Trotsky and the early years of the French Communist Party

by Darren Rosso • Published 20 August 2021

Lenin and Trotsky – from 1917 on these two names had always been mentioned in one breath. Moreover, whereas Lenin had remained distant, Russian, admirable but incomprehensible, Trotsky had caught the imagination of the French working-class movement. He had become theirs, and his involvement in the affairs of the PCF had made him the best-known Bolshevik leader in France.

– Robert Wohl, French Communism in the Making, 1914-1924

In the first place, why write about Trotsky and the early years of the French Communist Party?[1] Well, Trotsky’s writings on France were simply excellent. Trotsky was one of the most important theorists of revolution in the West, and his intervention into the French section of the Comintern set revolutionary politics to work in real time during the post-war upsurge of class struggles. Trotsky’s intervention into the early years of the French Communist Party (PCF) shows the pitfalls of centrism and entrenched reformism within a party proclaiming itself revolutionary, the possibilities and new perspectives opened for working with revolutionary syndicalists, and how to translate the experience of the Russian Revolution into the Western European social formations.

Trotsky’s role in the early years of the PCF gave answers to key difficulties of revolutionary tactics and strategy in the West: the united front, struggle for working-class hegemony, relation of the working class to other social strata, combining the war of position – patient medium-term struggle, with the war of manoeuvre – insurrection against the bourgeois regime, and revolutionary intervention.

This is qualitatively distinct from the idea, popularised by Stalinism, of mechanically applying “Leninism” to French conditions. Instead, Trotsky had an intimate knowledge of and acquaintance with the French labour movement, its leaders and many militants, and combined this with his decades of revolutionary work to make the case for how the early French Communist Party could act in the concrete situation to overthrow capitalism.

The reality was that the early French Communist Party was not a revolutionary party in a genuine sense; there was an absence of an actual revolutionary party even after the Tours Congress of December 1920, a combination of factors hindering the development of the party in a revolutionary direction prior to the definitive victory of Stalinism in French conditions (1925-27). This is significant because it shows the differences between what a party says of itself, that it, a communist party affiliated to the Comintern taking itself to be revolutionary, and what it actually is in its material and practical reality. Trotsky’s interventions were about dealing with this fact. The tragedy of the early years was that prior to Stalinism the party was not a cohered and revolutionary organ, while the Bolshevisation process that claimed to carry out that work eventually produced one of the most authoritarian Stalinist parties in the world and definitively buried the prospect of the party actually becoming a genuinely revolutionary party instead of an appendage to Moscow.

This tragedy is substantiated beyond reasonable doubt by the newest books like Julien Chuzeville’s A Brief Revolutionary Moment: The Creation of the Communist Party in France, as well as the older, classic books like Alfred Rosmer’s Moscow under Lenin. Trotsky intervened into this tragic situation in real time. In the interval between 1920 and 1924 Trotsky had to politically convince elements of the party how to act if it were to make gains and wage revolutionary struggle. There is a lot to learn from Trotsky’s effort to convince the French party what actual Marxist and revolutionary politics consists in.

But I have to make a qualification: I’m writing about what one could call the fallible Trotsky think-tank. I am against imaginary historical counterfactuals and I am not suggesting that if only the PCF had followed every one of Trotsky’s words to the letter, then everything would have been settled. In the relatively open horizon between the foundation of the PCF and Stalinisation, counting some short four years, there was a distance within the concrete situation itself between an ideal revolutionary party and the actual reality of its practice; a distance between a mass workers’ party and revolutionary program in practice and much heterogeneity of political orientations from left to right within it. It is within the distance between the revolutionary ideal and the paltry reality, a distance very concrete and historically specific, that politics can be thought. That’s what we look at here, Trotsky’s political thought; the fallible Trotsky think-tank as he intervenes into the French section.

The war years

Trotsky was in Paris during the First World War, active among the Russian exiled socialists, the French syndicalists and the left-wing socialists, who wanted to draw a line of opposition to the war against the French Socialist Party’s and trade union bureaucracy’s support for it.

Trotsky recollected in his memoirs how Jules Guesde, head of the so-called Marxist wing of the French Socialist Party, “proved to be capable only of laying down his untarnished moral authority at the altar of ‘national defence’”, while the leader of official syndicalism, Jouhaux, “‘denied’ the state during peacetime, only to kneel before it during war”.[2] The Socialist leaders joined the war cabinet and viciously campaigned against its opponents; the syndicalist trade union bureaucracy put a lid on strikes.

