Critical assessments

Léon Blum

‘Speech at the Socialist Party Congress at Tours’. 27 December 1920.

[…] Neither international nor French socialism has ever limited the means that can be used to conquer political power. Lenin himself has admitted that in England political power could be conquered perfectly well by the ballot box. But there is no socialist, however moderate he may be, who has ever condemned himself to expecting political power to come only through an electoral success. On that point, there is no possible discussion. Our common slogan is the slogan of Guesde, that Bracke repeated to me a little while ago: By every means, including legal means. But that said, where does the point of divergence appear? It appears in the revolutionary conception that I have just described for you, which Jaurès, Vaillant, and Guesde have always had to defend against two different deviations, and which has always made its way with difficulty between deviations to the right and left. The right-wing deviation is precisely the reformism of which I just spoke. The basis of the reformist thesis is that if not the whole social transformation, at least the most important advantages that it will provide for the working class can be obtained without the previous conquest of political power. That is the essence of reformism.

But there is a second error, which is, I am strongly obliged to say, at bottom anarchist. It consists in thinking that the conquest of political power is itself the final end, when it is in fact nothing but a means, that it is the goal, when it is nothing but the precondition, that it is the play, when it is nothing but the prologue. … For when you reason in that way, what is the only positive, certain result that you have in view? The destruction of the present governmental apparatus. When you fasten upon the seizure of power as your purpose, without being sure that it can result in social transformation, the sole positive goal of your effort is the destruction of what is called the bourgeois apparatus of government. An error that is anarchist in its origins and which, in my opinion, is at the root of communist doctrine. I am making this argument now, not in order to embarrass some people or to serve others, but in order to bring the greatest possible clarity to the discussion of this group of doctrines which, for my own part, I have been studying for weeks with a mixture of scrupulousness and anxiety.

Open your Party card. What has the object of the Socialist party been up until now? The transformation of the economic system. Open the statutes of the Communist International. Read the article in which the International defines its goal. What is it? The armed struggle against bourgeois power. I am going to make an effort to explain your own doctrine, an effort for which you ought to be grateful to me. I want to show to what, in the ideas of Lenin and the authors of the theses, the new revolutionary idea corresponds. It comes from the idea, deeply anchored in the minds of the authors and constantly repeated, that it is impossible, before the conquest of political power, to carry out propaganda and worker’s education effectively. Which means that the conquest of political power is not only, as we have always said, the condition of social transformation, but that it is the condition of the first efforts at organization and propaganda which ought later to lead to that transformation. Lenin thinks that, inasmuch as the domination of the capitalist class over the working class will not be broken except by violence, all efforts to bring together, educate, and organize the working class will necessarily remain futile. Thus the imperative summons to seize power immediately, as quickly as possible, since it is on the conquest of power that, not only your final efforts, but your initial efforts depend. But that position – pardon me for repeating this to those who have already heard it – I understand it when one is facing a proletariat like the Russian one and a country like Russia, where we hadn’t made any generally effective propaganda efforts prior to the seizure of power. One can then imagine that, before everything, one must overthrow the bourgeois power in order that propaganda even become possible. But is the situation the same in our western countries? I refuse to concede that until the conquest of political power (which you will no doubt accomplish tomorrow) everything you do will be wasted effort, and there will not have been any socialist propaganda in that country. I refuse to tell myself that all the work of the past has been worthless, and that everything remains to be done. No, much has been done, and you have no right to deny it to yourselves and to disavow those efforts today.

