4 October 2021

Trotsky and Thermidor


David S. Law

University of Keele

During the Great French Revolution many were guillotined. We too had many people brought before the firing squad. But in the Great French Revolution there were two great chapters, of which one went like this (points upwards) and the other like that (points downwards). We must understand this. When the chapter headed like this – upwards – the French Jacobins, the Bolsheviks of that time, guillotined the Royalists and Girondists … And then there began another chapter in France, when the French Ustrialovs and semi-Ustrialovs – the Thermidorians and the Bonapartists from among the Right-wing Jacobins – began exiling and shooting the Left Jacobins – the Bolsheviks of that time. I should like comrade Sol’c to think this analogy through to the end and, first of all, to give himself an answer to the following question: in accordance with which chapter is Sol’c preparing to have us shot? … When we did the shooting, we were firm in our knowledge as to the chapter. But comrade Sol’c, do you clearly understand in accordance with which chapter you are now preparing to shoot? I fear, comrade Sol’c, that you are about to shoot us in accordance with the Ustrjalov, i.e., Thermidorian chapter.2

This was Trotsky speaking in his defence at the Central Control Commission in 1927. He was making a forthright public declaration that the concept of a Thermidor could be usefully applied to the understanding of post-revolutionary events in Russia. From this time, Trotsky would be fascinated by the uses to which the notion of Thermidor could be put.

Trotsky used Thermidor both as analogy and as metaphor: he gave it both a precise and a broad scope. What begins as analogy to indicate parallel processes between events in France and Russia becomes overextended and transformed into a metaphor for the Soviet counter-revolution. It becomes a backcloth against which all the scenery of the decline and fall of October can be arranged. Yet the kernel of the analogy endures: the idea that a counter-revolution may be achieved through the degeneration of the revolutionary party, assisted by the evaporation of revolutionary class consciousness once the first objectives have been achieved.

            This paper discusses the more precise aspects of Trotsky’s use of Thermidor. It begins by outlining the intellectual context in which the analogy was developed, then it describes the form Trotsky’s ideas took at different stages. It concludes by pointing to the strengths and weaknesses of Trotsky on Thermidor.


Just as the Russian Revolution fascinates twentieth-century socialists, so the French Revolution stimulated Russian revolutionaries. Already before 1917, most of the classic accounts from Thiers to Carlyle to Aulard and Sorel had been translated; so too had Taine, Louis Blanc and Jean Jaurès.3A bibliography published in 1924 in Russia entitledWhat to Read on the Social Sciences, contained a section on the Great French Revolution which listed 45 items ranging from modest pamphlets to a republication of Kropotkin’sGreat French Revolution (600 pages) and several weighty volumes by Jaurès.4 All publications listed appeared between 1917 and 1923 at a time when there was an acute shortage of paper. No more than this is needed to testify to the fascination the French Revolution engendered.

The fascination, however, was by no means abstract. Prior to 1917, the French Revolution figured in the deliberations of revolutionaries as a possible model for Russia. In a country still feudal in many respects, the great bourgeois revolution of history could not be ignored. Trotsky in his first major theoretical work, Results and Prospects, takes up the example of 1789 as one form of bourgeois revolution, counterposes it to 1848 and asks himself which model the Russian bourgeoisie will follow. Nearly twenty years later, in a work devoted to urging a critical study of Bolshevik theory and practice in 1917,Lessons of October, he states with some polemical exaggeration:

Had we failed to study the Great French Revolution, the revolution of 1848, and the Paris Commune, we should never have been able to achieve the October Revolution, even though we passed through the experience of the year 1905.5

Inevitably, after the establishment of the Soviet regime, the question would be asked – does the French Revolution in its post-1789 phases offer any hints as to the future of the October Revolution?

            As early as 1921, the Russian Communist Party explicitly accepted the view that the drawing of revolutionary parallels need not be restricted to the “first chapter” of revolutionary ascendancy. The resolution of the Tenth Party Congress, On Party Unity, passed partly in response to the Kronstadt rebellion, included the following paragraph:

Propaganda should also explain the experience of previous revolutions, in which the counter-revolution supported the petty-bourgeois groups that were closest to the extreme revolutionary party, in order to shake and then overthrow the revolutionary dictatorship, thus opening the way for the subsequent complete victory of counter-revolution, the capitalists and the landowners.6

When Lenin was not using the polemical characterisation of the Kronstadt revolt as a White Guard plot, this was precisely his view.