Yet there was resistance. Alfonse Merrheim, leader of CGT metal workers, set up the Committee for the Resumption of International Relations (CRRI) in early 1916; it was a loose network. Before the war, Merrheim had written seriously on the economic underpinnings of the inter-imperialist rivalry. The CRRI was small, but committed to criticising the Socialist Party and the syndicalist leadership of the CGT and doing underground illegal work to propagandise against the war. These people were incredibly courageous, they faced jail time or being sent to the war front for their activities.

Trotsky was in close contact with the most advanced anti-war activists in France, Alfred Rosmer and Pierre Monatte, who came from the revolutionary syndicalist tradition. They held weekly meetings, which Trotsky attended. Though uneven, these people were undoubtedly influenced by Trotsky. Rosmer and Monatte, who were the editors of the paper La Vie Ouvrière, were revolutionaries, committed to working-class self-activity and self-emancipation. Trotsky also met the revolutionary poet Marcel Martinet. Of Monatte, Trotsky said, he “never for a moment inclined toward reconciliation with militarism or the bourgeois state”.[3] Rosmer “stood closer to Marxism fundamentally than to the Guesdists”.[4] And in Martinet, Trotsky wrote, “the artist lived side-by-side in him with the revolutionary, and both knew how to act in unison”.[5] As a side note, Trotsky read Martinet’s play, La Nuit, while aboard the military train during the civil war. He then wrote a preface to it, in which he said Martinet “is a communist trained in the school of the syndicalist group of La Vie Ouvrière, that is to say, in a good school”.[6]

That says everything.

La Vie Ouvrière and other left-wing socialists had never yet encountered the kind of socialism Trotsky stood for. Trotsky “represented a type of Socialism that Rosmer and Monatte had never seen…[he] talked of making a revolution as if [he] meant it”.[7]

Ambiguities and political differences came through in the debates in the Committee for the Resumption of International Relations. The leading Zimmerwaldians – those who attended and prepared the September 1915 anti-war gathering in Zimmerwald – of the French left were committed to the existing unity of the CGT and the Socialist Party, and many were pacifists, well to the right of the Zimmerwald left. Lenin’s revolutionary approach to the imperialist war was foreign to them, and Alfonse Merrheim, who went to Zimmerwald as a moderate pacifist, had already predicted the outbreak of war in his articles for La Vie Ouvrière and argued for working-class resistance to it, yet he later shifted to the right and become an opponent of the Bolsheviks. Lenin had no real contact with the French anti-war opposition either.

Trotsky’s role in the Committee mattered; he took up the fight against the moderates in it. The moderates said that you couldn’t criticise the Socialist Party too much, you couldn’t criticise the vacillating leaders of the Centre too much, you couldn’t reject the imperialist-patriotic socialists too much, because at the end of the day, once the war ends – many socialists thought the war would be over very quickly – there’d be the same old unity within the Socialist Party and the trade unions. The Internationalist Menshevik, Julius Martov, who was also in Paris at the time, initially close to Trotsky, encouraged these fantasies of unity. But Trotsky campaigned for a more intransigent line, one that would take the fight up to the imperialist socialists as well as the centrists, like Longuet – Marx’s grandson who gave the war socialists political cover. Trotsky’s campaign for a more active approach to the war won him the support of left-wing socialists, syndicalists and anarchists; one of the classics of the time, Fernand Loriot’s Zimmerwald Socialists and the War, was clearly influenced by Trotsky. Before Trotsky’s exile from Paris, he was able to win the most courageous of the French left towards a more clear-cut Marxist revolutionary orientation, but this was by no means complete.

Tours: the fruit of a missed encounter

As the war accumulated death, stinking corpses and broken souls, strikes began to mount, soldiers’ revolts broke out, and the anti-war opposition within the Socialist Party, led now by Loriot and Souvarine, was gaining more support and in view of a majority. This posed a political problem: do you break with the Socialist Party, because of the presence of centrists like Longuet and the social-patriotism of Renaudel and Blum, or do you remain in the party, fight for a majority and try somehow to transform the party from within?

