Trotsky and the Thermidorian chapter

The fight to prevent the degeneration of the Bolsheviks was handicapped by an excessive desire to make analogies with the French Revolution, argues Martyn Hudson. In the first of two articles he looks at how Marxists in Russia drew parallels with the downfall of the Jacobins in 1793

Perhaps one of the central reasons for the construction of an ideology of 'Trotskyism' is less to do with the theories elaborated by Trotsky than with an idea of Trotsky as a kind of exemplar for subsequent generations of revolutionaries. Trotsky's immense literary output is less important for Trotskyists than the notion of a Trotsky who in a time of defeat persevered through and then transcended that 'midnight in the century'. Trotsky was perhaps a world-historical figure of epochal defeat - in the same way as Stalin exemplifies the rising labour bureaucracy and the victory of profound barbarism. At the same time this idea of 'Trotskyism' would have been alien to the ranks of a left opposition (those outside the Soviet Union who were listening and those inside who were not yet murdered) who considered Trotsky to be the most eminent amongst their ranks but clearly disagreed with subsequent developments in Trotsky's thought - particularly as it related to social democracy and the 'French turn' and to the nature of the Soviet Union as a workers' state of some sort. Allied to this is the immensely damaging culture of sectarianism in orthodox Trotskyism which can be directly related to Trotsky's realisation (perhaps in the aftermath of Adolphe Joffe's reproaches on his death) that his abdication of the struggle within the Bolshevik Party could somehow be remedied by a resolute defence of often bizarre sectarian lines. As Jack Conrad has noted, "Trotskyism as an ideology plays a highly ambiguous role. Without a thorough-going internal revolution it is doomed in the 21st century to farcically repeat the tragedies we have witnessed in the 20th century" ('Behind the mask of Trotskyism' Weekly Worker September 24 1998). 'Trotskyism's' inability to grasp the nature of the Soviet social formation is partly to do with the nature of this kind of repetition. It cannot, as an orthodoxy imposing its own models of reality, come to terms with the reality of the Soviet Union and the organisational crisis which emanates from the very process it tried to critique in the USSR. This process is fundamentally the enforcement of repetition and an 'epigone' culture it so abhorred in the ranks of the rising Stalinist bureaucracy. This is part of the tragedy of Trotsky as an individual and 'Trotskyism' as an ideology. The factional struggles within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the 1920s have been well documented. The part played by Leon Trotsky in these struggles is particularly important, in that his political, and eventually physical, elimination ensured the supremacy of the bureaucracy led by Stalin. Critical to that victory were the relationships between the objective forces at play in the Soviet Union and the kinds of historical ideas which the protagonists were subjectively using - most importantly the dialectic between historical conditions and the 'Thermidorian' analogy. The Bolsheviks were so historically reflective that any attempt at understanding their revolution meant the construction of analogies with past revolutions - particularly the 18th century bourgeois revolution in France. Even though the decisive part must be allotted to the economic and social degeneration of the revolution in the 1920s, the use of the 'Thermidorian' analogy became part of the factional discourse of the period, with tragic consequences for Trotsky and the left opposition. Examining these struggles sheds light on the power of the spirits of the past even within a left oppositionist faction so aware of Marx's injunction not to conjure up 'the dead of world history'. One of the consequences of the French Revolution as a world-historical event was the dispersal of its values, ideologies and motifs throughout Europe and the world - firstly with bayonets and then with books. The thousands of books on the revolution circulating throughout the intellectual circles of Europe in the 19th century found their most receptive audience in that first generation of Marxists so concerned at revolutionising themselves and the world (and lacking a proletarian example of their own) that even a bourgeois revolutionary model would do. Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte had warned against this "conjuring up of the dead of world history" and had argued that the proletarian revolutions of the present should not use analogies from the bourgeois revolutions of the past. To do so would be to mystify one's tasks and lead to regression rather than revolution. (K Marx, F Engels CW Vol 11, London 1979, pp103-106). The lesson was not to be learned (see M Hudson, 'The Clerk of the forester's records: John Berger, the dead and the writing of history', in Rethinking History Vol 4, No2, pp261-279). It was in the reception of the ideas of the French Revolution as manifested in history books that the peculiar historical reflexivity of the Bolsheviks had its origin. So aware of their illustrious predecessor and so concerned about transcending that legacy in order to evade the tragic downfall of their revolution, they unwittingly summoned the ghosts of the bourgeois past to their aid and in critical ways repeated the most retrogressive aspects of Europe's revolutionary past. It is with this terrible repetition and the historical circumstances which produced this historical peculiarity that Leon Trotsky floundered in his struggle against the rising Stalinist bureaucracy. Both the historical conditions and the recourse to the past made possible by those conditions had, as an immediate result, the suppression of the revolution - with all of its horrifying consequences. The fall of Trotsky George Steiner, in his critical homage to Trotsky, has argued that one of the most important questions of our century is 'Why did Trotsky fall?' (G Steiner Language and silence - essays 1958-1966 London 1967, p396). Important, because the elimination of the tradition of which Trotsky was such an exemplary leader and theoretician not only led to the advent of the Stalinist counterrevolution but also, with the collapse of any hope of the revolution spreading to western Europe, signified the international bankruptcy of the policies of the communist parties. In turn this made the resistance to the terrible tide of fascism so much more ineffective. Even though Trotsky would have faced the same historical conditions reigning in the Soviet Union, the bureaucratisation and dictatorship of the party could perhaps have been resisted until the revolutions in the west took place. So the question of Trotsky's downfall is at once of the utmost tragic significance and also a dark comedy of errors in which Trotsky, in his relentless search for analogies which would help him to understand the destiny of the revolution and himself, summoned the spirits of the past to his aid. Trapped in the peculiar historical vortex of this struggle there was some small chance of victory but, as Steiner makes clear, "Precisely like a personage in classical tragedy, Trotsky did not act to arrest, to defeat the dangers he foresaw. Clairvoyance and policy drew apart, as if doom, seen as a historical process, had its irresistible fascination. He stumbled on, majestic. One thinks of Eteocles going clear-sighted to the death gate in the Seven Against Thebes, refusing the plea of the chorus for evasion or liberty of action" (ibid p397). Trotsky's constant search for answers to his predicament was complemented by an inability to understand the ascendancy of the bureaucracy. At the very moment when his defeat was secured he was relentlessly reading Marx's Herr Vogt trying to understand the ebbs and flows of the revolutionary process which had led him to this moment. Abandoning the struggle within the party until it was too late went hand in hand with a refusal to examine the complex reality of the Soviet Union - outside of his relentless scanning of theoretical works looking for the signals of disaster. The conjuring up of the spirits of the French Revolution was no idle game for the Bolsheviks - all so imbued with its lessons and its consequences and so afraid that their revolution would degenerate in the same way, they looked to its legacy in order to interpret their own revolution. In order to answer the question of why Trotsky was defeated, we must look to his reading of that history and the reading undertaken at the same time by the Bolshevik Party as a whole. It is clear, however, that Trotsky fell for the following fundamental reason: he himself, in the midst of the great struggles within the party, was working on analogies between the French and the Russian revolutions, and trying desperately to understand who was the Soviet Napoleon who would destroy the revolution and who were the Soviet Thermidorians who would make this possible. The great irony is that the answer to this question by the party was not that expected by Trotsky - in other words Stalin and his party bureaucrats - but Trotsky and the left opposition. Cast in the roles of Napoleon and the Thermidorian renegades, Trotsky and his followers had little chance at surviving this ideological infamy in the political and economic crisis that the revolution had found itself in. The recourse to the forms and motifs of the past, so relentlessly criticised by Trotsky, had become the only way of understanding his predicament. Perceived to be an epigone, substitute and repetition of Bonaparte, he was finished as a political power within the Bolshevik Party. Trotsky had always been able to uncover the real, living historical processes which had cast up the spirits of the past, realising that beneath these imaginary entities real classes, factions and social forces were at work. (see L Trotsky, 'Two traditions: the 17th century revolution and Chartism', in Trotsky's writings on Britain Vol 2, London 1974, p87). Ironic then, that in the last struggle against the bureaucracy, these spirits were not permeated and dispelled by Trotsky's critical intellect. This inability to render visible to himself the real forces