Leon Trotsky

Letter to the Italian Left Communists

(To the Adherents of Comrade Bordiga

(September 1929)

Written: September 25, 1929.
Source: Fourth International [New York], Vol. 8 No. 6 (Whole No. 81), June 1947, pp. 187–189.
Originally published: The Militant, Vol. 3 No. 12, 22 March 1930, pp. 4 & 6.
Translated: The Militant.
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2002. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Dear Comrades,

I have become acquainted with the pamphlet Platform of the Left, which you issued back in 1926, but which has only just now reached me. Similarly, I have read the letter you addressed to me in issue No. 20 of Prometeo, as well as some of the. leading articles in your paper, which enabled me to renew, after a long interruption, my more than modest knowledge of the Italian language. These documents along with my acquaintance with the articles and speeches of Comrade Bordiga, not to mention my personal acquaintance with him, permit me to judge to a certain extent your basic views as well as the degree of agreement there is between us. Although the answer to this last question depends decisively not only upon principled theses but also upon their political application to current events (we were sharply reminded of this by the Soviet-Chinese conflict), nevertheless I am of the opinion that at least our agreement on the basic questions is quite far-reaching. If I do not now express myself more categorically it is only because I want to leave to time and to events the verification of our ideological closeness and mutual understanding. I hope that they prove to be complete and firm.

The Platform of the Left (1926) produced a great impression on me. I think that it is one of the best documents published by the international opposition, which preserves its significance in many things to this very day.

Extremely important, especially for France is the circumstance that the Platform poses the question of the nature of the party, its basic principles of strategy and tactics, as the cornerstone of the revolutionary policy of the proletariat. In recent years we have seen that, for a number of leading revolutionists in France, opposition has served only as a stage on the road of retreat from Marxism – a retreat to reformism, trade unionism or simply to skepticism.

You are, of course, acquainted with the pamphlet of Loriot who has revealed complete misunderstanding of the nature of the party and its historic function in relation to the class, and who has slid down to the theory of trade union passivity, which has nothing in common with the ideas of the proletarian revolution. Loriot’s pamphlet, which represents direct ideological reaction in the camp of the labor movement, is, unfortunately, still being propagated by the “Proletarian Revolution” group. The decline in the ideological level of the revolutionary movement in the last five or six years has not passed without leaving its mark on Monatte’s group. After drawing close to Marxism and Bolshevism in 1917–23 this group has in recent years taken several steps back, to the side of syndicalism. But this is no longer the militant syndicalism of the early part of the current century, which represented a serious step forward in the French labor movement. No, this is a rather dilatory, passive and negative syndicalism, which falls more and more frequently into pure trade unionism. And this is hardly surprising. Everything that was progressive in pre-war syndicalism merged with communism. A retreat from revolutionary communism nowadays already leads invariably to trade unionism. Monatte’s chief trouble is an incorrect attitude to the party and bound up with it a fetishism of trade unionism which is approached as a thing in itself, independently of its guiding ideas. Yet if both of the French labor confederations were to unite today and if they were to encompass on the morrow the entire working class of France, this would not for a moment remove the question of the guiding ideas of the syndicalist struggle and its methods, and of the connection between the partial tasks and the general, that is, the question of the party.

The Syndicalist League, lead by Monatte, is itself an embryonic party, selecting its members not on a trade-union but ideological grounds, on the basis of a certain platform, and seeking to influence the trade unions from the outside, or, if you prefer, to “subject” them to its ideological influence. But the Syndicalist League is a party which is neither carried through the end nor fully shaped, which has no clear theory and program, which has not become conscious of itself, which masks its nature and thereby deprives itself of the opportunity of development.

Souvarine, in the struggle with the bureaucratism and the disloyalty of the official Comintern apparatus, has also arrived, although by different route, at a denial of political activity and of the party itself. Proclaiming the [Communist] International and its French section as dead, he considers it at the same time unnecessary for the Opposition to exist, since, according to him, the necessary political conditions are lacking for it. In other words, he denies the need for the existence of the party – at all times and under all conditions, as the expression of the revolutionary interests of the proletariat.

That is why I attach such importance to our solidarity on the question of the party, its historical role, the continuity of its activity, its obligation to struggle for the influence over any and all forms of the labor movement. On this question, for a Bolshevik, i.e., a revolutionary Marxist who has passed through Lenin’s school, there cannot be any concessions.