To briefly outline the sequence of events: the Second Congress of the Comintern was held in July 1920, where the Bolsheviks argued to settle accounts with reformism in the Socialist Party, and the Tours Congress, taking place in December of that year, voted as a majority to become the official section of the Comintern, shaping the French labour movement for decades to come. The pro-war, intransigent reformists like Léon Blum stormed out, split and formed their own smaller group, and in effect, the Communist Party was the largest party of the French working class. To its right, a smaller reformist current tenaciously tried to rebuild itself. The Communist Party was in a good position to deliver the reformists harder knockbacks to destabilise their influence in the working class.

Trotsky was for a split initially, but the Committee of the Third International, the official French section of the Comintern, made the case for staying in the Socialist Party until they won the majority. I think it was Rosmer who first convinced Lenin of this point. The Committee of the Third International, made up of Boris Souvarine, Loriot, Rosmer and Monatte, was already affiliated to the Comintern, with its members active as syndicalists and/or in the Socialist Party.

There was a regroupment going on between the left of the Socialist Party and the revolutionary syndicalists. Many, like Loriot and Marthe Bigot, were rank-and-file activists in the teachers’ union. The revolutionary syndicalists were absolutely central to the founding and further dynamics of the Communist Party. There was much crossover between syndicalists and the Socialist Party activists: some syndicalists were inside the Socialist Party already while others were outside, but joined the party after Tours. For the syndicalists outside the Socialist Party, after Tours the PC had to prove the party was new, different and ready to fight to overthrow capitalism. Because of that, the Tours Congress was not just the outcome of an internal battle within the Socialist Party, but a combined effort of left-socialists and revolutionary syndicalists.

Importantly, however, the founding of the Communist Party at Tours involved leaders who knew which way the wind was blowing, but were not sincere revolutionaries. Many of them were freemasons, pacifists, careerists of all types. Two names stand out in the early Communist Party: Marcel Cachin, who was the editor of L’Humanité in the Socialist Party, and Ludovic-Oscar Frossard, its secretary. They went into the Communist Party after Tours, maintaining their posts, pretty much unchanged. Here’s what Rosmer said of the two:

Cachin was a man devoid of character, who had been an ultra-chauvinist at the beginning of the war, running errands to Mussolini on behalf of the French government. Then he had swum with the stream, and now professed to be a sympathiser with Bolshevism, although, in his articles, he had condemned the October rising and basically loathed the Bolsheviks. Of Frossard it is enough to say…[that] starting out with sympathies for Zimmerwald, he was to end up as a minister under…Pétain [the Vichy regime that welcomed the Nazi occupation].[8]

Faced with this difficulty, Trotsky and Lenin thought the best course ahead was for the fusion of revolutionary syndicalists and the left to gather their forces and drive out, defeat or neutralise the right and the centre of the new party. This was a precondition for revolutionary action. They had no illusions in these unreliable people. Lenin summed it up to Trotsky: “It would be good…to drive out all these weathercocks, and to draw into the party the revolutionary syndicalists, the militant workers, people who are really devoted to the cause of the working class”.[9]

The centrists and entrenched reformists in the new party had to be fought. Time was already running out. Not only was France at the centre of the European counter-revolution intent on smashing the Bolsheviks and workers’ power, internally, the class struggle began to decline quickly after 1920, especially after the May Day general strike was ruthlessly defeated: 22,000 rail workers were sacked and three-quarters of the CGT’s union members left in the year that followed the defeat.

Trotsky pointed out, after the war, that social democracy could save capitalism, helped by the absence of a revolutionary party. The post-war radicalisation would never lead straight to working-class victory in Western Europe. Trotsky argued, “It is all too obvious today just what was lacking for victory in 1919 and 1920”: a revolutionary party. “Not until the powerful post-war mass ferment had already begun to ebb did young Communist parties begin to take shape, and even then, only in rough outline”.[10]

In a certain sense, the Tours Congress was symptomatic of a missed encounter: nothing at all in the world predestines elements to combine, for a revolution to take shape. Historical time has its share of plasticity and chance. Revolutionary politics thinks through how the elements of a conjuncture can come together, combine, and overthrow capitalism.

The Communist Party after Tours had to build with the missed encounter already behind them, with the class struggle on the downturn. This was the problem revolutionaries in the West failed to solve in time. It would be wrong to say all hope was lost, because political intervention could still shape events. From this vantage point, the time Trotsky put into the French section was very precious. Nothing preordained the subsequent failures of the French section to build and make good on the already missed encounter; even if the revolutionary chance was missed, more medium- and longer-term perspectives of building a revolutionary party in the West were on the table.

