Leon Trotsky

“Labels” and “Numbers”

On the Subject of the Letter from Marceau Pivert
to the Expelled Comrades of Socialist Youth of France

(August 1935)

Written: August 1935.
First Published: New Militant, Vol. I No. 37, 7 September 1935, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2016. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

The letter of Marceau Pivert on the expulsions of the leaders of the revolutionary youth of the Seine, despite its laudable aim, reveals some incorrect ideas, which, in their development, can lead to serious errors. The true task of a Marxist is to warn the young comrades against these errors.

Pivert himself accuses our comrades of committing a great “psychological error” by assuming the name Bolshevik-Leninist. Since “original Bolshevism,” according to Pivert, denies the democratic structure of the party, equality (?) for all tendencies, etc., by their very name the Bolshevik-Leninists give the bureaucracy of the Party a weapon against themselves. In other words: the “psychological error” consists in an inadequate adaptation to the psychology of ... the bureaucracy of the Party.

This opinion of Pivert represents a very serious “political error,” and even a series of errors. It is not true that “original Bolshevism” denies the democratic structure of the party. I advance the absolutely contrary affirmation: there was not and there is not a more democratic party than that of Lenin. It depended only on the advanced workers. It did not know the hidden, masked dictatorship, and the no less fatal one, the bourgeois “friends” of the proletariat, the careerist parliamentarians, the drawing room journalists, the whole parasitic coterie, which permits the ranks of the party to speak “freely,” democratically, but tenaciously holds on to the apparatus and in the final analysis, does anything it pleases. This kind of “democracy” in the party is nothing else than a replica of the bourgeois democratic state, which also allows the people to speak “freely” but leaves the real power to a handful of capitalists. Pivert commits a very great political error by idealizing and embellishing the hypocritical and fraudulent “democracy” of the S.F.I.O. (S.P. of France – Ed.), which curbs and paralyzes the revolutionary education of the workers, drowning out their voice by the chorus of municipal counsellors, parliamentarians, etc., who are imbued to the marrow of their bones with egoistic petty bourgeois interests and reactionary prejudices. The task of the revolutionist, even if the march of developments obliges him to work in the same organization with the reformists, these political exploiters of the proletariat, consists not in taking the attitude of a disciple and of maintaining a lying friendship towards the agents of the bourgeoisie, but of opposing as clearly, as harshly and as unremittingly as possible, the opportunists, the patriots, the absolutely bourgeois “socialists” before the reformist masses. In the final analysis those who will choose and decide will not be the Blums and the Zyromskys but the masses, the millions of exploited. The party must be built on and for them.

The Name and the Masses

The misfortune of Pivert is that up till now he has not broken the umbilical cord which binds him to the small world of the Blums and the Zyromskys. On every new occasion he looks at his “friends” and feels their pulse with anxiety. It is this policy – false, illusory, unrealistic – which he offers to the Bolshevik-Leninists. They must, you see, renounce their own name. Why? Does the name frighten the workers? On the contrary. If the so-called “Communists,” despite all the betrayals and all the crimes which they have perpetrated, retain an important section of the proletariat under their banner, it is only because they present themselves to the masses as the bearers of the traditions of the October revolution. The workers do not fear either Bolshevism or Leninism. They demand only (and they are right): are these the real or the false Bolsheviks? The task of consistent proletarian revolutionists is not to renounce the name Bolshevik, but to show their Bolshevism in action to (the masses, that is, the spirit of absolute devotion to the cause of the oppressed.

The Meaning of Bolshevik-Leninist

But why then – insists Pivert – cling to a label (?) instead of “following the teachings which it implies”? Now does not Pivert himself. wear the “label” socialist? In the field of politics as in all other fields of human activity it is impossible to proceed without “labels,” that is, without denominations and appellations as precise as possible. The name “socialist” is not only inadequate but absolutely deceptive, for everyone in France who has a mind to, calls himself “socialist.” By their name the Bolshevik-Leninists say to each and all that their theory is “Marxism”; that it is not the denatured and prostituted “Marxism” of the reformists (like Paul Faure, J. Longuet, Severac, etc.) but the true Marxism restored by Lenin and applied by him to the fundamental questions of the epoch of imperialism; that they base themselves on the experiences of October, developed in the decisions of the first four Congresses of the Communist International; that they are in solidarity with the theoretical and practical work accomplished by the “Left Opposition” of the Communist International (1923–1932); finally that they stand under the banner of the Fourth International. In politics, the “name” is the “banner.” Those who renounce today a revolutionary name for the good of Blum and Co. will tomorrow just as easily renounce the red flag for the tricolor flag.

Pivert proclaims the right of every socialist? to hope for a better International – “with or without changing the number.” This irony, a little misplaced on the “number” (entirely – alas – in the spirit of the Philistines of the S.A.P.) represents a political error of the same gender as the irony on the “label.” Politically the question is posed as follows: Can the world proletariat struggle successfully against war, fascism, capitalism under the leadership of the reformists or of the Stalinists (that is to say, Soviet diplomacy)? We reply: it cannot. The Second and the Third International are outlived and have become obstacles on the revolutionary road. It is impossible to “reform” them, because the whole composition of their leadership is radically hostile to the tasks and the methods of the proletarian revolution. Those who up till now have not understood the collapse of the two Internationals cannot raise the banner of the new International. “With or without changing the number”? This phrase is devoid of meaning. It is not by accident that the three old Internationals were thus numbered. Every “number” signified a distinct epoch, a program and methods of action. The new International must not be the sum of the two corpses, as the old social-patriot Zyromsky dreams, surprised in his unexpected recognition of the “defense of the U.S.S.R.,” but the living “negation” of these corpses and at the same time the “continuation” of the historic work accomplished by the preceding Internationals. In other words: it is a question of the Fourth International. The “number” here signifies a perspective and a distinct program, that is a “banner.” Let the philistines wax ironical on the above. We must not imitate them.

The Crime of Hiding the Banner

The aversion for “labels” and numbers in politics is as dangerous as the aversion for precise definitions in science. In one case as in the other we have before us the infallible symptom of lack of clarity in ideas themselves. To invoke the “masses” serves in this case only to cover his own hesitations. The worker who believes in Vandervelde or Stalin, will, undoubtedly be an opponent of the Fourth International. The worker who has understood that the Second and Third Internationals are dead for the cause of the revolution will immediately place himself under our banner. That is precisely why it is criminal to hide this banner under the table.

* * *

Pivert is deceiving himself when he thinks that Bolshevism is incompatible with the existence of factions. The principle of Bolshevik organization is “democratic centralism” assured by complete freedom of criticism and by groupings together with a discipline of steel in action. The history of the party is at the same time the history of the internal struggle of ideas, of groupings, of factions. Certainly, in the Spring of 1920, in time of terrible crisis, of famine, of cold, the 10th Congress of the Bolshevik Party, which at that time counted 17 years of existence, suppressed factions, but this measure was considered exceptional, temporary and was applied by the Central Committee with the greatest degree of prudence and elasticity. The real annihilation of factions began only with the victory of the bureaucracy over the proletarian vanguard and rapidly led to the virtual death of the party. The Fourth International will not suffer in its ranks from mechanical “monolithism.” On the contrary one of its most important tasks is to regenerate on a new, higher historical plane the “revolutionary democracy of the proletarian vanguard.” The Bolshevik-Leninists consider themselves as a faction of the International which is being built. They are completely ready to work hand in hand with other truly revolutionary factions. But they categorically refuse to adapt their policy to the psychology of opportunist cliques and to renounce their own banner.

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Last updated on: 25 February 2016