On a number of other questions the 1926 Platform gives excellent formulations, which preserve their meaning to this very day.

Thus the Platform asserts with complete clarity that the so-called “independent” peasant parties “invariably fall under the influence of the counter-revolution” (page 36). It is possible to say boldly that in the present epoch there is not and there cannot be any exception to this rule. In those cases where the peasantry does not follow the proletariat, it follows the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. Despite the experience of Russia and China, this was not understood by Radek, Smilga and Preobrazhensky, and they stubbed their toes precisely on this question. Your platform criticizes Radek for “obvious concessions to German nationalists.” Now, it is necessary to add to this: absolutely unjustifiable concessions to Chinese nationalists, the idealization of Sun-Yat-Senism and the justification of the entry of the Communist Party into a bourgeois party. Your Platform points out quite correctly (page 37), precisely in connection with the struggle of the oppressed peoples, the need of the complete independence of the Communist parties. Violation of this basic rule leads to the most ruinous consequences as we have seen in the criminal experience of the subordination of the Chinese Communist Party to the Kuomintang.

The ruinous policy of the Anglo-Russian Committee, which naturally enjoyed the complete support of the present leadership of the Italian Communist Party, grew out of the desire to hastily shift from the tiny British Communist Party over to the huge trade unions. Zinoviev openly formulated this idea at the Fifth Congress of the Comintern. Stalin, Bukharin and Tomsky nursed the same illusion. This is what comes of playing with the idea of the party! Such a play never passes unpunished.

In the Soviet Republic we see another form of the weakening and falling apart of the Communist Party: in order to deprive it of independence and self-action it is being artificially dissolved in raw masses, terrorized by the, state apparatus. That is why the Opposition, selecting and educating new revolutionary cadres, is blood of the blood of the Bolshevik party, while Stalin’s faction, which speaks formally in the name of a million and a half party members and two million YCL’ers is in reality undermining and destroying the party.

I note with pleasure that on the basis of your letter in Prometeo there is complete agreement between you and the Russian Opposition on the question of defining the class character of the Soviet state. On this question the ultra-Lefts, including the Italians (see l’Ouvrier Communiste, No. 1), especially strikingly disclose their break with the foundations of Marxism. In order to decide the question of the class character of a social regime, they limit themselves to the question of the political superstructure, reducing this latter question, in turn, to the degree of bureaucratism prevailing in administration and so on. The question of the ownership of the means of production does not exist for them. In democratic America as in fascist Italy, men are jailed, shot or electrocuted for preparing for the expropriation of factories, mills and mines from the capitalists. In the Soviet Republic, even to this day – under the Stalinist bureaucracy! – they shoot engineers who are seeking to prepare the return of factories, mills and mines to their former owners. How is it possible not to see this basic difference, which determines the class character of a social order? I will not however dwell any longer on this question to which I have devoted my latest pamphlet (Defense of the Soviet Union and the Opposition) which is aimed at certain French and German ultra-Lefts who, to be sure, do not go as far as your Italian sectarians, but who precisely for this reason can prove all the more dangerous.

In connection with Thermidor you make the reservation to the effect that it is incorrect to draw an analogy between the Russian Revolution and the Great French Revolution. I believe that this remark is based on a misunderstanding. To judge the correctness or erroneousness of a historical analogy it is necessary to clearly define its content and its limits. Not to resort to analogies with the revolutions of the past epochs would mean simply to reject the historical experience of mankind. The present day is always different from the day that has passed. Yet it is impossible to learn from yesterday in any other way except by the method of analogy.

Engels’ remarkable pamphlet on the peasant wars is wholly constructed on an analogy with the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century and the revolution of 1848. To hammer out the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat Marx heated his iron in the fires of 1793. In 1903 Lenin defined the revolutionary Social Democrat as a Jacobin, tied up with the mass labor movement. At that time I raised against Lenin academic objections to the effect that Jacobinism and scientific socialism rest on different classes and employ different methods. In itself this was of course correct. But Lenin did not at all identify the Parisian plebeians with the modern proletariat or Rousseau’s theory with the theory of Marx. He bracketed together only the common traits of the two revolutions: the most oppressed popular masses who have nothing to lose but their chains; the most revolutionary organizations, which lean upon them and which in the struggle against the forces of the old society institute the revolutionary dictatorship. Was this analogy consistent? Completely so. It proved very fruitful historically. Within the same limits the analogy with Thermidor is likewise legitimate and fruitful.

