Duncan Hallas

Trotsky’s Marxism

3. Strategy and Tactics



The ideal of an international workers’ movement is as old as, if not indeed older than, the Communist Manifesto itself, with its call, “Workers of the world unite”. In 1864 (the First International) and again in 1889 (the Second International) attempts had been made to give it an organisational expression. The Second International had collapsed in 1914 when its big parties in the warring states broke with internationalism and supported the governments of the German and Austrian Kaisers, the English king and the French bourgeois Third Republic.

It was not that they had been taken by surprise. Pre-war congresses had repeatedly drawn attention to the menace of imperialism and militarism, the growing threat of war and the need for the workers’ parties to stand firm against their own governments, indeed to “utilise the crisis engendered by war to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule”, as the Stuttgart Congress of the International had put it in 1907.

The subsequent capitulations of 1914, a stunning defeat for the socialist movement, led Lenin to declare: “The Second International is dead ... Long live the Third International”. Five years later, in 1919, the Third International was actually founded. Trotsky played a major role in it in the early years.

Later, with the rise of Stalinism in the USSR, the International was prostituted in the service of the Stalinist state in Russia. Trotsky more than anyone else fought against this degeneration. Many of his most valuable writings on the strategy and tactics of revolutionary workers’ parties relate to the Third International, the Comintern, both in the period of its rise and in the period of its subsequent decline.

Sweeping aside the half-heartedness, lies and corruption of the outlived official Socialist parties, we Communists, united in the Third International, consider ourselves the direct continuators of the heroic endeavours and martyrdom of a long line of revolutionary generations from Babeuf to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

If the First International presaged the future course of development and indicated its paths; if the Second International gathered and organised millions of workers; then the Third International is the International of open mass action, the International of revolutionary realisation, the International of the deed. [1]

Trotsky was forty and at the height of his power when he wrote the Manifesto of the Communist International from which the above lines are taken. As the People’s Commissar for War of the embattled Soviet Republic, he was second only to Lenin as the recognised spokesman of world communism.

His outlook at this time was not, of course, especially distinctive. It was the common outlook of the whole Bolshevik leadership, an outlook which did not exclude sharp differences of opinion on this or that issue but which was essentially homogeneous. However, Trotsky was to become in time the outstanding advocate of the ideas of the Communist International in its heroic period. Events, unforeseen by any of the revolutionary leaders of 1919- or by their opponents – later reduced to a handful the bearers of this authentic communist tradition; Trotsky came to tower over them as a giant among Lilliputians.

Time and again, in his writings in the late twenties and the thirties, Trotsky was to refer to the decisions of the first four congresses of the Comintern as the model of revolutionary policy. What were these decisions and in what circumstances were they adopted?

It was 4 March 1919. Thirty-five delegates meeting in the Kremlin voted, with one abstention, to constitute the Third or Communist International. It was not a very weighty or representative gathering. Only the five delegates from the Russian Communist Party (Bukharin, Chicherin, Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev) represented a party which was both a mass organisation and a genuinely revolutionary one. Stange of the Norwegian Labour Party (NAP) came from a mass party but, as events were to prove, the NAP was far from revolutionary in practice. Eberlein of the newly-formed Communist Party of Germany (KPD) represented a real revolutionary organisation but one that was still only a few thousand strong. Most of the other delegates represented very little.

The majority took it for granted that an “International” without some real mass support in a number of countries was nonsense. Zinoviev, for the Russians, argued that mass support existed in fact. The weakness of many of the delegations was accidental. “We have a victorious proletarian revolution in a great country ... You have in Germany a party marching to power which in a few months will establish a proletarian government. And are we still to delay? No one will understand it.” [2]

That the socialist revolution was an immediate prospect in central Europe, above all in Germany, was not doubted by any of the delegates. In Eberlein’s words: “Unless all the signs are deceptive, the German proletariat is facing the last decisive struggle. However difficult it may be, the prospects for communism are favourable.” [3]

Lenin, the most sober and calculating of revolutionaries, had said in his opening speech that “not only in Russia, but in the most developed capitalist countries of Europe, Germany for example, civil war is a fact ... the world revolution is beginning and growing in intensity everywhere.” [4]

This was not fantasy. In November 1918 the German Empire, till then the most powerful state in Europe, had collapsed. Six people’s commissars – three social democrats and three independent social democrats – replaced the Kaiser’s government. Workers’ and soldiers’ councils had covered the country and wielded effective power. True, the social-democratic leaders, who dominated them, bent all their efforts towards reconstituting the old capitalist state power under a new “republican” guise. That was all the more reason for creating a revolutionary International with a strong centralised leadership to guide and support the struggle for a Soviet Germany. And that struggle, in spite of the bloody suppression of the Spartakus rising in January 1919, appeared to be developing. “From January to May 1919, with offshoots reaching into the height of the summer, a bloody civil war was waged in Germany ...” [5] A month after the Moscow meeting the Bavarian Soviet Republic was proclaimed.

The other great central European power, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had ceased to exist. The successor states were in varying degrees of revolutionary ferment. In German-speaking Austria the only effective armed force was the social-democratic controlled Volkswehr (People’s Army). In Hungary, the Soviet Republic was proclaimed on 21 March 1919. All the new or reconstituted states – Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, even Poland – were highly unstable.

