What is a “Mass Paper”?
By Leon Trotsky, 30 November 1935, published in The Crisis of the French Section (1935-36)
To the Members of the Bolshevik-Leninist Group:
I have just learned that my letter to the Political Bureau on the new “mass paper” [“Turn to the Masses!”] was read to the general meeting. I can only rejoice if it succeeded in clarifying the situation a little. I addressed myself first to the Political Bureau in the hope that the question could be solved without a new discussion on the foundations determined by the last national conference. But it developed that the initiators of La Commune, after having prepared their undertaking outside the organization, and in fact against both the national and international organizations, decided to provoke a discussion after the fait accompli. In these circumstances it would perhaps not be without value if I enlarged in a more precise manner upon the criticisms and suggestions contained in my letter to the Political Bureau.
1. What is a “mass paper”? The question is not new. It can be said that the whole history of the revolutionary movement has been filled with discussions on the “mass paper.” It is the elementary duty of a revolutionary organization to make its political newspaper as accessible as possible to the masses. This task cannot be effectively solved except as a function of the growth of the organization and its cadres, who must pave the way to the masses for the newspaper–since it is not enough, of course, to call a publication a “mass paper” for the masses to really accept it. But quite often revolutionary impatience (which becomes transformed easily into opportunist impatience) leads to this conclusion: The masses do not come to us because our ideas are too complicated and our slogans too advanced. It is therefore necessary to simplify our program, water down our slogans–in short, to throw out some ballast. Basically, this means: Our slogans must correspond not to the objective situation, not to the relation of classes, analyzed by the Marxist method, but to subjective assessments (extremely superficial and inadequate ones) of what the “masses” can or cannot accept. But what masses? The mass is not homogeneous. It develops. It feels the pressure of events. It will accept tomorrow what it will not accept today. Our cadres will blaze the trail with increasing success for our ideas and slogans, which will be shown to be correct, because they are confirmed by the march of events and not by subjective and personal assessments.
2. A mass paper is distinguished from a theoretical review or from a journal for cadres not by the slogans but by the manner in which they are presented. The cadre journal unfolds for its readers all the steps of the Marxist analysis. The mass paper presents only its results, basing itself at the same time on the immediate experience of the masses themselves. It is far more difficult to write in a Marxist manner for the masses than it is to write for cadres.
3. Let us suppose for a moment that the GBL consented to “simplify” our program, to renounce the slogans for the new party and for the Fourth International, to renounce implacable criticism of the social patriots (naming them by name), to renounce systematic criticism of the Revolutionary Left and of Pivert personally. I do not know if this newspaper would become, with the help of a magic wand, a mass paper. I doubt it. But it would in any event become a SAPist or Pivertist paper. The essence of the Pivert tendency is just that: to accept “revolutionary” slogans, but not to draw from them the necessary conclusions, which are the break with Blum and Zyromsky, the creation of the new party and the new International. Without that, all the “revolutionary” slogans become null and void. At the present stage the Pivert agitation is a sort of opium for the revolutionary workers. Pivert wants to teach them that one can be for revolutionary struggle, for “revolutionary action” (to borrow a phrase now in vogue), and remain at the same time on good terms with chauvinist scum. Everything depends on your “tone,” you see? It is the tone that makes the music. If the tiger cooed like a pigeon the whole world would be enchanted. But we, with our rude language, we must say that the leaders of the Revolutionary Left are demoralizing and prostituting revolutionary consciousness.
I ask you: If we renounced the slogans which are dictated by the objective situation, and which constitute the very essence of our program, in what shall we be distinguished from the Pivertists? In nothing. We would only be second-rate Pivertists. But if the “masses” should have to decide for the Pivertists, they would prefer the first-rate to the second.
4. I take up the little appeal printed for “La Commune–organ of revolutionary (?) action (?).” This document provides us with a striking demonstration (unsought by its authors) of some of the ideas expressed above. “La Commune will speak the language of the factories and the fields. It will tell of the misery which reigns there; it will express its passions and rouse to revolt.”
This is a very laudable intention, although the masses know perfectly well their own misery and their feelings of revolt (stifled by the patriotic apparatuses with the aid of the Pivertists). What the masses can demand of a newspaper is a clear program and a correct orientation. But precisely on this question the appeal is utterly silent. Why? Because it wants more to conceal its ideas than to express them. It accepts the SAPist (centrist) recipe: in seeking the line of least resistance do not say what is. The program of the Fourth International, that’s for “us,” for the big shots of the leadership. And the masses? What are the masses? They can rest content with a quarter, or even a tenth, of the program. This mentality we call elitism, of both an opportunist and, at the same time, an adventurist type. It is a very dangerous attitude, comrades. It is not the attitude of a Marxist.
We find in the appeal, after the sentence quoted, a number of historical reminiscences: “To the sons and grandsons of the fighters of the Croix-Rousse, of those who manned the barricades of June 1848, of the Communards of 1871, La Commune says,” etc. (followed by rhetoric à la Magdeleine Paz). I do not know, truly, if the rebelling masses need literary reminiscences and somewhat hollow rhetoric disguised as a program.
But here is where the most important part begins: “La Commune is not going to add itself to the multiplicity of tendencies in the workers’ movement.” What sovereign scorn for the “multiplicity” of existing tendencies! What does that mean? If all the tendencies are wrong or insufficient, a new one has to be created, the true one, the correct one. If there are true and false tendencies, then the workers must be taught to distinguish among them. The masses must be called on to join the correct tendency to fight the false ones. But no, the initiators of La Commune, somewhat like Romain Rolland, place themselves “above the battle.” Such a procedure is absolutely unworthy of Marxists.
