The Real Meaning of Thermidor


Nevertheless, today we can and must admit that the analogy of Thermidor served to becloud rather than to clarify the question.  Thermidor in 1794 produced a shift of power from certain groups in the Convention to other groups, from one section of the victorious “people” to other strata.  Was Thermidor counterrevolutionary?  The answer to this question depends upon how wide a significance we attach, in a given case, to the concept of “counterrevolution.”  The social overturn of 1789 to 1793 was bourgeois in character.  In essence it reduced itself to the replacement of fixed feudal property by “free” bourgeois property.  The counterrevolution “corresponding” to this revolution would have had to attain the reestablishment of feudal property.  But Thermidor did not even make an attempt in this direction.  Robespierre sought his support among the artisans, the Directory among the middle bourgeoisie.  Bonaparte allied himself with the banks.  All these shifts — which had, of course, not only a political but also a social significance — occurred, however, on the basis of the new bourgeois society and state.

Of the very same import was the Eighteenth Brumaire of Bonaparte, the next important stage on the road of reaction.  In both instances, it was a question not of restoring either the old forms of property or the power of the former ruling estates but of dividing the gains of the new social regime among the different sections of the victorious “Third Estate.”  The bourgeoisie appropriated more and more property and power (either directly and immediately or through special agents like Bonaparte) but made no attempt whatever against the social conquests of the revolution; on the contrary, it solicitously sought to strengthen, organize and stabilize them.  Napoleon guarded bourgeois property, including that of the peasant, against both the “rabble” and the claims of the expropriated proprietors.  Feudal Europe hated Napoleon as the living embodiment of the revolution, and it was correct according to its standards.

Leon Trotsky, 1879-1940.  The text above is an excerpt from “The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism” (February 1935).

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