            During the 1920s, parallels were frequently drawn in literature. In 1920, Albert Mathiez, the distinguished historian of the French Revolution, devoted a ten page article to discussing what he regarded as close parallels between Jacobinism in power, between June 1793 and July 1794, and Bolshevism.7 Two years later, Martov followed the same paths, elaborating on “the striking similarity and a number of perfect analogies, between the institutions used by the Jacobins and those serving the contemporary dictatorship”.8 By the end of the decade, Victor Serge was writing in his Year One of the Russian Revolution (the title in itself is significant), of the “striking parallels (which) can be traced between the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, even in the details of events and actions” and outlining some of them in a section on comparisons between 1793 and 1918.9 Lenin himself often took reference points from French revolutionary history when discussing the course of the Russian revolution.10

            Bolshevism did not shrink from being compared with revolutionary Jacobinism, just as Lenin had proudly accepted the taunt of Jacobin from Trotsky and others, after his plans for a vanguard party had caused the split in Russian Social Democracy at the Second Congress in 1903.11 But what credibility should be given to those who sought parallels and prediction not from the Jacobin dictatorship of 1793 but from the Thermidorian period after July 1794? The period when Robespierre went to the guillotine, the revolutionary Jacobins gave way to moderates and the Revolution took a sharp swing to the Right with the disarming and disenfranchising of the sans-culottes and the attempt to revert to “the principles of 1789”. What of those who saw in Bonapartism and restoration, the future of the Russian Revolution?


In his study of the Georgian Menshevik Republic published in 1922 under the title Between Imperialism and Revolution, Trotsky briefly referred to the Menshevik hope of a Russian Thermidor. His answer to the Mensheviks was that the Soviet regime had demonstrated its vitality by recognising and responding to the moods of the petty bourgeois masses of Russia and instituting the NEP. The Communist Party had dealt correctly with “the Thermidor moods and tendencies of the petty bourgeois”.12

During the following year, 1923, Trotsky, in conjunction with a left opposition, began to publicly criticise the bureaucratism of the party. In his famous letter to the Party of 8 December 1923, later republished as an appendix in The New Course, he warned: “History offers us more than one case of degeneration of the old guard”. But, at this time, the parallel in his mind was the degeneration of German Social Democracy and he warned, at about the same time, in a set of theses first published inThe New Course, that:

Historical analogies with the Great French Revolution (the fall of the Jacobins) made by liberalism and Menshevism for their own nourishment and consolation, are superficial and inconsistent.13

Trotsky here viewed the fall of the Jacobins as “predetermined by the lack of maturity of the social relationship”, moreover, “Europe, economically and politically more backward, prevented the revolution from spreading beyond the limits of France”. Whereas in Russia:

The proletariat is politically so strong that while permitting, within certain limits, the formation by its side of a new bourgeoisie, it has the peasantry participate in the state power not through the intermediary of the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeois parties, but directly, thus barring to the bourgeoisie any access to political life.

In Trotsky’s view, the economic and political situation of Europe made an extension of the revolution inevitable and this made revolutionary prospects in Russia “infinitely more favourable” than they had been in France. Nevertheless, “for a considerable period of time”, the current political line would be “a decisive factor in safeguarding the revolution”. Socialism had to be built; political revolution, nationalisation of the means of production and the prospect of imminent revolutionary support from the West was not enough.

            When Trotsky, in 1926 and 1927, turned to systematic consideration of Thermidor he did so with a revised attitude. No longer were the analogies with the French Revolution “superficial and inconsistent” but now he declared “it is absolutely indispensable” that “we must at all costs refresh our knowledge of the Great French Revolution”, “especially of its late period”.14

            Despite the great reversals in policy represented by the repudiation of NEP, Trotsky retained a consistent appraisal of Thermidor from 1927 until 1933. In essence, his position was that Thermidor could be said to exist only in the case of a restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union; prior to this all that could be observed was the political preparation for Thermidor. Thus, in the present situation, it was permissible to speak of Thermidorean tendencies but not of Thermidor. The tendencies towards Thermidor could be seen in the existence of capitalist elements, primarily the kulaks, the upper section of the middle peasants who are trying to become kulaks, and private merchant capital, and in the right wing of the Party which was influenced by these forces, adapted to them and paved the way for their growth. This right faction of the party, which became the Right Opposition in 1928, was identified by Trotsky as early as the summer of 1926 even to the extent of correctly naming names.15 It believed itself to be revolutionary but, for all that, its policies prepared the way for counter-revolution. Although Trotsky referred to Thermidor, more than once, as capitalism on the instalment plan he also consistently declares that without civil war, by which he means sharp and probably violent class conflict, the reestablishment of capitalism could not take place. The instalments are only at the level of a political preparation represented by the adoption of policies which foster capitalist tendencies. When these regenerated forces of capitalism are strong enough to attempt capitalist restoration, they will be resisted by the socialist forces. To believe otherwise is, according to Trotsky, to run the film of reformism backwards.16

