Letter to the League Communiste, March 2, 1934
Ultraleft Tactics in Fighting the Fascists
Since I am in Switzerland, I cannot follow the events in France at close hand. But let me say that before emigrating here, I accumulated a certain amount of experience in these matters in Germany. And the Menilmontant affair fills me with the direst foreboding. If things proceed along this line, catastrophe is inevitable.
What is the objective, not just for the moment but for the entire coming period? It is to get the workers to take up the struggle against the fascists before these elements have become the dominant force in the state, to get the workers used to not being afraid of the fascists, to teach them how to deal blows to the fascists, to convince them that they are stronger in numbers, in audacity, and in other ways.
In this period it is very important to distinguish between the fascists and the state. The state is not yet ready to subordinate itself to the fascists; it wants to “arbitrate.” We know what this means from the sociological point of view. However, this is not a matter of sociology but of giving blows and taking them. Politically it is part of the nature of a pre-Bonapartist, “arbiter” state that the police hesitate, hold back, and on the whole are far from identifying with the fascist gangs. Our strategic task is to increase these hesitations and apprehensions on the part of the “arbiter,” its army and its police. How? By showing that we are stronger than the fascists, that is, by giving them a good beating in full view of this arbiter without, as long as we are not absolutely forced to, directly taking on the state itself. That is the whole point.
In the case of Menilmontant, as far as I can tell from here, the operation was handled in the diametrically opposite way. L'Humanité reports that there were no more than sixty fascists in a thoroughly working class neighborhood! The tactical, or if you will, “technical,” task was quite simple — grab every fascist or every isolated group of fascists by their collars, acquaint them with the pavement a few times, strip them of their fascist insignia and documents, and without carrying things any further, leave them with their fright and a few good black and blue marks.
The “arbiter” defended freedom of assembly (for the moment the state is also defending workers’ meetings from the fascists). This being the case, it was totally idiotic to want to provoke an armed conflict with the police. But this is precisely what they did. L'Humanité is exultant — they erected a barricade! But what for? The fascists weren’t on the other side of the barricade, and it was the fascists they came to fight. Was this an armed insurrection perhaps? To establish the dictatorship of the proletariat in Menilmontant? This makes no sense. As Marx said, “One does not play at insurrection.” That means, “One does not play with barricades.” Even when there is an insurrection, you don’t erect barricades just any where, any time. (You can learn something from Blanqui on this score — see the documents published in La Critique Sociale.)
They succeeded in (a) letting the gilded youth return home in fine shape; (b) provoking the police and getting a worker killed; (c) giving the fascists an important argument — the Communists are starting to build barricades.
The idiot bureaucrats will say: “So, you want us to forget about building barricades out of fear of the fascists and love of the police?” It is a betrayal to reject building barricades when the political situation demands it and when you are strong enough to erect them and defend them. But it is a disgusting provocation to build sham barricades for a little fascist meeting, to blow things up out of all political proportions, and to disorient the proletariat.
The task is to involve the workers in increasing numbers in the fight against fascism. The Menilmontant adventure can only isolate a small, militant minority. After such an experience, a hundred, a thousand workers who would have been ready to teach the young bourgeois bullies a few lessons will say, “No, thanks,.I don’t want to get my head broken for nothing.” The upshot of the whole undertaking was just the opposite of what was intended. And not to mince words, it wouldn’t surprise me very much if it came out after a while that the ones who shouted loudest for the barricades were fascist agents planted in the ranks of the Stalinists, fascists who wanted to get their friends off the hook by provoking a confrontation with the police. If this was the case, they succeeded well.
What should the most active and perceptive elements have done on the spot? They should have improvised a small general staff, including a Socialist and a Stalinist if possible. (At the same time it should have been explained to the workers that the neighborhood general staff should have functioned on a permanent basis on the eve of the demonstration.) This improvised general staff, with a map of the district spread out in front of them, should have worked out the simplest plan in the world-divide up one or two hundred demonstrators into groups of three to five, with a leader for each group, and let them do their work. And after the battle the leaders should get together and draw the balance sheet and the necessary lessons for the future. This second meeting could provide a good core for a permanent general staff, a good underpinning for a permanent workers’ militia in the district. Naturally, there would have to be leaflets explaining the need for a permanent general staff.
For the perceptive, revolutionary elements, the balance sheet offers the following lessons:
a. You have to have your own general staff for such occasions.
b. You have to anticipate the possibilities and eventualities in such conflicts.
c. You have to establish a few general plans (several variants).
d. You have to have a map of the district.
e. You have to have the proper leaflets for the situation.
This is all I can say for the moment. I am almost sure that these suggestions are completely in accord with your own ideas. So much the better.