Given space limitations I can only outline four parts of the political debates: syndicalism, the centrist illusions in bourgeois democracy, the united front debates and cohering an interventionist party after the Le Havre strike.


Despite the genuine convergence of syndicalists and socialists, Trotsky insisted on the need for political, ideological and theoretical clarity. After the October Revolution, the progress represented in the Charter of Amiens became an obstacle to further advance. The Charter of Amiens was proposed in 1906, agreed on the autonomy of the trade unions from political parties; it was the Erfurt Programme for the syndicalists, articulating direct class struggle against the bosses to the expropriation of capital. The syndicalists split, some travelled to the right, others to Bolshevism. Some, like Monatte, wavered about where to go. Monatte did not join the Communist Party until 1923, which was sectarian. Monatte was one of the best and most principled militants, but he didn’t understand the importance of the party even after the October Revolution, when the question was settled.

Trotsky took responsibility for unity with the syndicalists. But he did not neglect political clarification. To remain a syndicalist after the October Revolution was to fail to incorporate the knowledge and experience, the genuine leap forward class struggle politics took, from that event.

Trotsky spelled out four mistakes the syndicalists made. First, they denied politics, ignoring the role of the state. This is a slight caricature. Fernand Pelloutier, the foremost organiser and theoretician of revolutionary syndicalism, made the case that the Bourse du Travail movement be nationally coordinated to overcome the economic and corporatist nature of local trade union struggles. Pelloutier may have denied politics but even his articulation of reform and revolution was political. The pre-war CGT had already featured debates between its reformist and revolutionary wings over the relation between trade union militancy and the state. The anti-war campaigns in the lead-up to the First World War, culminating in the joint campaign between the SFIO and the CGT against “the Three-Year Law” were about politics, not crude economics.

Second, they failed to draw the full implications of the “active minority”. The active minority was essentially the vanguard of the class, the most militant section of workers who were waging struggle against the bosses, the best of the Amiens Charter, so to speak. If the new Communist Party were to be genuinely revolutionary, they would be its backbone.

Third, certain anarcho-syndicalists incorrectly separated the party and the trade unions, one of the impasses of the Charter of Amiens, which stipulated that politics should have no place in the trade unions. But this meant it was impossible to coordinate revolutionary politics at the rank and file level to defeat the trade union bureaucracy. A bourgeoisified trade union bureaucracy had emerged in the CGT before the outbreak of war; it effectively opposed the outcome of the Tours Congress and would split the trade unions to smash the revolutionary rank and file sympathetic to the SFIO. Yet even before Tours, a reductive conception of the party and class blinded many syndicalists to the need to defeat the ossified reformist bureaucracy in the Socialist Party, who as the unchallenged political representatives of the working class could play a decisive role. Not all syndicalists or former syndicalists had a reductive conception of the party and the trade unions; as Ian Birchall rightly points out, Rosmer had presented the CGT as a “hybrid” organisation functioning as a political party and a trade union at the same time.[11]

Lastly, the syndicalists prioritised the trade unions over the soviets when it came to the problem of power; there was a debate, therefore, about the organs of working-class rule, inevitably posed after the October Revolution.

The theory and practice of the revolutionary syndicalists, beyond a certain limit, remained subordinate to bourgeois hegemony. Trotsky’s entire polemic against revolutionary syndicalism provides us with an example of how the development of a political doctrine takes place: throughout the course of history, a doctrine is tested, illuminated, reaches a threshold through its own contradictions that need resolution. This is what happened to syndicalism faced with the historical experience of the October Revolution. Trotsky’s Marxism presented a whole project of revolution as an alternative; it was necessary to safeguard the best and most militant traditions of the syndicalists, while also settling accounts with their retrograde dogmas.

Centrist fudge

If Trotsky, through bonds of friendship and politics, was sympathetic to the syndicalists, he was utterly contemptuous of the centrists and the right.