            Trotsky’s view of politics in the 1920s was that the Soviet state and the Communist Party had been considerably influenced by the necessity of the class compromise represented by the NEP. With a heterogenous society but a dictatorship of a single party, the diverse interests of antagonistic social classes found reflection among the ranks of the Communists. Trotsky sees class struggle between proletariat, and capitalist elements, especially the kulak and merchant capital, as taking an inner party form of Left Opposition and Right Opposition against the Party centrist apparatus which attempts to mediate between classes but of necessity is pulled first this way, then that.

            For Trotsky, the social basis of Thermidor was the peasantry. An article of 1933 declares unequivocally: “In the Soviet Union only the peasantry can become a force for Thermidor”. Those who spoke most forcefully for a policy of adaptation to the peasantry were to be accused of preparing Thermidor: “… a consistent right-wing policy, whatever the intentions of Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky, is the policy of Thermidor”.17 However, Trotsky was clearly aware that the charge of “agent of capitalist restoration” did not sit easily on the shoulders of an old Bolshevik like Bukharin, and he conscientiously drew a distinction between the intention and effects of the policy of the Right. “Even that right group which represents an open tendency to abandon the proletarian revolution does not consciously desire a Thermidor”.18 In various writings, Trotsky declares that the “real Thermidoreans of the Party” are to be found not in the first rank of the right wingers but in the “second, third and fifth ranks”.19

            After 1933, Thermidor, as a term, underwent a period of relative neglect by Trotsky. Although the reasoning was never made explicit, it is not difficult to understand why Trotsky, for a period, hesitated to use the analogy. Prior to 1933, the centrality of Thermidor in Trotsky’s theoretical armoury had represented the belief that the most acute danger to the revolution was the restoration of capitalism, taking place in an insidious manner with the cooperation, albeit unconscious, of the right wing of the Party. The description of the Stalinist faction as “centrist” carried the corollary of the incapacity of this group to operate on its own behalf. The centrists lacked a definitive social base in class relations and would, by turns, be drawn towards the left and proletarian policies and then towards the right reflecting the pressure of bourgeois interests. Once Trotsky had adopted the orientation of political revolution, it followed that the characterisation of the Stalinist faction as centrist would be dropped. It also implied that, even if the restoration of capitalism was a possible ultimate destination of the society, the view that the greatest immediate danger was “creeping capitalist restoration” had been rejected, to be replaced by a concentration upon, and a greater respect for, the current political regime. It is, therefore, not surprising that the pamphlet in which Trotsky redefined his position in 1933, the Class Nature of the Soviet State, contains absolutely no reference to Thermidor. The central strategic concept that Trotsky had used from 1925 to 1933 was temporarily to virtually disappear from view.20

            Trotsky returns to the problem of Thermidor in 1935. He now openly admits that “the analogy of Thermidor served to becloud rather than to clarify the question”. Thermidor in the French Revolution is now defined as a counter-revolutionary overturn in a narrowly restricted political sense. The political/social distinction made for Soviet development by Trotsky is introduced to his appreciation of the French Thermidor. The political change represented by Thermidor in France was undeniable, but Thermidor represents no change in the social basis of the revolution. The French revolution was bourgeois in character.

In essence it reduced itself to the replacement of fixed feudal property by “free” bourgeois property. The counter-revolution corresponding to this revolution would have had to attain the re-establishment of feudal property. But Thermidor did not even make an attempt in this direction.

However, political Thermidor did represent a change; power was transferred “into the hands of the more moderate and conservative Jacobins, the better-to-do elements of bourgeois society”.21

            By his reconsideration of Thermidor, Trotsky had paved the way for the reintroduction of the analogy to his analysis of Soviet history. Now Trotsky had established a direct parallel between the French and Russian revolutions in the course of their “second chapters”. In both cases, the revolutionary state was seen as subject to a process of degeneration such that the political conquests of the revolution were considerably compromised. But, in both cases, the social conquests, the transition from on mode of production to another, had been preserved, even if in a surprising manner. Once more, the French Revolution would present an irresistible temptation as a storehouse to be raided for theoretical concepts. The same pamphlet which admitted the unhelpful part played by Thermidor in previous Russian discussions also declared:

Today it is impossible to overlook that in the Soviet revolution also a shift to the right took place a long time ago, a shift entirely analogous to Thermidor, although much slower in tempo, and more masked in form … The year 1924 – that was the beginning of the Soviet Thermidor.22

The article announcing Trotsky’s reacceptance of the term Thermidor also marks definitive acceptance by Trotsky of the term Bonapartism as directly applicable to the current Soviet regime. “The present political regime in the USSR is the regime of Soviet (or anti-Soviet) Bonapartism, closer in type to the Empire than the Consulate”.23 Hitherto, Trotsky had warned of the threat of Bonapartism or had described certain features of the regime as Bonapartist (the single leader, a dictatorial style, forms of plebiscitary affirmation of the leadership) but he had hesitated to invoke the term Bonapartism as a comprehensive assessment of the current regime. Now, however, he unequivocally condemned the regime as Bonapartist. Analogy proved irresistibly tempting, surely the more so because his analysis paralleled so closely Marx’s writings on Bonapartism.24


What were the strengths of Trotsky’s use of Thermidor? Primarily that he understood that it was possible to find parallels between the political processes of different revolutions. In consistency with a view which he had developed for ten years, Trotsky in Revolution Betrayed stated: “The axiomlike assertions of Soviet literature, to the effect that the laws of bourgeois revolution are inapplicable to a proletarian revolution have no scientific content whatever”.25

            First of all, Trotsky, over and over again, indicates that the Thermidor represents reaction clothed in the banners of revolution.

When the Opposition spoke of the danger of Thermidor, it had in mind primarily a very significant and widespread process within the party: the growth of a stratum of Bolsheviks who had separated themselves from the masses, felt secure, connected themselves with non-proletarian circles, and were satisfied with their social status, analogous to the strata of bloated Jacobins who became, in part, the support and the prime executive apparatus of the Thermidorean overturn in 1794, thus paving the road for Bonapartism.26

Secondly, Trotsky saw a certain law-like tendency for revolution to be followed by counter-revolution on the basis of features of class consciousness. The first systematic discussion of the ideas which became characteristic of Trotsky’s Thermidor analogy is in a series of notes, apparently written by Trotsky for his diary in November 1926 and marked “for reflection”.27 The notes conclude that “to speak of Thermidor as an accomplished fact would be a crude distortion of reality”, but they indicate the possibility of a Thermidor. A crucial element in this is played by the class consciousness of the revolutionary class after the fall of the old regime.

The succession of revolutions and counterrevolutions is the product of certain fundamental features in the mechanics of class society. Revolution is impossible without the participation of the masses. This participation is in its turn possible only when the oppressed masses connect their hopes for a better future with the idea of revolution. In a sense the hopes engendered by the revolution are always exaggerated … But from these same conditions comes one of the most important – and moreover, one of the most common – elements of the counterrevolution. The conquests gained in the struggle do not correspond, and in the nature of things, cannot directly correspond, with the expectation of the broad backward masses awakened for the first time in the course of the revolution. The disillusionment of these masses, their return to routine and futility, is as much an integral part of the post-revolutionary period as is the passage into the camp of “law and order” of those “satisfied” classes or layers of classes that had participated in the revolution…

Moods of caution, scepticism, lack of responsiveness to revolutionary appeals “constitute the basic background of party life”; they are the moods which bureaucratism “banks on”. Such moods together with “the fatigue of the older generation” present one of the bases on which a restoration of capitalism is possible.

            Trotsky, in various places, indicates that, although counter-revolutions may follow revolutions, they do not completely reverse the work of the revolution. For instance, the diary notes of November 1926 begin by noting that “Revolutions have always in history been followed by counterrevolutions. Counterrevolutions have always thrown society back but never as far back as the starting point of the revolution”. This was so in France: the restoration of the monarchy did not bring about a destruction of the Code Napoléon nor a restoration of feudalism. It was to prove to be so in Russia: the Stalinist counter-revolution did not, yet at least, secure the restoration of capitalism.

            Trotsky articulated the Thermidor analogy during a period of relative uncertainty regarding the course of Soviet development. There was a sureness of touch in his political analyses of 1923, and a confidence in his own theories after 1933, almost until his death. But the period 1925 to 1933 presented some difficulties: the split in the triumvirate and the formation of the Leningrad Opposition; the separation of the Right and Centre with the victory of the Centre; the rapid dismantling of NEP; the turn to industrialisation and collectivisation; and the consolidation of Stalin’s power. Trotsky found concepts to deal with all this, and even anticipated a split between Right and Centre. However, what seemed difficult for him to accept was the ability of the Stalinist Centre to so completely vanquish the forces of capitalism and to base itself on nationalised property and sustain a policy of industrial development. So, alongside some acute insights into political processes, one discovers a perspective which proved ill-founded.