The role of the socialist leaderships was crucial. The majority now supported counter-revolution in the name of “democracy”. Most of them claimed to be, indeed once had been, marxists and internationalists. In 1914 they had capitulated to “their own” ruling classes. They were now, in this critical time, the major prop of capitalism, using socialist phrases and the credit established by their years of opposition to the old regimes before 1914 to prevent the establishment of workers’ power. Their attempt to reconstitute the Second International at a meeting in Berne was advanced as a further, urgent reason for proclaiming the Third. As early as 1914 Lenin had written: “The Second International is dead, overcome by opportunism ... long live the Third International.” [6] Now, eighteen months after the October revolution, the slogan was to be turned into reality.

What was its essential political basis? It rested on two fundamental planks; revolutionary internationalism and the soviet system as the means whereby the workers would rule society.

The main resolution of the 1919 Congress declared:

Democracy assumed different forms and was applied in different degrees in the ancient republics of Greece, the medieval cities and the advanced capitalist countries. It would be sheer nonsense to think that the most profound revolution in history, the first case in the world of power being transferred from the exploiting minority to the exploited majority, could take place within the time worn framework of the old, bourgeois parliamentary democracy, without drastic changes, without the creation of new forms of democracy, new institutions that embody the new conditions for applying democracy. [7]

Soviets or parliament? After the October revolution the Russian Communist Party had dispersed the newly elected Constituent Assembly, in which the Social-Revolutionary peasant party had a majority, in favour of soviet power. After the November revolution the German Social-Democratic Party had dissolved the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, in which it had a majority, in favour of the National Assembly in which it did not.

In both cases the question of constitutional forms was really a question of class power. The effect of the RCP’s action was to create a workers’ state; The effect of the SPD’s action was to create a bourgeois state, the Weimar Republic.

Marx had written, after the Paris Commune, that in the transition from capitalism to socialism, the form of the state “can only be the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat”.

The social-democrats had come, in practice, to reject the essence of the marxist theory of the state, that all states are class states, that there is no “neutral” state. They had come to reject their own previous position on the inevitability of revolution in favour of “peaceful” parliamentary roads to socialism. Yet the Weimar Republic was every bit as much a product of the violent overthrow of the previous state as the Russian Soviet Republic had been. Mutinous soldiers and armed workers, not voters, overthrew the German Empire. The same was true of the successor states of Austria-Hungary. But the greater transformation, the destruction of capitalism, was to be achieved by the ordinary mechanisms of bourgeois democracy!

In reality, this meant the abandonment of socialism as the aim.

The Third International, in its 1919 “platform”, sharply restated the marxist position. “The victory of the working class lies in shattering the organisation of the enemy power and organising workers’ power; it consists in the destruction of the bourgeois state machine and the construction of the workers’ state machine.” [8] There could be no question of socialism through parliament. Lenin, in 1917, had quoted with approval Engels’s statement that universal suffrage is “an index of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in a modern state.” [9] “No bourgeois republic, however democratic,” he wrote just after the Moscow conference, “ever was or could have been anything but a machine for the repression of the working people by capital, an instrument of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the political rule of capital.” [10]

The workers’ republic, based on workers’ councils, was truly democratic.

The essence of soviet power lies in this, that the permanent and sole foundation of the entire state power, of the entire state apparatus, is the mass organisation of those very classes which were oppressed by the capitalists, that is the workers and semi-workers (peasants who do not exploit labour). [11]

This was something of an idealisation of Russia, even in 1919, but the “deviations” were accounted for by the backwardness of the country, the still raging civil war and foreign intervention.

Trotsky then, and until his dying day, supported all these ideas without the slightest reservation. He was at one with Lenin on the questions of bourgeois democracy and reformism in 1919, and he never changed his mind.

The delegates’ meeting in Moscow had constituted the new International on the basis of uncompromising internationalism, a decisive and final split with the traitors of 1914, workers’ power, workers’ councils, the defence of the Soviet Republic and the perspective of revolution in the near future in Central and Western Europe. The problem now was to create the mass parties that could make all this a reality.



Centrism and Ultra-Leftism

Parties and groups only recently affiliated to the Second International are more and more frequently applying for membership in the Third International, though they have not become really communist ... The Communist International is, to a certain extent, becoming fashionable ... In certain circumstances, the Communist International may be faced with the danger of dilution by the influx of wavering and irresolute groups that have not yet broken with their Second International ideology. [12]

So wrote Lenin in July 1920. The assumption of the 1919 Congress of the Comintern, that a truly mass revolutionary movement existed in Europe, was shown to be correct in the coming year.

In September 1919 the Bologna congress of the Italian Socialist Party voted by a large majority and on the recommendation of its executive to affiliate to the Communist International. The Norwegian Labour Party, the NAP, confirmed its affiliation and the Bulgarian, Yugoslav (ex-Serbian) and Rumanian parties joined as well. The first three of these were important organisations. The NAP which, like its British counterpart, was based on trade union affiliation, completely dominated the Norwegian left, and the Bulgarian CP had the support from the beginning of virtually the whole Bulgarian working class. The Yugoslavian CP returned 54 deputies in the first (and only) free elections held in the new state.

In France, the Socialist Party, SFIO, which had more than doubled its membership – from 90,000 to 200,000 between 1918 and 1920 – had swung far to the left, and was flirting with Moscow. So were the leaders of the German Independent Social Democrats, the USPD, an organisation which was rapidly gaining ground at the expense of the Social Democratic Party, the SPD. The Swedish left Social-Democrats, the Czechoslovak left wing and smaller parties in other countries (including the British ILP) had essentially the same line. Pressure from their ranks was forcing them to pay lip service to the October revolution and to negotiate for admission to the Communist International.