After this a number of names are proclaimed in order to particularize, however little, the utterly vague character of the new paper. I set aside my own name, which La Commune claims without the slightest justification. Being among the living, I can at least defend myself. But the others, our common teachers, the real leaders of revolutionary socialism? Unfortunately, they are defenseless. The appeal names Marx and Blanqui. What does that mean? Do they want to create a new “synthesis” of Marxism and Blanquism? How will the masses disentangle themselves from the combination of these two names? A little farther on we find Lenin. But the Stalinists claim him also. If you do not explain to the masses that you are against the Stalinist tendency, they will have to prefer l’Humanité to La Commune. This combination of names explains nothing. It only extends and deepens the ambiguity.
And here is the high point: “La Commune is launched by militants belonging to various tendencies to bring about the rise of a great army of communards.” What does this mean, this unknown crew of anonymous, unknown “various tendencies”? What tendencies are involved? Why are they (still unknown) grouped outside and against the other tendencies? The purpose of creating a “great army of communards” is laudable. But it is necessary not to forget that this army, once created (1871), suffered a terrific catastrophe because that magnificent army lacked a program and a leadership.
The conclusion: The appeal could have been written by Marceau Pivert (in collaboration with Magdeleine Paz) except for one point–the name of the author of these lines. But as for me, I repeat, I am implacably opposed to this equivocal and anti-Marxist appeal.
5. The adherence of the GBL to the SFIO has proved absolutely correct. It was a step forward. The Mulhouse congress was the high point of the Bolshevik-Leninist influence in the SFIO. It was necessary to understand that the limit of the possibilities within the Socialist Party was being reached (at least for the adults). It was necessary to utilize the newly won and fresh authority to influence new and virgin elements outside the Socialist Party, whose social composition is miserable. It is this suggestion which I expressed in a letter since published in an internal bulletin of the GBL (no. 6, letter of June 10), and which I permit myself to recommend to the comrades for rereading in connection with the present letter. Passing through Paris [on the way to Norway] I met with several comrades, especially some of the future promoters of La Commune, who were in strong opposition to the idea of a new turn. These comrades had taken a liking to their activity in reformist and centrist circles and hoped to be able to progress further and further. It was a mistake. Time and strength were wasted fruitlessly instead of emulating the youth, whose orientation was more correct because it was directed toward the young workers outside the Socialist Party.
Then came the expulsions at Lille. I, for my part, regarded them as an act of liberation, because they expressed the reality: the impossibility of fruitful future activity in the ranks of the SFIO, especially with the approach of war and fusion with the Stalinists. It seemed that the fact of the expulsion was so eloquent as to spare us the need for any discussion as to what road to take. It was necessary to open up a vigorous and implacable offensive against the expellers, not as “splitters” (that’s the small talk of Pivert), but primarily as the valets of French imperialism. It was necessary at the same time to criticize Pivert openly, since he had taken the place of Zyromsky in covering the left wing of the People’s Front. It was necessary to develop the program of committees of action, to oppose collaboration with the Radicals, and to proclaim openly the necessity for preparing a new party to save the proletariat and its younger generation. Instead of that, the Commune group sought above all to win the sympathies of the Revolutionary Left by personal maneuvering, by combinations in the lobbies, and above all by abdication of our slogans and of criticism of the centrists. Marceau Pivert declared two or three months ago that the struggle against “Trotskyism” is the sign of a reactionary tendency. But now he himself, led by the SAP people, represents this reactionary tendency. The Revolutionary Left has become the most immediate and most noxious obstacle in the development of the revolutionary vanguard. That is what has to be said openly and everywhere, i.e., especially in a mass newspaper. But the Commune group has gone so far in its romance with the Pivertists that one is forced to ask if these comrades are still with us or if they have passed over to centrist positions. That is where one gets when one throws principles overboard and adapts oneself longer than is necessary to the reformist apparatus and its centrist valets.
6. We may ask: and Révolution? It is also not the paper of our tendency. Nevertheless we participate in it. That is correct, but Révolution is the paper of an organization which everybody knows–the Young Socialists. The newspaper is led by two tendencies which are drawing close and which must inevitably fuse. The progressive character of the Revolutionary Socialist Youth is determined precisely by this fact: that they are turning toward the Bolshevik-Leninists and not toward the Revolutionary Left. (The episodic adherence of Comrade Zeller to the Revolutionary Left, after all that had happened, was a mistake the responsibility for which must be shared by the Commune group.)
Révolution is a living, moving paper which can become the paper of the proletarian youth. To accomplish this task, however, Révolution must not fall into the shadows of La Commune’s confusion, but must concretize its position—i.e., definitively accept the slogans of the Bolshevik-Leninists.
7. La Vérité is an absolute necessity. But it must liberate itself from the centrist influences which resulted in the appeal of La Commune. La Vérité must resume its fighting, intransigent character. The most important object of its criticism is Pivertism, which is opposed to Leninism and has thus become, by its own characterization, a reactionary tendency.
8. I do not want to analyze in this letter the extraordinary methods employed by the Commune group vis-à-vis its own national and international tendency. It is a very important question but nevertheless secondary in comparison with the question of program and banner.
I believe, dear comrades, that you have the greatest opportunities before you. You are at last going to reap the fruits of your efforts up to now, but on one condition: that you do not permit a confusion of tendencies, of ideas and banners; that you practice Leninist intransigence more than ever and orient yourselves openly and vigorously toward the new party and the Fourth International.