            However wrong, Trotsky’s perspective of this period was, it is not difficult to see how and why it was adopted. The NEP was a concession to the self-interest of the peasantry, a recognition that capitalism in the countryside could not be so easily transcended as some Bolsheviks had imagined during the period of War Communism. NEP essentially did present some danger of the restoration of capitalism, but, in the end, a rather remote danger. The NEP also, surely, did have an influence on the Party. It did cause social differentiation. It did bring some sections of the Party and state bureaucracy into contact with “private” interests in such a way as to exert a corrupting influence. Moreover, the exclusive alternative capitalism or socialism was a position commonly accepted. Few people, if any, anticipated the political dispossession of the working class, forcible surplus extraction from them and a regime which developed industry on the basis of nationalisation and not private ownership. From all this, it was not difficult to conclude that the main danger to the revolution was the restoration of capitalism.

            Trotsky based his political perspectives of 1925 to 1933 on a view which ultimately history demonstrated to him to be ill conceived. Nevertheless, while the restoration of capitalism was described as the Thermidor of the Russian Revolution, the conclusion could only be that it was necessary to base political tactics on this danger. This meant fighting for correct policies within the limits of Party discipline and not weakening the unity of the Party, in the face of the danger of capitalist restoration. It meant a resolute hostility towards Bukharin and those of rightist dispositions; and it meant critical support for actions of the Stalinists against the policies of the Right (even if this could not in practice be distinguished from the consolidation of bureaucratic methods in political struggle).28 It might not unreasonably be concluded that the tactics that derived from the strategic conception of a struggle against Thermidor (as capitalist restoration) tended to reduce the effectiveness of the Left’s Opposition struggle against the bureaucracy (or as Trotsky after 1935 would regard it “Thermidor as bureaucratic degeneration”).

            It is true that, for Trotsky, these were two aspects of the same struggle: the attempt to win the Party to the policies of the Bolshevik-Leninists, that is the Left Opposition, and thereby advance proletarian interests. But it is equally true that, in certain instances, emphasis on one or other of the two sides of the struggle could produce different tactical positions, as for example in the evaluation of the policy changes of 1928. The apostasy of a majority of leaders of the Left Opposition has its basis less in repression and more in the implications of the strategic conception advocated especially by Trotsky and generalised in the concepts of the Thermidor.

            Trotsky’s usage of Thermidor in his later works prompts two further criticisms. The first is that, to an ever-increasing extent, the specificity of the analogy is lost. The second, and more substantial, criticism raises the possible limits of any Marxist comparison of bourgeois and proletarian revolutions. The criticism is suggested by Trotsky himself, although not applied to his own theories. In setting it out, we must first return to Trotsky’s revision of his strategic position regarding the Stalinist regime.

            The originality of Trotsky’s position of 1933 lies in its repudiation of the necessity of political criteria for the recognition of a workers’ state. Trotsky introduces a new concept to the lexicon of Marxist politics in 1933: the degenerated workers’ state. The term is highly significant. It is qualitatively different from the concept of a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations, the view which Lenin takes of the young Soviet state. According to Trotsky’s new view, it is possible for a workers’ state to continue to exist even after the process of degeneration has been completed to the point where a new political revolution is urged by a new revolutionary party. This apparently bizarre position represented, in fact, a retreat from the problems of analysing the Soviet regime. Working with the traditional Marxist concepts, Trotsky, after arguing that there was neither capitalism nor socialism in the Soviet Union, was left with the transition between them, the workers’ state. However, it had become clear that the bureaucracy was an entrenched group, unwilling to be moved by demands for reform. Therefore, a new political revolution was required, but it was evident that this revolution would not change the forms of property, since nationalised property already predominated, therefore it could not be regarded as a social revolution. The conclusion was that the regime had to be regarded as a degenerated workers’ state, since the bureaucracy, by preserving nationalised property, was still expressing the workers’ interests.