What was the distinguishing trait of French Thermidor? This, that it was the first stage of the triumphant counterrevolution. After Thermidor the Jacobins were already able (if they could do it at all) to return power to themselves only by means of an armed uprising. In this way the stage of Thermidor was in a certain sense decisive in character. But the counter-revolution was not yet completed, that is the masters of the situation did not yet assume power: for this another stage was necessary: 18th of Brumaire. Finally, the most complete victory of the counter-revolution, with the restoration of the monarchy, indemnification of the feudal proprietors, and so on, was assured with the aid of foreign intervention and the victory over Napoleon.

In Hungary the counter-revolution, after a brief Soviet period, triumphed at a single stroke and completely by force of arms. Is such danger excluded for the USSR? Of course not. But such an open counter-revolution would be recognized by everybody. It does not require any commentary. When we speak of Thermidor, we have in mind the creeping counterrevolution which is being prepared in a masked way and which is being accomplished in several stages. Its first stage, which we conditionally call Thermidor, would signify the passage of power into the hands of new “Soviet” proprietors, backed by a faction of the ruling party as was the case with the Jacobins. The power of the new proprietors, predominantly petty ones, could not last long. Either the revolution would return, under favorable international conditions, with the dictatorship of the proletariat, which would inescapably require the application of revolutionary force; or the counter-revolution would be crowned with the victory of the big bourgeoisie, of finance capital, perhaps even with a monarchy, which would require a supplementary overturn, or may be even two overturns.

Such is the content of my comparison with Thermidor. Naturally, if the legitimate limits of the analogy are transgressed, if one orients along the purely superficial mechanics of events, the dramatic episodes, the fate of individual figures, then one can without difficulty confuse himself and others. But if we take the mechanics of class relations, then the analogy becomes no less instructive than for example the comparison made by Engels with the German Reformation and the revolution of 1848.

The other day I read the above-mentioned issue No.1 of L’Ouvrier Communiste published apparently by a group of Italian ultra-Lefts who split from your organization. If there were no other indications, this single issue would be sufficient proof that we live in the epoch of ideological decay and confusion which always sets in after major revolutionary defeats. The group that publishes this periodical seems to have set as its goal to compile all the mistakes of outlived syndicalism, of adventurism, left phrasemongering, sectarianism, theoretical confusion, and invest all this with a sort of sophomoric carelessness and rowdy quarrelsomeness. Two columns of this publication suffice to explain why this group had to break with your organization which is Marxist, although this group seeks amusingly enough to hide behind Marx and Engels.

As regards the official leaders of the Italian party, I had an opportunity to observe them only in the ECCI in the person of Ercoli (Togliati). A man with a rather flexible mind, and a loosely-hinged tongue, Ercoli is in the best possible way adapted to deliver the prosecutor’s or defense attorney’s speeches on a given theme, and in general to carry out instructions.

Barren Casuistry

The barren casuistry of his speeches is always directed in the last analysis to the defense of opportunism, representing the diameteric opposite to the living, muscular and full-blooded revolutionary thought of Amadeo Bordiga. Wasn’t it Ercoli, by the way, who tried to adapt to Italy the idea of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” in the form of a slogan for an Italian Constitutional Assembly, resting on “workers and peasants assemblies?”

On the questions of the USSR, the Chinese Revolution, the General Strike in England, the overturn in Poland or the struggle against Italian fascism, Ercoli like the other leaders of the bureaucratic formation, invariably held an opportunist position, in order later, when the occasion offered, to correct it by means of ultra-Left adventures. At present, apparently, the season has again come for the latter.

Having on the one flank centrists of the Ercoli type and on the other ultra-Left confusionists, you Comrades, are thus called upon to defend, under the harshest conditions of fascist dictatorship, the historical interests of the Italian and international proletariat. I wish you success with all my heart.


Leon Trotsky
Constantinople, September 25, 1929

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Last updated on: 1.9.2012