“The desire of certain leading ‘centre’ groups to join the Third International”, wrote Lenin, “provides indirect confirmation that it has won the sympathy of the vast majority of class conscious workers throughout the world, and is becoming a more powerful force with each day.” [13]

But these parties were not revolutionary communist organisations. Their traditions were those of pre-war social-democracy – revolutionary in words, passive in practice. And they were led by men who would try any twist or turn in order to keep control and prevent the adoption of genuine revolutionary strategy and tactics.

Without the bulk of the members of these parties the new International could not hope to exert a decisive influence in Europe in the short term. Without a break with the centrist leaders it could not hope to exert a revolutionary influence. Nor was the situation much different with the mass parties already inside the International. The Italian Socialist Party, for example, had centrists and even some thorough-going reformists in its leadership.

The struggle against centrism was complicated by another factor. Strong ultra-leftist currents existed inside many of the communist organisations. And outside them were some important syndicalist trade union organisations which had moved close to the Third International but which still rejected the need for a communist party. To gain and integrate these big forces was a difficult and complex operation. It required a struggle on several different fronts.

The decisions of the Second Congress were of fundamental importance. In a sense this was the real founding congress. It took place during the height of the war with Poland, when the Red Army was nearing Warsaw. In Germany an attempt to establish a military dictatorship, the Kapp putsch, had just been defeated by mass working class action. In Italy the factory occupations were about to begin. The mood of revolutionary optimism was stronger than ever. Zinoviev, President of the International, declared: “I am deeply convinced that the Second World Congress of the CI is the precursor of another world congress, the world congress of Soviet Republics.” [14] All that was needed were real mass communist parties to lead the movement to victory. One of Trotsky’s major interventions in the congress was concerned with the nature of such parties.

Comrades, it may seem fairly strange that three-quarters of a century after the appearance of the Communist Manifesto, discussion should arise at an International Communist Congress over whether a party is necessary or not ... It is self-evident that if we were dealing here with Messrs. Scheidemann, Kautsky or their English co-thinkers, it would not, of course, be necessary to convince these gentlemen that a party is indispensable for the working class. They have created a party for the working class and handed it over into the service of bourgeois and capitalist society ... Just because I know that the party is indispensable, and am well aware of the value of the party, and just because I see Scheidemann on the one side and, on the other, American or Spanish or French syndicalists who not only wish to fight against the bourgeoisie but who, unlike Scheidemann, really want to tear its head off – for this reason I say that I prefer to discuss with these Spanish, American and French comrades in order to prove to them that the party is indispensable for the fulfilment of the mission which is placed upon them – the destruction of the bourgeoisie ... Comrades, the French syndicalists are conducting revolutionary work within the unions. When I discuss today, for example, with Comrade Rosmer, we have a common ground. The French syndicalists, in defiance of the traditions of democracy and its deceptions, have said: “We do not want any parties, we stand for proletarian unions and for the revolutionary minority within them which applies direct action ...” What does this minority mean to our friends? It is the chosen section of the French working class, a section with a clear programme and organisation of its own, an organisation where they discuss all questions, and not alone discuss but also decide, and where they are bound by a certain discipline. [15]

This, Trotsky argued, was the root of the matter. The revolutionary syndicalists were much closer to constituting a communist party than the centrists who took the idea of a party for granted. The syndicalist position was not entirely adequate – something had to be added: “an inventory ... which concentrates the entire experience accumulated by the working class. That is how we conceive our party. That is how we conceive our International.” [16]

It could not be primarily a propaganda organisation. Speaking at the Comintern Executive (ECCI) against the Dutch ultra-left Gorter who had accused the Comintern of “chasing after the masses”, Trotsky declared:

What does Comrade Gorter propose? What does he want? Propaganda! This is the gist of his entire method. Revolution, says Comrade Gorter, is contingent neither upon privations nor economic conditions but on mass consciousness; while mass consciousness is, in turn, shaped by propaganda. Propaganda is here taken in a purely idealistic manner, very much akin to the concept of the eighteenth century school of enlightenment and rationalism ... What you now want to do amounts essentially to replacing the dynamic development of the International by methods of individual recruitment of workers through propaganda. You want some sort of simon-pure International of the elect and select ... [17]

The passive, propagandist type of ultra-leftism was not the only variety represented in the early Comintern. In 1921, a putschist tendency developed in the leadership of the German party. In March of that year, in the absence of a revolutionary situation nationally (locally, in parts of central Germany, something like a revolutionary situation existed), the party leadership tried to force the pace, to substitute the party militants for a true mass movement. The result of this “March Action” was a serious defeat – party membership dropped from about 350,000 to around 150,000. A “theory of the offensive” was used to justify the KPD tactics.

There was advanced the so-called theory of the offensive. What is the gist of this theory? Its gist is that we have entered the epoch of the decomposition of capitalist society, in other words, the epoch when the bourgeoisie must be overthrown. How? By the offensive of the working class. In this purely abstract form it is unquestionably correct. But certain individuals have sought to convert this theoretical capital into corresponding currency of smaller denominations and they have declared that this offensive consists of a successive number of smaller offensives ...

noted Trotsky in a speech in the summer of 1921. He went on:

Comrades, the analogy between the political struggle of the working class and military operations has been much abused. But up to a certain point one can speak here of similarities ... In military respects we, too, had our March days, speaking in German and our September days, speaking in Italian [the reference is to the failure of the Italian Socialist Party to exploit the revolutionary crisis of September 1920]. What happens after a partial defeat? There sets in a certain dislocation of the military apparatus, there arises a certain need for a breathing spell, a need for reorientation and a more precise estimation of the reciprocal forces ... Sometimes all this becomes possible only under the conditions of strategic retreat ...