at work led to his downfall and ultimately his death at the hands of the regime. EH Carr has noted that amongst those who read and study history books history rarely repeats itself - largely because the second generation understand the consequences and denouement of their predecessors and manage to avoid the same fate. By desperately trying to do this not only Trotsky's analogies but also those of the party break down and mystify more than they disclose, leading to that very conjuring up of the past they had been so fearful of. Carr had researched the struggles and policies of the period within the upper echelons of the party bureaucracy and he came to the conclusion that, "The Bolsheviks knew that the French Revolution had ended in a Napoleon, and feared that their own revolution might end in the same way. They therefore mistrusted Trotsky, who among their leaders looked most like a Napoleon, and trusted Stalin, who looked least like a Napoleon" (EH Carr What is history? London 1964, pp70-71). That the person who most seriously took the analogy between France and the Soviet Union should be the major recipient of disgrace and exile imposed by the party is an example of that very real dialectic of tragedy and farce so much a part of the process of the repetitions of history. Lenin in March 1919 had spoken of the radical novelty of the Soviet proletarian revolution. The decision to make that revolution had come from the spirit of the masses of workers, not from reading dry history books - "Who could ever make a gigantic revolution, knowing in advance how to carry it through to the end? Where could you get such knowledge? It cannot be found in books. No such books exist" (L Trotsky History of the Russian Revolution Vol 3, London 1967, p378). In those years when the revolution was accelerating this was the case, but when the revolutionary spirit of the workers began to ebb and disappear it was to the books on the bourgeois revolutions that Trotsky and the other Bolsheviks returned in order to explain the catastrophe to themselves and evade its worst consequences. To help us to understand the importance of Thermidorian analogies we need to turn back, as Trotsky did, to the first Thermidor. The first Thermidor If the 18th Brumaire 1798 marked the emergence of the rule of Napoleon, then it was the 10th Thermidor 1793 that had ensured the defeat of the radical phase of the revolution and which would in turn make the empire possible. The vacillations of the bourgeoisie in the aftermath of the defeat of the Jacobins led directly to the necessity of the dictatorship of Napoleon and the elimination of the bourgeois democracy in order to secure more fully the future of bourgeois economic rule in the long run. The tragedy of Brumaire was really but a consequence of the greater tragedy of Thermidor and the suppression of all of the radical democratic hopes of the revolutionary republic. The idea of Thermidor takes the place of that of Brumaire in the work of Trotsky partly because the Brumaire was perceived as a distant point and the Thermidor was seen to be happening in the very struggles of the bureaucracy with its radical past. So what was the meaning and importance of the Thermidor and why did it become so important as a way of understanding the Soviet struggles of the 1920s? The story of the victory of the Jacobins against their enemies within and without the revolution and their eventual downfall is not to be retold here except to give a sense of some of the ideas and processes which would be of concern to the Marxist revolutionaries of the future. The status of the Jacobins within both bourgeois and Marxist thought has long been and still is a focus of disagreement. What is largely agreed is that the downfall of the Jacobins in 1793 did signal the end of the radical, experimental phase of the revolution - the Jacobin exercise of power was really the most radical horizon which bourgeois thought could achieve, in both ideas and practice, in this period. In this lie both its epochal significance and its limitation to the revolutions inaugurating the rule of the bourgeoisie. The concept that obsessed a later generation of Marxists so much stems from the month of Thermidor - in the revolutionary calendar it covered parts of July and August and it was on the 9th and 10th Thermidor in Year II that Robespierre and the Jacobins fell at the hands of a more moderate bourgeois faction. Thermidor then signifies the end of the radically egalitarian phase of the revolution and the advent of the rule of the Thermidorians, which in turn would lead to the first 18th Brumaire and the ascendancy of Napoleon. By this decisive date of 10th Thermidor popular support for the Jacobins had waned and Robespierre's political and religious experimentation was becoming alienated from the mainstream mercantile thought of the period. George Rude has even pointed out that Robespierre's last speech to the convention two days before was almost a deliberate courting of martyrdom (see G Rude Revolutionary Europe 1783-1815 London 1964, p158). The revolutionary government was now in the utmost danger as forces were rallied from the richer