Centrism in the Communist Party was a politics of wasting time, attached to the bourgeois republic, unable to set to work a politics based on revolutionary class struggle. Revolutionary opportunities are precious, yet vanishing moments. Then, and only then, does bourgeois political domination break down for a time. In such moments, decisiveness and timeliness are vital, lest the moments slip away and vanish. After the Tours Congress, class struggle was on the downturn, the revolutionary moment was slipping away. But in this context, the centrist leader of the party, Frossard, spent “two years giving [the Bolsheviks] a lesson in the art of evasion”, an approach that, consciously or otherwise, gave the bourgeoisie of France time to regroup.[12]

The centrists weaselled their way through the “21 conditions”, the measures designed to chase all forms of opportunism out of the ranks of the newly forming communist parties. The 21 conditions, which were not voted on at Tours, were supposed to settle admission to the Comintern: they called for a complete break with reformists and the expulsion of all those who were against the dictatorship of the proletariat. They were designed to ensure that those like Longuet and Blum were shut off from the Comintern. Yet it was an illusion to think that a set of regulations could stem such opportunism. Rosmer later explained: “But what [the Bolsheviks] didn’t and couldn’t know, was the lengths to which these men would go with their skilful manoeuvres, for they had received their training in the practices of parliamentary democracy. They could pull more tricks out of the bag than the suspicious Russians could ever imagine”.[13] Frossard would agree to a principle in Russia, then in France turn his back on it.

The centre and right wing reject the united front

The debate over the united front was a concrete example of the severe limitations of the centre and the right. Opposition to the united front policy within the ranks of the Communist Party came most forcefully from the right and the centre, the then majority. Rejection of the united front came at a time when the imperialist-socialists, like Léon Blum and Renaudel, had minority support within the working-class. This was different from Germany, for instance, where the Berlin left was against the united front. In France, it was the former revolutionary syndicalists who were for the united front because they were for mobilising mass class struggles. In a certain sense, the right wing of the Communist Party rejected the united front policy because, if they were to enter into a pact of common struggle with the outright reformists, it might have just shown how similar they were to each other. The right wing of the Communist Party refused to do this.

If the united front policy was about exposing the imperialist-reformist-socialists before the masses, the right wing and the centrists of the Communist Party refused to do this. That meant in practice that an important section of the Communist Party refused to show how the imperialist-reformist-socialists were opposed to revolution; the centrists had no answer to this, as they tailed the right. They sidestepped the fact that the working class must be shown the difference between the imperialist-reformist-socialists and Communists in practice and its own experience in struggle. That the right wing opposed the united front is telling: they knew the policy wasn’t about the polite cohabitation of different organisations, but a struggle over hegemony within the workers’ movement. The wearisome idea that the united front as a broad collaboration of the left for unity’s sake is as naive as it is devoid of concrete political thought.

One of the fundamental arguments Trotsky made was against the so-called Left Bloc: a bloc between bourgeois radicals and social democrats with a view to forming government. The Left Bloc continued the principle of Republican unity going back to the French Revolution and was also a precursor to the Popular Front of the 1930s, and like that, a capitulation to bourgeois hegemony. To seriously continue republican unity meant to graft working-class politics onto the bourgeois revolution and therefore miss its specificity. The Left Bloc was a bloc between workers and a certain section of the bourgeoisie against another section of the bourgeoisie. Against this, Trotsky argued for a bloc of all workers against the bourgeoisie; Trotsky’s alternative was to build a bloc between all sections of the working class against the united power of capital. Central to Trotsky’s orientation was working-class unity in opposition to the logic of class collaboration. This logic animated the Paris Commune, and I want to quote Trotsky to give a vivid idea of the united front in this context:

The most glorious page in the history of the French proletariat – the Paris Commune – was nothing else but a bloc of all the organisations and shadings within the French working class, united against the bourgeoisie. If, despite the establishment of the united front, the Commune was quickly crushed, then the explanation for this is above all to be found in the fact that the united front did not have at its left flank a genuine revolutionary, disciplined and resolute organisation, capable of quickly gaining leadership in the fire of events.[14]

A thoroughgoing, consistent and bold revolutionary independence of the working class is at stake in this debate, able to combat the different forms of reformism in practice. In reality, Trotsky, on behalf of the Comintern, was waging a polemic against the majority of the French Party; it was a case where Comintern intervention was absolutely essential to getting politics right.

Party fatalism

Earlier I said that centrism is a politics of wasting time. Centrists can be very active in their wasting of time, with endless meetings and motions and debates, but they waste time from the point of view of taking workers’ struggle forwards to victory. Towards the end of 1922, this became very clear when the party was tested in the face of the Le Havre strike.

Le Havre is a port city in the north of France. Metal and shipyard workers came out to fight wage cuts in June, when management announced a ten percent reduction of pay.

