The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism

This essay by Trotsky contains the clearest explanation yet of the concept of Bonapartism, and the use of analogies from the great French revolution by revolutionaries trying to make sense of the political changes in the first workers state with the rise to effectively absolute power of Stalin in the 1920s and 1930s.

This question was touched upon when we discussed The Class Nature of the Soviet State two weeks ago, but this essay lays out the whole issue of Thermidor in the French revolution, and the confused way such analogies were initially used.

Their utility was to try to understand what was happening to the revolution, what was signified by the retreat from the goal of world revolution implicit in Stalin’s theory of ‘socialism in one country’, the political concessions to opponents this involved, and the beginnings of bureaucratic repression in the party against critics of this concept.

This essay also goes beyond the use of analogies about Bonapartism particularly connected with the various semi-dictatorial regimes in Germany that preceded Hitler’s rise to power, which tended to rest on Marx’s work the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, from the period from 1952 to 1871, the rule of Napoleon III, who was somewhat of a caricature of his more illustrious uncle.

In this essay we are not talking about phenomena of capitalist-imperialist decline, as epitomised by the ‘senile’ Bonapartism of Papen and Schleicher in Germany, whose affinity with Louis Napoleon Trotsky analysed at length in his work aimed at influencing the dangerous situation in Germany during the Great Depression, which caused the catastrophic economic collapse that provided the Nazis with their opportunity.

In this essay Trotsky is not talking about the Bonapartism of capitalist decay, but rather Bonapartism in the aftermath of social revolutions: bourgeois in revolutionary France, and the first proletarian revolution in Russia.

Throughout this period there had been talk of ‘Thermdor’ (roughly July, in the French Revolutionary calendar), which was the crucial point in the French revolution where in 1795 the radical Jacobin leadership of Robbespierre, Saint Just and Danton were overthrown by a more conservative bourgeois faction, which became known as the Directory, a more conservative, but collective leadership.

This put an end to the radical phase of the revolution at home. But it still rested on bourgeois, not feudal property relations, and was still therefore at odds with feudal Europe.

As was Napoleon, who in turn overthrew the Directory in 1799 in his original 18th Brumaire coup d’etat (roughly November), which made him First Consul, in effect a one-man, dictatorial ruler, who later crowned himself Emperor Napoleon I.

We all know that Napoleon’s regime, despite its conservative nature, was forced to engage in a kind of quasi-revolutionary war against feudal Europe that took it as far as the outskirts of Moscow, where it was not so much defeated by the Russian army as by the Russian weather.

That was because it was based on a different, more advanced set of property relations than most of those states it was pitted against, who had put together a counterrevolutionary coalition aimed at overthrowing it. Pretty much all of Napoleon’s most spectacular military adventures were a form of pre-emptive self-defence.

Including the expedition against Russia. In some ways especially the expedition against Russia.

Because in the 19th Century, and indeed prior to the 1905 revolution and its defeat by Japan at Tsuhima, Tsarist Russia was the ultimate counterrevolutionary gendarme of feudalism in Europe – a bit like what the US is today for capitalism.

So that was the contradiction of the French Revolution under relatively conservative rule post-Robespierre. The Directory, i.e Thermidor, still aided the United Irishmen’s uprising in 1798.

And Napoleon irreparably damaged the feudal order in Europe, including Russia. It is arguable that the Decembrists, the first major ‘democratic’ military conspiracy against Tsarism in 1825, was inspired by the French Revolution, which in an attenuated form was brought to Russia by Napoleon.

What I am doing here of course is somewhat extending Trotsky’s analogy between Stalin’s Bonapartist regime, and that of Napoleon.

Showing how even a conservative regime based on the foundations of a superior mode of production (even in embryonic form), is forced, because of the existence of those production relations, to take actions against the enemies of those production relations, even though its own conservative politics tend to act against the revolution and its best tendencies.

This is the core issue involving Soviet Bonapartism, and the dual role of Stalinism, in both undermining the world revolution, and thereby dooming the first workers state to defeat at the hands of imperialism ultimately (as was fully played out in 1991).

And at the same time fighting hard at times to defend the revolution, and even to extend it to a limited and bounded degree, to defend the regime against being overthrown from the right by its counterrevolutionary class enemies.

This brings us to the key theoretical point of the essay: the correction of the error of the early Trotskyist movement about the Soviet ‘Thermidor’.

They were suspicious of the Stalinists and were looking for a ‘Thermidor’ which they interpreted as something of a major step towards actual capitalist restoration – some kind of major concession to imperialism/capitalism that would give the counterrevolution the leverage to take power.

In other words, what they were expecting from ‘Thermidor’ was the imminence of capitalist restoration itself.

But this was based on a misunderstanding of what Thermidor was in France, and what it could be in the USSR/Russia.

In France – Thermidor was not the restoration of the ancient regime. It was a shift in power within the revolution away from its consciously revolutionary expression, to people who wanted to conciliate feudal reaction, but not particularly to be conquered by it.

Because of the latter, even the Thermidorians had to sometimes defend the revolution they were based on, in order to defend their capacity to bargain with the counterrevolution. They were based on a more affluent section of the bourgeoisie, who wanted peaceful relations with the counterrevolution.

That was true by analogy in Russia. The atrophy of Soviet democracy due to the isolation of the revolution and the material deprivation led to social differentiation and the growth of a labour aristocracy, and a political party bureaucracy.

Even Lenin complained that the Soviet state was a “workers state with bureaucratic distortions” as early as 1921, ironically in a dispute with Trotsky over the militarisation of trade unions.

Lenin evidently understood that this was a problem even before Trotsky did. But of course, he was shot, incapacitated and died, and Trotsky was the one who attempted to deal with the problem.

So Thermidor was not capitalist restoration. As in France, it was the seizure of power by a more conservative faction on the basis of the new property relations. In a workers state, this was by a newly emerged labour aristocracy and the bureaucracy that had grown up within the party itself, or part of it.

This new understanding, this correction of a methodological and analytical error, is fundamentally what this essay is about. The correction this error laid the basis for a richer and more nuanced understanding of what Stalinism was in the very process of its becoming.

From this, the dual role of Stalinism in both undermining the revolution historically and ultimately, while sometimes defending it in particular situations, most notably against Hitler’s 1941 invasion, and the subsequent partial extension of the revolution (in degenerated form)  becomes comprehensible.

It is a fine example in my view of the application of the material dialectic to analysing social and political reality from the consistent standpoint of the class struggle.