But to understand this properly, to discern in a move backwards, in a retreat, a component part of a unified strategic plan – for that a certain experience is necessary. But if one reasons purely abstractly and insists on always moving forward ... on the assumption that everything can be superseded by an added extension of revolutionary will, what results does one then get? Let us take for example the September events in Italy or the March events in Germany. We are told that the situation in these countries can be remedied only by a new offensive ... Under these conditions we would suffer an even greater and much more dangerous defeat. No comrades, after such a defeat we must retreat. [18]



The United Front

In fact, by the summer of 1921, the Comintern leadership had decided that a strategic retreat in a more general sense was necessary. Trotsky wrote in Pravda in June:

In the most critical year for the bourgeoisie, the year 1919, the proletariat of Europe could undoubtedly have conquered state power with minimum sacrifices, had there been at its head a genuine revolutionary organisation, setting forth clear aims and capably pursuing them, i.e., a strong Communist Party. But there was none ... During the last three years the workers have fought a great deal and suffered many sacrifices. But they have not won power. As a result the working masses have become more cautious than they were in 1919-20. [19]

The same thought was expressed in the Theses on the World Situation, of which Trotsky was the author, adopted at the Third Comintern Congress in July 1921:

During the year that has passed between the second and third congresses of the Communist International, a series of working-class risings and struggles have ended in partial defeat (the advance of the Red Army on Warsaw in August 1920, the movement of the Italian proletariat in September 1920, the rising of the German workers in March 1921.) The first period of the post-war revolutionary movement, distinguished by the spontaneous character of its assaults, by the marked imprecision of its aims and methods, and by the extreme panic which it aroused amongst the ruling classes, seems in essentials to be over. The self-confidence of the bourgeoisie as a class, and the outward stability of their state organs, have undeniably been strengthened ... The leaders of the bourgeoisie are even boasting of the power of their state machines and have gone over to an offensive against the workers in all countries both on the economic and on the political front. [20]

Soon after the congress, the ECCI began to press the parties to shift the emphasis of their work towards the united front. The essence of this approach was very clearly summarised by Trotsky early in 1922.

The task of the Communist Party is to lead the proletarian revolution ... to achieve it the Communist Party must base itself on the overwhelming majority of the working class ... The party can achieve this only by remaining an absolutely independent organisation with a clear programme and strict internal discipline. That is why the party was bound to break ideologically with the reformists and centrists ... After assuring itself of the complete independence and ideological homogeneity of its ranks, the Communist Party fights for influence over the majority of the working class ... But it is perfectly self-evident that the class life of the proletariat is not suspended during this period preparatory to the revolution. Clashes with industrialists, with the bourgeoisie, with the state power, on the initiative of one side or the other, ruin their due course.

In these clashes – insofar as they involve the vital interests of the entire working class, or its majority, or this or that section – the working masses sense the need of unity in action, of unity in resisting the onslaught of capitalism or unity in taking the offensive against it. Any party which mechanically counterposes itself to this need of the working class for unity in action will unfailingly be condemned in the minds of the workers.

Consequently the question of the united front is not at all, either in point of origin or substance, a question of the reciprocal relations between the Communist parliamentary fraction and that of the Socialists, or between the Central Committees of the two parties ... The problem of the united front – despite the fact that a split is inevitable in this epoch between the various political organisations basing themselves on the working class – grows out of the urgent need to secure for the working class the possibility of a united front in the struggle against capitalism.

For those who do not understand this task, the party is only a propaganda society and not an organisation for mass action ...

Unity of front consequently presupposes our readiness, within certain limits and on specific issues, to correlate in practice our actions with those of reformist organisations, to the extent to which the latter still express today the will of important sections of the embattled proletariat.

But, after all, didn’t we split with them? Yes, because we disagree with them on fundamental questions of the working class movement.

And yet we seek agreement with them? Yes, in all those cases where the masses that follow them are ready to engage in joint struggle together with the masses that follow us and when they, the reformists, are to a lesser or greater degree compelled to become an instrument of this struggle ...

A policy aimed to secure the united front does not of course contain automatic guarantees that unity in action will actually be attained in all instances. On the contrary, in many cases and perhaps even the majority of cases, organisational agreements will be only half-attained or perhaps not at all. But it is necessary that the struggling masses should always be given the opportunity of convincing themselves that the non-achievement of unity in action was not due to our formalistic irreconcilibility but to the lack of real will to struggle on the part of the reformists. [21]

The Fourth Comintern Congress (1922), which was largely concerned with the united front, was the last Lenin attended and the last which Trotsky regarded as essentially correct in its decisions. A decade later, in a statement of fundamental principles he summarised his attitude to the experience of the early Comintern:

The International Left Opposition stands on the ground of the first four congresses of the Comintern. This does not mean that it bows before every letter of its decisions, many of which had a purely conjunctural character and have been contradicted by subsequent events. But all the essential principles (in relation to imperialism and the bourgeois state, to democracy and reformism; problems of insurrection; the dictatorship of the proletariat; on relations with the peasantry and the oppressed nations; work in the trade unions; parliamentarianism; the policy of the united front) remain, even today, the highest expression of proletarian strategy in the epoch of the general crisis of capitalism. The Left Opposition rejects the revisionist decisions of the Fifth and Sixth World Congresses ... [1924 and 1928] [22]

1923 saw the emergence of the triumvirate of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev on the one hand and of the Left Opposition on the other. In Europe it saw two crippling defeats for the Comintern. In June, the Bulgarian Communist Party, a mass party enjoying the support of virtually the entire working class, adopted a position of “neutrality”, or rather complete passivity, in the face of the right wing coup against the Peasant Party government. Then, after the bourgeois democratic regime had been destroyed, a military dictatorship established and the mass of the population cowed, it launched (on 22 September) a sudden insurrection, without any serious political preparation. It was smashed and a ferocious White Terror ensued. In Germany, a profound economic, social and political crisis occurred, precipitated by the French occupation of the Ruhr and the astronomic inflation which, literally, made money worthless. “In the autumn of 1923 the German situation was more desperate than at any time since 1919, the misery greater, the prospect apparently more hopeless.” [23] A rising was planned for October, after the Communist Party had formed a coalition government with Social Democrats in Saxony, but cancelled at the last minute. (In Hamburg the cancellation was not received in time; an isolated insurrection occurred and was crushed after two days.)

Trotsky believed that a historic opportunity had been missed. From this time on the policy of the Comintern became increasingly determined, first by the requirements of Stalin’s faction in the inner party struggle in the USSR and later by the foreign policy requirements of Stalin’s government. After a brief “left” oscillation in 1924, the Comintern was pushed in a rightist direction until 1928, then into ultra-leftism (1928-34) and finally far to the right in the Popular Front period (1935- 39). Each of these phases was analysed and criticised by Trotsky. It is convenient to present his critique using three examples.



The Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee

Aside from the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27, which has already been discussed, the policy (under Comintern direction) of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) up to and during the general strike of 1926 was the most important indictment Trotsky made of the Comintern in its first rightist phase.

The general strike of May 1926 was a decisive turning point in British history – and it was an unmitigated defeat for the working class. It brought to an end a long, though not uninterrupted, period of working class militancy, it led to the prolonged dominance of the unions by their openly class-collaborationist right wing and it led to the massive reinforcement of Labour Party reformism at the expense of the Communist Party.

In 1924-25 the tide in the trade union movement was flowing leftwards. The CP-inspired Minority Movement, founded in 1924 around the slogans “Stop the Retreat” and “Back to the Unions”, was gaining considerable influence. At the same time the official movement was coming under the influence of a group of leftish officials. And, from the spring of 1925, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) collaborated with the Soviet Trade Union Federation through the “Anglo-Soviet Joint Trade Union Advisory Committee”, a fact that gave the General Councillors a certain “revolutionary” aura and a cover against critics on the left.

The essence of Trotsky’s criticism was that the CPGB, on Moscow’s urging, was building up trust in these left bureaucrats (the central CP slogan was “All Power to the General Council”!) who were certain to betray the movement at a critical stage (as they did, of course), rather than struggle to build independently amongst the rank and file, using whatever cover the “lefts” afforded but in no way relying on them or encouraging militants to rely on them; on the contrary, counting on their treachery, warning against it and preparing for it. Trotsky wrote later:

Zinoviev gave us to understand that he counted upon the revolution finding an entrance, not through the narrow gateway of the British Communist Party, but through the broad portals of the trade unions. The struggle to win the masses organised in the trade unions through the communist party was replaced by the hope for the swiftest possible utilisation of the ready-made apparatus of the trade unions for the purposes of the revolution. Out of this false position sprang the later policy of the Anglo-Russian Committee which dealt a blow to the Soviet Union, as well as to the British working class; a blow surpassed only by the defeat in China ... As the upshot of the greatest revolutionary movement in Britain since the days of Chartism, the British Communist Party has hardly grown while the General Council sits in the saddle even more firmly than before the general strike. Such are the results of this unique “strategical manoeuvre”. [24]

He did not argue that the policy of independent communist work would necessarily have won the strike.

No revolutionist who weighs his words would contend that a victory would have been guaranteed by proceeding along this line. But a victory was possible only along this road. A defeat on this road was a defeat on a road that could lead later to victory. [25]

However, this road

appeared too long and uncertain to the bureaucrats of the Communist International. They considered that by means of personal influence on Purcell, Hicks, Cook and the others ... they would gradually and imperceptibly draw ... [them] into the Communist International. To guarantee such a success ... the dear friends (Purcell, Hicks and Cook) were not to be vexed or exasperated ... a radical measure had to be resorted to ... actually subordinating the Communist Party to the Minority Movement ... The masses knew as the leaders of this movement only Purcell, Hicks and Cook, whom, moreover, Moscow vouched for. These “left” friends, in a serious test, shamefully betrayed the proletariat. The revolutionary workers were thrown into confusion, sank into apathy and naturally extended their disappointment to the Communist Party itself which had only been the passive part of this whole mechanism of betrayal and perfidy. The Minority Movement was reduced to zero; the Communist Party returned to the existence of a negligible sect. [26]

Reliance on “left” officials is still one of the features distinguishing left reformists from revolutionaries. Trotsky’s critique is highly relevant today; not least in Britain.