The Le Havre strike grew in intensity between July and August, drew in not only the metal workers and shipyard workers, but port workers and sailors. It grew to 40,000 workers before turning into a general strike across the Le Havre region, called by the local unions. After the downturn of class struggle from May Day defeats from 1920 onwards, the Le Havre events were very, very significant. The strike was pivotal, and on 26 August, four workers were killed, the police and the military were called in, and 15 more were injured. The CGTU, the PCF-aligned trade union, called a general strike on the 29th in response, which fell flat.

The Communist Party failed the Le Havre strike. They did nothing for weeks, months even, but then called a general strike which they completely failed to prepare for and was a fiasco.

In the months leading up to the Le Havre general strike and the murder of workers, the Communist Party did nothing. Again, it was a 110-day strike. The syndicalist prejudices went hand in hand with centrist passivity. The centrists said, “The Party cannot undertake anything in this arena”, and the syndicalists in the party also said the Party could not intervene into a trade union, economic matter; in the end, the murder of workers was “economics”.[15] The Party didn’t build authority among the strikers. The local mayor, a bourgeois radical, intervened, and others did too. Trotsky said: “Only one party did not intervene as such in this strike”, the Communist Party![16] Then when the police murdered workers, the CGTU and the Party issued a slogan: the general strike! To reiterate: The Party that remained “a totally irrelevant entity”, in the major battle between the Le Havre workers and “bourgeois society as a whole”, supported an unprepared slogan for a general strike.[17] Newspaper clippings from L’Humanité were supposed to carry off a general strike. The result was a total farce, a total debacle. In this example, passivity and empty slogans went together.

These opponents of socialist revolution, the Blum socialists and trade union bureaucrats, were saved by newspaper clippings calling for a general strike. Of course, when the general strike was called with absolutely no preparation, with only 24 hours’ notice, the reformists had a pretext: it is too risky to strike now. The failure of the French Party’s orientation caused demoralisation, sent a section of workers into passivity, and strengthened the hands of the reformists and trade union bureaucratic syndicalism. The party would never regain this time.

Now, I’m interested in the political alternative, what the French Party should have done, in Trotsky’s words. His proposals were entirely realistic. They show what interventionism means, in the distance between the ideal and the reality. I quote Trotsky at length; his political logic has universal relevance:

In France, such slogans [like the call for a general strike] are formulated much more readily than in any other country. They are experts at it. What was necessary was to explain to every single working man and woman, the agricultural workers, the peasant men and women, what had happened in Le Havre. In Le Havre, they killed four workers, after having killed a million and a half in the War. It was necessary to display, where possible, photographs of the dead workers, and photographs of their daughters and sons.

Correspondents had to be sent there who understand such questions and the lives of the workers, comrades capable of going to the families of the dead workers, sharing their anguish, and explaining the entire appalling story to the working class. It was necessary to mobilise thousands of the best Communists and revolutionary syndicalists, in Paris and across the country – to do this together with the CGTU, and send them everywhere, not just in every corner of Paris but across the entire country, in the cities and countryside, in order to carry out intensive propaganda. At the same time, leaflets and appeals had to be printed up with three or four million copies, in order to report on the events to the working class, explaining that we cannot let this crime pass without protest.[18]

Trotsky put forward a revolutionary realpolitik that could set the working class into motion through consistent political struggle: explain patiently, meticulously organise, trust that the working class may be receptive to this and would want to fight. The course of action would have also set the united front into operation; building on the outrage could have put the reformist socialists and trade union bureaucrats onto the back foot, putting the questions to them: What will you do? What do you propose to do against the bosses who just killed workers? Are you going to fight? The “slaughter in Le Havre [would have] represented for our opponents an almost fatal blow”, Trotsky argued, if questions like this were built on.[19] If these questions had “been repeated day after day, by the party and trade union propagandists and agitators at every street corner, in every corner of the country, in every village where a working man or woman is to be found, during the course of one or two weeks. That would really have been a great experience for the workers’ movement”.[20]

Trotsky drew the conclusion that “the French Party has not yet achieved the absolute independence and freedom in action and organisation from capitalist society that it needs in order to utilise the crisis of this society freely and fully”.[21] Of course, this was a problem, the party was not free to act, not able to intervene in the course of events; it was running on the spot as the world continued to move around it, where the bourgeois crisis passed quickly over to stability. Trotsky’s standard of judgment for a genuine revolutionary party was that “the entire life of the Party must express a series of actions that form a chain, and this chain must lead to the greatest action of all, the conquest of power by the proletariat”.[22] This was the ideal, but the reality of the Party, with Frossard at its head and centrists and reformists within the Party apparatus, was entirely different; remaining syndicalist prejudices contributed to the malaise too. The Party needed moulding, experience and time to rise to the revolutionary level; in the end, time ran out.