            The objections to this theory are many and varied. Some have argued that the real relations of production differed little from capitalism as a far as the position of the workers was concerned and that the position of the bureaucracy was effectively that of a new ruling class. Others have suggested that the criterion of nationalisations is formal, and that the touchstone of the definition of a workers’ state should be the collective control of the means of production by the associated producers and the consequent existence of planning. The social and political contradictions of the current regime give rise not to planning but to a more or less coercive attempt to administer. This is clearly not the place to discuss the various criticisms of Trotsky’s view that have been made or that might be made. What we are interested in here is the relevance of the Thermidor analogy to the “mature” characterisation of Soviet society that Trotsky advanced.

            Once Trotsky had re-evaluated his earlier view of Thermidor as social counter-revolution, it is clear that the revised political definition of Thermidor could serve a purpose. It could serve as an analogy between the social and political relationships of a bourgeois revolution and the social and political relationships of Soviet development. Thermidor as a model was irresistible as a defence of the view that the Soviet state was a degenerated workers’ state. Political counterrevolution alongside the preservation of the social revolution. This, in Trotsky’s analysis, was the course of Soviet development. Was it not also the meaning of Thermidor?

The overturn of the Ninth Thermidor did not liquidate the basic conquests of the bourgeois revolution, but it did transfer power into the hands of the more moderate and conservative Jacobins, the better-to-do elements of bourgeois society. Today it is impossible to overlook that in the Soviet revolution also a shift to the right took place a long time ago, a shift entirely analogous to Thermidor, although much slower in tempo, and more marked in form.29

If bourgeois society could survive with a variety of different forms, why could not a workers’ state continue to exist in the Soviet Union taking different forms?

            In fact, Trotsky answers this question in the pamphlet which readopted the Thermidor analogy. The question with which implicitly he is concerned is why a degenerated workers’ state cannot create a socialist society but, in fact, it seems that Trotsky here points to a crucial objection to his own theories, although without recognising it as such.

The proletarian revolution not only frees the productive forces from the fetters of private ownership, but it transfers them to the direct disposal of the state that it itself creates. While the bourgeois state, after the revolution confines itself to a police role, leaving the market to its own laws, the workers’ state assumes the direct role of economist and organizer. The replacement of one political regime by another exerts only an indirect and superficial influence upon market economy.30

Trotsky continues by asserting that the replacement of a workers’ government by a bourgeois or petty-bourgeois government “would inevitably lead to the liquidation of the planned beginnings and, subsequently to the restoration of private property”. But, surely, the argument also applies with full force to a regime which has degenerated from revolutionary ideals to such a point where the call for a new revolution is felt to be necessary; to a regime which does not depend on democracy; to a regime which creates and defends social inequality and material privilege; and so on? Trotsky’s Thermidor analogy, if it means anything, means that an impeccable class background and a revolutionary history offer no guarantees for future action. Why then restrict the alternative to a workers’ government or a bourgeois or petty-bourgeois government? Why not add to these a government which has its past in the workers’ revolutionary movement but its present in the offices of state and party administration, the safe end of a machine gun, the guard house of a prison camp, the soft chair of a roomy flat, the material comfort of privileged access, special shops, thenomenklatura system and so on?

            Trotsky continues:

In contradistinction to capitalism socialism is built not automatically but consciously … Socialism can acquire an immutable character only at a very high stage of development … At the given stage of development, the socialist construction stands and falls with the workers’ state … Only after thoroughly pondering the difference between the laws of the formation of bourgeois (‘anarchistic’) and socialist (‘planned’) economy, it is possible to understand those limits beyond which the analogy with the Great French Revolution cannot pass (emphasis in the original).

Trotsky puts clearly the objection to the analogy in its revised form. The concept has been re-introduced in an attempt to support his distinction between political counterrevolution and social counterrevolution. Given the Marxist approach, this is satisfactory for a bourgeois revolution. As Trotsky indicates, there is a relative autonomy of the state and the political sphere in capitalist society. Classes are established outside the arena of politics. But, surely, for a post-capitalist society the situation is quite different, and therefore the analogy dubious. Trotsky, in the passages quoted above argued cogently for the view that the working class can only articulate itself as the ruling class by political means. The position of the state is central once private ownership of the means of production is abolished. How, then, can a political counterrevolution be anything other than a social counterrevolution at the same time? Is it not control of the means of production, rather than ownership by itself, that is decisive? How can the working class control the means of production except through the state? These powerful objections to Trotsky’s theory are not removed by resort to the analogy of Thermidor. In the end, the term mainly served as a historical invocation to justify a theory which proved increasingly absurd by the standards both of common sense and theoretical analysis.