parts of Paris as the forces of the sans-culottes artisans and workers remained impervious to the cries of the Jacobins. The sans-culottes had been alienated by Jacobin policies and would no longer take up arms against their enemies. Barricaded in the City Hall, the forces defending Robespierre and his comrades began to disappear. In the early morning, the anti-Jacobin forces entered to find Lebas and Augustin Robespierre had committed suicide and Robespierre himself making an attempt to do so by shooting himself. Surviving, Robespierre, Couthon and Saint-Just were executed without delay and the next day the remnants of the Jacobins were purged and many executed. The leftist phase of the revolution was terminated and the 'men of Thermidor' took power. As Jacques Godechot has argued, it is with the death of Robespierre that the prospect of any form of egalitarian and democratic republic vanishes (see J Godechot France and the Atlantic revolution of the 18th century New York 1971, p177). Christian Rakovsky in his attempt to construct a Soviet-Franco revolutionary analogy saw Thermidor as the elimination of the power of the masses and the increase of centralism largely as a consequence of a vacillating masses of the city who were little concerned by the downfall of the Jacobins (C Rakovsky Selected writings on opposition in the USSR 1923-30 London 1980, pp52-53, 127). A military dictatorship had ended the acceleration of the revolution, initiating this terror against the radicals and there were many to the left as well as to the right of the Jacobins who welcomed this violent resolution of their fate (see P McGarr, 'The great French Revolution', in International Socialism No43, June 1980, p77). Rude has noted the great significance of the violence of Thermidor itself - "It was the largest, and the last, of the great holocausts of the revolution in Paris. With them perished not only a man or a group but a system. And what followed Thermidor was hardly what the most active of Robespierre's opponents - and still less the passive bystanders, the Parisian sans-culottes - had expected or bargained for" (G Rude Revolutionary Europe 1783-1815, London 1964, p159). The emergence of a more moderate bourgeois faction - itself to fall to other forces, even more reactionary - did not mean that all of the symbols of the revolution's radical phase simply disappeared. The same kinds of vocabulary were used and ironically the Thermidorians even placed Marat's remains in the Pantheon only to remove them later when the security of the new bourgeois order was more assured. The new republic of the plain, having destroyed the mountain, swung sharply to the right. Preparing the way for the dictatorship of Bonaparte, Mercier had seen the bourgeoisie whispering in the ears of the people after Thermidor - "Bonaparte is going to cross the Rubicon and imitate Caesar" (N Hampson Will and circumstance: Montesquieu, Rousseau and the French Revolution Oklahoma 1983, p270). In the aftermath of Thermidor, the human template for the infinite variety of repetitions to come had become a political presence. Bonaparte's succession was assured. The sheer novelty of the French Revolution went hand in hand with that very bourgeois mode of imitation - the classical prosopopeia. The resolution to annihilate the past was part of a dialectic which also aspired to the classical statutes and motifs of the Roman republic. At once ensuring that no remnants of the immediate past would persevere in their perfect republic, the revolutionaries imported the grand conceptions of the ancients. At once a mode of obliteration, this process is also one of the elevation in a new form of the methods and motifs of the past - the whole enterprise of the revolution was understood as a securing of identity with the ancients, thereby consolidating the legalistic and ideological supremacy of the new. Whilst undoubted remnants of the ancien régime of France did survive through the years of revolution, they were almost to be destroyed at the height of the Jacobin terror and, although concessions to the old regime became a presence in French society of the 19th century, there would be no return to that age, whatever the remnants of the monarchist reaction persevered in hoping for. The repetition and recomposition of the classical within the revolution has been well documented and we can see here the origins of that reversion to the past heroic forms so reminiscent of the later generations of Bolsheviks. Simon Schama in his revisionist history of the revolution has recounted the famous story of Jacques-Louis David and his role as witness to the last days of Robespierre. The martyrdom he was courting in the convention made David think of the ways in which life was a repetition and imitation of art. Conceiving of Robespierre as a dying Socrates - grand in his ideals and ethical splendour - David thought of himself as a sacrificial disciple imitating Robespierre and following him to his death. David and his fellow revolutionaries looked to Greece and Rome for their models in terms of ideas and violence. This was what Schama calls a "neo-classical fixation with the patriotic