Germany in the Third Period

The Sixth World Congress of the Comintern (summer 1928) began a process of violent reaction against the rightist line of 1924-28. An ultra-leftist line of a peculiarly bureaucratic character was imposed on Communist parties everywhere, regardless of local circumstances. A reflection of the launching of the first five year plan arid the forced collectivisation in the USSR, this new line proclaimed a “Third Period”, a period of “ascending revolutionary struggles”. In practice this meant that at a time when fascism was a real and growing danger, especially in Germany, the social democrats were regarded as the main enemy.

In this situation of growing imperialist contradictions and sharpening of the class struggle,

declared the Tenth Plenum of the ECCI in 1929,

fascism becomes more and more the dominant method of bourgeois rule. In countries where there are strong social- democratic parties, fascism assumes the particular form of social fascism, which to an ever increasing extent serves the bourgeoisie as an instrument for paralysing the activity of the masses in the struggle against the regime of fascist dictatorship. [27]

It followed that the united front policy, as understood until then, had to be jettisoned. There could be no question of trying to force the mass social-democratic parties and the unions they controlled into a united front against the fascists. They were themselves social-fascists. Indeed, added the Eleventh Plenum of the ECCI (1931), social democracy “is the most active factor and pacemaker in the development of the capitalist state towards fascism”. [28]

This grotesquely false estimate of the nature of both fascism and social democracy led to the assumption that “strong social-democratic parties” and “a regime of fascist dictatorship” could co-exist and indeed did coexist in Germany well before Hitler came to power. “In Germany the Von PapenSchleicher government, with the help of the Reichswehr, the Stahlhelm and the Nazis has established a form of fascist dictatorship ...”, [29] proclaimed the Twelfth Plenum of the ECCI in 1932.

Trotsky wrote and argued against this criminal stupidity with increasing urgency and desperation from 1929 until the catastrophe of 1933. The brilliance and cogency of his works on the German crisis has rarely been equalled, and never excelled, by any marxist.

The central theme of all these writings was the necessity “For a Workers’ United Front Against Fascism”, to cite the title of one of the most famous of them. But there was much more than this. Trotsky forced himself to follow in detail the tortuous arguments that Stalin’s German acolytes advanced in defence of the indefensible. Thus, his writings of this period take up and refute an extraordinary range of pseudo-marxist argument and, at the same time, expound with exceptional clarity the “highest expression of proletarian strategy”. Only a very small part of them can be referred to here.

The official press of the Comintern is now depicting the results of the German elections [of September 1930] as a prodigious victory of Communism, which places the slogan of a Soviet Germany on the order of the day. The bureaucratic optimists do not want to reflect on the meaning of the relationship of forces which is disclosed by the election statistics. They examine the figure of Communist votes gained independently of the revolutionary tasks created by the situation and the obstacles it sets up.

The Communist Party received around 4,600,000 votes as against 3,300,000 in 1928. From the standpoint of “normal” parliamentary machines, the gain of 1,300,000 votes is considerable, even if we take into consideration the rise in the total number of voters. But the gain of the party pales completely beside the leap of fascism from 800,000 to 6,400,000 votes. Of no less significance is the fact that the Social Democracy, in spite of substantial losses, retained its basic cadres and still received a considerably greater number of workers’ votes than the Communist Party.

Meanwhile, if we should ask ourselves what combination of international and domestic circumstances could be capable of turning the working class towards Communism with greater velocity, we could not find an example of more favourable circumstances for such a turn than the situation in present day Germany: ... the economic crisis, the disintegration of the rulers, the crisis of parliamentarianism, the terrific self-exposure of the Social Democracy in power. From the viewpoint of these concrete historical circumstances, the specific gravity of the German Communist Party in the social life of the country, in spite of the gain of 1,300,000 votes, remains proportionately small ...

In the meantime, the first characteristic of a real revolutionary party is to be able to look reality in the face ... For the social crisis to bring about the proletarian revolution, it is necessary that, besides other conditions, a decisive shift of the petty-bourgeois classes occurs in the direction of the proletariat. This will give the proletariat a chance to put itself at the head of the nation as its leader. The last election revealed – and this is its principal symptomatic significance – a shift in the opposite direction. Under the impact of the crisis, the petty-bourgeoisie swung, not in the direction of the proletarian revolution, but in the direction of the most extreme imperialist reaction, pulling behind it considerable sections of the proletariat.

The gigantic growth of National Socialism is an expression of two factors: a deep social crisis throwing the petty-bourgeois masses off balance, and the lack of a revolutionary party that would today be regarded by the popular masses as the acknowledged revolutionary leader. If the Communist Party is the party of revolutionary hope, then fascism, as a mass movement, is the party of counter-revolutionary despair. When revolutionary hope embraces the whole proletarian mass, it inevitably pulls behind it on the road of revolution considerable and growing sections of the petty-bourgeoisie. Precisely in this sphere, the election revealed the opposite picture: counterrevolutionary despair embraced the petty-bourgeois mass with such force that it drew behind it many sections of the proletariat ...

Fascism in Germany has become a real danger, as an acute expression of the helpless position of the bourgeois regime, the conservative role of the Social Democracy in the regime, and the accumulated powerlessness of the Communist Party to abolish it. Whoever denies this is either blind or a braggart. [30]

To mend the situation, Trotsky argued, it was necessary first of all to shake the Communist Party out of its sterile ultra-radicalism. The policy of “bureaucratic ultimatism” (“an attempt to rape the working class having failed to convince it”) must be replaced by one of active manoeuvre grounded in the united front policy.

