "working people over" as one of the most malignant symptoms of the influence of Thermidorian tendencies on the apparatus of our own party. This is the spiritual disarming of the proletariat, the anaesthetization of the party, the obliteration of the ideological and political boundaries between right and left, between revolutionaries and opportunists, between Social Democracy and Bolshevism. The theoretical disarming and political narcotization of the party facilitates the work of Thermidorian tendencies. Against such disarming the Opposition has waged, and will continue to wage, an irreconcilable struggle - precisely because it does not in any way regard Thermidor as inevitable.