death". The classical being the mirror in which the revolutionaries recognised themselves (S Schama Citizens: a chronicle of the French Revolution London 1989, p861). Emmett Kennedy in his study of the culture of the French Revolution has argued that the neo-classical ideology of the revolutionary artists was an art of composites - the capacity within a single form to recompose a whole series of different spatio-temporal figures, motifs and stories - with David as its great representative. The mythological archetypes of the neo-classical school were suitable myth-making devices in times of revolution. The "superhuman reality" of the revolution and its heroes, depicted as they were as classical heroes, "apotheosised" those ordinary individuals, imbuing them with a grandeur inherited from the ancients (E Kennedy A cultural history of the French Revolution New Haven 1989, p81). This imitation of Greek and Rome transfigured not only the art but also the whole process of the revolution and at least partly explains the downfall of Robespierre and the Jacobins in a suspicion on behalf of the bourgeoisie and others that this exercise in classical imitation had gone too far. John Laffey has stressed that the victory of the Thermidorian reaction did not end the recourse to such classical analogies and imitations. The whole sense of the Thermidorian Concorde - the ending of revolutionary violence and the signalling of social peace - was a direct recourse to such a classical analogy. Appealing for an end to the class war, this exploitation of an analogy with the ancients was very useful to the Thermidorians in justifying their rule as a bourgeois order and securer of legitimacy and authority. By reaching to transcend the class war the Thermidorian classical analogy of concord aims to justify a political power. Clearly the use of such motifs "in the interests of ideological mystification, marked a symbolic terminus within, but not of, the revolution" (J Laffey, 'Concord and discord in French social thought in the first half of the 19th century', in F Krantz (ed) History from below: studies in popular protest and popular ideology Oxford 1988, pp271-272). The economic gains and the ideological motifs of the bourgeois revolution would live on within European society. Entwined with a fixation with the classical and its heroes, the revolutionary bourgeois thought of the 19th century would have recourse again to the motifs of the ancients and those of the Great French Revolution. Transcending these motifs would be the task of the new social forces of the proletariat. But shedding the legacies of the past is easier contemplated upon than done. Repetition and the epigones The very extra-territoriality of ideological forms and their relative autonomy from the moment of their origin means that they can be recomposed in material conditions very distant in space and time. All of the bourgeois revolutions of the last centuries have depended upon classes of intellectuals able to contemplate and attempt to understand their actions by referring back to textual indices such as the Bible, or Livy's histories and so on. Because the age of capital is an age of the book, where writing and reading is part of any revolutionary struggle, this becomes part and parcel of the material social forces battling for supremacy. The extra-territoriality of writing means that the lesser and larger spirits of the past can be recomposed in profoundly new historical conditions. This in itself is a victory of the abstract and extra-temporal over empirical, idiosyncratic, individual historical moments. By perceiving history to be one of similarity and analogy it becomes clear that repetition is a central force in the minds of the revolution. The particularity of events and personalities becomes less apparent than their ubiquity and this is due to the reading of our illustrious forebears and their activities and the translation of this into the actions of the present. Trotsky's theory of the epigones was part of a process of recomposition of the elements of human culture into a new, yet repetitive ideological figuration. In his assault upon political slanders against the revolution, Trotsky noted the reversion within contemporary political discourse to the forms and images of the past and by examining this process he develops the theory of prosopopeia beyond that of Marx (see L Trotsky Literature and revolution London 1991, p75). Trotsky argues that the "social mind" is conservative and rather than create the new it tends to borrow the old. Even when compelled to create new forms it recombines the old and repersonifies old personalities and motifs borrowed from the "deep ages" (L Trotsky History of the Russian Revolution Vol 2, London 1967, p116). This process of reversion and substitution is fertilised by textual information for the origination of its motifs. If the original action is the actual genesis of these motifs, then their communication is the book of 'Genesis'. Although recomposed and adapted rather than purely repetitious, these dialectics of past and present become deeply important in times of crisis and imperative to understand. Kerensky