It is a difficult task to arouse all at once the majority of the German working class for an offensive. As a consequence of the defeats of 1919, 1921 and 1923 and of the adventures of the “third period” the German workers, who on top of that are bound by powerful conservative organisations, have developed strong centres of inhibition. But, on the other hand, the organisational solidarity of the German workers, which has almost altogether prevented until now the penetration of fascism into their ranks, opens the very greatest possibilities of defensive struggles. One must bear in mind that the policy of the united front is in general much more effective for the defensive than for the offensive. The more conservative or backward strata are more easily drawn into a struggle to fight for what they have than for new conquests. [31]

All manner of sophistries were employed by the Stalinists to obscure the issue and to represent what had once been Comintern policy as “counter-revolutionary Trotskyism”. The united front, it was argued, could come “only from below”, that is, agreements with the social democrats were excluded but individual social democrats could take part in a “Red United Front” – provided they accepted the leadership of the Communist Party!

And increasingly the fatal illusion – summed up as “After Hitler, our turn” – was encouraged, a perspective of passivity and impotence masked by radical rhetoric, as Trotsky repeatedly stressed. Again and again he returned to the central issue of the united front, exposing sophistries, brushing aside slanders and thrusting the point home, as in this brilliant example:

A cattle dealer once drove some bulls to the slaughter house. And the butcher came nigh with his sharp knife.

“Let us close ranks and jack up this executioner on our horns,” suggested one of the bulls.

“If you please, in what way is the butcher any worse than the dealer who drove us hither with his cudgel?” replied the bulls, who had received their political education in Manuilsky’s institute.

“But we shall be able to attend to the dealer as well afterwards!”

“Nothing doing,” replied the bulls, firm in their principles, to the counsellor. “You are trying to shield our enemies from the left; you are a social-butcher yourself.”

And they refused to close ranks.

– from Aesop’s Fables [32]

The Communist Party held fast to its fatal course. Hitler came to power. The workers’ movement was smashed.



The Popular Front and the Spanish Revolution

Hitler’s victory drove the rulers of the USSR to seek “insurance” by means of a military alliance with the then still dominant Western powers of France and Britain. As an auxiliary to Stalin’s diplomacy – for that is what it had now become – the Comintern was jerked hard to the right. The Seventh (and last) Congress was convened in 1935 as a public demonstration that revolution was definitely off the agenda. It called for “The United People’s Front in the struggle for peace and against the instigations of war. All those interested in the preservation of peace should be drawn into this united front.” [33]

Those interested in the preservation of peace included the victors of 1918, the French and British ruling classes, the objects of the new line.

“Today the situation is not what it was in 1914”, declared the ECCI in May 1936,

Now it is not only the working class, the peasantry and all working people who are resolved to maintain peace, but also the oppressed countries and the weak nations whose independence is threatened by war ... In the present phase a number of capitalist states are also concerned to maintain peace. Hence the possibility of creating a broad front of the working class, of all working people and of entire nations against the danger of imperialist war. [34]

Such a “front” was, of course, necessarily a defence of the imperialist status quo. A reformist rhetoric had to be liberally employed to conceal this fact and was highly successful – for a time.

In the first phase popular enthusiasm for unity brought enormous gains to the Communist Parties – the French Party grew from 30,000 in 1934 to 150,000 by the end of 1936 plus 100,000 in the Communist Youth; the Spanish Party grew from under a thousand at the close of the Third Period’ (1934) to 35,000 in February 1936 to 117,000 in July 1937. The recruits were armoured against criticism from the left by the belief that the Trotskyists were literally fascist agents.

In May 1935 the Franco-Soviet pact was signed. By July the CP and the French Socialist Party (SFIO) had come to an agreement with the Radical Party, the backbone of French bourgeois democracy, and in April 1936 the Front Populaire’ of these three parties won a general election on a platform of collective security’ and reform. The CP gained 72 seats campaigning on the slogan “For the strong, free and happy France” and became an essential part of the parliamentary majority of Leon Blum, the SFIO leader and Front Populaire Prime Minister. Maurice Thorez, the secretary-general of the PCF, was able to claim: “We boldly deprived our enemies of the things they had stolen from us and trampled underfoot. We took back the Marseillaise and the Tricolour.” [35]

When the electoral victory of the left was followed by a massive wave of strikes and sit-ins – six million workers were involved in June 1936- the erstwhile champions of “ascending revolutionary struggles” exerted themselves to contain the movement within narrow limits and to end it on the basis of the “Matignon Agreement” concessions (notably the 40-hour week and holidays with pay). By the end of the year the Communist Party, now to the right of its social-democratic allies, was calling for the extension of the “Popular Front” into a “French Front” by the incorporation of some right wing conservatives who were, on nationalist grounds, strongly anti-German.