Trotsky’s first major theoretical enquiries attempted to employ the standards of the French Revolution in its ascendancy as a yardstick against which to assess the prospects of revolution in Russia. At the end of his life, Trotsky was still pondering the mysteries of revolution in the light of comparisons between France and Russia, by now absorbed in the problems of revolutionary decline. Frequently, political analogy mystifies as much as it reveals. Was it so with Trotsky? His uses of Thermidor surely assisted understanding of some of the processes of degeneration, but, in the end, more was asked of the analogy than it could bear. In his mature usage, Trotsky conflated two separable problems within the notion of Thermidor. The first was the political process of bureaucratisation; the second, the nature of the society which was being formed through the experience of Stalinism. Without doubt, Trotsky’s handling of the first problem was far surer than his approach to the second.

            How was it possible to make sense of a society where the working class had lost power, but capitalism and the power of the bourgeoisie had not been restored? Trotsky’s commitment to struggle against Stalinism was unquestionable, heroic, and inspiring. Yet his legacy as a theoretician is ambiguous. There was a failure to recognise that the society being established in the process of counter-revolution required its own forms of analysis; this was demonstrated by the continued prominence in Trotsky’s work of the Thermidor analogy. For all the insight he provides into the decay of a revolution, he fails to transcend a conventional view of the transition to socialism. When that process is brought to a halt, he has little to say beyond general political slogans. He concludes that the Soviet Union in its Stalinist form has no right to survive for more than a moment; there is no room for it in his theory of history. But, unfortunately, and not only for Trotsky, it has survived, and requires an investigation which sees Trotsky not as a map but simply as a signpost.

* References to the series of volumes published by Pathfinder Press, New York, which collect Trotsky’s shorter published writings of the exile years are indicated thus: WLT, with the relevant dating. For the years 1929 to 1933 citations are from the first editions, published 1972 to 1975, and for the years 1933 to 1940 they are from the second editions, published 1973 to 1978.