and Kornilov conceived of themselves as the new Thermidorians initiating the destruction of the forces of radicalism. Trotsky himself saw Kornilov at the height of the revolution as a Russian version of Bonaparte, a version more suited to the character of the Russian rather than the French bourgeoisie. In this role Kornilov becomes the symbol, the shorthand, for that decaying bourgeois order - backward, isolated, ungifted, and in decline (ibid p159). Each of these anachronistic reversions to inherited personalities and motifs become more concentrated and overwhelming in revolutionary periods. For Trotsky, these symbolic notations and self-understandings are enhanced by the very process of revolution - an elemental force initiating in this moment of crisis elemental, archetypal images in order to both understand and mystify itself to itself (ibid p161). Each revolutionary step forward compels the anachronism to disclose itself. Backwardness is relegated and the epigones unmasked. Each step forward for the reaction initiates further mystificatory forms and images. The ebb and flow of the revolutionary process is deeply implicated with the question of ideological form because in moments of crisis it is so important. Trotsky had recognised that at the heart of his theory of permanent revolution lay that peculiar dialectic between the archaic and the contemporary material and ideological form. The sheer comedy of epigonism is displayed not only in the hankerings after a Thermidor on behalf of the Russian bourgeoisie getting its history wrong (L Trotsky History of the Russian Revolution Vol 1, London, 1967, p63), but in the monarchical archaisms of Nicholas II, drawn fatally to conceive of history and his reign as determined by god and destiny. Unwilling or unable to understand the intervention of the bourgeoisie, let alone the workers and peasants, into the history of his tsardom, he was annihilated by social forces able to increase their flexibility and power by the rejection of anachronism and "the poetry of the past". The Bolsheviks were able to bury the tsar because they truly had let the bourgeois order bury its own dead and were free to conceive of a future. The progress of the revolution made this a possibility even if its ebb allowed a reversion to the archaic later in the days of the reaction and counterrevolution. In their understandings of themselves each comparison became a critical and tragic step to the monarchy's own dissolution - the analogy between Rasputin and Christ, for example, at crucial moments hampered the monarchy's capacity to change the fate the Bolsheviks had set for it. The monarchy, in its death agonies, found the nobility defecting before the "menacing forces of history" (ibid p75). Rather than conceiving of Nicholas II as a repetition of the Sun King, Louis XIV, it was becoming clearer that he was to play the part of the Louis XVI to Lenin and Trotsky's Robespierre and Danton. And yet these were not cheap analogies for the Bolsheviks, and particularly Trotsky - they were deeply implicated in a materialist method of understanding the process of the revolution which the masses of Russia had initiated. As Trotsky makes clear, even if we cannot accept any of the versions of a 'great man' theory of history, we can perceive the social forces of the historical process refracted through the individual - the précis of all the past and the structural conditions which have constituted them (ibid p102). The irresistible forces of the revolution initiate the dissolution of any conception of the individual as anything but a historically constituted phenomenon - the 'boundaries' of individuality become less clear and the historical archaism of the figure becomes more apparent - Nicholas repeating Louis, repeating Charles (ibid p107). Less because of a fatalistic history than because those "Classes which have outlived themselves are not distinguished by originality" (ibid p140). Searching for some conception of grandeur in themselves, in the very moment of termination they look for and look like the archetypes of past and perhaps similar times. Those who sought such solace in the past were, for Trotsky, "protecting their imaginary independence the while with long-dead metaphors ... a kingdom of spiritual inertness, spectres, superstition and fictions ..." (ibid p154). Trotsky is clear that in the dialectic between the past and the future the victory of the future is decided. Yet, whilst Kerensky was refusing the role of Marat and accepting that of a petty Napoleon, there were others within the very heart of the Bolshevik Party who were beginning to do some conjuring for themselves in order to understand the revolution they had created. Some were re-reading the old stories of the French Revolution to understand the actions of their erstwhile comrades; some were conjuring up the ghosts of the past in order to drape themselves in glory and grandeur. Trotsky himself, and surprisingly to himself, was about to do both. Like the Romanovs whom he had destroyed, in the times of reaction he too was to resort to the artifice of the archaic. * Part two: Jacobinism and the Soviet Thermidor