The French party pioneered these policies because the French alliance was central to Stalin’s foreign policy but they were rapidly adopted by the whole Comintern. When the Spanish revolution erupted in July 1936, in response to Franco’s attempted seizure of power, the Spanish CP, pan of the Spanish Popular Front which had won the February elections and taken power, did its utmost to keep the movement within the framework of “democracy”. With the aid of Russian diplomacy, and of course the social-democrats, it was successful. “It is absolutely false”, declared Jesus Hernandez, editor of the party’s daily paper,

that the present workers’ movement has for its object the establishment of the proletarian dictatorship after the war has terminated ... We communists are the first to repudiate this supposition. We are motivated exclusively by a desire to defend the democratic republic. [36]

In pursuit of this line the Spanish Communist Party and its bourgeois allies pushed the policies of the republican government more and more to the right; in the course of the long drawn out civil war, it drove out of the government first the POUM, a party to the left of the CP which Trotsky had bitterly criticised for entering the Popular Front in the first place and so disarming itself politically and providing a “left” cover for the Communist Party, and then the left wing leaders of the Spanish Socialist Party.

“The defence of republican order while defending property” [37] led to a reign of terror in Republican Spain against the left. And this paved the way, Trotsky demonstrated, for Franco s victory.

The Spanish proletariat displayed first-rate military qualities,

he wrote in December 1937

In its specific gravity in the country’s economic life, in its political and cultural level, the Spanish proletariat stood on the first day of the revolution not below but above the Russian proletariat at the beginning of 1917. On the road to its victory, its own organisations stood as the chief obstacles. The commanding clique of Stalinists, in accordance with their counter-revolutionary function, consisted of hirelings, careerists, declassed elements, and in general, all types of social refuse. The representatives of other labour organisations – incurable reformists, Anarchist phrasemongers, helpless centrists of the POUM – grumbled, groaned, wavered, manoeuvred, but in the end adapted themselves to the Stalinists. As a result of their joint activity, the camp of social revolution – workers and peasants – proved to be subordinated to the bourgeoisie, or more correctly, to its shadow. It was bled white and its character was destroyed.

There was no lack of heroism on the part of the masses or courage on the part of individual revolutionists. But the masses were left to their own resources while the revolutionists remained disunited, without a programme, without a plan of action. The “republican” military commanders were more concerned with crushing the social revolution than with scoring military victories. The soldiers lost confidence in their commanders, the masses in the government; the peasants stepped aside; the workers became exhausted; defeat followed defeat; demoralisation grew apace. All this was not difficult to foresee from the beginning of the civil war. By setting itself the task of rescuing the capitalist regime, the Popular Front doomed itself to military defeat. By turning Bolshevism on its head, Stalin succeeded completely in fulfilling the role of gravedigger of the revolution. [38]

Scarcely anyone today (apart from a handful of insignificant ex-Maoist sectlets) defends the Stalinist line of the “Third Period”. The Popular Front is a different matter entirely. Allowing for all the differences of time and place, what else, in essence, is “Eurocommunism” and the so-called “historic compromise”? Moreover, some of those well to the left, in formal political terms, of the Eurocommunist trend reproduce the substance of the very errors Trotsky fought against under the heading “Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee”.

The issues, then, are not only of historical but also of immediate practical interest. Trotsky’s writings on strategy and tactics in relation to these great questions are a veritable treasure house. It can be said without any exaggeration that no one else since 1923 has produced work that even approaches their profundity and brilliance. They are, literally, indispensable to revolutionaries today.




1. Trotsky, Manifesto of the Communist International to the workers of the world, The First Five Years of the Communist International, New York: Pioneer 1945, Vol.1, pp.29-30.

2. J. Degras, The Communist International 1919-43, London: Cass 1971, Vol.I, p.16.

3. Ibid., p.6.

4. Lenin, Collected Works, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House 1960, Vol.28, p.455.

5. S. Haffner, Failure of a Revolution: Germany 1918-19, London: Andre Deutsch 1973, p.152.

6. Lenin, op.cit., Vol.21, p.40.

7. J. Degras, op.cit., Vol.I, pp.12-3.

8. J. Degras, op.cit., p.19.

9. Lenin, op.cit., Vol.25, p.393.

10. Ibid., Vol.29, p.311.

11. J. Degras, op.cit., p.13.

12. Lenin, op.cit., Vol.31, pp.206-7.

13. Ibid., p.206.

14. J. Degras, op.cit., p.109.

15. Trotsky, Speech on Comrade Zinoviev’s report on the role of the party, The First Five Years of the Communist International, op.cit., Vol.1, pp.97-9.

16. Ibid., p.101.

17. ibid., p.141.

18. Ibid., pp.303-5.

19. Ibid., pp.294-5.

20. J. Degras, op.cit., Vol.I, p.230.

21. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, op.cit., Vol.2, pp.91-5.

22. Trotsky, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1932-33, New York: Pathfinder Press 1972, pp.51-5.

23. E.H. Carr, The Interregnum 1923-1924, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1965, p.221.

24. Trotsky, Lessons of the General Strike, Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, London: New Park 1974, Vol.II, pp.241, 245.

25. Ibid., p.244. Emphasis in original.

26. Ibid., pp.252-3.

27. J. Degras, The Communist International: Documents, London: Cass, Vol.III, p.44.

28. Ibid., p.159.

29. Ibid., p.224.

30. Trotsky, The turn in the Communist International, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, New York: Pathfinder Press 1971, pp.57-60. Emphasis in original.

31. Trotsky, What next?, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, op.cit., p.248.

32. Ibid., p.254.

33. J. Degras, op.cit., Vol.III, p.375.

34. Ibid., p.390.

35. Ibid., p.384.

36. See F. Morrow, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain, New York: Pioneer 1938, p.34.

37. Ibid., p.35.

38. Trotsky, The lessons of Spain: the last warning, The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), New York: Pathfinder Press 1973, pp.322-3.


Last updated on 24.10.2002