Final thoughts

It has only been possible to scratch the surface of Trotsky’s contribution to the early years of the French Communist Party in this article. There were many things that could not be covered, but are valuable: Trotsky’s attitude towards the anti-colonial struggle, winning over the peasantry, debates over the trade union movement, dealing with contradictory consciousness among workers and the struggle against the rise of Bolshevisation and Stalinism. I have left aside certain salient moments of the PCF’s history, like the left leadership of 1923 when the Party campaigned against the occupation of the Ruhr, which needs its own balance sheet. The above is a glimpse of Trotsky’s political and revolutionary thought when in a practical state, pertaining to the advanced capitalist countries. The French social formation, no doubt, was unique and changed substantially over the course of the twentieth century; in many ways, it was also unlike other advanced capitalist countries of the time, owing to its combination of revolutionary history, a particular agrarian context and the development of its modern state apparatus. Bourgeois political domination was fortified and strong – the early PCF had to counter the strategies deployed by a bourgeoisie experienced in the revolutionary overthrow of the feudal regime, the French Revolution, as well as the violent consolidation of modern capitalism through the repression of the 1848 revolutions and the 1871 Paris Commune. Yet the fallible Trotsky think-tank shows how class struggle politics can be thought. It laid some pointers as to how revolutionary struggle in the advanced capitalist countries can be waged and the pitfalls it faces. Without providing all the answers, the most important question Trotsky asked nevertheless remains with us: how to politically unify the working class’s capacity to deliver a mortal blow to the bourgeois class and cast its rule into the annals of bygone history?


Birchall, Ian 2020, “The Comintern’s encounter with syndicalism”, Marxist Left Review, 20, Winter.

Chuzeville, Julien 2017, Un court moment révolutionnaire. La création du Parti communiste en France (1915-1924), Éditions Libertalia.

Paizis, George 2007, Marcel Martinet: Poet of the Revolution, Francis Boutle Publishers.

Rosmer, Alfred 2016, Lenin’s Moscow, translated by Ian Birchall, Haymarket Books.

Trotsky, Leon 1971, “The Errors in Principle of Syndicalism” in Communism and Syndicalism (1923-1931), Labour Press Pamphlet.

Trotsky, Leon 2012a “France Session 28 Comintern, 1 December 1922”, from Riddell, John 2012, Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, Brill Historical Materialism Book Series.

Trotsky, Leon 2012b, My Life, Dover Publications.

Trotsky, Leon 2017, First Five Years of the Communist International: Volume One, Pathfinder Press.

Trotsky, Leon 2019, First Five Years of the Communist International: Volume Two, Pathfinder Press.

Wohl, Robert 1966, French Communism in the Making: 1914-1924, Stanford University Press.

[1] I would like to thank Ian Birchall, Isabelle Garo, Omar Hassan and Tom Bramble for reading earlier versions of this article, a talk presented at Marxism 2021. Their comments were helpful.

[2] Trotsky 2012b, p.245.

[3] Trotsky 2012b, p.247.

[4] Trotsky 2012b, p.247.

[5] Trotsky, quoted in Paizis 2007, p.39.

[6] See Trotsky’s preface here: Translation by Darren Roso.

[7] Souvarine, quoted in Wohl 1966, p.135.

[8] Rosmer 2016, pp.33-4.

[9] Trotsky 1971.

[10] Trotsky 2017, p.9.

[11] See Birchall 2020.

[12] Rosmer 2016, p.82.

[13] Rosmer 2016, p.82.

[14] Trotsky 2019, p.200.

[15] Trotsky 2012a, p.971.

[16] Trotsky 2012a, p.971.

[17] Trotsky 2012a, p.976.

[18] Trotsky 2012a, p.977.

[19] Trotsky 2012a, p.978.

[20] Trotsky 2012a, p.978.

[21] Trotsky 2012a, p.963.

[22] Trotsky 2012a, p.965.

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