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  • 1. This paper was originally published in a volume bringing together papers presented at a conference in Italy : Pensiero e azione politica di Lev Trockij: atti del convegno internazionale per il quarantesimo anniversario della morte, ed. Francesca Gori (Firenze: Leo S. Olschki. 1982), 2: 433-449.
  • 2. TROTSKY, ‘Two Speeches at the Central Control Commission, 1927’, in Ip., The Stalin School of Falsification, New York 1972, p. 143.
  • 3. J. KEEP, 1917: ‘The Tyranny of Paris over Petrograd’, Soviet Studies, vol. XX, 1968-69, n. 1, pp. 22-35.
  • 4. I. KNIZNIK, Cto Citat po Obscestvennym Naukam: Sistemasticeskij Ukazatel’ Kommunisticeskoj i Marksisticeskoj Literatury 1917-1923, Leningrad 1924.
  • 5. TROTSKY, The Lessons of October reprinted in Ip., The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25), New York 1975. The passage quoted appears on p. 202.
  • 6. KPSS vs Rezoljucijach i Resenijach, Tom Vtoroj 1917-1924, Moskva 1970, p. 220.
  • 7. A. MATHIEZ, ‘Bolshevism and Jacobinism’, Dissent, Winter 1955.
  • 8. J. MARTOV, The State and the Socialist Revolution, partially published in translation in I. HOWE, Essential Works of Socialism, New York 1971. The passage quoted appears on p. 264.
  • 9. V. SERGE, Year One of the Russian Revolution, London 1972, pp. 307-309.
  • 10. Lenin, like Trotsky, considered approaching Russian Revolution in terms of a comparison with the French revolutions of 1789 and 1848. See: A Revolution of the 1789 or the 1848 Type?, March-April 1905, LENIN, Collected Works, vol. 8, Moscow 1962, pp. 257-259. He also, like Trotsky, made reference to the NEP as a possible Thermidor in a brief comment as part of his preparatory notes for a report to the Tenth Party Conference of May 1921 on the tax in kind. He wrote: “Thermidor? Soberly, it may be, yes? Will be? We shall see”, P.S.S., XLIII, p. 403. This idea did not find a place in the speech Lenin actually delivered. Lenin’s notes for the speech, first published in 1932, were not published in the relevant volume of the English edition of the Collected Works, published in 1969.
  • 11. In his pamphlet One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Lenin declared: “The division into majority and minority is a direct and inevitable continuation of that division of the Social Democrats into a revolutionary and an opportunist wing, into a Mountain and a Gironde, which did not appear only yesterday, nor in the Russian workers’ party alone, and which no doubt will not disappear tomorrow”. Later in the pamphlet, Lenin responds to criticism from Axelrod of “Jacobin” conceptions of revolution. He asserts that Axelrod is at one with “the Girondists of present day Social Democracy everywhere” who “always resort to the terms ‘Jacobinism’, ‘Blanquism’, and so on to describe their opponents … These ‘dreadful words’ – Jacobinism and the rest – are expressive of opportunism and nothing else. A Jacobin who wholly identifies himself with the organisation of the proletariat a proletariat conscious of its class interests – is a revolutionary Social-Democrat”. LENIN, Collected Works cit., vol. 7, pp. 344, 381, 383. See also Lenin’s response to Rosa Luxemburg’s review of One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, where he denies that he introduced the analogy with Jacobinism to the current debate but accepts the parallel between the “revolutionary” wing of Russian social-democracy and the Jacobins. Collected Works, vol. 7, pp. 474-485.
  • 12. Originally published under the title Mezhdu Imperializmom i Revoliuciei. Published in translation as TROTSKY, Social Democracy and the Wars of Intervention in Russia 1918-1921 (Between Red and White), London 1975, The passage quoted appears on p. 83.
  • 13. TROTSKY, The New Course, Ann Arbor 1965, pp. 92, 40.
  • 14. TROTSKY, ‘Two Speeches at the Central Control Commission’, 1927, in Ip., The Stalin School of Falsification cit., p. 142.
  • 15. As early as September 1926, Trotsky had predicted: “It is quite clear that neither Tomsky nor Bukharin nor Rykov, because of their past, their moral authority, and so forth are not and cannot be capable of playing the role under Stalin that is played by Uglanov, Kagonovic, Petrovskij and company. To amputate the present Opposition would in fact inevitably mean the transformation into an opposition of the rest of the former group in the Central Committee. A new discussion would then be in order, in the course of which Kaganovic would unmask Rykov, Uglanov would do the same for Tomsky, while the Slepkovs, Stalins and company expose Bukharin”, T.A., T-891.
  • 16. For a reference to Thermidor as “capitalism on the installment plan” see: TROTSKY, ‘The War Danger – The Defense Policy and the Opposition, Speech at the Joint Plenary Session of the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission (1 August 1927)’, in Stalin School of Falsification cit., p. 172. The reference to “film of reformism” is from The Class Nature of the Soviet State, 1 October 1933, W.L.T., 1933-1934, p. 103: “He who asserts that the Soviet government has gradually changed from proletarian to bourgeois is only so to speak, running backwards the film of reformism”. Similar statements are made elsewhere; for example: “how … can anyone assume or believe that power can pass from the hands of the Russian proletariat into the hands of the bourgeoisie in a peaceful, tranquil, imperceptible, bureaucratic manner? Such a conception of Thermidor is nothing else but inverted reformism”. ‘Defense of the Soviet Republic and the Opposition’, 7 September 1929, W.L.T. 1929, p. 284.
  • 17. TROTSKY, ‘The Bloc of the Right and the Left’, 21 November 1930, W.L.T. 1930-1931, p. 58.
  • 18. TROTKSY, The Platform of the Joint Opposition (1927), p. 108.
  • 19. TROTSKY, ‘The Three Factions in the Comintern’, 1930, W.L.T. 1930, p. 15.
  • 20. TROTSKY, The Class Nature of the Soviet State, 1 October 1933, W.L.T. 1933-1934, pp. 168, 174.
  • 21. TROTSKY, ‘The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism’, 1 February 1935, W.L.T. 1934-1935, pp. 168, 174.
  • 22. Ibidem, p. 174.
  • 23. Ibidem, p. 182.
  • 24. Marx in an assessment of the Second Empire in France had written: “In reality it was the only form of government possible at a time when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation”. K. MARX, The Civil War in France, London 1921, p. 30. Trotsky’s assessment of the Stalinist regime in Russia was a mirror image of this assessment.
  • 25. TROTSKY, The Revolution Betrayed, New York 1970, p. 89.
  • 26. TROTSKY, ‘Thermidor and Bonapartism’, 26 November 1930, W.L.T. 1930-1931, p. 75.
  • 27. TROTSKY, Iz Dnevnika (Dlja Pamjati), 26 November 1926, T.A., T-3015.
  • 28. For example: “(The Bolshevik-Leninists) … will support every real, even if timid and insufficient step toward the Left taken by the Centrist leaders”. Krizis prevo-centrist-kogo bloka i perspektivy, October or November 1928, T.A., T-3143.
  • 29. TROTSKY, ‘The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism’, 1 February 1935, W.L.T. 1934-1935, pp. 173, 174.
  • 30. Ibidem, p. 179.