Without getting lost in oratory, I want to carry out to the end the comparison between the two revolutionary conceptions: the one which sees in the transformation the end and in the conquest of political power the means; and that which, on the contrary, sees in the conquest of political power the end. Do you think that this has only a casuistic importance? That it divides only socialist professors with their mortarboards on? No, it is crucial in the sense that it leads to two absolutely different conceptions of organization and propaganda. If you think that the revolution consists in transformation, then everything, even in the midst of bourgeois society, can prepare for that transformation and becomes revolutionary work. If that is the revolution, the daily effort of propaganda carried on by every Party member is the revolution advancing a little each day. … And even reforms, of which Sembat spoke yesterday in terms which should have united the assembly, if they serve to increase and to consolidate the influence of the working class on capitalist society, if they give the working class more impetus and courage, if they sharpen its militant ardor, then reforms, construed in that sense, are revolutionary. And it is only in that sense that we have defended them and that we wish to continue to defend them. But if, on the contrary, the only object is the promptest possible seizure of political power, then all that activity becomes in effect useless. When we discussed the electoral program two years ago, Loriot was already telling us: “I do not contest the value for socialism of reforms, in theory. But today, in fact, the situation is such, the revolutionary crisis is so close, that reforms …”

[Interruptions and noise] The Congress will understand that I can hardly follow a train of thought in the midst of such interruptions.

… If the crisis is so close, and if that crisis is the revolution, then, in effect, the only things that have revolutionary value are those which prepare, as quickly as possible, for the conquest of political power. One then understands your whole concept of organization, for it was formed with that end in view, fashioned so that no occasion would be lost, so that the attacking troops would always be well under control, ready to obey at the first signal, each unit transmitting below the order it received from above. I beg the Assembly’s pardon, but you will recognize that there is a certain logical coherence to my remarks. They comprise a unity within my thought. I ask that you do not make my task still more awkward by interruptions which necessarily force me to stray from the line I have traced for myself. This idea of the conquest of political power, where is it going to lead you? You know well, since numbers matter little to you, that you won’t win political power with your communist vanguards alone. To the theory of organization that I have analyzed, you therefore add the tactic of relying on the masses, borrowing from the old remembered Blanquist doctrine, for the line of descent is clear. You think that, taking advantage of favorable circumstances, you’ll be able to pull along behind your vanguards the noncommunist popular masses, who won’t understand the exact goal of the movement, but who will be kept in a state of sufficiently intense passion by your propaganda. That’s really your idea. What has Blanquism ever accomplished with that? Not much. In recent years, it hasn’t even succeeded in taking a firehouse on the Boulevard do la Villette.

… But it is the idea itself, without attempting to decide whether or not it can be realized in practice, it is the theoretical conception that I want to consider. This tactic of relying on masses lacking in class consciousness, led, in ignorance of what they are about, by the vanguards, this tactic of conquering political power by a mighty surprise blow – we cannot accept it. We believe that it will lead the proletariat into the most tragic disillusionments. We believe that, in the present state of capitalist society, it would be madness to count on unorganized masses. We know, in France, what unorganized masses are, whom they march behind one day and whom the next. We know that the unorganized masses sided first with Boulanger and then with Clemenceau. … We think that all movements for the seizure of power that base themselves on instinctive passion, on the sheeplike violence of vast unorganized masses, have a very fragile foundation indeed and would be exposed to many dangerous reversals. We do not know with whom those masses you have captivated today would be tomorrow. We think that they have an almost singular lack of revolutionary stoicism. We think that on the first day material difficulties arise, the day when the meat or the milk arrives a little late, you perhaps won’t find in them the sustained stoical will to sacrifice that the kind of movements you envisage require for success. And those who marched behind you the day before will, perhaps, on that day be the first to drive you to the wall. No, it is not by means of unorganized masses trailing behind your communist vanguards that you’ll have a chance to seize power. You have an opportunity to seize power in this country: do you know how? By vast workers’ movements of an organized character, which suppose an education and abilities pushed as far as possible. You will not make a revolution with those who jump onto every bandwagon. You will make it with millions of organized workers, who know what they want, and how to get it, and are ready to accept the necessary suffering and sacrifices. Your doctrine which despises recruitment from the outset, which fragments the unions, as if they were too powerful, your party has failed even before it has had its adventure. […]